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Tuesday, July 30, 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: Where do you think Sunday's Brickyard 400 winner, Ryan Newman, will drive next season?

Terry Blount, ESPN.com: The real question is this: Where can he drive next season? An open, quality ride is hard to find. The most obvious spot is a fourth car at Richard Childress Racing if the sponsorship is there. But if I'm Childress, I'm still taking Kurt Busch. It might cost him his satellite operation in leasing equipment to Furniture Row Racing to add Kurt, but it also might win Childress a championship.

Ryan Newman
Ryan Newman: '13 Brickyard 400 winner.

It will help Newman find a ride if Quicken Loans goes with him, but even that won't be enough to finance a full season. Maybe he could go back to Roger Penske's team, but Penske is loyal to Sam Hornish Jr. and probably would put him in a third Cup car before Newman. Joe Gibbs Racing could add a fourth car, but it appears unlikely. Or Newman could move to Furniture Row if Busch goes to RCR. Maybe one of the cars at Richard Petty Motorsports will become available, but that's not exactly center ring.

The options don't look good, but I have to believe something is going to open up that we don't know about yet. Newman is a quality driver and a quality person sponsors like. And he just won the Brickyard 400. If he can't get a decent ride in 2014, NASCAR has serious problems.

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Nowhere satisfactory to him. I just don't think he'd be a good fit at Richard Childress Racing, even if sponsorship were found for a fourth car. That's an old-school organization, and Newman's approach and personality are too mathematical. Failure to find sponsorship is probably the root reason Tony Stewart is letting Newman go, and that issue will travel with him. Pickings are very slim now. Newman could slide all the way to replacing Bobby Labonte at Brad Daugherty's team.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: RCR makes the most sense to me. The team needs someone with some pedigree, and he certainly has it. When I talk to team marketing people, their one knock on Newman -- fair or unfair -- is that he's not an easy sell to sponsors. He knows that. That's why, starting at New Hampshire, we've heard him repeatedly shoot that theory down by outlining all the sponsor-friendly things he has done through the years. Now he's the Brickyard 400 champion. That's a mighty big chip to carry into any meeting with a potential sponsor.

David Newton, ESPN.com: Newman's probably wondering the same thing. The number of quality rides is slim. In Newman's favor, even before he had a Brickyard 400 win to go with his 2008 Daytona 500 win, is that he apparently has Quicken Loans and possibly Outback willing to go with him. Sponsorship will draw interest. Richard Childress has said Newman is a candidate at RCR, but that is only if a fourth team can be formed. Childress won't do that unless he has full sponsorship, and he doesn't yet. Roush Fenway Racing also has been mentioned, but again that means expanding to a fourth team and needing full sponsorship. There appears to be more interest in advancing Trevor Bayne, but Bayne hasn't attracted the sponsorship many thought he would after winning the 2011 Daytona 500. Long shot at best.

Michael Waltrip insists Brian Vickers is his guy for the No. 55 full time next year, but primary sponsor Aaron's still hasn't committed. If that falls through, perhaps his team could turn to Newman and his sponsors. There have been rumblings that Furniture Row might expand to a second team and add Newman, but I'm told that isn't likely. The emphasis there is to re-sign Kurt Busch, which I expect to happen. After that, you're down to second- and third-tier teams. Phoenix Racing under its new management needs a driver. Justin Allgaier reportedly has the inside track even though Allgaier says he hasn't had discussions about it. Then you're into teams such as BK Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing.

In other words, I can't tell you where Newman will land. My gut says Phoenix Racing if the three top-tier teams mentioned can't make room because that organization has Hendrick support just as Newman has at SHR. And Stewart didn't rule out bringing Newman back one day, so stashing him there would be the easy solution.

Turn 2: Tony Stewart says Danica Patrick is meeting his expectations so far. Has she met yours?

Blount: Not even close. Look, I was one of the first to come out and say Kyle Petty's comment about Patrick not being a race car driver was out of line and unfair. Patrick's racing accomplishments are far above some of the drivers racing in NASCAR today. However, she has been little more than a lap turner most of the time this season. She was a complete nonfactor Sunday at Indy (finished 30th, two laps, down at what was her best track in open wheel), and her Stewart-Haas Racing teammates finished first and fourth.

Danica Patrick
Has Danica Patrick disappointed?

I don't see consistent evidence that she's improving. However, her boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., hasn't exactly set the world on fire, either, this season as a rookie. After winning back-to-back Nationwide titles, he doesn't have a single top-10. Racing at the Cup level is tough. Maybe Patrick will figure it out over time and be somewhat competitive, but I have my doubts.

Hinton: No, but let me qualify that quickly. My expectations were more unrealistic than those of her team or her family. I've been hoping for a big breakthrough, a splash. But that's just because I love good stories. Her father, T.J. Patrick, told me after she won the pole for the Daytona 500 that, realistically, a top-25 finish in the point standings would be a nice goal. She's right there at 26th in the standings. Meeting Stewart's expectations is more important than meeting my pie-in-the-sky ideas of a blockbuster win on a plate track or some such thing.

