Welcome to “Mirror Driving.” Every week, your favorite columnists sit down and give their opinion about the latest NASCAR news, rumors and controversy. Love us or hate us, make a comment below and tell us how you feel about what we’ve said!
This Week’s Participants:
Amy Henderson (Mondays / The Big Six & Wednesdays / The Frontstretch Five & Fridays / Holding A Pretty Wheel & Frontstretch Managing Editor)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Thursdays / Truckin’ Thursdays & Frontstretch Managing Editor)
Mike Neff (Mondays / Thinkin’ Out Loud & Thursdays / Tech Talk & Frontstretch Short Track Coordinator)
Kevin Harvick became the first driver to take home a second win in 2014. He leads the series with his two wins, but he sits 22nd in points. How important is it for his team to right the ship now, or does the new Chase give them leeway?
Mike N.: They have a ton of leeway. I realize they are closer to the 30th place cutoff than the lead but the people that they would have to be passed by to fall back to 31st are just not going to be that competitive.
Amy: I think they have leeway. As long as they know what’s causing the mechanical failures and can fix it, there’s no need to panic. They’re now locked into the Chase, so they have all summer to prepare.
Mike N.: They will have to be incredibly unlucky to fall out of the top 30.
Amy: Points don’t count anymore, so there’s zero pressure. On the other hand, I’m sure they’d like to start the Chase with better momentum, so there is that incentive.
Mike N.: Reed Sorenson, Michael Annett, Cole Whitt, David Ragan and Alex Bowman are the drivers behind 30th place. I know anything is possible but I just can’t picture them all jumping Harvick along with the eight people between him and 31st.
Amy: No, I agree that he’s safe, Mike. There can’t be 15 drivers with two wins apiece, so his ticket is already punched.
Mike N.: True statement. They would all like to be on a three race win streak coming into the Chase. Well all of them except for the No. 48. They can be on a four race losing streak and be primed for a championship run. And exactly Amy—he just has to not have a dozen DNFs.
Amy: Which they won’t. I do wonder if there will be some R&D going on to try to get Stewart in.
Beth: They’ve got some leeway for sure, so they’re safely into the Chase. But with that said, it’s still important to have momentum on their side. As for R&D, that’s part of what teammates are for…helping each other out. And you can’t fault SHR if they do work together to make the most out of their Chase chances.
Mike N.: I think Stewart needs to right the ship a little but Busch and Harvick have both been fast. They just need to get Stewart closer. It isn’t warm enough for Stewart to be coming into his own yet. They’ll win one or two before Richmond in the No. 14
Amy: In that capacity, absolutely, Beth. That gives Stewart-Haas Racing an advantage going forward…they can do some R&D with the 4 and it won’t hurt anything.
Mike N.: They can do it with the 41 as well for that matter. I still think 13 winners will be the most we’ll see before Richmond.
Beth: But you can bet Harvick won’t be satisfied to just run crappy while trying to help the 14.
Amy: No, he won’t, but he might take one or two for the team if it will also help him win a title.
Mike N.: No but he also knows who’s name is a cosigner on the bank about his checks come from.
Beth: That’s not just SHR you could be talking about in that position either.
Amy: Overall, I like Harvick’s title chances, actually, despite the trouble.
Mike N.: Yep, especially with the new format. Although I still bet on the No. 48 over anyone.
Amy: Well, right now it is, Beth. Nobody else is 100% locked in yet. I think they’re all safe, but mathematically, not quite yet. The 48 has to win, Mike, something they haven’t shown they can do yet. If and when they do, they’ll be among the favorites. Though they’ve never been good at Homestead, so proceed with caution.
Beth: I’d argue no one is 100% locked in yet…
Amy: Harvick is unless he falls out of the top 30. It would be impossible for 15 drivers to all have two wins by Richmond, so he’s in on that front.
Mike N.: Harvick is as close to 100% locked in as you can be. The 48 should have two wins so far. They will win more than once before Richmond and probably four times after.
Beth: Right, but it ain’t over until it’s over. This is NASCAR and anything can happen. I’m not saying he’ll drop out of the top 30 or miss the Chase, but I am saying that no one is 100% locked in yet. And you’re right, Mike. And on that same premise, we could just as easily be talking about Harvick with three or four wins already if not for the sour luck they’ve seen so far.
