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Our panel of experts weigh in this week on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR:
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: I don't think the time of year makes one bit of difference. The man is on a roll and driving as well as he ever has. Frankly, I'm surprised his Chase run from 2011 has continued into 2012 considering all the changes the team made, but it hasn't mattered. "Smoke" certainly could repeat, but I wonder how much longer Rick Hendrick will watch his foursome get beat by his own equipment before heads start to roll.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: He's looking as good as he could at this point to repeat -- not just because he's the early leader in seeding for the Chase, but because he has picked up where he left off last year in driving smarter and better than ever before in his career. One caution: He has always been a streak driver, and it is possible the hot spell could be coming earlier than usual and could cool off. But he has so much confidence now that he could very well add a hot summer and another dominating Chase to make this season a rout.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: It means everyone else should be terrified. His numbers over this 15-race stretch are the most dominant since Jeff Gordon in '98, which is the biggest one-year beatdown I've witnessed. And Stewart has done it with two crew chiefs. I'm never going to anoint a champion in March, but history says that while a fast start doesn't promise you a Cup, way more often than not it means you'll be in the title mix at season's end.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Granted, Stewart traditionally has been a slow starter. But this "hot weather and slick track" explanation is overrated. Look at the facts: Of Stewart's 46 wins, fewer than half (22) have come in the summer months. Of the 22 in the summer, almost a third (seven) have come on road courses where we all know he is one of the best. I can't explain why he hasn't won more races early in the season, but I can argue, based on the numbers, that his greatness isn't a direct result of hot weather and slick tracks. Stewart is one of the most talented drivers in NASCAR history, and he's always a threat to win it all whether he starts slow or fast. By the way, he got off to a pretty fast start last year, leading 59 laps at Phoenix and 163 at Vegas, and just didn't have the results to match his performance. What we're seeing now simply is a driver who is at an all-time high in confidence after winning five of 10 Chase races and who is driven to prove last year's championship had more to do with talent than his crew chief.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: It solidified that he is a shrewd businessman, capable of separating personal feelings from professional ones. Stewart loves Darian Grubb. He appreciates Darian Grubb. He knew Darian Grubb would be better served elsewhere -- even after winning a championship. The level of self-confidence it takes to make a decision such as that is incalculable. That self-confidence is manifesting itself right now on the racetrack.
Blount: Top-35 rule. See ya. No one gets a free pass into the show. Dale Earnhardt Jr. spins out on his qualifying lap. Too bad. He's out. The truth is, the chances of a big star missing the show are remote. But think of the drama this would add to qualifying, which now has about as much drama as a curling match on the North Pole. Actually, I would rather watch curling on the North Pole. Want to sell some tickets on Friday? This is the way to do it. And give the pole winner one point. It's better than earning a point for leading a lap under caution.
Hinton: I make the highly unpopular -- but fair -- call to abolish green-white-checkered finishes. They change too many outcomes. They turn racing into roulette, and can obliterate the efforts of 400 and 500 miles in a single restart. Caving in to fans who howled about races finishing under caution was like yielding to kids who demand all candy for dinner rather than balanced meals. Besides, I always thought hailstorms of beer cans and seat cushions coming down on drivers winning under caution made for colorful television and memorable stories -- no more outrageous than a lot of the overtimes are now.
McGee: Ditch the top-35 rule. I totally understand the reasoning behind it, to protect the teams (and sponsors) that have made the fullest commitment to the sport. But the top-35 rule has turned pole qualifying into a blah event. It used to be Friday must-see TV. Now it is played out to largely empty grandstands and is much more about track position than the search for speed. Besides, shouldn't those teams be capable of making the field on speed? And fans, at least the ones I hear from, abhor all the offseason points buying and bartering that owners do to get into that top 35.
