Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

Originally Published: April 16, 2013
ESPN.com

Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week, plus one bonus question.

Turn 1: Ron Hornaday Jr. wrecked Darrell Wallace Jr. under caution Sunday at Rockingham in the Camping World Truck Series race. Should NASCAR suspend Hornaday for a race as it did Kyle Busch for a similar incident -- against Hornaday -- at Texas in 2011?

Terry Blount, ESPN.com: NASCAR officials will set themselves up for enormous criticism from fans if they don't hand out the same punishment for Hornaday that Busch received. Every situation is different, but the vast majority of people will see this as Hornaday being foolish enough to do exactly what was done to him. No matter how angry he was, how in the world could Hornaday not see how foolish this was for him? A one-race suspension would be a huge blow to Hornaday's championship hopes, but I don't see how NASCAR has any other option without looking unfair. NASCAR's one excuse if it doesn't suspend Hornaday, and it's not a good one, is to say Hornaday didn't have the history of bad behavior that Busch had.

Darrell Wallace Jr.
Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: No way. Hornaday's offense was a tap, almost like he couldn't decide whether he wanted to do it. Busch's in '11 was a blatant rundown and ram. Kyle had road rage; Hornaday was momentarily and mildly miffed. Hornaday may have pulled off some quick politics by telling his crew on the radio he didn't mean to wreck Wallace. True or not, he showed remorse, and that might have counted with NASCAR. Because it happened under caution, Hornaday's action might have warranted a stiffer penalty than what he got, being put at the back of the longest line for the restart. But I just can't see that he deserved a suspension.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Yes. I was there on Sunday and was outraged. I also heard Hornaday interviewed the following morning, the deep, almost mournful regret in his voice that belongs to a racer who knows he's being benched. The fact that it's him, the guy who was turned by Busch, alone is reason to suspend him. But I don't know if it will happen. Since the Busch incident we've had the Jeff Gordon-Clint Bowyer mess, which was WAY more premeditated, and Gordon wasn't parked.

David Newton, ESPN.com: NASCAR insisted that the history between Busch and Hornaday didn't play a role in Busch's suspension even though it probably did. So the governing body has backed itself into a corner on this one. To remain consistent, Hornaday must be fined and parked for a race. Gotta love Hornaday's postrace comments, though, in part blaming Wallace for brake-checking to cause the wreck and then saying he felt like an "idiot" for wrecking him. NASCAR's only out in this might be that Busch was a Sprint Cup regular messing with a full-time Truck series driver's chance to win a title. Wallace and Hornaday are full time in Trucks.

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: It's just not that easy. Fundamentally, Hornaday's decision at Rockingham was quite similar to Busch's reaction at Texas 16 months ago. But there are many dynamics involved that may spare Hornaday from suspension. The key question here is NASCAR's criteria. How much did Busch's past transgressions add up to the final outcome? A lot. He was already on probation when he dumped Hornaday. Meanwhile, Hornaday's track record is currently clean. How muchdoes it matter that Hornaday's reaction occurred in a series in which he -- and the driver he wrecked -- are both competing for a championship? How much does caution versus green matter in the decision? Because you can't possibly be more premeditated than Jeff Gordon was last fall at Phoenix when he slowed down under green and waited for Clint Bowyer, then dumped him on purpose in front of full-speed traffic. Gordon didn't get parked, then went on to win the next weekend at Homestead. And what about when Jeff Burton hooked Gordon in the right rear at Texas in 2010? They pushed and shoved. NASCAR did nothing.

Make no mistake: What Hornaday did was dumb and uncalled for. He knows that. He said after the race he feels like an idiot. More often than not, every one of us feels like an idiot in the aftermath of a tantrum. I certainly do. I'm never proud of myself in moments of emotional frustration. Once he processed what happened, Hornaday was sick over it. I don't believe he had malicious intentions. All said, I don't think NASCAR will park him.

