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Mirror Driving: This Is Only a Test, Suarez Moving Up, and the Lady is Back

Mirror Driving: This Is Only a Test, Suarez Moving Up, and the Lady is Back

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:

Tom Bowles (Mondays / Bowles’ Eye View & Wednesdays / Did You Notice? & Frontstretch Editor-In-Chief
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)

NASCAR Sprint Cup teams tested a variety of options Monday for possible rules changes, including cutting horsepower between 50-100 HP and reducing downforce. Are these moves in the right direction to give the sport better competition, or merely a band-aid?

Amy: I think they’re a start, but what NASCAR really needs to do is loosen up things like gear and shock rules and let teams work in those areas. There needs to be a risk factor for teams as well as changes to the cars.
Phil: Well, it’s interesting to look at. However, if we’re going by what Gene Stefanyshyn’s saying, their plan isn’t to reduce downforce. In fact, it’s the reverse.
Tom: One of the shocking things from the test is that straightaway speeds didn’t go down. I think that tells you it’s still a work in progress… people are concerned about the high speeds. Slugger Labbe was reporting 223 miles an hour down the straightaway at Michigan! That’s just not going to fly.
Phil: The “prime package” involved a 9 inch tall spoiler and dive planes.
Tom: That said… what we saw Monday was a start, with slower corner speeds forcing the drivers to slow down and handle. What will the gray area be like? How will it be managed? That, I think is the big question.
Amy: That’s nuts. That’s faster–much faster–than the speeds that necessitated restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega.
Phil: It’s like NASCAR’s taking the discussions about a potential DTM series here in the United States seriously and Sprint Cup might end up becoming that DTM.
Amy: Slowing the cars significantly would make the racing better because it wouldn’t be a horsepower contest.I have no idea what DTM means, Phil.
Phil: The only thing I can honestly guarantee from the test is the lower horsepower. DTM stands for Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters. It’s a silhouette series in Germany that features BMW M4′s, Audi RS5′s and Mercedes cars.
Tom: Amy, slowing the cars significantly would bring more players back in the game. It would also put the races back in the driver’s hands, even with slower speeds because handling would be at a premium. Less downforce would make the cars harder to drive.
Amy: I also think they need to get the cars up off the ground, especially in the front, if they want to reduce aero dependence and create better racing.
Phil: DTM, SuperGT in Japan and IMSA have some kind of agreement towards a unified rules package. It actually predates the Grand-Am/ALMS merger.
Amy: Exactly, Tom. All of those would be very good things.
Tom: Right now, the crew chiefs are put in such a box, along with the drivers it’s to the point strategy, restarts, and horsepower are key.
Phil: The idea is to have some kind of a DTM-equivalent series here in the U.S. by 2017.
Amy: And again, NASCAR needs to give teams back some choice in gears, shocks, springs, etc. Make it so there’s a real compromise between speed and not detonating the engine halfway through the race.
Tom: The cars with the best engines are the ones with the edge, because at certain tracks there’s no tire falloff and very few ways to make the cars handle differently.

Rick Hendrick's cars have a distinct horsepower advantage this year. Could that advantage go away with power reductions being a possibility for 2015?

Rick Hendrick’s cars have a distinct horsepower advantage this year. Could that advantage go away with power reductions being a possibility for 2015?

