Debate: NASCAR's burning questions
Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in racing this week.
Turn 1: There is a lot of talk that the two best crew chiefs in NASCAR are Chad Knaus for the No. 48 team and Paul Wolfe for the No. 2 team. So even if you disagree that those men are the top two, who is the best crew chief not named Knaus or Wolfe, and tell us why?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: I have to go with Kenny Francis. Despite all the changes over the years, Francis has managed to get Kasey Kahne into the Chase with three different team owners (Ray Evernham, George Gillett and Rick Hendrick) and two manufacturers (Dodge and Chevy). He also guided Jeremy Mayfield into the inaugural Chase in 2004. And the other crew chiefs at Hendrick Motorsports all say Francis brought valuable info to the organization this year that helped all four teams make the Chase. Until recently, I would have said Darian Grubb, and I still think he's one of the best -- clearly in the top five. He won the title in a Chase ambush last year with Tony Stewart and got Denny Hamlin close to it this year in Grubb's first season with the No. 11 Toyota team. But Hamlin's team has made a lot of careless mistakes in the Chase that shouldn't have happened, so I have to knock Grubb down a notch for now.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Gotta be Darian Grubb, Denny Hamlin's troubles at Martinsville notwithstanding. Technically, NASCAR holds the crew chief responsible for any and everything on the car, like the captain of a ship. But that's mainly for penalties for violations. You can't fault Grubb for the electronic failure on the 11 car Sunday. And it doesn't erase the five wins Grubb has sent Hamlin to, tied with Keselowski for most this season. All this, on top of Grubb sending Tony Stewart to five Chase wins as a lame-duck crew chief last year.
Mark Garrow says Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski can now focus on racing each other and Dale Earnhardt Jr. explains he suffered two different types of concussions.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: There are a lot of crazy-smart young guys out there, but Jimmy Fennig is the one who blows my mind. Here's a guy who's almost 60 years old making his living in a garage full of 30-somethings. He broke into Cup in 1986 and won the '88 Daytona 500 with Bobby Allison and yet he's still winning. That means he's adapted with the sport, from the days of aligning a chassis with string and chalk lines to now sitting in the wind tunnel and poring over hard drives of data. That's amazing. He hates doing media (though he's always very polite about it), so he doesn't have the profile of a lot of other guys, but all he does is win.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Rodney Childers. He's the most underrated crew chief in the garage. That the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing car is 14th in owner points with three drivers -- Mark Martin, Brian Vickers and Michael Waltrip -- is as much a testament to Childers providing fast cars as it is to the drivers. It is ahead of the No. 99 driven by Carl Edwards, who lost the title on a tiebreaker last season. It has seven top-5s and 15 top-10s, the latter as many as defending Cup champion Tony Stewart. As much as we credit general manager Scott Miller and the drivers for the turnaround at MWR, don't discount the contribution of Childers.
Turn 2: Two drivers -- Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- stayed out on the last caution of Sunday's race, when every other driver pitted. Generally speaking, should a driver have a say on a call like that or defer to his crew chief's strategy?
Blount: If you leave it up to the driver, the crew chief gets a free pass if it goes bad. The driver only can blame himself. But in these two instances, I'd go with the crew chief every time -- especially Paul Wolfe. Brad's decision to stay out really didn't hurt him this time, but he knows as well as anyone that Wolfe is a big reason he has a chance to win the title, so he needs to trust him. And drivers needs to accept it if the call goes the wrong way. I'm sure there were times this season when Bruce Bochy made a pitching change late in a game that backfired, but overall, those pitchers know Bochy's moves enabled the Giants to win the World Series. Drivers should view it the same way with the crew chief.
Hinton: Yes, you have to show your driver you trust him. How much? That depends on the driver. Keselowski made what would have looked like a brilliant call, if so many drivers hadn't pitted behind him and left Johnson restarting so close on fresh tires to Kes' worn ones. As it turned out, Keselowski drove his way out of the situation anyway, leading a lap to collect a bonus point, and then holding on for sixth place. There were times in the past when Chad Knaus didn't seem to trust his driver, Jimmie Johnson, and that led to Rick Hendrick's milk-and-cookies party for them several years ago. The driver is the one who has to race.
McGee: In the end, it's the driver's car. He holds the steering wheel and he has final say. No different than a coach sending in a play and then the quarterback throwing that out and running whatever play he thinks should be run. Most athletes can take the heat if it doesn't work (and it usually doesn't).
