Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: What's your take on Kurt Busch signing a multiyear deal to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing beginning in 2014?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: Kurt took his time, thought it through and made the right decision. I realize this looks like a bit of a volatile situation just waiting to explode with possible personality conflicts between Busch, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart and even Danica Patrick, all drivers who've been known to show their emotions and get a little surly at times. But I honestly think it all fits and they can make each other better. And Kurt should be commended for showing everyone he could do the rights things off the track to earn another chance with a top-tier organization.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I think it's a huge win for Busch. Dude's career was dead where it stood just one year ago. What he's done with that ride is the equivalent of what the Pittsburgh Pirates have done in baseball. Even if they don't make the postseason, it's been a remarkable season. But I have my reservations about SHR spreading itself too thin. It was a stretch for them to go to three cars, and just a few weeks ago Stewart scoffed at the idea of going to four. Gene Haas underwriting the fourth team is great, but such sudden expansion is a big risk. If Richard Childress and Jack Roush had a hard time sustaining four, it would be naive to think SHR won't run into the same issues.
David Newton, ESPN.com: I understand it and it may be best long term from a competitive standpoint, but I believe it's a mistake. Busch's history with multicar teams isn't great. It ended badly with Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing. At SHR he'll be in the shadow of Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick unless he totally dominates on the track. Yes, Patrick. Fans are intrigued by her regardless of whether they like her. Maybe Stewart will be able to keep Busch in check, but if he starts feeling like a fourth wheel, well ... watch out. Busch had it pretty good at Furniture Row with a built-in sponsor, an owner who loved him and no competition for attention. And if you look at his finishes, he's run better than the SHR cars for most of this season. Maybe that wouldn't have lasted, but I really liked the fit at FRR.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: If you'd have asked me a year ago if Busch would ever have this opportunity again, I'd have said no. But Gene Haas' admiration for Busch's talent supersedes all. He has the money and resources to return Busch to elite equipment, and Haas did it. Busch is a top-5 talent. He has worked very hard during the past 18 months to better manage his emotions. That is obvious by his reactions on the radio to poor pit stops. He's had every right to be critical this year and only rarely has. He'll be a beast in Hendrick cars. With the right crew chief -- who must have the proper disposition -- he'll prosper. It'll be fun to watch him, Smoke and Harvick under the same roof. Gracious, what a load of talent.
Turn 2: Should Kasey Kahne have wrecked Matt Kenseth to get the win at Bristol? (Kenseth won and Kahne finished second.) And does Kahne need to be more aggressive on the track to be a true contender?
Blount: Kahne received way too much criticism on this deal. Had it been Kyle Busch instead of Kenseth, I have no doubt Kasey would have punted him like a used football. However, this situation didn't call for wild shenanigans. Kasey's two victories probably are enough to get him in the Chase, but keeping a top-10 spot in the standings is important. Wild cards don't get the bonus points for their wins. Those additional points will help when the playoff starts, so taking the points and going home made sense this time. And is it really that bad if a guy shows a little class and doesn't dump another driver every chance he gets?
McGee: No and no. When I think back on Kahne's wins over the years, I don't see any lack of aggression. In fact, what you usually see is a great closer, a guy going faster over the final 25 laps than during the first 25. If anything, he's been too aggressive at times and driven the tires into oblivion. So this whole "he's soft" business is a bit overcooked. And the whole rearview mirror Monday morning quarterback thing is, too. So, say he ends up wrecking Kenseth and knocking him out of the top 10 in points. Then people would be calling him reckless.
Newton: Yes. And no. Part of me says "hell yeah" because it appears there are times on the track when Kahne is taken advantage of because drivers know he won't fight back. But I say no because Kahne isn't a fighter, at least in the Dale Earnhardt sense. He lives by the motto "race people the way you would want them to race you.'' And you have to respect that. Can he win a championship being Mr. Nice guy? Why not. Mr. Nice Guy Jimmie Johnson has five titles. But whatever is missing from the No. 5 team has nothing to do with Kahne not wrecking others.
Smith: No. And no.
Turn 3: With back-to-back finishes of 40th and 36th, is Jimmie Johnson in trouble or is he just a victim of bad luck?
Blount: Every time Jimmie has a couple of bad finishes, we always hear people say, "Oh, Johnson's time as a top guy is over." Hogwash. Johnson and the No. 48 team are fine. He remains one of the favorites to win the title this year and get his sixth championship. But Kenseth continues to show he's a serious threat and probably will enter the Chase as the man to beat.
McGee: He's not in trouble, but if the air was getting a little heavy around the 48 shop, I'd understand. I've been doing a lot of Chase research for ESPN TV over the past few weeks, and in recent years a team's momentum going into the postseason has seemed to carry a lot more weight than it did in the Chase's early years. That being said, we were all wondering if Kenseth had lost the edge after his so-so summer, and that was erased overnight at Bristol. One good run this weekend at Atlanta for JJ will do away with any concern.
Newton: Bad luck. And it's good he's getting it out of the way now instead of during the Chase. I suspect when the 48 team gets to Chicago, it'll be back on its game and not looking back. Johnson remains the driver to beat, in my opinion.
Smith: He's not in trouble, but momentum seems to have shifted. He was untouchable three weeks ago, despite struggling all year to close the deal. He's given away three or four races. The 48 is rather impenetrable mentally and it has the Chase format down to a science project, but a good run is in order before the Chase begins.
Turn 4: Will defending champ Brad Keselowski, 11th in points with no wins, make the Chase?
Blount: I'll say no. His average finish in the past five races is 14.2. He finished 33rd at Richmond in the spring. The last time he raced on a high-banked 1.5-mile track, like Atlanta, he was 36th at Charlotte after being involved in a crash. His teammate, Joey Logano, may make the Chase for the first time while the 2012 champ falls short.
McGee: Now here's a guy who's in trouble. That Bristol wreck was bigger than big. On paper, Thunder Valley was easily his best shot to get the win he so sorely needs. I think there's only room for one Penske car in this Chase. And right now, I don't think it will be him.
Newton: I can't believe I'm saying this, but no. I was asked on Twitter who I thought would fill the last four positions -- ninth and 10th in points and the two wild cards. Not saying which drivers would be where, I responded Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. Then I realized I'd left Keselowski out. And I couldn't convince myself to put him back in because I believe the four I picked will have the consistency to make it. I still wouldn't be surprised to see Gordon win one of the next two races.
Smith: Yes. He'll make it. Though he's worried. He told me Friday at Bristol he was and should be worried. But he followed that up with anyone who cares should be worried -- it's a sign of the desire the driver and team have to make it.