1. After Kyle Busch’s injury last week at Daytona, David Ragan was named the interim driver of the No. 18 until Busch is able to return. Was Ragan the right choice for the role?
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: I believe David Ragan was a good choice to sub for Kyle Busch. The guy’s been in need of a steady ride (at least as steady as subbing for an injured driver can be) and I think Joe Gibbs Racing will ultimately by happy with its decision.
S.D. Grady, Senior Writer: Ragan was a good choice. Makes much more sense than tossing Erik Jones in there. Ragan has experience and talent. He’s no Kyle Busch, but those don’t just grow on… shrubs.
Amy Henderson, Editor: I think Ragan was a solid choice. Erik Jones, talented though he may be, needs more experience in the lower series first. Realistically, prying a driver away from a bigger team than Front Row Motorsports for an undetermined amount of time while holding the seat for him was unlikely to happen, and Ragan has a good chance of keeping the car in a decent owner points position for when Busch returns. A plate win is still a stretch (substitute drivers just haven’t generally fared that well for various, and valid, reasons), but wouldn’t be a complete shock.
Joseph Wolkin, Senior Writer: David Ragan was a great choice for this car. Though it’s a pretty weird scenario considering he’s driven a Ford throughout his career, this has the potential to help both sides. He wasn’t guaranteed a full season for Front Row Motorsports, and if he does well for Gibbs, which he should with his experience, Ragan could land more sponsorship for his small team. They could have gone with a less experienced driver, but Ragan’s two Cup Series victories put him on a limited list of candidates. Erik Jones would have been a good choice, but he isn’t fully ready for the Cup Series yet. He’ll be getting a handful of starts in this car before Busch comes back, but if he were to run very well, it would force Gibbs to find a way to put him into Cup right away.
Phil Allaway, Editor: The injury to Kyle Busch put Joe Gibbs Racing in a real bind, much like when Tony Stewart got the Godfather offer at the end of 2008, forcing the team to promote Joey Logano to Cup after only two-thirds of a season in NASCAR. Here, JGR didn’t have anyone under contract that NASCAR would approve for Sprint Cup. Ragan is pretty much the best guy out there that they could have gotten. That said, it’s put up or shut up time for Ragan. He’s in a car that can win races. Running 21st Sunday (or whenever the race ends up running) isn’t going to cut it.
2. Track safety has been in the forefront as well since Busch’s accident. Busch hit a section of inside wall that was not protected with a SAFER barrier. In the wake of his injury, what safety measures do NASCAR and the tracks need to be looking at?
Amy: Here’s the thing with safety in general: any complacency in that area, ever, is a mistake, and NASCAR has been complacent for several years. Just because it hasn’t had a fatality in several years doesn’t mean improvements can’t and shouldn’t be made. SAFER barriers (or at the bare minimum, tire or water barriers) need to be standard on any surface a car might hit on an oval. Road courses are more difficult, but that doesn’t mean the status quo can’t be upgraded. Cars should also be continually studied for areas of potential improvement, as should driver equipment. Safety needs to be an ongoing process, not just “install this and you’re good to go.”
Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: I think every track has to look at every possible angle as it relates to the walls and assume that a car at high speed will find it. Hopefully none of the track executives are thinking, “well, that’s never happened here in 40 years.” That can no longer be an excuse. It’s especially true at the bigger and faster tracks like of course Daytona and Talladega, but you can’t forget about places like Atlanta, Michigan, Indianapolis, Fontana, Texas and Pocono, where cars have the abilty to run at high speeds as well. Just because a track is not a restrictor plate track is not an excuse to not have SAFER barriers on every single inch of wall.
S.D.: Obviously the SAFER barriers need to be installed on all walls facing the track. If two feet of boiler plate is left unprotected, a stock car will find it during competition. I appreciate that they removed many officials from being in the line of fire this year by putting them behind the wall. And it’s awesome that even the pace car and driver received some safety initiatives this year. But as always, risk management never stops. Catch fence technology still needs further improvement. Real weather shelter at the tracks need to be built for more than a couple hundred people. Safety is not a static field, it requires constant attention and effort.
Phil: The whole thing with runoff leaves me conflicted. I’m generally against infield grass because it creates a whole bunch of other problems. I wouldn’t be shocked if that grass is gone by July, but I’m not in favor of it. There have been plenty of soft wall technologies used in the past. Heck, I wouldn’t be opposed to Daytona just keeping the tires there permanently. I know it looks jury-rigged, but such a setup is actually pretty good. You’re not going to have tires scattered all over the place if someone wrecks. What probably should be done is the introduction of softer temporary barriers to block infield roads during on-track activity (assuming those roads aren’t being used by emergency vehicles).
