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Mirror Driving: Ch-ch-ch-changes, Daytona Expectations And More

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Welcome to “Mirror Driving.” Every week, all season long, 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 & Wednesdays / The Frontstretch Five & Fridays / Holding A Pretty Wheel & Frontstretch Managing Editor)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays / Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter Editor)
Jeff Wolfe (Thursdays / Fantasy Insider & Frontstretch Senior Writer & Fantasy Coordinator)

NASCAR 2014 comes with a myriad of changes in the Sprint Cup Series. Which change will have the biggest impact, positive or negative, on the series and the sport?

Amy: I think long-term, the more transparent penalty system will be good for the sport, if NASCAR is consistent in applying the levels.
Phil: Yes, the penalty system, and the adjustments to the appeal system will probably be the biggest impact on the sport on a positive note. With the Chase, that’s a mess. I can’t see it benefiting the sport.
Jeff W.: The emphasis on winning to get into the Chase and then to also win the title is my pick. I think crew chiefs will now try to come up with different strategies to get their driver to Victory Lane. Also, it will be more of a team thing now, too, where a driver and crew chief will have to be on the same page about tire and fuel strategy to try and steal a win, which would likely get them into the Chase.
Amy: I agree with you on the Chase, Phil. It’s even further from what most fans want than the old Chase. There’s a difference between positive change and change for the sake of changing something. This is the latter, and it’s a real shame. There were plenty of options for making winning mean more while giving fans what they wanted. NASCAR blew that one, plain and simple.
Phil: The changes are more designed for what Brian France wants. He likes his Game 7 moments. He’s mentioned those very words in press conferences in the past. That guy must have loved the Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals showdowns in the ’80s… even though only one of them actually went seven games.

Does Brian France’s pursuit of “Game 7 moments” stand to hurt the sport?

Amy: I’d be surprised if he can remember the 1980s…
Phil: Ouch, that’s a low blow.
Jeff W.: I like the new Chase setup. The last race of the season really meaning something was a big exception rather than the rule. Now, we know that final race will mean something. Change is always difficult to take, but this elimination-style format will bring some real drama to the end of the season, instead of hoping something goes wrong with the No. 48.
Amy: The problem is, Jeff, that the last race means something, and the one race they have to win means something. But the first 26 races still mean far less than the last 10, and the person with the most points earned doesn’t necessarily win the title.
Jeff W.: In all other sports, the best record gets you into the playoffs, but doesn’t guarantee anything. Often, the best record does win the title, but it’s no guarantee.
Amy: This isn’t other sports. Period. Race fans pick NASCAR because it’s different. I also have a problem with a format that lets someone who’s like 28th in points contend for the title. If you’re 28th in points, you don’t have the best record. You got lucky once, and finished poorly the rest of the time.
Jeff W.: I agree with the 28th in points thing. I think maybe they could have kept it at being in the top 20 in points, at least.
Phil: Well, most sports here in the U.S. have had playoffs from the very beginning. NASCAR is more like club soccer in Europe.
Jeff W.: NASCAR is different in that you have a machine with working parts involved in deciding the winner, rather than athletes going at it straight on. But I like all sports and am glad to see NASCAR will have a true playoff system.
Amy: The qualifying changes, I like. Single-car qualifying is boring. I do think it could use some tweaks, though. It’s hard to justify the fastest lap not being the pole.
Phil: Eventually, they’re going to have to change that. Also, I believe they should still do single-car qualifying at places like Bristol, Richmond, and Martinsville.
Jeff W.: Yes, I like the qualifying changes, too. There may well be some gamesmanship on that. Doing the whole thing on one set of tires is going to create a lot of downtime.
Phil: Well, we’ve got a lot of changes this year. Some good, some looney tunes, and others in the middle. We’ll just have to see how it all works. I believe the penalty rules should work out fine. Let’s just hope we don’t have to use them.
Amy: Two out of the three were great decisions on NASCAR’s part. They should have quit while they were ahead.

Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited contained plenty of action, and more than half the field failed to finish. Can fans expect similar racing in this week’s Daytona 500?

