Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: Was the two-race suspension NASCAR handed to Matt Kenseth too much, too little or just right? Explain.
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: One race would’ve been sufficient. Two races makes no sense — now you bring him back at Miami creating a load of distraction during an event that should be dominated by four drivers battling for a championship.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: Too much. I didn’t think it warranted a suspension at all. A huge fine and huge points penalty would have sent the same message. Heck, NASCAR should have written him a check for putting them on the national sports radar all week. On Sunday evening the Cup race led SportsCenter, ahead of the NFL and even the World Series! I thought if there was a suspension, one race would have been sufficient. If they did two they might as well have just done three and parked him until 2016. Seems odd allowing him to return at Homestead with the potential to really prevent Logano from winning the championship.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: Too much. NASCAR made Kenseth the fall guy for the all-or-nothing mentality that is a direct product of the latest Chase format, which itself is a manipulation of the natural order of competition that was eventually bound to produce a situation like this. I think if anyone was reckless, it was Brian France, who practically dared Kenseth to retaliate for what Logano did to him at Kansas with his now infamous “quintessential NASCAR” comments. Reaction to Kenseth’s payback move at Martinsville certainly showed that fans and competitors thought it was justified under the circumstances. Instead of sitting Kenseth down, I would rather have seen France and NASCAR show a little contrition and admit that maybe they went too far in their zeal for manufacturing excitement and drama with the elimination-style Chase. But that will never happen.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: It was right. A one-race suspension would have been adequate. Anything more, especially into next season, would have been excessive. NASCAR helped create the situation, so to stick Kenseth with a lengthier suspension into next season would have been a myopic response indicating NASCAR didn’t play a role. By having one of its lengthiest suspensions to a driver for an on-track action in series history was enough to send a message. It needed to send a message that a fine and points penalty couldn’t, and the drivers got the message that actions will have consequences. Kenseth might have done what he felt he had to do, but NASCAR needed to try to regain law and order.
Turn 2: Will Joey Logano pull himself out of the hole he’s in and advance to the final race of the Chase? If so, how?
Craven: Logano now has to prove he has the mental strength to put this in the rearview mirror and get back to the stride he has had the past month of racing. What’s required for him to advance is very similar to what was required from Kevin Harvick last year. Logano has fast cars and if he’s able to execute the way Harvick did in last year’s third round, I expect Logano to become this year’s champion.
McGee: Yes. He’ll do it by doing what he’s done throughout the Chase. He’ll win. His numbers at Texas over the past three years are lights out. Add that to the fact that he has won three of the past five and looked headed for a fourth win before the drama, betting against him at this point is a bad idea.
Oreovicz: I’m guessing that he will, doing it right away by winning this weekend at Texas. That 22 car has been the class of the field for the past few weeks, and I expect them to continue to execute at peak form for the rest of the season — especially now that they have a little extra motivation.
Pockrass: Nope. He’s just too far back. He is a great driver and can handle adversity, but making up 28 points in two races against the strength of these eight finalists is going to be hard for anyone to do. He does have a recent win at Texas but the pressure of what he faces could be too much. He certainly will be tested, having to come from behind like that and he might make it close. But I’m picking Kyle Busch to win Texas and Harvick to win Phoenix. That leaves Logano out.
Turn 3: Did Danica Patrick deserve a two-race suspension for taking out another driver at Martinsville? She got off lighter than Kenseth, but should she have?
Craven: No, she did not deserve a suspension. There hasn’t been precedent for suspending a driver who has had something taken from them and you simply repay the favor. Her circumstance was not nearly as flagrant as Kenseth’s.
McGee: No way she deserved a two-race suspension. First, even if she had connected cleanly the chances were minuscule that it would have altered the championship. Second, it wasn’t the same kind of high-speed takedown as Kenseth’s. Third, she did way more damage to her own car than anyone else’s. Isn’t that punishment enough?
Oreovicz: I think she deserved about half of what Kenseth got, but then I think they came down way too hard on Kenseth. So I guess her penalty is about right. In any case, what Patrick did to David Gilliland deep in the pack was far more “Days of Thunder” than what happened between Kenseth and Logano at the front of the field, which was very real. In that context, Danica’s attempts to wreck Gilliland and her foul-mouthed commentary were little more than comic relief worthy of Ricky Bobby. Call it “quintessential Danica.”
Pockrass: Gilliland finished two laps down in 24th and likely would have finished no better than 22nd (the highest-finishing car one lap down). Throw in a little body work and maybe it was $20,000 total. The cost for Logano, beyond the race victory, could be $3.5 million (the difference between winning the title and fifth in the standings) or even more. Yes, there is a safety issue in both instances. The points and fine handle that for Patrick. But let’s not be overly sanctimonious and think for a second that Patrick’s crime was as big as Kenseth’s. And, don’t forget, Kenseth’s actions also had potential to help his teammates, which in and of itself is an offense that justifies suspension. It can’t be stressed enough, even if that’s not the intent, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards have a better chance of winning the title now because of Kenseth’s actions. That has to be taken into consideration with the penalty and something not even in the picture when considering Patrick’s retaliation.
Turn 4: Has NASCAR regained control with the Kenseth suspension, or does this version of the Chase make things inherently uncontrollable?
Craven: What happened at Kansas is the basis of my frustration and how poorly NASCAR handled Martinsville takes us back to the flaw that was exposed. The winning driver of the first race of each round has a tremendous psychological advantage, they don’t have to perform to advance in the final two races. But the advantage should not become a competitive advantage to where you allow that driver to race with a “get out of jail free card.” I feel that was established postrace in Kansas when Logano’s driving style was applauded by NASCAR leaders. A comment was made that endorses the idea of perhaps targeting the driver you feel could be the most difficult to beat in the later rounds. I have no idea what that means, and I can tell you none of it represents quintessential NASCAR racing that I did. And I can tell you driver code will always exist and should always prevail.
McGee: This driver code we’ve heard so much about over the past couple of weeks can be controlled only by the drivers. Fines and suspensions and stern talking-tos will go only so far. At the end the day, the guys between the lines with the steering wheels in their hands will dictate the mood of the sport. As for the Chase, there is no question that the new format has amped up the stress and emotion more than any of us could have foreseen. You can physically feel a difference just walking through the garage. Last year that led to fistfights. This year it’s intentional wrecks.
Oreovicz: I don’t believe NASCAR ever lost control; it simply kept manipulating circumstances until somebody was bound to break, and that person happened to be Kenseth. Until NASCAR starts operating the cars via remote control, it will never be able to exert total control over the drivers, no matter how long a suspension it threatens them with. If one driver really wants to take out another, he — or she, as Danica demonstrated — is going to do it, plain and simple. Whether it’s for a championship or for 30th place in a race …
Pockrass: It has gained control. For the next three weeks. But next year, something else will happen to soil the Chase. The 2014 version had the Charlotte and Texas melees. The 2015 version had the Kansas-Talladega-Martinsville controversies. The 2016 Chase will have something else that will require NASCAR to step in and exert control. It is hard to envision a Chase that isn’t a little bit out of control. It also is hard to envision how fans stomach it long term.