Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Intermediate Expectations, Teams in Trouble, and the Bristol Bump

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 & Wednesdays / The Frontstretch Five & Fridays / Holding A Pretty Wheel)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays / Couch Potato Tuesday & Frontstretch Newsletter Editor)
Mike Neff (Mondays / Thinkin’ Out Loud & Thursdays / Tech Talk & Frontstretch Short track Coordinator)

Last weekend’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway marked the the first intermediate track race of many in 2014. What, if anything, did we learn from this week’s race about what to expect as the year goes on?

Mike N.: We saw more on-track passes for the lead than most of the 1.5-mile tracks last year, and it seemed as though the drivers with faster cars were able to make passes all of the way to the front. Whether that holds true for the rest of the season, we’ll have to wait and see.
Phil: That this year on the intermediates will probably look a lot like last year. Lots of dirty air complaints.
Amy: I don’t think the changes NASCAR made to the cars over the winter made a significant difference to the racing. I do think we need to give it a bit more time, but so far, it seemed like more of the same. There was more passing in the field, Mike, that’s true. Up front, though, a bit of the same old, same old. Money buys speed, it really is that simple.
Mike N.: I may be mistaken, but I believe we had an average of two on-track passes for the lead on the intermediate tracks last year. If that is the case, then we had a 100 percent increase. That is significant. I don’t know about that axiom either, Amy. Stewart-Haas Racing was horrible and Roush Fenway Racing wasn’t exactly dominant.

With NASCAR’s March trip to Las Vegas, fans learned that changes made in the offseason have made significant changes to the racing on intermediate tracks.
With NASCAR’s March trip to Las Vegas, fans learned that changes made in the offseason have made significant changes to the racing on intermediate tracks.

Phil: I didn’t realize that it was anywhere near that low. I will say that there wasn’t really a dominant car on Sunday. Saturday’s another story, though.
Mike N.: Yes, Phil, it was that bad last year. There were passes in the pack but no one could get by the leader in most races.
Amy: Yeah, Phil, but you didn’t see a smaller team run better than like 18th.
Phil: True. Las Vegas is a tough nut to crack.
Amy: That’s true about not having one dominant car… there were several that were good at different times. And it did come down to the two top drivers in the series, which was interesting.
Mike N.: It is pretty amazing that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has finished first, second, and second in the first three races and is only one point ahead of Brad Keselowski.
Phil: Yeah, those two have been nearly flawless so far. It’s crazy.
Amy: Incidentally, since we talked about qualifying last week, I had some interesting feedback from fans on our Facebook page and Twitter. It’s definitely not as popular as I thought it would be.
Mike N.: Do share?
Phil: The idea of being unable to follow your guy is a legitimate issue, not just for fans, but for sponsors as well.
Amy: I wondered if fans would lose interest in subsequent rounds if their driver missed the cut. Some said yes, no surprise, but I just got a lot of negativity in general.
Phil: I can understand that mentality if you’re only watching to see your guy. I never watched qualifying for that reason. But it’s hard to follow them before they get knocked out.
Mike N.: Seemed to me that you could see everyone on the big box at the top of the screen.
Amy: Yeah, but Mike, fans don’t tune in to only see their driver’s name on the ticker… they might like to actually see him on track. As boring as single-car qualifying is, most drivers got shown.
Phil: You could, but you couldn’t see most drivers turning in their laps. You saw maybe 15-20 of them in the first round.
Amy: Anyway, the race itself was about what I expected, though there were a few surprises, like Paul Menard’s strong run and Tony Stewart’s craptastic day.
Mike N.: SHR pretty much had a crapalicious day.
Amy: I don’t think you can base a whole season on one race, but I also don’t see enough change to say we’ll see something vastly different than the last few years.
Phil: The racing will likely be a little different this year, but still recognizable. Of course, that assumes that NASCAR doesn’t make more rule changes.
Mike N.: We’re never going to see something vastly different until they get the front of the car six inches off the ground. That is never going to happen, so enjoy the fact that we had a 100 percent increase in on-track passes for the lead. Gotta hang your hat on something.

