Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: Jimmie Johnson won his sixth Cup title in eight seasons Sunday night. Where do you rank him all time in NASCAR?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: He belongs in my top four all time with Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty and David Pearson. And Jimmie probably will pass all of them before he's done. I mean that sincerely. All these people who think Johnson is just a beneficiary of a great team and great crew chief are so far off base it's laughable. And if you don't believe me, ask the guys who race against him every week. Whether people want to believe it or not, this is the most competitive era in NASCAR history, yet Johnson has managed to dominate. And it isn't because he's just good in the Chase system. His pure driving skills rank among the best of the best, but he does it so smoothly that most people fail to see it. Here's the truth: No other driver of this era could have taken that car over the last 10 years and did what Johnson has done. No one.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Richard Petty, who ought to know, says it's impossible to rank drivers all time because of the vast differences in equipment, money and venues. I agree. But if you insist, this depends on whether you mean statistics or pure talent. In stats, JJ is the first to argue that he isn't there yet. He'd rather talk about it after he retires, which is fair. In pure talent, he's the best I've ever seen -- sort of -- in nearly 40 years of covering this. When I began in the 1970s, I thought David Pearson was the best at car control and Cale Yarborough was the most tenacious. In the '80s, Dale Earnhardt combined car control and tenacity, but Darrell Waltrip was the man in finesse. JJ scores A-plus in both car control and tenacity, but he's driving superbly engineered machinery. He appears to be better than Earnhardt, but Earnhardt had harder cars to control. Bottom line, though, for the sheer beauty of his driving, and the amazement of his getting out of jams, Jimmie Johnson is the best driver I've ever seen in NASCAR.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Right now, he's top three, but not No. 1. Not yet, anyway. I think to be ranked best all time we need to wait until he's done and he needs to match the seven Cups of Petty and Earnhardt. But there's no reason to think he won't at least do that. Even The King acknowledged that over the weekend. There was a time when we all thought that Gordon would blow past 100 wins and get at least seven Cups, too. That's why I say it's too early to say, "best ever" ... but I have no doubt that he can own that title by the time he finally hangs it up.
David Newton, ESPN.com: I still rank David Pearson as the best driver of all time. Had he driven a full schedule his entire career, who knows how many titles he would have won? That he won 105 races and three titles driving only three full seasons is amazing. Just look at his winning percentage, the best in NASCAR history. Johnson reminds me of what Pearson could have done. Six titles in eight years -- and it easily could have been seven in eight -- puts him at least on par with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, if not ahead of them. People say he has no rival? Maybe he's just that much better than everyone else. The competition top to bottom of the field is 10 times better than it was 20 and 30 years ago. When all is said and done, Johnson will settle this debate with eight to 10 titles.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: GOAT.
Turn 2: Denny Hamlin earned his only victory of the season at Homestead, keeping alive his streak of eight straight seasons with at least one win. Does the victory exorcise the demons that beset the No. 11 team this season so they can be title contenders again in 2014?
Blount: Absolutely not, not as far as erasing all the problems of 2013. Hamlin caught a bad break with the back injury, but this team wasn't very good when he returned, and one victory in the final race isn't going to fix all the problems. Denny has the talent to win a title, but the No. 11 bunch isn't a complete team right now in my view.
Hinton: Whoa! You're bouncing off the inside wall and then off the outside wall here -- too extreme. Yes, the win revitalizes the team and gives Hamlin a happy offseason to recuperate further from his back problems. Does that translate to title contention? Let's just say he's likely to make the Chase in 2014. After that, we'll just have to see.
McGee: I already have a headache just thinking about what I'm supposed to do with this guy when people start asking for 2014 preseason rankings. It was pretty obvious from Denny's body language in Victory Lane how much this win meant mentally. But before I'm ready to sign off on him being back 100 percent, I want to know that his back (and more importantly his butt) are back to 100 percent. It was obvious after his return that he was having a hard time getting that hind-end feel for the car and providing feedback to the team.
Newton: If you're asking if Hamlin once again will be a Chase contender, yes. He's too good of a driver with too good of a team not to be. The best thing he can do during the offseason is forget 2013 happened. Until Homestead, little good came out of it.
