Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: NASCAR Turning the Page Towards Testing & 2011

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)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Fridays/Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays/Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter)
Mike Neff (Wednesdays/Power Rankings & Wednesdays/Full Throttle)
Jeff Meyer (Wednesdays/Top 10 & Thursdays/Voices From the Heartland)

Taking a final look back at the 2010 season, what was the biggest story of the year, and why?

Amy: I have to go with Jimmie Johnson‘s fifth in a row.  The odds against that have to be astronomical.
Mike: I agree with Johnson. It is an unprecedented feat that we may never see again… at least until he wins number six this year.
Jeff: Obviously not unprecedented with this system.

See also
The Cool-Down Lap: How Should NASCAR Nation Feel About 5 Straight?

Amy: He can’t win forever. Can he? Seriously, what he has done is nothing short of brilliant. He deserves more respect than he gets.
Mike: Amy, he can as long as they leave the Chase in place and Chad Knaus is on the box.
Beth: Exactly, Mike.
Phil: I don’t think he can. However, now Johnson’s got the No. 88 team sharing his shop instead of the No. 24. Could that be a drag on the No. 48?
Mike: Having the No. 88 in the shop could be a drag but you never know; it may just bring the AMP car up to their level.
Beth: That’ll sure take a lot of work, Mike.
Mike: Junior was the best out of the Hendrick stable for the first half of the season a year ago. He might just need Steve Letarte to get him back there.
Jeff: The No. 48 team is simply are the best at playing this system. That is all.
Amy: The other story in my mind is the growing issue of sponsorship in all three national series. It’s a serious problem and not one with any easy solution. Teams have priced themselves practically out of the market.
Phil: I was thinking about team budgets the other day. I was thinking of budget caps per car to make it more feasible for companies to come into the series to sponsor teams.
Amy: I’d love to see that, Phil, but without franchising and the collective bargaining that goes with it, it will never happen.
Mike: I don’t know how you enforce a limit on sponsorship. Teams will come up with all sorts of alternative ways to bring money into their organizations. The problem is the costs and it is going to be very hard to get the teams with the big budgets to agree to cost containment steps.
Jeff: The whole sponsorship thing is still going to get worse before it gets better. You will see more and more getting out as attendance and ratings continue to fall this season as they did before. NASCAR has not hit its bottom yet.
Mike: I agree with you, Jeff. Contrary to the opinions out of Daytona, the bottom is still ahead of us.
Amy: Back to 2010, though. While Johnson did something amazing and did it brilliantly, some awfully big names struggled mightily.
Jeff: I think, maybe a bigger thing, although less heralded, was the removal of the wing and the return to the spoiler. That alone affected the season in many unseen ways, teams coming up with a lot of new data that they hadn’t planned on using or didn’t have.
Mike: I agree, Jeff. Even though they swore it wasn’t a factor, I think it really did change the handling of the car for them.
Jeff: It allowed the other teams, who never really got a handle on the wing, to regain a bit of an edge.
Phil: Anyone think that the spoilers were a little too wide on the CoTs?
Amy: I agree. And I still am not convinced that it will keep cars from getting airborne. It’s not like they never did before.
Mike: Childress and EGR, maybe; it didn’t do any favors for Roush. You’ll never fully keep the cars from getting airborne, but I promise it will be harder than it was with the wing.
Jeff: No, Amy, cars will still get airborne. But at least with the spoilers, the roof flaps have a fighting chance. After all, that is why they made the roof flaps bigger a few years ago before the wing.
Mike: Did y’all know that the teams have to buy their roof flaps from Roush?
Phil: No, I did not. Not surprised, though.
Mike: And they are not cheap.
Jeff: They wouldn’t have to if, say… Neffco made NASCAR roof flaps to spec. They are the only supplier.
Amy: There you go.
Mike: I’m not sure which team it was, but one of them made their own, got caught going through tech and was fined.
Amy: Someone’s pocket’s getting lined, I’m sure.
Mike: Roush has a patent on them, I guess, so they have to come from Roush. Someone would have to pay Roush for the rights to make them and I’m sure Roush would make it prohibitively expensive.
Phil: NASCAR’s been moving towards exclusive suppliers for certain parts for years, so I’m not surprised. For example, there is only one company that makes the new spoilers.
Mike: It doesn’t surprise me either, but it sure would be a way to reduce costs.
Amy: Anyways, back on topic: I think we saw something pretty extraordinary in 2010. Johnson really showed what he’s made of, maybe for the first time. He never had to dig deep like he did this year. He was phenomenal in the last two races.
Mike N.: There were a few good stories for 2010, but Jimmie’s fifth title still stands out above the rest.
Amy: Denny Hamlin had a personal meltdown of epic proportions… for the second year in a row.
Mike N.: I don’t know that Hamlin had a meltdown, but he made a stupid move early in the Homestead race that cost him a title.
Amy: Maybe, but in the end he beat himself.
Jeff: I don’t know if I agree about JJ being top story. After all, it is now becoming old and expected news.
Amy: I don’t think it can be called expected. Three in a row was a stretch. Four, a billion to one shot. Five? Almost beyond imagination.
Mike: Perhaps people will realize that he’s actually a pretty good racecar driver and it isn’t all Chad. Although a lot of it is still Chad.
Jeff: Personally, I hope he wins four or five more in a row.
Mike: I think he’s going to win 10 and then Chad is going to retire.
Jeff: Mike, I think that that team is 65% crew chief, 35% driver talent. JJ would absolutely NOT have even four or maybe three in a row without Chad.
Mike: I concur completely. Chad drives that team to do amazing things.
Amy: Yes, but he doesn’t drive the racecar. And for that he needs Johnson, who can get it done better than almost anyone, maybe ever. Denny Hamlin had it won and threw it away.

