Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR:
Turn 1: Was NASCAR right not to throw the caution for Kyle Busch‘s blown tire at the end of the Fontana Xfinity Series race? And should there be different standards for a caution on the final laps versus other times during the race?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: I am and will continue to be an advocate for races finishing under green, if, or when, reasonably possible. I believe it was the right call to let them race back to the finish. But consistency is equally important. When a decision like this is made, we all expect the same call if the circumstances are similar going forward.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: It was a balls-and-strikes call. A judgment call. No one was in any danger, so it didn’t bother me. And if you ask any official in any sport, they will tell you that calls are absolutely different when they are made at the end of an event and can instantly alter the final outcome vs. what they might have been much earlier. The same play that was a pass interference penalty in the second quarter of a 21-0 game might not draw a yellow flag if it happens during a TD pass attempt in the third overtime of a 35-35 barn burner. If Race Control decides everyone can race to the finish, so be it.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: All cautions are judgment calls. Sometimes NASCAR gets it right, sometimes NASCAR gets it wrong, but the one certainty is that no one is going to be happy every time. Based on prior precedent, NASCAR should have thrown a yellow for Busch’s blown tire. And based on the way that Busch has been affected both ways by calls and non-calls, he had a right to be upset. The standard for throwing a caution should be the same no matter what lap of the race it is — if the track conditions could cause an accident, the flag should be waved.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: It is a judgment call, and there really isn’t a right or wrong call. On the final lap, weighing more heavily to make sure they have a green-flag finish is appropriate. A debris caution midway through a race because the debris likely would be hit at some point and not throwing the caution because just a lap or two remains is understandable. Those who think a caution is a caution no matter the time would have to say if what happened to Kyle Busch happened at Homestead, NASCAR would have to throw the yellow instead of letting the championship come to the finish line. Something just doesn’t seem right with that.
Turn 2: Kyle Busch got a little hot on the radio at the end of the aforementioned Xfinity race. Danica Patrick stepped on and up the track after getting wrecked by Kasey Kahne in the Fontana Cup race. Cole Pearn was not very nice on Twitter. Busch and Patrick were fined (Busch was fined for avoiding media obligations); Pearn was not. Right call?
Craven: I appreciate that Kyle is Kyle. He is not afraid to be different, he marches to his own beat and he’s authentic. That said, the governing body has a responsibility to protect its image. All three incidents deserved a reaction, and I sympathize with all three individuals because in the heat of the moment you make poor decisions — I’ve done it! At 50, I use my mistakes as a template to do a better job with our children. So with that in mind, let’s go with this: All three get sent to their room this weekend; no racing for any of them.
McGee: The only one who broke a legit, definitive rule was Patrick when she walked back up toward the racing surface, a rule put in place because of an incident involving her boss. Pearn was already on probation, but I don’t think he should have been punished. And no way on Busch. If that’d been someone more popular, no one would be screaming for his head. NASCAR has plenty to police without getting into every Tweet and transmission. If it’s something horribly offensive, sure. But not every time someone is mad. Fans always tell me they miss raw emotion from the racers. Broadening the dragnet to box in those emotions seems like a bad idea.
Oreovicz: Danica deserved the biggest fine because she obviously broke a clearly defined rule (and made herself look like a hot-tempered fool once again). Busch was let off lightly with a $10,000 fine, and that makes sense. I didn’t much care for Pearn’s choice of words (not a fan of the d-word),but he should remember Jim Rome’s advice: Twitter is like a loaded gun, especially if you are drunk or angry.
Pockrass: Busch shouldn’t have gotten fined for venting on the in-car radio, although that doesn’t mean in-car communications are totally immune of NASCAR justice. Patrick was an obvious fine because it is such a clear violation of a rule (an unnecessary rule, by the way, in a series where all drivers have spotters).
Turn 3: How strong a start is NASCAR off to after five races? Or is it off to strong start at all?
Craven: NASCAR is off to a great start. The product is very good; it’s been entertaining. I go back to a restaurant because I enjoyed the food, I appreciated the service and I had a good experience. NASCAR is not a restaurant, but its fate shares a similar criteria. Thus far, I can’t imagine why people wouldn’t return. The key from here is discovering a way to attract new customers.
McGee: It’s been a fantastic start. The new aero package is great. Tire fall-off has been good. Every manufacturer has won, young guys are in the mix, the superstars are winning and it’s the closest average margin of victory over the first five races that we’ve ever seen. Erase one idiotic political rally appearance and the record has been pretty clean.
Oreovicz: The racing has been better than in recent years, but as usual, it’s the off-track shenanigans that have people talking. So I’d say the product itself is off to a strong start, but the off-track storylines (especially political endorsements) are creating some problems for the sport.
Pockrass: The racing is off to a strong start, and NASCAR success starts with its product, so NASCAR is off to a strong start. The question is whether the ratings and attendance will follow. NASCAR has had so many off-track stories and controversy — cough, Trump, cough — that seem to get in the way of the actual thrill of the racing.
Turn 4: Which driver is the best surprise so far as we head into an off weekend?
Craven:Martin Truex Jr. hasn’t skipped a beat. Having transitioned from Chevrolet to Toyota, this team has not suffered at all and appears every bit as powerful as its near-championship run of last year. The No. 78 team could win at any point — it’s great to see it back up its strong performance of 2015.
McGee: I’ve really enjoyed seeing Austin Dillon run as well as he has. He did get off to a similar start two years ago, so I’m still in a wait-and-see mode, but I think the sport is better off when Richard Childress Racing is relevant. And I’m really enjoying watching the Wood Brothers crash the charter party. I would love to see Roger Penske partner up with them and figure out a way to get them officially into the club they never should have been left out of.
Oreovicz: It’s not really a surprise, but I’ll go with Ryan Blaney. I fully expect him to win a race this year in the Wood Brothers/Team Penske No. 21.
Pockrass:Ricky Stenhouse Jr. with one top-5 and two top-10s is the big surprise considering his recent struggles. Clint Bowyer ranks as the biggest disappointment. No one thought Bowyer would run top-10, but 31st in points? At least with a 16th-place finish at Fontana, Bowyer took a step in the right direction.