On a track once named for his sponsor, the fifth race of the Chase is also the pivotal one in whether Jimmie Johnson will capture a fifth straight Cup Series title. There's a reason they named Charlotte (formerly Lowe's) Motor Speedway "his house." It's a place where he's won six times -- including four in a row at one point -- and scored 13 top-10 finishes in 18 starts.
But for those who are grasping at straws to find some reason, any reason other than injury or death, that will prevent JJ's record-breaking season from becoming a mere formality, I bring you hope. Here's how many points Johnson and second-place Denny Hamlin scored over the second half of last year's Chase:
Yes, believe it or not, that's actually a 50-point edge that breaks Hamlin's way, an A+ performance from the No. 11 team that should show up again this year. Already, it has victories in hand from the spring races at Martinsville and Texas while retaining the title of Homestead's defending champ from last year's season finale. Three more of those trophies down the stretch should be enough to make a game of it with the No. 48, if there isn't some sort of catastrophic DNF Saturday night that always seems to doom Joe Gibbs Racing's championship chances. It was in this race one year ago that the Charlotte catastrophe -- a faulty engine and 42nd-place finish -- officially put Hamlin's title chances on a Priority Express to nowhere. Johnson emerged victorious, and that 158-point swing proved a nice little cushion down the stretch.
The No. 11 team has done a great job of playing survival mode these last few weeks, collecting as many points as it can while the Lowe's Chevy goes on a spree at the tracks that are best suited for it. Keep Johnson in their sights one more week, and maybe, just maybe we finally have a championship battle that goes down to the wire.
Time to get to your questions and comments. If I didn't get you in, well, hope should spring eternal in two electronic forms of communication: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter at NASCARBowles. There's still six weeks left to go on the season, plenty of time left to make the cut!
I'm 22 and I love NASCAR more now than when I first began following the sport in 1997. Sure, Jimmie Johnson has been dominant to the point some fans are turned off, the cars look like boxes with wheels, and the Chase is altered every three years or so, but I still love it and I am upset that Fontana won't be in the Chase next year. Why? The two-mile easy-to-drive track gives the elite teams an opportunity to flex their muscle.
The racing at California is only getting better with age, but it's too bad the developers built too many seats. The majority of the stands are filled when I go, just not in the turns where they made the additional seats. There are hardcore NASCAR fans in southern California and the surrounding areas, but I have problems finding those who are in my age bracket. I don't have any fellow NASCAR-loving friends younger than 50 or older than 13, which is something NASCAR should address if they want sustained success in the L.A. market.
Does California deserve a Chase race? Probably not. But hopefully, NASCAR will look into reinstating a second Fontana race. Sure, southern Californians have "tons of other things to do" than watch NASCAR, but there is a large portion of us who spend our Sundays in front of the TV watching cars drive in circles instead of football games. -- Ryan Baltazar, Riverside, CA
Believe it or not, I got a couple of passionate emails from fans last week leading into the "fall finale" of a track that's cutting back to one Sprint Cup date in March next year. In a touch of irony, Sunday's race was possibly one of the best we've seen at the track in recent memory, the age of the speedway evident as three, four, and even five grooves allowed cars to race side-by-side for more than just a couple of laps on restarts. A decent fall crowd was in the stands as well, with attendance accurately listed at 70,000. If anything, those two developments should combine to attract a stronger crowd with the one remaining date next spring.
But one outstanding day doesn't erase an overall body of work, and I agree that the sport had to backtrack a bit, start from square one out in California and try a new marketing strategy to get people headed to the speedway. Do I still think they'd be better off tearing it down and starting over? Yes. But I hope that whatever happens, we'll be able to keep some form of Cup Series racing out West.
I go to at least two races every year and watch/DVR almost every week. In my opinion, it's not the number of races or laps that are hurting NASCAR, it's the dang cars. They suck! When I began watching NASCAR full-time (1998/1999) the racing was awesome, the cars where sleek and fast, and they looked like real cars. Now its just plain boring and they hardly finish a race that I watch or record. I wait with great anticipation every offseason that NASCAR will make changes to the POS COT that will allow the drivers to actually race each other and not fight their own cars the entire race. Cutting the number of races, laps per race or cars wont change a thing. Fix the cars and the fans will return! -- J. Montgomery, Chandler, TX
One thing that'll help is the new noses implemented in the Cup Series beginning next year. Gone are those ugly splitter braces that make the front of the car seem like it's behind bars. Instead, uniquely manufactured noses for Toyota, Dodge, Chevrolet, and Ford will make them ever-so-slightly closer to the cars you see out on the street.
I think there is a long list of changes that NASCAR will have to make in order for the next generation car (still hearing 2013?) to firmly resemble its showroom counterparts. Remember when even a Lincoln could be raced on the Cup circuit in the late 1990s? Now we're stuck with not only spec cars, but generic ones, the type of Impala-Fusion-Camry models your 50-year-old mother-in-law takes to the grocery store. There's no variety anymore, no lifetime infatuation hook you get the first time you see a Lamborghini zipping down the street.
A move towards the Dodge Challenger, Ford Mustang, and other "muscle cars" in the Nationwide Series was a step in the right direction. The next one is to make sure that strategy gets brought up to Cup.
In last week's mailbag you wrote, "...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..."
