Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Charlotte Motor Speedway this week for the annual All-Star Race:
Turn 1: Do you think the fans are really tracking which drivers have won stages?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: They should. I give most of my attention to playoff points because they provide the best insight toward who gets the equivalent of a No. 1 or No. 2 seed because those points carry through the first nine races of the playoffs. So winning races and winning stages has significant value in enhancing a driver's chances of reaching the championship race in Miami.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: No. Unless it's their favorite driver. I've always felt like this was a stat -- how many stages someone has won, as well as those who haven't won a stage yet -- that'll pick up spotlight momentum as the season grinds closer to the playoffs. But stat math aside, there's no question fans are paying more attention mid-race as those stages end. As an old college bud said to me last week, "These stages are keeping me from washing my truck and cutting the grass because I can't not pay attention." That's no small accomplishment.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: A little. I get asked occasionally about the amount of playoff points a driver has. I think people will start thinking about it more in the final 10 weeks of the regular season as far as where their favorite driver stacks when the first round begins.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: I don't know if they are, and I'm not sure if the average fan could tell you Martin Truex Jr. leads all drivers with five stage wins this season. However, it's likely going to play a role somewhere in these playoffs, and the fact that Truex Jr. has 15 playoff points that are going to roll over for each of the first three legs of the postseason, and right now, Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth have just one, is probably going to affect somebody's elimination.
Turn 2: What do you think of the Coca-Cola 600 having four stages?
Craven: The right decision was made. Last year's Coca-Cola 600 was a sleeper and that may have contributed to adding a stage. And with this announcement, make no mistake about it, the Coke 600 becomes the most valuable race of the year in terms of potential points available for drivers to earn.
McGee: Fine by me. It's an unusual race, so give it an unusual twist. I'd love to see NASCAR reinstate the idea of the four major events, a la Winston Million, by adding extra points. Back then it was the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Talladega and the Southern 500 at Darlington. The most prestigious, longest, fastest and oldest 500-plus milers. I'd have no problem doing that again, all in regular-season races. Leave the playoffs alone.
Pockrass: Amateur hour or brilliant, nimble move to benefit the fans? How about both. From a fan excitement point of view, it's not a bad idea and NASCAR needs to do whatever it can to excite fans. But to make that race worth more than other regular-season races seems just wrong, and announcing a change in points format just two weeks prior to the race is an unprecedented move. It gives the impression NASCAR is either desperate or ignorant of fan complaints that it changes its rules too often.
Willis: I generally don't like the idea of making rules changes on the fly, but giving a little more juice to the middle of the race and avoiding things like the 131-lap green-flag run in last year's 600 could really help this race move along. The average time of this race over the past seven seasons is four hours, nine minutes. It won't help shorten the race, but it'll give us an extra bathroom or sandwich break.
Turn 3: When should a driver use the soft tire compound during the All-Star Race?
Craven: Most drivers will use it in the final stage. The exception could be the teams that might not think they're fast enough to qualify for that final stage and then they'll probably use their tires in the third stage.
McGee: Never. This is dumb. OK ... it's not totally dumb. But I was very excited about them simplifying the All-Star format and then they added this. It has potential, but I'm never a huge fan of throwing a tire out there that has only been tested in a lab. All that being said, hang onto those softies for the final segment if you can. If you don't you're probably gonna be left behind when the green waves because the others are going to have theirs.
Pockrass: The final 10-lap stage. A driver will want that extra speed for the final segment and with only 10 drivers in that segment, getting to the front should not be all that hard -- if anyone left is still on hard tires.
Willis: First, if I'm sitting atop the pit box, I'm employing my full arsenal of spies to get the intel on when other teams are going to use them. I'm talking newspapers with holes cut out to look through or people dressed up like bushes. Then, I'm picking one of the first three stages and using them there. Winning one of those stages means you get to start up front for the final 10-lap shootout, where I'm not sure there's enough laps to overcome the fact that you'd have to start behind everybody not using soft tires.
Turn 4: What are you looking forward to the most about the Indianapolis 500 and buildup this year?
Craven: Everything! It's the only Indy Car race of the year I'm guaranteed to watch from start to finish. I always find myself pulling for Marco Andretti because his dad didn't get the 500 trophy and his grandfather only got one. The Andretti name has always seemed synonymous with Indy to me. An Andretti win would also be a nice boost for our friend John Andretti, who is battling cancer.
McGee: The 100th running last year was as much fun as I've had on a race day in the 23 years I've been doing this. With that spirit in mind, I'm really looking forward to the A.J. Foyt-centric pre-race festivities. I was with Tony Stewart on Wednesday morning and he was sharing some of the details of what they're going to do. It should be pretty special, made even more so because Foyt's health has rebounded in recent months. As for the race itself, the shows we've seen there over the past decade lend hope that we'll see more of the same this year. I'm in.
Pockrass: Lap 1 and Lap 200. Two of the most exciting moments in sports. Oh, and "Back Home Again In Indiana" no matter who sings it.
Willis: I love the tradition of the Indy 500, but on the track, this is right up there with the restrictor-plate races for the most competitive race of the year. Last year, there were 54 lead changes over the 200 laps. There's been five editions of the Indy 500 in which there were at least 35 lead changes, and they've all come in the past five years. Count me in.