Our panel of experts weighs in this week on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR:
Turn 1. What did you think of the ninth-place finish for Darrell Wallace Jr. in his Nationwide Series debut? How significant would it be for NASCAR to have a black driver racing full-time in one of the top two series?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: It's too early to say a star is born, but he sure looks like the real deal. I know he was driving great equipment with Joe Gibbs Racing, but I don't care if it's the Millennium Falcon, that was an impressive effort by an 18-year-old. It wouldn't be a big deal to have a full-time African-American driver in Cup, but having one who could win and compete for titles would be huge.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: I've said since the days of Bill Lester in Trucks that I would deem NASCAR to have made a diversity breakthrough when, and only when, there's an African-American driver competing full-time at the Nationwide level or higher. Wallace's performance Sunday is as close as we've been to that breakthrough. Now it's up to corporate America to step up with adequate sponsorship. If Wallace gets that and goes full-time, then he's got clean air to head for a Cup ride and some long overdue history.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: It would be great, but only if the driver is a legitimate talent. I thought Iowa validated what a lot of us have thought for years now, that Darrell is legit. Joe Gibbs Racing and the Drive For Diversity program have done a nice job of bringing him up through the ranks in good gear. D4D finally seems to be getting some traction after a lot of years lost in the woods. But this is also the point where all these kids have vanished before because the sponsorship dollars never materialized. Now a company needs to step up and push Wallace to the next level. Seems like a no-brainer to me.
David Newton, ESPN.com: NASCAR chairman Brian France said it best on Saturday when asked about Wallace's upcoming debut: "It's big if he competes well." Wallace competed well. I'm just sorry he won't be back in the car this weekend. The sport needs a black driver full-time in one of the top two series more than it needs a woman -- sorry, Danica Patrick. I just hope Joe Gibbs Racing or another top team and sponsor has the guts to stick with Wallace the way Patrick has benefited.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: It suggests that Wallace has a tremendous opportunity to be the breakthrough minority driver NASCAR has been looking for. He has the "it" factor. He's a well-spoken, good-looking young man who got an opportunity from Gibbs to prove his talent and has done so in lower series. Now he has gone and made some noise in the Nationwide Series. It tells me something about his driving ability that his teammate, Brian Scott, was driving the same equipment at Iowa and ran 11th. If Wallace were to win races at the national-series level, the impact on the industry would be incalculable, in my opinion.
Turn 2. NASCAR is retooling things at the Research & Development Center to put more emphasis on improving competition, particularly at 1.5-mile tracks. What do you make of this?
Blount: I applaud NASCAR for making the effort. The 1.5-mile tracks aren't going away, so the answer is to change the cars to race better at these facilities. The recent change of raising the side panels to reduce downforce was a step in the right direction, but as Brad Keselowski said, "It's a penny change when a dollar is needed." However, NASCAR has to wait and see how the new cars next year will race on the 1.5-mile tracks.
Hinton: Much-needed and overdue. Seems to me the one-by-one racing on cookie-cutter tracks is the No. 1 issue with fans nowadays. The sooner the 1.5-milers produce good shows, the quicker the fan malaise lifts. NASCAR R&D has safety issues under enough control that it has come down to tweaking here and there. So a shift in focus by a very good, very experienced engineering staff should produce results fairly soon. If they can fix the long-chronic problem of "aero push," and stop drivers from having to say, "Track position was so important tonight," then there'll be nothing short of a competition revolution on the intermediate tracks.
McGee: There's nothing to dislike about it, as long as it doesn't lead to rule-change insanity. It feels like a real home run opportunity is coming with the new '13 car. But what I don't want to see is the return of the late '90's when we all had to sit and wait on the weekly news release knee-jerk rules change to every race result.
Newton: Long overdue, particularly since NASCAR created much of what drivers and fans complain about when it made this new car and the rules that make aerodynamics more important than talent. The day drivers stop saying they need clean air and track position to compete, especially at 1.5-mile cookie-cutters, is the day fans rejoice and return to the stands in full force. France also realizes that competition breeds higher ratings and higher ratings breed more money for NASCAR in negotiations for a new television contract.
