Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

9/4/2014 - NASCAR

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

Turn 1: A year after the Richmond "itchy arm" situation in which Clint Bowyer intentionally spun to help his teammate, many fans think they are seeing team orders in play almost every week. Are they?

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: I don't think we're seeing it any more than we have throughout the multicar team era. There aren't team orders so much as team understandings. For example, back when points really mattered, let's say Jimmie Johnson was dominating a race and he let Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr. lead a lap to get the points then retook the lead. Team understanding. MWR at Richmond last year was an anomaly. Let's not let the NASCAR fans' mirage mentality go too far. You see certain managing, but you always have. There are no huge team conspiracies.

Brant James, ESPN.com: There may not necessarily be team orders, commands of action and reaction, but there has to be an understanding that, even in an individual sport, the collective thrives when all are doing well. Is a driver going to pull over for a teammate when a win is at risk? No. That's counter to a driver's programming and a bit obvious. But a lot of force can be exerted on the outcome of a race with how hard a passing car is made to work or how a car enters or exits a pit stall.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: No. The small stuff is certainly still there, but I think even that isn't as prevalent as it was. This is true story of that night. It's like Watergate. No matter how much distance we get between the present and that night, the distrust and bad taste it created won't ever really go away.

John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: Yes and no. There's a difference between team orders that are intended to alter the outcome of a race or the Chase and the kind of strategic teamwork that every multicar team in the field uses on a regular basis. Good teammates work together every week to put their teams in a position where the kind of blatant team orders that produced "spingate" are not necessary.

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: No. I think that's a ridiculous notion. I believe it has happened on occasion under specific circumstances, but it's not something teams employ weekly. Many folks felt like Kyle Busch dumped Martin Truex Jr. at Atlanta to assist Matt Kenseth. I don't believe that for a second.

Turn 2: Can Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -- 27th in the standings while both his teammates are in the Chase heading to Richmond -- already be labeled a disappointment in Sprint Cup?

Hinton: It's painful to say this about a fellow Mississippian, because we're so rare around NASCAR, but yes, the pride of Olive Branch has been disappointing to this point. He has caused too much trouble, including wrecks, on the track. Roush Fenway Racing itself is a disappointment right now, and maybe the team and Stenhouse will collect themselves. But Stenhouse's performances have mostly been lacking.

James: Too early. Winning two Nationwide titles is not necessarily a precursor of next-level success. Truex is the most recent example of that, and for all their accomplishments, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick haven't lifted a Cup championship trophy either. But more importantly, Stenhouse has proved throughout his career that his learning process is methodical. This is a driver that so aggravated team owner Jack Roush with his penchant for wrecks that early in his career he was removed from his ride briefly and dispatched to the fabrication shop. Give him more time.

McGee: Not yet, but we're close. The team as a whole is so off right now that it's hard to put all the blame on him. But if we're still asking this question one year from now, he won't be able to dodge the bust talk.

Oreovicz: I won't drop the disappointment hammer on Stenhouse just yet, because Roush Fenway Racing as a whole has performed at a disappointing level the past couple of years. But if Stenhouse is in a similar position in the standings a year from now, then the answer will definitely be yes.

Smith: No.

Turn 3: Five drivers have three wins this season. Give us your mini-power rankings, 1-5.

Hinton: 1. Joey Logano -- He might have been there at Atlanta and kept his momentum rolling if not for a late pit mistake that caused him to re-pit for fuel when he could have had the lead. 2. Jeff Gordon -- Still running strong despite his team losing the handle on the car at Bristol and scraping the wall with tire issues at Atlanta. He's still got the swagger, and his focus now is winning Chicagoland to get momentum in the Chase, not before it. 3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- We know now he can win any given race this year. He's capable of winning at Richmond, which could give him the top seed in the Chase. 4. Brad Keselowski -- His occasional crash-outs, whether his fault or not, are a concern. Once in the Chase, though, he should do fine on the 1.5-mile tracks that dominate the schedule. 5. Jimmie Johnson -- This team just seems sluggish to me. The 48 just hasn't been a factor lately. I know they sometimes go through pre-Chase slumps, but this one could last.

James: 1. Jimmie Johnson -- Gets the benefit of the doubt by a factor of six. 2. Jeff Gordon -- Riding toward that sunset with his foot on the gas? 3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- Seemingly always around top five. 4. Brad Keselowski -- Too many disaster finishes. 5. Joey Logano -- Ditto.

McGee: Spoiler alert! The full Power Rankings won't be up until Thursday, and I reserve the right to change my mind before then, but here's what I have as of Tuesday morning: Gordon, Logano, Keselowski, Earnhardt, Johnson.

Oreovicz: 1. Jeff Gordon -- Turning back the clock. 2. Joey Logano -- Competitive just about everywhere. 3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- Enjoying the best Cup season of his career. 4. Brad Keselowski -- Inconsistent but dangerous in a win-or-bust situation. 5. Jimmie Johnson -- Saving his best for when it really counts?

Smith: 1. Jeff Gordon. (1A. Kevin Harvick.) 2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 3. Brad Keselowski. 4. Joey Logano. 5. Jimmie Johnson.

Turn 4: Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer and Kyle Larson. Who makes the Chase and who doesn't?

Hinton: Newman and Biffle get in because their point cushions are just good enough, barring really bad nights at Richmond, to ward off jumps by Bowyer and Larson.

James: Newman and Biffle. Both should be able to grind their way around the Richmond bullring and consume laps. Holding something is easier than trying to take something away. Bowyer has won at Richmond twice, but pulling a Mayfield is no easy task. Larson seems most equipped to stun the field, but that's a lot for a rookie, even this rookie.

McGee: Newman and Bowyer, who edges Biffle because he wins the race. And chaos ensues.

Oreovicz: Newman and Biffle. Newman is a lock. Bowyer has a checkered record at Richmond and his making it in would certainly be an interesting storyline, but he and Larson are far enough back that a top-20 finish should be enough for The Biff.

Smith: Bowyer and Newman. Bowyer wins Richmond, and Newman makes it on points.