Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: How Fast Is Too Fast, Team Troubles, and NNS Balance

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)
Brad Morgan (Tuesdays / Who’s Hot, Who’s Not)
Summer Bedgood (Wednesdays / NASCAR Mailbox & Frontstretch Senior Editor)

Speeds at Michigan this week were reaching 217 miles an hour in a Goodyear tire test. How fast is too fast in the restrictor plate era, and should NASCARconsider using them for the two races?

Phil: The speeds are about equal to what we’ve seen over the past couple of years there. I’m not surprised.
Amy: Some teams are reporting 220 going into Turn 1. That’s faster than the speeds that prompted the plates.

Will racing like this be possible at Michigan with such high speeds expected?
Will racing like this be possible at Michigan with such high speeds expected?

Summer: Well since that was a top speed and not an average speed, I don’t see it as a big deal. Plus, speeds at Michigan are usually pretty blazing fast. I don’t see the need for restrictor plates, though I think it would be fun to see some form of the draft there.
Phil: Having said that, we’re getting into the shock and awe range when it comes to speeds. You know, where the fans in the stands aren’t really cheering, but are just memerized. The kind of stuff that you used to see with CART there.
Tom: Personally, I think that it’s hypocritical for NASCAR to slow down speeds at Daytona and Talladega, below 200 miles an hour and then let these cars roam free at 200+ over at Michigan. 206 heading into the turn at Fontana is one thing. But 217? You are flirting with disaster. There have been some serious injuries at Michigan through the years, at much lower speeds. Ernie Irvan and Rick Baldwin come to mind.
Amy: A blown tire at that speed could be catastrophic. Anyone remember Ernie Irvan’s MIS crash? He wasn’t going 220.
Brad: I wouldn’t mind a restrictor plate at Michigan, but I also enjoy the speeds they’re getting out of the new setup.
Summer: I wouldn’t mind if they DID, but I don’t think they need to.
Phil: Yes, it is hypocritical. The thing is, Daytona and Talladega are roughly 30-35 mph faster than Michigan without plates.
Amy: But remember, Phil, they were going 213 there when the plates were originally mandated.
Tom: Totally agree with Amy on this one. NASCAR has come so far in terms of safety and 200 has always been a “danger zone” number in terms of Daytona/Talladega average speed.
Amy: I don’t think plates are the answer, though, and a year from now it won’t be an issue with the engine changes that are coming.
Phil: They won’t be averaging 213 mph in June.
Tom: So because we’re on a track that’s 1.5 or 2 miles, we change the rules?? The speeds are just as unsafe, if not more so… and you’ve got some tire blowout situations that have happened at this track repeatedly in recent years. I will say I’m not optimistic now about the tire compound in June. No plates means NASCAR will beVERY careful… you’ll probably be able to keep the same compound on for 200 miles.
Phil: The main issue of this test is to find something that won’t blister. That’s the main problem with racing at Michigan these days.
Tom: We have used the plates, as one-time fixes for other situations. I know it hasn’t worked out well (see: 2000 New Hampshire) but there was also a lot of talk of what the old Fontana (before it got racy) would be like if they put plates on.
