Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in racing this week, plus a bonus round.
Turn 1: If you could sign one driver not currently a full-timer in Sprint Cup to a long-term contract, based on his or her potential to reach the Cup level and be successful, who would you pick and why?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: Does Genevieve Johnson count? Can I call Jimmie and Chani and sign their daughter to a deal today? Probably not, so I'll go with Ryan Blaney. What a future this kid has. He won a Truck series race in Iowa and has finished 11th or better in seven Truck starts for Brad Keselowski's team. Blaney was the runner-up to Kevin Harvick in the Nationwide race at Texas last weekend, his 10th top-15 finish in 12 Nationwide starts this season. And he's only 18. Blaney comes from good stock. His dad, Dave, is a much better race car driver than most people realize, but he never got a chance to show it over the long haul in a quality Cup ride.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Ryan Blaney is the best and surest long-term investment I see anywhere on the horizon. The 18-year-old son of journeyman Dave Blaney just doesn't mess up, and keeps making bigger and bigger splashes with every outing. In September, driving for Brad Keselowski, Ryan became the youngest winner ever of a Truck race. On Saturday night at Texas, he got his highest Nationwide finish, second, in a Penske Dodge. He has been climbing further, faster, than the next best bet at age 18, Darrell Wallace Jr. If I can see the wisdom of this investment, surely Roger Penske can. Their part-time deal will go full-time before you know it.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: If you're talking youngsters, I'll take Chase Elliott every single day. He's the real deal. I love so many of the young guys coming up. I think this is the most talented pipeline of youngsters we've had coming up in a long time. But if you're talking older guys who just need a break, I still want to see what Regan Smith can do in a real top-shelf Cup car.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Ryan Blaney. Not because he is coming off a second-place finish in the Nationwide Series race at Texas. I've been hearing great things about him for several years. When Keselowski picked him to drive for his Truck team, I called it a great move. If Penske trusts Keselowski enough to pick Joey Logano, then you have to respect Keselowski's judgment of talent. But if you need numbers, look at Blaney's. They are impressive for an 18-year-old. In 12 Nationwide starts, he has six top-10s and a top-5. In seven Truck series races, he has a win and four top-10s. He's a nice, clean-cut kid, too. I ran into him in at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas last week, and he was as comfortable with sponsors as he is on the track. He will be a star.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Ryan Blaney. The talent is unmistakable. The pedigree is obvious. And Tony Stewart once told me that Blaney has an innate, God-given ability to negotiate the dynamics of how a race unfolds well, well beyond his years and experience. I spoke to Elliott Sadler about Blaney. He confirmed my inclination and gave an example from the Texas race. Sadler told me Blaney nailed the wall off Turn 4 and in 20 laps drove all the way to second. He kept it together emotionally and mentally, even when faced with adversity. So imagine what he'll do once he has more experience. If I'm Penske, I lock that kid up now, and I get to work on selling sponsors on him for a third Cup program starting, at the latest, in 2015. He'll be ready for Cup in 2014, in my opinion.
Turn 2: Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage and Charlotte Motor Speedway president Marcus Smith both said Sunday that something must be done to end the start-and-park situation in Sprint Cup. Do you think it's a problem, and if so, what should be done to change it?
Blount: The seven start-and-park cars in Sunday's race at TMS took home a combined total of $633,744. None of them completed more than 41 laps. Gossage pointed out that S&Pers have earned (I use that verb loosely) more than $15 million this season. That's a travesty, a huge embarrassment to the true meaning of sports competition. It's easily fixable. Any car finishing worse than 36th earns $5,000. That would mean the S&Pers wouldn't show up, so NASCAR couldn't fill a 43-car field. So what? Only 36 cars are really racing and everyone knows it.
Hinton: Of all the weird stuff the Speedway Motorsports Inc. hierarchy comes up with, this is the most ludicrous. What do they want -- 36-car fields? That's what you'd have if the start-and-parkers couldn't find a way to make a living. Gossage has been around long enough to remember when you had backmarkers who puttered around all afternoon doing nothing more than getting in the way of the front-runners. Does he want that again? Or is he just pandering to fans and the Metroplex media again?
