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Mirror Driving: NASCAR At A Crossroads With Debris, Alliances
Foiled by a hot dog wrapper? Brad Keselowski had the win in the bag back in June, but a move to remove the trash handed the win to the No. 88 with one lap to go.

Mirror Driving: NASCAR At A Crossroads With Debris, Alliances

Amy Henderson (Mondays / The Big Six & Wednesdays / The Frontstretch Five & Fridays / Holding A Pretty Wheel & Frontstretch Managing Editor)
Tom Bowles (Monday / Bowles-Eye View & Wednesdays / Did You Notice? & Frontstretch Editor-In-Chief)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays / Couch Potato Tuesday & Frontstretch Newsletter Editor)
Summer Bedgood (Wednesdays / NASCAR Mailbox & Frontstretch Senior Editor)

Sunday’s race at Michigan featured several cautions for crashes and debris, but no caution was thrown in the closing laps as several drivers reported debris from Austin Dillon’s tire.  Should there have been a late caution, or did NASCAR make the right call?

Phil Allaway: Granted, NASCAR didn’t want to affect the outcome of the race. However, this issue was more obvious than the two actual debris cautions. Put it out.
Amy Henderson: I agree, Phil, There was actual, visible tire debris on the racetrack.  It was inconsistent, which will fuel the whining about conspiracies. Now, granted, if NASCAR threw a caution every time drivers complained about debris on the radio, there would be a lot of yellow flags, and the risk is becoming the “boy who cried wolf.”  But there did appear to be actual debris this time.
Tom Bowles: I think NASCAR’s problem here is consistency. Debris is always a subjective call, right? But we’ve seen, throughout the past decade they always err on the side of caution. As in, invisible piece of metal we don’t even see? The yellow comes out at the perfect time to mess up strategy and change the outcome of the race. So when it doesn’t happen… it comes as a bit of a surprise. And in this case, the outcome would have likely changed. Kevin Harvick was the car to beat Sunday. He knew it. We knew it. But the call didn’t go his way. In the long run, it doesn’t change the Chase field I don’t think… it only adds to the frustration for Harvick and the No. 4 team. But there’s no question NASCAR has put itself in a box.
Phil: My guess is that everyone would have pitted had the yellow flown with 10 to go. It would have made for an interesting finish. As for Harvick, he did the absolute bare minimum in order to not get fined Sunday.
Amy: I don’t know, Phil. They had the Flintstones tires this week, so I think a lot would have stayed out.
Tom: So what defines a “debris” caution? Where does the line of safety get compromised? I don’t think we’ve ever had an adequate explanation in the eight years I’ve covered the sport; heck, in the 25 years I’ve been following the sport.

After a strong start, including a Phoenix victory last month Kevin Harvick’s 2014 Sprint Cup season is on the verge of going up in flames.

Kevin Harvick has found a lot to be fiery mad about as of late, including the late-race Michigan caution that wasn’t.

