Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: Saturday night was a disappointing finish for Juan Pablo Montoya, but Montoya and teammate Jamie McMurray raced up front most of the night. Is this an indication that Earnhardt Ganassi Racing is turning things around?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: In McMurray's case, it's clear the No. 1 Chevy is making strides forward. McMurray had only three top-10s last year, but he already has three this year. He ranks 12th after finishing 21st last season. But Montoya has struggled most of the season until almost winning at Richmond. It should give an emotional boost to the No. 42 Chevy team heading to Talladega, a place where Montoya has finished second once and third twice. But you can bet both of these guys are looking over their shoulder at a rising star who's gaining on them and threatening to take one of those jobs soon -- Kyle Larson.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: I'd call it more of an uptick than an upturn, because we are talking about one short track here. But what too few people realize about Chip Ganassi is that he really, truly, absolutely hates to lose. If he keeps this team, and indications are that he will, he will do what it takes, within his sponsorship means, to win. Look at his IndyCar and sports car teams, which have rarely stayed down for long, and you'll see where his gut instincts lie. NASCAR has always been a tougher challenge for Ganassi than the other leagues, so the next several races will tell us more about a turnaround.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: One good night certainly isn't a trend, but I think that the real glimmer of hope for Ganassi has been there all spring, and it has been McMurray. There's a consistency with that No. 1 car that hasn't been present at EGR in quite some time. That team has literally changed everything over the last few years -- the front office, the way they build cars, and finally, this year, their engine supplier (funny what all some Hendrick horsepower can fix, isn't it?). There's only one part of the team left to change and that's the drivers, especially with wunderkind Kyle Larson in the pipeline. So far McMurray has raced like a man worthy of keeping around. Montoya might need a few more Richmonds.
David Newton, ESPN.com: I wrote a few years ago that EGR was in a state of disarray and took grief from Chip Ganassi for two years. I haven't given thought to writing that about the organization this year because it isn't far off the top-tier teams. Montoya and McMurray have had decent speed all season. Not great, but good enough to run near the top 10. Montoya simply has had enough misfortune, whether it's a mistake by a pit crew member or somebody in the engine department, in nine races for an entire season. His performance at Richmond shows what he and the organization are capable of when everything goes right. That's the big difference between EGR and the top teams that can overcome a night when everything doesn't go right and still get a good finish.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: It is. Absolutely. Richmond was no fluke for Ganassi. Granted there's nowhere to go but up. Ganassi was a complete nonfactor in 2012; competitively irrelevant. Not this year. This year Montoya and McMurray have both shown speed all year. Montoya's team has had awful luck. They hurt themselves a lot. I said entering Richmond that I believed McMurray will win a race this season. Still do. And Montoya just might, too. We can't grasp what an oval-track Sprint Cup win would mean for Montoya -- especially at that oval track. The Sprint Cup Series is so, so competitive. And when a team is as bad as Ganassi was, righting the proverbial ship is like turning an aircraft carrier around in the harbor. It seems as if they've at least turned that beast 90 degrees.
Turn 2: Richmond was a wild finish that many fans love. List your top three races out of the first nine Sprint Cup events this year, and explain why.
Blount: Who would have thought nine races into 2013 you could look back and consider Fontana the best race of the season so far? I'm ranking it No. 1. The event had competitive racing up front and a wild finish with hated rivals Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin trading paint while going for the win on the last lap. Sadly, that resulted in Hamlin's back injury (another example of the missing SAFER barrier on a concrete wall). And the event also had the postrace scuffle between Tony Stewart, Logano and the crews. Cali's never been better. Richmond ranks No. 2 with high drama and hot tempers for the last 100 laps or so, but more than half the race was a total yawner. Third for me is Las Vegas, where Matt Kenseth showed his emotions, screaming on his radio in the final laps as he was battling to hold off Kasey Kahne.
