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Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

ESPN.com

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

Turn 1: Joey Logano, who was running second at the time, wrecked out of Sunday's Sprint Cup race after contact from the car of 72-year-old Morgan Shepherd, who was 16 laps down. Logano said there should be a test for a driver such as Shepherd to get in a race. What, if anything, should be done about aging drivers entering events?

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Personal thoughts and business thoughts here. Personally, I know Morgan Shepherd to be a pretty sensitive guy, so he just might feel bad enough about the incident and the criticism that he'll be reluctant to try it anymore. But NASCAR is a business, and businesses can't practice age discrimination. Shepherd qualified for the race. He's just a kid compared to Roger Penske, 77, who owns the wrecked Logano car, and Penske defended Shepherd's right to run. Logano's complaint was understandable, and yet to hear him, you'd think no one under 72 has ever pushed up the track before. I'm not crazy about Shepherd trying to run, any more than I was crazy about James Hylton trying to run in his 70s. But I just can't see how NASCAR, either fairly or legally, could put an age cap on competing.

Brant James, ESPN.com: There should be yearly proficiency evaluations for all -- older, younger, and otherwise, with the sanctioning body and driver paddock involved. With so many drivers at such disparate levels of competence -- arriving or enduring at stock car racing's highest level not necessarily on merit -- some form of qualification process should be in place. There still would be room for the wonderchild rookie or the sage veteran, and the journeyman kicking around in the latter stages of productivity. But no one who could potentially pose a danger to themselves or others should be on the track.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I am a sucker for the romanticism of an old-school guy getting behind the wheel. However, the reality of it, from "Fast Masters" to Larry Pearson's injuries at Bristol in 2010 to Sunday afternoon, never turns out well. That being said, I'm not sure NASCAR can do anything when it comes to age restrictions without ending up with a giant legal mess. But they also can't trot out the "he kept minimum speed" argument. The eyeball test says he did not. That's where the changes can be made, quietly and without embarrassing anyone. One year ago I even did feel-good pieces about Shepherd on TV and here on ESPN.com, but we also knew that weekend that he was going to be getting off the track before the first round of pit stops. This year, when they went back out, even after that pit-road mess, I was stunned. Judging by the looks on the faces of the other teams, I was far from alone.

Joey Lagano and Morgan Shepherd
Joey Logano (22) and Morgan Shepherd tangle at New Hampshire.

John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: Bunch of factors at work here. First of all, I don't think NASCAR can legally forbid a 72-year-old driver from trying to participate due to his age, just like they can't shut out Danica Patrick because of her gender or Darrell Wallace Jr. or any other driver because of his ethnicity. It presents a moral challenge for NASCAR as well, because its drivers traditionally tend to have longer careers than those in most race series (the exception is the NHRA), and some people no doubt find the idea of a senior citizen competing against drivers a third or half his age to be a compelling story. But some common sense needs to come into play here, and it needs to come from Shepherd, who needs to swallow his pride and realize that while he's had a good long run, it's time to step away. Logano handled the situation pretty well, in my opinion -- he did blame the slowest car, not the oldest driver.

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Nothing. It's not about age. It's about competitiveness and the reason for being there. NASCAR is a free-enterprise business. Hell, I can go race if I buy a car and am cleared by NASCAR to make an attempt. Even in the Daytona 500! It's always been that way. As long as an individual doesn't pose a physical threat to competitors, he or she can race. It could be argued that, by wrecking Logano, Shepherd poses that threat. But likewise, could it not be argued that Logano, when he got all wild-as-hell aggressive during Daytona 500 practice in February and sent rookie Parker Kligerman on his lid, poses the very same threat? It's all subjective. Race cars wreck. It's the nature of the business. Logano has every right to be mad. If I were him, I'd be livid. He could've won that race at Loudon. But don't go playing the age card. (For the record: I didn't hear Logano say anything about age anyway.)

I don't know what to say about today. 100% frustrated. Could have and should have been another @Team_Penske 1-2. Congrats @keselowski.

- Joey Logano (@joeylogano) July 13, 2014

Turn 2: As we hit the summer break of the NASCAR season, give the Sprint Cup Series a grade and tell us why.

Hinton: B-plus. Sure, there have been some runaways, but that's very much a part of racing. You had Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver, winning the Daytona 500, the biggest race, right out of the gate. And Earnhardt is clearly in the thick of things for the championship. Ford has made a serious comeback, winning the past four straight, to compete with Toyota and Chevrolet. You've had dark horse winners and rampage winners -- some drivers, such as Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, have been burning up the tracks in streaks, but we haven't been sure who was going to rampage when. You've had Richard Petty's 43 back in Victory Lane, and regardless of the circumstances of Aric Almirola's win in it, nobody can argue with the aesthetics of seeing the 43 back. It's a good season. Fans will grouse, but fans always complain.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway
New Hampshire Motor Speedway

James: B-minus. The new system to seed the Chase for the Sprint Cup has been admittedly compelling. The new qualifying format has provided a needed wrinkle, some drama, and some absurdity, like the Olympic cycling-style nonsense at Daytona. The Chase itself could be thrilling or an unmitigated disaster. We don't know yet. There has been race drama, certainly, but much of it has been stoked by what was happening on local radar.

