<
>

Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:

Turn 1: So much was made about the new aero package and the hopes it will "fix" the racing on 1.5-mile tracks. What was your first impression from Vegas?

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: As the Texas comedian Ron White says, "You can't fix stupid." And NASCAR can't fix 1.5-mile tracks with doglegs in them. They're just not conducive to tight racing. I thought Vegas was a little more racy with the new rules, but not significantly. This was the first outing on a cookie cutter for the teams, so maybe they'll tweak and build on what they learned Sunday.

Brant James, ESPN.com: Kyle Busch seemed at times to pass at will, but didn't last. The biggest pass of the race was made when the leader ran out of fuel. The mid-distance midlings make up much of the Sprint Cup schedule but just aren't going to constitute much of the excitement. Maybe that'll make you love the short tracks even more.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I thought it was very comparable to last year's race, which on paper looks an awful lot like races at LVMS always have, but the eyeball test has shown that the past two years have been a vast improvement. I think people were already knee-jerk reacting as soon as we had a stretch of 10 minutes when the leader didn't change, but that's always been the nature of this racetrack. Heck, it's the nature of most racetracks. In the end, they can hammer on the cars all they want, but the cars can only do so much. Unless they get out the bulldozers, the racetracks are what they are. And getting out the bulldozers tends to cause more issues than solutions -- just ask Bristol.

John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: Obviously one race is not enough to draw a firm conclusion, but the racing at Vegas certainly wasn't any worse than it was on intermediate tracks for the past few years. The fastest cars were able to get to the front, whether Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Kyle Busch. There was still plenty of radio chatter about aero push, but some teams and drivers were able to figure out how to make their cars work in dirty air. Still, here's a radical thought: Maybe this style of track is the problem, not the cars.

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: There's no question it's a step in the right direction, although a perplexing one for many teams. Jimmie Johnson said at Las Vegas that, at times, when the team makes an adjustment it expects will trigger a certain handling response, it in fact triggers the exact opposite response. Some big-time players aren't race-win competitive yet. The Gibbs cars are behind. The Stewart-Haas cars are behind, Kevin Harvick notwithstanding. Until Harvick had the left-front hub issue, he had the best car Sunday. Johnson, despite a quick start statistically, didn't seem especially thrilled with his performance after Vegas. Penske obviously hit on it early. So did the 88. All said, I thoroughly enjoyed the Vegas race, especially the runs off the corner in the top groove. But it's still tough to pass. Joey Logano was gone in clean air. When he got shuffled into the lower half of the top 10, he struggled to move forward, even told his crew so on the radio. I expect it to be fine as teams adjust.

Turn 2: A lot of gnashing of teeth over the racing at Bristol Motor Speedway in recent seasons, but will the new rules lead to some real bumping and banging on Sunday?

Hinton: I'm just not sure the bumping and banging will ever return to Bristol in the proportions we saw with the old configuration. If you leave drivers with room to race, they're going to take the room rather than beat on each other. Besides, it would take a major demolition derby, or two, or three, or four, to restore the perceptions of fans. I just don't see a turnaround, or even the beginnings of one, in one race this Sunday.

James: The fastest way around a track will remain that path that doesn't take you through another driver's bumper. And Bristol still offers many more options than in the days of twisted metal and crumpled fenders. Although venting frustration adds to the thrill factor for the paying public, drivers, crew chiefs and the guys who fix the cars on Monday would much prefer a pristine race car with a trophy on the hood.

McGee: I do think it will, but honestly, with a lot of fans, I don't think it matters. That place, particularly the spring race, seems to be poisoned with a lot of folks. I've kind of given up arguing with the people who have decided it's unfixable. Until we have another final-lap bump (or spin) and run for the win, it seems a lot of people won't be satisfied.

Oreovicz: Probably not, at least not for the spring race. The fall race, when some drivers might be getting a bit desperate about not having a win or being high enough in the points to make the Chase, could be a different story. But it was the reconfiguration of the track a few years ago, more than anything, that zapped the excitement out of Bristol. Another example of trying to fix something that wasn't broken.

Smith: I have no idea.

Turn 3: Although Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he wouldn't have "gambled" under the old system, was it really a gamble when he was just half a lap short?

Hinton: Not under the new win-you're-in Chase system, I suppose. Still, he and Steve Letarte didn't know for sure their calculations were precise. Had Earnhardt run out at the white flag, half a lap earlier than he did, he might have lost several positions. Doesn't matter much now. That's the beauty of win-you're-in: you can go into win-or-else mode. That's the first fine example we've seen of a team not opting to wimp out to save points, but it won't be the last.

