Debate: Racing's burning questions
Our panel of experts weighs in this week on four of the biggest questions in racing:
Turn 1. Kurt Busch had another incident with a reporter after the Nationwide Series race Saturday at Dover. Is too much being made of this?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: All of us who have done this job for any length of time have had an athlete get mad and make a stupid threat in the heat of the moment. It's nothing, really, but we're talking about a guy who just doesn't get it. The old Texas Motorspeedway T-shirt applies here: Shut up and Drive. Kurt knows he needs to be a boy scout this year in order to get a quality ride with a major sponsor next year, but he just can't help himself.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: No, because it's yet another outburst in a long line of indications that the poor guy just can't control himself at times. That's a major issue. Bob Pockrass asked a question that was almost sympathetic to Kurt, and if you blow up at that, well Long gone are the days when, without penalty, Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip could call me 12-letter names, or Ernie Elliott could grab me by the arm and jerk me around in a garage area, or I knew I could get anywhere near A.J. Foyt's garage stall at my own risk. Once, when Earnhardt was particularly hot at me, the only warning he got was from NASCAR's chief PR guy: "If you're gonna whip Hinton's a--, catch him outside the garage area so I won't have to fine you $10,000." For better or worse, those days are gone, and Kurt must adapt to the times or he'll fade fast now.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: No. He created this situation. At Charlotte he said that his strike zone is bigger than everyone else's right now. He was referring to his relationship with NASCAR officials, but it also applies to his relationship with the media, fans and his fellow competitors. He's lucky (and smart) to have directed his most recent pit road comments and tirades toward level-headed pros like Bob Pockrass, Joe Menzer and Dr. Jerry Punch. I think we're witnessing a true descent right now, professionally and emotionally. I hate it, because when Kurt is at his best his driving ability is nearly unmatched. But at this rate no one's going to remember him for that.
David Newton, ESPN.com: No. It's one thing to get angry at a competitor or be rude to a media member. It's another to threaten harm and show a complete disregard for human decency. Whoever is seeing him for anger management needs to find a different form of therapy. Perhaps I could recommend the Dog Wizard in Charlotte. The shock collars they use to get the attention of dogs when they show signs of aggression or anger work wonders.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: When I see the way Kurt Busch (and sometimes Tony Stewart) treats the media, I am thankful that there are very few difficult personalities in Indy car or drag racing. What concerns me is the mockery KuBu is making of his probation. The guy is obviously not making progress with his anger management issues. Two team owners have already shown Busch the door, and the third can't be far away.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Every reporter has been the target of a driver meltdown at one time or another. It happens often. And Kurt Busch is a repeat offender. NASCAR had no choice but to suspend him. Other drivers with a cleaner history would have been given a simple reminder that the sport was here before they were and will be here after they're gone. They'd get a talkin-to but never be benched. Some fans hate this. They see it as the latest example of NASCAR's dictatorial approach watering down its competitors. To me, there's a certain level of mutual respect that is required -- no matter how angry you may be about a situation or a question posed.
Turn 2. IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard tweeted that one of the team owners was trying to get him fired. Was it the right thing for Bernard to do and what does it say about the state of IndyCar?
Blount: What other CEO in America would do this in a tweet? This should have been handled behind closed doors, not in public like teenagers texting insults on their mom's cell phone. And is there any sports league that shoots itself in the foot more than this one? IndyCar had the best Indy 500 in 20 years, but blows all that momentum with childish politics for all to see. And the not-ready-for-prime-time (or any time) return to Belle Isle (track problems and no passes for the lead) didn't help, either.
Hinton: None of this matters, so long as Josie George still likes Bernard, and she does. Tony George's sister is at the helm of it all now, albeit from a quieter position than her brother took. As for an owner trying to get him fired, well, that's the baggage that comes with getting back in league with the old CART barons. It's their nature. Should Bernard have tweeted it? Just a few years ago it would have been a ludicrous move, but now we're through the looking glass in communications. I'm not sure whether Bernard thought a fan uprising on his behalf would help, or what. Perhaps the footsteps Bernard should be hearing are from good old Tony George himself, who I hear is lobbying within his family to get back into a major position.
McGee: I tweeted this when it happened and I'll say it again. There aren't a lot of rock solid truths in this world. But IndyCar's abilities of ill-timed self-mutilation rank right up there with death and taxes. I've always been a big supporter of Bernard and I don't blame him for being mad. Disgruntled, meddling owners have stunted open-wheel racing's growth for decades. But to fire off that tweet barely two days after the greatest 500 in recent memory was a minor league move. It immediately, inexplicably fumbled away the thunder from Indy.
Newton: Welcome to the wonderful world of Social Media Manipulation. This may be the best and fastest way to get your message out the way you want it out. Bernard isn't the greatest diplomat, so by tweeting this he maintains some control over what's happening and can make those trying to oust him look like the bad guys. The more support or sympathy he can gain through "using" social media, the stronger he is. It's a brilliant -- and I would guess, calculated -- move. Does it speak well for the state of IndyCar? Probably not.
Oreovicz: Bernard's supposed strength is marketing, and Twitter is how one markets oneself in 2012. RB said he put a lot of thought into the decision to tweet and he claims to be comfortable with the result. Was it the right thing to do? Probably not. It may have aggravated an already tense relationship with a faction of team owners, and it seems like a desperate cry for attention. Time will tell.
