Tom Bowles
Wednesday November 17th, 2010

Much of the talk this week will center around two heavyweight combatants, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, the two picked at the beginning of the year to go toe-to-toe for a Sprint Cup title come Homestead. But in running through Twitter late Sunday night, I couldn't help but notice a complaint lodged by the race's third party, a "long shot" to win the title at 46 points back but seeking his time in the spotlight nonetheless:

"Disrespect is what has been given for 10 weeks to our team from all the media so the heck with them all!"

The man's name is Kevin Harvick, and all he's done in the course of 10 months is go from the verge of an ugly divorce with the only Cup team he's ever known to stock car superstardom. While Jamie McMurray's rags-to-riches story is grounds for a Disney movie, in part due to the driver's PG-rated personality, Harvick's step for step with him in what would be a barnburner for NASCAR comeback driver of the year. Take a moment to compare his 2009 stats with the '10 version, with still one race to pad them before the checkers fall at Homestead:

'09: Zero wins, five top-5 finishes, nine top-10s, 19th in points

'10: Three wins, 15 top-5 finishes, 25 top-10s, third in points

Those top-10 numbers are both a NASCAR and career high, setting the standard that last week would have clinched a title under the old point system. Sure, this team hasn't run up front -- he's led 357 laps compared to over 1,000 apiece for Hamlin and Johnson -- but Harvick's learned that all-too-crucial championship mentality of consistency, building the best finish possible out of a day that used to be an automatic 20th, maybe 25th-place result.

Sure, the rebuilding process has been plenty ugly along the way. As late as April, Harvick was hawking deals to go elsewhere in 2011 with sponsor Pennzoil, only for the company to head to Penske Racing. That put him in position to re-sign with RCR, but he still often treats owner Richard Childress and his crew as pupils of Bobby Knight, berating them whenever the opportunity presents itself. His on-track shenanigans with drivers like Joey Logano have raised eyebrows, a "firesuit" comment over his wife raising millions for charity while highlighting the ire Harvick draws from many of his garage competitors. A practical jokester, he's the guy who steps over the line and then questions why the rest of the room is taking it all so seriously.

The bottom line, though, is no one expected this team and this driver to stay together for 2011, let alone be in position to steal a title only two others have a chance to nab at Homestead. Unless the top two have intentions of taking each other out, Harvick's chances to win are about as much as hitting Lucky 7s on the slot machine. Yet, considering where Harvick's team could have been, no matter what happens in Florida, everyone involved with this team has already won.

Time to see if your e-mail won the Mailbag lottery this week. As always, don't forget a simple click on or Twitter @NASCARBowles is what you need to make the magic happen.

Were you wrong about the 24/48 pit crew swap or what! The new Johnson crew was pulling off stops like they had nitro in their shoes compared to the old Three Stooges crew he had. Did you see Jeff Gordon losing a lap every time he came down pit road? Just admit your mistake and let's get on with life.

-- Tom Bowles' Alter Ego, Youngstown, Ohio

Well, yes and no, some crazed other version of myself. On the surface, sure, the new crew did its job in ensuring Johnson's mistakes were purely limited to on-track incidents instead of the not-so-simple task of putting on tires and fuel every 50 or so laps. The old No. 48 crew simply took Gordon out of the running all day, a sign it took the demotion hard or proof it just wasn't up to the task all season long.

At the same time, considering the lack of speed at a place this team has dominated in recent years, I still maintain the whole process was a distraction for both crew chief Chad Knaus and the guys back at the shop. How could it not be? Two teams taught to work together but whose unbalanced success is clearly creating a true pecking order within the organization? Knaus continues to struggle in finding the right adjustments to make Johnson faster, and the duo just hasn't had that "magic touch" in making that last tweak to give their car extra speed. Instead, at races in Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix during the Chase's second half, you could argue the car was at its worst -- tough to handle in traffic, something that has haunted Johnson's teammate Gordon for years.

Surely, if this team goes on to win Homestead -- and it clearly has the momentum right now -- Knaus will be lauded a genius for this move. But I'll stick in the minority and say this change never had to be made.

Call me skeptical, but am I the only one who thinks NASCAR didn't have any debris on the track during the last 20 laps to keep the Chase a three-man race going to Homestead? How many races this year have had that magical caution to keep the end of the race interesting? I think they kept it in their pockets this week to show people their experiment is working. Your thoughts?

-- Chad Richardson, Va.