Summer: I don’t understand. Phil is saying this is the same as years prior and Tom is making it sound like an apocalypse.
Tom: I’ll tell you why I think it’s so different, Summer. When you’re playing with 200+ a few miles an hour, from 210 to 217 makes a BIG difference in my world. They went a few miles an hour faster, at Texas a couple years ago in Champ Cars and drivers started blacking out with the G Forces. You’re right on the ragged edge there. To me, that mile an hour is huge.
Summer: Right but 217 was the TOP speed. Like I said, it’s doubtful that they will constantly be at those speeds in race condition.
Amy: No, Summer, but they will be going into Turn 1…exactly where the crash would be the worst if there was a tire failure. In the era of SAFER barriers and HANSdevices, it’s too easy to be complacent about safety. They aren’t 100% failsafe. That’s exactly right, Tom. There’s already inherent danger in the sport, NASCARdoesn’t need to add to it with speeds like these.
Tom: Right, Summer. But what we learned last week at Texas is that accidents can easily happen going into Turn 1, where they’ll be at top speed. See: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (who hit a non-SAFER barrier by the way which at this point is virtually inexcusable for an outside wall not to have one).
Summer: I understand the concern with the tire failure, however, but I’m wondering if there is a solution aside from a restrictor plate. And a rock hard tire compound, which we REALLY don’t need either. Just because the speeds are off the charts doesn’t mean the racing has to suck either. No track should have walls anywhere around the track without SAFER barriers. I’m still a believer that it should be mandated by NASCAR sanctioned tracks.
Phil: True. The key from the test is whether Goodyear can come up with something that can dissipate the heat properly. You’d think that if they could do it at Talladega in 1987 that they could do it now, but radial tires are a whole ‘nother thing compared to bias-ply.
Summer: Well I think the problem with Goodyear is that they are terrified of another Indy tire debacle. So if the speeds are going to be that high, then they likely will make a rock hard tire (if NASCAR doesn’t react to the speeds). I don’t have a problem with the speeds, necessarily, but I feel like any and all safety measures should be taken. That’s kind of a given, though.
Phil: Seems that the dudes at the track like the speeds.
Brad: Adding a plate would potentially make things even more dangerous because the cars would run closer together and the drivers have never experienced a plate race there.
Tom: Right. I absolutely think this test will result in a tire compound that’s hard to err on the side of caution. They should find some other way to slow the cars down… but I think plates will be the only answer they’d consider. Which is why I’m in favor of them.
Phil: I hope that they could come to a happy formula. Also, if you put a plate on there, we end up with something approximating Daytona.
Amy: Again, it’s only for this year. With reduced horsepower next year, it won’t be a problem. They need a stopgap, and I hate to say it, but they might need to sacrifice the racing with a plate or a hard tire if it keeps drivers safe.
Tom: If we’re in a safety era, with NASCAR I firmly believe that safety should never be compromised. Going 217, under any circumstance, with a stock car is compromising safety.

