Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: Brad Keselowski finally won a race in 2013, giving the 2012 Cup champion some satisfaction after missing this year's Chase. Do you believe the No. 2 team can get back into championship form in 2014?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: As long as Brad and crew chief Paul Wolfe stay together, there's no question in my mind they can get back to title contention next season. This year was a big transition for Roger Penske's NASCAR operation, switching manufacturers and not building its own engines. Along with that, the penalty situation early in the year threw the team off its game. Keselowski and Wolfe will be back.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Well, maybe. The biggest reason for their downfall this year was gobs and gobs of awful luck. But the other one was that Fords just haven't quite been competitive with Toyota and Chevrolet. So it'll take two elements to put the Blue Deuce back in the hunt: Some intensive research and development by Ford Motor Co. and its racing partners in the offseason, and some decent -- not necessarily good, just decent -- luck. One thing about it, the driver and the crew chief are up to it.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Yes. If you go back and add it all up for them this year, it was as much bad luck as anything. Not making the Chase allows them to get a jump on 2014. What Charlotte showed is that they weren't that far off to begin with. That team -- at least the driver -- has always seemed to operate better in an "Us vs. The World" underdog setting. Well, they've got that again.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Seriously? Do we think this is even in doubt? Keselowski could have been a Chase contender this season had it not been for two points penalties -- 25 at Texas and six at Dover. Actually, he would have finished the regular season tied with teammate Joey Logano for 10th in the standings. Wouldn't that have added another layer of drama to the Richmond fiasco when determining who gave up a spot or not at the end? This season simply was a hiccup for the No. 2 team.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Absolutely. Racing is a very fickle platform in which fine detail and exhaustive preparation prevail more often than not, and certainly separate consistent excellence from mediocrity. Paul Wolfe breathes fine detail. That's the main reason Brad Keselowski was the 2012 champion -- Wolfe's calculated risk-taking approach. Keselowski drives with great passion. The difference between making Chases and not is paper-thin. I think the 2 team will be better for this. I think missing the Chase humbled Keselowski. It offered to him a crude reminder that no one is immune to failure. Failure will fuel him. It's how he's wired. His victory at Charlotte validated his conviction. He said it himself.
Turn 2: Michael Waltrip Racing announced they will officially contract to two teams in 2014, with Martin Truex Jr. being out and employees getting let go in the wake of the Richmond fiasco. And their second driver for next season -- Brian Vickers -- announced this season is over for him after a blood clot was discovered in his right calf. What would you do to rebuild morale at that place?
Blount: First, I just hope Vickers is OK. This is a little scary since it's related to what happened to him before. You have to wonder if this is going to be an ongoing issue for Brian. I hope not. Assuming he's OK, there's no reason MWR can't overcome what has happened and have a competitive organization. Most of the things Waltrip did to bring his organization to prominence are still in place. Now it's just a matter of staying the course and believing in the process that made them a competitive Cup operation.
Hinton: I don't really know, because I've never been a management type in my life -- didn't even hold a major office in my college fraternity. So I leave the morale skills to the beloved likes of our K. Lee Davis (aw, shucks -- The Ed). But the "guys at the shop," as they're always called, usually tend to keep on keeping on, even in tough circumstances, given just minimal hope. Maybe the key is whether they continue to believe in Michael Waltrip himself, and as we all know, the guy is a charmer through thick and thin.
McGee: Win races. What a mess, huh? I spent all day Monday trying to recall another team that fell from so high to so low in such a short period of time. I couldn't come up with one. And yet again, the people who paid the highest price -- their jobs -- are the ones who weren't in on the Richmond plot.
Newton: First, it's sad to hear Vickers is going through this again. Let's hope it's not long-term as he says. If there is any chance it is, put Truex in that seat. That would build morale better than anything else because he was wronged in the whole ordeal. Otherwise, it'll take wins and putting two cars in the Chase to truly put this in the rearview mirror.
Smith: Win. Nothing else matters. Nothing else will make this better. It's too late for any hokey team-building mess. Only winning will make it better. MWR got cute at Richmond. It bit them. Hard. Harder than they ever fathomed it would. And reality is biting them just as hard. The reality is the fallout: $40 million in lost sponsorship; Martin Truex Jr. gone; 15 percent of the current workforce unemployed; public ridicule. They are well-liked. They have tremendous business acumen at that place. They soared. Rob Kauffman's money was the stabilizer. But MWR went outhouse-to-penthouse when Clint Bowyer signed on to drive there. Truex was the first landmark signing. He stayed loyal. And when Bowyer and Scott Miller showed up, performance went to a new plateau. Suddenly, MWR was a threat. Bowyer finished second in the 2012 championship standings. He was a legitimate championship contender. Then Vickers won. Then Truex won. The momentum the company had built -- on and off the racetrack -- was unmistakable. It was a tidal wave. Now this. It's sad to me. But above that, I'm sad for Vickers. He nearly died in 2010. Humbled and hurting, he fought hard and returned to the pinnacle -- Cup Victory Lane. I wish him the very best in his recovery.
