Our panel of experts and a fan weigh in on four of the biggest questions in racing this week.
Turn 1: We're off to Indianapolis for another Brickyard 400. Fans and pundits have complained about the racing in recent seasons and attendance has been dwindling. Is this race as special as it once was, and why or why not?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: No, not even close. There was a time in the late 1990s, during the darkest days in the Indy-car split, that this event drew more fans than the Indy 500. IMS officials would dispute that, but anyone with two eyes who attended both events could see it. The newness wore off over time and fans realized racing these cars on the big rectangle wasn't so hot. But the big purse and the prestige of winning at Indy still make it one of the most important events of the season.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: The racing itself has never been very good, because the big, heavy cars are clumsy on the old track. The 400 drew because it was America's most popular motor sport, NASCAR, on racing's most hallowed ground. Fans just wanted to be at Indy. Now, the mystique is no longer enough to keep them coming back for one-by-one racing that drones on and on.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: It doesn't seem to be among the fans. It doesn't seem to be among the media. I think it has never recovered from the tire debacle of 2008. But it takes about five seconds to realize that its importance has never waned with the drivers and teams. Personally, I still get chills every time I walk into the place, no matter what kind of racing machines I'm there to cover. And that's no small task at the Brickyard 400 because the place is usually hotter than the surface of the sun.
David Newton, ESPN.com: No. The reason it was special initially was because it was Indianapolis Motor Speedway and it was a big deal for the sport that the good ol' boys of NASCAR were allowed on the sacred grounds of Indy car racing. There were special moments such as Jeff Gordon winning the inaugural event in 1994, Dale Earnhardt winning the next year and Tony Stewart winning in his home state for the first time in 2005. But the racing never has been particularly special there. If anything it has been mind-numbing. The 2008 race in which there were mandatory cautions every 10 to 12 laps due to extreme tire wear had the most drama. Enough said.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Generally, no. It's not as special. It hasn't carried the same luster since the tire debacle in 2008 and you need look no further than the drop in attendance as proof. Side note: The official tally for the inaugural Brickyard was 350,000. That's insane. Here are the official tallies since 2006 -- 2006: 280,000; 2007: 270,000; 2008: 240,000; 2009: 180,000; 2010: 140,000; 2011: 138,000. So attendance has dropped 100,000 tickets since the tire meltdown. You tell me if it's as lustrous. Here's the thing about Indy for me, though: It's about the place, not the race. You feel it when you drive in there. It doesn't feel the same as anywhere else. It's bigger. Way bigger. Even Daytona doesn't feel like Indy feels for me. That's not to say Indy's better. It's not. The Daytona 500 morning has an unparalleled feeling of importance. It's electric. But Indy just feels like history. It's unique. And it's amazing. I really hope the crowd returns. Indy needs to be a tough ticket. It needs to be a destination point.
Andrew Ford, a fan from Paducah, Ky.: From a fan standpoint, I feel like the nostalgia of racing at the Brickyard has worn off some after 18 years. Although I am sure it would make for a great at-the-track experience, it is not much as far as TV entertainment. Fans are starting to get tired of long, drawn-out races with spread-out racing, and that is what Indy provides. The restarts are exciting, though few and far between. I also think the big Goodyear debacle a few years back drove a lot of fans away, as well. Indy just isn't a great stock-car track and a lot of fans are starting to see that. It's sad to see, though, because Indy is one of those tracks that every racing fan knows about and it would be nice to see NASCAR able to pack the stands again!
Turn 2: Somebody has to win on Sunday. Who you got, and why?
Blount: Considering a Chevrolet driver has won the past nine Brickyard races and no Roush driver ever has won here, it would be crazy to pick against a Chevy driver. Call me crazy. The Indy jinx for Jack Roush has to end sometime. I think this is the year and Matt Kenseth is the man who can do it. He has five top-5s at Indy and was the runner-up twice. And there's no better place to show his lame-duck status won't stop him from competing for the title this year.
Hinton: I got Tony Stewart sentimentally, and Jimmie Johnson realistically. Stewart always wants this one more than anyone else, and if Steve Addington can get the setup right, Smoke will get his third win at his beloved home track. But Chad Knaus has sent Johnson to three wins at Indy, and has the methodical patience to get the car right at the end. Jeff Gordon is the all-time 400 winner with four, but I just don't see a fifth this time.
McGee: Smoke. His numbers are undeniable. Over the past five years Jimmie Johnson has him beat with two wins to one, but Tony Stewart's average finish of 7.6 is second only to Greg Biffle. I'll also have an eye on Jeff Gordon. This is now or never for him and he knows it.
Newton: Jeff Gordon. He's a four-time winner at Indianapolis and was a lap or so from catching Paul Menard for No. 5 last year. Plus, his team is running well with four finishes of sixth or better in the past five races. It's time for him to get a victory and become a legitimate contender for a wild-card berth.
Smith: Kasey Kahne. To me the 5 team has emerged as a top-5 team in the sport. As we say in the country, they've gone from the outhouse to the penthouse. They're scary fast. Remember -- five more laps and they win Kentucky, too.
Ford: While I don't think we will see any big surprises like Paul Menard last year, I wouldn't be surprised to see Juan Pablo Montoya near the front. He has been good at times in the past. He can contend as long as he doesn't shoot himself in the foot. Jeff Gordon has a chance to be strong and contend for one of those wins he needs. I also look for a strong run from Denny Hamlin, who seems to like flat tracks.
Turn 3: The Nationwide Series comes to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time after years at Lucas Oil Raceway, just outside town. Is coming to the big track the right move for fans or the series, and why or why not?
