Debate: NASCAR's burning questions
Our panel of experts weighs in this week on four of the biggest questions in racing:
Turn 1. Michael Waltrip Racing has all three cars in the top 12 and is coming off a victory at Sonoma by Clint Bowyer. A lot of teams get started in this sport, but few find success. What is the biggest thing, in your opinion, Waltrip has done to get his team to the upper echelon?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: Hiring Scott Miller to run the show. It's never one thing, of course, and it's a tough call over the change to a combined Toyota engine program, but Miller's leaving RCR to take over as MWR's director of competition this year has transformed the entire outlook of the organization. Everyone is pulling in the same direction. And it doesn't hurt to have the driving sage Mark Martin in the house.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: There's a little more to it than the consensus that the turning point was the hiring of competition VP Scott Miller away from Richard Childress Racing. MWR also got Clint Bowyer as a free agent from RCR. Certainly Miller and Bowyer are keys, but to get them, and to enhance the team overall, Michael Waltrip gets the financial backing and approval of MWR partner Robert Kauffman, who brought a fresh management style to the team five years ago.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: It doesn't hurt that the building is now full of people who have won before and expect to win all the time, no excuses. I'm talking about guys like Mark Martin, Brian Pattie, Clint Bowyer and competition director Scott Miller. But I think the biggest factor is that they've also finally meshed with the folks at Toyota and allowed themselves to take advantage of that company's ridiculous resources and data. Michael admits now that he wasn't always willing to do that, especially in the earliest days of the team. He tried to treat them more like a traditional manufacturer/supplier. Now he looks at them as a true partner.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Rick Hendrick, No. 1 among all owners, has said time and time again that success begins with good people. That's how Michael Waltrip has done it. He hired Scott Miller from Richard Childress Racing to head up competition. Then he brought in drivers Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin, who have been contenders in the Chase. He upgraded Martin Truex Jr. with crew chief Chad Johnston. And don't forget, MWR hit on something in the chassis last season that made them faster and opened the eyes of Joe Gibbs Racing, which has been Toyota's top dog. Don't underestimate the benefits of full disclosure from JGR.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Convincing great drivers that Michael Waltrip Racing was the place for their respective futures was the critical foundation, but hiring Scott Miller as competition director is the biggest factor. When Richard Childress elevated Miller to competition director at RCR, the organization went from mediocre to championship-caliber. He left and RCR doesn't have nearly the speed it did when he was there. Now MWR has that speed. Do the math, right?
Turn 2. Give us your take on the last-lap dustup between Jacques Villeneuve and Danica Patrick at Road America. Was Villeneuve's punt of Patrick deliberate, avoidable or just one of those racing deals?
Blount: That was classic JV, as in a junior varsity move. And don't give me that wheel-hopping excuse. Baloney. This is a former F1 champ. He knew exactly what he was doing entering that turn too hot. He's done it a thousand times. But I loved how the NASCAR drivers and crew chiefs came to DP's defense on Twitter. She's family now. You may fight with your sister at home, but if someone outside the family takes a shot at her, you are going to defend your own. And her performance was superb all day, heading to a top-5 finish before JV's punt.
Hinton: It was just racin' that sure didn't look like it at first. Villeneuve appeared to punt Danica blatantly, but afterward said he couldn't stop after being jammed into the grass by Max Papis. Villeneuve may have had dirty tires. It would have been better had he appeared less flippant about it, both in his TV interview and face-to-face with Danica's crew chief, Tony Eury Jr. But that's just Jacques' nature. Danica was absolutely a class act in her postrace interview.
McGee: Perhaps it wasn't deliberate, but it sure looked like it didn't have to happen. Villeneuve tried to blame it on the run-in he had with Max Papis, the one that put him in the grass. But by my count, that was nearly a full five seconds before he hit Patrick entering the next corner. And Villeneuve's recent Nationwide Series record doesn't exactly earn him the benefit of the doubt with me or anyone else.
Newton: Oh, it could have been avoided, but I don't think it was aimed at Patrick. Villeneuve would have done the same thing regardless of who was in front of him. We saw it countless times, remember? What irritated me is that you have two road-course ringers in Villeneuve and Max Papis getting greedy for a spot or two at the cost of a Nationwide regular on the final lap. It's no worse than a Cup driver taking out a Nationwide regular when dipping into the second-tier series. If it's for the win, that's one thing. For fourth or fifth place, it was not necessary.
