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Bump & Run: What should NASCAR do about inspection violations before race?

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Eight of 37 cars failed inspection before the Richmond Cup race and lost their starting spot. Is there a better way for NASCAR to handle such infractions to limit talk before a race being about penalties?

Nate Ryan: There has to be a solution, and whatever it is, NASCAR needs to implement it quickly. Switching from headlines about woes in postrace inspection to woes in prerace inspection is an improvement, but the preferred solution should be no headlines about inspection at all. 

Dustin Long: Until NASCAR figures out a way to do things differently, inspection failures will dominate talk before a race, especially if it involves more than 20% of the field as it did at Richmond.

Daniel McFadin: Unless you change the penalties for failing inspection (again), the cars will fail regardless of if you hold qualifying inspection right after qualifying or on race day. Only real solution I can think of is to have inspection before qualifying and for that to be the only inspection until after the race. That would just continue the endless cycle we seem to be in on the issue.

Jerry Bonkowski: It’s just the nature of the beast, particularly when you have such a large number of cars that failed pre-race inspection. The larger the number of cars penalized, the greater the attention that is placed upon the situation by the media. Perhaps more attention should be focused on what NASCAR could do to improve and streamline the overall inspection process. And if it has to swing the pendulum even further, increase penalties to keep crew chiefs from playing games with their cars. Kick out the crew chief from the race, or perhaps hold the car for the first five laps of the race. That will change things in a hurry.

NASCAR tried another format for Cup qualifying at Richmond, limiting each round to five minutes. Should this be the format at most tracks the rest of the season?

Nate Ryan: Makes no difference here as long as the focus is on qualifying results and whoever won the pole position, not on the process for getting there. 

Dustin Long: Whatever it does, NASCAR needs to get out of this rabbit hole soon.

Daniel McFadin: I’m 50/50 on this. I’d prefer the first round being 10 minutes at anything larger than 1 mile, which allows teams to make more than one run – but that’s based on the premise drivers won’t wait until the final minute to make their first.

Jerry Bonkowski: Five minutes works fine on short tracks. Not so much on longer tracks of 1.5 miles and greater. That’s why I believe open qualifying should be replaced by having two to four cars (depending on the size of the racetrack) go out at a time for two or three qualifying laps. This creates attention and a kind of race-within-qualifying excitement among fans to see which driver can “beat” the other drivers, so to speak.

There’s been a lot of talk about what Joe Gibbs Racing will do with its Cup lineup for next year with Christopher Bell’s continued success in Xfinity, but Cole Custer has won twice for Stewart-Haas Racing in Xfinity. What kind of dilemma could SHR face with its driver lineup for 2020?

Nate Ryan: With no disrespect to Cole Custer, he has yet to show he is in Christopher Bell’s league, nor is there the external pressure of a huge investment in his development to avoid letting a coveted prospect escape (as is the case with the millions Toyota Racing Development has spent on grooming Bell). Because Custer is related to the SHR executive Joe Custer and effectively sponsored by team owner Gene Haas, the dynamics are incomparable. If Custer shows enough promise for promotion, the team probably could make room in Cup next season, but there is no sense of urgency as exists with Bell.

Dustin Long: Gene Haas said last year that Cole Custer needed to win more often. If Custer continues to do so, it will make him a more inviting driver for a team, whether that is SHR or another Ford operation.

Daniel McFadin: Cole Custer is already in his third full-time Xfinity season, which makes him middle-aged in Xfinity driver years. While we’re not privy to driver contract lengths, Kevin Harvick is locked in to at least 2021, Daniel Suarez is in his first and Aric Almirola continues to be strong in his second year. Clint Bowyer probably has the biggest question mark being in his third year with the team. Gene Haas will have to decide who’s a better long-term investment: A 39-year-old Bowyer or a 21-year-old Custer. Bowyer grabbing some wins this year could complicate that.

