Debate: NASCAR's burning questions
Our panel of experts weighs in this week on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR:
Turn 1. NASCAR took one of those rare weeks off. Which driver in the Sprint Cup Series needed it most and why?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: The obvious choice is Kasey Kahne. Who in their right mind would have thought he would rank 31st with no top-10s after six races for Hendrick Motorsports? Crashes, blown engine, you name it. The man is in the Twilight Zone. But he has two poles, so he knows the car is fast. And on a side note, Rick Hendrick needed a deep breath while he continues to wait for that 200th win.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: David Reutimann. He needed not only to clear his head but for everyone to absorb his side of the story so the blame game could dissipate. Hopefully by now every reasonable NASCAR observer knows Reuti wasn't being a jerk when he stayed out at Martinsville, struggling to keep his car in the top 35, and had the car quit on him to bring out the final caution that changed the race outcome.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne's teams share a shop at Hendrick Motorsports and they might have spent spring break in a big group hug. At least Gordon's still on the edge of the top 20. Only four other drivers have started all six races and are lower than Kahne in points: David Reutimann, Landon Cassill, David Stremme and Michael McDowell. Those are all good dudes, but not the points company anyone wants to be keeping.
David Newton, ESPN.com: The easy answer would be Kasey Kahne. He's 31st in points and has had nothing go right. But I'm going with Kyle Busch. He's 16th in points and has finished 23rd or worse in three of the past four races, including a 36th before the break at Martinsville. His Nationwide team has struggled as well with only one top-10 in five starts. Neither is Busch-like. Perhaps the break gave him time to take a deep breath and refocus before we get into the Old Kyle and New Kyle discussion again.
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Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Kahne. The minute his body left Martinsville, Va., his mind arrived in Fort Worth, Texas. He told me last Tuesday he'd obsessed about every inch of the TMS racetrack surface in his mind and could not wait to arrive there. Then he said something very simple and fundamental, yet equally poignant: "I love to race, Marty." Kahne is a very easygoing person, but that demeanor tends to mask his intensity. As I said in The Six last week: He's befuddled by his pitiful luck but confident in the speed his cars make each weekend. He is buoyed by potential. He needed a mental recalibration during the off week. Maybe he got it in a sprint car in Ohio.
Turn 2. The Camping World Truck Series returns to Rockingham this week. Is this in any way a test to see if Nationwide or Cup will ever return to The Rock?
Blount: It's great to see NASCAR race at The Rock again, but the Dodgers aren't going back to Flatbush in Brooklyn and Cup isn't going back to Rockingham. Not happening. What NASCAR/ISC needs to do is build new tracks in Denver, Seattle and New York, but public funding isn't coming. ISC will have to spend its money to make it happen.
Hinton: Not unless an astounding crowd turns out. And even then it would only give Nationwide schedule-makers pause. Last time I looked, The Rock still stands in the middle of nowhere and never did draw particularly well for Cup. If Trucks look good there, that will be unusual for any kind of racing. If it's a typical Rockingham race, ho-hum, maybe some of this trumped-up nostalgia about the place will ease up. The all-out fan uprising it would take for NASCAR to consider taking Cup back there just isn't going to happen, once the misinformed get a good look at the Truck race on TV.
McGee: No question about it. I don't see Cup returning, but a future as a Trucks-Nationwide track is totally possible. In fact, I'm told that track owner Andy Hillenburg had a chance to host a Nationwide race this year, too, but declined because he wanted to do a Trucks race first. He didn't want to bite off more than he could chew, financially or logistically. Hillenburg's done his part to "Save The Rock." He's really walking a tightrope. Now NASCAR fans need to do their part and show up this Sunday! If they don't, this could all go away again. And there won't be another chance if this one fails.
Newton: Perhaps. But I see it more as a way to appease fans who were angered when NASCAR left one of its traditional tracks and to give the struggling Truck Series an economic break -- they can make the trip to The Rock from Charlotte without much expense. But remember, Rockingham didn't draw well when there were Sprint Cup races there. As much as I hate to say it, a stand-alone Nationwide race would be a tough sell for fans.