Newton: Just one? I would find the magical number of laps at each track to keep the time to run a race between 2 1/2 to 3 hours. There was a time when fans would sit at the track or in front of the television all day and watch a race. That time has passed. There are just too many options in the world today to expect people to give more than three hours to any event. It's one of the reasons I like the NFL over college football, because you can expect a 3-hour game instead of a 3 1/2- to 4-hour marathon.
Smith: Shorten the schedule. There are too many races for the overall good of the sport. In this economy with this general attention span, less is more.
Blount: How about erasing it from her memory and pretending to start over. There's no getting around this. It has been absolutely horrible. A lot of the bad stuff hasn't been her fault, but other than her winning the Nationwide pole at Daytona, 2012 has been a complete downer. Chalk it up to experience and bad luck, and realize it's a long season. There's plenty of time to make things better.
Hinton: She should take a deep breath, forget about points and just go all-out, every lap. You could tell by a crack in her voice Saturday in the garage that she's pretty down. Maybe she should use the time off to seethe and come back angry. Couldn't hurt. And I'm not going to stop harping that she could use some time on dirt tracks. Mentor Tony Stewart says running sprint car races lately has if anything helped his Cup effort. You can see it in the way he smoothly slides his Cup car around when needed and in the "slide jobs" he put on others on Sundays. Why not put Patrick in one of his sprinters? She needs more experience sideways than running the Prelude to the Dream can give her.
McGee: That souvenir sales have been great.
Newton: Not a lot. She has led only two laps and hasn't been among the leaders enough to show she can race with the top drivers in the series. She hasn't raced in the top 15 spots the past two races and has only 167 of a potential 970 laps in the top 15 in five races. Only once in five races has she even finished on the lead lap. Learned? Maybe that this is tougher than she originally thought, even with great equipment.
Smith: That she must remain patient. Not unlike Kasey Kahne in Cup, her first five weeks of 2012 are defined by poor luck. She has two choices: focus on the context of the season, or let bad luck eat her lunch.
Blount: My first thought here is how ridiculous it is that Smoke has two wins in five races but ranks below Junior, but that's another story. Earnhardt will win, and I'll pick Talladega. He pushed Jimmie Johnson to victory there last spring. And Earnhardt's chances of winning are better now because the new rules package at plate tracks plays into his skill set at those events.
Hinton: Yes, at Talladega in May. He was back to his old masterful plate-racing self in the Daytona 500 but couldn't deal solo with the dominant Roush tandem of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. With the same kind of driving effort, plus maybe a Hendrick drafting partner or inability of Roush cars to hook up on the point -- these circumstances are always possible at Casino de Alabama -- he could win and do it convincingly. Allow me to hedge a bit -- if not in May, then at Daytona in July or Dega in the fall.
McGee: Definitely. I've had my eye on Texas for a while now, where he has three top-10s over the past two years. He's good at Martinsville and it would be a helluva story if he got Rick Hendrick's 200th win there this weekend, but too many other guys are too good there. It just feels more like Texas to me. Regardless of where it happens, I have a hard time seeing him getting through mid-June without at least one win.
Newton: Yes. Of course, I said that last year, too. But the difference between five races into this season and last season shows why I feel stronger about it now. Earnhardt has improved his average start position from 24.2 to 14. Ten spots before the race begins is huge. He's improved his average finish from 13 to 8.8. You have to be close to the front to have a chance to win. He's also led 72 laps, compared to nine this time a year ago. So where will he win? Don't be surprised if it's this week at Martinsville. Earnhardt led late there a year ago and finished second. In his past three starts at the half-mile track, he's gone seventh, second and seventh. In 2008, he led a race-high 146 laps. And he's in a Hendrick car, which since 1999 has won 11 times at Martinsville. If it doesn't happen there, don't blame me. Just look forward to Talladega and Richmond as prime targets.
Smith: He'll win. No doubt in my mind. In fact, he's my pick to win Martinsville this weekend. For some reason, I have a hunch he'll get Rick Hendrick No. 200. After all they've endured together, it's only fitting.