Our panel of experts weighs in this week on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR:
Turn 1. Travis Pastrana is finally set to make his NASCAR debut in the Nationwide Series race Friday at Richmond. Will he provide the kind of boost -- and crossover fans -- NASCAR is hoping for? Why or why not?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: It can't hurt, but it won't matter in the long run unless Pastrana has some success. Pastrana is popular among the young-and-hip crowd, but he doesn't have anywhere near the national recognition Danica Patrick has. In both cases, if they are successful, they will greatly benefit the sport. If they aren't, they will become passing fads.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Not anytime soon. Portions of his crowd who follow him in Nationwide telecasts are sure to be disappointed in his early showings unless he's a miracle-working natural. Youngsters who tune in and see a lack of immediate success will have to show a lot more attention span than they're known for. And even if they're patient, Pastrana might have a long climb. Think of how difficult it has been for Danica Patrick, and at least she comes out of four-wheel Indy cars. This transition is likely to be slower and tougher.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: The man has a cult following so giant it's a stretch to call it a cult following. Two keys to his bringing that following with him: (1) He needs to run well. Not immediately, but he can't take too long. (2) His handlers and sponsors need to let him be him. Don't try to reprogram him. Let the dude be. Ricky Carmichael's people allowed him to do that. Unfortunately, RC wasn't given enough time to pull off No. 1.
David Newton, ESPN.com: There'll be a spike, just as there was -- and is -- with Danica Patrick. The curiosity factor from not only Pastrana and X Game fans, but from traditional NASCAR fans, should be very evident. The guy has just shy of 368,000 Twitter fans. Not quite the 579,000 and change Patrick has, but way more than either Jeff Gordon (195K) or Jimmie Johnson (213K). People who have never watched a race will check in.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: If he is ultimately competitive and is committed for the foreseeable future, he has as much potential to add fans as Danica Patrick does if she is competitive and contends for wins. He's wildly popular, and his fans have followed from moto to motocross to X games to rally. But he's been successful in every one of those. Folks like a winner. If he's not competitive, they'll lose interest. It's the nature of the sport -- and it never fails.
Turn 2. Denny Hamlin edged Martin Truex Jr. for the win at Kansas in a battle of Toyota teams, but is Truex's Michael Waltrip Racing team starting to challenge Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing team for the top spot with Toyota?
Blount: Not yet, but the really good news about MWR's surge upward is it appears NASCAR soon will have another top-tier organization, something desperately needed in Sprint Cup. Combining Toyota engine programs has been a huge benefit to MWR, but getting Scott Miller to leave Richard Childress Racing and run the show for Waltrip's team might be the biggest factor in MWR's dramatic improvement.
Hinton: You better believe it. Hamlin's win over Truex was symbolic, in that Hamlin is the only JGR driver who has held off the MWR surge. Hamlin has won twice, but teammates Joey Logano and Kyle Busch have been in the doldrums. Truex is part of an MWR cavalry charge. Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin have shown some strength this year.
McGee: Yes, even if only in the short term. Keep in mind JGR is still in the middle of a giant transition process from its in-house engine program to the Toyota Racing Development deal. MWR has been on that plan since its inception. But you can't overstate what Scott Miller has brought to MWR as competition guru since the team brought him over from RCR. Talking with folks who are in the Monday debrief meetings with him, they say the difference in attitude and expectations is shocking. They've gone from celebrating top-10s to expecting them. Bowyer has always been like that. Now, watching Truex over the past month, you can see that same attitude taking hold.
Newton: Wins aside, it's a dead heat. Truex might even be ahead. Over the past 13 races since October at Talladega, Truex has an average finish of 8.3. Hamlin is at 9.9. And consider, in the five races prior to Talladega last year, Hamlin's average finish was 20.6. He didn't start to show improvement until driving one of MWR's cars at Charlotte to see the aerodynamic advantages the organization had found. And were it not for a bad set of tires on the last pit stop Sunday at Kansas, Truex and Hamlin would be even in wins.
