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Bump & Run: What drivers in NASCAR history would you like to see race each other?

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1. Over the sport’s history, what two drivers would you have liked to have seen race head-to-head?

Steve Letarte: I think the easy answer is you take all the seven-time champs and line them up. The other two that are a little off the wall that I’d love to see race each other is Kyle Busch and Cale Yarborough. I think they are both hard-nosed, no-nonsense, win-at-all-cost competitors, and I think that would have been a dang good race to watch. I think the big answer that the whole world would like to see but never will, of course, you want to line up all three seven-time champions. You want to take the late ‘60s/early ‘70s Richard Petty to go against the late ‘80s/early ‘90s Dale Earnhardt Sr. to go against the mid-2000’s Jimmie Johnson. That right there would be another great show.

Jeff Burton: Jimmie Johnson and Richard Petty. I believe their driving styles are very similar. I would love to see two of the best in our sports’ history in a battle.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: My father and grandfather at a small short track. I’d never seen Ralph race obviously. So seeing him compete would be epic. I’ve always heard what an incredible short track racer Ralph was. I’d love to see these two duke it out on a bullring in equal cars. 

Kyle Petty: I was blessed to grow up in this sport. More blessed to have watched some of the greatest drivers in our sport race each other. Pearson, Petty, Allisons, Baker, Yarborough and Waltrip as I was growing up. Earnhardt, Davey Allison, Jarrett, Kulwicki, Wallace, Martin, Rudd, Richmond, Gant, Labonte as I started my career. Gordon, Burtons, Bobby Labonte, Stewart, Johnson, Harvick, Busch and others as my career was ending. To me three periods in time. Three periods in our sport. I heard stories from my grandfather about the early years (50s) and my father’s stories from the early 60s. I’ve come to believe you can’t take a driver from one era and insert him in another. Great drivers are great drivers no matter when, what or where they drove. I’ve been blessed to see a lot of the GREATEST go head-to-head at some point in my life. So I guess my answer should be … Been there, Done that.

Nate Ryan: Tim Richmond and Curtis Turner. The stories are legend and well told about who they were as personalities, but the display of their on-track talents unfortunately was limited because of careers cut short by death or labor disputes. It would be wonderful to see what made both of them so legendary behind the wheel.

Dustin Long: Tony Stewart vs. Bobby Allison. This would be an epic matchup of two talented racers who could compete in multiple vehicles, wouldn’t give an inch and also were known have a temper in and out of the car. Can you imagine these two racing for the win at a short track in the final laps?

Daniel McFadin: All of my memories of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Sr. competing against each other are from the late 90s when Earnhardt was winning once or twice a year or not at all. I would love to see the Earnhardt from 1987 (11 wins) go head-to-head with the Gordon from 1998 (modern record of 13 wins) in an anything goes match race at Bristol.

Parker KligermanKyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt. I could only imagine what kind of fireworks this would have produced. I’m sure there would be great mutual respect but both had a disdain for second place.

2. What is one track you wish you could have gone to in person to have seen a NASCAR race (or go to one last time)?

Steve Letarte: The place that I have never been that I would have loved to have seen once in my day is Riverside. I’ve seen so many stories. While we go to road courses now, Riverside seems to have this aura about it. There are so many stories that come from it. The track that I could go back to one last time and race, without a doubt, is Martinsville. It’s my favorite race track.

Jeff Burton: I would like for our sport’s biggest series to go to one of the historic NASCAR short tracks. I believe a once-a-year event would bring some new excitement and enthusiasm that all forms of auto racing would benefit from.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Asphalt Bristol was incredible. Nothing compared to it. Even concrete Bristol at its peak of popularity didn’t quite deliver like asphalt Bristol did. That track was unruly and it seemed to bring out the worst in drivers. You couldn’t keep up with the many feuds going on in one single night of racing.  

