Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Crew Chief Competitions, Fuel Fixes & the Biff? Really?

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 (Truckin’ Thursdays/Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)
Kevin Rutherford (Mondays/Top News)

Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have grabbed most of the headlines on Sunday (March 11), but Greg Biffle was the driver snagging his third straight top-five finish and also taking over the points lead. Can Biffle be a “real deal” contender all year long or does he run too much in the shadow of his Roush Fenway teammates to stay up there over the long run?

Kevin: The way Roush Fenway cars are running this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if Greg Biffle stays up there. He and that whole team have got great momentum so far.
Amy: I think Biffle is certainly talented enough, but he is kind of the forgotten man at RFR.
Mike: The main issue for Biffle is his pit crew. His over the wall guys killed him in a myriad of races in 2011. If they can keep from putting that car deep in the pack when he is near the front, he’ll be a contender for sure.
Phil: One of those races was Las Vegas. Then the fueling issues got them.
Beth: Well, this year he’s going to have to start backing up those solid finishes with trips to victory lane to be taken seriously. He also tends to end up overshadowed by Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards.
Kevin: I do agree with Beth, he needs a win to really be considered and to step out of the shadow of some of his teammates. Still, three third-place finishes on three fairly different tracks … that bodes pretty well, I’d say.
Amy: I do think he needs a couple of wins to really be a threat, but I think he’s every bit as good as his teammates.
Mike: Biffle wins every year, just about. I don’t know that he needs to win to be considered a contender. He needs to consistently finish top five with the occasional top 10. It is when he wastes away top-five finishes four or five times in a row that he struggles. So far, his pit crew has been good enough to keep him up there.
Phil: I think Biffle can definitely contend long-term. He’s got the experience, he knows how to handle these beastly creatures. And the pit crew has had some changes since early last year. No reason to believe that he can’t stick around.
Mike: Biffle has a Truck championship, which none of his teammates have, and a Nationwide championship that only one of his teammates have.
Beth: Does anyone remember (off the top of their head) when Biffle last won a race?
Kevin: 2010, I think. I don’t recall him winning last year.
Beth: You’re right Kevin … Kansas in Oct. 2010.
Amy: Well, the focus at RFR last year was on the No. 99. Biffle was at the bottom of the barrel last year. Not that he was getting bad equipment, but the team was so focused on Edwards that I think both Biffle and Kenseth suffered.
Beth: That’s the problem, Amy. Teams put way too much into one driver and forget about the potential their other drivers have.
Mike: I don’t think the focus of the organization has anything to do with lug nuts falling off during a pit stop or a fueling rig messing up. I don’t remember Biffle having engine failures or part problems. His problems were all because of his own team’s doing.
Phil: And this year, all three of the Roush Fenway drivers have been pretty good so far. Had they not gotten in a sticky situation on the final restart Sunday, they could have at least had a 3-4-5 finish.
Kevin: If the notion of Roush Fenway focusing more on certain drivers is true, it’ll be interesting to see where their attention goes if each team keeps having this kind of season. They’re all in the top six in points right now.
Mike: I don’t know that focus on a team is going to hurt another team’s performance unless they actually take crew members from one team for the other. I do not believe that happened with the No. 16.
Amy: I don’t either, Mike, but if all three teams have things they want improved, whose do you think gets taken care of first?

See also
The Yellow Stripe: The Biff is Back!

Mike: I think all of them get taken care of first. If anyone gets the short end, it is Kenseth because he doesn’t have the sponsorship that the other two drivers have.
Phil: True. I like those new Zest colors, though.
Kevin: I’m with you on the aqua car, Phil.
Amy: It could have been worse, like hot pink, but it was pretty darn ugly.
Mike: Well anyways, when you have an organization with several hundred employees, they can focus on more than one issue at a time.
Amy: Biffle does have what it takes to win. I think personality-wise, he’s very suited to winning. But he’s a third-class citizen at RFR and that may very well leave him just short of the prize.
Mike: Biffle has long been my pick to be the first to win titles in all three national series. He needs to make it happen in the next couple of years if he is going to do it before one of the Dillon boys. If his team doesn’t let him down, he very well could do it, but it all comes down to minimizing the bad finishes brought on by team mistakes.
Kevin: Biffle’s off to a great, great start, but I want to see him win now, too. Consistency is great, but winning’s not so bad either.
Beth: After all, those victories could make the difference between winning the championship and heading home in second.

