Debate: NASCAR's burning questions
Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in racing this week.
Turn 1: Will a driver who is not in the Chase win one of the final nine races on the schedule? If not, explain why. If so, pick the driver and the race and explain why.
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: I'll say no. If you judge it strictly on what has happened earlier this year, probably not. Eight of the nine remaining racetracks had events earlier this year. Seven of those were won by Chasers. And Tony Stewart won at Homestead last year. Non-Chaser Ryan Newman won at Martinsville in April, but that was a bit of a fluke after a crazy late restart. Almost anyone can win at Talladega, but everywhere else, Kyle Busch is the one real threat to do it. Even though 31 other drivers start each race, only four or five have any realistic shot at winning.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: We'll probably see a non-Chaser win, a la Clint Bowyer at Talladega last year and Jamie McMurray at Charlotte the year before that. Who and where? Cartier and Tiffany in a joint effort with Waterford couldn't produce that kind of crystal ball. So here's a stab: Kyle Busch barely lost to Brad Keselowski at Talladega in the spring, so let's reverse the fortunes and say the roulette ball falls into the 18 slot at Casino de Alabama in October.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Yes, and not just one driver or one race. I think Kyle Busch and Newman could both win races and I think Busch in particular is totally motivated to win multiple checkered flags and kind of blow things up during the Chase. I have my eye on Dover and Phoenix for Busch. Newman is the defending champ at Martinsville and is very good at New Hampshire.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Yes. Only once (2008) since the Chase was implemented in 2004 has a non-Chase driver not won one of the final 10 races. There are two very talented non-Chase drivers in Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, who are capable of winning almost any week. There is Talladega where anything can happen, although one of the current 12 Chase drivers has won the past five races there. Four of the first 27 races were won by a driver not among these 12, so you have to figure there will be at least one out of the final 10. I'll predict Busch wins at Talladega. He was second there in the spring and he won't be driving just to survive like many of the Chase drivers will.
Turn 2: Imagine NASCAR without Chicagoland winner Brad Keselowski. What kind of impact is he having on the sport?
Blount: Only a Dale Earnhardt Jr. title would be better. Just look at Keselowski's year: His season-opening Twitter explosion at Daytona; saying all drugs should be banned after the Allmendinger situation; indirectly calling out the Hendrick boys on car manipulation and forcing a rule change; his unapologetic water-bottle toss at Atlanta; starting the Chase with a victory. Keselowski always is entertaining, on and off the track. In an era where so many drivers guard their opinions in fear of angering a sponsor, Brad K. just lets it fly and says what he thinks. Agree or disagree, everyone wants to listen. But he does it based on rational thought without unfiltered anger, a lesson the Busch brothers should have learned long ago.
Hinton: There hasn't been such a guarantee of a rollicking good time whenever a driver walks into a room since the primes of Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace. The guy lights up racetracks and then lights up winners' news conferences. NASCAR without him? Same old blah blah blah blah as we heard for nearly a decade from fans about vanilla personalities. Since he burst onto the scene in 2009, the moaning and groaning and "bo-ring" complaints sure have ebbed. Now he's turning his act from the occasional to the full-time, and spreading the pizzazz throughout NASCAR. It's all good and it's all needed.
McGee: A growing impact. His willingness to say whatever is on his mind and then, just as importantly, back it up on the racetrack appears to be winning people over. There hasn't been a 20-something guy with the ability to attract new fans to come along in a while. The difference between BK and, say, Kyle Busch, is that he was handed a chance to be the good guy early on via the Carl Edwards feud. Some say that the Twitter thing is overplayed, but its impact can't be discounted. He also makes people mad, which is just as valuable as making them love you. Selfishly, as a reporter I love the guy because he's tape-recorder gold whenever he talks.
Newton: It would be a lot less exciting for sure. Keselowski says what's on his mind and dares to challenge the hierarchy of NASCAR perhaps more than any driver. He stood up to veterans Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin when they attacked him for his aggressive style entering the sport. He scoffed at tradition by showing up at the Myers Brothers Luncheon in Las Vegas last year wearing jeans and an untucked shirt while the rest of the 2011 Chase class wore suits. His tweets from the track after Juan Pablo Montoya hit the jet dryer during the Daytona 500 were legendary in social media lore and got more attention than the race itself. He brings back that old-school bravado that the sport is missing, that the sport needs. And he backs it all up with a boatload of talent that has him in position to win his first title.
