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Hope springs for NASCAR brass, Daytona's strange new world; more

"That's one small step for NASCAR, one giant leap for NASCAR-kind." OK, maybe I stole that quote from Neil Armstrong, but the suits down in Daytona Beach have been begging for a shred of positive news heading into their Super Bowl. On Tuesday, they finally got it from an unlikely source: the Nielsen ratings, which showed a slight increase from 4.4 to 4.5 for the Bud Shootout, while Daytona 500 qualifying from Sunday was up 19 percent.

There are all kinds of reasons to justify these numbers, from Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the pole to the new two-car drafting weirdness to reaching a wider advertising audience during the Super Bowl (the last time Fox had the game, in 2008, Bud Shootout viewership increased by 21 percent year-over-year). Heck, it's possible even the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death may have played a role.

But do the reasons really matter right now? We're talking about a sport whose ratings suffered last year, even during the most competitive Chase in its history, posting just five true ratings increases over a 38-race schedule that often saw viewership for each event fall by well over 15 percent from the previous year. For anxious officials in the boardroom, with their TV contract entering the fifth year of an eight-year deal, NASCAR knows turning a downhill slide around in '11 isn't a hope -- it's a full-blown necessity before forced renegotiation kills the cash cow keeping it afloat.

That means if you're a boardroom executive down in Daytona Beach, for the first time you bounce off the walls, call exasperated sponsors and send every positive press release you can think of. Yes, it's only one race, one rating that could be washed out by the numbers after Sunday's main event.

But for now, there's hope, and they'll take any shred of it in a season that, at least for the next little while, can take on a decidedly positive spin.

All right, time to get your spin on the most bizarre little two-car freight train racing I've ever seen. If you didn't make the mailbag this week, don't despair. Keep trying through the best two ways you can reach me: tbowles81@yahoo.com and @NASCARBowles on Twitter.

The Shootout Saturday night was the most exciting racing I have seen in NASCAR for years. I realize the speeds are high, but the timed movement up and down the track was fantastic. The drivers are just amazing, but I fear for injuries and pray for the safety of the drivers always.-- Tacklebox, Hemet, Calif.

Strong words, Tacklebox, ones to be mindful of while approaching the tragic, 10-year anniversary of Earnhardt's death through this very type of plate racing. But first, let me tell you something: it's been a long time since I've seen so many strong opinions pointed both ways on NASCAR's "two-car tango" from Saturday. There was no neutrality when it came to this type of competition, one where the draft you needed to have a chance to win depended on another driver -- but only one. Call it pairs skating on the race track, Dancing with the Cars or whatever cheesy name you can think of, but it's something virtually unprecedented since NASCAR stuck restrictor plates on these cars to tone down speeds at Daytona and Talladega after Bobby Allison's near-disastrous airborne wreck in 1987.

Opinions included:

All I can say is fast, fast.. love it..-- @Bill_Corbett88, referencing speeds that shot up to well over 205 miles an hour

I. Absolutely. Loved. It. Really, I can't say more than that.-- @kbaskins

Running around in packs of 36 cars is no more individual than the two-car breakaways.-- @philgoodstory

Phil has a good point. The second you put these plates on the cars, it's virtually impossible to pass someone unless you've got a freight train of two, three or 30 drivers behind you pushing forward in the draft. At least in these two-car scenarios, we've seen the type of "slingshot," one-on-one style move not replicated much since the mid-1980's. Most recently it was Kevin Harvick pulling a perfectly-timed pass on Jamie McMurray heading to the checkered flag at Talladega last April. When both cars are trying, it's nearly impossible to make a permanent pass in these twosomes or even stick your nose out in front of the other guy for long. But when timed right, it is possible to eke a nose ahead on your own and turn the Daytona 500 into a last-lap dash of driver skill.

BORING!!!! -- @lugnut25js

I think the 500 will be an ugly race.-- @darenhavens

I prefer racing to pushing, but that's just me. -- @janich62

Hate it. Plain and simple. Might think twice about watching the 500. And I love NASCAR. If I had a choice, I would rather watch the NBA All-Star game than the 500 in its current format.-- @goblue4ver

And there you have the barking from the other side of the fence. Checking through the Inbox, my unofficial count was at about 40 percent for the new format, 50 percent against and maybe 10 percent in the neutral category. I remain against the new format, if only because it seems ridiculous to have an individual sport where winning the race becomes permanently dependent on having a "teammate." With 43 cars starting on Sunday, what's the 43rd guy going to do without a partner? I'll tell you what: he'll be lapped within 20 circuits, which is exactly what happened to Matt Kenseth once McMurray chose to help out Kurt Busch instead last Sunday.

You see, racing to me should be about raw speed and strategy, not helping out friends in a pinch on the track because you can. Did Aaron Rodgers go, "Aw, Jay Cutler's my friend and he got hurt. Let's spot the Bears 10 extra points in the NFC Championship Game to compensate." I don't think so. It's just a weird way to decide a race, period -- although I do like the higher speeds and it's hard to argue the way the cars glide all over the track "locked together." That part of it is fascinating to watch, like pieces of a model train set zigzagging back and forth with competing train cars at will. I'd just like them to be able to separate every now and then.

