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. 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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
No NASCAR.com expert correctly picked more than one driver in the Championship Round RELATED: Follow your picks in the Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota Way back in April during the NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four -- which was in Dallas the same weekend NASCAR visited Texas Motor Speedway -- our NASCAR.com panel of experts gave their own version of which drivers they envisioned being the last ones standing in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship Round finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway . With Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET, ESPN) upon us, we decided it was the perfect time to look back at which drivers they picked and why. As you'll quickly learn upon reading those entries, the new Chase format, which debuted this year, lent itself to even more unpredictability than first imagined. The four drivers remaining -- Kevin Harvick , Joey Logano , Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman -- each have a shot to pick up their first title, but every single one of our experts had exactly two former champions on their ballot in a mixture of Jimmie Johnson , Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski . Johnson was eliminated after the Contender Round finale at Talladega, while Keselowski and Kenseth were both eliminated this past Sunday at Phoenix. Johnson, the defending champion in search of a record-tying seventh title, was the only driver to appear on every expert's ballot. Johnson's teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr . was also eliminated at Talladega, while Jeff Gordon -- considered by many to be the favorite entering the Chase following the regular-season finale at Richmond on Sept. 6 -- did not make a single ballot. The four-time champion nearly made it to the Championship Round, finishing second to Harvick at Phoenix on Sunday and one point behind Newman, the last driver in. Take a look at how our experts picked back in April, with their reasoning at the time, and be sure to see who they view as the favorite heading into Sunday in this week's NASCAR.com Power Rankings . Zack Albert Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jimmie Johnson Matt Kenseth Brad Keselowski "Jimmie Johnson 's history of turning up the wick once the Chase begins certainly guarantees him a spot among the title contenders, and the momentum that Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr . has shown dating back to the end of 2013 will likely push him into the title mix at Homestead. Add in Kenseth's recent excellence on 1.5-mile tracks and the sheer speed shown by Keselowski and the Team Penske camp at nearly every venue so far, and these four are the likeliest to not only survive, but thrive and advance in the new format on the road to Homestead." Kenny Bruce Kyle Busch Kevin Harvick Jimmie Johnson Matt Kenseth "The majority of the nine tracks leading up to the season-ending championship at Homestead have been kind to these four drivers. Johnson and Kenseth have won on eight of the nine, while Harvick and Busch have earned wins on seven. With winning races guaranteeing advancement into the next round, it's hard to discount what these drivers and their respective teams have accomplished at these particular facilities in the past." Holly Cain Jimmie Johnson Kyle Busch Brad Keselowski Kevin Harvick "Johnson, Busch and Keselowski seem like gimme picks based on their history, their current performance and their potential down the stretch. The fourth choice was between Jeff Gordon -- who is having a better than average year, can never be counted out and I think is racing with a sense of career urgency -- and Kenseth, who is fresh off a career year in wins during a new era that rewards that. But in considering the new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format, Harvick looks like the best choice, having proven himself in the clutch and boasting an enviable track record at most of the 10 tracks that comprise the Chase." Alan Cavanna Jimmie Johnson Brad Keselowski Kevin Harvick Dale Earnhardt Jr. "A final four without a Joe Gibbs Racing car? I can't believe it either. But it comes down to scheduling and the three races before Homestead. Jimmie Johnson will win Martinsville, Brad Keselowski will win Texas, and Kevin Harvick will continue his streak at Phoenix. The final spot in the championship race goes to the most consistent driver of the year: Dale Earnhardt Jr ." 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
Dale Jr. excited to be back, Edwards seen with his new No. 19 and more
