Debate: NASCAR's burning questions
Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week.
Turn 1: Was the wreck between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano on the last lap at Fontana an acceptable result of hard racing, or driver error by one or both drivers?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: It was hard racing, but it wouldn't have gone down the way it did without the previous bad feelings between the two of them. Neither man was going to give an inch, even on the widest racetrack in NASCAR. Logano forced the issue and bumped door panels with Hamlin when Hamlin was about to get by him on the outside, and I have no problem with it. Hamlin should have expected it after punting Logano at Bristol. What I do have a problem with is Hamlin hitting a concrete wall head-on that didn't have the SAFER barrier in front of it. Absolutely inexcusable. When are these tracks going to learn any exposed wall without the barrier is dangerous?
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: It was both: hard racing and driver error on the part of Logano, who just kept drifting up into Hamlin and took them both out. It was understandable considering Logano's current mode of refusing to be pushed around. And it was against the guy Logano thinks has been pushing him around the most. But it was overly aggressive to the point of desperation. Logano is now scratching, clawing, flailing for a win. Next time he gets into such a situation, others may be prone to do unto him before he does unto them.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: One-hundred percent hard racing. If Hamlin hadn't gotten hurt, there would be next to zero objection today. And guess what? If there had been a SAFER barrier on that stretch of interior concrete where Hamlin hit, there's a great chance he wouldn't be hurt at all. How in the world, in 2013, can we have any Sprint Cup tracks with any exposed concrete walls, inside or outside? There is zero excuse. Zero. We can't keep operating on this archaic mindset of "Well, nobody ever hits there" and then fix it only after there's been another scary accident. Are we going to wait until someone dies again to make an across-the-board change? That's so 2001.
Newton: Statement Win?
There was bumping, there was spinning and ultimately, there was a fight sort of. Kasey Kahne wasn't involved in any of that at Bristol, and he's hauling home the hardware, writes David Newton. Story
David Newton, ESPN.com: Was what happened between David Pearson and Richard Petty on the final lap of the 1976 Daytona 500 acceptable? Of course it was. It was no different here. Two passionate drivers -- albeit with a grudge -- racing hard for the win. Neither was willing to give an inch. Both made mistakes. But Logano in particular had to stand his ground hard after what happened at Bristol or run the risk of being walked on for a while. The Penske Racing driver said it best: "Would the racing be different if it weren't for last week? Most likely. But that's racing. Stuff does carry over."
Marty Smith, ESPN insider: Hard racing. Both were very aggressive but neither was dirty. Neither did anything specifically wrong. They're battling for position in the last corner of the last lap of a Sprint Cup Series race. I just don't see where you can shower blame on one person in this instance.
Turn 2: Was Tony Stewart's reaction to Joey Logano's racing on the final restart at Fontana acceptable? And who do you think is right, Stewart or Logano?
Blount: I love Tony's passion and his filterless comments when he gets his dander up. He's old-school NASCAR at its best. But in this case, I'm 100 percent behind Logano. It's a restart near the end of the race and Logano is trying to win it. Of course he blocked Stewart. And there's no yellow-line rule here, which Stewart used to block last year at Talladega, causing a giant crash. Stewart would have done the same thing Logano did Sunday if the positions had been reversed.
Hinton: "Acceptable" is not an acceptable term here. Next thing you know, we'll be pondering whether Stewart's postrace behavior was "inappropriate." This is NASCAR, not middle school. Stewart might very well be fined for going after Logano, physically at first and then verbally in his postrace TV interview. Looked to me like Logano was within his rights to block down low on the restart. Smoke's response was, shall we say, predictable -- a classic Stewart overreaction. But it's nice to see he's back, out of that namby-pamby persona I feared was permanent what with his owner-sponsor relations.
McGee: Logano didn't do anything that any racer in his position wouldn't have done, including Stewart. If you want to see guys pull over and let people pass in the closing laps, might I suggest Formula One? As for Smoke, I had a long talk with him at Las Vegas three weeks ago and I could really sense that he was on the verge of boiling over. Then he admitted as much. Yes, he was clearly mad at Logano. But I honestly think his postrace reaction was just as much the result of a long list of lingering frustrations, from what he described to me as February's "non-news headlines taking away from great racing" to his team's continued struggles. I wondered that day in Vegas when his simmer might become a full-on explosion. Now I don't have to wonder about that anymore.
Newton: Totally unacceptable by Stewart. He obviously has selective memory and chooses not to remember he caused a 25-car pileup at Talladega blocking for the win. Logano did what he had to do at the end of the race to give himself a chance to win. Stewart would have done the same thing, only he probably would have said he was just protecting his ground. The three-time champion was flat-out wrong on several fronts. He should be fined for parking on pit road and starting the shoving match. He should be fined for calling Logano a "b----'' on TV. Both are worse than what Denny Hamlin said about the Gen-6 to draw a $25,000 penalty. I'll stop now before I say what I really think.
Smith: It was overboard, but I completely get it. He had a run on the bottom that would have pushed him near -- or into -- the race lead. Logano blocked. That'll piss a man straight off. Think how angry you get when you're in the passing lane on the interstate and a slower car dives in front of you. You want to punch that guy in the mouth. Difference is we go to jail for throwing the haymaker and Stewart is hailed for true, raw emotion. He's willing and able to throw down like we all want to throw down on the interstate. Here's the thing about Stewart: He's the sheriff. Brian Vickers has the moniker, but Smoke wears the badge among drivers in the garage. He's the former hothead trying to corral his impulse as a company figurehead. But at the core he's still a blue-collar, dirt-track racer who's ready to dish some knuckle-sandwich justice. That's one reason so many hard-core fans have embraced him.
