The Frontstretch: Mirror Driving: Offense Or Defense, NASCAR's Win Starved Vets & Regan's Rise by Frontstretch Staff -- Wednesday October 31, 2012

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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 & Fridays / Holding A Pretty Wheel)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays / Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter Editor)
Summer Bedgood (Wednesdays / Power Rankings & Thursdays / Fan Q&A & Frontstretch Newsletter)
Kevin Rutherford (Wednesdays / Kevin’s Corner)

Jimmie Johnson’s win at Martinsville propels him into the points lead with three races to go in the season — will the change from defensive mode to offensive for opponent Brad Keselowski change the outlook from here on out?

Phil: Well, I think they’ll both be on the offensive this weekend in Texas.
Summer: I’ve been saying for a few months now that Jimmie Johnson will win the championship and I’m sticking by that.
Kevin:: It’s going to be interesting to see Brad on the offensive now. He’s won quite a bit this year and I can see him really pressing Jimmie hard now. Not even “I can see”… he will. I guess that’s a no-brainer.
Phil: Brad has the ability to do very well at Texas and I have a feeling that he will. Johnson has had some problems there in the past. The wreck, the crew screw-ups, and there’s more. He’s going to be careful, but still go for the win.
Amy: Maybe it changes things slightly. Johnson smells the blood in the water now. But Keselowski isn’t the type to just roll over and give up, either, and both will put up a hell of a fight. I’d call it about a draw. And something like what happened to Hamlin could happen to either one of them, too.
Phil: Apparently, one bolt screwed over Hamlin. Man, that bites.

Jimmie Johnson took his first Chase win of 2012 at Martinsville. Did he take an advantage in the title hunt, too?

Amy: Johnson has had his issues at Texas, but still has a top 10 average finish, so it’s not like he runs bad there by any stretch.
Kevin:: Yeah, I think calling it a draw at this point is pretty accurate. I wouldn’t bet against Jimmie from previous results, but Brad’s been stellar in 2012. Plus, Amy’s right, anything could happen — as it did with Hamlin.
Summer: I say Johnson has the upper hand because he’s been here before. Several times. I saw on NASCAR Now where they said Johnson hasn’t had a mechanical failure since 2008.
Phil: 4 years without one? That’s 140+ races. Ridiculous. I don’t expect Johnson to win Sunday, but he’ll be in the hunt.
Amy: Depends on your definition of mechanical failure. Johnson had a blown engine at Talladega this year.
Summer: I don’t remember what race in 2008, but yeah, that’s what I heard them say. I think the statistic was regarding something similar to what happened to Hamlin. I bet Johnson wins Phoenix, though, and pretty much seals it there.
Amy: I don’t know if it’s the advantage some people think it is, Summer. Johnson knows how to win them, but also how to lose them. Keselowski, the underdog, can throw caution to the wind and just race… and that’s not something Johnson does well.
Summer: Johnson does know how to lose them and what to do to avoid them. Keselowski has never been in this situation before so he doesn’t know all that yet.
Kevin:: I just looked it up and realized that Keselowski has never even finished in the top 10 in eight races at Texas… so this will be interesting. You figure he’s really going to go for it, but his past results definitely cause some concern, let alone him being in uncharted waters with the championship battle in Cup.
Summer: Really? I didn’t know that. Though I’d bet his statistics weren’t all that great at certain tracks before this year.
Kevin:: Yeah, average finish of 25th.
Amy: Yeah, but the only trend you can be sure of with Keselowski is that he will buck the trend every chance he gets. Nobody foresaw his Martinsville finish and yet there he was.
Phil: Remember, prior to June of last year, Keselowski was decidedly average at best in Cup. This year, he had problems at Texas back in the Spring. You don’t end up 22 laps down without having them. This isn’t 1978 at Ontario, you know.
Kevin:: Yeah, I definitely expect him to finish a lot better than what he’s shown in the past.
Summer: I’m not saying they aren’t championship material. I’m just saying I think Johnson has the advantage.
Amy: I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of Keselowski, Phil. He was inexperienced, which doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t have exceptional talent.
Phil: What I mean by that is that you can only read so much into average finishes at tracks by Brad.
Amy: Exactly. While Johnson’s averages are indicative of what you can expect, Keselowski’s often haven’t been. That said, Johnson has a significantly better average at all three remaining tracks.
Phil: Keselowski also didn’t exactly have the best equipment when he was in the No. 12. Johnson has had gold standard equipment since Day One in Cup.
Summer: I just think Keselowski will have a similar end to the season like Hamlin a couple of years ago.
Kevin:: I could certainly see that.