Since the championship-winning duo of Tony Stewart and Darian Grubb parted ways after the 2011 season, each has won a race – Grubb with new driver Denny Hamlin and Stewart with new crew chief Steve Addington. Is it time to put to rest the questions about the split or is the “competition” the fans seem to have created between the two good for both of them?

Kevin: I think it’s a non-issue. Let the men do their jobs. And good for both of them for already getting wins this early in the season.
Amy: I think it’s time to let it go. It’s in the past, Tony Stewart and Grubb are obviously doing just fine, and it’s time to focus on this year.
Phil: People will always have questions about the split (at least about the Stewart-Grubb one), but I think they’ll both be fine. I don’t think there’s any more competition between Stewart and Denny Hamlin now than there was last year.

See also
Monday Morning Teardown: The Right Stuff ... for Smoke

Beth: What a lot of people forget is that the decision for Darian to leave SHR happened before they won the championship.
Mike: Grubb is a championship crew chief and Stewart is a championship driver. I don’t believe there is any more competition now than there was before. I have no doubt Grubb would like to win a title with Hamlin but I don’t think it is in his personality to want to rub it in to SHR about letting him go.
Amy: Both will be in contention for the championship come November and the “rivalry” people are trying to create is silly. They’re professionals and they will do their jobs, which are to win races.
Phil: In fact, I’m sure Stewart will probably find the whole thing annoying after a while.
Mike: I don’t think Stewart cares about anyone outside of his team. I think he tries just as hard to beat Ryan Newman as he does anyone else. Just like when he runs a sprint car against his team drivers, he wants to beat them.
Amy: Hamlin is a very real title contender, so for Stewart and Grubb, it was basically a lateral move.
Beth: There will always be questions, but let me tell you, a win this quickly with Steve Addington proves the swap isn’t really going to be an issue. By both Grubb and Stewart getting wins separate, people can finally let it go already. Although I did find it fitting that Tony followed up Grubb’s victory with Hamlin at Phoenix by making his own trip to victory lane at Vegas.
Amy: Here’s something impressive about Grubb: he’s taken every driver he’s worked with straight to victory lane.
Phil: Yep. Grubb gambled and even got Casey Mears to victory lane in 2007.
Mike: Meanwhile, I have no doubt that some folks in the media are going to try and keep giving this story legs but I don’t think either of them give a darn one way or the other about the competition angle of it. And I think they both still genuinely like each other off of the track.
Kevin: I do think it’d be an interesting story if there was any animosity whatsoever, but you’re right, doesn’t seem like there’s really any. Time to stick a fork in the story and let both of them move on.
Amy: Nothing here to see, folks.

See also
Monday Morning Teardown: Darian Grubb Working Magic Already at JGR

Mike: I will say, repeating a mantra I’ve given many times that Hamlin will greatly benefit from Grubb’s gambling nature. That very well may lead to a title or it may cost them one in the end. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Amy: Here’s another angle … Grubb is a great crew chief, but perhaps there was something about the way JGR was run that Tony prefers to Hendrick’s way of doing things. So, getting two former JGR crew chiefs on board (Addington and Greg Zipadelli) may get things running more the way he wants.
Phil: Heck, Tony drove for Gibbs for 10 years. Something must have rubbed off on him in that time.
Amy: That’s what I mean, Phil … perhaps there’s something about the way things were run at JGR that he wants on his team.
Beth: Except the part where they switched to Toyota.
Mike: Perhaps Stewart just wanted to hear a different voice on the radio. Although apparently he wants it to be a little louder than Addington is.
Amy: Addington must have the patience of a saint.
Mike: Addington is just one of the most laidback people on the planet.
Amy: He sure likes him some high-maintenance drivers.
Phil: Never had the pleasure of meeting Addington, but he has put up with a lot in his career.

After teams have had continuing issues with EFI each week so far in 2012, does NASCAR need to take a new look at the testing ban and allow teams some more track time to fix the ongoing problems with fuel pickup?