McGee: I've heard a lot of owners suggest this and I agree with it: Shift the postrace pay scale upward so that those lowest positions aren't so close cash-wise to the next tier up in the box score. I was talking to James Finch about this and he got really worked up about it. He's genuinely trying to race every week, yet he is routinely getting a payout of not much more than guys who are running a few laps and bailing. I get where he's coming from, and based on conversations I've had with top-tier owners, they do too. Pay the last eight to 10 guys a flat rate and shift the remaining cash forward into the part of the pot where the real racers can get it. For a long time, that's how the Indy 500 pretty much did it.
Newton: Seriously, people. Get over it. Start-and-parkers have been a part of the sport, to a degree, forever. It just became magnified recently with more teams doing it for economic reasons. If they were wrecking contenders and impacting the standings, it would be one thing. They're not. They're simply trying to stay afloat in a tough economy. Hopefully, when things get better, you'll see start-and-parkers get to the point where they can compete. The sport needs new teams. Having said all this, I still believe the bottom three to six teams should get little to nothing of a payday, and that money should go to the winner to give more incentive to winning. What bothers me worse than start-and-parkers is seeing the second-place driver earn more than the winner. It happens. It shouldn't.
Smith: Yes. It's a problem. It fundamentally compromises the integrity of the sport. Are some teams making money at it? Yes. Are there success stories of teams that started that way in the effort to become full-time, legitimate programs? Yes. (See: Furniture Row.) Are there teams that hope to continue that effort? Yes. (See: Casey Mears' No. 13 group. Or David Stremme's No. 30 group. Incidentally, I had a fantastic conversation with Stremme about this in the garage area at Dover. He's a really sharp guy and has quite a business acumen.) But that doesn't change the fact that start-and-park teams show up for reasons other than to race. They show up to make money. I don't disparage that one bit. Good for them. It's the arena that's provided to them, so why not take advantage if you can? The arena shouldn't allow it. Just shouldn't. So how to fix it? Maybe change the payout percentages of the television-rights money. The teams should get way more of the TV-rights pot anyway. The purses should be way beefier than they are. Make the purse-payout minimal from 36th on back. Make the payout notably fatter from mid-pack to mid-30s. Give them incentive to race each other. Money, again, is the incentive.
Turn 3: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing is switching to Hendrick Motorsports engines in 2013. Is this what EGR needs to become competitive again? And Is Hendrick spreading its engine program too thin?
Blount: It's a step in the right direction, but no magic wand. EGR has a lot of issues to fix. I do wonder if Hendrick is in danger of biting off more than it can a chew, now supplying engines for its four Cup cars, Stewart-Haas Racing, Phoenix Racing and EGR, along with JR Motorsports and Turner Motorsports in Nationwide. And Ganassi's leaving the Earnhardt-Childress Racing engine program is a huge financial loss for Richard Childress -- around $8 million a year.
Hinton: EGR needs more than just engines to reboot the team, but that may be a place to start, considering how poorly Childress' own cars have run this season. If you'd seen that incredible Hendrick engine department at work, as I have, you'd know one more team isn't going to spread that juggernaut too thin. Above all, remember that the name Earnhardt is little more than nominal now, in both Earnhardt Ganassi Racing (where Chip Ganassi runs the show entirely) and at Earnhardt-Childress Racing, where it's all in-house at Childress, and totally controlled there. It's hardly more than an honorary nod to Teresa Earnhardt nowadays.
McGee: They need to do something, that's for dang sure. But I think their problems go way deeper than an engine deal. When the Earnhardt-Childress engines were so good two years ago, the horsepower kind of masked all those bigger issues. They've replaced the whole front office. Now they're replacing the engines. If they keep struggling, there's only one more change to be made: in the drivers' seats. As for Hendrick engines being spread too thin, you don't have to worry about that. It's like the Death Star in that engine shop. They'll just add some more CNC machines and keep plowing.
Newton: If it simply was the engine, everybody would be going to HMS. It's not. Rick Hendrick wins because he has more talent -- from driver to engineers to tire changers -- than anybody in the garage. You win with good people who have good chemistry. Look at Michael Waltrip Racing. It brought in Scott Miller as the competition director from RCR. MWR took off. RCR has gone backward. MWR added Brian Pattie -- former crew chief for Juan Pablo Montoya at EGR -- and Clint Bowyer from RCR. Bowyer is third in points. MWR brought in Mark Martin. That car is top-15 in owner points with a part-time driver. Sure, the cars are faster, but they are faster because more talented people are working on them and driving them.