Hinton: Slam dunk, hands down, Fontana was the most memorable race so far. Hard to call it the "best," because Denny Hamlin got hurt. But with that qualification, this was where the Hamlin-Joey Logano and Tony Stewart-Logano feuds blew sky high, and where Kyle Busch took advantage of the Hamlin-Logano fender-banging to win from third place. Plus, that was the race when the Gen-6 car came into its own. Richmond Saturday night is second best of the season, because of the free-for-all finish. Beyond that, it's hard to say. Maybe Las Vegas, when Matt Kenseth said more on his radio than it seems like he'd said the rest of his career combined. Remember all that agitated chatter with his spotter and crew, wondering where Kasey Kahne's rundown attempt stood, every few seconds? In the process of winning, Kenseth gave NASCAR Nation a whole new look at just how excited he can get.
McGee: 1. Fontana. No, I can't believe I'm typing that, either. But it was the most entertaining race of the year, green to checkers.
2. Daytona. The only reason people gripe about this race is because of Gen-6 hype and the fact that Dale Junior didn't win.
3. Vegas/Richmond. I'm punting here. But Vegas might have been the best pure racing we've seen all year, plus they were flat flying. And the Richmond finish was tremendous … unless you're Montoya.
Newton: 1. Auto Club Speedway in California. Drama with feuding Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano battling and crashing on the last lap racing for the lead. Drama afterward with Tony Stewart attacking Logano for blocking on the final restart. Drama still afterward with Hamlin sidelined for up to six weeks with a compression fracture.
2. Richmond. I know some thought there were boring stretches, but I was entertained the entire night and there was a great finish with intriguing pit strategy at the end.
3. Bristol. Lots of action throughout even though Kasey Kahne won by two seconds. A shoving match between the crews of Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano afterward. What more could you want?
Smith: 1. California: I hate that Denny Hamlin ultimately got hurt. No one wants to see that. But the final 20 laps of that race were as good as it gets. Three-wide. Four-wide. Slipping, sliding, blocking and door-banging. For the lead. And when Joey Logano and Hamlin opened the door, Kyle Busch kicked it down for the win. Then we had fights, insults and classic one-liners. Again: It's too bad Hamlin was hurt. But that race was just fantastic.
2. Las Vegas: Watching Kasey Kahne drive like hell in the effort to hunt down Matt Kenseth was exhilarating. Those are two of the most talented drivers in the sport, and both are so adaptable to what the track offers them on any given Sunday. Watching Kahne try different lines to make up his deficit, and watching and listening to Kenseth work to combat Kahne's advance was amazing. Vegas was what the greatest racing in the world is supposed to look like.
3. Richmond: It was Montoya's race until Brian Vickers brought out the caution. Then Kevin Harvick -- despite his having a top-3 or -4 car all night, came from nowhere to win it. He restarted seventh and was the leader by Turn 1. As great as Harvick is at Richmond, we should've seen that coming. But I didn't.
Turn 3: Paul Menard and Aric Almirola would make the Chase if it started today. Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr. and Tony Stewart would not. Which driver inside the Chase cutoff is most likely to fall out and which one outside the cutoff has the best chance to get in?
Blount: I may surprise some people here by listing Joey Logano as the driver I think has the best chance to work his way into the Chase. The boy stood up for himself and now he's more confident than ever before in his career. Logano has three top-5 finishes, one more than he had all last season. He's 17th in the standings, but he would be 12th if not for the 25-point penalty from Texas. His third-place finish at Richmond was his best ever on the short track. He's going to win somewhere and will be in the hunt for a wild-card spot, at least, if he doesn't climb back into the top 10. I'm not sure Menard or Almirola can hang. Both of them probably will need to win a race, but I'm truly impressed with how Aric is running. He has three consecutive top-10s, including eighth at Richmond after starting 34th.
