Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: NASCAR Confusion – The Wrong Flags at the Wrong Times?

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)
Jesse Medford (Thursdays/Dollars & Sense)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Tony Lumbis (Marketing Manager)

By now, everyone knows about the black flag that cost Carl Edwards a shot at the win on Saturday night (April 28). Was NASCAR’s call correct and can anything be done to keep the same thing from happening again?

Jesse: It was a judgment call that didn’t need such a knee-jerk reaction. I really don’t think Carl Edwards should’ve been black-flagged. They should’ve taken a minute to look at the tape.
Phil: Well, there appears to have been confusion as to who was where. They probably should have taken another lap just to get everything squared away.
Tony: Did anyone hear a radio clip of NASCAR telling Jason Hedlesky that they were in first? If there was confusion, then they have to keep the yellow out until they get it correct.
Mike: Technically NASCAR’s call was right, but what they should have done was throw the caution after the restart and reset the field. The fact that officials in the spotters’ stand got the leader wrong was inexcusable.
Phil: Based on that, they should have never restarted, Mike. But it is true that Edwards jumped.
Mike: I agree, Phil. I don’t know that the NASCAR official said it on the radio. I think they just told him.
Amy: NASCAR’s call was 100% correct. Even if Edwards had been the leader, he went too soon and would have been flagged regardless. Edwards should have known he wasn’t the leader. He came out of the pits behind Tony Stewart, so there was no way he possibly could have been.
Tony: I think Edwards did go early, which would be cause for the black flag, but the fact that the No. 99 was on top of the pylon and told the spotter puts a cloud on NASCAR’s judgment.
Amy: But that’s neither here nor there, because even the leader can’t start before the restart zone, which Edwards did.
Mike: Even if he went early, they always warn a driver before black flagging unless it is ridiculously early, and that wasn’t early. The problem was that Carl actually believed he was the leader which was just silly.
Phil: I talked about this late last night with Tom Bowles. In the Papyrus games, getting to the start/finish line under yellow in front of the leader of the race got you black-flagged for illegal passing under yellow. He should be lucky that he wasn’t black-flagged before the restart.
Amy: That’s true. The reason Edwards was confused is that he crossed the line ahead of Stewart on the one to go.
Mike: Guys cross the line out of order all of the time under caution. That isn’t a big deal. I just can’t believe an official relied on the infield scoring pylon to tell him who was in the lead.
Amy: The easiest way to eliminate the issue with the transponder is to completely prohibit passing the leader on the track under caution.
Phil: Well, just for the sake of not making themselves look like idiots, NASCAR should have just turned the lights back on the electric pace car.
Mike: I agree, Phil. They should have aborted the start or thrown the caution immediately after and reset the field.
Tony: Well, NASCAR is getting a lot of flack for some of its calls and the whole “Who is the leader?” question certainly makes the black flag call tough to take for some fans.
