Our panel of experts weighs in this week on four of the biggest questions in racing:
Turn 1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is finally back in Victory Lane. How many races do you predict he will win before the Chase begins, and why?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: At least one, but I'd say he has four strong chances -- Daytona, Pocono, Michigan and Richmond -- all return events where he ran well this year. Michigan, Junior's happy place, is obvious. He is always a threat on a plate track and was second in the Daytona 500 this year. He also finished second at Richmond in April. He was eighth at Pocono but could have won if not for a pit strategy that backfired on him at the end. At this point, probably the only places where he doesn't have a chance to win are the two road courses. Bad timing for him that Sonoma is this weekend.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Let's say two more. He's got encore dates at both Pocono (where he was strong last week) and Michigan, plus the July race at Daytona. Atlanta and Richmond could be good for him. Most importantly, he and crew chief Steve Letarte have turned a corner together. It's the old NASCAR adage that if you put yourself in position to win enough times, you will win, you will break through. They're there.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I've said all along he'd win at least two this year, so I'm sticking with that. That late-summer stretch that includes Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond has him written all over it. And, oh yeah, we go back to Michigan, too.
David Newton, ESPN.com: While I thought Tony Stewart saying Sunday wasn't a national holiday was inappropriate for the moment, he was keeping it real. And we should, too. Earnhardt isn't going to go on a streak and win six or seven races after winning for the first time following 143 straight losses, but he could win two or three more before Richmond. I could see him winning at Daytona and the second Michigan, maybe even Kentucky or Atlanta. Here's the deal: He's fast. He's leading laps. He's collecting top-10s faster than anyone. When you're in position to win, you have more opportunities. He will win again.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Three. He'll win Daytona in July and Richmond in September. He's had speed everywhere. Now he has the true, unfiltered confidence to match it. Closing the deal changes a man. He'll have a different swagger in the garage now. The Dale Earnhardt Jr. we saw Sunday evening after the Michigan win is a guy we haven't seen since about 2004.
"I feel like we are getting stronger," he said. "One of the things that we did last year throughout the season was kind of maintain, and I was a little -- even though I was happy as hell to be with Steve [Letarte] and be able to run well and be competitive, I was a little disheartened that I didn't progress through the year really. I didn't find more speed as the year went on. We just kind of stayed the same throughout the season. This year, we have gotten faster throughout the year. We started off pretty quick and we have gotten quicker, and quicker, especially these last couple weeks. So that's been a thrill for me."
I've said it many times. I believe confidence to be a considerable contributor in the good-to-great equation. A major, major factor. With no driver, in my opinion, does that apply more than Earnhardt.
Turn 2. Carl Edwards, who hasn't won a race this season, is now 11th in points and has only two top-5s. Should he be getting nervous, and why?
Blount: Yes, big time. It isn't that he's 11th in the standings. It's that the 99 team just isn't running well. He's finished outside the top 10 in the past three races (11th in the past two) but hasn't led a lap in the past six races. Something is missing. They aren't close to the team that finished one point short of the title last year. Edwards was leading the standings after 15 races last season. And with Junior off the list, Edwards becomes the biggest name on a long winless streak -- 48 races and counting.
Hinton: Nervous but not panicked. Nervous because he absolutely has to have a win or two to break into the Chase, and he hasn't been strong enough. He's the opposite of Earnhardt in that he hasn't been getting into position to win. But the strength of his teammates, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, gives Edwards reason not to panic. Somehow Roush Fenway has to transfer its winning combinations to Edwards' unit. But it has to be done in a hurry now.
McGee: Yes. With every big multicar team, it seems like there's one car that lags behind the others, and this year at RFR, it's "Cuz." Posting such generic results at Dover, Pocono and Michigan -- three of his money tracks -- is certainly not a good sign. There are three groups forming in the points standings. The top nine are threatening to break away. Then there's the battle for the wild card. And in the middle is an increasingly small group in the fight for 10th. Edwards is in that two-man race right now with Brad Keselowski. But he's on thin ice; everyone around him has a win while he does not.
Newton: Twice last weekend at Michigan, he mentioned the jinx of the "hangover'' from finishing second the previous season without being asked about it. If it's not on his mind, as he keeps saying, why does he keep bringing it up? Heck, yeah, he should be nervous. He says he's running well, that he's off by only a little. He's kidding himself, particularly when you consider how well teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle have run. Take away the 206 laps he led at Richmond, and he's led one -- ONE -- lap. If he has one slipup over the next 11 races, he could easily find himself on the outside of the Chase looking in. And the hangover would continue.
