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NASCAR's social media battle, Junior's Chase struggles and more


The problem with a 24/7 news cycle nowadays is that waiting for an "official" announcement becomes a little anti-climactic. Ten years ago, today would be a NASCAR news bonanza: Richard Childress Racing unveiled Budweiser as a primary sponsor for Kevin Harvick, while legend Richard Petty welcomed Marcos Ambrose into his likely two-car program for 2011. These are some of the final puzzle pieces in a Silly Season climax of blockbuster announcements. Tomorrow, the sport fully unveils at least half-a-dozen changes with the unveiling of next year's Sprint Cup schedule.

Internally, this trio of big-time briefings has an immense future impact on the sport. But for the public at large, these changes happened weeks, even months ago, with Facebook, Twitter and bloggers already breaking the news. Sure, making it official carries with it some degree of increased interest, but they pale in comparison to LeBron-a-thon 2010 or the Tim Tebow NFL Draft Watch.

How do you reclaim the element of surprise instead of having a Debbie Downer "info you already know" press conference two weeks later? I don't have the answer in this age of instant gratification. But for NASCAR, changes are few and far between for a sport that typically enjoys relative stability over the course of a season. When they do happen, a little marketing genius goes a long way toward bumping them up the news cycle.

For example, almost every individual NASCAR Sprint Cup track took the time to announce the two dates on their schedule for 2011. Why couldn't they all pull together and have Brian France package it in one big announcement? That would attract a great deal of interest, plenty of fodder for fans anxious to see just how radical those changes were going to be. Instead, tomorrow's announcement has been preceded by so many smaller announcements, that fans might not even pay attention; at this point, they already know almost every date on the schedule next year. That's just not good for sponsors like Bud who invest a lot in these "official" proclamations meant to turn your interest their way on command.

The majority of your emails this week show your thoughts are already headed elsewhere. There's a hodge-podge of topics to discuss, a little "summer cleaning" if you will in this mid-August edition.

Time to get started. As always, or Twitter at NASCARBowles are your lifelines into my world...

Given its ongoing willingness to consider revamping "The Chase," NASCAR seems to have lost sight of one basic fact: Fans watch races, not championships. People want to watch drivers going for race wins. Fans don't care about watching drivers who 'just want to finish well' week after boring week.

-- GTA Golfer

Nowhere was this point better illustrated than at Sunday's race in Michigan. Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick's battle for the win, while brief, blossomed between two men who couldn't care less about how a runner-up finish would help them on a stat sheet. Instead, they staged a heavyweight fight for the trophy, bragging rights, and yeah, the nice little 10-point playoff bonus drivers get for a victory.

Why could both men throw caution to the wind? They're virtual locks to make the playoffs (Harvick has actually clinched), leaving them twiddling thumbs, instead of working toward that top-10 finish to lock down a spot, between now and when the postseason starts in September. It's funny, right, how aggression comes back out of a driver when the incentives no longer exist for finishing sixth? The same theory applies to Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose, two drivers outside the Chase who staged a thrilling duel for several laps to take the lead at Watkins Glen.

"You could tell we weren't running for the championship, the way we battled," Ambrose said. "I poured everything into it."

So let me get this straight; a series marketed around the Chase has its drivers give 110 percent when the championship's not at stake? Something, somewhere is wrong with this system.

Don't y'all ever get tired of tooting Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s horn when his claim to fame is based on nothing but his last name? If he makes the Chase, it will be because he is good enough to do so, which remains very doubtful. NASCAR has already gone from 10 drivers to 12 drivers in the Chase to try and help Jr. along... what do you want? A fan vote?

-- Sheppard, Bay Area, Calif.

This email is more relevant than ever after a disappointing 19th-place at Michigan -- a track where Earnhardt had two straight top-10 finishes -- left him a whopping 129 points outside NASCAR's playoff with three races left. Now down to 17th in the standings, the No. 88 driver would need an outright miracle of his closest challengers blowing engines, wrecking, etc. not once but twice in order to catch up.

So what happens now? I still think Earnhardt knows how to drive, but it seems like the same confidence, self-esteem and motivation issues which plagued him throughout 2009 are popping up again. Under a five-year contract, there's no way he bolts at the end of the season, but crew chief Lance McGrew is more likely than ever to be replaced. There's been a clear regression the last few months, with only one top-5, three top-10s and just 10 laps led over the last 14 races. That total for Earnhardt pales in comparison to any of his teammates, and he's easily the lowest-ranked of the six Hendrick engine and chassis-supported efforts. I know there has already been one head wrench switch, but if you can't change the driver... Hendrick has to do something to make it work. Maybe Ray Evernham can do a one-year experiment on top of the pit box while waiting for Kasey Kahne's arrival in 2012?

