Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

Originally Published: June 18, 2013
ESPN.com

Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:

Turn 1: Brad Keselowski was criticized by Rick Hendrick and Joe Gibbs after Keselowski said Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing were poaching some of the top Ford employees. Were Keselowski's comments out of line? Or is it just Brad being Brad?

Terry Blount, ESPN.com: I love that Brad says what he thinks. It sure makes our jobs more fun. But this time he may have stepped over the line. Teams have been stealing each other's guys since NASCAR began. To call out Rick Hendrick and Joe Gibbs, two of the most respected men in the sport, was uncalled for. And it's a bit a stretch to paint Penske Racing as the Oakland A's of NASCAR. Please. Roger Penske is one of the wealthiest men in America. He has two big-money sponsors for his cars in Miller and Shell/Pennzoil. His racing facility in North Carolina is state-of-the-art. You pay what you have to pay to keep the best people. That's true in any sport.

Brad Keselowski
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: For openers, I'm weary of all these "Mr. Hendrick" and "Coach Gibbs" references with such reverence. They're still Rick and Joe to me. Now they're so sensitive about the squeaky cleanliness of their operations that they feel compelled to issue statements denying Keselowski's remarks, which would have been laughed off by a team owner like Junior Johnson -- whom nobody ever called "Mr. Johnson." This was just Brad being Brad, who is old school as a racer and knows that information gathering was a long-running phenomenon in the Lake Norman-Mooresville area. Owners used to worry that employees would give away secrets at lunch in diners or in beer joints after work. Hiring for information's sake certainly wasn't unheard of. Maybe all this has stopped, but I understand where Keselowski was coming from.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Brad being Brad. This whole situation throws a light on a fascinating and frustrating aspect of this sport. I hear people complaining all the time about drivers not showing enough personality and not speaking their minds, but when they do, those same people scream, "How dare he say that!" Even if his info is a little skewed, isn't the sport better when a guy like Brad is open and honest, even if that makes some people uncomfortable?

David Newton, ESPN.com: A little of both. One of the things the media -- and many fans -- love about Keselowski is his willingness to say what's on his mind. One of the things NASCAR and ownership don't love is that he doesn't always have the facts in order when he speaks. He's been called "misinformed" more than once, including by Hendrick and NASCAR chairman Brian France. I feel like we're in that area Tony Stewart warned about during the banquet last season when he said, "I don't think Brad has learned to be cautious yet. Hopefully that won't bite him like it has a lot of drivers in the past." Fortunately, team owner Roger Penske said he doesn't plan to put the brakes on Keselowski's mouth. We hope it always stay that way so Stewart can continue saying, "It's nice to see somebody that just speaks from the heart and isn't guarded when he speaks. That's the way all of us should be."

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Brad being Brad. I love his honesty. I love his willingness not to pander to the corporate machine. I love his go-to-hell attitude. It's refreshing in an arena oozing with canned answers. Look, some of what Keselowski says outright annoys his peers. He doesn't care. And he shouldn't. But what he should care about is accuracy. In this instance, he was obviously misinformed. Rick Hendrick laid into him hard, and then Joe Gibbs joined the chorus -- both in official team statements. These were prepared responses. They weren't asked about it on a whim by a reporter on pit road before a race. They sought out a response. These men aren't apt to comment in an official statement unless they're royally ticked. And they were.

Turn 2: Jason Leffler's death was a sad moment for everyone in auto racing. Should more be done to make lower-level short-track racing safer? Should NASCAR drivers reconsider running in some of these events in the future?

Blount: This tragedy comes under increased scrutiny with the upcoming Truck race on the dirt track at Eldora, which doesn't have the SAFER barrier. But there are no easy answers. Adding the barrier is not a realistic option, financially speaking, for most short tracks across the country. And some of the other safety improvements in NASCAR, especially involving how the cars are built, are not possible on open-wheel sprint cars. Most of you probably remember a few years ago when Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbed out of a sports-car inferno and was fortunate he didn't get seriously burned. Racers are people who accept physical risks, but in general, drivers should be more cautious about which lower-level events they race and weigh the dangers involved.

Jason Leffler
Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR/Getty Images

Hinton: Of course more could and should be done, but first and foremost by the drivers themselves. Let's get off this SAFER barrier fixation, which likely was irrelevant in the Leffler tragedy. The first and best line of defense is occupant restraint. That is easily accomplished by the drivers, not the tracks. Dr. Dean Sicking, developer of the SAFER barrier, told the Charlotte Observer that "it is impossible to know" whether a soft wall would have saved Leffler and added that he is "somewhat skeptical" that it would have. Sprint cars are much lighter than stock cars, and the SAFER barrier wouldn't give as much on a short track at lower speeds as on a superspeedway at higher speeds. The impacts on Leffler's car likely would have been the same with a SAFER barrier as without.

