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Columns
Third Place
Jeff Gluck, USA Today

1. NASCAR’s Call May Forever Harm Sport’s Integrity

JOLIET, Ill. – In trying to protect NASCAR's integrity on Friday, Brian France may have harmed the sport beyond repair.

France awarded Jeff Gordon an unprecedented playoff berth – unprecedented because Gordon is the 13th driver in a 12-man field – because "it's just the right thing to do."

In sports, where calls are sometimes made and missed, the right thing to do is to let the outcome stand.

But NASCAR has changed the outcome of its playoff field for the second time in five days – this nearly a week after the Chase for the Sprint Cup lineup was already set.

On Monday, Ryan Newman was added to the Chase after NASCAR determined Michael Waltrip Racing had fixed the race when radio chatter with Brian Vickers' team indicated he was told to pit under green under suspicious circumstances and Clint Bowyer's now famous 'itch it' command was given before his singular spin rocked NASCAR's world and the standings.

Now this.

Friday's last-minute decision was made due to Gordon's situation as a victim of other race teams who tried (and succeeded) in manipulating the outcome of the race. Along with the moves by Vickers and Bowyer, which allowed Joey Logano to pick up track positions – and points – on Gordon and remain in the top 10, radio chatter that surfaced Wednesday between Ford team allies David Gilliland and Joey Logano reveal Gilliland may have given up a position to Logano before the MWR shenanigans.

Officials were either completely blind to the call Saturday or chose to ignore it at the time, and have been scrambling to fix the situation ever since.

But in an attempt to right a wrong, NASCAR made another wrong. It did not play by its own rules: That the top 10 drivers plus two wild cards would be eligible for a 10-race playoff determined at Richmond.

Now there are 13 drivers: The top 10, two wild cards and a chairman's selection.
How can that be?

A football team which sneaks a fifth down and wins still gets to keep the victory. Home run hitters on steroids get to keep their statistics. And a pitcher doesn't get awarded a perfect game retroactively after a missed call because it's "the right thing to do." If the Los Angeles Lakers miss the playoffs next year on a blown call at the end of the regular season, will new NBA commissioner Adam Silver give the team a ninth playoff seed as a make-good?

That seems to go against the spirit of competition. Sometimes, blown calls and cheating happen. The solution is to correct how they might happen in the future – in the form of instant replay, steroid testing or rule changes – not retroactive changes.

What changed between Monday night's announcement – during which NASCAR President Mike Helton said Gordon could not be reinstated due to the "ripple effect" – and Friday's stunning news?

Well, radio chatter between the teams of Front Row Motorsports' Gilliland and Penske Racing's Logano caused the teams to get put on probation until Dec. 31.

France said there was no conclusive evidence that a bargain actually took place.
France still ruled Gordon belonged in the Chase because several different circumstances "could have altered and given him a disadvantage."

Look, Gordon may have deserved to be in the Chase. He may very well have been a victim of Michael Waltrip Racing and Front Row/Penske's actions.

Bad things happen in sports, and Gordon's setback was one of them.

NASCAR blew the call. It happens.

Improve the officiating. Change the way calls are made. Send the drivers a message.
But changing things later out of compassion is not the answer.

By trying to protect NASCAR's integrity, Brian France got it wrong. Now, how can he and the sport ever earn fans' trust back?

2. NASCAR Should Learn Lessons Of Eldora

ROSSBURG, Ohio – One of the best NASCAR races in years shouldn't be viewed as a singular event.

Wednesday night's Mudsummer Classic, the first NASCAR race on dirt in 43 years, should be the catalyst for change in the sport, the kind of moment that lays the groundwork for the future.

NASCAR's Camping World Trucks were heavy, clumsy and painfully slow on the Eldora Speedway dirt. There was only one wreck. There was no side-by-side finish.

But guess what? The race was still 10 times better than many of the events held on 1.5-mile cookie cutter tracks used by the Sprint Cup Series, where the field gets strung out and there's little passing at times.