Smith: I don't know Randy Bernard. And I am largely ignorant to his management philosophy. But all of that, to me, is moot as it pertains to taking to Twitter to air his frustration. That was ill-advised. I'm all for a man defending himself and/or standing up for himself in the face of unjust persecution -- I'll be damned if you're gonna tread on me without due cause. But get on the phone, schedule a meeting, show up at the man's door. Using Twitter as the vehicle unfortunately gives the appearance from the outside that IndyCar's hierarchy is in disarray, and that Bernard's power is compromised. There are different standards of conduct for different people. Bernard is the top executive in a sport. The standards for him are higher than that.
Turn 3. Carl Edwards fell out of the top 10 after Dover. Should he be concerned about making the Chase? Who else should be worried at this point?
Blount: The runner-up jinx continues. The man who finished second to the championship hasn't done as well the following season in recent years. A win would do wonders, and Carl knows he has the equipment to do it since both his teammates have won this season. Clint Bowyer is inside the cutoff for the moment, but I predict one of them won't make it. And no-luck Jeff Gordon has to go for broke and win twice (at least) to make it now as a wild card.
Hinton: With no wins and two drivers behind him who have won? Yes, he should be -- especially considering that teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth are 1-2 in the standings. There should be some internal meetings at Roush Fenway, but a few years ago Kenseth and Biffle wasted little love on Cousin Carl and I somehow doubt that has changed significantly. There are quite a few more who should be quite concerned about making the Chase, but Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton are the marquee names on that list. Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray are also deeply mired.
McGee: I think he's still OK, though I know he's probably wishing the old Pocono surface was still around to give him a boost. But there are other guys who I think are in much more danger of losing contact with the top 10. Ryan Newman feels headed in the wrong direction. I don't think one win will be enough to grab a wild-card spot. Not with Kasey Kahne on this hot streak and still in that 11th-to-20th mix, along with Jeff Gordon and the two road course aces, Montoya and Ambrose.
Newton: Definitely. He hasn't won in 46 consecutive races. Take away the 206 laps he led at Richmond and he's led one lap this year. He's not even a threat to lead laps. Perhaps it goes back to the so-called jinx of the driver who finishes second in points the previous season. Maybe coming so close simply takes something out of a team. The history is there. I feel better about Jeff Gordon's chances of making it as a wild card, and he's 21st in points. At least Gordon has been fast and shown the potential for wins.
Oreovicz: I think Edwards should be concerned, because a couple of finishes in the 30s could quickly drop him from Chase contention. Even if he does scrape in, it's unlikely we'll see another superb run in the Chase like both he and Stewart produced last year. Way off the points lead, Jeff Gordon hasn't been consistent this year and could miss out.
Smith: No. Edwards will make the Chase. But he should start worrying about wins. He's 15 points out of 10th with no wins; the good news is we're only halfway there and fortunes can turn quickly. He needs to win. I do think Jeff Burton should be worried. The 31 has horrible luck and is still searching for speed.
Turn 4. Teams are going to Pocono early this week to test out the new surface. What are you expecting for the race on Sunday?
Blount: Five days at Pocono. Now there's a vacation package I can live without. So can Dale Earnhardt Jr., who candidly said Friday no one was looking forward to it. But the two extra days of testing should help the teams get a feel for the new asphalt and, hopefully, make for a better race. Here's one thing that will make it a better race -- 100 fewer miles on Sunday.
Hinton: A race without a Kurt Busch blowup, for one thing, since NASCAR has invited him not to compete. Otherwise, Pocono may be the most difficult track to predict the effects of re-paving, because of its odd triangular shape. Faster cornering speeds are a given, and the Tunnel Turn, always treacherous, may be a terror this time. Denny Hamlin is always a good bet at Pocono, and both Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski won there last year. This could be Gordon's breakout of all that miserable luck.
McGee: Other than more speed, I really don't know. And based on conversations I had with drivers at Dover, they feel the same way. I mentioned Edwards as a guy who would've liked to see it stay the same. Well, Denny Hamlin looked damn near depressed when he talked about it. The funniest comment came from Dale Earnhardt Jr., who said he'd secretly hoped the repave would have magically done away with treacherous Turn 2, the Tunnel Turn, but of course it hasn't.
Newton: Jamie McMurray may have summed it up best after testing on the 2.5-mile track. He "hated the place" prior to the repave, but loves it with the faster speeds and more grip. Look for Kasey Kahne's track qualifying record of 172.533 mph to get smashed. But it's too early to tell about the quality of racing until you get 43 cars out and the track rubbers in. Early signs are good, though.
Oreovicz: Pocono isn't the most exciting race to watch but at least it offers some variety in terms of the oval layout. Denny Hamlin always runs strong there and I look for another good result from Kasey Kahne. It will be interesting to see if the new pavement creates more opportunities for passing.
Smith: I expect a blazing-fast parade. I applaud Brandon Igdalsky and the team at Pocono for repaving the track. It desperately needed it and the track will benefit greatly from it in the future. But it's new pavement, which isn't typically conducive to amazing competition for the first few races. There's another variable in play here -- the race is 400 miles this time instead of 500. Wonder how that might impact strategy?