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Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: She turned a corner Saturday night. She's learning to be aggressive, although she must be more aggressive on restarts. Right now that's her biggest weakness, just as it was in IndyCar. If not for that flaw, she'd have finished in the top five at Kansas. Unlike in open-wheel, she must get comfortable letting the car slide around -- she's just gotta grit her teeth and overcome that anathema. But she's getting there. Hey, she's outdriving her boyfriend on a fairly regular basis.
Brant James, ESPN.com: There is more on the way, but it will be delivered on a long, gradual upward slope, with occasional spikes such as on Saturday. Patrick has long joked about her "methodical" way of learning, and in transitioning from open-wheel racing to stock cars, she basically had to master an entirely new sport, with an audience, against the elite of the trade, and with points being compiled. Not easy. Saturday was one of the first times in her NASCAR career she had the perfect car, the perfect plan and the confidence to wield them. Repeating that formula is everything. Still, she won't be a consistent top-10 performer every week, but she should continue to slowly creep up the leaderboard and be in position to attack when possible. That's progress.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: It wasn't a fluke, but it wasn't a pattern, either. At the very least it was a sorely needed confidence boost, underlined by the fact she made no attempt to hide the emotions produced by the finish. If you listen to her radio chatter, there's certainly a comfort level that seems to be there now that wasn't one year ago, even if the numbers don't prove that out. But -- and I feel like a broken record -- you have to wonder if it's taken so long to take a step forward confidence-wise because she was pushed into Cup too soon. Perhaps, like Joey Logano, one day she'll blossom right about the time we've all given up on her.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: It certainly ought to be indicative of what she is capable of on a regular basis, given the time, money and effort that has been invested into her stock car career. Big, fast, wide-open tracks have been her favorites since the IndyCar days, and she landed the first of her three IndyCar poles at Kansas, so it's a place she knows and races well. The introduction of group knockout qualifying has worked to her benefit, and the no-nonsense pep talk she got from Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick clearly helped. With the pressure of finally getting a decent result lifted from her shoulders, Danica's best should still be yet to come.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: I'm thoroughly impressed. And I'm surprised. I've always fought anyone who said Danica Patrick couldn't drive. Because they're wrong. But I also wasn't sure she'd ever grasp the nuances of the aerodynamic differences on intermediate racetracks, with high downforce and open engines. She proved me dead wrong Saturday night. She had speed and made quality passes all night long. She was fast off the truck and stayed that way. Know what that means? That means she was able to tell crew chief Tony Gibson plainly and accurately what the car needed. It was an extremely impressive outing -- the best of her young career.
Hinton: I've just seen more flashes of his old self from JJ than from Kenseth. So I'll take the 48 to win first, even though the team seems ill at ease. Maybe Rick Hendrick should bring out the milk and cookies again. Nah, Johnson and Chad Knaus are too old for that now. They'll have to work this out themselves. Maybe over beer and pretzels this time. Kenseth is more methodical, but the 20 team just hasn't seemed to hit just right on the new tech rules. The 48 has hit it right several times, but stumbled.
|Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson|
James: Jimmie Johnson. He's been close on multiple occasions but is consistently undone by tires or strategy or some other unforeseen circumstance. As soon as he affixes that checkered flag sticker on the No. 48 Chevrolet, the narrative will change from how he is slumping to how he is about to march off to a seventh Cup title.
McGee: Well, I want to say Johnson because, well, he's him. But it seems like all spring I've been picking Jimmie Johnson to win and he keeps falling flat, so just to try something different (and perhaps transfer the McGee Curse elsewhere) I'll say Kenseth. Totally scientific, I know.
Oreovicz: I'm picking Johnson, because (A) he's Jimmie Johnson and (B) he's come closer than Kenseth has to winning a race this year, having seen good opportunities slip away at Martinsville and Fontana. Kenseth has ridden the consistency card to second place in the standings with only one finish lower than 13th, whereas Johnson has five finishes of 19th or lower to accompany his five finishes in the top six. I can't imagine them both going winless over the next 15 races, but I expect Johnson to win first.
Smith: Johnson. And I base that on sheer speed. Neither is running up to standard, but Kenseth lacks a bit of speed. He'll find it. There are 25 points races to go -- 15 before the Chase. They'll both win before then.
Hinton: An old-fashioned inverted start -- biggest winners and highest points gatherers on the back -- like the outlaw Saturday night tracks used to do it. Go for 100 laps or 150 miles at Charlotte, no intermissions, no resetting the field, pit as you see fit. No more gimmicks. Just go. No tech inspection. Only rule, in the words of the late, great Smokey Yunick, "All right you sonsabitches, let's have a race." Period.
