Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Surprises, Off Weeks & Sorting Out Free Agency

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)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Fridays/Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)

One race into the Chase, there were plenty of surprises and the adage is that you can’t win the Chase in the first week but you can lose it. Is anyone out of the running after Chicagoland?

Amy: I think Denny Hamlin is pretty much done. He’s got to beat 11 drivers every week to get to the top. I think that in another week or two, 20 out will mean done.
Beth: I don’t know. I wouldn’t count anyone out just yet, but Hamlin is in a deep hole. Another week like Chicagoland and I’ll count out the No. 11 team, but anything can happen in the final nine races this season.
Phil: I disagree with that statement, Amy. You’ll still be in it through at least Talladega being 20 out. Hamlin is probably out of it by now, but everyone else is still in play. No one else is more than 20 and change behind right now.

See also
Shakedown Session: Oh, How the Mighty Have Fallen!

Beth: Agreed completely, Phil. Talladega is such a crapshoot that the points leader could get involved in an early wreck and change the entire top 12.
Summer: I think -20 out will be hard to overcome NOW, let alone with five to go. Even at a crapshoot like Talladega, who is to say that you won’t get caught up in a crash too?
Beth: Kyle Busch‘s just 19 points back, hardly something they can’t overcome.
Amy: True, and that’s one reason I think that track doesn’t belong in the Chase, and at the very least should be much earlier. But with every point being an on-track position, 20 is a much bigger deficit than it appears to be. The likelihood of beating another driver by 20 positions over eight races is not high. Possible, for sure, but not likely unless they have bad luck somewhere, and you can’t count on anyone else’s luck.
Summer: Even if someone in the top five falters, it will be those AROUND them that benefit, not someone 10th in points. And I agree Hamlin is done. They haven’t been running well enough to make up for the ground they lost in Chicago.
Amy: Right now, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth will both need stellar runs at Loudon while Harvick falters. Not really a likely scenario. Another one who needs a stellar week is Kyle Busch. They need to stop the bleeding
Beth: Perhaps the better question to be asking is whether someone up top will falter in the coming weeks.
Phil: If this season so far is any indication, that would be a yes, Beth.
Amy: In all honesty, I think anyone behind fifth is already on very shaky ground.
Summer: The only reason I don’t think Kenseth and Gordon are out of it is because of their recent performance. They’ve been fast enough that they can rebound. Hamlin just doesn’t have it right now.
Beth: Anyone outside of fifth, really? I highly doubt that, Amy. Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman are only 14 points back. We’ve seen more than that gained in a single week. I still say it’s not yet time to count anyone out. Maybe after next week, but not right now. But I suppose only time will tell.
Phil: True, Beth. Heck, Jimmie Johnson lost 24 points at Richmond.
Summer: I’m counting out Hamlin because of his performance, not just because of his points position. I think back to Johnson is fine. After that is where it gets tricky.
Amy: I also think Chicago sorted out who can get the most out of a fuel gamble. With five intermediate tracks, that could be a very real issue for any of the drivers who ran out on Monday
Phil: You could argue that it’s good reasoning to put more of a variety of tracks in the Chase right there.
Summer: I think fuel mileage will play a part in determining this championship. Whether or not that is a good thing depends on who you ask.
Beth: Fuel mileage is part of the game just like getting caught up in a wreck at a short track is part of the game. It’s an aspect of racing and whether you like it or not, it’s going to happen. Some drivers will benefit from it while others will take a huge fall from it. Just ask Kenseth.
Summer: I agree with you, Beth. I certainly have no problem with fuel mileage playing a part, especially since it brings the pit crew and crew chief into play. It doesn’t have to be all driver.
Amy: I felt bad for Kenseth. He didn’t ask to be pushed. I understand and agree with the rule and the penalty, but what a bummer. While I have no issue with fuel-mileage races on their own, the idea of that deciding the champion makes my skin crawl. The champion should be the best driver, not one who coasts home five times.
Summer: The champion should be the best TEAM, though, and if you can work strategy to your advantage to win the race when others can’t, more power to you.
Phil: I don’t think we’re going to have five fuel-mileage races at the intermediate tracks.
Beth: The champion is not only the best driver but the best team. Without the team, the driver won’t be able to race each week.
Amy: Based on the racing so far this year I very much fear that, Phil. True about the team, but in the end, it should be settled on the track
Beth: I feel bad for Kenseth AND JJ Yeley. Yeley was just trying to help and neither driver thought about it at the time. That’s just it, Amy. Stuff CAN’T be settled on the track without the rest of the team.
Summer: Yeah, but Yeley didn’t lose anything because of it. Kenseth might have lost a shot at the title.
Amy: Chicago was not settled on the track because the fastest cars couldn’t race at the end.
Beth: It’s a part of the strategy, just as much as choosing whether to run the high or low line. It was their choice not to pit for fuel, Amy. It was how the race shook out.
Summer: You work with what this sport gives you, and sometimes that means gambling. I really don’t think it will determine the champion. I think it will play a part, but I don’t think it will come down to that.
Amy: I agree that for one race, a fuel-mileage win is as good as any other. But determining a CHAMPION?! No way.
Beth: Would you rather NASCAR manipulate the end of the race and throw a caution with 20 laps to go so everyone has a fair shot at it? I highly doubt that.
Phil: That kind of thing might work in the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown, but not in a points race.
Amy: No, of course not. I’d like to see NASCAR host Chase races at fewer tracks where that’s likely to happen.
Beth: Sure, a driver may win on fuel mileage, but he’s not going to be around to run that mileage gamble at the end without staying safe and through the hard work of the rest of his team.

