John Roberts, host of NASCAR RaceDay and NASCAR Victory Lane on FOX Sports 1, joins FOX Sports staffers Tom Jensen and Jay Pennell to debate the hottest topics in NASCAR this week.
1. In light of the tragic incident that led to the death of Kevin Ward Jr. — who was struck and killed by Tony Stewart last Saturday night in a sprint car — what does the future hold for Stewart and Stewart-Haas Racing?
John Roberts: We have absolutely no idea. I think we’ve got to wait until all the details come out and the investigation is complete.
Jay Pennell: I think it’s way too early in the process to look at the future of Stewart-Haas Racing overall. I think the organization is fine, but will have to weather this storm with the sponsors and the fall-out of Stewart missing the Chase for a second straight year because of a sprint car incident.
In terms of Tony Stewart, I would be very surprised if he is in the car this weekend at Michigan.
Tom Jensen: This is going to have ramifications for years to come. There’s the question of whether or not criminal charges are filed. Even if they aren’t there almost certainly will be a civil suit. How do the team’s sponsors react? It’s going to be a long, complicated road back.
Pennell: I certainly think this is going to put Stewart at a crossroads in his career. He obviously still has the desire and passion to race, but I think after this tragic event — on top of the other sprint car incidents he’s had over the last year and a half — will make him re-examine things a bit more.
Host of RaceDay and NASCAR Victory Lane
Follow John on Twitter @TheJohnnyTV
Roberts: Think of the media circus when he comes back to the track. I’m not sure that would be the best thing for any of the parties involved in this right now. It’s too soon.
Pennell: I agree with that, John, but that’s going to happen no matter when he climbs back in the car. It may be a circus, but it is the biggest story in the sport right now, and something we as media members have to cover, whether we like it or not.
Roberts: I’m not arguing with that point. But it’s too soon.
Our good friend Larry McReynolds said it best the other day, so I’ll steal the line from him: the only fact we know for sure right now is that a young man, Kevin Ward Jr., lost his life.
Jensen: It’s a terrible tragedy. My thoughts and prayers go to Ward’s family.
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Pennell: Same here, Tom. As I saw somewhere when this first took place, it seems this was an avoidable situation that got out of hand very quickly. It’s a terrible thing for all parties involved. Thoughts and prayers go out to everyone involved.
Roberts: That goes for all of us here at FOX Sports and in the entire racing community. And as Tony’s PR man, Mike Arning, has said, ‘Tony is grieving, too. And grief has no timetable.’
2. Jeff Gordon and sponsor 3M agreed to a three-year deal this week. What does this mean for Gordon, and what does it mean for Roush Fenway Racing, which lost the sponsor?
Roberts: For Gordon, it means we can stop talking about retirement.
Pennell: I think this is great news for Gordon. He was facing questions about retirement in May, now he has full sponsorship for 2015 and a host of companies joining on for years to come.
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This is another big blow for Roush Fenway Racing, obviously, but Greg Biffle tweeted Tuesday night they have a new sponsor lined up. They just cannot announce it yet.
Jensen: The 3M announcement fills out Gordon’s No. 24 car for next year. AARP will be the primary sponsor for 13 races, 3M for 11, Axalta for 10 and Pepsi and Panasonic for two races each.
Roberts: I think it’s also a little scary that you need five different primary sponsors to run a Cup car these days — especially when it’s for a big name like four-time champion Jeff Gordon. It’s shocking, really.
Pennell: I agree, John, but that’s the nature of the business now. There’s no doubt that’s a primary concern of the RTA right now as well.
Jensen: At least he’s got the sponsorship he needs. A lot of guys are still scratching and clawing.
Roberts: That brings us to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the recent news that the National Guard is bailing on him. At least this year he was keeping up his end of the performance bargain with his Daytona 500 victory, his sweep of the Pocono races and the fact that he’s currently No. 1 in the points standings. It seems like a strange time for this to be happening to him.
Pennell: It’s certainly a good thing this happened this year and not a few years ago when he was struggling to find the top 10, that’s for sure.
Roberts: True, true, Jay. What more can he do? And what happens with Junior now.
