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Tuesday, August 27, 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: Winless Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski and Jamie McMurray -- as well as one-win Ryan Newman -- are currently on the outside looking in at the Chase, but they are mathematically alive. Do any of them make it, and if so, who do they kick out?

Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon has one last chance to make the Chase.

Terry Blount, ESPN.com: This is a little like guessing what will be the next card that comes up at a Las Vegas blackjack table, but it is going to be fun to watch. Brad and Jamie are done. Neither man has won at Richmond, and even if one of them did, it might not be enough to get in.

Gordon has a real shot at it. He's only six points behind Kurt Busch for 10th. Gordon is pretty good at Richmond (second in this event last year), so winning it isn't out of the question, and Busch isn't so hot at Richmond. I don't see Newman getting in unless he wins, not likely. So it's really Gordon or no one for me. So what's my guess? A blackjack bust for the four-time champ.

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Maybe Gordon gets in by displacing Kurt Busch in the top 10. Both drivers have the same dilemma, or maybe a trilemma -- if that's a word. Do they run hard and try to win, do they run conservatively and hope the other guy has trouble, or do they race with each other in mind?

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I'm not sure any of them gets in, but I believe the best shot is Newman. There's momentum there, at least as much as we've seen anyone have during this nutso wild-card race. More importantly, he can win at Richmond. His numbers in recent years have been solid if unspectacular, but his flat-track program has been very good recently. Plus his math is as simple as you can get. Win and he's in.

David Newton, ESPN.com: As I wrote on Twitter last week, Gordon makes it and Keselowski doesn't. I didn't even consider McMurray. Kurt Busch will be the odd driver out. He's only six points ahead of Gordon for 10th place in the standings, the final spot guaranteed a place in the Chase. Gordon has the advantage of having tested at Richmond with Hendrick Motorsports. He also has the advantage of handling this pressure situation, having finished second at Richmond a year ago to slip in.

Turn 2: One race to make the Chase, one more to gain precious bonus points from a victory for when the Chase starts. What do you expect to see at Richmond?

Blount: Really nothing to lose for the top seven guys to try to go all out for the victory. I would think Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team would like to just have a strong run before heading into the Chase considering how things have gone for them lately. But what I hope to see is two or three drivers, who have no concerns about points, battling for the victory down the stretch. If that happens to be the three guys trying to start the Chase on top -- Matt Kenseth, Johnson and Kyle Busch -- even better.

Richmond International Raceway
Things may get wild at Richmond on Saturday night.

Hinton: Expect to see Keselowski going all out, but, sadly, don't expect him to get in. Sad he'll have no shot at repeating as champion. McMurray can also take his best shot. Newman and Martin Truex Jr. are sort of tweeners, with a win apiece, but still must count points as they race. As I said earlier, Gordon and Kurt Busch will be in a sort of race of their own, to squeak into the 10th and last points berth.

McGee: These complaints I'm getting from some readers about points racing make me chuckle. There's no question that some guys (in other words, Dale Earnhardt Jr.) have been playing it safe to protect their position. But this week it's about winning the race. Guys like Johnson and Carl Edwards need to recapture lost momentum. Guys like Kenseth and Busch want to have that top seeding in the Chase. And everyone else behind them needs to win to lock down his spot. That all adds up to a potential hammer-down night.

Newton: A lot of nervous drivers trying to protect where they are in the standings. As much as a win would help get a few of these bubble drivers into the Chase; a bad finish caused by being overaggressive too early could cause them to miss the playoffs. Now, if you get to the final laps on a restart with Keselowski, Truex, Gordon, Kurt Busch and a few others fighting for that last spot bunched up near the front, watch out. Some like Keselowski will have nothing to lose. But for the most part I don't see it getting too crazy before then.

Turn 3: Chase Elliott won the Camping World Truck Series race in Canada on Sunday but wrecked Ty Dillon doing it. Dirty win or just one of them racin' deals? And how does it compare to what Kasey Kahne didn't do to winner Matt Kenseth last week at Bristol?

Blount: I have no problem with what Elliott did. He had the faster truck at the end, and Dillon was trying to keep Elliott from going by him, so Dillon got punted. That's the breaks. Elliott isn't racing for points. It's bad for Dillon, who is racing for the championship, but his truck was sputtering on fuel, and he had to know Elliott would take a shot at him at some point on the last lap.

Kahne was in a different situation. Even though he's safe for the Chase with two victories, he wanted the points to try to stay in the top 10 in the standings. If you make the Chase as a wild card, you don't get the bonus points. As it stands now, he probably won't end up in the top 10, but he didn't know that at the time.

