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Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

6/19/2014 - NASCAR

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

Turn 1: AJ Allmendinger went all the way to Sonoma to test. Is he or Marcos Ambrose -- or even someone else -- likely to "steal" a berth in the Chase in wine country?

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Oh, yes. Either one could. Ambrose is much likelier to do it, though, because of all his experience. He already has his late-race mistakes on road courses behind him. He knows what to do, but more importantly he knows what not to do. With Dinger, it's not as much a question of his ability as his crew's ability to guess right on a Sonoma pit strategy.

Brant James, ESPN.com: Ultimately, he'll probably end up frustrated. There are simply too many talented and accomplished all-around talents in Sprint Cup right now for any driver to nab one with the benefit of just one test. That said, Marcos Ambrose, a former winner at Watkins Glen, represents a major wild card when the series undertakes its last road course in August.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: As soon as this new Chase format was introduced I circled Daytona in July and the two road course races as the three pre-Richmond weekends when everything could go haywire. I think Dinger or Ambrose could absolutely win Sonoma. And I think the desperation of knowing this is their best shot will lead to serious rolling of the dice from the drivers and their crew chiefs, particularly in NorCal, where second-tier teams have seemed to be able to make more noise in the past. The trick will be to not let that desperation create a race-losing error, which we've also seen a lot of at this racetrack.

John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: If something crazy is going to happen, Sonoma is as likely a place as any for it to happen. It's not just a road course, it's a road course that seems to create drama, whether it's via fuel strategy or guys knocking each other off the track. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a road course specialist could dominate, but it almost never happens at Sonoma, and we've instead ended up over the years with truly unexpected winners such as Ricky Rudd, Martin Truex Jr. or Clint Bowyer.

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Likely? No. Possible, sure. Especially for Ambrose. He's a road course freak show, and his distinguishable talent at Sonoma and Watkins is a separating factor. He will be a factor -- especially at The Glen. It's very difficult to predict this weekend's event. Since 2007, when Juan Pablo Montoya won, here is the list of winners at Sonoma: Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson (Ambrose killed the engine heading uphill under caution or he likely wins that race), Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. Not exactly the bunch of road course aces you'd expect. The opportunity is obvious, however. After a weekend at Michigan in which one of the power drivers on the one of the power teams -- Brad Keselowski -- said Hendrick Motorsports/Stewart-Haas are a year ahead of everyone else on power, races such as Sonoma offer an opportunity much of the intermediate-track-laden schedule doesn't.

Turn 2: : Did Roush Fenway Racing hit rock bottom at Michigan International Speedway, a track it has often dominated?

Hinton: Well, I've thought Roush Fenway has been bottoming out for some time now. Whether this is rock bottom I don't know. I've seen race teams go from bad to worse to worst. I just don't see signs of this team surfacing back at the top any time soon.

James: Psychologically, Sunday must have been devastating. Jack Roush is an accomplished man and proud of his Michigan roots, and to be so completely humbled cannot be easy to take. It was yet another symptom of a team in flux and struggling to keep up. Such major improvements seem needed that there is the question of whether they can be instituted this season.

McGee: Rock. Bottom. I picked Greg Biffle to win because I thought, Hey, it's Michigan, he'll be a top-10 finish just by default. But instead, RFR failed to field a June Michigan contender really for the first time since 2000. On pit road before the race, I was talking to some of the 16 crew, and they knew they were a little off but were still confident because, as one said, "It's Michigan." But in the garage after the race, those same guys looked inconsolable. This lost summer is going to cost them a driver. At least one.

Oreovicz: Things could conceivably get worse, and they probably will if Roush Fenway's woes continue and the team loses one or more of its veteran drivers. Jack Roush has won 13 Cup series races at Michigan, but the RFR cars were nowhere this weekend, and the alarming thing is that nobody within the team appears to really know why. There's enough Roush-Yates/Ford horsepower on offer for Team Penske to contend for race wins nearly every weekend, so RFR's engineering team is clearly lagging in chassis and/or aero development. There's an unusual amount of loyalty between Roush and its drivers, but over the last year and a half, Matt Kenseth demonstrated to Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle that there is an afterlife if the right opportunity presents itself.

Smith: Roush is a mess. Great people. Smart people. Enjoyable people. There's not a nicer man in the garage than RFR president Steve Newmark. But competitively speaking, they're a mess. And again, everything I hear from the garage says Carl Edwards is leaving.