Amy: I think the only thing that changes after Martinsville is the fact that Johnson finally showed he can win in this Chase, and because he is such a bulldog that once he has the lead, he will not back down… and he will have that same mentality with the points.
Phil: You mean that you think Brad will choke under the pressure? I don’t know about that.
Summer: Yes. I didn’t think Hamlin would, either.
Amy: Keselowski doesn’t give a rodent’s rear end about the way things have been in the past, though, and with only three years of full-time Cup experience and almost ten years younger than Johnson, he’s not expected to be this good yet – so he has absolutely nothing to lose.
Summer: Right, but when you have nothing to lose, you gamble. And those gambles don’t always pay off. And if Keselowski wins and Johnson finishes third, it does him no good anyway.
Amy: Keselowski won’t fold because of the pressure though his relative inexperience could still bite him. What I’m saying is the only thing that has changed is that Johnson finally made the statement that he is a real contender.
Phil: In regards to your notion of Johnson finally making a statement as a contender: He’s been one since the beginning of the Chase. That doesn’t really change anything for me.
Amy: I’m not following, Summer. If Keselowski wins this week and Johnson finishes third, he gets the points lead back. Not only that, but as of now, Keselowski holds the tiebreaker.
Summer: I was more talking in best case scenario for him. No matter what, as long as Johnson finishes well, I just don’t feel like it would be enough for him. In other words…even if he’s able to beat Johnson — which he has to do, and I don’t think he will — I have a hard time believing he’ll be able to beat him at all three. This week doesn’t change anything for me, either. Johnson did exactly what I thought he would do. He was relatively quiet through most of the Chase, then started making some noise when it mattered.
Amy: I think what could make this stay so close is that neither of these competitors is going to give a single inch anywhere. Last year, as close as it was, Edwards blinked at a couple of crucial moments, like at Talladega. Nobody is going to blink this time until the checkers fall at Homestead.
Phil: It’s a two-point lead right now. If Keselowski wins a race, period, he gets it back regardless of what Johnson does.
Summer: I understand, but that’s if he’s able to beat Johnson at all. I just don’t think that will happen.
Kevin:: I don’t really care that Brad K. has shown up to a better degree at some tracks this year more so than he has in the past. I’m not expecting him to perform at a place like Texas until I see it with my own eyes. Johnson, meanwhile, has proven he can do well there. Keselowski has to make it happen at all these tracks in order to beat Johnson, who’ll be stellar as usual. And right now, I just think Johnson will be better. Every week. Simple as that.
Summer: I agree with Kevin.
Phil: If Johnson can equal what he did in April, then Keselowski might be in a spot of trouble. However, that’s not necessarily a given.
Amy: I’m not sold on a Johnson cakewalk yet. Several weeks in this Chase, Keselowski has been better than Johnson. I think Johnson has a slight edge, but barring anything weird happening to either one, I don’t think it’s as big as most people seem to think.

Brian Vickers came to Martinsville knowing that it was his last race of 2012, and made the most of it, finishing in the top 10 after leading all three practice sessions and starting on the front row, all while announcing that he’s signed a nine-race deal with Michael Waltrip Racing to drive the No. 55 in select races in 2013, Given Vickers’ performance this year — 3 top 5s and 5 top 10s in eight races — is this the right deal for him?

Summer: I think he’s thinking in long terms with this race team. If Martin eventually decides to quit, guess who gets the ride?
Kevin:: Given the lack of available, competitive full-time rides in Cup, it’s about the best deal he could get if he wants to stay in the series.

Amy: While I think he might have gotten a full-time offer with RPM or Phoenix or somewhere like that, I think that this was a good deal for Vickers in the long run. I will be shocked if he’s not in the No. 55 full-time in 2014 provided they have sponsorship.
Phil: Yes, it is a long-term deal, but no one knows when Mark Martin is finally going to retire. For all we know, he might still be doing a part-time schedule at 59.
Kevin:: I’m willing to wager MWR would have had him in a full-time ride next year if sponsorship could be secured. I’m guessing it wasn’t. I bet Martin will be, Phil. I don’t think he will actually stop running until his performance drops off.
Summer: Brian Vickers might know. Behind the scenes, perhaps that decision has already been made.
Amy: Vickers has been around so long that it’s easy to forget how young he is. He just turned 29 last week.
Phil: 10 years ago, Vickers was driving for his family’s team in Busch.
Amy: And a year later, he was a champion.
Phil: Ricky Hendrick pretty much hand-picked Vickers to drive the No. 5 in Busch for 2003, right?
Amy: Yes, Phil. I think his time out of the car and the closing of Red Bull really forced Vickers to grow up as a driver — and he’s driving really, really well this year. It is exceptionally hard to do as well has he has on a limited schedule because you don’t ever get in a rhythm.
Kevin:: Right. I’ve been quite amazed that Vickers has run well quite consistently this year. He’s the textbook definition of a guy fighting for a ride and doing it well.
Phil: If the GQ profile about him that ran in 2010 is any indication, he got the wildness out of him during his forced absence.
Amy: He’s always had the talent and the drive — if he’s now adding more maturity, that makes him even better.

