1. So the Sprint Cup Series is off to Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend. Where does this race rank in terms of importance on the schedule, given the history of the venue and the tradition NASCAR has been able to establish there in a relatively short period of time?
Tom Jensen: If you look at it in terms of history, no question it’s No. 2 behind only the Daytona 500. But the tire debacle of 2008 severely damaged attendance and prestige here.
Jay Pennell: The Brickyard 400 is an incredible race, but for me, it’s not in the top five of NASCAR races. That’s reserved for the Daytona 500, Southern 500, Coca-Cola 600, Bristol night race, and believe it or not, the Richmond night race before the Chase.
Joe Menzer: I say it used to rank a little higher, but seems to have lost a little of its luster in recent years and now is probably fourth on the list. I’d go with, obviously, the Daytona 500 at No. 1, followed by the Coca-Cola 600, the Bristol night race and then Indy.
Pennell: No Darlington?
Menzer: Ah, good one, Jay. I might put it fifth behind the Southern 500 — but at one point the Brickyard was at least as high as third.
Pennell: The tire debacle definitely hurt the prestige, and not to mention, the attendance of the Brickyard, and I’m just not sure it will ever get back to the "glory days" that it enjoyed the first few years.
Jensen: As high as third? Are you on crack? This is the most important race track in the history of the world.
Pennell: It’s the most important open-wheel track in the world. I’d say Daytona and Darlington are the most important to NASCAR. I just think the novelty of stock cars at the Brickyard has worn off. Maybe next year they’ll have NASCAR race the road course to kick off the weekend.
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Menzer: Easy, now. I just drank a smoothie that someone handed me and I admit I’m not sure what’s in it … but let’s be brutally honest, it’s a track whose history is mostly steeped in open-wheel racing.
Pennell: I think if you asked the majority of NASCAR fans what they’d rather see, a race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway or Indianapolis Raceway Park, the answer would be clear.
Jensen: Indy 500 attendance is coming back. The Brickyard attendance last year looked like an ARCA race.
Menzer: I think it’s awesome that NASCAR has been able to sort of build a tradition of its own at Indy, considering it didn’t race there until 1994. But again, let’s be honest: the racing there isn’t always the greatest … not for stock cars. As for Darlington, I’d definitely rather see the action there than what Indy produces.
Pennell: Not to bash NASCAR here, but their decisions on the schedule pertaining to Darlington and some other places have been questionable for a long time.
Jensen: We’re not talking about where the racing is better, we’re talking about which track is more important. No comparison there — and I love going to Darlington.
Pennell: There’s no doubt Indianapolis is one of the most important tracks in the world, and it’s cool that NASCAR races there. I just don’t think it’s one of the most prestigous races in the sport.
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Menzer: When NASCAR first went to Indy, it was a huge deal. The crowds were enormous. But it was a different time. Once the newness of it wore off and fans realized the racing wasn’t always going to be great there for stock cars, coupled with an eventually crippled economy, the Brickyard 400 lost some of its luster. That’s all I’m saying.
Jensen: Ask any driver which two races they’d most like to win. Daytona and Indy.
Menzer: I’m not so sure about that, Tom. I do think the Southern 500 is up there on the drivers’ list, too, and the Coke 600. And I think winning the night race at Bristol is pretty special to them, too. It might be an interesting poll to take.
Jensen: I stand by my answer. Indy has more history and importance than any other track in the history of motorsports, including Daytona. Drivers know that.
Menzer: There are some drivers with Indiana or open-wheel ties — such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Paul Menard — for whom winning at Indy means more than others.
Pennell: "If you’re going to win a race, this is one you want to win. Darlington Raceway is a great place to race and it means a lot to our sport. This was a great win for our team!" That’s a direct quote from Kevin Harvick after winning at Darlington this year.
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Jensen: He said, "… is one you want to win." He did not say it "is THE one you want to win." You guys seriously want to argue that Indy isn’t No. 2 on the list?
Menzer: Hey, I thought we just did!
Jensen: Kyle Busch was asked where Indy ranks on the list of prestigious wins in this series. His answer: "It’s number two. It’s right there. Daytona is one, Indy is two. They’re both pretty close. Indy is an important racetrack for a lot of people. The history of that place, it’s all been Indy cars. But it’s still one of the first big superspeedways in America dating back to the early 1900s. There’s a lot there that everyone always wants to win."
And from Dale Earnhardt Jr: "I would never place anything above the Daytona 500. Being that is our biggest event, our marquee event. It’s second or third."
Menzer: Well, I do think you can probably find a post-race quote from the winning driver after just about any race where he gushes Harvick did, or where drivers gush and rave about the track they’re about to race at. And there will be lots of gushing and raving before and after this latest Brickyard 400.
Pennell: That’s true, Joe. But I stand by my reasoning, Tom. I don’t think it’s in the top five, and if it is, it’s fifth on the list.
Jensen: Read the quotes from the drivers, Jay. They say something far different.
2. Tony Stewart certainly made a dramatic and triumphant return to sprint-car racing last weekend after suffering a gruesome broken-leg injury in a sprint-car event last August. Should he be doing this on the side in the middle of a NASCAR season?
Jensen: The rational answer is probably no. But Tony doesn’t fit the typical mold. Tony does what Tony wants to do and what Tony wants to do is race as much as possible.
Pennell: Absolutely. Jimmie Johnson rides his bike, Kasey Kahne runs 5Ks, Tony Stewart races sprint cars. I think not being in a sprint car has hurt his NASCAR season to date. Sure, he has to heal, but I think racing on the short tracks is somewhat therapeutic for Smoke.
