Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: So with a couple of weeks to digest the news of the formation of the Race Teams Alliance in NASCAR, what do you think the RTA's first "public" move (something it floats to the media and fans) will be? Will the group headed up by Michael Waltrip Racing co-owner Rob Kauffman even make a public move before the end of the season?
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: We'd all better break out our best sonar equipment, because everything will happen beneath the surface for the rest of this season and probably beyond. What we might see are some results of undercurrent pressures, e.g., another set of massive pileups in a plate race, at Talladega in the fall, and another monstrous repair bill to owners could get NASCAR working on changes. But in that case, as with any owner-forced technical changes, NASCAR would posture the initiatives as its own. Most of what the RTA is really up to will have to come in the form of leaks, because the organization will be careful about airing out grievances to the media and public. They don't want to create the appearance of another CART. But eventually they will wield at least that much power, probably more. This time they will wield it wisely, methodically, due to the deep experience of the veterans of the Indy car wars, such as Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi. Over the long haul, we should keep an eye on financial maneuvering. CART got blown out of Indy because the Hulman-George family owned the track. International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports Inc. are both publicly traded. Just sayin' ...
Brant James, ESPN.com: The creation of the organization caused such consternation within the NASCAR matrix that the RTA would probably be best served in being a bit understated for a while. It makes no sense why NASCAR's richest and most powerful would officially align themselves unless they were targeting greater riches and more power, but the process will likely be a lengthy one, if successful at all. Chances are the RTA will share a podium with NASCAR officials to trumpet some new philanthropic endeavor or safety innovation, or convene to speak with greater uniformity over proposed rules changes. Maybe the formation of the RTA was the trial balloon in and of itself, to determine modern NASCAR's tolerance for labor organizing itself. NASCAR chairman Brian France said on SiriusXM on Monday, "when you hear one voice, that could be the worst thing we could ever do, even if it was a consensus voice." It's all so ... mysterious.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: No. And they shouldn't. This is clearly a cold war, despite insistence on both sides that it isn't a war at all. If the idea of all this is to look like the more professional side of the fight -- and I believe it is -- then occasional jabs from Kauffman will suffice. Stand back and watch NASCAR stumble through a reaction, which is a skill they have honed nicely over the years. There will be some sort of manifesto at some point. I would think that the idea would be to make it as much of a blindside as the initial RTA announcement.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: I can't imagine anything being said or done publicly in the foreseeable future. At New Hampshire, cordial mutual respect was conveyed through the media. RTA's Rob Kauffman laid out a vision to "explore common interests, reduce costs and collaborate on initiatives to promote and expand NASCAR." NASCAR President Mike Helton, speaking to reporters, repeatedly reiterated that NASCAR will continue to do business the way it has for the last 60 years -- by listening to individual stakeholders and making its own decisions, thank you very much. But let's be clear, for all the posturing that both sides made about "growing the sport," this is ultimately about money. The overall NASCAR money tree isn't bearing as much fruit as it did 10 or 15 years ago, with the notable exception of television revenue, and that's the RTA's endgame -- to negotiate a bigger slice of the TV money for the participants, as well as make sure that NASCAR doesn't continue to put a wheel under the teams as they chase sponsors and other revenue streams.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: I don't think this is about public posturing. I think this is about private power.
Turn 2: Chase Elliott won his third Nationwide Series race of the year on Saturday night. He leads the standings. Is he going to close the season with the championship?
Hinton: Yes, and I say that only after very careful consideration. It's a tall order, with only a seven-point lead and just past halfway through the season, with all those unforeseen circumstances still out there. But he's as near a lock on this title as you'll ever see at this point, with it this close. You can't coach pure driving instinct; you can't coach cool; you can't coach comfort in the public eye. It's all in his genetic makeup and his upbringing by his father, Bill, and his mother, Cindy. I have not known a race driver this poised, this early, anywhere, ever. The nearest thing was Michael Schumacher when I met him in 1991, just weeks after he broke into Formula One with Jordan Ford. But Schumacher was already a ripe old 22 by that point. Chase is still 18.
James: My inclination all season was that Elliott's JR Motorsports teammate, Regan Smith, would utilize his veteran guile, stoked with the bitter disappointment of letting a first title slip away last season, to claim this championship. I still think this will happen, but poor summer finishes -- Smith was 16th at Chicagoland this weekend -- are becoming a nettlesome habit and creating a major opportunity for the rookie. At some point in a long season, though, Elliott should encounter some situation that his pure talent alone can't help him overcome without experience. And therein should be Smith's chance. But he has to exploit it.
McGee: He certainly can. And I don't mean this as a slight to anyone else, but I would like to see it happen for a lot of reasons. The biggest of those is the fact that he is still going to be in the series again next year. To have a defending champion back for another full-time season would be a foundation for that series to work from that it hasn't really had in a long time. Having him back, mixed in with the likes of Elliott Sadler, Regan Smith, and Ty Dillon, would be a throwback to the days of Dale Junior, Randy LaJoie, and even further back to the generation before them. A chance to establish some names over the course of a couple of seasons before promoting them to Cup. You know, the way this is supposed to work!
