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Tuesday, May 6, 2014
Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

ESPN.com

Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:

Turn 1: Does a restrictor-plate victory solve Denny Hamlin's problems, other than earning him a Chase berth?

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Hamlin and JGR president J.D. Gibbs sure think so. And in the current Chase format, a win is a win. Sure, Talladega is largely luck and avoiding mistakes. But bad luck and a couple of desperation mistakes were what got Hamlin into the doldrums in the first place. Gibbs knows how confidence-dependent Hamlin is and thinks he'll be fine now. Hamlin feels he can "at least rest easy" regarding the Chase. So yes, this win solves his problems, which were shaken self-confidence and a hard-luck feeling.

Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin

Brant James, ESPN.com: There's still trouble in the Joe Gibbs Racing camp in general and for Hamlin in particular, but the win Sunday at least alleviates the pressure of qualifying for the Chase. Now he has 16 races to figure out why a season he expected to start with a flourish has been pretty mundane except for spurts at Daytona and Talladega. A win is a win, but success at a plate track doesn't really translate mechanically. Maybe it will emotionally, psychologically, though. And for a driver who seems to ride emotion and momentum, for better and worse, that could clear the path for some performance breakthroughs.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: No, but it sure helps. I look at this like I do what winning at Phoenix did for Carl Edwards. Their mile-and-a-half program has been awful, but, because they won early and essentially clinched a Chase berth, that has allowed them to throw the kitchen sink at the intermediate tracks all spring and summer, a chance to do some R&D to get that turned around before the Chase gets here. The same now applies for Hamlin. The heat is off, so they can get to work on what's ailing them with a bit of a safety net. But perhaps even bigger is that a win might solve Hamlin's biggest issue, which has been a crisis of confidence. When I talked to him the Friday before his bummer run at Richmond, he seemed downright depressed. I'm betting that's not the case now.

John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: People often talk about restrictor-plate races and road courses being anomalies compared with the rest of the NASCAR schedule, and that could be the case with Hamlin's win at Talladega. Hamlin and the No. 11 Toyota were stout at Daytona, so his performance at Dega wasn't a surprise. But the team's inconsistent performance just about everywhere else raises some questions. The Talladega victory certainly will raise morale, but in a season when all 16 Chase spots might be filled by race winners, will a single win be enough?

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: It goes a long way. Few athletes I've ever covered ride the confidence wave like Hamlin does. When he's confident in himself and in his opportunity, he's among the Sprint Cup elite. When he's not, he's not. In the broad-stroke view of the season, winning Talladega is more a feeling of relief for Hamlin than anything. He's in the Chase. I think that in itself will be beneficial.

Turn 2: Many fans weren't pleased with the Talladega finish Sunday. Should NASCAR end races under green even if it means going to a green-white-checkered finish when there is a caution after the leader takes the white flag?

Hinton: Not no, but hell no, and the expletives I'm thinking are much stronger than that. Never before on this forum have I been so irked by a question. Anyone who complained about that finish would have thrown beer cans and seat cushions into the arena at the Roman Colosseum. What is NASCAR supposed to do? Keep racing until the fans turn thumbs up? I despise GWC in the first place. It's phony, unnatural, unsporting, total show biz, and it unfairly changes the outcomes of races, just to kowtow to a few tweeting malcontents. Baseball, football and basketball fans accept that not all games can be great. Dega on Sunday was a close game. Clint Bowyer, who might well have won with a GWC, pointed out that had there been one at that point, "everybody would have been out of gas." Then there'd have been some fans who'd have complained about a "fuel mileage race." You absolutely cannot win with some of them. Electronic scoring recorded 188 passes for the lead under green -- count 'em; 188 passes for the lead. The NASCAR fans I've known and loved for 40 years used to be tough, hardy, savvy of the finer points of racing beyond a blatant fireworks show and understanding that they can't have candy for every course of every meal. I think most are still like that. But there has emerged a small group of children not just spoiled but spoiled absolutely rotten. I'm outraged we're even talking about this stuff. I only wish I had more space here and more leeway with language. Then I'd tell you how I really feel.

Danica Patrick
Talladega Superspeedway

James: NASCAR philosopher Dale Earnhardt Jr. summed it up best when I once asked him whether fans and media exert too much pressure on NASCAR's decision-making process regarding competition. Years ago, he said, the throng seemed to better understand that not every race will culminate in a theatrical and thrilling conclusion. "If you got a s--- sandwich, you got a s--- sandwich," he said. "If you got f---ing turkey, you eat turkey." Just hope for turkey next week and move on.

McGee: Hey, I was disappointed, too. But it just is what it is ,and no, it shouldn't have gone green again. Listen, you can only rig it up so much. Sometimes we're just going to end races under yellow. But I'll take what we have now, where finishing under yellow happens so rarely that people get freaked out about it, over the way it used to be, when the reason people were freaking out was because it happened so often.

Oreovicz: NASCAR takes a lot of heat for throwing phantom debris yellows that happen to create exciting race finishes. But this time there is no doubt the debris was real (there was a 6-foot-long bumper cap lying in the race groove near the start-finish line) and the caution was necessary. Letting them race to the flag would have been foolhardy, and NASCAR doesn't change its rules on the fly like some other racing series tend to do. It was a disappointing finish, but it was handled correctly.