As I was screaming at the TV a few weeks ago at the possibility Sam Hornish might get a NASCAR win by not pitting under a rain caution (exactly how David Reutimann won the Coca-Cola 600), I was struck by an idea -- why doesn't NASCAR have a special flag for rain? If there was a "rain flag" they could tell the drivers either nobody pits or everybody pits for four tires (make it the leader's call). If nobody pits, the leader keeps his spot and if rain forces the race to be stopped, he wins. If everybody pits, the crews have a chance to decide the race on pit road. Either way, nobody would have the chance to be the only one who doesn't pit and steal a win from 28th-place by the luck of weather.

For all NASCAR has fixed that wasn't really broken, this seems like it would be an easy and smart thing to eliminate in the future.

-- JayJayDean, Seattle, Wash.

Jay, I'm torn on this idea. I think it's a great way to keep Mother Nature from interfering and handing an unlikely win by Reutimann, Joey Logano and Hornish to the NASCAR record books. Universal rules that affect everyone across the board are good things.

At the same time, aren't pit strategy and the way you play it an essential part of this team sport? Reutimann benefited from other crew chiefs not studying the weather radar correctly, taking a gamble with a damaged race car knowing that's the only chance they had to win the race. That unpredictability is a part of what NASCAR's all about. I could be mistaken, but I think people were more upset at the Logano and Hornish situations simply because neither driver deserved to be on the lead lap. In both cases, the wave around rule indirectly gave them a chance to succeed through free passes that had nothing to do with their performance on the race track.

Bottom line, I think you're taking a part of the sport away if you don't let crew chiefs decide their own strategy when the rain comes. But if everyone keeps magically finishing on the lead lap, you're going to have more of these "surprise victories" that'll make fans angry over drivers that shouldn't even be in position to win.

I have been around stock car racing for a very long time, and I've seen good, not so good and some really bad drivers. I have watched, or tried to watch the diversity program from its beginning, and I think it's not doing anything for the sport. In the past four or five years, there have been several young women that if given a fair chance could have had a shot.

Erin Crocker did a hell of a job in ARCA, and if the good old boys in Trucks stopped beating on her, she would have done all right there, too. I understand that she was supposed to get several races in Nationwide, but we're told that there were no sponsors. So she married her boss. Nobody can convince me that Ray Evernham couldn't make a competitive driver out of her -- look what he did for Jeff Gordon.

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Why doesn't someone have the guts to give a girl a break?

-- Dick Brown, South Branch, Mich.

Dick, I just did a nice column on some of NASCAR's D4D women looking to rise up the ranks in the sport. In the past, the program's been a little haphazard, but this year more than ever I think housing the entire program of cars under one roof is the right way to increase performance and get independent car owners to take notice. We've seen an increased infusion in NASCAR's Nationwide and Truck Series this year, including Michelle Thierault and Johanna Long trying their best along with a struggling Danica Patrick.

The one thing from that interview I disagree with is Danica's season slump helping the plight of women racers. She's supposedly the best woman ever to step into a race car; so if she finishes 25th, four laps down in a "AAA" series with top-notch equipment you wonder if already-hesitant owners will let prejudice seep in and figure other possible candidates will do worse. With the long list of changes injected into the sport, though, I think you'll see a swing toward female participants within the next five years. To move forward, NASCAR needs to address its shaky past and become one of the emerging leaders in the modern sports multicultural movement. It's going to take a lot of pushing, but I think they're headed in the right direction.

Nice column on Kasey and the variety of insight from readers and you makes for a great read. I ran across the following from the SI NFL page and thought it relevant to the wonderful world of NASCAR:

"The high school football coach and prolific author John T. Reed has identified what he calls the 'principles of contrarianism,' and they are much more evident on Saturdays than Sundays. "I'm all for giving each team an equal chance to win with regard to spending limits and the draft," Reed has written. "However, when parity takes the form of uniformity of offensive tactics and strategy, it is not entertaining at all. It is boring."

I vote for more "contrarianism" in NASCAR. Hoosier/Firestone/Goodyear; V8, V6, straight 8s, multi cylinder engines (interesting concept during yellow flags), hybrid engines; carbs, FI, voltage control; any US assembled make, model automobile (same safe chassis); driver deployed or drag sensing aerodynamic devices; much higher speeds (+50 mph) on safer road and oval courses; and a points system that rewards the effectiveness of the overall driver/design system and its contribution to the global automotive experience. That's a goal and why we watch!

