Debate: NASCAR's burning questions
Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: There were three more engine failures for Toyota on Sunday. Is this a problem you think will haunt the Toyota teams all season?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: It could, but I suspect changes are coming that will help alleviate the problem. The Toyotas, especially the Gibbs cars, have been the fastest all season. But there's always a trade-off for power. The faster you go, the more you tax the motor and the less chance it will make it to the end of a race. If you run the engines on the ragged edge, you take your chances. So what needs to happen is to dial it down a notch. Give up a tiny amount of power to regain more reliability.
And these engine woes also are the risk that comes from the two top teams (Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing) getting motors from one supplier -- in this case, Toyota Racing Development. Don't get me wrong, the TRD guys know what they're doing, but it's time to consider the risk-versus-reward factor on doing it a little too well. Knowing all of the talented drivers in the Toyota stable -- Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, etc. -- and how good those teams are, they still can get it done with a little less horsepower. But they can't get it done if engines keep blowing up.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Weren't we in panic-for-Toyota mode earlier this season? Over engine failures? And didn't things settle down for a while? Now they're just advancing with a little more aggressive R&D and it bit them. They'll fix it. Anytime a manufacturer or a team dominates up front -- as Toyotas did early in Sunday's race -- you figure they're experimenting with components. Sometimes those new components fail. Then, invariably, engineers do something akin to autopsies on the engines, find the weak points and correct the issues. We've been in panic-for-Hendrick Chevrolet engine mode before, and I never thought much of it, because I've actually seen the Hendrick diagnostic process in great detail, in the engine rooms. And invariably Hendrick fixed it. Toyota will, too. There may be hiccups, but this won't ruin Toyota's season.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Yes. Even if the failures suddenly stopped today, the threat of it will hang over the heads of their drivers, especially Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, who long ago developed a bit of a knee-jerk reflex to any JGR engine issues. In the end, the numbers are undeniable -- Toyota has 17 failures this year, versus two by Chevy and four from Ford. Until they can get through a race weekend without being a news story, it'll be impossible to ignore.
Steve Richards reports on Tony Stewart's surprise win at Dover and how a penalty against Jimmie Johnson opened the door for a Stewart-Juan Pablo Montoya shootout.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Kyle Busch will hate to see these figures. According to ESPN's crackerjack stat department, Toyota engine failures account for 74 percent of those in the Sprint Cup Series this season. That's a pace for 47 this season. The good news for Busch is only six of the 17 failures have come from TRD, which supplies engines to Joe Gibbs Racing (four) and Michael Waltrip Racing (two). The bad news is six is four more than the teams that get Chevrolet engines from Hendrick Motorsports and two more than the Ford teams that get engines from Roush Yates.
There are two ways to look at this: It could be a problem that haunts the manufacturer the rest of the year. Or it's getting rid of all the bad luck -- or bad engines -- early. If you ask Busch, he'd probably say worry. He's had at least one engine failure in the Chase three times since 2008. JGR teammate Denny Hamlin had two in 2009. You don't win championships that way. The Earnhardt Childress engines, by the way, haven't failed at all this year.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: It had better not. Owners and drivers won't stand for it. I can promise you that Toyota Racing Development officials are incensed. They won't stand for it. It's officially become a "thing." Matt Kenseth could -- should? -- be a five-time, maybe six-time, winner already in 2013 without these failures. He had the best car at Daytona and was flying Sunday at Dover. Boom. And don't forget the issues that haunted Kyle Busch in 2012 and resulted in him missing the Chase. Someone almost certainly will get fired for this. Toyota will fix it. Complacency and mediocrity in any department of that group results in change.
Turn 2: Jimmie Johnson got black-flagged after taking the lead away from Juan Pablo Montoya on the final restart Sunday. Was it the correct call on a good rule, the correct call on a bad rule or the incorrect call on the current rule?
Blount: It absolutely was the right call and it's something NASCAR needed to do earlier this season because jumping restarts was getting out of control. But the rules on this call for way too much judgment as to whether the leader missed a shift or spun his tires at the restart lines, or was just using a little gamesmanship to burn the guy starting next to him. Maybe Montoya did that, maybe he didn't. But Johnson clearly jumped out ahead of him and then didn't give the spot back.
Why not do it this way: The leader gets a deserved advantage of a few feet on the car starting next to him as they head for the start/finish line. But no one can accelerate until the flagman waves the green flag. If the leader screws up at that point and doesn't beat the other guy to the line, so be it. The leader had an advantage and wasted it.
