Debate: NASCAR's burning questions
Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: If you were the ruler of the racing world for Memorial Day weekend, would you run the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, or would you move one race to Monday? If you'd move one, which one and why?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: I would move one, but not to Monday. I would run the Coca-Cola 600 on Saturday night and keep the Indy 500 on Sunday. That way both events have a built-in rain day that isn't a normal work day. Both races are special and would be better served to have their own day. I realize it's exciting to have a Sunday tripleheader -- Monaco, Indy and Charlotte -- but only the most ardent gearheads are watching all three races on the same day.
Maybe, and this is a big maybe, a few more drivers would try to race both events if they were scheduled on different days, but I doubt it. Kurt Busch may attempt it next year, and Danica Patrick may do it at some point. It would generate some interest to see a few top drivers try it, but the concept doesn't have the appeal it had years ago. The era of jumping from one type of car to another and being competitive in both right off the bat is long gone. It takes a lot of track time and great equipment.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Ideally -- with total disregard for today's reality -- I would go back to the some-time schedule of the 1960s and '70s, when Indy ran on Saturdays so track owner Tony Hulman could avoid Indiana blue laws banning beer sales on Sundays. Stars from both leagues often ran both races because they had overnight to get to Charlotte for the 600. But once Hulman got a special pass on the blue laws, the 500 was locked into Sundays. Since then, neither side has budged -- nor will -- because both want Memorial Day as a rain date. The only glimmer of hope would be to start Indy even earlier and Charlotte even later to give drivers a reasonable window to "do the double." Sadly, there just aren't enough drivers willing or able to go the jet-and-helicopter route anymore to justify the two tracks stretching the window.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I'd leave them where they are, but I would nudge the 500 a little earlier and the 600 a little later. I know there was a time when the two races were run on different days, but there's a natural rhythm to having both races on the same day that we've been in since 1974. It's shocking what a little change can do to a historic event, and it's usually not good. I was covering the College World Series a few years back and they changed the schedule by a day on the front end and two days on the back end. People in Omaha didn't know what to do with themselves. It had an effect on excitement and attendance. We've seen the same with longtime races. Keep the most exciting day in racing the way it is!
Mark Garrow reports track owner, Bruton Smith, may move the October Charlotte race to Las Vegas. Plus, he has thoughts from Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards.
David Newton, ESPN.com: I'd simply adjust the times of both races to allow a driver ample time to compete in both, as Tony Stewart and a few others have in the past. The Sunday double is fascinating for the driver and fans, much more so than when the event was held on different days. No need to overthink what is the greatest day in motorsports.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Both on the same day. Those two marquee events join the Monaco Grand Prix in creating the year's greatest day of racing. It is tradition. In this here-and-gone world so hell-bent on "the next big thing," where changes are made just to appease the smallest of critical sects, let's leave the best day of auto racing alone. It's perfect as is.
Turn 2: NASCAR changed the All-Star format and Jimmie Johnson still won again. Is it time to change the All-Star track?
Blount: It was time to make that change years ago. Saturday night was one of the worst ever. The average-finish format was confusing and didn't work. But the big problem was the lack of passing up front. A different type of track would spice things up. The teams like having the event at Charlotte because it's an extra weekend at home, but is NASCAR running the event for the teams or the fans? Take it to a new track like Iowa. Or maybe Bristol. Heck, I don't care, even a road course. Anywhere new is better than the same old thing.
Hinton: It's time, but there's no chance. Charlotte is the only track willing to take on the promotion of a race that has to be hyped to the point of outrageousness to draw any attention at all. Moving the race from track to track annually just wouldn't work, because one-shot promotion is way too risky for the various venues. NASCAR has no "local crowd" per se, so this is vastly different from baseball's All-Star Game where each year a nod is given to the cities and fans of individual franchises. And NASCAR will never get over the burning it took the one time it strayed from Charlotte, to Atlanta in 1986, on Mother's Day, when I could have gone down in front of the grandstands and counted the crowd one person at a time. Bottom line, this is an event that has become dysfunctional, and I have no idea how to fix it.
