For the second year in a row, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will call the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs for the NBC Sports Network.
And based on his work throughout the second half of the regular season, his enthusiasm for the sport hasnât been diminished one bit by the work of color commentary and play-by-play. In fact, Earnhardt himself will tell you that heâs enjoying the sport as much as ever, even if itâs different than being an active competitor.
Earnhardt made time for Autoweek on Thursday in conjunction with Goodyear, which will offer one lucky fan an all-expenses paid trip to the Daytona 500 that includes a ride in the legendary Goodyear Blimp.
To win the trip, all a fan has to do is predict the winner of the chase for the championship by tweeting #Burnout[CarNo] with the driverâs car number. In other words, if Earnhardt was in the playoffs, that fan would tweet #BurnoutCar88.
To commemorate the contest, Earnhardt fielded questions about the 2019 season to date and his predictions for the Cup Series playoffs.
A Q&A from the interview can be found below.
Autoweek: Is this Kyle Buschâs championship to lose?
Dale Jr.: Heâs always an easy pick on any given year, right? So yeah, I do think heâs going to the Championship 4. But he made it last year and he didnât have a perfect car and Joey (Logano) pulled one over on them. So I think if you put him in the championship race with Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, they would be the favorites but that fourth guy is just as capable if they hit on it.
Kyle started out hot this year, but the momentum has kind of changed hands throughout the summer, and last year showed us how quickly it could change hands again. A lot of teams have speed left on the table. A lot of teams are saving their best bullets for these 10 races. That makes it really hard to call any one driver the favorite.
AW: Youâve raced different versions of the playoffs and youâve watched a handful. Is this the best possible blend of entertainment and integrity?
Dale: Itâs bigger on entertainment for sure. The elimination element has been a lot of fun to watch. I love the danger element thatâs kind of hanging over every team as soon as the green flag drops. If you have a bad race, anyone can be knocked out. Thatâs a very real threat for every team. Even Kyle with thirtysomething playoff points will tell you he wishes he had more.
I still have reservations about the one-race winner-take-all format. Itâs great from an entertainment standpoint but Iâm a traditionalist and itâs taking me awhile to fully embrace it. Take last year when you had three really deserving guys in Kyle, Martin and Kevin. Joey did what he needed to get there. He was deserving, but I donât know if it was the same season as those other guys. He came in stole it from those guys.
But it was great theater. And to NASCARâs credit, when you look back at every year of the playoffs, you canât find one champion that wasnât deserving. So, until they crown a champion that isnât deserving, Iâm not sure you can make a case against it.
AW: In previous years, you could win races on speed alone, but does this package place an even greater emphasis on track position to the point that say, a 10th-place car with track position could get in position to win these races and advance?
Dale: That giant ass spoiler has definitely changed the way teams approach the racing each week. Thereâs no denying it and thereâs no faking your way around it. And usually thatâs a bad thing for racing. But I will tell you Iâve seen some positives to come out of it.
Iâm not sure when this happened or if this package has played a role in it, but the etiquette of racing has completely changed since Iâve gotten out of the car. Iâm not sure Mark Martin wants to be known for this, but when he became the veteran we all looked-up to, he taught all of us to give-and-take from week-to-week.
Iâm not saying that we would roll over, but we would cut a guy some slack because he would do the same for us next week. Thatâs the way we raced in the 2000s. The etiquette was one of courtesy. You go back and watch races in the 70s through 90s and those guys raced the crap out of each other, side-by-side and annoying the hell out of each other. That changed with Mark. In the 2000s, guys just gave each other more courtesy.
Last week, you saw how much different it is. You would have never seen guys pinch each other on the line like we did at Indianapolis. They were racing the shit out of each other and thatâs what caused a lot of the crashing we saw.
Now on the other hand, they probably need to now. Itâs really hard to get side-by-side right now so when you do, guys arenât willing to give it up â no one can afford to back off.
So yeah, I think track position will be more important for tracks with one groove. I would have liked to have seen what would have happened if Harvick didnât have track position because I think he could have won that race regardless. They had that kind of speed. I donât know if a 10th-place car can win a race just on track position alone, but I do think this package will help a fifth-place car have a better shot at holding the best car up more than the past couple of years.
AW: I donât want to make this a pro or against the package conversation, but what would you suggest to NASCAR to get more drivability back into the car if theyâre fully committed to high downforce and low horsepower?
Dale: Take the rear spoiler off the car entirely. Seriously. If they want to trim out the front of the car with the lower horsepower engines, thatâs fine, but get the drag off the rear of the car. Put a one-inch lip on the rear to prevent the car from spinning out. Iâm a believer in getting as much downforce off the rear of these cars as possible and that will put the drivability back into it.
I donât care how much power the car has, to be honest with you. I donât need a number to make me happy. Hopefully they can build an open motor that runs around 400-550 HP that isnât restricted to give them more throttle response. I really think that would go a long way.