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Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

11/14/2012 - NASCAR

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

Turn 1: Jeff Gordon was docked 25 points, fined $100,000 and put on probation through the remainder of the year for intentionally wrecking Clint Bowyer at Phoenix. Should NASCAR have suspended either driver, both drivers or just swallowed the whistle on this one?

Terry Blount, ESPN.com: First off, we aren't being honest if we fail to acknowledge the fact that most fans love this stuff. I received emails from several people who asked: "Where has this emotion been all season?" However, in this case, some lines were crossed that cannot be tolerated. NASCAR can't allow a mob mentality where an angry pit crew attacks another team's driver, as Bowyer's crew did on Gordon. He could have been seriously hurt. Several members of Bowyer's crew should have been suspended for the Homestead race, and fines should have been imposed. As for the on-track actions, Gordon escaped a suspension because he's a four-time champ who doesn't have a history of this type of behavior.

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: I just don't see suspension offenses here, certainly not on Bowyer's part, and honestly not on Gordon's part either. Even in intentionally wrecking Bowyer, the third-place Chaser, Gordon was within bounds on a rarely noted but ancient rule of NASCAR payback that it's best to wait to wreck the guy until he's in a position where it will hurt his wallet the most. That's how you make the biggest impression on him. NASCAR should let 'em rip, even at Homestead.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: If this were a Busch brother, people would be storming the castle with pitchforks demanding justice. Gordon had to be hit with something. Does he care? No. Not at all. When he took his helmet off in the garage, he looked like Cole Trickle after he had taken out Russ Wheeler. He looked relieved.

David Newton, ESPN.com: Unless I'm missing something, Gordon intentionally waited for and wrecked Bowyer and his title hopes. He admitted it with his postrace comments about how he had had enough. I don't see this as any different from when Kyle Busch intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution in the Truck series race at Texas last season to take him out of contention for that title. That resulted in a suspension from the Nationwide and Sprint Cup race that weekend for Busch. This one might be worse because it ended any chance Bowyer had to challenge Brad Keselowski for the top prize in NASCAR. Suspension is more than warranted even if you have won four titles and been a big ambassador for the sport. Consistency.

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Given precedents, Gordon should have been parked. His decision was calculated. He rode around and waited for Bowyer, then acted on a plan. It wasn't an impulse retaliatory action. He thought about it. It also affected the outcome of the Chase. Had Bowyer finished where he was running, he'd be right on Jimmie Johnson's tail in the standings. But I'm not at all surprised by NASCAR's decision. Gordon is and has been among NASCAR's greatest ambassadors -- if not its greatest -- for years and years. There is always deference to greatness and to a sparkling track record, both of which he exemplifies. His history is sterling. I'm not saying this dynamic is right. I'm saying it's how it is. NASCAR was right to leave Bowyer be. He was guilty of nothing more than the fastest sprint since Usain Bolt in London.

Turn 2: Is retaliation in fact "out of control in this sport," as Brad Keselowski suggested after the Gordon-Bowyer fireworks in Sunday's race?

Blount: NASCAR opened this whole can of worms a few years ago with the "boys, have at it" theme, but anyone who thinks this stuff is new hasn't been following the sport very long. Here's the difference: Drivers no longer have a fear of injury to themselves or others, a dangerous bullet-proof mentality because of the enormous safety advancements in the past 10 years. So retaliatory moves have become more prevalent in more dangerous situations. Gordon got a slap on the wrist because of his clean history, but NASCAR has to take a stand and rein this in before someone makes a retaliation move that causes a serious injury.

Hinton: No, it's not out of control. Keselowski was talking on adrenalin after he'd had to cut inside to miss the Gordon-Bowyer wreck. Maybe it seemed out of control through his windshield at that moment. But if it were out of control overall, Johnson might have taken out Keselowski, during the brief moments Sunday when they were near each other on the track, for the roughing-up Keselowski gave JJ on the next-to-last restart at Texas last week.

McGee: No. I hate it for Joey Logano and Aric Almirola, who had days ruined by the wreck. But other than that, it's great TV. Based on what I hear from fans all the time, they want to see it. Not all the time. And it doesn't happen all the time. But this is where everyone in the sport walks this unreasonable line between "We want boys to be boys!" and "Let's be gentlemen out there!" I wrote a piece for ESPN The Magazine about this in February titled "Jekyll and Ride," and the best line in it was from Harvick, talking about what people expect from drivers these days. "Be nice but not too nice. Be big and tough and mean, but not too big and tough and mean. Good luck with that. It's kind of impossible."

Newton: Out of control is a bit strong, but you have to understand where Keselowski was coming from. He was sent airborne at Atlanta in 2010 by Carl Edwards in retaliation for what he felt was hard racing. He was intentionally wrecked by Denny Hamlin in the 2010 Nationwide finale in response to what he considered hard racing. Then Tony Stewart said after last week's race at Texas that Keselowski had a "death wish" because of the way he raced Johnson hard for the win. So, in his eyes, it probably is out of control. And there are signs it could be headed that way. Danica Patrick intentionally tried to wreck Landon Cassill at Kansas because she thought he was racing her too hard. She also intentionally wrecked Sam Hornish Jr. after the Nationwide race at Talladega this season. There are other examples, too. As Keselowski said, "We've got a bunch of drivers that feel like they have to retaliate or they're being challenged as a man, and that's ridiculous." That part I do agree with.

Smith: No. It's not out of control. It's self-policing like it's always been. It's really aggressive, yes. The competition is so close that patience and tempers wear thin. Gotta stand your ground. Can't back down. Back down once, you're a doormat forever.

Turn 3: Was NASCAR inconsistent in the way it used the caution at the end of the race, calling it quickly to bring on a green-white-checkered finish and not calling it when Danica Patrick hit the wall, triggering the big wreck at the end?

