Debate: NASCAR's burning questions
Our panel of experts and a fan weigh in on four of the biggest questions in racing this week.
Turn 1: We saw our first "Super Weekend" at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Indy is already advertising another one for next year. Rate this weekend on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best, and explain why.
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: I really can't give it more than a 4. The Cup race was the smallest crowd in the history of the event, and the race was follow-the-leader most of the day. We knew the Nationwide crowd would look small at such a huge facility, but the crowd was smaller than expected. The race was exciting, a trend of Nationwide races often being better than the Cup races. But let's keep things in perspective on this attendance thing. Sunday's event still was a bigger crowd than you see at Darlington, Martinsville, Homestead, Kansas City, Chicago or Fontana. And, as our fearless leader K. Lee Davis pointed out on our race chat Sunday, it was the highest-attended sports event in the country that day.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Give it a 1. Uno. No mas. I would have given it a 3 just on Jimmie Johnson's performance in the Brickyard 400, which otherwise was as humdrum as usual. But I took penalty points for staging the Rolex and Nationwide races at all. Such support races are beneath the dignity of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and they didn't draw flies. Further, the fans, drivers and little Lucas Oil Raceway were robbed of what had become a wonderfully traditional Nationwide race out there. So I ought to subtract another penalty point, which would make the whole thing a zero. But it wasn't a zero. Not quite.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: A 5? Maybe? Full disclosure: I wasn't there. I'm on Pocono duty. But it felt hollow from where I was sitting, especially Saturday. I was excited for the Nationwide guys to get a crack at the big track, but that felt like holding a high school JV football game in the Rose Bowl. The race itself was better than I expected, but it never looks good to spread the crowd so thin.
David Newton, ESPN.com: A 3. OK, 4 with Dale Earnhardt Jr. taking the Sprint Cup points lead for the first time in eight years and Johnson winning for a fourth time, which created a buzz. But I am on record with last week's column saying the Nationwide Series race should remain at Lucas Oil Raceway. I'd rather see 30,000 or so packed in there than have them look like ants in a fishbowl at IMS. The racing's better there, too. Far better. Breaking the weekend up when there was no Cup activity until Saturday made it harder from the media perspective to create buildup with stories. Grand-Am was cool. Enough said on that. If you take a positive from this, it's that NASCAR needs to go to two-day shows. It basically did that with Nationwide and Cup qualifying on Saturday, Nationwide race on Saturday afternoon and Cup race on Sunday -- if they insist on keeping Nationwide at IMS, which they will. Overall, there was a lot of stuff, but a lot of stuff doesn't make it super. Look at the NFL. It creates so much demand with a short season that people are thirsting for preseason games. More isn't always better.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: A 3. The Nationwide race doesn't belong at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and ended with a call from NASCAR with which I disagreed and which prompted many questions from some of the sport's marquee stars. Moving the Nationwide race to IMS dilutes the Brickyard brand -- a brand searching for its identity. And, despite the fact that we saw history Sunday -- which is always cool -- the Brickyard 400 was generally mundane. It saddens me that some folks couldn't even give tickets away. Something must change. I don't know what that something is.
Jordan McGraw, a fan from Lubbock, Texas: The most exciting event of the weekend was arguably Friday night's ARCA race at nearby Lucas Oil Raceway, so it's hard to hand out a particularly high rating. Still, the Grand-Am series put on a decent show and the controversial final restart created some intrigue in Saturday's Nationwide race. Otherwise, the on-track action was in typical stock-cars-at-Indy form: a single-file, spread-out parade around a one-groove, aero-sensitive track. That's not to say it was completely unenjoyable; not every NASCAR race is going to end up a barn burner. But it certainly doesn't provide for great theater, as shown by the empty seats that made up a good portion of the grandstands. But as long as IMS remains a flat, 2.5-mile speedway designed with open-wheel cars in mind, then NASCAR races at the track will always be very average. And I doubt anyone has plans to reconfigure the track within our lifetimes. All in all, I give the inaugural "Super Weekend" a 6, or, in grading terms, a "D."
Turn 2: NASCAR had some confusion on start and restart rules in the Nationwide Series race Saturday. Is more clarification needed so all the competitors understand the rules? Why, or why not?
