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Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

2/12/2014 - NASCAR

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

Turn 1: NASCAR made some major changes this offseason, from qualifying and rules enforcement all the way to another makeover of the Chase. Is all this going to be good, bad or indifferent, and why?

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: It's all sure to be good, and a lot of it very good. Not a bit of it can hurt. NASCAR sorely needed to do something to liven up the show, seeing as how the majority of the masses now have the attention spans of gnats. So, in keeping with the spirit of the times on television, NASCAR did an extreme makeover. Knockout qualifying is sure to bring ratings and attendance we haven't seen for decades. Even the people who hate the concept will watch it. Some savvy old-timers I know, including Humpy Wheeler and Junior Johnson, believe the Chase format changes -- win and you're virtually in, and then win in a Chase round and you advance to the next -- will bring back the win-or-else mindset, a throwback to Fireball Roberts and LeeRoy Yarbrough. Since 2004, when the Chase was implemented, I've argued that you can't have true playoffs unless you have eliminations, round after round. Now they've got it. Elimination playoffs have worked for every other big league sport. Why not NASCAR?

Brant James, ESPN.com: Indifferent. The mayhem on the periphery will change as different drivers fall into and out of contention in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, teams find innovative and ultimately unsuccessful ways to gain an advantage and the penalty flow chart decides their fate when they're discovered. But at the heart of it, the best drivers will win races and Chases, and that will remain Jimmie Johnson.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I don't worry so much about the changes themselves as I do about the volume. I think back over the past decade since the Chase was introduced and we're on our fourth version of the format, driving the third version of the cars. And now qualifying changes with a new TV network around the corner. It's not that I don't like most of the changes. I do. But at what point does NASCAR just sit on a formula for a couple of years and allow itself to actually see if it's working or not?

John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: Indifferent. These days, sports feel compelled to make changes for the sake of keeping up with other sports that are making changes. NASCAR isn't going to gain a bunch of fans who say, "Oh boy! The Sprint Cup has a 16-driver playoff system now! Let's jump on the bandwagon!" Nor are a significant number of longtime stock car fans going to quit paying attention because they don't like the changes that are being implemented. While the Chase changes are meant to grow the audience, I like how the qualifying changes and more transparent rule-enforcement system give NASCAR's existing fan base worthwhile things to talk about. I think it will be interesting to see how knockout sessions that have been successfully used in F1 and IndyCar road racing will translate to an oval-racing environment.

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Good. Maybe great. Even if it's bad. Change was paramount -- necessary, even vital? -- for the sport's long-term relevance. In my opinion, that's what this is all about: relevance in the short and long term. (I asked Brian France that very question during the announcement, but he didn't especially answer it as I'd hoped.) My greatest fear for NASCAR racing as it stood previously was that the sport had evolved into a slow-burn-death-on-the-vine. Even if the knockout Chase fails, this is one heck of a Hail Mary. Maybe it will fail. Or maybe it will be the Doug Flutie of professional sports decisions.

Turn 2: The most ballyhooed group of rookies in many years is entering the Sprint Cup Series. Which one do you think will have the best season in 2014, and why?

Hinton: Gotta go with the obvious, Austin Dillon, for the obvious reasons: better equipment, better support. Pop Pop Childress is going to do everything in his power and pocketbook to keep Dillon from falling on his face while flying the notorious No. 3. Kyle Larson will come as far to the fore as Chip Ganassi's team effort will let him. I say Dillon and Larson each win one or more races. Parker Kligerman and Cole Whitt could surprise if, like Larson, their equipment will let them. All these guys are good, but Dillon just comes to the Rookie of the Year table with a bigger stack of chips.

James: Kyle Larson. In Neo NASCAR, Version 3.1 or whatever we're up to now, wins apparently matter more than anything, and the ultra-talented Larson has the best chance to claim one. No offense to Austin Dillon; his Richard Childress Racing team has been more consistent the past several seasons than Larson's Ganassi Racing, and he's more likely to finish higher in the standings. He's a past winner in the Nationwide Series (although he didn't reach Victory Lane in claiming the championship last season), but Larson, 21, seems more primed to break through in Sprint Cup. His last-lap battle with Kyle Busch in a Nationwide race at Bristol was a preview of how willing and able he is to battle the varsity.

McGee: There's a chance that we might be starting a run of several years of great rookies rolling in. That's really exciting, especially after this bleh stretch of Rookie of the Year "races" we've had (sorry, Stephen Leicht, Andy Lally, and Kevin Conway). I think that long term, it's hard to deny Kyle Larson. When drivers such as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are gushing, it makes you believe. But in the short term in 2014, I think Austin Dillon's experience over the past few years -- not to mention his track record -- will lead to ROY.

Oreovicz: My money is on Austin Dillon. Unlike the other rookies, he's stepping into a bona fide No. 1 car that won three races and finished third in the championship in a lame-duck 2013 campaign with Kevin Harvick. It's unrealistic to think Dillon can come close to replicating those numbers, but I think he has a reasonable shot at winning a race and making the Chase. If Dillon is likely to be steady, Kyle Larson could have meteoric moments. USAC racing experts think Larson is the best prospect to come along since the group that came out of the 1990s (Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne) and the opportunity is there for him to be the charismatic young star who builds Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team into the kind of championship operation he takes for granted in IndyCar and sports car racing.

