Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: Chad Johnston is leaving Michael Waltrip Racing, and Martin Truex Jr.'s future is up in the air. What does the future look like for MWR?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: Uncertain at best and not nearly as bright as it was a year ago. This shows how quickly things can change in Sprint Cup. MWR was riding high entering 2013 after Clint Bowyer finished as the runner-up to the championship in 2012. Waltrip had one of the most successful sponsor relationships in the sport with NAPA on Truex's car, one of the few full-season sponsorships left in the series. Now NAPA is gone and Truex probably is, as well. Bowyer will end the year under a cloud after the spin scandal at Richmond. Some major public-relations rebuilding is needed here.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: My crystal ball is still cloudy on that one, but one image I can see in there is Rob Kauffman, the real money man of the operation, who rescued MWR at another tenuous time and doesn't appear to be going away. Race personnel may come and go, but as long as Kauffman stays in the game, the team will find a way to keep on keeping on. You can bet that privately, Kauffman asked Waltrip, general manager Ty Norris, et al, some questions following the Richmond mess. But he's still there, through the fog currently surrounding MWR.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Better than it did before they knew that 5-Hour Energy wasn't going to bail, but still not great. I think we'll see other personnel bail if given the chance, and that includes Truex. The problem is that there are only so many jobs out there. If MWR has to contract to two cars -- and that's feeling more and more inevitable even if it manages to field three full-time cars in early 2014 -- then Truex will be the guy left without a chair when the music stops. Just unreal.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Bleak. But it's been bleak before and Waltrip has bounced back. Remember the jet-fuel controversy in the first race for the organization? The good news is Toyota needs MWR to be viable, so the manufacturer will continue to pour resources into making that team strong enough to contend for wins and spots in the Chase.
Turn 2: Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing have won 12 of the 29 Nationwide Series races this season, with no other organization winning more than twice. Which is the pre-eminent organization in the series?
Blount: My goodness, this is a sad question. Neither one of them deserves that recognition because they win too many of those events with Cup drivers. It's time to step up and face facts here. There is no such thing as a Nationwide Series. It's nothing more than a practice race most weeks for Cup stars. Austin Dillon may win the title without winning a race, and I sincerely hope he does to show how ridiculous this is. Consider this stat: Of the 86 drivers who have earned points in a Nationwide event this season, only three have won a race, accounting for only four of 29 races. And NASCAR has the gall to call this a championship series. It's incredibly disingenuous. The last time a so-called championship-contending driver won a race was June 15 (16 races ago) at Michigan for Regan Smith. Cup drivers have won 13 of the past 15 events. It's a joke.
Hinton: You mean which juggernaut snatches candy from babies with a stronger grip? Does that really matter? If it does, then JGR has the edge because on the days when they do win, they don't just dominate, they overwhelm -- especially when Kyle Busch is in the seat. A lot of that is because JGR's background in Nationwide runs deeper and stronger for longer than Penske's.
McGee: It's really a push, but I give a small edge to Penske because they still have a real shot at the drivers' championship with Hornish. But this whole thing looks so idiotic on paper. If Austin Dillon wins the championship, people are going to rip him for not winning a race, but when Victory Lane is a Cup driver conga line, it's hard to blame him. The good news is that the big Cup organizations are willing to put money into the series. But even better news would be if they wouldn't fill those cars with Cup guys all the time. NASCAR has to put an entry limit on full-time Cup drivers.
Newton: I'm not going to dignify this with an answer because their collective dominance is not good for the series. They need to start putting young developmental drivers into their cars on a regular basis more than Cup drivers. Then I'll judge.
Turn 3: Jimmie Johnson has won a record-tying six times at Charlotte, but just once in the past 15 races there. Is he the favorite heading to Charlotte? If not, who should be?
Blount: You have to give Kevin Harvick serious consideration as a favorite since he won there in May and is coming off a victory at Kansas. Harvick has won two of the past five points races at Charlotte. But if you're asking me to pick a winner, I'll pick Matt Kenseth.
Hinton: My hunch is, Charlotte is the right place at the right time for Matt Kenseth to pop another win. Without foreseeable tire or track-surface issues, he should be a real power again on a 1.5-mile track. Yet JJ's relative dry spell there doesn't mean a whole lot. Let's put this in restart language: Give Kenseth the preferred outside lane, but put Johnson alongside with only a marginal disadvantage.
McGee: No, he's not, though right now, I wouldn't exactly bet against JJ's team anywhere. I have my eyes on a Matt Kenseth rebound and also on the guy who is bringing Kansas momentum and also just happens to have won the May 26 Charlotte race: Kevin Harvick.
Newton: Nope. That honor has to go to Kevin Harvick. He's coming off the win at Kansas and he's won two of the past five races at Charlotte, including the 600 in May. Johnson has been outside the top 10 in five of the past seven at CMS, outside the top 20 in four of seven. Having said that, he'd be my pick after Harvick.
Turn 4: Trying a new tire compound -- as happened at Kansas -- is a pretty major curveball at any point of the season. How do you feel about NASCAR and Goodyear throwing such a curveball at teams in the middle of the Chase?
Blount: Heck, I'm all for it. Anything to shake things up and add a surprise element that the teams have to figure out. Run the cars clockwise if it will make things more interesting.
Hinton: Nobody called it a curveball at all at Atlanta over Labor Day weekend, when drivers were singing the praises of the whole multi-zone concept. They said it was long overdue, and necessary, to prevent a debacle some feared would rival the one at Indianapolis in 2008. And it was at Atlanta that teams were told the next appearance for the multi-zone likely would be at Kansas. So they knew. This wasn't so much a curve as a wild pitch. NASCAR and Goodyear knew they had to throw something different at Kansas than they'd thrown in the spring, and this pitch just got away from them. Look, these things happen. Tire engineering just HAS to evolve to meet changing needs, and sometimes the changes don't work out at first. Who can say whether, if Goodyear had stuck with the same compound as in April, the situation wouldn't have been worse, in different ways, than what happened Sunday?
McGee: This really bugs me. First, I love the new tires. Or at least I love the idea behind the new tires. I think Goodyear is really stepping up and trying something other than that hard-as-Hades tire that everyone from the garage to the grandstands seems to dislike. But how in the world can you throw such a variable at teams in the middle of the Chase? I know that it's the same for everybody, but why do it now when every lap means to much to so many teams? The Cup is literally on the line! So, try the new stuff at Kansas in the spring or hold a tire test that isn't tied to a race weekend. Imagine if the Dodgers and Braves showed up for a playoff game and Major League Baseball said, "By the way, you have to use these shoes that have no cleats tonight." This is absolutely just like that.
Newton: I say get over it and move on. NASCAR and Goodyear tried a similar compound at Atlanta before the Chase and it worked just fine. Yes, the surface at Atlanta was old and worn, so that helped. Weather was a factor at Kansas, too. But NASCAR gave teams extra time to test the Kansas tire, so it was the same for everybody. The intent of the new tire is to improve the racing. Brad Keselowski said it would be huge for the sport moving forward. That is getting lost here.