Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week.
Turn 1: Texas Motor Speedway announced the National Rifle Association is the sponsor for the Sprint Cup race scheduled for April 13. What are your thoughts on the implications for NASCAR's image with its fans and potential fans?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: In my 30-plus years as a sports writer, I've learned to avoid two subjects -- religion and politics -- and this question clearly falls into the latter category. I'll say this: The sponsor falls in line perfectly with this track, a place where they've always had a yee-haw, bang-bang, pistol shoot in Victory Lane. It's Texas (where I grew up and spent most of my life, by the way), the unofficial gun paradise of the world. But I wouldn't suggest using this sponsor for the road course race in Sonoma.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Shouldn't be an issue with the regulars, especially at a track that for years on its public address system frequently touted, "Beretta, the official firearm of Texas Motor Speedway." Track president Eddie Gossage last year told me of his plans for the next Sunday: "I'm going to church, and then to the shooting range." Browning logos are a frequent sight on the rear windows of pickup trucks entering and leaving TMS. As for potential fans, hard to say. A few might be put off, maybe among those whose interest in NASCAR has been piqued by Danica Patrick's full-time Cup ride. But by and large, the relationship between hunting and NASCAR-watching is a long-established staple of marketing.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I know it's a tough time for any racetrack to turn down sponsorship. I also know that guns have been part of Texas Motor Speedway's Victory Lane tradition since they opened the track in '96. But no matter how many intelligent and well-intentioned (or, for that matter, ill-intentioned) people might be involved with this, there's no way NASCAR will be able to avoid playing into the hands of a well-worn stereotype at a poorly timed juncture. I've had to answer endless questions about the Jeremy Clements incident for a week now. Why? Because it plays to that same, tired image of stock car racing. Now we're going to sell T-shirts and hats with the NRA logo adjacent to the NASCAR emblem or images of race cars? Just weeks after the warm feelings we all had about Michael Waltrip's Newtown fundraising efforts? I'm not saying the negative reaction within the mainstream will be fair. I'm just saying that's how it's going to be. That's what happens whenever we allow anything that should be neutral to become a political football.
David Newton, ESPN.com: It's all about perception and timing, and this doesn't work on either count. To come a few weeks after NASCAR announced its support of Newtown, Conn., with a special Sandy Hook School Support Fund paint scheme in the Daytona 500 and a week after Nationwide Series driver Jeremy Clements was suspended indefinitely for using a racial slur, this doesn't send the message the sport needs at a time when it is trying to bring in new fans. It's just another reminder of the images the sport is trying to escape. I've already heard from fans who say they'll skip this event. I know sponsorship money is hard to come by, but new fans are becoming equally hard to come by.
Marty Smith, ESPN insider: This sponsorship has riled up many folks. Angered some, filled others with Second Amendment pride. Regarding Texas, I've had countless fans tell me via social media they won't watch the Texas race because so they're turned off by the NRA sponsorship. Following Sandy Hook and Aurora, there is no hotter-button political topic in United States of America than gun control. There is no more sensitive topic. No topic draws greater ire among detractors or conviction among supporters. (Case in point: When was the last time we debated a race sponsor in Turn 4? Um. Never.) And because of that, this has the potential to put the drivers in a tough position politically.
The race is called the NRA 500, so there will be media attention that wouldn't otherwise apply. CNN will probably show up. It never shows up. When the pole-sitter adds to the Texas Motor Speedway tradition of firing off that shotgun, or the race winner fires off those pistols in Victory Lane, it should be an emotional, pride-filled moment of racing accomplishment. I've always loved it. It's a unique, fantastic trophy for a great accomplishment and sets Texas apart from every other race. But now -- given how passionate this debate is in this country -- it may be viewed as a platform for a political statement, because of the acronym N.R.A. That might sound way overdramatic, but this topic produces dramatic reactions. This topic is so wildly polarizing that folks have outlandish, passionate, staunch views on it.
I have a buddy, country music singer Justin Moore, who calls his brand of work NRA Country. That's his right. It's his decision to place himself in that position. His brand is the only one affected, good or bad, and he's the only person who has to answer for it. The NRA 500 is different. In this instance, the entire sport of NASCAR is placed in a certain position because of the sponsorship.
Turn 2: Four 2012 Chase drivers -- Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. -- are 23rd or worse in points. Will any of them miss the 2013 Chase? Explain why or why not.
Blount: "Smoke" and Kahne will make the Chase. Harvick and Truex? Not so sure. Harvick has that whole lame-duck thing going. It didn't matter much at Daytona, but let's see how that works if his crew has a few bad races. Truex needs to show he can get to Victory Lane again. But where anyone ranks in the standings after two races really doesn't mean a thing.
Hinton: Still waaaaay early, but of those four, the two most at risk of missing the Chase in general terms would be Kahne and Truex. Kahne has shown vulnerability to bad-luck DNFs in the past, and one of those streaks, on top of this slow start, could put him in jeopardy. Truex made the Chase last year, but without a win. Should he dig himself into a deep enough hole early, the steady running of last year might not be enough this time.
McGee: I don't worry about Kahne. He's in the exact same spot he was one year ago. I also don't worry about Stewart. He always has a season-saving hot streak at some point. Harvick is on thinner ice. He has looked good but hasn't been able to close. RCR isn't strong enough to let opportunity slip through its fingers. But the only guy I am truly concerned about is Truex. His team has just been bad. Some had worried about an MWR letdown after its shockingly good 2012. So far it has been with only one of its cars.