The only driver who was treated unfairly after the CWTS race was Max Papis, who was slapped by Mike Skeen's girlfriend and suffered a dislocated jaw. The woman should be banned from attending another race this year.

Chase Elliott
Chase Elliott got his first NASCAR national touring series victory Sunday.

Hinton: One o' them deals, for sure. Chase said he didn't mean to wreck Ty, just move him. The fact that so much media hoopla came out of Kahne's refusal to move Kenseth is prima facie evidence of how common and accepted moving another driver is. Kahne's reluctance was the aberration, not Chase's standard operating procedure. Besides, Chase needs to show he's tough as he moves up. His father, Bill, was often too polite when he began to win in NASCAR, and got roughed up by Dale Earnhardt in return for his good manners.

McGee: Well, the kid pretty much admitted to what he did. He's a young guy who had a chance to win a national-series NASCAR event and did what he had to do to make that happen. I totally understand why Ty Dillon would be mad, but give me a few minutes and I can wrangle up some guys from ARCA who would love to tell you about Dillon's days with them. Young and hungry is young and hungry. I don't think it compares at all with Kahne at Bristol, unless you want to show exactly what would have happened had he turned Kenseth. We would've been answering this "dirty" question about him.

Newton: I suspect that had Elliott been in Dillon's way at the end of a road course race, Dillon would have done the same. It's a product of road course racing and one of the reasons fans love it. Bristol used to be that way, but since repaving, the track has changed to take the bump-and-run away on the lower groove. While I respect Kahne's decision not to wreck Kenseth for the win, that the bump-and-run would have taken place on the high groove where there's really no good or safe place to bump somebody out of the way factored into it. I suspect that had it been the old Bristol, he would have been more aggressive. It's interesting. A certain percentage of fans get riled up when a driver knocks somebody out of the way, and a certain percentage gets riled when a driver doesn't take advantage of that opportunity. I doubt Elliott lost much sleep over it.

Turn 4: Kyle Larson is being promoted to Sprint Cup next season after one season at the Nationwide level. Is it too much, too soon? Or is the timing right?

Blount: Usually I would say this is a mistake, but I think Larson is one of those rare individuals who can make the jump, and it's a big jump. I don't expect him to come in and win right away, but Juan Pablo Montoya wasn't winning in the No. 42 Chevy, either, so that's not saying much. Montoya had seven years to make it work, and it didn't happen. Part of that is the fact that Earnhardt Ganassi Racing hasn't been very good in recent years, but it was time to move on. Larson is the most talented young driver in the sport.

Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson is on his way to Sprint Cup for 2014.

Hinton: He's ready, but it almost doesn't matter whether he is or not. Chip Ganassi told me at Atlanta that there will be zero pressure on Larson to win races in his rookie year, but thinks Larson's instinctive opportunism could leave the possibility open. What I like most about Larson is that he's so versatile -- short tracks to superspeedways, and, best of all, on dirt. I'm old-school and believe dirt-savvy translates to remaining calm when you're sideways on any type of track. That can get you out of many a jam, and into better position when others flinch.

McGee: I tend to be overly cautious about these deals. I think that stems from my years covering the "Young Gun" craze of the late '90s and early 2000s, when the search for the next Jeff Gordon burned down many a promising career when guys were put in Cup cars way too early. I have no doubt that Larson is a Cup driver. And if I did have doubts, they would have been erased this summer when I talked about him with guys like Gordon, who practically drooled when he said, "I wish there were a dozen guys coming up as good as him. This sport would be set." The worry is that the steep learning curve will damage his confidence à la Joey Logano. But at 21, Larson is a little older than people think. Meanwhile, people who know a lot more about race cars than I do say the higher-horsepower Cup cars will be more to his sprint car liking. So, stay tuned.

Newton: I was told an interesting story earlier in the year about how Chip Ganassi all but had Jimmie Johnson signed before Johnson went to Hendrick and lost him. He also all but had Tony Stewart before Stewart wound up at Joe Gibbs Racing. Neither had much more experience than Larson at the time. Ganassi had to make the move or risk losing Larson to another team. He doesn't want to be remembered for letting another future Cup champion get away. Some argue that Larson will be better in Cup than he has been in Nationwide because the cars have more horsepower and are heavier, more closer resembling what he has in a sprint car, where he excels. Maybe another year or two of experience in Nationwide would have helped, but Ganassi couldn't afford to wait.