Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: Clint Bowyer spent the days leading up to Chicago saying he couldn't wait for the race to start so that all the SpinGate talk would finally stop. Do you really think it's going to stop?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: Not if Bowyer stays in contention for the championship. If it gets down to the last couple of races and Bowyer is leading the standings, a lot of things will be said and written about whether he should have been kicked out of the Chase. If he's 100 points behind or 13th in the standings, no one will care. I'm not saying NASCAR should have thrown him out of the playoff, but the topic won't go away if Bowyer has a chance to win the title.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Maybe not stop, but it'll quiet down considerably. It already has. Now, if Bowyer should surge in the Chase, say winning a race and moving up in the standings, the howling would start all over again. But Sunday night at Joliet, he ran a so-so ninth and remained eighth in the standings -- far enough back to be out of the conversation thus far. The status of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, neither controversial at all during the Richmond affair, atop the standings helps stabilize the entire situation. Jimmie Johnson, sitting right behind the Gibbs racers and seeking a sixth title, will also draw a lot of talk and dissipate more Richmond energy.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: No. The only way it would stop is if he stopped running well, which obviously he isn't going to do if he can help it. He could very easily win this weekend at New Hampshire. If that happened -- or if he wins anywhere during the Chase -- it will light a fresh fuse under all of this. And if he goes into Homestead with a chance to win the championship ... Katy bar the door. The fact is, this is now officially part of his image, now and forever. People still give A.J. Foyt a hard time about using nitrous oxide at Daytona in 1976. What people still remember most about Michael Waltrip's tenure as a car owner is the jet fuel controversy in 2007. A decade from now people will still say, "Clint Bowyer, didn't he spin out to mess up the Chase?" Not saying that's fair. Just saying that's how it is.
David Newton, ESPN.com: It will settle down for a bit, but if Bowyer is a threat to win the title the noise will grow louder the closer he gets to the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. People will say he should have an asterisk beside his name. Talk of how he shouldn't have been allowed into the Chase will resurface. Bowyer likes flying under the radar, but this won't let him.
Turn 2: Sam Hornish Jr. looks like a man on a mission with a 17-point lead in the Nationwide Series standings and seven races to go. Would winning a title quiet the doubters?
Blount: Not really, because he isn't winning races. He has one victory, which was six months ago. Austin Dillon, the man chasing him, hasn't won a race this year, along with six other drivers ranked in the top 10. It's the same old problem: Cup stars winning every week, leaving a title battle that's just a big dud. Cup regulars have won the past 12 Nationwide events. Kyle Busch has won 10 of his 20 Nationwide starts. I find this ridiculous Cup sideshow to be one of the biggest travesties in all of professional sports.
Hinton: Probably not, sadly. He's working in a series where the champion is always victimized by the Cup visitors who drop down and steal the shows. Hornish has but one win this season, and to make a splash, he badly needs another win or two in the final seven races. That'll be tough as long as Cup drivers, especially Kyle Busch but also Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, keep cherry-picking in Nationwide. Given that Hornish is so hamstrung, it'll be tough for him to break out of an unfair label that he's just an Indy car driver who can't get over the top in NASCAR.
McGee: Yes. Though in my ESPN.com chat on Monday I already had people asking if Juan Pablo Montoya's move to Penske meant Hornish would be out. Dude seems to be an easy target for people.
Newton: Hey, I picked him to win the title before the season, so I never doubted he could succeed on the Nationwide level. Whether he can succeed in Cup we won't know because Roger Penske has no plans to add a third team. So those doubts won't end.
Turn 3: There was plenty of controversy last week, with Martin Truex Jr. getting tossed out of the Chase, Jeff Gordon getting put in and all the stuff about team orders in between. Would you have done anything differently than NASCAR did?
Blount: OK, I just railed on NASCAR about the Cup problem in Nationwide, but I'm all for them on this one. I feel NASCAR officials took a courageous and bold stand last week to try to do the right thing. It couldn't have been an easy decision. They had to know criticism was coming and people would complain about NASCAR doing what they always do: changing the rules on the fly. But this time, NASCAR got it right.
