Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Michael’s Miracle, Nationwide Normalcy & NASCAR Fan Protection

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)

With all three teams finishing in the top five at Bristol and both full-time drivers in the top 10 of Sprint Cup points, Michael Waltrip Racing is off to a stellar start in 2012. Can they sustain it and establish themselves among the sport’s elite teams?

Kevin: I think so. They may not be among the elite at year’s end, but I think we’re going to see them as a better team than we have in the past.
Amy: I’m not sure MWR can sustain it at the level it is now, but Martin Truex Jr. has been steadily improving for months. I think they can put either him or Clint Bowyer in the Chase, but not both.
Mike: They certainly can do both; I just don’t know if they will. There’s a lot of talented people who work at MWR, but they have yet to prove they can be successful over a long period of time. They have had some streaks in the past but have not maintained it for the long run. Talk to me after Daytona in July and we’ll see how things look.
Phil: Mike’s right; it’s still kinda early. Truex has shined so far and Bowyer’s run Sunday (March 18) wiped out that horrible race in Phoenix. The No. 55 is intentionally in flux, though. I’m just not sure they can keep it up.
Beth: MWR has had a pretty impressive start to the season, but there are still a couple of pretty good teams that normally run top 10 in points that have had some sour luck so far. Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, shoot even Kasey Kahne should be somewhere up around the top 10.
Mike: Of course, part of the reason that they’re running better is the owner isn’t behind the wheel full time anymore.
Kevin: It makes me wonder how much of this boost is due to Scott Miller coming over from Richard Childress Racing as competition director.
Amy: One of the commenters on my column had a good point … if MWR stays at the top, does that open the door for JGR to go to Dodge? JGR still has the capability to boost up that engine shop.
Mike: I think they are doing some minor things with engines now, Amy, but they aren’t building them from the ground up. Remember, they merged with TRD in the offseason.
Amy: No, but my point is they could.
Mike: Even if MWR puts two teams in the Chase, I have a hard time believing they would supplant JGR at the top of the Toyota food chain.
Amy: They have as many drivers in the top 10 as JGR right now.
Mike: Are you telling me that if EGR puts two cars in the Chase and RCR puts none in that EGR will jump them in the Chevy pecking order?
Amy: I didn’t say that they would jump them; but if JGR doesn’t want to share the top of the heap, they could defect. That was the gist of the comment.
Phil: Seems like it would take multiple years of punching above their weight for MWR to vault up the pecking order at Toyota.
Kevin: Phil’s right. Even if their hot streak lasts the entire season, I still don’t think they’ll be at the top of the heap with JGR.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: Charging Into the Future, a Look at Dodge's Top Targets for 2013

Amy: I’m not ready to put MWR in the same category as JGR, Hendrick, Childress or Roush yet. But they are making a case for Chase contention. Are they championship caliber? No. But they could put a team in, and that’s the first step.
Kevin: I see them putting at least one guy in the Chase, probably Bowyer. That’s definitely a step up.
Phil: I guess MWR could put a team in the Chase. However, they gotta avoid getting caught up in other people’s messes.
Beth: Right. If Truex can stay out of wrecks caused by others he may have a shot at it. Consider the awful luck he had last season getting caught up in stuff not of his own making.
Mike: I think they could put two in the Chase, but they could also put none in the Chase. We’ll see after July.
Amy: Bottom line, I think they’re proving to be better than a lot of people have written them off to be. While not at an elite level yet, MWR is on track to get there. It didn’t happen overnight for any of the top teams.
Kevin: I’m cautiously optimistic at the prospect of a more competitive MWR. I’ll be checking on the team often and am curious to see where each one is at, say, Charlotte.
Phil: I do have to say I was pretty impressed with Brian Vickers.
Amy: Vickers was a huge surprise Sunday.
Kevin: Yeah, I loved seeing Vickers running up front for as many laps as he did and remaining a contender the whole time.
Beth: I’ve really got to admire his persistence in not taking just any ride. He hopped into that No. 55 and proved he deserved to be in the Cup Series.
Phil: Vickers had nothing to lose on Sunday. People can be dangerous in that mindset. However, Vickers brought the gauntlet.

