Our panel of experts weighs in this week on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR:
Turn 1. What do you make of Danica Patrick's punt of old rival Sam Hornish Jr. on the cool-down lap after the Nationwide Series race at Talladega? And should NASCAR penalize her?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: Way too much is being made out of this, but it's Danica, so I shouldn't be surprised. And for those of you who say this is the same as what Kyle Busch did to Ron Hornaday Jr., it's not even close. Look at the tape of both incidents. Kyle hooked Hornaday and then pushed him into the wall. Danica bumped Hornish from behind. And Patrick doesn't have the history of bad behavior in NASCAR that Kyle had.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Danica thought Sam had crowded her at the finish, and she was just taking care of business right then and right there, in the best traditions of Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Allison. A talk in the NASCAR hauler at Darlington should suffice. No real harm, no real foul. She just barely tapped Hornish in retaliation, so she was probably sincere when she apologized and said she didn't know the little payback bump would put him into the wall. Remember, this rivalry goes back to when the two of them were kids in go-karts, so when Hornish drifts high in front of her at the finish, what is she supposed to think? There is no comparison, despite what some fans are howling, between this incident and the Kyle Busch wrecking of Ron Hornaday Jr. last year in Trucks.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I never like to see anyone get hooked in the turns of a superspeedway. I especially don't like seeing a car headed toward the wall at the angle Hornish was headed. I think she deserves a talking-to and she'll get one. But no big penalties. The comparisons between this and the Kyle Busch/Hornaday deal at Texas are a bit much; further proof that whatever she does ignites people one way or the other. The moral of the story: Always do that on the backstretch like Dale Sr. versus Eddie Cheever, IROC Daytona '01.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Unfortunate more than anything. According to Patrick, she didn't realize a flat tire caused Hornish to turn right into her as she approached the finish line. So she responded as most drivers would and came up to tap him. It was not her intent to put him into the wall, but the same right flat caused him to turn right into the wall. That it happened shortly after Eric McClure was airlifted to the hospital after hitting a wall heightened sensitivity here. While I don't compare it to what happened with Kyle Busch and Ron Hornaday Jr. last fall at Texas, I do believe NASCAR should give Patrick a small financial fine -- if anything, to avoid the appearance of favoritism to a driver who brings the sport a ton of notoriety.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: I understand why she did it. Patrick didn't realize Hornish had a tire issue and felt unjustly wrecked, and therefore felt she needed to send a message that it's not OK to wreck her. She did so by hooking him in the wall. She says now she didn't mean to wreck him. But she did wreck him. In truth it wound up being a bad decision -- because she didn't have full context of why Hornish ran her in the wall. But situations like that as a competitor must be dealt with immediately or you'll be dealing with them later. You can't be bullied on the racetrack. Stand your ground. Sure, it's a shame Roger Penske had a speedway car destroyed, and thank goodness Hornish wasn't hurt, but I completely understand why Patrick did what she did. No, NASCAR shouldn't penalize her. She'll get a good ol' talkin'-to, though. Leave it at that.
Turn 2. NASCAR's rules package for Talladega certainly led to more pack racing than recent years, but was the racing good? What should NASCAR's next step be to improve the show at Dega and Daytona?
Blount: It's back to the same old stuff -- relatively tame pack racing for 90 percent of the race before all hell breaks loose at the end and guys pair up to try to get to the front. Other than taking out the banking and making these two tracks a pseudo-Pocono (kill me if that happens), the problems of plate racing will exist until the end of time. But compared to what we saw at Texas last month, give me this stuff any day.
Hinton: Jeff Gordon says NASCAR has to change the cooling system rules. Carl Edwards says everything is fine as is. That's because Gordon drives a Chevrolet, and Chevrolet doesn't have the current rules figured out. Edwards drives a Ford, and Ford is on top of the situation. Gordon argues that if they're going to pack draft, they need pack-drafting grill openings. Trouble is, if they go back to pack-drafting grill openings, drivers will tandem draft again, and 'round and 'round we go. Either NASCAR R&D has a major engineering project ahead, or it will leave teams such as Hendrick Motorsports and satellite Stewart-Haas Racing with a major engineering project. There isn't an easy solution here.
McGee: I have an idea. Let's park the curveballs and actually run more than one year in a row with the same restrictor plate rules package and see what happens. I don't think the drivers, engineers, crew chiefs, or even the fans ever get a chance to really figure out how they feel about one package before it's already been tossed out the window for the next "fix."
Newton: I hate this phrase, but it is what it is. My only issue is that NASCAR manipulated the rules package so much to make it pack racing that it caused extreme overheating, blown engines and didn't allow the drivers to race the way they wanted. The governing body should open up the grill as Jeff Gordon suggested and let things fall where they may. If that means more tandem racing, it is what it is. Maybe it will be different with the 2013 car.