Mike N.: True that. Until he takes the green flag at Richmond he won’t be locked in officially.
Amy: By wins, he’s locked in. By top 30, he’s not.
Mike N.: Very true Beth. Harvick’s team is looking great on the speed front, they just have some gremlins to work out. With that said, they are set as for the Chase so they just need to go into test mode for the next 18 races.
Amy: I do think Harvick is the title favorite right now IF his team can get things running smoothly. He’s a championship caliber driver, but right now the team isn’t in that category as a whole. If they can reel off a bunch of top 5’s, top 10’s in a row, they will be, though.
Beth: While Harvick sits deep in the points, there’s really nothing for the team to right. I don’t get how you can possibly say the No. 4 team is not championship caliber at this point. Mechanical failures and wrecks out of a driver’s control happen all the time. That’s just the way NASCAR works.
Speaking of regrouping,with the off-week this weekend, which teams need a reset the most right now?
Amy: The No. 5, hands down. They’re far back in points without a sniff of a win.
Mike N.: The Nos. 5 and 14 for sure. The 17 as well. Stewart has had some good finishes but they were obtained via strategy, not by earning it.
Amy: I think whoever said a couple of weeks ago that Chase Elliott could wind up in the No. 5 in 2015 or 2016 is spot on.
Mike N.: I’ve been saying that for months.
Amy: Mike, I’d argue that strategy is most certainly “earning it.” The 14 team will be okay, this is a better start than they had a year ago.
Mike N.: In 2016, Elliott will be in the 5. The question is, will he be in the 9 at JR Motorsports or SHR in 2015.
Beth: I don’t know why anyone is worried about Stewart right now. He’s not traditionally hot until the summer months, and besides, he’s still getting back into the swing of things after being sidelined so long last season.
Mike N.: They have run like a bag of ass so far this year. They have stolen three finishes that they did not deserve. The only reason he’s led a lap this year is the stupid chartreuse start at Texas.
Amy: A bag…of ass. How, exactly, does a bag of ass run? Seriously though, Kasey Kahne has been so snakebit. They’re not slow, they just can’t buy a decent finish. Kahne has never lived up to the potential everyone always said he had, and he’s not a kid anymore.
Mike N.: Ask Harvick. He personally described his car as a bag of ass a couple of years ago. The 4 and 41 are running up front every week. The 14 is getting lucky dogs and taking two tires and wave arounds to score top 10s. I don’t think that is acceptable even before it heats up.
Beth: Mike, he led 74 laps at Texas. That’s a hell of a lot more than just what was run under caution. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t because of the green/yellow start…and it’s not acceptable to run race strategy? Since when?
Amy: I agree, Beth. Stewart will be fine. Take a look at his start last year, when he wasn’t coming off an injury. As for the 17…are they running that much below where we can expect them to? They’re not bad, there are just so many teams that are better than they are.
Beth: You’re right, Amy. His average finish eight races in was outside the top 20 and he’d finished off the lead lap in half of those events.
Mike N.: Stewart went a lap down at Texas after that, Beth. They have been struggling to stay on the lead lap all year. That is struggling. As for strategy, it is one thing when you’re in contention for the win and you take two tires as the 48 and 88 did Saturday. It is another to take two tires and a wave around to get back on the lead lap and then sneak into the top 10 during the wild GWC finish after not running top 20 all day.
Beth: That’s what you call race strategy, Mike. All teams do that.
Mike N.: Not teams that are contending for wins and titles.
Beth: You struggle with your car, you work on it and you do what you can to get track position. It’s happened plenty throughout the years.
Amy: Exactly, Beth. The 48, your title pick, Mike, has done it on more than one occasion.
Beth: Again, it’s mid-April. How many seasons has Stewart gotten to victory lane this early in the year?
Mike N.: I agree with that, Beth, but he was at least running top 10 all day without winning. This year he’s not sniffing the top 10 without throwing Hail Marys at the end of races. I just feel like they are out to lunch while their two teammates are in contention almost every week before stupid luck knocks them out.
Beth: You might be out to lunch too if you’d just come off of missing so many races last season from a debilitating injury…and you had the added stress of putting together a fourth team during the offseason. But I’d say the No. 5 team is the one that’s in the biggest trouble at this point. They’ve shown flashes of brilliance but haven’t been able to close the deal. With that said, they’ve gotta shake that monkey off their back sooner or later, right?