Phil: Well, I hope that more than half the field finishes.
Amy: Good lord, I hope not. Take away the crashes, and that was a lot of nothing for most of the race.
Jeff W.: I don’t think so. Drivers were willing to take more risks Saturday. I think, as usual it will get hairy at the end. That’s just the way Daytona goes, like it or not.
Amy: The draft reminded me of plate racing several years ago, when there was one group of cars running up front, but not passing each other, and finishes were not as exciting as they have been recently. In their haste to eliminate the tandems, NASCAR overdid it. NASCAR should have let the racing evolve naturally, but heaven forbid they run in a way they could avoid crashes and get away from each other.
Phil: Well, we had a race with seven more lead changes this year than last year. It was a little easier to pass as well. That bodes well. Although we saw some single-file running in the first segment, I doubt we’ll see as much of that in the Daytona 500 as we did last year.
Jeff W.: Hopefully, we will see more passing in the 500. That’s why the plates are on there, to make it all closer.
Amy: The plates keep them closed up, sure, but without any throttle response, they can’t avoid trouble. Hence, the Big One — which I firmly believe NASCAR wants to take place.
Phil: We’ll never get an official answer out of them on that issue. I doubt they’d ever admit it.
Jeff W.: I think with the way it’s set up, a Big One is pretty much inevitable. And true; they will never admit that.
Amy: Of course they won’t admit it, but they change the rules every time there might be a way to avoid it. Anyway, if everyone keeps their heads on straight, it could turn out to be an interesting race. I won’t ever use the adjective “good” to describe a plate race. Honestly, on many levels, a real underdog winner would be great.
Phil: True, it would be great.
Amy: It would also put that guy in the Chase, most likely.
Phil: I will admit that a number of fans at the race itself might not know what to make of an underdog winner in the Daytona 500. One of my friends was in the stands when Trevor Bayne won and everyone seemed to be confused in his section.
Amy: It would be good for the sport to have a small team win, but it does illustrate a major flaw in the Chase system.
Jeff W.: The plates are definitely equalizers, giving the underdog a chance to win. There’s nothing wrong with rooting for the underdog, but the top teams still have the advantage.
Amy: I hope it won’t be like Saturday, actually. I’d love to see all 43 who start make it to the end, no Big One, no nothing. I don’t think what happens at Daytona or Talladega is really racing, but to each his own. I hope nobody gets hurt and we see someone different in Victory Lane.
Phil: Well, big crashes can happen at any time. They’re a little more rare at Daytona than Talladega. I want an enjoyable race on Sunday.

Denny Hamlin has now won the last two Sprint Cup races, including his victory at Homestead last November and his win Saturday in the Sprint Unlimited — plus a victory in his Budweiser Duel Thursday. Can Hamlin parlay his momentum into a title run this year or is he peaking at the wrong time?

Phil: Peaking already? I doubt he’s peaking right now. Having said that, Hamlin could use some momentum. After last year, the only way to go is up.
Amy: It’s awfully early to predict anything. There are enough changes to the cars and rules this year that it will be about adapting through the first half of the season or so.
Jeff W.: I wouldn’t call it peaking either, but it’s good momentum for that team. They had the worst year last year, with Denny maybe racing when he wasn’t close to 100 percent. But this is important for them. They know they can win now. Confidence means a lot.
Amy: Hamlin’s real problem may be too many cooks at JGR. What I’ve seen at JGR in the past is Hamlin getting the short end of the stick in several situations. When tandem drafting was going strong, Logano was always Busch’s lackey, leaving Hamlin to fend for himself, every time. His teammates don’t seem to work with him the way some teams work together. Could be an issue down the line. Plus, Hamlin looked good on Saturday, but so did several others. I was really impressed by Harvick’s run, personally. Earnhardt, Jr. also looked good until he got bit. Kyle Busch certainly turned heads.
Phil: Yes, Harvick was able to get his wounded No. 4 into the hunt. It was a little hard to tell the extent of Harvick’s damage, though.

Is Denny Hamlin primed for a Daytona 500 victory?

Jeff W.: Harvick will be on a real mission to win a title. And I think he and Childers will be a really good combination.
Phil: Even if Harvick didn’t leave RCR at the end of last season, he’d be on a mission to win a title. This is Harvick’s 14th season in Cup and he’s still empty-handed when it comes to Sprint Cup titles. Sure, he’s got two Busch Series championships, but it’s not the same.
Amy: I agree, Jeff. Over the course of the season, there will be lots of competition for Hamlin: Harvick, Johnson, both Buschs, Kenseth, Stewart… that said, these wins have been medicine Hamlin sorely needed. What remains to be seen is if he has the chops to hold up to the pressure.
Jeff W.: Yes, but bottom line is Harvick didn’t think he could win a title at RCR or he would still be there. He will want to prove he was right in leaving.
Phil: That’s true. At least he went to a team where the cupboard wasn’t bare. At Stewart-Haas, he essentially has a team that was in the Chase last year and a crew chief that can win races. Not a bad place to be. There are definitely worse places to be in Cup right now than the No. 4 team.
Amy: SHR is a step up from RCR in equipment, albeit a small one.
Phil: I think Harvick will do well, but Kurt Busch might take a step back this year.
Jeff W.: I’m not sure about Kurt Busch either. He was fine when being viewed as an underdog on single-car teams. But now, there is pressure and expectations involved. It will really test if he has matured or not. I hope for his sake, he has. But hard to say for sure with his history.
Phil: I think he has, Jeff. However, there’s just too many unknowns right now with that team.
Amy: True, Jeff. Could see some true colors this year if things don’t go right. It’s easier on the ego to overperform with an underdog than to underperform with a top organization.
Phil: I think Kurt’s a different person than he was in 2011. He should be able to handle a little adversity now. If he knows what’s good for him, he’s not going to threaten to kick anyone’s butt for any reason.
Jeff W.: Back to my original point: Hamlin is definitely the No. 3 guy at Gibbs. One reason I kind of root for him and wouldn’t mind at all if won the title.
Amy: I do think Hamlin is showing he’s ready to contend for a title. But he’ll have to overcome a lot of drivers, including his own teammates to do that… and he hasn’t been mentally tough enough to do so in the past. And as we’ve discussed, there are lots of drivers who are angling for the title as well.
Phil: Hamlin’s going to have a much better year in 2014. The only thing that could hurt him is if his back acts up again, or something else goes wrong with his body. Denny’s injury prone.

