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 & Frontstretch Managing Editor)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays / Couch Potato Tuesday & Frontstretch Newsletter Editor)
Summer Bedgood (Wednesdays / NASCAR Mailbox & Frontstretch Senior Editor)
Aaron Creed (Mondays / Creed’s Corner)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won his second race of 2014 Sunday at Pocono, the first time in ten years that he’s won more than once in a season. Is Earnhardt, who turns 40 later this year, a championship caliber driver, or will that accomplishment remain elusive in his career?
Phil: I see no reason why he couldn’t do it this year.
Summer: I think he’s a championship caliber driver, but you can be good enough to win a championship without ever winning one. I believe that will be the case for him.
Phil: His form has been nearly impeccable so far. He’s had 9 podiums in the last 19 races.
Amy: I think it’s a tough call. He’s one of those drivers who can be quietly consistent, and he seems more focused than he ever has. But there are a lot of good drivers out there, so it’s going to be tough.
Aaron: Wow, he turns 40 later this year? My, how time flies. He certainly is championship worthy. I think he has always been a contender, but now he has the chemistry with Letarte and it certainly is showing.
Amy: If the new Chase format proves to be one where winning a bunch of races bags the title, then it doesn’t favor Junior. If it becomes a battle of attrition, he’s in good shape.
Aaron: So far from the events this year, I’m really not sure who is going to be a contender. Seems like each championship caliber driver has gone on somewhat of a hot streak and then faded into consistency, or vice versa.
Amy: He could easily win two or three more races this year. If that’s the case, he contends. He can also be his own worst enemy, though, if things don’t go right and he gets frustrated.
Phil: True, Aaron. Of the bunch, Earnhardt, Jr. has probably been the most consistent. There isn’t a glaring weakness, like with Jeff Gordon.
Summer: It’s the ones who have the most recent momentum who will be the ones to beat. Though I agree with Amy; if it comes down to the person who wins the most races, Earnhardt won’t be the guy. Consistency isn’t necessarily key anymore.
Amy:It will be key in the Chase, though, because a bad finish is too risky. You think they don’t race hard now? Wait ’til the Chase starts and everyone’s afraid to have a bad finish.
Summer: I could easily see that going the other way, too. They’re so afraid to wreck, they don’t take any risks. It depends on the situation. I don’t think it will happen that way. I think it’s going to be down to the wire. But, regardless, I don’t think the system favors Earnhardt.
Aaron: Probably going off on a tangent a little, but I was still a little surprised that Keselowski didn’t go all out and risk blowing the engine instead. Seems backwards if a win gets you in the Chase. He got behind and missed the cut last year after all.
Summer:Yeah, but he has a victory, so it’s not too big of a deal.
Phil: NASCAR has forced the championship to go down to the wire. Can’t imagine what would happen if someone unintentionally screwed up in Homestead and prevented the title from going down to the last lap.
Summer:Well not every “final event” of the season comes down to the wire. Take this year’s Super Bowl for instance. They’re just trying to set it up so that it’s more likely. If they leave it alone, it’s very easy to assume someone would run away with it, or at least have a semi-solid lead.
Aaron: True. Just seems like no one knows what they’re going to do in order to prepare for the final event.
Phil: True, no one was expecting 43-8 in the Super Bowl, but NASCAR has the Chase set up so such a scenario is impossible. If the last race were at Talladega, I suppose it could happen, but not at Homestead.
Aaron: I think it will be interesting if a bunch of non-championship contenders battle for the win at Homestead. I wonder if we’ll see that or a repeat of something like Stewart vs. Edwards a few years ago.
Summer:It is certainly not impossible. If one of the championship drivers dominates the final race at Homestead, it’s over. The only difference is the drivers can’t earn points during the race, so they can’t really guarantee it.
Amy:I agree, Aaron; that was a bit of a surprise. Though I think what killed him was trying to get it off by getting behind the extremely slow No. 10 car.
