Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: As Joe Gibbs Racing Turns, in the Name of Safety & Points 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)
Mike Neff (Wednesdays/Power Rankings & Wednesdays/Full Throttle)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)

Marcos Ambrose’s first career win was nearly overshadowed by some nasty crashes at Watkins Glen. Does the track need a major safety overhaul?

Amy: Yes, but here’s the thing. The major incidents in recent years have been on parts of the track that can’t be reconfigured because of the temporary barriers.
Phil: There are some nasty blunt angles on walls there. That kick-out that David Ragan originally hit was an issue last year. I wouldn’t be surprised if that got revised. However, that kick-out protects a crossover.

Amy: That closes off the boot. Seriously, just running the darn thing would get rid of two major hazards and add a passing zone.
Mike: I don’t know about a major one, but they sure need to look at a couple of places. That wall that Ragan hit certainly needs to be changed. There’s also a spot, I think in the esses where the walls come right out next to the track. They should really be changed.
Amy: I disagree on the walls in the esses. A huge runoff just gave more room for bad things to happen.
Phil: There really isn’t room for runoff in the esses. TV doesn’t show just how steep that is. Trees can be cut down, but it’s kinda hard to do much about sudden dropoffs.
Mike: I just think they should be able to do something to get those walls back off the track where they bottleneck down. They look like construction barriers out there. I also think it is time for the boot to come into play. Tony Stewart ran it during the seat-swap deal and thinks it would be great.
Amy: I don’t have any problem with that, Mike. Other series deal with that on street courses, if these are the best drivers they can deal with them. Seriously, running the boot would virtually eliminate two huge trouble spots. I do think some sections need SAFER barriers. If they really absorb more shock than the guardrails.
Mike: On a street course, they usually don’t run at the kind of speed they’re running there when the walls are that close. They could fill some of the dropoffs in or build some kind of a ledge just to get the walls back.
Phil: Also, note that the catchfence that David Reutimann brushed against is fairly new. Prior to a few years ago, he could have rocked over the wall.
Amy: True, Phil, that’s an improvement. The esses generally haven’t been a huge trouble spot, though. After seeing how far that guardrail bent when Denny Hamlin hit it, I don’t know if the SAFER gives that much.
Phil: Remember, that give was with Hamlin hitting right where a concrete support for the catchfence was. It would have given a lot more if that wasn’t there.
Mike: And, as always, we proved that we can hit walls anywhere at any time. I don’t know that the wall Reutimann hit needs to be modified too much. Were it not for the other wall kicking Ragan across the track, Reutimann doesn’t hit the wall, period.
Amy: Ragan got the worst of that one. Reutimann’s looked scarier because of the flip, but the car absorbed a lot of energy that way.
Mike: Yeah, Ragan took three big hits. Between the tires and the guardrail, a good bit of Reutimann’s impact was absorbed. It is still a huge impact, though. It looked like he was going way over 60, which is what the telemetry supposedly showed.
Amy: I don’t know if SAFER barriers around an entire road course are feasible or even necessary. And this from me, a huge safety advocate.
Mike: I don’t know how feasible it is. That is a LOT of SAFER barrier.
Phil: I’ve seen drivers refer to Watkins Glen as being “claustrophobic” at times with the walls so close to the track. The circuit was built to the FIA standards of the early 1970s. That’s why they’re so close. It was considered to be a good idea at the time; granted, there’s a lot more runoff now than there was in 1971.
Amy: I do wonder about paving over the traps, though. Yeah, you got stuck big time, but they slowed you the heck down before you hit the wall. Unless, of course you fly over them like Jimmie Johnson did.
Mike: True, but 98% of the time the car isn’t going straight and flat out. It saves a lot of time and provides more racing. I’m thinking they need to do some kind of netting like they have at the end of some drag strips.
Phil: You could argue that the tire barriers are netting.
Amy: Can the Glen be made safer? Yes. Part of that could happen from running the boot and eliminating a couple of trouble spots.
Mike: Watkins Glen, just like every other track on the schedule, needs to evaluate their facility after every race and see what they can do better. While the track isn’t unsafe, a thorough look at the course and some added safety, along with some reconfiguration, would be a good thing. I would like to see them run the boot. Hopefully they’ll look at that for next year.
Phil: I think it’s already too late for 2012. Maybe 2013.
Mike: Why would it be too late for 2012? The track is already there.