Menzer: I know Tony himself and many of his fans are going to bash me for this, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If he wasn’t the co-owner of the Stewart-Haas Racing organization that fields his sprint cars, he wouldn’t be doing it. There isn’t another owner who would allow him to get back in a sprint car and risk another injury that could jeopardize another NASCAR Sprint Cup season and all that is at stake with it.
Jensen: The team has made big advancements in the safety of the cars and made some safer choices about where he’ll race.
Menzer: Hold on. Wait a minute. Jimmie rides his bike? Kasey runs 5ks? What’s that got to do with THIS?
Pennell: They have their "hobbies" and Stewart has his.
Menzer: I’d say his is quite a bit more risky than theirs!
Pennell: Earlier this year in Daytona Landon Cassill was hit by a car riding his bike. You could pull muscles running. There’s a potential for injury in everything.
I also think racing sprint cars goes a long way for Stewart’s confidence. Winning his first race back in a sprint car? I wouldn’t be surprised if he got his first NASCAR win of the season this weekend at Indy.
Menzer: Here’s my larger point: last year Smoke got hurt and missed what, one-third of the season? As a result, his No. 14 team missed the Chase. I’m sure there were those back at the shop who missed out on bonuses related to that. Furthermore, how long do you think a major sponsor pumping millions into his race team will tolerate him getting injured while doing his "hobby" and missing one-third of a season and the Chase?
Jensen: There’s another thing to note: Tony has struggled in his Cup car since his return from injury. He said running well in the sprint car means the problem isn’t him.
Menzer: Yeah, Jay. You can pull muscles running. You aren’t likely to get a double-compound leg fracture that sidelines you for nine months, though.
And I see what you’re saying, Tom. And I’ve heard Stewart allude to that. But that’s sort of a self-serving, selfish comment to make — and I’m still not sure how that or his running sprint cars does anything more than help his own ego.
Pennell: Like Tom said, Tony’s going to do what Tony wants to do. Plus, I think it helps him on the NASCAR side of things. If he can convince Greg Zipadelli he’s good to go, then I’m OK with him racing.
And I’m not sure it’s his ego, Joe. I think it’s confidence and his overall demeanor. If he’s doing what he likes, having fun in sprint cars and winning, that will translate over to the NASCAR side of things.
Jensen: With competition so close, he could have been off a little, and being off a little is the difference between winning and not winning.
Menzer: No one in their right mind ever thought Tony Stewart has forgotten how to drive. But the bottom line for me: I say Tony can do this all he wants when he retires from Sprint Cup racing. That’s what just about any other owner would be telling him, if he wasn’t his own boss.
Jensen: That’s like saying I’d be skinny if I wasn’t fat. Tony IS his own boss and as long as his sponsors are cool with it, have at it.
Menzer: I also think Tony will — and was going to anyway — win a couple of races before this Sprint Cup season was over. I’m sure everyone will then say it was because he made a return to sprint cars, and probably there is something to that. I still say it’s too risky.
Pennell: I couldn’t agree more with Tom on this one. What’s life without a little risk, Joe?!
3. Chase Elliott won his third Nationwide Series race of the season last Saturday at Chicagoland Speedway. Just how good is this 18-year-old kid?
Jensen: Really, really freaking good. Scary good.
Menzer: Finally, we agree on something!
Pennell: It’s been pretty amazing to watch Chase this year. We all know how successful his father was, it will be great to see how far he really goes in the sport.
Jensen: You agree with me? Just shows you’re wising up, Menzer.
Pennell: I also think it helps he’s in excellent equipment and has been groomed by Hendrick Motorsports for the past few years.
Menzer: Obviously we’ve got a superstar in the making here — meaning Chase and not either of you two misguided clowns. Let me turn the question a bit, though, to make it more difficult. Who do you like more at this stage of their careers: Chase or Kyle Larson?
They put on quite a show for much of that race last Saturday night in Chicago … well, actually Joliet, which is nowhere near Chicago, really.
Pennell: I think that’s a battle we’ll be seeing for years to come in NASCAR, and quite frankly it will be great for the sport. The thing that has impressed me more than anything is the respect he has garnered from the veteran drivers in the garage.
Jensen: Chase is 18. He sounds like he’s 35 in interviews, which is remarkable. Although I think these young guns need to quit being so gosh darned polite.
Menzer: Very mature. Nice kid. Wise beyond his years. Reminds me of when I was … ah, never mind.
Jensen: C’mon, Chase, give Kyle Larson a wedgie, or put an open can or sardines under Ryan Blaney’s seat before a race.
Menzer: So who do y’all like more right now, Chase Elliott or Kyle Larson? It’s a tough call. Maybe too tough, like splitting hairs.
Pennell: I think I’d have to go with Chase. He seems to go about things more methodically. I think Larson hangs it out there a bit too much sometimes, and pays for it. It will be interesting to see once they are both in Sprint Cup equipment.
Meanwhile, Chase could just make fun of him for that new toilet paper commercial Larson did … And the other thing I like about both these guys is that they’re not all about self-promotion. There are other young drivers in the sport — who I won’t name — who are all about themselves and getting their name/face out there. Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson let their skills on the track do all the talking. That’s impressive and will take them a long way.
Menzer: The thing I will say about Larson that you can’t yet say about Chase is that he’s looking pretty darn good at the Cup level already. Now I’m pretty certain that what Chase is doing in Nationwide will translate to Cup, but you never know for absolute certainty how a guy is going to do at the highest level until he gets there. So while it’s close, I think I might give a slight edge to Larson. But not by much, that’s for sure.