Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
If you were starting a team tomorrow, who would you choose to be your driver: Chase Elliott or Kyle Larson?
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: I'll take Chase Elliott for that enormous factor called "Son of..." He and Larson are both loaded with talent, about equal, but that Elliott name is already drawing big sponsorship money and lots of public attention that will turn into more sponsorship and more endorsements. Both these guys will win races. Elliott, with his deeply traditional appeal, will turn his wins into more cash, which will translate to more wins for a team. You're asking where I'd start a franchise, and Chase IS a franchise already.
Brant James, ESPN.com: Kyle Larson? Sons of power and performance make for compelling storylines in racing. And Chase Elliott may one day be every bit as good as his father, "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville." But in this case, I take the son of the Northern California power company employee. Kyle Larson's dad didn't win NASCAR championships, but Larson has proved himself to be a lights-out talent in a NASCAR career that feels much longer than it's really been. Elliott won a Nationwide race this year as a rookie, but Larson finished eighth in points last year having never driven a Nationwide car before. Larson is a few years older and already in Cup, but those aren't major factors. Larson has merged into NASCAR on a wave of hype and expectation, meeting and exceeding those expectations, all the while impressing and winning the hard-earned respect of his elders with his daring yet clinical driving style. His career arc seems destined for greatness. The only question, it seems, is when, not if.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Tough question. Starting tomorrow? Larson. Starting two years from now? Elliott. To me, the most exciting part of this question is that there is actually some debate to be had. Truthfully, we could include a lot of kids in this question, from the Dillons to Bubba Wallace, all of whom have a real chance of being in Cup within the next five years. It's a good feeling after so many years of flimsy Rookie of the Year contests.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: Wow, this is a tougher choice than Bill Polian faced back in 1998 when he was picking between Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning in the NFL draft. One thing is for certain: That's the last time either of these guys will ever be compared to Ryan Leaf. They both fall into the can't-miss category, but I'm going to take Chase Elliott. Not only is he already a race winner in the Nationwide Series at age 18, but I think he has the potential to be a long-term marketing asset for any race team or sponsor. Being the son of one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR history helps in that regard -- just ask Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: This is like picking a favorite kid! I love what both of these young men can do with a race car, and as far I'm concerned both have limitless futures. I base that on several variables: obvious talent, good teams and, most notably, composure. I marvel at the composure these kids have -- they're 18 but act 28. It's very impressive. I didn't have that maturity at 18, I'll tell you that. If I had to choose one, I'll take Larson, based on car control. It's been a long time since we saw a young driver waltz into the series and run in the top five so often -- and live up to the hype. His car control is super.
Should Jimmie Johnson be a little anxious right now?
Hinton: Yeah, a little anxious about us in the media -- that we'll start bugging him about whether his luck is off, what with two straight near misses and now an early mishap that ruined his day at Texas. But internally, I don't think he and the team are anxious. They know they'll win, probably multiple times, before September.
James: Not at all. At some point, this early-season weirdness must stop, and when it does, the six-time and defending series champion will be just fine. Bedeviled by tire problems twice in 2014 and a bizarre windshield impact on Sunday, Johnson is probably wondering what's next, however. Locusts? The fact that Johnson hasn't won yet shouldn't be troubling, either. He's lifted a trophy as late as the 13th race in a championship season (Dover, 2009) and has won a race -- period -- in each of his full-time seasons since 2002. Eventually, he'll be in the Chase as expected, with a win. The new Chase format is simply creating a musical chairs-like mania over finding a seat, with the music growing louder each week.
McGee: No. Better to trip through some issues early in the season and be in position to make a run in the closing rounds when it counts more. Ask the UConn men about that.
Oreovicz: Not really. Sure, a lot more emphasis is placed on winning this year, but even if NASCAR comes close to having 16 race winners by September, Johnson is going to be at or near the top of the non-winners. There's also a very strong probability that Johnson will win at least one pre-Chase race. Since 2002, the average of his first win of the season is Round 6, and he's never gone later than Round 12. Statistically speaking, he's slightly behind this year, but most of his troubles are explainable -- or fluky, such as what happened to him at Texas.
What's your take on the last caution at Texas? Necessary, unnecessary, too good to pass up, or none of the above?
Hinton: Necessary and too good to pass up. NASCAR saw the debris from Kurt Busch's car quicker than we did. There was a lot of it, at first down low on the track, but then stuff started scattering up into what some might have used as the racing area. Had NASCAR laid off the caution and then somebody gone down there and hit the stuff, we'd probably be questioning NASCAR the other way.
James: At least this one didn't get pinned on a flag man jostling the yellow light button. And at least Kurt Busch didn't get slammed for trying to torpedo what was moments away from being a banner Team Penske afternoon. Curious cautions are all part of the "show."
McGee: Listen, I'm happy we had the great finish. But I'm even more happy that Logano won the race after it looked like he might get jobbed. Nothing against Jeff Gordon, but we've seen NASCAR swallow the whistle for a couple of beats before. If they wanted to, they could have done it again with Logano bearing down on the white flag. The issue here isn't even really this particular caution. It's that NASCAR has handled these situations in the past in a way that is open to public doubting. For example, see Kyle Busch's radio comments the instant the yellow was shown.
Oreovicz: How about all of the above? From NASCAR's perspective, the timing of Kurt Busch's tire failure was too good to be true. It created a potentially exciting finish, rather than just seeing Joey Logano cruise to the checkers. You always hate to see a yellow thrown so close to the end of a race, but given the amount of debris being thrown off the Stewart-Haas Chevy, you'd have to say that the yellow was justified -- did you see the damage to the left rear quarter? It's good that Logano was able to prevail in overtime because had anyone else won, there would have justifiably been some griping.
Smith: At first I thought it was unnecessary, because Kurt Busch did a really good job of getting down to the apron and out of the groove. But then debris was sprayed all over the track. It was the right call. I'm very glad Joey Logano ultimately won. If he'd been denied that victory by that circumstance, it would have been a shame.
Turn 4: Seven different winners in seven races. Will it stretch to eight at Darlington? And who is your favorite to win?
Hinton: It should go to eight. The past two winners at Darlington, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, haven't won yet this season. Nor has my pick to win the race, Jeff Gordon, who has been running well enough lately for his old mastery of Darlington to re-emerge. He is first among active drivers and third all time with seven wins.
James: It will, and the universe will achieve chi or Zen, or whatever really runs things, as Jimmie Johnson wins for the second time in three years there. Collective lungs exhale, and the champion punches a proverbial playoff ticket. That said ... Darlington provides a prime early-season mayhem opportunity, with unexpected past winners -- read: Craven, Ricky, 2003; Smith, Regan, 2011 -- sparking garage-wide anxiety attack among the current non-Chase qualifiers. Why do I have this funny feeling about Marcos Ambrose?
McGee: Yes. I still think 16 winners will be a hard number to hit by mid-September, but they are going to be way closer than I originally predicted. There are still two restrictor-plate races and two road course races looming, and we have a pack of annual winners who still haven't visited Victory Lane yet. It's an all-star list of guys such as Johnson, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Brian Vickers, and my pick to win this weekend at Darlington, Jeff Gordon, who also happens to be the current points leader.
Oreovicz: I'm going to say yes, we're about to see Crazy Eights. All the changes to the Chase format are playing out as well as NASCAR could hope so far, and having as many race winners as possible is the ideal scenario. They're on a roll, so why should it stop now? I'll take Matt Kenseth as this week's winner.
Smith: Yes. Denny Hamlin wins.