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Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

11/12/2013 - NASCAR

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

Turn 1: Mark Martin didn't use the "R" word, but it looks as if he's hanging it up. It also appears likely we will have seen the final Sprint Cup races for Ken Schrader, Bobby Labonte and maybe even Jeff Burton. What impact will this have on the sport going forward?

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Not a lot, because all are in their twilight anyway and just don't run up front anymore. Haven't for a good while. Yes, those senior statesmen's personalities will be missed around the garage areas. Martin, especially, has been such a good and willing teacher to younger drivers. And he'll be missed as just an all-around nice guy. Betcha Burton will be back in some capacity next year, but it may not be full time for the longtime "mayor" of the motor coach compound. But as for impact on the racing itself, there'll be little if any.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: No real impact on the track. But I can tell you that NASCAR is worried about the impact within the "core" fan base of the last remnants of the oft-perceived good ol' days of the '90s (save for Jeff Gordon). There's no question that the last group that exited -- Rusty, Jarrett, Elliott, Terry -- took some of those fans with them (yes, I know Elliott and Labonte have run some, but not really). I wrote about this earlier in the year, the inevitable generational change that takes place in the garage, whether we like it or not. When I was coming along, the heroes from the '70s and '80s were on the backside. Just how it is.

David Newton, ESPN.com: Yeah, Mark told me a few months ago he had no plans to drive next year. I think his wife, Arlene, is ready to enjoy life after racing with him, although it wouldn't surprise me to see him fill in from time to time as needed. As far as Mark and other elder statesmen -- and I say that with the greatest respect -- stepping aside, it will be great for the sport. There are a lot of talented young drivers waiting to move up, and the sport needs that to happen to grow.

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: The next chapter turned toward the end of an era, really. The Jeff Gordon era. Those were the guys who, between 1995 and 2004, were the sport's dominators not named Jeff Gordon. Those were the guys who held Gordon accountable. But in terms of the broad stroke impact on NASCAR, it won't be massive. The sport rolled on when Richard Petty let go. And Pearson and Bobby Allison and Rusty and DJ let go. And it will roll on when these boys let go, too. I expect Martin and Burton to have a notable impact on the sport for many years, whether they're driving or not. Martin will provide insight to young drivers. Burton will be one of NASCAR's most prominent, honest, insightful voices on network television. You can put that in granite.

Turn 2: What in the world is wrong with Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 team?

Hinton: That hard crash Hamlin had while dueling for the win with Joey Logano in Fontana back in March seemed to derail the No. 11 team the rest of the way. The compression fracture of a vertebra worsened his already troublesome back problems. His driving status was iffy and tentative through the spring, and since June 9 he has only four top-10 finishes. Maybe he and crew chief Darian Grubb got out of sync, or maybe Hamlin's discomfort in the car has influenced his feedback on what the car needs. In a slump like this one, you have to rely on the old "if they knew, they'd fix it" answer.

McGee: Honestly, their last month has been Hall of Fame material compared to how their late summer and early fall looked. Sometimes you just have one of those years. And the fact that Hamlin has been hurt in his driver "computer" (read: rear end) has been a total disaster in terms of trying to give feedback to his team. He'll be in a doctor's office the morning after Homestead.

Newton: In this sport, all it takes is getting off just a bit to fall way behind. That has happened with Hamlin and his team. They had to take chances with setups after he returned from his back injury in an attempt to win races and get back in contention. That set them further behind. Then they began experimenting to help teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch get stronger for the Chase. They've gotten away from the things they do best. I suspect you'll see them back as one of the most consistent teams in 2014.

Smith: Simple: motivation. Or lack thereof. All Hamlin has ever known is success. But this year, after he broke is back, he wasn't racing for much in the larger, championship scope. Hamlin thrives on relevance. Come Chase time, when you're not in the playoffs, you're rendered largely irrelevant. Think about 2012: Kyle Busch had an amazing 10-race run during the Chase ... but no one but he and Dave Rogers remember it. And they'd just as soon forget it.

Turn 3: Kevin Harvick won again for Richard Childress Racing on Sunday. Do you think RCR and its revamped driver lineup of Paul Menard, Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon will win a Cup race in 2014?

