Debate: NASCAR's burning questions
Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a strong run at Pocono, just like he did last year and in 2008 when he followed with wins at Michigan. Is he primed to win at MIS again Sunday?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: It's probably his best shot, although eight other drivers racing Sunday have won as much or more at Michigan as he has. Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman have two victories at Michigan, the same number as Junior. Greg Biffle has three wins on the 2-mile oval, and Mark Martin has five. But Earnhardt dominated the race one year ago, so he's going in with a lot of confidence, especially coming off his third-place showing at Pocono. And one other thing is in his favor: Michigan is one of the few tracks where Jimmie Johnson hasn't won a race. However, Earnhardt wouldn't be my first choice to win it. It's hard for me to pick any driver to win (unless it's Marcos Ambrose on a road course) if he hasn't won a race in a year.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Eeeeehhhhhhhh … maybe. But let's not get carried away with his third-place finish. Biffle, who beat Earnhardt for second at Pocono on Sunday, won the most recent race at Michigan, this past August. Earnhardt never was a serious threat to teammate Johnson on Sunday. Johnson is ultra-hot, and I'd pick him to break his strange-but-true drought -- he has never won at Michigan -- over Earnhardt. Remember, Johnson hadn't won at Pocono in nine years, so his past performances at tracks don't matter right now. Most important for Earnhardt is that he knows he can win at Michigan, and maybe that will boost his confidence and translate into high aggressiveness.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Well, before his last couple of wins -- both at Michigan -- I think the week before I was telling people, "Well, this won't be the place where he'll finally win, all his best chances were at the tracks we just ran." With that in mind, my brain tells me that I should say, "Heck, yeah, he's going to win!" … but I still say his best shot will come when we hit the late summer/early fall stretch that includes Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond. Whether he wins Michigan or not, you can't discount where this team is now versus just a few years ago. It's light-years ahead. They've gone from fighting to make it into the top 20 in points to being bummed if they finish outside the top 10 each week.
Mark Garrow talks with Denny Hamlin about the Toyota de-tuned engines. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is relieved about his Pocono run.
David Newton, ESPN.com: As one Twitter follower jokingly wrote me, "No, because Earnhardt wins at Michigan only once every four years.'' I respectfully disagree. Earnhardt likes the 2-mile track in the Irish Hills, and he comes in with confidence from Sunday's third-place finish. He has a good package there, finishing first in this race a year ago and fourth in August. He led a combined 120 laps. Unless the handling in the Gen-6 changes things considerably, he should be a factor again. Will he win? He'll have to beat Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson to do it. Although winless at Michigan, Johnson has been dominant the past two weeks, and there's no reason to think he can't knock MIS off his to-do list.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: I expect Earnhardt to contend at Michigan. If he doesn't it'll be a disappointment for him. But to assume a good run at Pocono equates to a good run at Michigan, to me, is naive. Now, the Superman car on the other hand …
Turn 2: Toyota had two cars in the top eight and no engine failures Sunday. Does this show the decision to dial it down a notch on horsepower was the right move?
Blount: In the eyes of the drivers, absolutely not. This is not a happy bunch. Their comments after the race show they have major concerns about the reduced horsepower. "We had to play defense on the straightaways all day," Denny Hamlin said. After leading almost 50 percent of the laps this season, a Toyota didn't lead a single lap Sunday. Part of that was Jimmie Johnson's dominating day, but the Toyota drivers clearly are concerned about the situation. And Michigan is a track where horsepower rules, a place where Toyotas have won four of the past seven races. It's a difficult problem for everyone at Toyota Racing Development until one of its drivers proves he can win with less power.
Hinton: It was too much of a move. Toyota dialed it down waaay more than a notch. Its cars didn't lead a single lap Sunday. Kyle Busch was Toyota's strongest runner, but all that meant was that you could see his hood occasionally, back in the distance, on frontal camera shots of Johnson leading. Hamlin, usually the favorite at Pocono, said after the race that he knew all weekend he didn't have anything like a winning car. I've said for weeks that the Toyota engine failures didn't spell disaster for the season. Now I wonder, but for the opposite reason. With the retirement of Lee White from the helm of TRD, and with Toyota showing such skittishness right now, you have to wonder whether indecision will reign for a while, and whether Toyota will err disastrously on the side of conservatism.
McGee: Yes. The move worked, and it is the right move until they get some larger issues worked out. By the way, the Toyota stat we kept referring to last week seemed to rub some people the wrong way. They told me as much over the Pocono weekend. ESPN Stats & Information compiled a graphic that showed Toyota's 17 engine failures in 2013 versus Ford's four and Chevy's two. It was explained to me that only six of those 17 were TRD engines, the ones used by the big boys. I appreciate the clarification. But in the end, do fans care where those engines were built, or do they only care that all 17 of those cars --18 if you add in Joe Nemechek from Pocono -- had Toyota logos on the nose? To me, it would be like the Yankees claiming that not all of their batters' strikeouts actually count because some of the guys are rookies. If your start-and-parks need to start giving the NASCAR official a different reason other than "engine" when he walks up and asks why they have retired from the race, I'd get that memo out pronto.
Newton: Definitely. Something had to be done to assure durability in the Chase, and this was the first step. Did Toyota dial it back too much? That'll be something it will have to play with again this week at Michigan. That the Toyotas didn't lead a lap after leading more than any manufacturer all season could be a red flag, but considering Johnson was so dominant -- he led 128 of 160 laps -- there weren't a lot of laps left to lead. I can guarantee you Kyle Busch is a lot happier with a sixth than he would have been with a 38th after an early trip to the garage.