After Bristol posted both the lowest overnight TV ratings of the year and miserable attendance numbers, track owner Bruton Smith is reconsidering returning the track to its former single-groove configuration, which he says can be completed by August for the night race. Would this move be the right one for Thunder Valley and can it return to its former glory?

Phil: I have no idea how Bruton would go about fixing the track. Of course, in my opinion, it’s not the track, it’s the cars. Also, these ratings are slightly up from last year; it’s not as bad as people are making you believe.
Beth: I thought it was a great race. I don’t get why people didn’t show up … I just don’t get it. I know the weather was a little rough early, but we got the race in on time.
Kevin: I actually enjoyed the race. I wouldn’t call it the best racing I’ve seen at Bristol, but compared to other tracks on the circuit, that was a lot of fun.
Mike: Apparently, the fans want to see cars driving in a single-file line and wrecking each other to get around. So Bruton will resurface the track and take out the progressive banking. Without the banking, all we get is a parade around the bottom.
Beth: Just what I want from one of the best tracks on the circuit … single-file racing.
Mike: Apparently, that is what the fans want, Beth. One hundred fifty green-flag laps at Bristol had people screaming like someone stole their lunch money.
Beth: One hundred fifty green-flag laps at Bristol also gave us some great side-by-side battles and passes. I just don’t get it. The beauty of NASCAR lies in racing, not wrecking, so Bristol was for the most part a good thing.
Mike: I completely agree, Beth. But I’ve talked to multiple people that were there, and they’ve all said the same thing – it sucked and all they could point to was long green-flag runs.
Kevin: It’s going to be a tough price to pay if they resurface the track yet again and still face the same issues.
Beth: What Bruton Smith really needs to do is drop those ticket prices. With gas prices where they are and hotel price gouging that usually happens on race weekend up in Tennessee, there has got to be a place for fans to save money.
Mike: It is $100 for a good ticket, from what I understand Beth.
Phil: Bristol’s not a cheap go, that’s true. Bristol is about the worst on hotel gouging. Watkins Glen is pretty bad as well, but not as many people go there.
Mike: I just had a friend tell me that they could buy one ticket at Bristol for $100 or four tickets with four hot dogs and four drinks at Martinsville for $99.
Phil: Bruton must think he’s above giving the fans breaks on ticket prices, which are nearly the highest on the circuit.
Amy: It was interesting. On Monday, I wrote about the economic and racing issue in Big 6 and more people said it was the cost keeping them away than the racing.
Phil: The middle of nowhere thing is not helping Bristol here, either.
Beth: Well, they’re going to have to give me a reason other than long green-flag runs because those long green-flag runs showed more racing than we get at cookie cutters.
Amy: The racing on Sunday was actually very good.
Beth: Plus, there wasn’t nearly the amount of carnage as I’ve become accustomed to for Bristol. That’s a bonus.
Amy: It’s like the tandem draft, Beth. A lot of fans, whether they admit it or not, watch for the wrecks. So for them, it’s not a bonus, it’s a detraction.
Mike: That’s what I hear, Amy, which is really sad. There was a ton of racing from where I was watching.
Amy: There was a ton of racing from where I was watching on pit road, too. Heck, even the drivers prefer this Bristol to the old one. Personally, if I want to see crashes, I’ll go to the demolition derby at the county fair.
