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’ Thursday; Frontstretch Managing Editor)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays / Couch Potato Tuesday & Frontstretch Newsletter Editor)
Mike Neff (Mondays / Thinkin’ Out Loud & Thursdays / Tech Talk & Frontstretch Short Track Editor)
Aaron Creed (Mondays / Creed’s Corner)
Five races remain until the Chase, and under NASCAR’s “win and you’re in” seeding system, there have been 11 different winners thus far. This new format was supposed to make the racing more exciting in the regular season. After 21 races, has the system done its job?
Beth: Overall, I’d say it has…though there have been a couple stinkers too.
Mike: I don’t know that it has. There have been some gambles for sure but, unfortunately, the present rules package is overshadowing people’s desire to go for wins.
Amy: No, not really. The number of winners is about average, but the racing has been about what you’d expect at each track.
Aaron: It has mixed things up a little, but otherwise I don’t think that the “win and you’re in” has really contributed to better racing.
Mike: This weekend was a perfect example. The best car on the track restarted ninth with 17 laps to go and finished eighth.
Amy: The guys on the edge might drive a little harder the next few weeks, but for the most part, they’re either in on wins already or points racing.
Aaron: Biffle’s team threw a bit of a Hail Mary move there near the end of Pocono, but in any system they wouldn’t really have anything to lose being in the situation they are in.
Mike: I do believe you’ve seen some people make some strategy calls and roll the dice a little. I think Stewart Haas has been doing some experimenting. And I’m sure the No. 48 has been too.
Phil: The racing has been fine. Some races are better than others. Sunday’s race was so full of pit strategy that it was difficult to tell where everyone was at times.
Amy: The 48 always does, so it’s nothing new.
Mike: True Phil. It was interesting seeing guys like Justin Allgaier and Michael Annett in the Top 10 of a race that didn’t have restrictor plates on cars.
Amy: The thing is, until they come up with a car that can actually pass and doesn’t depend on (and pull away in) clean air, the racing isn’t going to get much better. There have been some good ones and a few bad ones. It was cool to see some small teams in the mix. I wish we’d see that more.
Mike: Agreed. For some of the early season the tires were making a difference but, for whatever reason, we’re back to Flintstones again so that mitigating factor has been eliminated. I do believe, now that the magic number has been reached, we’ll see some people who are in the high teens and low 20s trying some bizarre strategy moves.
Amy: The biggest part of the new system, the Chase, is what really will be the test for fans. I think most of them are against it and many are openly rooting for it to fail. Personally, I think it has the potential to be a 10-week wreckfest.
Mike: You’re going to have four Richmonds in the Chase.
Aaron: I agree, Mike. And what better place to try different things out with short pitting and what not than Watkins Glen?
Amy: Road racing is a strategy game anyway, so it’s a good place to try stuff for sure
Mike: We could see 15 cars run out of gas in the last two laps at the Glen. I just hope they will leave the green out.
Amy: Only four, Mike?
Mike: Yep. Richmond and then the three final races of the three segments leading to the crapshoot at Homestead.
Amy: I think it might be more than that. I see a high potential for some really ugly things happening.
Mike: I don’t. Until the last race of each segment there is always a tomorrow. The end of the last race of each segment is when things could get crazy.
Beth: You raise a good point, Mike. In fact, maybe we’re talking about the excitement level a little too soon.
Amy: I don’t know, Mike; that’s all the more reason to take out the guy racing your teammate every week…
Mike: The guy racing your teammate can still win the next week. I know you tend to be a glass 7/8 empty person, Amy, but most of the people in the garage have enough integrity to not intentionally wreck people.
Amy: If you think that kind of thing is exciting, I think the Chase will have plenty. So far though, it’s been about average. The string of different winners to start the year was actually pretty normal.
Aaron: I’m not sure if any major shenanigans will go on after what happened at Richmond last year. NASCAR will have to act faster…like make a call during the race itself this time.
Beth: I was thinking the same thing, Mike. I’d like to believe the majority of drivers have enough personal integrity that they won’t just wreck someone because their teammate can make gains in the Chase.
Mike: It started out like we were going to have a bunch of them but normalcy has returned over the last couple of months.
Amy: Most of them, yes. But NASCAR has already pretty much green-lighted wrecking each other in the Chase, and all it takes is one guy.
Beth: That’s the thing, Amy. The excitement surrounding those final ten races should and most likely will be the racing on the track. They won’t stand for intentional wrecking…at least in most cases.
Amy: They pretty much said they would in the press conference when they announced it.
