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: Some drivers complained about oil on the track at the end of the race Sunday at Watkins Glen. Should NASCAR officials have thrown a caution or were they right in letting the leaders battle it out at the end?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: Without question, NASCAR made the right call. We're talking about the most dramatic finish of the season and one of the best in years. This is my definition of the proper use for "boys, have at it." It's the last lap. Go for it, guys. But let's consider the outcry if NASCAR had thrown a yellow on the last lap. Depending on when the yellow came out, it could have given the race to Kyle Busch or Brad Keselowski. No green-white-checkered when yellow comes out on the last lap. It's over. Fans would have howled. Marcos Ambrose won it the old-fashioned way -- by driving his tail off on the final lap through oil and dirt and grass and curbs and anything else that got in his way. It was a moment to remember.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: If NASCAR could see the oil, and/or if multiple drivers were reporting it, they should have thrown a caution. But I'm not clear how much NASCAR knew. Ambrose said afterward that "You couldn't see where the oil was at." Rather than a black streak, he said it "was almost like a fine spray." Jeff Gordon was the most vocal critic after spinning out, but second-place Keselowski was hurt by the oil too and deemed it all a rollicking good time. So let's let this one slide as a good show.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Battle it out. From all indications the amount of oil and whether you thought it was a problem depended entirely upon who you were and what you had at stake. NASCAR was adamant that their spotters didn't see it as a problem and, hey, the conditions were the same for everyone. If that day had ended with a 20-minute red flag to clean the track, it would have been a giant anticlimax, no matter what the finish turned out to be.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Had NASCAR seen the oil or known it was there, then officials definitely should have thrown the caution. As we know now, Kyle Busch and others hitting the oil impacted about half dozen scenarios for the Chase wild-card picture. But according to series director John Darby, NASCAR reached out to spotters around the track after Bobby Labonte's car began smoking and got the "all clear" sign. Not sure there was anything else they could so. They weren't aware there was oil on the track until the mayhem had occurred. Even competitors such as Jimmie Johnson said they didn't see oil on the track until it was too late. I hate this expression, but it is what it is. Or in this case was what it was.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Throw the caution and miss out on that finish? No thank you. The racer in me says the caution was necessary. The fan in me says I saw the best race in recent memory. I think the NASCAR tower made the right call. Officials in the tower rely on trackside officials to tell them if there's oil on the racing surface. Robin Pemberton said the tower received no such word, and that was largely corroborated by Ambrose, who described the oil as a fine mist, not a heavy line. Granted, it's a shame for Kyle Busch. It may cost him a spot in the Chase.
Joshua Pritchard, a fan from Cincinnati: For the sake of full disclosure, let me begin my response by saying that I LOVED the ending of Sunday's race. Both Brad K and Ambrose stated it correctly, "That's how racing is supposed to be." However, NASCAR absolutely should have thrown a caution at the end of the race. At least one, if not two, cars were dumping oil all over the track, and Kyle Busch had spun into a narrow patch of grass with the rest of the field barreling toward him. Bush was obviously able to get his car turned around, but it was not a safe situation. You simply cannot promote safety as your key concern and allow drivers to fly around a multi-turn oil slick where other cars are spinning and not throw a yellow. Yes, it was one of the best finishes of the year, but how dangerous was the situation and how much unnecessary damage was done to equipment by holding the flag? This speaks to a larger issue in NASCAR right now that seems to frustrate fans, drivers and teams alike. NASCAR needs to normalize its rules for cautions, green-white-checkers and the end of races in general. To someone watching from the couch every week, it feels like NASCAR makes up these rules as it goes. To hear drivers' reactions, it appears they feel the same way.
Turn 2: The thrilling finish Sunday brought more questions about moving a road-course event into the Chase. About 75 percent of our chatters Sunday said yes. Should one of the road-course races be part of the 10-race playoff, and if so, which one? Or should another road course not on the schedule be added?
Blount: How in the world anyone could watch that race and say NASCAR should eliminate road courses is beyond me. It was bumping, banging, wrecking and battling for the victory on the last lap. So the answer is a resounding yes. Absolutely, a road course should be in the Chase. One problem: Three road courses that have produced great racing recently -- Montreal and Road America in Nationwide, and The Glen in Cup -- all could have weather issues for a Chase race. It would need to be scheduled early in the playoff. Sonoma would work at a later date. But forced to choose, I'd put Montreal, giving the Chase one international event, and take Dover out, eliminating one of the two dates at the Monster Mile.