Phil: DTM cars have everything that the “prime package” contains, plus a rear wing instead of a spoiler.
Tom: Phil, I still don’t get how the Sprint Cup Series would become a DTM. Are they suddenly going to be racing BMWs?
Amy: Right, Tom. Reducing horsepower by about 100 would help teams become competitive and make it about drivers and setups.
Phil: Not likely, Tom. The prime package rule changes suggest a move towards that type of formula at some point in the future, but I doubt we’ll see M4′s in Sprint Cup. Instead, we’d see cars with about 200-300 more horses and no wings.
Amy: The sport needs to get back to what it was 15 or 20 years ago in terms of competition.
Phil: 1999? Sure. Back then, more teams could compete for top-10′s. It was actually closer than it is now. Bristol’s this weekend. The night race that year saw the top-36 in qualifying separated by less than a quarter of a second.
Amy: Exactly, Phil.
Tom: Well, the first step towards greater parity is to set it up to where two things take center stage: driver skill and mechanical ingenuity. Dumbing down the passing to two laps of restarts, along with only 3-4 changes a crew chief can make during the race doesn’t give fans either of those things.
Amy: I agree with that, Tom. I understand wanting parity, but let it come from allowing teams to innovate, not from putting them in a box.
Tom: I thought we were making progress, early in the season but as we’ve progressed, and top teams have learned the rules and NASCAR has stalled out a bit.
Phil: Would mechanical ingenuity actually raise costs in this argument, Tom?
Tom: The sport has a chance to evolve again when Front Row Motorsports, for example, can contend at more than just Daytona and Talladega if they mix their resources right.
Amy: Tom, that’s 100% correct.
Tom: So I think that’s the goal with this new rules package. But what’s interesting is you have drivers from the top teams, not the underdogs, participating.
Amy: If it was done right it wouldn’t raise costs. Gear selection, etc. wouldn’t necessarily cost more.
Tom: Will they really accept a rules package, in a NASCAR economy that’s failing, that will give teams currently underneath them a chance to pull even?
Amy: I’m assuming they will have at least one test at Charlotte for all the teams this fall and winter.
Tom: Putting them in position to take away potential sponsorship money? The RTA has been put in place to try and protect that.
Phil: I’m not surprised that they’d invite the top teams. They tend to be more consistent. What’s to stop infighting within the RTA?
Amy: Interesting question, Tom. I think that sponsorship is driven by so much more than performance anymore, though. Overall, I think the changes are a step in the right direction, but NASCAR needs to add innovation and its associated risk factor back into it. The risk some teams took with gears and engine longevity, etc. made the racing more exciting because it was less predictable.
Phil: Well, the RTA sure didn’t stop 3M from ditching Roush Fenway Racing in favor of Hendrick Motorsports.
Amy: OK, that one might have been performance based…

Hendrick Motorsports has now won eight of the last thirteen races among Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Can three HMS teams make their way into the Final Four at Homestead, and what would that three-quarters representation mean for the sport?

Tom: I think right now, Hendrick’s the team to beat across the board. And yes, three cars in the Final Four is a very strong possibility. Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. have been head and shoulders above the field in terms of consistency. They’re 80 points ahead of third. 80! That’s almost two full races’ worth.
Phil: It’s very possible. What would it say? Hendrick Motorsports is kicking butt.
Tom: Add in Jimmie Johnson, whom you can’t count out and I don’t know who all knocks them out. The Keselowski-Logano duo? I feel like Joey still needs a year’s more experience to truly be inside that Final Four.
Amy: I’d love to see it happen, if only to see fans hate the format even more.
Tom: Kevin Harvick? Until the Kevin Ward incidnt, I’d have put him as one of the favorites. But losing Tony Stewart for an extended period of time is going to take its toll. There’s no word on when or if he’ll return to the race car.
Phil: I noticed the margins when I was writing up the point standings for the Newsletter. It seems crazy, but a lot of drivers have had problems this year. Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. have minimized their issues. Ryan Newman peeked into the top-5 a couple of weeks ago with a grand total of 2 top-5 finishes. It’s a little like 1992 behind the lead duo.
Amy: I don’t know, though. The new format is just a giant crapshoot and combined with some tactics that could come into play, anyone could make the final four and anyone could win it. It’s a very flawed system, and the more ways it can go wrong, I hope it does in order to point that out. Honestly, I’d love to see Kasey Kahne squeeze in on points, the final four to be made up entirely of Hendrick cars, and Kahne to win the whole thing despite being actually like 15th in points. That would be epic. Like every possible worst-case scenario all at once.

Is Hendrick Motorsports essentially a shoo-in to win the championship at this point?

Is Hendrick Motorsports essentially a shoo-in to win the championship at this point?

Tom: Kahne has actually been one of the better-running cars all summer. He’s got a great shot to win over the final three races and get in… then actually do some damage come Chase time. I just don’t see anyone else out there right now with the pure speed to challenge HMS. Denny Hamlin in particular was very frustrated after Michigan—Joe Gibbs Racing just doesn’t have the speed consistently.
Phil: Yes, Kahne winning the title would ruffle some feathers. Like Tom said, he’s finally doing better. Maybe that Nationwide win in Daytona really did give him some confidence.
Tom: It looked like they had it together a month ago and now they’re varying from week to week. It looks like the Carl Edwards addition may already be a distraction… and it looks like it definitely is at Roush Fenway.
Amy: Has anyone seen the video NASCAR put out explaining the system? A lot of people have liked the video, but all it does for me is remind me how cheap the sport’s championship has become. A NNS or CWTS title actually means more than a Cup title now.