Beth: I don’t see any reason for Bruton Smith to do anything to Bristol.
Kevin: Yeah, I don’t see a problem with keeping it like it is. The track still provides some of the best racing on the circuit.
Amy: I don’t either, but I know a lot of fans feel differently.
Mike: Unfortunately, Bruton can’t afford to keep having races were you can see the different colored sections in the grandstands from the aerial shots right before they drop the rag. The stands were half full.
Beth: And I get that, but remember – according to his claims, more than 8,000 of those seats were sold but went unused. I’m willing to bet weather was a big factor there.
Phil: Unfortunately, that area doesn’t have a lot of people to draw from. Everybody has to travel in from hours away and stay multiple days. Can’t do much about $1,000 just for a room for the weekend. And if people don’t think the race is that great anymore, will they travel that far?
Mike: Before they changed the track, the place was always full, even when other tracks were struggling.
Amy: One other thing to mention: there was lots of side-by-side racing, but not as much for the lead. I do think a lot of people think that somehow passing in the pack for other positions doesn’t count.
Phil: We didn’t really see much of that on TV, either. Lots of isolation on the leader lapping dudes.
Beth: But some of those lapped car battles were a bit intense. There were a few times I thought we’d see an accident and they somehow avoided it.
Amy: Again, take it for what you will that I had more people say it was about the money. Bristol is especially bad re: prices. I did some research at Bristol last weekend and the closest I could find a normally priced hotel room was Asheville, NC, an hour and a half from the track. That’s hard to take for a lot of people.
Beth: We live an hour from Texas Motor Speedway and got a hotel closer to the track in November. After driving about an hour and 15 minutes to Daytona from our hotel, there’s no way I’d want to drive an hour and a half each day.
Phil: Jeff Gluck of SB Nation was saying that they were already starting to jack those prices up in Asheville last year. The Glen’s similar to that. I’ve stayed in Johnson City (80 miles away) and Victor (75 miles) when covering the race. It’s the only places with reasonable prices on hotel rooms.
Amy: Most tracks, it’s still about an hour radius out, but Bristol is hour and a half or more – ridiculous.
Mike: Camping used to be a big deal at Bristol. I don’t know why people aren’t camping more with the economy down.
Amy: Because it costs a fortune in gas to get the camper there and more for the generator.
Phil: Right. If you don’t want to tent camp, it’s really expensive to camp there.
Amy: Plus, for the spring race, tent camping is a crapshoot. It was nice this year, but it can be very cold.
Kevin: I think maybe the wrecks are what fans have come to expect at Bristol, rather than at most other tracks. I think that’s part of what drives the unrest. People are used to a high number of cautions and if that’s not what they’re seeing, they’re disappointed.
Amy: Totally agree, Kevin.
Kevin: I’m not going to comment on whether or not that’s good or bad because I don’t want to tell people that the excitement they get out of something they enjoy is right or wrong. I just can see that being part of the issue.
Mike: I agree, Kevin. I had quite a few people coming to me, as a reporter complaining that there weren’t enough wrecks.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: The Power of NASCAR Expectations - When a Racetrack Isn't Allowed to Change

