|ESPN.com: NASCAR||[Print without images]|
Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.|
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Right down to the wire for the championship. I wrote last week that the second Daytona 500 win, right on top of a consistent 2013 season, sent his confidence to a level he hasn't enjoyed for almost a decade. As for Phoenix, he won his class easily -- that is, the 42 cars other than Kevin Harvick's -- by holding off the tag team of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. There's no shame whatsoever in finishing second to a car that was on a rail all afternoon. Junior is a contender whenever his confidence is high, and it's at a peak.
Brant James, ESPN.com: Earnhardt proved during the Chase last year how productive he can be in a depressurized environment. His playoffs were proclaimed effectively dashed by a blown engine and 35th-place finish at Chicagoland, and he proceeded to reel off five top-5s (including three runner-ups) and eight top-10s in the next nine races. Winning the Daytona 500 allows him and crew chief Steve Letarte to barnstorm the remainder of their final regular season together worry-free, allowing Earnhardt to gain confidence and momentum heading into the Chase. A confident Junior is a peril to anyone ahead of him in the standings. He will finish second in the Sprint Cup final points.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I said all week that he had a chance to start the season super-strong simply based on the schedule. Between Daytona, Phoenix and Bristol it wasn't a stretch to say he might win three of the season's first four races. But this isn't merely a 2014 thing. Going all the way back to the second race of last year's Chase, he has finished outside the top-10 only once.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: The Chase is six months away, but there's no reason to believe that Junior is going to forget how to drive between now and then. As he correctly pointed out, even though Daytona was his first Cup Series win in a year and a half, he and the 88 team have been performing consistently well dating back to the 2013 Chase. He has more confidence than he's had in years, and that is being reflected in his performance on the track. History tells us that Jimmie Johnson and the 48 team have to be considered the championship favorite, but Earnhardt has put himself on the short list of drivers most likely to take the title away from the six-time champ.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Very. The Daytona 500 victory aside, that team is very strong in every facet of the equation: equipment, communication, confidence, camaraderie. They genuinely want to excel for one another. I watched Dale Earnhardt Jr. pat his guys on the back Sunday on pit road after the race. His tire guy was leaned down checking pressures, and he leaned down right with him and told him what a good job he was doing. That matters. That will carry a team. Now, throw the 500 win on top of that and it's electric. House money is a unique thing, and the 88 bunch is playing with a pile of it. Junior told me after the Phoenix race that they were able to push fuel mileage without fear. Run out? So what. As crew chief Steve Letarte told Junior on the radio: Go as hard as you can under green. We're only here to win. Earnhardt told me he doesn't believe in momentum. "One week you're the hero, the next you're a zero. The rug can be pulled out from under you at any time." But he is a huge believer in the power of confidence. He said it's a weekly battle to maintain and, if you're lucky, build confidence. I've never seen him so confident.
Hinton: Too soon to say on the taking off, but clearly plenty of proof he rules Phoenix. What the win proves is that the SHR crew executed Happy's wishes on the setup as well as the RCR crewmen did in recent years. Harvick's highest-finishing SHR teammate Sunday was Tony Stewart, 16th. Danica Patrick was 36th and Kurt Busch 39th with a blown engine. So SHR isn't yet the juggernaut you'd think by hearing Harvick praise the team. We don't know yet whether he has a better team under him now, just that he had a better setup under him Sunday than anyone else.
James: Phoenix's all-time Sprint Cup wins leader was dominant Sunday in his first foray there in Stewart-Haas Racing equipment. There is the feeling he could win there driving a Tonka truck. But the No. 4 Chevrolet was fast in preseason testing and Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers look very much like a pair that has something figured out. Assuming SHR's broader problems -- including another engine failure at Phoenix -- are not endemic, Harvick appears to have more victories and a smooth ride in front of him.
McGee: Phoenix is his playground. But it's obvious that the No. 4 is already well ahead of its three Stewart-Haas teammates. You have a driver who is happy to be in a new place paired with a crew chief who's happy to have just one driver to worry about instead of a revolving door. Don't expect him to slow down. He gets around Vegas much better than used to and he loves Bristol.
Oreovicz: Both. Harvick is obviously the master of Phoenix, especially since the track was changed in 2011. He has won three of the six Cup races staged on the revised circuit. But I also think he's clearly Stewart-Haas Racing's best hope for winning a championship. Tony Stewart admits that he probably won't feel 100 percent right physically until perhaps the end of the season, and Kurt Busch and the 41 team have staggered out to a rough start. Harvick, on the other hand, looks poised to have a championship contending season like Matt Kenseth did last year, showing that sometimes a change in scenery can be highly motivating to a driver.
