Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in motorsports as the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series gears up for Sonoma Raceway:
Turn 1: Aric Almirola says he’ll return to the track as soon as late July. Should he be in a rush to get back in the car?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: Almirola should return when he’s medically cleared and not a moment before. The temptation to get back in your car is fueled by watching someone else drive what belongs to you. It is among the most difficult emotions a driver will experience, but the short-term gain is more than offset by the long-term risk of coming back too soon. At this point, he should be studying every audio and video of every top driver in the sport, capitalizing on things that he otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to see or hear in order to improve himself as a driver when he does return.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: No he should not. But if the doctors clear him, then it’s not a hurry. The way things work now these guys really aren’t allowed to come back too early. The days of Ricky Rudd taping his eyelids open are long gone. That’s not a bad thing at all. It’s an awesome story, but it’s a terrible idea.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: Yes. If he wasn’t in a rush, he shouldn’t come back to racing and put his life on the line every weekend. It is up to the doctors to tell him when he should race. They are the ones who can’t be in the rush.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: This is all assuming that Almirola is healed up, cleared and feels comfortable getting back in a race car, but if I’m him or Richard Petty Motorsports, I want him back in there for Daytona. Despite missing four races, Almirola is 28th in points, and now in danger of dropping outside the top 30, or the cutoff where a win gets a driver in the playoffs. A Daytona win, a track he won at in 2014, is his best chance of stealing a playoff berth, especially considering that he’s finished fourth in each of the first two restrictor plate races this year. Those are his only top-5 finishes over the past two seasons.
Turn 2: Is NASCAR throwing too many debris cautions late in races?
Craven: The purist in me says absolutely there are too many debris cautions, but the side of me that wants to see NASCAR return to its peak popularity recognizes that entertainment is what we sell — and what we must capitalize on. The key to this business is organic entertainment and that comes from the drivers’ personalities and to some degree the differentiation of teams and their pitstops (Toyota versus Chevrolet versus Ford). The artificial aspect of it is the subjectiveness of cautions, and it may seem strong to use that word subjective when it comes to caution flags, however, the body of work recently suggests otherwise. I suppose the hope is that the end product is entertaining or exciting enough that nobody remembers why the caution came out.
McGee: I totally understand why people see conspiracies here. I see them, too, but erring on the side of safety is never a bad thing. If it would make people feel better to see a Zapruder film freeze frame of every piece of debris to prove it actually existed, fine. But I won’t be waiting on that. I’ll be waiting on the restart.
Pockrass: It’s hard to fault NASCAR for erring on the side of “caution” if it can’t determine what the debris is and whether it could be hit by a car. Virtually all debris cautions have at least a base in legitimacy, but it has gotten to a point where NASCAR’s system either needs more officials to be able to see the debris clearly or, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. put it on his podcast, better binoculars.
Willis: I guess if the choice is erring on the side of caution, and erring on the side of recklessness, I’ll take caution. There’s value in the late caution to set up an exciting finish, but you hate to see it take away a sure win from a driver and team that earned it. In conclusion, I have no idea how to fix this issue rather than adding more officials to watch the track.
Turn 3: Love 3 p.m. starts or hate them?
Craven: I am awake and out of bed at 5 a.m. every day, so 3 p.m. seems like a long wait, but I absolutely see the benefits of that start time. Everyone knows that the sleeping giant comes in the form of the NFL, so 1 p.m. starts come September seem like a conflict of interest. While I believe 3 p.m. starts satisfy broadcast viewers, I’m not so sure they work well for people in attendance as it puts people getting home late. I’ve done a hell of a job not answering this question, right? I suppose, in the end, it really doesn’t register with me — if the race was entertaining, I like whatever time it started and whatever time it ended.
McGee: Selfishly, as an East Coaster and as a writer who is beholden to deadlines and travel itineraries, I hate them. I totally understand the gripes of West Coasters who don’t want races to start during breakfast. My biggest concern is for at-track fans who have to go to work on Monday morning and get squeezed. What do you worry most about if you’re NASCAR: tens of thousands on site or (presumably) millions watching on TV? At least it’s still way better than other sports. My poor daughter has never seen the end of a World Series or NBA Finals game. Gotta go to bed.
Pockrass: Neither. It is easy to understand the hope for better television ratings, and it is an opportunity for team executives to have more time with sponsors on a race day. But it stinks for campers who have spent all weekend there and are ready for a race hours earlier, and it stinks for anyone with a lengthy commute home. It also lessens the time available if it does rain. NASCAR tried them years ago and then said the fans wanted earlier starts. It’s hard to tell what’s different now. The jury is still out on the 3 p.m. starts when qualifying is on the same day.
Willis: From a purely selfish standpoint, I’m willing to give up my afternoon to a race, or my night, but a 3 p.m. East Coast starting time makes me feel like I’m losing a big chunk of both. Is the conversation still closed on weeknight Cup series races?
Turn 4: Which multiple race winner has the greatest shot at this year’s title?
Craven: Martin Truex Jr. is positioning himself so very well because of the positive influence associated with his acquisition of playoff points. The playoff points discussion will become front and center as we close out the regular season. It has been a long, long time since a driver’s body of work during the regular season had such a positive impact on determining the championship.
McGee: Granted, we’re in a new world with the playoff and what extra points will actually mean when we get to autumn. Truex is hoarding stage wins like your grandma putting Sweet ‘N Low packets in her purse. So you’d have to give him the edge.
Pockrass: Truex, just on the fact he leads the series in playoff points. If he can win the regular season, he could very well fall back on points to make it all the way to Homestead.
Willis: From the four drivers with multiple wins, I like Truex because the schedule sets up for him. Half of the 10 playoff races are taking place on 1.5-mile tracks. While they all have their own characteristics, both of Truex’s wins this season have taken place on such tracks (Las Vegas and Kansas), his 4.2 average finish leads all drivers on those tracks, as do his 536 laps led.