Dale Earnhardt Jr Reveals How NASCAR Robbed Him of a Championship in 2014

Published 09/27/2023, 5:46 PM EDT

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An unquestionable expertise of the most prestigious NASCAR tracks should eventually lead to a Cup Series championship. Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr cruised along the tracks of Talladega and Daytona to win two Xfinity Series championships. And yet, the grand trophy of NASCAR’s premier series eluded him.

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The veteran racer’s hairbreadth distance from winning the 2004 Cup championship has become a popular tale in the racing community. However, Dale Jr recently revealed the possibility of his winning the Cup in 2014 as well, if not for a sudden shift in the series format.

How NASCAR’s intervention twice came in the way of Dale Earnhardt Jr securing a Cup championship

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The year 2004 truly belonged to Dale Earnhardt Jr. His racecar acquired the Midas’s touch with sweeping wins in the Daytona 500 and Yellawood 500 in Talladega, as well as in Atlanta, Richmond, Bristol, and Phoenix. He qualified for the playoffs and ended the season with six incredible wins, 16 Top 5s, and 22 Top-10 finishes. Unfortunately, two consecutive P33 finishes in the fourth- and fifth-last races in Atlanta and Martinsville, as well as a penalty of 25 points from NASCAR for use of obscenity, saw him falter and he eventually finished fifth. It took him ten years to regain that prodigious form. And once again, the racing organization stood between him and his coveted trophy.

The current playoff format was finalized after several seasons of experimentation to maximize viewership interest throughout the year. In a strange coincidence, the original points system was changed for the first time in 2004 with the introduction of playoffs. The same year, Junior was a probable championship contender. When he returned as a strong championship contender in 2014, NASCAR drastically changed the points system again. This time with the inclusion of elimination rounds.

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In his podcast, The Dale Jr. Download, the legendary racer reminisced about a different outcome if NASCAR had chosen another year for such a drastic shift. He said, “One year they changed the system and if they had left it alone, we would’ve won. But it wasn’t the old Winston Cup system. That was one of the playoff systems … I think it was 2014 or something.” On account of the new rules, Junior was eliminated despite a stellar performance the entire year.

Watch This story: Dale Earnhardt Jr Reveals the Immediate Regret After Entering Bristol

Prior to 2014, the regular season transitioned to the playoff season without any elimination in between. Dale Jr claimed his 2014 performance would have led him en route to the season’s victory on the basis of 2013’s format. With 4 wins, 12 Top 5s, and 20 Top 10s, perhaps his claim held merit. However, he was also aware that dwelling on “what-ifs” cannot change the past. And he passed on that same advice to the current championship contender, Denny Hamlin.

Dale Jr’s apprehensions for veteran Denny Hamlin as he covets his first Cup championship

This season, Denny Hamlin has carried the same unfulfilled desire for a Cup championship. After 51 wins in the Cup Series, he stands on the brink of that long-held ambition. He recently called the current playoff format a “Mickey Mouse system” with a single playoff race making or breaking a year’s worth of efforts. Although he is in a strong position to qualify for the Round of 8, he would have already secured the top birth by now in the original Winston Cup format.

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But Dale Jr does not wish for the #11 racer to be distracted by hypothesis at this juncture of the season. Junior was concerned about Hamlin giving up on the fight when he was this close to the win. He said, “When I heard him dogging the current system, it’s like, ‘Denny, no! Don’t do that, man. You’re already winning the middle battle. This is a step in the wrong direction…Wait a minute, man, don’t do that!'” He further explained, “I’m worried that Denny is already trying to find his mental outs”.

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Perhaps Hamlin simply wished for the outcome of the Winston Cup points system to transpire in this season’s playoffs. A win at Texas Motor Speedway would have ensured that. Nevertheless, the Bristol win and two Top 5 finishes have only accentuated his championship ambitions. Furthermore, three Top 5 and four Top 10 finishes in the last seven Talladega races project another stellar performance in the upcoming YellaWood 500. If this consistency continues till the Championship 4 race, he will prove his unmatched skills, regardless of the points system in place.

Dale Earnhardt Jr Encouraged to Keep His “Chin Up” After He Got His “B*tt Kicked”

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Written by:

Parika Singh

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Parika Singh is a NASCAR writer at EssentiallySports. Her combined love for writing and motorsports drew her to the world of sports journalism, where she fell in love with the thrill, unpredictability, and charisma of covering racers and race tracks. She especially looks out for the #5 Chevrolet of Kyle 'Wheelman' Larson, because of whom, she holds a soft spot for the 2021 season where he emerged as champion.
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Edited by:

Nischal Kandpal

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