Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week.
Turn 1: Denny Hamlin got slapped with a $25,000 fine for speaking out on the new Gen-6 car after the Phoenix race. Did NASCAR overreact to his comments, and why or why not?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: As I wrote in my blog, NASCAR looks like the lumbering heavyweight who can't take a punch. NASCAR has to be more thick-skinned than this. The comment police way overreacted. They accomplished the opposite of what they wanted, bringing far more attention to Hamlin's words than they would have received had NASCAR officials just ignored them.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Let's see: What is a hybrid between NASCAR shooting itself in the foot and NASCAR hitting a tack with a sledgehammer? NASCAR hit itself in the foot with a sledgehammer on this one. Hamlin's harmless comment would have gone unnoticed if NASCAR hadn't issued the fine out of the blue. That caused vast media revisiting of the remarks and prompted justifiably strong reaction from Hamlin. Fans are up in arms across the board defending Hamlin's right to tell the truth. The only way NASCAR could save itself from fan ire at this point would be to rescind the fine right now. But that won't happen. But the chances of Hamlin's appeal being upheld look pretty strong to me, wink, wink.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Totally overreacted. Jeff Gordon was spot-on when he said the fine drew more attention to the whole thing than the comments ever did. I get where NASCAR is coming from, I just don't agree with the approach. I worked there in '07 when Kyle Busch made his Bristol "this car sucks" comment, and NASCAR's research has always shown that the COT never recovered in the eyes of the fans after that. But I think the sanctioning body has fallen into this trap of worrying too much about how things are going in the moment, too fixated on the fickle winds of social media and not focused enough on how they will play out over time. Start worrying about how things will play out a few days down the line, not a few hours. Because of that, they managed to create three days of "Is this car bad?" talk that overshadowed what ended up being a bit of a showcase for the Gen-6 car Sunday.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Will I be subject to a fine if I say, "Hell, yeah, NASCAR overreacted"? This was a nonissue. Hamlin was asked questions about the race and the new car. He gave an honest opinion. It was only an opinion, and, as Hamlin said, it wasn't even "a bad one." If NASCAR wants its personalities to show personality, it needs to lighten up. The only people who were offended by Hamlin's comments were the fans who were upset about the fine. NASCAR created this problem by overhyping the car before it got on the track. Now it must accept the criticism. But what really appalled me was the number of drivers who refused to stand up for Hamlin. Thank goodness for Jeff Burton and others who admitted NASCAR overreacted.
Marty Smith, ESPN insider: Absolutely. NASCAR absolutely overreacted. Because of the fan base fallout that ensued from immediate COT bashing by drivers, NASCAR executives are entirely too sensitive this time around about Gen-6 messaging. I understand why NASCAR is sensitive. If the drivers dislike the cars, the fans will follow suit. The drivers are the stars of the sport, and therefore they are the leaders of the sport in the public space. They set the tone for every other tentacle that extends from the sport's core. No professional league tolerates its participants criticizing officiating or principles. They just don't. It's awful for business.
But Hamlin wasn't critical. He said nothing wrong. At all. Deep down, in retrospect, I think NASCAR knows that. I think it jumped at the opportunity to make an example of Hamlin, given how adamantly it had stressed to the drivers that proper messaging about the new car was vitally important to its acceptance. And I think in retrospect, NASCAR is probably shocked that (A) He fought back, and (B) The support for him in the aftermath has made the sanctioning body look bad anyway. The very best thing NASCAR could have done in this instance is chuckle at Hamlin's comments. That would've sent a much stronger, more confident message.
Turn 2: He may have only one title to show for his efforts (so far), but with a victory at Las Vegas on Sunday, Matt Kenseth is up to 25 career Sprint Cup victories. Is it crazy to be talking Hall of Fame here? Why or why not?