What will be the biggest story of NASCAR 2011?

Amy: The biggest story of 2011 will be a different champion come Homestead.
Beth: It’s going to continue to be sponsorship. Teams have struggled to just piece together coverage while others are still desperate to find someone to help offset the costs.
Mike: After Johnson winning number six in a row. I’ll go with the continued collapse of the television ratings and the networks coming to NASCAR asking for money back.
Amy: The sponsorship/ratings issue is by far the biggest. But whoever can dethrone Johnson will be the man of the hour.
Jeff: Wait wait wait, so Amy is saying that JJ and Chad will not win again???
Beth: She says that every year, Jeff.
Amy: Look, the law of averages has to catch up eventually.
Phil: I’m going to go with probably something along the lines of car count. Either that, or the dual NFL/NBA lockouts and how that could affect NASCAR.
Mike: Right, Phil. I think the networks are going to be coming for money because there will be short fields or fields with ridiculous field fillers. And the law of averages doesn’t always catch up. The NFL is not going to have a lockout. Unlike the dopes in the NHL, they are smart enough to know where their bread is buttered.
Amy: Brian France is praying for a lockout or if he isn’t, he should be.
Mike: You know he is because that is the only way he can get better ratings than the NFL.
Jeff: And an NBA lockout… that ain’t gonna affect NASCAR in a positive way at all.
Phil: You could argue that it would only affect NASCAR at the very end of the season.
Mike: Does anybody watch the NBA anymore?
Phil: Oh yes, plenty of people. Myself included.
Amy: I hate the NBA’s brand of ball, so no.
Mike: Interesting. I quit watching when they had their last lockout and haven’t missed it at all.
Amy: Other big story? How about the folding of a national touring series? I can see that coming down the pike. Maybe not in 2011, but coming.
Phil: Which one?
Mike: I don’t know how big of a story it will be when they fold either the Trucks or Nationwide. They’ll just promote them even less and eventually just let them kind of fade away.
Amy: I’m not sure which one. Trucks are cheaper to run, but attract less notice, Nationwide is in trouble as well. Could go either way.
Beth: It’ll be big to those that actually pay attention, but it won’t be a surprise.
Mike: I agree, Beth. I still would love to see them get back to a lot more short tracks, but that would take too much effort from NASCAR.
Phil: They just spent a buttload creating the new car. I doubt they’re going to want to kill it off that quick. Let’s just hope the ratings erosion is just about over.
Beth: Agreed. That series was built for short tracks, not places like TMS, Daytona and Talladega.
Mike: The big story is still going to be Jimmie winning another and probably in dominating fashion this year, with the lack of full-time cars being a distant second. It also would be awesome to see a national touring series at Hickory or South Boston or Greenville-Pickens again.
Phil: One of the main problems with such a thing would be pitting. In the past, those tracks had to have quirky pit rules just to be able to have live pit stops.
Mike: They could always implement pit rules or intermissions like they used to do in Trucks.
Amy: True, Mike. It would be great to see a national series pay homage to NASCAR’s roots.
Mike: It sure wouldn’t hurt it, Amy.

Next up on the NASCAR calendar is an open test on the newly repaved Daytona International Speedway. Is it time for NASCAR to schedule other tests, considering the major changes taking place?