Phil: I don’t know about that, Aaron. NASCAR will make quick calls because they know that they need to. However, I’m confident that we’ll see some intentional wrecking at some point. Heck, we saw it Saturday.
Beth: When it comes down to that judgement call, they’ll have to make it. They’re not afraid to park someone for rough driving.
Aaron: Of course if there is any intentional wrecking, what’s done is done for the victim. Can’t give them a position back.
Amy: So we will see. Drivers have intentionally wrecked others in the past to help a teammate win (yes, Roush Fenway, I’m looking at you), so it wouldn’t be anything new.
Mike: The Chase system has given a lot of people things to talk about. I don’t know that the racing has changed much, although there has been some aggressive strategy moves. We’ll see how the next five weeks unfold though. The intensity level is beginning to increase.
Beth: As desperation increases for teams to make it into the Chase, you’re sure to see even more excitement in these next five races. Or at the very least, there may be some really bizarre strategy calls made in hopes that it will pan out to a driver’s advantage.
Amy: I think you’ll see a few teams take some chances the next few weeks, but I don’t see a real shakeup in terms of unexpected winners or anything.
Mike: I just don’t picture people wrecking other people on a mile and a half race track. We saw it on Saturday and the driver was immediately parked. Although the other driver should have been as well in my opinion.
Phil: Bizarre strategy is completely understandable in the next few weeks, as long as there’s at least some chance that it will work.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won his third race of the season last Sunday at Pocono in a race where several different pit strategies came into play. Some fans have said that strategy-based wins are not as “good” as a race where the fastest car wins. Is strategy playing too big of a role in NASCAR today?
Amy: No. Strategy has always been a part of racing. The fastest car does not always win, nor has it ever.
Phil: At places like Pocono and Indianapolis, maybe. But, those tracks lend themselves to that type of action.
Amy: I really enjoyed watching the race Sunday, trying to figure out who could do what and when. I enjoy watching strategy unfold throughout any race. After all, they all start at the same place and finish at the same place.
Beth: Strategy is as much a part of racing as making pit stops and turning laps, and honestly, it should be expected.
Mike: I don’t have a problem with it if the strategy winner has a car that is capable of contending. When you have someone running 20th all day who manages to roll the dice on a bizarre strategy and win I don’t like it. If the person who wins is running Top 10 most of the day I’m fine with it.
Beth: After all, isn’t even a simple call like four tires or two tires strategy as well?
Amy: Exactly, Beth, and that two-tire call can win or lose a race, every week, all year. I find some fuel mileage races to be nail-biters as well. A strategy win is no less of a win than any other.
Phil: Strategy is interesting to think about, but it doesn’t exactly make for an interesting race to watch. It makes it look like there’s no action on-track.
Aaron: I think some of these tracks where the cars get spread out no matter what a mix of strategy is necessary. It was a shame that the only opportunity for a majority of passing was on the restart, but that’s a problem with the cars and the rules package.
Mike: I think the thing that impacted the race more than the strategy on Sunday was the lack of a red flag for the Big One. How in the world Tony Stewart is sitting on top of another car and they don’t stop the race is beyond me. If they stop the race there the strategies still play out, but they probably play out differently.
Phil: That’s always in play, whether you like it or not. However, nine laps of caution at Pocono takes almost a half hour. Had they red flagged the race for 10-12 minutes, then had a quicky, the race would have finished in the same amount of time, and probably with a different result.
Beth: Aaron, you hit the nail on the head! Teams are forced to use strategy for position on the track because it’s so hard to make passes on track.
Amy: If anything, there needs to be more opportunity for strategy, like tire management, gear selection, etc.
Aaron: It certainly was interesting the way it played out on Sunday. It seemed as if something was happening every lap. Would be nice if it was more because of on track passes, but these teams know if that’s not possible then they have to think outside the box.
Amy: I do agree that the inability to pass is an issue, because the best races are a mix of hard racing and strategy. But saying a driver didn’t deserve to win because someone else had a faster car is silly.
Mike: As I said, having a car that is Top 10 all day, I don’t have a problem with it. Having a car that is running 30th and you make a huge fuel gamble that pays off is a bit more like kissing your sister.
Amy: I disagree, Mike. That anyone-can-win feeling is one thing I really miss in racing in recent years
Beth: Why is that, Mike? Everyone is given the same number of laps to make it to the front of the field, and how they do that is up to them.
Mike: Anyone can win if you have a competitive car. If you can’t compete in the Top 10 or 15 I personally don’t feel like you deserve to win on a strategy call. Mind you, unless rain is involved that will never happen, but that is just how I feel.
