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Panel of experts debates the hot topics in NASCAR 1. Now that the season has been completed, what do you think? What stands out about 2014? Alan Cavanna: The Chase and everything surrounding the Chase. It worked out better than expected and I think it's sent the sport in a good direction. Kenny Bruce : It's definitely a long list, some good and some not-so-good. Dale Earnhardt Jr . winning the Daytona 500 , Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger winning for the first time and making the Chase, the excitement of the new format and the intensity that it generated. You had must-win situations for Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick , and they came through. The whole situation surrounding Tony Stewart late in the season will be memorable for all the wrong reasons, unfortunately. But it's become a part of what the '14 season was all about. Zack Albert: So many storylines to choose from and not just with the new-look Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Five guys -- and there for a while, a sixth -- rose to fantastic heights: Kevin Harvick , Brad Keselowski , Joey Logano , Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr . all either enjoyed resurgences or breakout years. The sixth slight nod goes to Jimmie Johnson , who was hot as a firecracker heading into the summer, but wasn't quite up to his usual Chase standards. Cavanna: As a storyteller, I loved the emergence of Brad K. as the "black hat" to some. The only way to really earn that is through great performances. Fans love having someone to hate, and Brad gave them plenty of wins to hate on. Bruce : The more you think about it, the more things slide back into focus, Zack. The Johnson hot streak you mentioned, the post-race altercations at Charlotte and Texas that Alan alluded to. And we haven't even touched Nationwide or Trucks, which had incredible moments as well. A rookie wins the NNS title? The first back-to-back champ in the Truck Series? Albert: I distinctly remember sitting in the Atlanta Motor Speedway media center watching Ryan Blaney and German Quiroga duke it out on the final lap of the trucks' visit to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park . The whole room stopped what they were doing to watch. Between that and the whole aura of Eldora for the second straight year, many great Truck Series memories. Cavanna: I really believe people will be talking about this first Chase, and first championship race, for a long, long time. To have three contenders with three laps to go still racing for a title was unreal. Bruce : Safe to say the season gave us plenty to talk about. But you're probably correct Alan. When it was all over, the new format and the final race seemed to stand above the rest. Albert: Very true. It all played out with a great finish and all four drivers putting in a championship-worthy performance. And whether you love the new Chase or are one of its critics, the bottom line is: Was the racing good? At Homestead and many other tracks week-in and week-out, the answer was yes. Bruce : Now the question is how do they top that, Zack? Albert: Always room for an encore, methinks. 2. Kevin Harvick semi-joked that the Chase format could shorten his career because of the intensity it generated. OK, maybe or maybe not. But will the format adversely impact opportunities for a team to win multiple titles? Will we see more guys in the hunt or domination by those who figure out the best approach? Expect Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus to be better in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup next year, now that they have one year of experience under the format. Cavanna: It's so hard to say because we're dealing with such a small sample size. We all made predictions before knowing how this Chase would work, and we were generally all wrong. Bruce : Generally? How about specifically, Alan? I think I had four different winners in four different Chase brackets and "might" have picked Harvick in one of them. Cavanna: In the end, the most dominant car won. But we also saw how it all came down to one race, and really the final pit stop. That could easily swing a championship, and prevent repeat titles. Albert: The degree of difficulty certainly went up in 2014. But you also have to have the common denominator of performance, year over year, to form a dynasty. Does Harvick have a repeat in him? Absolutely, but some of the new format's nuances can make it tough sledding. It will be interesting to see how teams learn from this first go-round and what the strategies will be for the next Chase episode. Bruce : Listening to post-race comments, Zack, I think you're right. We didn't know what to expect and neither did the teams. I imagine they're already determining what they could have or should have done differently for next year. Albert: Let's hope they can enjoy a little bit of offseason down time before they start number crunching on Chase scenarios. Cavanna: With one Chase to