Stewart-Haas Racing has had a roller coaster season: two victories, but on Monday two very notable DNFs. Are they a team on the rise, simply usingNASCAR’s new format to their advantage or should their inconsistency be a source of major concern?

Phil: For now, they’re having some serious bad luck. I don’t think they’re using the new format to their advantage. If they were, you’d expect these failures to occur later in the race.
Amy: It’s not just the two DNF’s, but look at the points. Three of four drivers are 25th or lower in points despite the wins. You expect that from Danica, but not Harvick or Busch.
Summer: I don’t see any of the other six winners “riding back” to this extent. New format or not, they can’t win the championship this way. And if Harvick doesn’t get his act together, he will be in jeopardy of falling out of the top 30.

Will consistency continue to be a struggle for Stewart-Haas Racing?
Will consistency continue to be a struggle for Stewart-Haas Racing?

Phil: I can understand Harvick being ticked off after his engine took a vacation after less than 10 green flag laps.
Tom: Harvick’s reaction tells me everything I need to know. These are not “planned.” experiments. And I’m not so sure either Harvick OR Busch is “locked in” at this point.
Brad: I think a 10-lap lifespan is extreme even if Harvick’s team was using an experimental boom-or-bust engine setup.
Amy: Now, SHR has gotten off to a slow start the last two years and been ok. Heck, Stewart didn’t win a race before the Chase in 2011 and won the title. So they’re not dead in the water or anything. But I’m not sold on them being as strong as some people think, either.
Tom: The problem with both Busch and Harvick is they’re with “new” teams. And “new” teams, by and large experience growing pains. Check out SHR the first half of last year when they went from two to three cars full-time. I wonder how much Kurt Busch loves Daniel Knost now, by the way, after the guy blew out several left-rear tires on him.
Phil: Ultimately, I’m thinking that the SHRissues will go away. However, Harvick is already nearly a race and a half out of 10th in points.
Summer: True but we also didn’t have this Chase system in past history and it can encourage more winners.
Amy: I don’t think that’s true at all Summer. Everyone likes to play it up like it is, but the truth is, teams aren’t trying any harder to win than they did before. This is racing…the point is to win, and teams try to do that. I think SHR will improve, too, Phil, but they need to find some consistency soon.
Phil: Yeah. Kurt seemed to be the only guy in the field that had those issues. Methinks Knost only looked at his computer and ignored the tangible evidence.
Summer: Right. Consistency does still matter in this system, just not to the extent it did before. Teams are admitting that they are racing differently because of the new system. I’m not just pulling this out of my ass. They say it every week that it’s changed their approach.
Brad: Some are taking more extreme risks in doing so. Edwards admitted to using a more aggressive setup than usual after he won.
Phil: And many of them are finding out that their aggressive approach is biting them.
Tom: 2003, Summer. I’ve been mulling over your consistency comment and processing it. I think if we were talking about Hendrick, with drivers that tend to be even-keeled, this up-and-down stuff wouldn’t be cause for concern.
Summer: No, because we know Hendrick can right themselves when the time comes. We haven’t seen that with SHR other than Stewart’s championship season. And it’s rare that anyone pulls off an end-of-year surge like that.
Tom: But as we all know, you’re dealing with guys in Harvick and Busch who are passionate. They won’t stand for four DNFs in eight races or something like that even if a postseason bid looks likely. Both drivers expect the best and have limited tolerance for anything less.
Amy: Good point, Tom…we’re talking explosives. Sometimes that frustration leads to overdriving or communication shutdown, which leads to more problems.
Summer: But how much control do they have over that? They aren’t in charge of car setup. I’m sure they have input, but saying they won’t “tolerate” it is just words. What exactly can they do?
Tom: You’re absolutely right Summer. But try telling it to them when they’re mad.
Phil: My guess is that while Stewart is obviously not that pleased at the moment, he’s imploring everyone to keep a steady mind.
Summer: SHR needs to get their act together. I believe that they wil,l but they can’t keep fighting these issues and expect to be competitive in the Chase.

Texas nearly gave us a precarious 1-2 finish for Penske Racing, where Brad Keselowski, who already had a win, fell behind Joey Logano down the stretch. How realistic were those conspiracy theories about team orders that were bantered about, and will we see a situation like this sometime in midsummer?

Summer: Unfortunately, I don’t think the whole team orders thing was overblown at all. I would bet you that this is a discussion the teams and sponsors have already had behind the scenes.
Phil: It’s possible. That’s why I was so against the new Chase rules when they were announced.
Amy: The theories are completely realistic, though you’ll never hear a word about it from the teams after NASCAR’s reaction to MWR at Richmond last year.
Summer: I bet the drivers are kicking and screaming about it, but pressure from sponsors and the kind of payout that comes from making the Chase can sometimes outweigh the competitors.
Amy: I think the late caution this week meant we avoided some ugly questions.
Tom: Agreed. Every conversation is happening behind the scenes… but they’re happening. Of that, I’m definitely sure.
Phil: As messed up as that whole situation was, NASCAR laid down the law there. Screw with the Chase, and we’ll throw your butt out.
Summer: Yeah, but Phil, could they prove it? If they don’t mention it over the radio and Keselowski just followed pre-determined orders, then there is nothing they could do.
Amy: This early in the season, I don’t see anyone laying over. But come July or August, yes, it’s very possible it could happen.

Could teammates such as the Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski be subject to team orders in future races this season?
Could teammates such as the Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski be subject to team orders in future races this season?

