Tom Bowles
Tuesday June 22nd, 2010

Don't get me wrong; Sunday gave us some outstanding competition and plenty of feuds to focus on from Infineon Raceway. But when the smoke cleared, a look at the stat sheet alone shows NASCAR continuing to steal half of Joey Logano's nickname this year. Sure, the Bread part is fine, but they've chosen to replace "Sliced" with "Stale."

Two men have now combined to win nine of 2010's 16 Sprint Cup races: Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. Kevin Harvick may still be the point leader, but by and large the duo expected to battle for the season title remain the favorites. Just five other men have taken the checkered flag first this season, and all of them are no strangers to Victory Lane: Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Busch, Harvick and Ryan Newman have at least four career wins on their resume. That veteran presence extends into the current top 12 in the standings, where everyone inside it made the Chase at least once within the last two seasons alone.

Add that all up, and what do you get? A product full of the same old stories in NASCAR, making Marcos Ambrose's near miss all the more painful for PR brass down in Daytona Beach. It would have been a breakthrough win for one of their up-and-coming stars; instead, it now serves as a backbreaker in a crippling sophomore slump. In what's been another season filled with decline, NASCAR's next hope for a momentum boost now lies in a risky proposition: hoping racing's duo of Most Popular Drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick, experience summer stock car success.

We tackle that trio of topics and more in this week's mailbag. If you didn't make the cut this week, don't cut off the engine like Ambrose: keep cranking out the comments and questions to tbowles81@yahoo.com and @NASCARBowles on Twitter.

Let's start with your thoughts on the penalty heard around the NASCAR world, the decision to move leader Ambrose from first to seventh when he stopped on the race track under yellow. After some hedging initially, the universal response on Twitter was...

Fair. The Biffle/Kansas thing irks me to this day, but NASCAR had to make that call with Ambrose. Too bad for Marcos, though.

-- @JayJayDean

JayJayDean refers to a 2007 incident where Greg Biffle ran out of gas coming to the checkers, actually crossing the line in third behind Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson. In that case, Bowyer argued Biffle was violating the rules of "maintaining a cautious speed," slowing to 15 miles per hour while he and Johnson blasted past.

Many believe NASCAR made a mistake back then by letting the victory stand. So why argue with them after a call where Ambrose slowed to zero? To me, it's a clear-cut decision: When a car stops on the race track as the leader, the rest of the field shouldn't be expected to do the same under the yellow flag. While Ambrose has insisted on using the media to make his argument, claiming repeatedly it was the wrong call, the more he's beginning to look like a bit of a sore loser.

Look, while unbiased as a journalist, it's hard to find anyone who'd be upset over an Ambrose victory. But sometimes, the best laid plans in sports never become reality. It's crucial for him to get over it, ensuring this disappointment doesn't sink the ship of what's already a difficult season for him.

Let's move on to another big surprise from Infineon: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 11th-place finish.

What a shocking run at Infineon for Junior. How do you think he'll do going forward?

-- Sherri, Livonia, Mich.

I'm still batting my eyes and making sure the final results aren't a big mistake. For all the criticism of crew chief Lance McGrew this season, he called a fantastic strategy plan on Sunday that put Earnhardt in the right place at the right time to succeed. Pushing his driver to play it safe, pitting for fuel at the right times left the No. 88 up front, and landing in a late-race Demolition Derby up in front of him opened the door to the top 15.

What does Earnhardt need to do to make the Chase? I'll be examining that in greater detail on Thursday. For now, I can tell you momentum from a seventh-place run at Michigan was more of a boost than we thought. The fire in Earnhardt's eyes was clear after that race, the type of passion we saw back in February before the monotony of mediocre finishes snuffed it out. Sports is as much mental as it is physical, and the positive attitude for him is crucial heading into a two-week stretch where he can be highly successful: Loudon (where he had a top-5 car last Fall before getting wrecked) and Daytona.

But how about Junior's Nationwide apprentice? Danica Patrick returns this week after three months on the sidelines...