So far in 2014, Michael Waltrip Racing seems to be searching for magic, now without a top-10 finish among three teams (and a best finish of 13th from both Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers). Is it too early to be concerned or is it time for the team to hit the panic button?

Amy: It’s definitely not too early to be concerned, though panic might be a little extreme. I do think they need to sit back and take stock before it gets worse.
Mike N.: MWR doesn’t have much more concern than Stewart-Haas does. If not for the win at Phoenix by Harvick, they would be as bad or worse than MWR.
Phil: They’ve had some bad luck (last lap crashes in the Budweiser Duels, Bowyer smacking the wall late on Sunday, etc.). They’ve been mediocre, I guess. Believe me, it could be worse.
Mike N.: With that said, there is no doubt that some of the teams are getting a handle on the new ride height rule faster than others. The fact that the car stays down now rather than fights to lift up off the track plays a major role in handling. The crew chiefs were talking about it quite a bit during the media tour and it seems to be coming to fruition. Some organizations will hit it and others will struggle. That seems to be what is happening.
Phil: True. Seems like Hendrick Motorsports (mainly the Nos. 48/88 building) and Team Penske aced the test so far.
Amy: I think they (and SHR) need to diagnose where the issues are coming from. Is it handling? Horsepower? Communication?
Mike N.: The boys at SHR better take some copious notes during their debrief this week. Expanding to four cars may be part of the problem, or it may be bad luck. Whatever it is, they are struggling mightily so far this season.
Phil: I doubt horsepower is the issue for Stewart-Haas. If it was, Harvick wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good as he was before the hub failure. It’s a handling issue, combined with communication woes.
Amy: No, horsepower isn’t likely, and handling is more individual
Phil: Luckily for Harvick, Rodney Childers is as close to a “turn key” crew chief in Sprint Cup that you can get these days.

Clint Bowyer’s flip during his Budweiser Duel at Daytona was just the start of a poor first three races for Michael Waltrip Racing.
Clint Bowyer’s flip during his Budweiser Duel at Daytona was just the start of a poor first three races for Michael Waltrip Racing.

Mike N.: MWR, on the other hand, is looking like it’s out to lunch so far this year. Not sure what you can blame it on, but aside from Vickers being near the front for a while on Sunday, they have looked very bad.
Phil: For MWR, it could be all three.
Amy: It could, Phil. They’ve had a lot of change since last fall. So has SHR, so perhaps that’s the biggest thing. Change is not easy to deal with.
Phil: MWR is likely still feeling the pinch from last year’s stupidity, which was completely self-inflicted.
Mike N.: Or completely what had gone on in the series for 60-plus years.
Phil: Yes, but they got caught, ostracized and gutted.
Mike N.: Thanks to the modern 24-hour, Twitterized news cycle.
Amy: There’s nothing new as far as some teams hitting it, Mike. It happened last year with the new body style as well. I do think that SHR is more likely to recover quickly because at least Harvick is fast, as is Hendrick equipment. MWR did lose a lot of key personnel, Phil — perhaps most notably Rodney Childers.
Mike N.: I agree. Kurt Busch has shown strength, he just hasn’t put a whole race together. I think he’s going to be a contender for wins this year, possibly on Sunday.
Phil: Also of note, MWR only has two full-time teams now. Burton’s only in for a few races as of now. Michael Waltrip’s doing plate races only because he loves drafting. Beyond that, bupkis. They just won’t have the data that they used to have before they screwed themselves up.
Mike N.: Of the teams with multiple cars, MWR and SHR are looking to be in the worst shape so far this year. We’ll have to see how long it takes them to turn it around but, based on the first three races, it would look like MWR will be the slower of the two to rebound.
Amy: SHR got off to a terrible start last year, too. Stewart was just starting to turn it around when he got hurt.
Phil: With Stewart-Haas, Harvick’s just fine right now. Now that Patrick finally finished a race without getting wrecked, she’s okay. Stewart’s the guy I’m concerned about.