Blount: The Hall of Fame? Ask me again in 10 years. Matt's an outstanding racer and a class act, a really positive representative for the sport. But it's too early to consider his Hall of Fame worthiness. I don't think you base it strictly on wins and championships. It's a combination of things. For example, I would put Mark Martin in the Hall ahead of Kenseth at this point, based on Martin's longevity, his sportsmanship and his career victories (40). But I think Kenseth will win another title (possibly this year) and his chances of making the Hall are much better than 50/50.
Hinton: Not crazy, but still iffy at this point. He and crew chief Jason Ratcliff are looking, out of the gate, like a really good pairing, maybe great, as things play out. Kenseth's past is spotted with vague, undercurrent discomfort with crew chiefs. Maybe Ratcliff, at age 45, is the one, at last, for Kenseth, 41. Another 10 or even 15 wins together in the next few years would move Kenseth clearly into Hall of Fame territory. Their relationship might hinge on the end of this regular season, the time of year when Kenseth has been known to get down in the mouth over how his cars have run. A good August might tell a lot.
McGee: I have said this for years now -- he is the Curtis Martin/Harold Baines of racing. When he finally retires, we'll look at his stats and go, "Wait? He did all that?!" Not only does he have 25 wins but he has two Daytona 500 victories, won the Cup title and All-Star Race in '04, was rookie of the year in 2000 and is the only rookie to win the Coca-Cola 600, finished in the top 10 in points nine times, and has missed the Chase only once. When the time comes, he should skate into the Hall.
Newton: Call me crazy, but Kenseth is a lock. If he's not, the Hall of Fame will run out of drivers to select pretty fast. Kenseth already is tied for 24th on the sport's career wins list, and he has won two Daytona 500s. He has finished in the top 10 in points nine times in 13 seasons and never has been worse than 14th. I'd argue he's coming into his prime, too. I suspect he'll be in the 35- to 40-win category before he retires, and then this conversation won't be necessary.
Smith: No. He's definitely in the Hall of Fame conversation already. Twenty-five wins -- and he'll get to 35 before he's done. He might get to 30 this year. Twenty-five wins doesn't sound like a ton in an era when Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart get to 40 and 50 so quickly. But just 26 men have ever won at least 25 Cup races. Kenseth's win Sunday was telling. He didn't have the best car. He didn't win on sheer speed. He won on strategy. And with the speed his team already has shown this year, most of his wins will come by way of brute force. I think he feels a sense of validation with that win. That spawns more confidence. And that's scary for everybody else. Kenneth has one championship already, and he'll be in contention to win more of those. He has two Daytona 500 victories. Rookie of the year. Coca-Cola 600. He's in the Hall conversation, sure.
Turn 3: Only three races into the Nationwide Series season, Sam Hornish Jr. is laying a beatdown on the competition. Do you see him as a serious contender for the title? Why or why not?
Blount: It's just great to see a guy who had a rough start in NASCAR, didn't give up, kept working hard and now is starting to reap the benefits of his dedication. Sure he has a shot at it, but I think it'll be hard to beat those Joe Gibbs Racing boys -- Elliott Sadler and Brian Vickers -- in the long run. I was happy to see Sam outrace Cup bully Kyle Busch at the end of the Las Vegas race Saturday. The Nationwide series has its most competitive field of title contenders in a decade, but it needs those guys to win races, not Kyle, Brad Keselowski and other Cup stars who run too many of these events.
Hinton: Hornish is building what he has never had in NASCAR: confidence. He's already in as good a shape as a Nationwide points contender could be in at this point, and the confidence will keep him running up front consistently. Again, a crew chief, the veteran Greg Erwin, will help a lot. Further, back-to-back Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is long gone to Cup. So veteran Sadler appears to be Hornish's stiffest competition for the title so far.
McGee: I do. And talking to teams at Las Vegas this past weekend, so do they. It's interesting because the growing sentiment about Sam among his fellow competitors seems to be the same as it is among those of us who covered him in his IndyCar days. We all want NASCAR fans to see him for the All-American fearless oval badass that he was in open-wheel racing. I saw that guy make moves and win races that I still can't believe. Watching him become known to most NASCAR fans as a punchline has been painful to watch, but it was a classic case of a guy being thrown into a Cup ride too soon, a deep end he wasn't ready for. Now, finally, that seems to be turning around.
