Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Falling Ratings, Goodyear’s Glory and Fontana Optimism

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:

Tom Bowles (Mondays / Bowles’ Eye View & Wednesdays / Did You Notice? & Frontstretch Editor-In-Chief)
Amy Henderson (Mondays / The Big Six & Wednesdays / The Frontstretch Five & Fridays / Holding A Pretty Wheel & Frontstretch Managing Editor)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays / Couch Potato Tuesday & Frontstretch Newsletter Editor)
Mike Neff (Mondays / Thinkin’ Out Loud & Thursdays / Tech Talk & Frontstretch Short track Coordinator)

The race at Bristol featured close racing, a variety of contenders, tire strategy and plenty of general weirdness, yet ratings were down for the fourth week in 2014? What else can NASCAR do to turn things around?

Tom: Well, for one thing they need to have Mother Nature on their side. It’s just horrific bad luck. The two biggest races had rain delays that lasted hours on days where major sporting events were happening later. (NCAA Selection show this time, Winter Olympics Closing Ceremonies the day of Daytona)
Mike N.: They can have their television partners let the fans know where they are showing the race if it is moved off of the scheduled channel. I have heard from a TONof fans who didn’t know the race took place.

Despite a scintillating race at Bristol, TV Ratings fell for the 4th straight week.
Despite a scintillating race at Bristol, TV Ratings fell for the 4th straight week.

Amy: I think this does illustrate the need for some schedule changes. Why not swap Bristol with Texas’ April date?
Phil: I guess that swap could work, especially since it’s between 2 SMItracks.
Tom: Amy, I’m torn because Bristol has been early in the season for a looooong time. They haven’t had problems filling seats until the last 3-4 years. I do thinkFOX could have done a better job announcing the changeover. NASCARneeds to be mindful of their television partners though, too.
Mike N.: I think that would be a good move. We’ve had snow at Bristol before, and it snowed there again today. I wouldn’t mind it being in April instead. Only problem is that puts it close to Darlington.
Amy: I’m hoping that if NASCAR revamps the schedule like they have hinted, it won’t be near Darlington any more. Part of Bristol’s problem is too many seats…supply and demand. While there was demand for a while, it was unrealistic to think the trend would continue forever. Also, a lot of people are unhappy with FOX right now in general.
Mike N.: I agree Amy. I hear about it every week in Thinkin’. More and more people are turning the sound off on TV and listening to the radio. They can fill the seats, though, and they will again. Their bigger problem is hotel costs, and I don’t know how you keep people from being greedy. Although this weekend the campgrounds were surprisingly empty too.
Amy: But other than a schedule change and running more short tracks, etc? What else can NASCAR do to assure races like Bristol? Most of what happened in that race was pure coincidence. Though huge props to Goodyear for tires that actually wore out and created strategy!
Tom: As I said the other day, in 2014 it’s presumptuous to think people are going to sit around and watch for 8, 9 hours. It’s the Information Age. People are busy and easily distracted.
Mike N.: Very true Tom. You can have fantastic racing but if no one sees it, you can’t get much momentum behind it.
Tom: You have to call races earlier, Air Titan be damned. That’s just my opinion.
Amy: It’s the ADD Generation for sure, Tom.
Mike N.: There is your answer right there Amy. We’ve been screaming for tires that wear out for years and they’re finally starting to do it again. If they keep making tires that wear out like they did on Sunday the crowds will come back, and back in numbers like we saw in the heyday. If they back it up with a great race again at Auto Club this weekend we’ll see the buzz continue to pick up.
Phil: Was that really tires wearing out or something else in play? Those strings coming off the tires were weirding me out. Is that considered normal for tire wear, because I don’t think so.
Amy: Tires was the huge thing I saw, Mike. Tire wear makes for better racing. Fred Flintstone’s skins don’t…it really is that simple.
Tom: We should mention the race itself at Bristol was fantastic. Really, really great.
Phil: Agreed. There was a lot of good racing. Darn near gave Darrell Waltrip a heart attack.
Tom: Carl Edwards won in the end, but a half-dozen drivers could have reached Victory Lane and earned it. Harvick, Kenseth, JJ…so many guys with fast cars. It really was a roulette wheel up front.
Amy: It was a great race-lot of different drivers in contention, and plenty of uncontrived weirdness? A battery? Really?
Phil: Batteries happen. Ruined whatever Alex Bowman’s day was going to amount to.
Mike N.: A battery, the Goodyear disagreement with the No. 48, Harvick driving a burning bomb behind the teams on pit road with hundreds of people standing around. It was AWESOME. Forget about three-wide racing and more unique lines in the corners than I’ve ever seen there before. People were driving in and out of the corners at all sorts of different angles.
Amy: That race was what NASCAR can and should be.