Panel of experts debate the hot topics in NASCAR RELATED: Follow your picks in the Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota 1. Before we put last week's race in the rear-view, which win was bigger for Dale Earnhardt Jr . this year -- the Daytona 500 or Sunday’s victory at Martinsville? Kenny Bruce: From an appearance standpoint, it certainly seemed as if the Martinsville win meant a lot to Dale Jr. He's one of a very few folks in the sport today who understands and values the history of the sport, and there's no denying Martinsville's place. It's the only track still on the schedule since the very beginning. Had he still been in Chase contention, the importance of that win would have been even bigger. But ... Daytona 500 wins are still cherished, and by the way, that track has a bit of history as well. And when Hall of Fame talk comes up, a win or wins in the D500 carry a lot of weight. Holly Cain: While Junior seemed nearly as emotional for the grandfather clock on Sunday, I think becoming a rare multi-winner of the Daytona 500 always be the highlight of his career. .... until and unless he gets a championship trophy, that is. Zack Albert : Maybe I'm speaking as someone still full of Martinsville hot dogs, but it was quite the reaction that Junior had coming across the finish line and in the infield media center afterward. Crowd reaction was super-loud, too. Cain: Seems like I recall a pretty loud reaction in Daytona too, though. I just feel that second Daytona 500 victory is what will elevate him as a driver. Bruce: Were they cheering in the press box, Zack ? Not to dismiss the importance of his other wins this year, but were the Pocono wins as memorable? As monumental? I think you're right Holly, a multi-time winner of the D500 carries a lot of clout. But singling out this year's win ... he already had one win in the 500. He had never won at Martinsville. For him personally, it seemed like this last win was the bigger deal. Albert : Our media corps cheering in the press box? Heresy! Honestly, the Pocono wins, to me, are what elevated crew chief Steve Letarte as a savvy pit strategist. Dale Jr. can't do it alone and he's had a crew chief on top of his game as well this year. Plus, he got a clock. They also gave him two hot dogs after he got out of Victory Lane on Sunday. When he saw they were plain, he left them in the media center. I haven't seen them show up on eBay just yet ... Cain: Are you kidding Zack , two hot dogs unattended in the media center were definitely eaten by a reporter at some point. Bruce: Give 'em time, Zack . Albert : Here again, you know our media corps. 2. At least two drivers are guaranteed to advance into the season-finale at Homestead based on points earned. Could we see a return to "points racing" in the final two races of the Eliminator Round? Albert : Not if your name is Harvick or Keselowski. Maybe the drivers ahead of them in the Chase standings will lean toward being more conservative in these next two, but those two will be going for it. Cain: Maybe it's just me but it feels like points racing is a scary and uncertain proposition. These guys are getting crashed out up front and in back. However, I agree with Zack and think that will be an easier tactic for those higher in the standings this week. Albert : Is it like football? Will a prevent defense prevent you from winning? Bruce: I don't know that we will. Maybe when the Chase began and there were 16 "Nations" involved, a team could look a little more at the points situation. But now, with wins being guaranteed tickets to advance, I think those left are more focused on winning that ever, if that's possible. In reality, they might end up with a "good points day" but that's just the result of a day spent trying to get to the front. Not a goal. Cain: And certainly these two tracks -- Texas and Phoenix -- can be tough on the best of "points" strategies. Bruce: Right, Holly. And how many times have we seen drivers try to play it safe only to have it wind up biting them? Albert : Plus, I still think these guys still set the goal to win every week. If that's not in the cards, we may see more risk-takers than usual, depending on the standings. I should've "points raced" when it came to hot dogs last weekend. Cain: Let's face it, there are only so many times a season when you have THE winning car and you typically know that pretty early on in a race, so making the best of a situation -- points racing -- is always Plan B. But especially at these tracks, you are easily the victim of others mistakes, Zack . Bruce: You were going for the win, Zack . Giving 100 percent. Cain: Glad I DNQ'ed on that one. 3. Both Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth remain winless yet also remain very much in the title picture. How realistic are their chances at advancing and perhaps even winning