Debate: NASCAR's burning questions
Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in racing this week.
Turn 1: Should Hendrick Motorsports be concerned after four of its engines had issues at Michigan?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: It's probably just a one-week fluke from a bad set of valve springs, but you can bet the engine department guys will be going over everything this week with a fine-tooth comb. Michigan is notorious for being hard on engines, but this obviously was an internal problem. However, with a lot of high-RPM tracks coming up -- Atlanta, Charlotte and Texas, for example -- and the Chase looming, the Hendrick guys want to be sure it's a one-time occurrence.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: That's five official engine failure DNFs for HMS this year, so not a lot, but the timing of the Michigan issues isn't good. Four of those came on big tracks, two each for Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. The Chase is packed with big tracks. So, yeah, it'll cause some sleepless nights up in the engine shop. But the good news is they have the resources to identify the problem and fix it in a hurry.
David Newton, ESPN.com: The motorheads who work on the engines always are concerned even when things are going great. But let's be honest: HMS has arguably the best engine department in the Sprint Cup Series. If there is an issue, they'll figure it out. Still, four engine failures in one weekend between HMS and Stewart-Haas Racing were one fewer than they had combined for the year prior to that. It's not what you want heading into the Chase, but the good news is it happened prior to the Chase. And, remember, Michigan is a track that traditionally is hard on engines. It also wouldn't surprise me if there was some experimenting going on to find a little extra before the Chase.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Absolutely it should be a concern. While Michigan presents the most sustained RPM on the circuit, there are several tracks in the Chase that present similar circumstances. DNFs will cost a team a championship. Just look at Carl Edwards in 2011. He had the highest-average finish in Chase history and still failed.
Turn 2: Has Roush Fenway Racing re-established itself as a serious contender for the Sprint Cup crown?
Blount: This answer requires a breakdown: Greg Biffle, yes; Carl Edwards, no; Matt Kenseth, maybe. I'm not sure Biffle ever stopped being a serious contender, but earning Ford's first victory since April (and, yes, Sunday was a bit of good fortune with Johnson's engine failure) has to help the confidence of the No. 16 team. Edwards has shown no indication of being a true contender this year. Kenseth has, but I still question whether he can get it done as a lame duck.
McGee: Yes. As with any sport, so much of your success in the postseason is about momentum (I'm looking at you, New York Giants). Anyone paying attention to the RFR cars over the past month knows they've been rolling, particularly Biffle. But we know they're money at Michigan. They have been forever. Now they need to solve some of their troublesome tracks that are inside the Chase, particularly Martinsville and New Hampshire.
Newton: RFR already was a serious contender with Biffle and Kenseth having combined to lead the standings 19 of 23 weeks. When you talk about engines, those built by Roush-Yates may be the only ones that can challenge Hendrick for power and consistency. There's also a lack of confidence at RFR. "We will be a factor when it comes down to [the season finale]. I promise you that." Biffle said after winning Sunday at Michigan. And, remember, only once (2009) in the past five years has a Roush driver not finished in the top four in points. Edwards was twice second. So, yes, RFR is a serious contender.
Smith: When did they ever leave the conversation? Kenseth has been at or near the top of the standings all season and that won't change. Martinsville will determine his season and that of Roush Fenway Racing. Imagine if he were to win it all going out the door. Bitter sweet, no?
Turn 3: Will grinding the top groove make a difference in the racing at Bristol?
Blount: It's bound to be better than it has been, but I don't think we're going to see the old Bristol days of wild bumping, banging and tempers flaring. But Jack Roush, not fully able to enjoy the moment of Biffle's victory, came in the media center Sunday at Michigan and said that's exactly what he expects: "I will go to bed tonight not thinking about what happened today, but worrying about what will happen at Bristol when we go into that crash-fest we are going to have down there."
McGee: It will definitely make a difference, I just hope it's a good difference and not a bad difference. Talking to teams at Michigan, there isn't a ton of confidence that the work will create an improvement as much as it does a mess. Consider Roush's words during his postrace news conference (see above). Yikes.
Newton: It definitely will make the track narrower, so we likely won't see three-wide racing and passing in the upper groove near the wall. But I'm skeptical it will make such a big difference that we'll see drivers having to move each other out of the way to pass as was common before the track was reconfigured in 2007. There still will be two grooves, and with the progressive banking still in place that will allow passing without bumping. Said Jeff Burton after testing there in June, "Taking the groove out moves the track closer to what it used to be. Taking the banking out is what is going to make the difference."
Smith: Most drivers expect to see competition akin to that which made Bristol must-see: physical and angry. I certainly hope that happens. What's good for drivers isn't always good for fans. And the "new Bristol" is one such instance. NASCAR needs Bristol to be angry. The drivers make all that money for a reason.
Turn 4: Brad Keselowski has won the past two Bristol races. Kyle Busch won four of the previous five. Has Brad K. become the new king of Bristol?
Blount: Neither of them can claim that crown now. Kyle was king in recent years at repaved Bristol until Brad's success lately. Now we have the newer Bristol after the changes this summer to try to get back to the old Bristol. OK, I'm getting confused. But no one knows who will emerge as the new king until we see just what the latest changes do to the racing.
McGee: Yes, but it could be the shortest reign ever because of the topic in Turn 3. Then again, karma's got to be on his side. Dude can't finish second two weeks in a row like that without a break finally coming his way, right?
Newton: The numbers don't lie. In the past two Bristol races Keselowski has led 321 laps en route to two wins. Busch has finished 14th and 32nd, leading only four laps. Even before Keselowski got on this win streak, he never finished outside the top 19 and finished all but one lap at the "World's Fastest Half-Mile Track." But before he gets too comfortable wearing the crown, don't forget that in the five previous Bristol races Busch won four times. And in the previous six races there he had an average finish of 2.5 and led an amazing 1,297 laps. There's a lot of royalty there.
Smith: No. Keselowski is certainly worthy of this conversation. His confidence is at an all-time high. When confidence meets talent it creates lightning in a bottle, like we see with the 2 car. But Kyle Busch will win Bristol. He has a chip on his shoulder, and I think he's gonna dust 'em.