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Hamlin's Cup future, Hendrick crew chief swaps and more

Two major stories have dominated the NASCAR headlines: the crew chief swaps at Hendrick Motorsports and the financial resurgence of one King Richard Petty. Add in Jimmie Johnson's fifth consecutive title and there's a hurricane of heavy-duty stock car information to keep your mind occupied these days.

Instead, I find myself wondering about the man who's disappeared.

Denny Hamlin used to be a Twitter addict, the leading crusader in NASCAR's foray into social media. Coming into his own, on and off the track, Hamlin wrote posts that included sharp opinions, personality-defining moments that earned him an ugly reward through one of NASCAR's "secret fines" in July. It's a world where he's comfortable, confident and light years ahead of the over-emotional, socially awkward Virginian who entered the Cup Series circuit in 2006.

For now, though, that growth is on the line, his mental state in question after a championship loss has put him in a state of virtual hibernation. To an extent, shunning the spotlight is understandable considering the circumstances, becoming the first man to lose a title in the final race under the Chase format. It's a title Hamlin felt was so certain, yet was gone in a heartbeat, an ugly wreck of his making destroying the handling of his car just 30 laps into the season finale.

By the end, an "insult to injury" moment wasn't even his own, a poor blocking effort by teammate Kyle Busch that ended in rival Kevin Harvick wrecking the No. 18, trapping Hamlin a lap down and then rubbing the teammate's failure in Hamlin's face during a post-race news conference. Such was the final nail in a week-long stretch of insulting a man into a championship coffin, Harvick and Jimmie Johnson trying hard to mess with a fragile mind that may or may not have cracked under 400 miles of pressure the likes of which Hamlin had never seen.

But now comes the moment no top Chaser can avoid: standing up on stage and returning to the public eye, accepting a runner-up finish in Las Vegas. How Hamlin handles this ugly ending and the weeks ahead are what I'm watching. Some, like the NFL's Vikings this year, MLB's Astros of 2006, and even Carl Edwards in NASCAR 2008 briefly collapsed after coming so close to what they coveted so much. But there's also the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Red Sox, who broke the curse, and even Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls of old, which never let the close losses define them. There's still time for this man to write a legacy, a season-high eight wins during a year of ACL surgery, no less, bringing him to the precipice of the Promised Land. This offseason provides the base definition of an athlete who rises to the challenge -- or the one who subconsciously walks away.

One thing I can definitively tell you is this Mailbag isn't going anywhere. Plenty of questions and comments, so let's get right to it: tbowles81@yahoo.com and Twitter @NASCARBowles is your gateway. I promise, I won't hide in a cave for two weeks on ya...

So with HMS moving Junior into the same shop as the 48, can we declare right now that Johnson will not win the Cup title next year? All joking aside, I like this move for Gordon. Unfortunately it seems Martin gets the short end of the stick being the odd man out at the end of next season anyway. Will this jumpstart the No. 88 and No. 24? Is the No. 5 doomed? Can the No. 48 just keep rolling along?

-- Eric, Los Angeles, Calif.

Questions, questions, questions. First, let's review the crew chief swaps for Hendrick because I don't think a lot of fans understand them. Here they are:

No. 5 -- Alan Gustafson out, Lance McGrew in for Mark Martin

No. 24 -- Steve Letarte out, Alan Gustafson in for Jeff Gordon

No. 88 -- Lance McGrew out, Steve Letarte in for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Sounds simple on the surface, but there's a lot more at play here. Hendrick answered one major question on a Wednesday teleconference I listened to while driving home for Thanksgiving: these aren't so much crew chief swaps as they are driver and sponsor ones. In other words, while the driver/crew chief pairings are switching around, the crew chiefs, their chassis and those workers underneath them will remain exactly the same. The only things changing in-house will be the driver, the color of the cars they're driving and the number.

For example: much has been made of Jeff Gordon and the "split" of the No. 24/48 shop. But every worker in that shop besides Mr. Gordon will stay where they are. All that's happening is Gordon is packing his bags, moving across the way and setting up in the newly-renamed "No. 5/24" shop, where he'll pair with Gustafson and drive Mark Martin's (No. 5) former chassis. Confusing? Yes. Even more so when you try to illustrate it for all three drivers ... so I'll leave it at this one example.