McGee: Yes. She is driving exactly like a racer who is in Cup full time when he or she should still be in Nationwide. Drowning.

Newton: Yes. Because I really had no expectations except for her to struggle, which she has.

Turn 3: The inaugural Truck series race on the dirt of Eldora Speedway was a success. Should NASCAR add other dirt tracks to the Camping World Truck Series, or even one or two to the Nationwide Series?

Blount: It was a heck of show, but we need to apply the brakes on all the dirt mania going on right now. It isn't financially feasible for NASCAR to add a bunch of dirt-track races. The facilities that have dirt tracks just don't have the infrastructure to race Truck or Nationwide series events on a regular basis. Stewart spent a fortune to get Eldora ready for that event, and I'm told he lost money. It created a huge buzz and everyone was talking about what a great crowd was there, but it was 20,000 people. A crowd of that size anywhere else and critics would be howling about how no one showed up.

Austin Dillon
Austin Dillon has work to do in the Nationwide Series.

I hope Eldora returns to the Truck schedule next season and NASCAR finds one of two other dirt-track locations that are capable of hosting a feeder-league series event. But fans are dreaming if they think Cup is going to some dirt track in the middle of Podunk. What NASCAR should learn from the Eldora race is that slower speeds and less aero-dependent races on wide tracks can bring better racing. And so can a heat-race qualifying format instead of the one-car boredom we see week after week.

Hinton: Yessiree, absolutely. But there are no "other dirt tracks" as maintained and run as well as Eldora is if you're thinking independent speedways. There are of course the dirt tracks on the grounds of SMI tracks such as Texas and Charlotte ... and you can hear the wheels turning in the head of Texas boss Eddie Gossage, pondering moving his Truck races to dirt. NASCAR should, and probably will, return to Eldora. And yes, consideration of a Nationwide race there is the logical next step. But I can't see Gossage or any other SMI promoter moving Nationwide races to dirt, if only because of seating capacity at the big tracks versus the little ovals. Eldora needs another solid show or two before others -- the ones capable of hosting -- jump in.

McGee: I look at this the same way I look at the NHRA running four wide at Charlotte. Once a year is enough. Let's not pull apart the golden goose looking for eggs. I'd have no problem at all with Nationwide or Cup running dirt, but just once. And the way that last week was positioned -- the Mudsummer Classic on a Wednesday night -- was perfect.

Newton: No on adding more to the Truck series. I like the idea of making the Eldora event unique. But the series should continue to pursue small paved tracks such as Myrtle Beach Speedway and Greenville Pickens Speedway, as NASCAR vice president Steve O'Donnell says it has. I'd like to see some of those tracks get a Nationwide Series race, as well, on the same weekend. Can you say The Rock? Maybe stand-alone events at smaller markets would make full-time Cup drivers less likely to participate.

Turn 4: When Ryan Newman won eight races and 11 poles in 2003, would you have picked him over Jimmie Johnson to have had a better career to this point?

Blount: First, I don't put any stock in winning poles, but it was clear by the end of 2003 that Johnson was a serious championship contender and on his way to bigger and better things. Johnson was the only driver to finish within 100 points of Matt Kenseth that season, the last year before the Chase. And Johnson finished fifth in the standings as a rookie in 2002. At the end of 2003, I thought Newman could contend for championships and would do better than he has, but I didn't think he was better than Johnson, who had a better team and a better crew chief. I guess the obvious question is whether Newman would have done what Johnson has done if he had been in Johnson's car. And the answer is no.

Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson rules the Brickyard, but not this year.

Hinton: No, because I would have looked -- and in fact I did -- at 2002, when the 48 team came in like a ball of fire and promised never to relent. Johnson won three races as a rookie and was a contender for the championship until late. Even in Newman's huge year of '03, Johnson had three wins and finished second in the standings to Newman's sixth. There was some thought at the time that the engineering tandem of Newman and crew chief Matt Borland could revolutionize NASCAR. But there was also the thought that human computer Chad Knaus, and car-control prodigy Johnson, could revolutionize in another way.

McGee: I did! People forget that Newman came in with way more hype than Johnson. Because of that, I had to really argue with my editors at ESPN The Magazine when we were choosing a racer for our 2002 NEXT issue. They really wanted Newman, but I insisted on Johnson. Why? Because I saw how over-the-top fired-up Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick both became whenever they talked about him. That was good enough for me. Now, did I think Johnson would win five championships and rack up 64 wins? Hell no. Neither did Gordon and Hendrick. Or Johnson.

Newton: It wasn't so much that I thought Newman would have a better career than the five-time champion as much as I thought Newman would have a better career -- maybe even a title -- than he has had. After two years, Johnson had six wins, 34 top-5s and six poles and had finished fifth and second in points. It wasn't as if he stunk it up. Newman had nine wins, 31 top-5s and 17 poles and was sixth in points both years. So I expected both to be contending for titles every year. The surprise is that Newman hasn't, winning only eight times the past nine-plus seasons. Johnson has 58 wins and five titles in the same time span. That the gap is so wide is the surprise.