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Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

ESPN.com

Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week.

Turn 1: Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin had issues at Bristol -- coming on the heels of their Twitter spat at Daytona -- with Logano intimating retaliation is coming Hamlin's way. Do you think Logano will do it? And if he will, where?

Terry Blount, ESPN.com: Usually, I think these little tiffs blow over and nothing much happens, but in this case, Logano probably will do something to Hamlin on the track at some point. Joey is tired of getting pushed around as the young guy who doesn't deserve respect. And clearly, there's some longtime animosity between the two that they covered up as teammates before Logano moved on. I don't think Joey will make his move this weekend at Fontana (too big, too fast), but Martinsville two weeks later looks like a good option. The one person who might stop him is team owner Roger Penske, who likely will encourage Logano to keep his cool. But I think Joey feels he has more to lose by not going after Hamlin than he does by taking him out, even if a NASCAR penalty is the end result.

Joey Logano

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: I doubt it. If it happens, Martinsville on April 7 is the right place at the right time. The "Paperclip" is a hotbed of payback, for either old beefs or new ones that arise on the spot. But you wonder how much Logano will even see of Hamlin, who usually runs up front at NASCAR's smallest track. And this whole thing may come down to Roger Penske's admonitions versus Logano's temper at a given moment. You can bet Penske will speak to Logano (if he hasn't already) regarding the Bristol set-to. Penske likes to keep things mannerly. But, should Hamlin rough up Logano again at Martinsville, and should Logano be able to get near him, then temper might override the boss. You've still gotta wonder who would win such an encounter, though.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Martinsville is just a couple of weeks away. Next question.

David Newton, ESPN.com: Funny how life works. Hamlin backed himself into a corner in 2009 when he made the same promise to Brad Keselowski. He came through -- in a meaningless Nationwide Series race. Logano has kind of backed himself into the same corner of having to respond now to avoid others walking over him. Martinsville in three weeks would be a good place. At the half-mile track in Virginia, Logano can simply call it hard short-track racing and make himself look like a genius. But this may go much deeper than one driver standing up for himself. Logano hinted on Sunday the two haven't gotten along great for years. This could be more about Hamlin resenting that Logano was born with the proverbial silver spoon in racing while he had to struggle to get what he's earned. If that's the case, retaliation may escalate this war.

Marty Smith, ESPN insider: No. I don't. I just don't think it's in Logano's character to purposefully wreck someone -- especially when that someone (Hamlin) drives cars for the man that made Joey Logano -- Joe Gibbs. Logano knows most of the guys who build those cars. He doesn't want to hurt them. He wants to hurt Hamlin. Racers know myriad ways to screw with one another that laymen like us never see and aren't educated enough to notice. Logano can exact some semblance of revenge ALL YEAR just by racing Hamlin with no respect. He can annoy the hell out of Hamlin if he wants to. Several drivers have explained "driver code" to me. It's convoluted and has many layers. Though at times they'll tell you otherwise, every driver has a very long memory. They keep score.

So let's say Logano had walked over to Hamlin and punched him square in the face. Hamlin was still in the car, so that's an issue right there. But Hamlin had on his helmet, so he wouldn't have been hurt. Logano would have paid at least a $25,000 fine, but he'd have gained a million fans. And some level of respect. As it stands, Hamlin's zero-reaction reaction was the ultimate diss. It was as if he thought, 'This isn't even worth my time.' Then there's the Twitter banter. This baffles me. Just baffles me.

Turn 2: In only his fourth Nationwide Series race, rookie Kyle Larson narrowly missed beating the driver who has won the most races in series history, Kyle Busch. How good do you think Larson will be?

Blount: As good as it gets. As I said in the Monday Rundown, I hate to label anyone as a can't-miss prospect (some people did that with Logano), but Larson may be the most talented driver I've ever seen at his age. He's still going to wreck some cars and make mistakes before he gets to where he needs to be, but he will get there, and soon. And Chip Ganassi is in line to benefit from it, having signed Larson to a development deal last year.

Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson

Hinton: Very, very good, if he keeps his head and keeps good rides. Saturday, he finished like a Kevin Harvick or a Denny Hamlin rather than a rookie. He would have been astounding Saturday if we hadn't seen him at Daytona -- his terrible wreck came because he was swimming right there with the sharks at the end and got caught up. There's a temptation to fear Joey Logano "Sliced Bread" syndrome here, but there's a difference. Larson's background is a flashback to Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Larson was schooled in open-wheel sprint cars on dirt, superb training for NASCAR in that a) a driver learns to be comfortable sliding the car around and even getting sideways and b) sprinters, unlike rear-engine open-wheelers, drive off the right rear tire and give an excellent preview feel for NASCAR. The name of this game is car control, and Larson learned it from the ground up.

McGee: I've been around long enough to be able to sit here and recite a junkyard pile of guys who were going to be "the next Jeff Gordon" (paging Casey Atwood). So I am reluctant to anoint anyone this early. But I will say this, the kid ain't scared. As hard as he's wrecked already this year, a couple of times, and to be the guy who had his named attached to the fan injuries at Daytona, I have been waiting for an emotional letdown or some sort of taking pause from the kid. It hasn't happened. Instead, he was ramming his nose up in there with a hard-scrabble group at Bristol -- Harvick, Keselowski and Kyle Busch. I don't know how good he'll be, but I know he'll make sure we remember his name, one way or the other.

Newton: Darrell Waltrip put it best on Sunday at Bristol when he said Larson gained a lot of respect by not wrecking Busch and called him a "star of the future.'' I'd heard a lot of great things about this kid entering the season, and Saturday he lived up to the hype. The future could come sooner than we all think, too. Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya both are in a contract year at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Neither has done well for a couple of years. If Larson continues to perform and show the maturity he did at Bristol he could earn Cup seat time before the end of the season.

Smith: Very. Extremely. Insanely. The kid is the real deal. Just look at what Jeff Gordon tweeted after that fantastic Nationwide finish at Bristol: "What an amazing future @KyleLarsonRacin has in @NASCAR. Must have been brought up right!" With that note, Gordon posted a photo of a little 4- or 5-year-old Larson wearing Jeff Gordon DuPont Racing gear. There's a feeling about Larson that wasn't there for some of the other "phenoms" we've gushed over. If Larson isn't careful, Rick Hendrick may just scoop him up to replace Gordon in the No. 24 car when Jeff decides to retire.

Turn 3: Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finished in the top 10 in all four races this season, his best start ever. Will this be his best season ever?

Earnhardt Jr

Blount: It's so long ago now that people tend to forget, but Junior finished third in the 2003 standings and fifth in 2004 when he won six times. So, statistically speaking, for this to be his best season, he would have to finish first or second in the standings, or win at least seven races. The latter won't happen. The former? Maybe, but the odds are against it. I will say this: 2013 will be his best season at Hendrick Motorsports. He will win more than one race and finish better than seventh in the standings, which would make it his best season at Hendrick.

Hinton: Only if he escalates from mere consistently high finishes to winning multiple races. Lest we forget, his best year thus far will be hard to top. That was 2004, when he won six races and finished fifth in the standings -- and could have won the championship, had he not wrecked out at Atlanta (then a Chase race) while gunning for a win. It would be awfully hard to win six races against the current competition. But should he win three or four, and the championship, I think he himself would deem this his best year. In fact, he'd probably call it his best year if he won the championship and only one, or even no, races. But I'd have to see three-plus wins, and the Cup, to call this a better year for him than '04.

McGee: I don't know. His 2004 season was pretty darn good. But even if he can't match that year statistically, I do think he's in the best position since then to win a championship. He just walks different now, certainly taller than he did just a few years ago when he was 20-something in the standings. All these top-10s have put a near full race's worth of points between the 88 car and 11th place. That means the baseline is there, the launching pad, to make a title run. He said on Friday he can spend the summer trying to win races and tweaking for the Chase instead of obsessing about surviving Richmond in September.

