Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: Chad Knaus seems to have made a few mistakes in recent weeks at Sonoma and Michigan. Is there trouble looming for Jimmie Johnson and the 48 team?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: In trouble? That may be a little bit of wishful thinking by his competitors, but Chad and Jimmie are fine. They'll be on their game at Chase time and serious title contenders once again. Michigan never has been a good place for Johnson, and Sonoma is a roll of the dice on strategic decisions for the best crew chiefs in the business. No team in the sport understands how to pace themselves better than the 48 gang. They realize the 36-race schedule is a huge grind. You can't get too high or too low, but have your A-game ready in late September. Chad and Jimmie always do.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Oh, I'm sure Anti-48 Nation hopes so. But no, I don't think it's time for Rick Hendrick to break out the milk and cookies yet, as he did when Johnson and Knaus were bickering several years ago. Knaus is not infallible, but he is still the best in the business. He's the type who will self-correct. The 48 team is still leading the points and locked into the Chase with three wins, so they have some margin for errors here and there.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: No. They are in "Hey, what the hell, let's try this because there's zero chance we won't make the Chase" mode. Even if that wasn't the case, it is always better to be scuffling now than in the fall. No one is better at flipping the postseason switch than the 48.
David Newton, ESPN.com: As Jimmie Johnson said after the Michigan race, Knaus was being a bit too hard on himself when he took the blame for the loss. That's what you do when you're a perfectionist. What shouldn't be lost in this is Johnson still has a 25-point lead over the field and three wins that would put him at the top of the standings with Matt Kenseth if the Chase started today. He and Knaus remain the team to beat, particularly when you consider how efficient they are at the Chase tracks. But they did basically give away the championship last season with a blown tire because of a melted bead caused by overheating brakes at Phoenix and a rear gear issue at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Liken it to Tiger Woods missing clutch putts that he always used to make in majors. But to suggest there is trouble looming would be naive. If anything, this team is stronger than it was when it won five straight championships.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: If I've been asked a more ridiculous question in the past five years, I do not recall it.
Turn 2: Martin Truex Jr. ended a 218-race losing streak at Sonoma. Who is the next driver to end a long streak?
Blount: That depends on what you mean by a long losing streak. If a guy won last season, is that long enough? Certainly not by Truex's standard, which was six years. And I don't see any driver who has gone anywhere close to that long as a realistic candidate to win a race. Maybe David Gilliland, who has yet to win in 238 Cup starts, could end up in front at Daytona or Talladega. The same is true for Jeff Burton, who hasn't won in almost five years. For shorter slumps, the most likely to win could be Juan Pablo Montoya at Watkins Glen, where he last won three years ago. And Kurt Busch could end his two-year winless streak before this season ends.
Hinton: Kurt Busch, whose losing streak stands at 58, dating to Dover on Oct. 2, 2011, with Roger Penske. This guy has been driving the wheels off an underdog Furniture Row car just about every week. The one-car team's disadvantages may stretch the adage that if you keep putting yourself in position to win, you will win. Still, I think they can get it all together in any given race for a feel-good victory.
McGee: Was that really the second-longest streak between wins in Cup series history? Wow. I guess the easiest answer would be Dale Earnhardt Jr. sitting at 37 races, especially with Daytona looming. But I think we might see another, albeit shorter, drought end first. Brad Keselowski is at 23 and Carl Edwards is at 14. Both of those guys could win at Kentucky this weekend.
Newton: Bobby Labonte, 340 winless starts. Not. Joe Nemechek, 280. Not. Casey Mears, 204. Not. Jeff Burton, 165. Probably not. Juan Pablo Montoya, 102. We're getting warmer. David Reutimann, 94. Getting colder. Jamie McMurray, 93. Maybe. Paul Menard, 68. Nah. Kurt Busch, 58. Yes. To win a race you have to contend for wins. Busch has four finishes of fifth or better. Several times he's had the fastest car, only to have something go wrong, as was the case on Sunday when he finished fourth despite two speeding penalties. You get the feeling everything will fall into place one day soon. He's definitely the most talented of everyone mentioned above.
Smith: Kurt Busch or Jamie McMurray. Busch is at 58 races since his previous victory, at Dover in fall 2011. He'll win soon. They're making too much speed everywhere for it not to happen eventually. And his attitude is right. (More on that later.) McMurray is at 93 starts since his previous win (at Charlotte in fall 2010). I expect the No. 1 car to win this year.
Turn 3: Denny Hamlin is now 83 points out of 20th and any chance at making the Chase. Does he still have hope of getting in?
Blount: Hope, yes, but a realistic chance is slipping away. And I'm the guy who wrote at Pocono a "yes, he can" column. Denny may not have lost hope, but I'm losing hope. It's not that he can't win twice in the 10 remaining regular-season races, because he could. Anybody can win at Daytona, and Hamlin is the master at New Hampshire. But I just don't see that fire in the team. The 11 crew looks down. And Hamlin is so far back now that it's mathematically possible he could win twice and still not reach the top 20 in the standings.