Smith: I don't know that it says much of anything. Maybe that they're attempting to be forward-thinking so that the teams don't get too far ahead of them from an ingenuity perspective on the 2013 car. Maybe it says they're concerned that fans are tired of strung-out races without cautions. But personally, I think the competition is very good, and the introduction of the 2013 body styles has fans all jacked-up.
Turn 3. Have Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus re-established themselves as the team to beat in the Sprint Cup Series after winning at Darlington and the All-Star Race? Why, or why not?
Blount: Not sure about the team to beat, but they have shown they still can race up front and compete for more titles. I really believe he can get to seven championships to equal Petty and Earnhardt. One other note: The recent change to reduce downforce plays into Johnson's hands. The harder the car is to drive, the more likely JJ will outdrive the competition. That's what many fans don't understand. Johnson is a hell of a wheel man.
Hinton: They're headed that way, but we might need a few more races to be sure they're there. Certainly at Darlington and in the All-Star, they toyed with the competition and then ran away at will. But is this merely one of those hot streaks that we see from time to time, or is it a bellwether for the season? We won't even know after the Coke 600, because everybody knows how good they are at Charlotte when they're on.
McGee: Yes. Because they're clicking on every aspect of the game now. It's not just fast cars or pit strategy or quick pit stops. It's all of the above.
Newton: Did they ever really go away? Take away a disastrous start to the season when Johnson was crashed at the start of the second lap of the Daytona 500 and the No. 48 team would be at the top of the standings. Johnson is first in laps led (502), tied for first in top-10s (eight) and tied for second in top-5s (five). He easily could have won three races instead of just one. The past two weeks have just reaffirmed what we've known all along, that Johnson and Knaus remain the best in the sport.
Smith: It's far too early to call anybody a title favorite. But the swagger is back. The 48 had a plan for All-Star and executed a beat-down on the field. Barring a motor issue or getting planted in the fence, I expect much the same Sunday evening.
Turn 4. Here's one submitted by a fan (andrewjohn329) from our Conversation pages: If you could pick one historic track no longer used or no longer in existence to be recreated for use by NASCAR, which one would you pick and why?
I wouldn't pick any of them. Don't go backward, go forward. I would build a track similar in size and shape to Iowa or Richmond and put it in Denver or Seattle or New York City. And I would take a race away from Pocono and Dover.
Hinton: I covered races at virtually all the passed-by tracks, and I wouldn't want any of them back. Rockingham and North Wilkesboro both sit in the middle of nowhere and are vastly overrated in the creative memories of fans. Ontario Motor Speedway in California was even more of a dog than its offspring at Fontana. Riverside was faster than either of the road courses now on the Cup tour, and produced some good shows and a lot of feuds. Old Texas World Speedway was the dilapidated twin of Michigan -- and again, you couldn't get there from here, or from Dallas, or from Houston, without a tedious drive. If you stuck a gun to my head I'd say bring back Wilkesboro for good "studio racing" on TV. But some of the fans could be the meanest drunks in NASCAR, so I'd try to beg off the live coverage assignment.
McGee: I want another short track on the schedule. Bad. So my first reaction is to say North Wilkesboro or the Nashville Fairgrounds. But since we're going full-on imagination here, give me the Daytona Beach and Road Course. All four miles of it, rumbling down A1A and then back up the beach.
Newton: The Rock. Hands down. Just put it in the suburbs of Chicago or Los Angeles or even Texas so there's a large enough fan base to fill -- and expand -- the stands. Most drivers will tell you racing at the 1-mile, D-shaped track is as good or better than most on the circuit. Unfortunately, it sits in the middle of nowhere with two other venues -- Charlotte Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway -- less than two hours away.
Smith: Wilkesboro. So much history. ESPN Classic should just be Wilkesboro races all day long. When I was a kid, hearing "North Wilkesboro Speedway" come out of Bob Jenkins' mouth carried this magical tone. I don't know why. Maybe it was the shine culture. It has always captivated me. I just had an unbelievable conversation about shine-running with one of my granny's old friends, who used to run liquor. He was so matter-of-fact. Crazy, man.