No. The 56 is a budding group with fantastic potential. But better than the 11? Nope. Start winning. Then we'll chat.
Turn 3. Tony Stewart looked flat-out lost at Texas last week and wasn't a contender Sunday at Kansas. Despite his win at 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March, should he be concerned about his intermediate track program?
Blount: Let's not rush to judgment here. We all have a skewed view of this because "Smoke" has been so successful since the start of the Chase last season. But let's have fun and start a conspiracy theory that Rick Hendrick is tired of getting beat by his own stuff so Hendrick Motorsports has started giving Stewart-Haas Racing second-rate equipment. Not happening, of course, but if Hendrick's boys start winning and Stewart stops winning, some people will go, "Hmmmmmm?"
Hinton: Not yet. Having to switch to a backup car at Texas really threw him and crew chief Steve Addington for a loop, and they never caught up. As for Kansas, well, you have to give Smoke at least one straight-up mulligan before you write him off on intermediates altogether.
McGee: Not yet. Remember, it's still early. Smoke never really gets going until summer. His fans should just be glad they got those "bonus" wins and settle into their usual routine of watching him light the candle when the weather heats up.
Newton: Are you kidding? You're talking about a driver who didn't win a race all of last season until the Chase, then won five of 10 to win his third championship. And you have to count California (2-mile track) in the intermediate track category just like Vegas, so in reality, Stewart has won two of the four intermediate races. There are more than a few guys who would take that.
Smith: Yes. Smoke is already in the Chase based on those two wins. But the Chase is largely intermediate tracks. They need to remedy the situation. But that said, given those two wins, I expect the team is experimenting for the Chase.
Turn 4. The next three tracks on the schedule -- Richmond, Talladega and Darlington -- make up one of the toughest stretches of the season. Give us three drivers to watch, good or bad, over that stretch and explain why.
Blount: Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the good side at Talladega. He loves the place, and the new restrictor-plate rules play into his drafting skill set. Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin race well at all three of these tracks. Bad? Danica and Darlington will not mix. And here's a shocker. Matt Kenseth wasn't good at these tracks last year. His best finish at the five races on these tracks in 2011 was 18th.
Hinton: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart. All are proven short-trackers for Richmond, proven plate racers for Talladega and proven artists for Darlington. I can think of other drivers who might fare well at one or two of those tracks, but if I have to cover all three, I'll take the three maestros. That's not to say Dale Earnhardt Jr. won't slip into the picture at Richmond or Dega, or that Kyle Busch won't emerge at Darlington. But my trifecta should have the best three combined finishes.
McGee: Three good'ns: (1) Dale Junior. He's in the middle of his wheelhouse stretch of the schedule. His highest career win totals have come at Richmond and Talladega. (2) Kyle Busch. Over the past two weeks, he's quietly gotten it going, and his Richmond numbers are ridonculous. (3) Kevin Harvick. Won at Talladega in '10 and Richmond in '11. So, Darlington in '12?
Newton: Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Hamlin already is on a roll with two wins heading to his home track of Richmond, where he has won twice and has an average finish of 7.6. Then he goes to Talladega, where he has three top-5s and five top-10s in 12 races, and then to Darlington, where he has a win and an amazing 6.5 average finish. He easily could win two out of three. Earnhardt has four straight top-10s, runs well at Richmond and Talladega, and is due to end his losing streak, which is at 137. It can't last forever, can it? Gordon has been snakebit this season, and if he's going to turn things around, these tracks on which he has a rich history and talent usually prevails must be the place it happens if he's to make the Chase.
Smith: Good: Kevin Harvick. He could win every single one of them. Hendrick Motorsports. All the drivers are fast. It's only a matter of time. Michael Waltrip Racing. For the same reason as Hendrick. Bad: Kyle Busch. This stretch is very important for him in my opinion. This team perplexes me. It seems to need speed -- but "Rowdy" was in contention late at Daytona, and can muscle a car around Richmond and Darlington as well as anyone.