the series title without winning a race? Cain: I didn't think I'd be saying this a few weeks ago, but I could totally see either Newman or Kenseth advancing on points. But that Homestead race is going to be crazy aggressive so I'm not ready to give them a trophy yet. Albert : There is something to be said for keeping fenders on the car, isn't there? I know that a win comes with all kind of incentives, glitz and extras, but there's still a reward for being consistent. Bruce: I don't think they've over-achieved, or been more fortunate than most. It's more just the way the system is set up. You don't have to win to advance, but it certainly helps. And with at least two spots in the final race now based on points, their chances look even better. I don't see them all of a sudden going out and dominating a race and winning, they've had 30-plus races to accomplish that and it hasn't happened. But advance? Sure. Cain: It's been amazing … just when you think Kenseth is out of if, he crosses the line just where he needs to be. Homestead is just going to be unlike anything we've ever seen. Albert : Kenseth is as good a pick as any to win Texas, but as Kenny says, I think it's going to be tough to make too many inroads into converting so-far-elusive victories this late in the season. Bruce: Kenseth's Texas stats? Two wins and the best average finish in the field. So maybe this is his week after all. But I wouldn't wager two Martinsville hot dogs on it, Zack . Cain: Kevin Harvick only said Kenseth wouldn't win a championship. He didn't say anything about winning races! Albert : If they continue to mess with each other, perhaps neither will be in the final four -- wins or not. And there it all comes full circle. Enjoy a Texas sirloin while you're down in the Lone Star State. Bruce: Everything's bigger in Texas, Zack . Including the sirloins. 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NASCAR.com discusses the hot topics of the week RELATED: Follow your picks in the Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota 1. The Eliminator Round consists of three very distinct tracks with the shortest on the schedule (Martinsville), a 1.5-miler (Texas) and a relatively flat 1-mile oval in Phoenix . Do any of the three stand out as more likely to adversely impact the Chase drivers? Alan Cavanna: They'll all have their challenges, but I think the biggest may be the first one. You can find trouble in Martinsville on the track and in the pits. One small thing can put you in a big hole right away. Zack Albert : Two potential schools of thought here. In terms of track, I think Martinsville is so difficult to figure out that it's very particular with who runs well there. On the other hand, Phoenix will be so much of a pressure-cooker with the final four drivers trying to lock into the Homestead championship finale that it could be an anything-goes type of race. Kenny Bruce: I want to say that Martinsville, with its slower speeds, isn't as much of a risk for those guys. Typically damage there is minimal, with teams being able to fix most problems and still be in the hunt. Then I remember the run-in between Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch earlier this year, with Keselowski eventually finishing 38th. So it definitely can happen. Cavanna: My mind goes right back to Clint Bowyer 's dive-bomb a few years ago at Martinsville that took out the 24 and 48. We won't see those moves at other tracks. But at Martinsville drivers will try. And who won that day? Current Chase surprise Ryan Newman . Bruce: After being at Talladega and witnessing the added pressure of it being a cutoff race, I have to agree with you Zack . The pressure will be there in all three, but at Phoenix it could be incredible. Albert : The spring race at Phoenix wasn't particularly nutso, but pressure works in mysterious ways. Cavanna: I agree about the Phoenix factor. At the very least we'll have five drivers competing for one at-large spot, possibly more. Bruce: If you think about it, all three tracks have had their share of memorable moments. The Bowyer incident, as you mention, Alan, at Martinsville; Gordon and Jeff Burton at Texas and Gordon and Bowyer at Phoenix . Hey, what is it with Gordon and Bowyer? Albert : Doesn't the 15 still owe the 24 one? Bruce: Possibly, Zack . If Martinsville was truly the site of paybacks, we could see a record number of cautions. Fortunately, I think some folks have too much at stake to get in the middle of a meltdown. Cavanna: I hope Gordon isn't a San Francisco Giants fan. A new rivalry may have started with Bowyer's Royals. 