Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: Was Kevin Harvick justified to react the way he did? Will he overcome finishing 42nd at Chicagoland?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: I thought Kevin went a little overboard. What’s obvious is Kevin is very determined to win a second consecutive title. His driving style during the race and emotions postrace speak to that. While I understand the basis of his frustration with Jimmie, his reaction suggested there’s a long-standing issue between them — that’s the part I’m struggling with. I interpret the jab to Jimmie’s chest as … “Don’t come apologizing, there’s no free pass for wrecking me.” What puzzles me was that Kevin didn’t leave it at that, and allowed it to escalate to the point of needing to be restrained. Regardless, I absolutely believe Harvick moves on. He’s overcome far worse.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: I get it, because it was a huge moment and the next two tracks in this segment of the Chase aren’t exactly his best venues (though he finished top three at both this year). But that whole thing looked like it just as easily could have gone awful for the 48; it just didn’t. The hope now is that he’s cooled off enough to not do something stupid this weekend or the next. Then again, judging by the reaction from fans, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing attention-wise. Assuming the Bowyer penalty stands, Harvick will only need to make up three points positions over the next two weekends to move on to the next round, and his team is clearly better than the two just ahead of him, so he needs to either win or he needs someone else to have a day like he just had. It’ll be tight.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: Harvick and the 4 team certainly are capable of overcoming that disastrous P42 because as he rightly noted, they can win anywhere. Whether they can win anywhere if the driver’s head is not in the right place remains to be seen. It was bad luck that Harvick cut a tire and crashed, but it looked like it was one of those 50-50 racing incidents where nobody wanted to give and somebody had to pay. I think Harvick overreacted and Rodney Childers and company may have a tough time keeping him calm over the next couple weeks if things don’t go exactly to plan.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: He was justified to be mad, but is anyone ever justified with punching someone else unless in self-defense? The fact is that Jimmie Johnson could just as easily have hurt his car with the same move as it did Harvick’s car. Both took risks, Harvick by not giving Johnson any room and Johnson by trying to wash up and not get on brakes. They aren’t champions because they concede positions, but they are champions because typically they inherently know the risk-vs.-reward aspects of their moves. Harvick was a victim in this in the sense that it was Johnson who was pushed into the low lane, but Harvick’s unwillingness to yield at that point in the race — and not pit when he had a tire rub in a first-round Chase race — at least requires a glance into the mirror.
Turn 2: Who is going to emerge as the top Joe Gibbs Racing driver over the next nine weeks?
Craven: Matt Kenseth. Proof? Runs poorly all day in Chicago and somehow finishes top-5. It’s far more difficult to finish well with an average car than win with a great one!
McGee: Matt Kenseth. I say that only because I still want to see whether Kyle Busch can stay at his top-shelf level throughout an entire Chase, something he’s never done.
Oreovicz: I still think it is Kyle Busch, who over the last two months has supplanted Harvick as the man most likely to win on any given week. The intra-Gibbs battle is likely to be one of the best storylines of this year’s Chase.
Pockrass: Kyle Busch. You could even say he already is the top Joe Gibbs Racing driver. He led more laps than his teammates at Chicagoland and the race this week comes at a track where he won in July. Busch has led more laps than any other JGR driver this year despite having missed the first 11 races.
Turn 3: Does NASCAR need to move the Chase opener from Chicagoland?
Craven: Why? What am I missing? The Chicagoland track has become a very entertaining place to compete. Drivers have several lanes to choose from, moderate to aggressive tire wear. Seemed like a successful start to me. I look forward to reading the other opinions, but I can’t think of a compelling reason to move it.
McGee: I don’t know if location really matters. I think it’s an impossible ask to expect much media coverage locally when the Chicago Bears are cranking up and one of the two MLB teams is even partially in the middle of a pennant race, which between the two of them is going to be most years. But the national media blitz that leads into the first Chase race, sending the drivers all over the place, isn’t going to change no matter where the race is. And the NFL isn’t going to start later, no matter where the race is. So I guess you might as well just keep it in the biggest market available and hope for the best, which is Chicago.
Oreovicz: Yes. NASCAR has good intentions to start the Chase in a major media market, but Chicago is a market that doesn’t show any sign of suddenly taking a shine to stock car racing. You hear the arguments about other sports going up against football, and Chicago sports media is saturated with Da Bears at this time of year. Plus, a solid hour from the Loop out in Joliet, Chicagoland Speedway suffers the same kind of disconnect with the city that Auto Club Speedway at the far edge of greater Los Angeles is so familiar with. Here’s where I again make my pitch for the Indianapolis road course as the venue for the Chase opener, but I also like Bob’s idea of starting the Chase with a bang (literally) at Talladega.
Pockrass: Yes. There just isn’t enough buzz in the Windy City to make it worthy of the Chase opener. The Chase should open at Talladega. NASCAR can do its media days in the Southeastern media hub of Atlanta and then open the Chase just as it opens the season — with a restrictor-plate race. If drivers get caught up in a crash, they have a better chance of overcoming it in the first round, and by making it the opening race, they know what they have to do the next two races to recover. But maybe the biggest thing is the likelihood of the sports highlight programs will show Talladega — they will show the big wreck and the winner. It’s virtually guaranteed coverage for the first race of the Chase.
Turn 4: Who is your pick at New Hampshire?
Craven: Brad Keselowski wins.
McGee: How about Brad Keselowski? He owns the highest career average finish of any longtime Cup driver and he led a third of the race before finishing second in June. Plus, it’s about time for him to make a Chase statement.
Oreovicz: I’ll take Jimmie Johnson, turning the Chase conversation in a whole different direction.
Pockrass: Joey Logano. It’s the Penske driver’s “home” track and he has run well there with two wins, four top-5s and six top-10s. He started second and finished fourth in July.