Smith: I picked Harvick as my 2014 champion for a reason.
Hinton: Got to be Danica. Busch and Truex can have their rough stretches relatively unnoticed, but Danica is in the fishbowl all the time and gets no slack from her detractors about her finishes, wrecked out or not. Busch and Truex have proved often that they can run up front when their cars are right, so they can see lights at the end of the tunnel. Their issue is closing the deal when they're up front. Danica is another step away: She has to get near a deal before she can even think about closing one.
James: Busch: The late, surprise addition to the SHR stable, the 2004 Cup champion came aboard expected to contest races and Chases. The new points system could right his wobbly season in one weekend, but after an unfulfilling Daytona 500 and an engine failure Sunday at Phoenix, he is not feeling the rush of a return to big-team dynamics after taking single-car Furniture Row to the Chase last season. At 30th in driver points, he cannot be pleased.
McGee: Truex. Danica knows she's not there yet. Busch knows that his all-new team is going to need a minute to get clicking. But Truex is still trying to outrun the mess that was his end of 2013 and Furniture Row execs are still a little down about losing Busch. This is not the start they needed.
Oreovicz: Danica. You can't deny that Truex and Busch have stumbled out of the gate, but they both have the ability to recover quickly and turn their seasons around. Patrick, on the other hand, truly needed to show some progress in the early part of the 2014 campaign, and she really hasn't. It's widely accepted that she is truly competitive only in restrictor-plate races, and the Daytona 500 -- fully 25 percent of the plate schedule -- was a disaster for her, from the blown engine in practice to the bell-ringing crash. Truex and Busch need a good result to get their year back on track, but Danica needs one to restore her rapidly fading credibility.
Smith: Busch. The expectations on him are so high -- both internally and externally. Every setback chips a pebble of patience. He'll turn it around, though. There is too much talent and too much infrastructure around him to fail.
Hinton: Poorly in the Indy 500, and then more poorly at Charlotte than he would have without attempting the double. You don't just jump into an open-wheel car and run in packs without a steep learning curve, no matter how much you've tested. I'll give even money he wrecks at Indy, especially if he applies his all-out, on-the-edge style. I'd give higher odds than that if not for the possibility he'll play it very cautiously. Either way, he won't be a contender there. At Charlotte, regardless of his conditioning, he'll start more fatigued than the others. That last 100 miles is tough on everybody. If he makes it that far, he'll already have 1,000 miles logged for the day.
James: Completing all the laps would be a major feat, but one that is within the ultra-talented driver's capabilities. Finding an opportunity for more IndyCar oval test time is imperative, however, and even with it, maneuvering around Indianapolis Motor Speedway in an open-wheel car is no easy or safe task for a newcomer. The 600 will seem like a cruise-control drive across the desert, thereafter.
McGee: He'll do about what he's always done at Charlotte, which isn't exactly his best track anyway. But the learning curve at Indy will be steep and having followed Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart both during double duties, it takes more out of you than you think it's going to. But at Indy if he finished every lap he'll likely end up with a solid top-15 or even a top-10 finish. I think if you offered him that, he'd take it right now. Then he could return in 2015 as a contender.
Oreovicz: Any driver who moonlights runs the risk of losing a bit of focus on their main program -- in Busch's case, NASCAR. But I applaud Kurt for having the guts to try doing the double. All of the other drivers who have done it had prior Indy car experience, and he's coming in as a raw rookie with very limited seat time in open-wheel formula cars. With a dearth of Indy 500 entries, qualifying won't be a problem; making it to the finish must be his No. 1 goal, and finishing in the top 12 or 15 would be a very worthwhile achievement. Busch is a former Coke 600 winner, so he has the ability do well there. But can he do it with 500 physically and mentally taxing miles possibly already under his belt?
Smith: Based on potential he could fare well in both. His performance at Indy will be mostly determined by how much seat time he gets in an IndyCar machine. It's a different world. I remember seeing AJ Allmendinger last summer at the gym. He'd just run his first IndyCar race of the season. Granted, it was a road course, but he couldn't believe how physically demanding that series is. He said it was exhausting. That's why he was in the gym busting his tail to get fitter. Then he came out and had an opportunity to win the 500 for Roger Penske before the seat belt disappointment. Busch has the talent. That's not in question. But the winning equation in the world's most famous race is far more diverse than simply talent.