Kyle Petty: Lakewood Speedway, Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve heard about that place my whole life, from my father and grandfather. They spoke of it as if it was the greatest track they ever went to (until they built Daytona). Raymond Parks, Bill France, Red Byron so much of NASCAR’s early history came out of the Atlanta area. I would have liked to have seen a glimpse of that.

Nate Ryan: Ontario Motor Speedway (with nearby Riverside International Raceway a close second). Before California Speedway opened, I became very familiar with Ontario in researching its history — but all that I’ve seen of the track is a few dirt berms left on the property after it was razed. There were so many positive reviews (and some memorable races despite only a 10-year run) of the 2.5-mile track that was intended to be a replica of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I’d love to have explored Brickyard West in its prime.

Dustin Long: I’ve heard so many stories about North Wilkesboro and what the fans were like there, throwing chicken bones at anybody that dared challenge or damage hometown hero Junior Johnson’s car. Would have enjoyed seeing that once.

Daniel McFadin: I would have liked to have seen a race at Darlington before they swapped the front and backstretch. The overhang on the frontstretch grandstand gave it an iconic look and it would have been cool to sit there for a race back in the day.

Parker Kligerman: Old Bristol. The energy must have been insane, and the train of cars was always a spectacle to me. I’ve always thought, it must have been a huge frustration for the drivers but an awesome show to see in person.

3. What’s one NASCAR race you would have liked to have seen in person?

Steve Letarte: I’ve heard the firsthand story from Tony Gibson so many times, I wish I could have been in Atlanta (1992). So much happened that day. It was the King’s last, Jeff Gordon’s first, Alan Kulwicki’s championship. The King has told me the story when I’ve been up at the Petty Museum and seen the wrecked race car. Jeff Gordon has explained what that day was like being a rookie. Tony Gibson was on Kulwicki’s crew. There are so many famous races, but that’s the one that I would think I would have loved to have seen that battle play out.

Jeff Burton: Hooters 500 in 1992. All of the events of that day were amazing. The battle for the championship, the King running his last race, and Jeff Gordon running his first race was one of the sports biggest days. 

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 1979 Daytona 500 would be an easy pick. But I’d also like to have seen my dad’s Daytona 500 win and visited him in Victory Lane that day. I was home injured from the Busch race the previous day. Either one of those races rank as the most important in our sports history, so seeing either would have to bring on some amazing emotions. 

Kyle Petty: Any race on the old Daytona Beach Course. Period! Where Men were Men and everyone else just a spectator.

Nate Ryan: The 1979 Daytona 500, to judge whether the atmosphere before, during and shortly after the race foretold that it would be remembered as such a watershed event.

Dustin Long: The 1972 Wilkes 400 at North Wilkesboro when Richard Petty and Bobby Allison traded the lead 10 times in the last 50 laps before Petty won with a last-lap maneuver. The Associated Press report on the race stated that the cars of Petty and Allison, “both immaculately clean and polished at the start … came out of the duel battered and broken, less than a car length apart at the finish.’’

Daniel McFadin: The 2001 Pepsi 400 at Daytona. To be in the crowd for that race and to experience all the pent-up emotions that were released when Dale Jr. won would just be incredible.

Parker Kligerman: 2003 Darlington; that must have been insane to witness in person.

Bump & Run: Is it time to eliminate inspection at R&D Center after races?

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Should NASCAR inspect cars only at the track after a race and no longer do so at the R&D Center days later even though penalties can be found there?

Nate Ryan: Yes, NASCAR needs to find a way to make this happen. It’s worth the accompanying drawbacks and sacrifices.

Dustin Long: What’s the goal here? If NASCAR inspects only at the track and doesn’t do as comprehensive of an inspection as at the R&D Center, are officials all but encouraging teams to spend as much money as possible on certain things that don’t get inspected? Won’t that cause a greater difference between teams? Is that best for the sport? If that’s less a concern than announcing penalties three days later, go ahead and eliminate the R&D Center inspection.

