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Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

2/18/2014 - NASCAR

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

Turn 1: Austin Dillon is on the pole for the Daytona 500 as a rookie. How do you think he will do in the race itself?

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: The car should be fine, and he's no better or worse off than anyone else regarding his chances in this crapshoot -- except that he doesn't quite have the experience drafting in packs at Cup level that the veterans do. During his most recent plate Cup race, at Talladega last year, he was doing fine, near the front and ready to push Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the win, but then Dillon got clipped by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and that was that. What that did show, though, is that master drafters such as Earnhardt are willing to work with Dillon in the closing laps.

Brant James, ESPN.com: Dillon on the pole is a fabulous story, but the story behind the story is the oppressiveness of his Richard Childress Racing team and its associates through the early days of Speedweeks. Dillon leading the field to begin the 500 therefore is no fluke, with teammates Ryan Newman (fifth) and Paul Menard (10th) and engine partner Martin Truex Jr. of Furniture Row (second) all qualifying well and showing hints of more speed. The draft and rookie mistrust are nebulous factors against Dillon, but he has the equipment for a top-5 finish.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I think he's a legit contender. I've said that all winter, not just after qualifying. When the Childress engines unload strong like this they are hard to beat. He ran a lot of laps near the front at Daytona in the Nationwide Series and was in contention at Talladega in a Cup car last year. I don't think he wins it. I think that's going to go to a veteran. But no one should be surprised if he makes a run at it.

John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: Gosh, NASCAR couldn't have a better storyline heading into this week than having the 3 car on pole position for the Daytona 500 in its return to the Cup series. I think Dillon will do a good job in the race. He's a smart kid; this isn't his first plate race and he's the defending Nationwide Series champion, so he knows what he's doing. The Childress cars are obviously very fast. A win for Dillon and the 3 in the Daytona 500 would be too good to be true, but it's not out of the question.

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Fine. He'll have speed. Speed = friends. He was fast last fall at Talladega late in the race -- poised to shove Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Victory Lane, or win himself -- before circumstance sent him into the fence.

Turn 2: Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick and Bobby Labonte all blew Hendrick Motorsports engines in practice, forcing them to start at the back of Thursday's Duels and in the Daytona 500 field regardless of their Duels results. What's your take on the rule that makes this so?

Hinton: Seems like double jeopardy to me. One time at the back ought to be enough of a penalty for changing engines. Having to start at the end of a qualifying race is bad enough, without then having to slug your way up through that mess only to land on the tail end for the 500. It's like demanding that the winner of the PowerBall lottery win two times in a row to collect.

James: The double penalty is another ridiculous aspect of a qualifying system that is overwrought. It's understandable that NASCAR is trying to prevent teams from gaining an advantage in the Duels by being able to switch to a fresher engine. Yes, they could enhance their 500 position as a result. But the Duels need to be tweaked to provide a little more reward for the risk (for the front-row qualifiers) and some mercy for those in Patrick's and Stewart's predicaments. Patrick was kidding when she suggested that starting and parking is the best option for the Duels. But, really, was she wrong?

McGee: You can't change engines. That's the rule. It doesn't matter what weekend it is and the rule doesn't really bother me. It just feels weird because qualifying basically goes on for a week at Daytona. And if this was a group of less popular drivers who were starting in the back, no one would care.

Oreovicz: Everybody is probably going to have some variation of a "double jeopardy" answer here, but that pretty much sums it up. It seems unfair to penalize a driver twice for one engine infraction. Knowing that they will start from the back in the Daytona 500 gives them little incentive to race hard in the Duel 150 races. I'd rather see pre-qualiying engine penalties served in the qualifying race only, then anyone who blows up during the Duels should be sent to the back for the big race on Sunday.

Smith: It's antiquated. If it happened in Thursday's Budweiser Duel, I get it. But it happened more than a week before the Daytona 500. Thing is, it would hurt way worse if it were at an open-motor track. Tony Stewart will be running eighth within a few laps during the Daytona 500.

Turn 3: Speaking of those HMS engines, should there be any real concern for the drivers running them this week?

Hinton: HMS has the best and fastest engine diagnositic system in the game. You can bet they're working feverishly in Charlotte to find and fix any flaws. If I were a driver powered by a Hendrick engine, I wouldn't start worrying until about Friday, and only then if (A) the engineers haven't found the glitch and (B) more HMS engines fail in the 150-milers. If all news is negative by Friday, then I'd worry.

James: Patrick crew chief Tony Gibson said it will likely be a week before Hendrick Motorsports determines what caused the failures, and that they were so catastrophic there was no immediately obvious culprit. Hendrick and Stewart-Haas Racing, specifically, detuned their engines for qualifying -- which impacted Patrick's and Stewart's middling times -- and there have been no other problems so far. There's always a worry, but the in-house Hendrick contingent has been unaffected and it will swap in new, highly scrutinized power plants after the Duels.

McGee: Nope. I think it would be cause for panic if these issues took place on Saturday during Happy Hour or even Thursday in the 150s. But I remember one weekend at Charlotte years ago when they discovered an oil line issue and an hour later a truck full of Hendrick engines with a totally different design rolled into the track, they changed them all, and Jeff Gordon crushed the field. As long as they have just a little bit of a heads-up, any team-wide issues should be fixable.

Oreovicz: If they pop a few more on Wednesday and Thursday, I'd say there is reason for concern. But that's an amazing group of engineering talent at the Hendrick campus, and they should get it under control. Thursday is shaping up as a big day for the HMS squad.

Smith: No. Whatever the problem was, Jeff Andrews and Scott Maxim found it and fixed it -- guaranteed.

Turn 4: Give us a favorite and a dark horse to win Sunday's race.

Hinton: I like Matt Kenseth to win his second in three years, even though -- no, BECAUSE -- he wrecked in the Unlimited. Nothing gives a driver a better feel for the horrific closing speeds than getting caught and run over by a freight train. Kenseth learned in a hurry and won't do it again. May seem strange to call the pole-sitter a dark horse, but Austin Dillon's lack of experience at Cup level leans him in that direction. Call him my gray horse -- a possible surprise winner who wouldn't really surprise me.

James: Tony Stewart will win, and coming back from a badly broken leg that cost him almost half of the 2013 season will make his first win in the Daytona 500 all the more special. Coming from the back of the field will make it more impressive. Not to suggest, at all, that Stewart ever requires motivation, but he will enter this race a determined individual, and all in his way should take heed. Dark horse: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Yes, seriously, a dark horse. It has been a decade since he won the Daytona 500 for the first and only time, a career-defining event for NASCAR's most popular driver. He has won nine races since. He could bookend the Speedweeks storyline perfectly.

McGee: I picked Dale Jr. on this week's "Marty & McGee" podcast and I'm sticking with it. He has come too close too many times over the past few years, even when the team was struggling, not to finally hit on it. For a dark horse, I'll take Martin Truex Jr. Yeah, yeah, I know he's starting on the front row, but at a plate track that's not even all that relevant. What is relevant is that he has a Childress engine and he's also fixed Furniture Row's longtime Achilles' heel by bringing over his entire NAPA pit crew from Michael Waltrip Racing. Those boys feel like they have something to prove.

Oreovicz: I'll take Dale Jr. as my favorite. Since the week started off with a good Earnhardt-related storyline, wouldn't it be great if it finished with an even bigger one? It has been a while since Junior won a plate race, but he's a factor every time. It's tempting to pick Dillon as a dark horse, but I'll vote for his RCR teammate Ryan Newman instead.

Smith: Kevin Harvick is my choice. Excellent plate racer. Former Daytona 500 winner. Just have a feeling. Dark Horse: Truex.