Blount: NASCAR's goal is to try to finish races under a green flag, which the vast majority of fans want. But the zeal to add drama comes at a cost of increased danger at times. That's always a judgment call. I favor trying to finish races under green. In the Patrick incident, the yellow should have come out because it was easy to see oil on the track. However, depending on when officials actually turned on the caution lights, I don't know whether the wrecking cars behind her could have been avoided because of all the oil out there as they came around the final turn. At least they would have started slowing down and limited some of the damage, though.

Hinton: Hard to fault NASCAR for the caution that brought the G-W-C because it was instantaneously evident that the Gordon-Bowyer wreck, which immediately collected Logano, was a major track-blockage issue. But NASCAR should have thrown a caution the instant Danica hit the wall and went sideways down into traffic. She could have been hit right then, right there. Throw the caution. Robin Pemberton, NASCAR VP of competition, admitted after the fact that "It's easy to look back on it, obviously, and wish that you did something different" -- and he should have stopped there before continuing, "but at the time it didn't appear like there was any fluid that was coming out of [Danica's] car." Drivers adamantly disagreed, but the larger point is that the caution should have come out the moment Danica went sideways.

McGee: Drove me crazy. I understand balls and strikes, judgment calls. That's always going to be a part of the sport, and it should be. But the lone area where you can't afford to punt is that very situation right there. Especially when everyone in the world knows how brutal it is for those guys trying to see as they come off Turn 4 driving directly into the sun. So, you let someone go creeping down a notoriously narrow frontstretch, in the way? Billowing a smoke screen? During a green-white-checkered finish? Throwing the yellow would have been bad for Harvick and the other guys close on fuel, but that's better than Ryan Newman ending up like a pinata.

Newton: Yes. I understand NASCAR is in a no-win situation here. Had officials let Kevin Harvick take the white flag before throwing caution in regulation, fans would be bugged out about the race ending in caution. They let it play out when Patrick spun on the last lap of the green-white-checkered finish, and it caused total chaos that almost cost Harvick the win and could have jeopardized Keselowski's title hopes. Bottom line: NASCAR has to be consistent, and it has to do so erring on the side of safety. A lot of drivers went to the infield care center after the race because the governing body chose not to throw the caution when, according to the drivers, it was apparent the track was covered in oil. I'm still laughing at Hamlin's comment that "Ray Charles could see it." Fortunately, nobody was hurt. Just be consistent, then take the lumps as they come.

Smith: Yes. NASCAR is lucky no one was hurt in the final crash. Newman got pounded. The outcome doesn't change if officials throw the yellow. Harvick yarded Kyle Busch and Hamlin on the restart. He had a five-car-length lead. He already had taken the white flag, which meant the race was over if the yellow flew again. Then the 29 nearly wrecked off Turn 4 coming to the checkers. That was a very dangerous finish.

Turn 4: What would Kevin Harvick's reported move to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 mean to SHR? What would it mean for Richard Childress Racing?

Blount: Great for Stewart-Haas, terrible for RCR if Harvick takes Budweiser with him. Maybe by 2014, Childress will have the sponsors lined up that he needs for Austin Dillon's move to Cup and the eventual Cup spot for Ty Dillon, as well. But the bigger question is what actually will happen in 2013. Harvick's victory Sunday was a big boost for RCR after a rough weekend on the news front, but being a lame duck for an entire season next year just won't work. There's a boat load of politicking going on here, and something's going to change with that 29 Chevy team. Everyone knows the Dillon brothers are the future at RCR, and both young men are capable drivers. But it won't matter unless Childress shores up his team's overall weaknesses in behind-the-scenes personnel who are fabricating cars and building engines.

Hinton: It'll be interesting to see what Harvick does with Hendrick engines, but his record doesn't forecast some huge boon to SHR. At RCR, the team will just have room sooner for whichever grandson Richard Childress promotes to Cup first. Considering the unhappy way Childress himself talked to our Marty Smith about the move, I'd say the most impact might come in 2013, when we just might see the worst lame-duck situation yet, spanning an entire season, between Childress and Harvick. After that, RCR is likely to become the Austin and Ty Dillon Show anyway, for better or worse, and that realization might just be what sent Harvick over to his buddy Stewart.

McGee: Big for SHR because it's an upgrade in talent and could also be a lucrative sponsorship grab, which it badly needs. As painful as it might be short term for the telenovela that is RCR, I think it might be a good thing long term. That place is flirting with going completely flat, much as it did in the late 1990s. RCR needs a clean slate to start over with as it heads into the future. A total driver roster overhaul might be what it needs to get off this every-other-year performance roller coaster it has been on for so long.

Newton: The simple answer is SHR gets stronger and RCR gets weaker as it stands. But let's look at it in more detail. RCR already was laying the groundwork for Austin Dillon, the grandson of owner Richard Childress, to move to Cup full time in 2014. Dillon likely will be driving the No. 3, which Childress told me remains on the table. But that would have happened regardless with a fourth car already open and Jeff Burton potentially at the end of his career in the No. 31. Harvick's departure opens the door for RCR to go after another top driver, Kurt Busch or maybe Carl Edwards. It has to. RCR can't rely on Dillon to make it a title contender for several years. SHR officials say the organization will look to go to four teams. But if sponsorship can't be found for Newman after this year, he could be out of a ride. And I can't believe Harvick won't bring Budweiser -- or another sponsor -- with him. If it's Budweiser, that again makes SHR stronger and RCR weaker. The good news is both organizations have more than a year to prepare.

Smith: It's done. There's no "would" to it. It's huge for SHR. It's Stewart adding a topflight talent and a dear friend. Sources on this story told me Harvick's decision was based in part on Stewart's ability to motivate him. This will be a formidable union.