Debate: NASCAR after Martinsville
Our panel of experts weigh in this week on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR:
Turn 1. NASCAR made changes to the All-Star Race format again this year. Describe the changes you think are the right call, and if you were in charge, what would you do?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: The right call would be to move this event out of Charlotte and make it a rotating All-Star event at other tracks around the country, just like MLB, the NBA and the NHL do it. Moving it around would help promote Sprint Cup and generate added revenue for tracks that have only one Cup event a year. Heck, even take it to places that don't have a Cup race, like Iowa. And consider running it on a weeknight in prime time.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: I like it better than before but not as much as I would if they shortened the four heats to 10 laps each. In old-fashioned short-tracking, which is what they're trying to imitate here, who ever heard of heats that were longer than the feature? I say cut the whole thing to 50 laps, four 10-lap heats and the feature.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I don't even really know what the new All-Star Race format is because I was so busy doing a happy dance over the "no more halftime break" part of the announcement that I didn't hear the rest of it. I always thought that the halftime break destroyed the atmosphere of the event, especially in person. I will miss it about as much as I miss the former Soviet Union.
David Newton, ESPN.com: The changes did little for me. Yes, there's more incentive to win a segment for position on the final sprint. It also gives the winner of the first segment an edge because he's almost assured of starting the final 10 laps on the pole. If I were in charge, I'd move qualifying to heat races in Late Models on the dirt track next door, where we'd see some real short-track fun. Pack the place, too. For the main event, I'd go with 10 10-lap segments with only the segment winners and two more drivers eligible for the final segment voted in by fans. Now that would create a sense of urgency.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: I love the changes. They make the race far more team-oriented. But it's impossible for me to believe that any change would make the drivers race any harder. I mean, there's a million bucks -- and no points -- at stake. It doesn't matter whether you wreck it. It's never mattered as it pertains to the scope of the season. That's part of the beauty of the race. It's short and go-like-hell. Now, one thing that certainly would add intrigue and intensity is if the winner took home that check -- and three championship points. If the winner earned points and no one else lost any, it'd be rowdy coming off Turn 4 to the checkers.
Turn 2. Rick Hendrick was denied his 200th career Sprint Cup victory as an owner ... again. Where and by which driver does he finally get it, and why?
Blount: I realize Sunday's outcome was a bit of a fluke, but Hendrick has been beaten by his own equipment in eight of the past 16 Cup races -- seven by Tony Stewart and one by Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Ryan Newman. The next Hendrick win could come in three weeks at the same place as the last one -- Kansas Speedway, where Jimmie Johnson won in October.
Hinton: I say Earnhardt at Talladega in May. At Daytona he was back to his old mastery of pack-drafting but just wasn't strong enough solo against the Roush pair of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle up front. If Junior picks up a Hendrick partner late, or if Kenseth and Biffle can't get together, the 88 could break his losing streak and get Hendrick's 200th in one fabulous white-flag lap.
McGee: I was standing in the 88 pits watching Hendrick as he watched the final 20 laps. It was heartbreaking because he had the wives of his late brother John and DuPont executive Joe Jackson with him, the first time they'd been back to Martinsville since the 2004 plane crash. But I've said for a while that I think Dale Jr. will win at Texas, and I'm sticking with that.
Newton: Richmond and Dale Earnhardt Jr. It seems only fitting that with all that has happened to delay the 200th victory, it is upstaged by NASCAR's most popular driver ending his losing streak. Earnhardt's pretty good at Richmond, too. He has three wins and eight top-5s there. Here's how it will happen. David Reutimann will stall with three laps left to bring out the caution. Earnhardt in third will dive-bomb teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, causing a huge wreck, take the checkered under caution. Wait, we've seen that movie ... sorta.
Smith: Kasey Kahne at Texas next weekend. Rarely do you see someone with expectations so astronomical start so poorly. I've said this until I'm blue in the face: He's fast everywhere. He has speed. That is critical. If Kahne were riding around in 30th every weekend, slow as molasses in January, my opinion would be different. His luck is just pathetic. It's wearing on him, and you can easily sense the frustration he's feeling. But Texas is among his best tracks. This is the weekend Kahne turns it around, and HMS can stop lugging those hats around all over creation.
