Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Championship Stroking, Martinsville Strategies & Feel-Good Stories

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 (Wednesday/Full Throttle & Friday/Keepin’ It Short)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Fridays/Tearing Apart the Trucks & Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)

Despite finishing 11th at Talladega, Carl Edwards holds his biggest points lead of the Chase. With only one victory, would an Edwards title defeat the purpose of the Chase and, if it happens, will it bring about a rules change for 2012?

Phil: No, and it shouldn’t. Simple as that. Carl Edwards has been the best so far in the Chase. Why do you want to penalize him?
Amy: I think it defeats NASCAR’s original purpose of the Chase, which is FINE with me because it’s a big ol’ thumb to the nose on that.

See also
NASCAR's Chase Comes Full Circle

Beth: The title battle ultimately comes down to who has the best performance in 10 races at the end of the season. And based on that, Edwards and the No. 99 team have been just that.
Mike: The only rule change that should take place is the Chase going away. Other than that, leave it the hell alone. They change the thing nearly every year and it is just getting ridiculous.
Beth: Agreed, Mike. And all of those changes just cheapen the championship even more.
Amy: I think there need to be more points for winning, but not because if this Chase. If you had more points for winning, it would encourage winning instead of points racing.
Mike: We’ve been screaming for years to have winning mean more and, even though they say it does now, it really doesn’t. So unless they start handing out hundreds of points for winning, or at least running top three, then it isn’t going to matter.
Beth: That’s something that’s needed to happen for a long time, Amy. Placing more of an emphasis on winning would definitely improve the overall product.
Amy: But remember, NASCAR said the Chase would make winning more important, so if someone wins it without a single win in the final 10, I’m all for that.
Beth: Well but we both know how many times NASCAR has been WRONG!
Mike: Honestly, the thing that would make the whole product better would be if they gave you a nice toaster and a jacket for winning the points title and took all of the other money and put it in the purses to give to the winners throughout the season.
Phil: They never should have changed this points format, anyway. It was fine the way it was. The whole thing’s a problem. It should have never been instituted. It doesn’t make it any easier to understand. I could have explained the old system to anyone in less than a minute. Same with the current system.
Amy: Scrap the Chase and award 10 bonus points for winning, which is roughly equivalent to 50 under the old system. I really like the 43-1 system as it does make running up front more important. The problem is, it does not reward winning enough.
Mike: I think the current system would be fine for a full-season points battle, but they still need to give 25 points for winning. If they make it a huge difference it will matter. Otherwise there isn’t enough incentive for people to put themselves at risk to fail when going for the win.
Beth: But we’ve talked about that time and time again. And even though NASCAR swears they’re listening to the fans, they’re so far off base with most of the decisions they make week in and week out.
Amy: A bonus of 25 points is too many with the one-point spread. That’s like 75-100 under the old. It shouldn’t be impossible to win the championship without winning, it should just be really hard.
Mike: You could win without winning under that system, Amy, but it would make people be willing to take a chance. Ten points in the current system is not going to make someone take a chance at finishing 35th instead of second. I look at it and say, hey, if he wins he gets a huge point bonus. Ten points is not huge and I’m not going to roll the dice diving into turn 1 on the last lap to possibly put an extra 10 points on my season total.
Amy: Ten points is big. Fifty under the old system is big, because if someone gets on a roll he will distance himself from the field very fast. And the others need at least a chance of being able to keep pace or people will get turned off very fast.
Mike: That’s dumb. So you pull a Ryan Newman and win the most races in the series and end up fifth in points and that’s OK? If so they you aren’t emphasizing winning like you say you want to.
Amy: You shouldn’t be impossible to catch. If you have eight wins and eight 40ths, the guys who gets 16 seconds should have a shot coming down to the wire.
Mike: That is why I say give 25 points for second and 10 for third so that there is a reward for being up front. But if a guy wins eight races and has eight 40ths he should finish ahead of a guy who has 16 fifths. I just think, if you truly want to make winning a priority, you have to pay a BIG bonus for winning and it would benefit the sport if they also paid a decent bonus for finishing top three.
Amy: I don’t like the idea of a guy getting an entire race worth of bonus points for two wins. They should have to add up. Otherwise, you get guys who win three times and then coast for a couple of months. I disagree with bonus for top three; but a bonus point for leading at a certain point in the race wouldn’t be terrible. I wouldn’t mine a point for pole either.
Mike: But could they coast? If another driver could do the same thing and chase them down then they can’t coast. And that gets back to my other point. If you won $1 million for every race and $200,000 for second, there would be guys trying to win more. Make the championship worth a hearty handshake and a big trophy and pay a bunch of money for every win and you’ll see more running for wins.
Phil: I’m fine with a point for pole. However, some people would grouse that it would make NASCAR like CART. All this stupidity about giving 20 extra points to the winner would do nothing but artificially affect the points standings. I’m just not in favor of that.
Amy: I agree with that, Mike. Reduce the year-end payout drastically and put that money into purses. But only pay extra for say, a top-20 finish.
Mike: Oh no, don’t pay any extra for anything but winning. If you start paying a bunch of money for top 20 then people won’t go for it. We hear every year how the All-Star Race is all about going for the win and the money. If you get a million for winning and $200,000 for second, you’ll go for the win.
Amy: Things like that would make the racing exciting. While I agree that Edwards is having the best Chase and deserves the title if he continues to do that, you can’t deny he’s stroking. Granted, he CAN stroke because all of his competitors have had at least one terrible race
Mike: Finishing top five isn’t stroking. Finishing top 10-15 is stroking. I have no doubt he took it easy this past weekend, and very well might this weekend, but he isn’t going to stroke the last three races.

