Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Hidden Gems, Hiding Rookies & Horrid Luck for Joe Gibbs Racing

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:
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays/Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter)
Summer Dreyer (Tuesdays/Who’s Hot & Who’s Not in NASCAR)
Mike Neff (Wednesdays/Power Rankings & Wednesdays/Full Throttle)
Jeff Meyer (Wednesdays/Top 10 & Thursdays/Voices From the Heartland)
Amy Henderson (Fridays Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Fridays/Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)

Auto Club Speedway has the reputation of hosting boring races, but after two great finishes this weekend, is that changing as the track ages?

Jeff: NO!
Beth: Not at all. We got a few minutes of great racing and the rest was just a bunch of follow the leader.
Amy: Let’s not get carried away. Sunday’s race had about five good laps following 195 of crap. And it wouldn’t even have been close without Bobby Labonte‘s blown tire.

See also
Losing 100 Miles Changes Nothing at Fontana

Beth: No. While it did have good finishes, everything else was just about everything we expect from Fontana. Granted, some of the stuff was more aggressive than normal.
Summer: The Nationwide race was OK because it was a shorter race, but the Cup Series was excruciatingly boring until around 30 to go when Andy Lally had his accident.
Mike: I have always enjoyed racing at Fontana so I know I’m not going to be in the majority on this one. Cars were spread out from the top to the bottom of the track and all sorts of passing, aside from the lead, makes for pretty good racing in my opinion.
Phil: I’ll agree with you on that, Mike. However, that action only lasts for so long at Fontana.
Summer: Yeah, there certainly wasn’t a lot of passing on Sunday.
Beth: And most of that action was missed by the wonderful production crew FOX has, but that’s another topic for another day.
Summer: Yes, and because there were so few cautions, a majority of the race saw the cars spread out.
Amy: Where did you see all sorts of passing, Mike, that wasn’t on a restart? What I saw was mostly strung-out racecars with the occasional half-hearted battle for position back in the pack.
Mike: Yes, Amy but that isn’t unique to Fontana; any intermediate track turns into follow the leader at some point. At least Fontana gives you multiple lanes of racing.
Amy: Fontana needs banking… or something.
Jeff: How about zero degrees of banking? As in razing it?
Phil: I think they built themselves into a box with ACS.
Beth: Mike, I do agree that it was nice to see the drivers using multiple, different grooves, but I had to fight falling asleep.
Mike: Well I saw cars racing top, bottom and everywhere in between. While they might not have been completing passes, they were sure as hell trying.
Amy: There are several intermediate tracks that put on a better show.
Mike: Really? Name one, Amy. They all turn into the same racing after the cars string out a little bit.
Amy: Texas.
Beth: I guess you’re watching different races than I’ve seen at Texas, Amy.
Mike: Texas is not more than a groove and a half.
Phil: Ten years ago, I would have agreed with you on Texas, Mike. Not so much now. It’s got guns, hats and other various trinkets… and a trophy. Can’t forget that.
Jeff: Texas has cooler trophies.
Summer: Who cares about the trophies. I don’t care if the trophy is a freakin’ tampon. As long as the racing is good, it doesn’t matter!
Amy: Michigan is always a better race than Fontana, too. I have no idea why, since it’s the same track, different state. Atlanta also puts on a good show.
Summer: I like Fontana’s racing typically and I thought the competition was fun to watch on Saturday. But Sunday for some reason just plain sucked until the end.
Mike: At least Fontana and Michigan offer multiple grooves. I do agree that once the tires wore the multiple grooves died down which, unfortunately is a product of the aging pavement.
Amy: I don’t think the track aging had anything to do with the racing this week. We got lucky with late-race cautions after 195 boring laps.
Jeff: The end was good; the rest was crap. Thank the Lord it is over and done with and we don’t have to go back for a year!
Summer: I thought shortening the race was a good idea and the Nationwide race was the perfect length. Chop another 100 miles off both races and we could have some good competition there.
Phil: Got the race on right now as a reference. The action right after restarts was fast and furious. However, once a rhythm was started, the furiousness disappeared. The race definitely finished quick.
Amy: Thank goodness for that. The quicker the better.
Mike: Oh here we go with the shortening races again. This is the big leagues! Run 500 miles or go to Formula 1.
Amy: Why? So we can have 50 more parade laps that last another hour? No, thanks.
Summer: If we’re talking about quality of races, sometimes less is more.
Mike: Why the hell do you people even watch Cup races if you want them to end so quickly? Watch sprint races or local tracks if you want to see them end fast. Cup races are supposed to be endurance tests that challenge both man and machine.
Amy: Three hours is plenty, Mike.