Thirty drivers – many inexperienced on dirt – put on a tremendous show. They raced side-by-side, slammed into one another while racing for position and pulled off daring slide jobs that made every lap of the race a must-see.

There was entertainment from start to finish – something that can't be said about many NASCAR races these days.

NASCAR should use Eldora as a lesson in several ways:

SPEED
More speed doesn't make for a better show; it's possible to have great racing even at dramatically slower speeds.

There was no talk about aero push or "clean air" at Eldora; it was all about handling and driver skill. Instead of a track position race based on strategy, drivers won by out-driving their competitors (Austin Dillon won from 19th; Kyle Larson started 13th and finished second).

As Denny Hamlin tweeted during the race: "100 mph sliding or 200 mph stuck? Nuff said."

DIRT
After Wednesday, it's a no-brainer NASCAR should do everything it can to bring a Sprint Cup Series race to dirt. The buzz even for a Truck race was fantastic, and the race lived up to the hype. Fans flocked from 48 states to see a race that was sold out in January; 130 media members were credentialed.

Again, all this for a Truck race. If that's not an indicator of something that could excite the racing world, what is?

Dillon suggested the Trucks "should come back here twice next year" before NASCAR eases into Nationwide and Cup races on dirt "later down the road."

"I think it throws another bone into the championship Chase, just showing how good our drivers are in NASCAR," he said. "To be able to transition from asphalt to short tracks to mile-and-a-half tracks to dirt to road courses … it just showcases the talent of all the drivers in there."

QUALIFYING RACES AND SEGMENTS
The dirt-track format for Eldora was perfect: Heat races set the starting order and served as qualifying, followed by a thrilling last-chance race; the main event was then broken up into three segments.

Why not do that for those tedious 500-mile Cup races? By adding heat races, NASCAR could shave distance off the feature race and still fit into a three-hour window; by adding segments, it could break up the monotony of long green-flag runs.

Hey, it works for short tracks all around the country.

SMALLER CROWDS
There were only 20,000 people at Eldora, but the sold-out stands made for an electric atmosphere. If the same event was held at a 100,000-seat track, though, the crowd would have looked puny – as some races do these days on TV.

Several tracks are already taking steps to remove seats and make the crowds look better. That's a good move, because creating a demand with sellout crowds and hot tickets – even if it's a smaller number of people – is much better than looking at tens of thousands of empty seats.

NASCAR is never going to return to the mega crowds it once had, but a slimmed-down sport can still be effective.

MIDWEEK RACES
Track promoters don't like the idea of midweek races because they're worried it would hurt attendance. Not as many people would be able to get off work.

But Eldora showed that's not necessarily the case. If it's a race people really want to attend, they'll go – even if it's in the middle of rural Ohio's cornfields. People from the West Coast had no problem flying to Indianapolis and then driving two hours to see a Wednesday night race.

In the middle of the week, especially during the summer, NASCAR would be wise to have a few Sprint Cup Series races dotting the schedule.

"I think it's a matter of asking the fans," Ryan Newman said of NASCAR's dirt experience. "Did I enjoy it? Absolutely. It's fun. … There are other tracks we could go to that would be fun as well. But this was a great show to do something that was off-the-charts different and great at the same time."

 

3. Johnson Is The Greatest NASCAR Driver In History

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – After winning his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship on Sunday, Jimmie Johnson is one short of the record held by Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.

Johnson will get his seventh within the next few years, and maybe an eighth or a ninth, too.

In the meantime, this much has become clear: Johnson is the greatest NASCAR driver who ever lived.

That's hard for some NASCAR fans to accept because of the circumstances surrounding Johnson's championships. He drives for NASCAR's best team and is aligned with the best crew chief – mastermind Chad Knaus.

There were plenty of people – including this writer – who found it easy to use those factors against Johnson during his first run of championships. He made five in a row look oh-so-easy from 2006-10, and it could be imagined he was somehow a product of the No. 48 team's system.