As usual, some of the major Chase players hung back at Talladega, hoping to avoid trouble, but nobody was able to capitalize on the strategy as they have in the past. Is biding their time still a viable strategy in the age of the two-car tandem? And did team orders or a breach of racing etiquette change the outcome of the race?

Amy: It’s a viable strategy. It didn’t work this time because of the late caution. Is it pretty? No. Is it part of the bigger picture? Yes.
Mike: Laying back is a weak way to race and tends to cost people more than help them, but people still try it every plate race. It is still a viable strategy if you want to race like you’re scared. I don’t know about a breach of race etiquette. You’re racing at Talladega and you do what you have to in order to make yourself have a better chance to win.
Phil: Yes, it can work. Just look at what Robby Gordon and Trevor Bayne did Sunday (Oct. 23). In a matter of 12 laps, they made up 12 seconds and got to the leaders. It can work. You just need time. However, I wouldn’t press my luck with it too much.
Amy: Exactly, Phil. I think the tandems, if anything, make it a more appealing strategy, because fewer cars get caught in wrecks. Like any other strategy, it’s not going to work every time. Drivers have laid back at races for 60 years if it suits their ultimate goal of a good finish.
Mike: I don’t deny it can work but it fails more times than it works and the odds of a late-race caution are getting better as more people are trying to employ the strategy.
Amy: Drivers held back in the old days at tracks like Darlington so they had tires at the end and could steal spots that way. This is no different. Sometimes strategy is as important as speed. It’s true at tracks other than plate tracks even now. How many times have we seen a faster car burn up the tires trying to pass someone because the driver gets impatient? Then the other guy just drives away.
Mike: When saving your equipment is a reason for laying back I understand that. There’s no reason to lay back at Talladega because there’s nothing to save. Tires weren’t a problem. Engines are as fresh at the end as the beginning. Laying back is just a way screw yourself out of a good finish. Speaking of stroking.
Amy: Do I love it as a strategy? No. Do I think it serves them right when it doesn’t work? Heck yeah!
Phil: You don’t really see drivers burning up tires these days. At least not like they once did.
Amy: Um, saving the equipment is EXACTLY the reason they hang back at ‘Dega. It’s to avoid the inevitable wrecks. Now, those aren’t as big without the huge parade, but it’s still easy to get caught. That’s what they want to avoid. No different than saving tires.
Phil: Yeah, the manufacturers should stay out of planning for drafting. That just annoys me. Jamie Allison, please go sit in the corner. You bother me.
Mike: You don’t get in wrecks when you’re leading. Pretty sure Mike Wallace didn’t have to avoid squat on Saturday.
Amy: I have mixed feelings on team orders. I do think that if you can possibly help a teammate, you do it above helping anyone else. On the other hand, team orders royally screwed the Ford teams on Sunday. Now, do I think Clint Bowyer was wrong for passing Jeff Burton at the end? Hell, No!

