Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Unpredictability And Unusual Circumstances

Welcome to “Mirror Driving.” Every Wednesday, 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:

Tom Bowles (Mondays / Bowles-Eye View & Wednesdays / Did you Notice? & Frontstretch Editor-In-Chief)
Amy Henderson (Mondays / The Big Six & Fridays / Holding A Pretty Wheel & Frontstretch Co-Managing Editor)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays / Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter Editor)
Summer Bedgood (Frontstretch NASCAR Senior Writer)

Eight of the top 10 drivers in points have never won at Martinsville. Who stands the most chance to break through this weekend… and who has the most to prove? Or is there a dark horse that we may be overlooking?

Amy: I think of the top 10, I like Dale Earnhardt, Jr.‘s chances. He’s always been strong at Martinsville, and he’s on a roll.
Summer: I think I’m going to go with Keselowski. He’s not known as much of a “short track” guy, but after winning the championship, there’s not much he still can’t do.
Phil: I’m going with Keselowski for the driver most likely in the front bunch.  Don’t count out Earnhardt Jr., though.
Amy: AS for a driver outside that group, what about someone like Aric Almirola? He snuck up on everyone last fall and snagged himself a top 5.
Summer: Almirola has a tendency to do that every once in awhile, though I doubt he’ll be much of a contender this weekend.
Tom: I’m actually interested to see how this race goes for Kyle Busch. I know that sounds funny, considering he just won last week but he’s been looking to get over the hump in Cup for a good year now.
Summer: I know what you’re saying, Tom. You want to see if he can keep it up.
Tom: Right. Now that he’s been in Victory Lane… Martinsville, while an ugly track for him historically presents an opportunity to get on a roll. The No. 18 runs very well at Texas and Richmond, two tracks on the schedule this month.
Amy: Also, the 51 nad 13 have been pretty strong anywhere.  I don’t know if they’ll contend for the win, but a top 10, top 15 isn’t out of the question for Regan Smith or Casey Mears.
Tom: Those are better options, Amy. Almirola has been a disappointment this season, straight up. I wrote about it in DYN Wednesday… RPM is really hurting after being knocked down a peg at Ford. Dodge leaving – or failing to partner with Petty – may have killed their chances at improving in the near future.
Phil: As for Mears, he finished 25th in both races at Martinsville last year.  However, he did come in 12th there back in 2011 and Germain Racing is a lot stronger now.
Tom: The other guy you’ve got to look at, a story that’s been well underreported is Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He’s knocked on the door at Martinsville a few years running now. Yes, he’s leading the points but no one believes he’ll actually contend like he should because the No. 88 never runs up front.
Summer: Him being at Hendrick Motorsports automatically puts Earnhardt in there as a favorite to win Martinsville.
Tom: Not necessarily, Summer. The guy may be first in points this season but he’s 10th in laps led.
Phil: Earnhardt Jr.‘s been in contention to win this race the last two years.
Amy: If he’d been willing to wreck a guy to win (and I applaud him for not doing it) he’d have a win there.
Tom: But he doesn’t. And that’s been the knock on Earnhardt the last couple of years… two wins, in five plus years at Hendrick and both at the same track. Boy’s gonna have to win some races and step up … otherwise, everyone is waiting for the No. 48 to run circles around them when it really counts.
Summer: You know who else is winless at Martinsville in the top 10? Joey Logano. He’s been strong enough this season that I think he can win … if someone (cough, Tony Stewart, cough) doesn’t take him out in the process.
Phil: Logano does have a second there back in 2010, but he has really done all that much there lately.
Summer: Logano hadn’t done much anywhere prior to this season.
Tom: Logano made a boatload of comments this week that tell me he’s not super sorry over what happened. Something tells me he is going to get dumped.
Summer: I saw that too. He was basically apologizing without apologizing.
Tom: Right…. I’m sure that didn’t sit well with everyone he’s got a beef with these days. There’s so many cars out there with Joe Gibbs Racing connections, too… I don’t see him close to the front on Sunday.
Amy: Apologizing includes two words: “I’m sorry.” Until those come out of his mouth, he’s only sorry about the bad PR he’s getting.
Tom: Anyways, for me if you’re looking at the top of the standings it’s all about the 88. In the last two Martinsville Spring races, Junior has an average finish of 2.5. It’s a great opportunity for him to no longer be the popular boy who cried wolf… on top of the point standings for a week, maybe two before fading.
Phil: I do see Earnhardt Jr. contending Sunday.  He’s always done well on the paperclip.
Summer: I agree that Earnhardt guy is the one to watch, but not going with the obvious answer, Brad Keselowski I also think will be strong.
Amy: I do think there’s a good chance we’ll see someone get his first grandfather clock this week. I like Brian Vickers’ chances as well. He finished eighth in the fall and was solid at Bristol.