Daniel McFadin: I’m split on this. The NASCAR community shouldn’t have to find out penalties three days after an event. But by doing the more in-depth inspections, teams learn just how far they can color outside NASCAR’s designated lines. It’s a necessary evil, but one that should be done much closer to the checkered flag.

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes. Inspections, and very thorough ones at that, should come immediately after the race. If there is an issue that needs further examination — and which could potentially lead to a penalty — only then should a vehicle be sent back to the R&D Center.

Do you believe social media influences NASCAR in terms of penalizing teams? Is that a concern?

Nate Ryan: The impact was mostly overstated after Harvick’s Las Vegas penalty; but you also can’t untether social media from the rise of technology that has changed the nature of policing races (i.e., rival teams would have ensured NASCAR sees potentially incriminating photos regardless of whether they were on Twitter). This is the 21st century world in which NASCAR finds itself. The ultimate answer is to find a way to do postrace inspection expeditiously and exclusively at track.

Dustin Long: Penalizing? No. Can social media flag potential infractions? Sure. Of course, teams are going to see what others are doing and someone is likely to make NASCAR aware of something that doesn’t seem right. In the end, NASCAR needs to penalize based on the rulebook, not on what is being said on social media. If it gets to that point, then just let the fans run the sport.

Daniel McFadin: I think it should be a concern, especially since most fans don’t know the extent to what is legal and illegal according to NASCAR’s rulebook. I honestly believe it’s possible Kevin Harvick‘s team would have been penalized following Las Vegas even if social media and Reddit hadn’t pulled out their Junior Detective kits. Harvick’s car was already going back to the R&D center. On the other hand, I don’t think Chase Elliott‘s team would have been penalized at Chicago last year if not for those same Internet sleuths.

Jerry Bonkowski: NASCAR shouldn’t and I believe doesn’t let outside influences like social media impact its decisions on whether or not to penalize teams for infractions. Let’s face it, if a team is wrong and if modifications to a car are outside of the rules, a penalty is a penalty, pure and simple. And that’s why teams are cited for infractions. It is interesting to see the reaction on social media both before and after penalties are meted out, but I believe NASCAR has enough integrity not to let fan comments, either pro or con, influence how it deals with infractions.

Other than Kevin Harvick’s dominance, what has stood out to you in the season’s first four races?

Nate Ryan: That Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing seem to have maintained last year’s pace (it’s just that Harvick has been slightly better).

Dustin Long: The relevance of the No. 10 car with Aric Almirola this season. Yes, Stewart-Haas Racing and Ford are strong, but Almirola has made an immediate impact with that team and organization. Remember, he nearly won the Daytona 500.

Daniel McFadin: Martin Truex Jr.‘s quiet consistency. He’s finished in the top five in the last three races and has placed in the top 10 in all but one stage through four races. Yet he’s only led 14 laps. Makes me wonder when the No. 78 team will start to show its muscle.

Jerry Bonkowski: Jimmie Johnson‘s struggles. While he’s managed to move up to 26th place, that’s nowhere near where the seven-time champion should be. I sense that he and crew chief Chad Knaus have had difficulty adapting to the new Chevrolet Camaro, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen early-season struggles from the No. 48 team. All Johnson and Knaus need is one win, or maybe a top-five, and I believe they’ll be back on-track from that point on.

Bump & Run: Who should give command to start engines?

Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images
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Who is one person you’d like to see give the command for a race?

Nate Ryan: Cale Yarborough

Dustin Long: Dave Marcis. Ranks fourth in all-time Cup starts with 883 and won five times. He embodies the spirit of a racer. Let him get those engines fired one time. #BringBackDave 

Jerry Bonkowski: Tony Stewart in his own inimitable way.

Daniel McFadin: Since 2007, I’ve firmly believed actor Kevin James should be NASCAR’s designated command to start engines person. 

Who is someone not in the NASCAR Hall of Fame that should be in it?