Amy: What those fans don’t seem to understand, Tony, was that even if he was the leader he should have gotten the flag because he still went too early. Being the leader doesn’t allow you to start wherever you want.
Tony: Going with the fact that Stewart was the leader, it also seems to contradict the call at Bristol that Matt Kenseth‘s restart was OK because the No. 2 didn’t come up to speed at an acceptable pace.
Amy: Kenseth went in the restart zone. So that’s still a different call.
Tony: But he crossed the line before Brad Keselowski.
Amy: Yes, but that was not the same as jumping the start completely. Personally, i think NASCAR blew that call too, but it wasn’t the same as this one.
Phil: NASCAR should paint lines across the whole track to mark the restart zone. It’s guess work at times to figure out where it is.
Mike: Carl pointed it out though. Guys jump a lot when they’re the leader and they get a warning before they’re penalized. This just was the first time I remember someone being penalized on the first violation.
Phil: But, he did go early.
Tony: I think the call was 100% correct looking at the replay. I just think the hoopla surrounding the leader question makes this more dramatic than it needs to be.
Amy: I don’t know if Edwards had been warned, but he also came very close to jumping the start before. A couple of people commented on it at that time.
Phil: I’m on board with Tony’s reasoning.
Jesse: It is possible Edwards received a warning after the lap 236 restart – he started ahead of Jimmie Johnson – but he is saying he was never warned.
Amy: There is no “restart vicinity,” by the way. Fans get that wrong. There is a zone painted on the racetrack.
Mike: Technically painted on the wall. And I’m pretty sure the “vicinity” still applies. It is just more defined now.
Amy: Sorry, but NASCAR got this one right. Edwards jumped the start and that’s clearly a penalty according to the rulebook.
Jesse: NASCAR should explain why a penalty without a warning, if that is what happened.
Amy: Why? A warning is a courtesy, not a rule.
Mike: Because a warning has been issued every time for 63 years.
Amy: They don’t have to warn you, and generally they warn you if you were close, not if you blatantly jump way early.
Mike: It wasn’t way early. He jumped about 15 feet early. And the main reason he jumped was he thought he was the leader and was screwed by having to start on the outside.
Phil: It just looked way earlier than it was because of Stewart spinning the tires.
Tony: NASCAR just needs to get their communication down a little better so there is no room for arguing. While this can’t be perfect, the organization needs to make as many rules as black and white as possible.
Jesse: They should just be consistent. With Tony slowing down, it just appeared to be way too early.
Amy: It was pretty early, like a few car lengths early.
Tony: It was the perfect storm, which made what should have been an easy call a controversial one.
Mike: OK Amy, so if you’re the leader, and you double up to restart, the leader brake checks and the second-place driver goes by. Your call says he will be penalized. Right?
Amy: If Edwards really thought he was the leader, he should have pulled up to the pace car and forced NASCAR’s hand. The fact that he didn’t makes me think he really knew he wasn’t.
Mike: I personally thought it was way too big of a call under extenuating circumstances. It cost Carl the race when he had been the car to beat all night.
Amy: It cost him a chance at it. Nothing was guaranteed.