Now that we know for sure who is subbing in for Denny Hamlin after his injury in Fontana, we can focus on the bigger picture: Can Hamlin make the Chase even after missing 5 or 6 races?

Phil: Yes, but it’s highly unlikely.
Amy: Realistically, probably not.
Tom: No. Simple as that… I don’t see it. Too high a hill to climb.
Summer: Eh…. He’d have to be dominant as soon as he got back in the car.
Phil: Right. He’d have to be the best dude in Sprint Cup when he comes back.  Not bloody likely, especially since he’s missing a couple of his best races.
Amy: He could if he has a few wins and gets in the top 20, but it will be tough.  I’m not convinced he’ll be back as soon as they’re projecting, either
Summer: His best shot is that wild card, but even then he’d have to do a helluva lot more than win.
Tom: Couldn’t agree more. I’m not even putting that reality on Denny, either. I fully expect them to win races. But there are a lot of other factors beyond his control. Toyota’s been blowing engines at too high a rate not to hit the No. 11. Add in another wreck or two, where Hamlin is an innocent victim and there’s too much ground to make up. He’ll be nearly 100 points outside the top 20 when getting back in the car.
Phil: Apparently, his form last season would technically be good enough to get him in, provided he wins thrice.  However, it might require more points than that this year.
Summer: It would have helped him had he already had a couple of wins in these first few races.
Tom: I do think Denny is at his best playing hurt. We saw that with the ACL injury a couple of years ago… he likes this team, feels there’s something to prove and will come back hungry.
Amy: But there’s a difference between hungry and reality, Tom. Denny says Richmond? Won’t happen. 6 weeks was the minimum, and if JGR is smart, they won’t let him back in the car a second earlier than he should.  And that, realistically, means until there is no chance of reinjury.
Summer: I know that they won’t put him at the risk of re-injuring himself, but I doubt he’ll be at his best the weeks after he gets back in the car.I can’t help but think that even after Hamlin gets back, he’ll still be a little, say, “rusty”.
Phil: That’s my main concern, Summer.  I think he’ll come back and finish 19th or something like that.
Summer: Right. And he’ll have to win right out of the gate and then some.
Amy: So, while he could put together the best summer run in recent history, it’s pretty unlikely.  He was only 10th place to start.
Tom: You’re going to have to win multiple times to get the job done, too. One win, 20th in points won’t do it. Heck, if Matt Kenseth is a wild card you may have two drivers with two wins ahead of Hamlin. He would have to snag three.
Summer: And when he doesn’t win, he has to finish in the top 3-5 and even then his closest competitors can’t finish anywhere near him.
Amy: If Hamlin had the lead or top 3 in points, I’d be more optimistic for his chances, but realistically, he’s toast.  He’s better off sitting out as long as it takes and not trying to be a hero at this point.
Tom: Part of me wonders whether missing a sixth race would even give him a better shot in the long run… the Southern 500 is one of the toughest races physically to return from an injury this sport could offer.
Amy: I think that’s a very enthusiastic timetable, Tom… I see him back maybe at Charlotte.
Summer: I agree with Amy. That timetable is the minimum. Who is to say he won’t need more time? I’m not saying Hamlin can’t do it. He’s quite the athlete. But you can’t rush this type of injury. It will be a heck of a storyline if he can pull it off by some miracle, though.
Amy: Exactly, Summer.  If he comes back before it’s 100% healed, he risks never driving again.  Most drivers with similar injuries have missed months, not weeks.  I hope he’ll be smart about his return.
Phil: Could he just skip the Sprint All-Star Race, regardless of whether he’s back by then?  It’s a non-points event that would just stress his back more.
Summer: And, yes, Phil he should skip that race. It means nothing.
Tom: Fully disagree. I think they’ve got to get him warmed up in the car with that race, Phil. None of the choices to come back are good ones. Hamlin returns during the worst stretch for that: 500 miles at Darlington, then the series’ longest race at 600 miles (Charlotte), then another tough, physical track in Dover.
Summer: I guess that’s true too, Tom. The Coke 600 wouldn’t be the best starting choice either. Then again, that extra week off might ensure he’s 100% ready for it.
Tom: Well I would warm him up at Charlotte, see how he feels and get him ready for the 600-mile distance. It means you lose six races but that might give Hamlin a better rhythm.
Summer: However, if he waits until after that Dover race, he’ll have zero chance at that point.I think his “warmups” need to be test sessions. I don’t think they should just throw him in the car the week after the doc clears him. Get him re-acquainted with that car again.
Tom: Well, should Hamlin miss the postseason, that leaves Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson as the only drivers still eligible to make every Chase since the start of 2006. And Gordon isn’t in strong position, either.
Summer: Time is on Gordon’s side, Tom. It’s not on Hamlin’s.
Tom: Just shows you how much more remarkable Denny Hamlin’s streak – along with J.J.‘s – has been.
Amy: Yeah, but should he risk his whole career for a cool stat?  I think not.
Summer: Anyway, my final answer to the question .. Yes Hamlin can make the Chase. But I don’t think he will. It’s a near impossibility.
Phil: I’d argue that if he comes back at Darlington, he’ll put a buttload of weight on getting into the Chase.  If he’s out until Dover, then it’s more of a dip your toe scenario.
Amy: I agree.  He could, but he won’t.  And if he’s smart, he won’t rush back into the driver’s seat.