Mark: NASCAR should re-think cockpit design a bit, especially with regards to the pedal box; most driver injuries over the last decade have involved feet, ankles, and/or legs below the knee – that suggests inherent problems with pedal layout/configuration. Perhaps a move to more steering wheel-mounted controls like we see in Formula 1? Simply adding more SAFER barriers is NOT the answer.
3. Several championship contenders came out of the Daytona 500 in a hole after engine failures and on-track contact. Who’s in deepest, and how critical is it to make a turnaround starting this week in Atlanta?
Joseph: I think it’s a little too early to tell who is in a deep hole. Daytona doesn’t really provide a look at how a team will do at the non-plate tracks, especially with the unknowns of the new rules package this year. However, Ryan Newman wasn’t too impressive throughout Speedweeks. The Richard Childress Racing camp could be in for a rough year if they don’t get started on the right foot. Newman should be able to have a solid grasp at the new package, but the key for him this year will be getting the consistency to run inside of the top 5 and have a shot at getting to Victory Lane.
Mark: Brad Keselowski seemed to take the biggest hit as far as engine failures go, but I think he’ll bounce back nicely at Atlanta. Dare I say he might even win the race? Yes, I dare.
Amy: Without a doubt, the driver in the deepest hole right now is Tony Stewart. Sure, guys like Matt Kenseth, Keselowski and Jeff Gordon had disappointing finishes, but they were title contenders last year and had a bad week at Daytona. Stewart has struggled to come back from a leg injury he suffered in 2013 and then the sprint car accident he was involved in last summer. He hasn’t won since before he broke his leg, and hasn’t looked to be at 100 percent for some time. Stewart was in a bit of a hole before the Daytona 500 and now it’s just that much deeper.
Phil: Aside from the obvious answers that don’t need to be mentioned, Brad Keselowski didn’t do himself any favors in Daytona. He ran well, but the Roush-Yates engine let him down at the 400 mile mark. Starting 40-plus points in the hole never helps anyone. Granted, with the current version of the Chase, all you have to do is win and everything’s going to be ok, but getting good finishes are still paramount.
Jeff: Well, nobody wants to start out poorly in the first two races of the season. But there is no reason to panic. Daytona is a wild-card type of track and everybody knows that. Also, with the Chase format of just needing (most likely) one win, that can come anywhere any time for drivers of top teams. So, no. No reason to count any of those drivers out yet.
4. The Camping World Truck Series and the XFINITY Series had first-time winners at Daytona, with Tyler Reddick and Ryan Reed both breaking through to take the wins in their races. Which of these young drivers is poised to make the biggest long-term impact in the sport?
Mark: Ryan Reed seems to be a good bet for lasting impact on racing. He’s a young guy with Type-1 diabetes who races each week while wearing an insulin pump; his condition offers outstanding opportunities for public outreach. Reed can be a viable spokesman for health concerns while winning both races and championships.
Jeff: I have always liked Ryan Reed and believe he has potential to really be a good driver for Roush Fenway Racing (or maybe someone else) in the future. Also, with his diabetes, it’s just a natural for fans to pull for Reed so he can show the world what somebody with diabetes can do. I don’t want to go overboard since his win came on a restrictor plate track, but maybe it will give him confidence to win at other tracks this season.
Joseph: Tyler Reddick has been making steady gains on the track since he joined Brad Keselowski Racing. There is room for improvement in both Reddick and Ryan Reed, but the Truck Series driver has more potential than Reed. Though Reed’s story of having Type 1 diabetes is truly inspiring and incredible, he has not found much speed on the track in the XFINITY Series. However, Reddick’s ability behind the wheel has been showcased numerous times, including three top fives in his first year in the Truck Series. The only problem that Reddick will have down the line is gaining sponsorship, which could put a pause to his career when he gets prepared to move up the ranks.
Amy: Reed and Reddick are both talented youngsters with the potential to go far in the sport. I think Reed has a slight edge in that his success story of racing with Type-1 diabetes opens some doors for sponsorship that might not to be available to others. His current deal with Lilly is an example; Reed is an excellent spokesperson for the company because he’s the poster child for what that type of product can do. Fair or not, that gives him a leg up in a sport where corporate backing is everything.