And speed, no, but there will be other things at play in the Chase, I think. A well-timed spin in an elimination race and the field could take down the competition well before Homestead. Anyway, I don’t see three Hendrick teams making the final, especially with Talladega as an elimination. That race is going to be a free-for-all.
Tom: See, I think even with Talladega some of those Hendrick guys will be safe. You only need to be in the top 8, after Talladega to move onto the next round. And the points reset, so if you finish seventh in that three race “round” you’re back in a tie for first the very next week.
Amy: I found the video kind of banal, and condescending, but maybe that’s just me. I have to say, I really do feel bad for Jimmie Johnson, because if he does win two more under this format, they won’t mean as much to fans.
Phil: To the longtime fans, I’d agree. To newer fans, I’m unsure whether they’d care about how he won it.
Amy: And I can’t blame fans for that thinking, because I can’t honestly say they mean as much as a full season or even a previous Chase title. Basically, now, a title just means you got lucky.
Phil: NASCAR obviously wants every year to be like 2011. It fits perfectly with what Brian France has said in the past.
Tom: One thing we have to understand, despite longtime fans hating the Chase is it’s been around for eleven years now. Sorry, ten. Some newer fans may not even understand the old format, the one without a playoff. So while nobody likes it…I think it’s a stretch to say the title has lost its meaning. And as far as the Final Four, yes, Homestead is a crapshoot, but the stronger teams should still have an edge.
Amy: I think someone will resort to wrecking a teammate’s competition. It’s happened en route to a title before (cough-Roush-Fenway-cough)
Phil: To that, I’d just tell those newer fans to watch Nationwide or Camping World Truck Series races. They don’t have a Chase and they’re current. People aren’t complete morons. They’ll pick up on it.
Tom: You have three races to put yourself in position, each round. And some cushion in case of bad luck. I think the Hendrick teams can survive a bad day, should it happen and part failures usually don’t for them in the Chase.Two in the final four seems like a 99.9% certainty to me. I’m pretty sure we’ll wind up with three.
Amy: I don’t think it’s a stretch if that’s how fans feel. If they think the title comes cheap now, well, perception is reality.
Phil: Barring unforeseen circumstances, at least one Hendrick driver in the Final Four is a certainty. Beyond that is gravy.
Amy: I do think Hendrick can put three cars in the final four, which would illustrate their strength but also the problems with the format.

Jim Noble from SIRIUS XM has reported that the Southern 500 at Darlington will return to its traditional Labor Day Weekend date in 2015. This could be seen as an olive branch for fans who lament the sport’s history eroding…but is it enough to appease fans?

Amy: Should they follow through, kudos to NASCAR for finally doing the right thing and actually doing something that respects the sport’s history. It’s been a long time coming. However, as long as NASCAR continues to base the sport and its champions on gimmicks and lack of innovation, I think the longtime fans will see through it.
Phil: It’ll be interesting. If it were during the day, we could actually see how the surface has aged at Darlington over the past six years. Hard to tell with the nighttime races.

Darlington could be returning to it's rightful place on Labor Day weekend starting in 2015.

Darlington could be returning to it’s rightful place on Labor Day weekend starting in 2015.