Nate Ryan: Smokey Yunick. Mechanics and crew chiefs were underrepresented in the first few years of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. That mostly has been addressed since then (notably with Ray Evernham’s recent induction), but Yunick’s name has yet to appear on the ballot. He certainly is worthy of candidacy and should be enshrined some day

Dustin Long: Harold Brasington, founder of Darlington Raceway. He was a visionary who created NASCAR’s first big paved track nearly a decade before Daytona emerged and helped change the sport. That’s worthy of a spot in the Hall of Fame.

Jerry Bonkowski: Ricky Rudd. He was the longtime iron man of NASCAR, not to mention a winner of 23 races. He’s long overdue to be inducted.

Daniel McFadin: I’m going with two men that deserve to go into the Hall of Fame together: Bob Jenkins and Dr. Jerry Punch. The election of Ken Squier has set the precedent for media members being selected. While Squier was the voice and narrator for a certain generation of NASCAR fans, Jenkins and Punch were more active and omnipresent with their ESPN and ABC coverage from the early ’80s to 2000. Outside the Daytona 500, Coke 600 and races on TNN, if you’re watching a highlight of a NASCAR race from that period, it’s likely being announced and reported on by Jenkins and Punch. Jenkins was even present in NASCAR video games in the late ’90s. For my generation, he was the voice of NASCAR in our formative years.

Who are you most worried about three races into the season?

Nate Ryan: Driving on a one-year deal and needing to produce results quickly, two crashes in three races is a tough start for Kurt Busch. Even though his teammate finished 15th at Las Vegas, AJ Allmendinger’s JTG Daugherty Racing ride has seemed well off the pace since a 10th in the Daytona 500.

Dustin Long: Clint Bowyer. Although it’s early and he’s 11th in points, he’s talked about he and the team needing to be consistent. Haven’t seen it yet. For him to match the success of teammate Kevin Harvick and be a contender to win races, that consistency needs to start happening.

Jerry Bonkowski: How can you not be worried about Jimmie Johnson, who is sitting in 29th place? Sure, he finished 12th at Las Vegas, but he needs a win — or at least a top-five — in the worst way.

Daniel McFadin: Any Chevrolet driver not named Kyle Larson. He was the only Chevy driver to finish in the top 10 in Las Vegas and one of three to finish in the top 15 at Atlanta. Like Toyota teams early last year, Chevy teams seem to be struggling to figure out the new Camaro body so far. Unless you’re the No. 42 team, which is keeping the same pace it had in Homestead in November.

Kyle Larson finished no worse than second in each race of last year’s West Coast swing and he started this tour with a third-place finish. How likely is he to score another top-five finish on West Coast swing.

Nate Ryan: The odds are good. He qualifies so well at Phoenix, and Fontana suits his style superbly.

Dustin Long: Count on it.

Jerry Bonkowski: He loves Phoenix and Fontana. Not only do I see him getting top fives at both places, he’s a good candidate to win both races, as well.

Daniel McFadin: Larson has won the last four races at 2-mile speedways and should be the favorite to win next week at Auto Club Speedway.

Bump & Run: Will youth or experience be served on West Coast Swing?

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Youth was served in the Daytona 500 with Austin Dillon’s win and experience was rewarded in Atlanta with Kevin Harvick’s victory. Who you going with at Las Vegas? Youth or experience?

Nate Ryan: A mix of both. Last season, Martin Truex Jr. won ahead of Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. Expect a similar blend of the generations Sunday.

Dustin Long: Youth. The kids are coming.

Daniel McFadin: I expect the young guns to play more of a factor this weekend fighting for the win but with a veteran still coming out on top.

Jerry Bonkowski: Experience. I look for guys like Jimmie Johnson, Kyle and Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Atlanta winner Kevin Harvick as being the most likely drivers to win in Sin City.

After making it another year — and getting through rain without weepers — is it time for Atlanta Motor Speedway to be repaved before next year?

Nate Ryan: A repaving should be considered, but the reasons is apart from the surface’s age or condition. While it’s rewarding to appreciate the strategic dance of a 500-mile race where every pit stop is critical, Atlanta has lacked for memorable finishes since Carl Edwards slammed past Jimmie Johnson in 2005. A repave might not be the full answer but maybe a reconfiguration also should be considered?

