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Tuesday, May 7, 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: NASCAR made some decisions this weekend that a few drivers disagreed with. One was throwing the caution just before the three-wide finish in the Nationwide race Saturday, which made Regan Smith the winner instead of Kasey Kahne. Another was restarting the Cup race Sunday after a three-hour-plus rain delay, which led to finishing the race in virtual darkness. What's your take on both decisions?

Terry Blount, ESPN.com: If the rain delay is expected to be longer than it would take to complete the entire event (and it was), call it a day and move on. Judging by all the empty seats in the grandstands, most of the ticket holders had moved on. And if restarting it means you probably have to finish in the dark on a damp track, don't do it. I would feel differently if the rain came a few laps short of halfway. In that case, do all you can to end the event on the same day. But this was like restarting a baseball game in the seventh inning on a wet field three-and-a-half hours later with no lights at the stadium.

On the Nationwide race, it's unfortunate the yellow negated a three-wide finish, but it was the right call because of the unusual finish line at Talladega that is way down close to Turn 1.

Talladega

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Safety concerns justify the late caution in the Nationwide race. Even if the leaders are clear of trouble, people could still get hurt behind them. But NASCAR needs to make this the precedent at restrictor-plate tracks and follow it consistently. That blink of an eye when they're trying to decide whether to let the show go on or limit the melee should always err on the side of throwing the caution.

As for restarting the Cup race, I told NASCAR officials on site, during the delay, that there weren't enough fans left in the stands to throw beer cans or seat cushions if they went ahead and called the thing. They didn't laugh. Bottom line, they probably caught less criticism for restarting after the long delay than they would have if they'd called it after the second big rain. And the storyline off the finish was good enough in retrospect to justify the restart.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: People want to compare the Saturday finish to the '07 Daytona 500 finish with Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin. That makes sense. But in the end, it's balls and strikes. It's pass interference or "let them play." No two calls will be the same. So, I don't have a problem with it. Same for Sunday. I know there were sprinkles, and I know that it was a heckuva lot darker than it looked on TV. But if they had just waved the red and checkered flags and sent everyone home with a handful of laps left, fans would have lost their minds. Well, everyone but Carl Edwards fans.

David Newton, ESPN.com: I have no issues with either decision. Had NASCAR not called the caution that gave Smith the win, it would have been criticized for that. The ultimate goal is safety. My only issue is inconsistency. Sometimes NASCAR allows the race to play out. Sometimes it throws the caution. I know it's a split-second deal, but just be consistent. As for the Cup race, most of the drivers said sight wasn't an issue at all. I'm sure the fans appreciated getting to see the race play out. I did. So what's the beef?

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Despite the frustration from some competitors, I think both were the right calls. Smith was in the lead when the yellow flew and the field was frozen. Kahne's dash to the line was fantastic, but that rule is rather clear-cut. That argument is simple. As for the Cup race, I appreciate the fact that fans got to see a finish. Ryan Newman is angry because a race car landed on his roof and destroyed his day. He didn't feel the race should have been restarted. It's the age-old dynamic: What fans often live to see drivers often hate..

Turn 2: Sunday was a big day for Front Row Motorsports, winning for the first time and posting a 1-2 finish with David Ragan and David Gilliland. Can the underfunded organization be competitive elsewhere? And how big is it for NASCAR when one of the smaller teams wins?

Blount: Great for NASCAR and a big day for the little guys. But it's strictly a Talladega thing, the great equalizer between the haves and have-nots. This was the only top-10 finish this season for either FRM driver. Ragan still ranks 26th, and Gilliland is 29th. The good news is the underfunded teams such as FRM can come up with an occasional surprise everyone loves to see, and it could bring added sponsorship that will help in the long run. But there's no indication the team is on its way to being truly competitive.

David Ragan

Hinton: Probably not, unless the 1-2 finish attracts more sponsorship. The team acknowledged up front that it puts more emphasis on restrictor-plate tracks because those are where underdog wins are most likely. Front Row won, but Furniture Row with Kurt Busch, and Phoenix Racing with Smith, were right up there in the mix near the end. So it's clear, across the board, where the less-funded teams' hopes lie. But, precisely because dark horses aren't at all unheard of at the plate tracks, potential sponsors are less likely to be wowed.

As for how big such wins are for NASCAR, I think they're a bit overrated because they're usually one- or two-day stories that don't "have legs" as news-network people say. There's a flash of feeling good, then the public largely forgets.

McGee: I'm not sure you can quantify how giant that was for that team. And it is good for NASCAR to have the little guy shock the world from time to time. One of the greatest Victory Lanes I've ever stood in was Furniture Row at Darlington after Smith won the Southern 500. It's great to see a guy like Bob Jenkins, who has poured his own money into that team and taken all the start-and-park flak over the years, get to take a trophy home. And we always like to say "he's a good guy" about these drivers, but, in the case of the Davids, it is beyond true. But, no, elsewhere isn't really possible for them. So they need to really enjoy this and be excited for Daytona in July.

Newton: They won't be able to challenge for wins every week, but they can be competitive at times, particularly when they have good wheelmen, as Kurt Busch has shown for Furniture Row Racing and Ragan proved Sunday at Talladega. Don't forget, Ragan might have won the 2011 Daytona 500 had he not changed lanes before the first green-white-checkered restart in an attempt to keep eventual winner Trevor Bayne as his drafting partner. He won the July race at Daytona later that year. He's pretty good, otherwise he never would have gotten a shot at Roush Fenway Racing. That the smaller teams are able to build the Gen-6 faster, allowing them to spend more time in other areas, also is a plus.

