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Tuesday, August 20, 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: Kurt Busch says he has multiple offers to drive for 2014. Should he stay with Furniture Row Racing, move to Stewart-Haas Racing or wait to see what else may come along from one of the other teams looking for a driver, such as Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing or even Richard Childress Racing?

Kurt Busch
Kurt Busch has some decisions to make.

Terry Blount, ESPN.com: This will be the biggest decision of Kurt's career, probably the last major move he will have. So taking his time and making sure he ends up in the best spot is the smart play. Kurt has done the right things (for the most part) and shown he can act professionally and give sponsors what they need off the track as well as on it. Moving to SHR looks like the best option, but he should talk it through with any potential suitor before signing on the dotted line. The right decision could result in another championship. The wrong one could end his career.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: There's no wait and see here. I don't think a better ride than something at SHR is going to come along, especially for a guy who has vocally coveted Hendrick equipment over the years. The only real worry that I think really has to factor in is what kind of wicked team chemistry experiment a Smoke/Happy/Outlaw/Her roster might create. I'm not saying that it will blow up. I'm just saying that's something they all need to at least spend a little time thinking about.

David Newton, ESPN.com: This is a tough one. My gut says stay with Furniture Row Racing. Busch has been happier there than anywhere I've seen him. The owner loves him and he loves the owner. He has a built-in sponsor that lets him be him. The pressure he's had driving for big-time organizations that has led to big-time problems isn't there. But how long will it last? Long-term, SHR may be more attractive from a competitive standpoint. But at SHR, Busch will get overshadowed by Tony Stewart for his talent and Danica Patrick for her marketability. He'll be one of four instead of the top dog, unless SHR's offer really is a backup plan in case Stewart isn't able to return from his leg injury by next season. EGR, if Chip Ganassi and Target want the 2004 Sprint Cup champion, might be a better fit since Busch would be top dog and still have Hendrick Motorsports support. Again, the grass may not be greener. It's a tough one.

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Kurt Busch should take the best opportunity to win races and contend for championships -- without losing himself. The Stewart Haas offer is a validation of sorts of his effort to become a better teammate and person. If you ask his team at Furniture Row, he's why they're competitive. And that talent is what attracts SHR and others. Talent isn't teachable. Busch told me he's not taking this decision lightly and nor should he. On paper Stewart Haas seems the smart play. I believe Busch wants teammates. But he also loves the us-against-the-world smaller-team vibe. Politics aren't his thing.

Turn 2: Speaking of Earnhardt Ganassi, with Juan Pablo Montoya out at the end of 2013, is Kyle Larson ready to make the jump to the Sprint Cup Series or should EGR look for another driver?

Blount: Historically speaking, it hasn't worked out well to move a phenom up too quickly. We've seen it so many times when a talented young driver gets a shot too soon and it ends up hurting him. But if anyone can do it, I think Larson is the guy. He's the Ken Griffey Jr. of NASCAR, that rare exception where his youth is not a deterrent to his success at the highest level. But I know Chip's extremely cautious about this type of thing. He realizes what he has in Larson and he doesn't want to mess it up. There are quality options out there (Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch maybe) but they will want at least a two-year commitment. This may come down to whatever Target wants to do. If the sponsors aren't opposed, I would give Larson his shot.

Kyle Larson
Is Kyle Larson ready for Sprint Cup?

McGee: No. Grab a veteran for a year, maybe two, and then put Larson in that car. I think Kyle is as big of a can't-miss prospect as we've had come down the line in a long time. And I'm not alone here. Just bring up his name around the likes of Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon and listen to them gush. But the NASCAR road is littered with the burned-out careers of can't-misses who were forced up the ladder too quickly. It's no different from an MLB team bringing a young pitcher up through the minor leagues too fast. When he gets shelled for a year, it takes a long time to repair the damage to his psyche, if the repair can be done at all. Ask Joey Logano if he wishes that he'd taken his time instead of jumping into Cup too soon. He'll tell you yes. Most guys who were rushed like him weren't in Victory Lane anywhere over the weekend. They've vanished.