Jerry Bonkowski: One potential option could be embedding Bell with another Toyota team such as Leavine Family Racing in 2020, like when Erik Jones was with Furniture Row Racing in 2017. I think you’ll see a similar embed of Custer with another Ford team, perhaps Front Row Motorsports. Or, because Custer’s father, Joe, is a top executive at SHR, it would not surprise me to see Daniel Suarez shifted to another Ford team to make way for the younger Custer at SHR.

The IndyCar race at Long Beach ended with series officials penalizing Graham Rahal one spot for blocking Scott Dixon on the last lap. Should blocking be a penalty in NASCAR?

Nate Ryan: No. Different series, different cars, different tracks.

Dustin Long: Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo. Don’t need any more judgment calls for NASCAR to make.

Daniel McFadin: Heck no. As much as Tony Stewart may have despised it, blocking is a racing maneuver. If a driver doesn’t like it, just show your displeasure with a love tap to the rear bumper.

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes, particularly if it puts the driver being blocked and other trailing drivers at risk of crashing. I’ve long felt that egregious blocking should be penalized. But if that were to happen, it could open a Pandora’s Box of additional issues, such as bump-and-run moving an opponent out of the way. How would NASCAR draw the line between egregious blocking/bumping and legitimate blocking/bumping?

Jimmie Johnson ran in Monday’s Boston Marathon. What is another event you’d like to see a NASCAR driver attempt to take part in someday?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin in a PGA Tour event and paired with Michael Jordan.

Dustin Long: Kyle Larson as a bobsled driver. Also, Denny Hamlin in a PGA Tour event.

Daniel McFadin: Since Ryan Newman is sponsored by Oscar Mayer, he should enter the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4.

Jerry Bonkowski: The Baja 1000 is the first one that comes to mind. That, to me, is the most grueling combination of man and machine. I’d also like to see more NASCAR drivers try their luck in the Indianapolis 500 and, conversely, do “the double” by racing later that same day in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. Lastly, although it would be difficult due to the Cup schedule, I’d also like to see some of the best golfers among Cup drivers try their luck at The Masters.

Bump & Run: Is it time for Jimmie Johnson to be worried?

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How alarmed should Jimmie Johnson be after finishing outside the top 15 at Atlanta and Las Vegas for the first time in five seasons?

Nate Ryan: It has to be somewhat unsettling, even though so much was unknown for the seven-time champion entering this season. Getting acclimated to the new rules, crew chief and sponsor simultaneously is a new experience for the 17-year veteran. It could be simply a matter of getting settled. But at 43 and coming off the first winless season of his career, Johnson surely is feeling some urgency. He wants to prove last year was an anomaly, but so far 2019 has been a regression.

Dustin Long: There should be some concern but it should be tempered. There’s little time during the West Coast swing to update cars based on what is learned at the previous race. This just shows the team it has some work to do. If this team is still running like this by Kansas in May, then the level of concern will increase significantly.

Daniel McFadin: I’d be worried. He has an average running position of 17.4 through three races and the only reason he has a top 10 is because most of the field wrecked at Daytona. He finished two laps down in Atlanta and he wasn’t part of any incidents. If we get through Martinsville and Johnson hasn’t earned another top 10, then it’s time to full on panic.

Jerry Bonkowski: Even though his winless streak now stands at 62 races (dating back to spring 2017 at Dover), it’s not time for Johnson to push the panic button just yet. If he gets to say, Bristol, and he’s still struggling, then there may be pause for concern. But remember, just one win puts him in the playoffs and he can build from there. He’s likely still learning communication and unique nuances with new crew chief Kevin Meendering, so I’m not overly worried just yet.

With consecutive victories and a strong showing by Joey Logano in the Daytona 500, how seriously should Team Penske be taken as the team to beat?

Nate Ryan: It’s only two races, but the organization’s flair for adaptability is undeniable, and Penske seems to have as strong a handle on the new rules as any team in Cup. If Ryan Blaney’s team can shake off its error-prone ways, Penske could have all of its drivers eligible for the playoffs before many teams have a guaranteed berth.

