Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Talking Tires, Hamlin’s Health, and Narrowing Numbers

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)
Brad Morgan (Tuesdays / Who’s Hot, Who’s Not)
Aaron Creed (Mondays / Postrace analysis)

Sunday’s race had a close finish, but was marred by multiple tire failures throughout the event. Who needs to be hard at work at the drawing board this week to make sure this doesn’t happen again: Goodyear, the race teams, or NASCAR?

Brad: The teams. Some were very aggressive with their camber settings.
Amy: For the most part, the teams. Those who didn’t run aggressive setups had good runs without issues.
Mike N.: The race teams. Goodyear is finally bringing a tire to the track that wears out if teams push it too hard. The teams need to learn how to make the tires last again like they used to have to in the late ’90s.
Tom: Mike, I’m not going to argue that point. But there’s a difference between tires wearing out and blowing out. I think Goodyear got away with one Sunday. They’re not 100 percent at fault, to be sure, but I think popular opinion is swaying away from the real problem.
Phil: Well, it appears that no one anticipated the track hurting the tires as much as it did.
Amy: There were a lot of smaller teams who did well Sunday because they didn’t run anything crazy and it paid off. Jeff Gordon ran smart as well. I do think, though, that there’s more work to be done on tire compounds by Goodyear.

Who was to blame for Sunday’s tire troubles – Goodyear or the teams?

Phil: I don’t believe the surface is any bumpier than it was last year. I think they probably needed to do a tire test there once the rules package was decided.
Tom: Maybe I’m an Alzheimer’s patient in my early 30s, but I don’t remember races that were super awesome where we were seeing tires blow every ten minutes.
Mike N.: Yeah, and if you want to look at it, I believe Johnson’s is the only one that blew out. The rest of them wore out because the teams were too aggressive with air pressure and/or camber.
Tom: But Mike, Goodyear needs to keep up with that. They brought the same compound, simply assuming all would be well when the cars have more downforce and different ride height rules.
Brad: Johnson’s blew out after the team decided to put that sticker on the grill. Maybe I’m just superstitious.
Tom: Ha, Johnson has had a lot of races handed to him through luck over the years. These things have a way of evening out.
Amy: Tire wear is great, as is the strategy it creates, but tires shouldn’t be blowing left and right. They should wear out to make the handling go away, but they shouldn’t ruin the day for half the field. It should be a strategy, but not a ticking time bomb.
Tom: Bingo, Amy. That’s my problem with yesterday… as good as the racing was. What if someone got hurt?
Mike N.: Right Tom, but the tires worked well for roughly 25 – 30 teams. The other 15 or so blew tires. If you go over the recommended numbers that Goodyear provides, then you are responsible. I was talking with a crew chief from a lower series today who said he couldn’t believe how much rear camber they were putting in the cars at Fontana.
Brad: Yeah, the camber was so extreme that the tires looked diagonal.
Aaron: I think it’s more on the race teams, as well as NASCAR, than Goodyear. The teams need to relax when it comes to the setups, and I think you did see that with the smaller teams. It’s going to hurt their pocket if they are putting on set after set of new tires every 20 laps.
Amy: It was great to see guys like Allmendinger, Mears, and Whitt having strong finishes because of good strategy.
Brad: Tommy Baldwin Racing also had a nice showing.
Phil: Yes, Annett was nearly in the top 15 before his team screwed up on pit road. They did a good job.
Tom: Underdogs are great, but you better believe we’re all jabbering about something else today if one of those tires got someone hurt. A few blowouts is fine; half the field is ridiculous. I don’t care if the teams overextended — self-policing the problem here is a dangerous game.
Amy: Exactly, Tom; it’s a safety issue. There has to be a way to make a tire that wears out but doesn’t blow out.
Tom: Right! Goodyear’s done it before. Maybe NASCAR does have to put limits on the rear cambers of these cars. I’m not saying show up next year with a rock hard tire…
Amy: I hope this doesn’t spook NASCAR and Goodyear into going back to using Fred Flintstone’s tires.
Phil: The ones that occurred in practice Saturday were teams going over the line. I don’t know for sure if the ones on Sunday were due to the same reason. The other teams saw what went down Saturday and changed their setups.
Mike N.: And that is the problem with this that is probably going to cause Goodyear to do something stupid like harden up the tires. The teams went over and above what was recommended and wore their tires out early. If they ran in the limits, oh and didn’t drive on the apron, then they wouldn’t have had problems or hurt anyone.
Phil: True, it would help. Then, we’d have people whining about NASCAR stifling innovation even more than they already do.
Amy: Tires should last just under a fuel run in that if carefully managed, they won’t pop. They should, however, wear out to the point where teams don’t want them to last a fuel run.
Mike N.: Kyle Busch’s spotter told him that the teams blowing tires were running on the apron, so Busch stopped doing that and eventually won the race.
Tom: It’s notable, Mike that no one from Joe Gibbs Racing had tire problems. They’re virtually the only major team that escaped it.
Aaron: I saw that some teams didn’t know if they had a set of tires remaining closing in on the end of the race, and I think that is a great thing. It may sound crazy, but what about if/when a middle ground is found why not have NASCAR limit the number of sets a team can use in a given race some more? That would put tire management and strategy at a premium almost every race.
Tom: But I don’t think the apron was the sole culprit here. Amy mentioned tires lasting “just under a fuel run” … well, the longest green-flag run we had was 28 laps. That’s 56 miles, not even close to pit stop territory.
Mike N.: NASCAR and Goodyear should not have to protect the teams from themselves. If they tear up two or three cars by being too aggressive, then they will quit doing it.
Amy: That’s how it should be.
Aaron: It may not make Goodyear entirely happy from a business perspective, Amy. That might be the catch.
Tom: And I’m never a fan of “limiting” tires, people. I think all teams get put in a box. Heck, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.‘s team was concerned they wouldn’t have enough to finish the race.
Amy: I put 85% on the teams, the rest on Goodyear. Tires popping left and right isn’t good racing, but good strategy is.
Tom: I think it’s more like 50/50, Amy. A learning lesson for everyone that needs to be corrected for 2015.
Brad: NASCAR needs to work with Goodyear to create a compound that works better with the freer camber rules.
Mike N.: I put 85% on the teams and 15% on the drivers. The setup was part of the problem and the aggressive driving was the rest of it. Notice Jeff Gordon, who used to drive in the 1990s, managed his tires with a fast car while people behind him were blowing them.
Phil: The camber was crazy, but the tires should be able to withstand the bumps. If they can’t do that, Kentucky will be a disaster.
Aaron: I agree with Mike that it is certainly not a Goodyear issue, but it is a problem that tires are blowing rather than just wearing, which I would put mostly on the teams and some on NASCAR for not policing it aggressively. On the other hand, what we don’t need is NASCAR setting a bunch of rules that may set things back again in terms of innovation.