Five races into 2011, several teams are showing significant gains over their performance in 2010. Who receives the Most Improved award so far, and what can the improvement be attributed to?

Summer: What about Stewart-Haas Racing? They’re off to a roaring good start this year, too.
Jeff: I’d say SHR is the most improved.
Amy: That’s not a surprise, Summer. What about Red Bull Racing? The No. 4 is a shocker. That car was crap the last two years.
Phil: Red Bull doesn’t get it since the No. 83 has not started well at all, Brian Vickers‘s eighth place notwithstanding.
Mike: Kasey Kahne and Kenny Francis weren’t working on that No. 4 car last year. There is a major difference there. But Vickers has two top 10s right now. That doesn’t seem like a marked improvement over three in 11 races last year.
Summer: Vickers has had some bad luck, but otherwise has actually had some good cars.
Amy: I’ll go with Richard Petty Motorsports myself. SHR is merely doing what’s expected of a Hendrick satellite while since October, RPM was all but folded. Now? They’re running for top 10s.
Phil: RPM is doing fine, but the No. 9 has struggled at times.
Mike: I think SHR is more improved than Red Bull.
Summer: SHR wasn’t all that great last year, specially Ryan Newman. At this time last year, he wasn’t even in the top 25 after five races. He’s second right now.
Amy: I still disagree. SHR is doing what they should be doing all along.
Mike: Just because you think it is what they should be doing.
Summer: They’re also doing what they didn’t do last year, Amy. They’re showing improvement, which is the focus of this question.
Mike: Red Bull is marginally better by comparison and that is mainly because of their driver and crew chief change.
Amy: Red Bull potentially has two Chase contenders. They’ve never, ever done that before. Petty was supposed to be gone. When you put it that way, SHR isn’t so much improved as they ran below expectations last year.
Phil: Marcos Ambrose does have the fourth in Las Vegas, but other than that, it has been a struggle.
Mike: That’s the only top five for all of RPM. Yes, they aren’t out of business but that isn’t second in points.
Amy: That’s one more top five than Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin or Jeff Burton have. And those guys were expected to have them. Right now, AJ Allmendinger is 15th in points and ran solid again at Fontana (14th). He’s ahead of five of last year’s Chase drivers.
Phil: The finish came off as solid, Amy, but I don’t think AJ would agree with you.
Amy: Well how about this stat? After five races last year, ‘Dinger was 21st in points and Ambrose was 31st; now, both are comfortably inside the top 20.
Phil: Ambrose had a shocking start to 2010 with engine failure after engine failure. Just finishing four of the first five races was an improvement for him.
Mike: Newman was 21st and is now second.
Amy: But Newman improved over a slump. The other teams flat improved.
Beth: Still, SHR has made marked improvement over their 2010 performance regardless of what is “expected” of them.
Phil: Meanwhile, Tony Stewart is actually slightly behind last year’s pace. He was fifth after five races in 2010.
Mike: I still think SHR is more improved over 2010, which was the question. Red Bull should be doing better considering the funding they have behind them.

Just a year ago, Denny Hamlin was considered the favorite to knock Jimmie Johnson off the Sprint Cup throne, but so far in 2011, Hamlin isn’t even in the top 20 in points and has yet to score a top-five finish. He also has two finishes lower than 30th, including a DNF at California. What’s the difference that’s made Hamlin and his team crumble in just a few short months?

