Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

Originally Published: July 16, 2013
ESPN.com

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

Turn 1: Which "free agent" driver would you most like to have for next season? Brian Vickers? Ryan Newman? AJ Allmendinger? Or someone else?

Brian Vickers
Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR/Getty ImagesBrian Vickers celebrates at Loudon.

Terry Blount, ESPN.com: As I've said before, I'm taking Kurt Busch if he's available. He is a far more talented driver than any of these three. And if we're being realistic, no one takes any driver these days unless a sponsor is on board and agrees with the decision. Having said all that, I'd be tempted to go ahead and put Kyle Larson in a Cup car next year. I know the pitfalls of bringing up a young driver too soon, but I believe Larson can handle it and could be successful in an organization for two decades. But if my choice is only one of the three above, Vickers is my man, and I felt that way before he won Sunday.

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: I want Vickers, but only if I'm Michael Waltrip. If Waltrip lands him, Vickers, at age 30 next year, will be a humble team player whose every thought will include gratitude to Michael Waltrip Racing for pulling him out of his "trials and tribulations," as Vickers put it Sunday. But if someone else signs Vickers, that might mean that Vickers had jettisoned all that gratitude in favor of more money and a higher-profile role -- which would hint a bit at the Vickers of old. If, but only if, I'm Richard Childress, I want Kurt Busch, because I'm the only owner who doesn't mind that highly aggressive, over-the-edge driving style -- and sometimes temperament.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Vickers is locked down with MWR next year. I'm not ready to buy Allmendinger as full-time yet. Last week I said I would be willing to go down and get a Regan Smith or Elliott Sadler and give them another chance. But if you're asking me about current Cup guys right now, Newman's the best option. But I think he might be on the cusp of being swept away, along with some others, by the wave of young talent that's about to roll in.

David Newton, ESPN.com: Vickers, and not because he's riding the high of Sunday's win at New Hampshire. He'd proved long before this past weekend he was worthy of a top ride. His upside at age 29 is much better than that of Newman and Allmendinger. Newman looked like a star in the making when he won eight races in 2003. He has won only eight races since and has finished ninth or worse in points the past seven years. He has lost rides at two top organizations in Penske Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing. It'll be tough to get another. Allmendinger, as good as his comeback story is, remains in the proving stage. Vickers has shown with eight top-10s and a win in 16 Cup races the past two years that he is ready.

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Vickers. I'd have said that well before he won Sunday. His performance in the 55 is tremendous -- especially for a guy who only races with that team a handful of times annually. How many of us, truly, would've thought Vickers would win in the 55 before Mark Martin? Not me. And not many others, I figure. And given his consistent speed in that car, his trajectory was rocketship-ish. All that said, Michael Waltrip already told us BV is his guy in the 55 full time next year. So is he really a free agent? To me the elephant in the free-agent room is Kurt Busch. What is the sentiment in ownership circles about his emotional maturation? What do sponsors think? How far has he come emotionally? Far enough that a marquee owner and sponsor would take another chance? He's impressed many of us this year both behind the wheel and the microphone. What do owners see?

Turn 2: Morgan Shepherd at 71 set a record for oldest driver in a Sprint Cup race. Should there be a maximum age to compete in the series, and if so, what?

Blount: In general, I'm against anyone over 70 racing in a major league auto racing event. It's not the circus. However, some people are more qualified to race at an older age than others. For example, John Force is 64 and still winning in the NHRA. That's much different than racing in a Cup event on a closed course with 42 other drivers. The point is that Force has been racing competitively for 40 years, continuously. By that example, Mark Martin at 70 would be far more qualified to race in Cup, assuming he keeps racing, than Shepherd, who hasn't raced "competitively" in a very long time. I really don't think Morgan was a danger to anyone Sunday. I don't even think he was the most dangerous driver in the field. But it was a contrived move and he had no intention of racing competitively. It was a cheap sideshow.

Morgan Shepherd at Nashville Speedway (1982)
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyMorgan Shepherd tried eight wheels in '82.

Hinton: Do you think Brian France, who is as politically correct as any chieftain of any sports league, is going to impose an upper limit on age? No way, no how. And he is correct. As long as a driver has the reflexes to qualify, he should be allowed to race. Besides, these Shepherd or James Hylton moments are so rare that there's no need to address the situation.

McGee: No. This isn't exactly a recurring issue, so there's no need for a policy. Everyone at New Hampshire, including Shepherd, understood what the circumstances were with this start on that team. A guy like Shepherd has too much respect for the sport not to do the right thing and get out of the way when the time comes, just as Joe Ruttman and other grandpas (literally) who have come before.

Newton: YES! Nothing against Shepherd. I hope I can drive between the yellow lines on the interstate at 71, much less compete at high speeds. But what Shepherd did was nothing more than a publicity stunt. It made those who don't take the sport seriously less likely to do so. And if you look at statistics for senior citizens, reaction times drop considerably, so even if he does pass the physical there is the potential for something to go wrong. This isn't Tom Watson trying to win the British Open at 59. The sport needs to get younger, not older, if it wants to expand the audience. It's hard to put an exact age on when a driver should be banned from the series, but since you asked, I'll go with 64 max. And it probably should be much younger.

Smith: As long as no one's safety is compromised, let 'er eat.

Turn 3: This is the last off weekend before the end of the Sprint Cup season. Does NASCAR need to make changes to the schedule?