Hinton: There's a very simple solution that makes it exasperating to watch every time NASCAR comes up with one of these calls. Just go back to the old outlaw short-track rule: When someone jumps a restart, just call it a non-start, throw the yellow, form the field again and do it over, with no penalty to the jumper. On the old short tracks, a driver had to jump the start three times before getting the black flag. If that's too time-consuming now, then at least give the jumper a second chance. If NASCAR had done this one over just once, you can bet Johnson wouldn't have jumped again. He'd have allowed for the likelihood Montoya just wouldn't go. Johnson would have made a more conservative restart and would have gone on to win the race. By the way, Montoya used to complain something fierce about Jeff Gordon, specifically, lagging on restarts. Montoya didn't appear to jam up the field behind him this time, but I'm just sayin' …
McGee: I didn't have a problem with it. We only have a few balls-and-strikes-type calls left in this sport and that's one of them. Gamesmanship on restarts -- which is exactly what we had there -- has been around forever. Do we really need to drag out the lasers and make it so black and white that there's no debating left except for between computers? In the end, I think the 48 team dropped the ball. If they'd let up and handed over the lead like Race Control told them to do, I think they end up winning anyway.
Newton: How about Option 4, the correct call on the current rule. NASCAR vice president Robin Pemberton laughed when I asked him about the restart because there really was nothing to explain. The way the rules are, Johnson jumped the start. Easy call. Did Johnson try to slow down to let Montoya get back around him and avoid the penalty? Yes. Did Montoya purposely not get back around Johnson knowing the best car in the field would get penalized? He won't admit it, but probably. As winner Tony Stewart pointed out, the lead car is almost always a sitting duck the way the start zone is set up. He suggested lengthening it to give the leader more flexibility of where to start the race and take away some advantage from the second-place driver. I agree. And if you've been to the drivers' meetings this year you'd know NASCAR has spent way too much time discussing this subject because drivers are taking advantage.
Newton: Smoke saves his season
Let's not underplay the importance of Sunday's victory at Dover for Tony Stewart. The three-time Cup champ was in a veritable free fall. Now he's in Chase contention, writes David Newton. Story
Smith: Correct call on a rule that could be tweaked. By the black-and-white letter of the law this isn't debatable: Johnson got there before Montoya did. And in discussing it with NASCAR, officials make the point that if there was a problem on Montoya's car, then Clint Bowyer and Stewart would've beaten him to the line, as well. From their perspective, Johnson jumped and didn't give Montoya the position back. The race leader earned the right to control the restart of the event, within reason. But here's the issue with the rule: NASCAR has few qualms discussing the spirit of rules. It took Montoya forever to go -- which, again, is by law his prerogative. He played the game well. I think Stewart summed it up very well:
"I feel bad for Jimmie because I don't think that's what he deserved. There can be some adjustments made to the restart zone. My opinion, if you lengthen that restart zone and give the leader more flexibility of where they pick the restart up at, it takes away that opportunity for the second-place guy to take advantage of the restarts. Jimmie is not a guy that messes with the system and takes advantage of systems, anyway. That's why . . . it's so bad to see him get penalized in this situation because he's somebody that plays fair by the rules, and doesn't abuse things like that.
"There's a lot of other drivers that will play games and do things, but you know, if I'm Juan and I'm leading the race, I'm going to restart the race the way I want to . . . They want you to keep a constant pace, and as far as I'm concerned, I didn't feel like he slowed that pace down to an absurd rate. I feel like he has a zone to work with in there and the flexibility as the leader to kind of adjust that to what he think is going to be best for him, but I didn't feel like it was out of order or worse than what we have seen at other places. It just didn't work out, and like I say, Jimmie is not a guy that takes advantage of those situations, anyway."
Turn 3: Kyle Busch won the Camping World Truck Series race at Dover and dominated the Nationwide Series race, which was won by another Cup regular, Joey Logano. Is it time for NASCAR to take action for Cup regulars in the lower-level series for the 2014 season? If so, what's the move?
Blount: Everyone knows my feelings on this by now, and I'm sure I will differ from my colleagues, but I'll do so proudly. No other professional sport allows such a ridiculous situation like this to happen. Even other racing leagues don't do it. It does not serve NASCAR's greater good for Cup stars to win every week in the two feeder leagues. People see those two leagues as nothing more than a glorified practice session for Cup guys. Both leagues need to make stars out of the talented young guys coming up like Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Jeb Burton and others. It's the best crop of young drivers NASCAR has seen in many years. But the only way to do it is for those guys to win some races, which doesn't happen with Cup stars on great teams getting a freebie.
And one other thing, I am not opposed to former Cup drivers -- like Elliott Sadler, Regan Smith, Brian Vickers and Sam Hornish Jr. -- racing in Nationwide to try to earn a way back to Cup. I'm all for it. But current Cup stars? I hate it, and most of the fans I talk to hate it, as well. Limiting the numbers of races Cup guys could race might help, but Cup teams still could spread that out where four or five Cup drivers raced in each event. Another idea is to say purse money won't be paid to teams that use championship-entered Cup drivers in the other two series.
But the real answer has to come from team owners reining in greed. When a sponsor comes to them and says, "Hey, I'll sponsor your car if you put this Cup guy in it," the team owner needs to say, ''Sorry, we're happy for you to sponsor him in some Cup races, but this league is about developing young talent, and there are some great young guys you can market who would serve your company well."
