Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

Originally Published: October 16, 2012
ESPN.com

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

Turn1: Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. return to the driver's seat after a two-week absence? Should he just take the rest of the season off? And do you put any credence into the talk that he might retire?

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Terry Blount, ESPN.com: I'd say it's 50-50 on Junior getting back in the car at Martinsville, a place that almost guarantees some bumping and banging that would bounce your head around. But I do expect him back in the 88 before the season ends, if for nothing else than to get everyone off this retirement talk nonsense. Our race chat Saturday night was filled with people saying Dale Jr. will never race again. If that's true, then a lot of professional people are lying about his condition. Not likely. He could just walk away, saying he wants to quit, but why? Contracts worth millions of dollars are signed with sponsors, and he proved this season he could contend again. He'll be back.

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: I think he's processing all of that as we speak. I wouldn't be surprised if he sat out the rest of the season. I seriously doubt -- but wouldn't rule out the possibility -- that he'll retire. He's done in the Chase, so whether he takes a rest until February might well depend on the advice of Dr. Jerry Petty, long the most trusted neurosurgeon in NASCAR. It certainly wouldn't hurt Junior to take a vacation, in many ways. Look: The man is weary of the burdens he has carried for so long. Some months off might rekindle his desire -- but then again, there's a remote possibility that he'll find himself happier away from all of the craziness and just decide to stay away. Who could possibly blame him?

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Retirement? No. Should he take the rest of the season off? Yes. The one thing I learned last week talking to the brain specialists who were at the track (and another via phone) is that what we don't know about head injuries is much larger than what we do know. So stay out until testing begins in January. What would he gain from coming back? We know he's finishing 12th in points, no matter what. We already knew he wasn't going to win the Cup. So do like other athletes for once and sit down. The timing of all this being in October actually works out. Take advantage of it. 

David Newton, ESPN.com: Yes. Look, Earnhardt didn't report the symptoms because he wanted to sit out for one week, much less two. He was as surprised as anybody when Dr. Jerry Petty told him he was out. And Earnhardt said if it were up to him, he would have driven at Charlotte. From what I'm told, neck and back pain suffered in wrecks at Kansas and Talladega also might have contributed to the headaches, although there's really no way to know because NASCAR doesn't do neurological baseline testing. Regardless, if Earnhardt is cleared -- and I'm told that is likely -- he'll be back. No need to take the rest of the season off unless he's told there is a chance for permanent damage, and there's no indication of that. Retire? He was more energized this year than ever. He believes he can win a title and he'll be back trying to win one.

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Retire? What the … ??? Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not going to retire. I expect he'll return at Martinsville, but if I were advising him, I'd suggest he sat the rest of the season to get fully healed up with no questions asked. Concussions are fickle. And when Rick Hendrick used the word "catastrophic" during the news conference to describe what the doctors said might happen if Junior were to have another concussion immediately, that's all I needed to hear.

The 2012 championship is gone. The season's impact is not. Earnhardt is relevant. He is competitive. He is a contender. Two years ago, those words for him were fleeting. There is tremendous promise for years to come from Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte. Junior is devastated. You could see it all over his face at the news conference. Any driver would be. We heard Brad Keselowski say sitting out is a driver's worst nightmare. Then Martin Truex Jr. echoed it. Then Kasey Kahne said the very thought of it was horrible. I discussed Junior's situation at length with Ricky Craven, whose career was disrupted by concussions. He suggests Junior sit out the remainder of the season, too. The reason? "Show me the upside. Because I don't see an upside." Agreed.

Turn2: A lot of empty seats at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday night. What does it say about NASCAR when there's that kind of crowd in the sport's "hometown," and how can this be fixed?

Blount: It says the economy still is struggling and people want more for their money than long green-flag runs without much happening. It also says that the so-called "cookie-cutter" tracks need the public perception to change about their much-maligned 1.5-mile ovals, whether it's accurate or not. Many fans believe the racing on the intermediate ovals isn't so hot. Sixteen years ago, the Cup series had two 1.5-mile tracks. Now it has eight. They aren't going away, so NASCAR needs to change the cars to improve the product (in the fans' eyes) at these tracks. Maybe the new car next year and the upcoming rule changes (including more testing) will help.

