Debate: Racing's burning questions
Our panel of experts weighs in this week on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR:
Turn 1. Which was the better race Sunday, the Indy 500 or the Coca-Cola 600, and why?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: Not even close. The Indy 500 wasn't just the best race of the day. It was the best race of the year, anywhere, and easily the best Indy 500 overall in more than a decade. The new chassis made for constant slingshot passing on the frontstretch. The restarts, which started single file, were breathtakingly four-wide by the time the cars reached the green flag. And winner Dario Franchitti kept his foot in it on a bravery-testing, last-lap wheel-to-wheel challenge when Takuma Sato crashed. Give me a race like that one any day.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: C'mon. It wasn't even close. Any fan out there who watched both races knows it was Indy by a landslide. A record 35 lead changes among 10 drivers in open-wheel -- well, semi-open-wheel -- cars should have NASCAR hearing footsteps in the competitive racing department. NASCAR R&D had better work fast toward closer racing, because clearly, IndyCar R&D has found the formula. As 500 winner Dario Franchitti said, most IndyCar races are like that. It's just a matter of getting fans to watch the other races.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I thoroughly enjoyed all three races, including Monaco. The pace of both the 500 and 600 was darned near frantic all the time, which I love. But in the end you can't top a record number of passes and that insane finish. I was at the Charlotte Motor Speedway all day Sunday. They had Indy up on the world's largest HDTV, and the entire Sprint Cup garage was riveted to those closing laps.
David Newton, ESPN.com: The finish alone made the Indy 500 better. What every spectator wants is a great finish, two cars battling for the win, driving on edge to reach the checkered flag. That's what Takuma Sato provided when he dove inside for the lead on Dario Franchitti, taking out himself and almost the race winner. The 600 had some good moments: Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle swapping the lead for several laps; with 36 green-flag passes for the lead; Tony Stewart doing a doughnut to get into his pit box after a tap from Brad Keselowski. But nothing trumps a great finish, and Indy had that hands down.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: Call me an IndyCar homer, but this one is a no-brainer: The Indy 500 was a competitive contest with plenty of (sometimes artificial) passing, a dramatic last-lap skirmish for the lead, and a worthy champion. The Coca-Cola 600 was 20 percent Danica and 80 percent tedium. I'll take the Indy 500, thanks.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Indy. It was closer, better competition. Attending the 600 with my son -- and as a fan -- showed me vividly why NASCAR fans want cautions so badly. The monotony truly builds during those eternal green-flag runs. And during restarts everyone stands on their feet and hollers and waves and convulses for his or her driver. Restarts are always awesome to watch. But they're epic for the paying fan. I have a far greater respect for that excitement now.
Turn 2. Newly elected Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace said the Sprint Cup Series schedule is too long and needs to go back to 32 races. Is he right, and why or why not?
Blount: Can I get an "amen" for Brother Rusty? He is exactly right. It's all about supply and demand. Supply is too much for the demand now. And the season goes way too deep into football season. Tracks like Michigan, Dover and Phoenix would benefit from going back to one event, and goodness knows once is enough for Pocono. There, we're done. And move the All-Star Race around like a real all-star event.
Hinton: Rusty is almost right. I say 32 still would drag on too much. Cut it to 30 and you're giving fans what Dale Earnhardt Jr. has already said the NFL is giving its fans: just enough, but cutting it just short enough to leave them wanting more. Fans need a break every few weeks just as much as drivers and crew members do. Makes everybody appreciate each event more.
McGee: I was sitting in the Charlotte media center when Rusty said that, and my immediate reaction was that he was spot-on with his "supply and demand" explanation. He said there's too much supply right now. It needs to be dialed back to increase demand. I totally agree. But I wouldn't stop at 32. I'd take it down to as low as 25. There's a reason people are jonesing for the NFL draft and college spring games every April. They miss it. And that's OK. That's how you make people feel like they can't live without it. It's hard to miss something when it never goes away. NASCAR never does.
Newton: To borrow from Brad Keselowski's tweet, "Yes, please.'' Sometimes less is better, and this is one of those cases. Cut out five races on the 1.5- to 2-mile tracks, add another short track such as Iowa and end the schedule no later than mid-October. You'd probably see attendance and ratings rise, and interest would be easier to sustain for fans and drivers.
Oreovicz: I agree with Rusty, because the NASCAR season just goes on and on and on. And on. They've oversaturated the market, and cutting the schedule by eliminating poorly performing second events at some tracks would help ease the Sprint Cup Series' attendance concerns. I also like Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s suggestion to cut 100 miles from many races so they can be run in three hours or less.
