Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: You have $100 to spend. How are you spreading it around as you bet on who’s going to win the championship?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: Half of my money is going on Kevin Harvick, who, from where I sit, is the driver to beat for a second consecutive year. The other half gets split between Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. So the first $50 feels like an investment because Kevin has less pressure than most, having already won that first title. The second $50 is more of a gamble on Joey or Dale Jr. being worthy of transferring to the final round and closing out a title. I like those odds.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: My very tiny gambling history says I’d be better off throwing Ben Franklin onto the grill with some burnt chicken wings, but I think I’m putting $80 down on Harvick because that team is a machine right now. There’s only team that has kept on steamrolling nonstop from 2014 to now, despite a rule book that changes more than a city skyline in “Inception.” (Solid nerd reference right there, probably opens some insight into my horrible gambling abilities.) I am also putting $10 down on Jimmie Johnson because . . . well, duh. And the remaining $10 I would tag to a long shot. Kurt Busch is getting 10-1 title odds most places I look. That’s a chance for some money right there.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: $40 on Kevin Harvick, $30 on Kyle Busch, $20 on Jimmie Johnson and $10 on Kurt Busch. Any questions? Actually, I have one: How can I not include either of the Penske drivers in my wagering? Or good old Mr. Reliable, Matt Kenseth? That’s an indication that this year’s championship is anything but clear-cut, and the vagaries of the elimination-style Chase format make it even harder to predict.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: Gambling — in my world, also known as “losing” — is not my thing. Plus, betting on a sport you cover is not the most advisable thing for a journalist. But if the boss says bet this $100, I have to follow orders: $60 on Kevin Harvick, $20 on Kyle Busch, $5 on Joey Logano, $5 on Brad Keselowski and then a little race car numerology for the final $10: $4.80 on Jimmie Johnson, $4.10 on Kurt Busch and $1.10 on Denny Hamlin.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Initially, I thought I’d lay down a Jackson here, Jackson there; 20 to him and another 20 to him. But you don’t make any money that way. So give me Denny Hamlin for a hundy.
Turn 2: What should fans expect from the high-drag package at Michigan?
Craven: Certainly something different than what we saw at Indianapolis. The banking and wide turns will allow drivers opportunity to stay in the accelerator longer, and more aggressively, with this package. The drafting effect should be much greater than what we saw a few weeks ago, and the multiple lanes through the turns should help drivers avoid the aero push condition as they’re attempting a pass. I believe it will be entertaining for us, busy for drivers.
McGee: Talking to a couple of team engineers, they say there’s a chance for some slingshot moves. Now don’t get all excited expecting Cale vs. Bobby, Pearson vs. Petty, or even Cole Trickle’s Sweet & Low packets. It’s still Michigan, not Daytona or Talladega. But the concern is still what happens when one car gets right up behind another. Whatever happens then — and we should know pretty soon in Friday’s practice — will dictate what a driver can do next. I feel like a broken record here, but I still miss the 2014 package.
Oreovicz: A stock car race featuring cars with comically tall spoilers that the powers-that-be hope will turn out magically to be competitive and exciting. Hard to say whether it will be; the ducktail car’s debut at Indianapolis was underwhelming, but as at Michigan, that’s mostly a product of the track rather than the cars on it. High drag, low drag or no drag, it’s probably going to turn into a fuel-economy race.
Pockrass: Hard to say. There appears to be more potential for slingshot passing based on the banking and width of the Michigan track. But if the cars still are a handful once they get behind another car, this could be only a slightly better version than the Indianapolis race. Teams will get an extra hour of practice Friday to see how the package works.
Smith: What they saw at The Brickyard, I fear, which wasn’t good. I’m not sure I recall one positive statement made by a competitor in the aftermath. Fortunately, as Brad Keselowski pointed out earlier this week, Michigan is much more forgiving than Indy in that it provides several potential racing lanes from which drivers can choose. Keselowski said NASCAR needs rash aero changes, and that after this weekend the sport as a whole will know much better where it truly stands with this high-drag package. The idea is to create pack racing. Michigan is among the best tracks for this idea. We shall see.
