Debate: NASCAR's burning questions
Our panel of experts -- including fan Tony -- weighs in this week on four of the biggest questions in racing:
Many fans hoped we'd answer this one. We still don't know all the details of AJ Allmendinger's suspension, but do you think he will return to his Penske Racing team, and if not, who will be in the No. 22 car for the rest of 2012 and 2013?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: Sadly, I'll be surprised if Dinger ever drives for Roger Penske again. I hope I'm wrong. He's such a responsible young man, but I've said that many times over the years, when an athlete stunned me with a positive drug test. It appears this is Sam Hornish Jr.'s ride to lose. He likely will be in the car the rest of this season. Unless he blows it completely, Sam will get the ride in 2013 because Roger loves him and believes in him. And after Kurt Busch's tantrums and now this shocking revelation on AJ, Penske knows Sam is a stable guy who isn't likely to get in trouble, if nothing else. It's funny that the two biggest free agents remaining -- Kurt and Ryan Newman -- both drove this car in the past. I don't see either of them coming back.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Roger Penske went ahead with his planned hiring of Kurt Busch shortly after a run-in with Arizona police got him suspended at Roush Fenway Racing. No reason to think he won't stand by Allmendinger, at least pending the "B" test results and maybe beyond, should NASCAR extend it to an indefinite suspension. In that case, Sam Hornish Jr. is the slam-dunk obvious choice.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: No way to speculate about the "B" sample test results, but if it comes back negative, then I think he'll be back in the car. The Captain is nothing if not loyal (see: Al Unser Jr). But no matter what happens, I don't see AJ back in that car next year. He was already borderline. As for a replacement, that loyalty comes back into play and Hornish gets one last shot.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Sorry to say this, but I believe the Dinger is done -- at least with Penske Racing. Unless the "B" sample clears him, which is highly unlikely based on the history of other "B" sample tests, his reputation will be too marred for gentleman Roger Penske. Then there's the process to return to NASCAR if the suspension stands. It typically takes five to six months. Penske can't wait that late to plan for 2013. Sam Hornish Jr. has to be the front-runner for the 22. Penske has told me several times he wants Hornish back in Cup full-time in 2013, and this gives him a head start. The darkhorse might be Ryan Newman returning to the organization he left a few years ago.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: First of all, I hate even answering this question without all the details. It doesn't seem fair to me. But for the sake of the banter here are my thoughts: If the "B" sample comes back positive, sadly, I do not think Allmendinger will be retained by Penske Racing. For NASCAR to suspend him after the "A" sample was positive tells me that it was a substance that endangered other competitors in some fashion or other. It is so far out of Roger Penske's DNA to tolerate something like this that it is reprehensible. Given what Shell/Pennzoil has experienced during its time at Penske -- first the Kurt Busch firing and now this -- Penske has little choice but to go hire an ironclad-safe, can't-miss spokesman who says, does, breathes, eats, sleeps the right message every single time.
Conversely, if the "B" sample comes back negative, Penske should absolutely retain Allmendinger. And if that happens, all hell will break loose in the industry. I believe NASCAR gives these guys the benefit of the doubt. I don't think they'd publicize this to the entire free world if they weren't 2000 percent certain a driver had abused a substance that endangered the other competitors. Not knowing what Allmendinger's legal advice is, this might be an ignorant statement. But it's how I feel generally: If I were accused of something I didn't do, I'd be shouting my innocence from the Flag Stand at Loudon -- live on "SportsCenter."
Tony, a fan: Going strictly on my knowledge of NASCAR suspensions, I'll say that AJ will not return to the 22 and that Sam Hornish Jr. will finish the season in the 22. I believe he will also be the driver for 2013 unless the Captain decides to look elsewhere -- Brian Vickers perhaps? This is a bit off the subject, but I feel the timing of the announcement needs improvement so that the affected team isn't left scrambling to find another driver. If a driver fails a test, he shouldn't even be allowed to practice, let alone qualify, for the next race.
Turn 2. A longtime fan wants to know this one. Another IndyCar Series race ended under caution Sunday. Do you prefer races going the scheduled distance, or going to the overtime green-white-checkered finishes now instituted in NASCAR? Why?
Blount: It is a huge buzzkill for me to watch a race from start to finish only to see the cars coast across the finish line after making several caution laps at the end. It's a little like ending a football game in a tie, which doesn't happen anymore. The last two IndyCar events ended under a yellow flag, and three of the last six. That includes the best Indy 500 in years, which also ended under caution. But that was a last-lap crash, so I'm OK with it. The Toronto event should have been red-flagged and restarted without the need of overtime. Every effort should be made to end an event under green for the fans who paid good money to be there and the ones who invested hours of their time watching at home.
Hinton: Don't get me started about those infernal green-white-checkered travesties. I despise them and I always will. Finishing under caution is a deep tradition in motor racing, and NASCAR kowtowed to militant fans with attention-span issues who couldn't stand it that Dale Earnhardt Jr. had lost one under caution. Lest we forget, the late Dale Earnhardt's only Daytona 500 win, in 1998, was under caution. If they'd had GWCs in the '90s, he might have gone 0-for-forever in the Daytona 500.
McGee: I can already see the steam coming out of Hinton's ears on this one. I hate races ending under caution. So do the fans who pay a lot of money to sit in the stands for four hours. They deserve better than the biggest anticlimax in sports -- race cars taking the checkers at 55 mph.
Newton: I'll take overtime any day, every day. I hate seeing a race end with cars going the same speed they do through my neighborhood, and I believe most fans feel the same way. If anything, overtime makes finishes more exciting than letting them play out to the end. You've got the field bunched up with a double-file restart.
