Debate: NASCAR's burning questions
Our panel of experts -- including two fans -- weigh in this week on four of the biggest questions in racing:
Turn 1. Should a team that wins a race and then fails postrace inspection -- such as Austin Dillon in the Nationwide Series race Friday night at Kentucky -- be allowed to keep the victory? Why or why not?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: I have mixed feelings, but I'll say it should keep the win. NASCAR officials don't want fans leaving an event not knowing who the winner was or finding out the next day that the driver they saw win didn't really win it. So the solution is to penalize the team and driver what they gained by winning (a maximum of six points over second place) along with a hefty fine. I saw Richard Childress say there was no performance advantage for the car being low. Wish I had a dollar for every time I heard a team official say that after being caught illegal.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Of course logic tells you that failing inspection should cost the win. But many years ago, Bill France Sr. decreed that the fans should always leave knowing who won the race, regardless of postrace circumstances. And there it stands and always will. Besides, failing inspection is always a matter of degree, so how do you decide what degree costs the win? And it would be more likely that, say, losing a win over a minor infraction could lead to messy entanglements such as litigation by sponsors. So leave well enough alone.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Taking away wins will never happen. That goes back to Big Bill France (though he did take away a win in the very first Strictly Stock race in '49, but that's a whole other story). To me, it would be justified only if a victory is found to have come via Smokey Yunick's "three only real ways to cheat" -- running a big engine, messing with tires or tricking up fuel. Fractions of inches on ride heights and stuff like that isn't punishable enough grounds. It certainly hasn't been before. Besides, all the haters need to just relax and sit tight. Those six points Dillon was penalized might very well end up costing him a championship.
David Newton, ESPN.com: If NASCAR can prove the team purposely was responsible for the failure in order to enhance performance, definitely. Otherwise, taking points away is the only solution. Richard Childress argues the issue with Dillon's car was caused by the rough surface at Kentucky just as he argued the issue with Elliott Sadler's car at Iowa was caused by a rough surface. If that's the case, taking a win away would be too harsh. If the car was rigged for that to happen to give it a competitive advantage, all bets are off.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Guys roll up to me at bars and ask this question. My answer is always the same: Always have kept the win. Always will. Common sense says it shouldn't. But it's the Bill France way. So it is. And will be.
Andrew, a fan: This is a tricky situation. Richard Childress came out and said it was a parts failure that caused the problem, and that leads to a fine line for NASCAR officials to walk. If there is a way to verify that a parts failure did indeed cause it, then I say keep the win. If it was blatant cheating, don't keep the win. However, it would be hard to regulate because teams will try to work the system. Teams could easily design parts to fail, which would technically be cheating but not look like it. The car passed every other inspection, so I say let them keep the victory. Keep the system the same and adjust the points deduction based on the severity of the infraction.
Turn 2. Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith said Saturday he wants to see mandatory cautions to spice things up. Do you agree? Why or why not?
Blount: I agree in principle, but it's a step too far. Smith said two things that are right: The tires are too hard, and blaming 1.5-mile ovals is wrongheaded. The intermediate tracks aren't going away, so you have to change the conditions in some fashion to make the racing better. And most drivers want softer tires, but it's a slippery slope. Goodyear became overly cautious after the tire debacle at Indy in 2008 with tires blowing out every 20 laps. But there has to be a middle ground where the tires wear down and have more grip to produce better racing.
Hinton: No way, no how, not ever. The green-white-checkered already has made a travesty of many a finish, erasing all the hard work a team has done all day to lead. Now Bruton wants to make a travesty of every lap? Mandatory cautions would really destroy any semblance of sport, and regularly punish those who work to lead. This goes waaaaay too far toward total manipulation of the race for the sake of the show.
McGee: Hell no. This isn't figure-eight racing at the county fairgrounds. We're not inverting fields or announcing bounties on the track champion. This is the big leagues. Besides, I'm surprised Bruton has time to cook up ideas such as this. Isn't he out in Utah working on the Nurburgring road course he "announced" back in March?
Newton: Bruton Smith has had a lot of great ideas over the years, but this is not one of them. It's ridiculous. It's WWE. While I understand he wants to create double-file restarts that create excitement, it's too gimmicky. The issue remains in the car. The more downforce NASCAR takes away, the more control the driver has. Harder-to-control cars will create more cautions and ultimately more double-file restarts. Hopefully, it'll create better racing.
Smith: This particular plan is a bit radical. But the ol' man's on to something. When I took my son Cambron to the Coca-Cola 600, I got an eye-opening lesson that folks in the infield tend to shun: Long green-flag runs are boring. They are social studies class. Restarts are a Red Bull. When the field is coming to the green, everyone in the grandstands comes to his or her feet and cheers and points and hollers and dances and yells. It's awesome. And necessary for the at-track consumer. Plus, the caution makes for a fine time for an ol' fashioned B-Double-E-Double-R-U-N. It's something to contemplate.
Tracy, a fan: I disagree. At Indy in 2008, NASCAR was forced to throw cautions every nine laps or so. Fans screamed then that they did not want the cautions so often. As a fan, I admit that I do love restarts because they provide passing and a great deal of excitement, but I do not want to see fake excitement! Imagine the horror if NASCAR called a mandatory caution at Michigan a few weeks ago and Smoke won?
Turn 3. What's your guess on where Matt Kenseth lands, and do you think he can win the title as a lame duck at Roush Fenway Racing? Why or why not?