Mike N.: Maybe, but I think that points to them needing to regroup and get rolling toward victory lane.
Amy: I think the No. 5 is the real team in trouble here, no question about it. Kahne hasn’t been hurt, he’s getting the same stuff as Johnson, Gordon, and Earnhardt but not running close to what they are.
Mike N.: I’d put the 5 and 14 in the same category for sure. 17 could use some help too.
Beth: They’ll find victory lane as summer approaches….that’s something I’m willing to put money on.
Amy: Like I said before, the 17 is running exactly where I expect them to.
Mike N.: I expect the 17 team to be a little better. They’re closer to the leader in points than last year but they are more positions behind. I’d put money on it too, Beth. I think Stewart probably wins twice too.
Amy: Yeah, Stewart’s going to be fine. There are too many teams that are legitimately better than the 17, Mike.
The Darlington race got rave reviews from many viewers, but ratings were down and many speculated that the track’s date change could hurt attendance as well. Is the Lady in Black in jeopardy of losing her place in NASCAR?
Mike N.: We all know it should be held on Labor Day, but that is another story. Attendance wasn’t hurt Saturday night, though. The place was full.
Amy: That’s true about running on Labor Day weekend, Mike, but that’s not going to happen. Good lord, I hope Darlington never loses their race. What a sad day that would be. But I do fear that moving the date back a month was a way to reduce attendance enough to use that as an excuse.
Beth: Ratings have been down all year. If you want to use that logic, let’s just dump the entire schedule.
Mike N.: As for the date going away, Mike Helton mentioned the idiotic ‘destination’ word again last weekend when referring to the race. If they mess with Darlington and take the date completely away I think they’ll kill the sport.
Amy: I don’t know about killing the sport. Losing Rockingham or North Wilkesboro didn’t kill it. Labor Day Weekend won’t happen. Because it’s what fans want andNASCAR doesn’t do that.
Mike N.: They hurt it pretty bad. I don’t think it can take another blow like losing another historic race. I don’t know why they won’t move it back to Labor Day, but, for some reason, they won’t.
Beth: The racing at Darlington was great, but Mike made an excellent point earlier this week about running the race under the lights. Sure, the cars look prettier, but a large part of the appeal in watching Darlington in the past was the slipping and sliding on the hot pavement. Only those who were REALLY good at adjusting their cars and wheeling them in adverse conditions made it to the end and had a shot at the win.
Mike N.: That said, the racing is fantastic, the place was packed, they’re investing more money. I think the date is safe although I wish it was a little later in the year.
Amy: They have no clue what an outstanding PR move it would be with the fans to put the race back on Labor Day weekend, which shows how out-of-touch the powers that be really are.
Beth: They’ve been out of touch with the fans for many years.
Mike N.: Exactly Beth. The track is finally wearing out again but running it at night takes away quite a bit of the challenge of tweaking the car to get it just right.
Amy: That’s true, Beth, and there’s no reason they couldn’t run a day race. They ran it on that weekend during the day for years and fans didn’t melt.
Beth: That’s the point I was trying to make. It was an excellent assessment by Mike and one I agree wholeheartedly with. But that’s not going to fix the underlying problem has with getting fans to sit down and watch the race.
Mike N.: During the day in May isn’t bad. I don’t mind in the day on Labor Day but many fans told me that they don’t want that. It is very hot in the Low Country on Labor Day.
Amy: Yet they ran that day for years and people came…
Mike N.: People came to a lot of the races when they were in the day. Then they moved a lot to night time and attendance has gone down because the racing isn’t as good. Coincidence…..I think not.
Amy: Good point, Mike. Darlington is a great track that really showcases talent in a big way. It belongs on the schedule. It belongs on the schedule twice over any number of tracks, actually.
Mike N.: Amen Sister
Chase Elliott leads Nationwide Series points after winning two in a row, with teammate Regan Smith 13 points back in second. Meanwhile, some early title favorites are falling behind. Who’s going to give Elliott a run for his money as the season goes on?
Beth: If he keeps running like he has been the last two races, he’ll take home the championship for sure.
