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What NASCAR needs to compete with NFL for casual fans; more mail

When the enduring images from the past week are a pair of fines and a pair of ugly wrecks -- one plane, one car -- you know things aren't exactly all that peachy in NASCAR Nation right now. And how ironic that 2 + 2 equals four, the exact number of Brett Favre's jersey and retirement talk that threatens to drown out coverage of the upcoming race at Watkins Glen.

But with Favre's national news crops up a three-letter acronym that's as scary to a NASCAR team owner these days as DNF: the NFL. Football's surging popularity is now the biggest obstacle to the sport's immediate future, more so than calls for safety improvements, public displays of disaffection, and shortening the race at Pocono by at least 100 miles. With training camps entering full swing and preseason games now hours, not weeks away, the push from the gridiron is already pushing this sport even further toward the backburner.

How bad could it get? That's where I fear the old saying: "We ain't seen nothin' yet." The ratings I'm watching for televised NASCAR coverage aren't so much the ones in late July and early August, when only the baseball regular season is there to compete (and even with that, the numbers are off nearly 13 percent). So much has been talked about in the last year about what separates the "hardcore" from the "casual" NASCAR fan, about how the erosion of its popularity has created too few of the former and far too many of the latter. Well, what will casual fans do when NFL season comes around? When faced with a choice -- as they will for nine out of the 10 Chase races -- four quarters of passes, kicks and touchdowns could outweigh chasing stock car racing's floundering playoff system more than ever.

That means if there was ever a time for a compelling storyline, the next few weeks are crucial. Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. make miracles and sneak into the Chase? Could Mark Martin turn a possible full-time retirement announcement of his own into one last push for a title? Could Bristol in two weeks turn into "payback central," with more rivalries revving up on-track than a weekend watching the Demolition Derby? Something, anything would help stem the tide of what's coming. Because the Favre retirement announcement is just the tip of the iceberg, a chilling reality for a sport that's increasingly overshadowed by the one Brian France hoped to topple when he assumed the helm as NASCAR CEO seven years earlier.

Let's move on to your thoughts, as always. Tbowles81@yahoo.com or Twitter at NASCARBowles is the way for you to enter the public eye just as Mr. Favre is leaving it ...

Let's start with Friday's breaking story that Twitter comments got Denny Hamlin that reported $50,000 NASCAR fine.

In the immortal words of Rodney King, "Can't we all just get along?"-- @missouriracefan

I feel like NASCAR is taking us for idiots. The drivers' opinions are not swaying ours. -- @Corrine1224

Does NASCAR seriously believe that fining members of the NASCAR family keeps the sport interesting and positive? A few negative remarks may actually be positive when the product is not what it used to be. Otherwise, NASCAR goes the way of F1, very boring after the start and first three laps.-- Eric Hiner, Plantation, Fla.

I don't think "censoring" drivers affects on-track action as much as it does off-track perception, Eric. Again, the most important thing that remains from the stench of this incident one week later is the secrecy through which everything was carried out between both Hamlin and Ryan Newman. Even as late as Friday, Tony Stewart lied about his knowledge of Newman's penalty, claiming he didn't have to know the truth as a car owner when, in fact, he was informed of the circumstances as soon as they happened back in April.

For those who missed it, Newman's fine then was based on comments that called restrictor plate racing a farce. That's in line with Hamlin's Twitter comments, which also called NASCAR a "show" and not a "sport" through the use of debris cautions to bunch up the field. So even in secrecy, there's consistency in the way the sport is handing these fines down: insult the brand, get socked in the wallet for tearing down the reputation of NASCAR itself. But insult a fellow driver, as Newman did in Indianapolis just two weeks ago (virtually comparing Carl Edwards' hit on Brad Keselowski to manslaughter) and you're still in the clear.

Where NASCAR missed the boat is giving the fans the right to judge. Its policies this year have been geared toward making everything an open book, but you can't pledge democracy and then tear out half the pages in the process. As I've said since the beginning of the year, the sport's fighting so many problems it's turned itself into a "guilty until proven innocent" mode, with many fans simply looking for an excuse at this point to move on to something else.

Whenever there's a bad call in the NFL, people are able to judge the comments, see the replay, and then talk about it in the office the next day and have a discussion about who's right and who's wrong -- actually turning the incident into a positive talking point where the sport gets publicity. But if NASCAR is slapping the hand of people in private, it sends the wrong message of selective punishment that destroys the possibility of those conversations ever happening -- including with the very up-and-coming drivers NASCAR is trying to influence in the future.

"Without getting into word-for-word, what I asked was, 'What was the point of fining me if you're not going to tell anyone?' And they said, 'Well, hopefully it'll keep anyone from badmouthing us.' Well, no one knows!" Hamlin exclaimed on Friday. "For the young guys maybe coming up, if you say, 'Hey, you fined Denny Hamlin x amount of dollars for saying this,' I think you'll have people in the future say, 'All right, I need to steer away from those comments.' So I think in the future, all this coming out is a positive thing. It really is, it's going to turn into a good thing. Even though they may not have wanted everyone to know, now that they do, it happened for a reason. It's going to make our sport better."

One can only hope. For now, time to move on and hopefully put this incident behind us. Let's move on to a more serious, on-track incident from Sunday...

I recall the drivers howling about the use of the HANS device when it first came out. Have you heard anyone comment on the fact that Elliott Sadler probably wouldn't be alive without one after Pocono?-- Dan Wolfer, San Antonio, Tex.

