Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: The stands were crowded but not full at Richmond again despite Chamber of Commerce weather for Saturday's race. Are there just too many races? Is it the ticket prices and concessions? What would you do to improve attendance at tracks?
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Of course there are too many races -- 30 would be plenty, 28 would be better, 25 would be best. An engorged fan base no longer has an appetite. Of course ticket and concession prices are too high, and the tracks should cut those down to where they barely meet operating costs. Crazy idea? Look: NASCAR and the tracks get their sustenance from TV money anyway. They need to accept that this has become a studio sport but it looks bad without big crowds present. If they don't shed their greed, the sellout crowds will be gone forever and they'll end up living on TV money alone. It's just too hard and too expensive to go to a race now, compared to watching on TV. There is no reasonable remedy.
Brant James, ESPN.com: NASCAR needs a major dose of scarcity of market. That's not to punish the loyal fans who would certainly dole out the hundreds of dollars needed to travel to races, buy tickets, buy souvenirs, pay for hotels and eat and drink a little something, if they still had the money. NASCAR and its promoters got fat and greedy when times were good, arrogant in assuming that an unprecedented era of prosperity could never end. It's time to consolidate. A series shouldn't visit any venue twice in a season. That should improve interest, demand and attendance, but even still, in this modern era of pausing live action on a 90-inch digital screen, with a clean, familiar bathroom down the hall and cheap beer in the fridge, all sports are trending toward made-for-TV events.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Shorten everything. I think there are too many races and too many two-date racetracks. My feelings on that are well-documented. I think ticket prices are fine, certainly in line with other entertainment options. Springsteen played Raleigh on Thursday night, and the average ticket price was $100. You could've attended the RIR race two nights later for $25 and brought your kid for free. But travel costs are still really high. And these days I think fans who go to two-race tracks have to make either/or decisions. I think Richmond has weathered the storm better than most, but, if forced to make a choice there, I think you're going to the September Chase cutoff race, right?
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: Current ticket prices aren't that out of line, especially at tracks that offer "Family of 4" deals with hot dogs and Cokes. So I'd start with the obvious: Drop the second race at all tracks. Now you're down to a core group of 23 races you can expand to somewhere in the 26-28 range. I think this would increase demand for tickets for the lone races at the existing tracks, and it would open up the possibility of trying new tracks or markets that could fuel interest in the series. Can you imagine the Cleveland Grand Prix reborn as a stock car race? It would be spectacular!
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: You wonder how much the tracks truly care. Sure, they want to sell out. Tickets and concessions equal cubic dollars. But selling out is icing, honestly. Because the tracks make a fortune in television dollars that require no overhead. If you want to sell out, tear down seats and condense the schedule. There's too much NASCAR. The product is diluted. The big shame in that is that the product is good again. Really good. The competition is good. The personalities are good. The venues are, for the most part, legit. But the ticket doesn't matter. Make the ticket matter. Go everywhere just once except the tracks that deserve it. How many deserve it? Maybe five. The politics of contracting the schedule are beyond comprehension -- ISC and SMI are publicly traded companies that answer to shareholders. I understand that. And that's why it might be impossible. But for the sport to survive in this self-absorbed world of instant gratification and a 24-second news cycle, it might be necessary.
Turn 2: Denny Hamlin didn't contend at Martinsville and didn't contend at Richmond. That begs the question: What's wrong with Hamlin?
Hinton: If he knew, or Joe Gibbs knew, or J.D. Gibbs knew, or crew chief Darian Grubb knew, or if any of the proverbial "boys back at the shop" knew, they'd fix it. Force me to name something -- anything -- and I'll conjecture that all this time fighting back injuries has thrown Hamlin and his whole unit of JGR out of sync and they've yet to recover. Maybe that's hindering them from hitting on the right chassis combinations for the new ride heights and taller spoilers. But that's just my best guess.
