Hamlin's star power, RPM struggles for survival and more mailbag

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That's how I feel about Denny Hamlin's victory Sunday at Martinsville. Sure, it was expected, a third-straight win at a hometown paperclip-shaped oval he uses to file together the pieces of any season. But this win was no ordinary one for a man whose confidence once wavered more than a roller coaster at Six Flags. Dropping like a rock from the pole position, Hamlin lost the lead on Lap 11 and was outside the top 10 on Lap 27, forced to fight back from an equalized tire that left him stuck in traffic for most of this race's 500 laps. That left Johnson comfortably ahead of Hamlin, a demoralizing possibility of losing points to a man who's now nursing a streak of 17 straight top-10 finishes at this short track. The championship, for all intents and purposes, could have been wrapped up right then and there.

Except it wasn't. Hamlin continued his 2010 theme of cool, calm and collected, working with crew chief Mike Ford to make the right adjustments while waiting for the race to fall into their laps. In the form of a 98-circuit, green-flag marathon to the finish, their long-run setup received the perfect gift while Hamlin picked off his competition like they were down on seven cylinders. Taking the lead for the second and final time on Lap 471, he streaked to victory while Johnson wound up fifth, enough to hold the point lead by six, but not the knockout punch he anticipated after working with crew chief Chad Knaus to develop a dominant car.

Instead, the reigning four-time champ never led a lap. And now, even though Johnson has both the experience and history on his side, Mr. Hamlin heads to the Talladega Russian Roulette wheel armed with confidence, knowing upcoming visits lie ahead at tracks he's won at in the past year: Texas and Homestead. All of a sudden, this race is feeling more and more like the 2006 version of the Chase, where a man down by 41 points after Martinsville was the one holding all the momentum heading into the homestretch.

Who was the man in question, you ask?

Jimmie Johnson.

Funny how the changing of the guard works, isn't it? Even funnier if J.J. goes on to win a fifth-straight title, making this introduction a moot point. But we'll just have to wait and see on that one; for now, it's time to get to your questions and comments. Don't forget, tbowles81@yahoo.com or @NASCARBowles on Twitter are the best ways to reach me.

Sad to say, but RPM is having some real issues. They overstretched themselves with four teams, appeared to do little or nothing to keep their best driver (Kahne), and are neck-deep in debt. From the outside, it appears that RPM was torn apart by internal turmoil and politics, likely a result of bringing so many teams together (GEM, Petty Enterprises, Yates) without any real plan how to make it work. If you add moving the shop to Charlotte, and the switch from Dodge to Ford, that just creates confusion that requires a very skilled leader to manage. I'm not sure that RPM has that kind of leadership. It sure doesn't look like it from the outside.

I wonder what Anheuser-Busch InBev thinks about not having its driver around for the rest of the season? It's not really a big deal, since they are moving to Richard Childress Racing next year, but I don't think The King wanted them in the first place. One of Petty's original "rules" was no alcohol sponsors on his cars. He had to compromise when RPM was formed, and I would bet Richard didn't like it. In the meantime, for the last five races, Bud is not only on a car that is clearly not competitive, but will be driven by a driver who the sponsors didn't pick or likely even have a say in choosing. I wonder how this might change sponsorship agreements in the future, tying the sponsor not just to the team and the car, but specifically to the driver (e.g. if the driver changes, the logos come off the car and the sponsor gets some money back).

-- Geoff Kratz, Calgary, Alberta

Geoff, for the record there's no guarantee Bud will have a driver for the last five races, as this team may not last beyond Talladega. I'm still hearing Roush plans to cut off his engine and chassis delivery to the team by the end of the month, barring some sort of payment plan put in place by the Gilletts or a new group of investors led by Petty to reconcile the debt. Just how much is owed is open to conjecture, with reports ranging anywhere from a few million to over $12 million.

As I mentioned in Thursday's report, there is some irony here in that Roush leaned heavily on RPM over the spring and summer when the chips were down with his own four-car operation, utilizing the team for research and development purposes that wound up saving Ford in time for three of his drivers to make the Chase. To pull the equivalent of evicting RPM from the garage now, with only one month left in the season and debt that had been accumulating all year long, means there's some other internal politics at play we don't know about.

Keep in mind John Henry, co-owner of Roush Fenway Racing, is also part of the group buying the Liverpool FC soccer team from RPM co-owner George Gillett and Tom Hicks. Just check out this article posted by the BBC two weeks ago, in which Henry has some not-too-nice things to say about the Hicks-Gillett duo, who seemed desperate to increase the value of the sale before the takeover. When you consider the soccer purchase, it's possible Henry could be using this racing deal as some sort of agitator to pay Gillett back for the months of legal mess his New England Sports Ventures (NESV) group went through to buy the European club.

Either way, the Gillett's absentee ownership for the majority of this season has been disturbing at best, the sign of inevitable extinction at worst. And while plenty of strings are being pulled behind the scenes to help Petty, in this environment, where even the No. 24 team of Hendrick Motorsports struggles to get sponsorship, it's going to be hard to find investors to pull together a third time to save NASCAR's King. Merely a figurehead at 73, the Hall of Famer's tenure in the sport could be nearing an end, truly the end of an era for a family that had its fourth-generation driver, Adam Petty, rising through the ranks until a tragic crash at New Hampshire in May 2000 changed everything.

