Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Maintaining Earnhardt Momentum, Fans’ Fear of FOX & a Rookie Champ?

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
Amy Henderson (Mondays/The Big Six and Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays/Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter)
Mike Neff (Wednesdays/Full Throttle & Fridays/Keepin’ It Short)
Kevin Rutherford (Mondays/Top News)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Mondays/Tracking the Trucks and Thursdays/Truckin’ Thursday)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won for the first time in four years on Sunday (June 17). The last time he did so, in 2008 he was also in the top five in the points standings … only to tank and finish dead last in this season’s Chase. What does Earnhardt and team have to do differently this time around in order not to repeat the same mistakes?

Mike: Finish better.
Kevin: Keep the consistency they’ve had this year and win some more races, for sure.
Amy: I think it’s what they are doing that’s different. They’re communicating. Instead of shutting down when the car isn’t right, they’re working through it.
Mike: Seriously, they are far more poised for success this year than they were then. Mind you, I don’t buy Mike Helton’s assessment that he’s the favorite for the title, but assuming they don’t hit a rough patch after Richmond, they should be in contention by the last three or four races.
Beth: The consistency they’ve seen this year shows just how far they’ve come in working on the car when it’s not quite right. But I’m absolutely not ready to call him a title favorite yet.
Phil: Just went back and checked Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s stats from 2008. He had 16 top 10s that year. Only five of them came after the win. It’s like the team stopped developing at that point. The No. 88 was still quite good that year, but they’re stronger this year than they were at this point in 2008.
Amy: I think he’s a favorite for the title until he proves otherwise. Just not the only one. But he and his shopmate are on a roll.
Mike: Yeah, the 48/88 shop is definitely where the strength is at HMS right now.
Phil: It’s more like all four teams are strong. There’s just a bunch of bad luck in the other shop. Take away all the ridiculousness that’s happened to Jeff Gordon this year and he’d probably be sixth in points.
Amy: Or Better, Phil. Gordon could easily have two or three wins.
Mike: There’s no question about that. Sunday was a good run for the No. 24. He’s still going to have to win a couple of races to make the Chase though.
Amy: But the No. 88 has done it right so far this year. They’re consistent and haven’t had a really bad race yet. Which is probably a good thing; Junior isn’t the greatest on a road courses.
Mike: The other thing about the No. 88 this year vs. 2008 is that they were expected to win by a lot of people this year. That year, the win was a fuel-mileage deal and it felt like they lucked into it. This year, they’ve been banging on the door and it seemed inevitable.
Kevin: Yeah. We’ll see if Earnhardt’s season starts going south if he happens to have a tough race this weekend. Bad runs breeding bad runs and the like.
Phil: I remember it feeling somewhat inevitable in 2008. However, it ended up being a short-lived victory.
Mike: He’s definitely not the greatest on a road course but he has won at Watkins Glen. I’d be totally shocked if he wins at Sonoma.
Amy: If he finishes in the top 10 at Sonoma, it will be a good weekend.
Mike: I think there is a better chance that he backs this one up with a win at Daytona.
Amy: He could, Mike, or Kentucky or Loudon for that matter.
Phil: Earnhardt has never done much at Sonoma in his Cup career. He’s never finished better than 11th (three times).
Mike: Sonoma is far more technical than Watkins Glen. You generally don’t see guys win there out of the blue – although Kasey Kahne did it.
Phil: Especially when they were still running the 2.52-mile course, it was usually the creme of road racing that won. Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace, Davey Allison, Ernie Irvan, Geoff Bodine, Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt. Those guys were pretty much the best in the field at road racing in that era.
Amy: True. I wish they still ran the old configuration.
Kevin: Same.
Phil: Since a top 10 would be better than he’s ever done before in Sonoma, I’d be fine with it.
Beth: And a top 10 would be the perfect way to continue the forward momentum and ultimately put them in a solid spot come Chase time.
Phil: Looking back at the 2008 Chase, Earnhardt Jr. started off well, with a fifth, then finished badly in all but two of the remaining races, including two DNFs.
Amy: But the team is doing all the right things. They need to keep doing it and then elevate the game during the Chase. That’s been the secret for winning under the Chase format. Teams have to improve in the Chase, not simply hold at status quo.
Phil: The one that really hurt them was Dover, where they finished three laps down in 24th and dropped to ninth. They never recovered from that. The wheel bearing failure in a no start-and-park era was just the nail in the coffin.
Mike: Fortunately, for those of us in the media, we can now stop talking about Junior not winning for the rest of the year anyway.
Phil: I see no reason why Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team can’t keep this up. However, I don’t expect all that much out of them this weekend. They’ll definitely be around, although they’re not finishing every lap this season.
Mike: I don’t either Phil but, just as Kahne did, they could shock the world.
Kevin: Sounds like the spotlight’s going to be on Junior tenfold, even more than it has, because of the win. But at least it’s a change of pace. As for what they need to do – keep that consistency. It’s worked well thus far.
Amy: The thing is, they don’t NEED to win Sonoma. A top 10 would be a statement.
Mike: The one who needs to win at Infineon is Jeff Gordon.
Phil: Gordon only just now entered the top 20 in points. He’ll need at least two. As for Earnhardt Jr., his average finish has gotten worse at Sonoma since his infamous Corvette crash there in 2004. You probably remember that one.
Mike: Yeah, when his dad pulled him out of the car.
Amy: Yeah, where the photo shows him being pulled out of the car with nobody there.
Mike: Yep
Amy: Anyways, the problem is as of now, Earnhardt will lose ground when the Chase starts. He’d be seeded sixth.
Mike: I still don’t think you have to win races in the Chase to win the title. It will certainly make it easier to win the title with wins, but I don’t think it is a requirement.