Tom: It’s a great move for NASCAR and, more importantly, Darlington. I think it’s going to put fans back in the seats and lead to a sold-out crowd in the short-term. It’ll also be good for the Chase. You now end the regular season with three of the more unpredictable tracks on the circuit: Bristol, Darlington (survival of the fittest), then an amped-up Richmond. That makes the final three weeks can’t miss, appointment television. I think Darlington will be a day race as well, as it should be.
Phil: By short-term, Tom means “next year.”
Amy: I haven’t seen when it will be run. A day race would provide better racing.
Phil: Also of note, face melting humidity. Granted, it’s probably not like Daytona at the Coke Zero 400, but it’s probably quite swampy in the Pee Dee on Labor Day weekend. It would make the race into more of an endurance trial than it currently is.
Amy: That’s true. All part of the sport. Nobody melted in all those years it was a day race. Have we gotten wimpy?
Phil: I haven’t.
Amy: It can be just as nasty in New Hampshire at times, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable.
Phil: If what I’m seeing is accurate, Atlanta might not be long for this world on the Cup schedule. Mid-April for Bristol is basically a traditional weekend there. That’s good. Mid-March can be quite cold there, and I’m sure it’s held crowds down in recent years.I feel like no one would go to a race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 1st. I would, but I’m a masochist.
Amy: I’m thinking Bruton Smith might be doing what ISC did with Rockingham…move the race to a lousy weekend and then use that as an excuse to move the date to Vegas. Otherwise, why would he agree to it?
Phil: Does anyone want a second race in Las Vegas? I don’t.
Amy: I’d love to see Atlanta also get its traditional date back and close the season. Better racing than Homestead, at least.
Phil: Atlanta had a good date in late October, but NASCAR needed something to replace the failure that was Fontana on Labor Day weekend.
Amy: True, Phil, but they could have avoided it all if they’d just put Darlington back then like they should have…
Tom: I think the Bristol move is excellent for the sport.
Amy: I think so too, Tom.
Tom: It gives a short track race a little later in the season, gives the schedule a bit more of a mix. But nothing beats moving Darlington back to its traditional place on the schedule. I think it will be different than Rockingham… fans will flock back to the racetrack. It will also be at a better time of year for the racing… I expect a higher quality of competition there. As for Atlanta? Well, moving to March isn’t going to make ticket sales any worse than they are right now. That track, even though it doesn’t deserve it, is on death’s door. It’s a place on the schedule that could be filled by another track down the road. What track, I don’t know but…
Amy: That will open the door for Vegas’ second date, Tom, just watch. The Southern 500 move is huge for longtime fans. No, it won’t bring back the NASCAR they really loved, but it’s something.
Phil: I agree, Tom. The thing with Rockingham is that they never moved it. The first race was always either race two or three, and the fall race was the second or third to last of the year. The track begged for a new date for the February race for years, only to be told “heck to the no.”
Tom: This move also separates more of the races within the Southeast region. Remember, these places are all reasonable driving distance apart. Makes it easier to go to more races over the course of the year, two instead of one perhaps when you don’t have them super close together.
Amy: Atlanta’s attendance isn’t good, not even with just one date.
Phil: That might have more to do with the sporting culture in Atlanta, Amy.
Tom: Could be, Amy, but they’d have to move Vegas inside the Chase for 2016 then. Can’t race there two weeks in a row!

Joe Gibbs Racing’s announcement that Daniel Suarez will move into the Nationwide Series next year means another success for NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program. But is the program really working as well as it sounds… or necessary?

Amy: My first thought on this was that poor Sam Hornish Jr. just got royally screwed again.
Phil: I said earlier this year that Hornish needed to win twice in the No. 54, or see his career on the rocks. He didn’t get the second victory.
Amy: I think the program is producing some talent. Just look at Kyle Larson. But it’s hard to say whether the program itself is responsible, or if these drivers are just that good.
Phil: As for Suarez, I’m excited. Regardless of the audience he can pull in, he’s a consistent racer in multiple different types of machinery.

Daniel Suarez started off 2014 strong winning the first two events at New Smyrna and Daytona in the K&N Pro Series. Is the Monteray, Mexico native a future face of NASCAR? (Credit: NASCAR)

Daniel Suarez started off 2014 strong winning the first two events at New Smyrna and Daytona in the K&N Pro Series. Is the Monteray, Mexico native a future face of NASCAR? (Credit: NASCAR)