This e-mail is exactly what happens when the boy cries wolf too many times. For once, according to Chad, NASCAR lets a race play out naturally and people are wondering if the result got manipulated just to ensure a tighter championship race. Fans were also wondering if Hamlin was suffering payback after making "mystery debris" comments this summer, claiming the sport intentionally bunched up the field late to ensure an exciting finish at both Pocono and Michigan in June.

My answer to both concerns? They're hogwash, but NASCAR has made its own bed in this department. For many fans, their mind is made up and they'll always believe something's amiss. In this type of situation, the only change that usually works is new leadership, unconnected to a past comedy of errors, a fresh start where fans can wipe old judgments aside. But since that's not happening anytime soon ... I don't know how you fix the problem.

I do know the Chase just isn't catching on as expected, another 24 percent decline in Phoenix tv ratings, perhaps a sign no matter how close the championship race can be, fans are playing this 10-race playoff under protest -- turning off the television on a system they're no longer in favor of.

Moving on to non-Chase topics ... and there are plenty of them. We'll start with the Richard Petty situation, where my Thursday column on whether it may be time for a living legend to take a step back elicited a strong reaction. Some highlights...

Tom, re: Richard Petty's current situation. Richard is doing what he is doing for the same reasons he always has. It does not surprise me that you don't understand. That's why he does things and you watch them.

-- Mike Yoder, Concord, N.C.


No questions from me, just a comment: great column on Petty. Absolutely great. You captured the essence of the declining legend, who still has the pride and the drive, but seems out of place in today's sports world. Nice job.

-- Adam Levy, Miami, Fla.


Your article on the Petty debacle made me so sad. To watch a man who is an icon in the sport struggle like this at the end is painful. Watching Kyle and Patty and the whole family deal with Adam's sudden death and make something so wonderful as Victory Junction come out of it was amazing and uplifting. I'm sorry that Richard didn't walk away with dignity. He's made a deal with the devil in a lot of ways and it isn't going to end well.

-- Gina


First of all, I have only three words that describe your great article about Richard Petty. Those three words are, 'damned fine job.'

Secondly, it is my own opinion that the day that Richard Petty no longer makes appearances at the race track will be the day that you will see a lot more empty seats in the stands. Richard finds it almost impossible to give up his involvement in racing. Racing is the only thing that Richard has ever known, and taking him away from racing would be like taking a fish out of water.

I am 72 years old, and I grew up with Richard. When he won his first Daytona 500, I went to the local Plymouth Dealer the next day and bought a new 1964 Plymouth Sports Fury. I was in for a big letdown when I found out I couldn't get one in "Petty Blue." I have been a fan of the entire Petty family since 1950, and if Richard steps away from NASCAR then I will too.

-- Colin Baird, Van Buren, Ohio


I read your article about Petty needing to give up and quit. While I can see your point, you do realize it would be bad for NASCAR, right? I know there are a lot of fans out here, like me for instance, that if there is no No. 43 owned by a Petty on the track, they won't watch anymore. There's not one other driver on that track I care about seeing, and I actually cringe at the thought of Jimmie Johnson winning another championship ... even now if all Petty cars are several laps down and none have any chance at a decent finish, I turn the channel. The fact is, for many of us, Richard Petty is NASCAR and him being there keeps us tuned in. Take him out of NASCAR and I won't be watching because I would really have no one to root for.

-- Steven Everhart, Bates City, Mo.

And ... we're done. Some great, opinionated e-mails in this group. To Colin's and Steven's point, I do think the second Petty steps away from the sport for good, a number of longtime fans will lose their generational connection to the sport. The man hasn't driven since 1992, but his mere presence keeps people connected to simpler NASCAR times. There is undoubtedly a fan base whose median age is skewered older that hopes The King can rise to the top in an ownership capacity before riding off into the sunset.

But for Petty, the interest of others doesn't necessarily jive with his own personal well-being. He needs to take a step back from his love of fans and his passion for the sport to look in the mirror, stop and ask a simple question: What's best for him?

You wonder if owning a NASCAR team, with all the responsibilities that come with it at 73, is the right answer anymore.

Hey Tom, I have a question regarding the RPM saga. RPM is a four-car team with two full season sponsors and other associates like Best Buy, Valvoline, Stanley and Air Force. My question is, where is all the sponsor money going? I'm sure Budweiser is paying a pretty penny to be on the side of the 9, Menard's as well for the 98. How come they don't have any money to make it to the race track?