Carl Edwards is currently 11th in points and without a win, on the outside looking in at the Chase. Is there something to the “runner-up hangover?” And if so, why does the runner up struggle so much the next year?

Amy: Yeah, it’s called “putting all their eggs in one basket.”
Mike: You can say there isn’t anything to the jinx but the bottom line is it does exist. And the more the people it affects try and deny that it exists, the more it seems to happen.
Phil: In other words, they got behind on their 2012 preparations trying like heck to beat Tony Stewart? I could buy that.
Mike: Yeah, well Stewart was focused on the Chase and he came out of the gate with two wins. It is just like the SI jinx or the Madden jinx. You cannot explain a jinx, it just is. Carl Edwards does have two teammates in the top five in points.
Amy: I think that while other teams were working on 2012, Edwards was only focused on the Chase.
Beth: Wouldn’t you only focus on the Chase if you had a shot to win it all, though?
Amy: Yeah, but winning carries momentum through the winter. Losing only carries disappointment.
Mike: The jinx exists because the historical figures bear it out. There is nothing tangible that can be measured to prove the jinx exists, it simply does. Similar to a streak in baseball. You don’t mess with the streak. You don’t know why it happens and you don’t question it, you just know it does.
Beth: And you know as well as I do that it could have easily gone the other way at Homestead.
Amy: It could have, Beth, but it didn’t, and that’s awfully deflating to the No. 99 crowd.
Phil: Looking at the season’s results, Edwards has had his share of bad luck. The crash in Talladega. Issues at Dover a couple of weeks ago and getting in Kahne’s mess at Bristol.
Mike: If Edwards drove for a standalone team, I’d believe that a comeback could be possible. But with Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle running so well, I don’t believe it. The simple truth is, he finished second so he won’t finish worth a darn this year.
Phil: When Edwards hasn’t had troubles this year, he’s been a sixth-ninth place car at best. It’s a real shame. I’m not sure how much information sharing that there is at Roush Fenway, to be honest. Perhaps some of the offseason changes have benefitted Biffle at Edwards’s expense.
Beth: There’s nothing Edwards can do to win the 2011 championship, period. Instead, he’s got to just focus on now.
Amy: He could hit a hot streak this summer and prove us all wrong, but I don’t see it happening unless something changes.
Phil: I don’t think Carl’s thinking all that much about last season right now. He’s doing the best he can. This past weekend, he had to spend 400 miles fighting back from a fuel issue in qualifying. Hard to do much under those circumstances.
Mike: I’m sure there is enough information sharing at RFR. Remember when their aero modeling was off? The cars are all built in the same place and they aren’t earmarked for specific drivers. So they all have an equal shot at running well.
Amy: I’ve never had the impression that the RFR crowd was particularly great at sharing info and utilizing what they learn.
Mike: Um, Johnson started last and was at the front before too long. Ryan Newman started next to Jimmie Johnson and ran almost to the front before a bad pit choice at the end. I think his issues are purely cosmic.
Kevin: I honestly didn’t expect this jinx to really hit Edwards this hard this year. I guess it could be worse, but given how he was running in 2011 (and how his teammates are this year), I’d’ve expected much better.
Phil: Part of that was pit strategy. Johnson pitted when Josh Wise blew up and was able to skip a tire change. I don’t think Edwards took advantage of that.
Amy: I agree, Kevin. But the signs were there that perhaps Edwards’s team wasn’t quite right even during the Chase.
Mike: They tied for the title. I am sure there are 41 other teams that would like to be not quite right like that.
Amy: And if they’d won just one race, they’d have won it … but they couldn’t. Hell, if they’d just improved their position in one race, they’d have won it and then we’d be wondering about Stewart instead
Phil: I don’t think one position here or there would put Stewart into an outright swoon. I think that Edwards is not the problem here.
Amy: Bottom line, call it what you want, but finishing second is generally the kiss of death the following year. Personally, I think they get behind and then have no momentum to recover.
Phil: His equipment just isn’t quite up to snuff at the moment.
Mike: If they came home eighth at Martinsville, 10th at Talladega or seventh at Loudon they’d have won. Not winning didn’t matter.
Amy: One position would have won the championship no matter WHAT Stewart did, Phil.
Mike: His equipment is up to snuff. He’s jinxed and nothing he can do will overcome it. Accept it and move on to 2013
Phil: I know that, but you’re saying that if Edwards got that one position, Stewart would be winless right now and on the outside looking in to the top 10. I think that’s nuts.
Amy: That’s true, Mike, but it says something when a team can’t put together one win in the biggest 10 races of their careers.
Kevin: No one’s followed up a second-place finish in the points with a top five the following year since Kenseth from 2006-07. Will Edwards be the first to break that streak? I doubt it. He has to be running a whole lot better and we’re just not seeing much spunk from that team right now.
Mike: Actually Phil, it isn’t nuts. It is how the universe works. That is just how it plays out when someone finishes second in points.
Amy: I’m not saying that, Phil. Just saying we’d be wondering about his season instead of Carl’s. On the flip side, Johnson had his worst points finish at the time the year before he won his first title.
Mike: Yeah, a horrendous fifth-place finish. At least before his sixth last year.
Amy: Just saying, maybe a decent finish the year before is a better indicator than runner up.