Smith: Green. White. Checker. It often tears up a bunch of cars and, naturally, owners hate that. But as a fan I like the show and it brings a sense of finality to the event for me. I never felt that sense when races ended under caution. But -- again for the sake of banter -- it is interesting to wonder whether Big E would've won that Daytona 500 in a GWC.
Tony: I prefer races going the distance and not the overtime NASCAR has instituted. If the race is 400 miles, then it should be 400 miles. Granted there have been some exciting finishes with the GWC format, but along with those finishes there has also been heartbreak and some dominant performances thrown out the window because it has been written that NASCAR must do everything possible to finish a race under green.
Turn 3. Carl Edwards is now 31 points behind 10th place, the last Chase spot on points. He has no wins, so trails in the wild-card race as well. Does he make the Chase? Why, or why not?
Blount: I think he's done. It's not that Carl is too far back. One win and he's in the hunt. But the No. 99 Ford team has shown little indication of getting its act together. They just seem a little lost right now. However, here's the good news for Carl: He has won more than once at four of the eight tracks left before the Chase -- Pocono twice, Michigan twice, Bristol twice and Atlanta three times.
Hinton: I'm beginning to think not. There are just too many guys around him with a win each. He and crew chief Bob Osborne are usually as good a tandem as you'll find in Cup, but somehow they're rattled right now. They know they've got to get it together, so they're pressing to get it together, which means they're not getting it together. The next month will tell.
McGee: No. The field's too thick. I think he comes close, but gets squeezed out. If that happens, please don't everyone freak out and call for the breakup of Edwards and Bob Osborne. They lost the title on a tiebreaker just last year. You don't bust that up over one bad season. But two bad seasons? Call a divorce lawyer.
Newton: Afraid not. Sure, he'd be back in the driver's seat for a wild-card spot if he won a race or two. But he hasn't shown the ability to lead races, much less win one. The second-place jinx or hangover continues. By the way, my picks for the wild-card spots remain Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.
Smith: He can still make it, but it'll take a marked improvement in performance. There are eight races to go. That's a ton of time. But they need speed and they need it right now. In the competitive arena, poor performance directly correlates to the deterioration of morale. It's inevitable. I think we'll look back at Kentucky as the moment that made or broke the 99. Edwards -- ever poised in the public eye no matter the adversity -- came as close to criticizing his team as he'll come after Kentucky. He and Bob Osbourne met shortly thereafter in the attempt to find the crux of their struggles. Stay tuned on this.
Tony: Sorry, Carl fans, but I do not think he'll make the Chase this season. Since there is a logjam with Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch each with a win, I think that at least two of them can get another win or possibly two (Busch and Kahne). I don't think it's impossible, but Edwards is definitely behind the proverbial eight ball, and I don't know if we'll ever see a driver turn it up to 11 like Tony Stewart did during the Chase last year. Yes, that was a "Spinal Tap" reference.
Turn 4. Brian France said at Daytona that NASCAR is looking at making more events shorter. Do you agree or disagree with this idea, and why?
Blount: I'm in 100 percent agreement on this one. Too many races are way too long with too many meaningless laps. Everything you see in 500 miles you can see in 400 miles, or 400 laps for Bristol and Martinsville. Even at 400 miles, the majority of the Daytona race Saturday night was follow-the-leader without anyone trying to make a move. I know some fans say they would get less for their money if the race is shorter, but it's about quality over quantity. And track promoters don't want it because it means fewer beers they can sell. But we live in an instant-gratification society where information is immediate via social media. The truth is the under-35 crowd isn't going to watch for three-plus hours. When the races are shorter, the teams have more urgency to make things happen.
Hinton: Strongly agree. It's hard to hold an audience in any sport, and the attention span of the public keeps getting shorter. Formula One for many years has quietly limited its races to two hours, though the cap has rarely needed enforcing. And nobody complains that F1 races are too short. I go along with the current school of thought that all Cup races except the Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 should be no more than 400 miles. Short tracks need cutting from 500 to 400 laps max.
McGee: Amen and pass the potato salad! I have been preaching and writing this for years now. Keep the Daytona 500, Southern 500 and Coca-Cola 600 where they are. Everyone else goes to 400 miles/laps at the most. I'd cut a lot of them to 300, like New Hampshire has this weekend. If a track promoter wants to keep the magical "500" in the title they can do what Phoenix does. Make it kilometers. Nearly every other sport is trying to shorten their events, especially football. If a Sunday NFL game creeps past three hours, they're ready to call in the National Guard. We go well over that mark nearly every single week.
Newton: Totally agree. Shortening Pocono helped that race. It could help a few others. We were asked here earlier in the year what's the one thing you would change about the sport if you were in France's shoes. My answer was to adjust the number of miles so races -- other than the Coke 600 and Daytona 500 -- don't last more than 3½ hours, 3 if it's doable. Fans just don't have the patience to sit through four-plus hour marathons.
Smith: Simply couldn't agree more. It's time. We live in an instant-gratification society. All you need to look at is Pocono. Cutting 100 miles of competition at Pocono made Pocono one of the season's best events. Go read that sentence again: Pocono was one of the best events of the season. There is room for 500-milers. But it should be the extreme, not the mean. Can you imagine 400 laps at Martinsville? Or 300, even? Imagine Sprint Cup competition that demands its drivers get to the front now. Right. Now. Not sit back and wait for the next pit stop to get an adjustment. Go like hell -- now. I dig it.
Tony: I agree with the idea of making some events shorter. Shorter events can enhance the excitement of the race and would potentially prevent "just riding around," as some drivers have already admitted to doing. I believe that the reduction of Pocono to 400 miles is a prime example that it can be successful.
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