Before moving on, though, I think it's important to readdress something Tacklebox said up top: the issue of safety. Denny Hamlin, who lost the Shootout to Busch because of dipping below the yellow "out of bounds" line -- a NASCAR no-no -- was adamant that he was forced below to keep from wrecking Ryan Newman, a spin which at these 200 mph-plus speeds he claimed "would send the car into the grandstands." Partly because of that, some one-on-one wrecks (veterans like Mark Martin and Tony Stewart mistimed their bumps, sending the cars in front of them spinning at well over 200 miles an hour) plus fan complaints over the two-car system, NASCAR made the following two rule changes Sunday night to help curb the practice for the 500. See the following:

• The maximum size for the air inlet for the cooling system will be 2½ inches tall by 20 inches wide.

• The pressure release valve on the water system will be set at 33 pounds per square inch.

A translation in English? It makes it harder for cars to pair up, in theory, because hotter engines will increase the risk of overheating. But I think in the Duels, you'll still see a lot of drivers experiment and figure out just how far they can go with these pair ups before the engines start to implode. Remember, 35 of the 43 positions for the 500 are "locked in," so for a driver already guaranteed a spot, what does it mean to his multicar team if a motor is lost? Starting at the back of the field won't really make a difference.

The bottom line is now that these drivers have figured things out, they'll figure out a way to make it work down the stretch. More than likely, without NASCAR policing this type of "bumpdrafting" with some sort of "stop and go" penalty, the Daytona 500 will be decided based on which "friend" you can find in the last 10 laps, how fast you can go together and whether you can keep said "friend" behind you coming to the checkered flag.

It'll be a bizarre, new experience for everyone. What happens now? Well, that's anyone's guess.

Time to give NASCAR a little credit. The CoT finally looks like a NASCAR race car! They did a great job on the new nose design and combined with the rear spoiler, rather than the wing, it really doesn't look very different from the 2007 car NASCAR abandoned in the interest of safety, other than aesthetically updated for the manufacturer car model, of course. Again, great job NASCAR!-- Wayne, Savannah, Ga.

I do think the new front ends are a step in the right direction. The next one? NASCAR needs to create greater differences among manufacturers. Right now, these machines all look more like machines instead of aliens, but I dare you to tell me the difference between a Ford, Chevy, Dodge and Toyota next time you see them on the track. If it weren't for the headlights painted on the cars, physically they're just too similar and that helps stifle creativity among the makes. You know what IndyCar did, evolving its chassis while opening up some spatial restrictions so manufacturers could go nuts? I'm hoping, praying that's what happens to the new generation of NASCAR vehicle in 2013, when Ford will roll out the sportier Mustang for the sport's top level along with possible new cars for Chevy and Dodge.

Time to move toward another controversial topic: Michael Annett's DUI.

There's a bigger concern about Michael Annett... 0.32, AFTER he'd stopped drinking awhile, is an enormously high level. As a Respiratory Care Practitioner with 35 years working trauma rooms, I can tell you that you CAN'T get that high a level and still be as functional as Annett was unless you start from an already elevated baseline level... street drunks live with an 0.2 baseline and can reach the high 0.4's, but an occasional drinker starting from a 0 baseline simply can't reach 0.32 without being unconscious or totally nonfunctional. This kid has a serious, deadly problem, and the complete lack of serious response is horrifying. This kid WILL have future incidents, count on it... he's a habitual drinker, an everyday drinker, a SERIOUS everyday drinker to be driving and functioning with a 0.32 BA level.-- Jon DeMent

That's my worry, too, Jon, something that only increased when Annett met with the media over the weekend. When asked if he needed counseling, the driver said, "I don't know." You don't know if you need counseling after getting caught driving with a blood-alcohol level that, for all intents and purposes, could have killed someone? I have a problem with that.

Sometimes, when you're dealing with an addict, you don't get them to wake up and smell the coffee until you take something away that's important to their livelihood. How does that happen to Annett if he's racing in the series' biggest event this weekend? He'll still be eligible to win the title, heck he could even end up in Victory Lane two weeks after someone on that road could have ended up dead.

When mentioning past DWI incidents, you forgot about Michael Waltrip ... where he wrecked his car and then walked to his house in Sherrill's Ford, N.C. ... conveniently avoiding police by turning all the lights off in his house and refusing to answer the door ...-- Franklin Huffman

Thanks for reminding me of that, Franklin. And in that case, back in April 2007, Waltrip got off virtually "scot free" as well, never missing a race or having his ownership status affected. What's up with that?

