Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: Should Denny Hamlin return this week at Richmond if his doctors give him the OK, or is it too soon?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: Obviously, if the doctors give him the go-ahead, he's going to do it, but I hope they don't and I don't think they will. I know he's itching to get back (especially at his home track of Richmond) and save his Chase hopes, but Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing officials have to look at the big picture. This isn't a broken leg or arm. Any back fracture is a serious injury. If he were to get back in the car too soon and be involved in another accident, it could have devastating consequences. It's just too much to risk. Denny also is talking about starting the Talladega race and getting out of the car after a few laps in order to earn the points. Talk about risky. Don't do it, even if it means his championship hopes for 2013 are over.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Journalists get paid to opine and conjecture, but not to render serious medical opinions. This one's up to Dr. Jerry Petty & Co., the boys with the M.D. degrees and the specialized training in neurosurgery. A lot depends on the private conversations between them and Hamlin. If they intimate that he could, but shouldn't, return this soon, then he should probably stay out longer. If they're firm and confident that he's good to go, he should go.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I tend to play it conservative on these calls. I always think it's best to fall on the side of long-term health versus short-term glory. I always think back to Dale Earnhardt's legendary refusal to get out of his car at Watkins Glen with a broken sternum in '96. He nearly won the race, which was awesome. But looking back, he wished he had gotten out and let it heal properly. It caused him problems for a while after that. But keep in mind that I was screaming for Hamlin to sit out longer in 2010 after his knee surgery ... and he nearly won the championship. The difference now is that I don't think he can realistically become a Cup contender this year, not even via the wild card. So why not let it heal the way it needs to?
David Newton, ESPN.com: If the doctors clear him, definitely. The speeds at Richmond aren't that high compared to most tracks, and the odds of Hamlin taking the kind of hit that injured his back are slim. As he told me, the dip in the concrete near the concrete wall he hit in California forced the front of his car upward. The impact forced his hips to go up and compressed his spine, versus his shoulders going forward as would happen in a normal collision. From a competitive standpoint, getting two more weeks of points than originally figured would be huge. Plus, Richmond is a track where he could win and get into the wild-card spot.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: If doctors clear him medically, by all means return. Absolutely. Because if doctors clear him, that means he's healed well enough that the potential for long-term harm due to the compression fracture is nonexistent. And it must be nonexistent. We're not talking about a knee ligament. We're talking about paralysis. Hamlin is a fantastic driver and a very tough person. But he's also an investment for Joe Gibbs, FedEx and many other folks. Those doctors are not going to clear him unless they are unequivocally certain he cannot further injure himself. They must save him from him. Hamlin told me before Martinsville that he felt physically ready to go. So it's the medical staff's responsibility to do the right thing. If he does return at Richmond, he'll have the opportunity to make the Chase. He has life perspective now. The larger scope of his blessings resonates deeper with him. That will make him a better racer.
Turn 2: Two teams have won seven of the first eight races this season, Joe Gibbs Racing with four and Hendrick Motorsports with three. Are they that far ahead of everyone else?
Blount: Not far ahead, but clearly ahead. This isn't a surprise for Hendrick. Whenever you have a major change like the Gen-6 car that requires a huge financial investment, the teams with the most money and the best personnel typically figure it out first. Two other changes have been a big factor in JGR's strong showing -- improved reliability of the Toyota engines and Matt Kenseth's arrival. So in Gibbs' case, I don't know if it's figuring out the Gen-6 as much as better engines and a much better driver. But Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing aren't exactly stinking up the show. Roush has two drivers in the top six (Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards). As for Penske, Brad Keselowski ranks third, despite the penalty, and Logano has two top-5s. But Hendrick and JGR are the early Gen-6 winners.
Hinton: Yes, indeed, and to break it down further, JGR is ahead of Hendrick. Two of JGR's three drivers, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, have won. The third, Denny Hamlin, very likely would have won, had he not been sitting out with a back injury. At Hendrick, only two of the four drivers, Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson, have won. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon have only been close enough to sniff wins before dropping back. The other factor is, look how far back the other major teams have fallen: Stewart-Haas, Childress, Ganassi and even Roush, except for Carl Edwards' win. Now Penske gets kicked in the gut with these penalties. Clearly, JGR has the handle on the Gen-6, HMS is close, Penske isn't quite as close, and all the rest are -- hello, down there!
McGee: I don't think the gap between them and the smaller teams is as wide as it used to be, but the gap between them and the other big teams does seem to be opening up a bit. Honestly, though, that has as much to do with the struggles of those other teams as it does Hendrick's and Gibbs' strengths. Michael Waltrip Racing stumbled out of the gate compared to one year ago, while Stewart-Haas Racing and Richard Childress Racing look lost. I still think Roush Fenway will have its hot streak, too. These things run in cycles. Right now those two teams are at the top of the cycle.
Newton: Yes, but what's new? JGR and HMS have been the class of the sport for years, with Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing occasionally getting into the mix. JGR and HMS won eight of the first 15 races and 17 of 36 a year ago with Kyle Busch having a down year and Joey Logano in the 20 instead of Kenseth. With the development of the new car, you had to figure the organizations with the most resources would get out of the gate the fastest. And this goes beyond wins. Look at laps led. The organizations have combined to lead 1,895 of a possible 2,584 laps. That's an amazing 73.3 percent. As Kenseth said after winning Sunday's race, the fastest cars are supposed to win, right? They have the fastest cars.
