Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

Originally Published: October 29, 2013
ESPN.com

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

Turn 1: Pick the last driver in the standings you still believe has a shot at the title and tell us why.

Terry Blount, ESPN.com: First, I think it will be an enormous shocker if anyone other than Matt Kenseth or Jimmie Johnson wins it, but I guess I would say it's still a remote possibility for the next three guys -- Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who is 36 points back in fifth. It would take an unusual set of circumstances for one of these three drivers to win the title, but considering how unusual the past two months have been for NASCAR, anything is possible. I just hope Kenseth and Johnson, or someone else, remain this close in the standings when the teams get to Homestead for the finale.

Jeff Gordon
Peter Casey/USA TODAY SportsJeff Gordon found his groove at Martinsville.

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Jeff Gordon. Kevin Harvick sits only one point back of him, 28 out of the lead, but Harvick and owner Richard Childress have now worn very, very thin on each other. Apologies won't fix Harvick's tirade against Childress' grandsons Saturday. It's not impossible for the truly lame-duck operation to muscle through for the money of a title, but it's extremely unlikely considering that it's up against three teams that are totally in sync: the 20, 48 and 24. Gordon's team may have a slight edge in morale over Jimmie Johnson's right now, in that the 48 has taken to bickering on the radio again. But Matt Kenseth's team is in the best shape of all, coming off what amounts to a victory at Martinsville with a surprising second-place finish. Gordon is still something of a long shot because he needs help from really bad races by both Kenseth and Johnson, not just one of them.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Jeff Gordon. I think Kyle Busch has a chance to make a move at Texas and Phoenix, but he did too little at Martinsville. And don't be fooled by Kevin Harvick's sixth-place run. I agree with Dale Jarrett when he says the RCR soap opera has ruined his title chances. But Gordon's team now has momentum, a win and confidence, and it has had recent wins at both Phoenix and Homestead. He still needs help from the lead two, but I say he's still in this.

David Newton, ESPN.com: I still don't think anybody outside of Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth has a chance. I believe this is Johnson's Chase to lose. But if I had to pick a spoiler, it would be Jeff Gordon. Not because he won on Sunday at Martinsville, although that helps. Because he is solid at the three remaining tracks and because this crazy season almost deserves the champion to be the driver who got a special invitation from the chairman to be in the playoffs.

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: I think it's a two-man race between Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson. I just don't see them faltering. Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch aren't going anywhere, though. They'll all perform at a very high level. I expect Busch to win at Texas. It's not about the lack of performance from the 24, 29 or 18; it's about the 20 and 48 having no weaknesses. Kenseth beating Johnson at Martinsville was massive for his title bid. No one expected that.

Turn 2: Matt Kenseth is in first place (more wins, 7-5) even though he is tied in points with Jimmie Johnson. Who leaves Texas with the lead?

Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesWho leaves Texas as the Chase leader?

Blount: Both drivers run well at Texas, and either man can win it, but I'm going with Kenseth. He has four victories this season on 1.5-mile ovals, and JJ is winless in 2013 on these tracks. Kenseth has an average finish of 6.2 on the nine 1.5-mile tracks, while Johnson's average finish is 10th on the 1.5s this year. But I do give Johnson the advantage at Phoenix. Homestead, however, is a bit of a wild card. It's a 1.5-mile oval where Kenseth has won and Johnson hasn't, but Jimmie often has gone there not needing to win to earn the title, so he hasn't always raced the event with the full intent of winning.

Hinton: Tough call here. Johnson has run slightly better at Texas in the Gen-6 car, but Kenseth, as we saw at New Hampshire (win) and Martinsville (second), is capable of showing stunning improvement at some places during this Chase. Kenseth has run well at Texas before, and 1.5-mile tracks are his strength. I wouldn't be surprised if we saw the two of them dueling for the win on Sunday. But if neither wins and collects bonus points, they'll leave Texas still separated by only a couple of points. If I have to pick one, my gut says Kenseth, because that team is so in sync that it probably can beat the 48 head-to-head.

McGee: Kenseth. The good news for Johnson is that his career Texas stats are second-best among all active drivers. The bad news is that the one guy he trails is Kenseth. This whole thing has set up very nicely for the 20 car. We know he's good on the 1.5-mile tracks, and there are two of those out of three remaining races. Now, suddenly, he's also great on flat tracks. If you run well at Martinsville and Loudon, you usually run well at Phoenix. Now Kenseth is the real deal on those racetracks.

Newton: Johnson, but it will remain tight. He's the defending champion in this race, and he has 10 top-10s in his past 14 races there, including two wins and five seconds. Kenseth is solid as well. During that same stretch he has a win, 11 top-10s and three seconds. Heck, it could still be tied, they're so close there.

