Tom Bowles
Wednesday September 15th, 2010

I've become such a sportswriting cliché. Here I am, sitting in a coffee shop, sipping on a pumpkin spice latte and answering your questions and comments. As I'm writing, a middle-aged woman walks over, and then stares impatiently at me with the glare of a mother waiting for their child to come to attention. As she starts pointing, I look up inquisitively, more confused than that time Marcos Ambrose cut off his engine at the wrong time at Sonoma.

"Oh my God!" she says. "I've never seen someone type like that! You really know how to do it fast."

Before I could respond, she says, "Good luck with whatever you're doing!" and walks away. It's too bad I couldn't give my patented response whenever anybody questions my finger-pecking, lightning-quick style of typing:

"I write about racing for a living. You think we go slow at anything?"

Time to slow down and answer the questions on the eve of the sport's 10-race playoff. Don't be afraid to let loose, sit on this Oprah-style e-mail couch and tell us how you really feel: tbowles81@yahoo.com and Twitter @NASCARBowles is the way to do it.

How about guaranteeing a Chase spot to anyone who wins a race? There might be more than 12 drivers in the Chase occasionally, but it would certainly make for some exciting races towards the end of the regular season. -- Shane Bauman, Bentonville, Ark.

Let's apply Shane's theory to this year's Chase, where we already have five winless drivers in the field. As you can see, the postseason lineup gets rather crowded:

ADD-ONS (4): Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, David Reutimann

While that exception adds the guy who's won the series' two biggest races this season (McMurray: Daytona and Indy) none of those four have shown the consistency needed to win a championship. Even McMurray would be the first to tell you under this format, he doesn't deserve to make the field; too many ugly DNFs to go with those outstanding performances that put him in Victory Lane. So what's the end result? Adding useless filler, bumping the number up to 16 of 32 full-time sponsored drivers with no real effect on how the title would play out.

At the same time, excluding all the winless wheelmen leaves out veterans like Jeff Gordon, the second-place point man who's led over 800 laps this season -- certainly proving early on in the year he was capable of running up front. So what's the solution? How about no Chase whatsoever? That sounds pretty good to me, but unfortunately that's not what we're going to get. Garage gossip continues to center around some type of elimination format as a way to bring fan interest back towards the sport.

Just please eliminate me from the group that actually supports it, OK? The more I learn about it, the less I like it. We'll leave it at that...

Is Tony Stewart the only NASCAR driver who's been testy with the media this year? -- Tom Bowles, Norristown, Pa.

No. I ask that question because we had a testy Kyle Busch exchange in the wake of the Todd Bodine-Busch brouhaha we talked about last week, surprising considering he ran a strong runner-up to teammate Busch in the race.

Reporter: Speaking to tonight's race, it was billed as nobody had anything to lose, go out there, it was going to be everybody going after each other but only three cautions, one for rain. Why do you think we saw almost such a timid race? You and Denny [Hamlin] got after it, at the end but really it was a calm deal out there. What are your thoughts on that?

Busch: I don't know. You tell me. You're probably one of the best at picking out drama like you did last week with Todd Bodine, so I won't answer your question.

The reporter in question was Jay Pennell, who penned an interview with Bodine just one day after the two made contact in the Truck race -- one that led to a public argument about Busch's aggressive driving style and on-track attitude. But with the Truck racers off at Richmond, the controversy was slowly dying down until Kyle spoke up.

I bring this quote up not to stir the pot but because Busch is, indeed, one of the top drivers I'm picking to compete against Jimmie Johnson for this year's championship (see Thursday for more). Yet the one thing that's kept Busch from being a Cup champion has been outside distractions, like last year's obsession over the Nationwide title that I'm convinced caused the Cup team to lose focus. For Busch to really push forward, he needs to be able to block out any criticism from other drivers, the media, his teammates, and put his eyes squarely on the big prize. Exchanges like that, so soon after a quality finish make me wonder if he's matured enough to do that.