study, I can easily see the No. 48 team planning its strategy for next year. I think teams will take a different approach to ensuring their spot in the final four. Bruce : As far as whether the format favors someone dominating in terms of winning titles, I doubt it. With the elimination races in place, we saw what can happen to even those that were perceived to be the "best" teams. Still, anyone not figuring on Harvick being an early-season favorite should turn in his or her hard card. Cavanna: Once teams "figure it out," I think we could see some teams get good at it. Bruce : Given the format, do we see more "Mark Martin" scenarios? Great drivers who never win a title? Cavanna: That's very possible, Kenny . I feel like every year we'll have a driver who has a Logano-like year, but then just miss it in Homestead. Albert: Not to mention making room for an underdog, a la Newman, in the Championship 4. Bruce : I guess it's a glass half-full or half-empty scenario. Maybe more guys having great seasons that don't win a title, or perhaps the opportunity for more drivers to win it. Albert: Alan's still waiting on his opportunity in a third Penske car. Talk about your Chase bracket buster … Cavanna: My pit crew is stellar! Put me in the race, Captain! 3. OK, we know how 2014 shook out. What’s the outlook for 2015? And by the way, the Daytona 500 is less than 100 days away. Our experts think Kyle Larson makes the postseason next year -- and he may even be a title contender. Albert: Wow. Let me dust off my dart set and start throwing. Bruce : Daytona's rising. That much we know. As for anything else? Lawn Darts, Zack. Go big or go home. Cavanna: The emergence of Kyle Larson will be fun to watch. As long as his team continues to improve, I think he's a lock for the Chase, and a deep run. Albert: A very safe bet that he'll visit Victory Lane on the Sprint Cup side in 2015, probably more than once. Bruce : At least he still has his crew chief, which is more than his teammate can say. Cavanna: I also think some drivers will look at Larson's 2014 season and be even more motivated to get that win. Remember, if Larson had just one regular-season win, it could've been him taking a title in Homestead. No driver will want to be saying "what if" after having a great Chase but not being in it. Bruce : Actually, I think the crew chief movement will play a bigger role in '15. A lot of guys on the box seem to be on the move -- McMurray and Earnhardt Jr. will have new guys in place, we're still waiting to see what unfolds over at Joe Gibbs Racing. Kahne and Kenny Francis are no longer together. Maybe the season-opening question should be, can change top the tried-and-true? Cavanna: Kenseth switched teams and won seven races (in '13); Harvick switched and won a championship. What's next for Carl Edwards ? Albert: Plenty of movement, even though this silly season seems to be sprinkled with less hilarity. I'll be very interested to see if Team Penske can keep it up after a banner season, and how Hendrick Motorsports regroups after going 0-for-4 on title-eligible drivers at Homestead last weekend. Will also be watching to see if Chase Elliott takes those first steps into Sprint Cup, as hinted. Cavanna: We haven't even mentioned the 2015 rules package. The no-ride height made for a big change this season. Next year will be another adjustment, hopefully for the better. Bruce : If that's the case, Alan, then we should probably play close attention to next month's anticipated test at Charlotte. I seem to recall one team being ahead of everyone at that point a year ago ... and look where they ended up. Albert: Who knew that simulated races in December would mean so much? Cavanna: I'm filling out my Chase bracket based on next month's test. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView
Panel of experts debates the hot topics in NASCAR RELATED: Follow your picks in the Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota 1. After 35 races, nine Chase battles and three rounds of elimination, we're down to just four drivers battling it out for the championship. Gentlemen, in the succinct words of Mr. Albert, "Who ya' got?" Zack Albert: Without trying to overthink, I'm going with Kevin Harvick just based on how solid his team's performance has been, everywhere they've unloaded. Alan Cavanna: I'm sticking with my pick from the NASCAR.com Preview Show . Joey Logano is winning the championship on Sunday. Kenny Bruce : If I were wagering, and just for the record I'm not (yet), I'd go against Kevin Harvick , the favorite of most folks, simply because I like to bet the upsets. I'd go with Ryan Newman , who said Wednesday that it's not a big deal, he only has to beat three other guys right? Who also happen to be among the best in the series. The smart money is on Harvick, though, and I think it's his to lose. I think Joey Logano is equally strong, but Harvick's riding a dominant Phoenix victory, so that's got to be worth something. Don't want to dismiss Denny Hamlin , but I think he and Newman will need the race of a