Mike Ford, who was released from Denny Hamlin’s Cup team during the offseason, returns to the pit box with the No. 43 of Richard Petty Motorsports, replacing Greg Erwin as crew chief for Aric Almirola. Will this move bring the team up to speed?

Jesse: Not up to speed with the major players, but I do think it will be a huge improvement. They still have to deal with a young driver on a team that isn’t fully funded to win at this level.
Mike: No. When you are an underfunded team, you won’t get up to speed by changing personnel. You have to have more capital infused if you’re going to compete.
Amy: Honestly, I don’t think so. I think they took a step back in driver talent when they lost AJ Allmendinger. The team ran better with Allmendinger, though, so it’s hard to argue that RPM does not have good equipment.
Mike: It was certainly a step back to go to a rookie. I know Aric Almirola has some Cup experience, but not enough to not be considered a rookie.
Amy: Almirola has never really been hugely impressive. He couldn’t win in top NNS equipment.
Tony: I still think this move will help, but Mike Ford can’t be a miracle worker. Remember, he and Denny Hamlin were championship contenders with the same team that Jason Leffler couldn’t do a thing with at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Phil: Had to check Almirola’s results with Erwin. Not the greatest, but he’s had some issues. Wrecked in Daytona. Had a couple of good runs (Phoenix and Martinsville), mainly in the 20s otherwise.
Amy: I was surprised they went with Almirola given some of the available talent this year.
Tony: I think it was a great move on RPM’s part to bring a proven commodity in to pair with him. But, it does not guarantee anything. If they were going to go with someone with less experience, one may have thought Trevor Bayne would’ve got the call. Or at least a midlevel guy like David Ragan.
Amy: Right. With guys like Bayne, Brian Vickers, Justin Allgaier available, I question the move. I think bringing new crew chief blood to a struggling team is a good thing, but I’m not sure this combination is going to lift this team to the next level. I don’t see them being a top-15 team this year when all is said and done.
Phil: We’ll have to see how well Almirola and Ford mesh. This week won’t teach us diddly-poo, so I’ll have to wait until Darlington to see anything.
Jesse: Almirola seemed to me like they were going for a budget signing. Now that they have Ford, it seems like they want to make a commitment to the No. 43. If Almirola doesn’t show signs of improvement soon, his job could be on the line.
Phil: When you really think about it, this is Almirola’s first real full-time Cup opportunity. His previous jobs involved part-time work for Ginn, a stint in the No. 8 that lasted seven weeks, start-and-parking the No. 09 and a few races in the No. 9 after Kasey Kahne left.
Tony: I think what this move does is ultimately create a make-or-break situation for Almirola’s Sprint Cup career, fair or not. He has a proven crew chief and a full-time solid, albeit “B”-level ride. If he can’t make it work, I don’t think many more chances will come. Again, that may not be fair, but it’s the way things are these days.
Amy: Ford is a solid crew chief with wins under his belt, so he’s in position to help. But he can only do so much.
Tony: I agree, Amy. If they show some potential, hopefully they’ll be given a shot to continue to build chemistry into next year, but who knows.
Mike: I would think they’d give them more than the rest of the season, but this is a “what have you done for me lately” sport.
Jesse: I think Almirola deserves a chance to get a top 10 or two over the spring/summer before replacing him should be considered.
Phil: Ask me about the Almirola-Ford pairing at say, Pocono in June. We’ll have a little information by then.
Amy: The rest of the year should be enough time to see if the driver can raise his game quite a bit, and that’s a tall order.
Tony: Developmental time seems like a thing of the past.
Mike: Yeah man. Owners, sponsors and fans aren’t nearly as patient as they were 15 years ago.
Phil: How high do you think Almirola needs to raise his game to keep his job?
Amy: The team finished 2011 15th on points.
Jesse: I don’t think he can finish that high in the end of year standings. But I think they should be happy if Almirola just has a few good races.
Tony: Given the team was 15th in points last year and Almirola is in his first full-time season, I’d say a top 20 in points by year end would be considered successful.
Amy: I think that there are too many drivers that are as good or better, sitting unemployed for a team to wait and wait and wait for a driver who’s never proved himself in the lower series.
Phil: For reference purposes, Almirola is currently 23rd in points. What do you have to do to prove yourself in lower series these days? Win a title? Remember, before last year, we had had five consecutive Cup regulars win the Nationwide title.
Amy: Seven top fives all year last year in championship caliber-equipment isn’t really proving yourself, though. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., also a true NNS regular had more than twice as many en route to the title.
Phil: Did Almirola mesh well with Tony Eury Sr.? Seems like no one does except for Dale. Maybe that’s why they executed the switch recently.
Mike: I think meshing with Tony Sr. means you can drive the car the way he wants it set up. I don’t know if Almirola could do that or not.
Amy: Anyways, I think Ford is a good choice for the team, but I don’t think he can change things overnight, especially with a midlevel driver.
Mike: I don’t think Ford is going to do much better with Almirola than Erwin did. The Petty organization is just not a top-flight team right now and they need to change a lot more than just personnel.

Let’s talk cautions. There were three yellow flags for debris during Saturday’s Cup race, two of them for something unable to be found by the TV cameras. Is NASCAR caving to the faction of fans who want more cautions to bunch up the field or were the calls on Saturday a coincidence?