FOX is reportedly entering negotiations with NASCAR to extend their deal to broadcast races. Should NASCAR re-up? And what should NASCAR – and fans – get in return?

Amy: NASCAR needs to play hardball. Should they reup? Depends on the alternatives. Should they demand better coverage? Absolutely?
Beth: What should NASCAR and fans get in return? Simple … better coverage.
Kevin: Fans I’ve associated with have had nothing but poor words for the FOX broadcasts. Has anyone ever met someone who actually likes them? I sure haven’t.
Mike: Personally, I’d like to see one company broadcast the whole year, but I don’t think that will happen. Depending on what the alternatives are will determine whether they should re-up. FOX certainly needs to do some work on their coverage if they’re going to keep doing it.
Amy: Now what does better coverage entail? To me, better coverage of racing wherever it is on the track, whether for first place or 21st. If there’s no action up front, there’s no excuse not to show the action in the field.
Beth: Agreed, Amy.
Phil: Sure. They would do well to read not just my critiques from the past 15 weeks, but also the fan comments. We need broader coverage.
Mike: I’d just like to see more pictures of the track with more than one or two cars in them.
Kevin: Agreed there, Mike. I’d love to see racing wherever it is on the track, not just up front – if there’s racing there at all.
Beth: Plus, there are 43 drivers that start the race on any given week. That’s right, 43! So cover them all. I mean I’m not looking for an expanded update about a driver running 30th, but it would be nice every now and then to know more about why they’re running that poorly … especially if it’s someone who typically runs well.
Amy: I mean, take Sunday. I’m sure Regan Smith‘s fans might have appreciated at least being filled in on what happened.
Beth: My point exactly, Amy.
Phil: And Martin’s. How the deuce did he finish five laps down? (Editor’s Note: It was engine failure.)
Mike: There is always racing somewhere on the track, and it isn’t that hard to find. Oh, I’d also like to see debris. Whenever there is a debris caution, I want to see it. That goes for all of the broadcasters.
Amy: Agreed on the debris. They need to show it, every time, and not call fans “needy” because they want proof that the races aren’t being manipulated.
Beth: I’m 100% in agreement, Mike. There’s absolutely no reason NOT to show debris if there’s a legitimate reason to throw the caution. I want proof there’s a damn good reason for throwing the caution, not just to accept that there might have been a cotton ball in the racing groove.
Phil: To add to that, if you can’t find it, notify the fans that you can’t.
Kevin: Yeah, there was nothing but focus on Junior those last 15 laps or so. I understand that this was a big deal or whatever, but we could have at least been shown a cutaway to or mention of the issues.
Mike: For that matter, let us know when people drop out. Even if they are start-and-park cars, just let the fans know. I hate when someone disappears. Also, when they come back. Kyle Busch was back on the track Sunday and I had no clue until the leader passed him.
Amy: Also, there is no excuse, none, for not telling the viewers if a driver involved in a wreck was OK or if he was transported to a hospital or whatever.
Mike: Amen Amy. And if there is a huge wreck at the end of a race, stay with the broadcast at least long enough to let the fans know everyone is alive.
Beth: Or even if they’re forced to retire from the race. I swear I remember broadcasts years ago where they’d at least mention that a driver who suffered a wreck had terminal damage and had dropped out of the race. Now we have to wait for the ticker to show it. And while it sounds like we’re asking for a lot, we’re actually not. Instead we’re demanding things for fans that should already be there but just aren’t.
