Debate: NASCAR's burning questions
Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in racing this week.
Turn 1: One race to make the Chase (mathematically) for seven drivers. Give us your pick and explain why.
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: It just doesn't make a lick of sense to go against Kyle Busch on this one. He has won three of the past five races at Richmond, including earlier this year. Busch also has finished in the top six in the past seven Richmond Cup races. However, strange things can happen on a September night at the Virginia short track. Four drivers probably can take the spot from Rowdy by winning the race -- Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Joey Logano and Marcos Ambrose. Granted, it would be a shocker if Logano or Ambrose won it. Carl Edwards and Paul Menard still are in it, but it's realistically hopeless for them. Gordon, however, has finished in the top three in three of the past six races at RIR. Newman has an RIR victory, but that was nine years ago.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: I'll go with the most relevant expert here, Jeff Gordon, who said, "You don't want to have to go beat Kyle Busch at Richmond," after the Atlanta race. "He's pretty strong there." If this is mostly a duel between Busch and Gordon, then Busch clearly is the favorite, having won at Richmond three times in the past three years. Gordon hasn't won there since 2000.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: This is over, boys. Engrave Joey Logano's name on the trophy and take it to the house. OK, I'm joking. It feels like low-hanging fruit to say Kyle Busch, but given his position in points over Jeff Gordon and his insane career Richmond stats, I don't see any other way to slice it. Finishing ahead of Shrub at RIR is going to be a mighty tall order, a fact stated by Gordon himself during Sunday night's Atlanta postrace news conference.
David Newton, ESPN.com: No contest. Kyle Busch. He's won four of the past seven Richmond races, including the spring race at the three-quarter-mile track. He has an average finish of 2.4 during that span, so if he meets his average and the other drivers with one win don't get to Victory Lane, he's in without doing anything spectacular. Besides, Jeff Gordon had his chance at Atlanta, but instead of bumping Denny Hamlin out of the way to win at all costs he played Mr. Nice Guy. I doubt Busch would have let Hamlin get away that easily.
Turn 2: Denny Hamlin has won back-to-back races and now he's headed to one of his favorite tracks, Richmond. Give us a percentage he makes it three wins in a row and explain why.
Blount: I'll say less than 50-50, only because it's such a difficult thing to do. It hasn't happened in almost five years. Jimmie Johnson won four in a row near the end of the 2007 Chase. And the bubble boys are going to take some crazy chances Saturday night to try to win this one. If Denny is leading on the last restart and someone on the Chase bubble is behind him, that 11 car will get punted harder than a football off Shane Lechler's foot.
Hinton: Give him a 40 percent chance of blitzing all the way into the Chase. He has won two of the past five Richmond races -- 40 percent. He didn't win there last year, but this is the place he dearly loves as his home track and he gives every lap all he's got. And with two in a row, he goes in with all the momentum. I'd make him 50-50 if it weren't for the looming Kyle Busch factor.
McGee: Eighty percent. His home-cooked Richmond record speaks loud and clear. Like a megaphone. He's on a four-race streak of RIR top-10s and he hasn't finished lower than 14th there since spring '08. He's also been lights-out on flat and short tracks all year, from Phoenix to Martinsville to Loudon to Bristol. The numbers, and more importantly Big Mo, are on his side.
Newton: Let's see. He's won two of the past six Richmond races, his worst finish during that span is ninth and he's led more than 250 laps twice. Of course he can win three in a row. I'll be as bold as to say he has a 65 percent chance of doing it. He's the hottest driver on the planet and admits he knew before Sunday's race at Atlanta he had a 50 percent chance of winning. If you're headed to Vegas, put all your cash on the driver who can do the Wobble.
Turn 3: Stewart-Haas Racing lost a major sponsor for 2013 (Office Depot on Tony Stewart's car) and was already struggling to find full sponsorship for Ryan Newman. Danica Patrick is set for next season. Is this team in any long-term trouble? Why, or why not?
Blount: I wouldn't go that far, but this brings up a much bigger issue. I realize Office Depot is going bankrupt, but it's time for everyone in NASCAR to take a serious look at the business model when the defending Cup champ and one of the best drivers in history has to hunt for full sponsorship for next year. Only a handful of cars have one primary sponsor now because companies can't justify paying between $15 million and $20 million a year to stay on the hood for quality teams. The cost of doing business in this sport must change. And as our fearless leader K. Lee Davis said on our race chat Sunday, fewer private jets and motor coaches for team owners and drivers might be a good place to start.
Hinton: Not necessarily. Stewart has one of the top business staffs in racing, headed by Harvard MBA Brett Frood. And the new and improved Smoke has shown he can turn on the charm whenever the suits get a foot in the door with a sponsor. Newman may be a bit tougher proposition, but Stewart can draw sponsorship in a hurry. And he could stage another money-magnet romp in the Chase this fall.
McGee: It certainly isn't good. The team isn't going to be shuttered -- Chevy, Rick Hendrick and Tony's deep pockets will make sure of that. But there are some serious future planning alterations that would appear to be unavoidable. This is proof that no one, no matter how good their stats are or how big of a name they might be, is immune to sponsorship issues. I've had long conversations with a lot of the most influential team leaders in the garage over the past few months and many are stressed out over the thin ice that everyone is selling on right now.
Newton: No, it's just another sign the economy hasn't bounced back yet. And Stewart isn't the first Sprint Cup champion to struggle with finding sponsorship. Matt Kenseth went through it this season as did Jeff Gordon to a degree before AARP Drive to End Hunger stepped forward. This remains a tough economy. Trevor Bayne couldn't draw more sponsorship after winning the 2011 Daytona 500 and Richard Childress Racing had to let Clint Bowyer leave after last season due to lack of sponsorship. SHR is more fortunate than many organizations in that co-owner Gene Haas has Haas Automotive to supplement and Danica Patrick is fully sponsored.
Turn 4: Speaking of sponsorship, let's have fun with one: What company should Tony Stewart be on the phone with this week to secure full sponsorship for the No. 14 in 2013? Explain your answer.
Blount: Well, Trojan comes to mind for NASCAR's most notorious bachelor, although NASCAR's family-friendly police might frown on that one. Or how about his helmet manufacturer? Can't you see the commercials: "Even Tony Stewart angrily shot-putting his lid at a moving race car can't damage one of our helmets."
Hinton: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The way he's been losing money since his IPO, another $18 million a year isn't going to make much difference. Besides, Facebook falls into that prime NASCAR target category of dire need to promote a shaky product -- stock that has fallen by more than half the IPO number. The personalities would click -- neither seems to care much what anybody else thinks. And just think how Smoke could juice up his Facebook page with all sorts of new electronic tirades. This might give him more freedom of speech than any sponsor ever has.
McGee: Last week FX announced a massive, 90-episode renewal of Charlie Sheen's sitcom "Anger Management." Just saying
Newton: Easy, Dairy Queen. He has eaten enough of that stock back home in Columbus, Ind., to own the company. If not that then "The Biggest Loser" reality television show. Smoke attributed his winning the title a year ago to losing "dead weight." Might as well turn that into a marketing ploy.