Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: FOX’s Final Grade, Charlotte Crashing & the Chase at Halfway

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/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays/Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter)
Matt Taliaferro (Thursdays/Fanning the Flames)
Mike Neff (Wednesdays/Power Rankings & Wednesdays/Full Throttle)
Summer Dreyer (Mondays/Running Their Mouth & Frontstretch News Reporter)

The Coke 600 lived up to its name as the “Beast of the Southeast,” taking out several superstars in wrecks not of their own making. Which one were you most surprised by and did track conditions where drivers seemed to be running on the ragged edge make for better racing?

Phil: I was most surprised by Jimmie Johnson wiping out. Previously, he’d never so much as twitched at CMS.
Summer: I think Johnson wrecking (twice!) surprised everybody. What has happened to that team?
Matt: I guess Johnson is the obvious answer, but I’d have liked to have seen what Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano had for ’em. And I think they’re on a ragged edge every week, so I didn’t so much notice anything out of the ordinary there.
Mike: The racing did seem to be pretty good, especially the battle for the lead near the end.
Amy: I didn’t think it was that great a race, to be honest. Johnson’s spins were a surprise, maybe, but didn’t make the race any more interesting.
Mike: I wouldn’t call Johnson’s a wreck not of his own making. He pretty much spun by himself.
Phil: If you want to blame someone for it, you should blame the crew member that took out that spring rubber.
Summer: Well, Hamlin got caught up in one of Johnson’s slip-ups. I guess that was surprising. But the fact that Johnson smacked the wall at all took a lot of people by surprise.
Amy: Johnson’s car would not handle right. It was really, really loose, no matter what they threw at it. And the Flintstone tires didn’t do the racing any justice.
Matt: That levigation is still haunting this track. That’s discouraging.
Mike: I agree that the levigation fiasco has resulted in harder-than-necessary tires, although I asked around about that this weekend and the drivers said it is the best tire that they can come up with. If it gets softer, it will blister.
Amy: I’m a little surprised that after several lackluster races on this tire, there hasn’t been a change.
Mike: They have softened it a little bit, but I think they should be doing it more aggressively.
Amy: Agreed. If they blister, teams have to manage better and that adds strategy.
Matt: I think it’s more the levigation after-effects than the tires they are using. Goodyear has done a pretty decent job since the Indy fiasco.
Mike: I still wish Goodyear would offer them three different compounds that they could use on all similar tracks and let the teams choose what they want to run.
Matt: I’d be for that.
Mike: Me, too. I think it would be nice to have some strategy, since there isn’t that much they can do with the car.
Phil: Has that ever happened in NASCAR? Because I don’t remember seeing that before.
Mike: No, Phil, it hasn’t. I brought it up to a Goodyear guy once and he said they’d have to build too many tires. I don’t think he understood the idea that they would make three compounds for all similar tracks.
Amy: On a positive note, there was a healthy-looking crowd Sunday. I think the empty seats are somewhat deceiving at Charlotte because the place holds so many.
Phil: I forget what CMS holds. Something like 180,000? If so, that’s still 40,000 empty seats. They also removed some with the installation of signage at the top of the grandstand in turn 2.
Mike: I was glad to see so many people there. And surprisingly, there were almost as many at the All-Star Race.
Matt: I do enjoy the 600 for the test of man vs. machine vs. track. Yeah, it dragged at points, but there’s something about it that keeps me captivated.
Phil: That was one of the shorter 600s compared to recent years. Just a shade over four hours to run.
Amy: It was an interesting race in that while drivers like Johnson and Kasey Kahne — who normally run well at CMS — didn’t contend, ones that typically don’t — like Jamie McMurray and Kurt Busch — excelled.
Summer: I thought it was fun to watch Penske and Ganassi end up racing each other, especially after the Indy 500.
Matt: Oh, I thought the Penske vs. Ganassi rivalry was the storyline of the week with Indy and Charlotte involved.
Mike: I was surprised to see Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth having to resort to pit strategy to get near the front.
Matt: Martin’s been doing that a lot lately, Michael. I’m starting to believe the No. 88 may be bringing them down.
Phil: Speaking of Indy, anyone see ratings for it yet?
Mike: I saw they were in the mid-fours.
Matt: Indy was way off.
Phil: It was 4.0, down 5% from last year. Kinda sad, since it seemed better than last year.
Matt: Walk-up tickets were cheap as hell, too.
Summer: How cheap?
Matt: $1.50.
Phil: Random sidenote: In Indianapolis, the Indy 500 is still aired on tape delay. Crazy, isn’t it?

Now that we’re at the halfway point in the regular season, who is shaping up to make a surprise appearance in the Chase, and whose potential absence will be the biggest story and why?

