Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in racing this week.
Turn 1: Should NASCAR have an elimination system in the Chase? Why or why not?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: If NASCAR is going to stick with a playoff format, and it is no matter how much you Chase haters complain, then it might as well do it right and have an actual elimination process. But I don't want it to come down to just two guys in the last race. Four drivers should go to the last event with a shot at the title. Cut the bottom four out after the first three Chase races (aren't those guys pretty much out anyway?) and four more after the next three. That leaves four drivers to run for the title in the last four races. But re-seed them with a three-point difference for each spot (based on Chase points earned) and three bonus points for each Chase victory. In reality, this won't happen unless Cup has a couple of years in a row where the champ coasts home in the last race without a serious challenger.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Absolutely. These are supposed to be playoffs, not playalongs. By definition in other sports leagues, somebody has to go in every round. Maybe, considering situations such as Jeff Gordon's valiant hanging on after a terrible start, the eliminations shouldn't start until six or eight races before the end. After Talladega this Sunday, and on each ensuing weekend, we'll have a very good idea of who's really out of it. Why not make it official, and make these true playoffs?
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: They do have one. It's called the points system. Guys fall off the pace via natural selection without any help and always have. I guess if we wanted to formalize it, we could. But to me, that's just paperwork. Besides, if we start formally eliminating drivers, then there will be no more fun debates such as the question coming up in Turn 2!
David Newton, ESPN.com: Drivers already get eliminated by the math, so putting some special formula in place that might eliminate them earlier wouldn't add much, if anything. I'd rather explore a separate points system for Chase drivers so one poor finish isn't so detrimental. I like Kyle Busch's idea of giving points 1-to-12 for Chase drivers, with 12 going to the highest finisher and one to the lowest -- plus bonus points for winning and leading laps. That would keep the championship run tighter throughout. It would reward a driver like Jeff Gordon who's had two top-3 finishes after a top-5 turned into 35th because of a stuck throttle at Chicagoland. Either that or find a more balanced system that rewards more points for a good finish and punishes less for a bad finish.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: They do. It's called performance.
Turn 2: Let's have our own elimination system. Take one driver you believe has no chance to win the title at this point, and tell us why. One driver only, please.
Blount: Is this a trick question? It's Matt Kenseth, of course, 72 points back with seven to go. It isn't the number of points as much as he has 11 guys to pass. Not going to happen unless all 11 of them wreck in the "Big One" this weekend at Talladega. I said at the start Matt couldn't do it as a lame duck. Maybe that had nothing to do with it, but I stick by it. And the truth is the bottom half of the Chase field has no shot unless 'Dega wrecks the top half on Sunday.
Hinton: Very tough choice between the plummeting teammates Kenseth and Biffle. Biffle lost his cool big time at Dover, indicating a sort of boiling over within the 16 team. But, far worse, Kenseth has been losing pieces off his car. You just can't have stuff falling off your car and even feel safe, let alone feel competitive. And I was the one who said Kenseth's lame duck status didn't matter. Looks like it does. So, sadly, Kenseth is done.
McGee: Matt Kenseth is like that chicken wing that falls through the grill and into the charcoal. Done. Every driver I talked to about the lame duck situation looming over a team's head said that it absolutely, positively has to be a distraction. And I'm not one to say that an uncharacteristic rash of broken parts is evidence that the soon-to-be ex-team is involved in any sort of conspiracies here, but if Oliver Stone and Jesse Ventura were in the garage they would have already started shooting a documentary. And I wouldn't have immediately added Greg Biffle to this, but since he said they were out of it, far be it from me to argue with the actual person in the arena.
Newton: Matt Kenseth. It doesn't take a statistical genius to figure out that at 72 points down, he's a race and a half behind. And he can't blame Brian Vickers for taking him out of contention as he could last year after Martinsville. He's been undone by his own equipment, whether it's been a lack of speed or a broken suspension part that led to a couple of wrecks and 35th-place finish at Dover. It's too bad. He and teammate Greg Biffle were two of the most consistent drivers in the garage during the regular season.
Smith: Greg Biffle. Because he told me so Sunday evening in the garage at Dover. First, about the loose wheel: "It's tough. It happened to us in 2005 right toward the end of the Chase though and it cost us the title, but I don't think that loose wheel today is gonna cost us the championship. We were off a little bit, but we were definitely a top-10 car, probably top-8, especially with the way it ended up. We were in great position, so to finish where we did and have that happen is pretty remarkable, but that really kind of takes us out of the title hunt. We really needed to finish in the top three here to really be a factor, but now we'll just work on being in the top 10."
I then followed up by asking directly, "So you think it's over?"
"Well, it's pretty much a stretch for us right now. We would have to have a lot of help at Talladega and a few other race tracks to try and leapfrog back in. The thing is there are so many guys ahead of us, it's not like there are two or three that we need to catch up to, it's a whole mess of them so it's a pretty tall order to beat all of those guys by six positions seven races in a row. That's gonna be hard." Very.
Turn 3: What has happened to the Roush Fenway Racing team? Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth -- near the top of the standings all season -- are 11th and 12th, respectively. What has gone wrong at RFR?