While the NFL is not much different, I can tell you why NASCAR is losing viewers. It's not due to Johnson's dominance or the Chase format, and attendance being down is more than a result of the economy. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is to NASCAR as Tiger Woods is to golf! When Tiger skips a tournament or misses a cut, the ratings plummet. When he's in the hunt for the win on the final round come Sunday, ratings soar.
Like it or not, unless JR is competitive, NASCAR's popularity will continue to suffer! The casual fan is not interested in who makes the Chase, Johnson's amazing run at history, or even on-track rivalries (Carl vs. Brad, Harvick vs. Joey, Johnson vs. Gordon, Busch vs. the field). They're interested in seeing the person they want to see win! What the NFL has up on racing and golf is that there's a 50 percent chance viewers and attendees are gonna walk away happy that their team won. Even higher if you're the home team!-- Wayne, Savannah, GA
You make a good point, Wayne. More people write to me about Junior than any other driver on the circuit combined. Nearly ten years after his father's death, the man still carries with him current and previous generations of fans who are anxious to see the Earnhardt name back in Victory Lane. I think the current "status quo" situation at Hendrick is irritating to many fans, and it makes them more likely to turn off the racing in the Chase because not only is Earnhardt not in it, he's not showcasing any momentum (just one top-5 since mid-July) that would leave them holding out hope. Is that causing a 30 percent drop in ratings over the Chase? Absolutely not. But could I see a two or three percent drop because their man is a waste of space on the track every week?
What do you think about NASCAR trying something new to liven up the sport? I'm all for cutting the number of races, but if they don't, then maybe the tracks that have two races a year should run one in the opposite direction of a normal NASCAR event. At least it would be different. Maybe try a standing start instead of a run-up to the line. Only get points based off finishing position. How about, instead of the All-Star race, a NASCAR endurance race: a 10-hour Petit Le Mans-style event at Charlotte. It's been said here before, and I'll echo the sentiment: road courses. And one of my favorite ideas: Allow teams to purchase a car (same model they drive), modify it for roll cage and safety, and then race that car. At least we would be back to the STOCK part of stock car racing.-- Anthony, Flowery Branch, GA
I don't agree with a standing start, Anthony. We already have two wreckfests a year, and we call them Talladega. No need to endanger drivers' lives a third time. And a 10-hour Petit Le Mans event? I think we have enough trouble these days keeping people roped on the couch for four hours.
The best idea on the list is to get the stock back in stock car racing, like your buddy J. Montgomery suggested above. How about doubling the number of manufacturers involved, too? The more, the merrier, and the more money that'll be around for teams struggling to get the type of corporate sponsorship that once carried them.
Of course, adding those companies is easier said than done. But to do that, NASCAR has to change the rules and make it simple to enter the sport instead of some $200 million dollar ordeal, complete with engineers, Screech from Saved by the Bell, and enough wind tunnel time to make your typical Kansas tornado stop in awe. Something, any type of initiative, aimed at switching it up and wooing other manufacturers would be better than doing nothing, right?
If NASCAR wants to reinvigorate its product, they need to put some incentive into racing for the lead from mile one to the last mile. There is nothing more boring than watching cars lag back in the pack, working on strategy rather than trying for the lead. I want to see drivers fighting for the lead, each and every lap! I want to see bumping and rubbin'. I want to see some mad drivers. Enough of this sportsmanship crap. If the guy gets in the way, wreck him. Dale Earnhardt Sr. wasn't called the Intimidator for nothing. Kyle Busch isn't hated for no reason at all. (He likes to win, who could hate that?) I love the brashness of the drivers, the character they have, let that come out. So let's hope NASCAR takes your suggestions, and gives a whole lot of emphasis in the rules for leading each lap, and winning each race.
What is more, someone needs to look at the formula that has made Johnson so dominant. He is so backed by money, that is impossible for other drivers to compete. NASCAR needs to take away some of the advantages that Johnson's team has. But at the same time, that does not explain the lack of success that Earnhardt, Jr has had, nor that of Johnson's other teammates. In the end, the rules need to be changed, loosened, or tightened. This dominance by Johnson is not fun to watch, it is boring. -- Corey Keller
Here, here Corey! I know several out there are toasting your comments.
And finally, our out of left field comment for the week, which is actually dead center in the field of play for many racing fans...
NASCAR makes the NFL leadership look really, really smart.-- @RichardNew
I'd agree with you, Richard, although when your most popular quarterback has alleged pictures of his private parts circling the internet, I wouldn't exactly call their situation picture perfect. Add in the threat of a potential lockout for 2011, mounting concussions, and the uncertainty of what an 18-game season will do for popularity and the health of the players, and it's a reminder that every major sports league comes beset with its own problems.
NASCAR currently struggles most because while the other major sports find it easy to address their concerns, a sport born out of conservatism takes too long to both find, fix, and change.
"Status quo, you know, that is Latin for 'The mess we're in.'" -- Ronald Reagan
Before we take off, i just want to give continued prayers and support to former NASCAR driver Shane Hmiel, who is recovering in Indiana after a USAC Silver Crown incident over the weekend that caused serious injuries. For those looking to follow his recovery, check out this Facebook page where his family, including Earnhardt Ganassi Director of Competition Steve Hmiel, will be giving constant updates on his progress.
"Saw on Yahoo headlines! Kim Kardashian bowls in heels.. Who the F is she and why do people care so much about how she bowls? I mean really?!?" -- @scottspeed