Leffler apparently was wearing a head restraint, but those devices don't prevent lateral movement of the head in crashes. Halo components of seats, around the head, do. Education of short-trackers to the need for proper seats and head restraints is "our biggest problem," says Dr. John Melvin, widely recognized as the world's leading authority on the biomechanics of racing injury. To demand that short tracks all install SAFER barriers would put enormous expense on facilities that are generally in dire financial straits anyway -- and probably wouldn't fix the problem.

If I were a Cup team owner, I would stipulate in a driver's contract that he not participate in any events not sanctioned by organizations that require the latest technology in occupant restraint, e.g. NASCAR and IndyCar.

Without a thorough, scientific investigation by racing safety experts, we simply will never know what happened to Leffler or what might have been done to prevent his death.

McGee: Because we don't see drivers getting hurt at the major league levels like we used to -- though there's still work to do, especially with this insane partial SAFER barrier coverage stuff -- I think there's a tendency to think everything is all good. But the conditions at most short tracks are straight out of racing's stone age. I hit a handful of short-track races each year, and it seems like I see someone leave in an ambulance every time.

The conditions of the racetrack did not kill Jason Leffler. I know money is tight for short-track promoters and racers, but there are things that can be done, such as how a guy mounts his seat or belts or how a track marks off pit road. I'm hoping that an event like the NASCAR Trucks race at Eldora will prop up an example of what every short track can do. As for moonlighting, that's never going to stop. But I think we can understand why we've seen Cup owners frown on the practice.

Newton: It's hard to mandate local tracks to upgrade to SAFER barriers when there are dangerous unprotected areas at tracks that host Sprint Cup events. That is the bigger shame, because there's no excuse for those tracks not doing more. Many short tracks are doing what they can where finances allow. Some believe what worked in 1975 works today. It's somewhere between "dismal," as Brad Keselowski said, and safe, as Tony Stewart and others said. Many of the safety devices that have made drivers safer in NASCAR, such as the HANS device, have trickled down to lower levels. That plays a major role.

As for NASCAR drivers running in those events, that's a tough call. I understand owners who have a lot of money tied up in drivers not wanting to risk injury to their investment. But as we saw when Jimmie Johnson broke his wrist falling off the top of a golf cart, you can get hurt anywhere. Most drivers take as many precautions as possible when driving in lower series, making sure they have the best equipment possible. To many, this is a hobby just as skiing is for others. You can't live in a bubble. And many of these tracks are able to make advancements in safety because of the money drivers like Stewart bring to their events.

Smith: I defer to THE expert on this: Tony Stewart. No one knows more about this topic than he does.

"I think things are the best they've ever been at this point," he said. "There's facilities that need some work, and there's facilities that put a lot of effort into it. It's like getting on a city street today. Can it be safer? Sure. Do we have to go two lanes into oncoming traffic? No, we don't have to do that. There's always things you can do better. Am I scared to go to any racetrack or feel concerned of not feeling safe at a racetrack? No. I think for the majority, just about everywhere you go does a pretty good job and do the best they can under the circumstances they have to work with.

"The safety standards weren't what caused the problem. I'd be grateful if you guys would understand that what happened this week wasn't because somebody didn't do something right with the racetrack. It was an accident. Just like if you go out and there's a car crash. It's an accident. Short-track promoters are doing everything they can do to operate and just stay afloat and to keep having tracks for drivers that are upcoming that want to be NASCAR drivers just to have the ability to go to and race and learn so they can come up to this level. It's hard enough for these promoters and track owners to do what they're doing, so please try to cut them a little slack this week. Nobody as a track owner wants to go through what happened this week, but it's not due to a lack of effort on their part to try to make their facilities as safe as possible under the conditions they have."

Turn 3: Dale Earnhardt Jr. has blown two engines in the past four races, resulting in a 39th place at Charlotte and 37th at Michigan. Should Junior -- and Hendrick Motorsports -- be concerned?

Blount: Engine failures always bring concerns for an organization, especially one with as few of them as Hendrick. The fear would be that Hendrick could be experiencing some of the problems that Toyota Racing Development has suffered with pushing the envelope a little too far. The Gen-6 has produced higher speeds and consequently more RPM, which taxes the motors. The cars reached speeds in excess of 215 mph Sunday at Michigan, but that won't happen often. This would be a much bigger concern if the other Hendrick cars were suffering numerous engine issues. So I'd say the concern for now is minimal.

