Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week.
Turn 1: Rate Danica Patrick during Speedweeks on a scale of 1 to 10, then tell us what she might have learned that she can carry forward into her NASCAR career.
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: Other than winning the Daytona 500, what more could Danica do? I'll give her a 9. She won the pole, which didn't tell us much, but her performance in the 500 was nothing short of spectacular. She ran in the top 10 all day, led laps and went to the last lap with a chance to win it. Yes, she got schooled and shuffled back at the end, but that happens to the best of them at a restrictor-plate track. It's just one race and has little bearing on the non-plate tracks, but her confidence is soaring, which has to help as the season progresses.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: 9.5. She did everything she could have to liven up the show other than win the race. And we and she all knew winning was pretty much out of the question. She just didn't know how to brawl with the draft sharks at the end. But she loaded up Speedweeks with pizzazz from Valentine's Day with boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr., through winning the pole, right down to the white flag of the race, hanging in there, up front, until the scramble she just wasn't prepared for shuffled her back. She learned a lot about plate racing, which she can take to Talladega in the spring for another good showing. But this race taught her little about the meat and potatoes of intermediate tracks.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: 9 and change. Anyone who isn't willing to admit that Danica exceeded expectations is just a hater and is always going to be a hater no matter what she does. I don't know whether she learned as much as she acclimated herself. There will never be a setting more intense than running third in the Daytona 500 with only a few laps remaining. The good news for her is that Phoenix is next. She's got a bazillion laps at that place and has run well there in a stock car already. But when she gets past that, Daytona momentum likely will fade fast.
David Newton, ESPN.com: 9.7. She dominated media day with her romance with Stenhouse. She dominated qualifying by becoming the first woman to win the pole in NASCAR's top series. She dominated prerace festivities with a crowd around her car on pit road bigger than you'll see in the grandstands at Auto Club Speedway in California (OK, maybe not quite that big.) She dominated headlines in the 500, stealing thunder from winner Jimmie Johnson with an eighth-place finish that was the best ever for a female driver in the Great American Race. She did everything but win the Daytona 500, and she was in position, running third heading into the last lap. Don't get too excited, though. A lot of drivers with average talent have won or finished in the top 10 in this and other plate races. Michael McDowell and J.J. Yeley finished ninth and 10th in this one. But you have to give Patrick props for maxing out on almost every opportunity available. Jeff Gordon had a fast car, too, and he finished 20th.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: 9.7. The only way Danica lives up to the unprecedented hype is to win the Daytona 500. She damn near did it. She drove a smart, patient race. She didn't overexert herself or try to be cute. She raced. Inexperience, not inability, prevented her from winning the Daytona 500 on the final lap. Confidence is what she carries forward. My goodness, what a tremendous start. So many people seem to want to disparage her accomplishment or criticize the coverage versus performance ratio. In my estimation she took a large step forward to legitimizing it Sunday. Largest stage. Biggest stakes. Best finish ever for a female driver on that stage.
Turn 2: It's probably too early to rate the Gen-6 car, but not the Daytona 500. Give the race a grade, A to F, and explain why.
Blount: The drivers loved it and most of the fans hated it, so I'll split the difference and give it a "C." Frankly, it paled in comparison to the Nationwide race one day earlier. Most of the 500 was follow the leader, but the last 19 laps were a blast to watch when everyone decided it was go time. So it isn't so much the Gen-6 as the drivers trying to play it safe until the end and not get out of line. The biggest problem is it's hard to pass the leader, but I'll advise patience. In many ways, it was old-school plate racing, though fans don't remember it that way. The best news is the checkered flag came without total craziness at the end, as we saw Saturday when some spectators were injured.
Hinton: C-plus. Drivers are just sick of crashing so much equipment in plate races, so they did a ride-around, as they've done a couple of times at Talladega in the past. This time they were understandably skittish with the new cars and the weird side-drafting effects. It was just that the ride-around occurred in the showcase race this time, so it got more criticism. But Danica's constant presence up toward the front, throughout the race, kept things dramatic, regardless of the dearth of passing.
McGee: I'm going to punt and give it an "I" for Incomplete. No way we can judge what Gen-6 is going to be based on one race that's unlike any other race we run. With the new car I keep saying what I always say about the Cup championship: Get me to Charlotte in May, then we'll have enough information to know what we really have.
