Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Kansas Speedway this week:
Turn 1: This is the last race before the All-Star Race. State your case for a driver to win the fan vote.
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: I would enjoy seeing the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 car get the vote. I know it’s a driver thing … but vote your conscience, vote Ryan Blaney, knowing it’s a tribute to a family that has contributed enormously to our sport. If Ryan doesn’t race his way in — which could very well happen — let’s acknowledge the Wood Brothers with a show of appreciation by placing them in an event that symbolizes what they represent: “All-Stars.”
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: A vote for Chase Elliott wouldn’t be merely a vote for a famous family or a vote for a famous car. It would be a vote for a kid who has spent all season in the top 10 and has been a legit threat to win races. Oh, and he also comes from a famous family and drives a famous car.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: I think many fans wouldn’t complain if Daniel Suarez wins the fan vote. He certainly would add interest from Mexico as well as the Hispanic fan base. He has handled the spotlight of his rookie season exceptionally well and his competing in the All-Star Race would serve as a justifiable reward.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: Elliott, Clint Bowyer and Blaney deserve spots in the race because of how they’ve run this season, but I’m going to stump for Suarez. Why would I do that for a driver who’s outside the top 20 in points? Because I want to see the All-Star Race go to more of an International Race of Champions format where there’s qualifications from around motorsports, and one of those spots should go to the reigning Xfinity series champion.
Turn 2: What can NASCAR do to get us more excited for its upcoming All-Star Race?
Craven: I’m transferring my vote to the Monster Energy executive team! If ever a company was suited to influence the “Energy” and excitement of a nonpoints paying auto racing event, it would be this group. Perhaps requiring drivers to consume an above-average volume of the “Monster recipe” 10 minutes before the green flag might contribute to the entertainment? I’m the furthest thing from a promoter so that’s all I’ve got!
McGee: Run it at Martinsville at night. But it’s too late to make that happen by next week … so maybe really loosen up the templates. For one night make it a few steps closer to “run what you brung” than normal. I’m not saying let them run Ford GT’s, but maybe give them a little leeway and promote the heck out of giving it to them.
Pockrass: NASCAR is giving the teams a choice in tires. I’d rather seem them allowed to soak the tires in whatever they want. Maybe the All-Star Race should have more of a “match play” format. Take 20 drivers, divide them into five four-driver heats and the winners, plus a fan vote, go into a six-driver main.
Willis: See my above answer. Who wouldn’t love a return to an IROC format that would include a few drivers from across motorsports who hit select qualifications, winners of major races, series champions, or drivers who have hit historical milestones? Put them in identically set-up cars (but allow them to throw their sponsor on them). It would make the All-Star Race feel like something different than we see on a weekly basis. Or throw them on dirt. That’s fun, too.
Turn 3: When does Joe Gibbs Racing finally win a race?
Craven: When the track temperatures reach crazy numbers, the cars slide around more and more and that’s when the value of Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin become most appreciated. As much as I enjoy and believe in Suarez, he is unable to contribute at this time the same way Carl Edwards would have. I’ll go with the team’s first win coming at Sonoma (June 25).
McGee: Never. Not with all these terrible tracks and even worse tires and even worse NASCAR rules in place. Right, Kyle?! Actually, I think Kenseth ends the drought this weekend at Kansas.
Pockrass: Let’s go with Dover (June 4). That’s kind of Jimmie Johnson‘s house but JGR still needs to find speed on the intermediate tracks. The 1-mile Dover track, though, is a place where both Kenseth and Busch have won in recent years (Busch’s wins have most recently come in Xfinity and trucks at Dover).
Willis: Gibbs Racing’s best runs this season have come at shorter, flat tracks — Busch finished second at Martinsville. Kenseth dominated early at Richmond and Hamlin finished third there. The speed hasn’t quite been there on the intermediates. The upcoming schedule doesn’t set up well for them, so it might not be until New Hampshire in mid-July, where they’ve won three of the past four.
Turn 4: Is Roush Fenway Racing back with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s victory? Or do you want to see more before making that declaration?
Craven: Well, Roush Fenway is back in the playoffs, which puts them ahead of many teams and drivers. But there is obvious work ahead because qualifying must improve, pit road stops must improve and Trevor Bayne needs to contribute more in the way of speed (though I acknowledge his consistency in races this season). Nothing boosts a team’s confidence more than a win and the window to continue building momentum is wide open! It is critical that the show of strength continue in the next four races, not as much for Stenhouse but more for the organization. Also, Stenhouse’s name could begin circulating as an option for the No. 88 car next year.
McGee: I need a little more. A plate win is great, but it’s still a plate win. The record book is full of dudes who won Talladega once and never won again. But this is easily the most consistent performance for RFR since the veteran drivers all bailed. If they keep doing what they’ve done all spring deep into summer, I’m in.
Pockrass: You never can say a team is back by winning a restrictor-plate race. If Stenhouse continues to run in the top-12 in the standings by the end of July and Bayne also remains in the playoff hunt, fans could justifiably say Roush Fenway has gotten back to the sport’s elite.
Willis: The 2017 season has been a huge step in the right direction for Roush Fenway, but I don’t expect to see them regularly competing for wins quite yet. I expect to see them running more regularly in the top 10 and top 15. Stenhouse is on pace for 11 top-five and 18 top-10 finishes, both crushing his career-highs of four and six, respectively. Bayne isn’t quite at that pace, but has seven top-15 finishes this season. He had just 11 of those last season.