Phil: Simple: Gibbs has engine issues. They have to solve those before Hamlin can realistically contend for wins.
Mike: Agreed. Hamlin and JGR as a whole have been having some serious engine problems this year and I think that has dogged the entire organization. They just seem to be affecting Hamlin a little more than Joey Logano or Kyle Busch.
Beth: Hamlin can’t really control his motor issues, and his other finish lower than 30th was a wreck that he was a victim of. That’s also hard to control at a place like Bristol.
Amy: Gibbs does have engine issues, but I also wonder if they’ve put all their eggs in a different basket. Last year, it appeared that they did it with Hamlin’s basket and now that he didn’t win, maybe the eggs have been redistributed to Kyle.
Jeff: The difference is Amy isn’t his cheerleader this year and he is distraught!
Mike: Seriously, I’d be willing to bet you’ll see him running up front this weekend. Martinsville will probably turn things around for them.
Summer: Martinsville was where he began to pick up the pace last year.
Beth: Consider that Hamlin didn’t start out the 2010 season all that well, either. He had a 21st-place average finish in the first five races last season. That’s only slightly better than his average finish in the first five races this season.
Summer: Hamlin didn’t even have a top-15 finish after five races this season. At least he has a top 10 now!
Phil: So Amy, you’re insinuating that Gibbs is throwing everything behind Kyle Busch?
Amy: Sure looks that way so far. It looked that way in Hamlin’s favor last year.
Mike: I think they threw it all at Hamlin at the end of the year but during the season I don’t think he got anything more special than the rest of the organization.
Beth: That’s probably more like it, Mike.
Mike: I also think Kyle Busch is more mature this year. That might make it look like he’s getting more help, but I think he’s just looking stronger than he has in the past because of his attitude.

See also
The Yellow Stripe: Growing up Is Hard to Do, but if Kyle Busch Does It, Will It Make Him a Champ?

Summer: I don’t think this is JGR putting more resources into KB. This is more of an organizational struggle at JGR plus a notoriously slow start for Hamlin.
Amy: Hamlin’s other problem is his inability to personally overcome adversity the way Johnson does. That killed him in the Chase two years in a row.
Jeff: I lost a dollar bet because of Kyle’s so-called maturity Sunday night. I bet he would huff off and not give a post-race interview.
Phil: Who’d you lose the bet to, Jeff?
Jeff: My friend Bud.
Mike: Well not only did he not huff off, he didn’t put it in the fence trying to hold off Johnson and Harvick.
Summer: I said on Twitter he had almost a more watered down interview than Jimmie Johnson. I seriously keep waiting for this guy to blow some steam and he just won’t!
Mike: JGR better be figuring out what is going on in their engine department or they’re going to be chasing a lot of teams come Chase time.
Amy: Kyle will eventually show his true colors.
Phil: Maybe Sam has calmed him down a little.
Mike: I think she has, Phil. Last year Kahne would not have been driving his truck at Darlington.
Summer: I think team ownership has more to do with it than marriage. Of course, I’m not married so what do I know?
Phil: Neither am I.
Jeff: I don’t envy Kyle and his millions, though. He’ll never know if she loves him for his looks or his money.
Mike: I’m pretty sure it ain’t his looks, Jeff. She just has bad eyesight.
Beth: But getting back to Hamlin, his average finish this season isn’t much worse than the way he started. And once they hit Martinsville, last April Hamlin really hit his stride on his way to battling for the championship.
Summer: I wouldn’t even be concerned about Hamlin’s performance if it weren’t for the engine issues.
Beth: It’s not time to be worrying about him just yet, but JGR had better make sure their engine department is working overtime to find out why they’ve been having issues with engines.
Amy: He’s in a really deep hole with the points system.
Phil: I think Denny’s just a slow starter in general. He’ll be heard from before the season’s over. However, he’s in a deeper hole now.
Amy: Hamlin also isn’t the driver that either Busch or Johnson are, and over time, that shows. He’s good; they’re better.
Mike: The new point system makes a little difference but the odds are Hamlin will win two races this year, so he’ll make the Chase as a wildcard even if he isn’t there in points.
Summer: I’m not so sure that this new points system punishes bad finishes as much as I thought it would. There have been several slow starters so far this year that have gained a lot of ground the past few weeks.
Amy: But that gets harder every week. That was true early in the year under the old system, too.
Summer: Yeah but even looking at the standings, there were several drivers gaining 5-7 positions. Even in the old system, after five races you usually don’t see drivers making up that much ground.
Beth: Hamlin’s definitely in a deep hole right now, but it’s not something to make a big fuss over… yet.
Mike: Hamlin is not looking like the confident driver he was before Phoenix last year, but I’m not going to write him off. That said, he’s just the fifth in a line of drivers who challenged Johnson and fell off the next season.
Jeff: I think Hamlin was overrated last year. He just got hot toward the end. We’re back to the real Hamlin.
Summer: I think we saw the real Hamlin last year. It’s not like he’s completely sucked this year. He’s just had some bad luck come his way. Stewart doesn’t usually heat up until the middle of the season, either, and no one writes him off.