Smith: Nationwide, possibly. (Hopefully.) Cup, no way. The Rock is wonderful. The 2004 Kenseth/Kahne thrill show that closed the doors on the Cup series there left us with a microcosmic memory of the racing The Rock produced. But it's not a market NASCAR wants for Cup cars. It's just not. NASCAR chose to pull out of Rockingham for two reasons: The track wasn't selling tickets, and the key initiative at that time in the sport's history was to grow to Hollywood and New York. When it left it had zero intention of going back. It's crazy that Cup has been gone from Rockingham for nearly a decade.
Turn 3. Terry Blount has made himself clear on the top-35 rule in Sprint Cup, but it's a divisive issue. Where do you stand and why?
Blount: Along with my feelings on nixing the top-35 rule, start giving drivers some points for winning the pole. I'd like to see two points for the pole and one for the other driver on the front row. But even if it's just one point for the pole winner, that's better than giving a driver one point for leading a lap under caution when 20 cars in front of him go to pit road.
Hinton: I'm totally with Terry -- and probably 99 percent of fans -- in spirit. They should have to run for starting positions. Back in the day, qualifying often was spread out over two or three days, and there was daily interest in who made it and who didn't. But the big guns usually made it in the first day. Trouble is, this rule came about because big teams were whining that they couldn't sign adequate sponsorship without assuring the corporations of making every race. This was NASCAR's answer to a lot of pressure for franchising of teams. Even if NASCAR considered a return to straight-up qualifying, the big team owners would shoot it down.
McGee: I said it two weeks ago to the "If you were Brian France" question and I'll say it again: Ditch it. Let's return to a time in which qualifying matters. If you can't put together two laps faster than the other guy, you lose. And it helps eliminate a lot of these owner points swaps that everyone loathes. Not all of them, but some.
Newton: It's a necessary evil for that rare occasion a top driver -- i.e., Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- might miss the show. Many blame the rule on David Reutimann staying out at Martinsville in an effort to keep the No. 10 that Danica Patrick drives on a part-time basis in the top 35. That turned into disaster when Reutimann stalled to bring out caution with three laps left. But the real issue here is Reutimann or any damaged car being forced to stay out to pick up points. If NASCAR tweaked the points structure to award the same number of points for a car that finishes 30th or worse, you wouldn't have so many damaged cars on the track.
Smith: I completely understand its premise: Give the owners something of value that they can sell to prospective buyers. But I'm not sure it's the end-all answer. Racers race. Businessmen who purchase NASCAR teams come in and expect to inject their respective business models into the fray. And they fail. Almost invariably. Bobby Ginn? See ya. George Gillett? See ya. Used to be everyone was making too much money to consider franchising. Is that still the case? Would profit sharing and a driver's union bolster the smaller teams and create greater parity? Do we even want greater parity? Does free enterprise still work in the garage with teams poaching sponsors from each other every year? That's above my pay grade.
Turn 4. There are two ways to make the Chase: Stay in the top 10 or be one of two drivers from 11th to 20th to win more than anyone else. Who is your top choice to get in on wins and why?
Blount: It's probably the two guys who are 11th and 12th now -- Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski, respectively, but don't count out Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon. Here's what should happen: Win and you're in. That's right. Change it to where any driver in the top 20 who wins a race makes the Chase. If that means 16 guys make the playoff, so be it.
Hinton: Kasey Kahne. With the awful start he has had, making the top 10 in points for the Chase is getting to be a taller and taller order. But going from 31st, where he is now, to 20th isn't such a terrible reach. And he has a way of popping a win or two just when you least expect it. If he can win by late summer, another one at Atlanta on Labor Day weekend could put him over the top just in time.
McGee: I want to say Gordon, but I think he could still reach the top 10. So let's go with Kahne. History says he'll hit a hot streak at some point in the season. It will only take one of those to both get him into the top 20 and atop the wild-card wins list. But if it's going to happen he needs to get on with it.
Newton: Jeff Gordon. He's 21st in the standings and more than a race behind 10th place in points. As we saw at Martinsville, where he led 328 laps before Clint Bowyer's dive bomb on a green-white-checkered finish ruined his day, he's plenty fast and plenty talented enough to still win races. I could see him winning at least twice before the Chase field is set.
Smith: Jeff Gordon. Because that is now his sole focus. He said so himself even before the bad luck at Martinsville. Points accumulation is nice, certainly, but is basically irrelevant to Gordon and Alan Gustafson at this point. They're out to win races. And they will win races. They're in the hunt far too consistently not to win.
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