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: A fan was killed at Pocono on Sunday when lightning strikes sent 10 to hospitals. What should NASCAR and the tracks do in the future to prevent this from happening?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: This is tragic, but I don't know there's a lot NASCAR can do other than a strongly worded warning over the PA system of a severe thunderstorm approaching. NASCAR could stop the race before the storm arrives (in this case, the injuries came after the race ended), but that's not realistic. As sad as this is, people have to use some common sense and take cover as soon as possible. But if you're standing in the middle of a giant infield like Pocono, that isn't easy to do.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: I just don't see how much could be done, given that the lightning strikes reportedly occurred in parking lots. An order to clear the grandstands probably wouldn't have mattered, and might even have made the situation worse. In recent years we've seen the seats cleared at some football stadiums due to lightning, but usually fans were able to retreat to covered areas. That's not always possible at NASCAR races, given the various configurations of grandstands.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: It's damned if they do, damned if they don't. To me, the most logical move would be to always err on the side of caution, and when we have a cell like that bearing down for hours like we did on Sunday, then don't cut it as close to the storm's arrival as they always have. Announce "OK, folks, we're running until Lap X and then it's over." But then the first time they pull the plug early in the name of fan safety and then the storm fizzles out or moves around the track (I've seen that happen many times, particularly at Pocono), people will go nuts on NASCAR and the track. I was at Las Vegas in 2000 when we had a giant storm. It flooded the garage and everything. So they called it. But then when we were leaving two hours later there wasn't a cloud in the sky and fans were flipping out saying we could have finished that night. It's a tough spot. But I say taking the heat from miffed fans is worth it to avoid the soul-crushing feeling we all had on Sunday night when Pocono Raceway president Brandon Igdalsky had to deliver that tragic news.
David Newton, ESPN.com: There's really no easy answer here. Remember, the person killed was outside the track in a parking lot next to his car. Who's to say had the track evacuated 30 minutes before the event he -- or someone else -- still wouldn't have been struck. Having said that, I'd like to see tracks and NASCAR adopt a policy that if severe weather with lightning and high winds is within 8-10 miles of the facility and on a predictable course for the track, stop the race and ask fans to seek shelter until it passes. Maybe it doesn't save a life. Maybe it does. But as safety comes first on the track, it should come first off the track, as well.
Mike Mackler, a fan from Wilmington, Del: First off, thoughts go out to all those affected by the lightning strikes. I wish I knew a foolproof way to deal with the issue, but I only have educated guesses. NASCAR runs the bulk of its schedule in the summertime, so it's a miracle that things like this don't happen more often (I think the last time someone was killed by lightning during a race was 1983 at Dover Downs). Perhaps tall lightning rods in the parking lots? Here's hoping that the large engineering community around NASCAR can put their expert two cents in.
Turn 2: It's a question that comes every year, but should the regular-season points leader be rewarded with a bonus (points or cash) once the Chase starts? Why, or why not?
Blount: As most readers know, more points for winning and increased emphasis on winning are soap-box issues for me. However, I feel strongly that the regular-season points leader deserves a reward for that achievement. I propose a five-point bonus, which a driver would receive for winning a race and leading the most laps. And I'll make a prediction: If Dale Jr. leads the points entering the 2012 Chase, this change will happen in 2013.
Hinton: I was never a fan of the old overemphasis on consistency, but I do think leading the standings at the end of the regular season should get some weight. I would make it worth two wins in the seeding. I'll catch a lot of grief in the comments section because this formula, added to points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s one race win, would tie him for the top seed with three-time winners Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski. I would say exactly the same thing if another name were at the top, but I'm sure to be accused of making a special case for Junior -- except of course for the Earnhardt fans who are convinced I'm biased against him.
McGee: Treat it like a race win. Give them three points. If not that, at least a T-shirt or something. The fact they get zilch seems a bit harsh.
Newton: Now more than ever. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in the lead. OK, a little tongue-in-cheek there. But I've been arguing for years that the points leader should be rewarded. Teams in other sports get rewarded for winning their division with home-field advantage. A driver who can maintain the consistency it takes to lead the standings after 26 races shouldn't start the Chase in third or fourth place as often happens. Just doesn't seem fair. Maybe give the regular-season champ an unspecified amount of points that would guarantee he starts no worse than tied for first. Or give him the first choice of pit stall throughout the Chase. He deserves something.
Mackler: Since the Chase is NASCAR's version of a playoff, let's see what the other "big four" sports do: Outside of the NFL's bye weeks, not much of anything for the regular-season leader. Obviously there's no practical way to include home-field advantage in NASCAR, unless Jimmie Johnson wants to host his own races. I'd like to see a cash bonus of some kind, and maybe special recognition at the awards banquet, but I don't see much use in awarding extra points. After all, the focus is supposed to be on winning, not playing it safe to maintain your lead.