Amy: Suarez has potential for sure.
Phil: He’s ready for Nationwide (or Camping World Trucks, for that matter). Granted, his K&N East performances have cooled since the red hot start, but he’s very strong almost everywhere.
Amy: I’ve never been really sold on Drive for Diversity, though. On one hand, it gives some talented drivers a shot.
Phil: The Drive for Diversity program has found some gems. Kyle Larson probably would have been able to get to where he is without it. Darrell Wallace, Jr., Suarez, Sergio Pena and the others, probably not.
Amy: I don’t know that the sport needs to seek drivers from specific demographics. I just want to see the best. I don’t care what color or gender they are. On the other hand, if it can attract fans from demographics that have traditionally stayed away, it’s a positive. The program is just now placing drivers at the sport’s top levels, which is a reasonable time frame from when it began.
Phil: I guess. It’s been 10 years now, but they did start out with some duds.
Amy: I can’t help but wonder how much success Suarez will have. He’ll never be top dog in the JGR Nationwide program, and I think it will hurt him as it has Elliott Sadler. It’s still a huge opportunity, but I think JGR goes about their NNS program backwards. That’s an area where they need to take a lesson from Hendrick.
Phil: Suarez gets the No. 18 full-time next year. That’s a good car. Sure, he did a one-off for JGR earlier this year, but with a full year to develop in the car, we’ll see some good performances from him. Sadler could suffer a little, especially if JGR raids his team in order to benefit Suarez.
Amy: I don’t know that they will, but we will see. JGR is always going to put more effort into Kyle Busch than the NNS guys though. I’d hate to see Sadler get dropped yet another notch.
Phil: As for Kyle Busch, that guy is addicted to trophies.

OK, let’s have those Bristol predictions.

Amy: I like Kyle Larson for his first win.
Phil: That’s a good pick. I’m going with Clint Bowyer. Should be an interesting 500 laps.

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

Pure Michigan 400

Writer Pick Finishing Position Points
Amy Henderson Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 5th  3
Summer Bedgood Jeff Gordon 1st 5
Phil Allaway  Matt Kenseth  38th -2

Standings

 Writer Points Behind Starts Wins Top 5 Top 10
Amy Henderson 28 23 2 8 11
Mike Neff   14 -14 13 0 5 7
Phil Allaway 11 -17 22 1 5 10
Tom Bowles 9 -19 5 2 2 4
Summer Bedgood 7 -21 3 1 1 2
Aaron Creed 3 -25 6 0 1 4
Beth Lunkenheimer 3 -25 2 0 1 1
Jeff Meyer 3 -25 1 0 1 1
Jeff Wolfe 2 -23 3 0 1 1
Brad Morgan 0 -25 3 1 1 2

About Frontstretch Staff

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

7 comments

  1. Amy, The DTM features all the vehicles that ferried around the prominent Nazi’s. I mean what American isn’t interested in a festival of racing nazi boxes.

  2. I’d want to see Darlington as a twilight race, starting at 5 or 6pm.

  3. If all 4 of the Hendrick Heroes were in title contention at Homestead, ESPN would not even show another car except maybe for the Princessmobile. Somebody would have to be seriously injured to get a mention. And even then only if the incident was spectacular.

  4. Put Atlanta back to the season-ending race and move Homestead to March 1st.

    Brad K. gets the win at Bristol. I was gonna go with Kahne but his win is coming at Richmond next month.

  5. Happy about Darlington! I hate that NASCAR is going to play with the cars one more time! I agree with Amy – allow more room for the teams to change gear ratios & things and NASCAR should stop continuing their efforts to make this the IROC series. A wing? No, no, no!

    Yes, the current “chase” format does cheapen the whole “who’s the champion”. If after the full season, it comes down to someone who barely squeaked into the chase taking the trophy home, well, the hue and cry will be pretty darn loud. It’s not supposed to be a farce.

  6. Love that Darlington is being put back where it belongs on the schedule. I’m not sure it will bring any fans back that have stopped watching though. There are just too many other things that have changed that have driven fans away for this to make a difference. So is this an olive branch to old fans or just NASCAR doing what they think might be in their best interest ($$$)?

    Yeah, the evolution of the various chase formats have cheapened what it means to be champion with each iteration. The latest rendition is just ridiculous given the nature of the sport. I watch every race during the season in real time (no dvr) so I will be watching regardless. I just hope that those that don’t watch most of the races don’t watch the Homestead race either. My wish is that Brian doesn’t get the big spike he is hoping for with this contrived, arbitrary, crapshoot method of determining the champion. My second wish is that someone wins the championship without winning a race in the chase (or maybe all season… Kenseth????). That would be hilarious.

    I don’t see more than two HMS cars in the final four. I just think that the odds are no matter how good they are running at least one of them will experience bad luck at some pivotal moment that knocks them out. Plus, it’s not hard to envision a couple of teams that aren’t running that well now picking up their game. Most likely scenario, 2 HMS cars, 1 Penske car, and either a JGR car or Harvick.

  7. Would much rather see Atlanta be given Mother’s Day weekend.