Our panel of experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: What is your reaction to the news that Chase contender Tony Stewart broke his right leg in a sprint car race Monday night at Southern Iowa Speedway and will miss this weekend's road course race at Watkins Glen?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: First, this is terribly sad for Stewart, his team and the entire Stewart-Haas Racing organization. But my second reaction is this: It shouldn't have happened. It was a risk Stewart shouldn't have taken. He almost does this with a deviant attitude, as if to say, ''I'm a racer. I race anything I want whenever I want." That's great, but hundreds of people's livelihoods are depending on you as a team owner at the Cup level. Sponsors are depending on you and paying you millions of dollars to be the best you can be in NASCAR. Jason Leffler's death earlier this year in a sprint car race should have been a warning to all these drivers about the dangers of moonlighting in these events. Stewart's chances of making the Chase are in serious jeopardy now, and that could cost SHR millions of dollars. It just wasn't worth the risk.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: First concern is the injury, of course. Few details, but reading "surgery" raises worries that the fracture might be severe. You have to hope he won't miss more races than just The Glen on Sunday. I won't pass judgment on his frequent sprint car racing. If he wants to do it, that's his business. He doesn't have to answer to a Cup team owner. But he is one, so on top of everything else he now has to deal with all the business matters involved -- points, replacement driver, sponsor concerns, etc. I just hate it for him, all the way around.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: In a weird way, you kind of felt this coming. We had the Leffler crash; I'd just done a piece on Randy LaJoie and short-track safety, then Stewart had his crash last week; then some Cup guys, most notably Jeff Gordon, addressed moonlighting over the weekend ... and boom. Do I think Smoke is now out of the Chase? Yes. Do I think this will keep him from short-tracking in the future? No. It's all just another weird wrinkle in this wildest of wild-card races.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Same as it was last week when I wrote the column suggesting he should stop -- or at least heavily curtail -- driving sprint cars and focus on the Chase. Same as it was when Stewart stopped me on pit road before Sunday's race and said that asking him to stop racing sprint cars made him want to beat me up. Not in a threatening way, mind you. It's why Joe Gibbs asked Stewart to back off his late-model schedule years ago when Stewart drove for JGR. The driver, as Gordon said at Pocono, is an asset. Sponsors and others depend on that asset. If there is a chance that doing something outside the Cup series could compromise that asset, it's not worth the risk, at least if you look at it as an owner. I understand that Stewart, as a driver, wants to live his life to the fullest. But as an owner he has to understand he is more valuable in the Cup car than not. This is a huge loss for the Chase and for the sport.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: This world needs more passion. Folks these days are generally apathetic. It's the easy way. Indifference is easy. It's easy to sit back and watch the world roll by. It's easy to say "What if?" It's easy to criticize the unwillingness to compromise. I get that. Because passion demands commitment. Passion demands effort and edge and unmitigated desire. It's not always popular. That's a great part of its beauty. Smoke bleeds passion for sprint car racing. It's in his soul. Hell, it is his soul. It is the reset button that cleanses his corporate collar blue. Yes, he has hundreds on his watch. Yes, he is the face of Fortune 500 companies. Yes, he has responsibilities most of us can't fathom. Why? Because he bleeds passion. That's why.
Turn 2: Ryan Blaney won the Camping World Truck Series race this past weekend at Pocono, cementing his name on the list of up-and-coming drivers to watch. Of those, who do you think has the most potential?
Blount: As I've said many times, Kyle Larson may be the most talented young driver I've ever seen. However, a lot of these youngsters now in the feeder leagues can become future stars at the highest level. The one who almost everyone agrees has a bright future is Chase Elliott, incredibly mature for only 17 years old. Jeb Burton may have more talent than his dad, Ward, and his uncle Jeff. Cole Custer opened some eyes by winning a K&N race this past weekend at age 15, but the driver I like most other than Larson is 17-year-old Erik Jones. He has three top-10s in three Truck starts, including second at Iowa three weeks ago.
Hinton: Blaney is another Brad Keselowski -- journeyman racing family, grassroots training and passion, pure talent, plenty of savvy, the whole deal. But Larson is closer to the threshold of stardom. Larson is right there just about everywhere he goes -- plate tracks, short tracks, dirt, you name it, he's in the mix. Between the two, it's a toss-up on talent. Larson has an edge in résumé-building, so if I have to pick most potential at this point, I'll take Larson. But watch for Chase Elliott, who's better connected with a better team, Hendrick Motorsports, than any other youngster, to rise above the other two within the next three years.