As for my initial reactions: let's start with Gordon. Hendrick revealed on Wednesday he both consulted his veteran driver and got the switch to Gustafson green-lighted by him. That's significant, as the four-time champ's been nothing but supportive of crew chief Steve Letarte in public. Such a private push for change shouldn't be surprising to the keen observer, though, as Gordon led the most laps (919) without winning a race this season since Harry Gant in 1981. Letarte's pit calls contributed mightily to that.

The one that stands out to me: a Las Vegas two-tire stop in March that caused rival Jimmie Johnson to run all over a dominant No. 24 by the checkers, reasserting himself as top dog while Gordon spent the year as a dignified assistant. The stage was set for the rest of the year, and by Homestead I noticed throughout the weekend in public Gordon and Letarte were aloof, seemingly on different wavelengths with each other both on the radio and outside the car.

And why not? They struggled so much, Hendrick took their pit crew away for the last two races in a successful, last-ditch effort to help the No. 48 win a title while Gordon was left to race out the string in near-irrelevancy, again. Two winless seasons in three years, combined with the lowest point standings finish (ninth) since Gordon-Letarte got paired up in 2005 tells me change was needed.

That's where we'll agree to disagree further, Eric. Of all the pairings, I think Gustafson and Gordon absolutely make the most sense. The former has had success with a variety of drivers, plus the best engineering knowledge of anyone at Hendrick not named Chad Knaus. In the Gustafson-Mark Martin relationship, one reason it was so successful was that Gustafson never had to question what his driver was saying about the handling; Martin always gave the most detailed feedback of any driver on the Sprint Cup circuit.

You would think after 18 years, four championships and 82 victories Gordon would be doing the same, making his crew chief's life on the pit box easier while worrying more about the aerodynamic brilliance at the shop. That can help his crew chief focus on what's needed the most: getting the shop caught up on chassis inefficiencies after the new spoiler got introduced this spring.

Gustafson also succeeded in making great pit calls this season where Letarte failed, handing Martin a number of top-10 finishes the team shouldn't have had due to the right calls on tire stops late in the race. Gordon needs that type of quiet confidence, one where he doesn't feel a need to overcompensate from the driver's seat because certain decisions are covered. This pairing, to me, could easily win multiple races next season and turn into Jimmie Johnson's biggest title challenge (anyone remember 2007?)

For Martin, unfortunately, it's a different story. McGrew is a great Nationwide Series crew chief -- the two actually worked together there with some success -- but has struggled to find the right chassis combinations for drivers on the Cup side. Sure, Earnhardt was part of the problem, but it takes two to tango and this head wrench also had similar struggles with Brian Vickers at Hendrick. They won the then-Busch Series title together in 2003, then struggled at the top level to the point Vickers wound up leaving the team following the 2006 season.

With Martin now driving the former No. 88 chassis, this move clearly relegates him to fourth in the pecking order, a one-year temp job before Kenny Francis and Kasey Kahne move in for 2012. Honestly, it's a lesson learned in this day and age for people to never pronounce themselves as "lame ducks." The second Martin did, it's been virtually all downhill, the focus on life after his tenure distracting from the present-day push towards success.

Tom, I have finally reached my boiling point with Dale Earnhardt Jr. I never thought he had enough talent or drive to really compete for a championship. Now, because he has performed so poorly so far at Hendrick Motorsports, Rick himself now must move him into the No. 24/48 garage with Letarte and Knaus. I don't think this will change anything except make Jeff Gordon a total non-factor next year. How much more do you think Gordon is going to take before he asks to move out? Personally, as a Gordon and NASCAR fan, I hope he moves on because I don't know if there has ever been a bigger sign that Gordon is no longer even the No. 2 guy at HMS. Wouldn't it be nice if Gordon were to challenge JJ from some Joe Gibbs or Jack Roush machine? Now that would be drama.

-- Ryan Lee, Irving, Texas.

Re: Gordon, see above. My only concern is whether he got bumped because of money; remember, the AARP deal won't be bringing inasmuch as hoped for the organization. Earnhardt and Johnson are the two biggest Hendrick moneymakers now. But Gordon leaving Hendrick? Umm... he'll retire before that happens.

Now, about Dale Jr. Hendrick used the words "Letarte" and "people person" about 10 times in his teleconference, an assessment I agree with wholeheartedly based on my observations and personal experience with the man. But is "people person" really what Dale Earnhardt, Jr. needs? We've seen what happens when buddies jump on top of the pit box, an inability to properly control Junior on the radio leading to a loss of leadership and confidence within the program. Earnhardt had the most success with a stern father figure on top of the radio, Tony Eury, Sr., not some guy who's younger and could double as a drinking wingman on a Saturday night.