I've been a NASCAR fan for over 35 years. I've seen many drivers come and go. They all earned their way through many years of hard work, and wanted to be the best and race the best. Their desire, the fire in them, brought them to NASCAR and they all deserve a fair chance to be there. Ms. Patrick did fine in the ARCA race this February. I saw great improvement in Las Vegas from California. She got caught up in someone else's accident, and was taken out by another driver in Las Vegas. Neither one of these was her fault. I've seen her speeds and lap times improve each week and in each race. What have you been watching? Just three races and you say its over for her. There are a lot of good drivers out there who belong, but can't or haven't ever won a race because of various reasons. I've never heard you say anything about them. Kyle Petty won only eight races in over eight hundred. Junior hasn't done anything in two years and is struggling. Michael Waltrip, except for Daytona, had never won much.

Junior didn't bring Danica Patrick to NASCAR on a chance. He knows she is a driver who has the energy and skills to make it. They know it takes time in a stockcar. This racer is putting everything on the line coming to NASCAR because this is where true racers want to be.

-- Kenneth Lincavage

Kenneth is referring to this week's seemingly pessimistic attitude toward Patrick's NASCAR return. Her initial stint was followed by more disappointment in IndyCar, where a runner-up Texas finish has been drowned out by four of 11th or worse. She sits almost 100 points back in the championship chase, a virtual non-factor in a season she'd like to forget.

That plays into her stock car return, as she's not exactly heading back with the confidence from past or present performances. Add in the most difficult track she's faced yet behind the wheel -- Loudon's tight turns and short distance tend to send any rookie to the shredder -- and a top-20 finish would have to be considered a win on Saturday.

As for giving Patrick patience, I wish I could, Kenneth. There's no difference between 1985 and 2010 in that many drivers need one, two, maybe three years to fully develop. But like most development projects nowadays, Patrick's extra time got thrown out the window the second she became a marketing machine. Too many people have millions invested in her success to allow the typical learning curve to play out. Remember, her contemporary, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won a Nationwide race in only his 16th start. Danica won't have that many under her belt until this time next year; but you'd have to expect that by her 12th run in November, the men with the money expect significant improvement to stand behind her over the long-term. A pretty face can only buy you so much time.

Others agree...

Although I don't think Patrick is a particularly great driver - much like Dale Jr. - she is good enough to be successful in racing, whether it's NASCAR or IRL.

That said, how has her debut compared to other crossover drivers? Montoya's first season with NASCAR in 2006 wasn't exactly setting the world on fire either.

-- Ray Works, Kathleen, Ga.

Since you asked, Ray, let's take a look at Danica's first three Nationwide results compared with some other IndyCar stars:

Danica Patrick: 35th, 31st, 36th. Average Finish: 34.0. Start: 29.3.

Dario Franchitti: 32nd, 25th, 29th. Average Finish: 28.7. Start: 9.7.

Sam Hornish, Jr.: 36th, 43rd, 31st. Average Finish: 36.7. Start: 26.0.

Juan Pablo Montoya: 11th, 28th, 20th. Average Finish: 19.7. Start: 10.0.

These verify your point that it's not like anyone else was out there scoring top-10 finishes. Something to keep in mind as Danica goes forward: good things come to those who wait. The sponsors just need to stay on board with that.

Moving on...

I have a solution to debris cautions. Have them be single-file restarts instead of double-file with no pitting or lucky dog. Have the pace car pick up the leader, and the rest of the field lines up single-file as they are running on the track. This way safety and the track position the leader had established will not be compromised.

-- Bricktona

That's not a bad solution, Bricktona, but you're forgetting the fact everyone's going to dive down pit road. By the time those stops are complete, how are you going to re-establish track position? I'd be happy with your solution as long as pit road stays closed.

Of course, there's always a sure-fire way to solve the debris caution problem: don't call them. None of Sunday's seven yellow flags were caused for a piece of metal, and guess what happened? A race still broke out, the natural way. Funny how that happens...

"So just met the seattle storm. Annnnd I'm like foot and half shorter than all of 'em." - @AJDinger, all 5'6" of him on meeting these WNBA giants. It's not the first time he's been intimidated by a girl this week, either; the driver of Richard Petty Motorsports' No. 43 lost to CNN's Robin Meade in a grape-stomping competition on Friday.

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.