Posted: Wednesday December 8, 2010 12:46PM ; Updated: Thursday December 9, 2010 11:27AM
Tom Bowles
Tom Bowles>INSIDE NASCAR

Gordon's distinguished new look, Dale Sr. vs Johnson, more mailbag

Story Highlights

Jeff Gordon will drop rainbow color scheme for apple red design next season

Jimmie Johnson may well have to pile up 85-90 wins to gain respect from all fans

NASCAR likely to announce expansion of Chase field and elimination-style format

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The new apple red color scheme for his No. 24 car is just one of many changes Jeff Gordon will bring to the track in 2011.
AP

Jeff Gordon's car ... is ... candy apple red?

During a Monday morning unveiling on CNN's American Morning, the look and feel for Gordon in this sport was changed forever with new primary sponsor AARP's Drive To End Hunger changing the scheme on his No. 24 Chevrolet.

Gone is the pinkish, DuPont "Rainbow Warrior" version that a 22-year-old rookie once drove to snickers, eventually sneaking to four championships over the Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt Sr., during one of the sport's most dominant runs (1995 to 2001). Those colors were the clearest delineation between "Good" and "Evil" back then, depending what side you were on: the Black, ironclad No. 3 Goodwrench car versus the a No. 24 with its less "masculine" colors, like pink, yellow, that symbolized to critics the politically polished, "California" breed of what had been a traditionally Southern sport.

While DuPont will still sponsor 14 events next season, in the rest Gordon will own a car that matches the transition of a man who turns 40 in 2011, a seasoned veteran who's earned his place in history. You know what adjective comes to mind when I see that new scheme? Distinguished.

Now, the key is for the four-time champ to distinguish himself again with trips to Victory Lane, something that he's done just once in the last three years of Cup competition. With teammate Jimmie Johnson stealing five straight titles from under Gordon's nose, I'm aware it's going to take a whole lot more than a pretty new color on his car to get the job done. But in a month that's seen him get a new crew chief, new shop and new sponsors, he's at least getting the first thing a superstar needs when it's time to fight back to the top: a fresh start.

Time to keep those offseason e-mails answered. As always, the best way to reach me is tbowles81@yahoo.com and through http://twitter.com/#!/nascarbowles.

There is also no question that Dale Earnhardt Sr. is the best Modern-Era Winston Cup champion ever. No Question. Stop trying to compare him and Jimmie Johnson. They won different championships in different times. Nobody goes around trying to claim that the Cleveland Browns are two-time Super Bowl champions. They weren't. They won the NFL twice, but at a different time. The sooner Darrell Waltrip and all the rest of the media stops trying to make ridiculous comparisons between drivers from completely different eras, winning completely different types of championships, the better off we will all be.
-- Lee M

That's a nice way of stating an opinion I've gotten from many fans the last two weeks. Sure, Jimmie Johnson is champion of this format, but who's to say Dale Earnhardt Sr. couldn't have won 10 titles under the Chase? Or would Gordon, typically a terrible closer throughout much of his early career, have wound up with zero titles if forced to compete under this system? The problem with different eras and different ways of crowning a champion is it makes it hard, if not impossible, to compare.

That said, neither Earnhardt nor anyone else won five straight championships under any format. The No. 3 actually came close, with four in five years from 1990 to '94, but endured a nightmare season in the middle ('92) in which four engine failures and horrific bad luck left him 12th in the points. Sure, in 2010 Johnson has the benefit of three other teams and countless resources to lean on. But it's not like Richard Childress Racing was chopped liver back then ...

Bottom line, both drivers had different skill sets, each is a Hall of Famer and special in his own way. Unfortunately, they never raced against each other, although the "What Ifs" for Earnhardt, if he had survived, include an eighth championship and about 85-90 race victories overall, the tail end of which would have occurred while J.J. was competing.

I think those are the targets Johnson has to shoot for, despite his record-setting streak, to put any sort of "modern era" debate over who's the best squarely in his favor.

Fans are frustrated because of the comparisons of a Chase champion to a season-long NASCAR champion. We realize the races would have been run differently, strategies would have changed, but comparing a driver who wins over 10 races to past champions who won over an entire season is flat stupid. For whatever reason no NASCAR commentator or writer will discuss this. That's why the sport is losing fans and viewers -- you change the sport where it's not recognizable to longtime fans and they lose interest or completely go away. Or go to their local dirt track on Sunday to watch real racing.
-- Tim Senecaut, Round Rock, Texas

If you think you can't recognize it now, Tim, just wait until Jan. 21, 2011, when Brian France is expected to announce major changes to NASCAR's points structure. I've heard things all over the board, but an expansion to the number of drivers who make the Chase remains almost guaranteed, with an elimination-style format under discussion. A separate point system in the playoffs could also be implemented, officials feeling forced to act after a Chase in which tv ratings were still down eight percent despite a "Game 7"-type season finale in which three drivers could have claimed the championship.