-- Daniel Longworth, Edmonton, AB

Great question. First, you have to understand the scope of these deals are far less than, say, the $26 million AFLAC is paying to be on the side of Carl Edwards' car. Best Buy's contract, for example, has been rumored to be in the $6 million - $10 million side of things. The difference, though, is the organization is being run as if it does have Hendrick- or Roush-like sponsors on the side to keep up with the Joneses. Deals like the chassis and engine supplier (Roush), wind tunnel time, and all the other outside testing they make to keep the team competitive costs money.

Also, consider Gillett's initial purchase of the organization was an investment in its own right, one in which he might have used a loan, not straight cash up front, to make the purchase. From that point on, the team now becomes an asset that could later be used as leverage when making other deals with soccer, real estate, whatever else millionaires like to make in their personal playground of wealth.

But there's a risk involved in that. Once the money bubble bursts, those investments sour and Gillett could have easily pulled money from his racing program to achieve equity elsewhere. Suddenly, you're playing with money you don't have in the same type of scenario that doomed Bobby Ginn's organization in NASCAR a few years ago. Loans are taken out, some that don't even have to do with the team but are used to pay off other interests that are suddenly struggling to stay afloat. Before you know it, the playground has crumbled, the kids are turning into creditors asking for money and the whole darned thing is about to use its sand to bury you.

I can't guarantee that's what happened here, but know once you get sponsorship money it isn't tracked to a certain point. Heck, you could pocket that $6 million deal, move to Switzerland and screw all your employees if you so desire. Hope that helps.

"Keselowski had a flip, Edwards has a flip on the Cup side... "

You're kidding, right? Ron H. complains about Carl's wrecking for blood, and you bring up Talladega? Talladega was a freak racing incident where Carl ran into a car to block it and got turned around and up in the air. As his car settled, (this is the 'freak part)' it was hit by another car and sent into the stands.

Atlanta, Carl tries to turn Kez hard into the outside wall at 190 mph and fails. He then turns him backward at 180 mph and Kez's car does exactly what these cars always do in that situation.

"They've been good boys the rest of the year,..."

Really? I guess you missed Carl going psycho at Gateway.

If you really want to explain to us what is wrong with NASCAR, try to pay attention and get a clue.

-- Bob

Wow! Gotta wipe off my face with all that venom you spit in my direction. With that comment from the mailbag last week, I meant both drivers were even on the Cup side of the equation, as Gateway was, while out of line, a Nationwide Series event. And I'd disagree with you on the "freak incident" you describe at Talladega, with Keselowski holding his line, making the conscious choice of refusing to lift instead of going Regan Smith (rightly or wrongly) and dipping below the yellow line to make a pass that would have been nullified under NASCAR rules. Was it as egregious a decision as a damaged Carl Edwards car spinning a top-5 runner in Brad at Atlanta? Not quite. But let's not paint either one to be an angel here.

By the way, for all the fans still looking to come down on Edwards over this issue, both he and Brad have been getting along great ever since that day, on and off the track.

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

From last week's tweet, the connection between Denny Hamlin and Nelly is the Charlotte Bobcats. Nelly is a minority owner and Hamlin is a huge Bobcats fan who has front row tickets and goes to almost every home game. The Bobcats played a home game this past Monday night.

-- Kevin, Charlotte, N.C.

Another great example of how the beauty of sports can bring two people from very different worlds together.

"Hornaday (Kevin Harvick's Truck Series driver) was 57 behind going to homestead and won championship in 2007. We have been here before! Watching all the racing championships unfold this year, it's like no one who has been leading the close ones has gone on to win in the end. Everyone at RCR is ready to go brand new car and the best motor to ever leave the shop need I say anymore????" - @kevinharvick, in a series of tweets explaining his belief the title fight isn't over yet

"There is something to be said about a man who can take a punch and not give up or go down..." - @dennyhamlin, commenting on the Pacquiao fight in a touch of irony just 24 hours before he took a "punch" of his own in finishing behind Johnson in Phoenix

"Just landed in charlotte. I told u once, I'll tell u again.. It ain't over." - @dennyhamlin

"I'm pretty disappointed.. It;s my last week of my 20s. I can think of a good birthday present though!!" - @dennyhamlin

And from Jimmie Johnson's PR representative (Johnson is not on Twitter):

"At least it's still alive." - @doublej48, responding to a question from a fan about how they felt about their bid for "Drive For Five" straight championships

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