Speaking of that historic achievement, it seems that many are still struggling to come to grips with how the No. 48 dominates the Sprint Cup circuit. Their angst becomes the focal point of another SI.com Mailbag... but before we begin, just a reminder to keep those questions coming. Tbowles81@yahoo.com is where you'll find me.
Several racing journalists, including you, attribute Hendrick's dominance to "sharing of information." I personally don't believe Knaus shares as much info with other teams as the media believes, but that's debatable. Despite my belief, I don't think information sharing, or lack thereof, is the reason why the 24 has yet to reach that elusive fifth championship or why Dale Jr. has fallen from contender to "Kyle Petty status" (OUCH!). I believe it's the new car. Some drivers, especially the 48, have adjusted to it much better than others. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe the 24 has won only two or three races in the new car, and the 88 has only won one points race, and that was on fuel mileage, which doesn't count to a fan like myself! Even a blind squirrel funds a nut every now and then. Your thoughts?-- Wayne, Savannah, GA
It's an interesting theory, Wayne. I did some research and came up with driver win totals for the 88 Car of Tomorrow races that have been won so far. Here's the list of the top eight since its debut in early 2007:
Jimmie Johnson - 19Kyle Busch - 13Carl Edwards -- 11Denny Hamlin -- 6Tony Stewart -- 6Mark Martin -- 5Jeff Gordon -- 4Kasey Kahne -- 4
If you look at the names on that list, they're all drivers who would be contenders whether the new car was around or not. But I understand where Wayne's coming from about Gordon. The sport's winningest active driver is just seventh-best on this list ... and consider who's above him. In just one year driving a Hendrick-supported car, Martin has more wins than Gordon has in the last three. The driver we once called "Wonder Boy" is wondering where all the magic went. He's won just one race in the last two years during the worst Victory Lane slump of his career.
So, did new equipment and the different way to drive it fuel Gordon's decline? A little. But I still think Gordon's created his own monster with the way his team has constantly shared information with the No. 48. Contrary to popular belief, it hasn't always been that way at Hendrick. When Gordon was paired with crew chief Ray Evernham, the duo combined for three titles in seven years, but Evernham often hid information from the group in a way that caused a serious decline once he left the organization in late 1999. From that point on, Hendrick was determined to impose a "teamwork" culture, especially when he expanded to four cars with Johnson in 2002.
"One of the big influences was when the 48 came on and the 24 shared everything with them seamlessly in that way," Gordon admits. "That's what really changed things. It may have taken a little bit of an advantage away [from us]; but I think it gave a bigger advantage to Hendrick Motorsports as a whole."
The numbers back Gordon up, with Hendrick recording more CoT wins (30) than anyone else. But it's cost Gordon individually, as the No. 48 team has utilized the information it discovers from the No. 24 better than anyone else.
So why has Junior not benefited from that Hendrick philosophy? Keep in mind that his organization with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. has struggled to adapt to the new car (in three years, they've won only twice). He also had a crew chief in Tony Eury, Jr. for years who doesn't have as much of an engineering background as, say, Alan Gustafson does for Martin. (Remember, Hendrick's biggest changes this offseason have been to rush engineering types to the No. 88, working on its overall setup and chassis design before it gets to the track.)
Still, whenever you have a rule change, it's going to benefit certain driving styles more than others, and it's obvious that Earnhardt struggles to maintain a feel for the handling of his Chevrolet during a race. The big complaint from drivers about this car is that it lacks downforce, and it seems that Junior struggles with the loose condition that often creates. As a guy who loves the top groove at most tracks, he can't break loose and save it; the second he's out of control, he's hitting the wall. How often have we seen Junior scrape the outside wall while driving this new car?
That's why a rule change like bringing back the old rear spoiler to add downforce (currently being discussed) can only benefit NASCAR's Most Popular Driver. People forget that the man won 17 times with the old car, so wouldn't that talent return with the change in equipment?
More a comment than a question, but I think Danica coming to NASCAR is exciting for the sport. The Nationwide series needs a shot of publicity to draw some attention away from the Sprint Cup series, and she should do that, and possibly bring additional sponsors into the sport and the different series. Now, if only we could get the Sprint Cup regulars out of the Nationwide Series (Busch, Edwards, Kenseth, Harvick, etc.) so the series can try to develop its own identity. I do find it interesting that three of those four didn't make the Chase, so maybe they really did spread themselves too thin. Being a Jeff Gordon fan, I used to think that the HMS driver would improve his Sprint results by running a Nationwide race on the same track as the Sprint race, but he and Jimmie Johnson have disproved that theory.-- Dave Finley, Glen Ellyn, IL
One thing that worries me, Dave, is Danica's concern about running the Nationwide race at Daytona because there are too many Cup stars in it. As we talked about last week, it's not like Derek Jeter comes down to AAA baseball to hit .400 in his spare time. Patrick shouldn't have to start her climb through the stock car ranks racing against the best in the business, but I'm afraid that no matter where she makes her debut, she'll be buried under eight to 10 Cup stars who tend to dominate the Nationwide races they enter.
However, for all those Cup drivers who think that running for a championship elsewhere is the way to go, more practice doesn't always make perfect. The top six Cup drivers in last year's point standings combined for just 11 Nationwide Series starts, which averages out to less than two per driver. Perhaps being able to focus on one series gives them a leg up when it matters most, compared to those who have to worry about two or more series over a course of the weekend. Isn't it common sense that you're more successful when focusing on one thing at a time? I'm just sayin'...
Please explain Dale Junior's popularity to someone who feels NASCAR is contrived anyway. The racing world's version of the WWE. Caution seemingly every time a driver begins to run away from the field. Chevy dominance for sooooo many years. Selective rules interpretation and enforcement. On and on. And in the middle of it all, the league's most popular driver hasn't won, and he's barely challenged though supported by the league's best team and owner. Yet he continues to be the most popular driver. Based on results, he'd be out of a job almost anywhere else in the racing world. I don't understand! -- Lyn Wechsler, Rochester, NY
Junior's popular for several reasons. Even though he's 35, younger fans in the 18-34 crowd relate to him. He owns his own bar (Whisky River), his house has appeared on MTV Cribs, and he's got the type of laid-back, well-rounded personality that appeals to fans well beyond NASCAR's Southern roots. Yeah, he likes to hunt and fish, but he's also a self-confessed computer geek, spending late nights racing online in simulation leagues all over the country against Joe Shmos like you and me.
That makes him relatable to all sorts of people, and when you add in his shy, introverted personality, he carries a special charisma that few in sports ever have. And while Junior hasn't won recently, he had a stretch from 2001-04 where he won 13 times -- including a Daytona 500 - and contended for the championship twice. That's going to earn you some loyal fans regardless of how long you've been slumping.
Keep in mind, too, how popular his dad was during his final years in NASCAR. After Dale, Sr.'s death at Daytona in February 2001, millions were left in mourning and searching for a way to honor their favorite athlete's legacy. Rooting for his son is one way for them to feel like they're doing that.
Tweet Of The Week: Hamlin, after leaving a NASCAR meeting that informed him of possible rule changes for 2010 (the series is rumored to be making a major announcement on Jan. 21):
"They're giving us the ring... The gloves... Now we have to put on the show."
Does this mean we'll see him and rival Brad Keselowski coming to blows in 2010 -- with no penalties for bad behavior? I guess time will tell how "loose" NASCAR's willing to get...
Have a nominee for Tweet of the Week? E-mail Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him yourself -- his handle is NASCARBowles.