Who's to blame in this whole mess? Gillett, for certain. But the rising cost of staying in business helped doomed teams like Petty's old two-car operation in the first place, forcing the entrance of Gillett and former investor group Boston Ventures to keep teams competitive with NASCAR's upper class. With NASCAR a group of private contractors, that makes the whole house of cards vulnerable the second these rich investors decide to pull out, costs now too high for individual, small-time businessmen to gain their footing in the sport. Here's to hoping the remaining owners will meet and find a way to control costs, but why do I have a feeling if that were going to happen they'd have already done so?

A quick note on Budweiser: I don't think they're all that concerned about this ugly ending, Geoff. They'll be sitting pretty on Kevin Harvick's car next year, and these type of disastrous finishes to deals are nothing new. We used to see plenty of driver swaps and business contracts torn apart at the peak of NASCAR's growth in the late 1990s-early 2000s.

I read that Tad G (Geschickter) of JTG confirmed Marcos will be in the 47 rest of year. Wondering if it was sponsor issues with the 09 & 71.

-- @Turboslady9493

Turboslady is referring to one of the innocent victims in this mess, an Australian who now has a sophomore slump of a different caliber. It was just this summer when Marcos Ambrose made the difficult decision to walk away from a JTG Daugherty contract that paid him through 2011, choosing instead to reunite with Ford after a miserable year filled with DNFs and disastrous endings (See: shutting off his engine while leading at Infineon to blow the win).

While Ambrose has shown some public signs of regret, his old team has already signed 2000 Cup champ Bobby Labonte as a replacement, planning to press on without Ambrose regardless of what happens with the RPM saga. Labonte would have jumped on board five races early, but Turboslady is right: Sponsorship from a local business in Corpus Christi (C & J Energy) means a lot to him, one of many behind-the-scenes hurdles that were never considered to make a switch happen.

That leaves Ambrose stuck in the No. 47, watching his possible new team go away and no ride to speak of for 2011, except down in his native Australia. And the No. 9 team, for now, will go with Aric Almirola and then possibly a driver who will be willing to race for free over the final three races of the season so that the team can save cash. Even Nationwide Series star Trevor Bayne is a possibility, but don't expect a high-level wheelman to fill a seat we're not even sure is going to exist for much longer.

Dale Jr. is not a waste of space. If he was given the car J.J. has every week, he would win, too. Junior should not have went to Hendrick because the team only cares about the sponsorship money Junior brought with him. It seems like J.J.'s crew chief is allowed to cheat after they were allowed to change a part prior to this last race. Bowyer was fined, but his car was legal at pre-race inspection. Read the book Arrogance and Accords and you will know why Hendrick has won so many championships.

-- Steve, Horseheads, NY

Ah, the Dale Jr. emails. We'll get to more in a second, running rampant after NASCAR's Most Popular Driver led 90 laps on Sunday and finished seventh. But I want to touch on Steve's little inside reference that J.J. was allowed to change a part on Sunday without penalty. That's true. NASCAR discovered a faulty driveshaft cover with the No. 48 car, and what I've heard from there is speculation run wild: three different stories abound why officials didn't like it, surrounding everything from the thickness of the cover to safety concerns to NASCAR just plain finding a crack in it and trying to be a good Samaritan.

The problem, as always, is none of these stories can be confirmed because NASCAR officials refuse to speak up. When you're dealing with four-time champion Johnson and crew chief Knaus -- a man who's been busted for multiple violations throughout a decade-long career -- it's a big deal for fans if you even find one of his sponsorship stickers out of place in pre-race inspection. Once this story broke, failing to properly explain what went on is unacceptable after NASCAR just penalized another Chaser 150 points for a serious rules violation.

Do I think the issue was anything major? No. But that's not the point. No explanation leaves the whole incident open to conjecture, and that's the type of "closed door" policy that continues to alienate the sport from its fans. Just look at the NFL and its pro-activity over the past weekend, on issues from a controversial replay to enforcing helmet-to-helmet hits officials felt were detrimental to the sport. And you wonder why stock car execs scratch their heads on how they're losing viewership to the pigskin every Sunday...

Oh, on that book Arrogance and Accords, it centers in part on Mr. Hendrick's conviction for mail fraud back in 1997. Haven't read it, but it comes highly recommended.

I really enjoy reading your columns. The more Sprint Cup I watch this year, the more I think Dale Earnhardt Jr. should ask to be released from his contract with Rick Hendrick and focus on being an owner. Junior hasn't been the same since that race in which he received some pretty serious burns in 2004. I don't know if it's the fact that he's spooked about how he got out of the car or if he's just lost since the whole episode with DEI. Either way, I really don't see him being a factor as a driver again, and I've been following NASCAR well over 20 years.

I really believe Rick Hendrick would let him out of his contract to focus on JR Motorsports. What do you think?