The Sprint Cup Series heads to Bristol this week. Will changes to the Chase or to the cars mean a return to the type of racing fans associate with the “old Bristol,” or will it be the tamer version that we’ve been accustomed to in recent years?

Amy: I think, at least for most of the day, it will be what we’ve seen recently. Which, by the way, is fine with me. Recent racing at Bristol has been great, in my opinion. You don’t need wrecking to have great racing.
Phil: I have no reason to believe that we won’t see racing similar to recent years. It might get a little more hectic towards the end, but we still have multiple grooves there.
Mike N.: Due to the fact that there are still at least two racing grooves, we won’t see the wreck to pass days of yesteryear. That said, I think you’ll see it get more rough and tumble at the end of the race compared to the last few years.
Amy: Agreed, Mike. The bump and run might be more in play than it has recently as the win is more important. But points do still count, so they won’t race like crazy people or anything.
Phil: You’ll see people all over the place, but the frontrunners will likely favor the top.
Mike N.: We’ll see. I know that Keselowski’s advantage when he ran strong there has been running the bottom because everyone else was up top.
Phil: Regardless, it should be interesting. Bristol always is. We probably won’t have 18 cautions or anything like that, though.
Amy: No, you won’t see a wreckfest. I do think they’ll get more aggressive at the end, which will in turn favor certain drivers. I do think multiple grooves make for better racing overall because strategy is part of the game now.
Mike N.: Bristol is always exciting in my eyes, so we’ll be in store for something. We won’t know what the real story is until the checkered flag flies.
Phil: Having said that, I still think someone’s going to be ticked off at some point due to actions.
Amy: Of course, Phil, someone always does. It just doesn’t end up in a big wad of cars like it used to. Though, with the win and in mentality, you could see more drivers pushing it at the end. But if you expect that all day, you’ll be disappointed
Phil: I could see that move leading to a lot of absolute down time in qualifying, which I don’t believe is what NASCAR wants.
Mike N.: Bristol is always a bunch of fun and will most likely be so on Sunday, too. We’ll just have to wait and see who comes out at the end.
Phil: Bristol should be fun to watch, but a stretch where people are just riding around for about 125 laps is all but certain.

Last year at Bristol, we saw rookie Kyle Larson shine in the Nationwide Series, nearly taking down Kyle Busch. Which of the current crop of young Nationwide drivers has the best chance to break through this weekend; and, faced with a similar opportunity Larson had, do you think it’s fair to bump-and-run a Cup driver considering the advantage in equipment, funding, and resources he’s taking away from his competitors?

Amy: I give the edge to Chase Elliott. And absolutely it’s fair game to bump and run on a Cup guy. A real, correctly done bump and run isn’t dirty anyway.
Phil: If that goes down on Saturday, it’ll probably be someone like Ryan Blaney or Ty Dillon.
Amy: Larson didn’t have the chance to bump and run last year because Busch pinched him into the wall. To bump-and-run right, you have to be on the inside.
Phil: The bump-and-run is sorta down ‘n’ dirty. It’s not really racing, but on this level, you have to do what you have to do.
Mike N.: Obviously Dillon and Elliott have shown some of the best potential so far this season. I don’t know that they’ll be ready to break through at Bristol, but anything can happen.
Amy: I disagree, Phil. A correctly-done bump-and-run does NOT wreck the other driver. Going for position in the last laps it’s absolutely acceptable if it doesn’t cross the line into a bump and wreck.

Chase Elliott is one of the Nationwide Series young guns who could be unafraid to put the bumper to a Cup driver at Bristol this weekend.
Chase Elliott is one of the Nationwide Series young guns who could be unafraid to put the bumper to a Cup driver at Bristol this weekend.