Timmy Hill hit Matt Kenseth in the rear bumper hard under caution as Kenseth had slowed down and Hill didn’t check up in time. Hill, who drives for the underfunded Circle Sport team, is relatively inexperienced in NASCAR’s top divisions-does the sanctioning body need to look at a better system of determining Cup driver eligibility?

Mike N.: Timmy has 64 Nationwide starts and had 25 Cup starts before Sunday. What more could you ask for?
Tom: One thing important to know is Timmy didn’t have his full-time spotter at the race. Spotting is so important at a place like Bristol.
Phil: I think that Hill did everything he could there. There’s only so much that can be done in a situation like that at Bristol. It’s not like when Larry Gunselman hit Dario Franchitti at Talladega in 2008.
Mike N.: I blame that deal more on the spotter than Timmy. When you’re in the corner you can’t see that far ahead of you. His spotter needs to let him know to check up.
Tom: That said… Phil, there was a loooong time between the wreck and when Hill got there. Seemed like an eternity.
Amy: I’d like to see a requirement of at least two full seasons in CWTS/NNS (or another series at NASCAR’s discretion) before being eligible for Cup. But, really, Hill has more Cup experience than some other guys, so, it wasn’t really an experience thing. That kind of crash happens from time to time.
Tom: I don’t think it’s two full seasons, Amy, as much as common sense experience and results. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of crazy mistakes either. Some of these rookies this year… they have potential, just not a lot of seat time at NASCAR’s higher levels.
Mike N.: Sorry, I don’t agree. If you can race you can race, if you can’t you can’t. There are tons of people with the talent to run in Cup that don’t need two years in another series and some others who probably still shouldn’t run Cup even though they have multiple years in other series.
Amy: I agree on the spotter, Mike…was his spotter asleep? These drivers have a very limited range of vision. I thought the same thing with Harvick’s fire. People were on him for not stopping sooner, but I’m not sure he could see the flames at first.
Tom: I thought Kenseth handled it very well, by the way. His quote afterwards was priceless: “Someone hit me from behind at 4,000 miles an hour.”
Phil: FOX didn’t play spotter audio from Hill’s radio. Anyone know what that sounded like?
Mike N.: I didn’t hear it. Makes me wonder when he was told to check up. It is funny, again, I didn’t watch the broadcast, but apparently DW roasted Hill for it and then didn’t say squat when Keselowski drilled McMurray in the butt.
Tom: The thing is, we’ve seen drivers “buy” their way into rides before only to have horrific starts on the Cup level. Or even lower levels. Donnie Neuenberger comes to mind. Paulie Harraka’s Cup start at Sonoma last year (he clearly wasn’t ready). Is it possible for NASCAR to block these money grabs?
Amy: I don’t know that Hill bought his way in anywhere. He didn’t bring a sponsor or family money.
Phil: No, Hill got the Circle Sport ride mainly because he was available and that he’s been fairly steady. Normally, he doesn’t beat up equipment.
Amy: This is a family website, Mike, no butt-drilling between drivers, please…
Mike N.: I could have said ass-packed. That is what they said on the No. 1 radio.
Tom: He’s not in the No. 33 this weekend. Brian Scott and that RCR/family money is.
Amy: Speaking of buying a ride…

Do youngsters like Timmy Hill require more experience before driving in the Cup Series?
Do youngsters like Timmy Hill require more experience before driving in the Cup Series?