Amy: I’ll admit, I have a problem with people getting excitement out of something that could kill someone. But a ton of fans do love the crashes.
Phil: What about the weather? This race used to be in April as well. Now, it’s mid-March. It can be 30 degrees during the day there this time of year. Not this year, obviously.
Kevin: Yeah, this year is crazy. Bottom line, if Bruton’s going to change the track again, he better make damn sure the track surface is really the reason for the empty seats. He needs to reassess all corners of this issue.
Phil: Yeah. He should at least wait until next year.
Amy: It would be interesting to see the attendance if Bruton redoes the place. If it doesn’t sell out, then we have to stop writing off the economy as a big part of the sport’s problem.
Mike: Unfortunately Amy, that is what the fans want: a repave. So for the rest of us, we’re going to have to watch what the masses want.
Amy: I’ll say this much for Bruton, kudos for at least considering that he may have made a mistake and thinking of ways to correct it. Brian France should be taking notes.
Beth: You do have a point on that, Amy.

After a first at Las Vegas, when race fans were allowed to attend the drivers’ meeting, several crew members and drivers said, “Enough!” that the idea takes fan accessibility too far. Were those people right or would opening the meetings further, even broadcasting them live benefit the sport?

Mike: I think having all fans have access to the drivers’ meetings is a little too much.
Amy: I think it’s too far. Have you been to a drivers’ meeting lately? There are more hangers-on than drivers and crew chiefs. Lose the celebrities, lose the media. Leave it just drivers and crew chiefs, make it an environment where they can ask questions.
Beth: I do understand where the drivers and crew chiefs are coming from on this one. Having fans there has to serve as a distraction, and they could miss out on important details from NASCAR.
Kevin: I guess I don’t really see much of a point to allowing fans at the driver meetings. Accessibility, sure. But really, is it that exciting?
Amy: No, Kevin, speaking as someone who’s been, many times it’s not exciting at all. Even introducing the celebrities on hand trumped the actual business of the race at hand last one I was at.
Phil: There’s no problem with broadcasting them live, or at least streaming them online though. I’d like that, to be honest.
Mike: I know that most of the stuff that goes on during the drivers’ meeting is fluff and the important stuff has been handled throughout the week. But I agree with the teams that they need to limit the number of fans in the meeting.
Kevin: Yeah, I think streaming them online would be fine and interested parties could still listen in. Plus, it would eliminate the distractions by the fans.
Beth: I agree with Phil, too. I mean anyone interested could follow along and the drivers could still focus on the important matters because the room isn’t jammed with people.
Amy: Honestly, the only interested parties would be those who haven’t attended one. They really aren’t anything all that exciting.
Phil: There were some dudes from various sponsors in the Glen last year, but no celebrities except for the Grand Marshal that I can remember. Having said that, it is standing room only in there.

See also
5 Points to Ponder: NASCAR's Short-Track Silence & Stubbornness

Beth: They’re not all that exciting, but looking from the standpoint of a fan who’s never seen it, I can understand wanting to at least see it once. I do think streaming is the better way to go though.
Phil: I probably wouldn’t care much if I weren’t in the media, to be honest. Also, note that Rockingham has opened their drivers’ meeting prior to the Truck race to fans. No idea how that’s going to work other than your ticket to the race gets you in.
Beth: That seems to be the only thing needed, Phil. Fans will be required to enter the infield at a certain point, but I’m not convinced it’s a great idea.
Phil: Yes, through the tunnel under turn 4, if I remember right.
Amy: Really, on a standard week they should need 86 chairs and there’s no need for standees. Or extra people in general.
Mike: I have been to a few of them and I agree, they aren’t that exciting. But it is something cool for people who’ve never been to them.
Amy: Let’s also consider the time from the drivers’ meeting to the race is a driver’s time to relax and focus. There shouldn’t need to be fans interrupting that for them. I wish more fans would respect that.
Kevin: You don’t see football teams letting fans into the locker room.
Phil: I don’t think there’s any problem with having the media in the drivers’ meeting, though. It’s not like we’re going to disrupt anything. I just stand in the back and listen in.
Amy: I don’t think it’s a problem, but Matt Kenseth said that the current atmosphere discourages teams from asking legit questions. That’s not cool.
Phil: Does he mean the atmosphere in Las Vegas or period?
Amy: Period.
Mike: No, that is very true. If a question isn’t asked because of the sea of people then the purpose of the meeting is being diminished.
Beth: Agreed completely. It’s the last chance for teams to clarify anything NASCAR has said throughout the weekend, and questions should be encouraged, not discouraged.
Phil: I’d argue any meeting would be like that. So I guess this criticism proves that even when you’re in your 40s, peer pressure can still play a role. However, if I were in that situation, I’d ask away. No sense in letting your question go to waste.
Amy: I think it’s great that fans have a lot of access to the sport, but there are times that it’s gotten a little silly. It shouldn’t take a crew member 10 minutes to push a cart to their pit before a race because there are so many fans on pit road he can’t move.
Mike: I think they should have alligator wrestling and magic shows during the driver’s meeting. I’d love to see Kyle Busch sawed in half.

For the first time since the series’ modern inception, Nationwide regulars have won the first four races of the season. Does this trend signal a changing of the guard or will it be same old, same old Cup guys winning races when all is said and done?

