AVONDALE, AZ - MARCH 17: Clint Bowyer, driver of the #14 Haas Automation Ford, talks with Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Axalta Chevrolet, during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Camping World 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on March 17, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Playoff contender defends Dale Earnhardt Jr. in wake of recent criticism

Dale Earnhardt Jr. faced criticism earlier this week from Kevin Harvick after he claimed Earnhardt "stunted the growth" of NASCAR.

Harvick said Earnhardt hasn't performed well this year, which has led to his fans staying home and not enjoying his final season. Harvick's teammate, Clint Bowyer, disagreed with that sentiment and said Earnhardt will leave a positive legacy behind.

Related: One former champion thinks Dale Earnhardt Jr. "stunted the growth" of NASCAR

Bowyer told reporters that Earnhardt has done a good job continuing his father's legacy and maintaining that fanbase.

"I think the legacy started long before him," Bowyer said. "And he carried the flag for that legacy for a long time -- kept the fan base alive. That's not on his shoulders to be able to do that.

"I felt it's always been a little bit unfair for him to have that workload on him, but he's done a good job with that and it's time for us to hold up our end of the deal and capitalize on that."

Earnhardt described Harvick's comments as "hurtful," and he said he respects Harvick as a driver despite the way he feels about Earnhardt's performance.

Earnhardt said he knows he hasn't met everyone's expectations, but he's still proud of what he has accomplished. He still has a chance to make the postseason and give his fans something to cheer about, but his opportunities are running out as only four races remain in the regular season.

(h/t NASCAR.com)