Trading Paint: Still chasing the Chase

Jerry Bonkowski

All the hoopla leading up to the Chase for the Nextel Cup is over. Now it's put up or shut up time for the 10 drivers who have qualified for NASCAR's 10-race "playoff."

The one thing I fear, though, is that with all the excitement and interest generated in qualifying for the Chase over the last several weeks, that the actual Chase itself might wind up being anticlimactic.

But before we worry about the Chase kicking off this weekend in New Hampshire, it's time to delve into this week's Trading Paint mailbag. We received a number of letters over the week that cover as much ground as this week's one-mile oval in the heart of New England.

While I can't respond to every email I receive, I do read every one and strive to pick out the best ones to use each week. Now, sit back in your seat, strap on your mouse and let's see what's on readers' minds this week.

CHASE TALK (Jerry Bonkowski's Chase coverage)
Do you think it is right for the racers who are on top, like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., to work as hard as they have and then have everybody all of a sudden be just five points behind? It doesn't make any sense to me. Please explain.

Nancy Apple
Murfreesboro, N.C.

It may not make sense, Nancy, but that's just the way it is in the new Chase for the Nextel Cup system. Whether drivers, team owners, media and fans love it or hate it, we're stuck with it for the foreseeable future – that is, unless the next 10 weeks prove to be a bust. At the same time, interest and excitement in the last several weeks has increased considerably, which is exactly what NASCAR hoped would happen when it put the Chase system into place.

I think to make the chase for 11th place more exciting, what if we reset all the drivers from 11th place on back to zero and let them fight it out for the 11th spot? I think it would give all those on the outside that didn't make the top 10 a better chance for the incentive of the extra cash and make the races for them more competitive. If they don't, then I see the remainder of the season for most of those not close to 11th as having a 10-race test session. Not very exciting to me! What do you think?

Joe Jackson
Richmond, Va.

I think your idea has a lot of merit, Joe. It would give drivers who have struggled a "second season," so to speak, to get their programs back on track. But at the same time, wouldn't your system diminish what some of the higher-ranked, non-Chase qualifying drivers and teams have done in the first 26 races? I think that the Chase for the Nextel Cup is a good gimmick, but if you extend more gimmickry to the rest of the teams, you run a big risk of alienating fans and diminishing the value of the end product.

Now that the top 10 have been picked, how will the rest of the races conduct qualifications? Will the top 10 automatically be put in positions 1-10 and the rest of the field qualifying 11-43? And what about if a guy in the top 10 starts near the rear of the field? Will it make him more of a target for the (you know it's coming) teaming up to help teammates, blocking, etc. (but everyone says that won't happen). Sure it won't.
John Fort

Races as we know them will have no change whatsoever, John. Where a driver ranks in the top 10 will have absolutely no bearing on qualifying, laps lead or race outcomes. Drivers who haven't qualified for the Chase for the Nextel Cup still have every chance to qualify No. 1 and win races.

Keep telling yourself that the chase for the chump system is good. Sooner or later you might just believe it. All you are going to have is a hollow product, a gimmicked up made-for-TV PR lapdog for a "champ" that can never compare himself with any other true champion, and another version of the WWE.

Gary Hammond
Norfolk, Va.

Until or if a better system is devised, the Chase is what we have, so we have to deal with it, good or bad, like or dislike, Gary. Sure, it's a gimmick. Sure, it's not a fan or driver favorite. But you have to admit that it has generated increased excitement and interest in the series, especially over the last several weeks. I just worry that these last 10 weeks will turn into a bust. This is the hand we've been dealt, Gary, and we just have to play it out and see what the next hand may hold.

In the future, do you expect NASCAR to adjust the schedule to include a greater variety of tracks in the Chase (road course, a couple superspeedways, some short tracks, etc.)?

Matt Miller
Williamsburg, Va.

I don't think you'll see the schedule altered much more than we already see it, Matt. If anything, NASCAR may ditch one of its two road course events in favor of a race at a bigger track. Also, NASCAR is looking at putting races at new tracks that don't currently hold Nextel Cup events. That means some existing tracks that currently host two races per season may wind up losing one of those yearly events to accommodate new events.

ON THE MARK ("Playing favorites" Sept. 10, 2004)
Bravo! I applaud you for your outstanding commentary regarding Mark Martin. It is bang, on the Mark. Wow! Mark Martin is and always will be a true champion in the hearts of true NASCAR fans. I totally agree with you, Jerry. At the close of this racing season, there is no driver who deserves to be center stage accepting the Nextel Cup championship trophy other than the reMARKable Martin. Keep up the good work, Jerry. I really like a guy who's not afraid to call it like it is.

Tom Martin (no relation to Mark)
Kimberling City, Mo.

Your story on Mark Martin was right on. A lot of people think Martin has snuck in there, but with what would have been a third, maybe second at Chicago [blown engine] and second or third at the Brickyard [blown tire], he already would have been safely in the top 10. That is why the new point system is the best thing NASCAR has done with the rules. Every one of the last 10 races is huge. Before the rule change, the urgency and importance in each and every race wasn't there. It is like playoffs in all the other major sports. In the next 10 races you will see the intensity of the racing go up threefold. Keep up the good work and go Mark Martin!