Turn 3: We're off to Watkins Glen this week for the final road-course race of the season. There will be a lot of talk about "road-course ringers," but they never actually win. So who do you think will win and why?
Blount: I'll go with Marcos Ambrose, who is a road-course ringer, although he also is a full-time Cup driver. He may be the best road-course racer I've ever seen in a stock car. But the traditional ringers, guys who come in for one race because they are experienced road racers, can't beat about a dozen Cup regulars (Ambrose, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya, to name several) who are skilled road-course drivers. The ringer may be good for getting a start-and-parker in the field. That's about it.
Hinton: Jeff Gordon goes in inspired, and with the proven road-racing ability, but there are too many good road racers in Cup now to make Gordon much more than a sentimental favorite. His own teammate, Jimmie Johnson, is a threat. Tony Stewart, if his setup is right, is awfully hard to beat on a hot and slippery circuit. Even Clint Bowyer, due to his win at Sonoma in June, is one to watch. Then of course there's defending Glen champion Marcos Ambrose. Still, I'll take Gordon on the strength of rejuvenated spirit.
McGee: Last road-course ringer to win a Cup race was Mark Donohue in '73, right? I love me some Captain Nice wheeling that red, white and blue AMC Matador around Riverside. I think it would be easy to go with Marcos Ambrose, so I'll take it in another direction. Give me Smoke. He's won there five of the past 10 years.
Newton: Tony Stewart has won five of the past 10, but I'm going with defending champion Marcos Ambrose. In four starts at The Glen he's gone 3, 2, 3 and 1. He easily could have won twice, maybe three times. There's no better road-course racer in NASCAR today. If he wins the pole as he did at Sonoma earlier this year he'll be hard to stop, barring some mechanical failure or fluke pit strategy.
Mackler: I usually pick three drivers per race -- a favorite, a next favorite and a dark horse. My favorite for The Glen would have to be The Marcos. He's the defending race winner AND has been on a qualifying tear lately (which is very important on road courses). My next favorite? Well, that would be Jeff Gordon. He has momentum on his side and knows how to wheel a stock car around a road course. As for a dark horse, I'd go out on a limb and say that Juan Pablo Montoya could be a factor. Though a pole position isn't exactly "momentum," he had an encouraging week last week and is always a threat at any road course. I don't expect any of the true "ringers" to have an impact, unless you count Boris Said impacting Greg Biffle's face.
Turn 4: Five races to make the Chase and Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman each have a win but aren't currently in. Will one -- or more -- of them make the Chase? Why, or why not?
Blount: I don't think so. The truth is Jeff Gordon has raced better than all three of them most of the season, but bad luck put him behind them in the points until Sunday. That doesn't mean I think Gordon is a lock by any means. But he could win this weekend at The Glen, which would make him close to a Chase lock. No matter who gets in, this five-race battle for the two wild-card spots is going to be a blast to watch.
Hinton: I say all three miss the Chase. Hendrick Motorsports is back to juggernaut class, so Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon will take the two wild-card spots. I just can't see Newman, Logano or Busch getting another win before the Chase, because none of them have been putting themselves in position to win lately. Kyle finished second in the Brickyard 400 but was no threat to runaway winner Jimmie Johnson. Gordon and Kahne are both more likely to add another win or two before the Chase opens.
McGee: I think it's Kyle Busch versus Jeff Gordon for the final Chase spot. Why? Because Busch is a streaky guy. He has the ability to look bad and then suddenly win four out of five races. Plus he has 100 percent confidence in crew chief Dave Rogers. On the flip side, Logano looks miserable. All this Silly Season chatter is really wearing on him. I think Newman could make some noise at the remaining two short tracks -- Bristol and Richmond -- but it could be too little too late.
Newton: Too close to call, but if any of them gets in it'll be Kyle Busch. He could win any or all of the remaining races if his car holds together. He's already won at Richmond, where the final regular-season race is, and he's only 12 points behind Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman with one win each. I have a feeling we'll see this flip-flop several times over the next five weeks. But if I were a betting man I'd go with Kahne and Gordon getting the wild cards and the others looking to next year.
Mackler: I don't see any of those three making the Chase, but if one of them does, I'd put my money on Kyle Busch joining Kasey Kahne as a wild card. Problem is, he's had nothing but mechanical problems lately. Rowdy's the most likely of the three to go on a tear and win a few races, but the Gibbs boys have to figure out why his cars keep breaking. More likely, I see Jeff Gordon or Carl Edwards making it in -- figuring that Roush is going to put its full resources into making sure that the 99 makes the Chase. If not, it might be hard to attract more than seven or eight sponsors next year.