Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: Matt Kenseth called his win at Darlington the biggest of his career, and he has won two Daytona 500s. Does Darlington still belong in NASCAR's big four?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: There's no such thing as NASCAR's big four. There's the Big One -- the Daytona 500. No other Cup event comes close to the prestige and importance of that race. The Brickyard 400 did for a while when it first started, but that event has lost so much luster now it's just trying to find ways to regain attention, like possibly changing to a night race. Darlington still is a nice race to win, but it's not the same Southern 500 as it was on Labor Day weekend. And I know Matt was excited about finally winning on the historic track, but ask any driver which race he or she would rather win -- Darlington or the Daytona 500? I think you know the answer you'll get. If you ask me to rank NASCAR's top four races, here's my answer: 1. Daytona 500, 2. Bristol night race, 3. Brickyard 400, 4. Coca Cola 600.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Of course it does. It's NASCAR's Wrigley Field and Fenway Park rolled into one. By consensus, drivers consider Darlington the biggest challenge they face. Even the ones who aren't good at it worship it. Fans also revere the Lady in Black, though I'm not sure they're sure why. They get all worked up for the start of the race, but often, on live race chats, I see them complaining about dull racing. Either you understand that drivers are literally "racing the track" more than each other, or you don't. When fans talk about revising the schedule, a second race annually back at Darlington tops their list. Drivers would like a second stop there, too. The place is out in the boonies and has trouble drawing crowds, so two per year there is unlikely. But NASCAR would take a huge, misguided step if it ever abandoned the place altogether.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Yes! How much the old lady means to today's drivers was never more obvious than it was when Kenseth was on the verge of crying on the radio during his victory lap. I am hopelessly old school, so I still love the crown jewels of oldest (Darlington), longest (Coca-Cola 600), fastest (Talladega spring race) and biggest (Daytona). In fact, my first reaction when he won Saturday night was: This dude has a legit shot at the old Winston Million.
David Newton, ESPN.com: YES! Argument 1: Look at the list of winners. Pearson, Earnhardt, Allison, Petty, etc. It reads like a NASCAR Hall of Fame more than any track. Seldom, if ever, do you see a no-name in Victory Lane. Argument 2: It is NASCAR's oldest superspeedway, the sport's Lambeau and Wrigley Field, so to speak. Tradition has to count for something. Argument 3: It's not called "Too Tough To Tame'' for nothing. Ask almost any driver and they'll tell you it is one of the toughest -- if not the toughest -- tracks on the circuit, even though the resurfacing has tamed it a bit. Argument 4: These words from the late Dale Earnhardt: "You never forget your first love, whether it's a high school sweetheart, a faithful old hunting dog, or a fickle racetrack in South Carolina with a contrary disposition. And, if you happen to be a race car driver, there's no victory so sweet, so memorable, as whipping Darlington Raceway." Case closed.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Every day and twice on Sunday. Some feared it may lose prestige when it lost a race date, but in fact the opposite happened. There is no track on earth that is more respected than Darlington. In the stock car world, it has Indianapolis Motor Speedway-level respect, because you must race her and respect her for four hours. The slightest misstep ruins the dance. It is an emotionally, mentally and physically exhausting exercise. It doesn't carry the prestige that Daytona or Indy have, for a lot of reasons -- none of which are pure racing ability. And based on that, it is absolutely a NASCAR major.
Turn 2: For the third time this season, Kyle Busch had an on-track incident with Kasey Kahne. Was it Kyle's fault, as Kahne implied and many people claimed on Twitter, or was it just hard racing?
Blount: Probably a little of both. Busch got in too deep entering the turn and washed up the track, almost hitting Kahne and taking the air off his car before Kahne brushed the wall. But when two drivers are battling for the top spot late in a race, all bets are off. You go for it. So I don't have a problem with Busch's aggressive driving at that point of the race in that situation. And isn't this what so many fans scream to see -- two guys giving it all they've got, racing side by side for the lead?
Hinton: Well, it was Kyle's fault -- sort of -- but that still falls under the category of hard racing. Kahne maintained Kyle blew his entry to the corner. Well, nobody -- and I mean nobody -- can be perfect at Darlington on every lap. The place is warped. Even Kahne wasn't sure whether he was touched, or just turned by movement of the air. For the past 20 years or so, I've gone by the theory that "All's fair when you work the air." Still, I don't think this one was intentional. Good as Kyle is, he's not immune from making mistakes, and maybe this was one.
McGee: Hard racing. And good racing. Nothing more and certainly nothing less.
Newton: No doubt Busch was totally at fault when he wrecked Kahne at Daytona and Talladega. He is the first to admit it. But what happened on Saturday night was nothing more than two drivers racing hard for the lead. Did Busch blow the entry into Turn 1 overdriving his car trying to protect a lead he'd held most of the night? Yes. Could he have backed off? Yes. But it wasn't like he blatantly got into Kahne and took him out. The two barely made contact, if they made contact at all. If they hadn't been involved in the other two situations, and if one of them hadn't been named Kyle Busch, we wouldn't be talking about whose fault it was. Having said that, this is a reason I said Matt Kenseth was the best driver at Joe Gibbs Racing and my favorite to win the title over Busch. He knows when to back off and be there at the end.
Smith: I considered it hard racing -- two hungry sharks with checkered blood in the water. I've learned a lot about driver code over the years. Most every driver has either directly or indirectly educated me about the things we don't readily see. But I've never raced, and only those who have raced truly know the intricacies of driver code. So I asked a couple of them their thoughts.