Amy: You know, I did have that thought. Fans have been complaining about lack of cautions keeping the field tightened up and suddenly here were two – including one that gave Junior a chance to win – that were questionable at best. Usually if there is legit debris, drivers will say something on the radios. I did not hear one driver who saw it.
Phil: I didn’t see the bottle/can.
Mike: There were drivers who saw it, but no one thought it was a threat. I can tell you one thing: I was in the photography stand in turns 1 and 2 on Saturday night and the piece of debris was four feet onto the apron and absolutely no threat to any cars.
Tony: It certainly doesn’t look good, but I have heard enough reports to dispute Stewart’s water bottle theory to make me think that there was something legit.
Mike: I don’t know, Tony. NASCAR came up with a story an hour after the race that there were three pieces of debris on the track. I didn’t see any of them besides the water bottle/beer can.
Jesse: The problem lies far beyond that. I think it is something like the last 10 cautions were either debris or a spin that hit nothing. Imagine if no cautions were called over the last few races, because none needed to be. The fans would really be screaming about it, as if they aren’t already.
Phil: There’s a number of theories I could throw out there. One, they aren’t looking for the debris. Two, they can’t find it. This has happened in the past.
Jesse: I think if the debris was legit, a camera would’ve found it.
Tony: We’re seeing the biggest problem right here. Mike was covering the race for us and didn’t see anything legit. I watched on TV and didn’t see anything. Phil didn’t see anything. We hear about people saying they saw something. Again, this needs to be cut and dry – it’s there or it’s not.
Mike: If there is no reason for a caution, then why throw a caution? I don’t buy into the “bunch the field up” cautions.
Amy: If it’s out of the racing groove, it’s not a threat. But it is a convenience for NASCAR. If the debris is legit, it should be very easy. Direct a safety worker to point it out to TV cameras, on the track, before they touch it or move it.
Phil: One of the MRN corner announcers did see something up near the wall for the final caution. Forget which one said it, though.
Amy: I’m all for a caution for a legit reason – someone hits the wall and sheds pieces, a blown engine. But otherwise …
Phil: That is why I want NASCAR to put an official in a room with a bunch of TV cameras with orders to help the broadcast out, like what the Izod IndyCar Series does when they’re not in Brazil.
Amy: If these cautions are legit, NASCAR should have no trouble with that, Phil. in fact, they should be eager to make sure everyone knows about the issue.
Jesse: If only to help their own credibility.
Mike: I’ve been asking for years for them to put a TV person in each safety vehicle so that they can point out for the cameras the exact location of the debris.
Amy: You don’t even need a TV person, just direct the safety worker to point it out.
Jesse: They have cameras in Hamlin’s wheel well. No reason they can’t put one in the safety trucks.
Phil: They’ve got 300 people for ESPN when they do Cup races. Have an office dude do it. They’ve got plenty in the compound.
Tony: And towards the end of the race, the utmost caution should be used when trying throwing the yellow (no pun intended). I would much rather see an organic finish, even if it means a snooze-fest over a “man-made” exciting one.
Amy: Yeah, Ask Casey Mears about that, Tony … and Stewart, and … I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a driver so blatantly stripped of a win as Mears was that one time.
Mike: How about a greater question? Not a single car made significant contact with another car or the wall this race, again. I thought sure we’d at least see some wrecking at Richmond.
Amy: Jeff Gordon might disagree with that.
Tony: Yeah, but it really was a quiet race by Richmond standards.
Amy: Quiet on that front, but plenty racy just the same. Watching passing in the pack, guys able to come from the 20s to the front, pretty good stuff.
Tony: Mike – since you had the advantage of being at the track and seeing more than what TV showed us, did you think there was the same amount of side-by-side racing that we usually see there?
Mike: I did not think so. I’m used to seeing guys run side-by-side for 20-30 laps, one guy gaining an inch or two a lap to finally gain a spot. There were plenty of passes, but there weren’t any prolonged battles for position. It is still my favorite track on the circuit and I still think it is some of the best racing, but the field was more single-file than I’ve seen there in some time.
Amy: You also didn’t used to see a lot of guys driving from 26th to the lead under green, either.
Tony: So there was still action, but a different kind of action. Makes it a little harder in my mind, at least on Saturday night, to attribute it to guys just riding.
Amy: It wasn’t a great race, but it was a good one. Ditto the NNS race, though in that case the only thing that kept it from being great was that it was Cup guys. The finish of that race was spectacular and if those had been two NNS guys, one for the ages in that series.
Mike: I agree that guys were definitely not riding. But they weren’t being as aggressive as I’ve seen in the past.
Jesse: Both events last weekend had exciting finishes, but they weren’t so exciting prior to that.
Mike: I thought the Nationwide race was phenomenal. Kurt Busch winning, Ryan Blaney with a top-10 run.
Amy: Yeah, hats off to Blaney!
Phil: Blaney did great for his first time. Darn near eclipsed the regulars for the first half of the race.
Mike: I give Travis Pastrana props too. Were it not for a pit-road speeding penalty he’d have had a top-15-17 run.
Amy: Pastrana did OK. He had a proven top-five car, which helps. He finished right where he needed to, and without major incident.
Tony: I’m going to give NASCAR the benefit of the doubt on Saturday, but I hope the late-race debris cautions don’t become a trend again.
Mike: Yeah, he definitely did a fantastic job. They knew they were going to give up a little on pit stops and they still had a great run. I talked to him after the race. He said 40 feels so slow when you’ve been running around the track. He is such a breath of fresh air. I would love to have more drivers like him in the series.