Newton: None needs to be in panic mode. Truex is in the worst shape, and he's only 24 points back. Remember Kahne last year? He was 31st in points six weeks in and made the Chase. Jeff Gordon came from 24th back 11 races in to make it. Plus the wild card gives any of these drivers a chance if they win a few races and get into the top 20, which isn't far away. I'd say two (maybe three) of the four will make the Chase, with Kahne and Stewart my locks. Not on this list is Kyle Busch, a non-Chaser last year, at 33rd. I believe he'll make it and be a contender for the title. Carl Edwards is relevant again, too, so some of those who made the Chase last year will be left behind.
Smith: No. They all make it. Edwards' victory may change some Chase minds. It might ultimately change mine. But Smoke, Harvick, Kahne and Truex were all in my preseason Chase standings, and we're just two weeks into the season. That's too early to go play chess. Those four race teams are very good and very fast. For all the talk last weekend in Phoenix about the season starting there, most guys I talked to in the garage pointed to Vegas as the true barometer for who has what.
Turn 3: There still was not a lot of passing up front Sunday. Is it the Gen-6 car, the new tire, the new pavement at Phoenix or a combination of all those things?
Blount: Denny Hamlin was on a rant after the race about the new tire in Phoenix being too hard. He said teams could have gone the entire race without changing the left-side tires. He also said it was a factor in right-front tires giving out. Hamlin isn't in love with the Gen-6 car, not yet, but he really thinks more passing will come from softer tires. The bottom line is the expectations of fans have become unrealistic for up-front passing. It's really no worse, and in many cases, it's better than it was 30 years ago.
Hinton: Mainly it was just Phoenix, period. Drivers rate it among the two or three most difficult tracks to pass on in Cup. Flat 1-milers are conducive to follow-the-leader by nature, so this was even less cause to pass judgment on the Gen-6 car than the restrictor-plate race at Daytona was. The factors mentioned indeed exacerbated the situation Sunday -- new tires that quickly made drivers skittish with the blown right fronts; reconfiguration drivers and crew chiefs are still trying to get a handle on; and ultra-grippy new pavement that encourages sticking to the inside lane.
McGee: All of the above, but as Denny Hamlin and others were quick to point out, there is work to do on the Gen-6. Not by NASCAR, but by the teams. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Get me through May, and then we'll know what we have with this car. Until then, consider all laps run as a test. Practice, race, qualifying, everything. One big real-time R&D session.
Newton: A reader on my Monday chat called it new car "teething." I like that. Teams, drivers and NASCAR continue to learn about this new car. If NASCAR made a mistake, it was in overpublicizing how it will perform. Now that we're all back to reality, let's be patient and see how it plays out. Having said that, I'm starting to side with Jimmie Johnson in that the tracks need to look at improving surfaces for more tire wear and creating better configurations for more lanes if the sport really wants to promote better racing. The car can do only so much.
Smith: It's impatience. We built the Gen-6 up with Joey Logano Sliced Bread-level hype. It's a better car than the Car of Tomorrow and, in my opinion, ultimately will benefit the sport competitively. But it'll take time for teams to sort out the most successful ways to tune them and drivers to feel out the most efficient ways to drive them. Folks who ride road bicycles can relate. For all the similarities in aesthetics on varying bikes, comfort is everything. And when you get a new, lighter, faster bike, while you know it's a better piece and ultimately will make you a better racer, it takes time to find the same level of comfort you had with your previous rig.
Turn 4: Carl Edwards celebrated his Phoenix win with a signature backflip. What's your favorite celebration in NASCAR history?
Blount: I don't know whether it's my favorite, but one of the funniest ones was Darrell Waltrip doing the "Ickey Shuffle" after winning the Daytona 500. For you young ones, Ickey Woods was a Cincinnati Bengals running back who did a little hopping dance after scoring a touchdown. But the most emotional celebration came when Dale Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998 and all the teams lined up on pit road to high-five him as he drove by. I remember Earnhardt came into the press box with a stuffed monkey on his shoulder, then threw it off as he sat down and said: "Finally got that damn thing off my back."
Hinton: It's a tie, and both involve Miller beer. After the 1988 Daytona 500, winner Bobby Allison drenched his son Davey, who'd finished second in a family duel, with Miller. That was my favorite until Brad Keselowski's instant classic this past November at Homestead. After securing the Cup, Brad K famously chugged a lot of Miller Lite, which acted as truth serum in the most colorful postrace interview ever on "SportsCenter." For non-Victory Lane celebration, gotta go with Dale Earnhardt's 1998 Daytona 500 win, when crewmen from many teams lined up as he came down the pit road to congratulate him.
McGee: 1. DW's genuinely emotional cry to the heavens after finally winning the Daytona 500 in 1989. "Wait ... this is the Daytona 500, isn't it? Don't tell me it isn't! Thank God!" 2. Terry Labonte driving his steaming, flat-nosed Chevy into Bristol's Victory Lane after Dale Earnhardt wrecked it across the finish line. 3. Jack Sprague doing the greatest burnout of all time at Richmond '01 and setting his truck on fire.
Newton: lt's hard to top the 1998 Daytona 500, when seemingly every crew member from every team lined pit road to congratulate Dale Earnhardt on finally winning the Great American Race. Called the "longest receiving line" in NASCAR history by Mike Joy, it was simple yet showed the great respect the garage had for one of its greatest drivers. On the wild end of the spectrum, it's hard not to like Keselowski celebrating last year's title with a giant pilsner glass filled with Miller Lite for a live interview on ESPN. Cheers.
Smith: Kevin Harvick. Atlanta, 2001. Watching him drive around that racetrack with three fingers in the air is one of the most surreal moments of my life.