Happy Holidays! Hopefully by the time you're reading this, your shopping is done, the presents are wrapped and you're sitting back and congratulating yourself on a job well done. I sure hope so ... that could be one less person I have to fight in line come Christmas Eve.
But before I begin my shopping, I'd like to give you a present: the first SI.com racing mailbag. Starting this week, I'll be counseling you through an offseason filled with uncertainty about everyone from NASCAR's Most Popular Driver to its unpopular CEO. Tumultuous times call for tough debate, and I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the sport's past, present and future.
Of course, there's no way this column's going to work if it's not a two-way street. So please send your questions, comments and Christmas cards to firstname.lastname@example.org. I can't replace that lump of coal in your stocking, but if you're nice enough, I can put your name in print.
Speaking of print ... let's get started:
Dude, why is Jimmie Johnson winning the AP Male Athlete such a big deal? It's not like that's going to make race fans start caring about him ... How is one award going to replace those empty seats? Whoopee, NASCAR went "mainstream" ... too bad it's with the sport's most vanilla personality.
-Rodney Turner, Knoxville, TN
Rodney's reaction seems to be typical of hardcore fans sick of the Jimmie Johnson hype after he dominated -- again -- en route to his record fourth straight title. But those caught up in the hate need to take a step back to understand what the love of the mainstream media can do. Johnson's AP recognition is historic in its own right; it's the first time in the award's 78-year history that it's been won by a driver. 78 years! A.J. Foyt's, Richard Petty's and David Pearson's best years were overshadowed by the achievements of other major sports.
So the breakthrough is newsworthy, and a national acknowledgment of Johnson's success helps a sport struggling to market itself. While you might be tired of him, Rodney, there are millions of others who've never even watched. People are intrigued by history, and hearing about JJ in the national news and on sports shows across the country may force a few to take a first look come February. Look at Lance Armstrong as an example. He won the award from 2002 to '05, piqued the curiosity of mainstream audiences who knew nothing about cycling, and the audience then turned around and watched the Tour de France in record numbers.
Of course, to capitalize on those new fans Johnson has to A) develop a personality and B) remain in contention for five straight. But if someone rises up to challenge Johnson's dominance -- like Denny Hamlin -- the rivalry might get picked up by sports and news outlets who have never given the sport so much as a second look.
Moral of the story here: newspapers may be dying, but the respect for the AP remains the same. It's about time NASCAR got some good news...
With all of the money [Dale Earnhardt] Jr. is bringing into HMS, why isn't some of it being used to hire him a top-tier crew chief, like [Steve] Addington? He deserves better. I would very much like to see Junior driving for another team next year.-- Marybeth Wallick, Ellsworth, MI
As Earnhardt's season wound down, I got at least a few questions a week from readers screaming that Hendrick was letting Earnhardt sink. In particular, fans pointed to a Texas race in November, in which the No. 88 car ran out of gas with three laps left, stalled on pit road, while Earnhardt's team lagged in getting him jumpstarted and back in the race. That "Three Stooges" incident occurred on the same day teammate Jimmie Johnson crashed and the entire four-car organization bonded together in the garage to put the No. 48 back on track -- showing us an ugly comparison of what it's like to be first versus fourth on the totem pole at Hendrick.
A further look at the numbers makes you wonder why crew chief Lance McGrew kept his job. In 24 races with McGrew, Junior has scored just two top-10 finishes, as compared to three in a dozen races with former head wrench Tony Eury Jr. Let's take that one step further: in his last dozen races with McGrew, Earnhardt has run no better than 11th, posting an average finish of 26.7 while his three teammates raced to a 1-2-3 finish in the Chase.
One thing that bothered me this Fall was Earnhardt's assertion that he likes McGrew because "he's fun to hang out with." Um, wasn't that the problem with cousin Eury before he got removed? Friendship doesn't always lead to Victory Lane, and we've seen how that leads to trouble for Earnhardt. I think he needs a hard-nosed guy at the helm -- a Chad Knaus personality -- who knows when to take control and ignore Earnhardt's tendency to whine about the handling inside the car. McGrew's a pretty soft-spoken guy, and while he has championship pedigree, one wonders if his personality is tough enough to keep control.
But Marybeth, Steve Addington wouldn't have been the fix Earnhardt needed. He spent almost two years placating Kyle Busch -- he gave in to his driver's temper tantrums only to be shown the door when they started slumping. A better fit would be someone like Greg Zipadelli or Ray Evernham, but neither is available to jump on top of the No. 88.
That means for now, Earnhardt's going to make do with what he's got. However, if Junior struggles out of the box in 2010, Hendrick needs to make a run at either of those two names above -- either that or he should try to get Tony Eury Sr. to move over from JR Motorsports. Remember, when he was paired with Earnhardt they won 15 races, a Daytona 500 and contended for titles from 2000 to '04.
My question has to do with the expectations placed on those who are considered frontrunners for the Cup championship in the next year. During the last few years, I've noticed that, more often than not, drivers who are expected to challenge for the championship fall far short of those expectations.
