Debate: NASCAR's burning questions
Our panel of experts weighs in this week on four of the biggest questions in racing:
Turn 1. So how did the newly paved and shorter distance at Pocono compare to the old Pocono in your view?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: A roaring success all around. The higher speeds from the repave may have led to some of the pit-road speeding issues (someday these cars actually will have this amazing invention called a speedometer), but overall it was a huge improvement. And the biggest improvement was the shorter distance, bringing more urgency to team decisions. The one downer came from NASCAR taking way too many laps to clear debris on late-race cautions.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Pocono looked as dressed up as I've ever seen it with the new pavement, and it wasn't hard to sense that drivers were experiencing a new thrill ride through the Tunnel Turn and the other two, with the new grip and higher speeds. In recent years, the old triangle has managed to yield good finishes, and the 400 miles instead of 500 just helped us get to the good part faster. Still, overall, I'm not sure all these changes were significant enough to make the place a Wonderland of competition fans just can't wait for every summer.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Hallelujah! The shorter race was exactly what I'd hoped for. There was an intensity there that simply didn't exist with the 500-milers, evident to anyone with access to team radio communication. Drivers have openly admitted that with the old distance they "took a break" in the middle portion. The guys I've talked to after Sunday's 400-miler say that never happened. As for the new pavement, it was much racier than I expected. Not so much early on, but as teams got their cars dialed in, it really came around. The fact that Joey Logano lost the lead and regained it all within the last eight laps says a lot.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Thumbs-up to both. The place needed a repave worse than many suspected, and it looks great now. The smooth surface and added grip didn't change racing all that much. Passing remained tough, and it still came down to fuel mileage, as often happens at the 2.5-mile triangle. But because everything was condensed by 100 fewer miles, there was more of a sense of urgency and less the urge to take a long nap. Dale Earnhardt Jr. summed it up best when putting the disappointment of having to fuel late behind him. "It was fast, though, huh?'' he said of the quickness of the race.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: If you'd told me in January that I'd say in June that the Pocono 400 was, to me, among the greatest races of the season's first half, I would have suggested you check into the looney bin. But it was. And that bodes quite well for the track's future in the country's largest market. The race was thrilling to me. The competition was stellar. (Was it side-by-side door-banging like Martinsville? No. But in context, it was fantastic compared to that which we've grown accustomed at Pocono. No?) The strategy was intriguing. And there was controversy with the pit road speeding scenario and the resulting rally that followed from those who were busted. Jimmie Johnson was busted twice and drove back to fourth. That's Big Wheelin'. Kevin Harvick was busted -- and subsequently fired up at the world. It was awesome. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a threat. And Joey Logano pulled a Daniel-san on Mark Miyagi to win the show. Badass, if you ask me. Bravo Brandon Igdalsky. Bravo Pocono. Bravo Goodyear. Bravo.
Turn 2. Did Joey Logano save his job with his victory Sunday? Why or why not?
Blount: Joe Gibbs Racing officials say Logano's job wasn't in jeopardy, sort of like the GM who says the coach's job is safe a few months before he's fired. Of course it helped. Winning cures a lot of ills. It also made Joey a serious Chase contender. And here's one rumor we can put to bed: Kurt Busch will not be driving the Home Depot car next year.
Hinton: It all depends on his follow-up. One win, in and of itself, does not a job or a career save. But this could mean Logano and crew chief Jason Ratcliff have turned a corner. Another win or two on the summer tracks, and making the Chase as a wild card, could rekindle JGR's enthusiasm for Logano. A lot depends on Home Depot and how much winning the sponsor wants/needs. On all fronts, Kurt Busch's continuing temper issues have to make him questionable as a replacement for Logano.
McGee: I say yes. But not just because of that one win. He's light-years ahead of where he was one year ago. At 15th in points with a victory, he's a legit Chase contender. One year ago he was fighting to stay in the top 25. The most surprising part of all this to me has been the continued dislike for the guy that I hear from fans. Within seconds of his win on Sunday, my Twitter timeline was covered up with "This changes nothing, he's still terrible and should be fired." Really?
Newton: No, but I'm not sure it needed saving as much as some want to think. Logano's problem has been expectations. He was built up to be a star long before he was ready to be one. That he followed in the footsteps of a star (Tony Stewart) didn't help. I've been saying since he was paired with crew chief Jason Ratcliff that this could be what Logano needed. I easily can see this pair taking off like Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe did after a win at Pocono a year ago. As for Logano's future, the question should be: Will Home Depot remain at JGR in 2013?
