Debate: NASCAR's burning questions
Jeff Gordon Sunday Conversation
Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: Is Roush Fenway Racing going to be a top-tier team with Greg Biffle, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne as the driver lineup?
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Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: No. Two years ago Biffle was the No. 3 driver. Now he's No. 1, and still slumping. Carl Edwards is the only winner for the team this year, and he's on his way out. Neither Stenhouse nor Bayne is really, really ready for Cup, Bayne's Daytona 500 win notwithstanding. Roush Fenway is supposed to be Ford's flagship team, but Team Penske has seized that position. With Richard Petty Motorsports coming on, Roush Fenway might not even be the No. 2 Ford team by the end of next season.
Brant James, ESPN.com: Not immediately. And with so many questions regarding the performance of the one-time juggernaut, maybe not for the foreseeable future. Stenhouse and Bayne obviously are talented drivers. After a wreck-filled beginning to his Nationwide career -- at one point being removed briefly from his ride and ordered to dismantle his wreckage in the fab shop -- Stenhouse developed into a two-time series champion. Although the transition to the much different Sprint Cup car has been a struggle, perhaps he will fulfill the promise team owner Jack Roush professes. Bayne's career has been star-crossed for sure, with the triumph of a historic Daytona 500 win followed by hard lessons about sponsor economics and a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. He is even more of an unproven commodity. Biffle is a workaday performer and should provide leadership, but at 44 and no longer a championship threat, he's no replacement for a Carl Edwards or Matt Kenseth, who are fifth and sixth, respectively, in series wins (23 and 22) since Edwards became a full-time driver in 2005.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: "Going to be" is the key phrase. This lineup feels like a big league baseball club fielding what it has now while it figures out the future. Think of Biffle as Roger Dorn. What saves all is if Stenhouse and Bayne start showing serious strides toward fulfilling their potential. So far, that's not happening.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: Not in the eyes of this observer. Biffle is a solid No. 2 driver, usually good for a couple of wins a year but unlikely to string together a consistent enough season to contend for the championship. Maybe being elevated to team leader will unlock that potential, but, at age 44, it's pretty late in the game to expect it to happen. Stenhouse and Bayne have time on their side; they just haven't shown anything at the Cup level that would indicate either of them is going to turn into a regular race winner. Jack Roush takes pride in his driver development program, but it's the next generation that's going to turn around his slumping team, not the current one.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: It won't be easy. I've said before, Roush Fenway is a mess, but its people are committed. It's not impossible. Racing is so fickle. The fortunes of an entire company can turn in one test. They're very fortunate to keep Fastenal as a sponsor. But they're shoving an anvil up a mountain right now.
Turn 2: Twenty years in, the Brickyard 400 has gone from a 250,000-strong sellout to the most graphic example of NASCAR's attendance decline. What can be done to revive the event?
Hinton: Nothing that I can imagine. The thrill is gone, the novelty has worn off, and fans see it for what it is: a poor pairing of big, heavy stock cars on a flat, narrow, rectangular track. And don't start about running the road course there, which would be even worse. The Formula One drivers thought the road course was silly. Besides, run stock cars on it, and people would be able to see even less of the action than they do now. The decline in attendance will continue.
James: Take the series to 25 runnings at the Brickyard and then shut it down. Create a nostalgia, rekindle a demand for tickets when or if it returns. Make it special again. And show promoters how few sacred events there are. Drivers will howl, especially the ones without a win there. Those with victories at Indy might come to appreciate their accomplishment more. There are myriad reasons why this won't happen. It doesn't mean that it shouldn't.
McGee: I honestly don't have a solution here, and, if they're honest, neither does anyone else. I'm not one to do a lot of weekly fretting over attendance woes, but the Brickyard situation has always really bothered me. It has never recovered from the 2008 tire mess, which was really just a sequel to the F1 tire mess a few years earlier. They lost the people of Indy then, and everyone else followed. They won't leave Indy anytime soon because it still means something to the competitors, and NASCAR brass doesn't like to admit retreat on anything. But if this were any other racetrack, it would've already been put on notice.