With its first Chase race on the books, Chicagoland Speedway already has the opening spot in next year’s Chase … but based on the racing, does the track deserve to keep that spot on the Sprint Cup schedule?

Amy: No, absolutely not.
Summer: Nope, and especially not two that so closely resemble each other. If it’s going to be in the Chase, take Kansas out. For crying out loud, that’s like racing the same track twice in four weeks.
Amy: I agree, Summer. There should not be five 1.5-mile tracks in the Chase.
Phil: If you take Kansas out of the Chase (or Chicagoland, for that matter), where do you move them to?
Amy: if anything, swap Chicago with Atlanta and move both that race and Richmond forward a week. Let Atlanta decide the Chase, as it used to decide the champion, and make Richmond the playoff kickoff event.
Summer: Heck, I’m for putting Richmond as the championship-deciding event. Kansas only needs one race date, so leave it alone. Chicago, I don’t know, put it back where it was.
Amy: I’d say swap Chicago with Darlington, have the real Southern 500 and you might have something.
Phil: May in Illinois might not be half bad. But Richmond in November might be a little too cold, Summer.
Amy: And if you keep the Kansas spring date and move a road course in its place, that cuts back the cookie cutters to Charlotte, Texas and Homestead.
Summer: Which are all good racetracks.
Amy: Well, except for Homestead.
Summer: Yeah, but no one really cares about the racing there. They’re too focused on the championship.
Phil: I just froze my butt off last weekend at Lebanon Valley for the final night of the season. Mid-September could be too cold for night races in some parts of the country.
Amy: Charlotte should stay in the Chase because it’s Charlotte. Texas … I’d rather see them race Vegas, but whatever.
Summer: I’d rather see Atlanta in the Chase than Texas.
Phil: If Las Vegas ends up in the Chase, it would probably be the last race, if anything.
Amy: No Daytona as the grand finale, whatever you do. If you have a plate track as the last race, you might as well decide the champion by pulling names out of a hat.
Summer: I think Daytona would work as the first race, though. It’s a crapshoot but there is still time to rebound.
Amy: That wouldn’t be bad, Summer. Do that and get rid of Talladega. Now, if Rockingham gets enough fan support that a Cup race would be feasible five years down the line, then that should certainly be a Chase race as well.
Phil: Yes, but put it earlier than Oct. 26. That’s a little late for Rockingham, as we’ve learned over the years.
Summer: So are we submitting this idea to NASCAR or what?
Amy: As if NASCAR would care about what would make the racing not suck?
Summer: In a perfect world.
Phil: They apparently want the big bucks. However, I think they need to watch some Press Your Luck to see what happens when you get too greedy. And yes, I’ve watched too much.
Amy: NASCAR would have used up their Whammies a long time ago.
Phil: Yeah, but they probably would have gotten the $2,000 or Lose 1 Whammy a couple of times.
Summer: I’m lost.
Phil: Press Your Luck is a game show that ran on CBS from 1983-1986, Summer. Players tried to earn money from a big board while trying to avoid “Whammys,” who bankrupted you.
Summer: Ohhh OK Phil. Sounds like a diluted game of Wheel of Fortune.