Smith: No. Logano didn't save his job with that victory. But he did, in my opinion, punch his ticket to an extension. He drives for a company that wins. A lot. His teammates are Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Winning is the expectation, and he proved he's willing to get aggressive to get it done. The rumors that he was out were rampant. But he'd already begun the process of proving himself. He and Greg Zipadelli never worked. There was little, if any, mutual respect between them during their two years together. And Jason Ratcliff, with whom Logano was quite successful in the Nationwide Series ranks, breathed new breath into his proverbial racing lungs. I say it all the time: Confidence separates mediocre from good, and good from great. Sunday was big for Home Depot. Logano is a young man to whom they can hitch the wagon. He entered this year with more to prove and more to lose than any other driver in the series. And he's proving it.
Turn 3. We're off to Michigan this week, another racetrack many fans will say should have just one race a year. What do you think?
Blount: I think most tracks should have only one race a year, including this one. It doesn't happen at Michigan because the Brooklyn track is close to home base for the auto manufacturers, which shouldn't matter. But this Michigan race is going to be interesting because the cars are flying on the new pavement. Pocono was fast, but Michigan will be warp-speed fast.
Hinton: Let's not pass final judgment on the quality of racing at Michigan until we see what it's like with the new, ultra-high speeds brought by the repaving. Then next year will be a whole different story with the new cars and the competition-enhancing adjustments planned by NASCAR Research and Development. And let's not forget that this track sold out for something like 14 straight years before the Michigan economy was devastated. If jobs come back to Michigan, MIS could return as one of NASCAR's best-drawing tracks.
McGee: I think there are a lot of tracks that should go to one race a year. Recent history has shown us that as painful as it might be in the short term, it really helps. I'm talking about Atlanta and Darlington, which both went from two so-so crowds to one great one. That might also be the ticket at places like Michigan, Bristol and Dover, where not so long ago the idea of cutting back would have sounded like blasphemy. It's supply and demand. Too much supply waters down demand. But do I think Michigan actually goes to one race? Nope. The Big 3 are still the Big 3 and they're still just up the road in Motown.
Newton: I was bombarded by emails and tweets the last time I suggested Michigan should lose one of its dates. Guess they'll come again. Nothing personal, but there aren't many intermediate tracks that deserve two races. That Michigan has struggled to fill seats since Detroit was devastated by the economy doesn't make the argument for two races an easier sell. Bottom line: Wouldn't you rather see one of these dates used for a Cup race at Iowa?
Smith: This is the home-base race for the manufacturers, which at one time was a big deal outside Detroit. It's not such a big deal outside Detroit any longer. However, I do wonder if that will change with the 2013 car. There's a sense of that old-school manufacturer loyalty creeping back into the sport, and my, is it sweet. I had buddies in grade school who hated Big E and loved Bill Elliott or loved Big E and hated Ernie Irvan and so on. Depending on loyalties, spiral-bound notebook grafitti either said Found On Road Dead or First On Race Day.
Turn 4. This one's from a reader, and appropriate headed into Detroit. Now that we've seen what the 2013 Cup cars for all four manufacturers look like, which one are you most excited about? Which one are you least excited about?
Blount: The coolest-looking one to me is the one that may not race next year -- the Dodge Charger. I hope Dodge officials find a team and an engine program soon because it would be a shame to lose them. The real issue here is how these cars will race and whether the changes to more definitive and realistic noses and tails will make an aero difference and allow the cars to race better. And also whether NASCAR will loosen up a little and let teams make more adjustments to the bodies.
Hinton: I'm terrified to answer this one after decades, during the brand-conscious eras, of being accused of "hating Fords" or "hating Chevrolets" by the fans of each manufacturer's camp. The most honest, and safest, thing to do here is to say I kind of like the 2013 Ford Fusion best. Somehow it just looks more like a real race car, and a changed race car, to me. I haven't seen enough blatant change in the other models except for Dodge, and I'm not crazy about the Charger's nose. The safe part is that Ford fans historically have screamed the loudest that I "hated" their brand -- I don't, honest -- and maybe this will earn me a few points with them. Maybe it'll be at least a few races into the 2013 season before the "Hinton hates Fords" stuff will arise out of nowhere.
McGee: My answer is the same for both questions. I think the Dodge Charger is a ridiculously good-looking piece. I am most excited about it. But I am beginning to believe that there won't be a race team actually running that Dodge Charger in 2013. I am most definitely the least excited about that.
Newton: The reader apparently didn't get the memo that journalists are supposed to remain impartial. But If you want my personal opinion on which suits my eye the best, it's the Ford Fusion. I like the lines and particularly the nose. They've done a nice job of making the track model look like the street model. Not that the other manufacturers haven't. They've all taken a step forward with brand identity. My biggest disappointment is Chevrolet didn't use the Camaro.
Smith: See above. I'm stoked for every single one of them. NASCAR racing needs brand awareness for its cars. Badly. The COT set the sport back years.