Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR:
Turn 1: Does NASCAR need to get Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth together in a room to hug it out?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: No! NASCAR needs authentic rivalries between its competitors, and it’s a bonus when the drivers involved are top-tier, capable of winning on any given week. Kenseth and Logano are just that. NASCAR should get involved when its competitors cross the line or can no longer police themselves — but not one minute before.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: I think that’s already been tried to some extent — and I think it’s pretty clear that it didn’t work. In a lot of instances (most instances) time heals those driver feud wounds, but sometimes not even that works. This feels like one of those times.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: Driver feuds are good for publicity but little else. It’s not good for anybody when bad blood spills over onto the track, and in this case, I think NASCAR should step in and have a quiet word with Logano and especially Kenseth. Getting them together could be a good thing because while they don’t have to like each other, they do need to show a bit more respect, both in and out of the car.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: No. It wouldn’t do any good. They know the consequences if they let their emotions take over on the track. The only way they repair their feud is if they initiate dialogue themselves.
Turn 2: Will there ever be a reconciliation between Talladega and the drivers?
Craven: Not as long as the cars compete with restrictor plates, which allow every driver, regardless of talent level, to run full throttle lap after lap after lap. The same thing that makes this form of racing exciting for fans creates the unpredictability and craziness for the drivers. It’s a tug of war that has existed for as long as NASCAR drivers have competed at Talladega with a restrictor plate.
McGee: With some, nope and never. Guys like Ryan Newman will feel the same way about that place now that they have their entire careers. But others — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, etc. — have always been at peace with it. Earnhardt himself said it on Friday that he loves that there are guys who aren’t right in their relationship with Talladega because he knows he has them mentally beaten just by showing up.
Oreovicz: Not until the nature of the racing changes. I doubt any one of those drivers truly wants to participate in a restrictor-plate race, no matter how much money or glory is on the line. But do they really have any choice? It takes a lot more bravery to say “no” in the face of danger than it does to cross your fingers and hope for the best. That’s why I respect it so much when a guy like Mike Conway decides he doesn’t want to drive Indy cars on ovals for safety reasons or when Formula One champions including Emerson Fittipaldi, Niki Lauda and Alain Prost choose to withdraw from races when they thought the conditions made continuing unacceptably dangerous.
Pockrass: I don’t know what you’re talking about. The drivers love the infield at Talladega.
Turn 3: There’s always a lot of screaming after Talladega races, but this year the reaction felt even more divisive than normal. If NASCAR were to ever decide to scrap modern restrictor-plate racing and start over, what would you suggest they do?
Craven: Perhaps adding weight would help, but most valuable will be any type of technology that slows the cars down abruptly when a driver loses control. This is conceptually the job roof flaps were created to do. But it’s apparent that it’s not enough or not as consistent as it needs to be.
McGee: First, I want to say that I like it. I always have. But I struggle with liking it because it can go from fun to fiasco so quickly. But the only real “solution” would be what Benny Parsons used to always say, that the only way to “fix” it is to get out the bulldozers and knock the banking down. Then he would always quickly add, “And I think we all know that ain’t happening, so we better just learn to love what we have.”
Oreovicz: Use the plate races as a platform to introduce a more technically advanced and safer next generation of stock car. Make the car lighter and incorporate greater use of composites. Follow the industry lead and downsize to a turbocharged four-cylinder or V-6 engine and reduce speeds to around 180 mph. And NASCAR should take advantage of the trend toward increased communication by working in harmony with the drivers, Goodyear and the manufacturers throughout the process to create a balance between mechanical and aerodynamic grip that will require the driver to modulate the throttle (and sometimes even use the brake).
Pockrass: The only recourse is to take out some of the banking to accommodate these cars. While Daytona is willing to spend $400 million on new grandstands, it won’t spend that much to change the track. If NASCAR can’t find the answer in 30 years, what’s going to make anyone think it will find an answer in the upcoming months? That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t keep trying to figure out the safest way possible to have an exciting race at these tracks; it just means the chances of success are minimal.
Turn 4: Could NASCAR survive without restrictor-plate racing?
Craven: They could certainly survive, but the business would suffer. This is a product the paying customers enjoy, though I cringe every time we compete at Talladega because of the effects the track and the circumstances of the racing can have on my fraternity. We must remember that this is a business and there are risks associated with participating. Your willingness to accept the risk, or not, ultimately determines how long you stay in the game. With that said, making the cars and the catch fence as safe as possible is a priority, and to that end NASCAR, and the track owners, deserve a lot of credit.
McGee: It could, but it would be missing a massive hole in the middle. I have long contended that those four races are the only four on the schedule that you have to watch beginning to end. You can’t take a nap. You can’t go mow the lawn. You have to watch every lap because you might miss something big. Even restrictor-plate haters have to admit that.
Oreovicz: Yes, but it would lose that portion of the audience that’s there for the wrecks, those fans who crave the carnage that is part and parcel with plate racing. We’ve gotten to a point where plate races have conditioned many fans to demand 30-car packs with three-wide racing and a photo finish every week, no matter what kind of track. The challenge for NASCAR (and most other forms of racing),especially at restrictor-plate tracks, is to alter the fan’s perception of what makes good racing.
Pockrass: The first reaction is it sure could. Nothing is irreplaceable. Then again, the Daytona 500 anchors NASCAR. If it somehow goes through an overhaul, it would affect how and where the ship moves.