James C. Paris

It's nice that you are supporting Mark Martin. Martin needs all the help he can get. However, with Martin ending up in the top 10, he's just denying a spot for a real championship contender. Martin never has and never will win a championship. He lacks the killer instinct that it takes to be a champion. If his car is good, he will race the wheels off of it. If his car is sub-par, he will be content to just run laps and then after the race complain that his car was junk.

Real champions take a bad situation and try to make it better. Martin takes a bad situation and just lives with it. Sorry, you are wasting your time and effort in wishing good fortune for Mark. It will all be for naught. Did it ever dawn on you why Martin has never won a championship? Your effort would be better served supporting Jarrett, Kahne, Harvick or even Bobby Labonte. Thanks for listening to my side. You have your way, I have mine. Have a great day.

Colin Baird
Van Buren, Ohio

Why did NASCAR let Jimmy Spencer off for what he did Saturday night at Richmond? It shows him going up on Casey Mears. Casey was in the run for the championship and he wasn't. That is not the first time for him to do something like that. They fine Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson for something stupid a few races back and let others go that need to be fined. Spencer is no different than Tony Stewart, yet they fine him for the same thing.

Carolyn Woods
Jesup, Ga.

As much as you may not want to hear this, Carolyn, Jimmy Spencer did not cause Casey Mears' crash. Rather, Casey cut across Jimmy's front end, leaving Spencer nowhere to go. It was a mistake by a young driver, and that's exactly the way NASCAR saw it. Sure, Jimmy can sometimes be labeled as an aggressor, but this time he was clearly innocent.

What happens to all the tires that are taken to each track that are not used?

Paul Stanger
Huntsville, Ala.

Good question, Paul. Most are sent back to Goodyear. However, some tires – especially those formulated for specific tracks like Talladega and Bristol – also are used for testing, particularly at those same tracks.

What do you feel were the reasons for the drop-off in the No. 29 team's performance in the second half of the season? I have heard of numerous changes [coming at] Richard Childress Racing. Do you feel Kevin Harvick is one of them? Thanks.

Rich Krouson
Westwood, Mass.

There's no question that RCR is an organization in disarray, Rich. I think you're going to see a number of changes within all three of its Cup teams during the offseason. I think Harvick is safe for 2005, as well as newcomer Jeff Burton in the No. 30. But I suspect that Robby Gordon will be released at season's end and we will see a different driver in the No. 31. I've heard rumors that it could be Ricky Craven, and even possibly – believe it or not – Kerry Earnhardt. RCR is an organization used to winning and earning championships, not one content with mediocre finishes. With no chance at the championship this season, I think you're going to see a lot of heads roll at RCR in the upcoming offseason.

Jimmie Johnson needs to grow up. What happened Saturday night in Richmond is called "racing," Jimmie. If Johnson was not already locked in, he would have been racing as hard as he could and also taking some chances to get in the Chase. Jeff Gordon, please buy your boy Johnson some cheese to go with his whine. And one more thing: Johnson, make sure you know who is to blame before you open your mouth. Your comments made you look stupid. Jimmy Spencer did nothing wrong. Leave the man alone.

Don "Buffalo" Stiffler
LaSalle, Mich.

It's great that NASCAR and Nextel were able to work out an agreement for sponsoring the Cup series. What doesn't seem right to me is how everything became Nextel Cup – Nextel Cup race records, Nextel Cup qualifying records, Nextel Cup champion Dale Earnhardt. If you look at all the records, they're all classified as Nextel Cup records on the NASCAR Web site.

Shouldn't the old records be maintained as Winston Cup records? With the major shift in the points system and a new sponsor, I think that would be a great way to delineate the modern era of NASCAR (Winston Cup) and the post-modern era (Nextel Cup).

Tim Sumpter
Dayton, Ohio

I agree with you, Tim. NASCAR has done a great disservice to R.J. Reynolds and its more than 30 years of sponsoring Winston Cup racing. There is no way NASCAR ever would be what it is today without RJR and the Winston Cup legacy. There's no rational reason in my mind not to distinguish between the two eras. Nextel is paying to support the series for this and the next nine years; it had nothing to do with the previous 50-plus and should not take credit for it.

When Brendan Gaughan jumped up to Cup cars, where did Penske come up with the number 77? Wouldn't it have been more in keeping with tradition for him to drive a car with a 2 somewhere in the number? Since he was 62 in trucks, that seems like it would have been a logical choice – it's not like anyone in Cup racing was using it.

Chris Ralston
Washington, D.C.

The 77 was a holdover number from Jasper Motorsports, which became partners with Penske Racing South after last season, thus opening a seat for Gaughan and a much-needed influx of cash, equipment and knowledge for the Jasper team.

How about that Carl Edwards?! He seems to have put new life into the 99 team. Was it a case of Jeff Burton leaving too soon or new blood bringing new energy?

David Roberts

I couldn't agree with you more, David. Edwards has definitely given the No. 99 team new life. That's not a knock against Burton, but sometimes things need to be changed to inject new energy into a situation that has become rather melancholy, and that's exactly what has happened with Burton leaving and Edwards joining the team. Given the incredible start that he has had, I predict very big things in the near future for Edwards.

I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your articles. I have been in the NASCAR world (and other forms of racing – remember those cars without fenders?) for many years now and, unfortunately, only recently have been reading your work regularly on Yahoo!

I enjoy your depth of analysis and your ability to compare today's world with the rich history that NASCAR carries. Your insight also tends to be quite impartial and I really appreciate that. Great job ... and thanks.

Russell Nile
Morristown, N.J.