Debate: NASCAR's burning questions


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

Turn 1: Was Ryan Newman off base when he said "the safety is not up to NASCAR standards" at Watkins Glen International after he was involved in a violent multicar wreck Sunday?

Ed Hinton, Newman's complaints about safety have usually been when he was directly involved. With his engineer's training, that's one way he vents frustration after wrecks. The guardrail configuration at Watkins Glen usually dissipates energy well. And it's just impractical to put concrete walls and SAFER barriers all the way around a road course.

Brant James, He was not. Watkins Glen is a high-speed road course whose limits are further tested by the new aerodynamic packages employed on the current-generation Sprint Cup car. Drivers continue to find hardened spots around the 2.45-mile course, and when they do, those spots should be made more safe. It will be expensive. Those spots might not be hit again for a decade. That's the price of being in the big leagues.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Not at all. That barrier dates back to the F1 specs of the 1970s and has been outdated for at least 30 years. As speeds have increased, particularly over the past decade, we've also seen increasingly violent crashes that have bent that barrier to the breaking point. There's a repave coming at The Glen, and with it there needs to be some upgrades with those barriers. They know how to do this. In the past we've seen that track make changes in the run-off areas when accidents called for it, and The Glen was one of the first big-time tracks to experiment with foam blocks (see: Jimmie Johnson, Busch Series '00). My "SAFER Barrier Everywhere" mantra isn't really practical on road courses, but some SAFER mixed in with something -- anything -- more modern than the barriers from the movie "Rush" would be a nice start.

John Oreovicz, No, he was correct and I commend him for saying it. Much of The Glen's famous light-blue Armco dates to 1971, when the track was lengthened and upgraded to contemporary Formula One safety standards. F1 decided it wasn't safe enough anymore in 1980, and the barriers and other safety measures around the historic road course now are fundamentally the same as when NASCAR first raced there in 1984. The Glen is about to get repaved, and while the SAFER barrier isn't always feasible at a road course, it's the right time for International Speedway Corp. to invest in some safety upgrades as well. Let me also say that it's about time NASCAR started using a dedicated safety and medical rescue team similar to F1, Indy car and drag racing that travels to every Sprint Cup Series event.

Turn 2: Two days after his involvement in a wreck that resulted in the death of sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr., Tony Stewart pulled out of an upcoming dirt-track race in Plymouth, Indiana. Should NASCAR drivers in general stop dabbling in other series for recreation?

Hinton: No. It keeps them in touch with the grass roots, and both they and the fans need that. If an owner wants to stop his driver from short-tracking, that's easy to stipulate in a contract. Stewart is his own owner, so Gene Haas and the rest of the SHR management would have a hard time stopping him. To me, a driver who "dabbles" in local track racing is just showing his love of what sent him to the big leagues in the first place.

James: They should. I'm not here to quash their joy or outlet or passion. But they are not only professional athletes at the crest of their progression, but figureheads for sponsors and teams, and in the case of Tony Stewart, an employer to hundreds. They should step away, defer, not only for their good but that of anyone depending on them. Accidents happen. Accidents not of their doing happen. NASCAR drivers need not be involved.

McGee: Yes. I've changed my tune on this. In the past I'd always been one to defend these guys for moonlighting, even calling out the Cup series bosses who contractually prevented their drivers from doing it. I deeply appreciate the passion behind it. But the reality is that they can still contribute to grass-roots racing in other ways, whether it be buying up short tracks or fielding sprint car teams, both of which Stewart also does. When it's a special event like his Eldora Prelude, which NASCAR openly supported and drew a big-name entry list, perhaps that's different. But there is too much at stake for too many people for these guys to risk it all. As old-school cool as it might be, it doesn't really fit in the modern world of big league motorsports. There will be plenty of time for that after NASCAR. Just ask Red Farmer and David Pearson.

Oreovicz: The answer is no on principle, yes for practical reasons. Stewart is an extreme example because of his stature as a Cup series champion and team owner, but journeymen like Ken Schrader moonlighted throughout their NASCAR careers and secured a future as short-track draws for life. The presence of national stars is a boost for local and regional track owners, too. But there's no denying it's dangerous for NASCAR stars to step back to a level of racing where the cars and tracks are simply not as safe as they are at the Cup level -- and they often have no idea what to expect from the local drivers they are racing against.

Turn 3: What would be more surprising: Rookie Kyle Larson making the Chase or Kasey Kahne missing it?

Hinton: Neither would be surprising to me. If anything, I'd be surprised if Kahne made it, given his inconsistencies and his inability to close a deal even when he leads laps. Larson is inside the Chase grid, and a win to seal his deal would be surprising, but only a little.

James: Kasey Kahne missing it. Even though the performance has never quite matched the mystique created in his 2006 season, when he amassed six of 16 career wins, Kahne is a talented driver competing for the most resourceful team in the series, and all of his Hendrick Motorsports teams have multiple wins. At Watkins Glen, his hope for a good finish rested on gleaning information from his more successful teammates, and that didn't help much, either. Excuses seem hard to come by.

McGee: Kahne missing it. The moment we learned about the new Chase format, I believed that both Larson and Dillon could potentially make the Chase as rookies. But I never expected to see Kahne fighting through the summer just to grab hold of the bottom rung.

Oreovicz: In February, the answer would have been Larson making the Chase. Now, looking back over what has been disappointing season by his own and Hendrick Motorsports' standards, it has to be the fact that Kahne is in jeopardy of failing to get in.

Turn 4: Is the Chase field made more interesting or is it diminished with two journeyman first-time winners ( Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger) from middling teams in it?

Hinton: You gotta be kidding me, right? If you have a whopping 16-driver field, you have to have an underdog or two to keep things interesting. And the ways in which Almirola and Allmendinger won were such feel-good stories that the public's eyes will be on them in the Chase. They may not contend seriously, but just their presence will make it more fun.

James: Do you like underdog stories? Do you like stars? That is the question. Maybe Almirola and Allmendinger can be the Virginia Commonwealth and Valpo of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but chances are, given their overall performances, they will be predictable first-round bow-outs. Allmendinger admitted as much before winning at Watkins Glen, although victory and some serious browbeating by Brad Daugherty changed his tune once he got his hands on a trophy. But ultimately, they won their way in. That matters.

McGee: More interesting. The reality is that these teams don't likely have what it takes to win the Cup, but by being in the Chase field, at least that possibility exists. It would be great to see one of them make a Cinderella run through the first eliminations, like Davidson or Butler in the NCAA tournament.

Oreovicz: More interesting. The top two finishers at Watkins Glen (Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose) are a perfect example of drivers and their teams stepping up and performing at their best with a playoff berth on the line. Almirola, Allmendinger and the drivers who scrape into the Chase on points are unlikely to make it to the final four at Homestead, but they add great underdog value to the overall championship storyline.