Phil: Honestly, Tom, I think the definition has changed since we started watching the sport, and it changes based on where we are in the race. I recall watching the infamous 1995 Goody’s 500 from Bristol. There was an obvious piece of metal on the backstretch (an exhaust piece, I guess) on the backstretch that didn’t draw a yellow with 30 to go. It was still on the concrete, but out of the groove.
Amy: I agree, Tom.  There are times when there’s debris that’s clearly not dangerous or not in the racing groove that in the closing laps doesn’t require a caution.  Other times, there’s nothing fans can see.
Tom: I think the key is, “How big?” “Where is it in the racing groove?” and “Does it pose a danger to the safety of competitors?” When there’s a giant rear bumper by the start/finish line, well, you have no choice but to throw the yellow (see: Talladega).
Phil: Out of the five debris cautions last weekend, only one was picked up on the telecast. It was the one at Gateway, and that was a spring rubber in the groove.
Amy: I was thinking about the spring rubber at Homestead (I think) a few years ago that was on the apron, not in the groove, and NASCAR threw the yellow. Cost Casey Mears a win.
Tom: But other cases aren’t so obvious. And any “flag” needs to be clearly described and shown, just like an NFL holding call. Could you imagine no replay to show a penalty that has an effect on the outcome of a game? That’s what NASCAR does with debris cautions… throw the flag, show exactly zip and say, “Trust me.” No wonder fans are always ticked.
Amy: That I agree with, Tom. Phil, I liked the idea you had a few weeks back about putting a Go Pro on the track workers to show the debris.
Phil: And that is why we need helmet cams. If I had the money, I’d buy them for the ServiceMaster crews.
Tom: Right. It’s super easy. And let’s even play Devil’s Advocate here. Bad calls are made in sports all the time… there was recently a huge uproar about the Brazil-Croatia game in the World Cup. People claimed the ref made a bad call on a penalty shot that ultimately decided the outcome. But at least everyone was able to see it and then make a judgment call. When you can’t see anything, well, that’s just shady. It screams manipulation instead of bad call, because everyone is living in an era of instant answers.
Phil: GoPros are relatively cheap options when it comes to this solution. If Pirelli World Challenge can have cameras in something like 15 cars for their delayed telecasts, NASCAR can stick one on a safety crewman.
Amy: There are also times when several drivers are talking on the radio about the same debris in the same place and NASCAR doesn’t see it.  If it’s one guy seeing it, he probably just wants a caution, but when it’s several guys, there’s probably something there. If NASCAR wanted to gain a shred of credibility, the directive to TV would be “We’ll tell you where it is, you show it.”
Phil: I feel like they already do that to an extent. Maybe the directive works better at some tracks than others.
Tom: The bottom line is the outcome of the race could have been affected. And because of that, either way people are going to scream inconsistency because NASCAR always errs on the side of caution. If you can see the debris, the yellow almost always comes out.
Phil: Maybe if they did, Kevin Harvick would have done more than give a Gregg Popovich press conference.

Kurt Busch had a top 5 at Pocono and Kasey Kahne grabbed one at Michigan. Is this the beginning of a turnaround for either driver?

Amy: I’m not willing to go that far yet.  They need to put together a few good runs before it’s a turnaround. That said, there is really no reason that either of them can’t fix their issues and have a strong second half.
Phil: Gee, I hope so.  Kurt Busch had a chance for a top-5 finish if he had taken tires on his final stop.  Kahne did and got 5th.  Tires did matter to a point.  Kurt ended up 13th despite leaving pit road right next to Kahne.
Tom: I think Sunday was huge for Kahne. He finally bounced back from adversity instead of succumbing to it.
Amy: Yeah, but he needs to show that he can do that on a weekly basis before it really means anything beyond one race.
Phil: Yes. At least he had time to come back from his adversity. The spin was on Lap 7 of the race.
Amy: And only the second lap under green.  That was fortuitous in that it gave his team time to make gains. As for Busch, he was very strong at Pocono, and he had a shot at MIS before that bad call.  I see him actually fixing things before Kahne
Phil: Now, if that spin occurred when Bowman wrecked, maybe the result would have been different.
Amy: True, Phil… but even though a spin was bad luck for Kahne (again), the timing was pretty lucky for him, actually.  Luck has been missing from the No. 5 team arsenal this year.
Phil: Even though Kurt Busch has the win at Martinsville, Kahne has had the better season.  He’s been in the hunt more than the No. 41.
Tom: Yes, but the sense of urgency is there for Kahne more than it is for Kurt. At this point, you’ve got one guy in the Chase unless a 17-winner miracle happens. Kahne, they’re so concerned a full Hendrick test was built around the guy a few weeks ago at New Hampshire. And let’s not forget, even with Farmers Insurance re-signed Chase Elliott is waiting in the wings. That package is only a dozen races.
Phil: Kahne’s got a good track coming up in Kentucky. Granted, they’ve raced there only three times, but his average finish is 8.7. If he could put up something similar to that, it wouldn’t hurt.
Amy: Yeah, and Busch could do well at either there or Sonoma. I think they both need a few strong finishes, though before they can really start looking forward.
Phil: I’ll agree with that.  Momentum is very important here.
Tom: I don’t think either driver has it. But Kahne needed a type of confidence boost he could build on more than Kurt, who takes on a weird type of leadership role within Stewart-Haas Racing believe it or not. I think Kahne’s Michigan momentum could push him forward, at a crucial time but we’ll have to wait and see. OK guys, tagging out… Summer’s here to fill in!