Tom: I’ve said it several times; when you allow team connections, within an individual sport you’re going to have this outcome. It’s financially profitable for Hendrick to have four teams in the Chase instead of three. It’s far less profitable for Earnhardt to pad his stat line with a second win. Money talks…and money rules. See: Formula One.
Summer: I don’t know, Amy. I think sponsors would very much like to know that their drivers are Chase contenders this early in the season.
Amy: Yes they would, but they also see the number of winners and the sponsors of those winners want insurance before they allow any team orders to happen.
Tom: And see, Summer, that’s the tricky thing. You know it’s going to be a huge “gray area” for about two months — especially because, at so many of these tracks, you end up with three teams running similar setups. So if someone hits it, like a Joe Gibbs Racing, they’re sending home three cars within the top 5. Hamlin could “magically” find some extra speed in the final run of one of those races. But how could you really know?
Phil: The Formula One isn’t necessarily the best here, Tom. Payouts at the end of the year are based on the Constructors’ Championship standings. Orchestrating position swaps would not change that.
Tom: Team orders have happened in F1 though, Phil. You know that.
Phil: Doesn’t everyone give it just a little bit more “oomph” at the end of the race since any idea of conservation is gone?
Amy: That’s the problem, NASCAR wouldn’t know. That’s why there will be questions, even if every race is won without a single order.
Summer: I don’t think every single race where teammates are racing at each other should be filled with black helicopters. But it’s also completely devoid of logic to think that it’s not a discussion behind the scenes. There is not a system NASCAR could put in place that wouldn’t bring up the issue of team orders at some point.
Amy: I agree with Summer there. There will be more speculation than actual misdoing, but there are also likely to be some orders along the line.
Brad: Especially if the plan is premeditated. NASCAR is only capable of monitoring the radio chatter.
Phil: If they happen this year, it’ll never be as blatant as Richmond. If NASCAR gets even a sniff, heads will roll.
Summer: What I hope to see one day, though, is for a driver like Keselowski (and he would be a perfect candidate to do it) say “screw it” and go for the win anyone, teammate or not.
Amy: It would have to be premeditated. NASCAR would toss anyone if they did it over the radio. As they should, incidentally.
Summer: I don’t know, Phil. If they can’t definitively prove it, they won’t do anything. Remember, their biggest area of contention last year was with Vickers pitting for no reason, not Bowyer’s spin.
Brad: There was that whole Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus incident where Johnson supposedly wrecked the car during donuts so that officials wouldn’t find what they were packing.
Summer: Or where Chad was caught telling Jimmie to do that if they won.
Brad: Stuff like that can’t be proven.
Summer: That crap happens all the time, though. The teams are just usually better at doing it behind the scenes so it’s not provable.
Amy: There was an incident where a driver did hit the wall during a celebration. I don’t think it was Johnson, though I remember the time Chad told him to if they won. I can’t remember who it was who actually did it, but there was a lot of speculation that it was deliberate
Phil: That was Greg Biffle at Dover, right?
Amy: Yes, Phil, that’s right.
Summer: Short of NASCAR monitoring team meetings at the shop or in the hauler (which they shouldn’t do), they can’t wholly prevent it.
Amy: I think there was a JGR car that did it, too, a few years back.
Summer: I was thinking it was Kyle Busch who did it, but I don’t know for sure.
Amy: Biffle did it once, for sure. There was also a JGR car that I think did the same. Johnson gets thrown in there because of the comments Knaus made, but I don’t remember him ever doing it.

Is Chase Elliott’s win a sign that the balance of power is shifting back to the Nationwide regulars? And can this rookie be a true title contender at just 18 years old — in his first season?

Amy: No, and yes.
Summer: I think he can. Not sure that he would if Cup drivers were still eligible for points, but I guess that’s not the point.
Brad: I think it’s a sign that Chase Elliott is for real.
Amy: Elliott is definitely the real deal.

Could Chase Elliott be NASCAR’s next big star?
Could Chase Elliott be NASCAR’s next big star?