Denny Hamlin will reportedly run a TRD engine, possibly as soon as Michigan, after Joe Gibbs Racing announced a merger of their engine department with Toyota’s. Is Hamlin’s rapid move to a different package part of a natural progression, or does it suggest a deeper problem at JGR?

Amy: I think it shows a lack of trust of the team as a whole by Hamlin. It is part of the natural progression, but I’d have pegged Logano to run it first as he’s pretty much out of Chase contention.
Mike: I think it is something Hamlin has earned. Of all the people at JGR, I think he’s had more engine failures than anybody else over there.
Phil: Was it actually Denny’s decision to go to the TRD engine, or was it Mike Ford?
Amy: Hamlin gave a statement about it. And I don’t know about earned so much as foisted. I think it was a team decision.
Mike: I don’t think TRD engines are experimental. If they were, then I could see them in Joey Logano‘s car. They’re proven engines and I don’t really get why they won’t have them in all three cars right away. Is their supply chain really that thin?
Amy: JGR has run the last few seasons as an “eggs in one basket” kind of team. Hamlin’s basket is empty this year. They are proven engines, but you don’t see the other Toyotas beating the Gibbs power, do you?
Mike: Yeah, Hamlin is in some real trouble right now. He very well could be heading to Richmond having to win in order to make the Chase. Sometimes. They were kicking their butts at Indy, which is a horsepower track.
Amy: If Hamlin is willing to trade speed for durability, this switch is pretty bad.
Phil: No, Toyota engines are not quite as powerful and apparently, they don’t mount the same either. It’s a lot of work to switch over.
Mike: Not necessarily. I think it is pretty well proven that speed isn’t as important with this car on Intermediate tracks. The key is fuel mileage and getting out front.
Amy: Remember when JGR first split off from TRD because they thought they could do better? Wonder what’s changed? I’d be frustrated as well this year if I was Hamlin. He’s the senior driver at JGR but he’s sure not treated like it.
Mike: I don’t know, but I don’t think they have that engine dyno back on line yet.
Phil: When did they first split off? I thought they were building their own from the moment they switched to Toyota.
Mike: I thought they split after the first year. I don’t remember for sure. I know they ran some experimental stuff at the All-Star Race and were really fast, but they didn’t make it to the checkered flag.
Amy: The Toyota camp was kind of mad about it, while the early JGR stuff blew up a lot, too. I think they first used them in the All-Star Race with some spectacular results – those results being detonations, not finishes, which has been Hamlin’s problem this year.
Phil: Blowing up when trying new stuff seems to be the norm. Remember when Bill Davis Racing had issues with their heat exchangers? They would blow and coat the car with a slurry-like substance.
Mike: Hamlin’s problem is that he finished second last year. We know how that works out.
Amy: But it hasn’t been as big an issue for Kyle Busch. I wonder if Hamlin’s driving style is harder on engines or if he’s second in line at the shop? He still finished last year better than Busch and Logano.
Mike: I can’t imagine there is anybody driving harder than Kyle, except maybe Allmendinger.
Phil: You never know. Maybe Kyle’s getting the better stuff. Maybe the crew chief relationship never recovered from last fall. Maybe it’s just bad luck.
Mike: Again, Hamlin finished second. Every year when someone finishes second to Jimmie he runs like Fido’s rear end the next season. I never buy your belief that there is a pecking order in race teams. People float that crap all of the time. How could an owner possibly benefit by not giving everyone in the organization an equal chance to win every weekend?
Phil: That’s kinda Formula 1-esque with the “not giving everyone a chance to win” thing. Here in Sprint Cup, there isn’t always a clear No. 1 or 2 (or 3 or 4, for that matter).
Mike: Now, when the final couple of races roll around, and only one driver in an organization has a shot at the title, then yes they should put everything behind that driver first. But until then, I refuse to believe there is a line at the engine door and one team gets to engine marked “best.”
Amy: I don’t know; maybe they don’t have the stuff TO give them an equal shot. Maybe they figure that a championship is worth the other guy struggling to find stuff, for number one? JGR has always seemed to have one really good team and the others just trying to keep up. They haven’t had two great teams since they had Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte and the No. 11 car.
Mike: They’re both in the Chase at this point and Hamlin has finished better than Busch in most Chases. Why in the world would Hamlin not get the best stuff in your scenario?
Amy: Who knows, Mike? Busch is NASCAR’s darling and everyone seems to buy into it, so I think someone had to take the plunge on the engine. I am surprised it’s not Logano, but the No. 11 crowd seems to think they’ll do better with it.
Mike: I don’t know about that but it could be. Seems to me that Logano would be the chosen one if there was going to be one. I just think Hamlin is snake bitten this year and no matter what happens, he’ll be lucky to make the Chase. The TRD engines have proven, over the last year or so, have caught up to Gibbs engines so it makes sense to merge the organizations and let them do testing.
Phil: Busch as NASCAR’s darling? I don’t know about that. Now, if you were talking about the “driver most likely to stay on the pit box the longest in a rain delay,” then you might have something.
Amy: He gets away with murder, how else would you explain it?
Mike: Last time I checked, Busch hasn’t killed anyone.
Phil: I will say that Kyle looked bummed out in the media center after the race. He watched the replay of the big wreck on the screen with a blank look on his face.
Mike: I think Boris Said and Carl Edwards have come closer to killing people than Busch.
Amy: Funny, Mike. you know what I mean.