McGee: I've said this before. and I'll say it again: There's a deluge of young talent coming, really the first big wave we've had in a while. That's bad news for some of the 40-somethings in the Cup garage, but ultimately it's good news for us as race fans. I'm on record as being a fan of Blaney, Elliott and our ESPN The Magazine NEXT choice, Corey LaJoie, who also won at Pocono over the weekend in Friday's ARCA race. But you should have seen the way Jeff Gordon's eyes sparkled on Friday when he started talking about Larson. He went so far as to say he wishes there were five or six Kyle Larsons out there. That's all the endorsement I need to hear to start buying that stock.
Newton: The three who stand out the most to me are Blaney, Larson and Elliott. If you based potential on pure car control, I might go with Larson. But along with potential in NASCAR you need solid backing and sponsorship, so I'll go with Elliott. The son of 1988 champion Bill Elliott has backing from Hendrick Motorsports, which plans to put him in a Nationwide Series car in 2014, and sponsorship backing in Aaron's. He's also pretty good behind the wheel with three top-5s and four top-10s in four Truck series events and at least one win in every developmental lower series in which he's participated. Don't you think he'd make a nice replacement for Gordon when Four-Time retires?
Smith: Larson. He's fast in everything he drives: speedways to dirt tracks. And when Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart gush about a driver, you know he's the real deal.
Turn 3: There was a great crowd at Pocono on Sunday. What are they getting right that other tracks aren't?
Blount: If you live in the New York City market, Philadelphia or the middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania, it's your best option to see a Cup race. Pocono has become a better race to watch than Dover, so unless you go to gamble at the casino (and not many are these days, looking at Dover's attendance), Pocono is a better option. The lesser of two bad options for me but still the better one. And Pocono restarts have become some of the best around. Some people compare Pocono to Indy because both tracks are 2.5 miles around and relatively flat with tight turns. But Pocono is much wider, which makes for aggressive moves on restarts with drivers going five-wide at times.
Hinton: Their product and their market -- and in both cases, it's just a matter of Pocono not fouling up the obvious. Teams having mastered the triangle now, the racing in recent years has been better than ever before. You just about count on finishes that range from interesting to wild. Put anything at all exciting on the track, and that New York-New Jersey market, on top of eastern Pennsylvania, will take care of itself by the tour bus load. For many years Pocono was an obstruction -- NASCAR loyalty to the place precluded construction of a track where one could easily have been built, in western New Jersey. Now Pocono fills the bill.
McGee: When I got to the track on Sunday morning and saw Marty, the first thing I said was, "How about the traffic jam to get in here?" Honestly, that's not something that happens all that much anymore. I think that shortening the races was a huge move. I think that the Mattioli grandchildren have struck a great balance between honoring the tradition of their grandparents while also sinking money into improvements. And I think that people in that part of the country, for whatever reason, show up. It's come a long ways from just a few years ago when people were screaming that it didn't deserve two races or maybe not even one. A ticket is a vote. And the people up there have voted to stay.
Newton: Pocono gets a bad rap and almost always is on the list when you talk about tracks to eliminate to shorten the schedule, but it really is one of my favorite stops. The people are friendly, and the countryside is beautiful. As for why it continues to do well in attendance: First, the owners didn't overbuild. The facility seats 76,000 and change, an ideal size for a Sprint Cup track. Put 65,000 in there and it looks close to full, whereas at Indianapolis or Daytona it looks empty. The facility also is fan-friendly with great access in the infield to watch teams as they put their cars through tech and drivers as they make their way to pit road. Plus it's a great place to camp with a lot of outdoor activities nearby, so families make this a vacation destination. There's just a charm to the place that makes it a good fan experience.
Smith: The thing that Pocono Raceway president Brandon Igdalsky and his entire staff at Pocono do so well is create a down-home atmosphere. Same for Clay Campbell and his bunch at Martinsville. There's no air whatsoever that they know more than you know. There's a sense that they're fans just like us, which creates a less corporate air in a wholly corporate arena. It's refreshing. There's also a keen accessibility to track staff via social media. Brandon and his staff are super interactive with fans. When you feel like you know a guy, you're more apt to champion him.