Newton: B-minus. Sure, they spent 75 percent of the race parading around the top line. Few were willing to risk going to the bottom and going backward because there weren't enough willing to risk going with them. Drivers also are tired of tearing up cars in spectacular fashion, as we saw in the Nationwide Series race. But look at the positives. No tandem racing, which I hated even though it was entertaining. There was more strategy than we typically see in a plate race, from fuel mileage to what happened on pit road to when to make the winning move. There was no horrific wreck. And we saw a driver actually earn the victory and not win it because he survived a big crash or had the right partner pushing him at the end.
Remember the 1976 Daytona 500 won by David Pearson when his car limped across the finish line after a last-lap crash with Richard Petty? Did you know that Pearson was the only driver who finished on the lead lap? And it was considered one of the greatest 500s of all time. So give me a break on the boring talk. And don't blame the Gen-6. The car was designed more to make racing at mile-and-a-half tracks better. As for Daytona, I'll defer to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski, who said this car is a few tweaks in the package from putting on a great show. The car was super fast, particularly when it got in the high line, which contributed to why there wasn't as much passing as some wanted. But we saw at the end, when Johnson got a few friends to tag along with him on the low line, that the racing was good.
Smith: Not only is it too early, it's two years too early. The Daytona 500 gets a "C" rating from me. Ninety-five percent of the feedback I got from fans was a full-blown failure rating. Many said it was the worst Daytona 500 ever. I disagree. When the race began, I noted this prediction: 450 miles of parade, 50 miles of chaos. That's pretty much what happened. The aerodynamic quirks of the new car gave drivers pause in making aggressive moves to pass. Can't blame them for being conservative. You don't want to start the season on a hook. I believe that by the time we get to summer, this car will be great. By the time we get to summer 2014, after the teams have 18 months to tweak it, it'll be fantastic. (I certainly hope so. As much time, effort and resources as the teams, owners and manufacturers have put into it, it had better be awesome).
Turn 3: Denny Hamlin shot a satirical tweet aimed at former teammate Joey Logano, calling him a "genius" for the way he raced Sunday. Then Logano fired one right back at Hamlin. Is it all in good fun, or is there some bad blood worth watching here?
Blount: I guess the message out of this is Hamlin never thought much of Logano when they were teammates, but Hamlin wisely didn't say it then. Other than that, it's nothing more than a typical asinine, juvenile spat that's all too common on Twitter.
Hinton: This Twitter business is in a downward spiral into the abyss of absurdity. Why are we even talking about such a silly little comment on a professional sports journalism website? We are being sucked down the vortex. Is anything going to come of this silliness? No. I'm sorry I even have to dignify this nonsense with an answer.
McGee: I love it. I don't think it's anything that will last, but it sure verified the tension that so many believed was there during their teammate days at Joe Gibbs Racing. So, is this how drivers squabble now? They bypass the old postrace tradition of standing on the liftgates screaming and instead get on their planes and tweet-fight?
Newton: Modern-day version of the 1979 Daytona 500. Cale Yarborough and the Allison Brothers have returned to their motor coaches. Yarborough pulls out his cellphone and tweets: "I was going to win the race, but @AlabamaGang2 turned left and crashed me. So, hell, I crashed him back. #Genius." Responds Donnie Allison: "@TimmonsvilleFlash wrecked me, I didn't wreck him. #LoveYaMeanIt." Responds Bobby (@AlabamaGang1) Allison: "@TimmonsvilleFlash said that wreck was my fault and I wasn't anywhere around 'em. I want him to beat on my knuckles with his face. #WhatTheHell.'' Richard (@TheKing43) Petty: "I won another dadgum Daytona 500! #LOL.'' What Hamlin did is just a product of the times. Drivers don't settle issues with their fists, they do it with their cellphones. They'll all laugh about it at Phoenix.
Smith: This is pure speculation: I haven't asked either driver about it. Denny wouldn't have written that note if he didn't meant it, if he wasn't angry at Logano's driving decision. Logano responded hastily, and I'll guarantee you he was irked by Hamlin's comment. There is no question in my mind it was real emotion on both sides. I'm sure it's already behind them. They'll be laughing about it at Phoenix.
Turn 4: Safety is on everyone's mind after the Nationwide Series race Saturday, when the crowd was sprayed with debris and more than two dozen fans were sent to the hospital. What can NASCAR, other racing series and the tracks do to make the fans safer?