Summer: And I think there was always a balance of power to some extent. Drivers like Stenhouse and Sadler were usually able to keep up with Cup regulars. It just depends on which team it was.
Tom: Chase’s run at Texas was impressive. Like Kyle Larson the week before, he had to hold off some big names.
Amy: But does it mean an end to the Cup guys’ dominance on a weekly basis? Highly unlikely.
Phil: Balance of Power to the regulars? No. Kyle Busch is still around. So are Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and even Kyle Larson.
Brad: As for the other Nationwide regulars competing regularly with Cup regulars, good luck.
Phil: Could Chase Elliott win a title this year? Gee, I’m not sure. There’s a lot of places he hasn’t been yet. Too early to tell, but so far, so good.
Summer: Elliott hadn’t been to Texas before, though, had he? In fact, I saw some conspiracy theories that the race was fixed because people found it too unbelievable that he could win in his first race there. Not that I think there was any relevance to them, but it’s not like Elliott visiting a track for the first time is any cause for concern.
Brad: He has a lot left to prove before he starts thinking title. But the way he blew everyone away at the end is reminiscent of a few other Hendrick drivers.
Amy: As long as NASCAR allows the Cup teams to outspend the NNS teams and put their Cup drivers in the seats, the regulars aren’t going to dominate.
Summer: They don’t have to dominate. If anything, Elliott’s win was even more impressive given his competition. I feel like he would be expected to win if Cup drivers weren’t allowed in the series. I don’t think that pressure was as apparent since there are a handful in the series each week.
Amy: By dominate, I meant win most of the races. That will not happen, unfortunately. And for the series to be relevant, they do have to.
Phil: Yes. Most of the wins for regulars in the past few years have been at the rare standalone races. A regular putting it to the Cup dudes in a support race has been rare since…forever.
Summer: I don’t think so. Like I said, Elliott’s ability to race and beat the Cup guys will be huge for him.
Tom: I think Elliott can not only contend for the championship this year but win it. To be so successful this early in his career…
Amy: Even the stand-alones last year weren’t always won by regulars, just by other outsiders. Elliott’s win was huge.
Phil: There is the fear that he could have the success go to his head, Tom. That’s legitimate. This is someone that still has a month and a half (I guess) of high school left.
Amy: Yeah, did you see he missed his team’s victory celebration at the shop this week because he was at school? And true on it going to his head, we’ve seen that before. Joey Logano and Austin Dillon come to mind.
Summer: Sorry but I think Elliott’s ability to beat Kyle Busch is much more impressive than his ability to beat Elliott Sadler. I hardly feel like sponsors or other team owners would differ with me on that.
Phil: Or when he tweeted, asking about what happened to Earnhardt Jr. during Monday’s race, only to be told by Jeff Burton that he needed to go back to class.
Summer: The sport will humble him when it comes time. He has a right to be proud of himself right now.
Phil: He’ll probably get humbled this weekend. Regardless, Chase has been very impressive so far.
Amy: The JRM teams are closer in terms of equipment, but I don’t think they’re getting the same effort from Hendrick that the 54 and 22 get from Gibbs and Penske.
Phil: No one’s getting that kind of effort in Nationwide other than those teams.
Amy: Including their own teammates, Phil.
Summer: I don’t think that regulars have to win every race for it to be relevant. It’s a developmental series, and I think it speaks to Elliott’s development that he was able to race with and beat Cup guys.
Phil: Well, that’s true. But, it’s not quite the same as Cup guys in 1990 racing against Busch Grand National regulars. The equipment gulf is much larger now.
Amy: Agreed, Phil. In those days, it was about half and half in terms of who won, too.
Brad: If there is a regular who can compete for the NNS title its either Elliott, Regan Smith, or Elliott Sadler. It is definitely possible, both Smith and Sadler have been close. I’m putting Elliott in that grouping because his 7.5 average finish is the best of any NNS regular so far.

OK, then, how about those Darlington predictions?

Tom: Jeff Gordon is my prediction for Darlington…I think Four-Time gets it done at the Lady In Black .
Amy: I’m going to go with Denny Hamlin. He doesn’t have the wins that Gordon or Johnson do, but nobody’s average finish is better.
Summer: I agree with Tom on the Gordon pick.
Phil: As for Darlington Saturday night, I’m going with Kyle Busch.
Amy: I came close to going with Martin Truex, Jr., incidentally. He’s got a solid average and needs some luck.
Brad: I’m thinking 8-for-8 on new winners. Seeing that Gordon is off the board, I’ve got to go with Kasey Kahne.

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

Duck Commander 500

Writer Pick Finishing Position Points
Amy Henderson Brad Keselowski 15th 0
Phil Allaway Matt Kenseth 7th 1
Mike Neff Jeff Gordon 2nd 3
Aaron Creed Greg Biffle 6th 1
Brad Morgan Jimmie Johnson 25th -1

Points Standings

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Amy Henderson 4 7 0 1 3
Mike Neff 3 5 0 1 2
Brad Morgan 2 -2 2 1 1 2
Tom Bowles 2 -2 2 1 1 1
Jeff Wolfe 2 -2 3 0 1 1
Aaron Creed 2 -2 2 0 0 2
Phil Allaway -1 -5 6 0 0 2

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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