Clint Bowyer appears to have a sponsor locked up for 20 races in 2012, but not a ride. Where would be the best fit for Bowyer among the players (RCR, Michael Waltrip Racing or Roush)?

Summer: How about staying right where he is?
Amy: I truly don’t think there’s much hope of that, Summer. I think of those, Roush looks best on paper, but it’s not the best fit for everyone. Ask Jamie Mac.
Phil: Clint Bowyer recruited the sponsor himself? Good on you, Clint. Based on the current options, he might be best staying in the No. 33. MWR would be a complete unknown and Roush would be probably the No. 6.
Beth: Why not, Summer? After all, if he has 5-hour Energy already, that fills in a substantial number of races that RCR won’t have to cover. And honestly, would moving anywhere else really benefit him?
Amy: I don’t see it. Childress might say it, but he’s already sent half the crew to the No. 29. I honestly think any of them is a downgrade, even if he stays where he is.
Summer: Yeah and that’s what I don’t understand, Amy. He’s had plenty of success at RCR. I can’t imagine what he thinks RFR (or MWR for that matter!) has that RCR doesn’t.
Beth: MWR is a VERY poor decision in my opinion. In fact, I wouldn’t even call that a lateral move.
Summer: For real, Beth. It would be a career killer.
Phil: At this point, probably not, Beth. However, if the team’s already acting like he’s gone, and then he comes back, 2012 will be like a lame-duck year. It would like watching the last year of Jenny Jones’s talk show.
Beth: He’s already lost part of his pit crew since he didn’t make the Chase. You might as well call him a lame duck now. Besides, consider how Kevin Harvick was so adamant that he would be leaving RCR and then suddenly all is well again and he has four race wins and is leading the championship points.

See also
Full Throttle: Trying to Win a Title at RCR Doesn’t Need to Be Made Harder