Mike N.: Again, similar to Paul Menard, I won’t deny he’s in the ride because of family money, but he can drive.
Amy: Timmy is a very intelligent kid with a good head on his shoulders. He made a mistake. Heck, Danica Patrick ran over Clint Bowyer on pit road and we’re not questioning her having a license.
Tom: The difference is the lack of results I think, Amy. Even Danica had a top-5 finish in the Nationwide Series.
Mike N.: We should be though. I know she only had fourth gear but wow. I didn’t see that at the track. She could have killed someone.
Phil: They mentioned on NASCAR America tonight that Danica apparently only had 4th gear and was just trying to get back going when she hit Bowyer?
Amy: Oh, I agree, Mike. She did a big old burnout and ran slap into Bowyer. To me, that’s worse than Hill’s incident.
Tom: Hill: 2 top 10 finishes (both at Daytona) in 64 career Nationwide starts. 15DNFs. Average finish: 25.0. Patrick: One top-5 finish, 7 top 10s, 13 DNFs in 61 Nationwide starts. Average finish of 21.1.
Mike N.: So you’re saying they are basically the same driver, eh, Tom?
Phil: Hill’s also driven for, at best, lower midfield teams in Nationwide. He’s done well with what he’s been given.
Amy: I agree, Phil. Hill is generally a very decent driver for what he’s been given, and he’s constantly working his butt off to learn how to improve himself.
Phil: I’d like to see what Hill could do with Danica’s equipment. Under those circumstances, he might surprise some dudes, like when Blake Koch got the RAB #99 at Homestead last year.
Tom: Alright, so I’m drowning in my own argument a bit. Hill made a rookie mistake I’m guessing several other drivers could have made. But I do think it highlights there are some running at NASCAR’s top level who could use a couple more years in Nationwide or Trucks.
Amy: Danica was in elite-level equipment, and those numbers are pretty lousy for what she was driving. Hill had junk equipment.
Mike N.: Hill would show much better in better equipment. Then again, most drivers would. I don’t blame him very much for the incident. At that position on the track it can happen.
Tom: It puzzles me, with those results and no sponsorship Hill is hired on the Cup level over, say a David Reutimann that we know could bring the car home in one piece.
Amy: I’d love to see what some underfunded youngsters could do in Danica’s equipment week in and week out.
Phil: Reutimann did have a ride, but he DNQ’d the No. 35.
Mike N.: Reutimann probably costs more than Timmy Hill.
Amy: Hill brought the No. 32 home in one piece every week last year, Tom. He doesn’t tear up equipment- he tore up a lot less than Danica did last year. Most teams are going with the young talent these days. Not always the best move, but the way of the world.
Tom: I feel like I should buy you all “Timmy Hill For President!” signs and hand them out.
Amy: Of course his results haven’t been good- he’s driving the worst-funded car in the garage! Honestly, given what they’ve driven the last two years, there have been times I’ve been far more impressed with Hill than with Danica Patrick.

This week the Cup Series heads to Auto Club Speedway, a track not known for its action despite an exciting finish last year. Can fans expect a race like last year’s again, or will it look more like your typical intermediate track race-and if it is, will it hurt the sport further?

Mike N.: It will be like last year. Why? Because the tires will wear out. Can’t emphasize enough how important that is to a good race.
Amy: I think it will be better than some other intermediate races recently simply because the asphalt is so old. If Goodyear can bring another tire that wears out, there could actually be some decent racing
Mike N.: Qualifying will be interesting because your best lap will be your first fast lap. I don’t think you’ll see a bunch of people making multiple runs.
Phil: Yeah, qualifying might be a little lonely on Friday.
