Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

Originally Published: July 1, 2014
ESPN.com

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

Turn 1: With fewer than 10 races to the cutoff we're getting repeat winners with regularity. If you're a winless driver, is that applying more pressure to win or alleviating it as it becomes more apparent this will come down to points?

Kasey Kahne
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesKasey Kahne

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Both. The heat to win and lock in is greater than ever on the winless ones. But there is some hope for guys such as Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth that they could slip in on points alone. But believe me, everybody would rather win than wait and see.

Brant James, ESPN.com: The pressure decreases each week if you're a decent points racer, especially if you have a few hopeful venues left before Richmond. You live in fear of a wild-card driver snatching a win, with Watkins Glen keeping you up at night. Trouble is, will you suddenly begin winning and become a true title contender in the Chase if you point your way in? Just nice to be included, perhaps.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: People are trying to convince me that more repeat winners takes pressure off winless teams, but I'm not buying it. Repeat winners means guys like Kenseth and Kyle Larson who are in decent shape points-wise will eliminate more borderline guys. And you're telling me that a team would rather be in a bunkhouse stampede at Richmond than have a win and already be in? Not a chance. 

John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: I think it increases the pressure to win, and win now. Since it appears less and less likely that we will reach 16 winners, one win should be enough to get a driver into the Chase -- provided that they remain in the top 30 in the point standings. Being aggressive and going for that win offers a better chance of making the Chase field than trying to collect points and hoping things shake out in your favor in the shuffle for the field of 16 come Richmond time.

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Applying it, but only to a small degree. I believe wholeheartedly that the pressure to make the Chase is very real and very tangible. I believe that right now, drivers like Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne feel some of that. Maybe it's not Chase pressure, per se. Maybe it's speed pressure. They both make speed at times, but not all the time. Both are plenty capable of flipping the switch. But will they? That's the fissure that enables the pressure to creep in, right there: "Will I?" Kenseth has a very real opportunity to qualify on points. But he doesn't want to. He wants a trophy-pass. Anytime I discuss this with drivers or team members I'm told we make too much of it all. They're out there running as hard as they can run every day, whether it's for first or 31st. Every Sunday, there are Cup drivers racing their guys out for 31st. But certain guys are supposed to be there. If you don't believe there is pressure just listen to contenders' radios when we arrive in Richmond -- or go talk to Brad Keselowski about how he felt at Richmond last fall. I'll never get over 2011. At this time three years ago, Tony Stewart didn't have a chance. Then, well, he did. 

Turn 2: Everyone is talking about Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson, but is Brad Keselowski another prime candidate for the Homestead Final Four?

Hinton: Yes, because he's at his best on intermediate tracks, which dominate the Chase schedule. He failed to flinch in 2012, and he and crew chief Paul Wolfe pretty much stared down Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus as they came to the wire. Why not again? Johnson and Knaus remember that stare down, too, which could make them blink again. Say what you want about the new Chase format, but this is already shaping up as the most edge-of-the-seat 10 weeks in the history of these playoffs.

Brad Keselowski
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesBrad Keselowski

James: Yes. Team Penske has been extremely impressive this season, especially in the face of the Hendrick Motorsports armada, and Keselowski is a recent enough champion to still remember and crave the feeling. Skill, swagger and engineering. Very potent.

McGee: No doubt about it. I remember going to Kentucky one year ago and doing a "SportsCenter" report about it being the defending champ's big chance to make a statement via a win. He didn't and the team looked crushed from then on. Saturday night he finally made that statement. Actually it was a period on a statement he's made all summer. Big time.

Oreovicz: Yes. In a little more than a year, Team Penske has become Ford's strongest team, and Keselowski and Joey Logano have been fast just about everywhere. Brad knows that to be considered one of the best drivers of his era, he needs to put more than one championship on the board, and he and the No. 2 team perform well under pressure -- an important trait when the Chase breaks down into the trio of three-race mini-championships that will set up the winner-takes-all finale at Homestead.

Smith: Absolutely. You can see the confidence all over Keselowski's body language. That wasn't there in 2013. 2013 humbled that team. Saturday was a whoopin', a two-punch backyard brawl at the company picnic.

Turn 3: Given Stewart-Haas Racing's inconsistency, will Tony Stewart have to win to make the Chase?

Hinton: Oh, yeah. He's too far down in points already. He'll have to win, but you have to think he will. We're getting into his time of year. He gets hot during hot weather because he's comfortable on the slippery tracks where others aren't. He has been here, done that, and he will again.

Tony Stewart
Jerry Markland/Getty ImagesTony Stewart

James: Yes. Because taking into account the maddening problems and inconsistencies that have bedeviled the team this season, a win will be needed as a hedge against points-sapping misfortune.

McGee: I really think so. It goes back to my Turn 1 answer. If the guys ahead of him, especially fellow winless teams, stay more consistent, then that's all he's got. It's the difference between Stewart and Harvick. Both are all over the place consistency-wise, but Happy has the wins. Smoke doesn't.

Oreovicz: For sure. Stewart-Haas is displaying all the hallmarks of a team trying to grow too quickly, and inconsistent performance is almost certainly a product of that rapid expansion. Stewart is hovering around that key 16th-place cutoff spot for the Chase, but the way he and all of his teammates not named Kevin Harvick have struggled at many venues, it seems more likely to me that Smoke will put together one great race for a win rather than the series of top-5s or top-10s he would need to make the Chase on points.

Smith: No. That ol' grizzly bear is waking up from hibernation. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is confidence. It's growing. 

Turn 4: Does Kentucky Speedway need to be repaved or changed in any way, or is it a refreshing (but bumpy) alternative to cookie-cutter intermediate ovals?

Hinton: Must say that was as bumpy as I've ever seen a paved track. Reminiscent of sprint cars on the dirt at Terre Haute, Indiana, back in the day. Drivers should have been wearing motocross racers' kidney belts. But owner Bruton Smith is unlikely to repave it for two reasons. First, he'll bask in the controversy of Kentucky as it sits, figuring he'll sell more tickets. Second, he knows full well how he ruined storied Bristol, at least in the eyes of fans, by repaving and widening it several years ago.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Kentucky Speedway
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsKentucky Speedway

James: Assuming everyone won't just agree the track project was a well-intentioned but poorly executed idea from the start and move the race elsewhere, you might as well let it evolve into something unique. If there is to be a Kentucky Speedway, let it be with warts, make that bumps, and all.

McGee: There are a lot of things that Kentucky needs to spend money on. The surface is about 10th on the list.

Oreovicz: Leave it alone. One of my least favorite aspects of NASCAR is the non-stop monotony of similar oval tracks. Kentucky may measure 1.5 miles like several other intermediate ovals, but it's unique with its low banking and bumpy surface. What Kentucky has that many other similar ovals lack is character. Besides, these guys need to have their teeth rattled every now and then.

Smith: That depends on whether you thought the racing was entertaining. I figure 30-plus drivers not named Keselowski will tell you a repave -- at least on the frontstretch -- is welcome.  According to the GM, don't count Kevin Harvick among them. Kentucky GM Mark Simendinger reportedly said Harvick told him he wanted nothing to do with a repave. Dale Earnhardt Jr., though, called the bumps brutal and miserable. It's Sprint Cup. It's supposed to be hard. But not at the expense of the event.

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