Tom Bowles
Wednesday March 17th, 2010

The smartest thing NASCAR did with its 2010 Sprint Cup schedule was swap the Phoenix and Texas dates in April. Why? With Tiger Woods announcing his return to golf at the Masters, NASCAR avoids a final-round conflict with its weekly event that now airs Saturday night in the desert.

Could you imagine a Texas race matched up against Woods making his comeback from sex addiction? If you thought ratings were bad against USA-Canada hockey, jAmerica probably wouldn't realize there was a race on until Wednesday of the following week!

Speaking of scandal, it's been a quiet off-week of news following the Carl Edwards--Brad Keselowski wreck. But don't you be afraid to keep talking for the mailbag. All it takes is an email at tbowles81@yahoo.com or Tweeting me at @NASCARBowles to get your voice heard.

We'll start by focusing on NASCAR's other Most Popular Topic these days: Junior.

You have GOT to be kidding me! Dale Jr's "resurgence?" Seriously?! He's already on the outside of the Chase looking in and we're barely a month into the season. Paul Menard is having a better season, for crying out loud. I guess I shouldn't be too surprised by your column. Every news outlet employs at least one person who refuses to acknowledge that Junior is overrated. -- Roy Neuis, Brainerd, MN

Are we so desperate to resurrect Junior's career that finishes of 2nd, 15th, 16th and 32nd are enough to get excited about? Seriously... is NASCAR that needy that we have to make a guy who is 13th in the points, in arguably the best equipment in the sport, a poster child? -- Bart, Raleigh, NC

Bart's referring to my column in which I said Earnhardt could be on the verge of resurrecting his career. First off, it's hard to argue that his finishes have significantly improved over this time last year:

2009: 27th, 39th, 10th, 11th Average finish: 21.8 Laps led: 1 Points: 24th

2010: 2nd, 32nd, 16th, 15th Average finish: 16.3 Laps led: 4 Points: 13th

But there's a clear upward trend that has put Earnhardt at least within striking distance of his Hendrick teammates. Now the strongest part of his schedule lies ahead, as 12 of his 18 career Cup wins have come on the next six tracks: Bristol, Martinsville, Phoenix, Texas, Talladega, and Richmond.

Last year, it was this stretch that sealed former crew chief Tony Eury, Jr.'s fate, as the No. 88 scored just one top-5 and two top-10 finishes, looking like an also-ran at places where Earnhardt contends even in his worst years.

So to answer your questions, the excitement comes from the fact that Junior's simply survived this four-race stretch in one piece. He capitalized on his lone strong point (Daytona), then persevered through three races at intermediate tracks that haven't exactly been his bread and butter as of late. As Jeff Burton might say, he's "put himself in position" to succeed, and now comes the tough part: he has to execute.

If he doesn't? Well, then we can crow about Menard and everybody else. But this is the make-or-break point for the sport's Most Popular Driver ... and that's why he's getting the coverage.

As a Wisconsinite, it irks me to no end that a prima donna like Earnhardt gets so much ink and TV time and a rock solid guy like Matt Kenseth gets diddly. They came in at the same time, but Kenseth won Rookie of the Year and has finished ahead of Little E in eight of the 10 years they've been competing. Heck, when Kenseth won the championship in 2003, you would have sworn that he had run over the France family dog the way they treated him. I'm sorry, I meant the France family dah-oh-oog. And the hillbillies can't figure out why they can't get more viewers outside of the south. -- Jim, Madison, WI

My answer, Jim, is that Kenseth doesn't exactly put himself out there as Mr. Outgoing. Insiders who see him every week know he's got a great sense of humor, and I've always found him to be one of the funnier guys inside the Cup garage. But his sarcastic streak comes with a quiet, introverted personality in public that pales in comparison to the Earnhardt name and legacy. I'm not saying it's fair, but it's reality in a 21st Century where you have to do something outrageous to stand out.

Many people look at Kenseth's championship year as the one that spurred the current Chase format. But how can you blame his knack for consistency any more than Johnson's ho-hum run to four straight titles? All both drivers did was use the rules to their advantage, recognizing that this system rewards a 10th-place finish with no risk rather than tearing a car in two while going for the win. Their conservatism may be boring to some, but if I'm Kenseth, I'd take the trophy over popularity any day. And while he hasn't thrived in the Chase, he can live out his life knowing his title run was so impressive that a whole sport decided to revamp its championship because of how he did it.