Dustin Long: Team Penske is until someone beats them, but let’s not get too carried away with what they’ve done at Atlanta and Las Vegas. While Brad Keselowski has scored top 10s in both events, he’s done that in each of the past two years at those races. Joey Logano would have the same streak had he not placed 23rd at Atlanta this year. The point is they’ve been strong early in the season before and they’ve shown the ability to excel with this new package.

Daniel McFadin: Penske is the top team right now. Dating back to last season’s Southern 500 they have won eight of the last 15 races and the championship. The fact the new Mustang model hasn’t impeded them is even more impressive. If they’re not up front in Phoenix, I expect them to be the team to beat at Auto Club Speedway where Penske hasn’t placed a driver outside the top 10 in the last four races.

Jerry Bonkowski: Right now, they ARE the team to beat. Yes, teammates Ryan Blaney (15th place in the standings) and Paul Menard (20th place) are struggling, but I expect both to get back on track in the next few races, particularly by Martinsville. And don’t forget, with Logano and Keselowski are now both locked into the playoffs, Team Penske can potentially allocate more resources to Blaney and Menard to get their cars working better and stronger.

Despite flashes of promise, Richard Childress Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing have one driver between them ranked in the top 20  in points. Is this an indication that the new rules package is less of an “equalizer” than some had predicted?

Nate Ryan: It seems more a reflection on the teams and their relatively inexperienced drivers than on the rules. Mistakes (several in the pits) by RCR and JTG Daugherty have undermined the strength they’ve shown at times.

Dustin Long: NASCAR stated that it was their intent with this rules package that the best teams still would be the ones to beat. Richard Childress Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing are not the best teams. RCR has shown speed in practice and qualifying but still has to figure out things for the race. The penalty to Austin Dillon’s pit crew didn’t help at Las Vegas. JTG Daugherty is building their own chassis and refining that takes time.

Daniel McFadin: I don’t think so, Las Vegas was the first race with the full package. RCR showed plenty of speed all weekend, but Austin Dillon’s effort was hurt by a pit penalty. We won’t know what the full potential of this package and its benefits to teams until Auto Club or at least Texas.

Jerry Bonkowski: Let’s not forget that RCR is down to only two teams this season and JTG Daugherty really hasn’t improved much. If anything, it’s in another growth mode. So, lack of success for both teams this early in the season is not entirely a surprise. And unfortunately, it’s not likely to get much better any time soon. Sure, Austin Dillon has looked strong at times this season, but he can’t carry RCR or partners JTG and Richard Petty Motorsports on his shoulders. And while the teams may be struggling with the new rules package, it’s simply going to be a matter of time, patience and trial and error before they start to make any significant progress.

There were more accidents on pit road than on the track at Atlanta and Las Vegas. What’s your take on the lack of cautions for accidents in the last two races?

Nate Ryan: It’s surprising and also a little unsettling. With the new rules delivering additional downforce and lower horsepower, there were concerns that the degree of difficulty might be lessened. Hopefully the lack of crashes isn’t indicative of that emerging trend because the cars need to be hard to drive.

Dustin Long: It’s simple. Sometimes they wreck (Daytona) and sometimes they don’t (past two weeks). Let’s see what happens in the coming weeks.

Daniel McFadin: We are fully entrenched in an era of a lack of attrition and the vanishing act of debris cautions. I expect cautions to roar back in Phoenix with its short-track characteristics. 

Jerry Bonkowski: NASCAR is giving fans what they want in terms of closer racing. That’s a good thing. Teams are still getting used to the new rules package. It’s an evolutionary process, with drivers still feeling their way out on track. Once they get a bit more confident or more familiar with the new package, it’s likely you’ll see more aggressive driving – which likely means we’ll start seeing more cautions for accidents, as a result.

Bump & Run: Was Martin Truex Jr. right to be upset with lapped cars at Atlanta?

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Did Martin Truex Jr. have a point in complaining so much about lapped cars getting out of his way, or doth he complain too much, and that’s racin’?