McGee: I have always been a big opponent of this idea, but I've shifted my thinking over the last few years. The electricity in the air has clearly waned at Charlotte. I say move it around a little to some markets that deserve it and see what happens. Oh, and spare me the "But it was a disaster at Atlanta in 1986!" argument. That was a long time ago, and the event was in its second year. I'll also say this. No matter where it goes or if it stays, let's pick a format and leave it alone for a few years. I know for a fact that some of the drivers had no idea what the hell was going on. They just did what their crew chief told them to do. Complicating the format essentially removes the All-Stars from the All-Star Race.
Newton: In theory, maybe. But in an era when NASCAR is trying to trim costs, why force teams to spend tons of money to ship cars and people to tracks across the country for an exhibition? What I would do is eliminate having a separate weekend for the All-Star Race and hold it the Wednesday night before the Coca-Cola 600. That would shorten the season by a much-needed week and make for a pretty exciting five days of racing.
Smith: Yes. I just spoke about tradition, so I'm going to speak out of both sides of my mouth here. Other than one year, the All-Star Race -- The Winston -- has always been in Charlotte. But it's not appreciated in Charlotte anymore. It would be appreciated in Iowa. It would be appreciated in Rockingham. It would be appreciated in Nashville at the Fairgrounds. It would be appreciated at short tracks. Real short tracks. I know it sounds crazy, but the All-Star Race should be a less-is-more property. There is no ramification championship-wise. The thought of moving it is a political nightmare for NASCAR. There's the notion that teams and drivers love the All-Star Race being in Charlotte because they're "home." I believe that notion to be nonsense. I promise you teams and drivers would be more excited by the spectacle of All-Star Weekend if it were run on tracks we don't normally visit. I promise you the excitement level would be far, far higher. And for the band of gypsies that we are in this traveling circus, trust me, two more days on the road aren't especially overwhelming. Moving it would enable the sport to visit long-forgotten markets that they desperately need. I'd rather see a sold-out Bowman Gray than a quarter-full Charlotte. Run it at a Saturday night short track? Sure. Why not? If you give the track and its community a year to prepare, infrastructure could be ready. Make the ticket sought-after. Make the spectacle old-school. Traffic would suck? Good! This is a can't-lose opportunity to re-engage the old-school mentality. Make drivers drive tracks where the notebooks are minimal. Make teams adapt. Engage smaller communities. I'm rambling, but trust me, it would be huge to move it to smaller towns. This Eldora Truck race is proof to me. Imagine the buzz of a Cup race at a 35,000-seat venue. It would be absolutely awesome. I just know what happened Saturday night was sad, and honestly, it scares me. I have as much passion for this sport as anybody ever has, and I want to see it thrive. It's time for tough decisions.
Turn 3: Danica Patrick received a mixture of boos and cheers when introduced as the fan vote winner for the All-Star Race. This was the first time media at the track ever remember hearing boos for her. What is the message?
Blount: I've heard boos for her at a lot or tracks, and all you conspiracy theorists can go back to your padded cells. NASCAR didn't rig the vote for Patrick to get in. She is a national celebrity with close to a million followers on Twitter. However, any person who is popular on a national scale also has tons of people who hate them, especially if some of the public feels that popularity is unjustified -- Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, etc. Many hard-core fans hate Danica because they feel she gets too much attention and doesn't deserve her ride in Cup. Those are the people who boo her at the track and rip her on chats. But I have news for those folks: You're outnumbered.
Hinton: It's the same old message: NASCAR fans are going to polarize themselves or bust. Jeff Gordon in his prime, had the same situation arisen, likely would have gotten as much or more booing. And believe it or not, a young Dale Earnhardt Sr. would have gotten the same. In Patrick's case, hard-core NASCAR fans feel their traditions are being invaded by outsiders -- the international following Danica brings with her. But among NASCAR fans, it's always something. Patrick just happens to be the current issue. The quintessential sound of NASCAR that always resounds in my mind is not so much the engine roar as, simply, "BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"
McGee: It means that's she's kind of a big deal. Fair or unfair, it's a stone-cold fact. She polarizes the grandstand, and I don't think that's a bad thing. I'm not sure where my fellow media members have been during driver intros, but I've heard her booed before. Not as loud as Saturday night, but I've heard it. Also, they pretty much booed everyone not named Dale Junior. The only drivers who didn't get some boos were the ones who didn't get any noise at all. As The Intimidator used to say, it doesn't matter what kind of noise they're making, just as long as they're making noise.
