By Tom Bowles
September 21, 2010

The start of fall can mean only one thing: Flu season is right around the corner. I've already had my fair share, still down for the count from a cold virus that's caught fire around the Northeast.

But while I drown in sickness, NASCAR hopes for health after a contagious first Chase race of its own that sniffs at the makings of playoff success for the first time in six years. In one corner, you have reigning dynasty Jimmie Johnson, down 92 points after just one weekend -- the furthest back he's been from the postseason point lead since September 2006. In the other corner, there's Denny Hamlin, a phenomenal comeback from spin-to-near-win leaving him with a 35-point edge on Clint Bowyer on top of the standings -- only to face the worst track of his career historically in Dover this Sunday. And then, you have Bowyer himself, the wild card whose shocking New Hampshire victory leads a cadre of hopefuls looking to crash the party these next few weeks.

At one point on Sunday, 200 laps into the race all 12 Chasers were inside the top 18, most of which displayed a sense of urgency that's been reserved for all but a handful of races this season. So while you may detest the system -- trust me, I do too - it's hard to argue with the on-track action, at least for one race. So let's all take a deep breath, exhale, and go with the flow these next nine weeks. Just because there's one great playoff run doesn't mean the Chase shouldn't change, and just because a race is exciting doesn't mean you should turn off the TV in disgust. Hate the system ... but watch the races, if only to concentrate on the individual performances you'll see. More and more, I'm feeling like this postseason is one you don't want to miss out on.

Time to get to your questions and comments. You can reach me at, NASCARBowles, and in the pharmacy searching for antibiotics.

Everyone is complaining about the boring regular season races. I think the races are boring because everyone is point racing to make the Chase. They really don't care if they win or not (well, maybe just a little) because there's a bigger prize at the end of the season. You've got to be in it to win it. I think if they made the Chase for winners only, you'd see some of these non-winning Chasers pushing the envelope to win instead of just cruising in a top-10 position. The champion should be a proven winner & if you win a championship & never win a race -- how can you be a true champion? I say IF you have to have a Chase (which I don't like because in race coverage -- there are only 12 drivers being covered. But that's another subject.) It should be for race winners ONLY no matter what place you end up. You don't win -- you don't play!!!-- Debbie Proctor, Richmond, VA

I think the 'winners only' Chase idea is a great idea. If there are not 12 winners during the year, fill out the remaining spots according to point standings. This would entice drivers to go for the win rather than settling as an also-ran if they don't have a victory.-- Brian Carey, Kansas City

The winner-take-all thought process proves an interesting study after Chase race one, where Bowyer took a car that barely made the playoffs and surged to second in the standings after his victory. Let's say Bowyer goes on to win two more races, winning the Chase in a monumental upset as the 12 seed. Should he have been excluded under this format just because those wins came in the final quarter of the season and not the first three?

You don't penalize a stick 'n' ball team for being at its best in the 4th quarter, and that's what the Chase drivers are supposed to do -- Bowyer is merely following the point system guidelines that reward regular season consistency. But you certainly can enhance the aggression by including some sort of "wild card" during that time, where a victory in certain races can get you some sort of postseason berth. See below...

I like the idea of all the winners going to the Chase, but this year's list of winners is kinda boring. How about winning at Daytona or Indy as an automatic in? I know that people don't want a lot of rules that start to look like pass interference in pro football, but maybe a random drawing to put in one winner? Winner with the most points? Most poles? Bowling contest? Darts? Pie-eating contest? Cow-pie throwing? Arrow targets? Mud wrestle a hog? Hahaha there are a lot of ways for a "wild card."--James Frasche, Sacramento, Calif.

I love the idea of the Daytona or Indy winners getting into the Chase. Adding a postseason bid adds a whole different type of prestige, putting more focus on individual regular season events that have all seemed to resemble the same monotone melody as of late.

This year's "wild card," then, would have been Jamie McMurray, who was the highest non-Chase finisher Sunday in third place. Having a career year with Earnhardt Ganassi, the likable Missouri native has more wins than Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.,Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton and Carl Edwards combined this season. But inconsistency inevitably cut him outside the Chase field in a format that's more unforgiving towards DNFs while all-too-sympathetic towards top-10 finishes.

Critics would argue that a roller-coaster regular season would leave McMurray unlikely to contend for the title over these last ten weeks. But if Bowyer can get hot -- a guy who entered Loudon with an 88-race winless drought stretching all the way back to Richmond in May 2008 -- why not someone with wins in the sport's two biggest races on his resume this season?

People have worried all along about how this point format can produce a winless or undeserving champion. Well, perception-wise, let me ask you a hypothetical question: Which would bother you more? A guy in Bowyer who won once at New Hampshire, then top-10'd you to death en route to the season title, or a guy with a bunch of DNFs, who snuck in as a wild card but then got hot, taking home the title along with the sport's two biggest races?