Amy: I think if you can win a race from 30th because you made the best call when it counted, you deserve it. Everyone else had the chance to make a better call and beat you.
Mike: If you are running 25th and almost getting lapped every run but manage to get three lucky dogs and then run 65 laps on fuel when most everyone else is running 55, and you win, I just feel like that is a cheap win. If you run Top 10-15, I’m cool with it.
Amy: Some smaller teams were able to get strong finishes Sunday because of better strategy. I loved seeing that and thought it was great.
Mike: Yes they did, but they didn’t get the win. That is different to me.
Phil: Fuel strategy wins have happened multiple times over the year. Mike Skinner nearly won Watkins Glen in 1998 by going 39 laps on fuel.
Beth: Curiosity question, Mike. Is staying out when everyone else pits with rain imminent a cheap win too?
Mike: I think so Beth. But it happens from time-to-time.
Amy: There is no such thing as a cheap win unless you wreck a guy intentionally to do it. That’s cheap. Playing the game better than anyone else isn’t cheap.
Beth: That’s just another part of strategy, Mike. We’ll just have to agree to disagree
Phil: Yes, that is cheap. Bush league, and probably some other things. That’s not being able to get it fair and square, so you have to resort to subversive means.
While they don’t always get a lot of mention during race broadcasts, some of the small teams in the Cup Series have shown improvement this year. Which of these teams has been the biggest surprise…and the biggest disappointment?
Amy: To me, one pleasant surprise has been the No. 98 and Josh Wise. They’ve had some sold finishes, especially considering they finished like seven races total last year and never completed a race at some tracks they’ve done well at.
Phil: Yes, they were 24th on Sunday, but had a chance at a top-20.
Amy: Michael Annett also has had a few decent runs for Tommy Baldwin Racing…better than I thought he would.
Phil: David Ragan has struggled a little this year. I know he finished 19th yesterday, but the No. 34 team has dropped off a bit from last year.
Mike: The No. 98 has done well. The No. 7 has made some great strides this year too. They are competing for lead lap finishes now where they weren’t at the beginning of the year.
Phil: Michael Annett is knocking on the door of being the 3rd best rookie this year. I don’t think anyone was expecting that.
Amy: The biggest disappointments, to me, are the 47 and 13. They should be running top 20 most weeks. Both have a few good finishes, but they should be better.
Mike: Obviously the No. 13 team has run well too. For a small team they have had some days where they’ve run with the big boys.
Amy: Casey Mears did have a great run at Daytona in the 13…he could easily have won if not for the rain.
Phil: Then again, I was also expecting that Parker Kligeman was going to be able to run the full season. Unfortunately, that didn’t come to pass.
Amy: And I think Allmendinger could win this weekend. He’s an excellent road racer and the car should be competitive.
Mike: You think the No. 13 has been a disappointment? They are the highest in points among the small teams.
Aaron: I wouldn’t say it’s a surprise, but I think that Allgaier and the HScott team have shown commitment to remain consistent for the long run only to run into some bad luck here and there. I’ve felt to this day that Justin has the potential to run well on any style track since his ARCA championship. They could be a factor soon and I think Pocono showed that coming away with a 16th even after being involved in the big one.
Mike: Mears is ahead of Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse who are in far better equipment.
Amy: The 13 was highest in points among the small teams last year, Mike, and in the same points position they are now. With RCR stuff, they should be better.
Phil: I would say that Martin Truex Jr. is quite the disappointment in the #78. 26th in points right now with a team that made the Chase last year with Kurt Busch. That’s gotta hurt.
Amy: Allgaier is definitely coming along well.
Mike: I agree Aaron. I think having Addington running that show is a big advantage. Allgaier is a talented racer and they have had some horrific luck a few times this year.
Amy: Truex, Jr. has had some terrible luck this year. They could easily be a top 20 team.
Mike: So you expect the No. 13 to be finishing ahead of MWR, SHR, Ganassi and Petty?
Amy: They should be running with at least Petty and Ganassi, Mike.
Mike: They’re 19 points behind Petty and 49 behind Ganassi. And they are one point away from being ahead of two of the four SHR teams.
Phil: The Ganassi squad is quite a bit stronger this year. Or, at least the #42 with Larson is quite a bit stronger.
Mike: I believe a big chunk of that is behind the steering wheel Phil. I will never say Montoya is a bad driver but Larson is a once in a half-generation talent.