Blount: NASCAR has made this way too complicated. So, the flagman starts the race, but the leader restarts the race after every caution. Why? The problem lies in the arbitrary nature of the leader controlling the restart and worrying about who gets to the start/finish line first. Have the flagman throw the green when he determines the front row is lined up properly at the right speed and ready to go. If someone jumps before the green, he has them go around again. Once the flag falls, it's every driver for himself. If the leader spins his tires or misses a shift, it doesn't matter that he gets beat to the start line. That's exactly what NASCAR said happened at the start for the Nationwide race, so no penalty. But the same thing happened at the end, and NASCAR penalized Elliott Sadler because the rules are different from the start of the race. Ridiculously confusing.
Hinton: Historically, the more clarification, the more confusion. So take another route entirely, and do what short tracks have been doing forever. If a restart is questionable, throw a yellow and do it over. Make the black flag like a double fault in tennis. Only if a non-leader jumps the start twice would he get the black flag. I've even seen some short tracks give a driver three shots before they flag him.
McGee: I went back and read the rules for both, and there's not much confusion there. But this is like balls and strikes in baseball. MLB has a very specific definition of the strike zone but still leaves it open to the umpires' interpretation. Same here. There's nothing in the restart rule that says anything about the "gamesmanship" that NASCAR's Robin Pemberton talked about and that Brad Keselowski has always been so aggressive with. That's been around forever. The trick is correctly identifying a screw-up, purposeful stalling or a mechanical failure. Sometimes race control is going to miss it. I'll take that versus overregulation.
Newton: They got all the clarification they needed in Sunday's driver's meeting when race director David Hoots and NASCAR president Mike Helton gave a lecture that prompted Tony Stewart to say it brought back memories of "sixth grade seventh grade eighth grade.'' Sure, Sadler was being pushed by Austin Dillon, and Keselowski probably played with the brakes trying to gain an advantage. But, bottom line, Sadler knows he may not beat the leader to the start, so he has to do whatever it takes not to do that. By the way, according to NASCAR, had Sadler given the position back to Keselowski, he wouldn't have been penalized with a pass-through. The rules really are as simple as Hoots told the drivers. They need to learn them.
Smith: Yes. It's still quite ambiguous. What if third place dumps the leader before the start/finish line coming to the green on a green-white-checkered? Is second place just supposed to stop? It's all at NASCAR's discretion. Maybe it would let that go. But do we know that? In my opinion, the decision Saturday could have long-term effects on Elliott Sadler's career.
McGraw: Obviously, if there's confusion among competitors and it affects the outcome of a race, then yes, more clarification is needed. Further proof is that several of Sadler's peers took to Twitter to voice their opinions of the penalty he received on that final restart. Jeff Burton tweeted that NASCAR "confused the issue" with its non-call on Kyle Busch in a similar situation at the beginning of the race. NASCAR's vice president for competition Robin Pemberton mentioned that Sadler should have made an attempt to give the spot back to Keselowski after beating him to the line to potentially avoid being penalized. That doesn't mean much if neither driver nor team knew that was an option at the time. It's questionable if teams know that now, given how unwilling NASCAR seems to be to establish a specific protocol on the issue. Whatever the case might be, NASCAR needs to add clarity and some transparency to its rulebook and to the way it's enforced. If the competitors remain confused about things as basic as restarts, then problems are just going to continue moving forward.
Turn 3: Should owner Roger Penske give suspended driver AJ Allmendinger a chance to drive the No. 22 next year if Allmendinger completes the "Road to Recovery" program mandated by NASCAR and gets reinstated? Why, or why not?
Blount: I certainly think Dinger deserves another chance with someone, and I hope he gets one. It's good for NASCAR and the RTR program to show it works for a Cup driver go through it and return. But let's take the whole drug test out of the equation. Was he coming back if this hadn't happened? Maybe so, but the team has underperformed this year. Knowing how loyal Roger is, I think he would give AJ another year in a normal situation if it's OK with Shell Pennzoil. If it were my decision, I would bring him back unless I was absolutely sure I could put someone in the car who could win.
Hinton: He should, especially if the degree of the positive was of a nonblatant nature, and we just don't know that yet. Penske probably will find out eventually. An even bigger factor in the 2013 renewal is that Allmendinger just didn't do very well in the No. 22 car before he was suspended. So, if the substance situation is teetering, the lack of results could tip Dinger out of the car.