Personally, I think option No. 1 (Bowyer) would bother people more. So the concept of a "wild card" is not a bad idea, one that could be tied in with the old Winston Million program. Maybe you offer an automatic postseason berth to anyone not in the Chase who wins the sport's five biggest races: Daytona, Darlington, Talladega (Spring), the Coca-Cola 600 (Charlotte), and Indianapolis. If that bloats the field, then put up a driver limit (10? 12?) so that means 8th, 9th, 10th on back in points could be knocked out by winners, not strokers. That'll make it harder for title-contending drivers to test or take it easy during the summer, as a few bad races -- it happened to Hamlin in August, where he fell to 10th after two straight mechanical failures -- would actually leave them on the outside looking in instead of comfortably in the Chase.

Picking up on the road course thread, I'm going to go a step further than one of your letters from this week: Road America needs to be on the NASCAR calendar, and it needs to be in the Chase. As far as I'm concerned, it's a perfect storm: the oldest and best-designed major road course in the U.S. bringing in fans like me who are more interested in road racing than ovals, right when the title chase is heating up, and with the great Nationwide races setting a precedent. Combine that with the fact that the weather up in Wisconsin is a perfect 75 degrees and sunny this time of year and Midwesterners love their racing and don't get enough in the area, and you've got a recipe for a great weekend.-- Adam Eckert, New Orleans, LA

Believe it or not, Adam, the Cup Series has been to Elkhart Lake before ... just not since 1956, when Hall of Fame finalist Tim Flock took the checkers. Things have changed a lot since then, but not the track itself: its size (4.048 miles) is nearly the length of NASCAR's two Cup road courses combined and serves as its biggest obstacle towards Sprint Cup inclusion. The longest track we have is Talladega (2.66 miles) and while the June race was heavily attended -- 50,000 came to the Nationwide race in the summer -- fans watching on television could have finished off dinner by the time the field completed a full caution lap. While the racing was great when it happened, narrow turns and inexperience led to several of those yellows where a good 45 minutes was spent as a glorified parade.

Personally, my pick for expanding to three road courses would be Montreal, a nail-biting Canadian course with passing zones, sold out crowds, and fantastic finishes already documented in four Nationwide Series starts. But at least we're on the same page in that a Chase that's supposed to be the most challenging ten weeks on the circuit needs a road course to live up to the billing.

Your recent article "Hendrick, Earnhardt Jr. refuse to bend as dismal season winds down" is a remarkably frank and scathing account of Dale Jr's problems. But it really needed to be said. Surely if he had to get by on his performance--instead of his popularity--he would have been replaced by now. But as your article says, NASCAR is more big business than sport these days.

My guess is your hate mail has taken a big jump as of late. But, the truth is the truth.-- Mark Mitchel, Spokane, WA

Actually Mark, the response continues to be overwhelmingly positive. Either Junior Nation has hit the ignore button or everyone's starting to face facts.

I bring this up once more -- albeit briefly -- as the No. 88 surprised most with a fourth-place finish on Sunday. What proved the difference? In my opinion, it was none other than Rick Hendrick on the radio, calming his driver down at the right time to get maximum results. The next time he's not around, I'm very curious to see how the McGrew-Earnhardt relationship continues to unravel. They seemed to be at each other's throats even after the Boss Man got on the radio and Junior started driving well inside the top 10.

I really think Junior's struggles the past few years come down to one thing; he can't drive the CoT like he drove the older car. Some guys can, some guys can't. History shows that each time NASCAR mandates big changes to the cars, some guys improve and some guys drop back. He just hasn't been able to figure the car out, no matter who the crew chief is.-- Tim, Cleveland, OH

We've been there, done that with this mailbag, Earnhardt, and the CoT. Check out my archive and you'll see plenty written on it. Brief reminder summary: He has 17 wins in the old car, one with the new, and a whole lot of heartache in trying to figure out how it handles.

One other curveball to consider with Junior: once again, there was a major rule change this year with the spoiler replacing the wing and altering the handling on his Chevrolet. If he's already a slow learner, it's conceivable this latest curveball pushed him further back to square one. But I still stand by the main tenets of my article from a few weeks ago. The clash of two different cultures can sometimes be impossible to mesh in any work environment -- especially sports.

Junior has become the New Derrike Cope. Lucky to win the 500, followed by hair replacement infomercials.-- Michael Maday

Wow. Come on, Michael ... you gotta give Earnhardt more credit than that. At least he avoided the dreaded Mane 'N' Tail shampoo sponsorship. And I would replace the "hair replacement" line with Enterprise commercials. Hardcore fans know who and what I'm speaking of ...

Hey Tom - I looked at the odds for the "Chase" - just FYI, the odds that one of these guys wins should add up to 100% - with your numbers, they add up to 110% - not a big deal, just amusing, but I'm at a loss on how to make a buck on this...-- Wes Kroeze, Carrboro, NC

Well, those odds were just for fun and games; I wasn't actually playing by the Vegas playbook. But if you're looking for a darkhorse pick in the world of real gambling, Carl Edwards (15/1 to win the title, according to BetUS) seems to be your best bet. If there's anyone left among the winless crowd that can get hot and surge towards a title, it's Cousin Carl.

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

I just love when you send your own question to the mailbag.- Jose Arsenio Ortega Rosa, Dominican Republic

A Caribbean reader! Turns out Juan Pablo doesn't have the international market covered after all.

"I thought the Chase might push me over the edge.... My mistake, looks like its fantasy football that's gonna do it!!!!" - @delanaharvick, Kevin Harvick's wife

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