Tom Bowles
Monday January 4th, 2010

With such an overwhelming response to the first mailbag, I'm reminded that in NASCAR there's never an "offseason" -- just growing anticipation towards a Daytona 500 that's fewer than 50 days away. So let's sort through a few questions as 2010 gets underway. Make sure you keep those questions coming, too; tbowles81@yahoo.com is the best way to get your voice heard.

Do you think Steve Letarte has the moxy to get Jeff Gordon his fifth title? I think a lot of Jeff Gordon fans are wondering if Steve can make the right calls on the box. His wins have dropped dramatically since Steve started, due in part to Jeff unleashing the monster that is Jimmie Johnson, but I just don't believe it is the driver. So what is going on?

-- Vince, Salt Lake City

Vince's question is a popular one from fans sick of Johnson upstaging his "car owner" and teammate in the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. But Gordon hasn't been as bad with Letarte as you think. In four full seasons together, they've won nine times and collected 64 top 5 finishes in 144 starts. That works out to about a top 5 every other race, not too shabby for a head wrench people claim is "B" level compared to Chad Knaus. Add in a record 30 top 10 finishes in 2007, and you're reminded that that year Gordon would have cakewalked to a title under the old championship format by nearly 400 points over Johnson and everyone else.

So why have Gordon and Letarte struggled during the Chase? I hate to tell you, Vince, but the driver's more to blame than anyone else. Check out this telling quote from Homestead:

"I feel like the 10 tracks in the Chase are not my best 10," Gordon said. "So when it comes down to 10 specific racetracks, it's sort of our Achilles heel. But we're so strong throughout the whole season, being consistent over 38, 36 races, that I think the old points system favors us."

The stats back up Gordon's claim that he's just never been a good closer, a tragic weakness for a new format where only the last ten races count. Just seven of his 82 career wins have come in the season's final five races, with three of those occurring in his record-setting season of 1998. Compare that to Johnson, who has seven such wins in the last three years, and you can see why he runs circles around Gordon in the playoffs.

A closer look at the Chase tracks themselves shows they're Gordon's biggest weakness. Two of the last three races are at Texas and Homestead, ovals where Gordon has won just once in 29 career starts. That means he needs a points cushion down the stretch, something he used to his advantage in two of his four championships where he coasted to the title while his point lead melted away. But that's not an option in the Chase, as Johnson proved himself in '07 after blowing by his teammate in the final four races to steal a title that could have been Gordon's.

Getting back to Letarte, it's true he struggles to make the type of last-stop adjustment for Gordon that turns him from a fifth to a first-place car. But at the same time, some of his pit strategy calls (think Fontana in October) left his driver with a chance to pull an upset win several times during the '09 playoff. So perhaps the answer for Gordon is not to ditch Letarte but adopt a testing strategy similar to the No. 48's -- focused on the 10 Chase tracks and nothing else. Gordon will always make the playoffs even in a bad year ... so why focus on leading the points in the regular season when it doesn't really count?

Jimmie Johnson hype? It isn't hype when you can back it up with 4 consecutive championships. Hype is Kyle Busch, flash in the pan, nowhere around come championship time. Well, I don't want to hear any more about the childish brat until he actually contends for a Cup championship. Who cares about full-time Cup drivers winning the Nationwide championship? If Kyle was worth talking about, he wouldn't have to go back to the minor leagues to win a NASCAR championship. There is a reason for the term "Busch League."

-- Gerald, Branson, MO

Hmm. I'll give you this much: Kyle winning the Nationwide championship isn't all that it's cracked up to be. Yes, he beat the competition fair and square, to the tune of nine wins and a record 30 top 10 finishes in 35 races. But isn't that like Roy Halladay dropping down to AAA baseball, striking out 300 and going 27-1 on his way to the Cy Young? There's something about "major leaguers" beating up on drivers in second-tier divisions that just doesn't sit right with me.

"Kyle has every right to run that series," said a rival Nationwide car owner to me a few weeks ago, when Busch both entered and won another "minor league" event this offseason, the Snowball Derby. "But how is a developing driver going to make a name for himself if, at every level, you got Cup drivers running the race and you're running against a Cup team?"

Busch's career goal is to win 200 races throughout NASCAR's top three touring series, so don't expect him to slow down anytime soon. But it's fair to ask the question, "At what cost?" There's currently zero Rookie of the Year contenders signed up for the Cup Series in 2010, and you wonder how many rides and sponsors were taken away from others by Busch's full-time Nationwide domination. To run a handful of lower series races is one thing; but to hog all those championship and marketing dollars when you have another ride somewhere else? I agree, Gerald; that's "Busch League."

The best racing in NASCAR happens on non-conventional tracks; short tracks & road courses (odd-shaped Darlington), yet we keep getting more and more boring "D" shaped 1 1/2 mile tracks. Can't the "powers that be" see that for interesting racing we need interesting tracks?

-- Ken, Flatonia, TX

Apparently not, Ken. Kentucky Speedway is expected to make its Sprint Cup debut in 2011, while Kansas Speedway will jump from one date to two. Both tracks are -- you guessed it -- 1.5-mile ovals, which already comprise 10 of the 36 races on the schedule (14 if you include 2-mile sister tracks Michigan and Fontana).

Since NASCAR refuses to expand, that means two other tracks will either lose a date or not return in 2011. You'd think that would mean 1.5-mile ovals would be under fire, and it's true Atlanta Motor Speedway is a prime candidate to lose a date. However, recent garage talk centers around Bruton Smith looking to buy the unique, one-mile concrete oval at Dover instead in order to "transfer" one of their race dates to Kentucky in 2011.

Meanwhile, Kansas is almost guaranteed to take one race date away from the half-mile paper clip at Martinsville. The track has had at least one Cup race every year since the sport's 1949 debut, but can only hold just over 60,000 compared to the say, 100,000+ that can squeeze into a race at Kansas.

I'm not saying it's right, but I'm saying it's reality for 2011 and beyond. The trick for NASCAR, then, will be making the races on "cookie-cutter" intermediate tracks, where the dreaded "aero push" often causes a single-file parade, filled with the white-knuckle excitement of the tracks they'll leave behind.

Without any major changes to the Car of Tomorrow this year ... let's just say that's a daunting task.

OK, last but not least, here's a follow-up from last week about Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s crew chief Lance McGrew...

Tom, what do you think would happen first? Hendrick signs a big name crew chief to replace Lance... or, Junior gets released from his contract?

-- Marcus

Hendrick will try about 10 different crew chiefs before he'd even think about releasing Earnhardt from his contract, which runs through 2012. Even if the No. 88 car has another miserable season, the money and popularity are just too much to let go. Add in Hendrick's self-anointed "mission" to be responsible for Earnhardt running up front, and he's determined to keep trying until it's either fixed or a five-year failure.

Tweet of the Week

Brian Vickers spins a little philosophy ... (Tweet Name: BrianLVickers)

"The human brain can only process up to 150 personal relationships. Something to think about."

If that's true, there are a lot of people (including myself) who need to ditch some Facebook friends...

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.