By Tom Bowles
February 23, 2010

NASCAR's second weekend was difficult for two of its most popular stars: Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Promising starts for both have fizzled, leaving Las Vegas this week a crucial turning point.

A poor run by Patrick last Saturday left people openly criticizing her stock car future and invited four months of public hits to her racing psyche when she goes back to her full-time gig in the IndyCar Series. But another 35th place finish by Dale Jr. on Sunday would be even worse, bringing back nightmares of last year's career-worst slump. Junior will be 25th in points and already proven unable to handle the intermediate tracks that compose about half the 36 races on the circuit

Can both drivers turn it around this weekend? We'll discuss that, Matt Kenseth, and more in our weekly mailbag based on your feedback. But I can't say anything if you don't get in touch with me. Remember: the best ways to do so are at or to tweet me at NASCARBowles.

Alright, let's start with Danica ...

I've been watching auto racing since the mid-60s and Danica Patrick's car-handling skills are very good; well above average. She has picked the right team, and you're right about Tony Eury, Jr. He has gotten a very bad rap as well, but he knows how to handle her. It will take time, but she will do well. -- Franklin Marder, Los Angeles, CA

I agree. Time is what Danica needs, but it's not necessarily on her side. We're an instant gratification society, and what people are looking for is some kind of marquee moment that proves she's ready to run with the Big Boys. Finishes of 35th and 31st aren't what they're looking for, even though she's improved dramatically over the course of both her starts.

Part of the hysteria is that people have waited so long for a woman to succeed in NASCAR that the moment one appears, she is saddled with the weight of unrealistic expectations. That's a shame, because Sunday's Cup race was the perfect example of how patience can pay off for open-wheelers. F-1 convert Scott Speed, now in his second Cup season, put together an 11th at Fontana with former IndyCar champ Sam Hornish, Jr. right behind him in 16th. Two years ago, they would have wrecked driving the same equipment, proof that experience does eventually translate into solid results.

What do I expect from Danica in Vegas? At this point, a 20th would have to be a huge confidence-builder considering that she won't be back in the car for months. Most people think that's a pipe dream, but I think a lead-lap finish is possible considering how much she improved on Saturday -- in part due to how Tony Eury, Jr. continues to be the calm, reassuring voice she needs.

"You progressed a lot in this race, girl," he said two-thirds of the way through Saturday's race, when she was three laps off the pace and well out of contention for a solid finish. "I'm proud of you, what you've learned."

That kept her head on straight despite the obvious frustration of running at the back, and she eventually started passing cars in the closing laps en route to 31st. So as long as Danica keeps her temper in check and doesn't end up wrecked on Saturday, I think we'll see her best race in a stock car yet -- it just won't be good enough for her critics.

Do you think it has crossed anyone's mind that Dale Jr. simply cannot figure out the CoT? I do not think it is a knock on him. Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd, Front Row Joe, Dale Jarrett, etc. could not handle the cars, and they cut back their schedules or retired. It seems that when driving talent mattered more than "aero push", Jr. was a force to be reckoned with. But once engineering became the number one issue with these cars, he cannot drive them anymore. Thoughts?-- Mike Murphy, Janesville, WI

Mike, your theory carries a lot of weight. The CoT typically loosens up in corners, which makes it difficult for Junior to run his typical rim-riding groove against the outside wall. How many times have you seen him smack the wall at some point during a race the past few years? As we saw with Kevin Harvick during the last laps of Sunday's race, all it takes is one small hit to dramatically alter the handling of your car. Earnhardt also gets bored easily with testing, and struggles to perform during the same type of back-breaking exercises off the track that make his teammate Jimmie Johnson a four-time champ.

Despite his lack of focus, I still think a different crew chief would make a difference for Earnhardt. Despite his second-place finish at Daytona, there's nothing to suggest that anything in his on-track relationship with Lance McGrew will send them from pretenders to contenders. In fact, Junior admitted during a chat with our Lars Anderson that he and McGrew have become good friends. Usually, that's a key for driver/crew chief success, but for someone like Earnhardt who needs the whip cracked on top of the pit box, I consider it a detriment.

If there's any consolation for his fans, Vegas offers hope of a turnaround for Earnhardt as he's been 11th, 2nd, and 10th in his last three starts there. Anything less than a repeat performance of his 500 finish, though, will squander what little Daytona momentum he has left.

Your article on Matt [Kenseth] was totally out in left field. You obviously don't know Matt very well. If you ever listened in on the conversation during a race with Matt and Blick you would know that most of the time Blick didn't have a clue about what to do with Matt's input on how the car was handling. Most of the time, Blick asked Matt what he thought they should do during pit stops. I think the change should have been made as soon as they missed the Chase. That way, they could have had 10 races to get familiar with each other and start out with a bang for 2010. -- Buckywy, Tazewell, TN

I beg to differ. My main point in Friday's column was that Kenseth's not a "rally the troops" type of guy, a Mark Martin-like veteran leader who commands respect. He just wants to jump in, drive the cars, and have someone else handle that role. It's something he admitted during his press conference Friday:

"I'm a big football fan, so watching Drew Brees fire up his guys before the game with all his chants and his singing, and you see Ray Lewis firing up the [Ravens] defense and then see those guys ready to go out and do the best they can. I'm not a very good leader. I'll admit that I'm probably not the guy to do that, and I just felt there was something that needed to be changed, and, unfortunately, it usually starts with the driver or the crew chief. I just felt like we needed to see if it's different or better and get everybody on the same page."

Now, if there's one thing even the casual fan knows about Matt's old head wrench, it's that he's not exactly Mr. Outgoing. Drew Blickensderfer is more of an engineering genius, someone who's great at fine-tuning a car. But he's not exactly going to light up a room with his presence. And more than ever, a great leader is what Roush Fenway appears to need in this era of Hendrick's "teamwork wins championships" philosophy. Todd Parrott is the type of guy who can fill the role, lighting the fire under a whole program while putting a little dose of personality in the No. 17.

I do agree with you about the timing of the change. Kenseth also took responsibility for it on Friday:

"[It was] 100 percent my fault," he said. "Jack [Roush] talked to me in November and asked if we thought we were okay with everything we had going on. I really felt like we needed to give Drew a full year and a full offseason. We knew he was working on some things to try and make it better, so it's really hard to explain the timing of the change. It doesn't make any sense. It's not really good for anybody, but it's just kind of the way it went down. I thought instead of dragging it out, it was just something that needed to be done."

Even though the timing is off, I still think the Parrott-Kenseth duo will do just fine, as evidenced by the 7th in their first outing together last Sunday. But don't expect Blick to stay down for long. I see him popping up very soon somewhere else. For some reason, Ryan Newman clicks as a driver I think he'd work well with if they ever made a change at Stewart-Haas.

"So I haven't totally forgot how to drive! Great for my confidence, last year was harder than anyone will really know." -- @scottspeed, after an 11th place finish at Auto Club Speedway Sunday. It was his career-best for the F-1 convert at an unrestricted track.

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