Phil: NASCAR definitely wants the latter on that one, Aaron.
Amy:As for Earnhardt, I think he can be a title contender if he stays focused and consistent. He’s hungry and he really seems to have figured something out in the last couple of years.
Aaron:Back to the subject, Earnhardt and his teammates (even Kahne if they get it together) could all very well be championship contenders come Homestead.
Summer: I don’t think Earnhardt will ever win the championship, but that doesn’t mean he’s not capable. I just think the competition is too stiff.
Phil:Earnhardt, Jr.’s been strong this year. He’s never been known to rip off wins one after the other in anything he’s driven, but no one’s been better the last few months.
Amy: I tend to agree with Summer. It’s not that he isn’t good enough, but there are some that are just a hair better.
Speaking of Pocono, the track made some changes to turn 2, the infamous Tunnel Turn, removing curbing and adding an apron area. Did this do anything to improve the racing, or is it time to consider moving one of Pocono’s race dates?
Phil: I don’t want either of Pocono’s dates to move. Having said that, having the curb removed didn’t really do anything.
Amy: I like Pocono. I have always liked Pocono, and I’ve always thought it should have two dates because it is unique and so difficult.
Phil: If anything, it made the Tunnel Turn less difficult. I don’t recall anyone taking the apron gamble, though.
Amy: I did not like the changes they made. They don’t need to make any part of that track easier to drive on.
Aaron: I don’t think it made a major difference. I still think that Pocono should keep both dates. They get a pretty good following there and Brandon Igdalsky and staff do a phenomenal job to keep that interest going.
Phil: The apron’s required now that the warmup lane on the inside of the Tunnel Turn has been removed, chopped up and replaced with grass.
Amy: Exactly, Phil. Don’t dumb down the sport. As I said last week, TV does that for us already.
Phil: It’s definitely true that a lot of work has gone into Pocono Raceway since Brandon Igdalsky took over. The facility was sadly lacking compared to others. I’ve been before, but not since the mid-1990’s.
Aaron: I just love all of the unique aspects that they put into the entire experience. There are too many to even begin mentioning that are unlike any other track around.
Amy: I agree 100%, Aaron.
Phil: Pocono is just plain unique. It’s always been that way. It’s good to see that they’re expanding their exploits with the IndyCar race, and even the recent Tough Mudder competition there.
Aaron: Definitely. Then there’s the solar farm that they have, the Nathan’s hot dog contest they introduced, and soon a partnership with Google called Business View which will be similar to the current Street View feature.
Amy: I’d like to see one of the races go back to 500 miles. I think any track with two dates, with the exception of Martinsville and Bristol, should have races of different lengths. It changes strategy just enough to keep things interesting.
Phil: I wouldn’t mind having a 500 mile race back there. If I were a ticketholder, I would have felt ripped off when they shortened them. I wouldn’t have gotten my money’s worth.
Aaron: Agreed. They do it for ARCA, although I’d rather see the 500 miler for Cup after the 400 miler.
Halfway through the sport’s “regular season,” what’s the biggest surprise of 2014 so far? The biggest disappointment?
Phil: The biggest disappointment is probably Kasey Kahne. He just can’t buy a break.
Amy: I think a big surprise is that nobody has quite got the new rules consistently figured out yet. A couple of teams are close, I think, like the 4 and 48, but nobody has it yet.
Aaron: I would agree about Kahne’s horrible luck. Stewart not rebounding back and getting well as quickly as expected has been surprising as well. The biggest surprise in my opinion was something I touched on in my commentary: that we had quite a bit of parity at the beginning of the year and now it’s Hendrick and/or Chevrolet hoisting the trophy every race it seems.
Summer: I can honestly say I’ve been most surprised by Earnhardt. I wasn’t expecting this kind of strength from him.
Amy: Not really a surprise, per, se, but Harvick has made himself at home at Stewart-Haas. He’s had the fastest car all year. If they get the luck turned around, they could easily win five more races.