Phil: I know. We sound like a broken record at times about these things.
Beth: Right. But I agree with FOX; I don’t really care to watch people in the Hollywood Hotel say who they think will win halfway through the race. Instead, give me some pertinent information about the event itself and maybe a driver who’s dropped back after running strong earlier in the day.
Phil: Now, I am worried about a couple of things. News came out today that FOX is considering making SPEED into an ESPN competitor and making low-rated Fuel into SPEED’s successor. This could cause some problems.
Amy: NASCAR needs to make it clear to FOX, or any network they’re negotiating with that they need to see a certain level of product. That could be fewer commercials, side-by-side coverage, more coverage through the field, whatever. But NASCAR needs to step up and take care of their fans in the next TV deal.
Mike: There should be a minimum level of coverage expected. But I don’t know how you ensure that.
Amy: That was always the problem with SPEED – not enough people even had it.
Beth: I’d have to check my channel listing, Amy. If we get it, I don’t have a clue what channel it is.
Amy: The same way you ensure a full field, Mike, write it into the contract. Clauses that say exactly what must be shown and how often
Mike: It is a little harder to quantify a level of coverage vs. a full field.
Amy: Some items, maybe … but it’s not hard to write in that they must return form commercial for every restart, or cut back immediately when there’s a caution. Or that they must report on every driver who was taken to infield care before the broadcast ends.
Phil: I get Fuel. It’s right next to SPEED. However, many people don’t have to pay extra on top of digital cable to get SPEED. Fuel is not so lucky.
Amy: Perhaps a certain number of full-field rundowns with camera shots during a broadcast.
Phil: NASCAR would apparently lose 40 million homes if their stuff got shifted to Fuel.
Mike: You’d think so. I hope they can work something like that out. I doubt they’ll do that though. Just a hunch I have.
Phil: Fuel is currently one of the lowest-rated channels in all of cable television.
Amy: And who would suffer the most from that, Phil? The Truck Series, who’s already given a backseat.
Phil: Granted, any changeover of SPEED wouldn’t occur until 2014. Guess that’s why they’re trying to get it done early.
Amy: If FOX does return, they need to be made to improve in no uncertain terms.
Beth: The bottom line is that NASCAR needs to step up and set a standard for what’s acceptable for the fans watching at home. As far as the details in there, we’ve made plenty of great suggestions, and we’re really not asking all that much.
Phil: I don’t see any problem with FOX Sports coming back for another go around and maybe saving themselves some money in the process. However, their coverage needs to be more inclusive. I don’t think NASCAR has ever set a standard for what’s acceptable coverage. They leave that up to the networks.
Amy: Right. We shouldn’t have to tell race fans every week how much better the racing really was if they were there in person. That’s not fair.
Beth: Well, there’s no time like the present, Phil.
Mike: Honestly, the networks should do that on their own. I worry that, with the networks paying less for the TV deal, the coverage will drop off even more.

Rookie Austin Dillon is currently second in NNS points, just eight behind leader Elliott Sadler. Can Dillon win the title this year – and if he does, will it mean he’s ready for a Cup seat in 2013?

