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Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: Honestly, there haven't been many things where I can say, "Wow, I didn't see that coming." Most of what I've seen is about what I expected to see: Matt Kenseth being great at JGR, Danica struggling in the Cup and Dale Earnhardt Jr. racing well but not winning, all of which have come to pass. Maybe the biggest shocker to me were how the penalties played out at Penske Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing -- first, how huge they were and second, how the appeals process reversed a lot of the sanctions, especially at JGR on Kenseth's engine issue. I'm a little surprised that Brad Keselowski is winless and outside the Chase cutoff for now and am pleasantly surprised to see how well Kurt Busch has raced in the No. 78 Chevy, along with how well he has minded his manners.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: This has to be a trifecta: 48-20-2 -- that Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth have been this good, this early and that Brad Keselowski's luck has been so bad, so much, so soon. We all knew Johnson was going to be a serious contender as usual, but I had no idea he was going to be so overpowering by this point. We all knew Kenseth was going to be stronger for his switch from Roush Fenway to Joe Gibbs, but I got the impression at Daytona that this is a blur even to Kenseth himself. And you had to figure Brad K would win at least two races by now, and he has won none -- mostly due to wretched luck. Seems like the camera shots of the 2 wadded up are standard every week.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I really thought that Danica would have at least a few wins by now. Okay … I just said that to make people mad. Seriously, I am totally befuddled by Brad Keselowski. His title defense isn't dead by any means. He's only 11 points out of the top 10. But they've been pretty generic going all the way to back Richmond.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Off the track, that Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. remain a couple. I really thought the pressures of racing and the attention Patrick constantly gets would wear thin on Stenhouse, that he would get tired of playing second fiddle in the relationship spotlight. But the two really seem to be in love and strong enough to handle whatever is thrown at them. And I was stunned that NASCAR overreacted and fined Denny Hamlin for his comments after the second race. Still ridiculous.
On the track, that Kevin Harvick has been so strong during a lame-duck season. He's a serious championship contender, people, and you should start paying attention. He already has as many top-5s (five) as he had a year ago, one more win (two) and almost as many top-10s (10 compared to 14 in 2012) halfway through the year. He's on a roll of eight straight top-10s. Points leader Jimmie Johnson hasn't strung together more than three straight. I'm also surprised Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn't won a race. Seriously. The way he started the season with five straight top-10s, including two seconds, I could have seen him winning multiple times. Maybe he'll surprise me in the second half and win one.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Some of the decision-making regarding penalties. How NASCAR can fine Denny Hamlin 25 grand for a benign comment about the Gen-6 car -- and then choose not to fine some of the other criticisms regarding the car -- is baffling to me. So at Charlotte, when NASCAR Chairman Brian France addressed the media, I asked for some clarity about the difference in philosophy there. He was none too pleased with the question and answered by informing me that other drivers applauded him for fining Hamlin. That particular fact surprised the hell out of me.
Blount: No, because he's also winning races. If Johnson had only one victory and led the points standings, it wouldn't matter. He easily could have won five of the past seven races if not for his restart issues. Johnson has led the most laps this season, and he's the only driver with 12 top-10s. I think Matt Kenseth can hang with JJ and compete for the title. I'm still picking Kenseth. He has won at seven of the 10 Chase tracks. But Johnson has won at eight of them, and the only reason he hasn't won at Homestead is because most of the time he hasn't needed to and has played it safe to win the title.
Hinton: Not at all. JJ and Chad Knaus always use the summer as a dress rehearsal anyway. When the lights go up in September, they're going to be better than ever. Johnson's performance at Daytona on Saturday night was for the ages: he took the roulette wheel of plate racing and turned it into a dead solid lock. JJ and Chad are better at this point of the season than I've ever seen them.
McGee: Nope. I had a conversation with Richard Petty about this. The King won his championships via a pile of different points systems. Between 1971 and '75 NASCAR used three different points scales … and Petty won titles with all three. "You play the hand that's dealt you," His Royal Fastness said to me last year. "They ran good with the old points, they run good with the Chase, and if they changed it next year, they'd run good with whatever that was, too."
Newton: It's true that if the Chase began today, Johnson and Matt Kenseth would be tied for the lead based on bonus points for four wins each, so the 49-point lead means nothing. It's also true that Kenseth, earlier this year, was on a roll arguably more impressive than what Johnson has been on lately. It's true, too, that Kevin Harvick shouldn't be ignored with two wins and eight straight top-10s. And as we saw two years ago with Tony Stewart, a driver can get hot at the right time and make us forget who was good during the regular season.