Kevin: YES! With the amount of issues it’s caused so far, something simply has to be done. Seems like a test or two would help. It certainly wouldn’t hurt.
Amy: I think so. While the test ban does save the smaller teams some money, it causes more issues than it helps. Nashville does give them a bigger track to test on, but it’s still different from the cookie cutters and they need to have a couple of sessions.
Beth: I’m torn on this one. They absolutely need more time to test the EFI, but there are so many smaller teams that would come out on the short end because they won’t be able to afford the testing time to fix the problems.

See also
Fan's View: EFI Resetting Our Expectations for NASCAR

Amy: But many of those smaller teams would still benefit, Beth. Germain and Front Row run Roush Yates engines and have had issues. If those can be fixed due to testing, it would benefit them, even if it was indirectly.
Phil: They definitely need extra track time on this one. EFI is just another change that NASCAR’s own rules hurt the introduction of. You guys have heard about the sheer amount of testing that’s gone into the new Dallaras for the Izod IndyCar Series, right?
Beth: If it was just one or two drivers struggling every week, I’d point to their teams and say they need to just figure out what’s going wrong. But it has been different drivers each week.
Phil: Gateway could be used for testing, too. Its reopened now.
Mike: There is no ban on testing, just testing at NASCAR tracks. This issue isn’t because of the tracks so they can test anywhere and try to figure out the issues. Like any new system, it is going to continue to be refined. I don’t think lifting the testing ban will make much difference with the EFI concerns.
Amy: Mike, there is no track available that is as hard on engines as the 1.5 to 2-mile tracks where the issues are going to mainly lie.
Mike: I just don’t think testing at a mile and a half track is going to make a difference compared to testing at Ace or Tri-County. Fuel pickup has nothing to do with the engine. It is the fuel pumps.
Amy: True, Mike, but doesn’t the higher speed at some tracks play a role? Pickup at Phoenix wasn’t an issue like it was at Daytona or Vegas … the issue there was that Stewart couldn’t reach the box to trip the breaker. But if the real problems are at the faster tracks, it makes sense to let the teams test at the bigger tracks to fix it.
Kevin: Agreed, Amy. I’d like the idea of having a test at Charlotte to rectify this.
Mike: They could have figured out that problem out at any track. Although they probably wouldn’t have figured it out because it was a fluke. I just don’t think the problem has anything to do with speed. I may be completely wrong, but I think the problems have just been inherent with the system itself and not the speeds they run.
Phil: Stewart’s not supposed to be able to reach the box to trip the breaker. Wasn’t that the point of putting the ignition boxes on the dash?
Amy: At least have one open test at Charlotte, 2-3 days. Perhaps one at Talladega, since that’s a Chase track.
Mike: What problems were there besides Stewart’s breaker reset? I know some of them were fuel pickup issues but that isn’t a problem with the system, that is just learning how it works.
Amy: Several cars had pickup issues at Daytona, and at least two had problems at Vegas. That ugly restart with Brad Keselowski was because his car couldn’t get fuel in the engine. Granted, the issue does seem to rear its head on restarts, but I think you need to test it under conditions as close to where the issues were as possible.
Mike: I don’t think getting fuel when the car was going 70 had anything to do with being at an intermediate track.
Amy: It couldn’t get up to speed, which is more like 200, Mike.
Mike: Not on the restart. They were running 70 and stomped on the gas. It wasn’t doing 200 when the green flag dropped.
Amy: Right, but if it can’t get up to speed, that’s a problem. And they need to test at tracks where they have to really mat it to get up to speed to recreate it and solve it for those situations.
Mike: I guess a one-time test would be fine but I don’t see where lifting the test ban is necessary. Although I personally think the track size has nothing to do with testing the fuel pickups. They mat it at Martinsville as much as they mat it at Daytona. If anything, they’ll test it more at a short track because they’re on and off the gas for longer periods.