Denny Hamlin sat out Sunday’s race after suffering a headache and vision issues. He can receive a medical exemption for Chase eligibility should he race his way in… but will he do that?

Mike N.: Sure. He’ll win a race eventually in the first 26.
Phil: I think he can. He’s cleared to return this weekend at Martinsville and should be back to his old self.
Amy: I think he will. JGR is strong as ever and he’s been fast. No reason to think he can’t win as long as there’s no underlying medical issue here.
Brad: He looked better after an offseason of rest. I don’t think missing one race will make him too rusty.
Aaron: After what we saw from Hamlin at Daytona, I think he will have a very realistic chance to get into the chase.
Phil: Stuff happens. As for him winning, I wouldn’t doubt that he can win. He’s been up there most of the season. Even missing Sunday’s race, he’s still 11th in points. We know how much Hamlin loves Martinsville. He’s going to be jacked up for this weekend.
Tom: Do you guys know Denny’s now had three injuries/illnesses, in the past five years which have popped up during the racing season? 2010: ACL surgery that almost knocked him out. 2013: The back injury at Fontana. 2014: An eye issue.
Mike N.: Life happens.
Tom: You don’t see that track record with most other Sprint Cup drivers, Mike. It’s a history that’s starting to concern me.
Phil: Yes, this issue, the ACL, back injury. He’s got some medical issues, unfortunately. The ACL happened off the track, though.
Tom: In the NFL, if we had a player with this track record we’d call them an “injury risk.” Sadly, Hamlin is close to adopting that label.

BOWLES: Is Hamlin An Injury Risk?