Nate Ryan: In context, when considering that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had a straightaway on anyone he was racing for position and was the only roadblock between Truex and race winner Brad Keselowski, the 2017 series champion’s qualms are justified. As well documented in the most recent race at Martinsville Speedway, Truex races cleanly to deserve getting breaks from others – but the problem is the favors rarely are returned because there’s no obligation to reciprocate.

Stenhouse was the first driver a lap down, and in an era of unlimited overtime restarts, it’s hard to live with just yielding positions when circumstances can change so quickly. Look at Keselowski, who went from being a lap down to leading in less than 10 laps because of some quirky scoring twists from a yellow flag. Truex does have a point … but at the same time, that’s racin’.

Dustin Long: It’s a courtesy that drivers move over. There is nothing in the rule book that says a car a lap or more down must move over. That said, get in the way of the leaders enough times and it will come back to haunt you when you need the help. Was Ricky Stenhouse Jr. doing this as payback for something that happened earlier? Or was he just being bullheaded? Either way, Stenhouse’s actions will lead to a response on the track by Truex someday.

Daniel McFadin: I think it’s a fair complaint, especially when the checkered flag is within 20 laps. Truex said his spotter had communicated the urgency to Stenhouse’s repeatedly without success. It’s yet another chapter in the saga of Stenhouse making his competitors unhappy.

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes, I believe Truex had a very valid point and it’s something NASCAR will have to address if it continues. If things aren’t fixed by Fontana, and drivers can’t police themselves, I believe NASCAR will step in. I understand hard racing, but if a driver is not on the lead lap and is far from getting back on the lead lap, he should be penalized if he is intentionally blocking those on the lead lap and with a potential chance to win the race.

 

Were the rash of mistakes in the pits at Atlanta just drivers and teams shaking off rust, or a harbinger of what’s to come in 2019 with the new rules likely putting an emphasis on track position?

Nate Ryan: I think it’s mostly the former. If anything, I’d expect there will be fewer pit mistakes this season because the downsides outweigh the rewards too greatly. Kyle Larson’s slow rebound from a speeding penalty underscored how difficult it can be getting through traffic with a strong car. It might make sense for teams to build in an extra buffer on their speed monitoring systems to ensure they avoid penalties.

Dustin Long: It was sloppy work on pit road by many teams. Call it a bad day at the office. Just like one shouldn’t judge the new rules package based off the Atlanta race, one shouldn’t assume the rest of the season will be as error-filled on pit road based on what happened at Atlanta.

Daniel McFadin: It could well be a sign of things to come. Two of the pit road penalties for speeding were on front-row starters Aric Almirola and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., two drivers who have two Cup wins apiece but who don’t start up front often. Any time a driver unfamiliar with racing in the lead and pitting from the lead is put in that situation, I expect them to push the limit to stay there. 

Jerry Bonkowski: I think it’s more an example of drivers getting used to the new rules and how they impact track position. I give drivers 5-7 races tops – probably more like 3-4 races – and they’ll be up to speed on the nuances related to the new rules.

  

No top 10s for Hendrick Motorsports and a very mediocre race for Jimmie Johnson. Should the team be worried it might be even further out to lunch than it was for much of the 2018 season?

Nate Ryan: It’s too early to push the panic button, but someone’s thumb definitely is poised right above it in case the team fails to record a top 10 or run competitively at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Dustin Long: Crew chief Greg Ives expressed to me after the race that the Hendrick cars need to find more speed. It is a concern that Jimmie Johnson hasn’t had a top-10 finish at a 1.5-mile track since last year’s Coca-Cola 600. Certainly Hendrick Motorsports can’t be pleased with Sunday’s results, but let’s see what this organization does this week at Las Vegas.

Daniel McFadin: It was the first race with the new rules, but I’m sure the Hendrick shop is feeling a little bit hotter this week. Dominating Daytona 500 qualifying was impressive but everything after that is another animal and it’s a bit surprising Hendrick appeared to trip over themselves with all four cars. But you can’t really pass judgement on anybody until we’re through at least Martinsville.

