FORT WORTH, Texas – Dale Earnhardt Jr. went from race car driver to philosopher Friday at Texas Motor Speedway. And in the process, stock car racing's favorite son likely ruffled quite a few feathers in NASCAR's front office.
In one of his most poignant interviews ever, Earnhardt confirmed what a lot of people – most notably disenchanted or former NASCAR fans – have been thinking for a long time.
Namely, NASCAR has grown too big, the season is too long and the watered-down result, particularly the Chase for the Sprint Cup, is hurting the sport dramatically, with potentially even more damage to come as the world remains in economic crisis.
With rumors swirling that current Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series teams will lay off close to 1,000 employees at season's end, as well as reports that several teams across the sport's top three series are likely to close their doors or merge with others, this is one of the most challenging times NASCAR has ever faced.
In a year that the sanctioning body was supposed to get back to its roots, it may be time for NASCAR to take an even longer, harder look at itself, Earnhardt said.
Foremost in his mind: the length of the season.
"We have saturated the market with race after race after race," Earnhardt said. "The NFL, they do such a great job. I hate to keep comparing to them and using them as examples, but they do the best job.
"They give you just enough to keep you wanting more. The season ends before you want it to. You get just enough to get excited and then it's all over and there's such a long wait. The model works."
With expansion both geographically and event-wise, the bloated NASCAR schedule has, in effect, become a victim of its own success.
"We have basically a very similar reaction that baseball, hockey, a lot of other sports do that have long enduring seasons," Earnhardt said. "There's lulls and inactivity between the fan and the sport itself at times. There's no way to fix that."
But perhaps Earnhardt's most pointed comment was a swipe at what could be construed as greed and excess, not only by the sanctioning body, but drivers, team owners and practically everyone associated with the sport.
"We're driven by the ability to go make another dollar and make more money and there's no way we would ever trim it down," Earnhardt said with a shrug. "When we were a 28-race schedule, the sport was giving you just enough to get really get excited about the next season.
"When we were racing at 12 o'clock, people were racing home from church to get to see the start of the race. We've just made it too easy and too much. We sort of lost a lot of the substance that we really had before and the character of the sport I think has waned a little bit, but its part of the times, too."
Even though it would mean a significant drop in revenue, Earnhardt would love to see NASCAR scale back. But he isn't holding his breath it'll happen any time soon.
"I don't think [NASCAR's current problems are] all our fault," he said. "I think it has a lot to do with a lot of other things going on, like the temperature of the world out there and the economy.
"I think the model that the NFL has is the perfect one and I feel like that's really our best bet for the most amount of success and to maintain it I think also that's the best way."
Unfortunately, Earnhardt said, NASCAR has already passed the point of no return.
"No way we would ever trim the schedule back," he said. "There's no way we would change what we really already have here."
Junior was equally vociferous in his thoughts on the Chase for the Sprint Cup format and how it has played out over its five-year existence, particularly this season.
Since NASCAR chairman Brian France introduced the Chase to the sport in 2004, it's gone through several so-called "tweaks," including expanding the qualifying field and rewarding drivers with bonus points for wins, among other things.
As much as fans are increasingly clamoring for even more significant change in the Chase format – if not scrapping it outright – now is the time for patience, not pestilence, Earnhardt said.
"I think it's not a good idea to go making a bunch of changes, especially with the Chase," Earnhardt said. "How do we understand what to change and how to make it better if we can't watch it and look at it for seven years or eight years and see how it's working and really get a good look at how it is working and not working?
"How can we really know what to change and make the right change? We shouldn't keep changing and changing until we stumble on the right spot and the right options and the right ways to have things."
More changes could further alienate more fans, something NASCAR can ill afford in a time when so many seats at races are going unfilled; when media outlets are scaling back – if not totally eliminating – coverage of the sport; and opportunities for up-and-coming drivers are drying up quicker than an ice-cream cone in the desert.
"It is kind of foolish to want to make changes," Earnhardt said. "This is kind of how we got in this spot in the first place. It's just going to snowball into more and more corruption and disagreement if we continue to change and change and change just because a guy has such a great year.
"I think the playoff atmosphere is better and I do enjoy it. We need to really kind of watch it happen for a while before we know what kind of change to make."
Given the economy, NASCAR might not have to change things. The problem may very well take care of itself by default, albeit it might be a long process, Earnhardt said.
"I think they should really remain the same for a while so we can get a good [look]," he said. "Especially with the turbulence with the economy right now, we all need to be really kind of watching and looking in different areas to make sure things are working right.
"We've got to make sure we're doing all the right things to keep the sport healthy and get through the tough times that we're going to have in the next year. I think we leave the things as they are."
Earnhardt Jr. may not be the eldest statesman in the NASCAR garage, but when he speaks, fans listen. The question is, will NASCAR?