Our panel of experts weigh in this week on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR.
But this week, we start with a bonus question off the big news that landed late Tuesday afternoon.
Bonus question (The Dogleg): How surprised are you the penalties against the 48 team were overturned on final appeal (the $100,000 fine on Chad Knaus was upheld), and why do you suspect they were overturned?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: Absolutely knock-down, whopping stunned. It may be the most surprising decision I've seen in all my years of covering the sport. NASCAR officials just took a Joe Frazier left hook right on the chin. A major penalty to a big-time team with a history of violations almost completely overturned. You know what will shock me even more? If John Middlebrook still is the lone Supreme Court judge of the final appeals process one year from now.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Not surprised. This amounts to a reprimand of NASCAR's top cops, Robin Pemberton and John Darby, for going too far. Rick Hendrick is the most powerful man in NASCAR other than Brian France (maybe equal to or greater than France in a different way), and he showed there's a limit beyond which he will not be pushed. He drew the line at penalty-by-eyeballing. NASCAR had to be stopped from issuing severe penalties because something just looked wrong, rather than using the templates. Guess I am surprised in one way -- that NASCAR's iron-fisters got such blatant comeuppance.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Frankly, I'm blown away. I thought there might be a minor reduction in the suspension, but I never expected a full erasure, and I never would have expected the points to be returned. But I'm also encouraged. In recent years the commission, particularly John Middlebrook, has shown a willingness to really hear these appeals out and make adjustments if it felt it was necessary. I don't think it is any secret that both-ways cooperation hasn't always been the status quo in these situations. But I think the message was also sent to Knaus and the rest of the garage. He may have won out in the end, but I doubt he'll be pushing the aero gray areas quite so hard.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Shocked? Not totally. The longer the appeal went on Tuesday, the more I felt it favored Rick Hendrick. He is a friend of the chief appellate officer, John Middlebrook, and knows how to present a case. NASCAR made a huge mistake by confiscating the parts before putting the car through tech. That the governing body, according to Hendrick, allowed at least three other cars to tweak their C-posts made this look more like it was a personal vendetta on Chad Knaus. It was a big day for the sport. Crew chiefs should be allowed to be innovative as long as they can stay within the templates.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Shocked. Completely shocked. I gave them a five-percent chance, at best. I think the Hendrick camp got the penalties overturned because they approached the second appeal very clinically, letter-of-the-law vs. emotion and common sense. I think they debated that NASCAR approved the car's configuration in late January and they had a signed affidavit from NASCAR that said so. They used the evidence at their disposal, rather than trying to argue right vs. wrong.
Turn 1. This season's four Nationwide Series races have been won by Nationwide "regulars" and not moonlighting Cup drivers. Why is this happening and how surprised are you?
Blount: I am stunningly surprised and joyously happy. Hallelujah. Can I get an Amen? It's exactly what this series has needed for years -- find its own identity instead of a glorified Cup practice, and make future stars out of Nationwide drivers by winning their own events. Two reasons are obvious -- Kyle Busch isn't in Gibbs equipment now and Carl Edwards hasn't raced this season. But who cares? Keep it up, Nationwide regs.
Hinton: The absence of Carl Edwards is huge, and that's been the tip of an iceberg where the cherry picking efforts from Cup are weaker, and the full-time Nationwide efforts are stronger. Jack Roush has Trevor Bayne in Edwards' old seat, but Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is clearly that team's No. 1 driver now. Richard Childress' takeover of Kevin Harvick's Nationwide team has given new life and strength to long-suffering Elliott Sadler, who's now won twice. The Brothers Busch don't quite have their act together with Team Monster. Still, there would have been a cherry-picking win if not for the last-lap pileup of hot dogs at Daytona that let James Buescher squeak through to win.
McGee: It certainly doesn't hurt that Carl Edwards is gone and Kyle Busch is in his own stuff now! But I think the roots of this started last year with the establishment of the "declare which title you're racing for" rule. I was skeptical of it at first, but there's no doubt that it has achieved the goal of establishing names/stars on each level. Even last year, when it felt like the Carl vs. Kyle vs. Keselowski show, the Truck and Nationwide regulars grew real fan bases. And it has also helped that there isn't a Cup ride open to rush a guy like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. into the big leagues too fast. He's stayed in Nationwide long enough to actually develop. That's created a guy who is confident enough to fend off these Cup guys every week.