2. Team owner Roger Penske said after Talladega that he thinks other drivers are jealous of Brad Keselowski because of his driver's success this season. So, are others jealous of Bad Brad? Cavanna: I don't think you'd ever hear a driver say they're jealous of BK. I think some might be annoyed with him. And deep down, some of that has to be rooted in jealously. Albert : I think there's an element of every driver wanting to be the top dog. I think there may be some jealousy of the team he's with, but I don't know if it reaches a more personal level. Cavanna: At some point, I think it does Zack . In the hierarchy of the garage, Brad K. stepped over a lot of people who seemed to be next up to be crowned champion. Carl Edwards , Kevin Harvick , Denny Hamlin , Kyle Busch are all still searching for that first title. Bruce: Either they were laying it on thick earlier this week, or the other Chase drivers respect and admire what Keselowski has been able to accomplish since coming into Sprint Cup. Maybe they aren't fans of the way he carries himself, or the way he races in some instances, but they all know how difficult it is to be successful in this sport. Even Matt Kenseth said he admired how Brad came up through the ranks and what he's done. As you said, Alan, I think "annoyed" is a better description of how others feel about him at times. Albert : True, admirable. And the success without a perceived paying of dues can ruffle feathers. But actual respect only goes so far through all of Keselowski's outspoken nature in his comments through the years and the on-track antics in the Charlotte cool-down lap. Cavanna: I get the feeling some hoped BK would be an annoying fly they could swat away. But that doesn't appear to be happening. Bruce: Take his personality out of the equation and you have a driver that has won six times this year, won five poles and is considered one of the favorites for this year's title. Stout stuff. But as Zack noted, it's the "other" items that perhaps have some people questioning his position in the sport. Albert : Keselowski said in his 2012 championship speech in Las Vegas, "As a champion, I want to be your leader, and I want to help you make it happen." Are we there yet? Bruce: Well, maybe not just yet, Zack , but we could be getting there. Keep the cameras rolling, just in case. Cavanna: I don't think so Zack , and part of it may be other drivers' personal feelings toward him. It's like a reality TV show competition; you have to play both the professional and social game to win. 3. We mentioned Martinsville earlier. What is the likelihood that we will see payback in some form or fashion this week when the series heads up the interstate for this weekend's race? Cavanna: Payback just doesn’t seem worth it if you’re a Chase driver. Let's say Hamlin takes a cheap shot at Keselowski during the race. Then what? It certainly wouldn’t be over. Keselowski would have nothing to lose by coming back a getting Hamlin the week after. It'd be lose-lose for both of them. Albert : If we're going to see any, it's most likely going to be at Martinsville. Still, let's remember back to the spring when Keselowski leaned on Kurt Busch – it ultimately didn't matter since Kurt went on to win the race. So sometimes purposeful retaliation doesn't have all that much effect beyond the principle of the thing. Bruce: Payback comes in all forms and fashions, Alan. As Kevin Harvick noted earlier this week, payback isn't always about wrecking someone. At a track such as Martinsville, you can make it extremely difficult for another guy to get around you. You can be a pain on pit road. It doesn't even have to be in the actual race - you can annoy someone during practice if that's your goal. Albert : Or you can sneak into the infield concession stand and spike their hot dogs. Bruce: I know NASCAR cautions drivers each week during the Chase to "let the race play out" and not get involved in paybacks or things of that nature, but there's an awful lot that goes on out on the track that doesn't always come to light. Is that a P3 penalty, Zack ? Or a guarantee that your car will be the random after the race? Albert : Doctoring hot dogs certainly falls under the heading of "actions detrimental to stock-car racing." At least a P3, season-ending probation and cutting off the supply of Goody's to the pit box. Cavanna: Excellent point, Kenny. We've seen Hamlin and Harvick have issues at Bristol. And I can remember a few drivers making it tough on Logano in the pits in the past. I forgot about those little things. Bruce: A driver never forgets, Alan. Just as Jimmy Spencer. Cavanna: Still, if you’re a driver with unsettled business, I'd be working the phones and text messages before Sunday. I think we saw some of that happen with Logano and Danica Patrick . Bruce: Which may or may not be settled, depending on whom you ask. 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