Phil: Yeah, I think so.  At the very least, it would cut down on all that simulator stuff.
Mike: They need to bring testing back, period. Whether it is a scheduled test a couple of weeks before each race or a set number of tests to allow teams to try different things, anything would be better. The competitive balance is getting further and further off course because of the lack of testing.
Amy: Yes. At least add open tests at Charlotte and Michigan. Throw in a short track, too. Four, maybe five open tests a year would be a good thing. More than that gets cost prohibitive for the little teams.
Jeff: Ha. That is what the ban was supposed to fix.
Beth: Funny how that works, isn’t it?
Mike: I know, Jeff, just like the new car was supposed to rein in costs.
Jeff: But will France admit they went the wrong way?
Amy: He never has before, Jeff.
Phil: France won’t admit jack.
Mike: France still doesn’t believe there is anyone out there who doesn’t like the Chase.
Jeff: I know, that is just simply amazing. Shows his true mental state more than anything else he has ever said.
Mike: It is more a statement about the people who report to him. It is like the emperor’s new clothes. People must be afraid to tell him what is really going on.
Amy: Or he’s so out of touch up there in his ivory tower he can’t hear them.
Mike: I don’t know, but I do know that was one of the most amazing statements I’ve heard from someone in a position of authority in the sport in years.
Amy: I agree, Mike. And that’s scary.
Jeff: Is Tom Bowles our Brian France????
Phil: No. He actually listens to suggestions.
Beth: No, Tom actually listens to us, but I doubt the same can be said of France.
Mike: Or at least shakes his head like he’s listening.
Jeff: I’d pay someone to change his byline to Tom France for one story, just to see if he notices.
Amy: NASCAR does need to consider adding tests. It’s a safety issue as well as a competition one. I’m glad they’re going to Daytona, at least.
Beth: They pretty much had to, Amy.
Mike: I don’t know that the Daytona test is telling anyone anything. It sounds like the place is going to have a ton of grip and the tires aren’t wearing at all, although I was surprised to hear that it is bumpier than Talladega.
Amy: I’m kind of glad it’s still got some character.
Phil: I guess the soil is just more moist in general at Daytona. Perhaps it moves a little, like in Brazil.
Jeff: Moist soil? Over a swamp? Oh, c’mon!!!!
Mike: I figured it was just because it is on top of the mounds of bullsh*t they’ve been feeding us for years.
Amy: So THAT’s where they buried it all.
Phil: There definitely needs to be more testing in NASCAR’s top-three divisions. Of course, that brings up a question. Are the Nationwide and Truck series teams getting any open tests?

We’ve seen the Nationwide Series infiltrated by up-and-coming talents like Aric Almirola, former Cup stars like Elliott Sadler, and strengthened by the growing multi-car operation at Turner Motorsports. Meanwhile, Brad Keselowski has a new crew chief and Carl Edwards doesn’t have enough sponsorship for all the races. Even if Keselowski and Edwards get a chance to compete, is this the year we see NASCAR’s second-tier division swing back to the full-timers focusing on that series alone?

Amy: I’d love to see that, but I’m not holding my breath.
Mike: Well, we haven’t heard how NASCAR is going to limit the ability of Cup drivers to run for the title, but even if they can’t win the title they’re still going to win the majority of the races.
Jeff: We’ll know more about that when the announcement comes out… I mean, when Brian tells us his new idea for points.
Mike: If the Cup drivers can’t score points, then it will swing back to a full-time Nationwide team, obviously, but it will most likely be Elliott Sadler or someone backed by a Cup team.
Phil: Agreed. Sadler will probably claim a couple of victories. However, you still might see a situation in which a different team will claim the owners’ title than the drivers’ title.
Mike: I don’t know. I guess it is going to depend on whether the owner can still score points if the driver can’t. If the Cup driver and the owner both get zero points, then I’d assume the driver who wins the title will win the owner’s title, too. I think there are only going to be one or two cars with Nationwide-only drivers that aren’t running the full season, but the car will be.
Amy: I haven’t heard anything about how NASCAR is going to work that one.
Mike: I don’t know that the owner’s title means that much, anyway. Kyle Busch got $45,000 for winning the Truck Series owners’ title. That’s it.
Phil: Even with the Cup drivers racing, they would likely still be able to earn owners’ points for whatever team they were driving for.
Amy: You would think.
Mike: I don’t know, it would help deter Cup drivers overtaking the series if they didn’t.
Beth: There’s your answer, Mike. It would be a good thing, so NASCAR won’t end up going that direction.
Mike: You’re probably right there, Beth.
Phil: You’re right, Mike. In that case, it would go back to what the series was like in the early 1990s. Cup drivers could show up, but with part-time teams that didn’t race for points.
Amy: I’d LOVE to see that, Phil.
Phil: That scenario would be interesting to have. The thing is that they might boot smaller teams trying to make a name for themselves out of races.
Mike: It will be interesting to hear what Brian France tries to implement to get the Cup guys to stop dominating the Nationwide Series. Hopefully it will include more weekends with Nationwide races at short tracks, but that won’t be happening in 2011.
Amy: I don’t see that happening anytime soon, unfortunately. Not many short tracks can pay NASCAR’s outrageous sanctioning fees.
Beth: I still say there oughta be more Truck/Nationwide companion weekends with Cup far enough away that it’s not worth making the extra trips.
Mike: I’m with you Beth, but that doesn’t make the promoters enough money and NASCAR won’t help them out.
Amy: Right. They’d have to cut purses again this year and… oh, wait.

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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