With the NASCAR season ready to roll, it's time to tackle some of the biggest questions fans have, including Danica Patrick, Chad Knaus, restrictor-plate racing in 2012 and who will win the Daytona 500.
1. What are realistic expectations for Danica Patrick in her first full season in NASCAR as a Nationwide Series driver and as a part-time Sprint Cup Series driver?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: Top-10 in the Nationwide standings is mandatory for Danica this season, which really isn't saying much. Only 15 drivers competed in every Nationwide race last year, and three of those didn't have a top-10 finish. If she doesn't win, she needs to come close to winning a couple of times. As for Cup, school is in session, and these teachers are mean. She will struggle at some tracks (especially Darlington), but she could finish well at a couple of other high-speed ovals and some plate races.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: A Nationwide win is almost mandatory for her, and that will depend on when and whether she stops tiptoeing and starts mixing it up. She should be that way by summer, just in time for a win of the first Nationwide race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. No wins in sight at the Cup level, but increasing aggressiveness could get her running near the front on brief occasions and a top-10 finish here or there.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I think the goal this year is the same as the past two seasons: to show signs of progress. If you compare her performance in 2010 versus 2011, she was light-years better in '11. She'll struggle early, and I don't think we can fairly judge her until we get through May. That double-duty weekend at Darlington is going to be the big test. If her psyche can survive that, especially when she'll be in the midst of Indy 500 homesickness, then we'll know she can handle just about anything. But by season's end she should be solidly inside the top 10 in Nationwide points, flirting with the top five, with one win. I don't honestly expect much in the Cup car. It's too early.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Anything shy of top six in points in the Nationwide Series will be a disappointment. Patrick finished 26th a year ago and ran only 12 events. She improved her average finish from 28.0 in 2010 to 17.4. If she can improve that three more spots, which she should with some of the best equipment in the series, she's almost a shoo-in for the top 10. The Cup series is another animal. She'll be running against the best of the best at many tracks she's seeing for the first time. This will be about learning and survival. Outside of Daytona and Talladega, anything in the top 30 will be an accomplishment.
Marty Smith, ESPN NASCAR insider: Improve each week. That is her hope and expectation. It needs to be ours, as well. Danica is a better race car driver right now than I expected she'd be in three years. She is more talented than I realized. She's probably experienced that her entire life. Her feedback continues to develop, and her aggression suits stock cars well. Plus, she has elite infrastructure at her disposal. Tony Stewart and Rick Hendrick care very much about her success. That is critical for any driver. Can she win in 2012? Absolutely. Do I expect her to win in 2012? No.
2. Crew chief Chad Knaus is awaiting his fate after NASCAR inspectors caught the No. 48 Chevy team with another infraction, this time on a car that passed inspection last year. What should his penalty be?
Blount: The conspiracy theorists around the garage have run wild on this one. They say NASCAR deliberately is sticking it to Knaus because he elected to skip the January test at Daytona and left instructions for Jimmie Johnson not to take part in drafting practice. I don't believe any of that, of course, but it shows just how much Knaus' "cheating" reputation fuels the rumor mill. The bottom line is NASCAR says the body of the car was outside the tolerances, a huge no-no in the Cup car era. People who believe that Knaus cheats (personally, I think the man is a genius) will howl to high heaven if he escapes without a suspension.
Hinton: Guilty or innocent, at least a one-race suspension of Knaus would be a windfall for the 48 team. Look at 2006, when Knaus was sent home from Daytona and car chief Darian Grubb took command of the pit box. It led to Jimmie Johnson's only Daytona 500 win to this point. I've always thought NASCAR picked on Knaus more than most because it's intimidated by his brilliance. But if it keeps this up, all it's going to do is make him mad enough to get back to winning championships.
McGee: I think it will be similar to what we've seen lately. I'll say $50,000 and probation is fair. I would be very surprised if the 48 team loses points because it was a pre-qualifying inspection. And I don't expect a suspension. If there is one, it shouldn't be more than a week. If this had been a no-name guy (or Steve Letarte), fans wouldn't be so outraged. Because it's the 48, everyone's screaming "Off with their heads!"
Newton: For NASCAR to maintain its consistency -- and maybe integrity -- a four-race suspension is mandatory. Team owner Rick Hendrick will argue that the governing body is picking on Knaus, saying the car passed inspection 16 times, that the only change was the paint job, that officials pegged it was illegal without putting it through inspection at Daytona. NASCAR doesn't like being made the fool, so the penalty has to be consistent with similar violations considered to be major. I'm not suggesting Knaus is guilty, but he has been penalized nine other times during his career, and this is the same car he told his driver to damage the rear end of if he won Talladega in October.
Smith: A monetary fine at most. Jack Roush, of all people, told me he's not sure Knaus even knew about the infraction, that C-post shenanigans usually live on someone else's watch in the organization. And if Roush -- who loves getting shots in at rival car-maker competitors -- believes that about a Chevy guy, so do I. Hendrick says the pieces in question have been run several times before -- including this past April at Talladega, when the car won. So I can't help figure this is about Knaus' history of pushing the envelope and nothing more. NASCAR president Mike Helton said as much when he noted, "You do kind of scratch your head on a name that reoccurs."