Newton: Well, he said he was confident before the season, so we shouldn't be surprised by the fast start. But as nice as four straight top-10s are, his success ultimately will be judged by winning championships and races. Earnhardt is a long way from the six wins he had in 2004 when he was second in the standings with five races to go. He's a long way from the third-place finish he had in the standings in 2003. So talk to me in October and we'll re-evaluate.

Smith: The potential is most certainly there. It is evident. Earnhardt's confidence is palpable to anyone around him. I sense a level of engagement and accountability within him that I don't recall noticing before. He will win several races this year. The confidence and affirmation Steve Letarte instills within Junior prompts Junior to search for the very best of his ability. His radio feedback is analytical, not critical. That permeates the entire team. He is happy, happy, happy like Phil Robertson.

Turn 4: Even with a manufacturer switch that some thought would throw Brad Keselowski off the repeat path, he has top-4 finishes in all four races thus far and leads the standings. Has Penske Racing already made a seamless switch from Dodge to Ford, and, even this early, is it time to start thinking about a second straight championship for the Blue Deuce?

Blount: Frankly, I'm surprised. I was one of those who thought the switch to Ford and the change to leasing engines would cause Keselowski to take a step back. It doesn't look that way so far, but I think I know the reason. Paul Wolfe is so good on the pit box that the transition doesn't matter as long as the team still has quality equipment. Wolfe has pulled even with Chad Knaus, or maybe a little ahead, as the best crew chief in the sport.

Keselowski

Hinton: I've been thinking about it since January, when I picked him to repeat, with only a little concern about the transition to Ford. And he has breezed through that, rushing to the fore among Ford drivers, except for Carl Edwards' win at Phoenix. Keselowski has had a chance to win every race he's been in this season. He might well have won Sunday at Bristol -- duplicating his first win of last year -- had he not been victimized by the Logano-Hamlin flap. On the final restart, Keselowski, on the front row, was turned sideways when behind him, Logano shoved Hamlin, who was forced into shoving Keselowski. Even afterward, on old tires, Keselowski held off the freshly-shod car of Kurt Busch and salvaged third. Bad Brad is simply relentless, and he will win races, and he knows it, and that leads me to believe there'll be another Miller Lite-stoked, colorful champion's interview at Homestead in November. I was comfortable picking him in '12, when many called me nuts, and I'm even more comfortable now.

McGee: When I talked to him Friday all I had to do was mention the phrase "championship hangover" -- even in the context of him not having one -- and he bristled. He still has the same chip on his shoulder that he did when he first showed up in the Cup garage. That's a good thing. He's just the sixth driver since 1990 to start a year with four top-5s. The other five didn't win the Cup, but (with the exception of Ernie Irvan's injury-shortened 1994) they were in the hunt all year. He will be, too.

Newton: Seamless is an understatement. Penske Racing has established itself as the top Ford team over Roush Fenway Racing and Keselowski has established himself as the top Ford driver -- if he wasn't already. Sorry, Carl Edwards, but it's true. And there aren't enough adjectives to describe Keselowski's fast start. Coming off a title, particularly the first, it's easy to be distracted by all the hoopla and get off to a slow start. The focus Keselowski has shown during the first four weeks is what one would expect from a driver trying to prove himself, not stay on top. It would be a bigger surprise if he didn't win a second straight title than if he won it.

Smith: Yes, they've made a seamless transition. No, don't go handing him the championship yet. It's way too early to crown anybody. Now, it's not to early to care about points. Every point is critical, even this early. But it's too early to consider someone a title favorite. The 2 team is very good. Very good. And they're relatively quiet, which, as points leader with four top-5s to start the season, is scary in and of itself. The Wolfe/Keselowski union is a magical one. It's not going anywhere. They share optimum mutual respect for one another, and they're both smart enough to realize that they wouldn't be where they are without the other. They're both gritty. They both had to bust their asses to make it. And even though they're at the pinnacle, neither will rest. It's quite a combination. It's a lasting combination.