Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in motorsports as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday for the second of three races in the second round of the playoffs:
Turn 1: Did the win at Charlotte take the 78 team to a new level? Before this, Martin Truex Jr. and his team could dominate a weekend and win, but after a bad qualifying run and first segment, did it take the "next step" on Sunday?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: I believe they have because it's almost impossible to gain 2-tenths to 3-tenths on the field when you unload with that deficit. The performance of the 78 team was significant, but probably resonated most throughout the garage area, because the team from Colorado has earned the respect of its peers. This is a driver, crew chief and team most worthy of a title, But they still have to earn it!
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: I believe so, yes. There is still a part of me that sits there watching, just expecting for something bad to happen to these guys late. Now they are overcoming that stuff. It wasn't even the bad qualifying and first segment as much as it was being faced with a huge final pit stop, but nailing it, and then yet another late caution and restart, but nailing that too.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: Yes. Before Charlotte, all of Truex's wins this year came in races where he started second or third. To start 17th and win shows he can rally from a poor qualifying effort, even on a weekend where Saturday practice was washed out because of rain.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: One of the hallmarks of Jimmie Johnson's championship runs was his and crew chief Chad Knaus' ability to make in-race adjustments, improving relative to the rest of the field. Before Sunday's win at Charlotte, in which Truex started 17th, he hadn't started any worse than eighth in any of his 10 Cup Series wins with Furniture Row Racing, and he started in the top three in eight of those. I was impressed with the 78 team's ability to turn what looked like a mediocre day into a strong day, especially considering how last year's Round of 12 went for that team.
Turn 2: Which driver and team has surprised you the most through four races of the playoffs?
Craven: Chase Elliott, not because I underestimated him, but because I had gotten used to Johnson being the benchmark for so long at Hendrick Motorsports. Elliott is not only the strongest among the four at HMS, but he also is arguably ahead of all but two or three other drivers at this point.
McGee: Honestly, several. I thought maybe we'd see someone make a big performance jump once the postseason started. We've seen it before. Heck, that's how "flip the switch" became a NASCAR Chase cliche. I had my eye on Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski as the leading candidates, but everyone's really just held serve. They all look pretty much how they did a month ago, and that includes the leaders.
Pockrass: Elliott. The Chicagoland second-place finish was suspect because of the tape on the spoiler and side panel issues. To have seconds at Dover and Charlotte after that shows this team has legitimately upped its game.
Willis: Going into the playoffs, all of Hendrick Motorsports was on a down spell. I had been waiting for them to snap out of it for several months. While Johnson has been decent in the first four races of the playoffs, Elliott has started his playoff run with three runner-up finishes in the first four races. Consider that in the first 26 regular-season races, Elliott had one top-two finish the whole season. Elliott's on the verge of a breakout win. No truth to the rumor that NASCAR has asked him to change his name to Playoffs Elliott, to eliminate all use of the word Chase.
Turn 3: NASCAR will require the engines used at Talladega to also be used in the preseason Clash at Daytona (without refreshing valve springs, etc.). Good idea?
Craven: Seems like a stretch to me. What I don't like about this rule is the hidden liability of a driver stretching rpm out in third gear, or missing a shift at some point during an event. I'm all for saving teams money, but I'm concerned that the conglomerates like Hendrick or Penske simply move money saved in the engine department to computers and software. I would approach cost savings differently.
McGee: I greatly appreciate the sentiment. But this was the text I received from a car chief as soon as we learned about this plan: "Won't cut cost$. Already moved that money down the hall to pay for other stuff."
Pockrass: Yes. Saves money and fans likely won't be able to tell the difference.
Willis: I'm all about trying to level the playing field amongst the big and small teams in the sports, and I'll back up efforts to do so. I don't know too much about the inner workings of the team's finances, or even what an engine for a plate race would cost, but I'm interested to see how well it'll work. We might not see the results quickly, since the role of engine strength is minimized at the plate tracks.
Turn 4: Brian France says fans should not worry about the health of the sport because NASCAR will make good decisions. Are you worried?
Craven: Well, I do believe that the pendulum has swung in a positive direction, but that's primarily a result of unemployment hitting 4.4 percent, strength in the economy. I appreciate France and his family, because they created something I've benefitted from. We will see.
McGee: I'm going to go through my daughter's library of children's books to see if I can find a copy of "The Emperor's New Clothes."
Pockrass: Yes. Partly because it is my job to worry, and because France indicated that all sports go in cycles. A 53 percent drop in admissions revenue over nine years is freefall, not a cycle.
Willis: Sure, I'm concerned as long as I keep looking at the empty seats, TV ratings and mainstream exposure/acceptance of what's going on. Having the head of NASCAR tell you he'll continue to make good decisions doesn't exactly inspire confidence. If my quarterback has thrown three interceptions, but tells me not to worry because he'll keep making good throws, I'm not exactly buying it. Instead, I'm throwing my hat in the ring for NASCAR czar (or NASCZAR). Running on a party ticket of weeknight races, shorter seasons and, sure, why not, Figure 8 Racing?!?