The off week over Easter gave us a chance to reflect on the season as a whole. We already know the headlines that have everyone talking, but what underlying storyline has emerged that we might have overlooked or been overshadowed by some of the larger headlines?

Summer: Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards starting strong right out of the gate. Paul Menard surprisingly in the top 10. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. within view. Rivalries aren’t everything.
Tom: You know Summer, it’s funny you say that because I was talking to one source in the sport who was saying Roush is feeling like they’ve had an awful year. I said, “What drugs were you taking and did you give them some?” Roush to me has had a fine start… no matter how well Penske has done.
Amy: I think the way some of the smaller teams are running is a pretty cool deal.  Phoenix Racing inside the top 10 in owner points?!  Who saw that coming?
Phil: Judging by recent form, Menard being in the top 10 doesn’t necessarily surprise me.  Menard not starting a swoon in Martinsville would surprise me. Meanwhile, no one expected Phoenix Racing to be where they are.  And even better, they don’t have 7-9 wrecked cars, either.
Amy: My prediction is that between them, Phoenix Racing, Germain Racing, and Furniture Row Racing will have at least one win between them this year, maybe two or three.  A year ago?  No way you can say that.
Phil: I wouldn’t be surprised if Kurt Busch won two by himself.  I don’t know about Germain, though they are quietly doing very well.
Summer: Tom, on Roush I don’t see that in the stats. I wonder what makes them feel that way considering they have three cars in the top 12. Seriously, they’re right on part with HMS right now. And as far as Penske, both Edwards and Biffle are beating Logano.
Tom: Totally with you, Summer. Considering where Edwards was last year, they’re thrilled and the Fennig combination appears like the right choice so far. I’m also seriously impressed with Stenhouse.
Summer: And Stenhouse is murdering Danica in the rookie battle. Hell… Stenhouse is doing well in general. Much better than I thought he would.
Amy: Keselowski is beating the Roush camp because he’s a better driver than any of them – it’s that simple.
Phil: Danica has struggled a lot more than I thought she would.  I’d figure that she would have had a top 20 by now (outside of Daytona).
Summer: I didn’t.
Tom: Well compare that to Stenhouse. He should have, and was pretty much fired at one point because of his freshman year in Nationwide… 8 wrecks in 15 races. So far, in Cup he has none in five, top-20 finishes each week; that’s exactly what you want out of a rookie.
Summer: I should have given Stenhouse more credit. He could easily be in Victory Lane by the end of the year and it wouldn’t surprise me. And I think Edwards is equal to Keselowski. Edwards just had an off year last year.
Amy: Nah, Keselowski is an exceptional talent.  Edwards is a talent.
Summer: I don’t think so. Remember, Edwards tied for the championship recently. He’s no dark hose.
Amy: Edwards is overrated.  Keselowski isn’t. Edwards, I can see winning a title somewhere.  Keselowski could win several. In equal cars, Keselowski is the better driver.
Phil: I’m not sure about that statement, Amy.  Before last year, no one would have considered it.  However, Edwards has had a tough couple of years and is just now coming out of the funk.
Amy: Talent-wise, I’d put Keselowski in the top 5 in the series.  Edwards is top 10 on a good day.
Summer: Again, I think you’re forgetting his run with Stewart. That was not overrated.
Amy: I think you’re forgetting that he stroked that entire Chase.  Had he taken one risk, he’d be a champion.  Instead, Stewart is.  Again.
Summer: Edwards “stroked” the Chase for a tie in the championship. He didn’t even need to take a risk. He just needed one more position, and he fought like hell for it.
Amy: No he didn’t.  He just rode at Dover.  Had he taken a risk, he’d be champion.  He had a faster car there than his finish.  He points raced, plain and simple.  And it bit him.
Tom: Edwards had a lot of extenuating circumstances last year. There was a crew chief change … the replacement never really clicked with the team. As we’ve seen, during the Chase era second place in the championship standings comes attached with some sort of “year after” hangover.
Summer: Anyway … back on topic. I do think Roush Fenway Racing has been largely overshadowed this year for no reason other than drama. I don’t think it will stay that way.
Tom: You know who else is a feel good story, which we mentioned only briefly? Menard. I know he always starts strong. But considering how RCR has been in a shambles, in recent years to be inside the top 10 in points with some consistent runs has been impressive.
Amy: And…he won’t be there at the end.