Newton: Two reasons. Carl Edwards isn't competing and Kyle Busch is competing with his own team. Look, the two combined for 16 of the 34 wins a year ago and have won a combined 64 races the last four years. Edwards surely would have won this year had he been in one of the Roush Fenway Racing cars that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne have driven to second and third in points. Nothing against the KBM cars, but there's bound to be some drop-off in a first-year program from what Busch had at Joe Gibbs Racing. And don't forget, two of the first four races were won by Elliott Sadler. He was a full-time Cup driver from 1999 to 2010. So no, I'm not all that surprised.
Smith: It's happening because the Nationwide regulars -- Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler -- are racing cars built on the same shop floor as their Cup counterparts. Daytona was a crap-shoot. Kudos to James Buescher for prevailing, but that race is conducive to a flip-a-coin-winner. Sadler told me the biggest difference for him in 2012 compared to 2011 is that his cars are being built in the same shop as Kevin Harvick's and Jeff Burton's Cup cars. That caught him up instantly to Roush Fenway and Gibbs, he said. The proof's in the wins, I figure.
Turn 2. There were thousands of empty seats at Bristol on Sunday and a lot of talk on our live chat (and others) that the repave a few years ago "killed" the track. Is that true, and what should owner Bruton Smith do if it is?
Blount: I couldn't believe my eyes Sunday. Calling Bristol fans. Hello? Is anybody home? The repave definitely changed the racing from demo derby to, well, real racing. But it's clear the fans are in an all-out revolt and don't accept the new Bristol. What can Smith do? The truth is you could tear it up and repave again and still not get what it was before. Next best option -- take out about 50,000 seats.
Hinton: As Mike Helton once said, "Perception is reality," and fan perception that the track has been "killed" is now the reality of weak attendance and TV viewer discontent with the racing. Track mogul Bruton Smith has said he's thinking of spending $1 million to redo the track yet again -- perhaps take it back to previous configuration -- but you wonder if $1 million is enough. After the first "new" track race, then-track president Jeff Byrd, who has since died, put his head on my shoulder and only half-kiddingly cried because he saw right away that the repaving had changed the track drastically. My bet is that Smith will revamp the track, but my question is, can he get it "right" in the eyes of fans?
McGee: I spent all weekend arguing with fans on Twitter about this very topic. I think "Bristol is boring" is largely a myth. There's more side-by-side racing now during most 25-lap stretches than we used to have in some whole races. But the idea has really caught fire with fans, fair or unfair. If you walked the racetrack prior to the repave -- and I did -- then you know that something had to be done. Rebar was literally sticking up out of the concrete! The makeover timing was awful. It coincided with the introduction of the COT. But it's pretty clear that they need to do something -- even if it's nothing that just looks like something -- to try to turn around this poisonous perception.
Newton: The fans have spoken. Loud and clear. When only half of the 160,000 seats at what used to be the toughest ticket in NASCAR have fannies in them, it gets your attention. Seventy-four percent on our ESPN.com chat poll said they prefer the beating and banging of the old Bristol. When Smith gets survey results from his own poll back this week he'll begin ripping up the surface and returning it to the way it was in time for the August night race. He has no choice but to return the thunder to Thunder Valley. If you can't sell tickets you can't survive.
Smith: I believe fans generally desire the prospect for disaster at any given moment. That's how Bristol used to be -- drivers stuffed it on the bottom groove and to pass someone else they had to move them or wreck them. Now they just work a different groove. It all depends what you're in it for -- racin' or wreckin'. I will say this -- the whole gladiator premise definitely carried more authenticity with the old track.
Turn 3. Brian Vickers had a great race at Bristol, finishing fifth. Do you think it (and the remaining five races he has subbing for Mark Martin) will help him get back in Sprint Cup full time, and why or why not?
Blount: No question it will if he continues to run as well as he did Sunday. Vickers has talent and everybody knows it, but he burned some bridges at the end of last season by losing his cool a few times. If the Busch brothers deserve another chance, so does Vickers. Race well and play nice and The Sheriff will be back in business.