Smith: No. If they had restarted the race, there would've been 10 more destroyed cars. Everyone wants green-flag finishes -- especially NASCAR. But sometimes the safe decision is the only decision.

Turn 3: The Truck series returns to action this week after taking the entire month of April off. What's the future look like for the series?

Hinton: It's good racing and excellent as a developmental series. Camping World just re-upped for seven more years as series sponsor, and, in making the announcement, NASCAR chief marketing officer Steve Phelps called the Trucks loyalists "one of the most consistent and durable audiences in all of sports." The viewership might be small, but it's solid as a rock -- averaging 800,000 per event for the past six years. They're reminiscent of the beloved Saturday-night short-track crowds of yore. Individual team sponsorships are the toughest part, and that's why the sparser schedule. But hey, Trucks gave us our first eyefuls of the likes of Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle in the past, and more recently Kyle Larson, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Chase Elliott. If the Trucks' future is questionable, then so is all of NASCAR's.

Wallace/Busch
Darrell Wallace Jr. and Kyle Busch

James: Commercially, the series announced a renewal of its sponsorship deal with Camping World, which would extend the partnership to 14 consecutive seasons by its conclusion. Competitively, there are potential marketable stars such as Darrell Wallace Jr. and Ben Kennedy. But the schedule is brutal. Too many off weeks, and the series too often feels like undercard filler.

McGee: First, taking a whole month off is nuts. Either start and end the season later or find a more balanced schedule. I have always believed that the best course for the Trucks series is to go back to its roots and race mostly non-companion events in markets that deserve NASCAR but likely will never host a Cup race. That goes back to my early days covering stand-alone events in places such as Louisville, Kentucky; Portland, Oregon; and Topeka, Kansas. But it also goes to some recent experiences. I think about the past few years when I covered weekends when the Trucks ran on Friday of a Cup weekend and no one was around, but then when I went to Rockingham, North Carolina, and Eldora, Ohio, and the place was electric. I think it has done its best work as a feeder and an ambassador series that can help the sanctioning body stay in touch with its short-track, small-market roots that so many think it has lost touch with.

Oreovicz: The Truck series just seems increasingly irrelevant in a number of ways, although the announcement of a seven-year extension of Camping World's title sponsorship certainly makes the future more comfortable. I still don't think NASCAR can continue to sustain three national championships -- there just isn't enough time and money to go around. For the trucks to remain relevant at a national level, I believe the series needs to separate itself from Cup and Nationwide and race at unique venues like Eldora and what used to be called Indianapolis Raceway Park. NASCAR's three national series are bunched too close together, and creating greater differences and unique identities among them could benefit them all.

Smith: Better than it seemed last week, given a brand-new entitlement agreement extension with Camping World. This, of course, is provided the teams can find funding. Talking to owners, that's a legitimate concern.

Turn 4: Landon Cassill had a top-10 in the Nationwide race and finished 11th in the Cup race. Still yet to reach his 25th birthday, can the 2008 Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year catch a break with a major team again?

Hinton: Unfortunately, that's mighty iffy, considering that the game of musical chairs at the top is getting more and more frantic. For one thing, the scramble to bring sorely needed Chase Elliott to the top -- his father's old fans are coming out of the woodwork in droves -- all but locks up the next really good seat in Cup. Sponsorship appeal plays in. Darrell Wallace Jr., Dylan Kwasniewski, the Buescher boys -- you could just keep on naming names -- are creating something of an Oklahoma land rush for rides.

Landon Cassill
Landon Cassill

James: Unfortunately for him, probably not. The NASCAR machine forms opinions on prospects unfairly young, and immediate, Kyle Larson- and Chase Elliott-like performance is the demand. Brad Keselowski barely made it and became a Cup champion. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. lost his Nationwide ride briefly and went on to win two titles in the series. Their types of story are increasingly rare, however.

McGee: I hope so. But reality says it's going to be really, really tough. The only way it'll work is for a big team to take a swing at him knowing he doesn't automatically bring sponsorship money. And even though he's just 25, not being officially inked as a big team's development project creates the perception that he's older than he is. The last time someone made the leap Cassill would have to make was Brad Keselowski. But even Brad has described his career climb to me as likely being the last time that will ever happen that way, saying, "I feel like I was Indiana Jones snatching his hat just before the big stone wall closed behind him forever."

Oreovicz: It seems pretty unlikely that he's going to get a big break in the Cup Series, but being a perennial front-runner in the Nationwide Series isn't a bad alternative. Cassill is fortunate in that he is a decade younger than the likes of Sam Hornish Jr., who at 34 is struggling to maintain his foothold in NASCAR despite nearly winning the Nationwide title last year. But by the same token, every time a rapidly rising young hot shot such as Kyle Larson or Chase Elliott comes along, it diminishes Cassill's chances of re-establishing a Cup career. It's all about being in the right place at the right time.

Smith: Even if it's possible, it won't be easy. Talent and charisma are important, but they only get you so far these days.