Blount: Unless someone offers Matt a zillion dollars before the ink dries on his new deal, he's going to Joe Gibbs Racing. But the holdup could be trying to find sponsorship for Joey Logano in a fourth car if Kenseth takes over the No. 20 Toyota. And in honor of Jack Roush saying Matt was going "to the dark side" (meaning Toyota), JGR must rename itself the Death Star and Toyota Racing Development president Lee White must dress up as Darth Vader. On the 2012 title, put me in the "no" column. No matter what they say, things just aren't the same once the cat's out of the bag. I know Tony Stewart did it last year with a lame-duck crew chief, but that's a little different. The driver (and in that case, team owner) was staying.
Hinton: All the smart money is going with Joe Gibbs Racing, and I pretty much agree, but I wouldn't be shocked if, say, Richard Childress Racing came out of the woodwork. Yes, Kenseth can win the championship as a lame duck. Crew chief Darian Grubb was a lame duck when he sent Tony Stewart to five wins in 10 Chase races last year, and certainly the 17 crew is professional enough to get this done.
McGee: I think he's JGR-bound; it's just a question of whether it'll be as part of a three- or four-car operation. (I'm not convinced Joey Logano is out. Gibbs moved around a lot of parts last year to woo Carl Edwards, so an expansion plan exists.) And yes, Kenseth can win the Cup. Too many people at RFR love the guy too much -- especially Robbie Reiser -- to pull the plug on him down the stretch.
Newton: Joe Gibbs Racing. It'll happen. The JGR folks are focused on getting Joey Logano re-signed now. Once that happens and all the sponsor pairings for 2013 are in order, they'll be in a position to announce how Kenseth will fit into the organization. As for this year, Kenseth will contend all year. Getting the news out early that he's leaving Roush Fenway Racing was a huge relief for him. Now he, his team and team owner Jack Roush will focus on giving him the best send-off they can. They respect him too much not to.
Smith: Joe Gibbs Racing in the Home Depot No. 20. Jack Roush said Kenseth is headed "to the dark side." That's a not-so-thinly-veiled way of saying he's headed to Toyota. Jack Roush loathes Toyota. This is why I believe Kenseth chose to leave, and there is no question in my mind the No. 17 still can vie for a title. Kenseth is so even-keeled and professional. And his crew has said it's already tired of hearing about it and just wants to race. His crewmembers don't feel any differently about Kenseth. Although I'm sure they were surprised by his decision, guys in the garage area understand it's part of the business. It doesn't impact their approach much. When the rag drops, every person on every team wants to win the race, no matter their opinion of any particular individual on the team. It's about dominating and celebrating. Not being buddies.
Andrew: I honestly think he is going to Joe Gibbs Racing. I see the holdup with the announcement right now being JGR trying to find sponsors for a fourth car to keep Logano. I don't see Kenseth having a lame-duck season now because that team still looks focused, plus it will help both sides with sponsorship moving forward if they can finish strong. Also, I don't think Jack Roush would want to tarnish his image by not supporting that team all the way to the end.
Turn 4. This is from a fan, and it came up often in Saturday night's chat. Once Kenseth lands with his new team, what do you think is the next domino to fall this Silly Season, and why?
Blount: This is a little like asking when Mount St. Helens will blow its top again. Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman are still in limbo and Michael Waltrip Racing wants to add a fourth car in 2013, but I think Brian Vickers has that nailed down if they find sponsorship. Roger Penske would like to add a third car in 2013 for his first season with Ford, but I'm also not convinced that AJ Allmendinger is safe in the 22 car.
Hinton: There may be no other dominoes at all if JGR has lined up sponsorship for a fourth car and keeps Logano. And Gibbs himself is as good at wooing sponsors as anybody in Cup, so that's a possibility. If Logano gets squeezed out, the dominoes all will fall toward the down side as Logano settles for a lesser ride and puts pressure on, say, Regan Smith or even Kurt Busch if Busch doesn't get a bounce-back deal. No, Logano isn't as good as Busch but then, Logano wouldn't be nearly the headache for genial car owner James Finch.
McGee: I think there's still a big curveball out there. Not Kenseth-sized, but something unexpected in the middle to upper-middle class of the garage. It won't take much of a trigger -- Logano's release, Vickers signing somewhere, RCR revealing future plans for Dillon -- to create some serious silliness.
Newton: Not sure this will be next, but the most intriguing question out there remains where Kurt Busch will drive in 2013. The options for a top ride are dwindling. Martin Truex Jr. is expected to re-sign with Michael Waltrip Racing, Tony Stewart wants Ryan Newman back at SHR if he can find a sponsor, and Jeff Burton appears safe at RCR. I look for Sam Hornish Jr. to replace AJ Allmendinger in the No. 22 next year. Chip Ganassi could open a spot if he chooses not to re-sign Jamie McMurray, which could happen. Don't forget RPM signed Aric Almirola to only a one-year deal. Much could be connected to the Busch domino.
Smith: Joey Logano. He's still very young and very fast. If Gibbs doesn't retain him in a fourth car, another marquee team -- say, Penske -- will scoop him up. It's plausible he's still a decade from his prime. That's scary. And if I'm Joe Gibbs, and I've invested so much into that young man, do I want to let him go to another team where he may dust me? Nope.
Tracy: Logano will be next, depending on sponsorship. JGR wants to keep him there, but that will depend on whether companies like Dollar General and GameStop want to step up so he can run. I believe that finding sponsorship for Logano is what is holding up Kenseth from making the official announcement of his big move.