But this feels different. This is the best team of this generation -- maybe any -- having a regular season better than it had in any of its five championship runs. The past six races have been scary good for the 48 team. Johnson has led 43.5 percent of the laps and easily could have five wins instead of two during the streak. It's almost as though Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have recaptured the attitude they had prior to winning their first title, like they have something to prove. So, no, we aren't making too much of this dominance.
Smith: Not even. Just because the points reset doesn't mean the performance does.
Blount: Other than eliminating bump-drafting entirely and making it illegal, chaos at the end is almost inevitable. And without bump-drafting, the plate races would be utter boredom. Heck, they are now for most of the race. Drivers just play it safe, some even play possum in the back and wait to go in the final 20 laps.
It amazes me how some fans still argue for racing without the plates. No, no, a thousand times no. These cars would approach speeds of 250 mph without the plates. No roof flaps or catch fencing could keep one of them from flying into the stands in a bad crash. Two other solutions are not viable either. We could eliminate the banking, which would make Daytona and Talladega just like Pocono (please, no) or maybe Fontana. Do you want either of those options? The other is to use smaller engines with way less horsepower, which would be an enormous expense to the teams and a giant change for only four races.
Hinton: No. This is my leader in the clubhouse for most absurd question of the season. And every other possibility is 15 strokes back, on the back nine of the final round.
McGee: I dunno … maybe not awarding a trophy or money at the end of the race?
Newton: No. Going to single-file restarts might help a bit, but you'd still have craziness that leads to carnage. And do we really want to find ways to avoid it? I'm not for anybody getting hurt, and I know it cost owners a lot to rebuild cars, but much of the drama that is Daytona and Talladega is built around the so-called carnage. People watch those races because they won't get it anywhere else during the season. I was actually holding my breath watching the last lap on Saturday in anticipation of what might happen. I don't do that for races on 1.5-mile tracks. So if anybody has a full-proof suggestion to do away with the carnage, please keep it to yourself.
Smith: No. Not under the current circumstances. Any give-and-take that existed early in the race no longer applies. It's a free-for-all -- and the driving corps has resigned themselves to the reality that ending up on a hook is far more likely than ending up with a smile.
Blount: If I needed to win right now, Kurt Busch is my guy. He has raced exceptionally well this season on an average team. But more importantly, he has turned a corner on his character issues and handled himself with a lot of class in most situations this year.
However, if I'm building for the future and looking long term, Kyle Larson is the answer. I know bringing talented young guys up to Cup too soon has backfired at times, but Larson is a once-in-a-generation-type talent. If anyone is a can't-miss prospect, it's Larson.
Hinton: Kurt Busch. Period. End of discussion.
McGee: The free agent pool is a bit shallow and all the awesome young guys are tied to development deals with the big teams. I'm intrigued by Kurt Busch, but if I'm a car owner or a sponsor, I need to see a full season of "New Kurt" before I'm ready to buy in. I like Ryan Newman's résumé, but he's a hard sell to corporate America. I like David Ragan a lot, but he doesn't have the numbers of either one of those other guys. So I'm going to the Nationwide Series and saying, "Welcome back to Cup, Regan Smith!"
Newton: Among available drivers, Kurt Busch, hands down. The only one close might be AJ Allmendinger. Busch is ninth in points and has as many top-5s (four) as Matt Kenseth, albeit all of Kenseth's are wins. He has shown that a single-car team can compete with the big boys as long as it has support from one of them, as Furniture Row Racing does with Richard Childress Racing. There's just one catch: Sponsorship. If a top sponsor -- or group of sponsors -- were willing to give the 2004 Cup champion a shot, there would be a line of teams from RCR to JGR lined up to expand their organizations. That hasn't happened as far as we know. A dream scenario for Busch would be for Monster Energy to take what sponsorship it gives to Kyle Busch in the Nationwide Series and put it with Kurt in a JGR Cup ride. That would cement JGR as having the most talented driver lineup.
Smith: Provided we're all in agreement that Brian Vickers is a lock in the 55 -- that's what team owner Michael Waltrip says -- I'd hire Elliott Sadler. Sponsor's dream, and I just don't think the Cup has passed him by. He's humbled. He's passionate about proving people wrong. In the right ride, he'd go real fast.