Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returns to action at Bristol Motor Speedway this week:
Turn 1: What do you think of Fernando Alonso running the Indy 500?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: It's a tremendous endorsement of the Indy 500 to have an active two-time world champion willing to skip a significant event to satisfy a personal goal and his dream of competing in the Indianapolis 500. It's the latest example of how significant the Memorial Day weekend event is, not just in this country, but also with the race car drivers and fans all around the planet. I'm enthusiastic -- not on the same level -- but similar to the interest I had in following the progress of Kurt Busch a few years ago. Busch gave us NASCAR loyalists plenty of reason to be engaged in the race.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: It's very cool. The most shocking part of it to me it is that, of all the races, Monaco would be the one he skips to do this. That's like skipping, well, the Indy 500. For Honda and McLaren, I think it's a great move to give the guy something big to do while they try to get their act together. For Alonso it's a great move, too. I am certainly not sold on this idea that his start will be a life-altering, transcendent moment for IndyCar or the 500 or even Alonso. But yeah, it's very cool.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: It's cool. It will increase interest from Formula 1 fans both domestically and abroad and possibly make IndyCar more attractive to aspiring drivers. But let's be real: The success of IndyCar depends on whether it can turn its drivers into household names and have events that entertain more than just avid race fans. This probably doesn't help that. And hopefully folks aren't blinded by having Alonso there that they forget this is Alonso's first oval race in these cars at these speeds. He can't try to do too much, too soon, or else this could turn into a disaster.
Marty Smith, ESPN.com: It's awesome. Huge name. Accomplished global star. Fat résumé. But what's it mean long term for IndyCar? There's been much debate this week regarding Alonso's impact on the sport long term, following a thought-provoking piece by Jenna Fryer from the Associated Press. I don't foresee any notable difference. But I do believe it adds intrigue to the 500, and it provides another layer of interest in an already fascinating event. Granted, to Fryer's point, it's not the same layer of interest as it would be if Tony Stewart or Danica Patrick was suiting up in Indy, at least domestically. But it will be an important storyline worldwide. From a learning curve perspective, Alonso must earn a master's degree in a week. It'll be fun to watch him try.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: I think it's awesome. I love the idea of the Indy 500 being a race contested between the greats in a variety of forms of auto racing, not just American open-wheel racing, but Formula 1 and NASCAR as well. Although Alonso hasn't won an F1 race since May 2013, he's still a two-time former world champion. We haven't had a driver with a world championship already on his résumé run the 500 since Nigel Mansell in 1994. Before that, it was Nelson Piquet.
Turn 2: Is Bristol the place where Joe Gibbs Racing gets its first win of the year?
Craven: Joe Gibbs Racing could win anytime really. No, the team is not displaying the same muscle we came to expect in 2016 on a weekly basis, but the drivers have been relevant in certain events this year, most notably Las Vegas where Kyle would have won if Joey Logano hadn't blown a tire with a few laps to go. With that said, the absence of Carl Edwards is definitely being felt. I actually favor the Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Logano this weekend.
McGee: Well, the best driver there over the past three years has been Edwards, so ... oh, wait. Well, the second-best driver there over the past three years has been Logano, so ... oh, dang. OK, then how about Matt Kenseth, who has won twice there over the past four years? That seems to be their best shot. But if you're looking for a breakthrough team, don't rule out Roush Fenway. I have my eye on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. as a dark horse this weekend. During that same 3- to 4-year span I looked back over, he didn't win but his average finish was second only to Edwards.
Pockrass: Nope. If looking at first-time winners this year, Logano and Kevin Harvick would be the best bets. They have knocked on the door the most and also have had recent success at Bristol. For anyone who wants to say Kyle Busch, he has had just one top-5 in his past 10 Cup starts at Bristol.