No less than six Chevrolet teams had the nose pieces of their cars confiscated at Richmond as they appeared, upon visual inspection, to have been altered (altering a factory-designed piece is expressly prohibited in the rulebook). Given the recent overturning of a similar penalty to the No. 48 Sprint Cup team on appeal, should these teams have received a similar penalty?

Phil: How far did they get before it was confiscated? Did it get to the claw or did they eyeball this too?
Tony L.: My understanding is that the biggest issue with the C-post was that it was a visual and not a template. Same here, it seems.
Amy: It did go through template; the template fit and this was by visual. I’m not sure what NASCAR will do with it. I’m against taking points from a car that didn’t earn points, so what they should see is fines, probation at least.
Mike: I don’t know what the deal is with this eyeball crap lately. The nose piece from Elliott Sadler‘s car had been on the car for his two wins this year. They passed inspection this weekend and then were told, after they had their stickers, that they had to lose the nose. Pretty messed up.
Jesse: From what Sadler was saying afterward, it seems they have the same case as J.J. had. He said the same nose passed previous inspections and then the eye test got them this time.
Tony: Even worse then. If you are putting someone’s season in jeopardy, then you need to be damn sure about your measurement.
Mike: They had completely passed tech, Phil.
Amy: the difference here is that with a factory part, NASCAR has the exact part from the manufacturer to compare to and apparently on comparison, these were altered. That is what makes it a bit more black & white than the No. 48’s C-post.
Tony: Then it sounds like the template is off.
Amy: But again, NASCAR had the exact piece to measure them against and apparently they were different on comparison. It’s not a template issue.
Mike: It is a spot between the templates apparently. But considering the nose had been to the R&D center twice after wins, I think there needs to be some explaining.
Phil: They were passed, then the edict came down. Hmm. ESPN tried to explain this issue multiple times Friday night, but the difference is so gosh-darn small that the average person couldn’t tell.
Tony: So let me get this one straight. The template fit, but the visual was off and the comparison to the factory part was off? To me, you pick one thing that you need to fit and if you pass that one test, then you’re good.
Mike: I just have a real problem with them passing a car, giving them a sticker for successful tech, then coming back and saying “Oh yeah, cut off your nose.”
Amy: Right, on that, they may have a case. Again, the difference is that the nose is a factory-designed part and must look exactly like the one provided to NASCAR by the factory, which these did not. The C-post doesn’t have a factory piece to compare to. If NASCAR were smart, in light if the No. 48 issue they would give a massive fine, a very long probation and perhaps a short suspension, but no points. Because there is the chance of it being overturned on appeal due to recent precedent.
Tony: Absolutely, appealing now needs to be the rule, not the exception.
Amy: The problem is, Tony, that altering a factory piece is expressly prohibited. There is no grey area to speak of.
Tony: Then I guess NASCAR has a case. Just seems odd to me that two different teams would be supposedly trying the same thing on the same weekend.
Mike: I’m with Tony. The fact that two unrelated teams were both in violation with the same piece would make me think that there very well could have been a manufacturing flaw.
Jesse: Having two teams get this penalty, you are also dealing with two different budgets when it comes to what kind of effort they are going to throw at an appeal too.
Phil: The RCR teams will put together a more detailed appeal than anything Turner Motorsports can do.
Amy: I disagree there, Phil. Turner has Hendrick behind them, who just won the last major appeal.
Mike: I don’t know how many templates they put on the cars but it is a boatload of them. The fact that the R&D center had scrutinized the nose twice and it fit every template, this eyeball crap is about getting old. I’d like to know what was wrong. But we’ll never be graced with that information from NASCAR.
Amy: The alteration wouldn’t have failed template, because what they did was carve away the space around the wheel well. It would have still fit under the claw but not aligned with the factory piece.
Tony: Seems like innovation actually.
Amy: Working in a grey area is innovation, Tony, no doubt. The issue here is that there was no grey area.
Mike: These teams get some of their body parts from common manufacturers. I’m thinking this one screams of a manufacturing defect. I think NASCAR should learn and realize that if six teams, from two different organizations were doing it, and the cars passed inspection, that maybe the eyeball test is a load of crap.
Amy: I agree that the eyeball test is a load of crap, Mike, but the problem is that there was an exact piece to measure them against and they didn’t measure against it correctly.
Phil: Sounds like it’s time to put together some more templates.
Amy: Phil, there is a template, so to speak … the nose provided to NASCAR by the manufacturer. Rules say they must match exactly.
Tony: Tough to take points when they haven’t been earned yet.
Jesse: Agreed, if you fail before the car hits the track, you should be given the opportunity to pass inspection again and penalized by starting in the back.
Amy: I agree with that 100%.
Mike: I personally don’t think you should be penalized at all. It is pre-race inspection. It should be to confirm your car meets the rules. If it doesn’t, you fix it until it does. This precedent needs to be thrown out the window.
Amy: And the “but they intended to race it” is a load of hooey. They intended to race a legal car, which, if it passes inspection, it is. If they don’t pass inspection, they should have to represent a legal car. Missing practice time to fix it is punishment enough. Once you’ve competed, either in qualifying or a race, it should up the ante.

