Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week.
Turn 1: Danica Patrick started at the back Sunday and finished 12th. What grade would you give her at Martinsville?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: The only thing she didn't do was win the race, but it's still a strong A for me. Honestly, I didn't think she had it in her, not at that track. That place devours rookies. Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and brother Kyle all finished 35th or worse in their first Martinsville Cup race. Virtually no one thought she could finish on the lead lap, much less the top 15. It was an absolutely remarkable effort after an early spin and getting two laps down. Patrick is a dichotomy in many ways. She can look clueless at times on some tracks and then does something like she did Sunday that makes you realize she didn't get here on just luck and looks. It won't go in the stat book as her best finish, but it was her best performance to date in NASCAR.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: The implications here may be vaster than just a letter grade, but for openers I'll give her an A-minus for learning so fast and making so few mistakes after she got the right setup and caught on. What mattered most Sunday is that she gained enormous confidence that she can be aggressive and she can pass people -- a lot of people. Granted it was on NASCAR's shortest, slowest track, but attitude gained at Martinsville could apply elsewhere. Couple that with her running well at Daytona, and her sense of belonging in the mix is growing. Martinsville is a track some drivers can't master for entire careers. She gets it at the Paper Clip -- witness her nonchalance about being shoved by Brian Vickers at the finish, because she understands that's how the game is played there. She'll be well worth watching when the tour returns there in the fall. Her stronger sense of belonging might just be a breakout for her that will carry over everywhere else.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: A. Let the record show that I've never been a Patrick apologist and have always questioned the sanity of having her full time in Cup this year. But she totally blew me away. I talked to that team and her boss, Tony Stewart, a lot on Friday and Saturday, and they were basically already apologizing for Sunday. Crew chief Tony Gibson said specifically that the goal was to "just log as many laps as we can." Then she brought out the first caution, and it was like, "Uh-oh, here we go." But you could see her confidence increasing as the race went on. She went from trying to stay out of the way to doing what Stewart told me he coached her to do, which was stick her nose in there and don't let up, no matter what. I still think it's a mistake running Cup full time so soon, but for at least for one week, she totally shocked me. And the way that Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer interacted with her during their postrace media session, clearly they were shocked -- and impressed -- too.
David Newton, ESPN.com: A. Her most impressive performance in NASCAR, maybe her entire motorsports career. Better than her pole run and eighth-place finish at Daytona. She actually outdrove three-time Sprint Cup champion and boss Tony Stewart for a position on the track. But as surprised as everyone was by her performance, perhaps we shouldn't be. She has shown an ability to get around road courses pretty good, and Martinsville is as close to the feel of a road course as there is with all left turns. Still, impressive. Look at how others with far more talent have done on their first trip to the paper-clip-shaped track.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: A, with extra credit. She finished 12th. TWELFTH. That equals the Martinsville debut effort of another polarizing open-wheeler-turned-stock-car-racer -- a guy named Tim Richmond. So much happens so quickly at Martinsville and it's so physical -- and equipment takes a beating. She managed all of that. She also managed tire wear like a driver who had run Martinsville 20 times. As the tires fell off, the field came to her. It was impressive. It amazes me how many folks want to disparage her effort Sunday. That's asinine. Does she get a lot of hype? Yes. How much is due her? Debatable. Acknowledging her effort at Martinsville as anything other than utterly fantastic is not debatable.
Turn 2: Jimmie Johnson now has eight victories at Martinsville, and while that seems like a lot, Richard Petty has 15. Will Johnson ever eclipse Petty?
Blount: Five-Time has won 50 percent of the Martinsville races since the fall event of 2006 (seven of 14 events). If he keeps up that pace (not likely), he would tie Petty in the spring race of 2020 when Johnson is 44 years old. It's a tall order, and I just don't see it happening. Only one of Petty's Martinsville victories came after he was 37, Johnson's age now. I think JJ has a much better chance to tie Petty and Dale Earnhardt for seven series championships than he does to win 15 races at Martinsville.
Hinton: Approach? Maybe. Equal? Unlikely. Eclipse? No way. Johnson will turn 38 before the next Martinsville race. It has taken him 11 years to get this far and nine years since he mastered the layout. He is slightly past halfway to tying Petty. At this rate, Johnson would be at least 47 when he got a 15th clock, and I somehow doubt this generation will race as long as Petty and his peers did. Besides, Johnson has to slug it out with more Martinsville maestros twice a year than Petty did. Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon and a healthy Denny Hamlin are all regular contenders, and Kyle Busch is getting there. No contemporary is quite as artful as Johnson at Martinsville, but there are enough strong runners that somebody is going to take one or two away from him here and there. I can see Johnson going pretty easily to double digits in wins there. But 15? Talk to me after he's hit 12 or 13, and let's see where his career is at that point.
McGee: I don't know. That's a mighty tall order. It took him a decade-plus to get the first eight, though he has made only 23 Martinsville starts versus Darrell Waltrip's 52 (11 wins) and The King's 67. Will he stick around long enough to win eight more? If he does, he will. Same goes for Petty's seven championships.
Newton: If he makes 67 starts at Martinsville as Petty did, yes. Johnson has won eight times in 23 trips to the half-mile track. That's a winning percentage of 34.8 percent. If he maintains his pace in 67 starts, he'll win 23 times. He's only one behind Petty after the same number of appearances. The problem is that Johnson never will make 67 Martinsville starts. The good news is he'll likely be in Hendrick Motorsports equipment his entire career, so he'll have a more competitive car than Petty did late in his career. Let's just say it'll be close.