Amy: Besides if he stays at RCR, is it a one-year deal? Because you know Childress will want Austin Dillon in Cup in another year. Also, RCR just can’t compete with the four-car model. They’ve tried twice and failed miserably both times. Last year, with three cars, they had three. Two years ago, they had four cars and no Chase berths.
Summer: How so Amy? They got Paul Menard to victory lane and Harvick is leading the points. Even Hendrick usually has one if not two teams that struggle and they are considered the best in the business. I haven’t really heard this name thrown around much, but what about Joe Gibbs Racing?
Phil: That would be completely dependent on Gibbs giving Joey Logano the boot. I don’t know about that.
Summer: Not necessarily, Phil. They could add a fourth car.
Phil: Only if Home Depot stays. If Roush poaches them, that is a definite no.
Amy: Also, JGR already had NOS, a direct competitor to 5-hour.
Summer: Ah, you’re right. Never mind. I guess that’s why we haven’t heard much from them.
Phil: They’re direct competitors? They’re completely different products that don’t really compete against each other.
Amy: To the average consumer, Phil, I think they are the same thing.
Phil: I guess I’m not average, then.
Summer: I think Bowyer could have made the Chase without this outside distraction though. I see your point, but I think if they stick with it, they can make the four-team model work.
Beth: Agreed, Summer. They just need to realize it’s not going to work overnight. If they put the dedication into making the team work with four cars, it can be done.
Summer: Let’s not forget three of their four cars were competitive at the beginning of this season with Harvick, Menard and Bowyer. Eventually they lost control. But they showed it’s possible.
Amy: But Jeff Burton was WAY off, and he made it last year. I just don’t think four cars is working there. And Menard got a hot start but is running much more true to form now than he was then.
Summer: Yeah, well look at Mark Martin at HMS. There is always that one car there that struggles. And it’s the same with RFR. They usually have one if not two teams that serve no purpose.
Amy: True. But none of them falter with four teams as much as RCR has
Summer: Yeah but that was my point. It’s certainly possible to get at least three teams to good form. That’s because it’s a new venture for them. Like Beth said, if they put the dedication into it, I think they can make it work.
Amy: Maybe it is Summer, but RCR has not been able to do that unless they only have three teams. Honestly, I think the same is true of JGR. They need to get the No. 20 more competitive before adding another team.
Beth: You just need enough knowledgeable people in place to get the job done. Simply put, RCR can’t expect four cars to work if they’re not willing to put the manpower into making it work. I think, yes, three teams is ideal, but Bowyer doesn’t really have that option right now unless he goes to a B-list team like MWR. RCR put Menard in victory lane and that’s a miracle in and of itself. I just can’t help but notice that as the season started getting older, Bowyer started to struggle more.
Amy: I think Bowyer would be best off, equipment-wise, at either RCR or Roush. But I don’t see RCR since they say it hinges on sponsorship even WITH 5-hour. And if he goes to Roush, someone there gets totally screwed, too
Summer: Maybe they’re just trying to lock it up for the remaining few races? David Ragan would be out of a ride, which I’m pretty sure is already happening anyway.
Amy: And if they replace Ragan with Bowyer, either Trevor Bayne or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is also going to get stiffed