lifetime, or troubles for Logano/Harvick, to walk off with the title. Cavanna: Harvick is the safe pick. He's got all the speed and performance. But I'm thinking yellow flags and restarts toward the end. That's where I think Logano will separate himself from the field. Albert: Nice plug, by the way, Alan. I think Hamlin is a strong second favorite -- he prevailed here last season and has had a rock-solid pit crew all year long. Cavanna: I've heard strong cases for everyone but Newman this week. And Newman's made it clear he doesn't really care what everyone else is saying. Bruce : Hamlin's pit crew has certainly gained him plenty of track position this year, Zack. But I think the rule changes in the offseason pretty much negated any success, or problems, teams had here in the past. 2. Now that we've nearly completed the first Chase under the new guidelines, what, if anything, would you change about the format for 2015? Albert: This is above my pay grade, but given the keys to the postseason system, I'd like to see the rotation of tracks shaken up a bit. Probably still best that we're in the warm-weather climes of sunny South Florida for the finale, but I'd be open to shifting up the 10 races. Bruce : As much as I agree with those who think one season is too soon to start tinkering, I do have an opinion. Of course. I like the win and you're in, then win and you advance aspects. I like that points can keep you going, too. A nice mix. My biggest issue with the format? I think the "must be in top 30 in points to be eligible" is way, way, way too loose. Who fights for 30th place? Who even runs back there? Make it top 20 for those with or without wins. There are usually some pretty decent teams battling around that neck of the woods and I think it would put a little pressure on those teams to step it up. As it stands, you can just show up and be in the top 30. Cavanna: I'd love to see some sort of reward for winning during the Chase that comes into play during Homestead. I fully understand why the rules are the way they are. "Make everyone equal, first one to the finish is the champ," no doing math during the race. BUT, fans are able to deal with that stuff the rest of the year. I think they can handle it during the finale. Harvick and Logano won in the playoff, and while they've been rewarded handsomely, they should be separated from Newman and Hamlin if only by a point or two Bruce : I like your thinking, Alan. Maybe if a Chase driver wins a Chase race, he is locked in final? That would give us a heck of a field. But I haven't thought about the potential problems there. Still ... sounds good on the surface. Cavanna: That's one step further that I thought, Kenny . Not a bad idea. Bruce : I'm putting it in the suggestion box now, Alan. Albert: And is a Chase field of 16 too many or too few? All interesting points, but believe it might be best to let this new format simmer for a while, rather than keep throwing too many tweaks at it in its infancy. Bruce : Agreed, Zack. Pretty easy to say, "Well, you should have done this" after only one year. But who knows how different it might play out in future years if left alone. Cavanna: Good call, Zack. The best thing that can be done is to leave it alone. A change we can all agree on. 3. After Chase drivers dominated the first two rounds, non-Chase drivers took two of the three Eliminator Round wins. Which driver outside the four qualifiers stands the best chance to end the season with a victory? Cavanna: Safe money is on Jimmie Johnson . He and Chad Knaus were down here testing a few weeks ago, said they learned something that helped them dominate Texas. I see it helping here. A not-so-longshot has to be Kyle Larson . This track rewards those who run as wide as possible. That's got Larson written all over it. Bruce : The list of potential winners sure got a lot deeper when we booted Brad Keselowski , Jeff Gordon , Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth to the side last week at Phoenix. I wouldn't be surprised to see Brad or Jeff win this week. If everyone on the outside is still in 2014 mode and not looking ahead to '15, I think Gordon's the guy. I picked him to win the title, missed it there, so I'm hoping to look less wrong with a win by the 24 team. Albert: I'm with you there. Wouldn't be surprised at all to see Keselowski in Victory Lane come Sunday, especially with the Blue Deuce's or White Deuce's (or whichever color is it this week) performance this season on 1.5-mile tracks. Even though they're not in the title hunt, it would be a fairly convincing exclamation point. Cavanna: "Very wrong" is a great way to describe my Chase grid. Bruce : Sounds like a book title: My Very Wrong Chase Grid. We keep mentioning Larson, Alan, and I'm as guilty as anyone. While I think it would be a great story, I think they've leveled off for now. Cavanna: I don't know, guys. This seems like a great environment for someone (cough ... 24) to get some revenge on the (No.) 2 car. Little on the line for those guys now. Bruce : Revenge? Surely not. Maybe NASCAR should have a "payback" race before Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 . The Settle Your Score 150 perhaps? Albert: Or the Eco-Boot, where your rivals are efficiently punted out of the way. Cavanna: Winner gets a spot in the Chase? Ha! Bruce : Maybe someday Alan. But remember, we agreed to leave the Chase unchanged. For now at least. Cavanna: Deal! Bruce : Eco-Boot. Love it Zack. Albert: Where the rivalries have drivers shaking in their Eco-Boots. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation
Whittling list down to just five always a tough task
Panel of experts debates the hot topics in NASCAR MORE: NASCAR issues penalties for post-Texas tangle " Chase bubble " Clinching scenarios RELATED: Follow your picks in the Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota 1. In doling out punishment for last Sunday night's post-race fight on pit road, was NASCAR too harsh, not harsh enough or did the punishment fit the crimes? Alan Cavanna: I think the right message was sent to the crew guys about getting involved and crossing some major lines. I was right there watching some of those guys throw wild haymakers. Some were just simple cheap shots. It was awful. Kenny , you were even closer! I can't imagine what you saw. Brad Norman: It was stout, but delivered a clear message -- you can't throw punches. Crew members are not like the goons in hockey. You don't bring them there to fight. And you don't use someone else's melee to settle an old score with a cheap shot. Kenny Bruce : My initial takeaway was "Huh. No penalties for anyone on the No. 2 team; no penalty for Mr. Harvick." Understandable that the drivers involved (Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski ) weren't penalized for what amounted to some pushing, shoving, grabbing. But when folks start throwing punches? Yeah, NASCAR should step in and dole out some punishment. I think they got it right. Norman: The fine of $25,000 is a lot to a crewmember -- to anyone, really, even Hendrick Motorsports (which will pay the fines). But I'd be willing to bet the crew guys were more upset with their respective suspensions. Can you imagine working literally years toward this moment, and not being able to see it through? Bruce : As for what I saw, Alan ... a big pile of folks jammed into a tiny space. It's not something I'd recommend. You pretty much go whichever way the pile decides. Cavanna: I learned not to mess with Kenny Bruce ! Norman: We saw some dialogue on Twitter about this, Alan. If you're suspended for six races, someone else does your job for you. You're allowing someone to come in and do your own job. What if they do it better? Cavanna: Along with "don't throw punches," I hope it also sent the message to let the drivers hash it out between themselves. The drivers get themselves into these situations; they should be allowed to settle. Let the crew guys break it up if need be, but it shouldn't be a brawl. Bruce : I think you hit on a big difference there, Brad. Missing out on an opportunity to possibly celebrate a title? Yeah, that's large. Norman: I'm still not certain Brad Keselowski did anything wrong, either. Cavanna: Certainly not in the pits, Mr. Norman. As for what Brad did on the track ... it'll remain in the eye of the beholder. Bruce : As a former "driver," Alan, I'm sure you can understand Gordon's displeasure at the contact. But it seems a lot of folks believe Keselowski did nothing wrong. The guy was trying to win a race, and possibly a championship. No different from any of the others still in the Chase. Cavanna: I agree fully, Kenny . I liked Brad going for the win with everything on the line. But there are some online and in the garage who disagree. Bruce : And they were all crowded around the No. 2 car after the race, right? 2. With only 18 points separating the eight drivers in the Eliminator Round, who is the most likely and who is the least likely to advance into the Championship Round? Cavanna: Most likely, for me, are Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano . I picked Gordon to win on the FedEx Preview Show , and Logano just needs a top-10. I think he gets it. Norman: At this point, you're almost making a bold prediction by picking the four drivers who have been the best (and most consistent) all year -- the 2, 4, 22 and 24. Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick , in particular, face an uphill slog to advance. It's hard to imagine Harvick not being in contention for the win given his Phoenix dominance, and the same with Keselowski, really. That Talladega must-win situation in which the No. 2 team came through is still top of mind. Bruce : I don't think any one of the eight can go into Phoenix thinking "let's just get out of here with a decent finish." The points are just too close. Playing it safe, as Denny Hamlin noted Tuesday, means something like a 17th-place finish. And that's probably not going to put you in the final four. Cavanna: I think you're spot-on, Kenny . It's possible Harvick could have a top-five run and miss out if he doesn't win. Keselowski too. Harvick's six-point deficit doesn't sounds huge, but with the way everyone is running, it's nearly must-win. Norman: The guy most in trouble to me is Matt Kenseth , which may seem kind of strange. He's one point back of fourth-place Jeff Gordon , but Matt is just not very good at Phoenix. And there are a lot of guys in the Chase who are really good here. It's sort of the same situation with Ryan Newman , but Newman has a points cushion to fall back on where Kenseth has none. I really think either Harvick or Keselowski wins and shakes this thing up a little bit. I also expect Gordon to run well. Bruce : So I guess it's wide open. But I think Logano is the safest bet to advance, based on his current position and his team's consistency. The least likely would seem to be Carl Edwards, who isn't in the top four at the moment and hasn't had much of a Chase. Which of course means he'll probably win Phoenix. Norman: That Edwards still has a real shot is fascinating. He was so bad at Texas, yet logged a top-10 after all those cautions. And he's the only guy to have won at Phoenix other than Harvick in the past four races there. Cavanna: He came within a half-gallon of gas of sweeping last year, Kenny . Edwards to Homestead!!! Bruce : Good points, guys. And based on what we've seen so far in this year's Chase, I wouldn't feel comfortable locking anyone in, or out, going into this weekend's race. 3. Chase Elliott can wrap up the NNS championship this weekend. Is the 18-year-old ready to move up to the Sprint Cup Series in 2015? Cavanna: He's absolutely ready, but that doesn't mean he'll suffer from another year of Nationwide , I mean XFINITY Series, action. Norman: Not quite. He's obviously tremendously talented, and he's going to get great equipment when he makes the move, but I think one more full-time year in the XFINITY Series is the right move. Chase will win the title this year, and will be in a great spot to win it next year. That's Ricky Stenhouse-esque. When he moves up, though, I think he'll be like Kyle Larson right away -- competing for wins. Bruce : I think he's ready -- three wins and perhaps a championship look pretty good -- but that doesn't mean I think he'd step up and run as well. The competition gets a lot tougher at the top. Cavanna: His best wins have come against some of the best in Cup. And given the changes to the 2015 Cup cars, he may be more qualified than any Nationwide driver in recent years. Norman: It's really a pretty ridiculous story when you consider Chase didn't have a ride, in any series, at this point last year. Something came together with NAPA late, and here we are. I'm eager to see how Mr. Elliott does with a new crew chief in 2015 as well. Cavanna: If he didn't have a quality ride waiting for him in the future, I could see him easily moving up in 2015. But really, no need to rush if you don't have to. Bruce : Makes me think of Logano and getting tossed in the No. 20 car after Tony Stewart 's departure. Talented kid, but ... Norman: He's like that incredible pitching prospect in the farm system, Alan. Cavanna: I'll give you that, Brad. At Chase's young age, it can't hurt to learn about transition and working with different people. Going through that change, and succeeding, will make him better in the long run. Bruce : Mentioning Stenhouse, Larson, then there's Austin Dillon as well. Great NNS efforts. But even as well as Larson has run, he's not winning at Cup. Getting close, no doubt. I don't know how another year in the series would benefit Elliott. Would it hurt? No. He's still got a lot of years ahead of him. I think a lot of it just depends on what's available, team-wise and sponsor-wise. Norman: I think the most intriguing question is ... which ride does Chase get? Does Jeff Gordon retire? Does Kasey Kahne move on? Hendrick's stable is outstanding, but they have three guys 39 and older. Cavanna: If Hendrick could have five cars, I think Chase moves up immediately. Bruce : Seems pretty obvious he's destined for a Hendrick ride. A lot of talk about Gordon sticking around (sponsor signings) and a lot about Kahne being the odd-man out. Norman: Just think of the headline possibilities when a guy named Chase wins the Chase. I meant to say "if," and it came out "when." Maybe that's a sign. Bruce : They'll have to re-name it, or him. Anyone know his middle name? It isn't Sprint, is it? Cavanna: Chase Winston Grand Nationals Elliott Bruce : Wiki says William Clyde Elliott II Norman: First name William, but he goes by something else. I can respect that. Bruce : Not Billy Clyde? Cavanna: Wow. I learned something today. I think he should stick with Chase. Norman: That's the name they'll put on that championship trophy, at least. Bruce : Some great names out there ... but that's a discussion for another day. (Right William?) For now, it's on to Phoenix and another stop in the Chase. Not that Chase. Hold your punches, gentlemen. Cavanna: From someone who knows. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation