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Mirror Driving: Surprises, Too Much Too Soon, and Are NASCAR Drivers Overpaid?
Could next year's champion be holding the Comcast trophy?

Mirror Driving: Surprises, Too Much Too Soon, and Are NASCAR Drivers Overpaid?

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)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays / Couch Potato Tuesday & Frontstretch Newsletter Editor)
Mike Neff (Mondays / Thinkin’ Out Loud & Thursdays / Tech Talk & Frontstretch Short Track Coordinator)

Richmond will mark the end of the first quarter of the 2014 season. What’s the biggest surprise we’ve seen, and what storylines can we expect going forward?

Amy: A couple of surprises to me. One, who HASN’T won a race, and two, how badly, overall, the No. 4 team has performed, which we discussed last week in depth.
Mike: I hate I missed that discussion. Hard to say a team that has led the most miles and laps in the series has performed badly. Also considering they are the only team with two wins. Hmmm, I think the biggest surprise for me is that Roush has been out to lunch. Yes Carl Edwards won a race and he hasn’t had very many bad races but he’s had no good races besides the win. He’s the only driver in the top 10 from the organization. That is definitely surprising.

Has Roush-Fenway Racing been the biggest disappointment of 2014 thus far?

Has Roush-Fenway Racing been the biggest disappointment of 2014 thus far?

Has Roush-Fenway Racing been the biggest disappointment of 2014 thus far?

Phil: It appears that the Chase is going to be an ongoing discussion since TV is going to jam it down our throats. I’m a little surprised at not only Roush, but the improved form from Ganassi. Kyle Larson’s demeanor is contagious there.
Amy: I agree with that, Mike. I’m surprised that Greg Biffle, in particular, hasn’t run better. Also, that Jimmie Johnson hasn’t won.
Mike: I agree Phil. It would be great if we could get 13 two-time winners to eliminate all the win and you’re in talk.
Amy: Both Ganassi teams have been a pleasant surprise for sure. How about the No. 47 as well in that category?
Phil: Sure, Jimmie hasn’t won, but it’s not like he’s been out to lunch all season. He’ll get his.
Mike: Jimmie has just had some stupid luck, and some self-inflicted luck. I’d feel differently if they were running badly. They’ve run fine, it’s just been a couple of minor problems and getting beat at Martinsville that has kept them down. That was certainly a surprise seeing ‘The Outlaw’ take down Six-time at his second best track.
Phil: Well, Allmendinger is running about as well as he did last year in the car.
Amy: I’m also surprised that Kenseth and Hamlin have not won
Mike: Allmendinger has been ok. I’m sure the new alliance with ECR engines isn’t hurting them any. Let’s see if he gets close to a win before we get too excited. A little with Kenseth. He won so much last year and has been up front a good bit. I think he’ll get a couple before the second Richmond race. Hamlin I’m still not sure of. I know he tries to have a positive mental outlook but it still seems like he has stuff getting inside his head that doesn’t need to.
Amy: I think, for a small team, being consistently in the top 20 is a great step forward. Most of them can’t do that.
Mike: No doubt about that. And they’re certainly better off than Swan who was on the verge of closing the doors before they restuctured.
Amy: I feel bad about that.
Mike: Me too.
Amy: Going forward, I think a lot of what you will see will be similar to recent years in terms of who’s winning races and who ultimately makes the Chase. I do think you could see a surprise winner in there as well, perhaps Almmendinger, Aric Almirola, maybe Casey Mears.
Phil: It’s possible. Not likely, but possible. Especially if someone unexpected sneaks into Victory Lane at Talladega.
Mike: I agree. The same 12-14 people will make the Chase who are always in contention and then we might get an Ambrose or Allmendinger road course win or a Front Row restrictor plate surprise.
Amy: The plate tracks are a bit of a wild card like that. Mears is an outstanding plate racer, so he could grab a win there, or David Ragan could do it again. Allmendinger could win on a road course for sure. Almirola has a variety of tracks where he does well.
Mike: It is always possible. Don’t forget Dillon on a plate track and Larson on any Intermediate. Dillon is usually very good on 1.5 milers too.
Amy: Dillon’s plate record isn’t that great, actually. I think Larson will win before he does.
Mike: Dillon’s might not be but Childress always builds good plate cars.
Phil: Larson has consistently run better than Dillon all season.
Amy: Let me rephrase that…if it goes by actual talent, Larson should easily win before Dillon…
Mike: There haven’t been any huge surprises this year. The one other surprise for me has been tires that actually wear out. I’m very pleased and I hope we can keep that going.
Amy: I do think there have been a few surprises in terms of who’s running well and who’s not. Overall, though, I think it will shake out similar to the last couple of seasons.