Mike: At this point, I think Martin missing the Chase is going to be the big surprise after he ran so well last year. If they don’t get things turned around soon, he’s going to be on the outside looking in.
Phil: They talked a little about this question during the race on FOX. I’m thinking that Carl Edwards is going to miss it.
Matt: Obviously if Juan Pablo Montoya bombs after last season’s performance it’ll be a surprise. And I’m not sure Carl is assured of anything.
Mike: Edwards was obviously not happy after the 600. The only thing he could muster to say about his team was they worked really hard.
Amy: It’s kind of odd to see guys in the top 12 with one and two top-five finishes all year.
Summer: It’s kind of strange to see Tony Stewart sitting on the outside at this point.
Matt: Yeah, that’s a good one.
Mike: Stewart is only 27 points out heading into the summer. He’ll be well inside by the cutoff.
Summer: Stewart usually does better as the summer progresses. But still, he’s not usually this far down.
Matt: Martin Truex Jr. and Tryson getting in shouldn’t surprise, but being that it’s their first season and considering the competition, it’s notable.
Amy: I think you might see Jamie Mac squeeze in. Going back to Ganassi has done wonders for him. I’m also a bit surprised that Kahne is as far back as he is.
Matt: Kasey is a forgotten soldier in that camp.
Mike: Having Randy Burnett on McMurray’s pit box has done wonders. He certainly has a chance at making it the way they’ve been running of late. They just need to get consistent. He admitted himself that is their problem this year.
Summer: I agree about McMurray. He should be able to get in. Edwards and Martin seem to be the biggest names in danger of falling out.
Mike: I’m not surprised about Kahne. Fords are crap this year.
Phil: Kahne’s about the same place he was last year. Ford is in about the same position they were last year, in general — struggling to find their way. They’re throwing the kitchen sink at it, though.
Matt: Kahne isn’t their top priority.
Mike: Well, Kenseth and Edwards both made it sound like they have no shot at this point in time.
Summer: I know Logano is pretty far back, but if he can pick up the performance a little bit and stay out of trouble, he might be able to sneak his way in. Especially if some of the guys we’ve mentioned so far fall out.
Amy: I agree with Summer, but only if Logano can reel off a string of top 10s in the next month. I’m also not sure Ryan Newman has the consistency going to stay in.
Summer: Right now, if I had to set the Chase field, I’d replace Newman with McMurray, Edwards with Stewart and Martin with Clint Bowyer.
Amy: I’m not sure that Hendrick will see more than two cars in this year.
Mike: That’s a relatively safe bet. I don’t see Junior making it and Martin has been running like Fido’s rear end the last month or more.
Matt: I still think Martin makes it. He’s too savvy and Gustafson is too sharp. Besides, the summer stretch really shakes things up. That’s where the men and the boys are determined.
Mike: That is true, Matt, and Martin does run pretty well when the tracks slicken up more.
Amy: I don’t think it will happen, but if they continue their monumental nosedive, the No. 48 could also fall out. They just don’t have it going on.
Summer: I highly doubt that will happen.
Matt: Come on, Amy.
Mike: Oh, come on. No way the No. 48 drops out.

See also
Voice of Vito: Jimmie Johnson's Struggles Have Created Power Vacuum in Sprint Cup Standings

Phil: Maybe the Hendrick dominance has finally crested. However, I severely doubt that Johnson’s going to just free fall out of the top 12. He’s never finished worse than fourth in points.
Summer: It would be just like Jimmie and the gang to come back and win five of the next seven races.
Amy: I doubt it, too, but weirder things have happened. The No. 48 has never been strong in July and August.
Matt: The No. 48 has one month every season where they disappear and it’s no different now.
Phil: That’s because they really don’t care about July and August. That, and Johnson’s not the best on road courses.
Matt: He’ll start his attack run at the Brickyard. Again.
Summer: Well, it’s pretty bad this season. They’ve only finished on the lead lap once in the last five races. But I still think they’ll make it and magically start running better again.
Matt: I think the whole “Gordon is in his head” thing that FOX was trying to run by us a little overdone, as well. I mean, mind games are one thing, but Jimmie and Chad are four-time champs.
Amy: No, that’s ridiculous. Gordon isn’t in Jimmie’s head. If anyone is, it’s Hamlin.
Mike: They do seem to be struggling with the spoiler even though Jimmie won’t admit it. They claim that the car still feels the same, but I’ve never seen him spin on his own this much.
Amy: Well, pulling a spring rubber on an already loose car probably wasn’t a great move.
Mike: I’m sure they were anticipating the track continuing to tighten up and were working towards that end.
Amy: Right, but pulling a rubber could easily have been done when that started to happen.
Mike: It was happening. Everyone on pit lane said the track was getting tighter and tighter.
Amy: Not when the car was so loose the driver could barely hang onto it.
Mike: I didn’t see him that loose before he lost it. They were running in the top 10 and seemed to be handling nicely.
Amy: You can’t make adjustments on your car based on what other cars are doing — you have to go by what the driver of your car is feeling.
Mike: Right, and he felt the track getting tighter so they were loosening it up.
Amy: Johnson was complaining of bad loose all night, Mike. It wasn’t getting tighter. It was a rare bad call by Knaus.
Mike: I wasn’t on the pit box, but what I heard from people that were scanning him was that it was tightening up, and that was why they pulled the rubber.
Amy: I had him on the radio. Even as it was, it was still loose off the turns.
Mike: Well, as we’ve seen for the last seven or eight years, they make their car better throughout the race. This time, it just didn’t quite work out.

