Tom Bowles
Wednesday October 6th, 2010

A large part of NASCAR Nation, insiders and fans alike, let up a collective groan Sunday the second they looked down at the Chase standings and saw a familiar name at the top: Jimmie Johnson. Despite starting the playoffs with a 25th-place, awkward-looking performance that seemed more chump than champ, the No. 48 team still finds itself out front by eight, boasting a first and a second the last two weeks, while none of their would-be challengers stood out.

At the same time, looking at the big picture shows us seven drivers are sitting within 86 points of Johnson four races in, doubling the previous record during the seven years under NASCAR's Chase format. After a Cinderella victory by Greg Biffle and Ford, it would seem, at least on paper, that this race is still wide open, missing only a Buffalo Wild Wings-style tweak where David Reutimann wrecks whoever is the point leader each week to keep things close.

So then why are so many fans still headed for the exits? The answer comes in how much you believe in luck. Last season, Johnson made the next three races -- Fontana, Charlotte and Martinsville -- his personal playground, posting runs of 1st, 1st and 2nd before skating through Talladega, unscathed, to wrap things up. His recent track record at each of those facilities shows that he's far from a one-hit wonder: He's got three Fontana wins in the last four, hasn't finished out of the top 10 at Martinsville since 2002 and has so much success at Charlotte, other drivers have taken to calling the 1.5-mile oval "Jimmie's House."

Looking at the numbers, it means the title is Johnson's to lose and no one else's; but then again, you're forgetting how that rogue element of luck comes into play. Johnson's New Hampshire finish was due to circumstances outside his control, a wreck in front even a reigning four-time champ found impossible to avoid. They also haven't had a faulty engine since Charlotte in May 2008 -- a span of nearly two-and-a-half years. Don't you think at some point, the Bad Luck Fairy might wake up, realize her blatant favoritism and work feverishly to even things out?

Should that happen, we're all right in assuming this Chase is the one where challengers will charge. Denny Hamlin's still got the best shot in my mind, but anyone from Kevin Harvick to Carl Edwards to even Biffle will stay close enough the next three weeks to pounce on any sign of weakness. More than ever, the No. 48 team can't let its guard down, evidenced by a hard drive from the 21st starting spot on Sunday in which every single competitor challenged the team. There are no easy passes when you're in Johnson's spot, his type of success inspiring a near-universal attitude looking to take him down.

But when we're talking about pure luck -- the lone obstacle of the No. 48 already -- it's never a good sign for a team that's made a Hall of Fame career out of knowing how to close the deal.

Time to see if you made your own Johnson luck, whether I picked your question or comment this week. And if you don't see your name in print, don't hesitate to try again: or Twitter at NASCARBowles is how you do it.

Tom, first off, while I am not an engineer or a reconstructionist, you make a great argument last week to support the Childress perspective. What, if any advantage was provided with a 1/16 (approx.) variation in the rear car height? I can see where, not through a lift, but through the application of force (gentle push), a tolerance could be affected. Either way, the more significant point is that, historically, NASCAR seems to serve as its own worst enemy. We have struggled through a number of rough periods and attempted to remain loyal to a sport we dearly love, only to regularly be asked to digest some intolerable opinion or unpopular perspective of certain individuals running the program. No, I don't want the officiating entities to allow any degree of cheating or deception; yet, to fail to provide clarification on a number of assessments and governing opinions only serves to cause even greater alienation of the fan base.

A simple determination supported by a verifiable explanation and qualifying video documentation (if it exists) can only strengthen fans' acceptance of the governing body's practices and the overall support of NASCAR as a whole.

I have been a Childress supporter since Richard drove the ol' number 3 himself and yes, I would say that historically a question or two may have arisen that required clarification of an action or mechanical specification review, and a warranted fine through the years. But to potentially damage a man's veracity and infer something illicit is totally inappropriate and unprofessional. Not to mention the dire effect this will deliver to Bowyer's championship run.

Wake up NASCAR, fans are far more knowledgeable than you might think, we are far beyond requiring the basics of "tight" or "loose off," drafting and the like explained to us during each race. NASCAR historically has been a fan-based and fan-focused operation, let us redirect ourselves once more to that agenda and serve all of our needs to a greater degree.

-- Gary Kearney, Louisville, Ky.

Wow. What a way to start off this week! First off, I question your use of the wording "will deliver" as to how this penalty affected Clint Bowyer. Even before NSCRC Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook upheld NASCAR's decision, the damage had already been done. Bowyer's sitting 252 points outside the Chase, has run like junk the last two weeks (average finish: 20th) and endures the humiliation of being the "random" car NASCAR will pull for inspection throughout the rest of the playoffs. For all intents and purposes, his Chase experience will now almost exclusively consist of being Kevin Harvick's personal assistant, helping win a title that after race number one's performance could have been his.

