Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

Originally Published: October 9, 2012
ESPN.com

Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in racing this week.

Turn 1: Dale Earnhardt Jr. said that the last-lap wreck at Talladega was "ridiculous" and "bloodthirsty" and that incidents like that at the restrictor-plate tracks will damage the sport in the long run. Do you agree or disagree?

Jamie McMurray
Sam Sharpe

Terry Blount, ESPN.com: Yes, on the ridiculous and bloodthirsty part, but that's nothing new for the restrictor-plate races. And I don't know about damaging the sport. This stuff has been going on for more than two decades now. It's the whole watching-a-train-wreck mentality. Let's face it. People watch because they know they probably will see a big, crazy crash at the end. You could change it by taking out the banking (a multimillion-dollar project) but you know what you would have when it was finished? Pocono. No thanks.

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Is he kidding? No, he was just miffed -- understandably -- after getting wrecked out and plummeting to 11th in the standings. If the "big ones" haven't damaged the sport so far, then the biggest one on the last lap Sunday won't. For better or worse -- I think for worse -- that's what keeps TV audiences watching Talladega. Jeff Gordon doesn't like to go there anymore, but admits that if he were a fan he'd love this stuff.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I always try to avoid comparing Junior to Senior, but, man, he sure sounded like his daddy right then, didn't he? ("They took NASCAR Winston Cup racing and made it some of the sorriest racing. Mr. Bill France Sr. probably rolled over in his grave!") No, I don't think plate racing is what will damage the sport in the long run. There are bigger issues that need to be addressed. If the Daytona 500 looks like that in February, people will love it. It's been around 25 years, and, breaking news: It ain't going anywhere.

David Newton, ESPN.com: I agree it's bloodthirsty. I disagree that it damages the sport. Totally. Fans waited all day for that moment. They crave it. It's unlike anything else they'll see all season. It's why Talladega is Talladega, why people tune in to that race and don't tune in to others. There is an adrenaline rush similar to what people got when they packed the Colosseum in ancient Rome to watch the gladiators. Occasionally, fans want to see modern-day carnage. Not death. Not injury. But they like to see cars and parts scattered across the track to the point it resembles a junkyard war zone. Had that moment not occurred Sunday, the conversation would be about what a boring race it was, how drivers need to stop hanging around the back hoping to avoid the "big one." But the big one made most forget everything that happened before that moment. Do we need it every week? Hardly. My heart couldn't take it any more than Earnhardt's could. But for a couple of days out of the season, it's absolutely good for the sport.

Turn 2: Many of the Chase contenders spent much of the race at Talladega riding around in the back of the field in hopes of missing the "big one." Is that really good strategy? And, as Brad Keselowski said last week, does that cheat the fans? Why, or why not?

Blount: Sure it cheats them, although I think Brad did a little sandbagging himself at times Sunday. This is what Dega has evolved into: some contending drivers hanging back not really racing for most of the event, then pressing forward near the end. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. But it's disappointing to have a race in which the best drivers can pretend to race for more than 80 percent of the event. Really, almost everyone is doing that in some fashion. Everyone just sort of plays possum for about 170 laps of the 188-lap event. Yes, there's lots of passing for the lead, but fans aren't stupid. They know it's meaningless until the end. So the paying customer is buying about 20 laps of serious racing. But I don't blame NASCAR because it doesn't know how to fix it. No one does.

Tony Stewart
AP Photo/Dale Davis

Hinton: It's not really a strategy anymore except for perhaps Jimmie Johnson. The rest play it by ear, as Tony Stewart did. This time, he laid back for a while, then wrecked at the front. It's like Matt Kenseth said, "As you saw today and you've seen a lot of times, there is no safe place." Cheating the fans? By trying to get out of that place with a chance left in the Chase? Uh-uh. If fans are going to demand this kind of racing, drivers and teams have a right to try to survive it.

McGee: I don't like it. At all. And I think it doesn't work just as much if not more than it works. But do I understand why a team tries it? Yes. During my Monday chat, a fan asked whether I thought sponsors would be unhappy because that style of racing also shorted them in TV coverage. Nope, not if that strategy ends up keeping them on the front burner of Chase title contention all the way into Homestead. Same with the fans. You might hate your guy looking like a pansy for 450 miles, but if he wins the race or the Cup, doesn't that make it worth it? I'm with Clint Bowyer. Cut the length of the race in half. Make "go time" happen faster and they can't do that for very long.

