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Readers react to Danica Patrick, my midterm grades, more

Photo: Jerry Marklan/Getty Images

Sparks fly whenever Danica Patrick's name comes up, especially because of her struggles this season.

The dynamic rarely changes: Shortly after I write about Danica Patrick and her skill behind the wheel -- and yes, after penning a lengthy SI cover story on her in 2008 and watching her closely for nearly a decade, I believe she is a talented race car driver -- the angry responses begin to arrive over email and Twitter. Not just from racing fans, mind you, but even from fellow media members. Danica bashing seems to be at an all-time high.

Patrick is clearly the most polarizing figure in motorsports today. I picked her to win last Saturday night's race at Daytona (prompting plenty of Twitter bile to be spewed my way). After falling to the rear of the pack early, she impressively raced her way into the top five late. She crashed as the leaders charged toward the checkered flag -- crossing the finishing line, spinning, in 14th -- and she's now 25th in the standings.

Two statements about NASCAR's most popular rookie lead us off as we jump into this week's mailbag. (We'd like to make the NASCAR mailbag a weekly feature on the site, so please keep the questions coming.)

Your evaluation of Danica Patrick as a driver is about as accurate as her finish, or did she actually finish the race? She has great looks for marketing and that's about it.
-- Anonymous

You must be another paid publicist for that twit [Patrick]. She is a completely uncompetitive driver. Get your eyeglass prescription updated.
-- Steven, RI

As I mentioned, Patrick is currently 25th in the standings through 18 races of her rookie season. How does this compare to other notable drivers at the same point in their first full year on the Cup circuit? Let's take a look:

• In his first full-time season, 2010, Brad Keselowski, the current reigning series champion, stood in 25th place after 18 races -- exactly where Patrick is now.

• In 2009, Joey Logano, who at the time was almost universally being hailed as the next big thing in NASCAR, was 20th in points.

• In 2005, Kyle Busch, who now has 26 career Cup wins and is widely regarded in the garage as one of the top talents in the sport, was 20th in the standings.

• In 2003, Greg Biffle, who has 19-career Cup wins and is almost annually a title contender, stood 20th in points.

• In 2001, Kurt Busch, the '04 Cup champion, was 22nd in the standings.

Bottom line: Not all rookies qualify for the Chase and contend for championships. Patrick's performance, midway through her first full-time season in NASCAR's most elite series, is right in line with several other drivers who are having successful careers.

I used to like you, Lars. Saying Richard Childress Racing is equal to Joe Gibbs Racing is a biased joke. Six wins to two wins?
-- Ran, Sierra Madre, CA

I didn't say they were "equal," Ran, but I did give them each a B+ in my midterm grades. Let me explain.

I teach a journalism class at the University of Alabama. Do all the students who enroll in my course have equal skills on the first day of class? Of course not. I may have one student who is destined for The New York Times in a few months and another who only recently began writing. So my expectations for these students would be quite different.

This is how I approached the midseason grades. If a team exceeded preseason expectations, that was factored into its grade. And there's no question that RCR, at least to me, is performing at a level right now that I simply didn't think was possible back in February. Given that the team is about to lose its franchise driver -- Kevin Harvick is moving to Stewart-Haas Racing at season's end -- it's been an impressive five months for RCR and Harvick, who is fourth in the standings (higher than any Gibbs driver).

Would I favor RCR over Gibbs to win the championship this season? No way. I think Gibbs' Matt Kenseth, who has four wins in 2013, is the only driver right now with a shot of beating Jimmie Johnson for the title.

Hey Lars, great article on "what if the Chase started today"... it would definitely make for a much better Chase schedule. Main issue could be weather in some of those locations (Michigan, Indy, Watkins Glen, etc.) If held later in the Chase, but obviously the article was more hypothetical than anything. Either way, it would make for a lot better variety and probably a more exciting Chase. Good food for thought.
-- Don, Chicago, IL

Thank you, Don. I'm a big believer that NASCAR needs to institute radical changes to try to reinvigorate the sport. I'd make over the Chase schedule, pretty much ditch qualifying (I'd invert the field according to the points standings, with the leader starting in the back), and have several midweek night races during the summer.

I'd love to hear from readers about what you would do if you were king of NASCAR for a day to give the sport the shot of adrenaline it so desperately needs.

How about a story some year about Jimmie Johnson being the biggest whiner in NASCAR? Like you would have the guts to actually write that story! The guy complains all the time yet nothing is ever written. But we all know you would never step up and write that because you won't say a bad thing about him! YOU'RE CLUELESS!
-- Jim Anderson, Northfield, MN

Nice to see so much passion flowing from the tiny town where I attended college. Back when I was a student at St. Olaf in Northfield in the early 1990s, about the only thing we ever got riled about sports-wise was our rivalry football game with crosstown Carleton.

About Jimmie: From where I sit, I don't see him complaining any more or any less than the other top drivers. And I've written this many times: no driver in the sport is as well liked among his peers as Johnson. This has been a secret weapon for him of sorts over the years, because other drivers tend to give him plenty of space on the track when they see that he has a faster car.

I have said that being a Dale Jr. fan is like being a Cubs fan. Thoughts?
-- Levi via twitter

Fair point, Levi. Now in his 14th season in the Cup series, Earnhardt has yet to win a championship and he's only taken one checkered flag in the last five years. But if you watch him closely, and I have, you can see he's getting closer to a breakthrough. He's currently fifth in the standings and I think he'll win a race before the start of the Chase. (I'm circling Richmond on Sept. 7.)

At times this year, Earnhardt has displayed the speed to be a factor in the championship. The key is he needs to peak in the fall, not in the summer like he did last year when he briefly took the points lead in late July.

SI Now: Ashley Freiberg on her racing idols
On Wednesday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated's Matt Bean sits down with professional race car driver Ashley Freiberg to talk about her racing idols, including Danica Patrick.

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