Haulin’ the mail: NASCAR mailbag, Daytona Int’l Speedway week


Feb 23, 2014; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Dale Earnhardt Jr (88) beats NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Denny Hamlin (11) across the finish line to win the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

How do you feel about NASCAR not really being a sport?  —Tuupacca (@doge_e_fresh), via Twitter

First of all, I know this question is intended to be a slight on NASCAR and fire up the die-hard fan.  Having said that, I know it is a common question among casual or ‘non-fans’ and heck I am up for the debate.  Sport is defined in the dictionary as ‘an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature.’  Having read that description, NASCAR is clearly a sport. 

It requires a ton of skill (yes, even turning left at high speed requires the most highly tuned hand-eye coordination) and is extremely competitive in nature (have you ever seen a driver after they have been intentionally wrecked?).  I think what lies at the heart of this debate is not whether NASCAR or racing of any kind is a sport but rather: are the men and women who drive the machines, athletes?

We hit up our friends at Webster again for the definition of an athlete.  An athlete is ‘a person trained or gifted in exercises or contests involving physical agility, stamina, or strength; a participant in a sport, exercise, or game requiring physical skill.’  Again the definition makes it pretty cut and dry; if you participate in a sport (which we established NASCAR to be) then you are an athlete.  But, as long as the debate has been around this is not sufficient evidence to prove racers are athletes. 

One could argue that it (racing) does not require agility or strength.  They may be right.  You don’t even have to look far to see a driver say they, themselves, are not athletes. Carl Edwards, perhaps the most physically fit driver in NASCAR history said, “The fact is, you don’t have to be an athlete to be a successful racecar driver; it’s not a requirement. I’m okay with racing being different. You don’t have to be able to run fast or be strong.”

The debate rages on; perhaps there is no right answer. But, does it matter? Can any of us get into a racecar and drive it like they do on Sundays? A resounding No is uttered and that is why we love to watch — ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things.

I, personally, think all racers are athletes for two simple reasons: competition and physical skill.  But as far as NASCAR being a sport…pssssh that is a no-brainer.

What effect on team chemistry will the change in crew chiefs have on the #88 next season?  —Alan Lewis, via Fancred

A great question simply because this exact scenario has bitten Junior in the past.  When Junior made the move to drive for Hendrick Motorsports starting in the 2008 campaign he brought Tony Eury, Jr. along with him as crew chief.  Many (including myself) thought this would be the best course of action and yield the championship results that Junior Nation coveted.

We had lived through 2005 (when Eury was sent to crew chief for Michael Waltrip) and Junior quickly went through two crew chiefs (Peter Rondeau and Steve Hmiel) and suffered one of his most inconsistent seasons in his career.  Eury, Jr. would prove not to be the ‘band-aid’ to fix the #88 team.  Eury was relieved of his duties in 2009 having been replaced by Brian Whitesell and eventually Lance McGrew who then gave way to Steve Letarte (see a pattern here?).  Through these multiple changes on top of Junior’s pit box, the #88 team and driver have become famous for being ‘hard to work with.’

Whether it is being hard to work with or just in need of the right ‘personality’ there is not another driver in the garage that needs chemistry more than Junior.  To answer the question, I think the change will have a huge impact on the chemistry and success of the #88 next year.  If Rick Hendrick (and ultimately Junior) select the wrong successor to Letarte, Junior could slip back into the winless years and what-if questions.  Who knows?

What if Evernham decides to come back and crew for Junior? What if Hendrick moves Alan Gustafson or Kenny Francis or heaven forbid…Chad Knaus?  The true effect on this team, whether good or bad, will not be seen until the next crew chief is chosen.  From the silence at Hendrick surrounding this decision, they have either already made the choice…or just don’t want to face it yet.

Jun 28, 2014; Sparta, KY, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Brad Keselowski (2) celebrates in victory lane after winning the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

There has been two teams this year (plus Kevin Harvick) who have appeared to separate a bit from the pack.  Can anyone catch Hendrick or Penske and will the champion come from one of those teams this year?  —Bradley Davis, via Fancred

Catching dominant teams is one thing.  Passing them is a completely different animal.  One of the greatest unknowns in NASCAR every year is how each team and manufacturer is going to perform during the season.  Reason for this mystery is the ever changing rule packages and body designs.  Case in point, last year Joe Gibbs Racing dominated the Sprint Cup series with 12 wins.

