Tom Bowles
Wednesday June 2nd, 2010

The checkered flag at Charlotte marked the halfway point of NASCAR's 26-race regular season. Already, talk has shifted toward playoff positioning, with seven men within 125 points of Ryan Newman for the final spot in the sport's 12-man Chase. With 19 drivers realistically battling for 12 spots, it's the largest contingent of playoff contenders in the seven-year history of the format, leaving the battle as jam-packed as my e-mail inbox in recent weeks.

But numbers don't do enough to sway a lion's share of detractors, angry over a system that shuts out winners in the name of consistency. Do their claims have merit? Let's address it while getting to as many of your e-mails as possible. If you don't get picked, please keep trying! and Twitter @NASCARBowles could be your ticket to Mailbag stardom.

I used to attend many NASCAR races, but now I rarely watch them on TV. The Chase is great for sponsors and NASCAR in terms of dollars, but does nothing to reward a driver who wins races during the non-counting part of the season.

-- Tom, Union, Ky.

I have been a NASCAR fan for many years and it's nothing like it should be. I feel the Chase is a waste and NASCAR should consider doing away with it. No other sport has a chase/playoff with all teams participating.

-- Dennis P. Miller

I get a trickle of these e-mails every week, no matter how good the finishes are. Tom's major gripe is echoed by many fans, that the playoffs either don't do enough to reward wins or shut out teams that visited Victory Lane during the regular season. It's hard to argue with the former: Right now, drivers who make the Chase get only a 10-point bonus for winning, the equivalent of just two positions on the race track. Even an extreme difference isn't enough to build more than a small cushion, giving the best driver the equivalent of a 3-0 advantage to start an NFL playoff game.

That's changed the way NASCAR teams approach the regular season. Teams spend the first half of the year trying to build a cushion inside the top 12, then take the second half to coast into the playoffs, using some races as test sessions while attempting to peak at the right time. It's not an unusual strategy, as teams in other major sports do the same thing. But considering NASCAR has just 36 races a year -- compared to the 80+ games in the NBA, NHL and 162 in MLB's regular season -- it's tough to see teams practicing that strategy for the better part of three months. Increasing the Chase win bonus to, say, 25 or 30, would put more emphasis on going for it at the end of regular season races.

As for the playoffs shutting out drivers who win, that's less of an issue in 2010 than in years past. At the halfway point, Jamie McMurray remains the only race winner outside the top 12, and he's just 25 points away from making the Chase himself. Every once in awhile, you'll have a situation like 2009, where Kyle Busch won four times but still missed the Chase on the heels of several DNFs. Again, adding more points for winning would solve the problem. After all, isn't racing about having the fastest car, not running fifth a whole bunch of times in a row?

Finally, people hate that the Chase obscures the other 31 cars who have to "field fill" for the final 10 races on the track. This problem could be solved by offering a $500,000 bonus to any non-Chaser who wins a playoff race. Extra money would lead to extra incentives for these cars to go all out, creating storylines and focus toward programs that otherwise get ignored.

Let's move on to the Indy 500 and one of its few NASCAR connections: Danica Patrick. Danica snagged a surprising sixth-place finish after a miserable month at Indy left her one of the slowest cars in the field. She spent most of the day outside the top 15, but her shocking turnaround at the finish led to mixed reviews from the fans.

Patrick benefited from so much attrition. Not a real indicator of a turnaround in her season.

-- @missouriracefan

Danica lucked into sixth. While Kanaan drove through the field, she was just there. Didn't improve much until strategy kicked in.


True. Add in speed shown by teammate Marco Andretti and it's clear Danica was far from the best driver on her team. But the scoreboard doesn't care about how you got there, only where you finished. As other fans noted, she ran better than expected... and as the highest-running woman, she avoided being overshadowed by the other three.

I thought it was one of Danica's best Indy drives. She avoided trouble and saved fuel in a car that wasn't very "passy".

-- @JayJayDean

That's the opinion I'd side with. And let's not forget...

Danica has only missed the top 10 at Indy once in her don't get lucky that often.

