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Sprint Cup Chase, Danica Patrick remains a lightning rod, more mail

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Despite her popularity, Danica Patrick has struggled to silence critics without a signature NASCAR win.

For the last time until the checkered waves on the 2013 NASCAR season in mid-November at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the engines are silent this weekend in the Cup series. It's the final off-weekend of the season, which means the Cup teams will be competing for the next 17 straight weeks, the equivalent of an entire NFL regular season. In essence, it's a bye week before the season really gets going.

The overriding takeaway from the first 19 races of 2013 is that Jimmie Johnson is the overwhelming favorite to be hoisting the Cup trophy this fall. Mr. Five-Time has built such a big points lead (56 points over Clint Bowyer) that he could sit out a race and still maintain his place atop the standings. At age 37, Johnson is arguably in the midst of the finest season of his NASCAR career.

Of course, that lead will evaporate once the points are re-set at the start of the Chase, but given how ruthlessly dominant Johnson has been—he's tied with Matt Kenseth for most wins with four; he's led a series-high 1,020 laps; and his average finish of 8.8 is the best in NASCAR, and would be the best of his Hall of Fame career—it's difficult envisioning anyone chasing down the No. 48 team in the playoffs.

Now let's crack open this week's mailbag. Please keep the questions coming. I'd love to know who you think could beat Johnson in the fall and why.

If I were King of NASCAR for a day, the first thing I would do is revamp the Chase. Chase drivers are only scored against each other for purposes of crowning the champ. Essentially, they finish 1st through 12th every race. And they only get Chase points based on the finishing position, nothing else. 1st = 25 points, 2nd = 22, 3rd = 19, 4th = 16, then 14, 12, 10, etc. down to 0 for 12th.

-- Tobey, Houston, Tx.

I like this, Tobey. I agree that the Chase drivers should have their own scoring system separate from the rest of the field. This would make it clear to the casual fan that there is actually a race inside of each race.

Under your scoring structure, I'd also award at least a five-point bonus for winning, maybe even 10. If you put a major emphasis on winning, it forces the Chase drivers to take risks both on pit road and on the track, which in theory should produce a more compelling event.

How to spice up NASCAR? Rather than invert the field as you suggest, I would have the drivers draw numbers out of a hat. Inverting the field unfairly penalizes the good teams, and it could even lead to some sandbagging. Drawing numbers is dancing with Lady Luck again, and it would give all teams an equal chance at winning the pole - something many teams will never experience.

-- Joe, Winfield, Ks.

This works for me, Joe. Last week at New Hampshire, Jimmie Johnson was forced start dead last in 43rd because of a post-qualifying failed inspection. What happened? Johnson nimbly worked his way up through the field, passing cars and carefully avoiding accidents that happened directly in front of him.

Johnson's charge from the back to a sixth-place finish was one of the more interesting sub-plots of any race this season. I say we need more of this. Let's put the fastest cars in the back, whether it's inverting the field based on the standings or picking the starting lineup out of a hat.

If I ran NASCAR, here's what I'd do to shake up the sport: no more races over 300 miles, except the Daytona 500, Southern 500 and Coke 600. When the drivers admit the middle of the race is essentially a parade, there's a problem. Cut all races to three hours of length, which would match the length of a typical football or baseball game and still leave plenty of action.

-- Kyle, Kansas City, Mo.

I'd guess that 95 percent of the drivers are in complete agreement with you, Kyle. I've heard drivers, mid-race, ask over the radio how their fantasy football teams are doing. I even know of one driver who spotted a girl in his pit box during a pit stop and who then begged one of his crewmen to get her phone number—while going about 160 mph in a parade-style line around that particular track.

So yes, races absolutely need to be shortened. I'd be curious to know, if this research exists, how many people actually watch an entire race from green flag to checkered flag. I'm betting not many. If you do, please write to the 'Bag and tell us about your experience.

That was a ridiculous article [on Danica Patrick]. She shouldn't be compared to the guys you listed; all those guys were proven winners.

— Joe, Orlando

Not at the time, Joe. That was the point: Before a driver such as Greg Biffle became a consistent winner, he finished 20th in the standings in his first full year of Cup racing.

And, technically, Danica is a proven winner, albeit not in NASCAR. She won an IndyCar race in Japan in 2008.

I would like to see how Danica compares to other open-wheel drivers who made the move to NASCAR.

-- Bob, Chico, Calif.

Your wish, my command. As a reminder: Patrick, through 19 races of her rookie year, is currently 27th in the standings.

*In his rookie season of 2008, Sam Hornish Jr., a three-time IndyCar champion, was 33rd in points after 19 races.

*In his rookie season of '08, Dario Franchitti, now a four-time IndyCar champ, was 37th in points after six races. He failed to qualify in his seventh race and then was injured in a wreck and missed several starts. He returned to IndyCar the following year.

*In his rookie season of 2007, Juan Pablo Montoya was 20th in points after 19 races.

What does all this mean? To me, it is further proof that what Patrick is accomplishing this season is impressive.

People who gave you crap on your prediction of Danica winning the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona are clueless. She had the 2nd best driver rating in the Daytona 500 (Jimmie Johnson was first), the 2nd best average running position (Johnson was first) and spent the most laps in the top 3 of anybody in the race with 113; Matt Kenseth was next at 103. Based on the stats from February's race she deserved to be one of the five drivers to watch going into the race. So she didn't win, so what? She was in the hunt late (seventh at the time of the red flag) and simply got caught out by late race cautions that dictated where she would start on the restarts (the inside line) and did the best she could to get what she could out of those last two short runs without starting on the outside line or in the top six.

-- Damon, Hilliard, Oh.

Well put, Damon. And I think she'll be a factor in the fall race at Talladega. I had a lengthy conversation with Patrick last week and she told me that she just feels "comfortable" on the big superspeedways because of her high-speed IndyCar experience and has a good feel for how the air moves on the plate tracks. 'Dega will be her last legitimate chance of winning this season.

Do you think the change in Dale Earnhardt Jr. started when he was finally treated for concussions last season? It seems that way to me.

-- Steve, Tucson, Az.

I don't, Steve. I've watched Earnhardt very closely this season and he's displaying the same kind of anticipation, reflexes and hand-eye-foot coordination that he's shown in the past. Right now he's simply trying to improve the balance and handling of his car so that he can barrel through the turns just a tick faster.

And it's not like Earnhardt is a mid-pack driver. He's currently fifth in the standings and virtually a lock to qualify for the Chase. I still think he'll win at least once before the start of the Chase. I'm think it will happen at Richmond on Sept. 7, but he could surprise next Sunday at Indy. Earnhardt finished fourth at the Brickyard last year.

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