Debate: NASCAR's burning questions
Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in racing this week.
Turn 1: Rate Saturday's race at Bristol on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the lowest rating, and tell us why you gave it the rating you did.
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: I'll give it an 8. The only thing that kept it from being a 9 for me was it didn't have a thrilling finish, but it had almost everything else -- good old trading paint leading to some wrecked cars and angry drivers, along with some meaningful passing and side-by-side racing. Grinding the top groove didn't have the effect Bruton Smith planned, but the final result was a lot like the old Bristol fans wanted to see. And it also was good to see so many of the seats filled.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I'll take a 7.5. A great finish would have put it over the top. This whole revamped Bristol experience has been a wild science experiment. On one hand, it's been a sociology study because something happens and we immediately run to check to see what the public reaction is, particularly through social media or our ESPN.com RaceCast chats. On the other hand, it's been like a biology experiment where the drivers are the lab rats. We've poked, prodded, and shocked the racers until we finally got the reaction most desired.
David Newton, ESPN.com: I'd give it an 8.5. The only thing that could have made this one better was a green-white-checkered restart. Can you imagine what Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch would have done for a much-needed victory starting close behind Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson? It could have been wild. But this one had all the high drama a fan could want, from Tony Stewart throwing his helmet at Matt Kenseth's car to Danica Patrick's finger-pointing at Regan Smith to exciting racing with spectacular slide moves for the lead inadvertently created by Bruton Smith's grinding the top lane. It might have been the best mistake Smith ever has made.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: 9. I absolutely loved it. It was everything the sport needed right now. The grandstands were all but packed. The racing required adapability to excel, and superstar drivers threw tantrums (and helmets). It was thrilling to watch. Why? The inability for the drivers to completely control their own destiny returned. The element of the unknown is back. That's what made Bristol great and hopefully will make it great again.
Craig Fierro, a fan from Selma, Calif.: From an entertainment standpoint, Bristol was easily a 10. For pure racing, I can't go higher than a 7.5. The first half of the race was frustrating to watch because the only way you could pass was by roughing someone up, pulling a slide job or pit strategy. It was too early for drivers to really do anything crazy. However, once Stewart and Kenseth got together while battling for the lead, and the ensuing helmet toss, it was on! When Smoke pumped his fist to the crowd after "The Throw," it was as if that signaled to the rest of the field, and the fans, that it was time to go. It ultimately led to more daring passes, Danica wagging her finger, and some tantalizing strategy. I guess if you add my 10 for entertainment and 7.5 for racing (I like tracks that have more than one real groove), I end up with nearly a 9, which makes for an enjoyable night of racing.
Turn 2: Rate Tony Stewart's helmet toss onto Matt Kenseth's car from 1-10, and with that out of the way, should Stewart be fined, penalized with a loss of points, or both?
Blount: I never knew Smoke was a Southpaw until that moment. And the throw was a 10, right on the money in the middle of the grill and timed perfectly. I expect Stewart to get an offer to close some games in September for the San Francisco Giants. If he can throw a helmet that accurately and that hard, imagine him firing a baseball off the mound. And what should NASCAR do? Absolutely nothing. No one was placed in any danger. Just a funny moment that added to a wild show.
McGee: 10, simply based on presentation alone. On Saturday night I was going through all the great NASCAR helmet tosses that I can remember, and this one is tops on the list. I still do enjoy the sheer insanity of Robby Gordon strolling out into traffic at New Hampshire in '05 to wing his lid at Michael Waltrip. And no fine for Tony. The only person he put at risk was himself; his pride, had he whiffed, and his rotator cuff, had he used poor pitching mechanics.
Newton: The judge from Charlotte, N.C., gives Stewart a 9.5. He gets a five-tenths of a point deduction for using two hands, but otherwise it was a perfect throw as he nailed the middle of Kenseth's hood. Who knew Smoke was a more accurate thrower than Tim Tebow? As for a penalty, are you kidding me? NASCAR and SMI chairman Bruton Smith should pay Stewart for that moment. More people were talking about that around the water cooler on Monday than about Denny Hamlin winning the race. It's the raw emotion the governing body wanted when it issued the boys-have-at-it edict.
Smith: 8. It was well-executed. The two-handed double-ax-handle form was especially forceful, and his accuracy was spectacular. Had it been a one-handed toss, I'd give him a 10. The most underrated part of all this was the presence of mind to play it up to the crowd while entering the ambulance. Absolutely not on being fined or penalized. Let 'er eat.
Fierro: A 10 is too low of a number to give Stewart's helmet toss. That was fantastic. I bet if you asked everyone in attendance if that made the trip to the track worth it, they would say yes. That's the first thing the majority of fans will remember about this race six weeks from now, let alone years from now. As for any kind of penalty, NASCAR should be ashamed if it gives any kind of one. That's the raw emotion that fans thrive on, that NASCAR admits built the sport (see 1979 Daytona). It would look foolish to penalize him. We see the same montage of temper tantrums in highlight reels every year when Bristol rolls around because it sells tickets. NASCAR can't penalize Smoke, then show "The Throw" nonstop next year when the show rolls into Thunder Valley.