Sunday was FOX’s final race broadcast in 2010. What grade does the network get for its coverage and what do they need to change in 2011 to stop the ratings slide they saw this year?

Matt: I’m glad Phil’s here for this one.
Mike: I’d give them a B. They need to have fewer commercials, but they won’t because they are losing their ass on NASCAR as it is.
Amy: I’d give them a C-minus at best. And that’s only because at least Digger wasn’t shoved down our throats quite so often. Their on-air “talent” leaves way too much to be desired.
Mike: They also need to tell their announcers the race is about the race and not the broadcast crew.
Phil: I’ll agree with Amy. C-minus. If you ask some of my readers, it’s worse than that.
Summer: I still think the ratings had a lot to do with the economy. Not all, but a lot.
Matt: You know, I don’t let the broadcasts get me down as much as others. I remember when all the races weren’t on TV, so I’m still just grateful to have every race televised. That said, I like FOX more than ESPN and TNT did great last season.
Phil: I have no issue with FOX’s pit reporters, but Pizzi must go. He ticks me off.
Amy: The booth and the stupid Hollywood Hotel are high on insufferable.
Mike: I don’t mind the hotel; the booth just needs to shut up a little bit.
Summer: People are never happy with the TV coverage. Ever. People will complain just as much about TNT and ESPN as they did FOX. I don’t really let it get to me. As long as there are broadcasts and they tell us what we need to know, the broadcast is fine.
Phil: That wasn’t really the case with TNT last year, Summer. By the way, they announced DVR capabilities for RaceBuddy yesterday for TNT’s races.
Amy: Nothing wrong that Darrell, a little Bondo and some 200-mph tape couldn’t cure. On the other hand, someone needs to hire Brian Vickers in the booth for the rest of the year. He was outstanding on the NNS broadcast.
Phil: Vickers could do something similar to what Kenny Wallace did in 1994. Cherry pick a couple of races in the booth.
Mike: I’d love to have them bring him in for a handful of races and give Rusty some time off.
Phil: In the Infield Studio, Mike? I’d be fine with that. That is basically what he did Saturday.
Mike: I’d be glad to have him in the booth. He didn’t talk too much, which is what the others should do.
Matt: I keep hearing how bad the coverage is, but I never hear any solutions besides stuff like “less Digger!” So they take Digger out and people complain about other things. Not that I liked Digger or anything….
Phil: They complained about what they replaced Digger with (A Slice of Pizzi, which is stupid). I think they can find other ways to improve the broadcast, too. Chris Myers needs to drop this clueless shtick; it’s real annoying.
Summer: People will complain about anything, Matt. I honestly like the upbeat FOX crew, for the most part. Sometimes the fluff gets to be a bit much, but they always do their best to get people excited for the race.
Amy: It’s not their job to get us excited, though. It’s their job to report the race.
Summer: Yeah, well then the broadcast crew last year (ESPN) calls a race boring and they get chided by NASCAR.
Mike: I’ve always suggested bringing Bob Jenkins and Ned Jarrett back, Matt. They did it right. And they can use Alan Bestwick as the play-by-play guy.
Matt: At least FOX doesn’t have some guy that never participated in the sport and is not a TV professional that adds nothing to the broadcast.
Phil: ESPN is much better this year, I’ll give them that. Thankfully, TNT cut their pre-race down to an hour for this year. Last year, it was 90 minutes.
Matt: I just DVR my way through the race. You’d be amazed at how much better your life is without AT&T RaceBreaks or NAPA commercials. Maybe that’s why the broadcasts don’t bother me as much.
Mike: I hear ya, brother.
Summer: No one requires you to watch the full hour of the pre-race show, you know.
Phil: Well, I’m a critic. I have to or I look stupid.
Summer: Well, you have an excuse. Most people don’t. If you don’t want to watch an hour, then don’t!
Phil: Well, I’d watch them anyway, because I’m a fan of the sport. I remember when all I could watch were the races — no qualifying coverage, let alone practice. I just think half an hour is enough pre-race. Today, we have three hours if you count NASCAR RaceDay on SPEED.
Matt: Oh, I love the qualifying and practice coverage SPEED provides, Phil.
Amy: I don’t care for watching practice, myself.
Matt: I learn a ton from watching practice.
Summer: Yeah, so do I.
Amy: I learn a ton when I’m at the track from listening to practice on the scanner. On TV? Only if they talk to anyone useful.
Mike: You know what would be a really interesting experiment? Have the PRN or MRN guys call a race for TV. I’d love to see that just once. I doubt the producers could keep up.
Phil: It would be interesting, Mike. I’ve often heard commentators defer to Barney Hall as being the best.
Matt: Barney rules.

