By Tom Bowles
July 06, 2010

Saturday marked the halfway point of NASCAR's 36-race season, but Friday was the sport's real milestone. For the first time, Dodge and Ford did battle in vehicles that were supposed to resemble their factory counterparts, the Challenger and Mustang. The race may have been held in the Nationwide Series, but it was a 250-mile experiment for the big leagues as NASCAR toys with ideas for a next-generation car (what should we call it? CoT squared?), one that's rumored to hit the Cup level as early as 2013. That rollout is already considered a make-or-break moment, one that must address changes that reduce the dreaded "aero push" and keep the leader from having the luxury of sprinting away.

These Nationwide models also carry an important concept the Cup CoT missed: a design aimed to meet fans' approval. Obviously, a Dale Earnhardt Jr. victory was the icing on the cake, the final time he'll supposedly ever drive his father's No. 3. But besides NASCAR's Most Popular Driver heading to Victory Lane, did the race itself do the same for the fans who support him?

Your reaction leads off our latest mailbag. As always, don't hesitate to add your thoughts at or @NASCARBowles on Twitter.

On to Friday night ... the majority opinion could be summed up as:

Challenger looked good. Other ones looked lame to me.

-- @Matt_Kacar

I have to agree with Matt on Dodge. It's hard to find any critics on the Challenger, despite taking up just five spots on the 43-car grid. No question, they take first prize for achieving this project's main goal: matching the racing model with what you see on the street. Judge for yourself below:

Now, compare that with the new Ford Mustang, that got a lot of flak from critics for looking too generic in comparison:

My take after seeing those pictures? I'm in the minority; while seeing the differences, I still love both Ford and Dodge. Sure, the sport could have allowed a little more creativity on the body style but the bottom line is when you see the cars race around, you can tell the difference between Ford, Chevy, Dodge and Toyota. That's the first time I can honestly say that in maybe the last 10 years.

Now, it's time to get Chevy and Toyota on board. It's completely irrelevant whether the new Impalas and Camrys look like their counterparts on the street -- because no one actually wants to see them raced on the track. The cars are also the same ones raced over on the Cup side, making it hard to recognize any differences -- yet they represented 31 of the 43 cars in the field. That's well over 70 percent! No wonder people are complaining NASCAR didn't go far enough.

A key component for 2011 is to get the rest of these manufacturers on board. Camaros should have been an automatic switch for GM, and if only Toyota could bring back the Celica ... a guy can dream, right?

Tom, new cars aren't exactly a novel concept. Maybe they want to emulate the Trans Am cars they raced with at Road America, that were something like 12 seconds a lap faster than the Nationwide Series cars. And those cars were Mustangs, Camaros, Corvettes, Jags. The Trans Am Series has been around 30 years; not exactly revolutionary, NASCAR.

-- Ryan McManus

Ryan, I get your point about Trans Am and making NASCAR look like amateurs with their professional, largely wreck-free event compared to the ugly bumper cars that happened on the stock car side at Road America. There's one important competitive difference, though: Tony Ave led flag-to-flag for the 23-lap distance in Trans Am, a far cry from the seven lead changes in the Nationwide event the day before.

I think the bigger point you make was shared by a majority of fans, that these changes weren't radical enough. My response is that right now, NASCAR's fighting a four-alarm fire with the equivalent of a bucket full of water and a Super Soaker. That's not going to work; with fans unleashing years of frustration or simply leaving in droves, incremental fixes just don't fly. Major design changes pose a big gamble, yes, but they also produce the type of attention-grabbing headlines you need to win the fans back.

So my final grade on the new cars? About a C+. It was initially rated a B, but you, the fans, have spoken. And in the end, your opinions are going to drive where this sport is headed going forward.

On to some Silly Season Qs...

Tom, if hypothetically RPM folds, what team does Ford go after as a replacement? I know that they want eight full-time teams, so where would they go?