Hinton: We have to wait and see whether the new and vastly improved Vickers we saw Sunday was a one-off, or a lasting style change. He drove such a smart race you had to wonder if he'd been to a hypnotist or some such thing. Did Michael Waltrip give him one smart pill, or write a full prescription with refills? The key, though, may be whether Vickers has been humbled by the past couple of years. If he has, he'll be back in Cup. If he hasn't, he won't. MW said on TV that he told Vickers "we're going to be humble" with this effort. Could MW turn out to be an even better motivator than he is a commercial pitchman?
McGee: He needs to have more than one good race to land the kind of top-shelf ride that he wants and believes he deserves. But I honestly can't remember a guy dropping into a Cup car out of thin air and doing what he did. Certainly no one outside of a road-course ringer, and even that is super rare. The most encouraging aspect of the weekend for Vickers had to be the slaps on the back he received after the race. He'd lost a lot of respect after the way he went out last fall, but even Matt Kenseth and spotter Mike Calinoff went out of their way to tell Vickers what a great job he did at Bristol, and they had been very critical of how he raced them at Martinsville last fall.
Newton: It was a good start, but there's still more to prove. Vickers alienated a lot of people the past few years with his performance -- or lack of it -- and edgy Red Bull attitude that at times made him appear to be a punk. Beyond convincing owners he still has the talent to compete at the top level, which Sunday's effort showed, he has to prove he has the personality that will attract top sponsors. He told me at Bristol that much of the persona he had at Red Bull was because that's what ownership wanted. If he can convince the rest of the garage that is true and match that with solid performance, he'll be back full time in 2013.
Smith: It'll be difficult. BV had a fantastic showing at Bristol -- best-case scenario, really, having led a ton of laps and kept up with the racetrack all day long to finish so well. But despite his youth -- he's still not even 30 -- he's been around a long time. Owners know his talent and what he brings to the table, and that he was driving a very fast car given Mark Martin's success so far this season. So how surprising was the effort, really? How shocked was the garage, really? We all knew BV had game and he backed that up. I just don't know it was a eureka moment for owners.
Turn 4. Kasey Kahne, AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose and four-time champion Jeff Gordon are all off to rough starts. Expectations coming into the season were high for them. Which of these four should already be worried about 2012?
Blount: Kahne is the real shocker here and he's in a world of hurt, 32nd in the standings and 66 points behind 10th. The good news is his car is fast, but he's managed to overdrive it and get in trouble. He needs to get some decent runs under his belt and see where he stands after 10 races. Gordon was headed for a top-5 Sunday before Dale Junior was a less-than-friendly teammate. Allmendinger should watch his teammate and do what he does. And Ambrose? Well, three months until Sonoma.
Hinton: Gordon and Kahne should be worried most. Gordon is running out of championship shots, and Kahne has been jittery under the high expectations tied to his arrival at Hendrick Motorsports. Plus they've got the entire team to think about. Neither Jimmie Johnson nor Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won either, and so far it looks like team owner Rick Hendrick gave the whole outfit an undue psychological burden when he said in January that he'd be "very disappointed if we don't put all four cars in the Chase, and very disappointed if we don't win the championship."
McGee: I'll say Allmendinger because I think he's the only one of these four that needs to have a good year to keep his job. But Kahne is the most intriguing case to me because he's already starting to hear questions about Hendrick's "Curse of the 25 Car." When you talk to Dale Junior about moving to Hendrick, he's pretty open about the pressure to perform because the equipment is good and how it really wears on a guy mentally when the success doesn't instantly appear. You have to wonder when or if that starts to creep in on Kahne.
Newton: All four. I'm not really surprised by the slow starts of Ambrose and Allmendinger. Until they prove otherwise, both are second-tier drivers. I particularly didn't get into all the hype that putting Allmendinger in a Penske Racing car would make him a contender. Kahne and Gordon should be most concerned and most encouraged because they have the equipment and team around them to rebound. Kahne may be the best driver ever to be 32nd in points four races in. He has had fast cars every week. Unfortunately, because of a mistake by himself or somebody else, he's finished on the lead lap only once. Gordon hasn't had quite the speed, and 23rd in points isn't all that bad with all that has gone wrong. The good news for the Hendrick Motorsports drivers is they only have to work back into the top 20 and win a few races to qualify for a wild-card spot. Both are more than capable.
Smith: None of them. We're four races in. They all have the key element to a turnaround -- speed. Talk to me in June and we'll discuss how worried they should be.