Smith: This is a recurring theme with Villeneuve. It seems to happen often. And it seemed rather blatant this time. I do believe his focus at the moment was on Max Papis beside him, not necessarily Danica Patrick in front of him. And Patrick lost. She was gracious in reacting to it. I'd have been far less gracious, if it were me. It was her most complete race to date. And it was taken from her.
Turn 3. This one is in from a fan. What or who was the biggest disappointment at Sonoma? What or who was the biggest surprise?
Blount: Marcos Ambrose is the disappointment, without question. The team missed the setup entirely with the new tire and all of Ambrose's road-racing skills couldn't overcome it. Finishing eighth for him at that track is like most drivers finishing 28th. And the surprise was Kurt Busch, but not because he finished third. It was the way he finished third. He could have punted Clint Bowyer several times down the stretch, but he raced him clean and was a total class act afterward, being the first driver to go congratulate Bowyer.
Hinton: Guess I'd say Juan Pablo Montoya, because he just didn't seem to be in it all day, his trouble notwithstanding. Of course, Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing's weakness was the root cause of that. The biggest surprise was Kurt Busch on several fronts: He took an unsponsored car from an independent team and threatened to win with it, he battled Bowyer cleanly near the end, and he was so classy postrace that he ought to view the video time and again to learn just how he should behave.
McGee: I'll go with Juan Pablo Montoya and Brian Vickers. As stunning as it was to see Marcos Ambrose vanish, to me it was equally crazy that Montoya posted such a bad finish. Forget the wreck at the end. He hadn't exactly set the woods on fire before that. I really thought he could make some wild-card noise with both road course races and some of his best tracks (Indy, Atlanta) still out there. But on Sunday, he just went pfffft. And how about The Sheriff? That's two top-5s in three starts. Someone put him back in a full-time ride!
Newton: Biggest disappointment easily was Marcos Ambrose. He sat on the pole and was in position with a win at Sonoma and later at Watkins Glen to become a legitimate Chase wild-card contender. Biggest surprise was Kurt Busch. Having a chance to win with a nonsponsored, underfunded team like Phoenix Racing, particularly with his car's suspension knocked out with eight laps to go, was amazing. Also give kudos to Brian Vickers. He has proven with two top-5s and a 9.0 average finish in three Cup races for MWR that he deserves at least consideration for a top ride in 2013.
Smith: Without question it was Marcos Ambrose. Just ask him. Nobody is more disappointed in the No. 9's effort Sunday than he is. Everyone expected this to be his day. He was blazing fast during practice and qualifying, but from the outset of the race Sunday it was obvious they were off. Way off. He's the best pure road-racing talent in NASCAR, period. He will be in the conversation every time we go to Sonoma and The Glen for the rest of his NASCAR life. He was out of the conversation very early Sunday.
Turn 4. We're off to Kentucky, site of last year's traffic debacle for fans and a Kyle Busch beatdown of the field in the Sprint Cup race. What do you expect to improve most in Year 2, the traffic or the race, and why?
Blount: As someone who lived through that Bluegrass Armageddon, I never thought I would say this, but I expect the traffic to improve more than the racing. Track officials have spent millions of dollars to make sure last year's traffic and parking nightmares don't happen again. I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt. If the racing truly improves, as well, we should take the roses off Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another and lay them over Bruton Smith's shoulders.
Hinton: The traffic. Owner Bruton Smith was outraged over last year's problems, and probably has been pressuring state officials ever since. Traffic issues are such a hot button with him that I've actually seen him out directing traffic HIMSELF at Atlanta, and he told me recently, "I've done that several times," at various tracks. We should watch to see if he's out there this time. As for the racing, there's not a lot you can do about cookie-cutter tracks until NASCAR makes some car changes, so this race may be more of the same.
McGee: I'll take traffic. Unless there's a meteor strike that disintegrates I-71 on race morning, it can't be worse than last year.
Newton: Traffic. Simple. They've reportedly sold less than half the 107,000 seats. Fewer cars on the road with more parking and other infrastructure changes in the area make for less of a headache.
Smith: The traffic. It's impossible to be worse than it was last year. Just impossible. The race will be fine. I hope the crowd is.