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Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: Only the usual big wreck at Talladega could cause a major shakeup on this now. Certainly one of the drivers below the top three could win a race or two and get back in the hunt, but it's a virtual certainty now that one of the top three drivers is going to win the title.
|Matt Kenseth has his claws on the Chase lead.|
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: It can't be official yet, but it's definitely an unofficial three-way battle. In fact, it's closer to two-way. As solidly as Kyle is running, he just hasn't had quite the oomph to show a lot of promise of standing in there toe-to-toe with Kenseth and Johnson. One place looms large on Oct. 20: Talladega. That, of course, is the plate race historically capable of changing any or everything. But if the top three can maintain their momentum going into Dega, and then come out of there relatively OK, then they're off and running, and I don't think I'm nearly alone in thinking this will come down to Kenseth and Johnson down the stretch.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I have always said to hold off until we get to the other side of Talladega before we declare guys in or out of the title hunt. With three guys sitting squarely on that tightrope of one race's worth of points behind the leader, and a few just behind them, I still think that applies. But all of those guys behind the Big Three are one bad race away from vanishing. Just ask Carl Edwards. If we have this same situation when the checkers fall at Talladega, game over.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Listening to Johnson, you'd think it was a two-man race with the emphasis he put on racing against Kenseth for the title after Sunday's victory. Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick are 39 back, but I really can't see all three of the drivers above them having enough bad races to make up that much ground. And if you look at history, the past five champions were in the top two after two races. The past six were in the top three. It's a three-man race.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: My answer is the same it was last week: I hesitate to consider the Chase a three-way race until the series gets through Talladega. But common sense tells me it is, in fact, going to be settled between the 20, 48 and 18. The Sprint Cup Series has held 29 races in 2013. Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch have combined to win 16 of them. And they'll all be fast at Kansas. And at Charlotte. And at Texas and Phoenix and Miami. Talladega is the wild card.
Blount: In the short run, judging by how many fans love to hate JJ, it probably isn't good for NASCAR. People would complain about it being the same old thing and how the Chase is rigged for the 48 team. But in the long run, it's a good thing in many ways. First, the historical significance of it is enormous, and it also would mean Johnson would enter the 2014 season with a chance to tie legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with seven championships. But it also might force NASCAR to make significant chances to the schedule and shake up the Chase races, something that should have happened years ago.
|A sixth title definitely would be good for Jimmie Johnson.|
Hinton: It would be a lot less bad than the naysayers think. Look, if JJ wins a sixth, that's going to set up all sorts of buzz for the rest of his career: Can he tie the record seven championships won by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt? Or can he win an eighth? Who cares if the haters boo him? Earnhardt himself once told me, when he was getting booed thunderously at every track, "They'd better be making some kind of noise." Meaning good or bad, doesn't really matter. Just so long as you get their attention.
McGee: Fans keep telling me that it's terrible for the sport, but I like watching history. As times marches on, people will look back on what he's done and appreciate it. I'm old enough to remember when Jeff Gordon was "ruining the sport," too. Now a lot of the people who hated him then root for him now because he reminds them of the "good ol' days."
Newton: Personally, I believe it would be good for the sport because then fans would latch on to Johnson chasing Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for magic No. 7. But I already can hear fans bellyaching again about how Johnson's ruining the sport with his domination. Frankly, I don't get it. They should appreciate what they're seeing, which could be one of the best drivers and teams in NASCAR history.
Smith: I don't know. Hate to cop out, but that's the truth: I honestly do not know. I don't know what's good for NASCAR these days. For a very long time I felt like Johnson's dominance was great for NASCAR, an opinion I based on Tiger Woods' dominance of golf. I'm a fringe golf fan. I don't play the game. Ever. I only pay attention to the sport when Woods is in contention. Otherwise, I don't care. Woods is a household name and is captivating to watch compete. He is extremely intense. Johnson, too, is amazing to watch compete. We are watching history unfold every Sunday. We are watching one of the most dominant drivers ever -- one who Kenseth told me in May was the greatest of all time. "I don't know how you can't say he's not the best ever," Kenseth said. But does Johnson push the pulse of the NASCAR fan base? No. It doesn't seem so, anyway. But who does? NASCAR is in a very weird, tenuous era right now. Nobody's happy. Even when fans are thrilled, they're mad about something. Or maybe there's just greater access to the Keyboard Cowboys through social media outlets, and the frustration is more accessible. I don't know. I digress.
|Kyle Busch has two seconds and a fifth in three Chase events.|
Blount: No one can do that, but it shows Rowdy and the No. 18 Toyota team have turned a corner and learned the significance of consistency. It also shows that regardless of what happens in the Chase, Busch is going to win a championship soon because he's finally figured out how to play the game.
Hinton: Sure he can. Again, the only caveat is Talladega, but he's about as good at staying around till the end of those melees as anybody. Indeed, should Kenseth or Johnson find trouble at Dega, and Kyle makes it through, then he looms large to be the beneficiary of the annual Talladega Shakeup. As for the other tracks, he'll be fine, and might just slip through and win one.
McGee: Yes. This is a whole different Shrub and a whole different team. The problem is that he keeps losing ground. Wins are what's going to earn this Cup. He'll get his -- it's just a matter of when and making sure that it's not too late.
Newton: I get the feeling Johnson doesn't believe so. He suggested it could happen on Friday at Dover. He also reminded us several times that Busch being able to sustain is the one thing hanging over the Joe Gibbs Racing driver's head. It's almost like the mind games have begun already. But I like what I'm seeing and hearing out of Busch these days. I expect him to be there until the end. Whether he can outperform Johnson and Kenseth enough to win the title remains to be seen, but he's not going away.
Smith: Absolutely. The fact that he has three top-5s to start the Chase proves his maturation. I believe, in the past, he would have been so frustrated by being beaten by his own equipment -- Kenseth -- that he'd have overdriven the car and packed in the fence, thereby compromising the overarching 10-race goal. This year that's not the case. He's done extremely well. He'll win soon.
Blount: I'd have to say Kasey Kahne. I really thought he could make a run at the title this time. And I thought Carl Edwards would be better than 11th after the first three playoff races, but the Ford teams just haven't gotten it done.
|Will Carl Edwards weather the Chase storm?|
Hinton: On paper, that would have to be Kasey Kahne, who came in on a wild card with two wins but has dropped to the cellar of the standings, with no surge in sight. To me personally, that would be Kurt Busch, from whom I was hoping for a real feel-good story, an underdog coming out of nowhere to win the championship. But Kurt is stuck in ninth, 55 points back, and the slipper just hasn't fit on the potential Cinderella.
McGee: Kasey Kahne. Woof.
Newton: Carl Edwards. He's 65 back and completely out of it after confidently saying he would be a factor heading into the Chase. Maybe he was fooled into thinking the win at Richmond was real when we now know it was contrived by Clint Bowyer's spinout that stole victory from Ryan Newman. Whatever, he's in too deep of a hole to escape.
Smith: Kahne. The 5 team has the talent, resources, smarts, people, ability to run for a championship every single year. Kahne made what he called "a hardheaded mistake" at Loudon, and when he wrecked he knew he'd blown his title chance. They were mediocre at Chicago and struggled at Dover. He's great at Kansas (three top-5s and three poles) -- he posted a photo to Instagram of the many lucky pennies his fans are sending his way -- so maybe this week he'll rally. For him, it's all about winning at this point, anyway.