Smith: I don't think it needs fixing. The drivers say they need more air to the motor. (And more motor, period. I spoke with several drivers who said they need more power and more drag to open a bigger hole -- which would create more madness). There was a lot of overheating Sunday at Talladega, but pushing more air to the engines is conducive to reintroducing the Noah's Ark draft. I personally loved what I saw in both races. Plate racing captivates me. It is must-see can't-turn-the-television as far as I'm concerned. There's an uneasiness and unsettled aura about it that, personally, I love to witness. It is a masterful talent for the guys that do it best.
Turn 3. We're 10 races into the 2012 Sprint Cup season. Give us your signature moment so far and tell us why.
Blount: I'll have to get back to you on that one. Can't say I've seen a "signature moment" yet. I've seen some trends: Fewer wrecks and fewer cautions, Jimmie Johnson's days of domination are done, Dale Jr. can run well without winning, Tony Stewart can win with any crew chief, Darian Grubb can win without Stewart, the Nationwide Series is better without Cup stars winning all the races, Carl Edwards is in the typical previous-year runner-up slump, and Michael Waltrip Racing is the most improved team in the sport.
Hinton: It just happened Sunday, and it took less than a minute of the green-white-checkered finish at Talladega. Brad Keselowski rode Kyle Busch's push right past the seemingly indomitable tandem of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, snuffing the notion that Roush Fenway would win all the plate races this season. Then Keselowski cut Busch loose from their tandem at just the right moment, driving high into Turn 3 and then dropping down to break the draft, and sailed free to the checkered flag. That plate win, coupled with his short-track win at Bristol, shows Keselowski can win at either end of the spectrum. Detractors howl that Hinton is high on Brad K this year. Yeah, well, guilty as charged.
McGee: Oh, it's gotta be Danica finishing eighth at Texas. Just kidding. I want to say the entire Truck series experience at Rockingham. For anyone who was there, it really was a special day. But Cup-wise, the last laps at Martinsville were as good as it gets.
Newton: David Reutimann stalling to bring out a caution with three laps left in regulation at Martinsville Speedway. Look at the chain of events that it impacted. It led to Clint Bowyer dive-bombing Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson on the first green-white-checkered restart. That kept Gordon from a much-needed win that would make his situation at 23rd in points seem not so dire. It kept Hendrick Motorsports from its 200th win. It heated the top 35 debate because Reutimann was trying to keep the No. 10 that Danica Patrick drives part-time guaranteed a spot in future races. And it was a reminder of why fans love short-track racing.
Smith: Kyle Busch's save during the Daytona 500. It speaks for itself. There are but a handful of drivers in motorsports history who make that save.
Turn 4. It's voting time for the Sprint All-Star Race, where one lucky (and popular) driver gets in on the fan vote. Give us the driver -- excluding Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- you would include in this year's extravaganza at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and explain why.
Blount: If we're going strictly by who deserves it the most, I'll pick Martin Truex Jr. He's sixth in the standings and he ranked in the top 20 last year. But we all know that's not what this is about. It's about picking someone people want to see. So isn't it obvious? Danica, of course. If you love her you could cheer and if you hate her you could boo, but she would bring more attention to the event than anyone else.
Hinton: David Reutimann, for being just a plain nice guy with hard luck, just the sort of driver fans are supposed to pull for. Besides, NASCAR Nation owes Reuti one for putting him through all that grief after he stayed out in a limping car at Martinsville and caused the final caution that messed up the finish. He was just doing what he was told. Further: Reutimann is the best representative of what's left of the old weekend short-track nation. As that contingency was grateful for Richie Evans' induction into the Hall of Fame, so it would love to have one of its own in the All-Star Race.
McGee: Give me Martin Truex Jr. If we're really going to call this a 2012 All-Star event, then a guy who has been in the top six in points nearly all season and is in the top 10 in nearly every major statistical category should certainly be in the field.
Newton: Danica Patrick. Oh, she's not competing. How about Martin Truex Jr.? He's sixth in points with six top-10s and a pole this season. He dominated the Kansas race until he got what he called a bad set of tires on his final stop, allowing Denny Hamlin to pass for the win. And it seems kind of silly to have a top-10 driver not in the field.
Smith: Martin Truex Jr. I'm very impressed with the speed the 56 car is making and believe it's only a matter of time before he wins a couple of races. I haven't asked him this, but I figure he probably wants to validate himself this year. He knows he has the opportunity to take another step in his career -- an opportunity that didn't seem especially plausible until now.