As for how big this was for the sport, look at the raw emotion we saw on Ragan and his crew members. It's the same emotion you see on Cinderella teams in the NCAA basketball tournament. It gives everyone hope. It can't help but be big for the sport even if it seldom happens.

Smith: That victory was huge for NASCAR. It's a different story, an underdog story everyone can get behind and feel good about regardless of allegiance. Just look at all the drivers who congratulated Ragan afterward. That doesn't happen every day. That said, plate tracks are the only places that type of upset can happen. And, in fact, Talladega might even be the only place a lower-tier team can win, given how much more important handling is at Daytona versus Talladega.

Turn 3: Matt Kenseth dominated in terms of laps led in the Gen-6 car's debut at Talladega. But was this plate race better than what you expected after a rather ho-hum Daytona 500?

Blount: It's the same old thing -- a lot of playing possum and follow-the-leader until it's go time near the end and things get crazy. And no one knows how to fix it, other than breaking up the plate races into a series of 30-lap sprints. Now that would be something to see, assuming enough cars still were in one piece for a 30-lap feature at the end.

Talladega

Hinton: It was better than Daytona in terms of driver confidence, and that made Dega more aggressive. Drivers arrived Friday morning thinking, by consensus, this was going to be a replay of the Daytona ride-around. But during their first practice, they realized that they could get stronger runs at the bigger track and that their cars "sucked up" to one another in the draft better. Even though Kenseth led and led and led, there was enough movement in the field behind him to make this something less than the Sunday promenade that was the Gen-6's debut in February. But the elephant in the room, heading for Daytona in July, is still the violent side draft that stalls cars out as they attempt to pass others. NASCAR would do well to fix that, perhaps by rounding the windshield configuration more. Otherwise, the prospects for the last two plate races of the season remain iffy.

McGee: I loved it (says the guy who was sitting on his couch and wasn't upside down or sliding through the mud at 150 mph).

Newton: First, I didn't think the Daytona 500 was as ho-hum as many did. But having said that, this race by far exceeded my expectations. Cars were three- and four-wide. There was plenty of passing in the pack. Sure, there wasn't much passing for the lead, but, when it was go time at the end, you couldn't have asked for much more action and drama. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. Can't ask for more than that.

Smith: Yes. But the drivers told us it would be wild after Friday's first practice. They said big runs would be the norm in the race. They were right.

Turn 4: Should Newman and Brad Keselowski be fined for postrace comments and tweets critical of NASCAR?

Blount: As someone who says and writes what he thinks (within reason) for a living, I would be a hypocrite to say they should be fined. However, were I to publicly say ESPN did this or that wrong, I would expect some type of reprimand, so I can see it both ways. Newman was angry, as one would expect, after a car came crashing out of the sky down on his windshield. He felt NASCAR shouldn't have restarted the race, certainly a debatable point. Keselowski, however, surprises me in how he continues to poke the alligator and not expect it to bite his arm off. I don't know whether he was right about NASCAR placing him in the wrong spot for the last restart. But, dude, argue it behind closed doors, not on Twitter for the entire world to see.

Crash

Hinton: Depends on how consistent NASCAR wants to be, and you never know about that. Newman might be popped at least for some cash because of the vulgarity about "their head up their a--," and Keselowski wouldn't let go of a decision NASCAR had clearly made to put him on the inside -- where he didn't want to be -- for the last restart. But here are the loopholes that might get Newman and Keselowski off the hook: They didn't criticize the "product" directly, as NASCAR claimed Denny Hamlin had done in March when he was nailed for $50,000. NASCAR has shown a lot of tolerance for drivers criticizing officials' judgment calls after the fact because it spices the pot. Newman likely will get away with howling about "racing in the dark and racing in the rain" and Keselowski with stewing over where he restarted because those were judgment calls that don't affect how many people watch the next race. When you imply the "product" -- the show -- is less than perfect, that's where you get into big trouble for criticizing the emperor's new clothes.

McGee: No. Newman used a bad word, so maybe for that. And Keselowski was more wrong than anything else. They've both been talked to before, secret fines and all that. Let me bring up that phrase again. Let them play!

Newton: No. Both were frustrated with their results. Let 'em vent, although Keselowski might have checked with NASCAR before going public with his vents on Twitter. But for both, I defer to NASCAR chairman Brian France when he opted not to fine Keselowski for venting after the Texas race. "We do allow the drivers to express themselves in that way, even if they say things that we would disagree with. And I obviously disagree with everything he said. Look, they're frustrated. This is the most intense racing in the world. It's not surprising that every once in a while when things don't go your way you just blow off a lot of steam."

Smith: No. NASCAR should let it go. Newman's comments were overboard and unwarranted, but he should be able to speak his mind. He was pissed off because a car landed on his head and destroyed his day. I'd want to blame somebody, too. Keselowski was angry because he thought NASCAR got it wrong. He was wrong, and the NASCAR powers that be shut him down rather quickly with their explanation. That said all that needs saying. They made a huge mistake fining Denny Hamlin. Huge. This sport needs personality and honesty from its stars. Otherwise, it dies on the vine.