The Camping World Truck Series is (finally!) back this week, though their long hiatus has created a need for a bit of a refresher. What, if anything, can we take from Daytona and who should we watch out for at Martinsville?

Tom: The only thing you can really take from Daytona is certain title contenders dug themselves a hole. Timothy Peters, for one.
Amy: You can’t take anything from a plate race, really, except maybe that the teams you expected to have mucho horsepower, do.
Phil: Daytona and Martinsville are so different that literally nothing can translate.
Summer: I won’t take anything away from Daytona other than I think ThorSport will be strong all year.
Amy: I do think ThorSport will be strong, but I think so will RCR and Red Horse and Turner. I’ll be surprised if the trucks don’t put on the best championship show in NASCAR…without a Chase.
Phil: For the season, it’s still pretty wide open.  Red Horse Racing hurt themselves in Daytona and will spend the next month and change pulling themselves out.
Summer: One person I will be curious to watch for the rest of the year is Jeb Burton. I thought he’d be just another famous last name and he impressed me last year.
Tom: Oh, Jeb is good Summer. He was running top 10 with junk equipment last year before the money ran out. Meanwhile, I think for Sauter to get through Daytona with a win, not a wrecked truck is huge. Martinsville is a huge statement race for him; it’s a track he likes and runs well at. Top-3 finish Saturday, then another at Rockingham the next weekend and you know you have to contend with him again. Let’s also not forget this weekend is Chase Elliott’s debut.
Phil: That’s right.  It’s a Hendrick team, but they’re running equipment from Turner Scott Motorsports.  Should be interesting to watch.
Amy: The hole in the Truck schedule, by the way is ridiculous. They need to do their own beginning and/or end, at separate tracks from NASCAR’s other two top series.  But that would require NASCAR to actually market the series properly and that’ll never happen.
Phil: They don’t want to send the teams on long West Coast swings in order to save them money.  However, it’s kinda cold on the East Coast in March.  Not many places to race. There’s a reason that Sprint Cup in Rockingham the week after the Daytona 500 didn’t really work.
Summer: Well, I can’t help but think that if it has to be that way, there are ways to rearrange the schedule where they aren’t off months at a time. They can’t do a few more three-race weekends? I know it’s to save money, but for crying out loud it’s a disgrace to the series.
Tom: The Truck Series schedule, I agree is just completely out of whack. They need to blow it up and start from square one.
Amy: They should just start in May.
Tom: How can you build momentum for a series when it takes a two-month break? It almost makes Daytona like some alien race that doesn’t affect the season as a whole.
Phil: It’s a little like when the Cup Series used to start in mid-January in Riverside.
Summer: It’s hard to know who to watch based on Daytona, though ThorSport is who immediately comes to mind.
Phil: It’s going to be a pretty interesting race on Saturday in Martinsville.  I just hope that Kevin Harvick doesn’t completely stomp everyone again.
Summer: Eh, I think we all know that Harvick is a shoo-in.
Phil: For the rest of the year, ThorSport should be strong, but don’t count out Ty Dillon.
Amy: Either RCR truck could win the title, I think.
Tom: Notice how we didn’t talk about Dillon until just now. But I think that’s a product of the schedule. He’s been out of the limelight for so long… and to me, he’s still the title favorite on paper. I’m interested to see if someone like Peters can recover.
Amy: Or Buescher could repeat. Or, or…
Tom: Right… but he needs a good finish Saturday, too. One or two bad finishes early, as we saw last year with drivers like Sauter and Hornaday is all it takes to cut you out of this 22-race championship battle. Shortened schedule ratchets up the pressure.

Predictions for Martinsville?

Amy: Jimmie Johnson.
Summer: I’ll second that.
Phil: I’m going with Clint Bowyer.
Amy: Yeah, that’s the easy pick, but just hard to bet against the 48 at M-ville.
Summer: Johnson is an easier pick. But I like Bowyer too. And if it weren’t for his injury, Hamlin would be a big deal too.
Amy: I still think Vickers and/or Almirola could squeeze in a top 5
Tom: I think no Hamlin makes this race wide open. My heart says Mark Martin becomes the oldest guy ever to win a Cup race.
Summer: Does your mind agree?
Tom: Nope! My head says Jimmie Johnson.
Summer: We’re all gonna jinx him.
Tom: I’d watch out for Kurt Busch, though. That team looks like they’ve got it all together — Martinsville is the type of place where the No. 78 can steal one.

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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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