Turn 3. Another green-white-checkered finish at Martinsville, and every time we have one, there seems to be controversy. Where do you stand on the G-W-C and why?
Blount: Is it a gimmick? Of course. Does it mean the deserving winner often loses? You bet. And I don't care. It's still a hoot to watch and way better than finishing under caution. Fans remember the end of races, and ending under caution is a bummer after investing three or four hours on your Sunday watching the event.
Hinton: Don't like it a bit. Never have. Doubt I ever will. It destroys all the efforts of a full race and throws the finish into a crapshoot where the biggest bully in the luckiest spot wins. Ryan Newman's Martinsville win is a prime example: He's the one who detonated the wreck on the first restart, by ramming Clint Bowyer up farther than he meant to. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who deserved to race for the win, got tangled up in the mess and were out of the running. Next restart, you got a winner out of nowhere -- Newman -- which is the whole problem with the G-W-C.
McGee: I love it. Always have. Green-white-checkers or green-white-wreckers, you have to watch until the final lap. Or laps. I know some folks say it's gimmicky, but there's no shame in being entertained. Finishes under caution are like a wet loaf of bread.
Newton: As a reporter, I love controversy. It makes for a good story. But it's not really the controversy that I like as much as seeing drivers race to the checkered instead of taking it at 35 mph with a caution car out front. It's not always ideal. It doesn't always favor the dominant car. But at least it doesn't deprive fans who spent thousands on a race weekend from seeing a great -- and, yes, sometimes controversial -- finish.
Smith: It has impacted the outcome of countless races since its institution, so many folks are against it. Not me. It's very exciting. There is no denying that.
Turn 4. Martinsville was a thriller at the end, but was the race really better than what we saw two weeks ago at Bristol? Explain why or why not.
Blount: First of all, 500 laps is 100 too many at Martinsville or Bristol. The end Sunday was great even before all the G-W-C madness, and as I said above, it's the end that matters. Other than that and the hot dogs, most of the Martinsville race wasn't better than Bristol. It was lap after lap with the leader just sailing away. However, cars run into each other more, which is what fans want.
Hinton: Martinsville wasn't any better than Bristol but might have been remembered as better had Gordon and Johnson been able to duel to the finish for the win. When Gordon gets in his zone at Martinsville, which he was for most of the race, he's so smooth that the usual rubbing on the paper clip just need not materialize. What makes short tracks fun for fans is beatin' and bangin' -- and we just didn't have much of that at either short track this spring. It happens.
McGee: I know a lot of people were mad at Reutimann, but he did hand us an awesome ending. As different as the two races were, I liked both. But I'm not talking about Bristol anymore. I'm still getting hate mail for saying I liked it two weeks ago.
Newton: Yes. Hardly a car left Martinsville without at least a tire doughnut on the side. That's what short-track racing is all about, leaning on the opponent to make a pass or gain position. Martinsville and Bristol have two-wide racing now, but because of the tight corners at Martinsville and no progressive banking, there's still the beating and banging that fans love. Both tracks still need to beg Goodyear for softer tires that wear more. That would create better racing at both tracks.
Smith: No. Martinsville wasn't better. Both races were fantastic, in my opinion, for different reasons. The difference in general perception between the two is simple -- a bunch of drivers were pissed off at each other after Martinsville because of the late-race madness. Which, of course, is what made Bristol so wonderful for all those years and why Bruton Smith is planning to tear the joint up and start over. But look, if David Reutimann didn't stop on the racetrack, it would have been a Hendrick Motorsports beatdown. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson would have combined to lead more than 80 percent of the laps (which they did anyway) and ease off down Route 158 past that God Bless America horse that McGee and I saddled Friday evening with another grandfather clock. Sure, there was a pass for the lead late in the race and a big ol' wreck. But that was circumstantial.