Hendrick certainly praised Letarte's connections to the Earnhardts, even claiming he was influential in bringing what the owner called "best friend" Tony Eury, Jr. into the HMS fold back in 2007. The two may be close, but I'm not sure how much of that I believe, and the entire back-and-forth on Earnhardt seemed to be a little more of a sales job instead of substantial reasoning. Both the crew chief and the driver are immensely talented, and Johnson, believe it or not, has a feel for a race car that more closely resembles what Earnhardt likes. But I'd be shocked if this chemistry project works out, a last-ditch effort at a turnaround that may end with someone being shown the door by the end of 2011 instead.

Didn't see any posts to this effect, but I believe with NASCAR's declining popularity there could be a "Junior" effect. If NASCAR's Most Popular Driver comes through next year, that could be what brings the fans back. The longer he languishes in the middle of the pack and misses the Chase, the more the fans will tune out. I should know ... that's been me for the past few years.

-- Brian Peplow, Toronto, Ontario

It's not the whole problem, but I think it could be a small part. How many games do you attend when your baseball team's out of the pennant race by June? I'll admit it; as a Mets fan, I've made far less trips to Citi Field the past two seasons with the team struggling and you're paying to see them lose. It's a nice concept in theory, that you support your team through thick and thin but, financially, it just doesn't play out in real life.

Surely, if Junior wins three races and makes the Chase you're bound to see the Nielsens go up a few tenths of a point. The man's a demigod inside the Southeast, yet has a charisma that transcends the traditional boundaries of popularity inside the sport. Who else in this crowd of political correctness could you see letting loose and racing Shaq on national television? I could name them on one hand.

The issue for me is Earnhardt's going to still struggle next year. If he makes the Chase, I'll be one-third surprised, one-third impressed, and one-third Googling how to wipe this column off the face of the Earth.

How dare you to throw down on The King, walk a mile in his shoes before you judge. Two cars in the top 5 at Homestead, and he was broke. Lots of others would like to be that broke.

-- Brian Turner, Ridgeway, Va.

He's not that broke anymore, Brian. An investment group headed by Medallion Financial and VeriFone Systems officially purchased Petty's racing assets yesterday, a move that ensures the stability of the organization for the foreseeable future.

You've got to be impressed at the backroom dealings of both Ford and the King in getting this one done. It's unclear how much debt had to be paid off to make this purchase happen, but the fact the company's keeping the same name (Richard Petty Motorsports) and they're still getting chassis and engines from Jack Roush tells me it's more than zero. Sure, VeriFone has some $3 billion in assets, so shopping for a race team in the millions is little more than a drop in the bucket -- even if that included paying off a chunk of the reported $90 million loan Gillett defaulted on with this program. But to get people to invest now, in a sport that's been on a downhill slide from a business standpoint, is impressive considering the Medallion firm spurned this very opportunity two years ago.

How will the two-car team turn out for 2011? We don't know quite yet. But it's important to note Petty will be assuming a much greater role in day-to-day operations than he's had during the past two seasons. The success of the new program lies squarely on the King, his support system (with longtime "aide" Robbie Loomis) and the decisions they make on keeping the best personnel from their former organization on board. The investors must also be prepared not to make any money on it, as the sponsorships in play (Stanley, Best Buy) are less than half what, say, AFLAC pays to be on Carl Edwards' No. 99. To stay competitive, it's going to take millions more, and you always worry that eventually it's going to tire out the businessmen behind the scenes. We'll see.

P.S. -- Glad to see A.J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose, two of the sport's up-and-coming talents, remain in their rides for 2011. NASCAR needs them badly.

I would like to point out that NASCAR fans would be best served to recognize the excellence happening in front of their very eyes. Five consecutive championships? First time ever in NASCAR's history. Plus, the way he won this year was not the work of an automaton behind the wheel. Excellence of this level is rare. Fans should recognize it while it lasts. I should point out that I am not a Johnson or NASCAR car fan.

In reference to your article naming athletes/teams winning five consecutive championships, I would like to add Valentino Rossi, winner of five straight championships from 2001-05 in MotoGP's premiere class.