How about some predictions for Talladega?

Amy: I say Junior doesn’t have to settle for second this week.
Phil: Let’s hope so. I’m sick of this “when will he win” garbage. People think he’s useless when he’s five points out of the lead. On that note, I’m going to go with Kahne.
Tony: I’m going out on a bit of a limb with Jeff Burton. He was close last fall and Blick won there last year with Ragan, so the combo could pay off here.
Jesse: I would pick Kevin Harvick, he is really good at plate tracks. However, his pit fiasco and temper with it over the last two races will affect him. I’m going to go with Johnson. He has been racing good and I think he gets win number 200 for the boss.
Mike: I think Junior gets the win, but Amy took that from me, so I’m going to take Clint Bowyer.
Amy: I kind of hope it’s Gordon who gets No. 200, even is Junior was my pick. But I think Jimmie pushes Junior this time around, and sticks with him at 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

Capital City 400 Results

WriterPickFinishing PositionPoints
Amy HendersonDenny Hamlin4th3
Beth LunkenheimerKyle Busch1st5
Mike NeffDale Earnhardt Jr.2nd3
Phil AllawayMartin Truex, Jr.25th-1

Points Standings

WriterPointsBehindPredictions (Starts)WinsTop 5sTop 10s
Kevin Rutherford207256
Amy Henderson15-59157
Mike Neff14-69145
Beth Lunkenheimer9-117123
Phil Allaway3-179014
Jeff Meyer0-201000
Tom Bowles-2-221000

About the author

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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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