James: The venue would change every year, and that venue could never be one that hosts a Sprint Cup event. The format and types of car would change to fit the track. It would never include Sprint Cup cars. There could be Late Models at Eldora, hot rod street versions of Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota street cars at Circuit of the Americas (marketing!), trophy trucks through the streets of Charlotte. Whatever. Make it easy to follow. Make it new. And just make it fun.
McGee: First, I would move it around like other all-star events (sorry Charlotte). But that's not happening, so I'm all for simplifying it and diversifying it. Give me three segments of 20 laps, but run one on the infield road course, one on the speedway and then one on the short track right there in front of the main grandstand. Don't invert anyone. No mandatory in-race pit stops. Just qualify them on Friday night on the big track, line them up and if you can keep up you can keep up.
Oreovicz: All-Star events have become a tougher and tougher sell, no matter how many gimmicks are introduced -- just take a look at the NFL Pro Bowl. So my remake of the NASCAR All-Star weekend would be comprehensive -- and totally unlikely to happen. I'd take the drivers out of cars, for starters, so that the fans could see their heroes in the flesh instead of in a helmet and race suit tucked into a tubular steel safety cage. With apologies in advance to Tony Stewart, I'd like to see a "Superstars" kind of competition that pits the drivers against each other in athletic endeavors. Maybe get their crew chiefs and over-the-wall guys involved, as well. You could hold it in a stadium and combine it with autograph sessions and other fan-friendly activities that would showcase a more human side of the drivers and the sport to the public.
Smith: Make the ticket matter. Stage it at a remote short track each year -- on a Wednesday in July. At a short track it's an easy ticket sale. There's also zero television competition in prime time. Start at Myrtle Beach. Take it to South Boston and Motor Mile and Highland Rim and Hickory and Bowman-Gray and Little Rock and Anderson and Carraway. All of these are very close to NASCAR's Charlotte-based hub. You get the idea. If you have minimal seating, the ticket matters. It's a rarity. And it's really special to be there -- especially if Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon are coming to town. And guess what else it would do? It would invigorate the competitors' desire to be there. Yes, the million-dollar payout at Charlotte is plenty of incentive. But put that money up at an old-school Saturday night short track, man, the drivers and crews would be so thrilled. Top 20 fan-voted drivers compete. Two heat races to set the field. Three segments: 50, 30, 20. $2 million purse. $1 million to the driver that wins. $1 million to his or her charity of choice. Do that, and it'd become must-see again. Trust me.
Hinton: Larson, but in a way it's a tossup. Larson is the better driver but Dillon has the better equipment and support. I've just got to go with Larson, though, because he's more capable of winning a race in the regular season -- and indeed, during the Chase itself. Want my Homestead dark horse already? He's it, although he probably won't arrive there in the Final Four. Ever since Chip Ganassi said he always seems to show up at the end of a race, I've paid attention -- and that's largely true.
James: Dillon has proved himself a productive points-racer, winning the 2011 truck series title with two victories and the Nationwide crown last season with none. Though it is increasingly likely multiple drivers will advance to the Chase by virtue of points standings, the new emphasis on winning seems to play against his strength. Granted, Dillon has seven victories in NASCAR's top three series and Larson has just one, in the Nationwide series this year, but Larson feels more likely to break through in Cup this season after finishing second at Fontana and fifth at Texas.
McGee: If you'd asked the question last year I would've said Dillon. He established consistency early. But it isn't last year, it's 2014 and this is win-and-you're-in the Chase, so I'll say Larson. I think both drivers have a chance to win a race before the season ends, but Larson is taking the Kasey Kahne go-or-blow route while Dillon is taking the more traditional see-you-in-the-second-half approach.
Oreovicz: I'll take Larson using the same logic I used to answer the Johnson vs. Kenseth question in Turn 2. Larson has just looked more likely to win a race this year, and that's even more impressive when you consider that he has much less NASCAR race experience than Dillon. Whereas Dillon had the benefit of multiple full, championship-level seasons in Trucks and Nationwide, Larson had fewer than 40 stock car starts under his belt before he was elevated into a Cup seat. The great news for NASCAR is that they both should have long careers in front of them, but already have the talent to win races as rookies.
Smith: Larson. Granted, Dillon has the horse to win Daytona in July so he's a player, too. I believe Larson will win a Cup race this year. He has one of the fastest cars every weekend, and he's among the top 5 more often than not. He's run 11 races. It looks like 11 years. I knew he was good. Anybody who listened to Gordon and Stewart gush over him the past couple of years knew. But I didn't know he'd be this good immediately. The transition to Cup was like LeBron's to the NBA. When you have superior God-given ability, and couple that with the desire to learn and continue to improve, it's special.