Charlotte Motor Speedway
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images/NASCAR

Hinton: First, Charlotte is overrated as NASCAR's "hometown." Yes, it's the base of operations, but the city itself -- a wannabe Atlanta -- has diversified its sports and entertainment tastes. As in Atlanta, staying away from "car races," as they call them in posh South Charlotte, has become sort of chic.  Charlotte Motor Speedway itself is really just another 1.5-miler that has never been terribly conducive to close, slam-bang racing -- what today's fans think they want most. CMS' overhype of underperformance might finally be taking its toll on attendance from outside the area and the region, which for decades filled a lot of those seats. Some of the best marketing people I know think lower attendance is "the new normal" for NASCAR, because tracks vastly overbuilt seats in the 1990s and the boom simply couldn't last.

McGee: I have always believed that "destination tracks" like Charlotte, Bristol and Daytona were the places that stood the most to lose from the high fuel prices because they rely so heavily on out-of-town and out-of-state visitors. On Friday afternoon, I talked with a group of guys from Michigan who used to come to both CMS races in an RV. Now they come to only one, drive a minivan and sleep in a tent. The RV is covered up in the driveway at home. "Costs too damn much to drive it down the street, let alone Charlotte." And as much as I like Saturday night racing, this time of year, let's keep it on Sunday afternoons. 

Newton: There have been a lot of empty seats at most tracks. Period. That the race was in Charlotte has no significant bearing on that because there really is no home team in NASCAR. It just magnifies what is an issue in most sports: that fans aren't attending live events like they used to because of the economy and other reasons. One solution would be to black out races in local markets unless they sell say, 90 percent of the tickets. Then those within an hour or so of the track would have more incentive to attend because that's the only way they could see the race. And remember, tracks in general overbuilt in their heyday, just as they did in the NFL, Major League Baseball and other sports. So much of NASCAR's problem is perception. A track that seats 140,000 can have 70,000 or 80,000 and it looks bad, but getting that many to attend an event in these times still is pretty good.

Smith: Scary. To me, this is a disturbing trend that suggests tickets cost too much and travel costs too much and hotels cost too much and for whatever reason the racing isn't as entertaining to the blue-collar fan anymore. The racing is way better than it was in 1985, but many fans have delusions of grandeur that it was better back in the day. It means many fans don't relate as well to their heroes as they once did. They used to look at photos of Dale Earnhardt throwing hay bales and Harry Gant roofing houses and think, "Man, that's me." And then they'd see those same men strap into steel rocket ships on Sunday afternoon and defy death. Speaking of Sunday afternoon, that's another thing, here: When I was a kid the only time you saw Davey Allison was when you watched the race. These days, you can see Jeff Gordon whenever you please, 24 hours a day.

NASCAR is like country music: The rough edges that made a lot of fans fiercely loyal are now polished to a shine. That's great for some folks. But don't alienate the boys with dirty jeans. I'm all for a guy making $8 million -- go get every single dime you can get while you can get it. But the guy on third shift can't relate. Just can't. He's busting his ass to keep the lights on at home. I love NASCAR racing as much as anyone ever has and appreciate what some high-ranking officials are trying to accomplish with the new car, as well as new competition and marketing strategies. But above all else, the empty-seats trend tells me there's too much NASCAR. Charlotte hosts three big-time events every season. If it hosted one race, it'd be packed to the ceiling. I believe that. It might never be like it was. Society has changed. Entertainment has changed. Attention spans have changed.

Turn 3: Are we seeing too many fuel mileage races, and is watching these guys conserve fuel instead of race all-out good for the sport?

Blount: No, but refer to the previous question and answer. Long green-flag runs at big tracks equal more fuel-mileage races. The fewer the cautions, the more chances teams will try to make it to the end on fumes. I really don't mind fuel-mileage races because it adds some drama at the end when the field is spread out and someone has a chance to win by five seconds or more if everyone can make it on fuel. And fuel-mileage options have increased because technological advances enable teams to better calculate just how far they can go, although it didn't work for Brad Keselowski Saturday night. But it did make things more interesting.