Marcos Ambrose was the fifth driver this year to score his first career win. Which of the five (Ambrose, Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, David Ragan, Paul Menard) will end up with the most wins on the books?

Phil: OK, I’m willing to say Trevor Bayne. Only because he’s the youngest of the five and has a long career in front of him.
Amy: I think long term, Ragan if he stays at Roush Fenway. Regan Smith is probably more talented, but unless he gets with a better team, won’t contend consistently. Bayne could have a lot as well if he can get a full RFR ride. Marcos Ambrose is too much of a road-course specialist and Paul Menard doesn’t match the talent of the others.
Mike: Wow, I would have to go with Bayne purely from an age standpoint. He is younger than the rest and is probably going to have more time, driving for a top-tier team, than any of the other names. I think Ambrose is a far better oval driver than you give him credit for. He came very close to winning the 600 this year. Menard is running better all of the time and he’s in RCR equipment now.
Phil: Ambrose is a bit of a wildcard. He’s older than the others and came to NASCAR with more experience. Yes, he’s a road-course specialist, but he’s shown flashes of brilliance elsewhere.
Amy: Ambrose isn’t a real threat on the ovals 99% of the time. Now that could be a product of his equipment. That’s why he’s running better now.
Mike: I don’t think Ragan has a prayer and Smith is a good driver; but until Furniture Row goes to three teams, I don’t think he’ll be a threat to reel off a bunch of wins.
Phil: Smith might get lucky and score a couple more, but I couldn’t tell you where they would come.
Amy: I’d love to see Smith with a top team. He may well be the most talented of these five. If he’s not, he’s second only to Bayne.
Mike: I think Ambrose is a threat more than he gets credit for. He runs in the top 10 for quite a few oval races without getting the TV time.
Phil: Menard has three teammates to gleam info from and has improved this year. Granted, he can’t do much about what happened Monday, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he scored a couple of more.
Mike: You’re probably right on Smith, Amy. He did an amazing job as a rookie at DEI when the place was beginning to crumble around him.
Amy: Ambrose is a top-10 threat, bit not a winning threat. Give him a car like the No. 99 and that might change.
Mike: Very true, Amy. If Ambrose was in a true RFR car, I think he’d be a threat to win. Although I still think he could surprise with another this year. I think it would be great to see him win the Sprint Showdown Million at Atlanta.
Amy: Sure, it would. But the way things are going, I can’t see a fan taking home a cool million.
Mike: I could see Ambrose or Menard winning it.
Phil: Menard does run well at tracks like Atlanta. He could do it.
Amy: I don’t see either of them winning Atlanta. I think Brad Keselowski is the best bet of the three so far.
Mike: Until Carl flips him on the front straight. Did I say that out loud? Keselowski is definitely on a hot streak, but they’ve been on flat courses. I’m not ready to jump all in with him on banked tracks yet. That said, I admit, he’s done more in Penske equipment than I thought he could.
Amy: Aww, don’t pick on Carl. He’s not the only one to cause a wreck himself and then go out and flip the other guy in it. Oh, wait.
Phil: That’s fair, Mike. Penske in general is much improved this season.
Amy: I’ve been seriously impressed with Keselowski the second half so far. A huge shoutout to his rookie crew chief, Paul Wolfe, as well.
Mike: Pretty hard not to be impressed with someone who’s been running the way he has the last month.
Phil: Wolfe and Keselowski were already used to working together prior to this season. These days, that’s big.
Mike: Yeah, Paul has channeled the inner Brad very well.
Amy: True. They communicate very well. As in will legitimately contend for a title in a couple of years well.
Mike: Still not ready to make that reach with Keselowski yet, but they’re certainly making strides in that direction. Menard and Ambrose both should have a chance to win at Atlanta. Keselowski will, too, if it turns into a fuel-mileage deal.