-- Derek

We'll have more on Jimmie's dominance next week, with far too many responses to fit into one mailbag. The running theme makes me realize it's so hard to appreciate history as it happens. It would be easier if Johnson were a dynamic personality in front of the camera ... but we've been there, done that. At this point, it's going to be near impossible for change to occur.

Looking at the Hendrick crew swaps, though, you have to think this history kept the No. 48 from a major shake up. Even the champions themselves have admitted 2010 was an off year, making the driving skills of Johnson all the more brilliant under the circumstances. I think a second-place finish would have resulted in a major internal shuffle well beyond the over-the-wall crews: Ron Malec, the longtime car chief would have probably wound up with a head wrench gig within Hendrick somewhere.

As for Rossi, he wasn't the only driver I left off that list of five straight...

On your list of five-time or more racing champions in last week's mailbag you left out one very significant five-time consecutive champion, Michael Schumacher, who won the Formula 1 World Championship five times in a row (2000-2004).

-- Brent Harritt, Poway, Calif.

Have you ever heard of a guy called Michael Schumacher?

-- Andy Kidd, Chicago, Ill.

How on earth did you leave out Michael Schumacher's five F1 World Championships in a row???

-- Steve

Simple: I had him written down, then when I added Tony Schumacher of the NHRA, I had a brain fart and typed over him. So let's stop and give one of the best race car drivers in the world his due.

Though many did not agree with the rules at that time that allowed Michael to accumulate so many points to win those races, I feel he should be counted in your list since it is still a great accomplishment -- unfortunately, F1 is not very popular here in the U.S.

-- Tim Kelley, Boulder, Colo.

I beg to disagree, Tim. If you could take one look at my e-mail inbox the past seven days you'd see just how popular it is. In four years, I've never had so many fans chime in on a correction or addition to a column.

A few years back, when Schumacher retired from Formula 1, there were rumors he was considering a switch over to stock car racing. Could you imagine the impact if he pulled a Juan Pablo Montoya and went to NASCAR? The international impact would make Earnhardt seem like some unknown mechanic from Alabama by comparison.

There's just one caveat to such an agreement though: he has to be in position to win. The last few years, the sport's added Montoya, Danica Patrick, motocross Ricky Carmichael, and now X Games superstar Travis Pastrana to its roster. But the fans haven't all seemed to carry over ... why? The answer is simple: fans want to see these guys succeeding in their element, not dabbling in another genre to run 20th. Think about Jordan when he dropped the NBA for baseball: was it really attractive to sit there and watch him hit .200?

Schumacher and Jimmie Johnson did race against each other. The video is posted on YouTube.

-- Nate Wymer, Ledyard, Ct.

You're absolutely right, Nate. That video, where Johnson got smoked in the Race of Champions a few years back, feeds into an international theory stock car racers are inferior to Formula 1. Never mind that Montoya has been struggling in the Cup Series for some time now, and that Jacques Villeneuve's career over here has yet to gain traction three years after trying to make a switch. Maybe it's going to take a guy with overwhelming popularity -- like Schumacher or Lewis Hamilton -- to test the waters for those opinions to change.

What about Sebastien Loeb? He has now won seven-straight World Rally Championships. I would have let you off the hook if you had not included TdF winners. By including them, you opened the door to those who did not race in the North America as part of their championships.

-- Alexander "Sandy" Kunzer

Makes perfect sense. Well, now Sebastien isn't ignored anymore, and neither is Rally Racing, one of the fastest-growing series out there in terms of overall popularity. Dynamic personalities, drivers taking risks, cars that look a little like something you would see on the street ... seems like another racing circuit could learn a thing or two from it.

Time for me to take off. But before I do ... the out of left field e-mail of the week.

Hey as the most innovative person in NASCAR history, I will disclose how to save this sport, why it is losing its fan base, etc. Also, I am the same person that wrote the original tell-all book about the sport.

-- Michael "Mad Mike" Hughes, Oklahoma City, Okla.

The most entertaining part of this e-mail was actually going to the guy's website. Did you know he's going to jump the Grand Canyon, in a rocket, on Memorial Day weekend next year?

The people that read this column... (and no, I haven't read the book.)

"Today was a cool day, I finally asked Megan to marry me... It took only close to 7 years for me to finally do it..." - @Regan_Smith_, who proposed marriage to his longtime girlfriend, Megan Mayhew, over the Thanksgiving holiday (she said yes).

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