Amy: Yes, he can, and no, it doesn’t.
Mike: He can certainly win the title this year. If he does, he should still spend another year in Nationwide though. Two years is the minimum he should spend in Nationwide.
Amy: Can Austin Dillon win? If the stars align, sure. But using that as a reason to move him up next year would be a poor decision. He needs another year in Nationwide to be competitive in Cup.
Beth: He can certainly win the title this year, but I still feel like he’d be better served by another season in Nationwide rather than jumping to Cup too soon.
Amy: He could move up and do OK, but it would be shortchanging him.
Phil: Let’s go through a list of past champions and whether they immediately moved up. Bobby Labonte didn’t. Joe Nemechek didn’t. Steve Grissom did and flopped. David Green didn’t, Johnny Benson did, but he was ready. Randy LaJoie had already been in Cup. Earnhardt Jr. didn’t move up right away.
Beth: That’s my point, Amy. There’s no reason to rush him up to Cup. He’s still very young and has plenty of time to stay in Nationwide and hone his skills before moving on.
Kevin: Dillon shouldn’t be in Cup in 2013, even if he does win the title. Maybe a few more starts in the series that year would suffice, but I’d rather see him contend in Nationwide two years in a row than possibly struggle in ’13.
Beth: I could understand a handful of Cup starts next season but not full time.
Mike: Richard Childress has been moving Austin and Ty both along gradually. I really can’t imagine he’d rush him up. On top of that, would they switch back to four cars? I’m thinking they need to get Jeff Burton running a little better before they do that.
Phil: Poor Casey Atwood; he got pwned. He was considered the great white hype.
Mike: Atwood was better than that, Phil. He got completely hosed and no one else had room for him.
Phil: Although, by the end of his rookie year, he was developing nicely. Then, he got leased out to the No. 7 and it ruined his career. Atwood could have won at Homestead in 2001.
Mike: Atwood is still more talented than several drivers running in Cup today.
Amy: Agreed, Mike.
Phil: What is Atwood doing these days? Twiddling his thumbs and hanging around the Nashville Fairgrounds?
Mike: I don’t know what he’s doing these days.
Beth: I actually found a reference to that on Twitter too, Amy.
Amy: But yeah, Atwood is only 32. What a total waste of talent
Phil: Running Saturday-night local features is quite a step back from being full time in Cup at 21. Then again, companies wanted dudes who all but couldn’t grow facial hair back then.
Phil: After the Ultra-Evernham mess, Atwood never really got another chance at Cup.
Mike: Yeah but it happens. You never know, somebody might give him a Truck ride and begin a reclamation of his career.
Amy: Let Atwood’s story be a cautionary tale. Dillon can win the NNS title, but that doesn’t mean his timetable should be altered.
Phil: And like Labonte and Earnhardt Jr., maybe he’ll better for the extra experience.
Mike: I don’t think Dillon will be rushed up. That said, I don’t think Childress will allow him to be running late models at Bowman-Gray on Saturday nights.

How about some Sonoma predictions?

Amy: I’m going to say Marcos Ambrose wins it and gives himself an outside shot at the Chase in the process.
Phil: That would be nice. I’m going with AJ Allmendinger to get out of his funk and score victory number one.
Amy: And if you didn’t see Mike point it out last week, we had four people in Mirror and we picked the top four at MIS.
Phil: Yeah, I saw that. And I got number one.
Mike: Dang I missed out on another winner and now Amy is going to get another one. That said, I’ll take Stewart.
Beth: What the heck, I’ll go with Juan Pablo Montoya. He’s run well at Sonoma and even though his biggest highlight this year involved a jet dryer and a long red flag, he could easily head to victory lane on Sunday.
Amy: Ambrose, ‘Dinger, Montoya.
Kevin: I’m going to go with Gordon. Luck this year aside, he’s run well there in the past. So who knows.
Beth: I would’ve been shocked if we came out of here without someone picking Gordon.

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

Quicken Loans 400 Results:

WriterPickFinishing PositionPoints
Amy HendersonMatt Kenseth3rd3
Mike NeffGreg Biffle4th3
Phil AllawayDale Earnhardt Jr.1st5
Kevin RutherfordTony Stewart2nd3

Points Standings

WriterPointsBehindPredictions (Starts)WinsTop 5sTop 10s
Kevin Rutherford29122810
Amy Henderson24-5151712
Mike Neff22-714169
Phil Allaway15-1414148
Beth Lunkenheimer9-209123
Matt Stallknecht5-241111
Tom Bowles3-262111
Tony Lumbis1-281001
Jeff Meyer0-291000
Jesse Medford-2-311000
Vito Pugliese-2-312000

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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