See also
Full Throttle: Sometimes You Have to Teach an Old Driver New Tricks

Amy: If NASCAR is worried about the cost for the smaller teams, make them NASCAR-arranged tests where NASCAR pays the track’s costs. And if there are issues at Martinsville, they will be able to work on them at a similar track without an issue. They should have the same opportunity for the bigger tracks.
Mike: I just have not heard anyone say that the EFI problems were related to the size of the tracks.
Phil: The EFI problems seem to be with the pumps themselves. However, remember when Hamlin (I think) had those issues that kept him from winning the first CoT race at Bristol in 2007. Maybe it’s like that.
Amy: I think a few open tests would be helpful on many fronts. They haven’t had many in recent years, and it could help everyone. Another reason to do it is teams are building their 2013 cars and those are a new animal.
Mike: The EFI system is new and there will most certainly be issues with it. The number of problems so far have been minimal and can be rectified without lifting the ban on testing. If the teams start screaming that the problems are based on the size of tracks, then they can have an open test. At this time, it doesn’t seem to be tied to the size of the tracks.
Amy: I think a partial lift of the test ban would be beneficial to the sport overall. Perhaps one or two open tests for everyone, then allow each owner one test at any track they want, but only one per owner … so say, all four Hendrick cars could go to a test of their choice, but that’s the only one they get as a team. And ask the teams who lost chances at winning races if it was minimal.
Mike: Who lost a chance at winning? Keselowski wasn’t going to win Sunday.
Amy: Ask Mears how he felt about his issue at Daytona. They were top 10, top five all night.

Unless an 11th-hour deal goes down, fourth-place driver Trevor Bayne will not race at Bristol. Does sitting out a race that the team is guaranteed a starting spot in really make the best financial sense for Roush Fenway Racing or is fielding the car with no sponsor in order to attract attention a better option so early in the season?

Editor’s Note: Trevor Bayne has been added to the entry list at Bristol after our Mirror Driving conversation. It’s a one-race deal with Lally Racing Stables.

Beth: Well, there’s only so far teams can go putting cars on the track without sponsorship. They made a good point about Trevor in the Cup race. .. the Cup side of RFR still hasn’t sold out all of their open sponsorship spots, so there’s not nearly as much money around to float Bayne until he can find some backing.
Amy: That’s true, Beth. It’s such a double-eged sword, really. On one hand, you can’t run well without money, but it’s much harder to attract money if you aren’t racing.
Beth: But on the flip side of that, Germain Racing committed to putting Todd Bodine on the track regardless of sponsorship and despite running several races without primary backing, they won the championship that year.
Mike: I don’t know which is better or worse. I find it hard to believe that Roush seems to have so much trouble getting sponsorship compared to the rest of the big teams. There must be something to do with what Roush wants. That said, I agree Amy. It is hard to get a sponsor when they don’t see what you’re capable of.

See also
Holding a Pretty Wheel: Outside Looking In - 5 Drivers Who Should Be in Full-Time Rides Now

Amy: They don’t have trouble finding it, they have trouble distributing it. It’s nuts that Kenseth – a Cup champion – does not have backing, yet his teammates, who are not champions, have full sponsorship, and then some, in Edwards’s case.
Kevin: I feel like Roush should be putting Bayne in unsponsored at least for a while. I would’ve expected something like this to happen more down the road in the season if at all, not the fourth race.
Phil: The whole thing is a shame. Since it’s Bristol, perhaps Bayne could get some local backing. Maybe a computer store or something.
Mike: How about the University of Tennessee?
Phil: I think the NCAA frowns upon stuff like that, Mike. Remember when the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was going to sponsor Lake Speed and Melling Racing?
Amy: Does Edwards really do that much more for his sponsors? I mean does he dress up like a clown and make balloon animals for three hours in the hospitality tent every week or something?
Mike: There have been a lot of university sponsorships. Boise State sponsored Brian Scott at Atlanta last year. I can’t remember but I think it was Hermie Sadler who had several schools sponsor his car a couple of years ago.
Phil: Scott also appears to be a Boise State alumnus. That wasn’t really a sponsorship.
Beth: Something else I just thought of … has RFR considered piecing together a few associate sponsors instead of looking for a primary sponsor?
Kevin: Right, Beth. You’d think they could at least get some associates on board and run like that.
Phil: Something tells me that Roush might find that gauche, but that’s just me thinking.
Mike: I don’t know what the deal is. They must have something that is making it so much harder to get companies on their hoods than others.
Phil: Roush Fenway itself is probably to blame. They may have set the price too high.
Amy: That could be part of the problem, Phil, but if the price is really the only sticking point, it seems easy enough to fix. I mean, are they really demanding that much more than Hendrick or Gibbs? And if so, why not just lower the price to that level? Hendrick, JGR, etc don’t have any problem winning on that money. It’s not just the NNS teams, either. Look at Kenseth.
Mike: I don’t know Amy. There must be something different because Roush can’t sell 38 races for Kenseth.
Phil: For Nationwide, I think they just don’t want to do it piecemeal. They think they can sell it like they do Cup sponsorships, just for larger chunks of the year. I don’t think it works quite like that.
Amy: Bayne isn’t the only one without sponsorship in the NNS, but it’s nuts that he and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. both don’t have more backing. Especially when other teams are adding sponsors for a few races? Ganassi added like three or four new Cup sponsors this year.
Mike: How can it be so hard that they can’t get Kenseth or Stenhouse a full season of sponsorship?
Beth: And the bigger question about Stenhouse is why in the world can’t RFR bring in full sponsorship for the defending Nationwide champion? I’m sure winning at Vegas will help Stenhouse’s case a bit, but it’s absolutely ridiculous that they don’t have a full season for him already.
Amy: Stenhouse has the potential to be super popular.
Mike: And Bayne doesn’t? The dude is a rockstar.
Amy: Both of them do, Mike.
Phil: Seems like half the full timers in Nationwide have the potential to be super popular, but simply aren’t.
Amy: Again, Phil, they might if the series was marketed better. But that’s on NASCAR.
Mike: If you are ever around Bayne at the track, he’s almost like walking around with Dale Earnhardt Jr. He has girls swooning over him.
Amy: Stenhouse has the potential to have the same star power. That’s what I meant, not that Bayne didn’t already.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: The Dangerous Popularity of Earnhardt Expectations