Dale Jarrett said, while he has absolutely no proof to back it up, that he believes there was "ever so slight" contact between Kahne and Busch, and "it doesn't take much in that position to wreck them both." He then said he has a very hard time placing blame, but if you're adamant about placing blame, which he always seem to be, then "maybe Kyle made a slight miscalculation. But that's racing." Jarrett understands why Kahne is angry. He would be, too. "We're always wanting to place blame, but sometimes it's just racing. That's just the way it is. You're going to do whatever it takes to win." I agree with you, Dale Jarrett.
I also spoke to Ricky Craven, who has had his own physical days at Darlington. He blames them both. "My thoughts are this -- and I have 100 percent conviction," Craven said. "They're both to blame for one thing: They forgot where they were racing! Both put themselves in position to win because they raced the track all night. Then, as has been the case so many times, they lost focus on hitting their marks and focused on each other. That's a cardinal sin at Darlington."
Turn 3: Will Jeff Gordon -- with 700 consecutive starts -- break Ricky Rudd's record of 788 straight?
Blount: Yes, more than likely. All he has to do is race the rest of this season and two more without an injury to surpass Rudd. That would be 97 more starts for Gordon, and he would be 44 years old. At that point, it's probably time to say goodbye unless he just wants to get to 800.
Hinton: I don't think that's the kind of record Gordon thinks about. But he should break it easily. I don't see his enthusiasm waning enough to stop him from running the full schedules of 2014 and '15. Add those to the remainder of this season, and that makes a total of 797. Gordon, knock on wood, has never had a serious injury. In fact, he's only even had his bell rung twice, as I recall. That's largely because he is meticulous and scientific about the safety equipment inside his race cars. Rest assured of this, though: Should doctors ever advise him to sit out a race, he would. The "iron man" record is just not meaningful enough to him for him to take risks to break it.
McGee: I asked him about this very subject on Friday, and he was very quick to say that 788 was too far into the future to even speculate. But the math is pretty simple. That's two and a half more seasons. Just five years ago I would have said there's not a chance because Jeff himself always said he didn't see himself racing much past the age of 40. Well, clearly that plan has been scrapped. So barring injury -- and he's managed to walk away from some vicious hits during those first 700 races -- yeah, he'll do it.
Newton: No. Yes. I don't think so. Heck, I don't know. If Gordon continues to race and isn't injured, he'll break the record late in the 2015 season. Call it a gut feeling, but I could see the four-time champion hanging it up after next year to go out on top and focus on his family. I also could see him race another five years. He's only 41. But he said last weekend at Darlington that he doesn't want to be "that guy'' who runs around the back at the end of his career. He wants to be remembered for what he's accomplished, not for hanging on too long. Success -- or a lack of it -- ultimately could determine what he does. If he were to win the title this year or come close, it could drive him to continue to catch and perhaps surpass the five titles teammate Jimmie Johnson has, maybe to catch Earnhardt and Petty with seven. If he fails to make the Chase, it could speed up the retirement party. Either way, breaking Rudd's streak isn't a priority.
Smith: Yes. That's the rest of this season plus two more full seasons. He's only 41 and still driven.
Turn 4: Four drivers in the top 10 -- Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski and Aric Almirola -- are winless. If you had to pick one of them to win the Cup title this season, who would it be and why?
Blount: I'll go with the defending champ on that one. Keselowski has seven top-10s and would rank fifth in the standings if not for the 25-point penalty from Texas. Statistically speaking, he's about even with Bowyer. Both men have an average finish of 12.5. But the difference is Paul Wolfe on the pit box for Brad. Wolfe has to sit out one more race on suspension, but he will guide Keselowski back up the standings this summer. However, I don't think any of these guys will win the 2013 title.
Hinton: I picked Bad Brad to win the Cup in '12, and I've picked him to repeat, and I'm not about to budge just because he's hit some rough waters this spring. He WILL win races in the regular season, and he'll make the Chase with ease. Then he and crew chief Paul Wolfe will get into another stare-down with Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. We know who blinked last year, but Johnson and Knaus are stronger this season, so BK versus JJ should be quite a show. Matt Kenseth and Jason Ratcliff are emerging to make it a three-way fight for the best driver-crew chief tandem in Cup, but Kes and Wolfe remain at their peak.
McGee: I am really impressed with Almirola this year, but he's not going to win the championship. Making the Chase would be his championship. I think Dale Jr. and Bowyer are very similar. I think they are capable of doing it and are kind of quietly getting in position for the postseason. But even though he's struggled over the past few weeks, the defending champ is still the defending champ, so I'd rank Keselowski as having the best shot among this foursome.
Newton: Seriously? Keselowski. He proved last year that he has the mental toughness and talent to win a title. Take away the penalty and distraction from Texas this year and he'd be fourth in points instead of seventh. He and crew chief Paul Wolfe know better than any combination on this list how to get the consistent finishes it takes to win the championship. They opened the season with four straight finishes of fourth or better and with seven top-10s in the first eight races. They easily could have won a race or two. That Keselowski's name is even on this list seems a bit ridiculous.
Smith: Keselowski is the easy choice, based on the obvious: experience, ability, desire -- everything that makes him and Paul Wolfe great. And my, they're certainly great. But I like Bowyer. I like what I see there, where's he's headed. That's a great race team, and he's more confident than I've seen him in years, maybe since 2007. Maybe ever. Drivers tend to reach optimum performance in an environment like he's in now: worthy equipment, like-minded team, no in-fighting. He's comfortable, but not complacent.