Hinton: A wise man once told me, "hope is free." So, sure, hope on, Denny. Why not? Long as his odds are, they're not nearly as long as, say, winning the Power Ball lottery, and I know people who hope for that every week. Competitive as Hamlin is, he at least has hope of making a splash by winning a race or two and letting the points fall where they may. Hope in NASCAR never ends before mathematical elimination.
McGee: It's over. Done. Not a chance. And though I know he once hinted at having surgery during the season should he not be in Chase contention, I don't think there's any chance he'll get out of the car again this year, certainly not by choice. I think that if health allows, he races until the end of the year and -- if surgery is required -- we'll see him on the operating table the morning after Homestead.
Newton: None. Nada. No way. No how. Don't get me wrong. I was one of those who believed Hamlin could do this when he began this comeback. But he's further back now than he was when he started. To think he can win two races and get into the top 20 in 10 weeks is beyond fairy tales. While you have to commend him for not giving up, maybe it's time to focus on getting whatever needs to be done -- surgery, rest or rehab -- on his back to ensure his long-term health in the sport.
Smith: Not unless they improve performance. Hamlin was quite frustrated after the race Sunday with how poorly the car performed. He even said it: They must run better. Period.
Turn 4: Kurt Busch had his fourth top-5 and sixth top-10 of the year for Furniture Row Racing at Sonoma. Should he commit to the single-car team long term, or wait and see what else comes up later this season and in the offseason?
Blount: Kurt shouldn't commit to anything at this point. Furniture Row has the alliance with Richard Childress Racing, which helps, but it's still a one-car operation out of Denver. Kurt should stay patient and see if something better opens up. What does he have to lose? The most important thing for him now is to keep his nose clean and not return to his old ways of bad behavior and anger issues. He showed again Sunday that he can keep his composure even through some adversity. In a post-race interview at Sonoma, he calmly took the blame for speeding twice on pit road, including the shocker when he was too fast coming in to serve his penalty from the initial speeding call. Everyone knows Kurt can drive with the best of the best. If he continues to show he can conduct himself with the best, another big-time ride will come his way.
Hinton: I would wait and see. Surely the Furniture Row team would understand. Clearly, all this season, the driver has been getting all that can be gotten out of an underdog car. Kurt remains a top-tier driver who has now done his penance for his behavior of the past. He has kept his composure this year, through some pretty trying situations. He has earned another shot at the top.
McGee: First, I'm not sure where he'd go. I know he's been connected via the rumor mill to some owners, but he has some sort of prickly history with pretty much everyone out there. Second, I've been covering this guy since the first day he walked into the Trucks garage, and this is easily the most fun he's ever been, on and off the track. I know that he's frustrated by the limitations of Furniture Row Racing, but I also think he really enjoys this whole "Outlaw" thing he has going. And I know deep down he relishes the middle finger that every top-10 finish represents to those who have ripped him. (That list likely includes me.) Weighing all of that, I would love to see him commit to building FRR over the long haul. But if someone with a bigger checkbook and a better pit crew comes calling, it would be hard to say no.
Newton: I wrote in the Monday Rundown that Richard Childress should sign Busch immediately and figure out how to convince a sponsor to support him if he wants to return RCR to its glory years with Dale Earnhardt. But what's best for RCR might not be best for Busch. OK, so it might be better financially for Busch. But mentally, Busch is in a great place. He's with a team that appreciates him. He has the full support of his owner and a built-in sponsor that could provide long-term stability, one that doesn't require him to spend his offseason doing commercials and photo shoots. The biggest question going into the season was, could Furniture Row Racing hang with the big dogs? While it's not quite there in terms of the consistency it takes to be a top-10 team every week, it's close enough that Busch should at least commit for another year or two. If it doesn't work out, there are always options for a top talent.
Smith: On paper, it's easy to say he should commit for 2014, at a minimum. Being on a smaller team has served him well emotionally. Busch is so talented. And he's making the effort to grow emotionally. Case in point: After he received back-to-back speeding penalties on pit road at Sonoma, crew chief Todd Berrier radioed and said, "We'll have more options if you want to go ahead and pass them to get the lap back." Busch, who ultimately raced back onto the lead lap by passing leader Martin Truex Jr., said, "Yeah. I figured with laps clickin' away there's no sense in riding around." That's it. That's all he said. That's a far cry from what he would have said at Penske. But paper isn't always reality. If a big-time team approaches him, he has to take the deal. Berrier walked up to me on pit road after the race Sunday and said, "Have you ever seen anything like that before?" I replied, "I have. One year ago in the 51 car."