Turn 2: Martin Truex Jr. finished second -- again -- on Saturday and has gone 210 races since his last victory, at Dover, in June 2007. Does he lack the instinct to close out a race, or is it something else?

Blount: What Truex lacked was a pit crew good enough to get him out ahead of Kyle Busch on the last stop along with not having the first pit stall, which Busch earned for winning the pole. Truex had a good stop. Busch's crew had a great one. That's it. Had he made it out first, Truex probably would have won because the leader in clean air was long gone all night at Texas. That also is why Truex would have won it if the last caution hadn't happened. He was in front and would have stayed there. Truex isn't missing a victory chip in his brain. But the No. 56 Toyota still is a small notch off, missing a piece or two on the road to becoming a winner and a title contender.

Martin Truex Jr.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Hinton: It was definitely something else on Saturday night. On the crucial final pit stop, Truex's crew had a good but not great performance, while Busch's crew pulled off a magnificent one. Both drivers said that was the difference in the race. When Truex is in position to win, he always seems to drive the wheels off his car, but he can't help it if the handling falls off a bit or if his crew gets him out second and subjects him to the almost-certain aero push on intermediate tracks. The jury's still out on whether Truex can close a deal, pending evidence as to whether his crew can close a deal.

McGee: I wasn't at Texas, but I was at Atlanta this past September, and I've never seen pain in a man's eyes over a win that slipped away. So it's not lack of passion. It's just a matter of circumstance. And the fact that he was stuck in the middle of DEI's demise didn't help. You can't question a man's ability to close the deal if he's driving a sled.

Newton: Hardly. Instinct had nothing to do with the caution coming out late on Saturday or the sun coming out late last year at Kansas to change handing in a race he had dominated. Remember Harry Gant? He finished second 10 times before collecting his first Cup victory and was 42 when he did it. He went on to win 18 times. The best car and even best driver doesn't always win. Period. Wins will come for Truex.

Smith: It's easy to look at all the near misses for Truex in the past two seasons and say, "He can't close." I don't buy it. Granted, I'm sure it's weighing heavily on him mentally. When near-miss failure happens time and again, very few athletes can just let that go without residual impact. Speed is everything. Jeff Gordon said it last season: If a driver has speed, the wins will come. Truex has plenty of speed. I figure he gets one win, he gets several.

Turn 3: Who is more likely to come from outside the top 20 to make the Chase: Tony Stewart or Denny Hamlin?

Blount: I love this question. So many ways to evaluate it, but my surprising answer is Hamlin. First, the No. 11 Toyota is just a way better team at the moment than Stewart's No. 14 Chevy. The 11 is eighth in owner points with three top-10s (including the past two weeks without Hamlin), and the 14 is 24th with only one top-10. A lot of this depends on when Hamlin returns, but let's assume it's Darlington. From that race until the Chase, Hamlin has nine victories over the past four seasons. From this weekend until the Chase, Stewart has five victories over the past four seasons.

Tony Stewart
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The problem for Hamlin is he'll keep falling in the standings until he returns. Calculating the average points earned per race by the drivers below him, Hamlin likely will rank somewhere around 32nd or 33rd when he gets back. At the worst, Stewart still will rank around 20th, and probably better. So Hamlin will have to climb up 12 spots or more in 16 races to qualify for the wild card. He can do it, so it comes down to which guy can win enough to get a wild-card spot. The chances aren't good for either man, but it would become the story of the year if Hamlin returns and makes the playoff.

Hinton: Hamlin, assuming his healing meets the prognosis. Hamlin was running pretty darn good before his injury -- heck, he was gunning for a win when it happened. Stewart is mired in a streak of general underachievement, and you figure he and crew chief Steve Addington will dig out of the hole. But the questions are (1) When? and (2) Whether there is, or will be, internal friction over the reasons for lack of performance. If they got their act together right now, they could move on up in the points before Hamlin can get re-established. Kansas on Sunday may be a good indicator of whether Stewart can break out or whether he remains in the doldrums for a while.