Smith: Austin Dillon has the best equipment, but I figure Kyle Larson will win ROY. Less pressure. Way less. (And that's saying something for a kid whom Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart basically anointed the "next big thing.") Dillon has run the 3 his whole life. He's accustomed to managing any and all criticism that comes with that. Plus, he's mature beyond his years from my experience. I really like all the young men in this class. Parker Kligerman and Cole Whitt are really good. It's great to see Ryan Truex finally get a full-time opportunity. Larson's car control impresses me. But what Dillon did at Eldora -- figuring out how to get straight-line power off the corner on dirt -- showed me A LOT. It's a great class, this one.

Turn 3: The crew chief is a lame duck and the driver is coming off his best season in a long time. What is a reasonable expectation for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team in 2014?

Hinton: Probably about the same as last year -- good points -- and perhaps the new emphasis on winning will propel Junior into Victory Lane a time or two. Calculations by NASCAR's own in-house news and analysis website, NASCAR.com, show that under the 2014 format, winless Junior would have won the 2013 title. That would amount to a backfire of the makeover, but the odds are against such a recurrence, because everybody else will be running harder this year. I don't think even Junior Nation would be satisfied with a winless championship, so he needs to win some races outright. But doesn't he always?

James: Earnhardt's career has been pocked with fits and starts. One encouraging points finish has generally been followed with a demoralizing regression. But this past season seemed like it was going to be different. A dynamic run in the final nine races of the Chase -- after blowing a motor in the opener at Chicago -- seemed to indicate NASCAR's most popular driver had figured things out. Then crew chief Steve Letarte went and decided being a good husband and father was a noble idea. Cad. But even though the television booth beckons, Letarte doesn't seem the type to sleepwalk through his final season of commitment at Hendrick Motorsports. With the driver and crew chief saying they are treating 2014 like a last fling, Earnhardt and Letarte might be mentally primed for the type of swing-for-the-fences campaign that meshes perfectly with the new points system. A top-5 points finish is realistic if outside distractions -- particularly over the identity of Earnhardt's next crew chief -- don't creep in.

McGee: To be in that final four mix at Homestead. We've all seen the models that were run saying he would have been the champion last year had it been run under this new system. But there's a natural progression that's been happening over the past five years that says it's time for him to be a legit contender. This, of course, is assuming that Junior Nation doesn't incarcerate Steve Letarte during Speedweeks for treason.

Oreovicz: Everyone is saying all the right things, but under the circumstances, you have to wonder if the Letarte-Earnhardt partnership is going to last the season -- especially now that there are crazy Ray Evernham rumors making the rounds. The key will be the results from the first few races of the season. If Junior gets off on the right foot, remains solidly in the top 10 in points and maybe wins a race to guarantee a place in the Chase, the pressure will be off. But if the 88 team gets off to a bad start, there will be inevitably be a call for change -- and a head start for 2015 and beyond.

Smith: Three victories and a Final Four shot at a championship come Homestead. The Letarte shocker is old news. Junior was over it by Homestead LAST YEAR. So this bunch will pin its ears back and have fun. I honestly believe it will be the least amount of pressure to perform Earnhardt and Letarte have ever felt personally and collectively. It's the band's last tour together. They'll soak up the memories and they'll appreciate the moment. I expect a tremendous season for the 88.

Turn 4: Who is your pick to win the 2014 Sprint Cup championship, and why?

Hinton: Jimmie Johnson, because he's the best prepared to adapt to the win-or-else style. He can do this any way you want. Junior Johnson, arguably the most all-out, all-race charger of all time, thinks all Jimmie needs to do is keep up his relentlessness. Yes, a seventh championship is coming this year, and what a hoopla there will be among the JJ dissenters who'll howl that he doesn't belong at the level with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. But they might as well get used to it -- for when the record eighth one comes in the next few years.

James: Jimmie Johnson. Cars change, points systems chance, competition changes, Jimmie Johnson changes ... in that he just keeps adjusting and winning. Trying to dissect him for a weakness is overthinking it.

McGee: Jimmie Johnson. Call me boring, but in the words of the great philosopher Richard Morgan Flair, "To be the man, you gotta beat the man," and Mr. Johnson is said man.

Oreovicz: Jimmie Johnson. He's won championships with two different point systems and 10-, 12- and 13-driver Chase formats, The increase to 16 isn't likely to faze him and crew chief Chad Knaus. If anything, the chip on the 48 team's shoulder will grow even bigger and propel Johnson to his record-tying seventh Sprint Cup title sooner rather than later.

Smith: Kevin Harvick. I said it the day Rodney Childers was confirmed as Harvick's crew chief: That 4 car is going to be nasty. Just nasty. They're also my pick to win the Daytona 500.