Plus, the robotic way he went about his dominance was anything but entertaining. That his run of titles coincided with a sharp decline in TV ratings might not have been a coincidence, either.

But when the titles stopped coming after 2010, Johnson's performance hardly dropped off. In 2011, the worst season of his career, he still won two races and finished sixth in the points standings. And last year, he was in title contention again until the final laps.

That showed just how tough it is to win a championship in NASCAR – even if Johnson doesn't make it seem that way.

This season, Johnson looked as dominant as ever and capped off one of his best campaigns – he had six wins and 23 top-10 finishes entering Homestead – with another championship. And don't give the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff format the credit for this title – he would have won by an even larger margin if not for the points reset before the 10-race playoff run.

Johnson simply wins – both races and championships – and he does it better than anyone in history.

"I can tell you this: I've worked with a lot of fantastic race car drivers and I've seen a lot of drivers come and go in our sport," Knaus said. "Jimmie is, for me and for our time, the best driver to ever sit in a race car."

But here's the catch: Knaus said he doesn't know if Johnson could have beaten the other drivers in the "best ever" conversation – Petty, Earnhardt and David Pearson – straight up in their eras. No one does.

"It's like taking somebody from the Olympics in the year 1900 and comparing them to somebody in the year 2000," Petty said. "Everything has transferred so much. Everybody is in better shape. They'd blow that record away just because of time and records are made to be broken."

They were all greats, and it's practically impossible to compare their achievements. Petty and Pearson won often in an era when it was common to win by multiple laps and NASCAR staged multiple races per week.

And Earnhardt's seven titles and 76 career wins were stretched over a far longer span than Johnson's success has been (he's already within 10 wins of Earnhardt in 241 fewer starts). This was Johnson's sixth title in 12 seasons; Earnhardt won his seven in 22 full-time seasons in a career cut short by his death on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001.

Earnhardt, who more fans remember than Petty or Pearson because he drove more recently, will have plenty of supporters who would never dream of ranking Johnson ahead of the "Intimidator."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. likely spoke for many Earnhardt fans Friday when he evaluated Johnson's place in history.

"Well, I'm biased – so (he ranks) second," Earnhardt said. But he added: "If Jimmie keeps tracking at the pace he's on, he makes a much better argument for himself."

Earnhardt said he was surprised the comparisons were only gathering steam now because "he deserves to be in the conversation as one of the greatest drivers the sport has ever seen."

Before the finale, Matt Kenseth said people should have been putting Johnson among the greats three years ago.

"Nobody has ever won five straight," he said. "Especially in this day and age with these rules and as many competitive teams and all that stuff. I said (he was one of the greatest) then and I'll say it again."

But is he the best ever?

Yes, and here's why: Johnson is easily the most dominant driver of his era – he has 30 more wins than the next-closest driver since he entered the sport – and this era just so happens to be unquestionably the toughest and most competitive in NASCAR's history.

These days, it's more difficult than ever to make it to the Cup level thanks to a huge talent pool. The margin of victory and number of cars on the lead lap don't even compare to previous generations. The cars are closer in speed than they've ever been – even closer than 10 years ago, thanks to NASCAR's ever-tightening rules.

So Johnson is the best driver in NASCAR's most competitive era. He's won six titles in the last eight seasons and been in contention for three more championships until the final race.

His businesslike approach to racing and the way he strives for perfection can make it hard for the average fan to relate to him; he doesn't make it look like he's doing anything remarkable. But Johnson doesn't have to make apologies for the qualities that make him great: His focus, his intense training regimen, his incredible work ethic.

That doesn't mean NASCAR fans need to suddenly start loving Johnson – everyone knows it can be fun to see the underdog (all the other drivers, in this case) beat the heavy favorite. But it's important to at least recognize what's happening before our very eyes: Johnson, the best there's ever been, adding to his ever-growing legacy.

4. Kurt Busch Shows Drive To Win Away From Track

Every NASCAR driver wants to win, but it can be argued no one hates losing more than Kurt Busch.