James: Hamlin certainly had it wrong at SpeedWeeks when he took some productive days at Daytona and quality preseason testing as a harbinger of a breakout first month of the season. It seems unfair to assume his 2013 back injury is the problem, but in the absence of anything solid, it will continue to crop up. That said, despite Kyle Busch's win, Joe Gibbs Racing has not replicated its hot start of last season. Whatever the problem, it needs to be fixed quickly before confidence takes a season-long tailspin.
McGee: I don't know because he doesn't know. That's something he clearly expressed during his media Q&A on Friday, that he was becoming frustrated by the inability to pinpoint the issue. When I asked him whether Richmond meant an opportunity to right the ship, simply because he's always been so good there, he shocked me when he pointed to his puzzling Martinsville struggle and said "not really." That's a crisis of confidence. And the fact that he was so generic while his teammates both battled for the win likely made that worse.
Oreovicz: That's a question Denny and everyone involved with the No. 11 team must be asking themselves. Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch have consistently demonstrated over the past two years that the Gibbs cars are plenty competitive. It just seems that, in these large, multicar teams, one driver somehow just lags behind the rest. Maybe the setups the team has developed suit the other drivers better or maybe it's just a crisis in confidence, but Hamlin and Kasey Kahne at Hendrick Motorsports seem to be suffering from the same affliction.
Smith: Confidence. He thrives on it. Always has. He has had very high highs and some pretty low lows before. He'll be back. Remember: He was in position to win the Daytona 500 -- with no spotter. Maybe this is the week.
Turn 3: Now that we're starting to see multiple winners, how many race winners will we see before the Chase?
Hinton: Make it 12. Seven so far, and there are plenty of topflight winless drivers who are overdue: Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon, just for openers. Then Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne. Of all those, enough will break through to make it at least a dozen before the Chase. Maybe more.
James: Twelve: The current winners (of course), plus Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Kyle Larson and Jeff Gordon.
McGee: I think we land at around a baker's dozen. I look at the seven we have and then the guys who are still winless but aren't likely to stay that way -- Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Hamlin. It's not 16, but that's still a lot and falls around the most competitive years we've seen in the Chase era. I would like us to fall in that 12-14 window so we have a crazy points/win scramble heading into September.
Oreovicz: I'm going to predict 11. We have seven winners now, and most of them are running well enough on a consistent basis that they likely will win again. Team Penske is having a particularly strong year. To get to 11, I'd say Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth are locks to win races, and Jeff Gordon has been right at the front everywhere, so he's bound to break through at some point. Who else looks capable of winning right now? Hamlin? Tony Stewart? Greg Biffle? Clint Bowyer? None of them is setting the world on fire.
Smith: Eight. Someone will get in on points.
Turn 4: It's off to big bad Talladega. What do you think we'll see in group qualifying, and what do you think we'll see in the race?
Hinton: I'll be stunned if qualifying isn't just the doggonedest show yet in the knockout system. They'll be drafting during qualifying, a concept many fans hate but I love because it's closer to real racing conditions. As for the race, surprise winners are commonplace at Talladega, so there's an excellent chance we'll see an eighth winner. Who might that be? Ask me after the "big one," so I can see who's left.
James: It'll be Olympic cycling + sparks + Mad Max + negative team dynamics. Envision packs of cars grouped by organization or manufacturer careering around the expanse of Talladega Superspeedway, one bobble, one freelance spark of personal ambition ready to wreak mayhem. It will be, simply, the most anticipated moment of the season. And if no one is seriously injured, perhaps the most enjoyed.
McGee: At Richmond, more than a few drivers said to me that they would like to skip Talladega qualifying so they could watch it on TV. So, it'll be nuts. Those same drivers kind of scoffed at suggestions that teammates would be helping each other during the sessions, but I don't see how that couldn't be the case, at least here and there. As far as the race itself, I'll take another Daytona 500, please ... just without the rain.
Oreovicz: I'm pretty certain we'll see a multicar crash in qualifying, with all the drafting and potential speed differentials. The drivers are certainly approaching it with considerable trepidation. I hope we see a clean, competitive race, but history tells us that isn't very likely to happen at Talladega.
Smith: Qualifying will be fun to watch. Crazy. Something unexpected will happen. The race will be badass. It always is.