Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: One of our race-day chatters remarked that Kasey Kahne will be the next Mark Martin -- too nice of a guy to win a championship. Is that a fair assessment?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: That's a little harsh. It could prove true in the end, but let's give it some time. Kahne is finishing only his second season at Hendrick Motorsports. Jeff Gordon didn''t win his first title until his third year at Hendrick, and Jimmie Johnson didn't start his five-year championship run until his fifth Hendrick season. I'm not putting Kahne in the same category with Johnson and Gordon, but he's only 33, so I still think he could win the crown sometime in the next three of four years.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: I don't know if he's too nice to win championships, but he's too nice to win enough races, and, in this day and time, that makes championships very difficult. Benny Parsons and Terry Labonte were gentleman drivers too nice to win enough races, but they both won championships. Winning matters more nowadays. Martin tried as hard as anybody to win championships and had more near misses than anybody. I'm not sure he missed because he's a nice guy. I'd call Kahne more the next Terry Labonte than the next Mark Martin.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: No. I don't get that kind of racket. Never have. Richard Petty is a nice guy. Benny Parsons was a nice guy. Terry and Bobby Labonte are nice guys. Matt Kenseth isn't exactly a snarling beast of a personality. I've seen Kasey Kahne and Mark Martin pull some of the gutsiest moves behind the wheel you could ever hope to see. I've also seen them flip out, just not on national television. So, what have people wanted? For them to wreck someone ruthlessly? The breaks just haven't gone their way over the years to win a title. That doesn't translate into being a wuss.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Kahne's failure to win a championship has little to do with him being too nice. It has everything to do with talent and taking care of equipment, which both go in Martin's column. Martin finished second in the standings five times. Kahne has come no closer than fourth and won't again this season. From 1989 to 2000, Martin finished fourth or higher eight times and was in the top eight all 12 seasons. He has Hall of Fame numbers. Unless Kahne finds Martin's consistency, he'll have to buy a ticket to get into the Hall.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: No. It's not fair to either of them. In fact, it's ridiculous. There's something fundamentally wrong with society when being kind is considered a detriment. Kahne is a great person -- with at least a decade of driving years left in his Cup career. He'll contend more often than not. Martin, too, is a great person. People forget how 1990 unfolded: Without a 46-point penalty at Richmond for what Martin once described to legendary motorsports writer Larry Woody as "rolling through a stop sign when nothing is coming, but a policeman catches you and writes you up," he beats Dale Earnhardt for the championship. Martin has won 40 times. Seventeen men -- ever -- can say that. Oh, and just for the record, you'll be hard-pressed to find a nicer guy than Jimmie Johnson. He's done all right for himself.
Turn 2: Which slumping Chasers realistically should begin thinking about 2014 two races into the 2013 playoff?
Blount: From a points standpoint, even Kahne at 71 points back isn't out of it with eight races to go. But it isn't the points deficit that's insurmountable; it's the 12 drivers he would have to pass to get to the top. Those drivers won't choke badly enough for Kahne to win the title now. The same probably is true for Joey Logano, 69 points back, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., 62 points behind Kenseth. Honestly, even with eight races to go, I'll be shocked if anyone other than the top three -- Kenseth, Kyle Busch or Jimmie Johnson -- wins the championship. Only carnage at Talladega could change it.
Hinton: Logano, 12th, might be in worse shape than Kahne, 13th, because Kahne still has a knack for knocking out a win or two here and there. I think Logano has lost his momentum of the late regular season. I hate to say Earnhardt because you can't tell the truth without Junior Nation claiming you're hating on its guy rather than making a realistic observation. Clint Bowyer isn't showing a whole lot of mo, either. So I'd say those four are in pretty rough shape.
McGee: Kahne is done. Logano and Earnhardt are close. Everyone else can still be in this thing, especially with Talladega still looming out there, but they're going to need help from the big three.
Newton: Statistically, I see everyone from Gordon in eighth place up still having a shot. Realistically, I can't see anybody outside the top three of Kenseth, Busch and Johnson having a chance. I know Kenseth has won the first two Chase races and I picked him before the season, but I'd be wary of Johnson lurking in third. He's pretty good at Dover, you know.
Smith:Realistically, the top three are running away -- especially as great as Kenseth and Johnson are at Dover. But I hesitate to count anybody out from Bowyer forward. Blown engines at Chicago really, really hurt Earnhardt and Logano. Junior ran very well at Loudon -- and lost ground. Kahne, in 13th, is in big trouble.
Turn 3: What's your take on NAPA ending its sponsorship relationship with Michael Waltrip Racing and 5-Hour Energy remaining noncommittal with MWR until season's end?
Blount: Frankly, it makes me wonder whether NAPA wasn't already thinking about it and it gave the company a convenient excuse to pull the plug and save face. Yes, MWR made an embarrassing mistake that reflected poorly on the company, but not enough to end a long partnership that has benefited NAPA with a highly successful ad campaign involving Waltrip and Truex on numerous TV commercials. Something else was going on here besides the fallout from the Richmond race. If 5-Hour Energy also leaves, the entire Waltrip organization would be in serious jeopardy.
