Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Saturday night's race at Bristol produced frayed nerves and divergent strategies. Rate the race from 1-10, with 10 being the best, and tell us why.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: I'll give it a 9 because I was there, up top, watching the phenomenal level of driving, the display of lightning reflexes, the commanding of cars to go where they didn't want to go. The one mistake was a bad one, when Kevin Harvick clipped Denny Hamlin. But Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski and especially winner Joey Logano staged a clinic in spectacular moves on a racetrack, especially in diving low when that wasn't supposed to be possible at Bristol anymore. If you didn't like this one, that's a de facto admission that there weren't enough wrecks for you.
Brant James, ESPN.com: 7: There were big names crashing (Dale Earnhardt Jr.), fuming (Denny Hamlin) and coming unbolted (Kyle Busch), and although any modern Bristol night race will struggle in comparison to mythic editions past, this one was pretty good. The winner didn't have the Southern savoriness that many would have preferred, but there's less and less of that to go around anymore, anyway.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I give it a solid 8. Not sure what else people could have wanted aside from Dale Earnhardt/Terry Labonte III and perhaps a sexier winner (a lot of people still sure seem to want to hate Logano). We had wrecking, cussing, throwing and passing ... and it all happened in less than three hours.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: Call it an 8. It was a clean race by old Bristol standards, yet nobody is complaining about a lack of action. The relative lack of yellows made for a short, sharp race that was ideally suited for a Saturday night television audience.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: 9.7. It was the most entertaining race of the season -- the awesome Daytona 500 notwithstanding. What made Daytona so great this season was the palpable intensity among the driving corps all night long. They were racing the rain and racing each other, and those of us spectating could feel how hard they were running. Same thing Saturday night at Bristol. The drivers had to race their rears off for four hours. There was not settling in and riding. It was as intense a Cup race as I can remember; again, other than Daytona. There were three-way battles for the lead at times. There was always passing for position. There were wrecks, tempers, anger, frustration, verbal fisticuffs, intensity, passion. It's been a while since I felt like I felt Sunday morning when I left the racetrack. Other races have been notable, Jeff Gordon winning the Brickyard, for example. But Saturday I felt like I'd witnessed something special. It's the second time I've felt that way in 2014. The other? The Daytona 500.
Kyle Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers clashed at Bristol. What needs to happen with Kyle Busch for him to be a serious championship contender? Do you think it'll ever happen?
Hinton: I don't think the 18's stumbles down the stretch in the past necessarily apply now, with winning as important in the Chase as in regular season. But they'd have to streak to contend, and I don't see that this year -- the Gibbs cars just aren't in the same ball park with the Hendrick and Penske operations. Will it ever happen? Only if the 18 car is so strong through a Chase that Kyle's lack of staying power can be overcome with sheer wins. Hanging in there may never be a strong suit for him.
James: Apparently the only way it will happen is if nothing ever, ever goes wrong in a crucial situation. And that doesn't happen in racing. Busch has brandished Hall of Fame talent with his proclivity for victory in NASCAR's under-series, but undoes himself time and again with a rookie-level mental game. He's not a kid anymore. And getting older doesn't necessarily mean the kind of emotional/mental focus needed to win titles develops with age. In short, he's wasting his prime.
McGee: They still have to figure out how to close out a season. Yes, that can happen, he's still 29 years old. But after scanning his radio last weekend, my confidence is waning. He can't keep doing his best work from February through August and then vanishing. And when things go sour, he can't constantly take it out on his team. After that mess Saturday night, I started going through his career Cup stats, and it's pretty amazing how he typically hits the skids just after the Bristol night race. I thought that perhaps last year he showed us that he was over that Chase hump, but the last month is one of the worst he's ever had. The new format opens the door for a guy like him who can win in streaks. But right now, I don't see that streak coming.
Oreovicz: I'm not sure Kyle Busch will ever develop into a serious championship contender. I admire his "win or bust" attitude, but he never seems able to accept a "make the most out of what we have today" outlook when it's needed. A conservative approach is often necessary over the course of a season-long championship battle, but the new Chase format could favor a shooting star like Busch if he hits a hot streak at the right time.
Smith: Everyone wants to point to maturity. Or immaturity, as it were. I don't think that's an issue anymore, because I honestly don't believe his team cares if he whines. I honestly don't. It gets to a point where you want to tell him to shut up -- just like Dave Rogers did Saturday night. It doesn't get much cooler than telling a guy to "take your little whiny a-- to the bus." That's rock 'n' roll! Busch's problem for years was overdriving his car when he got mad. He's done well learning his equipment's maximum capability and working to finish at that level. What he needs right now to be a championship contender is better motors. Period.
Denny Hamlin hit Kevin Harvick's car with his HANS device from the apron to the high line. What's the most impressive piece of equipment-throwing you've seen in NASCAR?
Hinton: The sheer harmlessness of some of the missiles hurled has always struck my fancy most, so I have to call a tie. There was Rusty Wallace's bouncing of a nearly empty water bottle off Dale Earnhardt's shoulders at Bristol in 1995. Talk about futile. Then there was Tony Stewart throwing his gloves at Kenny Irwin Jr. at Martinsville in 1999. Hamlin's hurling the HANS was harmless, but at least it had more bulk and mass than the water bottle and the gloves.
James: My favorite is easy, because I was in the middle of it. Daytona, 2004 summer Nationwide race. I'm about to interview Jason Leffler -- who had finished second with an aggressive final lap -- surrounded by giddy crewmen in the darkened garage. In the middle of my second question, Leffler is informed that NASCAR has penalized him one second for rough driving against Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap, dropping him from second to 13th. Somehow, every member of his crew had a wrench in his hands, and they spontaneously slammed them to the pavement in disgust. Covering my head with a notebook, as if that would help, I exit stage left, quickly.
McGee: Being a big fan of the Avengers, I have to admit that I got a bit of a guilty thrill out of that dummy crew member from RCR doing his best Thor impersonation and throwing a hammer at Kevin Harvick's truck at Martinsville last year.
Oreovicz: I'll nominate Robby Gordon throwing his helmet at Michael Waltrip at New Hampshire in 2005 -- especially when reviewed in light of the recent Kevin Ward Jr./Tony Stewart situation. Admittedly it's in broad daylight, but the way Gordon walks right into the racing line as the cars roll by under caution is foolhardy and frightening -- especially when you notice that the driver who has to swerve the most to miss Gordon and his bouncing Simpson skid-lid was none other than Tony Stewart.
Smith: Tony Stewart. Bristol Motor Speedway Night Race, 2012. Bell helmet, double-axe handle delivery, perfect strike into Matt Kenseth's right front fender. And the sprinkles on top of the doughnut: The double-pump fist wave at the crowd.
Is the 16-driver Chase grid already set with only two races remaining to make it in?
Hinton: You just can't count out Kasey Kahne at Atlanta, where he's won twice and has a feel for the track. And Jamie McMurray showed for a while at Bristol that he's still capable of coming out of nowhere to dominate for a while. That said, I can't see either one closing a deal in time to make the Chase. They might, but I think what you see in the standings is what you'll get.
James: Yes. All that's left is to rearrange some of the deck chairs for the points-transfer drivers who will be eliminated in the first round anyway.
McGee: No. I think there's still a good chance we get one more race winner in there to screw things up. Like perhaps Kasey Kahne at Atlanta ...
Oreovicz: Probably yes, but it sure would be a neat story to see Kyle Larson win a race and get in as a rookie.
Smith: No. Something wild is going to happen in the next two weeks.