It’s easy to forget how young Brian Vickers was when he first got into the Cup Series with Hendrick Motorsports. Now, he has the maturity to be a threat every time he gets in the No. 55.

Phil: Tom put an interesting stat in Monday’s Newsletter. He’s never had more than 4 top 5s in a full season before, yet he got 3 this year in only eight starts.
Kevin:: Wow, that’s incredibly interesting. I hope he can keep that up in 2013 and further into the future, if he gets a full-time ride again.
Amy: I really think he’s going to have that ride full-time in a year, and he’ll only be 30 years old. Plenty of time for him to win.
Kevin:: Plenty of time for him to get back in the Chase if it’s still around, too, given MWR’s success in that department lately.
Phil: Vickers’ slate next year is basically this year’s, plus Kentucky. I have no doubt that he could win a race next year. Where that would be is anyone’s guess. Maybe next Spring at Martinsville.
Summer: I think Vickers is smart to stay where he was. MWR is only going to get better and he’s going to be a part of it if he sticks around.
Amy: I think there were some other things that affected him early in his career that won’t this time around. I think losing his best friend for the second time in his life and on his 21st birthday really impeded him for a time.
Kevin:: I agree with Phil that he could definitely win next year. I’m guessing at Martinsville, given how well he ran there this year.
Phil: Second? When’d he lose his first best friend?
Amy: He was close friends with Adam Petty growing up. He always had one of Adam’s hats in the car with him the year he won the Nationwide Series title.
Phil: I see. I never thought MWR would actually be this successful. They seemed to me to be a midfield team at best.
Amy: I think he’s better off doing this deal with MWR than maybe taking a full-time ride with a team that has no chance to win.

Several teams have suffered a difficult 2012 season. With only three weeks to salvage something from it, which team needs a win the most to end the year?

Summer: For pride’s sake, Carl Edwards.
Phil: You could argue that everyone needs a win to go into the offseason on a good note. Edwards is one of them. He’s become invisible over the past few months.
Amy: I’m going with one that, until Sunday wasn’t even on the list… but Denny Hamlin needs one to erase the pain of Martinsville.
Kevin: How about Tony Stewart or Ryan Newman? Just someone from SHR in general. The last few races haven’t been amazing for them.
Phil: Jeff Burton needs something good to happen to him, too.
Amy: I still think, despite a season of success you have to feel terrible for Hamlin. No matter who you want to win this thing, you hate to see someone that good taken out by a freak failure… you want to see it won and lost on the track, not in the garage.
Summer: Yeah, that was disappointing. I was really hoping to have a good, three-man battle for this title. Also, it would have been nice to see Hamlin get some redemption.
Amy: Edwards lost last year’s title on the track, at least. Hamlin just had it taken from him by something he had no control over.

Can Carl Edwards turn things around, wiping out that zero in the win column with only three races left?

Phil: Hamlin’s probably bummed out right now. However, he’s won multiple times this year.
Summer: Yeah, I don’t think Hamlin needs to “salvage” anything. I’m pretty sure he’s already proven himself to everyone. He couldn’t prevent what happened.
Amy: Everyone but himself, Summer. Hamlin is susceptible to things getting in his head.
Summer: I know, but we’re talking about who needs to prove themselves, right? I think Hamlin has already done that.
Amy: I think that while Edwards does need a win, that his team isn’t close to getting him one.
Summer: Unfortunately, you’re right.
Kevin: I think Dale Jr. could use it. If anything, to show he’s back to 100 percent after his concussion.
Amy: Junior, yes. Also Greg Biffle… he had such a great regular season, had it taken away from him, and hasn’t recovered.
Phil: Biffle’s just struggled for a good chunk of the Chase.
Amy: I wish someone was still compiling what the points would be with no Chase… I’d like to see where Biffle would stand.
Phil: Oh, a bunch of dudes are. Give me a minute. He’d be third, 32 points out. Johnson would be leading Keselowski by 14.
Summer: You guys are looking at a non-existent points system and yet, you piss and moan when they show points “as they run.”
Amy: Because the old system is a better gauge of a driver’s season.
Summer: We have statistics for that.
Kevin: Was just answering a question.
Phil: There’s a difference between looking at this stuff between races and being bombarded with it multiple times during a race when I want to focus on something else. Also of note, there wasn’t quite as much of that on Sunday on ESPN.
Amy: Agreed. And non-manipulated points is one good way to look at a driver’s performance for an entire year.
Kevin: Yeah, I like it for that purpose.
Summer: At least the “as they run” has some application to what’s really going on. If I want a gauge of a driver’s season, I’ll look at the driver rating.
Amy: Driver rating is only one piece. So are points. So are stats. I want to see them all for a well-informed picture.
Summer: I don’t mind looking at everything, too, but I think it’s weird to worry about one irrelevant system and not the other. I like the points “as they run” because it gives you an idea of how things are shaking out or what needs to happen. It’s a snapshot of the action and it’s especially relevant when something major happens.