Great point. Sadler's wreck, while not captured very well on camera was perhaps the most serious test of NASCAR's new safety initiatives since the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. I know that's going to be a controversial statement, critics pointing out the handful of flips to have occurred at tracks like Daytona and Talladega -- places where the cars are going 10 to 20 mph faster. But remember, Earnhardt's fatal hit wasn't a flip; it was the type of head-on, sharp deceleration wreck into the wall that tests the head and neck restraints to ensure 150-to-zero doesn't send the driver pummeling through the windshield.

From the minor injuries Sadler complained about after the race -- soreness in his chest from the seatbelts tugging to keep him inside the car, along with a bruised shoulder and thigh -- there's no question the HANS device may have been the most important factor. Without it, the head is left free to bop around, leaving him vulnerable to a skull-against-metal hit that could have been deadly. NASCAR doesn't always learn from its mistakes, but on safety that's one area where it has made some impressive strides towards getting it right.

On Sunday, it showed.

Looks like AJ's takin out 1 teammate at a time at Pocono! #Getthatguysomeglasses -- @JerseyGirl1026

On Sunday, I broke the news the 'Dinger was the one to cause Sadler's wreck. But while the Kahne crash at Pocono could be blamed at least partially on his blocking maneuvers, I find it hard to believe this one is anything more than a racing deal. The amount of smoke and grass torn up coming through Busch's spin made it hard for anyone behind him to see; it's shocking more cars weren't involved in some sort of chain reaction. The fact Sadler got hit by his teammate, at the same track where the last serious incident happened at RPM is pure coincidence. That could have been anyone hitting the No. 19.

Of course, the old saying goes, "When it rains, it pours..." and things are not exactly going Mr. Allmendinger's way right now. He's got more teammate wrecks (two) and Richard Petty confrontations (one) than laps led over his last 13 races (zero). Not exactly the type of resume builder you want to bring when sitting down with Roger Penske for 2011.

All that money spent on solar panels should have gone to track safety first...solar not going to do them good w/o race dates. -- @DaleBent

I also thought this was another unfair criticism leveled against Pocono Sunday, the idea that the money dedicated toward a solar project should instead have been directed toward making the race track safe.

First of all, do you really think if that money wasn't going toward a solar park it would have been pushed toward on-track improvements? I know we're talking about safety here, so humor me for a minute; we'll get back around to it. But why don't you think NASCAR isn't tearing up Auto Club Speedway and creating a new, more competitive race track for fans? Why isn't it addressing the layout of these cookie-cutters to make the racing better?

Simple: tearing up and starting over costs money -- millions of it -- and no one out there is making a profit right now in this economic environment. SAFER barriers don't come cheap, either; and while the solar park could make millions for the race track, financially those barriers don't make anyone a dime. I know it's sad for safety to come down to money, but in a sense it happens all the time. If something like "super air bags" existed on a car for an extra $500 , would you reach into your pocket and buy them?

Considering Pocono hasn't caused an on-track death in its history, you could understand why officials might have been a little slow to react. But the bottom line is this is all a moot point, as the track announced Saturday that SAFER barriers will be in place for next year. So in the end, everyone gets what they want.

Once again, Gordon's crew chief made a bad call like usual !! -- @freak79

Steve L.is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. I would have taken 4. His detractors can go eat dirt. -- @RVNGrammy

A lot of people were very upset after Gordon's latest whiff on ending his winless streak, now up to a career-high 50 races. I find it ironic that on the same weekend Steve Letarte signs a long-term extension as Gordon's crew chief, he makes yet another mistake on a late pit strategy call to cost them the win.

Is Letarte-Gordon as bad as Lance McGrew-Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? Far from it. But Letarte has an eerie knack of making the wrong tire call at the wrong time. Remember Las Vegas in March? The No. 24 car was dominating the racing up there, only for Letarte to ask for two tires on a late-race pit stop when everyone else -- including their rivals on the No. 48 side -- took four. That left Gordon a sitting duck on a day where fresh rubber made the difference.

Fast forward to Pocono. During the race people like Greg Biffle take two tires with regularity for track position. On that last pit stop, you know there's going to be at least a handful that try it, on a track where there hasn't been much tire falloff, clean air is critical, and one week after Juan Pablo Montoya blew his shot at Indianapolis through a four-tire stop. So what does Letarte do?

He takes four.

Many in the Hendrick organization remain high on Letarte, most importantly his driver. But for as much praise as Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus showers on his shopmate, it's easy to do so when you've got four championships and your "apprentice," so to speak, is sitting there on the No. 24 side with zero ... and just one win in the last two-and-a-half seasons to boot. A spotter change to Jeff Dickerson was made to revitalize the whole No. 24 organization, but until the right call comes from on top of the pit box -- especially the way late-race cautions have emphasized the importance of strategy calls -- Gordon & Co. will remain a step behind Johnson/Knaus for the foreseeable future.

And finally... our usual "out of left field" e-mail of the week:

Why do all drivers wear sunglasses on TV?-- Frank Young, Stockton, Calif.

The answer is simple, Frank... because it's sunny. Let's hope for a bright and sunny weekend out at the Glen!

"Just want to let everybody know I'm ok, prob gonna be sore but glad to walk away. Hardest hit I've ever had. Huge difference from a safer wall." - @Elliott_Sadler, Tweeting less than half-an-hour after that vicious wreck between Turns 1 and 2 at Pocono

"For the first time in my life I'm glad @Elliott_Sadler is hard headed!! I won't gripe about it ever again!" - @19Spotter, Elliott Sadler's spotter

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