To Busch, losing is like swallowing a piece of chewing gum – it takes an awfully long time to digest. He has tried to improve how he deals with adversity – particularly with the news media on bad days at the track – though it's very much a work in progress.

When things don't go his way, Busch isn't the most pleasant person to be around. NASCAR fans know it. Other drivers know it. His team knows it. He knows it. After all, it was just last year when Busch was suspended for threatening a reporter.

But that's the well-documented Busch from the 200-mph racing environment. How about off the track?

Does he get as competitive about Monopoly or bowling?

To find out, USA TODAY Sports went mini-golfing with Busch, 35, and his girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll.

It was a gorgeous day in New York's Finger Lakes region – the day before Busch moved to within two points of a Chase for the Sprint Cup position at Watkins Glen – and everyone had reason to be in a good mood. Busch cheerfully picked out a green ball – green is bad luck in racing but apparently not in mini-golf – and went unrecognized by other golfers.

He started the round cracking jokes at his own expense ("Are you kidding me?" he said, smiling in mock rage after missing a shot on the first hole) and gave support to Driscoll after she hit a putt on No. 2 ("Good execution, sweetie!").

But when Driscoll aced the fourth hole, tightening the score, Busch's demeanor changed. It was the difference between a friendly tennis match at the local country club and Centre Court at Wimbledon.

On the next hole, he laid on the artificial turf to read the green. This was serious. But it was impossible to read No.7 – a cruel uphill hole requiring just the right touch. Busch and Driscoll said they didn't believe in the five-stroke limit per hole and insisted everyone play it out. The last time they played this course, Busch said, he got a 29 on No.7.

His score seemed headed that way again, so he let another group play through. He plopped down on a rock to watch kids wearing Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne T-shirts struggle to sink their putts.

Their bad shots reminded him of the time he painfully blew it at the end of a round.

"My buddy is a scratch golfer, and I went toe-to-toe with him until the 17th hole," Busch said. "Then I folded. Sometimes, losing at mini-golf can make you even madder than getting passed on the last lap of a Cup race."

Once play resumed, Busch finished the difficult hole with a 10. Knowing it could have been worse, he moved on without much emotion.

"Plenty of golf to play," he said.

But two holes later, there was plenty of emotion.

On a wicked hole with a dogleg left, Busch hit his ball up onto the plateau and watched gleefully as the other two golfers struggled to do the same. When his next shot trickled back down the hill, though, he threw his club in disgust.

Busch lined himself up at the bottom and tried to knock the ball up again. It trickled back down.

Thwack!

He slammed his club head against a rock and muttered to himself. He tried again. It rolled back to his feet. Busch cursed and tomahawked his club into the ground. The club head snapped and flew off.

Uh oh.

He seemed as surprised as the other two golfers and looked at the metal stick in his hands, then sheepishly tossed the remnants into a nearby bush.

"I was just hard on equipment," he said. "Let's write that down."

A bad word typically costs both Busch and Driscoll $1 whenever her son, Houston, is present. But he wasn't present on this day, which cleared the way for plenty of colorful language.

"Should we keep an unofficial $1 word count for Houston?" Driscoll asked.

"No," Busch said. "Must be present to win."

The burst of temper didn't hurt his game, though; if anything, it intensified his focus. Using Driscoll's club, he started sinking shot after shot.

It only took a few minutes before he was reciting lines from Happy Gilmore ("Shooter! Want to go to the Sizzler and get some grub?") and pointing the ball into the hole like Tiger Woods in the Masters.

Noticing the reporter in the group was falling further behind – Busch was on too much of a roll to keep up – the driver's mood seemed to soften. "You have one more golf club than I do," he said helpfully.

Busch was told a comeback could only happen if he choked like Jean van de Velde.

"Well, I'm known for meltdowns," he said. "I'll give it my best."

Of course, he never let up. Busch won by 10 strokes and was in high spirits by the end of the round. He sat on a bench and tallied the scores as the sun began to set. Then he tossed the scorecard in the trash to destroy evidence of three embarrassingly high scores.