Your main gripe seems to center around what we talked about last week, that NASCAR's kept silent on penalty details, while Childress mouths off about everything and anything that went on through every step of the process. Finally, through an interview with SIRIUS Satellite Radio over the weekend, Ramsey Poston responded to some of their allegations...

1) To Childress' claim expert Dr. Charles Manning was unable to view the car and damage that led to the infraction:

"Dr. Manning never asked to see the car at any time."

2) On whether Childress' and Co. were prevented to see the car at any time:

They were free to examine the car, "Anytime they want"

Those answers were short and sweet, the equivalent to a heavyweight fighter trying to get back in it by throwing one wild, unwieldy punch after losing the first 10 rounds. But while NASCAR's finally doing something, anything to dispute what others are saying, it's still not sitting down and explaining what went wrong. That's all fans are looking for, to be able to make a judgment call instead of playing trial and error with their own fantasy theories. This sport would do well to remember that.

NASCAR has taken chicken [poo] to an entirely new high. I don't believe NASA management is as picky as the NASCAR officials. Really, I think it's time to clear out the trash because some officials don't know didley about these cars and the mandates imposed. It's really bad when you take stock car racing and decide to make it a science project. The good old days of NASCAR are a memory. The thrill is gone because everyone has to be so politically correct. A driver swears and the powers that be want a pocket full of money. With what they rip off from the drivers you'd think that they would cut back on the ad nauseum advertising we are overwhelmed with.

I can't talk to Mike Helton or any of the other gods of the track tribunal, but man if I could, he'd lock himself in the hauler and leave the track early. Between the CS and silly rules I'm going to have to watch Formula 1, which bores me to tears, but they are not religiously looking for a way to penalize a driver or a team and have a advertisement after every lap, fining a driver and a team $150,000, that's insane. I know I'm not alone when it comes to how NASCAR polices itself; to say you are a NASCAR fan is embarrassing nowadays. I'd rather watch Smoke run on the dirt any day then have him put up with the jury...

-- Billy Daman, Phoenix, Ariz.

That, right there, is a snippet of the fan perception NASCAR fights on this process. Through a number of missteps the last several years, from something as small to taking Darlington's Labor Day date to the gargantuan lawsuit brought on by former official Mauricia Grant, the audience which follows the sports has turned toward viewing the powers-that-be with a "guilty until proven innocent" mentality. It astounds me the public relations staff doesn't have a better grasp of it, understanding they need to attack any controversial topic with twice the amount of spin, proof, and positivity to get fans squarely on their side.

In this case, no matter what Mr. Middlebrook decides -- and at press time let the record show Childress thought he got a fair hearing, according to reporters staked out down in North Carolina -- fans have already moved on and made their own judgment. In that sense, it's a bit of a non-story at this point because if most believe the actual process and penalty is unfair, they're either turning off the television or already disgusted to the point the most well-written decision in the world won't get them feeling differently. Just as RCR's bed appears made, the reversal of the penalty a longshot at this point so is NASCAR's continued popularity slide after another much-needed opportunity to open the door and explain their modus operandi.

As for your television gripes ... a certain four-letter network heard them loud and clear. One week after being roundly criticized for going to break with 11 laps remaining, ESPN let the final 23 minutes Sunday run without commercial interruption. Imagine that! An organization listening to the concerns of their fan base. Looks like someone can learn a valuable lesson here.

Did NASCAR measure and record the offending characteristic(s) before the race? If they did then the change in dimension happened sometime after the initial measurement (before, during or after the race) and any difference must be explained by the laws of physics. If NASCAR can't explain what events, under the control of the team, resulted in the dimensional change then it has no reason to assess a penalty since the team doesn't know what corrective action to take. NASCAR may not agree that they have an obligation to explain the change in the dimension. Instead, NASCAR is assessing a penalty without explaining what caused the difference. It could well be that the measurement technique, measurement equipment or measurement conditions are the reason for the discrepancy. One other point: They need some physicists on the review panel. To say the impact spike wasn't high enough to account for the deformation in the structure is just plain ignorant. A 1-inch diameter, 12-inch long rod of chewing gum held to your head (the acceleration sensor) and struck by a hammer will record a different value than a 1-inch diameter, 12-inch rod of 302 stainless steel. Just because the "sensor" measured an impact of a specific magnitude and duration does not mean that deformation occurred. Give the 33 team back the points and money.

-- Eric Hiner, Plantation, Fla.

Eric, once again a big hole of explanation exists from NASCAR, one we'll hopefully get at some point after the appeals process regardless of how many people still pay attention. But this particular penalty couldn't be assessed through measurements gained at the track, leaving your pre- and post-race theory invalid. You need to go to the R&D Center to figure this out and conduct the type of pinpoint deconstruction and measurements needed, a type of secondary opinion this ADD society doesn't want to wait for in their world of sports. As our fan Billy said himself, two things fans don't want are complexity and secrecy when watching an event that's designed primarily for competitive entertainment. This penalty contained a little of both.