Hinton: Fans in electronic riot is a sad way to lose a sponsorship, and I think that's what happened here. NAPA yielded to a Twitter avalanche. I agree with what Kyle Busch said Friday about fans who complain about too few competitive cars, then turn right around and pressure a sponsor, any sponsor, out of the sport. It's now scary how much damage fans have the potential to do, without even thinking what they're really doing. I'm thinking 5-Hour might stay on -- otherwise it probably would have announced right behind NAPA.
McGee: I don't blame NAPA at all. The backlash aimed at it is so misguided. NAPA has stuck with Michael Waltrip through thick and thin, from the Daytona 500 wins, leaving DEI, the "jet fuel" controversy, failing to qualify for races, Michael's weird vehicular flip when he fled the scene, to the remarkable comeback with Truex. To try to call it out as disloyal for walking away from a final straw of embarrassment is laughable. This is an era when only a small handful of companies are still willing to write the big $15 million-plus check to sponsor a car all season. NAPA and 5-Hour Energy are in that constantly shrinking group. It's their money. If they want to pack it up and take it to a team where they think they can win without being shamed, they can do it. NASCAR fans -- no matter who their driver is -- need to hope sponsors choose to stick with the sport at all. Any big sponsorship lost is another blow to everyone.
Newton: Can't blame either sponsor for taking the position it has. As funny as Waltrip is in those NAPA commercials, his organization embarrassed the sponsor with the "jet fuel" scandal at Daytona in 2007. The Richmond scandal was worse. Sponsors pay a lot of money to be on the hood to sell products. When the actions of the organization tick off the potential buyers, it becomes counterproductive. I'm wondering whether suspended general manager Ty Norris, who took the blame for engineering this fiasco, ever will be back in the sport.
Smith: I think it's awful for the sport. It sets a terrible, terrible precedent. I understand fully the desire to profess and convey integrity to your customers -- I'm all for that on every level. But the face of NAPA racing is Martin Truex Jr., and he did absolutely nothing wrong. He had no hand in any shenanigans. He raced his tail off and, trust me, was completely ignorant of any shenanigans that occurred at Richmond. I was the first person to talk to him on pit road when he exited his car, and when I brought it up, he genuinely laughed in my face. To me, this screams that NAPA found an "out." Some might recall how difficult the decision was for it to stay in the sport at all the last time it renewed. That point was said openly by NAPA executives in the August 2012 renewal news conference at Atlanta Motor Speedway. NAPA stood by Michael Waltrip through a lot -- he even noted that Friday at Loudon when he addressed the media. Maybe it had just had enough.
Waltrip also said he expects 5-Hour Energy to stand by MWR, but the company's president told The Associated Press on Sunday that it would continue to evaluate its position in NASCAR. And the message was clear: We don't like that Brian France said he has the power to make whatever decision he wants and did so. That declaration by France at Chicago made 5-Hour question NASCAR's integrity. What a mess.
Turn 4: Which team do you see Martin Truex Jr. driving for in 2014 and beyond?
Blount: And this follows up what I just said. What else is going on here could be NAPA planning to stay with Truex but move to another organization. I would feel a little better about NAPA if that's the case because the company would stay in the sport. It's possible Truex and NAPA could end up at Furniture Row Racing next year. Maybe it will be another team, but hopefully, it will work out for Truex and NAPA will stick around. Unfortunately, it's not going to work out for MWR.
Hinton: Believe it or not, I wouldn't be surprised if he stayed with MWR under a new sponsorship next year. Tough to do at this point, but not impossible. If he wants to walk, he could walk right through the door at Furniture Row, now that Juan Pablo Montoya has turned it down to return to Indy cars.
McGee: If -- and this is a big if -- he has NAPA money behind him, I think it's wide open, not just limited to currently open rides. That's enough to help a team expand to another car, even a place such as JGR. But if he does not, then, as a car owner, I would still try to make it work. He would be great for Furniture Row, which is certainly not the step down it used to be.
Newton: It all depends on whether NAPA goes with him. If the sponsor is there, I could see Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing or even Penske Racing expanding. Gibbs has pursued Truex before, and RCR wants to go to four teams. Without the sponsor, Furniture Row Racing is his best option. The organization has shown to be strong this season with Kurt Busch in the Chase, and it has a built-in sponsor. There have been rumors about young Ryan Blaney in that ride, but the organization has momentum and a veteran such as Truex could sustain that.
Smith: It all depends on NAPA. If NAPA chooses to stay in the sport and align with Truex, he could go to many different teams -- and great teams, at that. But if it bails out, he'll have a hard road. He's a good guy and good driver who did nothing wrong. I hope the best for him.