Newton: Brad K was right on the money when he said: "I guarantee you everybody that runs in the back at Talladega is running around going, 'Man, I hope they f---ing wreck.' That's what they're thinking. 'Cause that's the only thing that makes sense.'' Call it strategy. Call it being smart. Call it anything you want. It's not what fans pay to see. Fans pay to watch their favorite driver lead laps and go for the win, not hang around the back like it's a retirement tour hoping everyone ahead of him wrecks so he can survive.

Turn 3: Last week, you eliminated a driver from Chase contention. This week, let's eliminate two. Who are they, and why?

Blount: I'll go with the two guys who haven't won a race all year: Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick. But the truth is nothing has changed. It was a three-man race entering Talladega -- Keselowski, Johnson and Denny Hamlin -- and it still is, despite the last-lap carnage. Look at Kenseth. He wins the race, and he's still last in the Chase. At this stage of the playoff, a driver probably needs to be within five points, times the numbers of races remaining (30 points), or one position, times the races remaining (sixth or better). That formula will change, but right now, it leaves three other guys with a Hail Mary shot -- Kasey Kahne, Bowyer and Gordon.

Matt Kenseth
Kevin Liles/US Presswire

Hinton: Kenseth and Dale Jr. Kenseth because Talladega was probably his last-gasp win because Jack Roush has put so much emphasis on plate racing this season. Still, Kenseth is in last place, and now it's back to the non-plate tracks and trouble. Junior pretty much called his own shot going into Talladega, win or whatever else happened didn't matter. Now he's so far back, 11th, that not even a surprise win later on would do him much good.

McGee: Despite the win, I still say Kenseth is gone. My next two are Harvick and Truex. Yes, there are guys lower or essentially equal to them in the standings, but the 29 just feels like it is headed in a different direction from most of those other guys, and history says Truex isn't one to use Charlotte as a launching pad.

Newton: Last week, I eliminated Kenseth and he won at Talladega. He still has no chance 62 points back, so he stays eliminated. It's time to bury Earnhardt (minus-51) and Harvick (minus-49) now. You can't get back in this without winning races. Sorry, Junior Nation, as consistent as your driver was in the regular season, he still has only one win since 2008. Harvick is winless this season and really hasn't been a threat to win more than a couple of times. Cross them both off your list. That means one likely will win at Charlotte.

Turn 4: What do you make of the Kurt Busch situation at Talladega, where his actions eventually led to NASCAR parking him early because he took his helmet off after an accident and was unable to hear instructions to stop?

Blount: Parking him early meant nothing. The car was done as for as racing competitively. Honestly, I think this was a far bigger deal because this was a Busch brother than it would have been for anyone else. But man, these two guys sure have a knack for making themselves a target for ridicule. The bottom line is you don't take your helmet off as long as you're in the car and moving. That's a no-brainer. Insert your own joke here.

Busch
Rob Grabowski/US Presswire

Hinton: He said it best himself: "This is the way my life works. … Now I'm in trouble …" I now doubt it will ever be possible for Kurt to control his emotions inside a damaged race car but don't know just how steep the slippery slope will be for him. Sometimes I think late NASCAR czar Bill France Jr. could have dealt with Kurt. Then again, I suspect France could have parked Busch for multiple races or even a season and Kurt still might come back and blow up.

McGee: With all due respect to the official explanation, he was parked because he could have broken a safety worker's arm. Spare me the comparisons to Dale Earnhardt at Daytona in 1997. He had rolled over, got back in it, and drove it back around. But he'd had a conversation with the safety crew about it before he got back in, had them put the net up and drove off when it was all clear. Besides, Kurt is way beyond benefit-of-the-doubt territory. And his "That's just the competitor" explanation is weak. Fine, then by logic let's just never give anyone a pit road speeding penalty or let them put more jet fuel in the fuel line. It's just the competitor in them.

Newton: Drivers involved in wrecks are required to ride in the ambulance to the infield care unit, too. Nobody is screaming that Johnson rode away from his last-lap crash in the door of Earnhardt's car. Look, had it been anybody but Kurt Busch -- OK, maybe brother Kyle -- we wouldn't be discussing this. Kurt took his helmet off and got out of his car to survey the damage, then crawled back in and headed for the garage. His day basically was done anyway. That he couldn't hear NASCAR officials asking him to stop is no big deal. He didn't put anybody in harm's way. He didn't say or do anything detrimental to the sport. This is a nonissue. But if you want to make it one, then we should pick on Johnson for hitching a ride, as well.

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