Swan Racing almost closed its doors after just over one season of racing in the Sprint Cup Series, before selling bits and pieces off to other teams. Was this the case of a team trying to grow too much too fast, or something more disturbing for the sport?

Phil: They grew too fast. The Deion Sanders method of picking drivers for your team doesn’t work.
Amy: I think it’s a case of too much, too fast. I really questioned adding a second car this year. They were really improving last year and the second car slowed that down significantly. I still think the sport overall is a hostile environment for the small teams trying to succeed, but some are improving by doing it the right way.
Phil: It seemed like they just could not decide between Kligerman and Whitt.

What went wrong with Swan Racing? Did they bite off more than they could chew?

What went wrong with Swan Racing? Did they bite off more than they could chew?

What went wrong with Swan Racing? Did they bite off more than they could chew?

Mike: I don’t really know what was going on there. They obviously knew what it took to run a team. Maybe they overestimated the economies of scale they’d have with a second team. It doesn’t really save much money when you run a second team and might actually take more the first year you’re ramping up.
Amy: Look at JTG-Daugherty, Furniture Row, Germain Racing. They all started off slow but improved until they caught the notice of RCR and all are much improved. The sport needs an underdog to succeed. David Ragan’s win last year was a great feel-good story that in this age of elite teams buying their way to the top is a welcome change.
Mike: Kligerman has had some horrendous luck. Add to that screwing up at Martinsville when the team was already on edge didn’t help things. I guess we’ll see what happens in the next week or two.
Amy: I think Kligerman is the better driver of the two. His luck has been nothing but terrible, though.
Mike: I am not sure who is better. I think both of them are better than they’ve shown. When Whitt ran in Red Bull stuff he was very impressive. Kligerman has come up the right way and his talent has put him where he is. I hope someone can keep both of them on the track.
Amy: I do too. Like I said, the sport needs these teams and needs them to do well.
Phil: I hope so, too. This is a team that needs to be able to continue in the series.NASCAR doesn’t need to lose two teams now.
Mike: They need them and at least need them to survive and compete. I don’t know that having them do well makes much of a difference.
Amy: I think it does. It’s human nature to root for the underdog, and when one does well, it’s a big deal.
Mike: Some folks like Goliath. But I would really like to see Tommy Baldwin have a team run up front a few times. They’ve been at this for a while and have really built a solid organization.
Amy: Yes. They just need the money to buy some speed.
Mike: Money does buy speed.
Amy: And considering the present economy, that’s all the more reason for fans to pull for someone who doesn’t have the money to buy the wins.
Phil: I hoped that Swan Racing could pull it together to continue on. What a great shame that it would have to end now.
Amy: I do think Swan bit off a bit more than they could chew with the second team. They were doing very well last year with the one car.
Mike: Sometimes the best laid plans of Mice and Men don’t work out. Expanding to two teams appears to have strained the coffers at Swan to the breaking point.

The number of different winners has been a hot topic this year, but it’s been nearly two years since the sport has seen a new face in victory lane—Marcos Ambrose was the last driver to get a first win when he took the checkers at Watkins Glen in 2011. Will the Cup Series have a first-time winner this year, and who will it be?

Mike: Kyle Larson is going to win a race this season. I don’t know when it will be but he’ll pull off a win.
Amy: I think it’s possible. We talked about Larson before, and I think he’s the most likely to break through. I also think AJ Allmendinger has a chance, along with Aric Almirola. I do think more than one, two at the outside, is very unlikely.
Phil: Gee, it’s already been that long since someone got their first win. You don’t even realize that it’s been that long.

Is Kyle Larson the most likely candidate to become a first time Cup Series winner in 2014?

Is Kyle Larson the most likely candidate to become a first time Cup Series winner in 2014?

Is Kyle Larson the most likely candidate to become a first time Cup Series winner in 2014?

Mike: I agree, getting two will be tough, although you never know what might happen at Talladega or Daytona. Who knows, maybe David Gilliland can shock the world at Sonoma.
Phil: My best guess has Larson being next, followed by Dillon and Almirola. However, it’s quite close between Dillon and Almirola for 2nd there. Gilliland has had quite a bit of success at Sonoma in the past, way more than what he should have, given the equipment that he’s raced there.
Amy: Funny you mention Gilliland, Mike. I was thinking he’s got a shot at Talladega. He was second there last spring.
Phil: Heck, he dragged the Mullets into their first Cup race in 2006 with all but no experience in a Cup car.
Mike: Yes, and he is a good road course racer. If the stars align that can happen for him at Sonoma.
Amy: He’s the top driver at Front Row. Ragan has the win, but Gilliland is more consistent. Interesting that none of us have high expectations for Danica Patrick here. She’s driving cars that are light years better than what Gilliland is getting and we’re all picking him over her. Not saying that’s wrong, because I don’t think it is. Just an observation.
Mike: She’s barely outrunning Swan. I don’t think it is a surprise that she’s not high on the potential winner’s list.
Phil: You just never know with Danica Patrick. She probably needed to start below the Nationwide Series when she transitioned to stock cars. Got moved up to Cup too quick. It’s a dang quagmire with her.
Mike: I’d love to see Kligerman or Whitt in that equipment. Money talks, suckers walk.
Amy: I’d love to see any number of drivers in that equipment.
Phil: That would be interesting. In regards to the Swan duo, I just hope that this mess doesn’t end their careers.
Mike: Yeah, Casey Atwood doesn’t need any company.
Amy: Agreed, Phil. The spot these small-team drivers have in the sport is so tenuous because if they had big money behind them, they’d have a big time ride. But they don’t, and it can be a career killer.
Mike: It isn’t helping that so many really talented drivers are coming up.
Phil: Yeah, the cupboard is definitely not bare these days.
Amy: No, there are a lot of deserving drivers waiting in the wings. Anyway, I’d like to think we’ll see a first-timer this year. Not unlike an underdog doing well, it would be good for the sport.
Phil: Oh yes, new blood in Victory Lane is always a good thing. Just look how excitedESPN appears to be about Chase Elliott these days.
Mike: No doubt. It is almost a disturbing obsession. Speaking of ESPN, how about them relegating the Nationwide race the ESPNNEWS this week. Thanks for the love.
Phil: They move from obsession to obsession. The Tebow stupidity is just one example of that.
Amy: Well, in the case of the Nationwide Series, the excitement is understandable. Any NNS regular winning is cause for celebration.
Phil: Oh yes, this is always a tough week for ESPN. Round 1 of the NBA Playoffs makes ESPN a very busy place. Used to be worse before they pushed the NFL Draft back. That used to be this weekend as well. They have games on both ESPN andESPN 2 during the Nationwide race.
Mike: Oh yeah. I can’t bear missing a single game of the NBA Playoffs. Not!
Amy: No doubt there is some good talent with a zero in the win column. I’d like to think that can change for one or two drivers this year.
Mike: The obvious answer is Kyle Larson. It’ll probably come at Charlotte just to add to the storybook a little more.
Phil: I think it can. A couple of people could do it. My guess is that no more than one could pull it off this year.

In an interview with Frontstretch earlier this week, NHRA star Tony Schumacher said that NASCAR drivers, with their large salaries, have become celebrities and fan access to the sport has been greatly reduced. Is the money really to blame for the change?

Mike: Yep.
Amy: Yes. Not just the money the drivers are making, but the money the sponsors spend in the sport overall. I think it impacts the racing, to a degree, as well.
Mike: The money that pays their salaries anyway. The commitments that they have to their sponsors makes the time they have left for fans very strained.
Phil: To a point. NASCAR may have gotten too popular for its own good. As a result, it became less fan friendly in an attempt to maintain sanity. The money is the money. Race tickets are not that much more than they were in the ’90s.

Has money made a once fan-friendly sport inaccessible?

Has money made a once fan-friendly sport inaccessible?

Has money made a once fan-friendly sport inaccessible?