Aaron: That’s right. Forgot about the ACL surgery. But with Martinsville and Richmond coming up, we may not have to discuss this down the road. Not to mention Pocono in the summer as well.
Tom: What’s crazy is if he wins Martinsville, plus crazy stuff happens, Hamlin could still leave the track in the points lead. That’s how good his 2014 had been up ‘til Sunday.
Phil: Yes, Hamlin is on a roll. He’s ticked off that he couldn’t race on Sunday and avenge last year’s stuff.
Mike N.: If he was having a serious injury every time he wrecked, I would agree with Tom. Tearing an ACL playing basketball and having a major sinus infection are not habitual injury concerns, though.
Tom: While we’re on this topic, we should stop and give some props to ol’ Sam Hornish, Jr. That guy got in, with no practice, and was running in the top 10 until late in the race.
Amy: Good point, Tom. Hornish did great. He totally got shafted this year. But I see no reason why Hamlin can’t easily make the Chase and contend for a title.
Tom: Coming from the rear, with a car he didn’t know… Hornish has really learned stock cars. Too bad his present from Penske, for nearly winning the Nationwide title was a pink slip.
Aaron: Sad to say it because we all know what ultimately happened, but when you bring up “injury risk” it reminds me so much of Neil Bonnett. He had the worst luck. On the other hand, Bonnett still won 18 times.
Phil: I’ve never heard of anyone getting hurt as often as Bonnett. Missed races due to injury five consecutive years.
Tom: What a great point, Aaron! Sometimes, drivers have that monkey they can never get off their back. It’s not fair… but life isn’t fair.
Amy: This is the (only) upside of the new Chase rules. They’ve needed to find a way to let a driver miss a race and not lose everything.
Tom: Hamlin’s getting a rap as the driver who always will have “something going on.” Like Kahne is the driver at Hendrick who always seems to have the worst luck of the four, or like Ken Schrader, who held that role before him at Hendrick back in the ’90s.
Mike N.: The rules say you have to try and qualify. Hamlin did try and qualify, so it shouldn’t be a problem.
Amy: Actually, you don’t, Mike. NASCAR can give a medical exemption at their discretion even if the driver doesn’t qualify, though I assume the team needs to attempt with a sub. I wonder if Hamlin and Kahne’s situations aren’t more like they’re the last guy on the team when it comes to effort. And by that, I mean the effort given to them by the team, not the other way around.
Tom: No way NASCAR keeps Hamlin out of the Chase. If he’s eligible to qualify, with a win or on points it’s perfectly fine.
Brad: Menard didn’t qualify his car and he is OK within the rules.
Amy: I don’t see Menard getting in anyway, but that’s another story…

NASCAR said during Fontana weekend they are considering making changes to Cup engines for 2015 that would cut horsepower by about 100 — is this a positive step in improving the racing?