Newton: I talked to Wolfe after the race and he said he has complete trust in his driver to make that kind of a call, and admitted that the driver often has a better view of what's happening with everyone around him when making that decision. Wolfe actually was smiling like they'd stolen one when he first approached Keselowski after the race. Keselowski picked up a valuable point for leading a lap he wouldn't have otherwise, and he finished sixth after being seventh when the caution came out. So, yes, a driver definitely should have input. He knows better than anybody what he's capable of with old tires versus new. Tiger Woods' caddie can suggest all the clubs he wants, but Woods ultimately will make the decision because he has to hit the shot. One of the reasons Keselowski is in championship contention is because he and Wolfe work so well together and understand each other. Having said that, I can't imagine Jimmie Johnson staying out if Chad Knaus told him to come in. Certain crew chiefs aren't willing to give that kind of power to the driver.
Turn 3: Jimmie Johnson is two points ahead of Keselowski with three races to go. Clint Bowyer is 26 back and Kasey Kahne 29. Who leaves Texas with the championship lead, and how close will it be?
Blount: As I wrote in the Monday Rundown, Johnson has a huge statistical advantage over Keselowski at Texas. JJ's average finish there is 9.7 and Brad's is 25.7. He's never finished on the lead lap at Texas. It's not likely Kahne and Bowyer will get there unless JJ and Brad both wreck. So I'll say Johnson, but the one X factor in this equation could be a fuel-mileage finish, a good possibility at a track where the cars get spread out and have long green-flag runs.
Hinton: Johnson, but by five points or fewer. He hasn't won at Texas since 2007, although he did finish second to Greg Biffle there in the spring. That place, with its high-speed entry into corners, is weirder than the other 1.5-milers. Both Johnson-Knaus and Keselowski-Wolfe will have to strike a balance we'll call aggressive survival mode. Sheer experience -- having been wrecked out early in the Texas Chase race of 2009, and then struggling to get the car back onto the track -- may give Johnson and Knaus the edge.
McGee: I think the top two stay tight, probably exactly how they are now, but I also think the next two close the gap. Not a lot, but enough to matter the next weekend at Phoenix. I think a least one of those two guys will be mathematically still alive when we get to Homestead.
Newton: Johnson. Have you looked at the numbers? Johnson holds more of an edge over Keselowski at Texas than he did at Martinsville and Dover. His average finish is 9.7 and he's finished second in three of the past seven races there, including the spring race. Keselowski, as strong as he's been on the 1.5-mile tracks this year, has been mediocre at Texas. He was 36th in the spring and has an average finish of 25.2. If he doesn't improve on that, he could get passed by Bowyer or Kahne -- or both -- for second.
Turn 4: Johnson just earned his seventh grandfather clock for a victory at Martinsville. If you were his interior decorator, in which room of his house would you put it, and why?
Blount: If he has all those clocks in his house, that pad is ringing more than Emmanuel Bell in Notre Dame Cathedral on Christmas morning. Since seven is a lucky number, I'd tell him to put it in the shop at Hendrick Motorsports and have everyone on the No. 48 team touch it each day before work until the end of the season. If that works for his sixth championship, I'd leave it there until he wins a seventh title to tie the legends -- Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
Hinton: In the separate, all-Martinsville trophy room he should now build, considering his seven wins there. Set them all to chime at once -- it would probably take a master clockmaker to synchronize them that closely -- and they would remind him of how synchronized he and Knaus have been at the little track just north of Ridgeway, Va., where the clocks are built. As a longtime owner of one of those clocks -- I didn't win it, and didn't even get a discount -- I can tell you that one is fine; it's soothing, with chimes you get so used to that they don't even wake you in the night. But seven? All over the house? That would be too much. Put them all in the same room, wherever that might be in the house.
McGee: I once asked Richard Petty, who owns 15 Martinsville clocks, what it was like at noon and midnight in his house. He said, "I just turn my hearing aid down and hang on." With that in mind, I would build a stonework stage/gazebo deal out in the front yard where all of Jimmie's clocks could be lined up side by side. That way at the top of every hour all the neighbors can be reminded loud and clear that they are living next to The Man.
Newton: Odd question, but I'll say the bedroom. The best driver in the sport should have the loudest alarm clock. Put all seven of these babies on the walls around Johnson's bed, set them at 5:30 a.m. for his daily workout and it'll sound like the Moscow Kremlin Church bells at noon.