Dustin Long: The bottom line is what is best for the sport. Is it worth the risk of having track issues in the future by not repaving it? Is it better to wait to see if technology improves to make a repaved surface one that is racier than seen at many tracks? 

Daniel McFadin: Go ahead and repave it. Atlanta’s first memorable photo finish between Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Labonte came in 2000, three years after the reconfiguration/repave in 1997. If we want a return to those kind of races, it might be prudent to bite the bullet.

Jerry Bonkowski: This is a Catch-22 situation. Drivers like the “character” of AMS’ aging racing surface, which hasn’t been resurfaced for 21 years. At the same time, the track is in serious need of a resurfacing. A new surface would likely make the racing faster and obviously much smoother. It’s time.

What will you be watching for during the West Coast Swing?

Nate Ryan: If Hendrick Motorsports can shake off the malaise from Atlanta, and if the younger set can shine in races that don’t demand as much tire management.

Dustin Long: How well Stewart-Haas Racing runs. Aric Almirola nearly won the Daytona 500, and Kevin Harvick won at Atlanta. Will the SHR Fords be as strong in the next three weeks?

Daniel McFadin: I’m interested to see if Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance on 1.5-mile tracks can continue. He won this race last year and he finished fifth Sunday at Atlanta after starting from the back.

Jerry Bonkowski: To see drivers like Jimmie Johnson (35th place), Ty Dillon (34th) and Kasey Kahne (29th), who are off to a rough start after the first two races, bounce back, particularly Johnson, who does well at all three of the West Coast swing tracks (Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana).

How much of a concern is the air gun situation that took place at Atlanta?

Nate Ryan: It bears watching, but it’s reasonable to expect it’ll take several races to get the new equipment fully sorted. If this is still a discussion by the midpoint of the regular season, NASCAR has a major problem. And as Martin Truex Jr. alluded to Sunday, if it somehow were to impact a playoff race, then it’s a debacle.

Dustin Long: Anything new is going to have issues. That doesn’t placate teams impacted by the situation. If air gun issues continue, teams will be in an uproar. Let’s see what happens in the coming weeks.

Daniel McFadin: I’m willing to wait it out a few more races, but teams should expect NASCAR-provided equipment to hold up longer.

Jerry Bonkowski: Four teams out of 36 that started Sunday’s race were impacted. Let’s give it another three to four races to see if the problems continue — and then leave it to NASCAR to fix any issues. It could be something simple as teams having difficulty adapting to the new air guns. Time will tell.

Bump & Run: Forecasting what to watch for in 2018

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1. Of the changes taking place this season, what is the one you’re most interested in seeing how it goes?

Steve Letarte: I guess it’s a combination of inspection, rules and a new body for Chevrolet. There was so much talk last year about aerodynamics and perhaps Toyota had a little more efficient car than the other two manufacturers, according to the other two manufacturers or the teams that raced for them. Is the combination of the new inspection station, perhaps some rule tweaks … and the new Chevrolet body style, will that combination change the racing we see at the mile-and-a-half and 2-mile tracks?

Kyle Petty: I honestly don’t have an opinion on the changes. It always seems to me it’s not so much the change we talk about as we move through the season as it is the ripple effects of those changes. I’ll wait to see how large the waves are.

Nate Ryan: Schedule. It’s been the least discussed but could have the greatest impact — particularly on the Round of 16’s complexion, which could feature major cutoff drama in the debut of the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course.

Dustin Long: I’m most intrigued in how Hendrick Motorsports performs this season with all the changes that organization has made on and off the track. Even though the organization won four races last year, even car owner Rick Hendrick noted the lack of competitiveness and ability to lead laps much of the year. Will the management changes, the driver changes (William Byron and Alex Bowman) and the cultural changes (closer working relationship among the four teams) lead to greater success or more frustration? How these changes perform will have an impact on the playoff picture.