Phil: Harvick is consistently the fastest guy on the track every dang week. It’s crazy. He’s Geoff Bodine in 1994.
Aaron: An additional surprise is how quickly Kyle Larson has caught on, and how Austin Dillon really hasn’t. Phil, I think that ties into the ride height deal. A couple of Chevy teams have it figured out better. I think Penske, in particular, is close to getting it down, too, and there will be more competition.
Phil: Of course, Bodine finished 17th in points back in ’94.
Aaron: That’s a good comparison. Maybe we can throw some Hoosier tires on the 4 car too, haha!
Phil: Bodine could have been a championship contender had he not had 15 DNF’s in a 31 race season. But, when everything came together, everyone else shook in their little shoes.
Amy: Aaron, that didn’t really surprise me. I had Larson pegged as the better driver from the start. I thought Dillon would be closer in the rookie battle based on equipment and team chemistry, but Larson is just such a talent.
Aaron: Now, that, I can absolutely agree with, Amy. I really think Larson is more versatile, but Dillon caught on very quick on the other levels.
Amy: Dillon was able to buy better equipment on the other levels, too. When you outspend everyone, it’s easier to be that strong.
Phil: That’s true. I believe that Larson has more natural talent than Dillon. Having said that, Dillon’s no slouch.
Aaron: True, he did back it up even though he didn’t win a lot. But yes, there is no doubt at all that Larson has certainly earned his way to where he is now. I was just glad to see him win on Saturday. Aside from a runner up in a K&N East car at CNB Bank Raceway Park, he’s had the toughest breaks racing in Pennsylvania, mostly in World of Outlaws sprints.
Phil: The ARCA start on Saturday was quite unneccessary, though. The dude had a 30 second lead in the race. It’s almost like bringing a mid-level pit crew to that race was overkill with how he was running.
Aaron: I would agree with that though. It was pretty much just a confidence booster if anything. The ARCA and Cup cars are so greatly different these days. At least the penalty he served and the final restart made it interesting.
Amy: I don’t know, Phil. Pocono is difficult, and the ARCA race allows the rookies some laps. Chip Ganassi has done the same before with other young drivers, with the same results. Again, he can buy really good stuff…
Phil: The car Larson drove was likely purpose-built to conquer Pocono.
Amy: Another surprise, though not strictly NASCAR, was Kurt Busch’s showing at Indy. He was so impressive in those cars.
Aaron: I definitely underestimated how he would be perform at Indy. Knew he would be fast, but thought that he might not last all the way to the checkered flag.
Phil: Yeah, he adapted to it pretty quickly. Then again, he adapted to a Pro Stock dragster pretty quickly as well.
Amy: True, Phil. Goes back to talent…Busch has a ton of it. When he channels it the right way, he’s a hell of a race driver. Here’s a disappointment: these are TNT’s last races.
Phil: I roasted TNT good in the TV critique. I was not pleased.
Amy: Really? I didn’t see all of the Pocono broadcast, but in the past they have been far better than FOX.
Aaron: From what I heard and based on some interesting screenshots of their graphics that I saw, I’m glad I don’t have cable and listened on MRN. Overall this year, there have been many surprises, but some of the annual contenders seem to be rising toward the top.
Phil: Maybe I’m stretching this a little, but would the No. 40 team being ahead of both Front Row cars in owners points be a big surprise to you guys? Because it is to me.
Aaron: Absolutely, but Cassill has been known to do a good amount with very little. I really hope he gets a shot with a top or even mid-tier team soon.
Amy: Good point, Phil. It’s like Larson…a surprise based on equipment, but not on driver talent.
Phil:I hope so. Cassill deserves a good shot.
NASCAR returns to Gateway Motorsports Park this weekend with a Camping World Truck Series race, and the track is reporting brisk ticket sales…so, should the Truck and/or Nationwide Series consider a rotating schedule, where they visit certain tracks only every few years, as a way to boost attendance?
Amy: You know, I think that’s an interesting idea. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and it would allow those series to have more standalone events on different tracks.