Excellent article on Hendrick Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s dismal season. You mentioned a key point -- sponsorship money. Without performance and TV exposure, even Dale Jr. can only bring in money for so long. If you pay top dollars in sponsorship fees, you expect a return. Rick Hendrick should realize and understand that golden cow will dry up without performance. Therefore, he needs to get the No. 88 team going -- if not for Junior, then for his own business. I like how you believe the guy can drive well enough to make the Chase each year. HMS needs to find a combination to make that happen or risk losing sponsor dollars. Give him a proven crew chief, something he has never had outside of maybe Tony Sr. -- Phil Leigeb, Midland, Mich.

We've discussed the crew chief issue at length, Phil, and now would have been a perfect time to make a change. With 10 races left, Earnhardt has nothing to race for and putting a new, unproven body in that position would allow them to experiment and see if they could hit on the right chemistry instead of doing it in the offseason.

I know Mr. Hendrick is adamant he won't make a change between now and November, 2011. But after a 34th-place debacle at Richmond, do you think AMP Energy and National Guard are standing idly by, watching their driver deteriorate and costing them millions of dollars in marketing firepower a second straight year? I can't imagine 10 more disasters like that and crew chief Lance McGrew returning on top of the No. 88 pit box this February. Hendrick may not want to adjust, but you'd have to think at some point the men who pay the bills will make a call, step into a shady backroom filed with smoke and force someone's hand.

All of these little leaks that we get about how Junior "can't communicate" or "doesn't fit the Hendrick system" are all just code for someone who cashes the biggest check in the garage, and may very well have lost his edge because of it. We know he can be competitive at this level, because he has been, and we know that he is in a situation where any top driver would thrive... so what other explanation could there be other than a lack of effort or interest from the guy behind the wheel? It is not the team...it's the driver. -- Brian, Brookline, Mass.

Brian, for a guy who's totally disinterested in competing, why is Earnhardt on iRacing in his spare time? Why does the guy have 18 Cup trophies sitting on his mantle, a Daytona 500 victory and his own team in the Nationwide Series?

While Earnhardt may take a more laidback approach than Johnson, Mark Martin, or Gordon, for years that strategy still worked for him because the chemistry once he got in the car was right. It's like a guy who gets straight A's in high school without lifting a finger, with a program that suits his abilities alright (AKA: DEI until it fell behind on resources), then gets to college (AKA: Hendrick) with different expectations, and he struggles under the weight of not being able to sit back and mail it in anymore. I will give you this much: if you're drinking beers during the week instead of going to the gym, you might be physically or mentally off your game to the point the car's handling needs to be perfectly refined for you to have a chance. The guy doesn't make it easy on himself, but it's the system as much as his mental anguish that's driving this ugly depression.

Again, we're definitely at a stalemate between both sides. Someone, somewhere's gotta give.

All these excuses, starting with blaming Teresa because she wouldn't turn over HER business to Junior, to the crew chief, to the owner... the only constant in Junior's slide is JR! Wake up, people! -- Sheppard1, Bay Area, Calif.

Actually, the constant in Junior's slide is the loss of Tony Eury, Sr. Earnhardt had 15 wins in five years with him and three in five-plus years since the "father figure" stepped down from the pit box at the conclusion of the 2004 season. Insiders say it's a virtual impossibility to get Eury, Sr. back in the same role at Hendrick, but you wonder how much of a difference that would make. We push the same comparison with Matt Kenseth and Robbie Reiser in the wake of Kenseth's struggles; why can't we do that here with his good buddy?

Speaking of crew chiefs...

Re: Your Earnhardt article on his future. Robbie Loomis leaving Hendrick in 2005 was NOT because of the No. 24 team not making the Chase. He was going to leave the end of the year anyways because he reevaluated his life and had some personal things going on. He even said that in interviews. Steve was going to be Jeff's crew chief in 2006 anyways, so they decided to move him up early, and Robbie left earlier since they didn't make the Chase. He was already talking about leaving even if they made the Chase. -- Amanda, Houston

Fair point, one I knew while writing the column. The reason I glossed right over it is he could have easily stayed through the end of the season, but Hendrick and Co. chose to make a move because the team was struggling under his watch. Also, Gordon missing the Chase still sparked a public outcry at HMS we just haven't seen internally over this whole Junior mess. Again, I ask the question: if Gordon missed the Chase with Steve Letarte this year, in the midst of a winless season would Letarte be out as crew chief?