Smith: Kenseth. And I have absolutely no basis for that answer other than intuition.

Turn 3: Give Sunday's race at Martinsville a grade and tell us why.

MARTINSVILLE
Geoff Burke/Getty ImagesMr. Martinsville Jimmie Johnson finished fifth Sunday.

Blount: Personally, other than hot dogs, I've always felt Martinsville was overrated. It's a one-groove track, and the events are way too long at 500 laps, but I get it. Fans love it because it produces some bumping and banging. I give this one a B, if for nothing else because Gordon got his first win of the season to stay within striking distance of the elusive fifth title.

Hinton: B-plus, on the strength of Gordon's suspenseful drive to the finish when everyone knew a caution could come out any moment because yellow had been rampant all afternoon. Can't award an A here, because for some reason, getting hung on the outside was more costly than usual at Martinsville and that precluded some tight racing. Martinsville is tough enough even when you can occasionally make things happen on the outside. But even on restarts Sunday, you figured the driver on the outside front row was at high risk of getting shuffled back if he couldn't maneuver quickly inside.

McGee: B. The cautions kind of bogged down the proceedings, but that entire final green-flag run was really great stuff. I realize I say this at basically every racetrack, but I think Martinsville could shed 100 laps and we'd never miss it.

Newton: B. One hundred fewer laps would have jacked this to an A. But what more could you want? You had a decent amount of mayhem, a late pass for the win between two of the best cars on the day and a little postrace drama between Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson.

Smith: B-minus. Short-track racing is awesome. But that race is absolutely 100 laps too long.

Turn 4: Darrell Wallace Jr. said the significance of his Camping World Truck Series win -- he's the second black driver to win a race in one of NASCAR's three national touring series -- still hasn't hit him. What do you think the significance is for NASCAR?

Blount: It certainly helps NASCAR to have an African-American winner to advance the diversity platform, but until this happens at the Cup level, it won't move the dial significantly. I just hope it's enough for team owner Kyle Busch to get the funding he needs to keep Wallace on the track next season, or that it draws enough interest that Wallace gets a quality ride elsewhere. Let's face facts here. NASCAR's Drive for Diversity Program, to bring minority candidates to the upper levels of the sport, hasn't been a big success more than a decade into its existence. But a few drivers are on the brink of big-time success, like Kyle Larson and Wallace. And it would be nice if the one woman in Cup could race competitively more often. Danica Patrick has nothing to do with the D-for-D program, but she is the face for diversity in the sport, and it's a ho-hum portrait at the moment.

Wallace Jr
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesDarrell Wallace Jr. celebrated a historic win.

Hinton: Not enough, yet. Remember, Wendell Scott won what amounted to a Cup race. Trucks are still third-tier. When, not if, Wallace wins a Nationwide race, I'll feel better. Then when he gets a full-time Cup ride, diversity will really be in business in NASCAR. It's still going to take more years for NASCAR to develop a sorely needed, significant African-American following. Wallace clearly has the best wishes of NASCAR's traditional audience as he moves up, but attracting new audiences will have to come at the top level. The significance of Wallace's win is more as a building block than a big splash a nation will notice.

McGee: I think it is a big deal and perhaps even more importantly it is huge step toward this not being a big deal anymore. I am thrilled for Darrell. He's a good guy. I am also thrilled for Wendell Scott's family, who were at the racetrack on Sunday to congratulate Wallace and were instrumental in helping NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program scout him way back when he was just 14 years old racing on Virginia short tracks. But I loved his reaction to all the attention he received over the weekend at Martinsville because it told you that he doesn't think about racing in terms of skin color. He is deeply appreciative of the opportunities that the D-for-D program has given him, but he really just thinks about racing, period. That's the kind of pioneer I like. He's not worried about making history; he's just worried about winning races. If he makes a little history along the way, fantastic. Now I look forward to a time when we just talk about Wallace the racer and not Wallace the African-American racer. He does, too. And believe me when I say he's a racer. Anyone who's really paid attention to him as he's moved up the ranks knows that, too.

Newton: It depends. Will JGR or any team with top equipment give Wallace a Sprint Cup ride in the next two years because of this? Not to downplay the significance, what the sport really needs is for a black driver to win in the top series. Jackie Robinson wouldn't have made a major cultural difference in baseball if he had spent his entire career in the minor leagues, and Wallace can't make a major cultural difference in NASCAR in a third-tier series.

Smith: It's a huge story. That was evidenced by Wendell Scott's sons' reactions. They called it a "miracle." They said they heard a boom from heaven, and it was their daddy saying, "Hell yeah!" That tells you the impact. But for him it was a race win. That was the story to Bubba. The cultural impact was foreign to him. He never considered it. We all did. And in my opinion, the true broad-scope cultural impact will come if he wins a Sprint Cup race.

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