Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in racing this week.
Turn 1: We know the outcome wasn't optimal, but should Danica Patrick have retaliated against Landon Cassill on Sunday, or should she have focused on a good finish?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: I agree with her feeling that she needs to take up for herself, but in this case, I side with crew chief Greg Zipadelli's response: "You know better than that." Patrick was on her way to her best showing this season in a Cup race. She should have let it go on the track and talked to Cassill after the race to tell him payback was coming. She destroyed a strong car that the team planned to use in Texas. And, as Cassill said, she needs to learn how to wreck someone without wrecking herself. But in the big picture, this was the wrong move at the wrong time.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Oh, what the heck? What was she going to do? Back off and get a mediocre finish that would have gotten her the usual business from detractors anyway? All along, it seems to be the young drivers who are messing with her -- James Buescher in Nationwide, now Cassill -- and she's right to go ahead and deal with it. She stood her ground and was honest about it afterward. As for Cassill's "first law" being not to wreck yourself, well, I remember how a guy named Dale Earnhardt managed to wreck himself a time or two during payback. Danica has been a hit-back type since her karting days, and she can't change now -- and shouldn't.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: That was so weak. I saw it and then I said aloud nearly exactly what Greg Zipadelli said as he was saying it. I have no problem with using the bumper. I wish she'd do that more. But you have to pick the right spot. Why not do that to Jacques Villeneuve at Montreal when it would have really mattered and you could have won over some of all the haters? Not when you're trying to rehearse for next year's almost sure-to-be Cup nightmare.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Crew chief Greg Zipadelli said it best when he radioed, "You know better than that.'' So this one is easy. A good finish. Patrick was running Sunday to gain experience in the Sprint Cup Series. You don't gain experience from the garage. And you don't gain experience wrecking people, particularly when you're not good at it. This isn't the first time Patrick has walked away from an accident saying she had to prove she couldn't be taken advantage of. We get it. When another driver picks on her -- or is perceived to be picking on her -- she can retaliate. But that shouldn't be her goal. Gaining experience should be.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: I shot a piece last week about trash talk (which will air on Countdown this Sunday from Martinsville), and its fundamental premise is standing your ground: If you're gonna talk it, you gotta walk it. Athletes cannot tolerate being pushed around in the competitive arena -- even once. Because even once hints at weakness. Carl Edwards once told me: "Can't back down, man. Gotta stand your ground." I agree 1,000 percent. Here's the thing: When you're a young driver still working through that process of earning respect, you can't miss when you choose to strike. If you're going to go dump somebody, you must close the deal. Patrick swung and missed and did the worst thing possible: wrecked herself. She's not the least bit scared to stand her ground. We've seen that throughout her entire career. I figure she might go after the 83 again before season's end -- and before points matter.
Turn 2: Who had the better day Sunday, Jimmie Johnson with his comeback from a wreck or Brad Keselowski by somehow avoiding the late wreck by Kyle Busch?
Blount: Without question, it was Johnson and the 48 Chevy team. The fact that his crew managed to piece together a Humpty-Dumpty machine and get a top-10 out of it after that crash is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in racing. That car looked like a hunk of junk after he backed it in the wall. Johnson easily could have finished 30th and dropped 20 points further behind Brad. That's the kind of effort that wins championships, and it might end up becoming the moment that won this one.
Hinton: Johnson because his comeback was harder, over a much longer period of time. Chad Knaus showed his amazing, surgeonlike cool again. And a little psychiatry, telling Johnson there was nothing badly wrong with the car. All told, a lot of hard, methodical work. Kes's avoidance of the wreck was likely as much talent and reflexes as luck, but it lasted only a second or two, and didn't require nearly the persistence Johnson showed. The day overall was lucky for Bad Brad in that the Blue Deuce clearly wasn't a top-10 car most of the way, and all the melees left him a solid eighth.
McGee: Anyone that watched NASCAR Now on Sunday night or Monday afternoon knows how I feel about what the 48 team did at Kansas. Of all the great rabbits they've pulled out of helmets over the years, that was the best ever. And it had a huge impact on the 2 team, whether they want to admit it or not. In the garage they're parked side-by-side and when the 48 team was loading their wrecked car into the back of the hauler, the 2 guys were just staring at the rear end of that Chevy, literally scratching their heads. Keselowski even made a point to walk by and check it out up close on his way out of the track.
Newton: I'll go with Jimmie Johnson, but it's close. Both could look back at those moments as key if they go on to win the title. The nod goes to Johnson because his recovery took not only a great effort by him but by a lot of people pulling together to get that car where it could rally for a top-10 finish. That crew chief Chad Knaus remained so calm throughout the whole ordeal showed just how far that team has come since the end of last season. "It's big,'' Johnson said. "And that's what truthfully we didn't like about our attitude and execution at the end of last year. When things got a little trying for us, we didn't communicate and work as we needed to. It's more mature racing here in 2012." No, it's championship racing.
Smith: Johnson. I'm still digesting the effort the 48 team put forth to return that car to the racetrack at all, much less in a fashion that allowed Johnson to drive it back into the top 10. It was unbelievable, and could prove to be the seminal moment that wins him a championship. Johnson said after the race that he screwed up and missed a huge opportunity Sunday. He felt he might have had the best car on the racetrack and blew it. He might be right. But what might have happened is a prototypical unspoken message from the 48 team to the garage: "We wrecked and still lost no ground."