Smith: Nope. Ol' Swagger Wallace is wrong. The season shouldn't be cut to 32 races -- it should be cut to 28 races. We should start on Valentine's Day and end on Labor Day. Leave 'em wanting more. Stop battling the NFL and the SEC for ratings and attendance. We're still a Southern-based sport. No matter how much we grow, we're still rooted in SEC country. Less is more. (It's easy to sit here at a computer and say that. There are unimaginable politics involved in contraction)
Turn 3. Which driver do you think will get to the magic four Indianapolis 500 wins first, Dario Franchitti or Helio Castroneves. Why?
Blount: Man, that's a tough one. The best thing about Dario winning Sunday and the way he did it, going from the back to the front, is people may finally realize how great he is and not judge him on the NASCAR experiment, which never had a real chance of succeeding. As much as I hate to say it, I think Helio's best days may be behind him, so I'll pick Dario to get in the four-victory club first.
Hinton: Dario, maybe even next year -- which would make three in four years. He's just at the top of his game at Indy nowadays, and I've never seen anyone, certainly not A.J. Foyt and really not even Rick Mears, who turns out to be the man to beat, whatever the engineering circumstances. The Ganassi team either snatched magnificence from chaos or pulled off the sandbagging job of the century in May. Either way, they're the masters of Indy for the foreseeable future. Team Penske wasn't really in it this time.
McGee: He's won three of the past six. To find another winning streak that hot, you have to go back to A.J. Foyt in the '60s and Mauri Rose in the '40s.
Newton: Dale Earnhardt Jr. will win again before either gets to four. Call me crazy, but I just don't see his streak going another year. But if you're going to make me pick, I'll go with Franchitti, who's won two of the past three.
Oreovicz: Franchitti. Even though he's a couple of years older than Castroneves, Dario seems to be getting better and better as time passes. Helio has an excellent record at Indianapolis, but the overall trend in recent years has been downward, as Will Power has emerged as the Penske team leader.
Smith: Dario. I base that opinion solely on momentum. Franchitti has so much momentum since he returned to IndyCar following the NASCAR debacle. His confidence is palpable. Both men drive for powerhouse teams. I just sense such a deep appreciation for excellence in him, a new definition of his career, a deeper understanding of the blessing of his status. Helio, too, appreciates his position. But my gut tells me Franchitti.
Turn 4. We're 12 races into the Sprint Cup Series schedule, one-third of the way. Who is your favorite to win the title and tell us why.
Blount: Honestly, I don't see a favorite yet, but forced to pick one, give me Matt Kenseth. I'm not counting out his teammate Greg Biffle, but Kenseth has the more experienced crew chief in Jimmy Fennig, and Matt is the master of consistency. He also probably can win enough in the Chase to pull out the title. But Johnson will be there at the end, also. The problem is little mistakes, like the one in the pits Sunday, can haunt the 48 at times these days.
Hinton: I'm sticking by my guns of January, with Brad Keselowski. Who cares if he's 11th now? Fact is, he's tied for first place in the seeding, with two wins, if the Chase began today. And few would doubt that he'll add a couple more this summer. He'll make the Chase, start a surge as last year, but this time rather than falling off at the end, he'll close the deal.
McGee: My brain is screaming Jimmie Johnson, but I can't shake this gut feeling that whispers the name Matt Kenseth. It just feels like a year for a stealthy long-haul surprise to sneak onto the head stage at season's end. And that has Kenseth written all over it.
Newton: The driver who is getting almost as many boos as Kyle Busch these days. Yes, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Fans for some reason hate it when you pick him, but that team is motivated like I haven't seen since 2006 when it was going for its first title. Were it not for a huge mistake on pit road late in the Coca-Cola 600, Johnson might have won there to give him three straight, counting the All-Star Race. He's dialed in.
Oreovicz: Jimmie Johnson. From my perspective, it looks like the 48 team has its engineering act together and is highly motivated after being (mostly) vindicated in C-postgate. JJ appears more relaxed and ready to grab title No. 6.
Smith: Carl Edwards. Because we haven't heard much from him in 2012. The 99 team learned from the scars left behind after the 2011 gash that broke its collective heart. But they didn't sulk. They went to work, refocused, altered strategy. Tony Stewart completely redefined momentum for me. Qualify for the Chase. That's the only goal during the first 26 weeks. From there, it's anybody's title.