Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: The Chase race at Talladega featured a lot of three- and four-wide racing, but the cars were largely single file at the end as the race ended under caution. What grade do you give Sunday's race?
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: A C-plus. Actually it wasn't a bad race for the stages when standard practice in a plate race is to log laps. There was quite a bit of shuffling for the lead, and there were 20 official lead changes. But then when it came time to go, nobody went. Jamie McMurray's analysis of the single-file racing late was that not enough cars would venture low to get an inside line working. Double lines make for the scrambles in plate racing, and everyone was too conservative nearing the finish, except for Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who made the only move but made a mistake and caused the race-snuffing caution.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: B. The weird stay-in-your-lane finish seems to be all that anyone remembers, but the fact is that those final laps were the exception and not the rule. Prior to that it was your usual post-2000 plate race. There were stretches of single-file, but there were stretches of 200 mph parking lot traffic. It's funny how I always hear complaints that the media is obsessed with the "big one," yet when it didn't happen, a lot of other people sure seemed to be sore about it.
David Newton, ESPN.com: C-minus. I don't want to promote that big wrecks make good racing, but it's part of the allure at Talladega. With only three cautions, and one of those for fluid on the track, it was a bit too Tame Talladega for me.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: C. It'd have been much higher had anyone jumped out of line to try to win the race. Everyone thinks we're disappointed by the lack of the "big one." That couldn't be more wrong. We want to see somebody say, "The hell with it, let's go win the damn thing." But the importance of the Chase and points preservation makes that the riskiest of propositions. Because it would've likely resulted in that wreck.
Turn 2: Jamie McMurray picked up his fourth career restrictor-plate win Sunday at Talladega. Who is the best plate racer in NASCAR today?
Hinton: My analogy here is dampened but not ruined by the single-file conservatism late in Sunday's race. Think of the usual chaos during the last few laps of, say, the Daytona 500. Six or eight drivers have a shot, and you'd have to say there's a similar scramble for who is best right now. Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, McMurray, Tony Stewart when healthy, Jeff Gordon -- all of them are good. If I have to pick just one, it's Johnson when his car is right, because he swept both races at Daytona this year, and his July race was the finest masterpiece of plate racing I've seen since Gordon in the 1990s.
McGee: That seems to depend on which way the wind is blowing, doesn't it? It's so streaky. But just by the numbers, I'd take Matt Kenseth right now. He had three straight top-10s at Talladega prior to this past weekend and certainly had a car that could've won had he gotten any help. And, oh by the way, he's also won two of the past five Daytona 500s.
Newton: He doesn't have a victory lately, but I'm going with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Since 2010, he has three second-place finishes at Daytona and five top-10s. He was second again in Sunday's race at Talladega and has three top-10s there since 2010. Outside of him, I'd go with Jimmie Johnson. He's usually feast or famine, but he has three plate wins since 2011. Nobody has more.
Smith: Impossible question. Luck plays too much into it. McMurray said that very thing to me Sunday evening. Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, McMurray, Jeff Gordon, even Michael Waltrip. The list is extensive. It's a unique skill and so many have the knack for it. They're all awesome. If I were to pick one, I guess I'd have to pick Harvick. But whoever it is dances well with Lady Luck.
Turn 3: Jimmie Johnson has eight career victories and an astounding 5.3 average finish at Martinsville Speedway, with wins in each of the past two races. Will anyone have anything for the 48 team Sunday?
Hinton: Denny Hamlin might, but he was running experimental equipment at Talladega, so a lot depends on whether Toyota has him running short-track R&D stuff at Martinsville. Jeff Gordon has the expertise to challenge JJ some, and is still capable of being right there at the end. So I think a couple of drivers might have something for JJ, but that doesn't mean I think anyone will beat Superman on Sunday.
McGee: No. I look at his Martinsville numbers and what I see are the best stats that anyone has posted at any racetrack in my lifetime. He had a DNF there in his first start a decade ago. Since then, he's finished outside the top 10 only twice in 22 starts and never lower than 12th! And his laps-led column of the stat sheet looks like one big typo. This is why everyone had to make their move at Talladega, or sometime before now. Allowing him to take the points lead, even a small one, heading into Martinsville is a bad deal if you're trying to win a title.
Newton: Yes. His teammate Jeff Gordon. He has seven Martinsville wins and an average finish of 7.0 at the paper-clip-shaped track. In the past 21 races there, he has been outside the top six four times. He was third there in the spring. Don't hand the grandfather clock trophy to JJ yet.
Smith: No. I expect he'll win -- especially with Denny Hamlin relegated to an R&D car at this point of the 2013 season. I expect Clint Bowyer to make some noise too, though.
Turn 4: Kyle Busch has five top-5s, including a pair of runner-up finishes, in six playoff races. Should Chase front-runners Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth be concerned?
Hinton: These guys don't get "concerned" looking at the standings. They just don't worry about anyone else moving up in the points. They think about what they and their own teams can do or not do. Mathematically, yes, Kyle still has a shot, but I doubt either Johnson or Kenseth will lose a wink of sleep over him until and unless he pops a win or two. Kevin Harvick is right there, too, tied with Kyle, 26 points behind Johnson. But I don't think the two leaders will look in their mirrors at the points until Phoenix is over and everyone heads for Homestead-Miami.
McGee: Not really. They can't ignore him, but their approach shouldn't change because of him. Eyes through the windshield, not the rearview. If they keep doing what they've been doing, it won't matter what he does. But I do think we can finally shed the "Chase Choker" label.
Newton: Concerned? Maybe. But they have enough of a cushion and are strong enough at the remaining tracks that Busch would have to win three of the final four to make this close. He won't.
Smith: I think it's 20 versus 48 for the trophy and the paycheck, personally. But the stats suggest Busch will be in contention.