Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

Originally Published: July 2, 2013
ESPN.com

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

Turn 1: Once again, Jimmie Johnson is complaining about games being played on restarts. Does NASCAR need to address this or is Johnson just frustrated because he has blown two possible victories on restart errors?

Jimmie Johnson
Sean Gardner/NASCAR/Getty Images

Terry Blount, ESPN.com: This is sour grapes on Johnson's part and is starting to make him look like the spoiled little rich kid who didn't get his way. However, the entire restart process easily could be fixed. Just let the flagman restart the race, not the leader. This whole restart zone mess puts too much power in the hands of the leader and encourages some sort of gamesmanship, although I don't think that happened Sunday with Matt Kenseth. It's simple. The drivers don't accelerate until the flagman waves the green flag. Sure, let the leader pick his lane and get a few feet ahead on the car beside him, but if the second-place guy reaches the start-finish line first, so be it. If NASCAR or the flagman feel anyone did anything wrong, just wave it off and make them do it again. It's not rocket science, folks.

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Maybe Jimmie just needs to adjust his restarts from second place. Reviewing video of, say, Kyle Busch's restarts might be educational. JJ seemed to go too far one way at Dover, jumping out, and too far the other at Kentucky, trying to "give it back" so much he got caught in the shuffle. I still would like to see NASCAR do it the way short tracks used to, just calling it a non-start and doing it over after somebody jumps, and allowing the offender a second chance to behave. But NASCAR probably figures drivers would abuse that privilege, take chances on the first restart, and then slow down the show with regrouping.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Restart gamesmanship is as old as racing on Daytona Beach. Actually, it's even older. I'm pretty sure Barney and Fred used to do it in Bedrock. I said this the first time Jimmie got skunked and I'll say it again: This sport is already becoming too overregulated -- do we really want to start down the road of caging in one of the last truly Wild West aspects of racing?

David Newton, ESPN.com: Both. NASCAR has addressed it with warnings at the drivers' meeting throughout the season, but competitors still take advantage where they can. I'm not saying Johnson was right about Matt Kenseth violating the pace car speed Sunday, but there is an easier solution. Widen the gap the leader has to restart the race and he's less likely to have opportunity to gain an advantage. As for Johnson, this appears to have gotten into his head. He has complained about it now three times this year, and it has cost him a chance to win on at least two of those occasions. You can't be timid on restarts and win races, and Johnson is bound to be up front on a lot of late restarts the way he's running. He must adjust to win a sixth title, or at least to run away with it.

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: The restart policy is fine. Johnson's comments are the manifestation of his frustration with failing to close the deal.

Turn 2: The series is headed back to Daytona, so we've come full circle. Give the Gen-6 car a grade and explain.

Blount: I'll give it a B, maybe a B-minus. The cars look great and they are faster, but I don't see a significant change in the on-track racing. And the same old problem still applies: The car out front has a huge aero advantage, as we saw Sunday. Kenseth managed to stay in front on old tires at the end. But it's only 17 races. The Gen-6 could do some extra credit and still earn an A before the season ends.

Johnson
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesWill Greg Biffle stay in Chase contention?

Hinton: I put a minus sign beside an A only because the Gen-6 looked so bland in its showcase debut, the Daytona 500. After that, the car has come on nicely, especially on intermediate tracks, where the improvement was needed. After flopping in its first plate race at Daytona, the Gen-6 provided a different, wilder show with more room to roam at Talladega. The traditional intensity of the 400-miler Saturday night at Daytona should provide another wild one. I think the Gen-6 is pretty much established now, and has left the controversy behind.

McGee: B-plus. It's not perfect, but I've been to most of the races thus far and we've seen great racing at places where we've never really seen it before. And yes, I'm giving extra credit for looking cool and not like a bunch of rolling shoe boxes. The complaints about clean air being too important is a non-issue to me. Being up front is being up front. With the exception of the old slingshot moves at Talladega and Daytona, since when has the front not been the fastest place to be? I just watched Jimmie Johnson go from 25th to ninth in no time at Kentucky. You can pass just fine in traffic if you're fast.

Newton: B-plus. Plenty of speed, the car looks great and there is decent passing back in the field. To get an A, NASCAR must find a way to make clean air less valuable to create more passing for the lead, so crew chiefs don't have to decide between tires and clean air as Jason Radcliff successfully did for Matt Kenseth on Sunday. There doesn't seem to be an easy solution to that. There may be no solution. But it's the only complaint I can find with the new car so far.

Smith: B-plus. The Gen-6 car has made for some awesome shows -- Fontana, Vegas, the plate tracks, etc. Some races (Pocono stands out) were less than stellar for the viewer. But that's auto racing. Not every event is going to be amazing. Look at the NBA Finals. Some of those games were edge-of-your-seat instant classics. Some were 30-point blowout beatdowns. It happens. The feedback I get from fans about the car has evolved during the season. It began with how great the cars look (which they do) to how badly they perform. That's the vocal minority. Truth told, they seem to race a lot like the final version of the COT.

