Our panel of experts weighs in this week on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR in the wake of Denny Hamlin's victory at Phoenix with crew chief Darian Grubb atop the box.
1. How should Tony Stewart feel now about letting crew chief Darian Grubb go at the end of last season?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: "Come back Grubby. Come back. I'm sorry!" Just kidding. It doesn't look like the smartest move in history at the moment, but it's only two races. Right now, Grubb is the magic man of NASCAR, but Smoke hired one of the Cup's best crew chiefs in Steve Addington. As for Stewart's ignition problem at Phoenix, it could have happened to anyone with the learning process of EFI. Heck, even Grubb said so.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Too inflexible for his own good, but no worse than he should have felt Nov. 20, when Grubb's magnificent pit work propelled Stewart to a win in the season finale and a championship. Stewart let him go anyway. To Smoke's credit, he conceded in January that the Grubb-Denny Hamlin combination is going to be hard to beat this season. It's all unfolding now, and barring a major stumble on Grubb's part, Stewart is going to be answering for that firing for the rest of this season.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Fine. It's way too early to start regretting moves made during the offseason, though I have no doubt that Grubb is relishing it way more than he's letting on. Now if we get into May and the situation is the still the same yikes. Somebody will need to bolt down all the furniture in Smoke's office.
David Newton, ESPN.com: No different now than he did after winning the championship in South Florida. A victory by Grubb and new driver Denny Hamlin at Phoenix doesn't change the fact that Stewart felt before last year's Chase that he needed a change because he apparently lost confidence in his crew chief. Once you make a decision like that, particularly when you've made a deal to bring in a replacement, you can't look back. What happened to Stewart on Sunday with the failed circuit breaker on the fuel injection system could have happened to anybody. Smoke just as easily could have been in Victory Lane with Steve Addington as Hamlin was with Grubb were it not for that. It's a long season, folks. Stewart's turnaround last year is proof of that.
Marty Smith, ESPN NASCAR insider: Fine. To us, on paper, it seems a foolish decision on SHR's part. It seems unacceptable and even ridiculous. But Stewart lost faith in Grubb. Even after Grubb led him to a five-win Chase, Stewart still had undaunted solace he'd made the proper choice. Grubb is fantastic. His disposition is infectious. He doesn't get rattled. He is excellent at building cohesion, communicates well and respects his staff. He wrings every last bit of gumption out of his crewmen. Stewart knows that. Every bit of it. He had the opportunity to change his mind. He didn't. That tells me he's good with the decision.
2. Should Michael Waltrip talk Mark Martin into staying in the No. 55 as long as Martin remains in the top 10 in points?
Blount: Negative. That ship has sailed for Martin. I seriously doubt he wants to do it. He's 53 years old. Title chasing is over. He will go down as the best driver never to win a Cup title. But there is an opening now that Elliott Sadler backed out of his five-race deal in the 55. Did he really agree to do it without checking with Richard Childress first?
Hinton: No, Mikey, leave the guy alone. First, top 10 in points can be a fleeting position, so let's not get carried away here. Second, why put Martin through this again? He's already had his heart broken in championship bids more than any other driver. Third, Michael Waltrip Racing isn't yet capable of sustaining a driver through the gantlet of a Chase. Fourth, even if MWR could convince Martin to try it, both he and the team should think of his family, which has been through enough of this.
McGee: He should, yes. But I don't think he'll be able to. I remember going to Bristol in 2007 and fully expecting Martin to be in the No. 01 U.S. Army Chevy even though he was supposed to get out of it as part of his first part-time experiment. He was the points leader! But he stuck to his word and got out so Regan Smith could get in.
Newton: Selfishly, I'd love to see it. At least convince Martin to drive at the first Bristol and Martinsville races and see where he is in points before ruling out a complete season. Martin in good equipment with a good crew still can win races and compete for the title that painfully has eluded him with five runner-up finishes. Martin only had half of that last season. He and Lance McGrew at Hendrick Motorsports were a train wreck together. He deserves one more shot. Again, that's me being selfish. Martin is in a good place and happy driving part time. So the answer is, no, Waltrip shouldn't pressure Martin to stay in the car. Let him enjoy life.