Blount: Let's take a closer look. In the 10 races before the Chase, Biffle's average finish was 12th. He finished 15th or worse in five of those events. In eight races before the Chase, Kenseth's average finish was a not-so-hot 17th, including three races where he finished 23rd or worse. So whatever ails RFR started long before the Chase began. Biff had the victory at Michigan in August, which led everyone to believe the Roush camp was OK. It wasn't. You can point to mechanical failures for Matt and pit mistakes for Greg's team, but the recent numbers show something else is amiss.
Hinton: I doubt they have much of an idea themselves. That's the problem: They're discombobulated. The malaise is systemic, not just organic with each unit. So maybe the issue is trickle-down management style from the very top. In years past, some have thought Jack Roush micro-managed his teams out of championships. Last year, Carl Edwards fell short by only a point, but couldn't win a Chase race. RFR, for whatever reasons, not only can't turn up the burners when it counts -- they sputter and flicker out.
McGee: Referring back to Turn 2, the demise of the 17 doesn't shock me. But the downturn of the 16 is downright crazy. Making mistakes like they did at Dover is akin to a football team committing stupid penalties in the playoffs or in a big bowl game. This is stuff you just shouldn't be doing in the 17th game or 29th race of the season. It's either incompetence or caving under pressure. And since I know it's not the former, then it has to be the latter.
Newton: This from Jack Roush on the Hendrick cars prior to the Chase opener at Chicagoland: "Hopefully, they have shown everything they've got, because we haven't. We have our best cars saved and we think we've got our best performance in front of us. If the Hendrick organization has not been saving something, I think we'll have the measure of them down the stretch."
Ugh, no. Hendrick cars have been as strong if not stronger than they were in the regular season. Roush cars struggled in almost every department, from speed to performance. Greg Biffle almost had a meltdown when he had to pit under green on Sunday for a loose wheel. A broken suspension part killed any chance Matt Kenseth had. But as Kenseth told me before the race, his car wasn't very good in practice, which usually doesn't translate into a good race. He also said he wasn't sure why. So I can't tell you what's wrong with Roush Fenway cars, other than whatever they thought would make them better hasn't worked.
Smith: They got behind. I actually talked to Biffle about this on the NASCAR Now program on Sunday morning at Dover. They were very consistent all season, and while that's a blessing for teams, it can quickly become a curse. There is a grave fear of changing what has worked for an entire season. It's a very difficult balance. Some teams -- 48, 2, 11, etc. -- manage to stay ahead of the changing landscape. Others do not. That's what has happened to Biffle and Matt Kenseth as the 2012 season progressed.
Turn 4: Speaking of Kenseth, should Jack Roush thank him for his service and then put Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the No. 17 -- he will be driving it full-time next year -- for the remainder of the season? Why or why not?
Blount: Yes, but only if two other teams play along. Joe Gibbs Racing would need to jettison Joey Logano early and put Kenseth in the No. 20 Toyota, and Roger Penske would go ahead and put Logano in the No. 22 car. But I assume NASCAR would frown on a team owner canning a Chase driver (for a non-disciplinary reason) while he still has a mathematical shot at winning the title. And I imagine Jack wants Stenhouse to concentrate on trying to win the Nationwide Series crown.
Hinton: No, Roush owes Kenseth a complete season, regardless, for Kenseth's years of effort. That assumes Kenseth wants to stay, what with all that stuff falling off his car. Should the crew get its pre-race checklists right, Kenseth is still more capable of winning individual races than Stenhouse at the Cup level right now. And there's still a chance Kenseth could improve his standing by the end and get a little more money from the points fund.
McGee: No. Conspiracy theories aside, there's still a measure of respect you have to show a lifer, especially the lifer who won your first Cup title. Now if Jack wanted to pull the 17 crew and put them on Ricky's car, I would understand. Not saying that I think it would be cool, but I would understand.
Newton: Hell no. Sorry, but it has to be said. This thought shouldn't even cross Roush's mind. Kenseth has been as loyal as any driver Roush has had. He gave Roush his first Sprint Cup championship in 2003. He has represented the organization with nothing but class. He has handled his departure after the season with nothing but class. Roush should be kicking himself for not finding sponsorship to get a deal done with Kenseth well before Joe Gibbs Racing got into the picture. He shouldn't kick Kenseth to the curb for his own mistake and not giving him equipment to make one last run at the title for him.
Smith: I'd like to see them finish the season together. But you can't deny it makes sense business-wise to get a jump on the future, and it's certainly not uncommon to do so these days. And as mechanical failures mount, so does frustration. I mean, a shock fell off at Loudon. Morale seems to be deteriorating, at least for Kenseth. His comments about Dover:
"In two out of three Chase races something either fell off or broke, so obviously that's not good. Our performance hasn't been very good either, so I don't know. Today was a struggle. This is probably the worst we've run here for as long as I can remember. We just really missed it. From the first lap on the track to the last lap on the track we were pretty much junk. Everybody is trying hard, but we just missed it."
Despite all that, he's iconic in that car. I'd like to see him in it through Homestead.