Several years ago, NASCAR capped the number of teams an owner can field, but with alliances cropping up in recent years, the lines have been blurred.  Should NASCAR further regulate technical alliances or chassis sales/engine leasing?

Summer Bedgood: I would say yes, but that would be kind of tough to do. And there are many smaller teams who have been helped by that.
Amy: While I can see the reasoning from the fans who have said they’d like to see it limited, it would run the small teams out of the sport.
Summer: Right. Though the alliances make the rich richer, it also helps that gap between the small teams and the juggernauts shrink. And I think that’s a good thing. It creates more parity.
Phil: True, the smaller outfits have been helped quite a bit.  Remember what Haas CNC Racing was like when they had Jack Sprague and Ward Burton? That’s a far cry from the Stewart-Haas Racing of today.
Summer: There are several top 20 teams in the sport right now who wouldn’t be if not for their alliances with larger teams.
Amy: JTG-Daugherty, Furniture Row, Front Row, Germain, and HScott Motorsports all get stuff from someone else.
Summer: And even if NASCAR did limit the alliances, like they’ve tried to do before, the teams would just find a loophole again.In this case, I’d rather see the small team succeed through what they’ve forged than stick it to the big ones because someone doesn’t like them.At least two of those teams won races last season. That’s the exception, though, not the norm.
Phil: I guess you guys are right, but some of those alliances can bleed teams dry.  Remember when Gillett Evernham Motorsports fell apart in 2010? That alliance nearly resulted in bankruptcy. Gillett had to sell Vail in order to keep the team afloat. Also, when things go sour, don’t expect Big Brother to help you at all.  Hall of Fame Racing had to foot a bill of $10 million to switch from Chevrolet to Toyota for 2008 in order to keep their alliance with JGR. That clearly worked out well…

Kasey Kahne has struggled mightily in 2014..

Could Michigan be the breath of fresh air Kasey Kahne sorely needs?

Amy: But look at the flip side, Phil… Furniture Row made huge gains because of their RCR connection.
Phil: That is indisputable, Amy.  That team was struggling to stay in the top-35 in points before they dropped back to part-time.
Summer: OK, so it helps some and hurts others. That should be the choice of the teams, not NASCAR. And I would say that those failures are a result of bad business, not because the alliances aren’t a good idea. In other words, had they been handled better, it would have worked out just fine.
Amy: I agree, Summer.  I think NASCAR needs to allow it for the sake of those teams who need it to stay afloat.  If they mismanage it, their fault, but if it works for them, then the sport has no business taking it away.
Phil: Those engine leases are always going to be more expensive than just buying engines.  Teams in IndyCar found that out the hard way.
Amy: Yeah, you have teams like Stewart-Haas running at a championship level with it.  But they prepare the cars themselves, so it’s not as though they don’t do any work over there like some people seem to imply.
Summer: I think it’s kind of stupid that SHR only gets partial credit for their performance. Like they just pay HMS to do all the work for them. I agree, Amy, that team is a great race team regardless of their Hendrick affiliation. Would they be as good without it? Probably not. But there are plenty of individuals employed by SHR who directly contribute to their success.
Amy: I talked with members of the three teams with RCR alliances and all three said they would not be where they are without it…those teams need that help to make the next step.  Yeah, it costs a lot of money, but they bring in more if they’re contending.
Summer: Basically, it’s an investment.
Phil: I have no doubt that Stewart-Haas Racing has enough people on staff that they could hold their own against Hendrick Motorsports.  Maybe not as good as now, but still good. However, we’ve seen what Germain Racing can do without an alliance.  Middling at best; at worst, they’re in the 30s every week.  I don’t think GEICO would like running back there on a regular basis.
Amy: Exactly, Phil.  For those teams to attract sponsorship, they have to run better, and the alliances allow them to do that.  Germain has added several new associate sponsors this year, which is huge for them. Meanwhile, SHR gets chassis and engines from HMS… they have to put the cars together and set them up for their individual drivers.  It’s like buying a soap box derby kit and then building and fine-tuning it yourself.
Summer: I don’t think NASCAR should do anything about it. It won’t change anything and it will only hurt the smaller teams … they are already struggling enough.
Amy: Agreed.  Such a rule would hurt the wrong people the most.  It would also decimate the field to the point where full fields would be a thing of the past, at least for a while.

