Debate: NASCAR's burning questions
Our panel of experts weighs in this week on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR:
Turn 1. Our readers seemed to think the racing at Texas Motor Speedway was less than stellar Saturday night. If you thought the racing was good, explain why. If you agree that the racing was subpar, why do you think this is happening (tires, car, race length, etc.)?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: The only thing good about it is it ended in record time for a Texas Cup race. Shortening this event to 400 miles is a good idea, but a 40-mile race wouldn't have saved this one. The problem is tires, the same problem as Bristol. The tires are too hard and don't wear out. I realize there is a fine line on safety between a race-worthy tire and one that blows out and causes a Brickyard 400-type debacle like we saw a few years ago, but the pendulum has swung way too far in the direction of hard tires.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Going the final 234 laps under green was as awful from a spectator standpoint as it was artful to competitors. When engineering masters venues, well, that's fine in Formula One but a big problem in NASCAR. Winning car owner Jack Roush pretty much said engineering ruled Saturday night -- from car preparation to the optimal tire compound developed by Goodyear. In NASCAR, trouble of any kind is good for the show. There just wasn't any Saturday night.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Clearly Bruton Smith needs to bulldoze the place and start over, right Bristol fans?! No, Saturday night wasn't a great show. But they can't all be. The wind certainly was an issue, but there's nothing you can do about that. If there's a pattern developing I think maybe the tires right now are a little too bulletproof. There's not the kind of fall-off that we've seen in the past over long runs. I even saw that at Rockingham on Sunday. Problem is, I don't like messing with tires. Seems like anytime we do that it goes too far the other way. Instead, I'd shorten the TMS events to 400 miles and see what happens then.
David Newton, ESPN.com: I asked this question to Joey Logano on Sunday at zMax Dragway in Charlotte. His immediate response: "Have you seen how close the speeds are?'' So yes, it was subpar for the same reason it has been that way at many tracks. Engineering, tires that don't wear substantially and the tight box NASCAR has crew chiefs in have leveled the playing field. When Car A runs the same speed as Car B it's hard to pass. With less passing there are fewer wrecks. With fewer wrecks there is less drama. NASCAR needs drama.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: The racing was so good on the racetrack that it was bad in your living room. Durable, well-engineered race cars and tires, and precision excellence by drivers, tend to produce monotony for fans. Texas on Saturday was the first superspeedway race since 1999 to produce more than 200 consecutive green-flag laps. That's great driving. Think how many near-miss saves there must have been -- that we never saw -- during that time. Those boys were driving their guts out. Very well. But that doesn't mean I didn't bypass the nacho bar for some java more than once.
Turn 2. Seven races into the season, which major Sprint Cup team is the most disappointing so far, and why?
Blount: Before the 2012 season started, Chip Ganassi called his team's 2011 effort "pathetic." The term still applies. Despite numerous internal changes, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has not improved. Jamie McMurray is 23rd in the standings and Juan Pablo Montoya is 18th. What else does Chip have to see to realize it's time to work on an engine plan and move to Dodge next year, whether Teresa Earnhardt likes it or not.
Hinton: Hendrick Motorsports beats Joe Gibbs Racing to the bottom because at least JGR's Denny Hamlin won at Phoenix before that team fell off the earth. True, Hendrick has had some near-misses, but the bottom line is that NASCAR's richest and best team is winless this season after talking tall in the starting gate. You have to figure they're more disappointed in themselves than observers are in them.
McGee: I really thought Earnhardt Ganassi Racing was headed for a rebound, but they're pretty awful for the second straight year. They've totally overhauled the front office management team and the way they go about developing cars. So if they continue to struggle I think there are some very difficult questions coming concerning EGR's driver lineup.
Newton: It would be easy to say Hendrick Motorsports since it is winless in 14 consecutive races going back to last season. But I'm going with Joe Gibbs Racing. Despite a win by Denny Hamlin, the organization has only three top-5s and seven top-10s combined from Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. They've led only 285 laps, fewer than HMS' Jeff Gordon led at Martinsville. One could argue Michael Waltrip Racing has caught JGR as the top Toyota team. Ouch.
Smith: The 5. Yes, they have speed. Yes, they're competitive. No, their results don't match their performance. Yes, bad luck is their greatest nemesis. But none of that changes the fact reality doesn't meet expectation. The good thing is, again, they're fast. Jeff Gordon told me last weekend that fielding fast cars is the hardest thing to do in NASCAR racing -- even above winning. If you field fast cars, he said, everything else takes care of itself. That's why Kasey Kahne will outrace Lady Luck soon enough.
Turn 3. Danica Patrick made a solid run late in Friday night's Nationwide Series race to finish eighth. Was that a sign of things to come, or too little data to reach any real conclusion?
Blount: Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. gets a lot of the credit for Patrick's finish Friday because of wise pit strategy at the end. But this is more representative of where she is capable of running, especially on high-speed ovals.
Hinton: Haven't seen her that aggressive in a race, or that happy afterward, since her sixth-place finish in her stock car debut in ARCA at Daytona in 2010. Her enthusiasm and confidence clearly are renewed. Now that she has tasted late-race charging, she just might not look back. Later on, though, we the pundits might look back at Friday night and call it the time Danica turned the corner in NASCAR.
McGee: Still too soon. I've said all along that I want to get through May before I'm ready to make a declaration one way or the other. It did have to be encouraging for her. She sounded totally lost on the radio early on and still squeezed a top-10 out of it. It was both hilarious and sad that mere seconds after the checkers I was already receiving tweets and emails from race fans explaining to me why her top-10 was a fluke. Why do the haters work so hard at hating her?
Newton: She did a nice job in a race that fit her style -- a lot of green-flag laps that allowed her to find a groove. She made a few aggressive moves, but still didn't pass a lot of cars on her own. The solid finish should boost her confidence after a rough start to the season, but she needs to string a few of these runs together before I'm willing to suggest she has turned the corner.
Smith: I've said it 100 times. She can drive. I'd like to see what she could do if her cars were built in the same shop as Jimmie Johnson's. Elliott Sadler's are built in the same shop with Kevin Harvick. Ricky Stenhouse's are built in the same shop as Greg Biffle's, Matt Kenseth's and Carl Edwards'. It matters. A lot.
Turn 4. We're off to another 1.5-mile tri-oval this week, Kansas Speedway. Give us your winner and why you believe they will win.
Blount: How can you bet against the Biff here? He's coming off a big win at a similar track, and Kansas may be his best track (two wins in the past six races there). It may come down to another late pass between Biffle and Jimmie Johnson, who won at Kansas last October.
Hinton: Jimmie Johnson -- although that's sure to jinx him, the way his season has been going. But this time it's JJ who keeps coming back to the fore like Greg Biffle did at Texas. As much fun as it would be to see common-man Biff win two in a row, Kansas is enough different from Texas that his team may not quite get the handle on this 1.5-miler that they found on the last one.
McGee: I've got Biffle. Best career average finish at Kansas among all active drivers and history says he's a streaky kind of guy.
Newton: Jimmie Johnson. Strictly by the numbers, he has won twice in the past five Kansas races and has an average finish of 3.8 there during that span. He led late in each of the past two races this season at Martinsville and Texas. It's time for the cream to rise to the top.
Smith: Jimmie Johnson. He was the only being in Biffle's area code at Texas. And he's mad. And Hendrick Motorsports' 199th win came at Kansas, by way of JJ's win there last fall. Maybe the elusive 200th will, too
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