Smith: Yes. He should absolutely be nervous. I said a couple of weeks back here on Turn 4 that Edwards just might win the championship, a comment I wrote based on what Tony Stewart showed us last year -- you just don't know who the major players are until you get to the Chase. But the 99 truly does seem to be struggling to find speed. And I just don't see Carl Edwards and Bob Osborne taking a flippant approach to that, in terms of using this time of the year to try new things and whatnot. They're wired to show up to win. Maybe I'm wrong. But their competitiveness, to me, is even more perplexing given how fast the 16 and the 17 are.
Turn 3. What do you make of Kyle Busch blowing an engine for the third straight race? Big trouble, or just a blip for him and engine supplier Toyota Racing Development?
Blount: Something doesn't meet the smell test here. Other than Mark Martin having an engine problem in the last five laps Sunday when he was headed to a top-10 finish, no other car from the top two Toyota teams (Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing) has suffered the engine woes that Busch has endured the past three events. The Toyotas were 1-2 at Pocono (Joey Logano winning and Martin second), and TRD had two top-10s at Dover. Either the No. 18 team is doing something the other teams aren't doing or it's an incredible coincidence.
Hinton: It's bad any way you stack it. You can bet TRD's engineers are working with urgency to put durability back into the engines, and that might mean discarding some experimental parts if they find they've gone too far. But historically, resolving engine failures means backing off and becoming more conservative, which means that finding durability does not at all assure competitiveness.
McGee: Right now I think it's just a blip, but it's a potentially huge blip and one that honestly wasn't too hard to see coming. JGR disbanded its engine department and went with an outside supplier for the first time in more than a decade. There were bound to be some issues, and they have arrived. The good news is that they are happening now and not during the Chase, when the 18 usually self-destructs. Better to solve an engine issue now than in October. But the clock is ticking before they'll be too far into the Chase red zone to recover. Kyle is a guy who can save the day by winning a bunch of races in a row, but you can't put yourself in a position where that's your only safety net.
Newton: It's a pretty big deal if you're Busch. He's 12th in points with Ryan Newman and Joey Logano pushing him for a wild-card spot at the moment. But since the other Toyota engines are holding up for the most part, it's not a panic situation. It sounds like this is more of an 18 issue than a TRD issue. Perhaps crew chief Dave Rogers is pushing the engine a bit harder than the other JGR drivers to find speed. Perhaps Busch is driving it harder. Plenty of time to correct that.
Smith: It's very confusing since it seems to be isolated to his team. His teammates haven't experienced it. Michael Waltrip Racing hasn't experienced it. But I know this: Busch won't stand for it. He'll work to find answers.
Turn 4. We're headed to mighty Sonoma, the first of two road-course races this season. Who you got, and why?
Blount: Several guys can win it, but betting against Marcos Ambrose is crazy. The man is the best road racer in a stock car I've ever seen. In eight road course starts as a Cup driver, Ambrose has six top-5s. And he was sixth at Sonoma in 2010 when he had the race won before the engine wouldn't refire while saving fuel under caution. Juan Pablo Montoya always is good on the road courses, but if you force me to pick someone other than Ambrose, I'll go with Kyle Busch, assuming his engine doesn't explode.
Hinton: Gotta go with Marcos Ambrose. Clearly the best road racer among current Cup drivers, Ambrose showed last summer at Watkins Glen that he can close the deal. No more choking. If his RPM team can translate the horsepower that won the pole last week at Michigan to a road course, Ambrose should be able to qualify at or near the front. Then, if he gets an optimal setup -- which he should be able to direct -- he should be the guy to beat. Pit stop strategy is vital at Sonoma, though, and the team will have to be in sync all afternoon. No mistakes.
McGee: Marcos Ambrose. Ambrose is having one of the best months of his Cup career and could have easily won each of the past three Sonoma races. I'm also watching Jeff Gordon. He dominates every major statistical category at Sonoma. It's always been a place where he's been able to get a boost when things are going rough, and they've never gone rougher for him than they have this season.
Newton: Jeff Gordon. Hendrick Motorsports has won four of the past five races, six out of seven if you count the All-Star Race and Showdown. Bad luck aside, Gordon has been running well. And he's great on road courses, even though he's better at Watkins Glen than Sonoma. He needs a win badly, and with the way HMS is running, this might be his week.
Smith: Jeff Gordon. Hendrick Motorsports is on fire like Denny Hamlin at Michigan. It's Gordon's turn. (P.S. -- I'm glad Hamlin is OK. That was a very scary fire. It was really cool to see the 39 and 18 guys come to his aid.)