Logano did what anybody would do: He protected his position to try to win the race. That's what he's there for -- to win the race. Let's look deeper at Joey Logano. This is a talented kid who many consider a disappointment for "not living up to the hype." Well, the hype wasn't his fault. He leaves Gibbs for a new beginning at Penske, and he's fast. Very fast. But that doesn't relieve the pressure of wanting -- needing -- to win. Winning is validation. Need proof? See Matt Kenseth's reaction to getting his first win for Gibbs in the 20 car. He was beyond thrilled. Why? Because he did what he was hired to do: win. He was validated. That's where Logano is right now. He knows Penske wants him. He knows his team is behind him. But he wants to win to be validated.
Turn 3: Is it good or bad for the Nationwide Series that Kyle Busch has won three of the first five races?
Blount: It's not bad. It's horrible. It's the worst thing that can happen. My opinion on this is well-documented (check out the Monday Rundown). Busch winning another Nationwide race in the best equipment is like Andrea Bocelli winning a singing contest over William Hung. This is not what the series needs to grow, and this could be a special season in Nationwide. For years, I've heard the flawed logic that Cup drivers sell tickets to the Nationwide races. It's a theory I've never embraced (look in the stands), and even if it's true, it's still shortsighted gain.
If the Nationwide regulars were winning races, they would become stars. People would know them, follow them and become bigger fans of those drivers. It would help them gain sponsorship and add more cash in the pockets for guys who really need it. This is the only sport -- heck, it's really the only major racing series -- where the biggest stars at the top level compete regularly at the lower level, win races, and act like they accomplished some great thing.
Hinton: Bad. You just can't have a non-points contender dominating a series like that. Throwing the Cup cherry pickers out of championship eligibility was a good start, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was a credible champion the past two years. But if Rowdy keeps this up -- and there's no indication he won't -- he'll overshadow the eventual champion.
McGee: Bad. It's boring. It reminds me of when Mark Martin used to crush the field every weekend back in the 1990s. As Busch crossed the finish line at Fontana on Saturday, my man Terry Blount tweeted that it was like Andrea Bocelli winning a singing contest versus William Hung. As I laughed aloud, I was also nodding my head in agreement. It's cool to have Busch out there in those rare instances when we get to see someone like Kyle Larson make a run at him. But, as noted in the previous sentence, that's rare.
Mark Garrow interviews a distinguished neurologist about similar back injuries suffered by Denny Hamlin.
Newton: I hate this expression, but it is what it is. I know some get riled about Cup drivers dipping into the minors, but if tracks didn't feel they needed those drivers to sell tickets, then NASCAR would do something to stop it. It's a developmental series. Cup drivers winning the races may cheapen the championship, but they don't hinder the development process other than taking a seat that a potential star might have. And if sponsors were willing to spend money on the potential stars, the Cup guys wouldn't be there anyway. It's a necessary evil that I quit losing sleep over a while back.
Smith: It's no different than any of the past several years -- last year notwithstanding, of course, when Busch drove his own startup equipment. Since 2008, while driving Joe Gibbs Racing-prepared Nationwide cars -- as he is this year -- Kyle Busch has won 43 races in 119 starts. That's 36 percent. I'll say this: Despite Busch's dominance this season, I've heard just as much about Sam Hornish Jr. and Kyle Larson.
Turn 4: Five races into the season on five very different kinds of tracks, give the Gen-6 car a grade, and explain why.
Blount: I'll give it an A-minus, only because I'm uncertain how it will race at the plate tracks after the Daytona parade. But any car that can make Fontana look good gets high marks from me. It's getting better every week because the teams are learning more about it and making it racier. The cars look great and the racing will continue to improve. The Gen-6 is a winner in my book.
Hinton: Give it a B. The past two races pulled it up from a C-minus. Bristol made it a C-plus, and then Fontana would have pulled it all the way to an A-minus, except that the vast width of the California track -- the key to Sunday's show -- won't be precisely duplicated again this season. Michigan and Atlanta will closely simulate. Other places depend on how well teams tweak the car. But Fontana was clearly the showcase of what NASCAR meant to accomplish on the intermediate tracks with the Gen-6. They raced all over the place. For one afternoon, the Gen-6 made Fontana look like the best track in NASCAR.
McGee: I give it a B, with an asterisk. I've said all along that we won't really know exactly what we have until we get through May. Right now the sample size is a little too small to declare for sure one way or the other. But we have to be encouraged by the fact that the two "cookie cutter" events have both been great. In my opinion, they were the greatest races in the relatively short histories of both Las Vegas and Fontana. I know that the tires and the older track surfaces had a lot to do with that, but when you talk to the drivers, they all say the Gen-6 is already giving them the ability to take chances, to actually make it do what a driver wants it to. That's a great sign.
Newton: B-plus. The plus is for the finish of Sunday's race. Spectacular, hard racing the way it ought to be, and not just between Logano and Hamlin. Kyle Busch and Logano had moments like that, as well. Was it spectacular throughout? No. Never has been, no matter how much people want to fantasize about the past. There's still room for improvement. NASCAR knows that. But the governing body isn't planning any tweaks for the time being because it is satisfied, as well, and teams need more races with the same package to find ways to improve it.
Smith: B-minus. They're certainly prettier than the COT was, but how different, really, is the racing aesthetically? Television ratings are way up, so fans are paying attention. It's awfully early to be giving grades, in my opinion. I mean, in grade school we at least had six weeks between grade periods.
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