Newton: Chip Ganassi has to give Larson some guarantee he'll be in a Sprint Cup car over the next couple of years whether he's ready or not, or risk losing the 21-year-old phenom to another organization. The ideal situation would be to put Kurt Busch in the No. 42 and give Larson another year in the Nationwide Series. Then in 2015 put Larson in the No. 1 in which Jamie McMurray has done little to keep his job outside of winning the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in 2010. If Busch isn't an option, put Larson in the No. 42 and let him take his lumps. Jeff Gordon had 11 DNFs in his rookie season (1993) and he turned out pretty good.

Smith: Larson may not be ready, but like Kyle Busch said last weekend -- are you ever? I believe he'll get the ride. And I believe higher-power Cup cars will better suit his style, like sprint car predecessors Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne.

Turn 3: Austin Dillon raced for injured Tony Stewart at Michigan, which cost him practice time and qualifying at Mid-Ohio for the Nationwide Series race. He finished 21st at Mid-Ohio and fell from first place in the standings to a tie for third, 15 points behind new leader Sam Hornish Jr. Was racing in Michigan a mistake?

Blount: A big mistake. He has plenty of time to make up for one bad finish, but it just made the whole RCR organization look bad, like it didn't really care about the Nationwide title. I know that isn't true, but that's how it appeared. And it didn't do Dillon's rep any favors to race one event in the 14 before SHR switched to Mark Martin. Dillon will be a quality Cup driver. I know it sounded good to race in the 14, but it was a bad decision for everyone involved.

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

McGee: No. But if he'd been offered the chance to run that car for the remainder of the year and said yes, that would've been. I said last week that there was a huge risk for both Dillon or Regan Smith if either was offered a chance to be in the 14 car, but he had to do it and did a nice job. Now he needs to run one more race tops and then get back to his day job.

Newton: I won't call it a mistake, but if he loses the Nationwide championship by a close margin the move will be second-guessed by some. The big mistake was getting into the back of Parker Kligerman on the final lap and spinning out. That turned what could have been a top-12 or maybe even top-10 run into a bad run. It also reconfirmed what we knew before the race and why Dillon was willing to risk starting from the back to drive for Stewart. He's not very good on road courses.

Smith: No.

Turn 4: It's off to Bristol under the lights and there are a lot of drivers who need to keep their cars off the wall or their Chase chances will take a big hit. Will we see cooler heads prevail or the kind of all-out fracas that made the Bristol night race (in)famous? Or maybe something in between?

Blount: Probably in between. Most drivers out of Chase contention will play nice to the guys in contention and give them some room they normally wouldn't give them at Bristol. But there are enough guys still in contention, including about eight on the bubble, that things could get hairy between them. Just imagine what could happen if Kurt Busch and Newman are battling for the win in the final laps. Or maybe Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski fighting for a much-needed victory at the end. And even if a noncontender is battling a contender for the win down the stretch, all bets are off.

Bristol Motor Speedway
What does Bristol Motor Speedway hold?

McGee: In between. That's really what this race has become and when I talk to drivers they admit that the Chase race has something to do with that. On one hand, there are a lot of guys who have to have a win. Nothing else really does them much good this late in the wild-card fight. But there are so many who just need to get max points and move one more spot on the game board toward the checkered flag at Richmond. Now if one of those guys ends up wrecked, especially by someone not racing for a Chase spot, then bring on the Thunder Valley tempers!

Newton: As soon as Joey Logano climbed from his car after winning on Sunday at Michigan to climb back into Chase contention he was talking about being consistent the final three races. That says it all. Here's the problem. With only 43 points separating 15th-place Ryan Newman and seventh-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., and only 20 points separating Earnhardt from 11th-place Kasey Kahne, those drivers will be more cautious than ever to make sure they leave with a decent finish. They can't wrap up a Chase spot at Bristol, but they sure can lose one. I don't see it anywhere nearly as wild as this race a year ago when there were 13 cautions and an Olympic-worthy helmet toss by Tony Stewart into Matt Kenseth's hood. I look for it to be more like the 2011 night race in which there were only six cautions -- three for debris and one a single-car incident. But I hope I'm wrong.

Smith: We'll see the gamut of emotions. Even though the multigroove Bristol is tamer than it's one-groove bump-(or dump)-and-run predecessor, it's far from tame. This Chase battle is rowdy. Saturday night will shake it up further, certainly.