McGee: I still think the Hamlin wild-card scenario is a reach. But that being said, at this moment, his chances are better than Stewart's. The 14 car is awful. Smoke's Chase chances will either live or perish over the remainder of April. Say he crashes big at Talladega ... have they shown us anything to indicate that he can put together one of his patented summer hot streaks? Nope.

Newton: Call me crazy, but Hamlin if he comes back on schedule or beforehand. The No. 11 car has been at worst a threat for a top-10 in every race, including the past two weeks -- 10th at Martinsville with Mark Martin and eighth at Texas with Brian Vickers -- without Hamlin. Hamlin led laps in four of his five races, including 117 at Bristol. Stewart has led in only one race (California) and has only one top-10. Having said that, Smoke was ready to throw in the towel two years ago after an August race at Michigan but won the title. It wouldn't surprise me if both made it.

Smith: Stewart. He's surprisingly slow right now -- molasses-in-January slow. But he's racing and has a tendency to all of a sudden flip a switch. See: 2011. As for Hamlin, as I said when he was initially injured -- you won't find a tougher athlete. He has an insane pain tolerance. But this decision isn't his to make. If he's back by Darlington, he very well could have a chance to go Chasing. But until I hear him, Joe Gibbs Racing or his doctors say he's cleared, I won't believe he can return by then. This is a fickle injury. Coming back prematurely could result in paralysis. Life-altering paralysis. I know he wants a title. I know he was a title favorite in 2013. But I know he wants to race for years and years to come. I could see it in his face when I spoke with him after the injury. Making the right choice long term requires more patience than anything he's ever done. But he knows the long view is the right view.

Turn 4: Kyle Busch swept another weekend for a record seventh time. Is his Nationwide Series success contributing to his Sprint Cup Series success?

Blount: No. Not one tiny bit. The man has been racing Cup for nine seasons. Running Nationwide races isn't changing a thing other than making him the king of Cup bullies and the ongoing master of the minors. While winning five consecutive Cup titles, Jimmie Johnson ran a grand total of 10 Nationwide races. He didn't run any in 2009 or 2010. Busch now has won four of the first six Nationwide races this season, ruining what could have been a great year of increased competition for the Nationwide championship. So much for the Nationwide Series having its own identity. Five of six races this season have been won by Cup stars, so its identity, once again, is a place where major league all-stars run roughshod over guys trying to make a name for themselves.

Kyle Busch
Chris Graythen/Getty Images for Texs Motor Speedway

Hinton: I just never have thought the two were related, but now here comes Kyle to pull off back-to-back sweeps at California and Texas. It may be that he gets SO pumped about winning in Nationwide that it carries over into Cup. Carl Edwards, while working in the ESPN booth Friday night, made two interesting points about running both series. Edwards said that when he ran a full Nationwide schedule, those races -- when run at the same track as Cup -- helped him get his pit-road speeding penalties out of his system and made his timing sharper for the next day. On the other hand, Edwards, whose fitness expertise is well known, said the Nationwide races can't help but take a little bit out of a driver, physically, for the next day. If Kyle is benefiting, it's in the rush of sheer enthusiasm and confidence.

McGee: I think it definitely does, but it's part of a bigger, happier picture that's not so much a racing thing as it is an attitude boost. Not only is he running well Saturday and Sunday, but all oars seem to be rowing in the right direction for his race team, Kyle Busch Motorsports. He's nearly obsessive with making sure that business is going well. When KBM was really struggling, financially and on the track, it really bothered him. A few years ago he was junk in an interview we had scheduled. When it was over he apologized and said he was distracted -- mad -- because moments before we started he'd gotten a call with some tough sponsorship news for his Nationwide team. Now that it's going better, added to all the winning, the good times have kept rolling all weekend.