Newton: In case anybody missed it, Hornish was third in the standings a year ago with nine races left and finished fourth. One of the three drivers who finished ahead of him -- Stenhouse -- has moved to Sprint Cup. Of course he should be a serious contender. He's in great equipment, and his confidence is at an all-time high. The way he handled not getting the No. 22 Cup car was more than admirable. And did I mention he was my preseason pick to win it all? You're seeing why.
Smith: Yes. Look at the diversity of those first three tracks: Daytona, superspeedway plate track; Phoenix, what amounts to a short track in intermediate clothing; Vegas, a high-speed, high-downforce intermediate. Finishes: Second. Seventh. First. That shows great adaptability for Hornish as a driver -- and is a testament to his persistence and Roger Penske's patience and loyalty.
Turn 4: Lots of gnashing of teeth over the quality of racing at Bristol Motor Speedway in recent years, and now we're adding a new car to the mix. Is Bristol -- day race or night -- still a must-go? Is it still a must-see on TV?
Blount: Maybe for the last 50 laps of an event that's 100 laps too long, but that's it. Honestly, the racing isn't as bad as people say, it just doesn't produce as many wrecks as it used to. People want to see wrecks. Deny it all you want, but it's the truth. That's what made Bristol famous. Wrecks and temper tantrums, which don't happen as much now. But 500 laps is an eternity at Bristol and Martinsville, just far too many meaningless circles. When tires were softer and gave out, it meant more to run all these laps. Now it's tiresome, no pun intended.
Hinton: Perception is reality in NASCAR, and if the fans don't think Bristol is a must-go anymore, it's not. I for one like the ability to race side by side. But Bristol's lore is rife with beating, banging, boiling tempers and obscene gestures, and track configuration has still gone only about halfway back to that. It'll be interesting to see what the Gen-6 car does in its first true short-track race, but it's doubtful the design will shine enough to renew the old Bristol mania. This might be a mini-version of the Indianapolis 500 -- once its mystique faded, there was no getting it back.
McGee: I have always believed that the "new Bristol" controversy was much ado about nothing. But whenever I say that, the fans pounce on me. Ultimately, it's up to them. If they thought the revised track was bad, that's really all that matters. And they certainly voted with their ticket purchases, or more accurately, lack thereof. To me, it was always must-go. Now that the track has been "fixed," here's hoping the public once again will agree with me. I just hope everyone is patient and lets the race and the new cars shake out instead of screaming "This is terrible!" the first time we go more than 20 laps without a lead change.
Newton: Yes, particularly in person. No track takes your breath away like walking into this modern-day stock car version of the Roman Colosseum, particularly for a night race. Even if you're not blown away by the football-stadium-like atmosphere this creates, you will be by the roar of the engines as the cars begin to roll down pit road. Do I believe the track has lost some of its mystique because the racing isn't as slam-bang as it once was? Yes. I'd rather watch a half-mile race at Martinsville if given a choice. Maybe the new car will bring back some of the chaos fans crave. As Johnson noted, because the bumpers don't line up, as they did on the COT, the bump-and-run might be back in place. But this is still a must-go if you're a stock car fan, just as Lambeau Field would be for an NFL fan even if the Packers were having a down year.
Smith: Bristol Motor Speedway still ranks among the tracks that set the standard for the sport. Bristol. Richmond. Martinsville. Daytona. Talladega. Charlotte. Those are the tracks I think of when I think NASCAR. Those tracks have an authenticity that speaks to the sport's roots, its core demographic. The Bristol product has changed a lot in recent years, much to the chagrin of many fans. I don't think the new car will change the competition much at Bristol. I love the place. I will always love the place. It just feels right. It feels like NASCAR.