3. How much of a difference in the racing will this new rules package make in the Daytona 500?
Blount: Huge. Fans will love it for the most part. It isn't just a return to pack racing, but it's also a new form of packing (a hybrid, as Paul Menard calls it) with more danger and more chances of making a mistake. Drivers still will try to pair up with someone at the end, and utter chaos will ensue. And I'll be shocked if we don't see some engines go up in smoke.
Hinton: This could be a melee of unintended consequences: the worst of both tandem racing (overheating engines) and pack drafting (multicar pileups). When you have drivers trying to switch places to avoid overheating and doing that in the middle of big packs, this could be a mess -- especially with drivers glancing constantly at their gauges, fearful of 250-degree water and 300-degree oil temperatures. If the long lines preclude switching, there could be an epidemic of blown engines the likes of which we haven't seen at Daytona in 25 or 30 years.
McGee: Ginormous. Talking to teams, they still say it will be a two-car combo that wins it on the last lap, and we certainly saw that in the Budweiser Shootout and the Duel 150s. If the first 150 had finished under green, Tony Stewart was going to be swallowed up by a two-car push, and in the second race it was a two-car draft that got Greg Biffle to the front and a two-car draft that took it away. But the majority of the race should be more like the middle portions of the Duels, long lines biding their time. Don't be surprised if people start missing the tandem racing when we haven't had a lead change in 10 minutes. Last year, 10 minutes would've meant a dozen lead changes.
Newton: Huge. It almost guarantees we'll see a return of pack racing until the final lap or two. It also could, as I said earlier in the week, be a recipe for disaster. We got a glimpse of that in the Shootout when there were wrecks of eight, six and nine cars. Because drivers still know that the fastest way around the track is the two-car dance, and because they know that they can't match bumper-to-bumper in the middle, they'll have to push off-center. If they get on the left bumper too far in the turn, hold on. Catastrophe lurks. There's also the potential for a lot of blown engines from overheating. Imagine the conversation at the NASCAR hauler among team owners if that happens.
Smith: A huge difference. During the past couple of years, drivers in this race found a buddy during prerace practice, worked a deal, hooked up in the two-car tandem draft and played leapfrog for 498 miles. They also could talk in real time to just about anyone on the premises during the race. They can no longer do either. This year, the pack is back and the radio is silent save for any banter with your own team. That means all hell can -- and will -- break loose at any moment. I expect the first 450 miles to be cordial, calculated mayhem. The final 50 will be far more intense as drivers push to learn how aggressively they can push. And the final five miles -- when drivers can melt the motors with no concern for tomorrow -- will be tandem-draft bedlam.
4. Who is going to win the Daytona 500 and why?
Blount: OK. I know I'm going to hear it from the haters who love to hate, but I'm going with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Yeah, I said it -- the guy whose last Cup win came when W. was president. But this new rules package plays right into Junior's hands and works perfectly with his skill set at plate tracks, skills that led him to seven of his Cup victories.
Hinton: Tony Stewart on a Sunday drive. I was wrong: Dumping crew chief Darian Grubb hasn't gotten Smoke out of his groove of late last season a bit. He's at the height of his confidence and calm in the seat. He'll run near or at the front all race, watching all the troubles of overheating and crashing in his rearview mirror. He has long said he would slide across the finish line on his roof if he had to, to win the Daytona 500. He won't have to. As for Kyle Busch popping up at the checkered flag à la the Bud Shootout to beat Stewart by a nose, Rowdy will need more than two great saves to be around at the end of 500 highly unpredictable miles.
McGee: I have my eye on three drivers -- Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Of those three, I'm going with Harvick. He feels sneaky quick to me and has had the below-the-radar kind of Speedweeks that he seems to enjoy. And keep an eye on the dark horses of Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, and yes Kurt Busch.
Newton: Joey Logano. He's my dark horse and favorite all wrapped into one. I know he hasn't done much in Speedweeks, but he was in position to challenge for the win in the Shootout before being caught up in a late wreck. I love the relationship he and new crew chief Jason Ratcliff have built in a short time. I believe that Greg Zipadelli held Logano back in a strange sort of way. What better way to begin a new relationship than with a win in the 500? It's either a strong hunch that's giving me this gut feeling or something I ate for dinner.
Smith: Dale Earnhardt Jr. I base that decision on the fact that, with the pack-draft, drivers can race as they want to race, making decisions for their own competitive well-being rather than having to rely on someone else to assist all day. Junior has lobbied for this. We've seen why this week in both the Shootout and the Duel. The old Junior is back. He's aggressive. And confident. And having fun. If he wins, Daytona track president Joie Chitwood will need to request from his bosses a new frontstretch grandstand. They'd gladly oblige.