It needs to be more than balancing out the forces for maximum grip on the right side tires and the right front spring and shock set-up.

-- Eric Hiner, Plantation, Fla.

Great call, Eric; I urge everyone to read Austin's article. This type of innovative thinking is what led to IndyCar opening up their chassis rules for 2012 as a way to increase fan interest and overall owner participation.

It's a longer topic for another column I plan to do sometime this fall; for in many ways, the development of NASCAR has stalled. Through the concept of "parity," all the technology is filtered through the same four to six owners, one tire company and a common template you need to latch onto for any chance at success. The same basic model of success is offered, restricted by NASCAR rules that let you adjust about 10 percent of what you could a decade ago. It may bring competition closer together, but it also keeps the same people in the same places without any sort of natural evolution.

Just look at this year's Rookie of the Year race. Kevin Conway lost his ride this week, so no full-time rookie will run the whole schedule for the first time since 1992. What's even worse, we have no major first-year drivers joining the circuit in 2011. Oh, and did I mention no new car owners, either? The sport is desperate for an injection of new blood, but set up so that the "old guard" can enjoy unlimited success. That's a long-term problem.

My Dad raced in the 40's right through to the 80's. I raced myself for about 10 years. In those days, I didn't even watch NASCAR on TV. When local driver Ron Bouchard raced, I watched every race. Guys like Ron worked their way up the food chain and had many fans. Now, who do we have from New England, Joey Logano? I'll be watching the Patriots this fall.

-- Steven, R.I.

How about Parker Kligerman, Steven? He's Penske Racing's new hotshot Nationwide rookie from Westport, Conn. Or Long Island's Steve Park, who still will race occasionally within NASCAR's top three series? Sprint Cup's Martin Truex, Jr. isn't too far away; he grew up on the Jersey Shore and his father, Martin Sr. is a legend in the Busch North Series.

Among those drivers on the way up include Corey Lajoie, two-time Nationwide champ Randy's son who also hails from Conn; Pelham, N.H.'s Sean Caisse; and Jericho, N.Y.'s Donny Lia, the former Modified star. It just goes to show you there's always drivers from your region; you've just got to look for 'em.

If I had to bet, you'll see Kligerman up in the Cup Series by 2013 at the latest. So in the meantime, grin and bear Joey, root for Park's return and hey, at least you have those NAPA Know-How commercials!

I am a friend of Carl Long. I volunteered PR work for Carl in the early 2000s. For $5000, I would have your company logo on the hood of a cup car! The waste I saw in the garages during my ride with Carl was mind-boggling. Teams would trash items we would scrape up and use.

I enjoyed your article on Carl. He has the biggest heart in the garage, no doubt. I will never forget in 2000 I tracked down Ned Jarrett to talk to Carl. I wanted to have Ned give him a boost of confidence. What we got out of the informal meeting was that you needed big funding to compete. The thing that sticks out that day was when Carl said to me as we were walking to his hauler, if it were not for people like Rodney trying to help me and sticking by me I would quit trying so hard. Thanks again for shedding a little light on a true stock car driver with heart.

-- Rodney Taylor, Clayton, N.C.

Thanks for the story, Rodney. A quick update on Carl for those who are interested; he still hasn't paid the $200,000 NASCAR fine, which makes him ineligible for he or his team to return to the Sprint Cup Series. However, he's found himself back in the sport, taking odd jobs down at the minor league level that run anywhere from spotter, to consultant, to even driving a handful of races. He's got a deal to run a limited schedule for Fleur-de-lis Motorsports in the Nationwide Series (No. 68) and occasionally drives for start-and-park or backmarker teams in the Truck Series. He'll be qualifying the No. 00 Daisy Ramirez truck for Wednesday's Bristol race if you want to see him.

Finally, our "out of left field" email of the week:

I enjoyed your article about Pocono's driving experience. I was there the Sunday before and had such a great time that I'm going back in September. It was a Christmas present because I tend to drive on the roads a little quickly (the PA State Police will attest to that!). I was able to hit 7800 RPM and that inspired me to pursue this more. I am hoping to put in many more miles and apply to be their first female instructor. I may not be Danica Patrick, but that may be worth a story and another "excuse" for you to head to Pocono!

-- Pat, Philadelphia, Pa.

See, Dick Brown? Good women drivers are popping up in race cars all over the country. It's only a matter of time ... just don't try messing with them on the highway.

"SPEED needs a nascar deathmatch series kinda like MTV used to have..." - @Regan_Smith_, after the latest NASCAR off-track shoving match between Joey Logano and Ryan Newman Sunday