Amy: ACS is never going to be a great track, because it’s designed for open-wheel cars. But it has some of the oldest pavement on the circuit, so it’s not the worst racing in NASCAR right now, either. Kansas has that one nailed.
Tom: I agree with Mike. As long as Goodyear brings the same tire, allowing for wear the racing will be awesome. The newer the pavement, in stock car racing right now the crappier the racing. It’s almost a 100 percent, direct correlation.
Mike N.: And it is all because of the tires Tom. If Goodyear would bite the bullet, use PR and let fans know that tires are going to blow because teams will push the limits, the racing could be great everywhere. Unfortunately, they will never do that.
Tom: Amy, did you not like the race last year? Fontana was awesome, from beginning to end for the first time I can remember.
Phil: It seems so. Repaving comes in waves in Sprint Cup. The last wave of repaving before now came in the mid-1990’s.
Amy: I said the race was good last year. But one race in many doesn’t make it a great track.
Mike N.: Hoping they do away with repaving and just let the tracks completely deteriorate in the future. Eventually returning all tracks to dirt. As I have said before, I love Michigan and Fontana. The multiple grooves and the cars fanning out everywhere—I think it’s awesome. A tire that wears out just takes it to the next level.
Phil: Paving technology has changed since 1996. Surfaces are designed to last longer, and that may not be conducive to good racing. Goodyear seems to want to save face a lot. Probably still gun-shy from 2008.
Tom: Now Fontana is a track where scaling back to one date has actually worked. There seems to be more fanfare around the one race they do run, and a better crowd.
Amy: I agree with that, Tom. Mike, there are multiple grooves, but there is little action as there’s too much space for the cars to spread out. Even back in the pack, there’s just not a lot to see. Fontana is a typical intermediate track in that it’s too fast and too big to be conducive to good racing. That’s the case with virtually every track over a mile in length with the exception of Darlington.
Mike N.: There was talk in the Media Center this weekend about swapping Bristol and Fontana so that they did three races in a row out West. I think that would be dumb.
Tom: Well Amy, the difference at Fontana is that tires actually wear out. So the clean air advantage, while still there can be cut down completely with bad tire wear. You may have a half-second edge, to start under green up front but not for long if you don’t take care of those tires. I mean, you can’t automatically assume Fontana will be good. They had 10+ bad races in a row before this one. But the best thing that track ever did was let its asphalt age. Let’s hope they don’t repave for another ten years.
Phil: Just having Fontana and Las Vegas back-to-back was tough enough.
Tom: Mike, I don’t think you do a West Coast swing. I think you do Daytona, then Homestead, then Phoenix, then Bristol.
Mike N.: I’d go with Daytona, Fontana, Texas, Vegas, Bristol, then Phoenix.
Phil: Also, Atlanta this time of year has been a tough sell for a long time. There’s a reason Atlanta doesn’t host race No. 4 anymore.
Tom: Eh, but then you start with three intermediate races in a row. Again, NASCARwants to build momentum. If anything, I would want Bristol as the second race. But after Sunday, I understand that’s a risky proposition.
Phil: I think Auto Club should be at least decent. However, I’m not expecting a repeat of last year.
Amy: I like Daytona, Fontana, Phoenix, Atlanta to start, myself. then close the season at Vegas and have the Banquet Tuesday night.
Mike N.: I’d like to see them run 11 intermediates in a row, get them out of the way and then start really racing. And Amy, I agree on that. Vegas should be the last race
Phil: Las Vegas can be cold in November. Last year’s Champion’s Lap was in something like 35 degree weather.
Tom: Well, if NASCAR has a nine-month schedule you’re going to be running into cold snaps. As simple as that.

