A winners only Chase, thoughts on Junior's woes and more mailbag
If the Chase included all race winners, it would make for a crowded playoff field
Could a dismal final 10 races lead to a crew chief change for Dale Earnhardt Jr?
Also a reader's suggestion to fix the Nationwide Series and more reader questions
I've become such a sportswriting cliché. Here I am, sitting in a coffee shop, sipping on a pumpkin spice latte and answering your questions and comments. As I'm writing, a middle-aged woman walks over, and then stares impatiently at me with the glare of a mother waiting for their child to come to attention. As she starts pointing, I look up inquisitively, more confused than that time Marcos Ambrose cut off his engine at the wrong time at Sonoma.
"Oh my God!" she says. "I've never seen someone type like that! You really know how to do it fast."
Before I could respond, she says, "Good luck with whatever you're doing!" and walks away. It's too bad I couldn't give my patented response whenever anybody questions my finger-pecking, lightning-quick style of typing:
"I write about racing for a living. You think we go slow at anything?"
Time to slow down and answer the questions on the eve of the sport's 10-race playoff. Don't be afraid to let loose, sit on this Oprah-style e-mail couch and tell us how you really feel: email@example.com and Twitter @NASCARBowles is the way to do it.
How about guaranteeing a Chase spot to anyone who wins a race? There might be more than 12 drivers in the Chase occasionally, but it would certainly make for some exciting races towards the end of the regular season.
-- Shane Bauman, Bentonville, Ark.
Let's apply Shane's theory to this year's Chase, where we already have five winless drivers in the field. As you can see, the postseason lineup gets rather crowded:
ADD-ONS (4): Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, David Reutimann
While that exception adds the guy who's won the series' two biggest races this season (McMurray: Daytona and Indy) none of those four have shown the consistency needed to win a championship. Even McMurray would be the first to tell you under this format, he doesn't deserve to make the field; too many ugly DNFs to go with those outstanding performances that put him in Victory Lane. So what's the end result? Adding useless filler, bumping the number up to 16 of 32 full-time sponsored drivers with no real effect on how the title would play out.
At the same time, excluding all the winless wheelmen leaves out veterans like Jeff Gordon, the second-place point man who's led over 800 laps this season -- certainly proving early on in the year he was capable of running up front. So what's the solution? How about no Chase whatsoever? That sounds pretty good to me, but unfortunately that's not what we're going to get. Garage gossip continues to center around some type of elimination format as a way to bring fan interest back towards the sport.
Just please eliminate me from the group that actually supports it, OK? The more I learn about it, the less I like it. We'll leave it at that...
Is Tony Stewart the only NASCAR driver who's been testy with the media this year?
-- Tom Bowles, Norristown, Pa.
No. I ask that question because we had a testy Kyle Busch exchange in the wake of the Todd Bodine-Busch brouhaha we talked about last week, surprising considering he ran a strong runner-up to teammate Busch in the race.
Reporter: Speaking to tonight's race, it was billed as nobody had anything to lose, go out there, it was going to be everybody going after each other but only three cautions, one for rain. Why do you think we saw almost such a timid race? You and Denny [Hamlin] got after it, at the end but really it was a calm deal out there. What are your thoughts on that?
Busch: I don't know. You tell me. You're probably one of the best at picking out drama like you did last week with Todd Bodine, so I won't answer your question.
The reporter in question was Jay Pennell, who penned an interview with Bodine just one day after the two made contact in the Truck race -- one that led to a public argument about Busch's aggressive driving style and on-track attitude. But with the Truck racers off at Richmond, the controversy was slowly dying down until Kyle spoke up.
I bring this quote up not to stir the pot but because Busch is, indeed, one of the top drivers I'm picking to compete against Jimmie Johnson for this year's championship (see Thursday for more). Yet the one thing that's kept Busch from being a Cup champion has been outside distractions, like last year's obsession over the Nationwide title that I'm convinced caused the Cup team to lose focus. For Busch to really push forward, he needs to be able to block out any criticism from other drivers, the media, his teammates, and put his eyes squarely on the big prize. Exchanges like that, so soon after a quality finish make me wonder if he's matured enough to do that.
Excellent article on Hendrick Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s dismal season. You mentioned a key point -- sponsorship money. Without performance and TV exposure, even Dale Jr. can only bring in money for so long. If you pay top dollars in sponsorship fees, you expect a return. Rick Hendrick should realize and understand that golden cow will dry up without performance. Therefore, he needs to get the No. 88 team going -- if not for Junior, then for his own business. I like how you believe the guy can drive well enough to make the Chase each year. HMS needs to find a combination to make that happen or risk losing sponsor dollars. Give him a proven crew chief, something he has never had outside of maybe Tony Sr.
-- Phil Leigeb, Midland, Mich.
We've discussed the crew chief issue at length, Phil, and now would have been a perfect time to make a change. With 10 races left, Earnhardt has nothing to race for and putting a new, unproven body in that position would allow them to experiment and see if they could hit on the right chemistry instead of doing it in the offseason.
I know Mr. Hendrick is adamant he won't make a change between now and November, 2011. But after a 34th-place debacle at Richmond, do you think AMP Energy and National Guard are standing idly by, watching their driver deteriorate and costing them millions of dollars in marketing firepower a second straight year? I can't imagine 10 more disasters like that and crew chief Lance McGrew returning on top of the No. 88 pit box this February. Hendrick may not want to adjust, but you'd have to think at some point the men who pay the bills will make a call, step into a shady backroom filed with smoke and force someone's hand.
All of these little leaks that we get about how Junior "can't communicate" or "doesn't fit the Hendrick system" are all just code for someone who cashes the biggest check in the garage, and may very well have lost his edge because of it. We know he can be competitive at this level, because he has been, and we know that he is in a situation where any top driver would thrive... so what other explanation could there be other than a lack of effort or interest from the guy behind the wheel? It is not the team...it's the driver.
-- Brian, Brookline, Mass.
Brian, for a guy who's totally disinterested in competing, why is Earnhardt on iRacing in his spare time? Why does the guy have 18 Cup trophies sitting on his mantle, a Daytona 500 victory and his own team in the Nationwide Series?
While Earnhardt may take a more laidback approach than Johnson, Mark Martin, or Gordon, for years that strategy still worked for him because the chemistry once he got in the car was right. It's like a guy who gets straight A's in high school without lifting a finger, with a program that suits his abilities alright (AKA: DEI until it fell behind on resources), then gets to college (AKA: Hendrick) with different expectations, and he struggles under the weight of not being able to sit back and mail it in anymore. I will give you this much: if you're drinking beers during the week instead of going to the gym, you might be physically or mentally off your game to the point the car's handling needs to be perfectly refined for you to have a chance. The guy doesn't make it easy on himself, but it's the system as much as his mental anguish that's driving this ugly depression.
Again, we're definitely at a stalemate between both sides. Someone, somewhere's gotta give.