Note that nowhere on that list is the option fans seem to want: full-scale Chase elimination. There could be multiple reasons for it: France unwilling to let go of his "baby," a push to try to capture some attention from that ADD 18-to-34-year old crowd (remember, the median age of NASCAR fans has been reported to be anywhere from 42 to 51), or his worry that old-timers won't come roaring back if they're thrown a bone. But the bottom line is, I think, you're stuck with some sort of playoff system at this point until NASCAR goes under (unlikely) or France is no longer the sport's CEO.

As for comparing different eras, we've talked a little about how hard it is to compare them. Who knows how Johnson would have done in seven years without the Chase format, but he was runner-up to Matt Kenseth in '03. Bad luck would have made it harder to persevere through five straight -- it's easier to go 50 races virtually DNF-free as opposed to making all 180 count -- yet I find it hard to believe Johnson would have less than three titles right now with the old format in place. That's my guess.

I'm just sitting here laughing at all the junk mail criticism heaped upon the GREATEST NASCAR DRIVER EVER! Yes, I capitalized the term because Jimmie Johnson is the BEST. I'm ready to put another load of crying towels into the washer to have on hand when the 2011 season begins. I asked Santa to send a year's supply of duck tape for the Jimmie bashers, because you know what happens when you "are naughty and not nice." Santa knows, and he won't be filling any basher stockings this year... maybe a lump of coal or a used Junior Nation Budweiser can from the old days.

I have a question, Tom, actually it's been eating into my Christmas celebrations: "who gave Petty the name KING!" Did he wake up from a dream one morning wearing the "imperial crown of NASCAR?" I honestly would like to know who crowned him King Petty. There's only one "King" or maybe two... Elvis and Michael Jackson, but they don't apply to the sport. I'm proud of what Jimmie, Chad and HMS has accomplished, let's get over the prejudices of the past and move forward into NASCAR of the future. These Jimmie bashers best get used to it... Jimmie's on a roll!
--
Nancy Anne, Ontario, Canada

Wow. It's one thing to go after Junior Nation, but challenging the nickname of the sport's icon, Richard Petty? Don't be surprised if there's war on Canada declared sometime Thursday.

For the record, Petty gets the name King because no one's close to his 200 victories, seven Daytona 500 wins and 1,184 career starts. His seven championships are also tied for first all-time with Dale Earnhardt. He's signed virtually any autograph a fan's ever asked him to and owned an organization in Petty Enterprises that's scored a NASCAR-high 268 victories and 10 championships. Say what you want about the man trying to run a team's day-to-day operations now, at 73, but I think he might have earned a claim to the throne or two in his heyday.

Certainly, it's good to see at least one fan still willing to watch in the era of Chad, Jimmie, and all-around No. 48 dominance. I just don't know how many more are out there.

Why give Danica a hard time? I don't get it. You should be getting behind her, she IS improving in NASCAR; in fact, she improved after every start last year, and I suspect you will see her running in the top 10 within her next few races. And quite possibly, she would have already done so if it wasn't for some of the other idiots on the track, like James Buescher, who intentionally wrecked her at Auto Club Speedway. Don't even try to defend what he did there, it was pretty (expletive) CLEAR! Danica has been great for the sport, and has a HUGE fan base, I wouldn't be bashing her too much there, Tom!
-- Steve Bell, Puyallop, WA

Sure, Danica has a huge fan base, just like Ricky Carmichael, the former motocross champ who turned to NASCAR. Why aren't they following him by the tens of thousands, filling racetracks for Craftsman Truck Series races all over the country? Travis Pastrana recently announced his entrance into the stock car ranks, as has cult hero Bryan Deegan. Add in Danica, and why aren't tickets for the 2011 Nationwide Series already sold out?

Sure, Danica is racing's first female, an engaging and attractive woman, but it's her near-misses at Indy -- not once, but multiple times --that keep fans coming back. They're going to spend money to see her win, not run 19th every week. And right now, that's her best finish in a year of stock car racing, not exactly the best promotional material to put together for her sophomore season...

"Tony ... Tony ... I can't find pit lane. Can you come get me?"

"He wrecked me! He wrecked me!"

"This car can't handle ... now where do I line up for the restart?"

Come one, come all to see Danica's next 25th-place folly, LIVE on Saturday for the Nationwide Series 300-mile season-opener!

Sorry, but unless I'm sadly mistaken, that's not the type of drama you want to sell. So yeah, being hard on Danica is fair considering the current state of flux in Nationwide racing today, where most drivers don't get half as many starts to prove themselves, considering the track record. It's important for her to get up to speed, and quickly, in her "second career" next season; otherwise, I don't ever see it having a chance to become her first.

