Our panel of experts and one enlightened fan weigh in on four of the biggest questions in racing this week.
Turn 1: Of all the bold statements, theories and suggestions that we heard from NASCAR drivers about the substance abuse policy, which struck a chord with you most and why?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: It stuns me that so many assumptions are being made about testing positive for supplements, like taking a multivitamin is going to cause alarms to go off at the lab. I love that Brad Keselowski speaks his mind, but what he suggests about banning everything and taking nothing is unrealistic. However, I have to believe NASCAR and its drug testers didn't take AJ Allmendinger out of the car because he slammed too many energy drinks, or something of that nature. If so, the entire testing policy comes under question.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Carl Edwards showed lots of guts and common sense when he said drivers should hire their own separate drug testing agency. Trouble is, Edwards' idea won't happen -- any more than union organization worked in NASCAR in 1961 (Teamsters) and '69 (Professional Drivers' Association). Even Allmendinger's teammate, Keselowski, publicly disagreed with Edwards. A separate lab is needed, if for no other reason than to make it clear to the public that NASCAR isn't being draconian. But modern-day drivers have it too good and too rich to even hint at any sort of unified front.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: There were so many. Jeff Burton was tremendous on "NASCAR Now" on Sunday morning when he told me that he didn't believe there needed to be anything resembling a driver's union because he feels plenty well represented as it is. He pointed out that there shouldn't be any confusion about the policy among drivers because there's a phone number and email address in the rulebook specifically set up for such questions. And he reminded everyone that the door to the NASCAR hauler is always open. But I was most blown away by Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s admission that his biggest concern was about the headaches it would cause for the sport as a whole should there end up being proof that the testing lab screwed something up with Allmendinger's first sample.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Two things, actually. Edwards saying that drivers should band together to hire their own lab techs to be present when they test, to gather separate samples to eliminate any confusion or doubt about the process, suggested a lack of faith in the process. The process has been solid since changes made after Jeremy Mayfield's 2009 positive test. He also suggested a driver's union like they have in IndyCar and other sports. A union or committee, as Rusty Wallace said in 2010, would screw things up. Interestingly enough, Edwards wasn't in favor of a union two years ago.
The other comment that struck me came from Keselowski when he said drivers shouldn't be allowed to take any supplement or drug, even Flintstone vitamins. The driver sponsored by a beer company didn't mention alcohol even though that can be a stimulant or a depressant depending on quantity.
Maybe these two ideas suggest the athletes should stay out of policy-making.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: My initial reaction to Keselowski's commentary regarding nutritional supplementation was that it was ridiculous and ill-informed. He said it's his own personal code of conduct to take nothing at all -- not even a multivitamin. That's his prerogative. Kudos. I appreciate a man with conviction. But to call it "bulls---" that other athletes exercise their right to take legal supplements is just plain ignorant and didn't sit well with me. And I told him so. I take amino acids and protein powder every day, and I felt inclined to discuss it. Brad and I have that kind of relationship -- straight up.
We chatted for a long time, and he explained his position. It was quite elaborate. He said he's studied the potential for supplements to go wrong and gave a convincing argument as to why it's a societal problem that has infiltrated sports. I know this: Athletes all over the world consume approved dietary supplements like amino acids and protein powder to improve performance -- legally. Brad is very smart and very articulate. I love his candor. He's among the best interviews in the garage area because of a rare willingness to be brutally honest. He did so again this time, and he says he didn't have the opportunity to explain his position as fully as he'd have liked. Ultimately we agree to disagree. I stand behind my convictions and he does too. I'm glad I took the time to contact him.
Andrew B., a fan from Tallahassee, Fla.: I think Keselowski's comments had to be the most interesting -- and entertaining. He said what I think a lot of fans are probably thinking: that a positive test is essentially a death sentence for AJ, even if the B sample test comes back clean, and that the drivers should just shut up and drive the race car. Brad didn't necessarily catch me off guard with what he said, but more about how he said it, I guess. Plus, he said something that really was so simplistic that it was almost novel in its concept -- if you're worried about something coming up in your tests that will potentially disrupt your career, don't take anything. I know, that's easier said than done for most of the drivers out there, though.