Turn 3: Next year's Darlington race is being moved to April 12, away from Mother's Day weekend. Is this good, bad or indifferent?
Blount: If NASCAR was going to move it, the no-brainer decision would be to give the Lady in Black its traditional Labor Day weekend date back. Otherwise, it's just a meaningless shuffle. The whole point of changing dates is to create a buzz and spark media attention. This doesn't do it.
Hinton: Indifferent. Darlington was given a tough assignment with Mother's Day weekend in the first place, and made the best of it, which -- I guess -- made it look attractive enough to parent International Speedway Corp. to give the date to the brighter commercial star in the group, Kansas Speedway. My only concern for Darlington is how early in spring the race date falls, April 12. I recall that back in the day, when Darlington had two races, we suffered some pretty bitter cold snaps in early spring. Not regularly, but sometimes. You take a cold snap and make it for a night race, that could hurt attendance.
McGee: Bad. The perception among most of the fans, particularly fans in that region, is that NASCAR is disrespecting Darlington once again. They had really just gotten into a calendar rhythm with that weekend and now it's changing again. It has always flabbergasted me how the Daytona brass have never fully grasped the PR damage that resulted from yanking the Labor Day weekend date from Darlington. The racetrack staff worked double-time to turn Mother's Day weekend, which was long a taboo date, into a big success. Their reward is to be pushed back into the spring, having to compete with The Masters and forcing Carolina race fans to have to decide between Martinsville and Darlington. Not to go all texty language on you, but SMH.
Newton: Bad. Horrible. Insulting. If you're going to move Darlington anywhere, put it back to Labor Day weekend and make the Southern 500 the real deal again. Otherwise, why take away a race date that the track had turned into a success? If I didn't know any better, I'd say NASCAR was trying to push the sport's oldest superspeedway into a position of being the oldest superspeedway without a Cup race.
Smith: It seems to me like Darlington is tolerated, not celebrated. That's painful to me. Folks always say it's NASCAR's Fenway Park. I wish it would be celebrated as such. One thing that makes staple events staple is that consumers know exactly when to expect them each year. The Masters is the second Sunday of April. The Kentucky Derby is the first Saturday of May. The Daytona 500 is first. The Super Bowl is last. Fans knows that and embrace that. It is tradition. It makes for a destination feel. Darlington deserves a destination feel. But maybe that's just me. The racing speaks for itself. The trophy is among the most coveted in the sport. If you win the Southern 500, you have achieved one of the most appreciated feats possible among racers and fans. Celebrate that.
Turn 4: Here's a real open-ended one. The 2013 Nationwide Series season is …
Blount: … a disingenuous travesty, a phony show where the NASCAR powers-that-be allow some of the sport's biggest stars to take money, victories and glory away from the drivers and teams who are trying to get to where those guys are.
Hinton: … the strongest statement yet that somehow, some way, this pillaging by the carpet-bagging juggernaut teams dropping down from Cup needs to be stopped or drastically reduced. Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing have, between them, won 25 of 30 races. At least Penske's dozen is mitigated by one win by Nationwide regular Sam Hornish Jr., two by road-racer AJ Allmendinger and one by rising star Ryan Blaney. But the rest are Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano cherry-picking. JGR's 13 are just plain dropping down and stomping all over the regulars, with 11 wins by Kyle Busch and two by Matt Kenseth. No wonder Nationwide is going away as series sponsor.
McGee: …a broken series. I tweeted this as Friday night's Charlotte race ended. I meant it then and mean it now. Kudos to Allen Bestwick & Co. for coming up with new stuff to say each week while calling a broken record. When the new TV deal begins I sincerely hope that there is some sort of race entries cap placed on drivers who have declared as full-time Cup drivers. I have heard a number as low as five or 10, but I say 15 would work. The problem is that sponsors want names in their cars. It's a catch-22, but in this case NASCAR can't let sponsors choke the series to death. Right now that's what's happening.
Newton: … yet another reason to find a way to keep full-time Cup drivers from competing in the second-tier series. Enough said.
Smith: … Sprint Cup batting practice.