Turn 3: Do you foresee any new winners in the final four races before the Chase?
Craven: No! It’s the time of year that the strong get stronger. Those with wins have such an advantage as it relates to gambling on pit-road strategy to gain track position, and this is a game of track position. Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and Jeff Gordon could make a run at it in Bristol, but the odds are stacked against them.
McGee: Probably not. But I am hoping. The sentimentalist in me really wants Jeff Gordon to have a walk-off moment, and historically the Richmond race has been good about giving us some drama when we need it. But believe it or not, in the four races between now and the Chase I have my eye on Greg Biffle. He has never won at Bristol, but it’s statistically one of his best tracks. And he has won twice at Darlington and four times at Michigan. These are desperate times at Roush Fenway Racing. You have to think they’ll throw everything they have at their best shot to make the Chase, and that’s Biffle.
Oreovicz: I have a gut feeling that we are going to get one more race winner as a Chase qualifier, but I haven’t the slightest idea who it will be or where it will happen. I’ll take Clint Bowyer scratching a pesky itch at Richmond.
Pockrass: Nope. I still think Jeff Gordon can get a win, but that’s probably my heart saying that more than my head. And sorry to Kasey Kahne and the rest who need a win to make the Chase. Maybe next year.
Smith: No. But there’s potential. I still feel like Kasey Kahne gets one or gets close. He isn’t running well. His luck is pathetic. He’s been frustrated. But Bristol and Darlington suit his style. He’s never won at Darlington. It is conducive to unforeseen winners. He’s great at Michigan, but I don’t think he has the car right now to win that race. Hendrick, as a company, is chasing Gibbs and Stewart right now in overall car performance. So I’m not sure he can win this weekend. But even in years when his teams stunk, Kahne was competitive at Bristol and Darlington. I think Gibbs wins Richmond.
Turn 4: What should we think about the timing of the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Ward family against Tony Stewart during Watkins Glen weekend?
Craven: I think unless you have spent 20 years raising a son or daughter, it would be difficult to imagine the pain associated with such a loss. Even then, as I celebrate my son’s 19th birthday this week, I struggle to think about how difficult it must be for any parent to try and fall asleep at night having lost a child. As far as the lawsuit, it seems like it’s the natural course of events with this type of tragedy. Any success in the civil case would seem a hollow victory, but I’ve not walked in the Ward family’s shoes the last year.
McGee: I think they have good lawyers.
Oreovicz: Nothing coincidental about it, that’s for sure. The timing of the news, on the anniversary of not one but two devastating events in Tony Stewart’s life, was not designed to just “rattle his cage,” as Dale Earnhardt used to say. It was more about the Ward family maximizing the publicity potential that came with a milestone recognition of their son’s accidental death. This was a tragic incident on a lot of levels for a lot of people, obviously hitting closer to home for some more than others. It’s unfortunate but not surprising that the aftermath is playing out in such a public and litigious fashion.
Pockrass: These aren’t pretty, hug-it-out lawsuits. The Ward family sent a message to Stewart that they will make things uncomfortable for him. That’s the way the game is played, much like sliding into second base with the spikes up. The Ward family could have really made this a circus by holding a news conference just outside the Watkins Glen grounds or at the courthouse or doing the morning TV show circuit. They did none of that, so while it appears a little dirty, it was more working in the pigpen rather than rolling around in it.
Smith: That Kevin Ward’s parents are heartbroken and always will be. I won’t disparage their pain. I can’t imagine it. But the decision to file the suit at all has to be borne of overwhelming heartache and the desire and impossible hope to reclaim some of what’s lost. The tone and verbiage of the news release was quite accusatory toward Tony Stewart. The Wards want to make Stewart pay — and from my perspective it seems they want him to pay more in emotion than money. Truth be told, the facts aren’t in their favor. But with these cases it is impossible to fathom what may happen, because people see and hear the same testimony, but their interpretations and conclusions can be completely different. It’s awful, the whole situation. My hope is that all involved can somehow find peace someday.