Pennell: That’s a good question. I have to feel the braintrust at Hendrick Motorsports is doing all they can to court new sponsors. Having the sport’s most popular driver, having the year of his career, those are pretty good selling points.
Jensen: I don’t think he’ll have any trouble finding sponsorship.
Pennell: I’m not sure he has to do more or can do much more. He’s winning races, he’s running up front consistently, he’s opened up on Twitter and in his personal life, I think he’s more marketable now than ever.
Roberts: I don’t know, guys. That’s still a lot money, and sponsors just don’t seem as willing to jump in as they used to.
Pennell: I’d be more concerned about the Nationwide Series not having a replacement sponsor as of yet than Dale Earnhardt Jr. There have been grumblings about Comcast Xfinity in the past, but that situation is more of a concern for me than Dale Earnhardt Jr. needing to find a sponsor or two.
Roberts: Jay, I’m not worried about the Nationwide Series finding a replacement sponsor at all. I honestly think someone will pop up and take that.
But getting back to Biffle, 3M was a long-time and big-money sponsor. That’s a huge loss for them, no matter how you look at it. And having 3M jump from one team to another isn’t as good for the sport as it would be if they could get a new sponsor investing in the sport.
Jensen: Yes, I think Dale Jr. will do just fine. He should get eBay and Twitter to sponsor him. As for Biffle, team officials said they have sponsorship announcements upcoming. We’ll see.
Pennell: This is just another blow to the Roush organization. Biffle said a few weekends ago that Mark Martin would look like a hero when he starts to work with the organization again, but I can’t see one guy fixing all of their problems.
Roberts: That’s true. Just like I can’t come in here in one week and fix all the problems with Bump ‘n’ Run!
Pennell: Hey now!
3. Is it good for NASCAR to have guys like AJ Allmendinger from JTG Daugherty Racing and Aric Almirola from Richard Petty Motorsports in the Chase?
Jensen: Absofreakinglutely! The more the merrier! This gives some of the smaller teams a chance to show sponsors and fans what they can do. It helps them stay in the sport and attract sponsors and personnel.
Roberts: Absolutely. It’s awesome to see guys like that in the Chase because we need to spread the wealth around and we need to see new faces in the Chase.
Pennell: Why not? I think it shows the diversity of the sport and is exactly why the Chase was set up the way it was. They won, they’ve earned a spot in the Chase. Now, will they contend for the title and make it to the final four at Homestead, probably not. But it’s a good story and they’ve earned it.
Pennell: What I think is the greatest thing for Allmendinger and JTG Daugherty Racing is the fact they just lined up their sponsors for next year, then won their way into the Chase. Usually it’s the other way around, so it’s nice to see the team show they have what it takes and can give the sponsor what they hoped for.
Roberts: I can’t disagree with that. It may be a long shot — but I still say the way this Chase is now set up, anybody can win.
Pennell: With the way the Chase is now set up with the eliminations, I think they will be weeded out, unfortunately for them, by the end of it all. The cream will rise to the top as it always does.
Roberts: You’re probably right. But look at it this way: almost every year in the NCAA college basketball tournament, some team we’ve never heard of or one that’s smaller than all the rest makes a run and at least gets deep into the tournament, if not all the way to the Final Four. With this new Chase format, maybe something like that happens for one of these teams and they at least make a run. Stranger things have happened.
Jensen: Look, in 2011, Stewart was winless heading into the Chase, with only three top-five finishes in 26 races. Then he wins five of 10 Chase races. Anything can happen.
Pennell: I also think this shows other teams that there’s a possibility to make their way into the Chase, too. That window of opportunity might not have been there before, but now Allmendinger and Almirola have proven it can be done.
With Stewart you’re talking about an organization with Hendrick support and a driver that had already had two championships. Not sure that’s the case with these two teams. But you’re right, anything can happen.
Roberts: Boys, I’m just glad I could join you for today’s debate. Think of me as the underdog, sort of like Butler or VCU or George Mason in the NCAA tournament. I’m usually on television, and I can’t type as fast as you print guys!
Pennell: Man, if you’re the underdog, I’m probably still in D-III! It was great having you as a part of Bump ‘n’ Run this week, and hopefully we can do it again!
Jensen: Thanks for joining us, JR!
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