Amy: After the strong start the No. 47 had, they’ve fallen off, too. Like I said, they have equal stuff to Menard, Newman, and Dillon, and access to all the same information. They should be competitive with the mid-tier teams at least.
Phil: Aye, Larson is a very good shoe. He’s more than met my expectations for him this year.
Aaron: Dillon has been coming on stronger lately, although that’s not a smaller team.
Phil: Also of note, Ryan Newman might be having the quietest run to the top-5 in points in the last 20 years.
Mike: I know people say he’s proven that he deserves to be in Cup with his performances this year but I still would have liked to see him run another year in Nationwide.
Aaron: I know Phil! Two top fives and fifth in points. That’s almost unheard of at this level.
Mike: Remember, Newman didn’t have a Top 5 finish until Kentucky.
Phil: Gee, I don’t know about that, Mike. He’s only been out of the top-10 in the standings for five weeks all year.
Aaron: I’m sure it’s not what they are looking for each race, but their gradually steady improvement could mean something come the last 10 races.
Phil: No. Then again, I don’t think anyone at RCR’s looked close to a win all year. Newman’s got an average finish of 13.6 with 8 top-10’s. Not amazing, but consistent. Not quite good enough to get much dap on television, but clearly around.
Amy: As for the smaller teams, I’m impressed with the 98 for sure. Also the 7, and at times, the 40. I think BK Racing has taken a step back this year and badly need a veteran driver. The 13 and 47 are disappointing in that they haven’t improved as much as they should have with the RCR technical alliance.
Aaron: The 98 has definitely turned some heads, not all performance wise but attention wise. It has been a huge step for them since their start and parking days.
Phil: Hillman Racing has fallen off a bit recently, but that’s mainly because of bad luck. BK Racing has been miserable almost all year.
Mike: I agree. BK is having a terrible year. The No. 26 has been doing pretty well considering they switched teams in the middle of the season.
Aaron: Agreed on the BK team and it seems to have a lot to do with inexperience.
Mike: Missing races certainly doesn’t help.
Phil: Whitt’s been better than Ryan Truex and Bowman ever since joining the squad earlier this year.
Aaron: But what else are you going to expect with a team comprised entirely of rookies?
Phil: Rooks that were brought up to Cup too early.
Mike: They are inexpensive in contract terms Phil. Whitt is a wheel man who should get a shot in some real equipment. He was hurt more than anyone when Red Bull bailed on the sport.
Both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series are well into their respective seasons. Which up-and-coming youngsters in those series are making the biggest splash, and who’s going to have an impact in the sport in the coming seasons?
Amy: Well, Chase Elliott is the obvious one.
Mike: Obviously Chase Elliott.
Beth: I was going to say Chase Elliott is the obvious name begging to be brought up here.
Amy: I think Kasey Kahne is right to be looking over his shoulder.
Phil: I think we should have added “besides Chase Elliott” to that question.
Beth: But there’s another driver that has impressed me over in the Truck Series. Tyler Reddick has been steadily improving this season, and even though he was parked at Pocono, he was strong all day long.
Mike: Erik Jones is going to be around this sport for a long time.
Phil: Beyond Chase, it’s probably Erik Jones and the bosom buddies, Ryan Blaney and Darrell Wallace Jr.
Aaron: Yes, Chase Elliott. Next I would say Ryan Blaney. He’s not necessarily making a huge splash, but his consistency has been remarkble to be in the Truck points lead. It’s led to the latest deal with the Wood Brothers next year. We’ll have to see how that goes.
Mike: Tyler is a wheel dude for sure. Anyone who can win races in a 410 sprint car can run in anything.
Amy: I think Chris Buescher has shown a good bit of potential as well. Darrell Wallace Jr., Blaney, and Jones are the first three that come to mind in CWTS.
Mike: Blaney and Wallace are both going to be stars too.
Beth: I would love to see Erik Jones run a full schedule for the championship in the Truck Series. With just a handful of starts, we’re missing out on some major untapped talent.
Aaron: Yes on Erik Jones. The kid is good. I’m still not sure how he ended up nearly finishing in the top five on Saturday.
Phil: Reddick’s still a bit green in a truck. Gotta keep those emotions in check. I want to see more out of him.
Beth: I disagree, Phil. Emotions are part of what makes these drivers special.
Phil: Yes, but you can’t intentionally wreck dudes.
Mike: You can if the dude has wrecked half of the field and not been parked for it Phil.
Beth: Regardless of what he said after walking out of the NASCAR hauler, he proved that he won’t put up with people running all over him. No, they shouldn’t be intentionally wrecking each other, but you can’t really downplay the other successes he’s had behind the wheel simply because he acted in the heat of the moment.