-- @RaceTalkRadio

Right. This year has been a true test of her focus, one where she bit off more than she could chew with the NASCAR/IndyCar dual rides. I think the key is Texas this week, a second straight oval where she's had promising runs in the past. A top 10 there likely rights her season, while 11th or worse take the wind out of her Indy sails.

Moving on to racing's other Most Popular Driver...

Get Junior out of the No. 88, which was the old No. 25 for Hendrick. It has a jinx on it; he will never win with it, nobody else has.

-- Frank, Seaboard, NC

A little background on Frank's claim: Earnhardt's ride was changed from No. 25 to No. 88 at the beginning of the 2008 season. That team is Hendrick's second-oldest, around since 1986 when Tim Richmond drove it to nine victories in a little over a year-and-half. But in mid-1987, Richmond was sidelined due to a mysterious illness that turned out to be AIDS. Pushed out of the sport by 1988, he was dead a year later and his former car has never performed the same.

The curse theory has always been around, but gained steam over the last decade. Take a look at how each of the Hendrick teams have performed since Jimmie Johnson came on board in 2002:

-No. 48: 50 wins, 122 top 5s, 187 top 10s with Jimmie Johnson

-No. 24: 24 wins, 121 top 5s, 177 top 10s with Jeff Gordon

-No. 5: 10 wins, 55 top 5s, and 103 top 10s with Terry Labonte, Kyle Busch, Casey Mears and Mark Martin

-No. 25/88: 3 wins, 33 top 5s, 66 top 10s with Jerry Nadeau, Joe Nemechek, Brian Vickers, Casey Mears and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The numbers clearly show how Hendrick's now "fourth car" has lagged behind the curve. Is that because of a curse? Hardly. I'd say the No. 5 and 25/88 have always suffered as Hendrick houses the cars in a different shop than the 24/48. With Gordon and Johnson, you're dealing with two of the top 10 drivers ever to step into a stock car; chances are your other two programs are going to lag behind them. The one point I will make is Earnhardt didn't step into a program clicking on all cylinders. The 25 car was 15th in points in 2007, just one position ahead of where Earnhardt finished in his final season with DEI. That program needed to be built into a championship-contending team, but things haven't clicked for them to do so.

There is no question that the Earnhardt Jr./HMS pairing has been a huge disappointment. But I believe Junior's overall "on-track" career accomplishments are shockingly underrated. Proof of this lies in the greatest question in NASCAR:

"What do Geoff Bodine, Curtis Turner, Fred Lorenzen, Donnie Allison, Harry Gant, Neil Bonnett, Marvin Panch, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Cotton Owens, Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne all have in common?"

Here's your answer: None of them have more wins in Sprint Cup than Dale Earnhardt Jr.! Forty-six wins across the top two series, including All-Star events, should speak for itself. Everyone on that list will one day enter the Hall of Fame. So my question is if Junior's career stats (were he to retire today) are as good or better than the legends on that list... why do we question his talent?

The truth is with any other last name, we would look at him differently. We'd think he was a great race car driver.

-- David Joseph, Los Angeles, Calif.

Well stated. I think the issue at hand is whether he still has the passion for it. Observing the No. 88 stall during the race Sunday, I came to the conclusion of "lifeless." They fed off the lack of confidence their driver exhibits week-to-week.

For Earnhardt to overcome this slump, it requires extra effort and determination. Time will tell whether he'll actually try to put that in.

And let's close with our usual "out of left field" e-mail of the week.

While watching the Coca-Cola 600, I saw a terrible wreck with about five laps to go. The car flipped, rolled, hit the wall, rolled again and ended up a small ball of metal. The cameras showed the ambulance arriving, and the men trying to extricate the driver...then the cameras went back to the finish. I saw nothing more, or heard nothing about the driver. Can you tell me what happened? Thank you.

-- Bill Cummings, Gainesville, Fla.

Bill, what race were you watching? The Charlotte race went green for the final 22 laps, and there were no drivers who flipped.

Time to go head to the pool. That's what June, July, and August is all about ...

"Wow, I just found out that some dude has been impersonating me to try to hook up with women. Kinda flattering... I think?" - @jjyeley1, the latest in a long line of famous athletes to be impersonated through social media. On a brighter note, he ran his first Cup race to completion in two years Sunday, running 34th with undermanned Whitney Motorsports.

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