McGee: On the track: B-plus. We've had a lot of different winners, some great finishes, and the new qualifying format has been a home run. Off the track: C-minus. Somehow we keep overshadowing race winners with other stuff. Almirola and Keselowski? Nope. We're talking RTA and Morgan Shepherd.

Oreovicz: I'll award it a solid B. Most of the races have been interesting, a nice variety of drivers and teams have won races, and the fact that some big names have not won -- especially with the win-and-you're-in Chase format -- will create additional intrigue during the next seven weeks. Any time Dale Earnhardt Jr. is running well, it's a good time for NASCAR. But that B grade could quickly go up or down, depending on how the new Chase plays out.

Smith: A-minus. I love NASCAR. No one has more passion for the sport than I do, so my definition of entertaining is different from many. Some folks are bored. I hear it often. With a few exceptions -- Kentucky, for one -- I've found the competition fun to watch this season, and I look forward to seeing how this nutty Chase format unfolds. The finale in Miami will be bonkers. This Race Team Alliance fiasco is captivating to me. It could be the first true opportunity for a balance-of-power shift in the sport in -- well, forever.

Turn 3: Which driver -- in any of NASCAR's three national touring series -- has been the biggest positive surprise so far?

Hinton: Of the two three-race winners, make the bigger surprise Brad Keselowski, because we figured all along Jimmie Johnson would win big sooner or later. Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe are hinting at a real roll through the summer. I expected them to rebound from last year, but not quite this well. Add Joey Logano's two wins, and Team Penske's total of five is more surprising than Hendrick's six, because you figured Hendrick would be about there at this point.

Brad Keselowski
Three-time winner Brad Keselowski

James: Austin Dillon. In the shadow of the No. 3, in the shadow of fellow rookie and uber prospect Kyle Larson, the former Trucks and Nationwide champion has churned along, amassing points and positioning himself to qualify for the Chase. It is to his credit that the return-of-the-3 meme has nearly completely vanished -- until he puts it in the playoffs -- and he's made the car his. Impressive stuff.

McGee: Jeff Gordon. Last year he had to make the Chase by way of default and, even with the win at Martinsville, it felt like he was going to gracefully gallop toward retirement. But he's led the points standings the vast majority of the year, shored up the weaknesses in his game (see: restarts) and is a legit title contender, even as his 43rd birthday looms.

Oreovicz: Kyle Larson in the Cup series. He hasn't won a race yet, but he has the No. 42 car sitting 14th in the points, seven places ahead of experienced teammate Jamie McMurray and a position bettered only once by predecessor Juan Pablo Montoya between 2007 and 2013. If the youngster can avoid another lull like he went through at the end of June and the start of July, he could make an unexpected appearance in the Chase. Honorable mention to Chase Elliott in the Nationwide Series.

Smith: Dale Earnhardt Jr. When he's this engaged in every facet of the sport -- especially fan interaction -- it's a game-changer. It gives the sport a different feel. His first-person interaction with fans via social media and the "Dirty Mo Radio" podcast offers such an authentic glimpse into who he is and what he's all about. Most people don't know those things. Just five years ago he was so introverted he'd hang his head and stare at the ground, embarrassed and disappointed. Now he's relevant on the racetrack, fast everywhere, and the intrigue of his last ride with Steve Letarte adds a walk-off layer to the effort. And he's confident. More confident than I've ever seen him. It's really fun to watch.

Turn 4: We've picked the biggest positive surprise, but which driver has been the biggest disappointment?

Hinton: Tough call between Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth. But Stewart gets in these slumps sometimes. This one's worse than usual, and I don't think it's caused by the leg injury, but Smoke does have his downswings. I would have expected Kenseth to win by now, especially considering how strong he was last year. It's just amazing that he and the 20 crew haven't hit the answer to the new rules yet. So, Kenseth's team -- not necessarily Kenseth himself -- has been the bigger disappointment.

Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth, winless in 2014

James: Kasey Kahne: Somehow unable to draft along in the slipstream of the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut, the veteran has been at times promising, at other times completely lost, but too often just ordinary. With all three of his teammates brandishing those little "Winner" stickers on their race cars this season, ordinary translates to underachieving.

McGee: I'm going to pick a whole team. Stewart-Haas Racing can't get out of its own way. Yes, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch have wins, but they are 13th and 25th in points. Meanwhile, Tony Stewart looks good one week and awful the next and Danica Patrick is, well, Danica Patrick. If they don't get their quality-control issues ironed out in a hurry, it won't matter if they get three cars into the Chase (and I think they still can). They'll vanish in a hurry.

Oreovicz: Lots of candidates here, if we are honest. Tony Stewart's leg injury gives him a pass. Matt Kenseth must be disappointed at being winless after his impressive 2013 campaign, but he still sits fourth in points, so it's not like he's having a terrible season. That leaves Kasey Kahne, the only winless Hendrick Motorsports driver, and the only Hendrick driver who doesn't look likely to win anytime soon. A tough seat to be in, especially with Chase Elliott looming in the background.

Smith: Kasey Kahne. Too much talent. Too much promise. Too much passion. Too much equipment. Too much horsepower. Too many teammates in Victory Lane. Too much expectation. Too mediocre. But it'll come. I believe that. Kahne is elite. He'll get one soon, maybe Michigan. And for him, one will break the dam.