Hinton: They should get a win or two out of Newman on short or intermediate tracks. Dillon might break through in a restrictor-plate race -- remember, he was in the mix at Talladega last month, ready to push Dale Earnhardt Jr. to a win, until he got clipped by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. But RCR is highly unlikely to get four wins total, the number the team got from Harvick alone this year.

McGee: Yes. But it won't be Menard who does it.

Newton: I won't say no, but none are as good as Harvick. Dillon has a chance to be, but he'll be a rookie and rookies typically struggle. Give him a couple of years and he'll have that 3 car-- yes, he will drive that -- in Victory Lane. Newman gives the organization its best chance to win next year. We'll see how long it takes him and his new team to develop the chemistry it takes.

Smith: Impossible question to answer. They absolutely can win a Cup race. But so much must happen for that to come to fruition.

Turn 4: Speaking of Dillon, he can add a Nationwide Series title to his Camping World Truck Series one if he takes care of business in Homestead. Will he win a Sprint Cup title someday?

Hinton: Someday is a vastly reaching time frame. If he wins a title, it won't be someday soon, but years down the road. He'll certainly have all the resources his Pop-Pop, grandfather Richard Childress, can muster. But Dillon hasn't even won a Nationwide race this year. The going will be much tougher against the big guns in Cup. And to win a championship, a driver must win some races in addition to running consistently.

McGee: I don't see any reason to think that he wouldn't, other the fact that RCR will have to get off its every-other-year performance roller coaster. Hey, what better way to silence what will undoubtedly be a loud group of dissenters over him driving the 3.

Newton: Let me say this: If he doesn't, it won't be for lack of resources. He has talent, and he has a grandfather who will spend every dime he can to make sure he has the best equipment and crew. That Dillon has won in both lower-tier series helps, but Greg Biffle did the same thing and has yet to complete the slam. Kyle Busch is one of the most talented drivers in the garage, and he doesn't have a Cup title. This isn't a simple yes-or-no question. I'll just say the potential is there.

Smith: Again: impossible question. Rest assured of one very important fact: Austin Dillon will have every single conceivable resource at his disposal as long as his granddaddy is breathing. Richard Childress will give his right arm -- or both arms -- to ensure his grandsons are successful. And both Austin and Ty Dillon can both drive. But this is the SPRINT CUP CHAMPIONSHIP, MAN! Kyle Busch doesn't have one. Denny Hamlin doesn't have one. Kevin Harvick doesn't have one. Jeff Burton and Mark Martin don't have one. JEFF GORDON HASN'T WON ONE IN 13 YEARS! Kasey Kahne doesn't have one. It's very, very hard to achieve. And you know what? If you'd have asked me this about Jimmie Johnson as a 21-year-old, I'd have laughed. Seriously.

The Dogleg: What is your initial reaction to the news that 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis?

Note: Not all of our panelists were available to address this breaking news.

Hinton: All I know is, Trevor will handle this with a smile and acceptance, as he always has. He may be the most religious young driver I've ever known, and fully believes that everything happens for a reason -- whether it was his out-of-nowhere win at Daytona, or the mysterious ailments that hampered him soon afterward. He takes everything, from triumph to disaster, in stride. If physicians can slow down the disease, as is often possible nowadays, I look for Bayne to be driving for quite a few years to come.

McGee: It's just heartbreaking. You got the feeling that there might be something larger happening with his health over the last couple of years, but certainly always hoped that wasn't the case. I don't think that Jack Roush is going to put someone on the track who would compromise the safety of others, so I don't worry there. And I think that Trevor is the kind of person who will take his condition, something his family is already too familiar with, and use it to bring awareness to the fight against MS.

Newton: I just sat at my laptop for a few minutes stunned when I saw the news. But knowing Trevor and his personality and religious strength, he'll turn this into a positive. I suspect we'll see him doing commercials one day talking about how being diagnosed with MS doesn't mean you can't live a full life. I can't think of any driver in the garage who would handle it better. Let's hope and pray he is behind the wheel for a long time.