By Jared Turner
Let’s be totally honest: NASCAR needed Dale Earnhardt Jr. to make the playoffs — and for multiple reasons. The most obvious reason, of course, is that he’s been NASCAR’s most popular driver for 14 consecutive years and generates buzz for the sport like no one else can. Good luck finding a silver lining in any sport’s most popular competitor not being part of its playoffs. But what makes Earnhardt’s absence from the 16-driver championship field particularly disappointing is that this is his final season as a driver in NASCAR’s top series. That means this was supposed to be his final opportunity to claim the coveted premier series championship that’s eluded him throughout this career. Junior making the playoffs with a last-chance win at Richmond would have yanked at the heartstrings and sent waves of excitement throughout the entire sports landscape. But unfortunately for Junior, and more unfortunately for NASCAR, it wasn’t meant to be.