And don't be surprised if Kenseth has a surge in popularity this season, especially with the way his team is running under crew chief Todd Parrott.

Jimmie Johnson doesn't need to wreck anybody to win, so why would the other guys? 'Cause they suck? The few drivers who are good enough to wreck someone else without taking themselves out hopefully have too much self-respect to go slamming a record-setting four-time champ because they can't beat him otherwise. Beides, if you take Johnson out in one race, he just comes back and wins the next two. -- Brenda, Orange City, Fla.

Good points, Brenda, but let's play Devil's Advocate: What else is there to try when it comes to beating the No. 48? Yes, motivation is a powerful thing, but Johnson's going to be motivated whether you bump him or not. I'm not saying it's right, but what's that they say about desperate men doing desperate things?

I also think "sending a message" to Johnson is much less likely in the Fall, when any intentional spin might paint NASCAR into a corner. After all, would you want your year-end champ to get his title based on wrecking someone else? But if Johnson's in position to win at Martinsville -- which would give him three of the first six races this season -- chances are he'll have one of his biggest rivals in Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, or even Juan Pablo Montoya behind him down the stretch. What happens then is anyone's guess, but I'll put it this way: that's a now-or-never scenario for those looking to use this new policy to make a statement to the reigning champ.

In my opinion, Carl Edwards was 100 laps down when Keselowski did that cutoff job. He reacted to his car going too high, getting up to the marbles, and then cut back down in front. That's what caused Brad to wreck. I have been watching NASCAR races since the mid 1970's and, personally, I think that they should have a boxing ring set up at the track for anyone who feels like they were cut off, wrecked or taken out, and let both drivers put on gloves and go at it 'til they thought they have their frustrations taken care of. -- Jim, Keymar, MD

That's one of those great ideas, Jim, that will never see that light of day. But can I interest you in some virtual boxing instead? Bristol Motor Speedway invited Keselowski to a special "Fight Night" Wii Boxing competition with Joey Logano, Scott Speed, Kyle Busch, A.J. Allmendinger, Clint Bowyer, and defending champion Elliott Sadler on Friday night. What's Keselowski's nickname for the upcoming tourney? "Bulldozer Brad."

Hilarious. Too bad the speedway can't get Carl to jump in on it all ... but maybe they're afraid those two might come to blows for real.

Mr. Bowles, what an awesome interview with Brad! I knew there was some reason I really liked Keselowski when I first watched him race in Cup last year. Thanks again for the article and letting Brad give his detailed analysis. He's a smart kid. -- David Harding

So smart, in fact, that he scored a 37.5 on the Wonderlic test the NFL uses to evaluate its talent (21 is the average score). How does that compare to other superstars? Tom Brady got a 33, Aaron Rodgers a 35, and John Elway 30. So we know this kid has the smarts. Now, it's a matter of using them to make sure he finishes races and masters his aggression while ensuring that paybacks don't permanently cripple his rise to the top.

There was a poll this week on another site asking which driver fans think will get intentionally spun out next. Who was #1 by a wide margin? "Brad Keselowski: again." So there's definitely a perception issue he'll have to fight going forward. He doesn't plan to change his attitude, which leaves him a bit of a loner inside the Cup garage. That's fine (I like his independent thinking), but if 30 guys want to spin you out, you're not going to escape unless you're faster than everyone else.

And in case you missed his exclusive 1-on-1 with SI, click here to read his latest diary. It's a very revealing portrait of a guy who doesn't intend to back down anytime soon.

And now, we'll end with our random question of the week...

You're not from Columbia, SC by chance, are you? -- Matt Sloan, Asheville, NC

Nope! Connecticut born and raised. But make sure you tell the Bowles' down there a big hello from me.

Tweet of the Week: "My husband is an idiot and looks absolutely ridiculous... Therefore I may be looking for a new husband very soon... Any takers?!?" -@AmandaSpeed, responding to her husband Scott (driver of the No. 82 Team Red Bull Toyota) dying his hair a combination of black and blue during the off week. Curious? Click here to take a look. (You're going to have to look hard for the blue, but trust me ... it's there).

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