Our experts address this week's hot topics in NASCAR RELATED: Follow your picks in the Perfect Chase Grid Challenge for chance at $100,000 prize 1. Were the penalties for the post-race turmoil at Charlotte appropriate for all parties involved? Alan Cavanna: I think not issuing a points penalty was the proper call. The incidents in question were not competition-related, and I don't feel the penalty should have been. That said, I do think the fine for Brad Keselowski could've been higher to send more of a message. The garage is crowded after a race, and it needs to be respected. Kes is among the best drivers in the world, but one small slip while trying to do even a small burnout could be disastrous. Zack Albert : I don't know that if I were in any sort of ruling position that I'd have gone to the lengths of issuing a suspension, but I felt like the punishment could've been stiffer -- especially for Keselowski as instigator and Hamlin for that cut-through in the garage. Stewart's fine seemed about right. A Kenseth probation could've at least put him on notice, but making a no-call there was OK by me, too. Kenny Bruce: I know the big kickback from the fans is that taking away money isn't much of a penalty for these guys. And probation? A slap on the wrist. But I think taking away points should be left for technical infractions, because those incidents can impact the results of the race. Taking away points for bad behavior doesn't make sense. The money might not seem all that much, but keep in mind, it would escalate for a future offense. Albert : And even if you do penalize with points deductions, a victory this weekend would advance a penalized driver to the Chase's next round, no matter how many points you take away. Bruce: Good point, Zack . It could impact a driver trying to advance without a win, but if they take points away and the guy wins, where's the penalty? … I was surprised that Kenseth wasn't at least fined for his role in the altercation with Brad. Would have liked to have had a better explanation of how they came to that determination. C avanna : No punches thrown, Kenny. I think Matt inched up to the line, but didn't cross it. The Ambrose/Mears conflict at Richmond in the spring featured a direct punch and left another competitor with a black eye. Once Kenseth got a hold of Kez, I think he just wanted to talk. Albert : Is giving a noogie a P1 violation? If we'd had a Kermit Washington impersonation by Kenseth, maybe there's more to it, but I think it falls under the heading of a shoving match with no blood spilt. Bruce: Oh, he wanted to talk, all right. But Mears threw no punches and was fined. Of course, he was deemed "the instigator." Should have a T-shirt made up with that on it. Albert : I know we dealt with a good amount of unhappy fans Tuesday, but had there been a suspension, the howls would've been about NASCAR officials hand-picking a champion whose name doesn't rhyme with Reselowski. C avanna : Gad Reselowski? I think he raced in the '50s. 2. Brad Keselowski , Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr . rank as the bottom three in the Sprint Cup standings. Who has the best chance of staving off elimination in the Contender Round finale at Talladega? C avanna : Tough question to answer. I picked Dale Jr. to win the race in this week's NASCAR.com Preview Show . So by that logic, he has the best shot. Albert : By that logic, he's jinxed beyond all hope. Cavanna: But in terms of points, Kes can at least see a light at the end of the tunnel. If he avoids a big wreck that takes out someone like Kenseth or Kahne, Brad advances. Kenny Bruce: I think Mr. Reselowski, I mean Keselowski, has the best shot. Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. are tied, and eight points or so behind Brad, so that's eight positions they need just to finish ahead of him -- not including all those ahead. Plus, teammate Joey Logano made no bones about helping his teammate this weekend. Also, Ryan Blaney , who will be in a third Team Penske car, mentioned helping BK out. Cavanna: Hey! I've picked a few winners, Zack ! Bruce: Isn't that our version of the SI cover jinx, Alan? C avanna : I don't need the Nation mad at me. ... I like your point about the Penske cars, Kenny. Logano and Blaney need no other agenda than helping out the 2 car. Albert : That said, I think Brad is going to need all the aero help and/or reinforcements he can get after last weekend. But to your point, Alan, I think Dale Jr. finds some of that 'Dega magic from days of old. Bruce: Correct, Alan. Hendrick guys and the Joe Gibbs Racing bunch have enough on their own plates without worrying about a teammate; Harvick, Edwards, Newman ... they're lone wolves out there. C avanna : This format is so odd. Who's more nervous on Sunday? Kes/Junior/Jimmie or Hamlin/Edwards/Newman, etc.? Albert : It's going to be crazy. The live standings might resemble a roulette wheel. ... Funny that