Tom: Two words: about time.
Mike N.: You bet!
Brad: Hmm. I like speed.
Mike N.: Well Brad, they need to slow these cars down and taking away 100 horsepower is a start. 200 would be better.
Amy: Absolutely. They need to slow these cars down and the racing will get better. It sounds contradictory, but it’s not.
Aaron: I think it will improve the racing. The only people it will not impress are the fans that show up because of the speed and want to see track records potentially broken.
Amy: I don’t know about that, Aaron. I think fans want close racing. I don’t think they care about track records nearly as much as the guys in the TV booth do.
Mike N.: I don’t think so either, Amy. I think they could run 150 and put on a fantastic show, if they adjust the engines right.
Phil: I don’t know here. We already know how they’re going to do it. Tapered spacers, which I don’t think anyone wants in Sprint Cup.
Tom: Why, Phil? These cars, at some of the intermediates are going far too fast. There needs to be a way to slow them down.
Mike N.: If they do tapered spacers instead of actually taking the horsepower away from the engine, then the racing will be worse instead of better.
Tom: Too much speed equals too little passing. There’s no need to go 210 heading into Turn 1 at Michigan. Someone’s going to get hurt, no one’s excited about the racing, rock hard tires have to be a must… nobody wins.
Phil: Exactly, Mike. The spacers are the easiest (read: cheapest) way to do it, and something that I feel NASCAR would do here.
Amy: Not necessarily. They’re also considering lowering the engine capacity, which I think is the way to go and what both Chevy and Toyota want to see. The Ford guys want the spacers for some reason.
Tom: Can someone explain why tapered spacers would be worse?
Phil: The spacer would take away throttle response. Dropping displacement is a whole ‘nother thing. Wildly expensive. I don’t think they’ll do it.
Aaron: I agree though. Safety is at a premium.
Mike N.: If they use tapered spacers, the drivers can get back to the throttle sooner in the corner. Your corner speed would actually stay the same and you wouldn’t be able to pass in the areas that you should because the corner speed would negate it.
Tom: Great explanation. I think with this much advance notice, NASCAR is looking at other options. They’ve already done the spacers, they know how it works. That solution could have been announced this week.
Tom: Reducing horsepower other ways is going to be a little more complicated. I’m hoping that’s why they’re taking their time.
Amy: Why can’t this be done through EFI programming? Reduce the fuel mixture enough and you drop power.
Mike N.: I don’t know about the EFI thing, Amy. I will try and get an answer about that at Martinsville this weekend.
Amy: I think they will go to a smaller engine, actually. It would potentially increase durability, allowing engines to be rebuilt cheaper.
Phil: Eventually. After the multiple years of R&D to get those downsized engines to the current level of reliability.
Mike N.: The only problem is it will be an expensive deal because they’ll have to change exhaust, intakes, everything. It will require a lot of effort.
Aaron: That would be a good idea, Amy, but I see where Mike is coming from.
Tom: The small teams, to a degree will have a say here. It just seems like they’re getting on solid ground. Do you know Fontana was the first race since 2008 no one started-and-parked there? The racing economy seems to have picked up enough to keep them going. Will another large round of expenses kill their progress?
Phil: Yeah, it’s good not seeing the start and parks in Cup.
Amy: It would be a short-term expense, though, in that once teams got changed over, it’s done. And if it allows the small teams to be more competitive, it’s a positive for them despite the price tag.
Brad: The smaller teams would love it because it levels the playing field.
Amy: If it allows them to grab better finishes, they’ll make more money.
Mike N.: I’m thinking the teams will have to spend a ton of money switching over to the new engines but I hope that once they get switched over, it will level off.
Amy: In the late 1990s, it wasn’t unheard of for a small team or two to have a good day, and the horsepower was a lot lower then.
Aaron: I’m fine with smaller BUILT engines. Just as long as I don’t see the word “spec” involved with the engines, like some short tracks and series have made popular in recent years.
Mike N.: I don’t know that it levels the playing field. I think the big teams will still be able to squeeze more power out of the smaller engine just like they do with the bigger one.
Amy: To an extent, Mike. But slower speeds mean tighter racing and puts other strategy into play.
Mike N.: True that, Amy. It does allow for driver talent to be a bigger factor. I think reducing the power is a great idea; however, they do it besides spacers/plates. I don’t know why so many fans were screaming when the story came out.
Amy: I like the idea, provided it’s done right. Slowing the cars down is the best thing that could happen in terms of better racing at intermediate tracks.
Tom: I don’t think we’re headed towards crate motors. The richest teams in the sport just wouldn’t allow that.
Phil: The manufacturers would probably have a coronary as well.
Tom: What we are headed towards, though, is a reduction in horsepower. And for tracks like Charlotte, Kansas, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Michigan… that’s a very good thing. The more control the drivers have, over their cars the better the chances they’ll run side-by-side. Fontana was a great example of that.
Mike N.: That is a fantastic thing. I think bringing down the HP by 100 or more would be a tremendous plus for the sport.

With five different winners in five races, NASCAR heads to Martinsville this weekend. Will we see number six this week…and will we see more than 16 race winners in the first 26 races, making the Chase cut come down to points?

Phil: Both are possible.
Tom: I think 17 to 20 isn’t out of the question — especially if teams subtly give their winless cars the better equipment down the stretch.
Phil: We’ve had more than six consecutive different winners to start the season multiple times in the past (just not recently).
Amy: I think you will see another winner this week, but I don’t think you’re going to have 17 winners in 26 races, even if you get a couple of flukes at the plate tracks.
Mike N.: We will most likely see number six this weekend. I still think we’ll eventually start having drivers double up, but I think 14 will be what you’ll get.
Phil: 14 sounds about right.
Tom: Think about how many good car/driver pairings we have. Hendrick, Stewart-Haas (minus Danica), Penske, Gibbs, Roush Fenway, Childress, and MWR give us 20 right off the bat. And that’s not counting a guy named Kyle Larson. Or a guy like Marcos Ambrose on the road courses. Or an underdog, even Danica, winning Talladega.
Amy: There have never been more than 16 in the last 10 years, no reason that will change now. I see about 12-ish, maybe 14.
Aaron: There is a very good chance we could see a sixth different winner, especially with the so far winless Johnson, Gordon, and the aforementioned Hamlin and their track record there.
Amy: I agree, Aaron. I do think the win this week will go to one of those. An underdog won ‘Dega last year, Tom, and it didn’t make 16.

Could an underdog like Marcos Ambrose steal a victory and rob one of the usual suspects of a Chase spot?

Aaron: It’s doubtful that there will be 16 different winners, but if there happens to be I think another question will certainly be whether some of the teams that won early in the season will go too aggressive, take too many chances, and as a result take themselves out of the Chase.
Tom: Let me give you a list of what drivers haven’t won yet, guys. Tony Stewart, Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers, Kurt Busch. There’s your 16 drivers, without a hint of an upset or a road course guy. Oh, and I didn’t even mention Joey Logano!
Amy: I don’t think you see a win out of Vickers, Biffle, and possibly Bowyer from that group, Tom. Not sure Gordon gets one, either. And I’m not sold on Newman or Kahne. I do think you could see an upset on a plate track or road course, but four of those is doubtful, so I just don’t see there being 17 winners.
Phil: My guess is that Logano will be in that group of 13 or 14 guys that do win this year. While we’re on a streak right now, I think that’ll calm down in a week or two.
Tom: If I’m Harvick, I want a second win just in case. That team has eight DNFs and 20th in points by Richmond written all over it. Speed mixed with new team growing pains, for sure.
Mike N.: That is a big assumption that Kahne, Biffle, Vickers, Bowyer, Busch and Newman will all win.
Aaron: Harvick was definitely the example I was thinking of.
Brad: They are all capable of winning. But they also need to show more durability to compete if they make the Chase.
Tom: Amy, I think we’re going to see more wild finishes like the type we had at Fontana Sunday. In that one, Vickers nearly stole a victory as did Kurt Busch. Then, we go to Texas; I could see someone like Kenseth there. That’s seven for seven. I think Darlington may be your first repeat.
Amy: Nearly being the key. I just don’t see them shaking out like that, Tom. Too many recently repaved intermediates where tire wear won’t be a big issue and the usual suspects will come to the front.
Mike N.: Eh, it is possible that we could see 20 winners. I’m thinking 14 is the more realistic number and, when it comes down to it, those 14 will probably be in the top 18 in points.
Brad: There could be an increased number of winners compared to years past. I’ve noticed drivers who haven’t won yet making aggressive moves in the pits and on the track. Stewart and Kurt Busch went for it this week.
Mike N.: Don’t get too crazy though. Don’t forget Earnhardt and Harvick dueling for the win at Martinsville. We could easily see those two doubling up this weekend.
Amy: I just don’t see a rewriting of history this year… and that’s what that many winners in 26 races would be. It’s possible, but unrealistic.
Brad: I don’t think the rules will change the landscape of Cup winners too much. There are usually only one or two first-time winners every year.

How about some Martinsville predictions, guys?

Amy: I think Jimmie Johnson takes home grandfather clock number nine this week.
Aaron: I will have to go with Johnson as well. He has been knocking on the door for a victory. Don’t count out any of the other Hendrick or JGR cars, either.
Brad: I’m going to take Matt Kenseth. He is one of the few drivers with a promising Martinsville record to leave So Cal with any momentum.
Mike N.: I’ll take Hamlin to rebound with a big win after the infamous “sinus problem.”
Phil: I’m going with Jeff Gordon. However, note that this is (somehow) one of Danica Patrick’s best tracks. Don’t be surprised if she’s in the top 15 when the checkers fall on Sunday.
Tom: I’m with Phil. Gordon comes out like a lion at Martinsville, tames the competition and earns his first victory of 2014. That No. 24 bunch has been knocking on the door a bit.
Mike N.: Should someone explain to the new guy that you don’t pick the same driver someone else does?
Amy: New guy can pick whomever he wants, just will be a wash in points if he wins.
Aaron: Well then, I’ll go with Almirola. Always fun to pick an underdog.
Tom: I could go outside the box and say Kurt Busch, so put me down for that. But I’m really thinking solid top 5 while Gordon bulldozes the field.

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

Auto Club 400

Writer Pick Finishing Position Points
Amy Henderson Jeff Gordon 13th 0
Phil Allaway Brad Keselowski 26th -1
Mike Neff Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 12th 0
Tom Bowles Kasey Kahne 41st -3

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 5 0 0 2
Mike Neff 1 -2 3 0 0 1
Phil Allaway -2 -5 4 0 0 1
Tom Bowles -3 -6 1 0 0 0


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Connect with Phil!

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Connect with Brad!

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Connect with Aaron!

About the author

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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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