Mike N.: A bump-and-run for the win is certainly acceptable. And we’ve already seen Larson receive the blessing for the wreck and run at the Battle at the Beach last year.
Phil: As Amy stated, Kyle Busch is heely as heck in the Nationwide Series. He won’t play fair. He’s shown multiple times that he will wreck your butt to win a support race. You have to be cognizant of that. Also, that stuff last year at the Battle at the Beach was ridiculous.
Mike N.: A bump-and-run is completely acceptable on a short track. A wreck-and-run is not. When the white flag is in the air, though, the bump can be pretty forceful.
Amy: Agreed 100 percent, Mike. You can move the guy. Putting him in the wall is dirty.
Phil: Ideally, a bump-and-run would not result in a wreck. If someone outright dumps someone to win Saturday, who knows what might happen. People are on edge at Bristol even without contact.
Amy: I don’t care who you are, putting a guy in the wall is dirty, or at best really bad driving on your part. Bump and run is neither. And why should the NNS guys give the Cup interlopers a free pass? If you can make the move, make it, whether it’s another NNS guy or Kyle Busch.
Phil: So, we’re in agreement. Kyle Busch is a dirty dog for what he did to Larson last year.
Amy: Dirty is a strong word, but it wasn’t exactly pristine either, Phil.
Mike N.: I believe Busch was in the lead, wasn’t he?
Phil: Yes, he was.
Amy: He didn’t wreck Larson, but he did squeeze him harder than he needed to
Mike N.: So how did he wreck Larson to make a pass for the win? The other driver to keep an eye on is Dylan Kwasniewski. Don’t forget, he won the K&N race at Bristol last year.
Phil: Kwasniewski has struggled a bit so far this year, but he’s a rookie, so it’s to be expected. The Nationwide car of tomorrow is quite a bit different than a K&N East car, but I think that given time, he can adjust. I don’t expect him to finish any better than fifth.
Mike N.: OK, I was just making sure I was talking about the same race you two are. Busch made it difficult to pass him coming to the checkered flag. That’s the way it should be.
Phil: Yes, he made it difficult, but he basically put Larson in the wall. That’s not cool.
Amy: Amy: I said the same thing as you, Mike. I do think pushing Larson into the wall was less than sportsmanlike, but it wasn’t dirty, per se. I still like Elliott among the NNS guys. He’s not afraid to use the bumper, and he’s shown serious talent.
Phil: True, Elliott is definitely not afraid to use the bumper. He’s not making friends with that mentality. That’s why I can’t pick him. Someone’s going to want him to get his comeuppance.
Mike N.: Dillon and Elliott are both in equipment that can compete for the win. Kwasniewski has the experience. They all have a shot. That said, I’m betting the Cup guys run away again.
Phil: Provided that Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick don’t lap everyone up to 6th by lap 70, Saturday should be quite decent. You never know what could happen there.
Amy: That finish last year would have been fantastic if Busch had raced 100 percent clean, but he didn’t take Larson out, so fair game. Cup guys shouldn’t get special treatment… but I do think they need to show the regulars an extra ounce of respect.

How about some predictions for Bristol?

Amy: I’m going with Kyle Busch, because he’s not afraid to drive as dirty as it takes to win.
Phil: I’m going with Kasey Kahne. It should be interesting on Sunday.
Mike N.: I was going to go with Busch but since you grabbed him, Amy, I’ll go with Keselowski in a photo finish over Earnhardt.

Mirror Predictions 2014

Welcome to our seventh 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

Kobalt 400

Writer Pick Finishing Position Points
Amy Henderson Matt Kenseth 10th 1
Jeff Wolfe Kyle Busch 11th 0
Phil Allaway Tony Stewart 33rd -2
Mike Neff Jimmie Johnson 6th 1

Points Standings

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Brad Morgan 3 1 1 1 1
Amy Henderson 2 -1 3 0 0 2
Jeff Wolfe 2 -1 3 0 1 1
Mike Neff 1 -2 1 0 0 1
Phil Allaway -2 -3 2 0 0 0

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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