Tom Bowles
Tuesday May 11th, 2010

Like a reflection in a side-view mirror, NASCAR's problems are sometimes larger than they appear. During the past few years, criticism has rained down on a sport that's seen double-digit ratings drops, attendance declines and the dominance of a few select drivers. Case in point: Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin have combined to win 11 of the last 18 races, leaving fans snoozing or searching for other sporting entertainment.

Every pessimistic article on the subject ends with the same question: How do you fix it? Saturday night provided some basic clues. Start with a classic tradition at a challenging track in the heart of NASCAR country (Darlington), take out a dominating contender in a freak accident (Johnson), add a little unpredictability (20 lead changes) and two popular veterans (Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton) to the mix until tragic late-race mistakes knock them out of contention. For dessert, bake up a heartwarming story of Hamlin winning post-ACL surgery (making his recent surge easier for race fans to stomach) and voila! You have an eight percent increase in ratings over the year before.

It just goes to show that with all the Nancy Negative stories out there, NASCAR fans really aren't looking for much. Give them cars racing side-by-side or a track where danger awaits at every turn, and they'll be sitting there captivated for 500 miles. Oh, and did I mention the race was a near sellout? Sometimes a history of a great race does matter when figuring out when and how to spend your cash.

On to your questions and comments for the week. Doing a little spring cleaning after all of you spent some extra time with your moms; but next week, there's no excuse for slacking off! You can reach me at or on Twitter at NASCARBowles.

Darlington's race would be perfect at 400 miles.

-- Victor J. Tetreault, Savannah, Ga.

I'd never heard this complaint, and I'm surprised it turned up now: At three hours, 57 minutes, the 2010 Southern 500 was the third-fastest 500-miler in the last decade at Darlington. But that didn't stop Victor from joining other fans and media in calling for this race to lose at least 100 miles for 2011.

I'm all about shortening certain races (Pocono, anyone?), but certain events in the sport are untouchable. In my opinion, four races in NASCAR stand out as ones drivers want to win: The Daytona 500, The Coca-Coca 600 (Charlotte), The Brickyard 400 (Indy) and the Southern 500. Would you shorten any of those first three races by 100 miles? No. Tradition and prestige outweigh any complaints over length.

Sure, the Southern 500 was moved from its traditional Labor Day date six years ago, but that hasn't diminished how drivers feel about the "Lady In Black."

"The faces on [the trophy] are unbelievable," said Hamlin Saturday night. "It's amazing. I can remember Bill Elliott winning the million dollar bonus here [In 1985, part of Winston's old program was rewarding drivers for winning three of the sport's four "crown jewel" races.] It was as big for me now as what it probably was for him back then."

That's not the type of quote you get from a driver after winning Fontana. It's one that commands this 500-mile tradition be respected. If anything, let's change the time of the race so drivers are running in the heat of the day, adding another element to this challenging race while ensuring everyone's in bed before midnight.

Now that Shell has moved to Penske, where does that leave the No. 29 car? After news that Kevin Harvick "might" stay with Childress now that he's running well, I'm wondering what happens to the No. 29 car since Shell has moved to Penske.

-- J Angellas, Winston-Salem, NC

Reports surfaced last week that Childress is close to signing Harvick, with "sponsors that have never been involved in the sport" looking to align themselves with the No. 29 team. That leaves regular readers scratching their head following earlier reports Harvick had burned his bridges with the team.

What's changed here? For both parties it's a simple case of being backed into a corner. Harvick's said he refuses to leave Chevrolet, as his own Nationwide and Truck programs currently run the Bowtie brand. But there's just no opening under the Chevy banner in Cup, except for a possible expansion at Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).

That's where everyone felt Harvick was headed for months until funding began falling apart. When Shell/Pennzoil wound up poached by Penske, Harvick's soon-to-be-former sponsor left him without financial backing to offer another program. SHR is already burdened by its own sponsorship issues (Old Spice announced Sunday it won't renew with Stewart's No. 14) and may be asked to take on Hendrick signee Kasey Kahne in a third team for 2011. Sounds great, but there's no guarantee Budweiser will come along with Kahne.

That means Harvick's No. 1 option would have to possibly expand by two cars and add three primary sponsors (at least) to make everything work. So while the bridge-burning comments ring true -- my sources claim the Harvick/Childress partnership has been skating on thin ice for over a year now -- it's possible both may have no other choice. There's no better free agent available for Childress, and with their recent success there's an opening for an awkward contract extension. I still won't be on board until Harvick signs on the dotted line; but I can certainly see where and how it could happen.

As for sponsors for the No. 29 car? I'm as clueless as you are, J.A. One of the big issues in the sport right now is no new companies are giving it a look, so any outside interest is news to me.

Tom, I'm 52, and over the years I've watched NASCAR become so diluted in attempts to create "parity" that a lot of the sport's fan base have morphed into people who don't really know who or what they are cheering for. There used to be true "brand recognition and support," but now the brand doesn't really matter. The cars say Ford or Dodge or Chevy, but the bodies are all the same and, in fact, many of the engine components could be swapped from one car to another. Drivers used to be more loyal to the manufacturers they drove for, too. Now it's just "whoever provides me with a ride that pays a lot" seems to be the philosophy. Finally, the competition between manufacturers used to help all of them produce better American cars. Let's get back to this being an American racing sport or it won't be long before we see teams fielded by Subaru and Nissan because the TV exposure benefits them.

-- Brian Fitts, Greensboro, NC

I disagree with your point on loyalty, Brian. Check out Harvick's commitment to Chevy, or Stewart running back to the Bowties after just one year running Toyotas. A driver like Matt Kenseth would never be caught outside a Ford, and there are several others I can list where the manufacturer would make or break a potential opportunity for them.

As for bodies, that's a serious issue NASCAR is looking to fix with its AAA series, introducing the Nationwide Car of Tomorrow with classic cars like the Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang that change the body design from "carbon copy" to "cool." There's just one problem: It's coming at the wrong time for minor league programs already stretched to the financial limits. Sources tell me no fewer than four Nationwide teams went to NASCAR officials asking them to not only postpone the final test next week, but also table the car's July debut at Daytona until further notice.

Don't expect the sport to do that, though, with a car that's created some big-time buzz. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief, Lance McGrew, let it slip a few weeks ago that NASCAR is considering a new generation of the Car of Tomorrow for 2013. Expect all the positive body changes on the Nationwide car to make their way over to Cup, with the series a "guinea pig" for a more exciting breed of racing over the next few years.

Here's to hoping you're still watching the sport by the time the car makes its way to the big leagues.

Finally, always fun to end with a random Danica e-mail...

I'm still waiting for all the Danica cheerleaders to realize that she simply is NOT a competitive driver.

-- Steven, Providence, RI

It's been awhile since Patrick's graced the NASCAR circuit, so let's take a look at her IndyCar results this year: 15th, seventh, 19th, 16th, 11th, and 16th in points (of about 25 full-time drivers). Ouch. Whether it's a road course or oval, Patrick has endured her worst career season just months after her foray into NASCAR. That tells me the Indy 500 is clearly a make-or-break point in a career nearing a fork in the road. If she struggles there, you have to wonder how owner Michael Andretti's going to feel about her taking time off to run back and dabble in stock cars at the end of June / beginning of July. I still think Patrick can be competitive in both Indy and stock cars, but right now? Steven, you're absolutely right.

Tweet of the Week

"2 ways 2 win races, Got 2 be really good or really lucky - sometimes you're both!" - @allwaltrip (Darrell Waltrip) after watching Jeff Gordon make a mistake that handed Denny Hamlin the win at Darlington.

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