Smith: That victory is massive. As I said last week, Hamlin needs to be engaged to be great. That victory reminds him why he does it. It will fuel his offseason desire. It will invigorate him for 2014. He feels relevant. I cannot stress how important that is to him.
Turn 3: Which driver either switching teams or moving up to Cup are you going to be most interested in watching next season? Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman or Martin Truex Jr.?
Blount: For me, it's the combo at Stewart-Haas Racing of Harvick and Busch. Harvick really had a much better season this year than I expected considering his lame-duck status at RCR. And Busch made a second-tier team look pretty good by getting in the Chase. Now we're going to find out just how good a driver besides Tony Stewart can be at Stewart-Haas Racing. And it's an interesting dynamic, to say the least, with two guys who aren't exactly bosom buddies in Harvick and Busch. On top of that, I'm not sure Tony was completely on board with hiring Busch, and then there's Danica Patrick added to the mix and her trying to show she can improve on her miserable rookie year while everyone else there is trying to race for a championship. The entire bunch could be a NASCAR reality show: Three Hotheads and a Diva. And Danica is one of the hotheads.
Hinton: Truex will be most interesting to me, in that he has a chance to prove -- even more than Kurt Busch did this year -- that a one-car team not only can survive but be quite competitive in Cup. Truex convinced me of the team's capability at Texas, when his signing with Furniture Row was announced. He made an excellent case for the creativity and complete concentration of a one-car team on racing and nothing else. No bureaucracy to get parts approved by the chieftains of multicar teams. No open houses and vast catering to fans out there in Colorado, as opposed to the PR-obsessed multicar teams of North Carolina. It will be fascinating to see whether pure racing with one car still works, as it did 30 or 40 years ago. That would be a victory for all of NASCAR.
McGee: A lot of attention has focused on whether Truex can live up to the standard that Kurt Busch set at Furniture Row, because it seems so much of that was based on simply raw driving talent. But I think that the potential for the biggest letdown is with Newman in the 29 at RCR. That car accomplished a lot with Harvick over the last dozen years. The bar there is very high. Should Newman have his typical season -- one win, fight to get into the Chase all summer and finish 10th or worse in points -- then the old-school RCR fans will be screaming.
Newton: Kurt Busch. Blending him into a team of Harvick, Stewart and Danica Patrick will be interesting to say the least. There seemingly always has been friction of some sort when he's driven for a multicar organization. He's never had to deal with the variety of personalities he'll be around at Stewart-Haas Racing. This could be the best situation he's ever been in or the worst. Can't wait to watch it unfold.
Smith: Kurt Busch. This is his chance. He carried a race team on his shoulders in 2013 and found a believer in Gene Haas. Gene Haas is handing him redemption. Gene Haas is handing him rebirth. It will fascinate me to watch what he does with it. He is elite. Now his equipment is, too. His equipment at Roush and Penske was elite. But he had no perspective as a man. He does now. Let's see what the answer to the full equation is.
Turn 4: Early prediction time. Who wins the 2014 Sprint Cup championship?
Blount: I'm gonna stick with the guy I picked to win it this year: Matt Kenseth. I think that team will just continue to improve after having a year together under its belt. But it will be fun to watch if Johnson is in contention for that seventh title, which I'm sure he will be, to tie the legends of Petty and Earnhardt.
Hinton: Why, Jimmie Johnson, of course. The heat will be turned up on him and Chad Knaus like never before, but they won't even blink. They flourish in the pressure cooker. Tell them they're gunning for history, a seventh championship to set up the drive for eight, and here's one word for their response: "Cool."
McGee: Johnson. As Ric Flair says, "To be the man, you have to beat the man," and Jimmie Johnson is the man. But I think his biggest challenge might come from within his own race shop. It's hard to ignore how good the 88 looked this fall.
Newton: This is a trick question, right? Jimmie Johnson. No reason to think he won't.
Smith: Kevin Harvick. Just a hunch. He has new life perspective. And a B.A. crew chief in Rodney Childers. I just think they're going to be nasty together.