Jerry Bonkowski: Between the new rules and the shuffling of crew chiefs within HMS, the first few races are going to be a learning experience, just as they were last year with the then-new Chevrolet Camaro. Jimmie has to build the same kind of communication with Kevin Meendering as he did with Chad Knaus. Remember, JJ did win the Clash race and he finished 9th at Daytona. Yes, he’s riding a 61-race winless streak and finished a career-worst 14th last season, but the seven-time champ has not forgotten how to win races. If he wins at, say, Las Vegas, Phoenix or Fontana, people are quickly going to start saying “Jimmie’s back.”

Bump & Run: Should Michael McDowell have pushed fellow Ford at end of Daytona 500?

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Should Michael McDowell have been obligated to push fellow Ford driver Joey Logano on the last lap of the Daytona 500 instead of pushing Toyota driver Kyle Busch? Or are such beliefs pointless in the final laps?

Nate Ryan: He wasn’t obligated to push Logano, but it also seemed his best hope for getting to the front. It’s understandable why McDowell, who has soldiered through a decade of mostly getting knocked around while racing for midpack teams, was frustrated that the elite of the Cup Series seemed so dismissive of his No. 34 Ford in the draft. But if he was trying to send that message by declining to push Logano out of spite, it probably was a decision that doomed both their hopes of winning the Daytona 500. (Also worth noting: Front Row Motorsports might be a Ford team, but it isn’t supported by the manufacturer at nearly the same level as Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske, so the dynamics of the allegiances were different.)

Dustin Long: No. Manufacturers should not be second-guessing a driver for going with a different car make if the driver feels that is their best chance to win in the heat of the moment. And drivers should not assume that just because they are in the same camp they should expect help in such moments. 

Daniel McFadin: Absolutely not. At some point the emblem on your hood is meaningless when it comes to winning a race, especially the final laps of the Daytona 500. I’m fine with manufacturers collaborating through the early stages as a means of survival, but you have to be a tad naive to expect that on the last lap. McDowell’s in the right.

Jerry Bonkowski: No, McDowell was under no obligation to push Logano. Even with both being Ford drivers, McDowell chose to push the driver – in this case Kyle Busch – he thought might help McDowell earn a higher result. Now, once we start using tapered spacers at Daytona and Talladega, things could be much different. Time will tell.

Does Ross Chastain deserve a full-time ride with an elite team after his triple-header masterpiece of not tearing up his equipment at Daytona?

Nate Ryan: Yes, and it would benefit NASCAR nearly as much as Chastain if he gets one. Beyond being a special talent, the part-time watermelon farmer from Florida speaks his mind in an appealingly brash and candid manner. He is the type of personality that is needed, and it’s somewhat inexplicable he wasn’t scooped up by a bigger team when his Xfinity ride with Chip Ganassi Racing dissolved. Sponsors and teams should be cognizant of what he brings to the table.

Dustin Long: He may deserve a ride but the reality is money plays a key role on where some drivers go. Look, there are plenty of drivers racing at local tracks who might deserve a chance at one of NASCAR’s national series but they aren’t going to get it for one reason or another. The sport could be better by having Chastain in a top-flight ride as Nate notes but sometimes things don’t go as they should.

Daniel McFadin: Chastain deserved an elite ride after his performance with Chip Ganassi Racing in three Xfinity races last year. He got that ride until circumstances out of his control took it away. He’s still under contract with Ganassi, and I don’t think he’s going to be forgotten next year.

Jerry Bonkowski: I don’t know if I would use the word “deserve,” but Chastain has shown he has a great deal of talent that deserves to be recognized by higher-level teams. The problem is there is only a finite number of driver positions with teams in Cup, and as he has learned throughout his career, Cup is far too often a numbers game. Chastain will have to keep fighting the good fight, but sooner or later his time will come.

NASCAR Chairman Jim France asked drivers to work the bottom lane and put on a show before Sunday’s Daytona 500. Was the race evidence that they listened or just circumstantial coincidence?