Roush Fenway Racing’s troubles this year in the Cup Series have been well documented, but the team isn’t setting the world on fire in the Nationwide Series either.  Is the trouble at RFR even deeper than just the Cup teams?

Summer: I think the issues with RFR are just a reflection of the ebb and flow of the sport. Let’s keep in mind that Richard Childress Racing isn’t exactly lighting up victory lane very much anymore either. I mean, hell, who would have thought Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano would be more competitive than Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards? Things just shift in the sport sometimes. I’m not saying RFR doesn’t have issues, but I think part of it is that they are just simply being outrun.
Phil: Bayne and Chris Buescher have had a lot of bad luck.  Like Saturday, Bayne got taken out by Dylan Kwasniewski because Kwasniewski was simply trying too hard.  He has no luck.
Amy: Um, maybe.  It’s a little hard to tell.  Trevor Bayne is doing OK, fifth in points, I think.  Buescher and Reed need time to develop, and it’s wrong to expect them to be title contenders.
Phil: Chris Buescher is solid, but he’s still learning.  Had a good run Saturday (10th).  Ryan Reed has probably regressed since his limited schedule last season.
Amy: At the Cup level, there’s no doubt they’re behind.  It’s not just a Ford problem, either, because Penske is doing just fine.
Phil: I’m convinced that Roush screwed up their simulations again like they did a couple of years ago.
Summer: It’s not a driver problem either. Stenhouse isn’t great but I don’t think he’s that bad. And Edwards and Biffle have both been championship contenders in the past.
Amy: I think Roush’s issue is a lack of real teamwork.  It’s been a problem with them for years as the teams compete with each other instead of working together to fix things.
Summer: I think that’s a good hypothesis. I can think of several issues over the years where the drivers were feuding with each other. But you would think they would have noticed that a long time ago and already fixed it. I have a hard time believing it’s that simple.
Amy: Yes, Summer, and how much energy have they spent with ongoing contract negotiations this year?  There’s no cohesiveness there compared to what you see from Hendrick, SHR, or Gibbs.
Summer: Right, and I see what you’re saying. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I don’t think it’s just that. I feel like it’s a lot of things, though that doesn’t help.

The 2014 NASCAR Season started off on a high note, with Dale Earnhardt, Jr.‘s win in the Daytona 500 helping to revive both his status and that of the sport. In recent years where there were a number of setbacks and short-comings, 2014 has been one of the most memorable and positive in close to 20 years. Save for the weather…

Rick Hendrick, Dale Jr… Kings of the Daytona 500, and the NASCAR world… forever?

Phil: I could definitely buy the distractify option. All anyone talks about with Roush Fenway Racing is what Edwards and Biffle are doing next year. Everyone in the organization has that in the back of their mind.
Summer: Right, Phil, and I bet there are a lot of employees worried about their jobs. If one or two drivers leave, where does that leave them?
Amy: I think part of the issue on the Nationwide side is simple driver inexperience.  Buescher and Reed are young, talented individuals, but they need time to learn and develop.
Phil: Buescher’s got more experience than Reed (remember, Chris won the 2012 ARCA Racing Series Championship), but spent last year largely on the sidelines.
Amy: Heck, Chris Buescher is outpointing his cousin James, who has a lot more experience in NASCAR. Granted, he’s in better cars, but he’s getting there.
Phil: True, by only one, but that’s good enough.  He’s got 31 over Reed, who’s just one point ahead of Landon Cassill in underdog equipment. Off-topic, but I feel that James Buescher has underperformed this season. Bowman definitely qualified better, but the whole RAB Racing team is really anonymous so far.
Amy: RAB is performing better than they should be, all things considered. It’s basically been a buy-a-ride program, so it’s a bit different model than the competition.
Phil: I wasn’t expecting either Chris Buescher or Ryan Reed to win at all this year.  Maybe I was expecting a little more than I should have out of Reed, but with the push being given to Chase Elliott (and to an extent, all of JR Motorsports), along with Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, Roush Fenway Racing gets lost in the shuffle.
Amy: I think RFR does have some deep-seeded problems at the Cup level, and if there are worried or ill feelings, that’s bound to trickle down to a point.  But the NNS teams aren’t doing terribly, considering that two of the drivers are very young and inexperienced.  No, they don’t have wins, but only three full-time NNS drivers do have them, so that’s not a good indicator.
Summer: Well, the Nationwide Series is really hard to judge when you have Nationwide-only drivers in the car all the time. I wouldn’t say I’m overly concerned with that end of the program. But there is no reason for all of the Roush Cup teams to finish outside the top 20 in Michigan.