Driver changes abounded in the offseason in both the Nationwide and Truck Series as teams look for Victory Lane. Who is poised for a breakout season in those series, and can a regular have the star power to bring either series a stronger sense of identity in 2014?

Amy: Unfortunately, the driver who should have been the NNS title favorite has been cast in the role of keeping the seat warm for Kyle Busch at the tracks he doesn’t feel like running.
Phil: Yeah, Sam Hornish, Jr. got the shaft. Nothing else to it.
Amy: I do think that Chase Elliott will bring some fans to the table wanting to see if he can rekindle the Elliott magic. Ty Dillon will have some eyes on him as well. Honestly, though, the only thing that’s going to really get a regular noticed in NNS is if one of them can beat the Cup guys and do it more than once.
Jeff W.: I would like to see Trevor Bayne do well in the Nationwide Series. I think he is one of the full-time drivers who could bring some positive attention to the series if he can get some wins.
Phil: Without Hornish in the mix, it’s Ty Dillon, Elliott Sadler, Trevor Bayne and probably Chase Elliott. Dylan Kwasniewski will battle for a win or two later this year.
Phil: And Regan Smith. Can’t forget him.
Jeff W.: On Hornish, it’s a just a shame what has happened to him. I still think Penske should have chosen him over Logano for the Cup ride. Hornish proved he was ready and other drivers said as much when he filled in for Allmendinger. The fact that Hornish does not have a ride in NNS or Sprint Cup is a sign of what’s wrong with NASCAR today.
Amy: I agree, Jeff. And once again, Joe Gibbs showed that he’s only in it for the trophies and he doesn’t care how he gets them. Penske, too. I think a driver actually has a better chance of standing out in CWTS, but there are fewer eyes on that series to begin with, so it’s a catch-22.
Jeff W.: It’s not just trophies, it’s about drivers who can bring in sponsors to pay bills. I understand that’s part of the game, but there’s just too many less-talented drivers out there with rides. And you’re not going to find a better quality person than Hornish, either. I think he would be a sponsor’s dream.
Phil: For the Camping World Truck Series, we’ve got a couple of name drivers that should battle it out for the title. Johnny Sauter could be up there, as can Ryan Blaney and Timothy Peters. I also expect a strong sophomore campaign from Darrell Wallace, Jr. Matt Crafton will lurk, like he always does. Even with the contraction that the trucks have seen over the winter, we’ll still have a nice battle. Just wish Jeb Burton was in it instead of working in a transmission shop, which is where I think he’ll end up spending most of 2014.
Amy: Trucks has some great drivers who are really fun to watch. More people should be watching them, because nine times out of 10, they’ll produce the best race of the weekend.
Phil: You don’t have to tell me that. I watch every week. I think I’ve missed 10 truck races since the series began in 1995.
Jeff W.: I agree the trucks race is often the best race out there. I think that’s because in large part you’ve got guys still climbing the ladder, really giving it all they’ve got to get to the front.
Amy: NNS won’t have an identity until NASCAR takes a stand and gets the Cup guys out. Trucks has its own identity, but not enough people know it.
Phil: It would help if there were more than five standalone Nationwide races a year.
Amy: Hornish is the perfect example of what’s wrong with that series. He took a backseat to the No. 22 last year and barely has a seat with JGR for this year, and but for a crappy call by NASCAR, the guy could be a champion. NASCAR needs to stop giving these teams owner points when they run their Cup drivers. That would solve the owner’s title problem. Why JGR and Penske couldn’t put more effort into their NNS guys winning the drivers’ title and less into their Cup guys winning an owner championship, I have no idea. It’s so backward.
Phil: If Gibbs really wants to run their Nationwide team right, they should have Drew Herring drive full-time. That dude is banished to the shop 11 months a year.

Anyhow, how about some predictions for the Daytona 500? We’ll be keeping points this year, so there’s a title on the line!

Phil: Well, I’m going to go with Joey Logano. Just going off on a limb.
Jeff W.: For some reason when I think of who is going to win, Martin Truex, Jr. comes to mind, so that’s my pick. Though I’d love to see Smoke finally get one.
Amy: Because it’s the Daytona 500, I’m going out on a bit of a limb and taking Casey Mears. I like what I’ve seen from him in testing and Speedweeks so far. Mears is an excellent plate racer… and JJ owes him one. Could be a little magic there.
Phil: Interesting choice. I was surprised with Michael Annett’s pace in qualifying, Amy. You agree?
Amy: Yeah, and it was cool to see some small teams with good solid Q runs.

Connect with Amy!

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