Clint Bowyer
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Hinton: I love fuel-mileage races because they're very suspenseful if you're paying close enough attention. It's a throwback to the days when even a leader by a lap could fall out at any moment with a blown engine. But then again, I love 24-hour sports car races, too, where strategy and endurance always trump close racing. But I don't claim to be the average fan, and those folks, the most important, seem to despise fuel-mileage races. I'm not at all sure what NASCAR could do about it, though.

McGee: Yes, too many. I like to have one or two thrown into a season just for the sake of strategic variety. But when guys are rolling off pit road 30 laps into the race and crew chiefs are already telling them, "Save me some fuel!" that's a bit much. I was told there would be no math on this exam.

Newton: I love fuel-mileage races. As I've said before, I get that same tense, nervous feeling watching these guys try to stretch a tank of fuel that I get when the empty light is on in my street car and I'm 20 miles from the next gas station. Not that I want to see them every week, and two of the past three in the Chase isn't ideal. What I didn't like about Saturday night's fuel-mileage race was there wasn't a lot of passing or action. And these guys began trying to conserve fuel with 120 laps to go and at least one stop left. That I didn't care for. But in this world where crew chiefs and engineers can calculate to the fraction of a drop of fuel in the tank, not much is going to change.

Smith: No. The drivers are driving as hard as ever. They're racing like hell for 20th position. I mean, for the majority of the race at Charlotte the top four in points were the top four on the racetrack. The competition is so even right now. And therefore wins are fleeting and passing is extremely tough, so the Paul Wolfes of the world are finding and creating new strategies to gain every possible advantage. Fuel mileage is just one of them. (I happen to find fuel strategy interesting, personally.)

Turn 4: Regan Smith, Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger were familiar faces in unfamiliar drivers' seats at Charlotte. Which one came out the best, and why?

Blount: Actually, it was a giant dud after all the expectations leading into the first show in new rides for these guys. Smith gets an incomplete, but it looked like he had a shot at a top-10 finish before the engine blew early in the 88 Chevy. So this weekend at Kansas is sort of a do-over for him. Busch and Dinger were kind of blah. Look at it like this: Busch finished four spots worse than Smith did in the 78 at Charlotte in May (21st instead of 17th). AJ finished three spots better than Busch did in the 51 at the Coca-Cola 600 in May (24th instead of 27th). No one gets a gold star from me. Let's give it another week.

Regan Smith
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Hinton: Smith, because he came out effectively with a non-decision due to the early blown engine. He conceded the possibility he might have over-revved during a pit stop, but I think the possibility is even higher that Hendrick was using some experimental parts in the 88, which has now become mostly an R&D car now that the Chase is out the window and Earnhardt is sitting. Smith is too experienced a driver to over-rev so much that a stronger engine wouldn't have survived it.

McGee: Smith. Before his engine went kaboom, he was flying. With a couple of days of testing prior to the real race weekend beginning at Kansas, it's not a stretch to expect big things from the 88 car on Sunday.

Newton: I'm going to go with Regan Smith even though he had the worst finish among the three, at 38th. But that's because his engine blew. Before that, Smith had taken a car that qualified 26th and moved into the top 15. He was a legitimate threat for a top-10 finish, showing he's almost as capable -- maybe just as capable -- as Dale Earnhardt Jr. in that car. The other two are a wash. Kurt Busch finished 21st in the Furniture Row car that was 23rd in the standings with Smith. Smith actually had gone fifth, 17th and 16th in his last three races for Furniture Row, so you could say Busch had the worst day. Allmendinger finished 24th in a car that was 26th in the standings that Busch drove to an average finish of 29.4 in the previous five races. Further evidence, I might add, that the move to Furniture Row for the most part was a lateral move.

Smith: Allmendinger. Many folks wrote him off after the drug suspension. One unnamed source even told our David Newton that Allmenginer was basically a liar. And regarding Allmendinger's claim that he would complete the Road to Recovery Program by the end of August, that same unnamed source told Newton: "That's not going to happen." It sure was close. The unnamed source made it sound like it'd be 2017 before Allmendinger could race again. Allmendinger was in fact reinstated to race on Sept. 18, and back in a Cup car less than a month later. Everybody likes a comeback story …

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