Newton: This is an interesting situation. The fans voted Patrick into the All-Star Race, yet the fans appear to be showing their displeasure of having a driver who hasn't won a race, made the Chase or done much of anything in NASCAR beyond winning the pole for the Daytona 500 in the All-Star Race. It wasn't Patrick's fault she was voted in, so why boo her? I mean, Bobby Labonte was voted into the race a year ago, and he hasn't won a Cup event since 2003. I don't recall him being booed by this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately generation. All I can make of what happened Saturday is that Patrick's window of opportunity to make it and maintain her popularity is getting smaller. Boos aren't such a bad thing, though. Jeff Gordon has been booed almost since the day he walked into the sport.
Smith: From my experience with fan feedback, no one this season receives nearly as much criticism as Patrick does. Fans don't think she's earned anything -- especially when it comes to All-Star status. So they boo. And they tweet. NASCAR fans aren't especially huge on popularity contests, anyway. But Danica is mighty popular, and for her that's fantastic. I reckon if you have that big of a problem with it, hop on the computer or the phone next year and vote harder for Martin Truex Jr.
Turn 4: AJ Allmendinger was fifth fastest in qualifying for the Indy 500. He barely was a top-20 driver in NASCAR. What would happen if a top-tier NASCAR driver made the same attempt?
Blount: First off, qualifying doesn't mean much, but Dinger has far more experience in open-wheel than any top-tier NASCAR driver except Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya, assuming you consider him top tier. But I do think Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, the Busch brothers and a few others could go to the Indy 500 and race well, given enough track time in quality equipment. Getting the track time is the problem. As for Dinger, what a great story it would be if he managed to win the Indy 500 after everything he's been through over the past year.
Hinton: Are you kidding? A "top flight" NASCAR driver would do far, far worse than the Dinger -- and I mean fall flat on his face -- because he just wouldn't have the experience in high-speed, open-wheel cars that Allmendinger does. It just drives me bonkers when people want to speculate about quick transitions either way. It took Tony Stewart years to adjust. This is all like Richard Petty told me, standing in the pits beside A.J. Foyt's car on a practice day at Indy, in the 1970s.
"There's baseball, football and basketball," the King said. "They're all played with a ball, and there the similarities end." Gesturing toward Foyt's Coyote, Petty continued, "Our cars have four wheels and a steering wheel, and there the similarities end."
McGee: I really believe that, if given enough practice time, there's no question that the top shelf of NASCAR talent could run up front in Indy cars. Johnson, Gordon, the Busch brothers, Kahne, Edwards -- the list of pure racers goes on and on. I don't think they could have choppered up to Speedway, Ind., for Bump Day and made the field just by jumping in the cars, but any of those guys could do it if they were allowed to properly ramp up into the gig, sort of like what the Dinger did to get re-acclimated this spring.
Newton: Can you say pole? It could happen. Kurt Busch hit 218 mph during a recent test run in Ryan Hunter-Reay's car that qualified seventh for the 500. He did this in his first attempt in an Indy car at Indianapolis. I can only imagine what he could have done with a little experience. Nothing against Allmendinger, but Busch is one of the top five drivers in NASCAR. I'm not sure Allmendinger is top 20. Put Busch or another top-tier NASCAR driver in a Penske IndyCar and he'd be a threat not only to win the pole but also the race.
Smith: First of all, it's fantastic to see how well Allmendinger is running in Indy. Congratulations to him and to Roger Penske for giving him another opportunity. I'm thoroughly impressed. Now, about the Cup guys: How much practice time would they get? If you give Johnson, Stewart, the Busch Brothers, Harvick, Gordon, Keselowski, Kenseth, Edwards and Kahne months of seat time -- including a race -- to prepare, as Allmendinger has had, they'd do quite well. It's an extremely different challenge. I've spoken to AJ many times in the gym since he started the open-wheel venture, and the No. 1 thing he's stressed to me is the physical fitness of the drivers in IndyCar. They're beasts. It'd be fun to see NASCAR's stars work to adapt.
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