I keep reading from NASCAR fans and officials alike that the Chase racetracks are too similar. This leads to teams that dominate the 1.5-mile tracks having an insurmountable edge. Why not throw a little spice into the mix and have one "wildcard" entry each year. That is a new track that drivers don't routinely compete on.

Take North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham. When it was on the Cup circuit, drivers would rave about the challenge of racing there. One Chase race in a place such as this would reward the most talented drivers/crews as they wouldn't have historical knowledge to fall back on. I know the problem with having a race like this... you have to take a spot away from an established track... well, the NFL and other sports don't have a problem changing things to the detriment to a few of their teams. Why should NASCAR be different? Give us some challenging venues so we can pick a real champion.
-- Bill Bridger, Laurel, MD

The "wildcard" idea is great, one drivers have suggested to NASCAR for existing tracks on the schedule for sometime now. Having a track they don't typically race on, like Rockingham or even -- gasp! -- the old short track at North Wilkesboro thrown into the mix would be great theater. If you don't like that idea, how about you start a rotation of tracks that can serve as the "wildcard" spot, all one-race venues with the caveat they lose their date already on the Cup schedule if picked. Among those that I'd make eligible for that: Darlington, Kentucky, and even the road course of Watkins Glen up in central New York.

That's not something you'll see tweaked this January, but if the Chase stays with us, expect full-scale changes to the 10 tracks on the slate by 2012. The change has too many people behind it to lose steam at this point.

Rick Hendrick wants to extend Junior's contract? Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me ... right?
-- Marybeth Wallick, Ellsworth, MI

I'm as baffled as everyone over the Earnhardt extension possibility, mentioned out of the blue by the owner at Las Vegas last week. I had a good talk with one of my best friends in the racing media the other day, a man who will remain unnamed but who has a decent theory about this whole public extension talk.

Here it is ... time to pretend I'm someone else...

Remember, Tom, with the contract running through 2012, that means little when it comes to drivers bailing a year early: Tony Stewart, Jamie McMurray and Kurt Busch are just a few who've done it in the last decade alone. So with the precedent set on the driving side, what's to prevent sponsors from trying to do the same thing or push for change? Could there be incentives that need to be reached for AMP Energy and National Guard, paying what reports have said is more than AFLAC's $26 million to be on a Cup car to keep their names on the side for the fifth and final year. If Junior is struggling and running 20th in points again, would they be asking for either some wiggle room on the price or to opt out a year early? After all, the value of the sport is down significantly from when this deal was signed back in mid-2007.

Well, Person A, I think you have an excellent point. Hendrick's always a forward thinker, and even if negotiations are in the very early stages, in need of a year and a Chase bid to complete saying they're happening now takes these sponsors off his back, reaffirming Junior's happiness in public -- regardless if it's true -- and putting potential distractions within the team to rest. Because if the No. 88 struggles out of the box, I'm telling you now, June 2011 could be an interesting time for Silly Season in this sport. I just can't see Earnhardt finishing all five years of this deal if he's outside the top 20 in points three years in a row.

Moving on...

You mentioned last week how Michael Schumacher beat Jimmie Johnson in the Race of Champions. Alas, in 2008, Carl Edwards beat Schumacher... it doesn't really, really mean much that Schumacher beat Johnson.
-- John Clark, Charlotte, NC

I see what you're saying. But keep in mind we no longer have the International Race of Champions series in America (IROC), so the ROC is the only way -- however small the sample size - to adequately compare champions from different racing divisions all over the world. And in this ROC competition, the stats show Schumacher has been a finalist two times in the last four years. That's something Johnson can't say after two career appearances, including the '07 loss to Schumacher. Based on those numbers alone, in technically equal equipment it's the Formula One ace who has had a slight upper hand thus far.

Of course, if Johnson wins six straight Cup titles... but let's not go there yet. Instead, we'll cut bait and head to the out of left field e-mail of the week...

I know that you are a NASCAR journalist, but what red-blooded male doesn't love football? Here's hoping you're a Jets fan -- on the kickoff, when Smith ran into the Pats sideline did you see number 75 elbow him in the head? No penalty there!
-- Jadd A. Hangelas

Sorry, Jadd, I didn't see that play. The only penalty I could see for the Jets watching that game is they were forced to play all 60 minutes of that butt-whooping instead of a mercy rule kicking in after 45. That's like what NASCAR's Geoffrey Bodine did in 1994, when he ...

Whoops! Time to run. Guess you'll have to e-mail me or click here next week to find out!

Tweet of the Week

"It looks like the Patriots are playing my high school. Wow, they look unbelievable!"
- @bscottracing, Nationwide Series driver Brian Scott enjoying some offseason NFL

 
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