This year, Gibbs seems a little behind the teams you mentioned above and only has 2 wins.  I do think that Stewart-Haas Racing and the Gibbs drivers will get their arms around the new 2014 rule package and win some races and ‘catch’ the dominant teams on performance.  I still think, however, that the champion will come from either the Hendrick or Penske stables and these teams will still be the class of the field most weekends.

If someone put a gun to my head right now (please don’t though) and asked me to name who I thought the 2014 Sprint Cup champion would be, I would say…Jeff Gordon.  Ol’ five time has looked great in 2014.  Gordon has qualified well, ran up front, led laps and most importantly…won.  Though wins are more important than ever, as a driver you still have to be consistent and avoid disaster race weekends.  Of the top drivers this year (Johnson, Harvick, Earnhardt Jr., Logano and Keselowski), Gordon has been the most ‘level’.  I’d put my money on the #24 to hoist the Cup in November.

Is Denny Hamlin having psychological issues that are keeping him from getting back to where he used to be before he got hurt? Or is it mechanical?  He just doesn’t seem to be the same driver since that happened.  Your thoughts?  —Brad Betts, via Fancred

This is a great question and one that seemingly no one is talking about.  Tony Stewart’s wreck last year in a sprint car was well publicized and has accounted for the ‘excuse’ of why Stewart still struggles from week to week (and rightfully so).  So why is it that Denny Hamlin, who was also in a wreck last year (causing him to miss a lot of the 2013 season), is in a slump or has something wrong with him?  The answer is simple: Hamlin has won.

Hamlin returned last year and was able to win at Homestead in the  2013 series finale and then he turned around and won the Shootout and a Duel at Daytona and then won again at Talladega this year.  Winning cures all pains and all sicknesses, right?  Perhaps all it did was wrongly tell people that Denny was completely healed and better than ever.

For those that watched last weekend’s race in Kentucky, you saw a different story in relation to Denny Hamlin.

The #11 Fed-Ex Toyota slammed hard into the Turn 4 wall only laps before the competition caution was to come out.  Hamlin gingerly exited his car and then proceeded to squat down beside it.  Shaken up? Sure…but it was what followed that concerned me.  Hamlin began to walk around the racecar and was visibly limping, badly.  He then clutched his back, stretched and then continued to limp to the safety vehicles surrounding his car.  I was immediately shocked and knew something was wrong.  I have been a fan for too long of sports where athletes just never are the same after a major injury.  Hamlin has that look…maybe like Stewart, he hasn’t healed fully yet.

Let’s hope that he heals fully and has no more issues but right now Hamlin is being more affected by his health than by what Joe Gibbs Racing is bringing to the track every week.

Jun 28, 2014; Sparta, KY, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Busch (18) drives ahead of Kasey Kahne (5) during the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

With the talks of Joe Gibbs Racing possibly adding a new driver will Kyle (Busch) still be driving the M&M’s car or have a different sponsor?  —Brad Betts, via Fancred

Let’s assume that the fourth Gibbs driver next year is Carl Edwards, as sources have reported.  I am along the same belief lines as those at Motorsport.com who said, “Still, it’s hard to fathom an athlete as health conscious as Edwards could embrace a brand with so little nutritional value.”  One would have to agree with them that it would be weird to see ‘Cousin Carl’ and his muscles talking about delicious peanut M&M’s when he has spoken for ‘healthier options’ like Subway.

Look for Busch to keep M&M’s as a sponsor and perhaps even bring Monster Energy Drink up to the Cup level for a few races (JD Gibbs as recent as last week had confirmed M&M’s would stay with Busch, though no announcement has been made).  I would look for Edwards to bring Subway with him to JGR and who knows maybe Mars Brand could work with Edwards and start a trail mix line that he could help promote.