Trevor Bayne qualified for the All-Star Race and a chance at a $1 million payout with his Daytona 500 win, but neither the Wood Brothers (his Cup owners) nor Roush Fenway Racing (who own his NNS ride) plan to run him. Based on Bayne’s performance since Daytona, is that a sound decision or are they missing a potential cash cow?

Summer: Eh, I think they’d be missing out on an opportunity if they didn’t, but then again if he wound up crashing that wouldn’t look very good.
Amy: That’s a tough call. What does last place pay in that race? Enough to cover expenses? If so, someone needs to run the kid; he earned it.
Mike: I don’t know that they’re missing a cash cow but I am surprised Roush isn’t going to put together a deal to put him in a car. It should be something he gets to do as part of winning the 500. I don’t think he’d win it, but he should get to run.
Beth: Someone oughta give him a chance to run the All-Star Race. After all, he earned his spot in it.
Summer: It’d be good for NASCAR, too, to have their newest star in the All-Star Race.
Mike: They should put him in David Ragan‘s car and forget about running Ragan in the Open.
Summer: I can’t imagine someone won’t give him something to get in there.
Mike: It would be awesome to see them put him in an SHR car just to stick it to Ford.
Amy: Guessing it would have to be a Ford though, Mike.
Phil: TRG would be possible since they’re switching in a couple of weeks. By the way, it’s $80,000 or so to start the Sprint All-Star Race.
Amy: The only other option would be RPM.
Jeff: Remember folks, this is NASCAR. His status will change four more times before the All-Star Race.
Summer: His relationship status? There was a girl beside him at Bristol and I thought Twitter was going to crash.
Mike: There really isn’t a company that wouldn’t put their name on the car for $50,000?
Amy: $50,000 doesn’t cover expenses.
Phil: Expenses are quite a bit lower for the All-Star Race. No hotels for crew members since all of them seem to live locally.
Mike: Who cares about expenses? $50,000 plus $80,000 should cover it unless he totals the car.
Beth: Which is possible with the way his luck has been since winning the 500.
Summer: I wouldn’t just call it luck. Some of it has been his fault.
Beth: Yes, some of it has… but there has been plenty that he just couldn’t avoid, too.
Summer: He hit the wall two or three times at Fontana. In the Cup race, at least.
Mike: Honestly, I am amazed that Ford hasn’t stepped up to sponsor the car for him.
Phil: I can understand the Wood Brothers not running it. They only have so much in resources. I’m pretty sure Roush Fenway Racing could pull out a fifth car if they felt like it. Number it 06 or something.
Summer: Would NASCAR let them do that?
Amy: Yes, as long as the driver is qualified.
Mike: It is the All-Star Race, they always make exceptions for how things work that weekend.
Phil: Yes. Provided that it is part time and for a rook. Bayne qualifies on both.
Beth: I don’t know a reason why NASCAR shouldn’t, Summer.
Summer: I was just curious if you could do that in the All-Star Race with the four-team cap. I bet NASCAR would make an exception… again, since Bayne has brought NASCAR into the limelight so much this year.
Mike: Exactly, Summer.
Amy: It’s a non-points race.
Phil: NASCAR has a track record of being somewhat loose with rules in this race.
Summer: I didn’t see who said it, but I agree with whoever said Ford should step up and be a one-race sponsor.
Amy: Or RFR could provide RPM with the equipment and run him under that banner.
Phil: That’s possible. A return of the No. 19 for the All-Star Race?
Summer: Well however he does it, I bet he’ll find a ride somehow.

OK, how about some Martinsville predictions.

Amy: Going to do something I don’t often do and go with the same pick two weeks in a row: Johnson.
Summer: Same.
Mike: I’ll take Hamlin.
Phil: Gee, Johnson and Hamlin have monopolized Martinsville for most of the last five years. I’ll go with Martin.
Jeff: Gordon.
Mike: I’m telling Carl, Jeff.
Beth: I’m going with Stewart for Martinsville.

Mirror Predictions 2011

Welcome to our fifth 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 five races, here’s how our experts have fared so far:

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Phil Allaway 10 5 0 3 4
Amy Henderson 8 -2 5 1 2 3
Jeff Meyer 3 -7 5 1 1 2
Mike Neff 3 -7 4 0 1 2
Tom Bowles 1 -9 1 0 0 1
Beth Lunkenheimer -2 -12 2 0 0 0
Summer Dreyer -3 -13 3 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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