Smith: Not likely. JGR has some short track beasts in Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch -- and Matt Kenseth ain't bad, either. But the cars aren't there right now. I asked around regarding the performance thus far. Here's what I learned: JGR cars lack the mechanical grip other teams produce, namely Penske. For the past couple of years, Gibbs teams have been downforce kings. And in fact, they probably still are. But the new Cup Series aero package removes some of the importance of that downforce, in terms of how it affects lap times. And then there's technical inspections. Gibbs stays very conservative on how far it pushes the rules limits. Add all that up -- with a rookie teammate, as well, in Daniel Suarez -- there's still work to do.
Willis: JGR needs a win, and Bristol seems to be the most-likely site for it, or any short track in general. Gibbs has won the past two spring races at Bristol, and Kyle Busch has won five Cup races there (but he's wrecked out of three of the past four Bristol races). Busch (five wins), Matt Kenseth (four) and Denny Hamlin (one) have combined for 10 Bristol wins. The rest of the field will have a combined 14 career wins at Bristol.
Turn 3: Noted Redskins fan Dale Earnhardt Jr. has to drive a car with his favorite team's rival, the Eagles, at Pocono. What driver-sponsor matchup would you most enjoy for ironic reasons?
Craven: Keselowski driving an Ohio State Buckeye car at Michigan International Speedway.
McGee: Can I put Jimmie Johnson in a Home Depot car? Back in my producing days I had Larry McReynolds, the Lowe's crew chief, do an ESPN2 live shot standing on the lift gate of the Home Depot hauler at Talladega. Logistically, I had no choice, but that still didn't go over too well. Sticking with my Stenhouse theme, if they tried to put him in a Mississippi State-themed car I bet he'd call in sick.
Pockrass: Danica Patrick and Just For Men.
Smith: In the Cup series, I'd say Keselowski. The Ohio State University Chevrolet. Big ol' buckeye helmet sticker on the hood. Maybe "Urban Meyer" scripted over the driver's door. Brad would puke on the dashboard. In the Xfinity series, I'd go with Elliott Sadler. Duke University "Grayson Allen for Naismith!" Ford. The Sadlers have been University of North Carolina Rams Club members for a half century. Elliott would probably rather walk a 300-mile race than drive a Duke car.
Willis: Who wouldn't enjoy seeing a Kyle Busch car sponsored solely by Logano (or vice versa)? Just a giant face on the hood of the car. Or I'll always take a food pun. Ryan Newman's Own Salad Dressing? Corey Almond LaJoie? Denny Spam-lin?
Turn 4: We're seven races into the Cup schedule, so which driver has made the most improvement since the season's start?
Craven: I am most entertained by the resurgence of the Wood Brothers and the progress of Ryan Blaney. It helps that the No. 21 car sports the traditional paint scheme that's among the most identifiable colors and brands in NASCAR history. Blaney leading laps with authority in that car, the same way David Pearson did 40 years ago is an encouraging sign for the family from Stuart, Virginia. It's safe to say everyone in the garage area appreciates the Wood Brothers challenging for wins again.
McGee: Johnson's win certainly caused a big jump through the standings, but I'm going to lump 2016 in here too and say Clint Bowyer. I've rarely seen a racer look as miserable as he did last season. Then he started this year off with four meh efforts in a car that has struggled in recent years even with a future hall of famer at the wheel. Over the past three races he's finished third, seventh and 11th. Crisis of confidence averted!
Pockrass: Cole Whitt. This is a new team and it sits 31st among the 36 charter teams. And the guy right behind him, Matt DiBenedetto, has his team 32nd when last year it was last amongst the charter teams and 38th overall.
Smith: Blaney. I know he finished second in the Daytona 500, so by sheer numbers this is an odd answer. But you can see his confidence growing behind the wheel, in decision-making and aggression. Sometimes too much aggression. Part of that is better cars. But part of that is comfort. Learning how to race in the top-5 is a process, and quite different from racing for 22nd. There are unwritten rules that come with contending. He's learning them. Quickly.
Willis: After starting the year with a wreck at Daytona and a 16th at Atlanta and 22nd at Las Vegas, Kyle Busch has come back with a third, eighth, second and 15th, leading more than 100 laps in two of those races. Busch ended 2016 on a tear, with only one finish worse than eighth in last year's playoffs, so the slow start to the season was a surprise.