-- Nick Rolando, Orlando

Nick's talking about my Thursday article where I suggested RPM would drastically reduce it's Cup participation next year. If that happens, expect Ford to then turn to small-time Front Row Motorsports, a fledgling three-car team that's struggled to gain traction with rookie Kevin Conway and former Yates Racing drivers Travis Kvapil and David Gilliland.

Beyond that, there's really not a whole lot of teams out there to poach right now. The big guys -- Gibbs, Hendrick, Childress - are locked into long-term manufacturer deals, leaving the Blue Oval more likely to contract and go with a smaller, more focused effort despite it's earlier expansion wishes. Hey, it's worked for Dodge; just take a look at how well Kurt Busch is doing this season.

My question is will a Ford driver make the Chase?

-- @goofyjoshy

Man, Josh, I really don't know. Carl Edwards had a sixth-place finish Saturday, but the biggest run may have come from Matt Kenseth, whose No. 17 is on its third crew chief this year and on the verge of a freefall. Making it through Daytona's "Big One," Kenseth's 15th-place finish gives him a 191-point cushion on Mark Martin with eight races left. Seventh in points, he's the team's best bet to make the Chase even though it won't be pretty.

As for Edwards and Biffle ... I'm not so sure. Edwards has struggled on the intermediates that usually make up his bread and butter, and two laps led leaves him tied for 38th best in that category. He and Biffle have combined for just three top-5 finishes, while Martin alone has five. With the No. 5 car, Ryan Newman's No. 39, and even guys like Clint Bowyer and long shot David Reutimann on the outside looking in, you've got to figure at least one's making it through. I say they give Biffle a TKO, while Edwards gets in by the skin of his teeth ... but he has no margin for error.

In one of his articles, SI writer Cory McCartney asked why Red Bull Racing hasn't used Vickers' illness as an "opportunity" to try Travis Pastrana out in NASCAR. And I have to agree! Surely he can do no worse than Casey Mears and Reed Sorensen! Thoughts?

-- Wayne, Savannah, Ga.

Cory makes some good points, and you're not the only one who thinks that, Wayne. The X Games champ has tested the waters a bit, accepting an invitation to participate in Tony Stewart's dirt car charity race, the Prelude to the Dream, last month.

"I like a lot of different types of cars and like every racer, I hope to do well," Pastrana said then, attributing 90 percent of his stock car knowledge to Days of Thunder. "I feel a bit overconfident and underprepared."

Making a rookie mistake in the dirt race, Pastrana finished three laps down in 23rd after being penalized for passing under yellow, among other things. But he certainly left that experience feeling good about his run.

"I really like the restarts, where they put everyone close together -- I actually was able to start picking off some people," he explained. "The car was great. It took me a long time to get it figured out. I started out using high lines, low lines, until I finally found a groove that started working for me with about 20 laps to go. I definitely want to practice a little before I come back. But, definitely, this is really cool."

Is "cool" enough to force a commitment? I'm not so sure, especially since the future of Red Bull's NASCAR program is less in flux than you might think. They're not expanding to three cars next year, and I expect Scott Speed's contract to get extended -- Austrian owner Dietrich Mateschitz remains high on him despite some recent struggles. Brian Vickers is also likely to conquer his health problems and return, leaving no open spots for Pastrana ... for now.

At the same time, he's watching closely as rival Ricky Carmichael successfully transitions into NASCAR's AA level, the Craftsman Trucks, while former freestyle motocross rival Bryan Deegan says he's getting into NASCAR next season. If Deegan starts experiencing some success, I could see Pastrana joining the club. But rally racing is on the upswing while stock car racing is struggling a bit. A move to stock cars would also kill the type of New Year's jump type stunts he's built a name on, at least during the season. So I'd put the chances at about 35/65, 50/50 if Vickers can't ever come back.

"Back from the pool, I'm pretty sure I was the best looking guy there. Everyone was staring, could have also been the leopard thong? Not sure." @jjyeley1, or J.J. Yeley's way to escape the heat wave sweeping the country.

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