Oreovicz: Nothing that I can think of. Stock cars would put on a more entertaining race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, but that ain't ever gonna happen. My best suggestion is to move the BY400 into the Chase, which would give the race greater urgency for the competitors, space it away from the other major events on IMS' growing calendar and serve up spectators the best weather Indiana has to offer. Even with the speedway only a quarter full for the Brickyard, the event is still profitable for IMS, but the sight of all those empty grandstands must be jarringly uncomfortable for track management and NASCAR. Just like almost everything else that resulted from the era when Tony George ran the IMS empire, the Brickyard 400 is a tarnished entity that could prove impossible to fix.
Smith: I've given this great consideration. When cars are virtually incapable of passing one another on a track that already promotes straight-line racing, I think the only real answer is changing the car. Chop down the spoiler some, and soften up the tires so they fall off. Yes, it is drastic, but it would make the racing look different. This is the top level of motorsport in America. It's not supposed to be easy.
Turn 3: We have 11 winners and 16 Chase spots, leaving five up for grabs for now. Name two drivers you think will win for the first time this season in the next six races.
Hinton: I still can't give up on Matt Kenseth, who is terribly overdue. That team is just too good not to get it together soon. And Clint Bowyer keeps showing up in the mix at the front, so I figure he'll close a deal somewhere. Those are my two if you hold me to two, but let me tack on Kyle Larson and Tony Stewart as possibilities this summer, too. Somewhere, Smoke gets his usual slick-track summer win.
James: Matt Kenseth -- It's inevitable, right? He's won twice at Michigan and three times at Bristol and led a race-high 165 laps there this spring before two collisions and a resultant ill-handling car dropped him to 13th. Tony Stewart -- The three-time series champion will likely need a win if he is to fulfill his preseason mandate of he and teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch qualifying for the Chase. He has won nearly half his 48 career races in the summer, and summer is running out. He's overdue.
McGee: My gut says Kenseth and Kasey Kahne. But I also can't seem to shake this little voice on my shoulder that's saying Clint Bowyer will win Richmond. That'd be something, wouldn't it?
Oreovicz: Matt Kenseth and Marcos Ambrose. Kenseth is there or thereabouts just about everywhere, so eventually a win will fall his way. Ambrose could be headed back home to Australia at season's end, so I reckon he'll put his all into Watkins Glen to make the Chase so he can leave America on a high note.
Smith: Matt Kenseth and Marcos Ambrose.
Turn 4: Jeff Gordon's victory in the Brickyard was clearly special to him. What about it seems special to you?
Hinton: He drove the race like a hungry kid, and he celebrated like a hungry kid. That's clear evidence to me that the guy still wants to be there, still has the enthusiasm and hasn't got retirement on his mind for the near future.
James: How much it still mattered to Gordon. He has been coy, even playful about retirement and the drive for a fifth title. Maybe he would leave after winning another. Maybe he wouldn't. But he certainly seems like a man enjoying the ride, be it possibly his last or simply his best in a long time. Genuine wonderment is a marvel in professional sports, and Gordon exudes it.
McGee: In the piece I wrote last week, he talked about embracing nostalgia while still being a contender, his racing reinvention, particularly on restarts, and the pure joy of celebrating victories now that his kids are old enough to enjoy them, too. When he told me those things, I could tell he genuinely meant them. To see all that come to life at Indy was pretty special.
Oreovicz: Gordon's inaugural Brickyard triumph and his fifth, on the 20th anniversary of the first, both share an element of "too good to be true." But I thought this one was far more poignant. That 1994 win was feted by a sold-out IMS as a "local boy done good" story. But the roar of approval from the crowd seemed a lot bigger this year despite a much smaller audience in the stands. That's what made this one more special to me: It was the celebration of one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history taking one more victory lap for the hometown fans who adopted him.
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Smith: His family. That's the one real question I'd hoped to get answered in the Sunday Conversation for "SportsCenter." I said to Gordon, you've won everything there is to win in this sport -- three Daytona 500s, five Southern 500s on Labor Day, three Coca-Cola 600s, 90 career wins and four championships. Think about that. That is insanity. But this is the first time he's won a "major" as a father. I wondered what it was like for him to kiss the bricks with those two sweet children of his. He said simply, "This is the biggest win of my life." Why? Because it's Indianapolis. Because it's No. 5. And because of Ingrid, Ella and Leo. Congratulations to all. It was really cool to see.
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