Turn 3: Pick a driver who'll stop the Hendrick Motorsports winning streak, and tell us why.

Hinton: The easiest answer of course would be Dinger or Ambrose at Sonoma. But the Hendrick boys can take care of themselves on a road course, too. So let's go past Sonoma and on to Kentucky and Daytona. How about Brad K? He's been right there two weeks running on ovals. Kentucky could be the place. Take this streak to Daytona, and Kevin Harvick edges Kes as the Hendrick stopper.

James: Clint Bowyer ... at Kentucky. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver was fourth at Dover, 11th at Pocono and 10th at Michigan, which doesn't have much to do with Kentucky except for the fact that the No. 15 Toyota seems more in the equation lately. Bowyer was third at Kentucky last season, so there is some history of success there, albeit with a different aero package. It just feels like time for Bowyer.

McGee: Kenseth or Keselowski at Kentucky. I'm leaning toward Kenseth because he is due, has never finished outside the top seven there and is the defending race champion. I think Jeff Gordon is going to win Sonoma to run the HMS streak to six.

Oreovicz: I'll take Brad Keselowski in a Team Penske Ford. The deeper we get into the season, the more apparent it has become that the key to speed this year is managing the new ride height rule. Penske, perhaps because of its experience in other forms of motorsport, seemed to get a good handle on the new package very early and hasn't lost its advantage. At a bumpy track such as Kentucky, shock and spring tuning is vital, and Penske seems to have the edge in that department right now.

Smith: That sort of depends on the definition of "Hendrick." Jamie McMurray is my Sonoma pick. But he runs a Hendrick engine. Does that count? Maybe I should think about Kentucky. Or Daytona.

Turn 4: With 69 victories in the Sprint Cup Series, where will Jimmie Johnson top out in terms of wins: 80, 90, 100?

Hinton: Ouch, ouch, wince, wince. You're talking to a guy who in the '90s let his mouth overload his you know what -- saying young Jeff Gordon could conceivably make a run at Richard Petty's 200 wins. But oh, what the heck. Here we go again. I'll say JJ tops 100 and challenges David Pearson for No. 2 all time.

James: 104: He's approaching 39 years old, but still very much in his prime and with a power team. He could crank out 5-ish wins a season for another decade if he wished, milk it even further if he chose. But I don't think he will choose to go that far. Maybe it's a product of his wild success or his obvious joy as a family man, but Johnson seems to possess the fortitude to walk away when it feels right. It might feel really right after 10 championships, and he might squeeze that in by age 45.

McGee: I'll say 90. I'm reluctant to go 100 because I'm old enough to remember when we all thought it was a foregone conclusion that Jeff Gordon was going to blow past 100 and now he's crawling toward triple digits while everyone is asking him about retirement. And I don't know whether Johnson is a guy who will want to race into his mid-to-late 40s, which is what it'll likely take. But I will say this, when we were doing our Victory Lane interview Sunday afternoon and I mentioned that only seven men had ever won 70 races and he was sitting at 69, his eyes lit up.

Oreovicz: Does the limit have to be 100? From these choices, it has to be the top number. Johnson has averaged 5.5 wins per season since the start of his career, and he has won fewer than five races only twice in the past decade. It's impossible to predict whether JJ will compete into his 50s like many NASCAR drivers, but, even if he only runs to age 45, he's still going to crack the century mark if he keeps winning at his current pace. Then the debate can begin about how those 100 modern era victories stack up against Richard Petty's 200 wins in NASCAR's developmental years.

Smith: The number of championships he wins in the coming years might determine the longevity of his full-time stay in the Sprint Cup Series. I think Johnson will race full time until he's about 45 years old. Maybe even 50. Three wins per season is doable. That would get him close to 100. If he races to 50 years old, 110 victories is attainable. Every driver falls off at some point, it seems. But Johnson's not every driver. He'll turn 39 years old in September and only seems to get stronger every year. That's nauseating to his competitors and their fans. In a sport in which competitiveness among teams ebbs and flows (Example: The 2 team wins the championship one year, misses the Chase the next), the 48 bunch is as steady as the sun. Johnson continually re-creates and redefines himself, fueled by the fear of complacency. Chad Knaus is terrified by the prospect of mediocrity. It is among the sport's most remarkable unions ever.