Newton: If it gives Busch an edge in his mind -- and that's the only opinion that really matters -- then yes. It seems the more he races and the more he has success in NASCAR's lower series, the better his confidence and overall demeanor are for the entire weekend. Look at the numbers. His most productive years in terms of win in Cup were 2008 to 2011, when he won 19 times. That also was his most productive time in Nationwide with 40 wins. In 2012, he was winless in Nationwide. He had only one Cup win and missed the Chase. Numbers don't lie.

Smith: Anytime you win to that level it impacts your confidence, so I'd say yes, absolutely. For years folks have questioned whether Busch overextended himself and whether running so many races ultimately caught up to him come Chase time. I'll say this: He's become a more mature driver. The evolution became evident in 2012 and continues in 2013. He's learning to finish races. If he has a third-place car, he's working as hard as he can to finish third -- not overdrive it for a win and end up wrecked with a 33rd-place finish.

The Dogleg: What in the world do you think Brad Keselowski was really ranting about after the Texas race on Saturday night?

Blount: Apparently, NASCAR officials have been nitpicking the crew over little things with the No. 2 Ford, in Keselowski's eyes. But it appears NASCAR decided at Texas it was time to take a stand on where the line is for the Gen-6 car. That included Joey Logano's car barely making the start of the race (having inspection issues twice) and Truex's car being low in postrace inspection. And take a wild guess which car was the "random" selection to go back to the R&D center in North Carolina for further inspection? The 2, of course. Things were relatively calm the first few races, but as teams learn more about the cars, they are more comfortable in pushing the envelope and seeing what they can get away with. So NASCAR sent a message at Texas: "Not gonna happen, boys." Keselowski thinks they are picking on the defending champ, but Chad Knaus should send Brad a text that reads: "Welcome to my world, brother."

Brad Keselowski
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Hinton: The real issue was in Terry's news story, where Keselowski said, "I'm really worried about losing my crew chief, Paul Wolfe." That's it. That was the detonator. Those two are so in sync that Keselowski went off over the prospects of losing Wolfe for several races in a suspension. Maybe Keselowski does feel that the Blue Deuce team has been picked on -- but it all stems from his regard for Wolfe's integrity, which he feels was questioned, and the vast unknown of not having Wolfe on the box. Keselowski knows the crew chief is always the one nailed hardest for the slightest technical infractions. The severe irritant, but not the root cause, was the stress of having to scratch and claw to a ninth-place finish, rather than possibly running for the win, after the rear-end housing replacement was ordered by NASCAR.

McGee: I was standing in the Rockingham garage barely 12 hours after his Texas rant, and suddenly someone thumped me on the ear as he walked by. It was the champ, all smiles. Clearly he hadn't lost any sleep over it all. I think that Keselowski operates best from the position of "us against the world." He does his best work with that "they don't respect us" chip on his shoulder. To me, Saturday night wasn't as much about sending a message to NASCAR as it was sending a message to his team. A kind of "See, fellas? They still don't believe in us, so let's come from behind again!" mantra to keep his crew motivated. Think of it as the racing equivalent to a baseball coach running out onto the field and screaming at the umpire just to get thrown out and fire everyone up.

Newton: I suspect fairness played into his rant. Remember last August when Keselowski said the Hendrick Motorsports cars had different rear-suspension setups than everyone else, particularly at intermediate tracks? "There's parts and pieces on the car that are moving after inspection that makes the cars more competitive," Keselowski said after the Michigan race. "Some guys have it, some don't. There's a question as to the interpretation of the rule. Penske Racing errs on the safe side because we don't want to be the guys that get the big penalty." Keselowski typically is pretty pointed in his remarks, so I'd have to say he really believes NASCAR has been picking on his team. He also was standing up for his team and the integrity of Penske Racing owner Roger Penske.

Smith: Exactly what he said: He feels like Penske was singled out for something several teams are doing to gain a competitive advantage. I'm really glad NASCAR chose not to fine or penalize Keselowski -- but the fact that he wasn't fined or penalized only exacerbates how completely ridiculous it was to fine Denny Hamlin.

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