He smiled. Any day with a win was a good day, and this was one of those.

"It's not that I'm a sore loser," he said. "I just need to win more."

5. Are The New Gen 6 Cars Achieving their Goals?

Denny Hamlin evaluated NASCAR's new Gen 6 cars by saying they raced similarly to how the previous generation of cars did when they debuted.

"You just run single-file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you," Hamlin said after the second Sprint Cup race, at Phoenix International Raceway. "It's just one of those things where track position is everything."

Hamlin was fined $25,000 for those comments by NASCAR chairman Brian France, who said it was not acceptable to criticize NASCAR's product. The comments came at a sensitive time – when public opinion on the car was still undecided.

But in the 31 races since, haven't Hamlin's remarks proven accurate? At many venues - such as the 1.5-mile cookie cutter tracks like Texas Motor Speedway, where the series heads this weekend -- track position has seemed to be the key to a good finish thanks to aero-dependent cars. That mirrors seasons past – and the racing hasn't seemed to change much with the Gen 6.

The much-hyped new car was supposed to achieve two goals: create a better look and foster better competition on the track.

On the positive side, the aesthetics are improved compared to the boxy, homogenous "Car of Tomorrow."

"The car looks awesome," Greg Biffle said this week. "I think the look of the car is really, really good."

The fans seemingly agree.

Internal NASCAR data provided to USA TODAY Sports shows likeability of the cars among avid fans increased from 65% to 83% this season. The percentage of fans who thought the cars looked similar to new cars in the showroom increased from 28% to 83% and those who said the Gen 6 cars have "distinctive body styling" went from 35% to 86%.
But the other goal – the racing – has been a letdown from predictions the car could be a game-changer for the on-track product.

Before the season, France said the success of the Gen 6 would be measured "by lead changes, we'll measure it by how it races, we'll measure it by how the drivers feel about it."

And while NASCAR says there have been far more passes throughout the field this year – 16,028 more than in 2012 – things haven't changed much up front. The average number of lead changes has only increased by 0.1 per race – a total of 10 more passes for the lead in 33 events.

To its credit, NASCAR realizes the Gen 6 car is still a work in progress. It held a six-car test at Charlotte Motor Speedway three weeks ago to experiment with ideas for next season. Another test with more cars is scheduled in December to verify results and finalize the 2014 package.

Gene Stefanyshyn, NASCAR's director vice president of innovation and racing development (he started in April), told USA TODAY Sports the sanctioning body wanted to keep "polishing the diamond" by making incremental changes every year instead of going for "moonshots."

The car, he said, "drives very, very well" and has been a success with manufacturers, drivers and fans.

"The racing is very good these days, but as with any business, the expectations of the customer continue to increase," he said. "They want more, they demand more. We need to continuously improve all aspects of our business."

In order to figure out what the fans want, Stefanyshyn and his team looked at five years of polling data to see which races fans said were good and bad. They then compared data in those races – such as green-flag passes and top speed – to see why the fans rated certain events higher than others.

"It's not that complicated: What they want is the cars to be running close together in a pack and they want cars to be passing," Stefanyshyn said. "That's what I believe the fans want and consider good racing."

Everything NASCAR plans to be doing with the car – which Stefanyshyn said could come from the results of two additional tests per year – will be made with that objective in mind. Officials want the cars to run closer together and be able to pass easier; they will listen to ideas around the garage to make it happen.

The question NASCAR faces is how it will get there – especially in an era of ultra-tight competition, track surfaces with pristine pavement not conducive to good racing and a tire that doesn't wear out as quickly as some would like.

"At the end of the day, there's nothing wrong with the Gen 6 car," Carl Edwards said this week. "It looks great, it drives great. It's an awesome race car. … But if all the cars are the same (speed) and the tires are (the) same throughout a 100-lap run, how can you pass anyone?"

While the search for that answer continues, the racing with the Gen 6 car doesn't look all that different than in seasons past.

In that case, maybe Hamlin should get a refund.