Turn 3: Danica Patrick had a good run at Bristol in the Nationwide Series and was consistently on the lead lap before a wreck took her out in the Sprint Cup race. Rate her weekend from 1-10 and tell us why you gave her that rating.
Blount: Danica surprised me in both races at Bristol. I honestly didn't think she had a chance of finishing on the lead lap in either event, but she came close to going 2-for-2. I'm giving her a 7. She stayed out of trouble in the Nationwide race and moved up 25 spots to finish ninth. And she was holding her own in the Cup race before tangling with Regan Smith and wrecking with 66 laps left. And her little "no-no-no" finger pointing at Smith was like a schoolmarm to the kid who said the dog ate his homework. I might even give her a bonus point for that one.
McGee: I'll take her car number. No, not the Cup car (10), the Nationwide car (7). Both races were a good indicator of where her head is these days. On Saturday night I listened to her on the radio for a long time, the first time I'd done that since early summer, and the questions she's asking now are light years ahead of what they were earlier this year. She understands now that these are crazy-long races and she has to bide her time. In IndyCar it was always "go!" from lap one. That being said, I still think putting her in a full-time Cup ride next year instead of 2014 is a horrible, sadistic mistake.
Newton: An 8. Patrick impressed me more this past weekend than any other since she came to NASCAR. She may have had a top 5-finish in the Nationwide race were it not for a pit road speeding penalty. She may have gotten to the top 15 in the Cup race were it not for Regan Smith's mistake. You may argue all she did was stay out of trouble, but that's not easy at Bristol. Had you told me before the race she was going to finish ahead of Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, I would have had you committed. The only reason she doesn't get higher marks is because this new Bristol is easier to get around than the old Bristol. As many drivers said, it's a little track that now drives like a big track. Patrick already has proved she can drive a big track.
Smith: 9.5. I was extremely impressed. To drive from 34th to ninth in NNS and be on the lead lap with less than 100 to go in a Cup race was more than she ever could have dreamed of. Remember: She was more than 5 mph off the pace in the first Sprint Cup practice Friday. She needed a weekend like this to prop her up emotionally. She admitted Friday that bad luck was weighing on her confidence. She can drive. Her biggest challenge moving forward, to me, is learning what aero-balance is supposed to feel like in a stock car on aero-sensitive tracks.
Fierro: I am neither a Danica fan or basher, but I was so bummed out for her after she was crashed. My wife was watching the race with me, and she and I would occasionally see her name on the ticker and say to each other "Whoa, Danica is 23rd, and still on the lead lap!?" I thought when she started at the tail end of the field, she would get lapped during the first green-flag run. She fought, kept her nose clean and got valuable seat time. She was poised for a legitimate top-20 run. If the wreck didn't happen, I would give her a 10, but since it did (not that it was her fault) I'll knock her weekend down to a 9. By the way, she has now had decent showings at both Darlington and Bristol.
Turn 4: We're off to Atlanta and the wild-card race is getting intense with two races to go until the Chase. Of the wild-card contenders, who has the best shot to get a win at Atlanta, and why?
Blount: Jeff Gordon, without question. He has five career victories at Atlanta, including one year ago. He finished fourth at Texas in April, which is the track most similar to Atlanta. And he's running near the front most of the time. This is his best opportunity, and he knows it. He isn't so hot at Richmond, a place where he hasn't won in 12 years. So it's now or never at Atlanta if Gordon hopes to make the Chase.
McGee: I want to say Carl Edwards, but realistically I think he's no longer a contender. So give me Kasey Kahne to put a big bow atop his wild-card run. He won at AMS in '09, had a car that could have won last year before a blown engine, and since April he's been an absolute missile man on the intermediate tracks.
Newton: Here's the historical breakdown: Kyle Busch (1 win, 3 top-5s in 14 starts), Carl Edwards (3 wins, 8 top-5s in 14 starts), Jeff Gordon (5 wins, 15 top-5s in 38 starts), Joey Logano (zero wins, zero top-5s in five starts), Marcos Ambrose (zero wins, zero top-5s in six starts), Ryan Newman (zero wins, 1 top-5 in 19 starts). I'll go with Gordon, not only because he's the defending race winner and has more AMS wins than the rest, but because he's coming off a strong run at Bristol. Busch already has psyched himself out, saying this past weekend he's not very good at Atlanta. Edwards hasn't been a threat much of anywhere all season. But for the record, I don't see any of these drivers winning. I'm going with Kasey Kahne to win for the third time this season and possibly move into the top 10.
Smith: Kasey Kahne. And the reason why is simple: He has the most speed among the wild-card contenders right now. And Atlanta is one of his best tracks.
Fierro: Kasey Kahne will lock himself into the Chase with style by winning at Atlanta. In fact, I say Kahne not only wins the race, he moves into 10th in the standings, leapfrogging Smoke. Kahne loves Atlanta, and that team is bad fast right now. Also, keep an eye on his shopmate Jeff Gordon. I believe this is finally Jeff's make or break week. Don't forget he won at Atlanta a year ago in a classic finish battling Jimmie Johnson. The Hendrick cars are all dialed in right now, and if their engine issues at Michigan were just a fluke thing, then Jeff could move ahead of Kyle Busch for the final Chase spot. Gordon better do something this week, because Kyle has the advantage at Richmond.