The Nationwide Series starts its month of standalone racing this week, where only three Cup drivers are guaranteed to participate in the next three events. Who stands the best chance to break out and score a win during that stretch?

Summer: I know Justin Allgaier already got his breakthrough win, but I see him getting at least one more in this stretch.
Amy: Yeah, Allgaier might grab a win.
Matt: No doubt.
Phil: Yeah, Allgaier or maybe even Scott Riggs.
Amy: Outside shot to Jason Leffler or Steve Wallace but more likely, it will be the Brad Keselowski & Edwards Show.
Phil: Lots of driver changes for this week. Josh Wise gets a shot with JR Motorsports, as does Coleman Pressley, who has really impressed in limited starts in the No. 23. I’m wondering how Brad Coleman‘s going to do. He’s been out of the car for a while.
Amy: What does JRM have against Landon Cassill, anyway? Let him go if you’re not going to run him.
Matt: Honestly, I don’t see anything changing. The Cup regulars will grab the wins… even if there’s only three of them.
Summer: OK, who are the three? Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and… who else?
Phil: Paul Menard.
Summer: Well, I don’t think he’s a big threat to win.
Mike: Menard could certainly grab a win. He’s been having a pretty good year. Trevor Bayne may sneak up and surprise us. And Michael McDowell is a good road-course racer so he might surprise, too.
Phil: Road America is a complete unknown to everyone. I can’t wait.
Amy: On another note, it’s nice to see a real NNS driver get a sponsor. Bayne landed one for the year.
Phil: “Out!” for 18 races, I guess. Nice.
Summer: Yes, that’s fantastic to see him get a sponsor.
Phil: When I saw the car Saturday, I thought they were running a throwback Diamond Ridge scheme for a moment.
Matt: Back on point. Reed Sorenson could grab one, but I’m not sure what his schedule looks like.
Summer: I’d honestly like to see the RFR drivers start getting some stronger results in the next few weeks, like Colin Braun, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., etc.
Amy: And in a plug for my guys, both of my driver diary writers are slated to race the NNS race this week.
Mike: I bet Jack would like to see them finish one.
Matt: Whew… they’ve been horrible.
Phil: Braun’s not running this week. Brian Ickler‘s in his place. No one thought Stenhouse and Braun were going to be this bad.
Matt: The landscape is pretty barren down there.
Mike: True Phil, but I think Stenhouse is just experiencing Karma from taking Scott Speed out of the ARCA title.
Phil: That was just ludicrous what happened that day in Toledo. Allgaier was just laughing all the way to the bank after that.
Mike: I was just glad Speed was able to get back out long enough to take Stenhouse out and prevent him from winning the title.
Matt: Short trackin’. Gotta love it.
Summer: Another driver I think would be cool to see do well is Brendan Gaughan.
Phil: Gaughan suffered some carbon monoxide inhalation in Charlotte. I think he’ll be good to go, but it’s worth mentioning.
Mike: Yeah, that might have some lingering effects for him.

OK, how about some predictions for Pocono this week?

Amy: I think I’ll go with Kurt Busch. He’s on a roll.
Summer: Same here. I’ll take Kurt.
Mike: I’m taking Hamlin just because Amy jinxes all of her picks.
Matt: I gotta go with Hamlin, too. He’s a three-time Pocono winner and clicking right now.
Phil: You know what, I’m going with Edwards. Even though I said that he’s likely to miss the Chase earlier, he’s got a good track record there.

Mirror Predictions 2010

Welcome to our fourth consecutive 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

Through 12 races, here’s how our experts have fared so far:

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top Fives Top 10s
Phil Allaway 22 11 1 5 10
Amy Henderson 21 -1 13 2 6 9
Beth Lunkenheimer 13 -9 8 1 5 6
Summer Dreyer 8 -14 8 0 3 4
Bryan Davis Keith 4 -18 3 0 1 2
Vito Pugliese 4 -18 2 0 1 2
Mike Neff 4 -18 4 0 1 2
Jeff Meyer 3 -19 8 0 1 4
Tom Bowles 3 -20 2 0 1 1
Kurt Smith 1 -21 4 0 1 1
Tony Lumbis 0 -22 3 0 0 0
Toni Montgomery 0 -22 1 0 0 0
Matt Taliaferro -2 -24 2 0 0 0

About the author

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.

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