See also
Clint Bowyer Sneaks Around Jeff Burton to Win 2011 Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega

Mike: I agree, Amy. The idea of coming down and saying you cannot help a Chevy, PERIOD, is BS, but if you can help a Chevy or a Ford and you’re driving a Ford, you help a Ford.
Amy: I hate it being about manufacturer. Now if you drive for, say JGR and can help a JGR driver, that’s your job. If you drive for another Toyota team, it is your job to try and win, not to push a Toyota just because it’s a Toyota.
Mike: I gave Bowyer props. He passed him early to give Burton a chance to get him back. I thought that was classy on his part.
Amy: Burton let himself get in position for Bowyer to make the move. Look at Saturday’s race; there wasn’t enough distance to the field for Ron Hornaday to get a run, so he had to push. Burton let the pair get too big a lead. Regardless, it was a good finish to the race. Bowyer did nothing wrong. It’s his job to win for his sponsor.
Mike: If he really wanted to win all he had to do was hug the bottom. Every race that has been won on the last-lap pass in the last few years at ‘Dega has been by a pass on the inside. Personally, I think winning a race means more than who was around you when you did it.
Amy: I think there are times when it means a lot who’s around you, like if it’s your brother pushing or something, but in general, I agree.

The Cup Series heads to Martinsville, the tour’s shortest track, this week. What strategies can we expect from the championship contenders and from the drivers who would like nothing better than to steal their thunder?

Beth: What strategies can we expect? Survive. But there are quite a few drivers out there that are now out of the championship battle after Dega that have nothing on their minds but a win before the season ends.
Amy: Martinsville is a much harder place to strategize at than Talladega. Basically, it includes “go like hell all day or you’ll get lapped.”
Mike: I don’t know that you can employ any strategy at Martinsville. You are constantly in traffic so the only real strategy is to go to the front. The only other possible strategy is wreck every other driver in the Chase and you can gain points on all of them.
Amy: You can’t hang back and hope to avoid trouble. You have to watch tire wear and make sure you keep up with the track, because once you fade, you lose laps very fast. Lead-lap finishes aren’t easy and it’s really hard to get a lap back once you lose it.
Phil: The only strategies I can think of are to conserve brakes, make judicious use of the bumper and have at it.
Amy: Saving brakes is key, Phil – burn those up and the day is done. Fuel mileage doesn’t often come into play, but there are long green-flag runs, so pit strategy is very important. Short pitting will give a big advantage in speed, but if the caution comes out, your day is over
Phil: Granted, it’s far less likely that you’re going to kill the brakes now as opposed to say, 1988. Or even 1996, for that matter. Back then, Kyle Petty set his brakes on fire in 80 laps.
Amy: You may not kill the brakes outright, but if you melt the bead on the tire, you’re still toast.

See also
Now or Never: Why Martinsville Might Determine the NASCAR Championship

Mike: Speed isn’t that much of a benefit because of all of the traffic, so staying out and waiting for the caution is generally better. At Martinsville there isn’t any real riding or waiting. You go when you get the chance or you might not get another. And yes, you can still kill brakes if you are too aggressive for too long without giving them a rest.
Amy: And all of the above is why I love Martinsville. It forces every driver to be at their best for 500 of the toughest laps in NASCAR.
Mike: Oh yeah, there will be 10 cars that drop out with brakes.
Amy: So we should look for “brakes” next to the reason why that started and parked? At least it’s plausible for once.
Mike: Going to be a great race. Curious to see if they tear up more cars than the late models did last month.

Mike Wallace’s CWTS win at Talladega, his first win in the series in 11 years, was popular with the fans in attendance. Will Wallace’s win go down as the feel-good story of the year in that series, or are there other, even more memorable stories to define the best of 2011?