NASCAR made a small rule change in the Nationwide Series, allowing a slightly larger tolerance for post-race height violations. Should the series simply do away with ride height rules as the Cup Series has—and are there other changes that could be made for that series to make the racing better?

Tom: I think the Nationwide Series should mimic the Cup Series here. The ride height rules are making a difference — a good one.
Mike N.: Wow, where do we start? Sure, get rid of the ride height rule, get rid of the tapered spacer, and again, make tires that wear out. And my all-time favorite, cut everything off before the front bumper. Teams spend a lot of money making the cars get down to the track and back up to ride height.
Phil: I guess it’s ok. It’s one less thing for the teams to worry about.
Tom: I do think NASCAR is handicapped in Nationwide, in part because the poor teams can’t spend much more.
Amy: I agree, Tom. But the height rule as it stands is kind of silly. They’re racing too low anyway, just finding ways to get back to inspection height. Agreed on the money aspect as well. The Cup owners are spending more than some Cup teams spend in Cup, in the NNS. I still say the single best thing NASCAR could do is add more stand-alone events, though, and as far away from the Cup races as they can get. That way, you’re tapping a different market and the Cup guys can’t get there easily, both good.
Mike N.: The crew chiefs told me that the ride height change is actually cheaper for teams from a component perspective. They’re spending a lot more on R&D but the parts are actually cheaper. The springs they used before were thousands of dollars. The ones they use now are hundreds and can be used for much longer.
Tom: The Nationwide Series has to rediscover its sense of identity. What is it right now, really? The Trucks still have their sense of identity. They don’t have Cup guys running roughshod over them every week. At least the ones that do, like Kyle Busch have their own team. There’s not too much meddling by the big guns in the major leagues. That allows for good, clean, competitive racing by top teams that are, for the most part on a level playing field.
Mike N.: It is Cup drivers coming in and running roughshod over the competition, ticking off fans who feel like complaining about it.
Phil: Of note, Irwindale Speedway is 34 miles from Fontana. Anyone for a Nationwide race there on Cup weekend?
Amy: Yes, and standalones would cure that to a big extent. Not to mention, if they were at the right tracks, the racing would be better anyway.
Tom: I like the idea of having full-time Cup drivers start in the back… every week—except they would be up front in 20 laps anyway.
Mike N.: Make the Cup drives use six cylinders instead of eight.
Amy: Or make it illegal for a driver to run both series for the same owner.
Tom: I would almost argue, the way Gibbs is currently using the Nationwide Series is almost like their “satellite” operation teams like Childress, Hendrick, etc. have in Cup. Childress has Furniture Row… Gibbs has their Nationwide cars to bring extra information back while Kenseth and Kyle are kicking butt.
Phil: Watching Kyle Busch at Las Vegas was like watching Brett Hearn at Lebanon Valley last year. Drives you crazy at times. Also, it convinces people that someone like Busch is blatantly cheating, which drives me nuts.
Tom: The problem with Nationwide is there’s absolutely no middle class anymore. Hendrick doesn’t want to pick and choose from the small-time operations, like plucking Jeff Gordon from Bill Davis in the 1990s. They want to homegrow the next generation, like Chase Elliott. So they’ve pretty much bought the series. But those big-time teams aren’t going to field more than two, three cars
Amy: Let Kyle go run for some poor underfunded team who actually needs the money his sponsor could bring. I don’t have a problem with the Cup owners spending on development drivers, Tom. It’s spending that money for their Cup guys to get another trophy.
Tom: Remember years ago? David Green moved up to the Cup level with a middle-class owner. Bill Davis eventually moved up to the Cup level and progressed. You have no such opportunity with the Nationwide Series. Harry Scott is the only one who did it (and maybe, maybe Jay Robinson if you want to stretch it with Joe Nemechek’s team). Everyone else is, for lack of a better word… poor.
Phil: Buz McCall? Yeah, I remember that. That team went nowhere in Cup. Very similar to Alan Dillard’s Cup attempt.
Tom: I mean, there is NO middle class. It’s Childress, JR Motorsports disguised as Hendrick, Roush, Penske, and Gibbs. Then Turner Scott. Then … a huge gap of like five laps a race (gross exaggeration) to everyone else.
Amy: Honestly, we can talk about the Cup drivers all we want, but the Cup OWNERSare at least equally to blame, maybe even more so.
Tom: Maybe TriStar collects a scrap of meat, now and then like a dog trying to grab leftovers off the kitchen table. Everyone else is running five-year-old equipment, barely makes it to the track, and they have cars that look worse than the ARCA field.
Mike N.: I still want to know what the Owner’s Championship pays.
Phil: What does the driver’s championship pay in Nationwide? That’s not really publicized either.
Amy: I bet where it really pays is in sponsor incentives, Mike. If Discount Tire or Monster are willing to pay big bucks for an owner title, there’s the motivation.
Tom: We’ve gotten off topic. Look, the ride height rules are one way to at least make the racing more competitive among all drivers in Nationwide. But I was surprised that, with his Cup full-time status the Series didn’t come down harder on Brad Keselowski. An illegal shock after his win at Vegas and the team gets a slap on the wrist?
Amy: I agree completely, Tom. Everyone without elite Cup connections is just SOL in that series. It costs as much to race as a small Cup operation, so why not go there instead and get more bang for the buck?
Phil: I just don’t see it, Tom. The improvement would be marginal on track. The mental health of team members would improve, though.
Phil: That penalty was always going to be just how bad that shock was. NASCARdidn’t produce the specifics.
Tom: Part of me thinks any Cup guy driving for a team who’s penalized for illegal equipment gets his prize money stripped. Or donated. It’s bad enough they’re winning. But to win illegally…
Amy: Just the prize money? Strip the win already.
Phil: They didn’t even term it as a failure of post-race inspection. They just took the shock.
Amy: What does the sponsor get out of the owner title? Airtime! The owner title was all we heard about last year. A NNS regular could win the race and we’d hear more about the owner title than about his run.
Mike N.: What is airtime really worth in a series when no one is watching? At least that is what everyone is saying. No one is watching because of the Cup guys.
Phil: NASCAR hasn’t stripped a win in the Nationwide Series since 1992. I doubt they’re starting any time soon.

OK, predictions for Fontana?

Amy: I think I like Jeff Gordon this week.
Phil: I’m going with Brad Keselowski for #2.
Mike N.: I agree that someone is going to win #2, but I’m going with Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Tom: I’m going to go Kasey Kahne. I just have this feeling. He’s been looking good the last two weeks, and he’s been the king of intermediates in the past. Plus, I think Hamlin and Logano make contact. I really do.

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

Food City 500

Writer Pick Finishing Position Points
Amy Henderson Kyle Busch 29th -1
Phil Allaway Kasey Kahne 8th 1
Mike Neff Brad Keselowski 14th 0

Points Standings

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Brad Morgan 3 1 1 1 1
Jeff Wolfe 2 -1 3 0 1 1
Amy Henderson 1 -2 4 0 0 2
Mike Neff 1 -2 2 0 0 1
Phil Allaway -1 -4 3 0 0 1

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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