Nate Ryan: As I wrote in the notes column, the only thing that ultimately matters is he said it. It’s impossible to say definitively if drivers did listen … but you could make a strong case it made an impact in the first stage.

Dustin Long: Coincidence. Competitors were talking after the Duels that they expected two lanes of racing in the 500 with a full 40-car field. Yes, it was a less-than subtle dig at the drivers but once in the heat of competition, a competitor isn’t going to focus on the requests of a series executive if they don’t feel it gives them a good chance to win.

Daniel McFadin: I originally was going to answer that I thought the stakes of the Daytona 500 meant the racing we saw was going to happen regardless. But then I remembered a good chunk of last year’s 500 was conducted in a single-file manner (with Ryan Blaney leading 118 laps). So it’s entirely possible France’s friendly prodding did the trick.

Jerry Bonkowski: I lean more towards circumstantial coincidence. Drivers will be the first to tell anyone that they race for themselves and their teams first and foremost, and then their sponsors. NASCAR officials are not – and should not – be in a position to tell drivers how to drive or where to drive on a track to put on any kind of a show. Fans are not stupid, they will quickly pick up if drivers are given NASCAR orders (as opposed to team orders, which they should listen to).

What do you expect to see this weekend at Atlanta with the new rules package?

Nate Ryan: A race that resembles most races at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The lower horsepower should keep cars closer, but surely the massive tire wear, coupled with a few long green-flag runs, will produce a familiar look.

Dustin Long: I don’t know. That will be the fun of it. Sure, the cars should be closer together for a few laps but tire wear likely will spread the field some. How much remains to be seen. I’m keeping an open mind on what will take place this weekend.

Daniel McFadin: I expect a somewhat uneventful first stage as the teams get their heads around the package before they drop the hammer in Stage 2 and beyond. I’m willing to say it will probably be the most interesting Atlanta race in a decade.

Jerry Bonkowski: Given what we saw at the Las Vegas test – and at a track very similar to Atlanta – I am very bullish that this could be one of the closest and best races we’ve seen at Atlanta in perhaps a decade or more. The only thing that could alter that is if there are weather issues. Then it could be a whole different ballgame, especially if drivers are in a race to not only beat their opponents, but also closing-in rainstorms.

Bump & Run: Does Paul Menard owe Jimmie Johnson a payback?

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How much of a hall pass does Paul Menard have to pay back Jimmie Johnson for the Clash wreck? Can he knock him aside on the next short track without compunction, or does it only extend to cutting Johnson no breaks in the near future?

Nate Ryan: It would seem heavy-handed if Menard retaliated by intentionally wrecking Johnson, but he has earned the right to rough up the seven-time champion if the roles are reversed in the future. They probably wouldn’t be working together anyway during a restrictor-plate race but don’t expect Menard to lay over for Johnson anytime soon, particularly with the Wood Brothers Racing driver alluding to a history between them at Daytona.

Dustin Long: As Menard said after the incident, contact from Johnson wrecked him at Daytona last year. So, yes, he’s keeping score. And yes he has a hall pass to use. 

Daniel McFadin: I don’t expect any form of retribution from Menard (it’s not really in his personality), outside possibly not cutting Johnson some slack at some point. It was a non-points race and Johnson didn’t wreck him on purpose. It was a side draft gone wrong.

Jerry Bonkowski: Given how NASCAR has cracked down on things this year, including taking wins away from drivers whose cars don’t pass post-race inspection, my guess is the sanctioning body will be equally diligent when it comes to payback between drivers. I highly doubt we’ll see a Joey LoganoMatt Kenseth tit-for-tat situation between Menard and Johnson, lest Menard gets nailed and suffers another fallback. The best situation is for Menard to move on and just beat Johnson with his car and talent.

Paul Menard said of Johnson’s ill-timed bump, “Jimmie does that a lot at these tracks.” Is that a fair criticism of how the seven-time champion has raced at plate tracks?