2. Of the drivers with a new Cup ride this year, who are you most intrigued about?

Steve Letarte: I think that is going to drive some excitement into the sport to have all those changes. The name that I have highlighted that I’m going to watch is Erik Jones. Aric Almirola (to Stewart-Haas Racing) has been around a while, we kind of understand where he is. Ryan Blaney did win a race, I think his transition (to Penske) will be smooth. William Byron I think kind of gets a freebie. He’s run so well at everything. It’s his rookie year, he’s so young. Come, learn. I would add Alex Bowman as well. Erik Jones and Alex Bowman. I think those two have to prove they deserve to be in the cars they are. Erik Jones is remarkably talented, and I have no doubt that he has the ability. But the ability is not the same as going to Victory Lane. At some point you need trophies. Now that he’s driving that 20 car, a car that won with Matt Kenseth, a company that knows how to win, I really look for Erik Jones to show up this year. He’s probably the one I’m most intrigued about and I’m going to watch the closest.

Kyle Petty: Blaney and Byron. Blaney because of his talent in the car. We saw a glimpse of that last year but as much because of his personality. He has something and has tapped into something that NASCAR and the sport has been missing! A driver who has fun, has personality … and can WIN! Novel idea! Byron because of his ability at such a young age to face pressure and stare it down! He appears wise beyond his years as a person and as a driver. His personality will develop. I’m not sure in what direction it will go, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Nate Ryan: Darrell Wallace Jr. With even a modicum of success, he could trigger positive shock waves of good cheer throughout the team and NASCAR. But if he falters, it will raise questions about the long-term viability of RPM and “The King’s” tolerance for hanging around NASCAR as an also-ran.

Dustin Long: I want to see what Kasey Kahne can do with Leavine Family Racing and a single-car operation. Can he help raise the organization’s performance level or will he be stuck in the middle of the pack? With a one-year contract, there’s a lot at stake for Kahne.

3. Which one of the drivers who raced for a championship in Miami last year (Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski) has the best chance of returning?

Steve Letarte: Kevin Harvick seems to always be there. So that means the odds are something is going to happen that maybe he won’t. Brad Keselowski, I put him in the same bucket as Harvick. I have some concern where the Fords are. Toyota had good speed last year. Chevrolet has made a body change. I’m really waiting to see at the beginning of the year what the Fords have to counteract that. As much as Martin Truex Jr. was so dominant last  year, I have to say Kyle Busch. I think Kyle Busch has the ability to dominate at different types of race tracks, so I think he has the best chance to go back to Miami.

Kyle Petty: Kevin Harvick … because he’s Kevin Harvick. Enough said

Nate Ryan: Martin Truex Jr. because of his No. 78 team’s continuity. The contraction of the No. 77 could make Furniture Row Racing even better considering how far it went as a single-car team in 2015 and ’16.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch. He’s done it three years in a row. It’s easy to see him making it four in a row.

4. Who wins first — Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Darrell Wallace Jr., Ty Dillon or someone else?

Steve Letarte: It should be Chase Elliott or Erik Jones but something in my gut tells me that it never works that way. I think William Byron breaks through super early in his career. I do think of this list, Chase Elliott wins, Erik Jones wins, William Byron wins. Those three I’m confident to say will win a race this year. Hopefully, for Alex Bowman and Daniel Suarez they can join the list, but I’m going to have to see something at the beginning half of the year to be able to move them on to the winning list.

Kyle Petty: Erik or Daniel. I don’t see JGR or Toyota getting weaker and I see Erik and Daniel getting stronger and better. The experience of last year should pay dividends this year.

Nate Ryan: Chase Elliott, maybe as soon as the Daytona 500. He’s long overdue for a breakthrough, and after the first victory with the number his father made famous, many more soon will follow.

Dustin Long: Chase Elliott. He’s been too close too long. His time is coming.

* NASCAR America returns to NBCSN on Feb. 26 after the Winter Olympics