Turn 3: Brad Keselowski fell out of the top 10 -- to 13th -- and doesn't have a win. How concerned should the defending champion be about missing the Chase?

Blount: Keselowski said Friday he isn't panicking and neither is his team, and he was a victim of Kurt Busch's bad decision Sunday. But there are no guarantees for a lot of guys at this point. Joey Logano in 10th is only 22 points ahead of Aric Almirola in 17th. Tony Stewart is tied with Almirola in points, but Smoke would make the Chase right now because he has a victory. I see a huge shake-up among these guys over the next nine races, and one big wreck at Daytona Saturday night could change everything. So Keselowski should be concerned. He's probably going to need to win to make the playoff. Isn't that how it should be? Anything that places more emphasis on winning to get in the playoff is a good thing. Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. in sixth (35 points ahead of Jeff Gordon in 12th) isn't safe unless he wins a race.

Brad Keselowski
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

Hinton: Pretty concerned. Sometimes drivers lead charmed lives through a season and go on to win championships, as Keselowski did last year. Then sometimes they can't buy a break, for months and months, and Keselowski getting caught up in that early wreck at Kentucky was a prime example of how his season is going. He's mentally tough enough to fight his way out of this, but the bad luck just doesn't seem to let up. I'm stocking up on Tabasco and cayenne pepper to mask the taste of the crow I may have to eat after loudly proclaiming in January that he would repeat as champion.

McGee: Very. I spent the whole weekend doing "SportsCenter" and repeating that if he was going to get going -- if anyone is going to get going -- he needed to do it now. Judging from his atypically bummed body language as he climbed from his wrecked race car Sunday, he knows he's in trouble.

Newton: Very. While Sunday's issue was no fault of his own -- all Kurt Busch being too aggressive too early -- this is a time when drivers need to build momentum. Keselowski is going the other way with only one top-10 in his past nine races. He's had five finishes of 21st or worse. That won't get him a victory or into the top 10 or a chance to defend. The encouraging news is teammate Joey Logano is running well with six straight finishes of 11th or better. He may have had a chance to win Sunday's race had Johnson not lost it on the last restart. So at least Keselowski knows Penske Racing has the power to compete for wins and top-10s, which he needs. He also should be good on most of the remaining tracks. The problem is many of those drivers he's on the bubble with are as well.

Smith: He'll make the Chase. I believe that. There are nine races left before the cutoff. That's an eternity. The real concern for the 2 is his relative lack of speed compared to teammate Joey Logano, out of the same shop. Keselowski hasn't won and doesn't appear to have the speed to win right now. Granted, he hasn't had the best luck, either. Richmond, Charlotte and last weekend at Kentucky all resulted in crashed race cars. I refuse to write them off. It's premature.

Turn 4: Should NASCAR have penalized Kurt Busch for what appeared to be an overly aggressive move that caused the big wreck at Kentucky?

Blount: Kurt is one of the most talented drivers in the sport, but that was one of the biggest bonehead moves I've seen in a long time. What in the world was he thinking? It's early in the race, but he was charging as if it was the last lap with the championship on the line. Going down to the apron at some tracks is fine, but everyone knows it's a recipe for disaster at bumpy Kentucky. Kurt came back on the banking and shot right into Brad. It just shouldn't have happened. I know Kurt is anxious to get a win, but racers are racers and it happens. So NASCAR made the right decision this time. He didn't intentionally wreck anyone. He just made a rare dumb move way too early in the race.

Kurt Busch
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Hinton: No, because NASCAR had not ordered drivers to stay off that apron. Jeff Gordon said on his radio during the red flag that NASCAR should forbid going down there. But they didn't, and later in the race, Tony Stewart tried it and got away with it without causing a wreck. Call it a mistake, but not a violation, by Kurt. Just more of his over-driving an underdog car, but this time he caused other drivers a lot of grief.

McGee: No. It was an ill-advised move, but as long as they let guys go down there on the apron, then guess what? They're going to go down there! Even if it means they're risking what we saw happen. Until NASCAR says you can't do it, then on some level you can't blame them for doing it.

Newton: Seriously? If you start penalizing drivers for being aggressive, for making mistakes, then you'll have successfully killed the sport. To do this would amount to docking a quarterback pay for throwing an interception, an NBA player pay for a turnover. We need to see more aggression, not less.

Smith: No. Keselowski said himself he knows Busch didn't purposefully wreck him. Busch's move was indeed too aggressive in hindsight, but we see drivers go below the line onto the apron at all manner of tracks. The one that really gets me is Phoenix, when guys take a hard left off of Turn 2, completely chop off the dogleg and take the apron shortcut back up onto the backstretch.

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