Phil: I’m wondering what would constitute “brisk ticket sales” in this case? I’m happy to see the trucks back at Gateway, regardless.
Amy: I don’t know, Phil. I know they extended ticket office hours because there were people coming in wanting tickets.
Aaron: No, I think BOTH Truck and Nationwide should get dates, or some sort of unique event to pair with it. USAC Silver Crown has been out of the limelight for quite some time now that I don’t believe it supports Trucks enough, which is unfortunate because that’s some good racing.
Phil: Hmmm. That sounds…delicious.
Aaron: But if it has been brisk then maybe it will work out.
Phil: USAC’s been out of the spotlight because they’re invisible on TV and have been more or less since the Thunder series on ESPN ended.
Amy: In any case, it’s not a bad idea. It would allow tracks to host the occasional race, which might attract more fans, which offsets the crazy sanctioning fees. A track like Martinsville might be able to host an NNS race under this scenario whereas annually isn’t feasible.
Phil: Surprised no USAC stuff ever aired much on SPEED. Of course, if Neffy were here, he’d pip in with a MavTV plug. And yes, those sanctioning fees are loony, and probably the only reason why we don’t see more standalone races.
Amy: As a fan, if you know this is your only shot for the next three or four years to see a race at your local track, wouldn’t you be more likely to buy a ticket?
Aaron: When NNS returned to Martinsville in 2006 I recall it not having a great crowd, so I guess it depends where and most importantly when these standalone events are scheduled. That might be why they are; however, that didn’t seem to work at Rockingham even with all the enthusiasm surrounding it. It’s something I don’t really have answer for.
Phil: Yes, the when is important. If it’s in the Southeast, then it must be scheduled during good weather. February, sadly, can’t draw. Also, daytime races in July are probably a no-go.
Amy: No, but some tracks have lights.
Aaron: It would be something unique now if NNS went there…on dirt!
Phil: Yeah, that would be interesting, Aaron.
Amy: The more I think about it, the more moving some races around would make sense. It would allow so many more tracks to be on the schedule and I think you could potentially add back IRP or whatever it is now, South Boston, Myrtle Beach, and more, if they were willing to add SAFER barriers and pay the fees. It would keep those series relevant, with their own identities.
Aaron: It seems like we are moving in that direction with the Truck Series, but very gradually. There has to be options to fill in those schedule gaps at the beginning of the season.
Phil: NASCAR would need to help with the SAFER Barrier fees for those short tracks. I know it would be less than a million, but a million smackers is still a lot of money. And yes, anything that gets rid of the whole “It’s Race No. 4 of the season on May 18th” thing is fine by me.
Amy: I’d love to see the CWTS schedule expand back to 25 races. It’s just silly now.
Phil: Yes, there’s no momentum. Anyone who isn’t a diehard forgets who some of the guys even are.
Aaron: And some of these intermediate tracks they go to just aren’t working. Drivers are in and out of the seats due to age restrictions, Cup invaders, funding, etc. and it just confuses everyone.
OK, so…Michigan predictions. Who you got?
Amy: I’m going with Dale Earnahrdt, Jr. going back-to-back.
Aaron: I’ll stick with the Hendrick camp, but I’m going with Kasey Kahne. He hasn’t caught a break all year, but I think they’ll hit on something at Michigan.
Phil: Michigan’s been one of Earnhardt Jr.’s best tracks in recent years. Victories there in 2008 and 2012. I’m going to go with Greg Biffle, though.
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:
+5 – Win
+3 – Top 5
+1 – Top 10
0 – 11th-20th
-1 – 21st-30th
-2 – 31st-40th
-3 – 41st-43rd
|Amy Henderson||Kurt Busch||3rd||+3|
|Mike Neff||Jimmie Johnson||6th||+1|
|Phil Allaway||Carl Edwards||41st||-3|
|Writer||Points||Behind||Starts||Wins||Top 5||Top 10|