Smith: It was the only move, a humbling decision for Toyota. Racers show up to win, not finish. Toyota showed up to finish at Pocono. It'll show up to finish at Michigan, too. That's just about as bad as it gets on the pride meter.
Turn 3: AJ Allmendinger is replacing Bobby Labonte in the No. 47 Toyota this weekend at Michigan, along with a few other races this year. Does this signal the end of the line for Labonte at age 49?
Blount: It does if Dinger goes out and posts a top-5 finish this weekend. I think JTG/Daugherty Racing honestly just wants to see where the team is with its equipment by making a comparison with another driver. But if AJ races well in his pseudo tryout, or clearly better than Labonte has this season, Bobby will be looking for employment elsewhere. I don't expect that to happen. This team is what it is -- a one-car operation that's going to run midpack most of the time, no matter who the driver is. As for Labonte, he probably will have a ride somewhere for the next couple of years if he wants it, but his days of driving for a competitive team are over.
Hinton: To be sadly candid, I've thought Labonte was at the end of the line for several years now. Way, way too many cautions have come out after he spun solo without clear-cut evidence that it was somebody else's fault, other than maybe taking air off his car -- something any driver today just has to handle. Not saying that Brad Daugherty and his partners have given Labonte perfect race cars -- they're on a tight budget. Daugherty is right there with Rick Hendrick among the most forgiving owners in Cup, and that's why this situation has gone on too long. But Daugherty also is a businessman at the bottom line. Allmendinger brings the team fresh new hope -- not of winning, but of surviving.
McGee: I hate it for Bobby, but yes. The original plan behind bringing Labonte over to JTG/Daugherty was to have the veteran champ help get the team rolling, then expand it to two cars, bringing in a young guy to learn under Labonte's wing, aka the Ray Evernham plan of building a race team (see: Bill Elliott and Kasey Kahne). But that hasn't happened. It's kind of sad when I have to explain to younger race fans how great Labonte was. To me, one of the great NASCAR what-ifs of the past decade is wondering what more he could have accomplished had he stayed at Joe Gibbs Racing and not made his move to then-terrible Petty Enterprises back at the end of '05. His JGR numbers had sagged, but still …
Newton: Sadly, this appears to be the beginning of the end for one of the sport's nice guys. It'll be interesting to see whether Allmendinger improves the performance of the team. If not, the organization might have to look much deeper for a solution. But the raw numbers indicate it's time for Labonte to hang it up. He has finished no better than 23rd in points the past five seasons and hasn't won a race since 2003. His biggest value has been the past champion's provisional, and with only 43 to 44 cars showing up most weeks, that's not very valuable. That a change was made at Michigan, where Labonte has won three times and has 16 top-10s, also is telling. It's not as if the team took him out for a road course ringer.
Smith: In a car that runs the entire race, yes, it does. My expectations for Labonte in the 47 were really high. They were never met. Not close. It's not all on Labonte by any stretch of the imagination, but that team has changed everything else: crew chiefs, even megateam alliances. It's on an island, and it's riding around. Nothing is worse than riding. For that team, it's all about sponsors -- business-to-business relationships. The foundation of the team is sponsor relations. Riding around is poor sponsor relations.
Turn 4: Sprint Cup qualifying was rained out Friday at Pocono. Should NASCAR attempt to qualify on Saturday in this situation instead of lining up the field based on owner points?
Blount: If there is an opportunity to do so, and there was at Pocono, then do it. I realize qualifying takes a long time on a 2.5-mile track such as Pocono, but NASCAR's plan to blow it off if it rains Friday indicates qualifying doesn't have much meaning in the first place. Yes, teams need the practice time Saturday when it rains Friday, but there's room for both. In this case, only 43 cars showed up, so no one went home, but that isn't true most weekends. If qualifying takes place on Saturday, as it does at some tracks, a rainout doesn't leave any options. There's no reason not to do it if it rains Friday, though. But we're missing the real issue here, which is the incredible boredom of the current qualifying format and how it needs a major change, such as awarding points for the top two spots or qualifying in knockout groups, F1 style.
Hinton: No. Qualifying has evolved into a big waste of time anyway, so why waste more? I've long believed that qualifying -- which seldom is an indicator of who'll run well in the race -- should be abandoned altogether. Start every race according to driver points, and here's my catch: Start in reverse order of points, 43rd on the pole and leader dead last. Talk about making a great show of the first half of a race! Old short tracks called it an "inverted start," and it worked fabulously, even on 30-lap features. In Cup, the big guns would have many laps to work their way up front. If I could decree one change, and one only, to improve the show and stir up the standings pot weekly, it would be to run inverted starts according to points.
McGee: No. I think race practice trumps qualifying when time gets tight. Then again, you all know me. I think every race weekend should be shortened to a two-day show anyway.
Newton: Yes and no. If NASCAR and tracks can build in a time for second-day qualifying in case of inclement weather at every event without sacrificing practice time, yes. If not, leave it like it is. Not trying to sound like a flip-flopping politician. I just feel it needs to be the same for every event, and the way scheduling is so busy for some on Saturdays, that might be impossible. And really, other than pit stall selection and early track position, qualifying isn't a huge deal. There hasn't been more than one driver sent home since the April 13 race at Texas, and none has been the past two weeks. Instead of finding a way to have a second-day qualifying, I'd rather see energy put into having a two-day show.
Smith: No. Practice time in race trim is way more important.
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