Hinton: If we're talking today, Jamie McMurray in 12th is already out, with no wins, and Matt Kenseth in 13th is in, with two wins. So for who drops out, you look at Menard, 10th, and Almirola, 11th. Narrow choice there, but you figure Almirola falls out of 11th because of the unlikelihood he'll win a race. Menard, with only one career Cup win, is almost as unlikely to win before Chase time, but could hang on in 10th without a victory. Of those on the outside who might get in, Truex, Logano and Gordon are the strongest candidates. Gotta go with Gordon based on sheer seasoning of driver and team, and the likelihood the 24 will win at least one, maybe two, races by the end of regular season. Plus, Hendrick Motorsports hasn't been pounded by the NASCAR police as much as other top teams this season, so they might have the microscopic matters of the Gen-6 worked out better.
McGee: I think Gordon is fine. His cars are fast, he's just had no luck. He's right there in 14th place, light years ahead of where Kasey Kahne was one year ago and Kahne not only made the Chase, he had a legit shot at the title. As for who will fall out, I'll take Menard over Almirola. But I'm thinking both.
Newton: Paul Menard was 13th in the standings after 14 races last year. Jeff Gordon was 22nd. Gordon made the Chase. Menard finished 16th. What I am saying is the cream will rise to the top. Gordon and Truex will make the Chase because they will have fast cars all season. Stewart will be close. Matt Kenseth in 13th definitely will get in as well. Were it not for the 50-point penalty he'd be there now. Falling out will be Menard, Almirola and McMurray. Enough from my crystal ball.
Smith: Respect and congratulations to both Aric Almirola and Paul Menard. Almirola joins McMurray as the surprises of the sport thus far in 2013. But with time I expect Almirola and Menard to both drop out. Truex has the speed to make the Show. But he has to win. He has to close the deal. Stewart and Gordon currently do not have the speed to make the Show. But Stewart didn't have the speed to make it at this point in 2011, either. The 14 bunch is perplexed by its mediocre performance to date. Gordon's lack of performance is equally perplexing given how well Kasey Kahne has performed from the same shop. That happens sometimes, though. See: 48 versus 88 in recent years. Teams and drivers consider every single point in every single race vital right now. And while that's probably true, I still think it's really early to be four-alarm-fire-concerned. There are 17 races left before the Chase cutoff. Seventeen!
Turn 4: The Daytona 500 was a disappointment to many fans in the first Gen-6 race and the first restrictor-plate event in the new cars. Now comes Talladega. Will it be different?
Blount: Talladega is bound to have more action, simply because the teams know so much more about the car now than they did at Daytona. And Talladega is a much different track from Daytona, which is a handling track. Talladega is wider, and handling doesn't come into play as much, which means almost anyone can win there. However, what I expect to see is similar to what we've seen there most of the time in recent years: Follow the leader for the first 90 percent of the race and all-out chaos and destruction for the final 10 percent.
Hinton: Ride-around races have always been more common at Talladega than Daytona, so Sunday could be a promenade for a long time, unless teams have found significant tweaks on Gen-6 aero. Kyle Busch has theorized that the flatter configuration of the windshields on the Gen-6 adds to the violence of the side draft that stalls out cars halfway through a pass attempt. I don't think that has been fixed, at least enough. Watch for more tech busts this weekend, this time on aero as teams struggle to find something, anything. This is not to say Dega won't be a memorable race. The last few laps there are always plenty crazy enough to leave a lasting impression of a fantastic race, regardless of what happens -- or doesn't -- for the first 475 miles.
McGee: We always want to say that Daytona and Talladega are the same, but they aren't. Not even close. We'll have much larger packs and much longer stretches of "everyone chill out for a little while and ride." But don't sweat those periods of getting into line and staying out of trouble. When it's time to go, we'll have much more chaos.
Newton: Not much, although you may see more packs simply because Daytona is more of a handling track.
Smith: Nope. It will be 420 miles of general mundaneness. There will be a mistake or two but nothing especially noteworthy. Miles 420-450 will ratchet up the intensity. The final 50 miles will be bedlam.