Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series readies for Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California:
Turn 1: Tight end Jordan Cameron said recently that most NFL players do not love playing football. Do you think the same holds true for NASCAR? Do drivers really love racing, or are there alternative reasons for why each suits up for 36-plus weeks a year?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: Drivers in today’s Cup series love racing, but some love it more than others. I suggest that drivers who are just beginning their careers into our sport, such as Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, are motivated by the opportunity and by winning. Those drivers absolutely love what they’re experiencing and don’t need anyone to push them along. On the other end, drivers such as Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and others live to race and race to live. Those drivers are dominated by leaving their mark on the sport.
It’s the drivers in the middle whom you could raise questions about — not that they’re all guilty. The driver who has been in the sport for a while but is no longer seeing productivity — it then becomes heavy lifting and they’re not having much fun, but they’re making loads of money relative to the rest of the people in United States. Consequently those drivers do begin thinking about the amount of money they’re making, and that can and usually will lead to their demise because the only way to regain success is to compete as if you’ve never won a race. You need to want it that much!
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: I actually hear this a lot from pro athletes. The baseball players I know miss football and the football players miss basketball, etc. That or they’ve found they’ve lost their passion for the game from college to the pros because now it feels like a job. But I never hear this from racers. I think the lifestyle — though obviously richer — is essentially the same from the time their family hauled them to karting tracks as kids to being at the Cup or IndyCar or NHRA facility as an adult. I know there are certainly some racers who hang around because the money is too good not to … but they are the in vast, vast minority. The retired racers I know always seem to miss it more than most of the retired NFL players I know.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: They love racing. They know they can die in racing, so they don’t risk that without loving it. If Carl Edwards never returns to racing, he’s the prime example that when a driver loses the love, it’s time to hang it up.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Info: I love working for ESPN and in the sports industry, but I certainly wouldn’t do it for free. That being said, if I didn’t have a passion for my job, it would show in my work. I think the same holds true of racing — there needs to be passion or it’s going to show on the track. But beyond the regular contenders and the up-and-comers, if you’re in a non-competitive ride, there’s a reason you’re running in the Cup series five laps down, or starting and parking in the Xfinity series. It might be the prestige of just being at that upper level, or there very well could be another rea$on that I can’t quite gra$p.
Turn 2: One month into the season, what has been the biggest surprise?
Craven: I expected Johnson with a smaller spoiler and much less downforce to be a greater authority than what he has been. One could argue that teammate Chase Elliott has been more impressive and more productive. Johnson has always been associated with a strong start, and coming off of the record-tying seventh title with a low downforce package that typically suits his driving style, I expected him to have been much stronger than what he has shown so far.
McGee: For all the chatter about Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Toyota is quietly scuffling a bit, isn’t it? Martin Truex Jr. has a win and is ranked fourth in the standings, but he’s the only Toyota driver to win and the only one to have cracked the top 14. With some luck Toyota could have won all four races, but the reality is that it didn’t. I don’t think this will be a trend. The manufacturer is breaking in a new car, after all. But yes, it’s surprising.
Pockrass: Happy Bob says Ryan Blaney sitting sixth in the standings. It’s early, but it shows Blaney’s significant improvement and potential over last season. Party Pooper Bob says the lack of exciting racing for the lead with the reduced aerodynamic package. It didn’t do a whole lot for Las Vegas and Phoenix. Maybe this weekend in California will show its worth?
Willis: From a single-driver perspective, the explosion of Kyle Larson has been a big surprise. Sure, he hasn’t won a Cup race, but three straight second-place finishes have shown that he has arrived, and he did it quickly. And three consecutive top-2 finishes does not come up often; last year, it happened once (Kyle Busch). In 2015, it happened twice. From a full-race perspective, the surprise has been that races are coming down to the wire. Every race this season has seen the last lead change happen in the final 10 laps.
Turn 3: In honor of its 20th anniversary, Auto Club Speedway asked drivers to pick songs from the 1990s for their intros. Which 1990s song is a favorite of yours and which driver should use it?
Craven: Michael Bolton’s “When I’m Back on My Feet Again.” This song could apply to Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or Kasey Kahne. All three of these drivers have shown gifted ability during their careers, and I believe all three have more to capitalize on. And so far in this 2017 NASCAR season, each of them has given us reason for encouragement. Ryan ended a long losing streak last week, and I believe Kahne (Cup losing streak dates back to 2014) and Stenhouse (winless in Cup) will do the same this season.
McGee: I want Dale Junior to walk out to “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice, but — and this is really, really important — only if he brings back his 1999 frosted tips.
Pockrass: Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” for Earnhardt Jr. because he gets knocked down. And he gets up again.
Willis: As a child of the 1990s, I take this question very seriously. I’m cheating and demanding a tie. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” goes out to a trio of drivers just out of their teens who are bringing NASCAR’s next generation to the forefront in Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney (all in the top six in points). My personal favorite, “I’m Gonna Be (500 miles)” by The Proclaimers, goes out to Larson, who was leading at 499 miles of the Daytona 500 but couldn’t quite make it 500.
Turn 4: Should Austin Dillon be penalized for pinching Cole Custer into the wall under caution after a Custer mistake wrecked Dillon at Phoenix? Should the penalty be worse for a Cup driver doing that to an Xfinity regular?
Craven: Full-time Cup drivers competing in a lower series should be held to a higher standard when they behave like Austin behaved Saturday in Phoenix. There should be a very low tolerance for the greatest athletes in our sport dropping to a lower series and retaliating against a rookie who made a rookie mistake. Regardless of what the penalty should be, Dillon (a driver I have very high regard for) punished himself with the perception he created after poorly handling a racing situation.
McGee: Yes and yes. The reasoning we’re fed up about Cup guys racing in Xfinity is that it’s a great learning opportunity and the ultimate measuring stick for the young guys. Well, here’s a rookie who by every angle made a little mistake when his car wouldn’t turn. That certainly cost Dillon, but instead of talking to the kid after the fact he decides to do some Saturday-night-short-track-justice move. Maybe there’s a past between them I don’t know about, but it feels like a garage chat would’ve done the trick.
Pockrass: NASCAR should fine him and double it since he is a Cup driver taking points away from an Xfinity regular. Granted, he cost Custer probably at most 10 points with the caution-flag antics, but that’s still 10 points that could matter, albeit slightly, at the end of the season. He also could have wrecked Custer under green at another race and it probably would have gone unnoticed, costing Custer more, so it’s not like he should sit in timeout. He didn’t use his car as a weapon, as some fans would suggest, for anything more than a fine — he used it as a pick.
Willis: Kyle Busch was parked in 2011 for wrecking Ron Hornaday in a Truck series race, so there’s some precedent to making a driver sit out on Sunday for an action on Friday or Saturday. But that should be saved for the most egregious of offenses. A reasonable penalty if you’re guilty of intentionally wrecking somebody you’re not racing against for points is to suspend the driver specifically in the series they’re not running for points. That being said, that hammer should be wielded with extreme caution, but a precedent for a driver ruining championship hopes for another while he’s really risking nothing at all should be set.