Gordon deserved to be in the Chase. So did Ryan Newman. And Truex, while a victim of circumstances on decisions made by his bosses at Michael Waltrip Racing, had to pay a price. NASCAR officials took the difficult position and said, "We're going to end all these shenanigans." It would have been easy to just say, "Well, it was unusual what happened at Richmond, but it is what it is and we can't change it now." But NASCAR took the harder road, and in my opinion, the moral high ground to try to be fair. NASCAR took a stand. I applaud them for it.
Hinton: I would have popped the Michael Waltrip Racing teams with penalties of 150 points each, not just 50. That would have knocked Bowyer, the most active suspect in the whole Richmond affair, out of the Chase along with Truex, and made room for Gordon to get in without creating a 13th berth. I say that, having no access to NASCAR's small -- no, large -- army of lawyers, who might have advised that such devastating penalties might be met with too much uproar, in public and perhaps even in court. Still, running MWR entirely out of the Chase might have cleared the air more from the public's perspective.
McGee: I think NASCAR's heart was in the right place, but it still feels like an incomplete paper. Fundamentally, I still have a hard time with the one guy at MWR who wasn't in on it, Truex, being out and the guy who ripped the lid open on the whole mess, Bowyer, still having a shot at the championship. The 50-point fine was the right fine, but it should have been assessed after the Chase cutoff. Spare me the "not enough real evidence" argument. Had Gordon not been put in, it wouldn't have bothered me. But now that he is in, it feels like the right move.
Newton: Yes, I would have added a 13th driver earlier in the week to put Gordon in and perhaps allowed Truex to stay in and go with 14 instead of waiting until Friday to allow all the controversy to linger. Truex didn't do anything wrong, yet he was penalized because members of his organization did. I understand those are the consequences, but I still would have let him in.
Turn 4: In the wake of last week's controversies, how big a hit to its integrity do you think the sport took, and if it did take a hit, how long-lasting will that be?
Blount: The initial response by many will be to criticize NASCAR as a house that's out of control. But in the long term, NASCAR officials may have saved the sport. They opted on the side of integrity, which is what some casual observers outside the sport all too often claim NASCAR lacks. It could be a transformative moment, a painful birth into a brighter future.
Hinton: These big flaps always seem monumental, unprecedented, devastating, crucial, insurmountable, all that stuff -- at the time. Then they die down, only to be brought up again as background material when the next controversy boils up. While NASCAR will never satisfy its always-suspicious fans with any action it takes on anything at any time, chairman Brian France and president Mike Helton handled this thing as well as they could have. And, in the long run, they might just have improved NASCAR's image with their firm but not radical rulings.
McGee: Only time will tell for sure, but it feels pretty bad. The New York Times wrote about it. NPR's "All Things Considered" called me wanting to talk about it. It was on "NBC Nightly News." When I've been in football press boxes over the past week, I've been getting a lot of "What the hell is going on with NASCAR?!" I don't subscribe to the "Any publicity is good publicity" mantra and this is the perfect example why. I think that sometimes the garage is such an insulated place that people who work in it fail to see the bigger picture outside that garage. This has made the whole sport look like a joke, from the spin all the way through changing rules the morning of the following race and I'm not sure everyone really realizes that. I tell you who does understand the potential impact of all this embarrassment -- Mike Helton. This weekend he looked like he hadn't slept in a week. Wanna know why? Because he hadn't slept in a week.
Newton: Didn't Dale Earnhardt say any news, even bad news, is good because it means people are paying attention? Well, this bad news wasn't good because it made the sport look like the WWE it often gets compared to. It'll last throughout the Chase, particularly if one of those impacted by the controversy happens to be in contention for the title. But it eventually will go away just as every other controversy has. NASCAR's biggest concern should be how much of its fan base has been permanently turned off.