Our panel of experts weighs in this week on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR:
Turn 1. Carl Edwards being penalized for jumping a restart was the controversial call of the weekend. Did NASCAR make the right decision? If not, what should race officials have done?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: It was a borderline call at best, and one that NASCAR officials have let go without a penalty many times in the past. In this case, there was so much confusion about who was the leader, NASCAR should have waved off the restart and made sure everyone understood their position before throwing the green flag.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: NASCAR made the right call, IF, as NASCAR claimed, it had clearly designated Tony Stewart as the leader for that restart. Edwards said his spotter told him NASCAR had said that "99 is the leader." If some official had told the 99 spotter that, NASCAR should be transparent about a mistake. If it was the 99 spotter who made the mistake, Jack Roush's team should be transparent about that, too.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: All the data (or, more accurately, lack of) points to an A-to-Z instruction manual on how not to communicate, from Race Control to the spotters' stand to pit road to the cockpit. But in the end I don't think it actually mattered whether he was the leader. He jumped the restart zone by well more than a car length, so he was going to be in trouble either way.
David Newton, ESPN.com: It was the right call. If Edwards felt he was the leader and NASCAR made a mistake by allowing Tony Stewart to pick a lane as the leader does, Edwards and his crew chief should have been screaming to the tower. Nobody screamed. To assume the track scoreboard is official is wrong since Edwards apparently tripped the scoring loop when he surged prior to the restart to scrub his tires. To simplify, the restart is to take place in a designated box marked by red lines. Edwards restarted well before the box. Regardless of whether Stewart spun his tires, Edwards restarted early.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: The moment a less-than-thrilled Robin Pemberton snarled that the scoring snafu was moot, based on Edwards jumping the restart box, I realized there was no controversy. For NASCAR it's black and white. We can ponder all day whether Edwards would have been penalized had Stewart not spun his tires (or flat snookered Edwards) on the restart. But it happened. So by the letter of the law it's the right call.
Turn 2. Travis Pastrana ran on the lead lap most of the race and finished 22nd in his Nationwide Series debut. What were your impressions of his debut -- and his less-than-politically correct bet he would "beat the girls" in the race?
Blount: I have to admit, I am pleasantly surprised. Pastrana's showing was pretty darn impressive for his first time out on a short track that often leads to wrecks for inexperienced drivers. But you know who was more impressive? Johanna Long, only 19 years old and driving lesser equipment, finished 20th. This young woman has some true racing skills, and it's time people started noticing.
Hinton: His performance on the track was very impressive and solid -- far better, frankly, than I had expected. It was his phobia, pitting, that hurt him. I did a double take when he said he was disappointed at "getting beat by the girls," but then I thought, "What the heck? NASCAR wants him for pepper sauce? Then let him pour it on." Danica should take that in stride, having said all her career that she's had trouble with drivers who don't like "getting beat by a girl."
McGee: It was just about what anyone should have expected, maybe a smidge better. As for the bet, that was classic Pastrana. He's never cared what anyone thought and can usually get away with non-PC stuff just because he's him. And, hey, if you know you're not going to win the race -- and he certainly knew he wasn't -- you might as well say or do something to ensure you make the postrace stories.
Newton: Very impressed. At one point Pastrana was running 17th and actually passed former Nationwide Series champion Brad Keselowski. Were it not for a pit road-speeding penalty, his first green-flag stop in a stock car, he likely would have finished on the lead lap way ahead of both the girls (Danica Patrick and Johanna Long). As for the comment, had anybody else said that they'd have been chastised. Because Pastrana is such a free spirit, he gets a free pass. There was no harm in it. He was just having fun with a friend who suggested the bet. It wasn't Pastrana's idea as far as I know.
Smith: Pastrana did a very good job -- better than the finish indicates. The fact that he brought it home with fenders on it is a victory.
Turn 3. Richard Petty Motorsports just hired Mike Ford as the new crew chief for the No. 43 Ford. Can Mike Ford get Aric Almirola into Victory Lane this season?
Blount: This move is a home run for RPM. Ford is one of the best crew chiefs in the business. Things had run their course with Denny Hamlin by the end of last season and a change was needed for everyone, but Ford helped make Hamlin the driver he is today. He can do the same for Almirola, and the two know each other from Almirola's days at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Hinton: Mike Ford isn't exactly a crew chief for beginners. He made his name with Bill Elliott on Ray Evernham's team, then he was pretty hard on Denny Hamlin, in public, when Hamlin questioned team strategy. Who knows, though? Crusty Jake Elder tamed wild young Dale Earnhardt and made him a winner by telling Earnhardt, not asking him, what he needed in a car. Ford likely will tell, not ask, Almirola what he needs. If Almirola cooperates, this could be good. If they clash, it could be pretty bad.
McGee: No. But Mike Ford can start working toward getting Almirola there in 2013. Even after their split, Denny Hamlin has been quick to tell people that Ford was the perfect guy to guide him through the fledgling years of his career. Almirola's been around for a while now, but that kind of coaching still can't hurt.
Newton: Ford got Bill Elliott to Victory Lane in 2001 after a six-year drought for the 1988 Cup champion. He helped Denny Hamlin win two races as a rookie in 2006. He is a very good crew chief, but he's not a magician.
Smith: That's an awfully lofty expectation. The 43 car hasn't won since the Clinton administration. They don't seem to have the speed they had late last season on speedways. But anything can happen at Talladega.
Turn 4. What do you expect to see at Talladega? Will it be pack racing like Daytona was earlier this season or something else? And give us your over/under on "big ones" in the race?
Blount: Daytona was so bizarre this year -- a first-ever rainout, first Monday night race, first on-track tweet-fest, first and probably last jet-dryer explosion -- that it's impossible to compare it to anything. However, Dega will have more pack racing and less pairs racing with the new rules package. But it won't be the wild and crazy Dega we've come to know. I'm not so sure we'll see a big wreck, but if we do look for it in the last 10 laps.
Hinton: I'm afraid it's going to be more of the same from Daytona, for at least 75 percent of the race. But don't count on Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle being able to hook up and dominate as they did at Daytona. There's more room to roam at Dega, so the last 50 laps should be better than Daytona. Dale Earnhardt Jr. understands the place better than anybody else, so if he can get some drafting help -- say, from a Hendrick teammate or a Stewart-Haas cousin -- he could make it a better show up front than he was able to, solo, at Daytona. My over/under on big ones is two -- one of eight or 10 cars midway, then a massive one in the final 15 laps.
McGee: Because the new paving job at Daytona made the track play wider than it actually is, I think the two tracks might end up acting more similar than usual. We'll have bigger packs and some periods of conga-line racing, but it'll still come down to the pair who makes the right move on the white-flag lap. I say three "big ones," more specifically two big-'uns and one not-as-big-'un. I think the biggest one will happen early on.
Newton: The pack will be back. If it's not when teams arrive at Talladega, NASCAR will make adjustments so cars will overheat and have to back off the dancing. Tandems won't really come into play until the final few laps, then it's all about Dancing with the Cars. That's still the fastest way around the track.
As for over/under, I'll go with one. And by chance there isn't a multicar wreck for the fourth straight week, don't ask Tony Stewart about it, Ed Hinton. Here's what he said when I asked about three straight: "Only you would think about stuff like that. I don't know what you think of during the race, but I try to figure out how to win the race and make my car go fast. I don't sit there and think of that petty crap you think of.''
Smith: I expect it to look just like Daytona, minus the rain and jet-dryer drama. We'll see pack racing throughout the meat of the race, but the Noah's Ark Draft will win the race. And second place is where you want to be coming off Turn 4. Over/under on "big ones" is three.