Oreovicz: I think so. He has the equipment, he has the pedigree, and he has the momentum. This is one highly composed young man, who is displaying the genes of the fastest (and by some standards the most popular) driver in NASCAR history. It's too early to say Chase Elliott is going to rewrite the record books, but not too early to believe that he's going to win this year's Nationwide championship as a rookie.
Smith: Impossible question with half a season yet to run. But I will say I'm so, so impressed. Great kid with a great head on his shoulders; great, dedicated mentors (parents, Earnhardts, Greg Ives); and talent and understanding of machine and minutiae far beyond my expectations. I'm just so impressed. He and Kyle Larson give this deal some hope beyond the current generation.
Turn 3: The Brickyard has given us plenty of surprise winners, from Jeff Gordon in the inaugural in 1994 (it was just the second victory of his career), to Bill Elliott in 2002 as he was nearing the end of his full-time career, to Jamie McMurray in 2010 and Paul Menard in 2011. Who is your dark horse for this one?
Hinton: There's a whole stable full of dark horses to choose from here: Denny Hamlin runs well on flat tracks; Kyle Larson's 42 team has threatened to win this race before, with Juan Pablo Montoya; Matt Kenseth is still slumping so badly that he could be called a surprise winner. But I'll take Kurt Busch, who is entirely capable if his team will keep the strategies and stops together. It might or might not help that he completed the Indianapolis 500 in a very different type of car, but it can't hurt.
James: (1) Juan Pablo Montoya: Granted, he won the Indianapolis 500 in his first attempt and had bids to win the Brickyard 400 in 2009 and 2010 undone by a pit road speeding penalty and ineffective late pit call, respectively, but as a full-time IndyCar driver now, he will be attempting a tough retro-transition. That recertifies his dark-horse status. (1a) Austin Dillon: Richard Childress Racing produced a stunner in 2011 with Menard, and the Cup rookie has finishes of fifth and 12th at Indianapolis in Nationwide Series cars.
McGee: Menard. Can a guy who has won it before be a dark horse? Yes, he can. He's already matched his career single-season high for top-10 finishes, and RCR has had issues, but horsepower isn't one of them. And Slugger Labbe can call a crafty race. Do I think Menard will win? No. I think the big dogs will win out from here until the end of the year. But can he win Indy again? Sure.
Oreovicz: Kyle Larson. Indianapolis was one of the strongest tracks for Juan Pablo Montoya, his predecessor in the No. 42 Ganassi car. He came close to winning the Brickyard twice. Larson is due to break through for a Cup series win, and Indianapolis -- with all of its traditions, lore and self-appointed status as a star-maker -- is almost the logical place for it to happen.
Smith: Kyle Larson. Or Juan Pablo Montoya.
Turn 4: You each picked your Homestead final four back in the spring. What's it looking like now?
Hinton: Well, let's see. Last time I had Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson, with the fourth a toss-up between Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. Now I'd say JJ and Brad K are in, and will hang with Earnhardt as the third, but not quite as firmly as in the previous prognostication. After that, fourth becomes a multiple toss-up, with Harvick, Logano, Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon. Guess I'll still make Harvick the fourth, because of that turbulent team's ability to win out of the blue. So: JJ, Brad K, Junior and Happy.
James: Oh, let's not look back; that's for revisionists and apologists. Forward it is! The list will begin with Jimmie Johnson, not just because he has minted himself as the master of NASCAR's postseason but because he displayed flashes this spring of the type of three-to-four-week blitz that would be devastatingly effective in the Chase, old version or new. Brad Keselowski went from positing that Team Penske was a year behind Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports in engine development to becoming what appears to be the biggest threat to him winning a seventh championship. Matt Kenseth still hasn't won a race, but there he is, absorbing all those points, fourth in the driver standings after 19 races. And then there is Dale Earnhardt Jr. What a vexing variable is NASCAR's most popular driver. Second in points, a two-time winner -- with multiple victories for the first time since 2004 -- loose, confident, successful, coming off an exemplary 2013 Chase after an engine failure in the postseason opener in Chicago. Planets seem to be aligning. Watching him and crew chief Steve Letarte attempting to translate all the positivity into the elimination-style postseason will be fascinating to observe.
McGee: Didn't we burn those records? I think my picks were Earnhardt, Gordon, Johnson, and Harvick (in no particular order). I'll still take three of those, but replace Harvick with Keselowski. Why? Because Brad looks like the Bad Brad of 2012. Harvick still looks like he did at RCR, awesome for weeks in a row and then like Dick Van Dyke walking into the living room (that's an old TV reference to tripping over oneself for you youngsters out there).
Oreovicz: I'm still comfortable with three of my picks from three months ago: Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. That fourth spot is a quandary; I'll pull Kyle Busch and replace him with Kevin Harvick, though I strongly suspect that Matt Kenseth and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team will somehow pull together into championship form by November.
Smith: Mine hasn't changed a bit, though the Penske bunch is on rails and is certainly in championship form.