Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

Originally Published: April 15, 2014
ESPN.com

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

Turn 1: Which driver and team most need this week off?

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus need to take a breath after four straight weeks of dire disappointment. They almost sneaked in a win at Darlington on Saturday night before green-white-checkered gave the race back to dominant Kevin Harvick; a superb 48 car was damaged early at Texas the week before; another superb car got too loose late at Martinsville; another dominated at Fontana before a shredded tire with seven laps left. And Johnson's family isn't done with the grieving process yet after the loss of his brother-in-law in a sky-diving accident two weeks ago. Johnson said at Darlington that the grieving is likely to keep his family at home this weekend.

Jimmie Johnson
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson

Brant James, ESPN.com: Jimmie Johnson. Granted, it's not as if the defending series champion has performed miserably this season. He was gliding to victory at Fontana before being stricken with a blown tire. And he couldn't have expected that chunk of sod and the No. 88 Chevrolet to collide with his windshield at Texas. But even with three top-5s and five top-10s in the first eight races, Johnson admits his team is chasing whatever Kevin Harvick's Stewart-Haas Racing program has developed in terms of speed. It's logical to assume that crew chief Chad Knaus will be busy in the laboratory this idle week concocting a solution to Johnson's winless problem.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: If I was Kasey Kahne I'd spend spring break snooping through my teammates' offices looking for notes to copy.

John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: Does the Air Titan crew count as a driver/team combination? Ha-ha. Instead, I look down to 23rd place in the standings and see that Kasey Kahne and the 5 team are not performing at the same level as Hendrick Motorsports' three other Cup teams. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the only Hendrick driver with a race win, but Jeff Gordon leads the points and Jimmie Johnson is cruising along in the top five. Kahne's career has been filled with peaks and valleys and right now he's in need of a timely upswing. Perhaps the Easter break will help.

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Kasey Kahne. In a season when three of the four Hendrick Motorsports teams are in contention to win almost weekly, and the fourth averages a 21st-place finish, the fourth needs to look in the mirror and search some souls. it's very perplexing to me why the 5 team is struggling so badly. Great driver. One of the longest standing driver-crew chief unions in the sport. So what gives? The only answer I can conjure is the departure of lead engineer Keith Rodden. Rodden is very smart, and left the 5 team and Hendrick Motorsports to crew chief Jamie McMurray's No. 1 car -- one of the faster cars so far this year.

Turn 2: Will Gene Haas' attempt to launch a Formula One team for the 2015 season be a distraction for Stewart-Haas Racing?

Hinton: Kevin Harvick stopped himself from commenting on it after saying "when you look at the things it takes" to start and run an F1 team. You could read that as wariness. But to get some idea, look back to when the Ford teams of NASCAR found out how much Ford Motor Co. was spending on the F1 efforts of Jackie Stewart and then Jaguar. They were not happy. Envy and frustration are almost foregone conclusions here. Science already tells us clearly that multitasking is not a good idea, so multitasking and multi-funding can't be good together.

Kurt Busch
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesKurt Busch

James: That's a real concern for a team already so in flux. Massive capital expenditures on the Sprint Cup side. The jump from three to four full-time teams. And all those continuity errors -- but in fairness, two wins by Kevin Harvick and one by Kurt Busch -- in the first eight races. Haas, lauded for his verve for the sport and desire to be involved in myriad aspects of it, would seemingly be at capacity already. But he exudes the breezy confidence of a man with gobs of money and a business churning out stacks of it. Even with Haas Formula, as his team will be dubbed, to cost "billions and billions." Haas, delving into this venture as a way to brand his machine tool business worldwide, said he is unsure whether the whole thing will be a distraction, but noted several ways in which the Cup side could benefit. Either way, Haas Formula is a vehicle to brand Haas Automation globally. In fact, he said, it could double his sales. It's good to have a plan. And cash. Lots of cash.

McGee: The key word here is "attempt." I don't want to be Debbie Downer, but I have sat through so many news conferences announcing new teams and tracks I have a "wake me up when it actually happens" attitude about these deals. Especially when it comes to Formula One.

Oreovicz: I doubt it. If anything, Tony Stewart is probably hoping his proactive team partner will be off auditioning F1 drivers instead of unexpectedly adding drivers to the SHR Cup team. With the exception of bringing Kurt Busch on board last summer, Haas is a relatively hands-off team owner, and he has his main Haas Automation business to run as well, so I don't expect his presence will be missed at SHR on a day-to-day basis.

Smith: No. They're on the same campus, but I don't expect the personnel teams to work especially closely with one another. Here's what Haas had to say Monday about it: "I look at it as Stewart Haas Racing having a racing campus. One side of it we're going to have the NASCAR teams. On the other side of it we'll have the Formula One teams. I think it works beautifully. We already had the land. We're going to have the buildings right next to each other. There are a lot of similarities between both forms of racing. Like I say, both teams will use wind tunnels. Both teams use a lot of CFD computers. Both teams will need a seven-post rig, which we actually have at Stewart-Haas Racing. So I think there are a lot of similarities there.

"Probably one of the biggest things that we can take from Formula One is what we learn in aero. Formula One teams are much more into aero packages, especially when it comes down to things you'd never think about like brake ducting and radiator intakes, and how the air comes out of the back of the wing and so on and so forth. These are things the NASCAR teams are just starting to touch on now that the bodies have been very much regulated in terms of how the aero goes over them. But a Formula One car produces somewhere around 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of downforce, a Cup car maybe a fourth of that or so. So there is a lot to learn in terms of aero packages. So I'm hoping knowledge from one side can transfer over to the other.

