Idle Thoughts: Mid-Week Musings

Denny Hamlin

Will he or won't he? Denny Hamlin's possible return to competition this weekend at Richmond is still up in the air. (Photo: Getty Images)

Denny Hamlin’s possible comeback, Penske Racing’s appeal and Sprint Cup drivers in the Nationwide Series are all in the spotlight this week.

Hamlin’s Return

Whether or not Denny Hamlin returns to the Sprint Cup Series this week at Richmond International Raceway is still to be decided.  Mentally, Hamlin is definitely ready to get back behind the wheel of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota.  But it’s still up to his doctors to clear him physically.  It’s a big weekend for Hamlin at his home track, which will kick off with his annual charity Late Model race Thursday.  Returning in front of his Virginia fans and family would no doubt make for a great story.  But any risk of re-injuring his back certainly outweighs the emotion Hamlin is fighting to return.

So far, Hamlin has missed three races since the Fontana crash and he’s 26th in the standings, 86 points behind Paul Menard for the 10th spot but more importantly, trailing Joey Logano by 42 for 20th. Hamlin needs to be inside the top 20 to be eligible for a Chase Wild Card spot.

While some believe he has a legitimate shot at racing his way into the Chase through one of the two available Wild Card positions, I still think - although possible - it’s a long shot at best.  Optimists in the Hamlin camp say just by repeating what he did last year during the same portion of the season, he’ll have no trouble punching his ticket to the Chase.  However, just ask Tony Stewart or Carl Edwards how easy it is to simply replicate a previous year’s performance.

A bigger question might be what it would say to the NASCAR schedule structure if Hamlin does somehow make the playoffs despite missing four or five races.  Critics of the Chase would have a field day with the proposition of a driver only competing in 20-21 races yet still being eligible for the title.  It would dilute even further the Sprint Cup Series regular season in those eyes and add further fuel to the negative Chase fire.

My gut says it’s a moot point and Hamlin’s injury keeps him out of the 2013 championship picture.

Penske Appeal Set

NASCAR has set May 1 as the day Penske Racing will have it’s day in court and the appeal of last week’s severe post-Texas penalties will be heard.  The team contends that NASCAR approved the rear-end suspension parts in question.  The sanctioning body’s stance is that while the parts may have been kosher, the assembly and mounting were not and therein lies the problem.

Remember this: the opportunity to take the case to a higher level - namely John Middlebrook, NASCAR’s chief appellate officer - is available should the appeals committee uphold the original ruling.  Also keep in mind that Middlebrook is three-for-three in lowering penalties he’s ruled on including last year’s Hendrick Motorsports C-Post issues.

While I don’t think Penske will win the first round, there’s no telling what Middlebrook will decide if the case goes to the next level.

Nationwide Series Under Fire

Once again, there's fan unrest about Sprint Cup Series regulars dominating the Nationwide Series.  You had to figure the topic would come up again in the aftermath of Kyle Busch winning four of the first six races in 2013.

While NASCAR did a smart move two years ago in eliminating Cup stars from winning the Nationwide championship, it’s time to take it to the next level.  With all due respect to Busch, watching him run rampant over the competition every week is about as exciting as sorting out your sock drawer.

The Nationwide Series was never created as a developmental series and although some teams have used NASCAR’s No. 2 division as a training ground, the rules allow any driver with a car meeting the rule book specs to compete.

The problems of limiting Sprint Cup drivers' participation include teams having trouble finding sponsors for lesser-known names and tracks not attracting ticket buyers without having the star power competing.  Stand-along Nationwide Series races in places like Nashville, Gateway, Memphis and Milwaukee may have been great competition with interesting story lines among a group of talented - if unheralded - drivers.  But they were box office busts without more than a sprinkling of Cup flavor.

NASCAR is going to have to find a way to cap the number of starts a Sprint Cup driver can make in the Nationwide Series or maybe put a limit on how many wins someone outside the regulars can have in a season.

The way this year is headed, the driver who wins the title might not even have a victory to his credit while Busch walks away with 10 or more.  NASCAR would have a hard time explaining such a turn of events.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.

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