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Tuesday, June 10, 2014
Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

ESPN.com

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

Turn 1: Another week, another blown opportunity for Kevin Harvick. Tires, broken parts, bad pit stops ... at what point does this team start to freak out? Now? Never?

Harvick
Kevin Harvick

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: The potential detonator is the pit stops. The parts and tire problems, Harvick can handle. But his hot button has always been bad pit stops. If you think about it, that was one of the things that rubbed him and Richard Childress raw with each other toward the end of their relationship. So here's the freakout: more bad stops, Harvick gets exasperated, the team starts to scramble, say by replacing crewmen, and you get into a nasty cycle like Jimmie Johnson's crew went through a few years back.

Brant James, ESPN.com: No need to freak out until the Chase. The quality-control problems have to be frustrating, but as long as the team can sort them out in the next 12 weeks, it's as if they didn't happen. That said, there might be a thermonuclear debrief or two over the summer.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Now, I realize that consistency isn't as important as it was under the old Chase format, but it is still the greatest indicator that a team is truly ready to make a run once the postseason starts. They aren't. Having fast cars, which they do every week, isn't enough. The Cup will go to the highest finisher at Homestead, so one has to prove he can consistently be there at the end. The good news for Harvick fans is that maybe they are getting their bad luck out of the way now and not in November. But if they are still tripping over themselves like this when fall arrives, they won't be around in November to worry about it.

John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: It's not in the nature of Tony Stewart, Gene Haas or Kevin Harvick to panic, so I doubt they'll get to that stage. I think everyone with the No. 4 side realizes that this is a new combination, if not necessarily a new team, and with Stewart-Haas somewhat unexpectedly adding a fourth car for Kurt Busch, there were bound to be growing pains. The important thing is that Harvick has showed plenty of speed in an SHR Chevy, and won two races to put them solidly in the Chase. Even with all the troubles, Harvick is still one of the drivers I predict will make the final four at Homestead.

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: I don't think they do freak out, provided they stay as fast as they are. I think they adjust. The leadership -- Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick -- won't allow a meltdown. They're both annoyed, sure. But they're also both successful veterans who understand the opportunity at hand. They team is championship-caliber. That doesn't happen often in a sport so fickle. Harvick was royally pissed after Charlotte. He's certain he has given three or four races away, including that one -- and when I asked him after the Coca-Cola 600 on pit road what he thought his opportunity was minus the pit-road issues he suffered, he shot me a look that said, "I want to kick your a-- right now." Fortunately for me, he didn't tee off.

Turn 2: The last time Dale Earnhardt Jr. won multiple races was 2004, when he had six victories. Any chance he could match -- or surpass -- that total this season?

Hinton: There is a chance, and a good one, but not a great one. His mindset appears to be excellent -- maybe even better than in '04 -- which is huge. His crew and cars are clicking, and the more he's sitting right there at the end, the more races he can win. And there's a long way to go. I say he gets to at least four, maybe more. And wouldn't it be cool for Junior Nation -- and cool off Anti-Junior Nation -- if he popped a seventh this fall?

Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.

James: He will not. Let's not get ahead of ourselves here. This is a driver who has won six races total since that 2004 season. Earnhardt is obviously piecing together a nice campaign. He has led laps in nine of 14 races but he doesn't project the vibe of a driver who will embark on a blitz of Victory Lane. That said, four more perfectly placed wrappers and anything is possible.

McGee: Six? No. I'm not sure anyone will reach six this year, especially as go-for-broke attitudes in the garage will only grow more and more as the Chase draws closer. But four or five is certainly possible.

Oreovicz: Speaking of the drivers I'm tabbing for the final four shootout at Homestead, Dale Jr. is having a fantastic year. His demeanor is fun and relaxed and it looks as if he's having a great time on the racetrack, too. Six wins might be a stretch, because the Sprint Cup Series is more competitive top to bottom than it was in 2004. But I think Junior will come close and finish the campaign with at least four victories.

Smith: I don't expect that to happen. But I have no basis for that opinion. It is absolutely possible. This is a special year for Earnhardt. It just feels different, special. It feels destiny-like.

Turn 3: Kasey Kahne was involved in a Lap 142 accident at Pocono and finished 42nd, yet another disappointing result for the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet. Kahne is 22nd in points, while his Hendrick Motorsports teammates are ranked first (Jeff Gordon), third (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and fourth (Jimmie Johnson). Is Kahne driving himself out of a job at HMS?