Blount: It's time to seriously consider a super Plexiglas-style barrier instead of the catch fencing. I've been told from engineers that the technology exists to implement this change. The problem with catch fencing is it acts as a giant cheese grater when a car flies into it, shattering pieces of metal and tossing them at high speeds like shrapnel. A Plexiglas-type barrier also could eliminate the support poles, which was the cause of Dan Wheldon's death in the IndyCar race at Las Vegas. And a window-style barrier would improve fans' vision of the action in front of them. A change of this magnitude would be enormously expensive. So was the SAFER barrier, but it's time to move forward.
Hinton: Rest assured NASCAR will do whatever it can. Fan safety has always been priority No. 1 at NASCAR, and it'll give this total effort with scientific methodology. Some have suggested double fencing, wider overhangs and even moving seating back from the fences. The fans would be the first to howl at being moved back. They like to participate in the danger, always have, always will. They want to be as close to the action as possible. NASCAR certainly will look at the cars to make the wheel tethers more effective and see if front-clip shearing can be reduced if not stopped. But that will be tough. If there are solutions, NASCAR will find them and implement them. But it won't happen overnight. It can't.
McGee: I'm with Dario Franchitti. There has to be an alternative to the way we're doing catch fences now. No, I have no idea what that is, but as the Indy 500 champ suggests, we need to get all the smart people, the engineers, in a room and come up with solutions. Just as they figured out a replacement for concrete retaining walls. Whatever they do, it can't be tall enough and it needs cover overhead, too. They do that with nets to keep foul balls out of baseball grandstands, so why not at the racetrack?
Newton: Short of putting a cage or unbreakable glass dome over the track, not a lot. This was one of those perfect-storm situations that turned out ugly. I'm most curious to see whether a study of the wreck determines the crossover gate where the engine went through played a role in searing off the front of Kyle Larson's car and creating an opening big enough for much of the debris to get through. There is extra tubing around the gate that may have played a role. I was a bit surprised the track didn't take out the other crossover gates on the frontstretch as a precaution. Then there's the front clip coming completely off. Rick Hendrick said he's never seen that before and will do whatever he can with NASCAR to improve technology so it doesn't happen again. It's one thing for drivers to put themselves at risk. The sport can't afford to have fans at risk. Having said that, not one person I talked to in the section where the injuries occurred indicated concern about being injured.
Smith: In my opinion, the only thing that could be done is to eliminate lower-level seats entirely -- and even that may not work. Debris from Saturday's Nationwide Series wreck at Daytona flew into the upper deck, too. I interviewed Tony Stewart on Sunday morning before the Daytona 500. He is a track owner. He has taken extensive measures to ensure Eldora Speedway is as safe as it can be. He was adamant about one point to me: The fence at Daytona did its job. The race car stayed inside the racetrack. The motor didn't fly into the grandstands. His entire answer is insightful:
"I think going into today they've done that to this point. The great thing about NASCAR, about all these track operators, is they will take what they learned from all of this and they will make it better. You look back 50 years ago and people were wearing leather helmets and white T-shirts with one lap belt and no roll cage on the cars. So just like the safety has advanced in our sport on the driver side, the racetracks have done the same. Fifty, sixty years ago some of these tracks were literally lined with hay bales, and that was it. That was it. They didn't have a catch fence. Their wall was a hay bale.
"So you look at the structure we have at Daytona -- it is an awesome structure. But they will look at ways to make it better. But everything they've done to this point has made it as safe as they can do at this time. We know that the parts went into the stands. The thing that's been overshadowed is a 3,400-pound race car went into that fence and stayed back on the racetrack side, and that's what that fence is designed for. The motor ended up through the fence, but the fence caught it and it laid right beside the edge of the retaining wall. So for the most part that fence did its job.
"Now, there were parts and pieces that ended up getting through it, but for the most part if you look at the percentages of what went into it and what went out of it, for the most part that fence did everything it was designed to do. And there is still that percentage that made it through and caused injuries, but it's no different than going to a baseball game or a hockey game and you have balls and pucks going into the stands and people can't react fast enough. It's unfortunately just a part of what can happen at a pro sporting event. We've got 14 people in the hospital that are all in stable condition. I can pretty much guarantee if you look at the stats, there were 14 or more people that died in car accidents yesterday on city streets, and we feel like that's safe every day.
"But we've got a staff with NASCAR that'll look at it and do everything they can, and we've got track operators that will do everything they can to take this experience and this accident and try and make it better in the future."