 Jimmie Johnson
Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesWould you like to see Sonoma in the Chase?

Blount: Yes, yes, 100 percent yes. This should have happened a couple of years ago. The entire Cup schedule has become incredibly stale. NASCAR needs to shake things up to add some interest, starting with the races in the Chase. How about starting the Chase with a night race at Indy? No, it's not the most exciting on-track action, but the Brickyard 400 desperately needs something new to regain some of its lost appeal. If I were the schedule maker, this move would be only the beginning. Take Dover out of the Chase and put Iowa in. Put Sonoma in the Chase to have a road race in the playoff. Make Bristol a Chase race at night. And end the season at Las Vegas.

Hinton: Of course they need to make changes, and of course they won't. The Cup schedule should be no more than 30 races, to ease not only driver fatigue, but fan fatigue and oversaturation. Jeff Burton, after finishing third at New Hampshire on Sunday, was asked if he'd rather just keep racing on July 21, to keep up momentum. He said flatly he'd take the weekend off. And drivers have it easier by far than crew chiefs. Chad Knaus is an ultra-workaholic, and even he makes the occasional mistake. Steve Letarte, on the other hand, likes a little leisure time, and I'll bet you he and Dale Earnhardt Jr. would do better in a 30-race schedule, just because neither would have to keep up such a grind. But it'll never happen, because all the greed walks in suits, not driving uniforms.

McGee: Are you kidding me? Have you never talked to me about this before? I'm Mr. Slash It All. Shorten the races and shorten the calendar. Did anyone really miss that extra 100-200 miles last weekend? I believe the season should start running some midweek events -- an idea that multiple drivers endorsed over the weekend -- and wrap it up in September. Leave the fans wanting more and it'll make them go that much crazier for it come February.

Newton: Yes. Cut it by four to six races, add a few midweek races, move the All-Star Race to the Thursday night before the Coca-Cola 600 and the Sprint Unlimited to the Wednesday night before the Daytona 500. Oh, and have a random draw for the 10 Chase races every other year to mix things up. At worst add a road course to the Chase and start it at Indianapolis. Down from my soapbox now.

Smith: Yes. Shorten it. Start on Valentine's Day, end on Labor Day. Twenty-five to 27 races. Six months of must-see awesome. Every current track gets one date. That's 22 races. Tell me those tickets and television broadcasts won't be coveted? Tracks that deserve two dates -- Daytona, Talladega, Richmond, etc., rotate second dates. (Which tracks do you guys visit that you believe deserve multiple dates?) Possibly even add some markets -- Iowa comes to mind. I love NASCAR racing as much as anybody ever has. I love to watch it -- every lap. But I'm the minority. Today's market desires instant -- if at least quicker -- gratification. It won't stay engaged for 10 or 11 months. I hear it from friends every single day. For the greater good in the long term, the scheduling politics -- which are vast -- must be addressed. Based on Monday's update from the Daytona brass, it seems NASCAR is taking a hard look at the future viability of its business model.

Turn 4: International Speedway Corp. tracks, including Daytona International Speedway, are planning to downsize to create more demand. Is this a good idea?

Blount: It's a no-brainer. So many racetracks are overbuilt by today's standards -- places with 150,000 seats where many of them go empty. Track officials try to cover up sections with advertising tarps to hide the fact that they can't sell them, but there's still far too many empty seats visible at many races.

Johnson
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesDaytona is downsizing: Good or bad?

Hinton: It's simply honest recognition of what a primary racing financial source of mine calls the new normal. NASCAR mania is over. ISC may look bad initially in this retreat on seats, but remember, the new seats being installed are more roomy and comfortable, and some seating areas are being replaced by creature-comfort areas. And it looks better any day to have 80,000 full seats than 80,000 people scattered around 130,000 seats. I'm not sure the intent is so much to increase demand as to accept and make the best of the permanently smaller demand. To paraphrase Talladega president Grant Lynch at his announcement of downsizing, they may not be able to do anything about "the people who don't come see us anymore. But we can sure take care of the people who do come see us."

McGee: I do. That plays directly into my comments about the schedule. And I remember watching all the tracks adding thousands of seats in the 1990s and worrying about them overbuilding. But I would also like to see these track owners who are spending tens of millions on improved fan amenities throw some of that cash into 100 percent SAFER barrier coverage. I understand that suites and giant TVs enhance the fan experience. But you know what else enhances the fan experience? Not breaking drivers' backs with bare concrete walls.

Newton: Definitely, as long as the seating prices remain consistent not to price the middle- to lower-class fan out of attending. Speedways overbuilt during the NASCAR heyday just as the NFL and NBA overbuilt during their heydays. Think the word for that is greed. There are only so many great seats at a track. Better to contract and focus on improving the best viewing spots to give fans a reason to attend instead of staying at home and watching on TV. Daytona has the right idea by tearing down those backstretch seats where you get very little value for the dollar and focus on the frontstretch.

Smith: It's not only good, it's necessary. For the sport's longevity and sustainability the tickets must matter. Make them matter. Make them a coveted get. Less is more. The immediate bottom line says filling -- not selling, filling -- 100,000 seats in a 120,000-seat venue is better than selling out a 75,000-seat venue. But in the long run selling out those 75,000 seats has greater value. Perception has a massive impact. It's a smart move by Daytona.

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