Blount: I'm going to go against the crowd on this one and say it's the right move. I know most fans wish Nationwide had stayed at the short track a few miles away, and no question it was better racing than we'll see Saturday, but going between two venues in the same city never worked well for many of the fans. This keeps everything and everyone at the Brickyard and adds a much-needed feeder race, along with the Grand-Am event, to the big track.
Hinton: It's a bad idea for all concerned. Bad for the fans who love one of the nicest short tracks in America and regularly filled up the stands. Bad for the drivers who love LOR, long known as Indianapolis Raceway Park. Bad for the series because the racing just won't be as good, either live or on television. Bad, most of all, for Indianapolis Motor Speedway, whose officials are desperate to put together a package that will draw, but who wind up further diluting the prestige of the track long noted for hosting one race, and only one, all year.
McGee:I don't mind it. I'm not one of the people who think that they will soil the hallowed ground. There are too many other events at Indy now to complain about that anymore. It will be cool for those drivers, but I think they should still be at the short track. It just feels right. There seems to be genuine effort to get the Trucks and Nationwide Series back to the old-school bullring roots and I love that. But a part of that movement should be returning to IRP/ORP/LORP, even it's coming back for a second visit to the market during the same season.
Newton: No and no. The fans got a better show at Lucas Oil Raceway than they'll ever get at IMS. LOR is quaint. The racing on the .686-mile oval is exciting, particularly on double-file restarts. Bringing the second-tier series to IMS may be a boost for the speedway, which is trying to give fans more bang for their buck by adding that and the Grand-Am Series to the package. But it does nothing but cheapen the history of the track. It's like playing golf's Nationwide tour at Augusta National. Blasphemy.
Smith: It's not the right move for the series or the fans. LOR was often the best race of the season. It was always slide-jobs and thrilling finishes. That's gone now. But moving to IMS is the right move for sponsors. And in this day and time that's what wins in the decision-making game, I guess.
Ford: I don't think it is a good move for the series at all. Yes, more fans may come than at LOR, but the excitement will be short-lived and many will find the race boring. I have long been a supporter of the idea that NASCAR should do more to promote the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series at tracks not run by the Sprint Cup Series. Lucas Oil Raceway always put on a good show -- as do most short tracks -- and I think as far as exciting racing that would be better for the fans and series. Only good thing is that NASCAR might be able to gain some ratings by promoting Danica's return to the Brickyard.
Turn 4: Now that we've all seen Jimmie Johnson's "Prickle Bear" commercial (in support of ESPN's Sprint Cup telecasts), it's time to tell the world your all-time favorite NASCAR commercial, whether it be network related or sponsor related. Why do you like it so much?
Blount: Full disclosure: I'm one of those guys who channel hops to see what's happening in a baseball game, football game or another race while the commercials are showing. But when I did watch them, I always liked the Dale Jarrett UPS commercials. My favorite might have been the tribute to him at his retirement, when he raced the truck and won, then hung his key in the back of the truck. Very touching.
Hinton: It ain't even close: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Budweiser commercial where he finds a lipstick in the passenger seat of his Corvette and has a notion for chivalry. So he tears off through the desert in the car, driving like crazy to return the lipstick to his date. He steps out of the car and proudly presents the lipstick to her. And she says, "This isn't mine." Then, with one stunned look on his face, Earnhardt does more great acting in one second than all other drivers in all other commercials combined.
McGee: The ESPN Ride Along Program was the all-time best. From Dale Earnhardt ("He might want to get his head back in the window") to Jeff Gordon and the taxi cab driver ("Listen Chachi ") to the Charlotte Hornets riding with Ricky Craven ("We're kind of winning!") to my personal favorite, Richard Petty backseat driving with Kyle behind the wheel ("If you think you can do any better, why don't you get up here and drive?"). Thank the Internet gods for allowing those spots to still live today on YouTube.
Newton: Hard to top the 2000 Chevrolet Tasmanian Devil commercial that begins with the Tasmanian Devil driving a stock car with Dale Earnhardt and Earnhardt Jr. in the back seat. I love it when Junior goes "blah, blah, blah, blah" as his dad tells the Devil how to drive the car. And when Earnhardt tells his son, "What'd you say? I guess my seven NASCAR championships are clogging up my ears," you can't help but smile. A close second comes from 1998 when Jeff Gordon drives a New York City cab driver around the track and tells him of a scary experience at Talladega. The cab driver, calmly sipping a drink in the backseat, says, "Listen, Chachi. I drove a cab through the Bronx -- at night." Of course, almost all the Michael Waltrip NAPA commercials are funny.
Smith: Toughest Turn 4 question yet. I almost voted for Dodge's 2002 "Heyyy, Jeremyyyy " spot. It's still an all-timer. Mayfield was a great actor, a natural. And I almost voted for that little jig Kahne did for the Allstate moms. (He will never, ever -- ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever -- live that one down. We'll be 75 years old drinking beer on the porch and I'll still be busting his chops for that commercial. I showed it to my 6-year-old, Cambron, and he said, "Daddy, Kasey is a really good dancer." Agreed, buddy. Agreed.) But the best commercial I can recall is the Dale Earnhardt Jr. lipstick commercial. When he drove for Budweiser, their commercials were on a different plateau from everybody else.
Ford: No bias here, just being honest. One of my all-time favorites is Jimmie Johnson taking out the speed bumps in the ESPN parking lot. Also have to say to the Sprint/Nextel Direct Connect commercials: 1) Jimmie Johnson and Elliott Sadler with Sadler trying to tell JJ he is messing up Turn 3, and JJ gets on his phone and asks his team to bring over his championship trophy, and 2) Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray talking about "magic." The humor always sticks in my memory and I remember laughing my butt off at those Nextel commercials when they first came out. And ESPN still shows that JJ commercial every now and then.