Smith: No. I expected that one or two elite organizations would grasp the Gen-6 quicker than everyone else and jump out to a dominant start. That's how it appears on paper. But Roush is fast. Michael Waltrip Racing is fast. Penske is fast. Childress is marginally fast. Several organizations have tons of speed -- they just haven't managed to piece every critical variable together to win. Hendrick and Gibbs are two of the four best organizations in the garage, with several elite drivers, crew chiefs and engineers and good to great pit crews. With all that, it's not at all surprising they've won so often. The only surprise to me is how far off Stewart-Haas is. But that's an entirely different debate.
Turn 3: Do you think Penske Racing has a realistic chance of winning its appeal on the penalties levied after Texas?
Blount: These appeals have surprised me at times, like last year's reversal of the No. 48 penalty from Daytona. But I'll be more than shocked if the Penske boys can talk their way out of this one. NASCAR made it clear to everyone at the end of last season that it wasn't going to tolerate any changes to the rear-end housing that would cause the back of the car to skew out. You can complain all you want about how the Hendrick cars got away with it for a while last season, but that was then and this is now. Entering 2013, everyone knew it was a do-not-touch area, but Penske Racing decided to test it. Bad idea. If any relief is coming, it might be to the length of the suspensions of team engineer Brian Wilson and team manager Travis Geisler. That's an unusually harsh move by NASCAR, basically removing the entire Penske brain trust.
Hinton: They have a shot at getting the penalties reduced, due to the sheer harshness of the punishment. Each unit has lost its crew chief, car chief and top engineer. That's cutting to the bone of a team with a meat cleaver. If it gets as high as the notoriously fair chief appellate officer, John Middlebrook, I'd say he keeps the crew chiefs suspended and lets the others come back.
McGee: No. But then again, I felt just as strongly that Hendrick wouldn't win theirs last year. Any chance Roger Penske can get a former big-time Ford exec installed as chief appellate officer?
Newton: No. The first step of the appeal with the three-member panel likely will be a formality, with Penske Racing going to the second and final step in which chief appellate officer John Middlebrook makes the decision. Then there is a chance, if Roger Penske can use his power of persuasion the way Rick Hendrick did a year ago. Here's what Penske will argue: One, the parts were approved even if slightly altered, and other cars are dipping into the gray area just as they did. Two, the cars never actually competed in the race, so the punishment was much too harsh. Here's what NASCAR will argue: One, the parts were not approved because they were altered to move in an area where parts shouldn't move. Two, there were countless warnings that the hammer would come down if teams went outside the boundaries in this area. There seems to be no question that Penske Racing, regardless of whether other teams were caught, violated what NASCAR called the spirit of the rules. The best Penske can hope for is a slight reduction in the suspensions.
Smith: I do not. In fact, I don't think they have any chance. Multiple garage sources I've spoken with on the matter all say there is too much evidence to the contrary, evidence that it was a blatant attempt to circumvent the rules.
Turn 4: While three Hendrick Motorsports drivers rank in the top five, Jeff Gordon sticks out in 15th place. Is there something wrong with the 24 team?
Blount: Without the two mechanical failures (a blown tire at Bristol and a broken hub at Texas), Gordon would rank somewhere in the top 10. So it's easy to just write it off as bad luck. I'm not so sure that's the right answer. I hate to admit this, but I'm starting to wonder if Gordon has lost a step. I know he hasn't forgotten how to drive and he's only 41, but he's been doing this for 20 years. I don't know if Jeff is still willing to race on the ragged edge. I hope I'm wrong. I thought the move to add Alan Gustafson as his crew chief would be the change that put him back on top. It hasn't worked out that way. And last year, when Gordon got mad and wrecked Clint Bowyer, I thought it was a sign he still had that fire to be a champion, even though it was a bad decision at the time. It's been 12 years since Gordon's last Cup title. Terry Labonte is the only driver in history to go that long between championships. I don't know if Gordon can equal the feat.
Hinton: That 24 team has got a lot of miles on it since 1993, not the least the driver. And there's been significant turnover over the past several years. Gordon himself is pushing 42 and may have lost a flicker of reflexes. Plus, he seems more and more persnickety about setups that develop little glitches. He's no longer one to overcompensate for an off car. Jimmie Johnson can and will do that. Look: The twilight comes to every career.
McGee: When you go back and analyze their performance race by race, their cars have been fast, but there's always something preventing them from closing the deal. Watch the tape from Bristol and that pretty much sums up their year. It reminds me a lot of Kasey Kahne one year ago. In fact, Kahne was way worse off, sitting 26th in points, despite a pair of top-10s. Just doing the eyeball test, when you compare how Gordon has looked to how Tony Stewart has looked, I think it's obvious that Gordon is in much better shape than the standings might say.
Newton: Nothing a little good fortune wouldn't cure. I hate to talk about luck, but it's a factor. Gordon's had fast cars all year, qualifying in the top 11 in six of eight events. It might have been seven of eight had he not wrecked in qualifying at Kansas. He had a chance to win at Bristol until a tire blew while he was leading and sent him into the wall. Suspension problems left him 38th at Texas. The concern would be if he wasn't fast. It's no different than last season, really. In fact, Gordon is in much better position now than he was at this time a year ago when he was 18th in points. He was 24th 11 races in and still made the Chase. Not time to panic.
Smith: It's not as bad as it looks on paper. Gordon admits they're lacking, but also notes they "can't catch a break." The numbers suggest he's right. Gordon's average running position during races is 12th -- sixth-best in the Sprint Cup Series and ahead of guys like Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards. His average finish: 19th. Here's the kicker: NASCAR has a "closer" statistic that tallies the number of positions gained or lost in the final 10 percent of each race. Gordon has lost 53 positions in the last 10 percent of races, which is by far the most in the series.