Amy: You know who else has been impressive as hell in Nationwide? Landon Cassill, who’s got three top 10’s in a POS car. And yes, he’s officially a Nationwide driver.
Aaron: Definitely agreed on Chris Buescher steadily improving.
Mike: Landon Cassill runs well in a POS everywhere.
Amy: Yes he does, Mike. Cassill is outracing guys in better equipment in bott NNS and Cup. Imagine what he might do in a legit contender of a car? Others…I think Brian Scott is about maxed out on talent and he’s decent, but not going to set the world on fire.
Aaron: Of course if ya’ll are like me some of the names I mentioned were no brainers a couple years ago when they were running Late Models.
Mike: I am not sure about Chris Buescher. I know he has some signs of brilliance but I feel like he is rarely better than his equipment. You need to be better to impress and move up.
Amy: I think he needs another year before we can make that call, Mike. I do think he’s going to be at least as good as, and probably better than, his cousin.
Phil: Chris Buescher is decent, but he’s just getting back to racing full-time. After winning the ARCA title, he essentially sat on the sidelines for a year.
Aaron: I think Reddick is still deserving of maybe moving up into the 29 ride full time next year despite some of the slight drama.
Amy: I think Reddick does deserve the shot, However, if he does continue to let his emotions get the better of him, he may get stuck along the way.
Mike: Reddick will have a full-time ride next year and probably be in contention for the title.
Phil: I would agree with that. Also, I think Matt Tifft’s done better in Ken Schrader’s No. 52 in ARCA than Reddick did.
Mike: Tifft has been very surprising Phil. I didn’t know much about him but he’s definitely impressed me.
Beth: I would say so, Aaron, just based on his results. Only eight starts this season and he’s got two top 10s, a number that could easily have been doubled by solid runs at Eldora and Pocono.
Amy: I’m interested to see how Ty Dillon develops. I think he’s more aggressive than Austin, but is he as talented?
Mike: I feel like he is Amy. The thing I’ve noticed about Ty is that he steps up when the opportunity presents itself in big situations. Like Indy. He beat Kyle Busch. Two of his Truck wins were over Kyle Busch. If he ends up in contention he can get it done. He just needs to be in contention more and that is something he needs to work on.
Phil: I’m high on Ross Chastain as a driver, but it’s hard to gauge where he can go if he can’t get rides in Trucks or Nationwide for longer than a couple of days.
Aaron: Also how about that Nemechek Truck team? Sixth in owner points and John Hunter with three top tens in five starts. Kid is going to be solid.
Phil: Yes, I cannot wait until John Hunter turns 18 and can actually race full-time. He’s proven that he can adapt to almost anything. He might win before the season’s over..
Beth: You know, I didn’t even think about John Hunter since he’s only running part-time. He put on one hell of a show against Matt Crafton earlier this year. Once he’s old enough to run full time, he’ll be a threat for sure.
Amy: Yeah, Nemecheck has shown some chops for sure.
Mike: John Hunter is going to be a star. What he did at Gateway and how he raced Kyle Busch in a Super Late Model was very impressive. So that’s like 15 people. Where in the heck are they all going to land in Cup. There aren’t that many cars.
Aaron: That should apparently be the test to determine a good racer: how they race Kyle Busch.
Amy: I’m not as sold on Trevor Bayne as some people are. I feel like he should have a better record than he does by now.
Phil: Kyle’s certainly willing to race any of these guys, anywhere.
Aaron: Well some of those folks we said were underperforming better watch out.
Mike: It was great Phil. I thought Kyle was playing with him but he admitted after the race that was all he had. It ended up being four inches better. As for Trevor, he is a nice guy but an average driver.
So, how about those predictions for Watkins Glen?
Amy: I’m going to venture onto the limb and take AJ Allmendinger this week. I love road racing…looking forward to this one.
Mike: I’m going to take Marcos Ambrose just because.
Phil: Well, I’m going to take Kurt Busch. He’s been strong at the Glen in the past. Shame I won’t be there this year.
Aaron: Hmmm…how about Clint Bowyer? Something regarding a strategy…
Beth: Give me Tony Stewart to finally light a fire under his ass and race into the Chase.
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
|Amy Henderson||Kyle Larson||11th||0|
|Mike Neff||Brad Keselowski||23rd||-1|
|Phil Allaway||Joey Logano||3rd||3|
|Writer||Points||Behind||Starts||Wins||Top 5||Top 10|