Tom Bowles
Tuesday May 4th, 2010

It doesn't take long to make a first impression. What takes forever is changing that perception once it no longer reflects reality.

Take the seemingly endless dominance of Hendrick Motorsports as an example. Sure, the organization has won four straight championships and started this season by winning three of the first five races with Jimmie Johnson. But is HMS really ruining the sport? We'll get right into it this week with that meaty question. As always, don't forget to say your part: I can be reached at tbowles81@yahoo.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

Doesn't it seem like NASCAR tends to favor the Hendrick "machine" more than any other team? It sure sounds that way to a lot of fans. The economy isn't just keeping fans away from the races, it's discouraging new owners too.

-- Willa, Tulsa, Okla.

Do you feel that the No. 48 team is bad for NASCAR? I know I'm done watching races because I'm tired of the No. 48 team winning all the time.

-- Sharon, Okechobee, Fla.

It's all the teams against Hendrick Motorsports and Jimmie Johnson.

-- Jon, Belvidere, Ill.

No matter what happens during the race, I get a handful of these e-mails each week (along with a few unprintable ones). But before anyone engraves the 2010 Sprint Cup trophy and simply hands it to someone at Hendrick Motorsports, Kevin Harvick may have something to say about that. He leads the standings by 10 points over Johnson, and while JJ would retake the lead for the start of the Chase (on the strength of three wins), there are several others charging up behind him.

Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin have combined to win three of the last five races, moving to third and seventh in points, respectively. Roush Fenway Racing teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth have also run strong. Combining for 13 top-10 finishes in 20 starts, they've flexed the consistency muscle needed to challenge the No. 48.

"Look at where the [No.] 17 car is versus last year," Johnson told me on Thursday. "I think Matt's going to be a player this year. And Denny and that team, they have everything there to win championships and win races."

So why won't fans believe the No. 48 has competition? Unfortunately, their past Chase performances have as much to do with it as anything. Despite a four-year habit of testing during the regular season to prepare for the playoffs, Johnson is likely to make the 12-man cut, and he'll be ready to slice up the competition when it's time. Without a serious challenge to JJ for the title from a non-Hendrick driver (Kenseth was the last in 2006), people will think it's Hendrick versus the world until JJ actually does get beat.

But if you dig deeper, Hendrick isn't in as good of shape as it should be. None of its other drivers are inside the top-5 in points, and Jeff Gordon (6th) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (13th) have left plenty on the table after poor luck and bad strategy cost them a handful of top-5 finishes, even victories these last few weeks. Add in Mark Martin's head-scratching run at Richmond (25th), and putting all four Hendrick cars in the Chase is far from certain. In fact, there's even a remote possibility Johnson could end up being the only one. Combine that with the struggles of Hendrick-supported Stewart-Haas Racing (Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman are 15th and 16th in points, respectively) and you learn that money doesn't always buy championships.

Now, ownership is another topic for another day, and it's true the spending of Hendrick, Roush and others is making it impossible for new guys to get in on the action. But for now, those who've not been watching because "Hendrick is ruining the racing" can feel free to tune back in. The organization hasn't made another mockery of the playoffs quite yet.

I am glad you commented on the wave-around rule at Richmond. To go from eight to 28 cars on the lead lap, counting the Lucky Dog car, is ridiculous.

A couple of solutions I can think of include starting the unlucky cars in front of the leader's double-file or starting those wave-around cars a half a lap down.

-- Terry Bowles, Lynchburg, Va.

Another Bowles! Perhaps I've seen you at one of our giant Italian gatherings through the years. But let's move on to your question. Grumbles remain, from the garage to the grandstands, about the wave around and how it changed the outcome of the Richmond race. It's not just the rule but also NASCAR's two debris cautions, occurring within 20 laps of each other, that took a dominant performance by Busch and turned it into a free-for-all. While Busch wound up winning, the wave around, in theory, gave almost 30 cars a chance to win the race after most ran like junk for the first 150 laps.

While Busch was able to withstand their onslaught, others, like Jamie McMurray, weren't so lucky. McMurray was one of eight cars on the lead lap when that first debris caution came out, opening the door for cars one lap behind him to magically get it back. He finished 19th when his car faded late in the race instead of what could have been an automatic top-10.

That's the problem with the wave-around rule: it makes running hard early in the race a waste of time, and we're having enough problems getting drivers to be aggressive as it is. Giving cars half-a-lap back wouldn't work, though; all it would take is one quick caution to put them back in the same spot as before. Putting them in front of the leader would be confusing, so I'm in favor of creating a limit on the number of cars that can get this type of "free pass."

Here's my simple solution: When the caution comes out now, cars line up behind the pace car, single-file, based on where they were running on the race track, starting with the leader. So if you're a lapped car running just behind the leader when the caution comes out, you're second in line.

With that in mind, what I would do is award a lap back to any cars lined up behind the leader but ahead of the second-place car. What that does is provide a perfect compromise, while also giving some justification to getting a lap back instead of making it a freebie. Under the old system, cars would race back to the caution flag and the leader would slow up, often giving a lap back to anyone in between him and the second-place car. This rule would then take that old "gentlemen's agreement" and put it into NASCAR law for good.

Any better suggestions out there? Fire away, because the current rule just doesn't seem to be working. Let's hope NASCAR agrees.

Let's end with one last look at Talladega...

Tom, I read your many columns on 'Dega. The race got a 4.9 rating, but there was no mention of how the rating breaks down over the course of the race. I am wondering if the plate race ratings follow how I now view these races. I watch the start, then I end up watching a movie or doing something else for the next couple hours, tuning back just in time to see the finish. I find it a waste of time to watch the whole thing since it ultimately comes down to who's running on the lead lap. You do not need a good car all day, you do not need to run up front, you can do nothing most of the day. So, I just wait for the end, catch the Big One, a green-white-checkered finish, and go away happy I didn't waste more time than I had to.

I am curious if in the ratings info, they break it down to see how many people are tuning out for most of the race and only really watching the end?

-- Mike Blenkarn, Vancouver, BC

Mike makes a great point, one backed up by Nielsen research. In actuality, the final rating was a 5.2, but peaked with a 6.3 in the final half-hour of the race. Typically, the final portion of these events rate higher, but that's definitely above average for NASCAR. You wonder if NASCAR might as well just change the mileage to "49" from "499;" after all, it'll still create the same crazy result with these plates.

One other ratings note I found interesting: Despite the ratings increase, men 18-34 registered just a 1.6 in the Nielsens, down 16 percent from last year's 1.9. Not only is this market crucial for potential advertisers, but also it's the building block of the sport's future. If the younger generation isn't watching NASCAR in high numbers -- especially considering how young many of the title contenders are -- there's a disconnect that has to be addressed. It's great for the sport to be winning back its older fan base, but that's not how you build yourself more long-term supporters.

Tweet of the Week

"Woke up to bright sunshine and no clouds.... maybe I should look out the window to make sure I'm at the racetrack." - @Regan_Smith_, commenting on the beautiful weather Friday at Richmond. This weekend marked just the second time in five races rain didn't cancel or postpone track activity.

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