Turn 4: Another Nationwide Series race, another full-time Cup winner. Give us your wildest idea to stop this trend.
Blount: And Brad Keselowski was the only Cup regular in the field at Iowa last weekend. Ugh. I've been on my soap box railing about this travesty for years now, and I truly believe the series is in danger of becoming a laughingstock if NASCAR doesn't take action to change it. My wild solution is to pay zero purse money to any team that uses a driver ranked in the top 30 in the Cup series. That would carry over from the previous season for the first few races of the year, unless that driver declared he was running for the Nationwide title. That would end this nonsense in a hurry and put money in the hands of the drivers who really need it.
Hinton: Ban sponsorship signage on the cars of Cup drivers dropping down. That money is their primary motivation. Then tell team owners that all of their winnings must be donated to charity, plus, they must match their costs of fielding the cars with another charitable donation. The charity? Why, a money pool for purely Nationwide teams, of course. Then we'd see how many teams and drivers would continue to claim they're doing this for "fun." You wanted wild? You got wild.
McGee: If you have declared you are running full time in a higher series, then you are limited to only 10 entries as a driver in a lower series.
Newton: Here's a novel idea: NASCAR just says they can't do it. OK, that won't happen because the teams depend on the sponsorship the Cup drivers bring and tracks insist they increase ticket sales even though Iowa was packed with only one Cup driver -- Brad Keselowski, who happened to win. So give full-time Sprint Cup drivers 40 events they can compete in all season, knowing 36 of them must come in Cup, and tell them they can't run in the Nationwide or Truck series in equipment supplied by their Cup team. Or take the easy route and just say no.
Smith: There's only one way: for NASCAR to disallow it altogether. Like: Cup drivers cannot race in Nationwide. That simple. Problem is it's so politically out of whack it'd take drastic measures. Look at the principles involved:
• Drivers -- They love to race NNS. It's fun, there are no points at stake and they make some extra loot.
• Sponsors -- They love it because they can get the licensing rights to a superstar driver for a fraction of the cost they'd pay in Cup.
• Owners -- They love the sponsorship dollars that Cup drivers bring to the table. (And these days it seems it's all but required to even get sponsorship in the first place.)
• Tracks -- The tracks love the fan allure of Cup stars in the field -- even though races like Indy draw terrible crowds with a ton of marquee Cup names in the field.
• Television partner -- See "tracks."
Therefore, the way I see it, it's on NASCAR.
Bonus: The second and final road course race of the season is upon us. What do you anticipate most out of Watkins Glen on Sunday?
Blount: I anticipate one of the most exciting races of the season, which The Glen has produced in recent years. The Glen is a much faster road course than Sonoma, and more dangerous. It also allows for more risky passing opportunities, which usually surface near the end of the race. That often results in someone getting punted out of the way at some point. Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya will be going all out here, knowing a victory at The Glen is their only chance (still a slim chance) of making the Chase. Jeff Gordon knows a win Sunday could solidify his Chase position. It will be wild, and I can't wait to see it.
Hinton: Another all-out effort for Gordon, who badly needs a win to make the Chase and is still a plenty capable road racer. Same scenario for Kurt Busch, who is 13th in the standings, has to get an A-plus for effort with his underdog team this season, and has pretty much gone into wreck-or-finish-high mode lately. The desperation isn't limited to those two, so take that, plus The Glen's higher-speed danger over Sonoma, and there could be some horrific-looking wrecks for a road course. The good news is, the Gen-6 car's safety specs should keep the wrecks merely looking awful.
McGee: One of the best races of the year. Road courses are the new short tracks. It's impossible to predict what we might see, other than to say we know it'll be awesome.
Newton: A victory by Ambrose? He has won the past two races there. But that would be too easy. I'm going with a win by Brad Keselowski to get the defending Cup champion back in Chase contention. He's finished second at The Glen the past two years, and the No. 2 Penske Racing car has finished second three straight years. (Kurt Busch was the runner-up to Montoya in 2010.) I also expect one of the wilder races of the season with a lot of drivers -- Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Busch, Montoya and Ambrose -- who are really good on road courses needing a victory to secure a Chase spot or get into wild-card contention. A green-white-checkered finish with a handful of those drivers up front would be worth the price of admission.
Smith: An amazing show. The past few races there have been just thrilling -- and last year's edition was the race of the year.