As the Nationwide and Truck series’ championship battles heat up, is the one-series points rule having a positive effect on those series?

Phil: Well, in the Truck Series, ‘whackers weren’t really running enough races to affect the points all that much. However, it’s created a huge shakeup in Nationwide.
Mike: It is having a positive effect on the points battles. As far as the actual series, I have no idea. I know they’ve been short of full fields this year on more than one occasion and that does not say anything good.
Amy: I think it is. It’s certainly giving fans someone different to think about. However, ESPN would love if NASCAR would go back to the old rule.
Phil: You bet they would. They could focus even more on Kyle Busch and Edwards. The Truck Series is apparently short again for Michigan this week. Meanwhile, they got 49 entries for Montreal.
Mike: It is kind of sad that they’re getting that kind of a turnout for Montreal when they might not go back there next year thanks to local support. It’s a shame they won’t support the series when there are other places that would love to have the series there. As for the rule, it gives fans something to talk about during the week. On race weekends, it is still the Cup guys for the most part. I think the highest-finishing regular this weekend was eighth.
Amy: As far as the actual week-to-week races? Not so much. Was more of same old, same old this week at the Glen with the best real NNS driver finishing eighth. Nicole Briscoe pretty well summed up the network’s attitude this weekend. She said (I am NOT kidding!) “with all this talk of the championship, let’s not forget that there’s six Cup regulars and road-course ringers in the field.” Someone actually PAID her to say that!

