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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

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

Turn 1. Darlington Raceway delivered an interesting final 60 laps, with strategy, hard racing and a sentimental victory. Rate the race on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being "unwatchable" and 10 being "must-watch" and explain why.

Terry Blount, First half was a 4 and the second half an 8, so, mathematically speaking, that's a 6. But I'll say a 7 because the last half is more important and it was pretty interesting. Never thought I would see more than 170 consecutive laps at Darlington without a caution, but it fits the trend of the season. At this rate, Cup races are going to become like NBA games: No need to watch until the fourth quarter. And for now, no need to watch the race until the last 50 or 60 laps, but that will change.

Ed Hinton, I give it an 8. That nearly half the race went caution-free, and that there wasn't a wreck caution until Bobby Labonte spun with only 70 laps left in regulation, was a testament to driving skill throughout the field. And if you can't appreciate good driving at Darlington, where can you? Then the rest of the way the front-runners mixed it up, with Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart all showing strength -- though none was really a match for winner Jimmie Johnson. If the Lady in Black was a wrecking yard in the past, it was because not enough drivers knew how to dance gracefully with her. Now they've all learned to tango.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: I put it at an 8. It was typical Darlington in that it got strung out and single file for a while, but that conga line also happened to be running inches from the wall while sliding sideways, which I love. Then we had an unpredictable late finish, though Johnson took off on that final restart as if he was playing PS3 and had a boost button. And seeing racing history -- Hendrick's 200th Cup win -- is always a good night.

David Newton, Give it an 8.5. Forget all the early caution-free laps. When it came down to the end you had four of the sport's top stars -- Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin -- in a double-file restart with a legitimate chance to win. You had tire strategy that took Martin Truex Jr. out of the hunt. You had the drama of Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman with late spinouts and a pit-road confrontation. And you had a great storyline in Johnson giving Rick Hendrick his 200th career win. That's more action than I got out of "Saturday Night Live." Short of Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Danica Patrick being a factor, you couldn't ask for much more.

Turn 2. There was an after-race dustup between the Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman teams Saturday night at Darlington. What the heck happened and which side do you think was right?

Blount: Newman's gas man (that guy is a giant) got a little carried away afterward and accidentally helped a race official fall on the hood of Busch's car. But hey, what's a little pushing and shoving after a race on the Lady in Black. And I'd be mad, too, if Busch almost ran over me (which Newman's crew claimed) with his burnout exiting the pits. The issue here once again is Kurt's temper. The only thing he needs to do this year, his clear objective, is to play nice. But he couldn't make it through a third of the season before losing his cool.

Hinton: You can't blame Newman's crew for taking issue with what they thought was a brushback by Kurt in yet another tantrum at the wheel. NASCAR should have yet another look at his display. Other than that, it was mainly ol' boys being ol' boys and should be let go. Only trouble is, a NASCAR official got sent tumbling onto a hood, and I have to doubt seriously that Mike Helton & Co. will let that slide.

McGee: I have no problem with the 39 crew taking issue with Busch's blast through their pits. Though I do always find it funny when guys go into someone else's pits clearly itching for a fight and then get all bent out of shape when there's a fight. I don't think anyone will get into a lot of trouble. Likely just a warning. The bigger issue is how much damage Kurt did to his prospects of future employment. Long after the details of what happened are forgotten, there will still be that photo out there of an enraged Busch being restrained by his crew. Fair or not, a sponsor looks at that image and says, "Uh oh, there he goes again …"

Newton: A bit blown out of proportion. Yes, Ryan Newman's crew had a right to get upset because Kurt Busch got too close for comfort when speeding out of his pit box through theirs. Kurt was mad because he saw another good finish spoiled by a late mishap. Newman wasn't happy that Busch's spinout likely cost him a solid run. Guess what? They care. They get upset. But had Busch's last name been Gordon or Johnson the incident likely would have been overlooked by Newman's team and this wouldn't have been blown up in the media as Busch needing another dose of anger management.

Turn 3. We've seen some big surprises before. Give us your top two drivers -- the ones who will transfer to the All-Star Race -- in Saturday's Sprint Showdown, and explain why you think they'll get there.

Blount: One obvious choice is Martin Truex Jr., who is having a great season, but he doesn't have a good history at Charlotte. Two drivers who do have a strong history at Charlotte are Joey Logano and AJ Allmendinger. Dinger finished fifth and seventh in the two CMS Cup events last year. Logano has four top-10s in six starts at CMS.

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