Smith: No. Mark Martin couldn't care less about points. He cares about racing fast, competitive cars. Plus, he's long hated the weekly grind. Taking a break from that makes him a better, more focused, racer.
3. Greg Biffle is off to the best start in NASCAR without actually winning. Is this the year he finally contends for a title?
Blount: See above. OK, Biff isn't that old, but at 42, NASCAR history is against him. Contend for the title? Sure. Win the title? Not likely. Four drivers in history won their first Cup crown after their 40th birthday, but only one has done it in the last 28 seasons -- Dale Jarrett in 1999 at age 42.
Hinton: Let me get back to you on this one in, oh, October. Look, the guy has made the Chase four times -- including 2008, when he won the first two playoff races, and still couldn't close the deal. Blame the team more than the Biff, but the 16 outfit has yet to prove it can slug it out in those neck-and-neck points fights down the stretch. He won the season finale at Homestead in '04, in the inaugural Chase, but that vaulted him only into a tie for second in the final standings.
McGee: I'm not buying in yet. Too many times I have jumped on the Biff bandwagon only to see him fall off. I think back to the first third of so many seasons when he should have won at least a couple of races and didn't, including last year. There's no doubt it's a better team than last year, but I'm not ready to anoint him a contender just yet.
Newton: If he doesn't contend, his career could be in trouble. Team owner Jack Roush has put a lot into turning Biffle's team around after a disastrous 2011. If it doesn't happen, Roush may have to turn to the future of Roush Fenway Racing -- drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne. The good news for Biffle is he has a few years left on his contract and primary sponsor 3M loves him. And there's no doubt he's one of the top 12 most talented drivers in the garage. He has a Truck Series and Nationwide Series title to his name, and he's been close in Cup twice. But this is a "what have you done for me lately" world, and Biffle needs to keep doing what he's been doing lately.
Smith: It's wonderful morale-wise to start well. Biffle is strong, but it's way too early to contemplate title chances. Fact is, success (without wins) right now just doesn't matter. It's all about maintenance until the Chase. Just-good-enough is good enough during the regular season. See: Tony Stewart 2011.
4. What do you believe is the biggest surprise so far in 2012?
Blount: Joey Logano's fast start with two top-10s and Kasey Kahne's slow start (29th and 34th) stand out. But for me, the shocker was Penske Racing's announcement of the move to Ford in 2013, leaving Dodge in the lurch. Dodge unveils its 2013 car this weekend at Las Vegas, like a bride showing off her wedding dress without having a groom.
Hinton: The crowds. Daytona had an amazing return attendance for the rain date. Although some theorized that was the result of Central Florida locals buying rain checks from scalpers after the original buyers had to dump their tickets and go home, the fact is that the track sold all those tickets at retail prices the first time around. And Sunday, the Phoenix stands were as nearly packed as they've been in years. NASCAR still being blue-collar at the core of its fan base, it's a bellwether of disposable income at the grass roots. I'd say this bodes well for the national economy as a whole.
McGee: There's a ton. Joey Logano stands out among the positives. But if you'd come to me at Christmas and told me that after two races Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson would be 22nd, 31st and 38th in points, respectively, I would have told you to put down the eggnog.
Newton: I'll go with my dark horse to make the Chase, Joey Logano. Nothing against Darian Grubb and Denny Hamlin, but I still believe the biggest crew chief impact will come from Jason Ratcliff and Logano. This time a year ago, Logano was 29th in points with finishes of 23rd and 33rd. He enters Sunday's race at Las Vegas eighth in points with finishes of ninth and 10th. For the first time since being forced into Sprint Cup because of Tony Stewart's departure to form his own team, this is Logano's team, not that of former crew chief Greg Zipadelli. Ratcliff gives Logano the positive reinforcement he needs. Come November, we may be talking about them as the biggest surprise of 2012 overall.
Smith: A driver wrecking into a jet-dryer. And walking away.