Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in motorsports as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads into the offseason:
Turn 1: Now that Martin Truex Jr. won a championship, which other driver would be the best feel-good champion, first time or not?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: Joey Logano or Kyle Larson. Joey because he has handled the 2017 adversity very well. Kyle because he had a rare Hendrick Motorsports engine failure eliminate him from the playoffs. Kyle is easy to pull for, a very pleasant and very talented young driver. That combo can carry him to amazing heights.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: Mark Martin. Wait, sorry, it’s too late for that. I think any next-generation racer who finally breaks through and wins a title that gets that group over the “potential” hump would be well received. Blaney, Elliott, a Dillon, Larson, someone from that group needs to finally get on with fulfilling the promise we keep talking about with these guys.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: Austin Dillon, or anyone who drives the No. 3 car.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: Who wouldn’t want to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. win a title? Wait a minute, what’s that? Oh, then a Danica Patrick title would be a historic milestone in all of sports. Pardon? Seriously? After all his early success, Jeff Gordon winning another title after so much waiting. Huh? How many years ago? OK, then, I know this question is aimed at the Cup series, but Elliott Sadler has five runner-up finishes in Xfinity Series points and has spent more time leading the points in that series than any driver without a title. That, coupled with an oh-so-close finish in the Daytona 500, makes me want to see him win the big one.
Turn 2: Do you agree with Brad Keselowski that Fords could be in for a drubbing next season?
Craven: I believe Brad is correct in that Fords will continue to lag behind Toyota, as well as the new Camaro. I also believe Brad could run for Michigan state senate and have a successful postrace career as a politician.
McGee: Yep. If the new Camaro is built in the same vein as the Camry was this year, they will officially be behind. Even more than they already are.
Pockrass: Possibly. The rules, and rule enforcement, seem to change throughout a year. But the front of the new Camaro for NASCAR Cup seems to incorporate many of the elements of the new Camry, so Ford drivers certainly should have reason to worry.
Willis: The season certainly didn’t end on an upswing for Ford. Sure, it won 10 races, but only three of those were in July or later, and two of those were on restrictor-plate tracks. Heading to the offseason, it’s not just the Fords behind the Toyotas. Chevrolet won just three of the final 21 races, and how crazy is it to say that Hendrick Motorsports has a technological disadvantage right now?
Turn 3: Was Elliott Sadler right to be mad at Ryan Preece for the way he raced him at Homestead?
Craven: When you consider what Elliott had on the line, he absolutely had the right to be frustrated. I know what it’s like to climb from a hot race car, adrenaline pumping, and lose your composure in the wake of dejection. That said, I cannot criticize Ryan for doing anything wrong — he was driving his car as hard as he could, he wrecked no one, he simply did his job. Or as Brian France described a few years back, Ryan Preece gave 100 percent. That’s what we should expect from every competitor. Anything less and your job is in jeopardy.
McGee: No. I understand why he was mad. He had to be mad at someone. I think most people were mad after all that because so many were rooting for Sadler to pull it off. But what Preece said afterward was spot-on, that he was being told by the people who sign his paychecks that he had to keep pushing, particularly with a manufacturers title on the line. By the way, Preece couldn’t have handled that whole situation any better than he did. He grew up a huge Sadler fan, so that was incredibly difficult for him.
Pockrass: He had a right to be frustrated because of the outcome, but Preece was not a lap down and was ahead of Sadler, so it was a fight for position no matter the circumstances. It’s a race, and Preece was doing what he felt he needed to do to keep his position at the moment. If he was a lap down, it would be a different story. But if Sadler didn’t want to race Preece for position, he should have been ahead of him.
Willis: It’s totally understandable that Sadler was upset, but I’m siding with Preece. He was racing for an owners’ championship for the No. 20 car, and it’s his responsibility to try to race with the teams he was competing with (including the No. 9, which was racing for the drivers’ championship with the No. 1). The owners’ title doesn’t get the attention that the drivers’ title does, but they also give out a really big trophy for that one. And the owner signs the paychecks.
Turn 4: What is NASCAR without Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Danica Patrick?
Craven: It’s heavily dependent on someone with a charismatic, fiercely competitive “I hate to lose as much as I love to win” personality to emerge. OK, perhaps I just described Kyle Busch … but Kyle needs some company.
McGee: A business that sells a whole lot less merchandise.
Pockrass: It is a lot less relevant to people who watch the sport only occasionally and it is a lot less meaningful to fans of those three drivers, at least in the short term.
Willis: Short answer: It’s in need of stars and names recognizable to the general sports fan who isn’t a serious NASCAR fan. Don’t forget the series has also recently lost Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards as well. It’s a time of great potential for the series — there are young drivers to start focusing on, including Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones and Darrell Wallace Jr. Now, it’s getting them to the forefront and making them figures people will want to cheer (or maybe even boo).