there's this guy we haven't been talking about -- Johnson. How does a six-time champ fly under the radar like this? In years past, I don't know that I'd have bet against the 48 camp come Chase time. Now? Just not seeing the bulletproof aura around them. C avanna : Radar only extends so far. Jimmie is barely within striking distance. Bruce: Right about the 48, Zack . Who would have thought we could have described them as average? But truthfully, that's where they're at right now. They need to change the Lowe's slogan from "Never Stop Improving" to "Improve Faster." Albert : Maybe they surprise us, but there's room for (home) improvement. Bruce: Nice. 3. The last few Talladega races have given us surprise winners, major multi-car crashes and stunning finishes. Will we see more intensity in Sunday's Chase elimination race? Is that possible? Bruce: I think so. The racing there has gotten so crazy the last few years. If they come across the start/finish line six-wide with half of them upside-down, I wouldn't be surprised. C avanna : It'll all depend on the situation and who is running where and when. If the "bottom 3" are in the back half of the top 10 with two to go, I predict chaos. Albert : The only two drivers sitting pretty right now are Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick , who have already punched their tickets to the next round. The rest? Who knows. C avanna : If it's a guy like Edwards/Newman/Hamlin, etc., I think they do all they can to bring it home in one piece and advance. Bruce: I've wondered all week if there was a chance that we "over-sell" the race, but honestly I just don't see that being the case. Heard someone say the other day that even with the multicar incidents in the spring race, there were still 20 or 21 cars on lead lap at the end of the race. So more than half the field still had a shot. How often do we see that? C avanna : It'll be interesting to see if someone advances because his team makes quick repairs from an early wreck. Every position is going to matter. Bruce: I don't think we'll see shades of Benny Parsons' team rebuilding his car to get him back out and win the title, but you're close, Alan. Albert : Not only that, all the alliances and grudges will come into play. And even if crews tell you they won't pay attention to the standings as they run, here's betting they'll have it in view out of the corner of their eye. Bruce: I more expect pit-stop calls of "So and so stops for four fresh Goodyear tires, two cans of Sunoco fuel and a shot of Mylanta ..." Albert : Will officials allow an extra crewmember over the wall for antacid relief. Cavanna: What would Gad Reselowski do? Kenny Bruce: Drive it like he stole it? Zack Albert : Someone stole the pace car during pre-race at Talladega several years back. He also drove it like he stole it (fans, don't get any bright ideas). 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
Chuck Bush and Zack Albert bring you up to speed prior to the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.
Keselowski tops Cup practice; Crafton, Jones, Custer top Truck sessions RELATED: Track your picks in the Perfect Chase Grid Challenge and Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota Sprint Cup Series Practice 1 " RESULTS Already in the hunt for his second straight win and a sweep of New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the season, Brad Keselowski topped opening Sprint Cup Series practice on Friday morning in Loudon, New Hampshire. The Team Penske driver ran just 12 laps, but found enough speed in his No. 2 Ford on his final run around the Magic Mile to best the field with a speed of 138.421 mph. The top 10 was chock-full of Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers, save for Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Jamie McMurray (137.890 mph) and Kyle Larson (137.631 mph), who both ran well at Chicagoland last week and placed second and fifth, respectively, in Friday's opening session. After McMurray, 12 of the next 14 drivers on the chart were all postseason contenders, with the top five rounded out by Dale Earnhardt Jr . (3rd, 137.825 mph) and Kasey Kahne (4th, 137.661 mph). Reigning champion Jimmie Johnson was the slowest Chase driver, pulling in 29th with a speed of 135.699 mph. Just over 50 minutes into the session, practice was halted for debris on the track. Nationwide Series final practice " RESULTS A Richard Childress Racing driver led final NASCAR Nationwide Series practice at Kentucky Speedway , just not the one most would have expected. Rookie Cale Conley , on a part-time schedule this season, circled the 1.5-mile speedway at a clip of 175.404 mph to take top honors in the final 60-minute session. He also led the field with most laps run at 53. RCR's Brian Scott (175.075 mph), who drives the No. 