Phil: Bayne and Stenhouse are just two of many drivers having issues with backing. ESPN and NASCAR haven’t done the best job promoting the series and that really does need to change. We need more pieces where we get to know the drivers. And more than just Sam Hornish Jr. That dude used to be in Cup.
Amy: I think there has to be something going on in the RFR organization, because it should not be that hard to find sponsorship for the caliber of team and drivers they have.
Mike: I don’t know what the deal is but it has been a consistent problem at Roush for some time now and doesn’t seem to be affecting the other big teams as much – although RCR did drop a team this year. That said, I don’t know what it takes to get companies on the hoods of the defending series champion.
Kevin: Like a lot of folks have been saying, something just doesn’t seem right here. It’s weird that a team with prestige like Roush can’t get sponsorship for champions and a guy like Bayne. Whether it’s a money thing or what, something needs to be rectified in that organization.
Amy: I don’t know if keeping the car on track long-term is the answer, but a few more weeks would make sense. If Bayne cold grab a win early, it would increase his value.
Kevin: That’s what I’m thinking. I just don’t know if I agree with pulling the car during week four. Week 10 or beyond, I’d understand a little more.
Beth: You’d think they’d at least give him the first five races.
Mike: Not to mention Bristol is basically Bayne’s home track when it comes to the Nationwide schedule.

OK, how about some predictions at Bristol?

Amy: I’m going with Kyle Busch, provided he can stay out of his own way.
Beth: Dangit, Amy, again you stole my pick!
Kevin: Since I also can’t take Kyle Busch, I’m going to go with Keselowski. Won the last Bristol race, why not. So long as that team doesn’t have any EFI issues this week, of course!
Mike: I’m going to take Earnhardt.
Phil: I’m going to go off the board today. I’m picking the driver who ran well Sunday and finished fifth in this race last year. That’s right, Paul Menard.
Beth: I guess I’m going to go with the driver who hasn’t yet won at Bristol, Biffle. He’s got four top-10 finishes in his last five starts there. Not bad, considering what a battle it can be to make it to the end.

Mirror Predictions 2012

Welcome to our sixth 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

2012 Kobalt Tools 400 Results

WriterPickFinishing PositionPoints
Amy HendersonGreg Biffle3rd3
Beth LunkenheimerCarl Edwards5th3
Mike NeffKyle Busch23rd-1
Phil AllawayJeff Gordon12th0
Kevin RutherfordJimmie Johnson2nd3

Points Standings

WriterPointsBehindPredictions (Starts)WinsTop 5sTop 10s
Kevin Rutherford82122
Amy Henderson4-43022
Mike Neff3-53012
Beth Lunkenheimer4-43012
Jeff Meyer0-81000
Phil Allaway-2-103000

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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