Nate Ryan: Johnson is a two-time Daytona 500 winner, but even he probably would admit that plate races aren’t his specialty. He has crashed out of more than a quarter of his Cup races at Daytona (nine in 34 starts), and he has been accused multiple times of instigating massive wrecks since near the beginning of his career (the 2005 season was particularly uncomfortable with Johnson in the middle of multicar pileups in both May and October at Talladega Superspeedway). Claiming Johnson starts wrecks in every plate race is hyperbole, but he has been in the middle of his share of crashes (and admirably took the blame for some of them).

Dustin Long: Yes, look it up, but also understand there are others that have been in the center of incidents on plate tracks. Over time it cycles to where those that are involved in incidents are victims of others. It’s not like Johnson has gone rogue or anything like that.

Daniel McFadin: Menard is right, just based on this short tweet thread of incidents involving Johnson and Menard. His involvement in Sunday’s wreck was his eighth straight Clash marked by involvement in an incident. Johnson may have eight points and non-points Daytona wins, but he’s no master of pack racing like Earnhardt.

Jerry Bonkowski: I think Menard spoke in the heat of the moment. Yes, Johnson has been involved in some incidents at plate tracks where the finger of blame has been pointed at him, but at the same time, how many times has he also been victimized by other drivers’ errors? Also, Menard cut down on Johnson in Sunday’s wreck and Johnson was trying to hold his position. So I do not give him full blame on the wreck; Menard is also culpable.

After the Clash, Kurt Busch said: “You want the cars more stable. You want us to run side-by-side. You want us to change lanes and not have side effects, and it just shows you how trimmed out everybody has got these cars to find that speed, and when you’re looking for speed, it usually brings instability in the cars.” Should NASCAR try to make changes to put in more comfort and handling for the Daytona 500?

Nate Ryan: Yes, if it were at all possible (and it might not be) to improve the stability in the draft and aid passing, NASCAR should look at it. The 2018 Daytona 500 was terrific, but plate racing has been mostly lackluster since then (notably the past two Talladega races). While this technically will be the last “plate” race (with tapered spacers essentially serving the same purpose in the future), and perhaps the new package will fix itself, it’s still important to ensure Sunday is as high quality as possible.

Dustin Long: No. No. No. No. No. If they’re going to make changes, then just give everyone participation ribbons while you’re at it. At some point, skill has to play a role.

Daniel McFadin: If NASCAR can introduce an element between now and Sunday that allows for easier creation of a second lane, go for it. But as a non-engineer I have no idea what that would entail.

Jerry Bonkowski: I’m not convinced that NASCAR has to do anything more. Rather, I think the onus is on the drivers to learn and adapt to the new rules. Just because drivers complain doesn’t necessarily mean the sanctioning body has to immediately change the rules to appease them. Drivers and teams are given rules and it’s up to them to abide by those rules.

Who are you picks to make it to the Championship 4 in Miami?

Nate Ryan: Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Erik Jones and Joey Logano.

Daniel McFadin: Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick

Jerry Bonkowski: Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch.

Who is one driver you are most intrigued about this season and why?

Nate Ryan: Jimmie Johnson, because he still feels he has much to prove despite a Hall of Fame career, and the start to 2019 underscores he might have a newfound swagger to go along with it.

Dustin Long: Christopher Bell. He said at one point last year he was ready for Cup but remains in Xfinity this season. How does he improve in a series a year after he won seven races as a rookie?

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Larson. After a disappointing winless season, how does he bounce back with a new teammate in champion Kurt Busch and how will the new rules package impact the driver with one of the most distinct driving styles?

Jerry Bonkowski: Jimmie Johnson. Will he be able to win an eighth NASCAR Cup championship with new crew chief Kevin Meendering? Will Chad Knaus have some behind-the-scenes input, even though he’s now crew chief for William Byron? There’s also some intrigue there, as well, wondering how Byron will do in his sophomore season in Cup and with one of the greatest crew chiefs in history calling the signals for him from the pit box.