Summer: I’m not 100% convinced either of those two are ready to move up to Cup anyway.
Amy: Bayne is IN Cup, but could still lose the No. 21 to Stenhouse. Crappy way to treat him if you ask me.
Summer: Well I mean moving there full time to earn points. And Stenhouse has earned it more than Bayne, even with the Daytona 500.
Phil: Apparently the driver of the No. 21 is not the Wood Brothers’ decision. It’s all Roush’s work.
Amy: Then No. 21 won’t run a full year. That’s been announced. They’re waiting on Roush to decide who drives the No. 21.
Summer: I think it’d be cool if the two could split a ride though. I think Stenhouse would work out better than Bayne if his NNS performance means anything.
Phil: He impressed in the 600 (11th).
Amy: That would be a crappy way to treat the Daytona 500 champion. That trumps 11th at Charlotte.
Summer: Oh please. Bayne hasn’t done anything worth crap since winning that race.
Beth: But on the flip side, Amy, what exactly has Bayne done in Cup since then?
Amy: What has he had to do anything WITH?
Summer: Stenhouse has been competitive in NNS all season long and yes, Bayne got sick, but he hasn’t been impressive when he has been there. I don’t think just that one win is enough to put Bayne back in. He hasn’t proven anything since then.
Beth: You could argue the same thing about winning the Daytona 500. Would he have won it if Ragan hadn’t screwed up? Probably not.
Amy: That’s one more win than Stenhouse has. Heck a Daytona 500 win got Derrike Cope a ride for YEARS.
Summer: In Cup, yes, but Stenhouse only has one Cup start correct? Look at Bayne’s NNS statistics next to Stenhouse’s and then get back to me.
Phil: You make it sound like the Wood Brothers have cars good enough to win every week. I don’t think they do. It’s been a long time since they were a weekly threat to win. Maybe 20 years.
Beth: As far as Stenhouse and Bayne, Stenhouse has just one Cup Series start and it was a pretty impressive finish. Compare two wins for Stenhouse in NNS vs. none for Bayne. Want more reasons Stenhouse deserves the ride over Bayne? Thirty top 10s for Stenhouse in 67 NNS starts vs. 22 top 10s for Bayne in 73 starts.
Amy: And Bayne gave that team relevance, something no driver has done in a decade
Summer: It doesn’t matter. If they want results, Stenhouse needs to be the driver.
Beth: Amen, Summer!
Amy: I disagree. Bayne is just as capable. He’s got third-tier NNS equipment at RFR.
Phil: Remember Beth, Stenhouse has spent his whole Nationwide career at Roush Fenway, while Bayne drove most of last year for Diamond-Waltrip.
Beth: Alright, this season alone … 20 top 10s for Stenhouse and nine for Bayne. And Bayne has only run five less races this season because of his illness.
Amy: And how many of those races was he not at 100%? He deserves another year to prove he deserves the No. 21.
Beth: I don’t see where Bowyer has any great options when it comes to finding his home next season, but with that being said he’d be better off sticking with RCR than making a move to a team with lesser equipment.
Summer: As far as Bowyer, he needs to stay put. I haven’t seen anywhere else that could give him the opportunities he’s already had.
Amy: As for Bowyer, I think the RCR bridge is, if not burned, then on fire. MWR isn’t exactly top-tier and Roush can be bane or blessing, depending on the driver and the year. I think Roush equipment is probably a bit better than RCR and Bowyer played fourth fiddle at RCR this year.
Phil: Bowyer would have the advantage of the FR9 engine. Not the best on fuel mileage, but very powerful.
Summer: That’s probably because of his contract situation though. Pretty sure that would change if he was secure for another few years.