Predictions for Sonoma?

Amy: I’m going with Clint Bowyer.  He’s surprisingly good there, and he’s due for a great day.
Phil: Oh man. The twisties. Love road racing. Of course, I’m the guy that tried to watch Le Mans at 3:30am Sunday morning. I’m going to go off the board and go with David Gilliland.  He’s surprisingly strong there.  Just might sneak a good finish out there in Wine Country.
Summer: I guess Marcos Ambrose.
Amy: As long as Marcos remembers he can’t defy the laws of physics, he should do well. I was tempted to go with Allmendinger.  I think he’s going to have a top-10 day.

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:

 Prediction Scoring
+5 – Win
+3 – Top 5
+1 – Top 10
0 – 11th-20th
-1 – 21st-30th
-2 – 31st-40th
-3 – 41st-43rd

Quicken Loans 400

Writer Pick Finishing Position Points
Amy Henderson Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 7th +1
Phil Allaway
Greg Biffle 20th 0
Aaron Creed
Kasey Kahne 5th  +3

 

Standings

Writer Points Behind Starts Wins Top 5 Top 10
Amy Henderson 16 15 1 4 8
Tom Bowles 9 -7 5 2 2 4
Mike Neff 9 -7 9 0 3 5
Beth Lunkenheimer 3 -13 1 0 1 1
Jeff Meyer 3 -13 1 0 1 1
Aaron Creed
3 -13 4 0 1 3
Jeff Wolfe 2 -14 3 0 1 1
Summer Bedgood 1 -15 1 0 0 1
Brad Morgan 0 -16 3 1 1 2
Phil Allaway -1 -17 14 0 0 5

 

About Frontstretch Staff

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  16. Question was: who would have thought Brad & Joey would do better than Carl & Biffle, well many of us is who. Carl picked up the win yesterday due to his good fortune in pitting 2 laps before the caution, luck had a lot to do with it, and over the last few years Carl gets one win a year, and so does Biffle, maybe. Brad has a championship and is a really good driver, and his lobbying Roger to hire Joey was very smart as Joey is only 24 with 6 years of experience behind him. Biffle had better hope Jack wants to keep him another year. Stenhouse may not get demoted to Nationwide next year only because Carl or Biffle may leave, if they both stay then Ricky does down to Nationwide. Brad & Joey can run circles around Carl & Biffle.

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  18. Good post Chris. I have read Smokey’s books so much they are worn out! Today’s IROC cars NA$CAR wants have ruined the racing. Along with the almost rehearsed interviews. The days of, as Smokey used to say, of drivers like Earnhardt Sr, Foyt,Turner, Pearson ect. were good for an extra 50hp are long gone. That’s why I only watch and follow my local short tracks.

  19. The alliances are a double edged sword. They certainly do help the teams such as SHR, Furniture Row, and maybe ….. RPM. That benefit is generally most noticeable immediately after the changeover. Long term however it creates a permanent second tier of teams. If you look at actual results, vs publicity now of those teams has really threatened the true megateams.
    Penske would be the only exception, one perhaps explained by the depth of his organization in other disciplines.
    These associations cant be eliminated because without them there would be no racing in this era simply because of the expense.