Dale Earnhardt Jr
Nick Laham/Getty Images

Hinton: You can bet they are concerned. They always are. Earnhardt expressed confidence Sunday that the Hendrick engine shop would diagnose and fix the problems. As we've seen with Toyota, these things happen from time to time when you push the R&D to the edge. But Earnhardt's three teammates all went out in crashes, not with blown engines, on Sunday. So you have to wonder whether the issues are peculiar to the 88 team -- perhaps gearing or cooling? Regardless, the Hendrick diagnostic procedure is the best there is, so Earnhardt is justified in his confidence.

McGee: No, it's still June. If they're still stuck on this Tilt-A-Whirl when we hit late July, then it's time to freak out. The good news for Junior Nation is that the team is operating at a high enough level that a stretch like this feels more like a bump in the road than a black hole. Just a couple of years ago it would be time to panic because that version of this team couldn't have recovered.

Newton: Not really. Only three Hendrick engines have blown all season -- Ryan Newman had the other. That two belonged to NASCAR's most popular driver sheds a bright spotlight on the issue. But Hendrick typically figures things out, as Earnhardt noted after the race, and the good news is there isn't a driver in the stable who complains about it like a certain driver with another manufacturer sometimes does. Teams still are figuring out the balance between power and endurance with the Gen-6, which is lighter than the Gen-5 (can't believe I'm calling it that). I suspect most of the engine issues for all the teams will be figured out by the Chase.

Smith: No, I don't expect those two failures will affect his making the Chase. He had really strong cars in both races. He may have won the race at Michigan. His reaction afterward told me a lot: He was actually somewhat happy. The 88 was slow in practice Saturday, according to Earnhardt. It didn't drive well. And when the engine let go, he was flying. He got out of the car and told Steve Letarte he was proud of him. He's turning into a leader.

Turn 4: Rick Hendrick said Sunday he wants to move Chase Elliott up to the Nationwide Series in 2014 after Elliott turns 18. Is it too much too soon?

Blount: I love this kid and honestly believe he's the real deal, but I'm always wary of pushing any phenom up the ladder too quickly. It was a mistake for Joey Logano and an even bigger mistake for others, like Casey Atwood. Kyle Larson probably is a better example of how this should go. He turns 21 next month, racing well in his first full Nationwide season.

Elliott
Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images

If anyone can do this at 18, it's probably Elliott. He's a mature young man who has his famous father to guide him and has been around the upper levels of the sport his entire life. In every sport, there are a few exceptions of athletes who can take on the challenge as teens -- LeBron James in the NBA, Bryce Harper in MLB and even Kyle Busch in NASCAR. But if I'm Rick Hendrick, I would be careful with Chase. He has all the talent in the world and all the time in the world. No need to rush it.

Hinton: Not at all. Chase is ready, on and off the track. He's mature for age 17 and can handle the heat of both the higher-level competition and the media attention that's sure to focus on another "son of." And here's a fascinating projection: Dale Earnhardt Jr. became NASCAR's most popular driver in large part because he's the son of an enormously popular driver.

Lest we forget, Bill Elliott was voted NASCAR's most popular driver 16 times during his career. He was the last driver so honored (2002) before Earnhardt began his current run in 2003. Popularity is an Elliott legacy, and once that passes to Chase, he has the character and demeanor to hold onto it. If I'm jumping ahead to Cup, it's because I figure Hendrick will pour the resources into JR Motorsports next year to showcase Chase's talents and lay the groundwork for a big sponsorship at the Cup level.

McGee: I am a huge Chase Elliott fan, but even in the case of a seemingly can't-miss prospect like him, I am extremely wary of moving too fast. If the team wants him to run some Nationwide in 2014, that's fine. But I say two full years in Trucks, two full years in Nationwide and then Cup. That might work out with the Jeff Gordon retirement timeline.

Newton: If performance warrants advancement, and I believe it does, Elliott is showing every sign that he is ready. He already has a victory in ARCA, nine top-10s and a win in 14 K&N Pro East Series events and three finishes of sixth or better in three Truck series events. He also has the name -- the son of former Sprint Cup champion Bill Elliott -- to attract top sponsors. He may even have the sponsor in Aaron's Dream Machine, according to Rick Hendrick. So why not? Here's a crazy thought: Elliott drives Nationwide for two or three years and is ready to replace Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 if Gordon is ready to retire.

Smith: Not even. If Elliott has the chops, get him the experience against the big boys. It's like playing basketball on the playground with bigger kids; you get pushed around and beat up and toughened up. And better. Much better.

ALSO SEE