Amy: I think Regan Smith is his closest competition, at least right now. Elliott Sadler hasn’t really gotten it done so far. Ty Dillon, James Buescher, and Brendan Gaughan aren’t quite there, at least not yet.
Mike N.: Any number of drivers. Ty Dillon is going to be up there. Buescher might if he can get his luck turned around. Bayne could make a run. Sadler was up there this weekend but isn’t really in contention of late.
Beth: I agree that Smith is probably his closest competition thus far. Buescher, Dillon and Gaughan are all new full-timers in Nationwide this year and are likely still working on gelling with their teams. It’s awfully early to be talking about the title anyway since there’s still so much racing left to be run.
Mike N.: Right now, JR Motorsports is the class of the garage but multiple team members from multiple teams told me they have something figured out that other teams don’t yet. Once the field is leveled again we’ll see where this thing shakes out.
Beth: If you think Dillon, Buescher, Gaughan and Sadler won’t give Elliott a run for his money, you’re sadly mistaken.
Amy: Of your top contenders from last year, Austin Dillon has moved on and Sam Hornish, Jr. has been relegated to the races Kyle Busch doesn’t feel like running. I think Dillon can give him a run, along with Gaughan and Sadler, if they can pick it up in the next few weeks. Buescher, I’m not sold on. That team isn’t as good as the others, plain and simple. It’s pretty much a buy-a-ride. Brian Scott, I’m not big on as a driver, speaking of buy-a ride. Bayne has a shot for sure, but he needs to contend for wins.
Mike N.: Brian Scott isn’t total junk either. He’s still within a race of the lead. In reality the top six, who are still in sight of the lead are the ones with a shot. WhenJGR and RCR figure out what is allowing the JRM cars to run the way they are, the field will be level again.
Amy: He’s not total junk, but I don’t think he is as good as some of the others, either.
Beth: Isn’t that the point of working your way through the ranks? To develop your skills? It’s not like he doesn’t deserve to be where he is right now.
Mike N.: He’s won a truck race, or two. He deserves to be where he is.
Beth: And if I’m not mistaken, one of those wins was with a broken wrist.
Amy: He deserves to be in the Nationwide Series, sure. That doesn’t mean he has champion level talent, though.
Mike N.: He’s in championship caliber equipment though.
Amy: True. But he still has to drive it.
Amy: He could, Mike. OK drivers have won titles in great equipment before. I really like the whole package at JRM right now…great equipment, very talented drivers, all good.
Mike N.: I think I like that Hendrick has moved engineers over there. Before that they were a mid-level team.
Amy: I agree with that. JRM has improved drastically. And it’s great for the series to have Chase Elliott winning races. They still need a few more regulars in Victory Lane, though. I think you could see Bayne there, and at least one of the RCR cars. Speaking of driver talent…Landon Cassill has been fairly strong considering the POS car he drives.
Mike N.: Ty Dillon will win this year. Sadler might grab one and Gaughan is always a threat on mile and a halves. Hell, how about Mike Bliss? The Tristar ride isn’t much. That said, most of the drivers in the standings don’t have a top 10 yet.
Beth: It’s still too early to be talking championship just yet. Ask me again in June and we’ll have a better idea of who the contenders are.
Mike N.: Chase Elliott is on fire but I’m not crowning him champ yet. Smith, Dillon, Sadler, Scott, and Bayne all might say something before it is said and done.
Mirror Predictions 2014
Welcome to our seventh year of Mirror Predictions! Each week, our experts take the end of this column to tell us who the winner of each Cup race will be. But as we all know, predicting the future is difficult if not completely impossible… so how do you know which writer you can trust when you put your own reputation (or money) on the line?
That’s why we came up with our Mirror Predictions Chart. The scoring for this year is simple:
+5 – Win
+3 – Top 5
+1 – Top 10
0 – 11th-20th
-1 – 21st-30th
-2 – 31st-40th
-3 – 41st-43rd
Duck Commander 500
|Amy Henderson||Denny Hamlin||19th||0|
|Phil Allaway||Kyle Busch||6th||1|
|Tom Bowles||Jeff Gordon||7th||1|
|Summer Bedgood||Jeff Gordon||7th||1|
|Brad Morgan||Kasey Kahne||37th||-2|
|Writer||Points||Behind||Predictions (Starts)||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s|