Beth: I won’t lie, I had tears of happiness rolling down my cheeks when the checkered flag flew on Saturday. I’m positive it’s because of Wallace’s likable attitude and that he hadn’t visited victory lane in the series in so long. Who knew Elliott Sadler wouldn’t be able to run and Wallace would fill in and run that well?
Amy: That series has a ton of good storylines every year. That was just an awesome race on Saturday. I love a veteran proving he’s still got it.
Phil: The real story from Saturday is that KHI stomped the field Saturday. It was an embarrassment at times.
Mike: I think the best story is yet to be written, which is going to be Hornaday winning the series title after a huge push over the last two months of the season.
Amy: Speaking of veterans, how about Hornaday putting himself right back in the thick of the points battle? He’s dangerous. And it would be great to see him win over the youngsters.
Beth: Amen, Mike. I usually don’t get too into hoping a particular driver wins the championship, but pulling out that one after being 68 points back just six races ago would be outstanding, especially since Hornaday is on the verge of losing his ride. Having a four-time champion without a ride in the series is just plain stupid.
Phil: That could definitely be in the cards. It’s still a four-man race with four races to go.
Amy: I think any time you put Wallace in a plate car (or truck), you have a very, very good chance of winning if the horsepower is there.
Mike: I don’t think there was that much that Wallace did. Hornaday was the one who kept his truck cool enough to run all day pushing him. Although the save Wallace made when he did get out of shape in turns 3 and 4 was impressive.
Phil: Wallace is very skilled. Truthfully, he’s never had the best equipment in his career. His Cup stats back that up.
Amy: Mike is one of the best plate racers in NASCAR today. There’s a reason why he always seems to get the call when someone needs a driver at a plate track.
Beth: That was impressive and to be honest, it was more important that Wallace be the pushee instead of the pusher. When the two did swap spots, they didn’t run nearly as well with Hornaday out front.
Amy: Ask Rusty sometime who the best driver is among him, Kenny and Mike. His answer would surprise a lot of people.
Mike: There’s no question that Wallace is one of the best plate racers ever. I can imagine him getting an RCR ride on a plate track, he’d be outstanding.
Phil: 7. He won the then-Busch Series night race at Daytona in 2004.
Amy: I think Wallace’s win is top of the heap. But how about the very pleasant surprise that is Nelson Piquet Jr.? I hope he picks up a ride, there is a lot of talent there.
Phil: Piquet’s got sponsorship that he can bring with him, so that helps. However, I find it interesting that he’s considering ESR. When I talked to him last year, he didn’t seem to have nice things to say about them.
Amy: It helps, but it’s not enough money to contend full time, I don’t think.
Mike: Piquet will get a ride somewhere. He’s got lots of money behind him. I think the story of the year is still the quandary that is KHI shutting down. It isn’t a feel good story but it is the story of the year.
Beth: Oh most definitely, Mike. It’s a HUGE blow to the Truck Series that’s sadly going to leave Hornaday without a ride which is just plain wrong.
Amy: It is, Mike, but we’re talking the good ones here. We’ve talked enough trash already. I could never figure why Wallace never got another top truck ride after Ultra. He nearly won the title in 2000 with them. He might have if not for those team orders of which we speak. He’s like Hornaday and Todd Bodine and Johnny Sauter: practically made for that series.
Mike: It is hard to say. Mike doesn’t pull any punches, so that might ruffle some of the sensitive owners the wrong way.
Amy: That’s true, Mike is very blunt. But can he be worse to work with than Kurt Busch? Here’s another feel-gooder: Johnny Benson has a ride for next year.
Phil: Yes, he does. I guess he’ll be in what is currently the No. 66.
Beth: Benson, check. Now we need Ted Musgrave, Rick Crawford, Mike Skinner, Hornaday and Bodine in secure rides and all will be well in the Truck Series once again.
Amy: Let’s hope that ride pans out well. It would be a terrible thing to have all three of the most recent series champions sitting at home next year.
Mike: You would think so, Amy, but Hornaday has struggled getting sponsors. Roush can’t beg someone enough to get on a Nationwide car. Matt Kenseth is going to win the Cup and can’t get a sponsor.
Beth: Shoot, Bodine was nearly sitting on the sidelines earlier this season.
Amy: Putting that in a little perspective, that would be equivalent to nobody wanting to take a chance on Kenseth, Tony Stewart or Jimmie Johnson in their Cup cars. Totally ridiculous.
Beth: But getting back on topic – Wallace’s win was by far the biggest feel-good story so far this season and I’m SO happy that there weren’t any kind of team orders in place to allow Hornaday to head to victory lane. And how cool was it that he was the first Chevy driver to win at Talladega in the Truck Series? It made the win even more important.
Mike: There are still some owners who appreciate a driver’s ability. The problem in Trucks is the series purses pay nothing, so the only way teams can race is sponsorship dollars and you have to be a young driver to secure those these days.

How about some Martinsville predictions?

Amy: Since staying on the lead lap is so important, I’m going with a driver who has done that in 18 of 23 races: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Phil: Well, let’s see. I’ll go with Mark Martin. He’s won there before and finished second in this race last year.
Beth: I’m going with Denny Hamlin since he’s only finished outside the top 10 twice at Martinsville and the No. 11 team is finally turning things around with three consecutive top-10 finishes.
Mike: I’ll take Johnson again. He only owns the place.
Amy: He used to own it, anyway. Lately, not so much.

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

WriterPointsBehindPredictions (Starts)WinsTop 5sTop 10s
Phil Allaway293211016
Amy Henderson24-5312717
Mike Neff19-10262812
Summer Dreyer14-1514155
Jeff Meyer11-1817158
Beth Lunkenheimer5-2413134
Tom Bowles2-274012
Brody Jones0-295002

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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