Hinton: Mixed feelings here. Yes, that would bring road-racing skills into the Chase, but should that be, in a series where 34 of the 36 races are run on ovals? Do the math: One in every 18 races is run on road courses, so does that justify running one in 10 races of the Chase on a left-right circuit? I would advocate a Chase road race only if Cup ran a total of four during the season -- and that's not going to happen.
McGee: I have agreed with this all along. Road courses are the new short tracks. If you want the Chase to truly be representative of the regular season -- and it should -- then you have to have a road course in there. Keep the two we have where we have them, cut a date from one of these ovals that can no longer draw two big crowds, and add a road course among the final 10. I hear they now have a nice facility in Austin, Texas ...
Newton: Yes, yes, yes and yes. Sonoma and Watkins Glen provide two of the most exciting races of the season. It's short track racing with left and right turns. It'll be hard to top the final lap on Sunday. I'd like to see another road course added to the regular season and to the Chase. Get rid of a couple of the 1.5-mile snoozefests. My preference for the Chase would be Montreal. It gets great support for the Nationwide Series and would provide great exposure for the Chase outside the United States.
Smith: I've said the Chase needed a road course since its inception, because, to me, the eventual champion should be well-rounded enough to have to perform on every type of layout. Fans used to disagree with me because they thought road races were boring. I don't hear that complaint anymore. In today's NASCAR, road courses are what Bristol used to be. Watkins Glen is the preferred location because the track is better-suited for stock cars. (That said, Sonoma is still my favorite market.) The Glen is wider, faster and not as technical. Many drivers disagree based on percentages. Right now road courses comprise two of the 26 regular-season races, which equates to about 7 percent of the point total. That would increase to 10 percent of the championship total if a road course were added to the Chase. I love the idea.
Pritchard: Yes. One of the road courses should be included among the 10 Chase races. The logic is pretty simple: Those 10 races are meant to test the 12 best drivers in the sport as they vie for a championship. By the very nature of the Chase format, each type of track should be represented: superspeedway, 1 to 1.5 mile, short track and a road course. I understand the argument against the road course in the Chase, and the obstacle it presents, but I think it rounds out the competition too well to ignore. The easy solution to lessening the "wild card" feel of a road course would be to make it the first race in the Chase. If the road course is first, it minimizes the impact on a driver's postseason by giving them nine races to rebound from a poor performance. In terms of which track should be used, I am very intrigued by Road Atlanta as a potential Chase road course, but I think it would be better to stick to Watkins Glen. I prefer The Glen over Sonoma, or anywhere else, because of the really entertaining races it has produced of late and the fact that more teams appear to have quality notes on Watkins Glen, which also diminishes the "wild card" aspect.
Turn 3: The wild-card battle just got a little wilder with Ambrose earning his first victory of the season. Four drivers with one victory are outside the top 12. Will one of them get a second win to make the Chase, and if so, which one? Or will a driver with one victory make the Chase on points over the other one-win guys?
Blount: This deal is more complicated than the mathematical formula for coldfusion, but it's going to be a blast to watch over the next four races. After studying this situation, it boils down to six drivers vying for one wild-card spot if you assume Kasey Kahne is in with two victories. Even winless Carl Edwards still is in it because a win this weekend at Michigan would place him in the second wild-card position. But my guess is one of the one-victory guys will win again. Jeff Gordon could win at any of these four tracks. Kyle Busch won at Richmond and he has five career victories at Bristol, although that's an unknown now with the new surface. I think Kyle's luck will change and he will win again before the Chase.
Hinton: I surely hope three drivers with one win each don't get shut out of the Chase. That would intensify the outcry from the "win and you're in" crowd. Gordon and Kahne are still my two picks to get a second win before the Chase, and if I have to pick one, it's Gordon.
McGee: I still have my eye on Kyle Busch, regardless of how bummed he was at the end of the Watkins Glen race. He's won on all four of the remaining tracks and could run up front at Bristol and Richmond even if the blast shield was down on his helmet, a la Luke Skywalker.