For instance, when Tony Stewart won the title in 2005, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards were right on his heels. But in 2006, neither Biffle nor Edwards made the Chase, and Edwards went winless. Then in 2008, Jimmie Johnson won his third championship, and Carl Edwards (nine wins that season) and Kyle Busch (eight wins) were favored to dethrone him the following year. But in 2009, Edwards went winless yet again and Busch failed to make the Chase.
Do you think the pressure of being frontrunners for the title gets to the drivers more than they'd like to admit? For the 2009 season, the testing ban could have been a factor, but it wouldn't explain previous seasons.-- Rebecca Kivak, Wilkes-Barre, PA
You bring up an intriguing pattern, Rebecca, but I don't know if there's a real correlation. I asked Carl Edwards the same question earlier this season when he was struggling, and he told me it's due to the cyclical nature of the sport, more than anything else. There's a reason Johnson's string of success is so historic; it's hard to stay on top of this sport for long, because the second you get there, everyone's gunning for you.
It's hard to believe the pressure is getting to these guys, because everyone you mentioned has won at least one Nationwide championship during their careers. I will say it's notable that two of the drivers you mentioned, Biffle and Edwards, run for Roush. Despite having a five-car team for most of this decade, the Roush organization has never put together two consecutive seasons with 10 or more victories. Compare that to Hendrick, who's done that with Johnson and Jeff Gordon alone, and generally maintains more consistency due to their open information-sharing and "teamwork" philosophy.
I'm not saying Roush doesn't share; they just aren't as good at it as Hendrick is. Their team is more susceptible to the cyclical process because individuals are going in different directions and aren't pooling together their resources. As for Stewart and Busch, well, those drivers are hard chargers. Stewart's mellowed a bit now that he's an owner/driver, but the "Checkers or wreckers" philosophy doesn't bode well for consistency in the long-term. Both would have made the Chase during years you mentioned if they had dialed it back a bit and kept themselves from wrecking.
I can't provide details on when the extension occurred, however, I can confirm a contract through 2011 with both Joe Gibbs Racing and Kyle Busch as driver for the #18 M&M'S Toyota.-- Name Withheld, State Withheld
Well, how about that! Just two weeks after I wrote about Kyle Busch's free agency in the five biggest stories for 2010, a high-ranking source has confirmed Kyle Busch is off the market. The source would not confirm when the extension was signed, but has knowledge of one that ties him to both Gibbs and M&M's through 2011.
Sources at Joe Gibbs Racing could not be reached for comment by press time, but it appears that they have addressed the top priority on their Christmas wish list by stabilizing Busch's contract and by rebuilding the No. 18 Toyota this offseason. Busch can now focus on establishing a positive relationship with crew chief Dave Rogers and launching himself back into Chase contention -- although a one-year extension isn't exactly the type of deal that screams long-term association. It's a pivotal year for NASCAR's Bad Boy as he attempts to put a nightmare 2009 Cup behind him.
How is Danica Patrick a "superstar?" What exactly has she done to earn that title? "Superstar of Hype?" OK. Otherwise, she has done nothing on a race track that has earned her that title. And believe me; if she is dumb enough to set foot in a NASCAR vehicle, she will be done. She is way too small to try and muscle one of those cars around the track. Damn, Bowles, are you suffering from Bruce Martin's 'Danica Crush' too?-- Milton, San Diego
Someone isn't making Danica's Christmas list. Look, Milton, it's not a crush -- I just know a good driver when I see one. Why are so many piling on about Danica's track record in IndyCar? She's posted four top-10s in five Indy 500 starts, finishing a career-best third in 2009. Ranked fifth in the end-of-season standings (another career high), she was also the best driver for Andretti Green while stuck in inferior equipment.
Yeah, Danica has virtually zero stock car experience under her belt. But we never know how these types of conversions are going to turn out. For every Jacques Villeneuve, there's a Tony Stewart who hits the jackpot and seamlessly transitions into the upper echelon of stock car's elite. And by the way, I remember a driver who struggled in the Nationwide Series, with just 15 top-10 finishes in two full seasons in 2000-01. Everyone criticized his ascent to the Cup Series level, thinking he'd never make the transition.
Guess who that driver was?
Speaking of JJ, Milton's question is the perfect bookend to Johnson's Athlete of the Year comment. Longtime fans are sick of Danica and think her entrance into the sport is nothing but a sideshow. But for every one person to complain, there are five new fans. Danica is attracting an entirely new demographic.
During this year's Super Bowl, GoDaddy.com will also have some ads. Do you know how big it'd be for the sport to have Danica marketing NASCAR in front of billions of people? No question about it, her presence in the Nationwide race will draw the highest ratings the sport's second-tier division's ever seen. Love or hate her, she's the only new draw keeping NASCAR fresh heading into 2010.
Happy Holidays, everyone, and I'll see you after the New Year!