"On the other hand I think that building cars in NASCAR is a lot simpler than Formula One. We have inventory management systems over at Stewart Haas Racing that allow us to time out parts. I mean, there are literally thousands and thousands of parts that go into a NASCAR car. And all of those synergies, you know, you can't use the same transmission forever. You can't use the same bolts forever. That's why you'll see on the track sometimes teams in the back, things break. Well, why did they break? Did anybody keep track of how many times you used that part? You have to have systems in place to keep track of that. We have those at Stewart-Haas Racing. So I think a lot of those programs will help. So I think there are a lot of positive synergies between the two things. Will it detract from one side to the other? I don't know. I wouldn't say detract. I think it will enhance because we're doing something different.

"We have a lot of team members that work on the NASCAR side that have an interest in how does Formula One work. They haven't even seen a Formula One car. So I think this will spark an interest. Yeah, look at that. Look how they do things. There's got to be something here I can learn. We have a lot of really smart people at Stewart-Haas Racing that are constantly looking for new ways to beat our competitors. I can't think of anything in Formula One that would detract from that. I think we're going to have a racing campus there with NASCAR teams and Formula One teams. When it all comes down to it, we're just racing. That is the common denominator. So I don't think it will be a detraction. I think it will actually help both sides."

Obviously he's thought about this.

Turn 3: Who's more likely to be winless four months from now -- Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth or Jeff Gordon?

Hinton: I don't expect any of them to be in trouble. But if it's any of the three, maybe Gordon. The close-but-not-quite syndrome is becoming more and more chronic with him. It's been that way for several seasons, and it continues now. It's gotten to the point that, even when he's running well midrace, you just doubt he'll close the deal. I think he'll close one before September, but he's the least likely of the three to do so.

Jeff Gordon
Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesJeff Gordon

James: Jeff Gordon: Harsh, because Gordon has been in the mix early this season, continuing the momentum of a strong Chase run from last season. The four-time champion led late at Fontana until he became one of scores bedeviled by tire problems, and he finished second two weeks ago at Texas. Joe Gibbs Racing is lacking something from its booming start to 2013, but Kenseth, Kyle Busch -- who won at Fontana -- and Denny Hamlin don't seem completely devoid of hope. Johnson will win soon. Kenseth won seven times last season, Johnson six, Gordon one. The numbers don't favor Gordon.

McGee: Gordon. I've said this before and I think it is still true. This is starting to feel like a typical Gordon season of late. Flirt with winning plenty, but have to sweat out finally closing the deal as autumn arrives. The other guys haven't had that problem.

Oreovicz: From that group, almost certainly Gordon. He's won only seven races over the past six years, and he has sometimes struggled to make the Chase under the old format(s). Kenseth is the same age as Gordon, but I suspect he'll have more wins moving forward. Johnson is Johnson; no need to worry about him.

Smith: D. None of the above. I guess if I had to pick one I'd pick Kenseth. The 20 team is slightly off speed-wise early this season. But that's going to change. They're too good -- and it's way too early -- to be concerned

Turn 4: Will Chase Elliott win the Nationwide Series title as a true rookie over veterans such as Regan Smith, Elliott Sadler and Trevor Bayne?

Hinton: CAN he win it? Oh, yes. WILL he win it? Probably. With Chase, you simply throw out notions such as inexperience or rookie jitters. They just don't apply here. He is totally cool, totally unflappable, and he adapts almost immediately to every track. Look back to before his two straight wins, back to Fontana, for a prime example of how he makes the most of every situation. He got wrecked early in California, then managed to finish sixth anyway. That's championship performance, regardless of age or experience.

Chase Elliott
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesChase Elliott

James: He will not. And it might be the best thing for him. Elliott is in a glorious position: 18, talented, a winner, one step from Sprint Cup, a former series champion as a father, NASCAR's most popular driver as a boss, Hendrick equipment in his garage and a sponsor with a history of long commitments to drivers and the series. What he lacks is experience and some battle scars. His JR Motorsports teammate, Regan Smith, has those aplenty, and after letting the title get away last year he'll finish it off this season.

McGee: I think there's still going to be a rookie slump at some point. History says that's pretty much inevitable. But history also says that if you win early, particularly in these early-season events that are packed with Cup regulars, then that slump won't hurt so bad. He's doing the best thing he possibly can, putting pressure on those other guys to win races. Even the vets can't help but feel that.

Oreovicz: There's a reason those guys don't have regular Cup rides, and Elliott has already beaten them twice this year, so I'd say the answer is yes. There's no reason he can't be the equivalent of a one-and-done college basketball player. The Nationwide Series is really unlucky in the sense that Kyle Larson barely stopped for a cup of coffee on his way to the Sprint Cup Series, and it's likely to be the same for Elliott.

Smith: It certainly looks that way. Chase Elliott is much better than I thought he'd be. I probably had an unfair perspective, which was based on his equipment and financial backing. As I said last week in this forum, his composure is very impressive. I was an idiot at 18. Elliott acts like he's 28 and has won 40 races. His talent is the biggest surprise to me. I don't think anyone -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick included -- expected this level of car control and understanding of adjustments this early from Elliott. First time at Darlington? Victory Lane? Come on, man. One other quick note: One of Elliott's greatest benefits is his crew chief, Greg Ives. The question is, can Elliott keep him? Ives was Jimmie Johnson's lead engineer for years. He's a gem.

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