Smith: No. If he won one race per year at Martinsville, he would need seven more seasons of driving to equal Petty -- eight to eclipse him. Johnson is 37 years old, in his 12th full season. I figure retirement time for him is roughly 45 years old. He won't win one per year at Martinsville for the next eight years. He's the master there, but no matter how elite he is at Martinsville, that won't happen. He could part-time it like Mark Martin, I guess, and run Martinsville until he's 55. I just don't see it.
Turn 3: The Camping World Truck Series race Saturday had five top-10 finishers who are 21 or younger, including three teenagers, and none of them are named Kyle Larson. Which of those five drivers from Saturday's race do you think has the brightest future?
Blount: On the pedigree alone, I'd have to say Chase Elliott, Bill's son who is 17. Chase has been fast on every level he has competed, and it doesn't hurt that he is under contract with Hendrick Motorsports. Jeb Burton, Ward's son who is 20, also was impressive at Martinsville, winning the pole and leading a lot of laps Saturday. But the driver who has the chance to make the biggest impact is Darrell Wallace Jr. He's 19 and could become the first African-American driver in NASCAR who has a shot at contending for championships.
Hinton: Three of them are so close together you could throw a hat over them -- Jeb Burton, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Chase Elliott. But there's no substitute for connections in NASCAR, and young Elliott has the edge there with his father, Bill, and the developmental aid of the Hendrick juggernaut. Wallace may be the leader in sheer talent and has the tacit blessing of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity, but he still hasn't gotten the level and regularity of rides his ability and demeanor warrant. I think young Burton -- plenty of talent there -- would climb further, faster, if he talked more like his father, the inimitable Ward Burton, he of the molasses-paced Virginia squire's accent. But alas, Jeb talks more like his Uncle Jeff, in a more generic Southern accent. And that's just not as much fun. Most importantly, this fountain -- no, fire hydrant -- of youth pouring into Trucks tells us the series has become what NASCAR needs most, a true developmental level with national television attention.
McGee: First off, I walked the Trucks grid Saturday morning and have never felt so old. I told Chase Elliott that he's the first driver whose voice has changed during the time that I've covered him. Speaking of Elliott, I think he's the guy. There's a total package element to him that is undeniable. He's talented, smart, well-spoken, funny and, oh yeah, he has Hendrick Motorsports backing. The best news of all is that, after years of the Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year battle being a total joke, we have a genuinely huge wave of young talent coming up.
Newton: I'm going with Chase Elliott. Bill Elliott's son is a natural. Bill once told me his son is better in many ways than he was at the same age (17). Chase is inheriting his dad's work ethic of understanding everything about the car, not just showing up at the track and driving it. That will pay off. He also has backing from a pretty good organization in Hendrick Motorsports. That always helps.
Smith: I really like Darrell Wallace Jr. He's taking full advantage of good equipment. When he's in a Gibbs Nationwide car, he finishes top-10 (as he should). In Kyle Busch's trucks, he runs top-five (as he should). This kid has the "it" factor. His future is bright. Keep your eye on Erik Jones too. He outran Busch in the Snowball Derby last winter and fared quite well in his debut at Martinsville.
Turn 4: Last April's Cup race at Texas was, well, not what fans want to see, more than likely. The November race was much better. What do you expect to see at Texas Motor Speedway with the new car this weekend?
Blount: Please, let us see anything other than what we saw last April, one of the dullest races I've ever had to sit through. What we may see is blazing speeds at one of NASCAR's fastest tracks. The Gen-6 is setting a lot of speed records this year. If that happens at TMS -- Brian Vickers has the qualifying record at 196.235 mph -- the cars could reach the danger point of a 200 mph lap average. Faster speeds rarely equate to better racing, but I'll be shocked if the Gen-6 doesn't put on a better show than the Gen-5 did one year ago. A horse and buggy would put on a better show than the 2013 yawner.
Hinton: Because we mentioned Richard Petty earlier, let's go with his long-running mantra that everything depends on "circumstances." Just as cautions breed cautions, long runs without cautions beget longer runs without cautions, and that's what happened at Texas last spring. TMS is no longer the dipsy-doodle puzzle it once was. Drivers largely have it figured out and so don't tend to A) wreck solo or B) detonate pileups, as of yore. That said, the nearest outing the Gen-6 car has had to this Texas debut was Fontana three weeks ago, and that was quite impressive. TMS is different from Auto Club Speedway but still an intermediate track, and those have clearly been designated Job 1 by NASCAR in developing the Gen-6. My guess is that the Gen-6 will create enough passing to create enough cautions to avoid the long runs that made for last spring's seeming 24 Hours of Fort Worth.
McGee: What we know for sure about this car is that it is very fast, and Texas is all about speed. There's always that risk of too much speed leading to a lack of actual racing. But, honestly, basing it on what we saw at Vegas and Fontana, I'm expecting it to be pretty dang racy. It just might take us a while to see it. At 500 miles, these guys will bide their time before totally dropping the hammer. Which brings me to the part where I want to rant about TMS needing to shorten its events to 400 miles -- but that wasn't the actual question, was it?
Newton: They had a race at Texas last April? Really? I don't remember it. You know what? That happens at every track from time to time. Nothing memorable happens, and we write it off as bad. The overall racing in the fall race wasn't a ton different except that it came down to the two drivers -- Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski -- batting for the championship on a restart with two laps remaining. So we called it thrilling. I look for this race to be similar to what we saw at Las Vegas early this season. Fast laps. Decent passing. Whether there is a memorable moment depends on what you consider memorable.
Smith: Since January, I've said this about the Gen-6: It's all about the tire. The past two races have been excellent because the tire fell off throughout a run. The Sprint Cup Series will run the same tire codes at TMS that it ran last year, according to Goodyear. It has been run by the trucks at Texas over the past two seasons and has a tougher compound for better wear. It seems like the Gen-6 makes for better racing. But 500 miles at Texas is a really long time. I do expect a much better race than last spring at Texas, though.