Newton: One of the four will get a second win. Maybe two. Gordon and Busch both could win one of the final four races. Busch could win twice. He's won five times at Bristol, including four out of five races from 2009 to the spring race of 2011. Busch also has won four of the past seven races at Richmond, including this year's spring race. Gordon also is a five-time winner at Bristol, although he hasn't won there since 2002. I like him to win at Atlanta, where he is the defending champion and a five-time winner.
Smith: Ambrose is great at Bristol. That's a possibility. Gordon has speed everywhere. He could win any of the remaining pre-Chase races. But this is simple to me: Kyle Busch wins Richmond to make the Chase. He's the best ever at Richmond. Ever.
Pritchard: At this point I don't see any of the drivers in question making the Chase on points. Edwards is the only driver within striking distance, but it has been well documented how futile this season has been for him. Just a few weeks off making a crew chief change, the 99 team has done nothing to indicate it is in a position to make it to the Chase. If any of the one-win drivers are going to snatch that second victory, it is going to be Kyle Busch. Although Busch's run of bad luck this season is also well documented, two of the last four tracks that precede the Chase have been good to Kyle. He has five career wins at Bristol and has won three of the five races at Richmond since 2010. Busch is not particularly good at Michigan or Atlanta, but he has a win at both tracks. Aside from the 18, none of the other one-win drivers appear ready to win. Joey Logano's ride into the sunset looks like it has begun, Gordon can't seem to get his luck straightened out, Ambrose is close to being competitive every week but not quite there, and Ryan Newman continues to be the world's most successful nonfactor. If something is going to shake up the Chase standings, it could be the slide of winless Kevin Harvick. Statistically, Atlanta is Harvick's worst track and Michigan is not much better. He is decent at Richmond and average at Bristol, but if Harvick needs a win to secure his spot in the Chase, it probably isn't in the cards at these four tracks.
Turn 4: Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. win again at Michigan this weekend? If not, who is your pick and why?
Blount: Junior should feel good about his chances after dominating the race in June. The man who was surprisingly good there two months ago was Ambrose, winning the pole, leading 15 laps and finishing ninth. But my pick for Sunday is Tony Stewart. He finished second in June and won this year at Fontana, a sister track to Michigan.
Hinton: Yessiree, he can win again there. One broken transmission (Pocono) and one road-course spin (Watkins Glen) do not an Earnhardt fizzle make. That team is still clicking. All of that said, the 48 team is clicking even better, and I got Jimmie Johnson to win Sunday.
McGee: Yes, he certainly can. But I have my eye on The Biff. After a forgettable first half of the summer he's quietly gotten it going over the past month. He hasn't won at Michigan since '01, but when I was researching for the Power Rankings I realized that he's averaged nearly 65 laps led over his past four MIS starts. That's ridonculous. You keep running like that you have to win one eventually.
Newton: He can because he's fast everywhere he goes these days. Do I think he will repeat? No. Earnhardt will be a top-5 contender for sure, but I'm going with the Ford camp of Kenseth, Biffle or even Edwards. Biffle was strong at MIS in June, leading 38 laps, and he seems to be gaining momentum again with top-10s in three of the past four races. It wouldn't surprise me to see an Edwards break through in the Irish Hills, either. He finished 11th there in June and seemingly has found a lot more speed over the past few weeks since making the crew chief change. Kenseth always is a threat at the 2-mile track where he has two wins, 12 top-5s and 17 top-10s in 26 races.
Smith: Sure he can win. He'll be in the hunt. But my pick is Keselowski at home. I'm so impressed with the 2 bunch. They have speed everywhere. They have wonderful chemistry. They have chips on their shoulders and a "don't give a damn" attitude. It's fantastic for the sport.
Pritchard: There's no reason to think that Earnhardt can't win at Michigan, especially if he returns in the Batmobile (with a different paint job, of course). Still, I don't think he will win. I have a sense that Denny Hamlin is set on making this a statement weekend, after back-to-back up-in-flames weeks. However, my official pick is Johnson. After running fifth at Michigan in June, I think the 48 team comes back to the Irish Hills ready to cement its position as the team to beat in the Chase.