    • There is something odd about a race team that doesn’t even build it’s own engines. The power plant is possibly the most important part of the effort. Many modern NASCAR teams are like chefs that can’t cook.

      • I agree John. People new to the sport (I’d say post 2004) may say that having a few teams supply the chassis and engines may help smaller teams efficiently control costs. The issue with this; especially when a sport is involved, is that this will cause an unintended consequence whereas the smaller teams become more and more reliant on the larger teams which in turn make the larger teams just that much larger. Let’s face it, NASCAR is only mirroring the economic times we are currently in. I would argue that having only a few teams supply chassis and engines actually decreases the amount of racing innovation. In today’s world how would NASCAR handle someone like Geoff Bodine who starts showing up with power steering in his car? Probably not well as there is very little grey area in today’s NASCAR. HMS seems to be doing all the major design work and testing.

        NASCAR started as a very grassroots organization where anyone with a car could enter. Even in the 60′s and 70′s teams remained pretty small with many of the team holding down fulltime jobs as well as being on a NASCAR team. There were no specialty “over-the-wall” teams as often the same guy that built the engine was also changing the left rear. Richard Petty was bending pipe for his roll cages by filling them with sand, heating it up, and then bending it around a tree. I understand that those days are gone as technology has made teams more effective and efficient but the main point is that NASCAR was built on many small teams having the ability to do much with little. NASCAR today has created a large corporate atmosphere with few new entrants into the market. New teams are now a rarity as NASCAR has made it cost prohibitive for a start-up team.

        Yesterday while traveling on the highway I passed a lone guy in a pick-up truck towing a stock car to a local short track. In the bed of his truck was a compressor, jack, spare parts, and tires. On the trailer was a battered stock car that I could see is getting flatter on the passenger side of the car, (looks like someone likes leaning into the car on the outside ;-)). I have a lot more respect for this guy then I do for anyone at the head office of NASCAR as to me this guy represents what racing is all about and where NASCAR started.

  20. Besides 17 race winners, there is another scenario that could bite Kurt Busch. I believe that if there are 16 race winners, but the points leader after 26 races is winless, that winless driver leading the points would get a Chase spot over the lowest-ranked-in-points race winner. It would be ironic that a one-win Matt Kenseth championship season spawned the Chase and a winless Matt Kenseth could cause tumult in the new format.

  21. I wrote this for another article that covered Danica’s crew chief but it applies here as well.

    As I write this I have sitting on my side table Smokey Yunick’s book “Best Damn Garage in Town”. This should be required reading for anyone that follows NASCAR, especially new fans such as Summer. I’ve read many books on the subject and have followed this sport for years and cannot believe at how corporate and almost generic NASCAR has become. Sadly I still follow it for the same reasons I would work late into the night at the shop to get cars ready to race at the local tracks, because I still love the sound of a race car being pushed to its limits by a really good driver.

    This isn’t to say that NASCAR drivers aren’t tough or daring; they are. It’s just we sucked the “going to the edge” out of the sport with IROC race cars that stick to the ground running on tires that never wear. Take a look back a few races ago when Goodyear actually brought a tire that wore out, the racing was much better as it tested the drivers abilities. It also doesn’t help that around the late 90′s NASCAR started letting teams expand to four cars. Now not only does NASCAR have teams with three or four cars but they also have satellite race teams that have two to three cars. Prior to the large multi-car teams many small teams, (which was just about all of them) built their own engines and chassis. Sure Robert Yates and Len Wood would sell engines to other teams but not like what we see today where a couple of teams supply the chassis and engines. NASCAR in their effort to position itself in the corporate world ended up gutting itself to the point that it is barely a shell of its former self.

    Recently FS had a nice piece written about the passing of Junie Donlavey. What may be of interest to followers of this sport is that Junie had one Cup win as an owner by Jody Ridley at Dover in 81′. What made this interesting is that Jody made up seven laps, yes seven laps to get that win. There was no “Lucky Dog” which meant the driver really had to work at it to make up seven laps. Now that was racing.