Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: NASCAR levied several penalties against Michael Waltrip Racing for manipulating the outcome of Saturday night's regular-season finale at Richmond. The points penalty against the No. 56 team effectively eliminated Martin Truex Jr. from Chase contention and gave Ryan Newman the second wild-card spot. Was justice served?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: Absolutely. I applaud NASCAR for making such an unprecedented decision. After listening to all the radio communications, it was obvious Bowyer took a dive for the team. NASCAR officials took their time and reviewed the situation, then came to the most reasonable solution by taking Truex out of the Chase. The move will go a long way toward eliminating this type of team manipulation in the future, but let's not be naive enough to think it's the first time it happened, or that it will be the last time. The one oddity of this is Bowyer still can win the Chase. There's a controversial spin-and-win scenario.
The funny thing about this is it took all the heat off Carl Edwards, who jumped the final restart by about 100 yards to get the victory. These restarts are a giant gray area and confusing to everyone. NASCAR has to tweak this rule for next season.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Not entirely, just partly. Full justice would have included tossing Clint Bowyer out of the Chase entirely, rather than just the 50-point penalty. Nothing against Bowyer personally. He apparently was just following team orders. But full punitive damages against Michael Waltrip Racing would have included disqualifying the entire team from the playoffs. As I said in my blog, berthing Newman in place of Truex is good and just, but giving Jeff Gordon -- the second victim of the MWR shenanigans -- Bowyer's berth would be even better. Gordon lost out to Joey Logano by a single point, but there's no way you can blame Logano in this, so leave him in and give Gordon Bowyer's spot.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: The good news is that the message NASCAR wanted to send was sent, which is don't screw around with this stuff. That needed to happen. But I am having a hard time with the fact that Truex, the one MWR guy who doesn't appear to have been in on the plan, is the one who was thrown out of the Chase, while Bowyer, the guy who was really the face of the whole mess, essentially got away with it. I said it all day Monday and I'll keep saying it: The 15 car needed to be hit with a points penalty large enough that it would prevent it from competing for the championship. If you think people were raising hell about Richmond in September, imagine what it will be like if Bowyer wins the Cup in November.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Not entirely. Jeff Gordon is still out of the Chase and at the point MWR started manipulating the finish he was in it. NASCAR should have made an exception and added a 13th team to give Gordon a spot he had earned, or simply added him to the Chase and kicked Clint Bowyer out. I have a problem with Bowyer basically getting away without a penalty. There's no doubt in my mind he intentionally spun out, and had he not done that, then it wouldn't have made a difference what Brian Vickers or anybody else said or did at the end. By allowing Bowyer to compete for the title, MWR still stands to earn millions for the organization and his sponsors. MWR still has a chance to be at the head table in Las Vegas. If you want to talk about the integrity of the sport, that would be a travesty.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Somewhat. Justice was served for Newman and his team. They put themselves in position to win the race and make the Chase. They deserve to be there. But Truex got jobbed. He obviously had no knowledge of the matter, and he's the obvious loser in all of this. Ty Norris loses big, too. He has 25 years in the garage. He made a call that was legal by the rulebook. A driver/team can pit whenever they so choose, as long as pit road is open. That decision was fully legal. But NASCAR considered it manipulative, and put Norris on the shelf. I spoke with him at length Monday night. He told me nobody respects the integrity of the sport more than he does. He told me he made a split-second decision to help a teammate. It was a decision, he said, the entire garage would make. And this is important: It was a decision that carried millions of dollars in the balance. I'm not implying that makes it right. But it definitely adds tremendous pressure.
Meanwhile, Bowyer wins. The fact that his 50-point penalty has zero impact on his opportunity to run for a title is baffling to me. NASCAR says it found no evidence that the spin was purposeful, but if you're going to levy a penalty, levy a penalty that hurts. They did that to Truex. Not to Bowyer. Otherwise, it's semantics. And if I'm Jeff Gordon, I'm ticked off. Quite frankly, I'm shocked NASCAR reacted. I didn't think it would. But it had to. Had it not reacted swiftly and harshly, the WWE stereotype gains credibility -- and the sport loses it.
Turn 2: Brad Keselowski became only the second Sprint Cup champion to miss the Chase field the season after winning the title. What was Keselowski's downfall?
Blount: The big penalty in Texas, although a lot of this was later rescinded, I think had an impact on the psyche of the No. 2 team. Brad also started the season by getting reprimanded by NASCAR for speaking his mind. While these things were early in the year and could have been overcome, it just seemed to throw Brad off his game a little. And it really doesn't take much to go from the champ to a team that barely misses the playoff. They just didn't have the same swagger. I also think the switch from Dodge to Ford, and an awkward alliance with Roush Fenway Racing, had an impact. Yes, Penske teammate Joey Logano made the Chase, but only by one point.
Hinton: Murphy's Law, all season, was his downfall. Whatever could go wrong did go wrong. Blown engines, getting collected in others' wrecks, you name it. And, though I didn't think the switch to Ford would hurt Team Penske, maybe it did. Fords were behind Chevrolets, and Toyotas for most of the season. None of this was for lack of intensity by Brad K. It was all a matter of, stuff happens -- in this case, lots and lots of stuff. All I know is, NASCAR Nation and "SportsCenter" are sure going to miss him in Victory Lane at Homestead after that beerfest performance last year.
McGee: It will be easy to point to the points penalties as the downfall, but the reality is that those issues were really only a piece of a much larger machine that brought him down. I think they all got off the rails because of all the off-track stuff. Whatever the reason, their inconsistency stretched out over every aspect of the team. Perhaps the move to Ford was more trying than we'd all thought because they started the season so hot. But the fact is they spent their entire summer running 15th to 30th. Some years you're just a mediocre team and that's what they were.