Hinton: Afraid so. Afraid for all the under-30 fans who have been so loyal to him since they were kids. Look, Rick Hendrick is the most patient owner in the business. But not even his patience is boundless. And everybody sees the elephant in this room -- age 18, name of Chase Elliott.

Kasey Kahne
Kasey Kahne

James: Kahne should worry about that every day. Rick Hendrick cultivates a family atmosphere and is beloved by his employees, but make no mistake, he didn't become the sport's most successful owner without making cunning and ruthless business decisions. This is a man who released a 22-year-old Kyle Busch to complete a long courtship with Earnhardt Jr. Hendrick has Nationwide rookie and wonder child Chase Elliott in the clan over at JR Motorsports. He might consider it good business to slide him into the No. 5 Chevrolet one day soon.

McGee: This might be a race between Kahne's bottom line and Jeff Gordon's lower back. Which goes worse first? I don't think either driver will be displaced before the end of 2015. That's when Chase Elliott will be done with his scheduled two years in the Nationwide Series. One month ago, when Gordon was talking like he might drive forever, Kahne was in more trouble. At Dover, when Gordon said he couldn't take many more weekends of pain like he had Charlotte, the heat maybe was turned down a little. Either way, there's time for Kahne, who is a streaky winner, to turn it around.

Oreovicz: Well, something is certainly amiss with the No. 5 team, and in these circumstances, the driver is often the first to be shown the door. For all of its excellence at running a multicar operation, there always seems to be one Hendrick car that doesn't stay with the rest. Over the past couple of years, that mantle at Hendrick has shifted from Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 to Kahne and the No. 5. Kahne could really use a solid result right now, because his future at Hendrick is starting to look pretty tenuous.

Smith: No. This question annoys me. Is it Kahne's fault he got run up into the fence at Pocono? No. Is it his fault he wasn't making speed early in the season? Partly, maybe, with feedback on the car. But certainly not entirely. This team is perplexing and disappointing, but to suggest Kahne would lose his ride based on 14 races is absurd. And that's the nicest word I can think of.

Turn 4: Race leader Brad Keselowski tried to clear debris from the grille on his overheating No. 2 Ford with five laps remaining at Pocono, opening the door for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s victory Sunday. Knowing he already is a virtual lock to make the Chase with one race win, shouldn't Keselowski have gone all-out for the victory and gambled that his engine would go the distance (which it did)?

Hinton: He WAS going all-out for the win. Look, the guy feels a death rattle in his engine, how is he going to guess it has a few more breaths? Besides, he was already so down on power he figured Earnhardt was going to pass him anyway. And Earnhardt probably would have, Danica or no Danica. But there she was, and Keselowski took his best shot at losing the hot dog wrapper. He had all of one, maybe two seconds to decide. The guy has second-guessed himself enough already. I'm not going to pile on.

Brad Keselowski
Brad Keselowski

James: The former series champion said the motor was going to blow up, so I defer to him. And if he had been able to use Danica Patrick's No. 10 Chevrolet as floss for his dirty grille, there is every possibility he takes the lead back and completes a pretty interesting chapter in Pocono history. Maybe they would have called it the Grille Shot. Oh, well.

McGee: The driver did what he felt he had to do and he made his decision in a split second while rolling off the corner at nearly 200 mph with the sport's biggest star (and his buddy) filling up his rearview mirror. I'm not second-guessing him. He's already done that plenty. One, I know he won't do it like that next time. And two, how crazy is it that after 398 miles the race was determined by the random flight of a couple of hot dog wrappers?

Oreovicz: Yes, and Brad knew it in retrospect. The revamped Chase format this year was supposed to encourage gambling and going all-out for race wins; Keselowski thought at the time that clearing the grille would give him a better chance of winning, but he also probably thought that his maneuver wouldn't cost him as much momentum as it did. Put in the same scenario between now and the start of the Chase, Keselowski admitted he would throw caution to the wind and handle the situation differently.

Smith: It's easy to say yes in retrospect. That's life. Hindsight doesn't lie and knows no sugar. Keselowski did what he felt was right. He was thinking of others, namely Doug Yates' engine team. He wants Pocono back, as he should. But he wasn't "wrong."