Turn 3: Give us the last driver in the standings you think is still in contention to win the championship, and tell us why.
Blount: In my view, nothing has changed. It's still a three-man battle between Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. However, Clint Bowyer in fourth (25 points back) and Kasey Kahne in fifth (30 points behind) still have a glimmer of hope. They would need to win at least two of the last four and hope each of the guys ahead of them had at least one bad day, but it's not impossible. For the other seven, it's over.
Hinton: Clint Bowyer because of his ability to win races. Although that knack hasn't helped Matt Kenseth much, Bowyer is hanging on in fourth, 25 points back, and has shown some consistency to go with his wins -- the foul luck in The Biggest One at Talladega being the exception, and not his fault. Bowyer must rely on a lot of bad luck among the top three in the standings, but should that happen, he's strong enough to rush in and take advantage. You might rate Kasey Kahne as marginal but doubtful, 30 points back. But Bowyer is the last guy with a realistic chance.
McGee: I am still not eliminating Kahne, though I think he missed a giant opportunity with these last two 1.5-mile ovals still to come. Realistically, the top three guys are still the only legit contenders, but Bowyer is in a groove right now and Kahne is such a streaky guy, he usually wins in spurts, so he still has the potential to get on a roll and make things uncomfortable for the big three.
Newton: Clint Bowyer in fourth. At 25 points back, he's a long shot and needs Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson to have a bad race to be a true contender. But he's running well with a win and sixth in his past two starts, and he's headed to Martinsville, where he almost dive-bombed his way to a victory in the spring. We'll know a lot more after this weekend. If Johnson is his typical dominant self at the half-mile track and Keselowski keeps doing what he's been doing the past few months, those two could put even more separation between themselves and the pretenders after Sunday. Denny Hamlin should have something to say in that. He's 20 back, but has four Martinsville wins and has only one finish outside of sixth in the past 12 races there. I realistically could see Bowyer finishing fifth at Martinsville and not making up any substantial ground. Heck, he could lose ground.
Smith: My gut says it's Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin. But that'd be stupid to assume. Too much can happen in four races. So I'll say Kasey Kahne, currently fifth in the standings, is the last driver with a shot to win it all. He's 30 points back and has two bread-and-butter 1.5-mile tracks left (Texas, Homestead), as well as Phoenix -- a race he won in 2011. If he can get through Martinsville unscathed, he'll still have a chance. Bowyer is the sleeper. He's running well everywhere and somehow is doing so quietly. Remember: In the spring, Bowyer was in position to contend for the win before all hell broke loose in Turn 1. He'll have an opportunity to make up ground this weekend.
Turn 4: It was a crazy race at Kansas, plenty of tires popping, lots of cars spinning. Give the race on the resurfaced track a rating between 1 (the lowest) and 10 and tell us why.
Blount: Call me crazy, but I loved it. I'll give it a 9, taking a point off for a finish that wasn't too exciting. But give me a race like this any day over the long green-flag runs we've seen this season, especially on the 1.5-mile ovals, where the cars get spread out and almost nothing happens for 100 consecutive laps or more. Sunday was old-school style racing -- tires actually gave out (remember those days?) and drivers had to show their skills (like the days when the cars had way less downforce) to keep from spinning out on the fresh pavement. Even the winner had a mashed car. I'll be thrilled if Texas and Homestead are half as exciting and dramatic as Kansas was.
Hinton: Make it a 5, because I'm truly split down the middle on a lot of action that was largely outrageous. It was highly entertaining in a twisted sort of way, maybe the most action on a cookie-cutter track since they "levigated" (ultra-smoothed) the Charlotte surface several years ago and made it a wrecking yard. But when you've got drivers as skilled as Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle having their cars just snap out from under them with no warning, that's not "challenging." That's unreasonably treacherous. Clearly there are two new casinos on the grounds at Kansas -- the one with that avowed purpose and the repaved 1.5-mile track that has turned out that way.
McGee: I give it an 8. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Though during one long stretch I admittedly saw none of the race. Rick Hendrick held his Dale Jr. "clarification" press conference in the middle of the event and there were so many wrecked cars in the garage we were back there in what looked like a salvage yard.
Newton: The finish wasn't all that great, but overall it was pretty entertaining for a repave where too often you wind up with a single-grooved track for a race or two. You had three-, sometimes four-wide racing. You had four multicar wrecks, equaling the number in the first five Chase races combined. You had 16 lead changes, two more than the first Kansas race this year. I'd give it a 7.5 with a half-point deduction for the finish.
Smith: I enjoyed it. Granted, I skew hard-core on the fan meter. The two lead contenders for the championship had to overcome adversity (Johnson) and near-catastrophic-misses (Keselowski) to post top-10 finishes. Keselowski hinted -- while still racing, no less -- that his near-miss dart through the "minefield," as his spotter called it, could define his championship march, were he to ultimately claim the title. The same can be said for Johnson's team's effort to repair his car. Different drivers led, including Aric Almirola and Mark Martin. The best in the business had trouble keeping the cars underneath them (Johnson and Kyle Busch).