I firmly believe the answer there is yes. So why isn't Earnhardt's crew held to the same standards? Martin at least has an excuse, the Kasey Kahne circus definitively caused an outside distraction and he and crew chief Alan Gustafson never got under control until it was time for desperation mode. Junior? He's in the third year of a five-year deal, sponsors and contract secure. That leaves no rock to hide behind, allowing us to openly question the stubbornness behind keeping the No. 88 chemistry as is.

How about a trade of Harvick for Earnhardt? At the same time, Childress could bring the No. 3 car back. Thanks. -- Michael Paczowski, Los Angeles, CA

Any chance this switch could happen got snuffed out earlier this season, Michael. Harvick's re-upped on a multi-year deal that also sees Earnhardt's old sponsor, Budweiser, attaching itself to the No. 29 starting next year. But don't fret, Junior Nation, there's still an outside chance there could be a move under the right circumstances. Jeff Burton's contract runs through the end of 2011, and the possibility exists the 43-year-old could retire rather than run a few more years. Logic would tell you Childress is grooming grandson Austin Dillon, the likely Truck Series Rookie of the Year, to take that seat even if Burton runs through say, 2013. But if Earnhardt is completely dissatisfied at Hendrick and looks to opt out a year early ... it's a major longshot -- along the lines of a No. 16 seed beating a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament -- but don't count it out.

One more note on Junior: considering the money he brings into HMS, if the team's still running just as poorly this time next year that contract will become juicy garage gossip. We've seen a long list of drivers escape their deals a year early: Stewart, Kurt Busch, and McMurray are the most prominent examples. Would both sides admit failure after four years considering the millions at stake? It'll be a story that bears watching from the start of next season.

If you want the Nationwide Series to be a developmental series and not a place for the top-tier drivers to beat up on up-and-comers or has-beens, then here's how to fix it: Each week, at noon before the Truck race, a driver needs to declare which series he (or she, as applicable) wants their points to count in. Truck, Nationwide or Cup, pick one. If they win, they still get the purse and the victory, but the series championship should go to someone who is there primarily for that series. -- Dave, Huntington, W.Va.

Great idea, Dave. We're going to see some sort of tweak next year handicapping Cup guys competing in Nationwide. I just don't know if they'll make a change that sweeping, kicking the sponsor-hungry drivers out and leaving those willing to run a part-time, "extra" schedule for no money and just the love of the sport to help spur driver development by competing against the minor leaguers every now and then.

The road courses really offer good racing from start to finish, and often by drivers who seldom get a chance to win on the tracks making up most of the season. I'd like to see another road course event added, perhaps at a new and different road course. -- N. Sinclair

I'm with you, Sinclair. But don't just e-mail me! Start bugging NASCAR, who once again will enter the Chase without a third road course that would test drivers under all disciplines, not just the 1.5-to-2-mile ovals that make up half of the 10-race lineup. What's a playoff format for if you don't include every type of track you compete on?

And finally, the out of left field email of the week...

I was born to drive in NASCAR. I grew up in the heart of racing and have it in my soul. I know with a chance, just one chance... you will see the best race car driver in a long time. I watched Richard Petty all my life and never stopped hoping to be in the big race. xxx-xxx-xxxx is my number. I can flat out drive a car. I grew up in a 1967 SS HP/ Chevelle, DROVE IT!!! at 14 years old. Cars of the past: SS 79 Camaro, 1971 /455 Trans Am, 1986 SS Camaro, 1987 Buick Grand National. All these cars as you know require a real driver. I know I can do it. -- Timothy Mills, Randleman, N.C.

Can you say American Idol for NASCAR? Simon Cowell would just have one criticism, though: you might want to update your resume. God knows those Buick Grand Nationals went out of style oh, about 23 years ago, and Richard Petty's been owning, not driving, a Cup car for about 17 years. hey, the Camaro's bound to come back to the Nationwide circuit at some point, so why don't you get to driving one of those cars in a circle around your backyard to practice, send Mr. Hendrick an audition tape and see what happens. I hear one of his drivers isn't cutting it these days...

"Ripley's baby, believe it or not... U lost!!!!!" -- @scottspeed to wife Amanda after the Cowboys-Redskins game went final. Amanda Speed's a Cowboys lover ... Scott, well, I think you guys can figure it out

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