Re: Annett's DUI, I think you missed one point about NASCAR's historical links to boozing (and not just in the infield). This sport started with bootleggers using souped up cars to run moonshine all over the South -- it's no wonder they are more sensitive to drug issues than alcohol ones, because it's in their and their fans' DNA!-- Bob, Tampa, Fla.

And this e-mail, in a nutshell, is why NASCAR should be far more concerned with this issue. Wasn't this image one that you were trying to shed while going national, guys? Obviously, this fan's e-mail is kind of ridiculous, but when you look at the "punishment" doled out, it's hard to argue to him they stood up and said, "Drinking and driving? That's NOT OK." Because they didn't.

With NASCAR wanting to run with the big dogs (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL), let's take a look at what these other leagues have done to their athletes that drive under the influence. When you get that information, then you have a story, until then, don't waste my time, Tom.-- Steve, Kandahar, Afghanistan

I think you made a good point here, Steve. But the NFL endured similar criticism as NASCAR last fall, when the New York Jets' Braylon Edwards was arrested for a drunk-driving incident yet wound up playing the following week. Right now, for a first-time DUI offense, NFL players are not required to receive any sort of suspension. But that's not the case across all sports.

For the record, the NBA's Miami Heat suspended Dorell Wright for two games following his DUI arrest in South Beach last March (he was a reserve, not a star and I understand that makes a difference). Why MLB isn't more adamant in enforcing its DUI policies, especially in the wake of a DWI that killed former Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, I do not know. But since when does NASCAR need to follow the lead of other sports? Can't it stand on its own two feet? And considering this sport is the only one where people drive to compete, what message does that send when you're saying being impaired is OK?

I truly believe that while driving while impaired is wrong, we should be quick to help with direction and not condemnation. Abuse transcends race, economics, religion and all sense. The next one accused may just be you or someone you love. We all stumble in life, especially when young.-- Brian Russoniello

Well stated. My condemnation of Annett is not because I don't want him to get better. It's because I don't want him to be supported into making the same inexcusable, possibly tragic, mistake twice.

Let's hope the right things happen from here on out.

I don't think the recent point change does much to change the culture in NASCAR. My idea would be to break down each race in increments and give points for the leader at each point; i.e, in a 500-mile race gives xx number of points for the leader at 100 laps, points for the leader at 200 laps, etc. That way each part of the race would be important.-- Jack Cole, Big Bear, Calif.

Jack, I don't mind your idea, but I think in a world where they're trying to make the points less complicated, handing out bonuses every 100 miles would get confusing. And you'd have to structure it so someone who finishes fourth, but leads at the 100-mile, 200-mile, 300-mile and 400-mile mark doesn't wind up getting more points than the actual winner himself.

Now, giving cash bonuses out at certain checkpoints during the race? I'm totally in favor of that policy. NASCAR used to have those types of bonuses, including a rather healthy sum for the driver who led at the halfway point. Hopefully it'll consider a sponsor who will bring them back...

All right, before we run on out of here, let's check out the "out of left field" e-mail of the week...

Juan Pablo Montoya, deemed by you to be "the official wrecking ball of NASCAR?" An absolute absurd comment. Animosity toward foreigners noted. You should be ashamed of yourself, Tom Bowles. He is without question one of the finest drivers in the world and you attempt to shame him? Pitiful.-- Alan, Mobile, Ala.

How one sentence turns into a hatred of all Colombians, I'll never know. But the stats don't lie, Alan, and Montoya crashed out half-a-dozen times in 36 starts last year, raising his number to 14 overall in the last three years alone. One of the sport's true talents, he's an aggressive driver and sometimes that backfires, leading to one too many taps on the rear bumper. Not convinced? Ask Newman, Harvick, and most recently Joey Logano, who have all feuded with Montoya multiple times over the last few years. Man, I guess they must hate foreigners too.

You know the one stat that made the difference in Montoya's career? Zero. That's the number of races he failed to finish in '09, and not surprisingly the one time he wound up making the Chase and contending for the title. Toning it down has its advantages every now and then.

Last Week's Trivia Question: Since its name change in 1998, who is the lone driver to win both the exhibition Budweiser Shootout along with the Daytona 500 in the same year?

Despite the mountain of e-mail I got this week, none of the newbies got it right, so we'll have to turn to Alabama-Germany's Rodney Ferguson for the answer again: Dale Jarrett. Jarrett won the Bud Shootout, ran second in his qualifying Duel and then easily took a third Daytona 500 victory from the pole position -- something Dale Earnhardt Jr. is hoping to replicate with his first starting spot this Sunday.

This Week's Trivia Question: Kurt Busch won his first restrictor-plate race Saturday night at the Bud Shootout. But who was the last driver to claim their first career victory for any NASCAR Cup race in the Daytona 500?

Tweet of the Week:"Speaking of .32 BAC... This is the difference between rich kids whose dads buy their rides and pep [people] who have to work for it... should be in jail" - @scottspeed on Michael Annett's DWI, which resulted in NASCAR probation but not suspension or losing his ride with Rusty Wallace, Inc.

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