McGee: Tough call. It would be much easier if AJ hadn't struggled so much this year. My heart says yes because he was so quick to sign on for the Road to Recovery. That shows a willingness to cooperate and to get help. But my head says this is an "out of sight, out of mind" business, so I think chances aren't high that the car will still be there for him on the other side.
Newton: No. I'm all about forgiveness, but Allmendinger basically has three strikes against him. He had the DWI while at Richard Petty Motorsports, has this positive test for amphetamines and has never won a race. In fact, he was 23rd in points when the suspension was levied. As many times as Roger Penske says Dinger is a "great kid,'' he knows the future of the No. 22 team with high-profile sponsor Shell Pennzoil has to go in another direction.
Smith: Everybody deserves a second chance, but I think AJ's second chance will have to come elsewhere. Penske is a loyal man, and Allmendinger is testing that loyalty.
McGraw: This is a difficult question to answer, but it's even more difficult to argue that Allmendinger should return to the No. 22 for the 2013 season. On top of the failed drug test, he has an average finish of 20.6 in his 17 races this year and was ranked 23rd in points before his suspension, all while driving a car that made the Chase last season with Kurt Busch in the seat. Meanwhile, his contract lasts only this single year, and Sam Hornish Jr., ranked fourth in the Nationwide Series standings, is waiting in the wings for another shot at the big time. Add it all up, and it's hard to imagine Allmendinger driving a Sprint Cup Series car for the company next season. His one shot is if Penske, who has noted he is at least open to retaining the driver, decides to put him in one of his Nationwide cars. That would give Allmendinger an opportunity to prove his character and his on-track ability, as well as a chance to earn back a seat in NASCAR's top circuit. If owner and driver are serious about the possibility of remaining together, then that's probably their best option.
Turn 4: Which is more impressive in Indy lore, four wins by Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon in the Brickyard 400 or four wins by Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt and Al Unser? Explain your answer.
Blount: Any four-time winner at Indy (or five-time in Michael Schumacher's case) deserves praise and admiration. But winning four Indy 500s is the greater achievement in my book. The Indy 500 was for many years (and in the eyes of some, still is) the most prestigious race in the world. In 19 Brickyard 400s, two drivers have won it four times. In 96 Indy 500s, only three drivers have won it four times and no one has done it in more than 20 years.
Hinton: Gordon himself has long said that four Brickyard 400 wins aren't in the same league with four Indy 500 wins. Historically, it has been much harder to win an Indy 500. For starters, it's 100 more miles and involves cars that rarely run more than 200 or 300 miles at other venues. What does it tell you about degree of difficulty that there have been only three four-time Indy 500 winners in 101 years, but two four-time Brickyard winners in 18 years? Foyt struggled for 10 years between his third and fourth Indy wins, and I was there when he did it, and believe me, that was a huge deal, vastly overshadowing Gordon's fourth and certainly Johnson's fourth.
McGee: The Indy 500 winners. Don't ask me. Ask Jeff Gordon. From the moment he won his fourth until now, he chuckles anytime someone asks him to equate the two. Both are amazing records, but you can't compare less than three decades of history to a century-plus.
Newton: No question, four wins by Mears, Foyt and Unser in the Indy 500 is more prestigious. That's the biggest race of the year -- period. And they won in an era when the sport attracted unbelievable fields. But as far as impressive, it's not a big gap. One even could argue that the four by Johnson and Gordon are slightly more impressive because of the overall depth of quality of competition. But, in the end, I'm with Gordon when he says there "is just no comparing any other race here to the Indy 500.''
Smith: The Indy 500 wins. Just ask Jeff Gordon.
McGraw: Although Johnson's and Gordon's records at the Brickyard are further proof of their stature among the greatest to ever strap into a race car, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is, at the end of the day, American open-wheel racing's holy grounds. That places Mears, Foyt, and Unser on top by default, if nothing else. The Brickyard 400 is still a comparatively young event and makes up just a tiny part of the speedway's rich tradition. Meanwhile, the Indianapolis 500 has been around since 1911 and has been run 96 times with 66 different drivers having taken the checkered flag. That's a long list of winners, a list that includes names such as Andretti and Fittipaldi. To sit on top of that list, as Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt and Al Unser do, is something incredibly special.