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The Sprint Cup championship playoffs open on a sour note: Clint Bowyer is KO'd, and NASCAR is 0-2.


   Clint Bowyer (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


By Mike Mulhern

    DOVER, Del.

   So much for a feel-good, warm-and-fuzzy NASCAR story to brighten things.
   In fact it looks like stock car racing's playoff opener at Loudon, N.H., was a bust, even a disaster, all the way around.
   The Clint Bowyer jeans-and-cowboy-boots-and-remember-Earnhardt saga lasted barely three days before the underdog hero story went down in flames.
   Without saying really much about why and what, NASCAR just gave Bowyer and his team 'the death penalty,' with that 150-point penalty, a $150,000 fine, and six-week suspension for crew chief Shane Wilson and his number two.
   That on top of a woeful 2.3 TV rating for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship chase opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Like, the worst TV ratings for a chase race since the chase began.
   Great start to the playoffs.
   Which channel is the NFL on today?
   Well, consider this: now Bowyer really does have nothing to lose in these playoffs. And he's probably mad as hell. Rivals be warned.
   Team owner Richard Childress says he will appeal the harsh penalties, all the way up to NASCAR' ultimate arbitrator, John Middlebrook.
   However winning appeals in NASCAR's justice system is a long shot at best.

    Does Clint Bowyer have a prayer of a chance of winning his appeal? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   But the bigger picture here is what in the world to do about this stock car racing conundrum? Is NASCAR simply going to settle for 2.3 TV ratings from here on?
   Let's see: Fox just hired JLo – no, not Joey Logano – to work 'American Idol (now if NASCAR could get $485,000 for each of it's 30-second TV ads, this sport might be FatCity), and Chevrolet just hired Spike Lee to help run the Chevy ad account...
   Maybe NASCAR needs to start thinking really, really far out of the box, to get things jump-started. NASCAR insiders say that New York City championship media 'blitz' was a big bomb. And Wednesday night's Round Three of NASCAR's BET-TV venture was a bit slow and less-than-enticing 'reality.'
   And what to make of those strange week-late questions from NASCAR officials about Bowyer's Richmond car being 'out of round,' maybe?
   Talk about a late penalty flag....
   NASCAR inspects race cars several times at each track every weekend, and then after the race too, and then hauls a few back to its Concord, N.C. R&D center for more detailed examination. But after all that, it took NASCAR inspectors more than a week after the Richmond race to first raise questions – in public at least -- about the legality of the car that Bowyer drove in the regular season finale to barely make the championship chase?
   (Would it be unfair to note that the Richmond track is owned by NASCAR's France family while the Loudon, N.H., track is owned by arch-rival Bruton Smith?)
   A little more transparency here might help NASCAR's credibility.
   And the general public might be more than a little curious how a car that passes so many pre-race inspections can suddenly be found illegal three days later.
   Will NASCAR now change its pre-race inspection procedures?
   Remember the days when if a car got to the starting line without getting busted, it was pretty much considered legal?

   Clint Bowyer, first under the finish line at Loudon, N.H. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The biggest plus this week so far has been Smith's announcement of a deal to build the biggest TV set in the world at Charlotte Motor Speedway for next spring's 600. A TV set on the backstretch that is actually bigger than the White House.

   Well, that, and maybe the new table games here at the track will perk things up: Blackjack, Craps, Roulette, Pai Gow Poker, Spanish 21, Baccarat, and 3-Card Poker. (Though somehow I don't picture our NASCAR crowd really getting into Baccarat....)

   Maybe it's time for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win a race again. Maybe that would help.
Alas, this probably isn't the place. Earnhardt, who ran a strong fourth at Loudon, hasn't done that great here lately; and his only tour win at this track came back in 2001.
   Just what's inside Earnhardt's head these days isn't easy to figure out. And crew chief Lance McGrew concedes "it's more than just one event that builds momentum."
   Loudon, McGrew says, "was nice...a good run...a place we historically run well at.
   "I'd prefer to go (next) to a place we historically run well, after a good finish. But we haven't run well at Dover, and it's been awhile since Dale has run well at Dover.
   "Dover is a real tough place, and your car has to be very, very good to be fast all day long, and the driver has to like it."
   Plus, McGrew adds, it's all-but critical to qualify well, because pit road is so tight and difficult: "There are literally only two or three good pit boxes."

    Crew chief Shane Wilson celebrating (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And what to expect here from tour leader Denny Hamlin, who got some great calls from crew chief Mike Ford to pull off that rousing second-place finish Sunday?
   "We've just got to minimize a bad day again at Dover, that's our goal," Hamlin says. "You set a number you're satisfied with, and try to reach that at Dover.
   "The good news is we finished fourth in the spring -- which is a heck of a lot better than 22nd and two laps down last year in the chase race.
   "If we can get past Dover, we've got a lot of really good tracks for us."

   NASCAR officials say they haven't seen any of the issues that upset them with the Bowyer cars in any of the other Richard Childress cars.
   Kevin Harvick, though he had the weakest car of the three at Loudon, wound up with the best finish, somehow pulling off a fifth. Teammate Jeff Burton ran out of gas with two miles to go.
   Burton here? He calls this high-banked concrete mile "a huge challenge. It's very difficult to get around.
   "It's a track where we always run well. We never seem to run great, but we always run well.
   "It's a track I need to get better at. I put a lot of demands on the car with the way I drive it. There are times when we get it hooked up we're really fast, but other times I can't get around at the speed I need.
   "I have a comfort level in the way I drive the car, and whenever we get out of that, we seem to go slower. We're in a little bit of a box because of the way I drive it; but when I get out of that box, it just never works."
   And this track, even when you've got a potentially winning car, can bite you. Ask Jimmie Johnson, who botched a pit road stop in May and lost.
   It's also a dangerous track, Burton says: "The wrecks. You see multi-car wrecks. You see Talladega-looking wrecks at Dover, because the straights are so narrow, there's just no where to go.
   "Dover is also a place where you can run okay and get lapped. You get long green-flag runs at Dover, and the leaders are coming....
   "And Dover is one of those places where it's hard to get your lap back if the cautions don't fall right."

   Kyle Busch, who had a so-so day at Loudon, should be one of Sunday's favorites here. But he worries "there are so many different ways to lose these races that you have to keep your head on.
   "I feel pretty good about where we are – We've run well. We were running well at Michigan, though we didn't finish where we wanted to. Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond: all finishes in the top-five.
   "This past weekend we snuck out with a ninth. It wasn't the effort of a top-10, but it was a top-10 finish.
   "So I'm pleased with where we are....knowing we're going to a couple tracks we run well at – Dover one of them. Kansas (next week's stop) may be hit or miss, but California is a good one, and Charlotte and Phoenix."

Chase Format Failure, Part Deux

The abysmal TV ratings merely reinforce what has been glaringly obvious all along - the Chase concept is a fraud and people know it, so they're not going to watch it. As far as thinking outside the box, here's some of such for NASCAR to chew on -

No Chase format.
Increase race-winner points from 180 to 300.
Increase the most-laps-led bonus from 10 to 100.

In short, use the point system of present but make it mathematically impossible to win the title without most wins and most laps led. By this format, teams have no choice but to go the the win, regardless of lap and regardless of how savagely they have to fight for it. This is the kind of format - all on the line so the entire field has to go for the win - that drew people to the sport in the first place.

BTW to Jeff Burton - is there a track out there that you don't criticize?

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