James: It wasn't, but I do agree that the new points system reduced the decision time on going for the win from probably 15 seconds to zero point zero. A good points day matters little anymore with that nifty checkered flag sticker already on the car.

McGee: It was definitely a gamble. And I'm with him. Over the past couple of years, I think we saw them lean toward the conservative, particularly in the second half of the summer. Maybe, because it was just the third race of the year, they still would have rolled the dice, but the new system leaves no question.

Oreovicz: Ever since he won the Daytona 500, Junior has been saying it gave crew chief Steve Letarte more leeway for gambling strategies. This certainly wasn't an example of betting it all, but I suspect that, knowing he was tight on fuel, Earnhardt ran harder in the last 10-15 laps Sunday trying to hold off Keselowski than he would have without that Daytona win in his pocket. It was a smart wager that very nearly paid off with another victory.

Smith: Depends on context. It was a gamble in the context of that one event. But in the broad scope he's already in the Chase, so he's playing with house money: Win more? Fantastic! Lose it all? Eh. Ain't my change, anyway... He was disappointed. Very. I asked him about it as soon as he exited the race car Sunday. He said time and again: "Can't let this discourage us. Can't let this be a negative that will have residual impact. That does us no good." He's right: Running out of gas entering Turn 3 on the final lap stinks. But having the opportunity to run it out in the name of victory is awesome -- remember the awesome.

Turn 4: Is Tony Stewart's leg affecting him in the car more than he's letting on?

Hinton: Maybe if the other SHR cars were performing better, you could wonder that. Word from his team is that the car was beyond loose all race Sunday, but the 33rd-place finish wasn't that far off teammate Kurt Busch's 26th and Danica Patrick's 21st. Harvick was a threat for a while before breaking a left-front hub. And, look, Smoke is from the old school, where drivers drove hurt, or in pain, or in discomfort, a lot. Way too soon to blame the leg when the cars are limping so.

James: If it's not, he might have even bigger problems. And the way the Stewart-Haas contingent raced again Sunday, that could be the case, just like at the beginning of 2013. Harvick led 23 laps but finished 41st with a mechanical problem. Kurt Busch struggled and finished 26th. Stewart was a stunning 33rd. Patrick led the team with a 21st-place finish, and, although that is wonderful for her, it shouldn't be happening right now. Every weekend has featured at least one bedeviling, devastating mechanical problem. It's extremely early in the season, and the new points system certainly allows for quick remedies, but Stewart's stated desire of having himself, Harvick and Busch in the Chase -- even with Harvick already all but qualified -- looks fanciful right now. And back to Stewart's health: If he is ailing, and realistically he should be, the short track portion of the schedule, in the cold, could be miserable.

McGee: No, I think he was pretty honest heading into the year. He's the one who threw out that 65 percent number, and that's a heckuva long way from 100 percent. But I think this is all just another indicator that Stewart-Haas Racing is in the middle of a funk. The team wasn't exactly setting the woods on fire last year before he was hurt, and it has added another car. SHR will be fine, but I think it finally has hit the growing pains stage we all expected from the team when Tony first went there.

Oreovicz: Probably, and we haven't even gotten to the more physically demanding tracks on the schedule. I'm sure his leg would feel a lot better if he were running at the front instead of where he was Sunday at Vegas. But my take is that Stewart is suffering more from non-driving-related issues. The injury and subsequent layoff allowed him to escape the parts of the job of being a race car driver he doesn't care for -- dealing with the media, for example. At Phoenix, he was back to his old snippy self in his Friday morning hauler availability, and, when I tried to talk to him after the race for an owner's reaction to his new driver's victory -- an obvious and compelling storyline -- he responded by bawling out his PR man.

Smith: I think it's his mind, not his leg. His injury was awful. Just awful. It was worse than he expected. And it kept him out of a race car for six months. He told me before the season that he was certain we'd see the Tony Stewart we all expect. But it takes time. He's learning his craft again. Think about it like riding a bike: Stewart is one of the best mountain bikers on earth, but he's jumping on a road bike for the first time with completely different instrumentation. The excellence is in there, but the learning process is underway. He's racing under a brand-new rules package with a different feel. He has a brand-new crew chief. And he's injured. If he is unable to exercise patience with the process, it'll drive him crazy.