Turn 2. There were two passes for the lead under green at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday -- both on restarts. Was a race like this good or bad for the sport, and why?
Blount: It's not great, but it wasn't the worst race this year, not even close. And it did have some drama at the end with Denny Hamlin driving like a madman to try to get back to the front. He did a ton of passing, as did Keselowski after starting way back and fighting his way into the top five. It's all about the continuing trend of long green-flag runs without any accidents. Drivers just aren't taking as many chances on the track. That may change some as the Chase approaches and some drivers get desperate.
Hinton: It shouldn't be bad at all for the sport if the masses of fans were realistic. But they're not. So bottom line, it's bad for the sport. Today's NASCAR fans just can't seem to accept that some races are better than others, that it's always been that way, and that it can't change without drastically altering the competition so that any semblance of sport would be lost. I'm a purist who always has thought that the definition of "racing" was to outrun the competition, not beat on them, bang on them, exchange the lead meaninglessly, and generally engage in the video fantasy game fans seem to want nowadays.
McGee: Let's put it this way: Deep down I was genuinely excited to see Hamlin's four vs. two tire pit stop screw-up because I knew that it would set up a mad dash through the field and I'd have something to watch.
Newton: When a football or basketball team is significantly better than the other, we don't complain that it's not a see-saw battle. Hamlin had the superior car. Twice on double-file restarts he was second and immediately went to the lead and pulled away. There wasn't more passing because no one could catch him. He was the class of the field until a miscommunication on pit road cost him the win. That doesn't make it bad for the sport. There were times when only one or two cars finished on the lead lap. That was bad.
Smith: It was fine. There was plenty of intrigue even if there were few passes for the lead. Watching Kyle Busch and Hamlin try to rally from setbacks was plenty entertaining to me -- especially Hamlin's attempt to come from 14th on the last run. I wasn't bored.
I'm of the opinion that not all races can be barnburners, and not all races are going to have every lap be action-packed. That said, this weekend's race was nothing short of a snoozer. Races like Sunday's are definitely bad for the sport, if only because they feed into the "NASCAR is just a bunch of guys driving in circles for hours" line that detractors like to use. A lot of people -- drivers, teams and fans alike -- have said that clean air is such a huge advantage, and we saw that in action this weekend. It almost didn't matter what the strategy of the leader was -- whether it was no tires or four tires, he was able to jump out to a huge lead over the field, which unfortunately led to a pretty boring race. When that happens, NASCAR doesn't win.
Turn 3. The 10th-place driver in points -- Brad Keselowski -- is 46 points ahead of 11th-place Carl Edwards. Are the current top 10 set for the Chase?
Blount: Probably, but a driver can make up as many as 47 points on another driver in one race. Even Kevin Harvick in sixth place is only 55 points ahead of Edwards, but who cares about points? The wild card more than makes up for it. Guys have to win, and I love it. Winning really matters, which wasn't the case a few years ago. It's so refreshing to me that a guy makes the Chase by winning instead of finishing two or three points ahead of the driver in 13th place if neither of them wins a race.
Hinton: Yep. It's set. And Edwards should be pretty close to desperation by now. With just seven races remaining until the Chase, making up 46 points is a tall order for Edwards, considering the way the 99 team has been running. Edwards badly needs two regular-season wins just to have a chance for a wild card against the onrushing Kasey Kahne. And the 99 team doesn't appear to be anywhere near a hot streak.
McGee: Done. But the good news is that the wild-card fight is going to be a bunkhouse stampede.
Newton: It's set. It would take an absolute collapse by 10th-place Keselowski and ninth-place Clint Bowyer for somebody else to sneak in, and I don't see that happening -- particularly with the way Edwards' team is running.