Kevin: Not a changing of the guard just yet, but it is encouraging. There’s still quite a few drivers from Cup running the Nationwide races each week, though. It may just be that they haven’t found a way to win yet.
Beth: I really hope it’s a changing of the guard. It’s about time the Nationwide drivers got to victory lane instead of the Cup drivers stealing their show. But with that said, it’s too early to know if it’ll continue.
Phil: They were trying to make this same argument during ESPN’s Nationwide Countdown on Saturday. But I’d say it’s not so much a changing of the guard as less of an impetus for Cup drivers to enter.
Mike: There is certainly a change of some kind, but in the end the Cup guys are still better drivers so they’re going to win their fair share.
Phil: Kyle Busch has been out to lunch all year. Once his No. 54 gets all set, that will change.
Mike: Very true, Phil. Once the No. 54 gets running the way Kyle and Kurt want it to, they’ll win their fair share.
Phil: But Elliott Sadler and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. have been legitimately strong this year and can hold their own against the onslaught.
Amy: Here’s the thing. Yes, the drivers winning are Nationwide regulars. But after James Buescher‘s victory at Daytona (and face it, he got lucky), it’s been RCR, Roush, RCR. It’s not like the independents are winning every week. That would be a change.
Phil: Right. When Tayler Malsam or Blake Koch win a race this year, then I’ll be convinced that things are changing. That’s nothing against those two, either. Malsam’s done very well so far in the No. 19, while Koch was 10th in points before his blown engine Saturday.
Amy: There are several drivers in that series who would be fun to watch in competitive equipment.
Kevin: I’ll still be satisfied if guys like Sadler and Stenhouse keep winning, though. Sure, that’s Childress and Roush power, respectively, but they’re still not Cup drivers. They’re driving for the championship. All told, if drivers running for the championship are winning, I’m happy.

See also
Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2012 Ford EcoBoost 300 at Bristol

Amy: Actually, that 4-for-4 stat isn’t 100% accurate, either. Buescher isn’t eligible for NNS points.
Phil: That’s true. However, the fact that it’s been forever since the Trucks actually raced makes it seem like he’s a regular.
Kevin: Buescher still feels fine to me. It seems better to have a lower-series driver coming up to win than an upper-series driver moving down.
Beth: I’m in agreement with that, Kevin. I’m sure the intent is for Buescher to run full time in the next year or two and that’s no different than a Nationwide driver making a few Cup starts.
Amy: I’m not arguing against Buescher’s win, but he isn’t a series regular. Still cool he beat the Cup guys.
Kevin: It’s been fun to see the Cup drivers unable to win in Nationwide so far this season. I don’t see it continuing every week, of course, but I’d like for it to be a “more often than not” sort of thing.
Phil: The series is still going through some tough times. We’ve got a short field for this weekend in Fontana (as of now).
Kevin: It’s still the same teams dominating, too. So there’s really no changing of the guard inside Nationwide just yet.
Mike: I think there will be many more wins for Nationwide drivers this year and several for Cup drivers, too. In the end, as long as they’re good races, do we really care?

Predictions for Fontana?

Amy: I’ll go with Jimmie Johnson, post-appeal.
Kevin: This will be the weekend our points leader finally gets his win. I’m going with Greg Biffle.
Beth: I’m going with a different Roush driver in Kenseth.
Mike: Give me Tony Stewart.
Phil: I’m going with AJ Allmendinger, despite his season of struggles. I feel like taking a chance this weekend. Also, any of you seen Ricky Rudd tiptoeing into Twitter over the past couple of days?
Kevin: I hadn’t!
Phil: Note the profile avatar.
Beth: Sure have, Phil. I’ve been amused watching him learn more about Twitter. @MrRickyRudd is his name. Of course, Steve Park (@SteveParkee) and Dave Blaney (@BuckeyeBullet10) joined last week.

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 HendersonKyle Busch32nd-2
Beth LunkenheimerGreg Biffle12th0
Mike NeffDale Earnhardt Jr.15th0
Phil AllawayPaul Menard10th1
Kevin RutherfordBrad Keselowski1st5

Points Standings

WriterPointsBehindPredictions (Starts)WinsTop 5sTop 10s
Kevin Rutherford133233
Beth Lunkenheimer4-94012
Mike Neff3-104012
Amy Henderson2-114022
Jeff Meyer0-131000
Phil Allaway-1-144001

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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