Mike: She says what she’s told to say, at least what topics to speak on. It is the producers you blame for that. I think the Truck Series is finally reflecting the fact that teams cannot afford to travel over 500 miles to get chump change for prize money.
Phil: Yeah, it was strange seeing Aric Almirola get a press conference for finishing eighth.
Amy: Did they script those words, though? Whoever did, it’s tacky, to put it nicely.
Phil: They’ve got prompters, so someone likely did. Bestwick doesn’t really use them, though.
Mike: I don’t know about script it, but I’m sure they told her to talk about the Cup regulars and the road-course racers.
Amy: Either way, it could have been phrased better and is a perfect illustration of what is wrong with the NNS broadcasts.
Mike: Maybe. Bottom line is you spend the majority of the race talking about the drivers up front and that is who was up front. I do think it was wrong they did it before the race even began.
Amy: I agree, Mike, to a point. However, ESPN’s official company line at the beginning of the year when the change went down was, “We’re going to focus on the guys winning and not the championship.” That’s wrong. Responsible journalism would dictate endeavoring to cover both.
Phil: That’s right. They have done that to varying degrees this season. Some weeks are worse than others.
Amy: I do think that looking ahead, the points deal has had a positive effect. I haven’t seen one Cup guy announce a full NNS schedule for 2012. ESPN should have at least told the truth, which was ‘we’re going to cover the Cup guys as much as possible and the real NNS guys only when we absolutely have to.’
Mike: I disagree. I hate nothing more than the famous “if the race ended now” crap. You cover the race, do a couple of through the fields during the event and focus the rest of the time on the best racing near the front. After the race, you talk about the points championship, until it comes down to the last five races. Before then, it is meaningless talk.
Amy: Disagree. I hate the “if the race ended now” crap too, but you report throughout the race on the major players, where they are running and how they got to be running there.
Mike: I think you’re right that the change has prevented any Cup guys from running the entire series. There’s still going to be a bunch of Cup guys in a majority of the races.
Phil: The idea of Cup drivers running the whole series is nothing new. Dale Jarrett more or less did it in 1990 while driving the No. 21 in a prolonged sub role.
Amy: Not much point if you can’t win a championship, I guess. If the only title they can get is the Cup; maybe they’ve figured out they need to focus on that.
Mike: I guess that comes down to a preference of how you like to see a race. I didn’t care about Reed Sorenson running like junk at Raceway Park just because he was the points leader. The only reason for Cup drivers running Nationwide, by the way, in many cases is if the sponsor wants them to..
Phil: There has to be a happy medium. Yes, you have to cover the dudes up front. Yes, you have to cover the top regulars. Yes, you have to cover the not-so-top regulars.
Amy: BS, Mike. The only reason for running it is the pretty trophies. They aren’t slaves. The sponsor can’t make them run. Do they have to sponsor the NNS guy instead? No. But the Cup guys are hardly taking one for the team. See, Mike, I’d like to know why the points leader is running like junk.
Phil: Agreed. Someone like Sorenson isn’t going to run 19th just for the heck of it.
Mike: I’ll take that if there is a long green period with no potential for passing. Otherwise, fill me in during the post-race interview.
Amy: I don’t want to watch lap after lap of one car running five seconds in front of the others and then next guy three seconds ahead of the next guy, no matter who they are.
Mike: I disagree completely. Do you not remember Almirola’s win at Milwaukee? The sponsor was asked if they could leave Almirola in the car to win the race and the sponsor said they’d rather have Hamlin in even if he didn’t win.
Amy: And Hamlin got in, didn’t he? He could have said no. And Carl could have said this year, “Thanks, Fastenal. I don’t think running the whole series is fair, so how about a 10-race schedule?”
Mike: Yes, because the sponsor wanted it. The sponsor called the shots and that’s why they are in the car. I’m not saying they don’t want to run the races, but part of the reason they’re in is because the sponsors want it and that pays for the whole organization to run, not just that race.
Phil: I don’t really understand the move. Almirola was leading at the time the switch was made. The only reason why that stupidity at Milwaukee happened was that some stupid dude parked on the helipad.
Amy: I don’t buy that it pays for the whole organization to run. How much do you really think Z-Line gives Brian Scott? If the drivers had true sportsmanship, they would bow out of a full-year deal.
Mike: Z-Line gives the money to JGR. They only agree to do that because Busch will be in the car 80% of the time.
Amy: And JGR could not run the No. 18 at all and it wouldn’t help or hurt Scott one iota. They don’t NEED to run the car.
Mike: You don’t think Scott getting seat time is a good thing for him?
Amy: Maybe if the teams and drivers showed some integrity, the sponsors would have to sponsor the regulars. Scott gets seat time whether or not Busch is in the No. 18.
Mike: Or not sponsor anyone and then we have 20 cars running in front of 5,000 people and the series folds.
Amy: I highly doubt that would happen, Mike. It didn’t fold in the 1990s before this crap happened.
Mike: In the ’90s it ran at local racetracks in front of 10,000 every week. There were teams showing up in open trailers. That’s not how it works anymore.
Phil: The 1990s were substantially different for the now-Nationwide Series than it is today. Far more regionalized. Z-Line Designs doesn’t give jack squat to Scott. Obviously, getting seat time is great for Scott but it’s definitely not on Z-Line’s dime.
Amy: Exactly, Phil. One has nothing to do with the other. Maybe if the team didn’t run the No. 18, they could put more into the No. 11. Fastenal doesn’t pay the bills for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Bayne except for the occasional race where they run on the Nos. 6 or 16.
Mike: Z-line’s money helps run the whole program. The money goes into a pool and is spent. They don’t buy spindles just for one team with sponsor money from one sponsor. It all goes together and gives everyone a chance to race. You don’t think that, were it not for Fastenal sponsoring car, the No. 6 and No. 16 would even be running this year?
Amy: No, it does not. The sponsor pays for the team they’re on. Most of them would have a cow if they found the team spreading the money to another car. Most teams have in their contracts with a sponsor that the money may not be spent on anything but that team.
Mike: There are certainly things that are team specific and the monies for those things are directly from the sponsors. But there are shared items and there is no way they’re going to compartmentalize them like that.
Amy: I’m saying the lion’s share IS earmarked and compartmentalized. Seen it firsthand.

Predictions for Michigan?

Amy: I think I’ll go with Keselowski; he’s on a hot streak.
Mike: I’ll take Edwards.
Phil: I’m going with Jeff Gordon.

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

WriterPointsBehindPredictions (Starts)WinsTop 5sTop 10s
Phil Allaway24221812
Amy Henderson20-4212512
Mike Neff13-1117158
Jeff Meyer11-1317158
Summer Dreyer9-1512044
Tom Bowles1-232001
Brody Jones0-245002
Beth Lunkenheimer-6-307000

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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