Smith: Yes. Tough to imagine any of the teams in the top 10 laying an egg at this point. If Edwards had speed, it'd be different. But the 99's just not there. I didn't expect that from that race team. Given last season's excellence and Edwards' fat new contract, I figured they'd be dialed in. They're not. It lends credence to the hangover effect of finishing second -- no matter how much Edwards wants to deny that's the problem.
Andrew B.: Unfortunately for Carl, I do believe that the current top 10 in points are set for the Chase. Not because 46 points is too much to overcome, but that the current top 10 are running well enough to where making up any points on them is extremely difficult. Heck, even Kasey Kahne, running as well as he is right now, has lost ground on the top 10 in points in the past seven races. That really shows just how well the drivers currently in the top 10 are running. Carl's team isn't running all that poorly, and he has just as many top-10s as four drivers in the Chase. I think that's probably the most surprising part of his season so far.
Turn 4. We have Trucks and Nationwide this weekend, with Nationwide having the Sunday spotlight at Chicagoland Speedway. What has been the best thing about the Nationwide Series this season, and why?
Blount: Seeing guys win races who aren't Cup regulars. Can I get an "Amen"? Sadly, though, it's trending back in the wrong direction. Non-Cup regulars have won eight of 17 races this season, but the Cup boys have won eight of the past 11. That includes the past two -- Kurt Busch at Daytona and Keselowski at New Hampshire. The series needs its own drivers winning races to give them name recognition and help them gain sponsorship. And here's the worst thing: Too many cars that aren't really racing. Ten drivers went to the house without completing 10 laps at Loudon on Saturday.
Hinton: The variety of non-Cup drivers winning so many races. Other than primary cherry-pickers Keselowski and Joey Logano, it's nice to see Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Elliott Sadler and even Nelson Piquet Jr. make it to Victory Lane. Ideally, Nationwide should be the top developmental series, akin to Triple-A baseball. But the promoters are never going to let that happen, because they need the big Cup names to sell tickets on Saturdays. So it's good to see the upstart drivers defy that conventional conservatism.
McGee: We're in Year 2 of the rule saying that a driver can run only for one championship and I think it's having the desired effect, which was to establish series-specific personalities -- genuine Nationwide drivers. Fans are now aware of guys like Austin Dillon, Stenhouse and Cole Whitt. When Cup guys were winning the title every year, those kinds of guys were nearly invisible. And they're doing their part by holding their own on Saturdays. However, the most troubling development has been the sudden oversaturation of white cowboy hats. When Stenhouse and Dillon came into the media center together on Friday I felt like I was at Gilley's.
Newton: Simple for me: Kurt Busch winning for Phoenix Racing at Daytona. The raw emotion that came from that moment, watching the entire crew from that underfunded, non-sponsored team run to the start-finish line to celebrate with Busch, was what the sport needs more of. It was old school, particularly with Busch winning in an orange car so taped up from damage repairs that it looked like Halloween gone bad.
Smith: Separation is the best thing about the Nationwide Series in 2012. I feel like, for the first time in a really long time, the series' identity has emerged from the Cup shadow. Even through Cup drivers still win often, when I think of NNS right now I think of Dillon's 3 and Stenhouse's 6 and Sadler's 2, guys that run full time. Logano still wins. Keselowski still wins. But for some reason they're not the first thing to enter my mind. I think that's vital for the health of the series. Maybe -- just maybe -- the Cup Light keg is kicked.
Andrew B.: Easily, the best thing about the Nationwide Series this season has been the resurgence of the non-Cup guys. Sure, Cup drivers lead 9-8 in wins over the non-Cup drivers, but that's still leaps and bounds better than many other recent seasons where it seemed like a Cup driver won just about every race. Cup drivers have run (and won) Nationwide races since the series started, but it's great to see up-and-coming drivers getting a chance to show that they can run up front, since they are the future stars of NASCAR. Plus, we've got a great points battle going on, with the top four drivers within one race's points of the leader.