Newton: The 25-point penalty at Texas. It took away all the momentum that team had and it never really got it back. The team also never had the magic it seemed to have last year of managing a race to get solid finishes out of a potentially bad day. A lot of it was just bad luck. Saturday night when Keselowski was trapped on pit road as the final caution came out was a prime example.
Smith: Inconsistency. They just didn't have it. They caught so many fortuitous breaks in 2012 that didn't fall their way in 2013. I don't think enough has been made of the penalties they incurred this year. Those penalties stripped a lot of mojo -- from the aftermath of Brad's comments to USA Today to the penalty the Penske organization incurred in April. I truly believe that set them back, though they'd probably never admit it. When Daddy pulls out the belt, it knocks some steam out of you. I don't care who you are. I asked Keselowski on Thursday how a championship changes a man. More responsibility. More distractions. It's hard to be great and stay great in this sport. It's unrelenting and heartless. Here was our discussion, verbatim:
MS: How does winning a championship change a man?
Keselowski: How does winning a championship change a man? You know, obviously they have a lot more commitments, Marty, and that, that's difficult. A lot more distractions and that's extremely difficult, and trying to balance all those is something that, um, is a constant challenge that we ... we fight every day. So, I think trying to keep up with that, um, is probably the biggest change for me.
MS: How much do you think about the points taken away by penalties? Is that something you think about?
Keselowski: Yeah ... I mean, I think about it a little, but not a lot. When I add up all the points we left on the board, we probably left 200 points on the board, and we're 20 points out. I think those 200 points are a culmination of reasons, some in our control, some not. It's hard. It's hard and not necessarily fair to blame this season on that penalty, but I'm sure people will. Whether that's outside my team or even inside my team. I'm not looking at it.
Turn 3: Jimmie Johnson finished 40th at Richmond, his fourth straight finish of 28th or worse. Should the five-time Cup champion be concerned entering this weekend's playoff opener at Chicagoland?
Blount: I've said no all along, but now I'm starting to wonder. Look, Jimmie had a major distraction last week with the birth of his second child, and I was happy to see he spent Friday with his family. But the 48 team enters the Chase about as flat as a pancake. Can you go from a total downer month to a sixth title? Maybe, but they're like an NFL team making the playoffs after losing its last four regular-season games.
Hinton: We''ll have to see at Joliet whether the 48 team can "flip a switch" as Kyle Busch believes they can, but I'm beginning to wonder now. Four lousy outings in a row can, if nothing else, take the wind out of the sails of the five-timers and make them question themselves. We'll see just how cool and calculating Chad Knaus really is, during these first two Chase races. I rate it a tossup whether the switch works when flipped.
McGee: People keep trying to tell me that pre-Chase momentum doesn't matter. But I really think I'd rather be the 18 or 99 right now than a team that has had every type of problem you can have in a month's time, from wrecks to mechanical failures to whiffing on a chassis setup. Then again, this is exactly the kind of time when the 48 has always proven me wrong.
Newton: No. That team will hit the reset button and be ready. Anybody that thinks the 48 won't be a factor the entire Chase is kidding themselves.
Smith: Absolutely. They're reeling a bit. Kyle Busch said Friday at Richmond not to read much into it, though. He said there's a magic switch over at Hendrick Motorsports that they just flip when ready. They best flip it. If they were, indeed, trying trick setups and strategy to get ahead once they were locked into the Chase, they need to scrap that plan. They tested for two full days at Richmond. And they were slow.
Turn 4: With the Chase field set, who's your pick to win the 2013 Sprint Cup championship? Who's your dark horse?
Blount: This Chase is more wide open than any playoff in the past. I don't see a clear favorite, so I'm sticking with my preseason pick of Matt Kenseth. He starts on top, not that it matters much since the guys starting last are only 15 points back. But Kenseth's ability to make good finishes out of a bad day could be the difference this time. Johnson could right the ship and get hot again, but the man Kenseth may fear the most is his teammate, Kyle Busch. Rowdy may actually have the right attitude now to live up to his potential. But it would be cool to see Kurt Busch go out with a Rocky Mountain high for the Denver boys at Furniture Row and give that team a title.
Hinton: Matt Kenseth will collect some more wins in the Chase, and win it. His own teammate, Kyle Busch, may well be the runner-up. If you'd asked me a month ago, I'd have picked Jimmie Johnson to edge Kenseth, but now I think it'll be Kenseth going away if Kyle can't mount a challenge. Can I have what horse tracks call an entry 1 and 1A for my dark horse? I'll take Joey Logano, because he was so hot for the six races going into Richmond, and said Saturday night his team was going to forget all about that fretful evening. My 1A is Kurt Busch, for his obvious relentlessness this season. And Kurt is also my pick for best feel-good championship story, of ordeal and triumph with a little one-car team.
McGee: I want to pick the 18 so badly, but I need to see proof that they can actually translate regular season success into postseason success. And I can't take the 48 after my eloquent speech in Turn 3. So give me the 20 ... but keep an eye on the 29.
Newton: I picked Matt Kenseth before the season, but I'm starting to believe this is Kyle Busch's season. If he can get through the first couple of races unscathed, watch out. And my dark horse is Joey Logano. His run -- Richmond aside -- reminds me of Brad Keselowski's when he first became a contender a few years ago. That team still will be fast at the intermediate tracks.
Smith: Matt Kenseth wins it. Kurt Busch is the dark horse. Because that's what happens in NASCAR.