Hinton: It's long past time, but in all this time, we've been through this issue 100 times or so. Of course NASCAR should make Nationwide and Trucks purely developmental, stepping-stone series. But it won't. Promoters are the main stumbling block. The idea persists that big names in the lesser series boost ticket sales and TV ratings. Trucks, except when Rowdy drops in, show that rising young drivers on the horizon can draw interest all on their own. And, think back to 1999, when Nationwide (then Busch) created major interest with four promising drivers on the brink of Cup: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Casey Atwood and Steve Park. That's the way it should be, with Nationwide like Class AAA baseball and Trucks like AA. NASCAR at least stopped Cup drivers competing for lesser championships, but they've kept on coming to race. So Richard Petty's analysis of the absurdity still holds: It's like an NFL quarterback being allowed to go back and compete in high school football on Friday nights, and college football on Saturdays.
McGee: I've long been a proponent of putting a limit on the number of lower-level races a Cup driver can run. Put it at say, 10, and be done with it. That way the racetracks still get some names they can promote (which, by the way, is a weak argument based on Nationwide attendance) and Cup guys who own teams can run enough races to add some value. But we don't have one guy winning everything. At least not all year long.
Newton: YES. I was totally disappointed not to see Darrell Wallace Jr., Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney battle it out for the win in the Trucks race. That series in particular needs to be hands-off for Cup regulars, regardless of whether they own the team and need to be behind the wheel to help with sponsorship money. Here's a suggestion I heard in the garage that might work: Give Cup drivers 50 races between the top three series. Assuming they plan to run all 36 in Cup, that leaves only 14 to split between Nationwide and Trucks. Try that for a year or two and then narrow the total down even further, eventually all but eliminating participation in Trucks.
Smith: The debate, really, is how do you want to cultivate your young talent? If you want to cultivate young talent for the highest level, you need to give them opportunities to grow through the ranks and learn how to race, right? It's not that Cup guys are winning that's the fundamental issue -- it's that they're taking opportunities away from other drivers, right? I'm not sure that's a valid argument anymore. In today's economy, would sponsors be there for younger drivers? Would Monster Energy pay Joe Gibbs Racing to be on a more obscure driver's hood? Maybe I'm wrong, but it's hard for me to say they would. NASCAR isn't other sports. Without money the wheel stops. And the current culture is so far gone it would require a massive change in philosophy to foster change in the culture. I wrote a column about this. I spent some time with Kyle Busch recently about this very subject. He's not concerned with what anybody else thinks.
Turn 4: Tony Stewart won on Sunday, his first of the season. Is the victory a sign the Stewart-Haas Racing teams are ready to compete on a regular basis?
Blount: You might want to ease up on the jubilation just a bit. Stewart led the final three laps, the only laps he led all day, thanks to some wise pit strategy and the fact that Johnson jumped a restart and wasn't up front at the end. Yes, things have looked better at SHR the past couple of weeks, but I don't think they are on par quite yet with Gibbs and Hendrick in regard to Gen-6 setups. Whether they are won't matter if Stewart finds a way to win another race this summer, which is likely for a driver of his talent. He'll make the Chase. Can he win the Chase? After what he did in 2011, I'd never count him out again.
Hinton: Stewart believes it, and that's all that matters. Sunday was a warm day, leading into the hot-weather part of the season. Stewart has told me he believes that when the weather gets hot and the tracks get slippery, other drivers grow cautious, while he thrives on the slipping and sliding due to his dirt-track roots. Sunday wasn't so much of a slippery track issue as one of Stewart believing so much in his own car control that he made a precarious pass on the high side of Montoya to take the lead for keeps. Another key is that Stewart showed complete confidence in Steve Addington's work in adjusting a bad car, and in Addington's late pit strategy. When you believe in yourself and believe in your crew chief, the car adjustments tend to fall nicely into place.
McGee: No. There are still serious issues there. But it's certainly a step in the right direction. Winning solves a lot of problems.
Newton: If you mean compete for wins and Chase spots, not all SHR teams are ready for that. But Stewart and Ryan Newman are headed in that direction. Stewart has gone 15th, seventh and first in his past three starts despite qualifying 20th, 25th and 22nd. He still needs more speed. He had no better than a 10th- to 15th-place car on Sunday until pit strategy and a late penalty to Johnson opened the door for the win. But that's part of the game, and until recently Stewart's cars weren't even good enough to play that. Newman was coming off two straight top-10s until he decided to tangle with David Gilliland in a car that qualified fifth. He finished 36th. By the way, I wasn't picking on Danica Patrick in the first line. She is getting more comfortable in the cars, and the 24th on Sunday wasn't bad considering she was three laps down early with a car that qualified 39th. But this remains a learning year for her. Stewart and Newman are way past that.
Smith: No. It was a tremendous victory and a sorely, sorely needed Band-Aid. But it was just that -- a Band-Aid. It'll take time and attention to heal the wound beneath it. Now that the Band-Aid is in position, however, the No. 14 team has the time required to heal. And I expect them to heal. Stewart needed this victory for Stewart above all else. He'd begun to press as a driver. You could see it in his frustrated approach to everything. Easygoing Smoke is the fastest Smoke. Angry Smoke makes bad decisions. This was big for him.
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