2 Chevrolet, finished third in the standings after coming in second in the opening session. Scott is fifth in the standings, 56 points behind leader Chase Elliott . A late push from Trevor Bayne put his No. 6 Ford into second on the speed chart (175.239 mph). Sam Hornish Jr . (174.944 mph) and Chris Buescher (174.419) rounded out the top five, with RCR's Ty Dillon (174.323 mph) coming in sixth. Elliott finished eighth (174.087 mph) with his JR Motorsports teammate Regan Smith in 16th. Smith trails Elliott in the standings by 18 points. Next up is Coors Light Pole Qualifying, scheduled for 4:10 p.m. ET. The VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300 follows at 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPNEWS). Nationwide Series practice 1 " RESULTS Richard Childress Racing opened up the weekend strong, placing all three of its cars in the top four placers in opening Nationwide Series practice for the VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300 (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNEWS) at Kentucky Speedway in Lexington, Kentucky. Brian Scott was at the helm, leading the charge with a best speed of 173.980 mph to finish second fiddle to practice topper Chris Buescher (174.701). Brendan Gaughan (173.210) and RCR rookie Ty Dillon (173.205) were right behind Scott. Sam Hornish Jr. , filling in for Kyle Busch in the No. 54 this weekend, placed fifth on the charts at 173.082. Nationwide Series points leader Chase Elliott was eighth overall at 172.629, while Michael McDowell , driving the defending race-winning No. 22 Ford, was 11th overall at 172.348. Camping World Truck Series Practice 1 " RESULTS Rookie driver Erik Jones paced the first of three Camping World Truck Series practices at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Friday morning in Loudon, New Hampshire. The Kyle Busch Motorsports driver posted a best speed of 131.925 mph on his 35th of 36 laps around the Magic Mile. Jones ousted reigning champion Matt Crafton from the top of the leaderboard in the closing seconds of practice, besting the ThorSport driver's speed of 131.035 mph. Sixteen-year-old Cole Custer , set to make just his seventh NASCAR National Series start in Saturday's UNOH 175 (1 p.m. ET, FS1), was third on the leaderboard with a speed of 131.031 mph -- 0.001 seconds off Crafton's pace. Joey Coulter (130.999 mph) and Ryan Blaney (130.864 mph) rounded out the top five. Positions six through nine were occupied by Toyota drivers in Darrell Wallace Jr . (130.846 mph), Johnny Sauter (130.260 mph) and Red Horse Racing teammates Timothy Peters (129.754 mph) and German Quiroga (129.648 mph). Camping World Truck Series practice 2 " RESULTS In the second of three scheduled Camping World Truck Series practices, reigning champion Matt Crafton topped the leaderboard on Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. Crafton's late-session best speed of 132.347 mph shot him past Cameron Hayley , who placed second with a best speed of 131.433. Gray Gaulding (131.180 mph), Joey Coulter (131.044 mph) and Timothy Peters (130.815 mph) rounded out the top five. First session leader Erik Jones was ninth at 130.385 mph. Camping World Truck Series final practice " RESULTS LOUDON, N.H. -- NASCAR Next driver Cole Custer cruised to the top of the speed charts in final NASCAR Camping World Truck Series practice Friday afternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway . Custer, 16, turned a lap of 133.226 mph in the Haas Racing Development No. 00 Chevrolet in preparation for Saturday's UNOH 175 (1 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1). Custer, who is scheduled to make just the seventh Truck Series start of his career here, also won the pole position in June at Gateway Motorsports Park, a track of similar length with similar short-track characteristics. Ryan Blaney, 20 years old and third in the series standings, was second-fastest in the Brad Keselowski Racing No. 29 Ford at 133.007 mph. Erik Jones , another NASCAR Next class member at age 18, ran the most laps (63) and was third-best at 132.924 mph, just ahead of Kyle Busch Motorsports teammate Darrell Wallace Jr ., a two-time winner this season. Tyler Reddick completed the top five in another Keselowski-owned truck. Points leader Matt Crafton , the defending series champion, was ninth-fastest of the 26 drivers who participated in the 85-minute finalsession. Saturday's Keystone Light Pole Qualifying is scheduled for a 10:10 a.m. ET start, broadcast on FOX Sports 1. The race is the 17th Truck Series event hosted by New Hampshire, but the first for the 1.058-mile track since 2011. -- Zack Albert 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
Zack Albert and Matthew Dillner break down this weekend's Sprint Cup race in Atlanta and make their picks.