Mike: We’ve harped on this before but every driver should have to do a one hour autograph session every race weekend. No wristbands, no tickets. Just first come first served autographs.
Amy: I agree 100%, Mike. Also, it used to be, a driver made a modest salary, but the majority of his earnings came from a percentage of the purse money. Now, the driver is going to make a few million a year regardless of where he finishes, which, along with the Chase, allows him to settle for an okay finish instead of taking a risk.
Mike: It affects their access too. Before they all had motor homes they had to walk through parking lots or drive rental cars to hotels. Now they sprint out of their cars to their homes after practice and when the race ends, if they aren’t top 3, they are on a helicopter 15 minutes after the race is over.
Amy: I agree with that, too, Mike.
Mike: It is equally bothersome to me, and maybe I’m idealistic, but when drivers drop out of a race they are gone. I would come back out and sit on the box to watch the race. Hell, you just might learn something.
Phil: Yeah, I’m not a big fan of the whole race to get the deuce out of town that seems to be really popular these days.
Amy: I think that hurts the sport with fans. I know it’s too big to run the way NHRA does, where every ticket includes pit access, but surely there is a happy medium where the average fan has some chance to meet his favorite drivers.
Phil: I’m surprised anyone’s even willing to do interviews with how quickly everyone wants to leave these days.
Amy: That bothers me, Phil. I get wanting to get home after a long weekend away, but it’s a race in itself now. That doesn’t leave a great impression for fans. Certainly not like the days when Richard Petty would sign for an hour after a race, even if he had a bad day. It used to be that several drivers would sign at their haulers on a race weekend. Now, very few do public sessions.
Mike: That is one thing I always respected about Justin Allgaier. He was the only Nationwide driver that I knew, without fail, would be on pit road on Cup day after the Nationwide race ran the previous day. He was always trying to learn and observe.
Amy: I can think of about one driver who signs on a weekly basis anymore.
Mike: Keselowski did for a long time but I don’t think he does anymore. Kurt Busch has been pretty good about it.
Phil: It’s hard to do weekly signing sessions in the garage with access ranging from difficult to impossible to get for fans. If you’re not a top guy, where the deuce are you going to do it? The track would have to provide a place for you if you don’t have a merchandise hauler.
Amy: All the top drivers have merchandise haulers, though, Phil. Those that don’t have sponsor or manufacturer displays. They could find a way if they wanted to.
Mike: Exactly Amy. I think of the thousands of drivers who would kill to be in their position and then you see someone come up and they get the same way. I actually blame some of it on PR people. They all want to leave the track as soon as they can, and I think they rush the driver out so they can hit the road as well.
Phil: You see that kind of fan friendliness at short tracks from time to time, but with everyone flying private now (and teams paying by the minute for the jets), it sadly costs too much to sign. I wouldn’t solely blame the minions. Everyone’s to blame because they all use the same planes. Of course, depending on the team, the minions might be flying commercial.
Mike: And what happens when a driver wins? Everyone on that plane has to wait.
Phil: They’re too jacked up to care at that point.
Mike: Hell, everyone in the top 3.
Amy: I think sponsors are to blame as well. Sure, you want the driver to mingle with the bigwigs…but how about sending him to the fans who buy your products instead?
Mike: Well they should all care because the fans are the reason they have jobs. And the fewer and fewer fans that are coming to races are going to end up costing more and more of them their jobs. That’s fine Amy but send them out to sign. There are tons of fan appearances by drivers where they stand on the stage and just get ogled by the fans. Autograph signing would go a lot further.
Amy: I think a lot of them do think of themselves as celebrities and have an overinflated opinion about the value of their time. Surely there’s enough down time during a three-day weekend you could take an hour, even a half hour to leave the motorhome and talk to some fans
Phil: I remember driving by a Brad Keselowski appearance at a local bar in Watkins Glen a couple of years ago. Seemed kinda weird.
Amy: I agree, Mike. Signing would be better than a generic Q&A.
Mike: Even better, when there is a rain delay. Go under the stands and hang out with the fans for goodness sake.
Amy: Yes. Heck, go sit at a picnic table in street clothes, see who comes over to start a conversation.
Phil: Heck, you might have some fun doing that. I’m sure that Kyle Busch could do something better during a Watkins Glen rain delay than sit on the tarped pit box and stare into space with Samantha.
Mike: I speak it all of the time. We are all very lucky to be where we are in this sport. Some have more privilege than others but we all need to remember the tons of people who would love to get to do what we do. Remembering that from time to time will help you appreciate what you do.
Phil: While I don’t think the three of us are going to be signing autographs anytime soon, it is important for drivers not to isolate themselves from the people who butter their bread.

How about those Richmond predictions?

Amy: I think Kyle Busch becomes the second two-time winner this year.
Mike: Way to go out on a limb, Amy.
Phil: I’m going with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Mike: And Phil takes a stretch too.
Amy: OK, then, Mike, put your money where your mouth is…what limb will you be attempting to scale?
Mike: I should take Hamlin based on the numbers but I’m going to go out on the Jeff Gordon limb.
Amy: That’s a pretty thick limb, Mike.
Mike: Gordon’s average finish is 14.1. There are a lot of people with better averages than that.
Amy: Yeah, tenth among active drivers, so not too shabby. Going out on an actual limb would be someone like Jamie McMurray or Martin Truex, Jr.
Mike: No, that is walking off of a limb.

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

Off-Week Standings

Points Standings

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Amy Henderson 4 8 0 1 3
Mike Neff 3 -1 5 0 1 2
Tom Bowles 3 -1 3 1 1 2
Jeff Wolfe 2 -2 3 0 1 1
Aaron Creed 2 -2 2 0 0 2
Summer Bedgood 1 -3 1 0 0 1
Brad Morgan 0 -4 3 1 1 2
Phil Allaway 0 -4 7 0 0 3

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