Turn 3: Jeff Gordon saw his luck turn bad again at Chicagoland. Did his chance at a fifth championship come to an end when his throttle got stuck and he wrecked? Why or why not?
Blount: Probably, but it's not impossible to come back and win the title after a bad start. Jimmie Johnson finished 25th in the 2010 Chase opener and 39th in 2006, but came back to win the championship in both years. However, JJ started both those playoffs in second place. He had five regular-season wins in 2010 and four in 2006. In the six other Chase seasons, no other Chase champ finished worse than sixth in the first playoff race. So, yes, Gordon is done.
Hinton: It's not over, but it's over. It's not THAT he went out Sunday, but HOW he went out. A stuck throttle is just about as scary as it gets for a driver. Bobby Labonte did recover from such a fright to win a championship in 2000. But fuel injection was supposed to cut down drastically on stuck throttles, and now such a simple thing as a return spring rears its head. That can't help a driver's confidence. To come back now, Gordon would have to climb past 11 tough competitors with the wind out of his sails.
McGee: Toast. I hate it for the guy, but he's a full race worth of points behind and the odds are slim to none that all 11 guys in front of him will fall that far back. I've already heard people start with stories of "Yeah, but Jimmie Johnson finished 39th in the first Chase race of '06 and 25th in '10 and still won both titles!" True, but that was under the old points system. This new system makes you pay for a bad day in a much bigger way.
Newton: It doesn't look good, but don't slam the door on Gordon yet. He was 42 points behind Kyle Busch 10 races before the regular-season finale at Richmond. He finished three points ahead of Busch for the final wild-card spot, so making up 47 points in nine races isn't impossible. As we've seen in most Chase years, almost every driver has at least one bad race. Jimmie Johnson was 156 points out -- about the same deficit as Gordon under the current point system -- with six races remaining in 2006 and won it all. Gordon was in position for a solid top-5 before his throttle stuck on Sunday at Chicagoland and sent him into the wall. It would have been his fourth straight top-5 coupled with a third and two seconds to finish the regular season. It will take an almost flawless run the rest of the way, but it can be done.
Turn 4: Team owner Roger Penske's success in Indy car racing is unmatched, but he has never won a Sprint Cup title. Now Keselowski is atop the points standings. What would a Cup title do for Penske's legacy?
Blount: Penske's shining legacy as one of the best team owners in the history of auto racing, if not the best ever, is set whether he wins a Cup title or not. But a Cup championship would be a great way to cap a remarkable career for one of the classiest gentlemen ever to grace the sport. And it also would place a much-needed positive reflection on what has been a difficult couple of years with a lot of controversy in his NASCAR program, from Kurt Busch's dismissal to the surprising move to jettison Dodge and AJ Allmendinger's drug suspension.
Hinton: It would cement his place as the most diversified car owner ever in American racing, but much more: It would be a reward for all those decades Penske has spent as one of NASCAR's best citizens. From the 1970s to this very day, the man has steadfastly refused to tolerate cheating on his teams. It's only fair now that NASCAR should give something back to the man who has given so much class and dignity to NASCAR, cleanly, above and beyond the call.
McGee: I've never believed that "The Captain" needs any sort of validation in his life, business or racing. If he hung it up today we'd be singing the same praises to him, Cup or no Cup. But I do think that, as cool-headed as he always appears, on the inside the thought of not having that title really eats at his gut. That's a testament to him as a competitor. I'm pretty sure if I'd won 15 Indy 500s and was worth $1.1 billion I'd be on a beach somewhere, but he just keeps pushing.
Newton: Penske always will be best known for his dominance in the IndyCar Series -- that is his passion. But a title in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series would solidify him as the greatest owner in all of motorsports. No longer will we be able to say he's won 23 national championships -- 12 in IndyCar -- but he's never won one in NASCAR's premier series. There no longer will be that asterisk beside his name.