If you're going to answer questions and pretend to be an "expert," why don't you verify your answers in advance? Cars are have been allowed a second chance (maybe more) through the sticks for a long time, and it happens frequently. It's only an issue if it involves Johnson. Also, if you bother to check I'm sure you will find Mark Martin's instance was not the same. Just because both has to do with shocks does not make them the same. You guys love to stir things up to make "news" instead of providing accurate information.

-- Linda Welsh, Orange Park, Fla.

Linda, take a minute and look at what you just said. So you don't have a problem with the concept that some cars can get run through the sticks a second time while others get cuffed the second they find a violation? Don't you see the inherent favoritism in that? As a journalist, it's my job to report what I see that's important. And what I see by that simple "break" is inequality, whether it's Jimmie Johnson or Dave Blaney getting a free pass.

As for Martin, Johnson, and Hamlin I've been whispered to both incidents resembled similar characteristics revolving around the pressurized shocks I described last week. I'd tell you more, but again, NASCAR does not explain the penalties further beyond the press release describing the consequences.

I think the reason Bowyer's penalty was much higher is that NASCAR had warned that team about being close to the limit for that very infraction the week prior. So it was obvious that the Bowyer team ignored the NASCAR warning and continued as before. We certainly know you ignore NASCAR at your own risk.

-- Jim Belcher, Perry, Ga.

Nice thought, although Childress himself explained the ridiculousness of ignoring a NASCAR warning when they were told the car would be confiscated the following Sunday. But I can confirm the 150 points wasn't for Richmond but because NASCAR handed out the same penalty for a similar body tolerance violation two years earlier. That one involved Brian Vickers, Team Red Bull, and the No. 83 at Martinsville, consequences they took on the chin in setting precedent for future outside-the-box measurements like this one.

Here is a hypothetical question...

Assume a driver is safely in the Chase (at least 200 points above 13th) prior to the race at Richmond. If that car fails inspection, how will the penalty be assessed? Will it be subtracted prior to the points reset? If so, then this would mean the penalty meant nothing and even more importantly that any driver locked in could cheat to win the Richmond race with no fear. So, don't you think NASCAR should decide their policy on this scenario now instead of waiting for it to happen?

-- Bill Brooks, Glen Burnie, Md.

Great point, Bill. Here's a way for NASCAR to address the problem: Announce any violations found by any top 12 car after the Richmond race will result in Chase disqualification. And give each one a vigorous post-race inspection to rubber stamp a level field heading into the playoffs. I don't think you'll find a single fan, crew member, or car owner in the garage who would veto that.

The confusion in the rules is only hurting NASCAR. I have stopped playing games with my seven-year-old when he changes rules mid-game. I have been a fan of NASCAR for over twenty years, but have stopped watching races due to the nagging feeling that it is getting to be more like the WWE.

-- Elmer, Bend, Ore.

You don't let your seven-year-old win every now and then? Man, toughening them up at an early age ...

I have a suggestion for NASCAR. I think that they should cut the number of races, and try to get their season finished before the start of the NFL season. I know that it is a lot more complex than that, because tracks are not going to want to give up races, but I think this would cut a lot of costs. I love watching NASCAR, but when my NFL team is playing at the same time during the race, I am watching football. I am sure I'm not the only person like this.

-- Brad Egan, West Mifflin, Pa.

Ooo, juicy question that's been echoed by more NASCAR fans this year than any other. My question for you, Brad, is what's different about the NFL now than seven years ago? NFL has always been the most popular sport, but pre-Chase NASCAR did a far better job of holding its own against the competition. Keep in mind that's with late afternoon start times, championship races that were often out of hand, and races that were often shown on cable (TNT).

So while I understand everyone's point -- why not wave the white flag of surrender -- it's something this sport never had to do during the fall when it was growing like hotcakes. In my opinion, it all starts with rebuilding the product, because even throwing up a Chase race at noon won't be enough for fans to watch if they're not entertained. I'm sure if the race was a nail-biting affair -- regardless of where your favorite driver was running -- you'd stay tuned in no matter how the favorite local team was faring.

Finally, our out of left field email of the week...

I'd just like to say that today at Kansas City at the race, I was over by pit road with my aunt and cousin before the race started and I got to see Carl Edwards and get a picture with him. Today was my 16th birthday, and getting to take a picture and get Carl's autograph just totally made my day! It was probably one of the best birthdays I have ever had!

-- Megan Creek

It just goes to show that despite all the negativity surrounding this sport, nothing has changed the overwhelming opinion NASCAR drivers are the most accessible in all of sports. Hope we made your birthday that much brighter by giving you your 15 minutes, Megan.

"Football, lingerie, and mostly hot girls.... thank you to the creator of the Lingerie Football League! U R A GENIUS!" - @Regan_Smith_ on his newest discovery in sports

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