Smith: It's the first step in a really long process that has been compared to turning a ship around in a port. They have to change things. Ganassi is as uncompetitive as they've been since he started that team.
Turn 4: Danica Patrick finished on the lead lap (24th) Sunday for the first time in a Sprint Cup race. She ran in the top 20 part of the race. Patrick also ran in the top 5 a good portion of the Nationwide race Saturday night before finishing 14th after cutting a tire. Is she getting better based on seat time, or do you see other factors in her recent improvement?
Blount: It's a combination of many things. First, Ryan Pemberton has made a dramatic difference in the performance of both JR Motorsports cars in Nationwide since Pemberton arrived two months ago. And he's doing a nice job on the pit box for Patrick. But give Patrick some credit for five top-15 finishes in her past six Nationwide races. And Tony Gibson looked brilliant in his first race as her Cup crew chief. I know 24th in the Texas Cup race doesn't sound like much, but it's a major improvement from her other Cup starts. It's clear she really likes Gibson and trusts his judgment.
Hinton: It's both seat time and garage-area time. She's listening and learning in both places. She is assimilating into the NASCAR culture by sheer competition with, and talking with, the other drivers. Her unwillingness to be pushed around on the track can't hurt her in the garages. Texas is not an easy place to stay out of trouble, and it's remarkable for any driver outside the top echelon to do that two nights in a row.
McGee: I like how crew chief Greg Zipadelli and Tony Gibson are handling her on the radio. They don't back down and it sounds like she reacts well to that. It reminds me of how Johnny Benson used to work with her when he was on board as a "coach." But if they really wanted to develop her, they'd take another year to get her ready for Cup. I think next year is going to be like one of those "Saw" movies for her. Pure torture.
Newton: Experience and seat time always make for improvement. Still, she's a long way from contending for wins and top-5s. I had to chuckle when Zipadelli said Patrick makes more gains in a race weekend than Joey Logano ever did. Maybe that's because Patrick has more to gain than Logano every weekend. Logano has won two Cup races and 17 Nationwide Series races, by the way. I do like that Patrick has been paired with Tony Gibson. He'll not only be a good technician for her, but good for keeping her spirits up with things aren't going well.
Smith: Yes. I've said it more times than I can count: She's better right now than I thought she'd be in years, maybe ever. I just didn't give her driving talent enough respect until I paid close enough attention to it. She is not a novelty. She can drive. The thing to watch is how much faster she gets from the first practice to the end of the race. It's dramatic. Her approach to Sprint Cup in 2012 is a very difficult one -- log laps and stay patient. But she understands that, and is blessed to have people around her (like Tony Stewart) to remind her that her Priority 1 this season is logging laps and learning.
The Dogleg: Sunday's race had two controversial restarts at the end, one where two drivers thought Brad Keselowski jumped the restart and another where Jimmie Johnson appeared to beat Keselowski (the leader) to the line. Should NASCAR call these more strictly or is it just hard racing?
Blount: Way too much was made out of this, including some major whining by Johnson and Kyle Busch, saying Keselowski jumped one restart. Replays didn't support their claims. And NASCAR did the right thing by swallowing the whistle when Johnson beat Brad to the line by a foot or two on the final restart. It's the final seconds of overtime. Let 'em play and let 'em race. If NASCAR had penalized either driver on these restarts, people could say the officials decided the championship. They let the drivers decide the outcome. It was the right way to go.
Hinton: Hell no and hell yeah.
McGee: Just hard racing. Green-flag gamesmanship has been around since the first time two cars lined up door-to-door. The sport is already over-policed, and restarts are the most exciting part of every event. Let 'em race!
Newton: I had more people contact me about this on Twitter than anything that happened on Sunday. It's simple. If it is obvious the start has been jumped, NASCAR won't hesitate to make the call. Just ask Elliott Sadler about Indianapolis. It has to be obvious like that. Otherwise, the leader has too much control to manipulate potential penalties. Officials aren't inside the car, so they can't tell if the leader lets off the gas or touches the brakes so that it appears the second-place driver jumps the start. Officials also can't tell if the leader spins his tires. I don't get it. Fans want NASCAR to loosen the reins, then get in an uproar over this.
Smith: Leave it alone. They didn't change it after they took the inaugural Indianapolis Nationwide race from Sadler. Why is this any different?