The Nationwide Series has just six races left in nine weeks to decide a champion. Will the three off weeks be just what the teams need to recharge, or will they destroy momentum in championship runs?

Beth: Momentum killers! I’ve never understood why NASCAR likes to cram off weeks in such a small portion of the season. But I guess to argue the other side for a moment, it does give teams a substantial amount of extra time to spend in the shop to work on improvements.
Amy: It’s been so hard for anyone to get momentum in that series anyway, that I’m not sure the off weeks will be a dealbreaker for anyone. That said, it should be a more difficult schedule down the stretch to really determine their mettle.
Summer: They all have the same schedule to work with, so it’s not like it matters.
Amy: Speaking of crappy schedules to end the year … they should go at least nine of 10 weeks.
Phil: It’s sorta like the Cup Series back around 1992. You know, when they were racing 29 times a year instead of 36. Back then, the idea of racing nine out of 10 weeks was pretty foreign. However, you’re right, this clustering is stupid. It’s even dumber in the Truck Series.
Beth: Oh don’t get me started on the Truck Series schedule. That has been asinine for many years.
Amy: The truck schedule is just stupid.
Summer: I’ll agree to make it unanimous. It’s confusing as heck to keep up with.
Phil: Yep. Now, remember, Cup used to have a week off between Phoenix and the season finale at Atlanta. Was that really a good idea?
Summer: I don’t think the Nationwide Series schedule can do any real damage as far as momentum, though, since all of the teams have to deal with it. Well the NFL has a break between their semifinal games and the SuperBowl, don’t they? I don’t see a huge problem with it. It just builds up hype. Now three off weeks all crammed in? I agree, stupid.
Amy: Maybe. I do think Cup needs one off week either in the Chase or, better, directly before. But three off weeks in nine weeks is a bit much. It can kill momentum and takes away some of the difficulty factor of a championship run.
Phil: Yeah, they do, but they don’t need it. No one really needs 14 days between the AFC/NFC championships and the Super Bowl.
Summer: Phil, I don’t know much about football, but I would imagine that’s to build up attention and press.
Phil: True, but like I said, they don’t need it.
Summer: That’s not the point.
Phil: It’s overkill.
Summer: Anyway, back to the topic. I think the schedule is confusing but I know why they do it. They want to coincide with the Cup Series championship.
Beth: Alright, so we can all agree that three weeks off in the final nine races in the Nationwide schedule is silly. So what can be done to improve it?
Amy: They could still do that and have the off weeks at a different time.
Phil: Here, the three off weeks provide a cooling-down of sorts (I guess). Still doesn’t mean it’s the right way to go (one of those off weeks used to be the Gateway weekend).
Amy: They only run two fewer races, it can’t be that hard to schedule.
Summer: Yeah, I know, and I wish they would spread them out a little bit more. But NNS runs on some of Cup’s off weeks and I think that adds to some of what we see now.
Amy: Give them off the two Pocono weeks and reschedule those races to later in the year. Swap NNS and trucks at Loudon and the problem is solved.
Summer: Yeah they should and I don’t know why they aren’t. I know they are trying to get the Truck Series finished in time too, and I guess trying to line all three series up at the end of the year is just SOOO confusing.
Phil: They already took the spring weekend at Pocono off. The August race was the same weekend as the second Iowa race.
Amy: I’d like to see the truck finale at Atlanta or Richmond. They don’t get any attention during the Chase anyway.
Beth: Exactly, Summer. I guess the powers that be can’t seem to figure out how to balance out off weeks for each series. I think they Cup hype detracts from the other two. If the CWTS season ended at Atlanta, they’d have their own show.
Phil: Synergy, that’s what Ford Championship Weekend is. Big deal. I could care less. The Truck Series always used to finish at Phoenix or Las Vegas.
Summer: I think it’d be neat to have the three different championships in different places. More emphasis could be placed on each individual series.
Beth: I like the thought of all three series ending at the same time. Puts an exclamation point on the long season.
Summer: I’m fine with it too, Beth, but they make it such a pain in the butt to keep up with.
Beth: I could write a better schedule than NASCAR has. Speaking of schedules, I wish they’d just go ahead and get next season’s schedules out already.
Amy: NNS is waiting to confirm Rockingham. Not sure what the truck holdup is.
Beth: Filling in holes most likely.
Phil: Yeah. Apparently, they want to release all three at the same time. Heck, remember in 2004 when they released the 2005 “tentative schedule” in April?
Beth: I heard rumors that they’re looking at Gresham Motorsports Park for the Truck Series, which would be AWESOME!
Amy: That would be fantastic! The more independent tracks trucks and NNS can race at, the better.
Beth: We’ve got an idea of where some of the races will shake out. In fact, plenty of tracks have already released their dates.
Phil: Nationwide used to race there when it was Peach State Speedway in the late ’80s, I think.
Beth: Trucks don’t just need to be at independent tracks. They need to head back to the short tracks that the series was born on. And frankly, they really oughta be focused mostly in the southeast. It’s nothing against anywhere else in the US, but I have a feeling the fields each week would be substantially healthier if they stayed closer to home.
Summer: Well next year sounds like it will be a BLAST for the Truck Series!
Phil: The problem with those tracks is that a lot of those places weren’t designed for live pit stops. Gresham Motorsports Park is an exception to that rule, though.

OK, how about some predictions for Loudon?

Amy: I think I’ll take Ryan Newman for the sweep.
Summer: I’ll go with Johnson. I still don’t believe this team is going to stay as quiet as they have been.
Phil: Bowyer for the repeat.
Beth: I’ll go with Hamlin and the No. 11 team finding their footing and proving they’re not out of this thing yet.

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

WriterPointsBehindPredictions (Starts)WinsTop 5sTop 10s
Phil Allaway292711015
Amy Henderson26-3262616
Mike Neff14-11221610
Summer Dreyer14-1513155
Jeff Meyer11-1817158
Brody Jones0-295002
Beth Lunkenheimer3-2610123
Tom Bowles-1-303001

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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