- Ann, Council Bluffs, Iowa

Interesting theory, Ann, one I don't fully believe, but you can't argue with the numbers: just six wins in the last six years since that Infineon sports car wreck nearly left him seriously injured or worse. As for your second point, I don't think Earnhardt will be let out of his contract until the end of 2011 at the earliest. Sunday was the most promising run he's had in awhile, leading more laps in one race since Richmond -- another one of his best tracks -- in September 2008. But that's not all that surprising for Junior to do well out in the hills of rural Virginia, scoring four top-10 finishes in six starts at the track with Hendrick Motorsports.

A more telling sign of his struggles are continued disappointing performances on intermediates, tracks that make up roughly half of the 36 dates on the Sprint Cup schedule. Check out this stat: In the two years-plus since his last win at Michigan in June 2008, Earnhardt has just a lone top-5 finish -- that same track in August 2009 -- on his resume for ovals 1.5 to 2 miles in length. Compare that to two top-5 finishes on the restrictor plate monster of Daytona alone, and it's easy to see Junior's biggest weakness going forward. That's why one race is not a Lance McGrew job saver, even a 'Dega victory unlikely to sway the momentum heading toward a likely crew chief swap in the offseason.

The problem with NASCAR isn't Jimmie Johnson, the problem is the Chase. If not for the Chase, we'd have had other champions besides Johnson the last four years and we'd still have had exciting seasons and great finishes. The drivers who were successful the entire season (just like the great champions of old) would win the Cup. The Chase has not only managed to take 31 drivers out of the race but also allowed all the history of the sport to be tossed in the trash can.

How can you compare Chase Champions to Non-Chase Champions? Dale Sr., Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon had to run an entire season well to win. They competed week after week to finish as good as possible. Without the Chase format, J.J. would have two championships (a third possibly this year) and been considered a great driver -- now, he and his crew chief are thought to have mastered the Chase and know how to finish well. His championships fail in comparison to the drivers who raced the entire season and won. Matt Kenseth has a solid year, wins the Cup and Brian France has a hissy fit and changes everything. NASCAR won't admit that the Chase has changed the sport for the worst, but that's what fans think. Thanks.

-- Tim, Austin, Texas

Now wait a minute there, Tim. You just said you can't compare Chase champions to non-Chase champions, and then you called Jimmie out for not being as successful as some of the sport's greats. Look, it's true if you run the numbers the No. 48 would have only won two of these four titles under the old system. But here's the problem: this team is as good in the Chase as anyone else because it knows how to master the current system. The team only focuses on certain regular season races instead of every one because making the top 12, not leading the points at the end of Richmond in September, is the goal. Who knows how Johnson and Knaus would have raced if the old format was in place all along?

Remember, in 2002 he led the points as a rookie and finished 90 points short to Kenseth for a title in '03, the last year NASCAR had the non-Chase format in place. For all we know, the man could have wound up ripping off six straight titles instead of four, sitting pretty as a man going after a legendary tie with seven-timers Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty this fall.

The bottom line in these things is you just never know, so why compare apples to oranges? The more I've learned about how the No. 48 approaches its season, the more I've changed my historical approach to stop doing it.

That guy from last week, Miller Moore, babbled that Waltrip bought his ride from Junior Johnson. Cale Yarborough didn't win those three-straight championships on his own either as Miller says. Cale was driving for none other than Junior Johnson. DW got the Junior Johnson ride because he was tired of dealing with the DiGard Team and it's shady dealings. The team wasn't paying him properly and were building engines that would qualify well, but blow up during the race, and were caught cheating during the 1976 Daytona 500 qualifying. Junior was known to go for drivers who took risks, drove hard and were in their early 30's. Hence why he had Cale when he did. He went after DW, not the other way around. Junior also brought the money, not DW. Junior was a master at getting sponsorship. People seem to forget or refuse to realize that before his 1983 crash during the Daytona 500, DW was well on his way to probably being the greatest ever. That crash slowed him down, and as Ed Hinton wrote, "the neon went out of Darrell Waltrip."

-- Will Bledsoe, Georgetown, Ky.

Great history lesson, Will. This is one of many reasons DW should not have been overlooked in this year's class, and why I'll never stop arguing Bud Moore and Ned Jarrett, for all their great accomplishments to the sport, were the wrong choices for the Hall of Fame: Second Edition.

Having been a NASCAR fan through all the years you mention (except Lee Petty's tenure and part of Gentleman Ned's), I could not agree with you more. Your assessment is incisive, accurate, fair and extremely well-written. NASCAR has become its own worst enemy, and the HOF debacle is no exception.

-- Ken Durham, Littleton, Colo.

Thanks for the support, Ken! Email traffic was about 50/50 on that controversial column, and I appreciated hearing fans' strong opinions on both sides of the fence.

And finally, our out-of-left field comment for the week...

"The only way I heard of you is when Dave Moody put the verbal smack down on you. Try some type of gossip mag. That fits you."

-- @Ben_Frazier

Gossip mag! You mean we've been purchased by the National Enquirer? I better go check that out...

"Not too bad for r first race together. Can't wait for the next 4! Man, I'm happy to be at red bull racing :)" - @kaseykahne, days after a difficult divorce at Richard Petty Motorsports got him into his 2011 ride five races early.