Phil: I guess it’s helpful to a point. However, it is a “what if?” scenario. Doesn’t always come to pass.
Summer: Neither does the pre-race analysis, which is the exact same thing, yet we still do it. We know “points as they run” will change, but it at least gives us an idea of how certain things are affecting the points.
Amy: I know what needs to happen before the race starts. And since none of it counts until the race is over, there isn’t much that you really learn from projecting points like that.
Summer: I like to keep updated on those things as the race goes on. Sometimes, it just gets lost in the race itself. There really is no harm in showing it.
Amy: They aren’t affecting the points, because the points are not assigned until the race is over. Look at Hamlin yesterday: at one point, as they ran, he was a title contender. Then the race ended.
Summer: I know, and it was interesting to note the before and after.
Amy: There’s no harm in showing it once or twice. 58 times throughout the race is useless and annoying.
Phil: That is guaranteed to make Homestead annoying.
Summer: Yes, there is too much of a good thing … similar to looking at a points system that is now irrelevant. But that doesn’t make it wrong to be interested. It’s just interesting to see the shake-up in the standings based on the current situation. Anyway, my answer to the original question stands: Carl Edwards really needs to win. I guess there is still Phoenix and Homestead…
Phil: Yeah, I think Phoenix could be a good one for him.
Amy: I think that right now, Hamlin needs to restore his confidence before 2013 starts.
Kevin: Edwards is at the top of my heap. I’m definitely going with Junior as well.
Amy: Jeff Gordon is another one who could use the lift. And Kyle Busch…both of them have been just beaten up with bad luck, and a win would build confidence that it’s not them.

Since winning four Nationwide Series races in 2009, with Brad Keselowski, JR Motorsports has struggled to be a top contender for that series title. They also have just one win in the last three seasons. Will the recent signing of Regan Smith propel that team back towards the top of the heap, or are there other issues at play?

Phil: Having Regan Smith in the fray means that JR Motorsports has a veteran driver once again. It’s something that the team really does need.
Summer: I agree, Phil. He’ll be a fantastic addition to the team.

Regan Smith, seen here with crew chief Steve Letarte did a fantastic job subbing for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in the No. 88. Now, he’ll get his chance to drive for Earnhardt full-time, beginning in the Nationwide Series in 2013.

Kevin: Regan Smith is definitely the kind of driver that team needs — Cup experience and in the car all season rather than part-time. I hadn’t realized that JRM has only that one win in the last three years, but I guess it does makes sense thinking about it.
Amy: I think that Smith, who is a major talent, is a step in the right direction. However, I think it’s foolish to think that just one person can turn things around.
Phil: If they can get the backing for him, Cole Whitt will have someone to go to when he’s confused about something. This year, there’s been endless upheaval and Whitt can’t really go to Danica for much. Just getting into a basic routine and stuff not changing every six weeks will help JR Motorsports.
Amy: That’s true, Phil. This year, they don’t have any kind of veteran presence in the driver’s seat, and yes, that hurts.
Summer: I’m not saying that all three (two and a half?) cars will be contending every week, but I agree that Smith’s input can be valuable.
Amy: If they put the right people in place around him, I think Smith can win some races.
Phil: I have no clue how often the No. 88 will even be on the track. It’s part-time for sure, though.
Amy: Whitt is still learning how to feel out a car and communicate effectively, and Patrick was this year as well. I also think the constant focus on Patrick’s team hurt Whitt’s team.
Summer: Ya don’t say!?
Phil: Even without the general focus, Whitt has still outperformed Patrick for 90 percent of the year. Montreal and Road America are exceptions to the rule.
Amy: I agree, Phil. I hope the team is able to find sponsorship for Whitt. I think he has more long-term potential than Danica does.
Kevin: I think Whitt will be better next year if he can find the backing. I don’t think having Danica as a teammate did him much good at all.
Amy: I also think it’s a great opportunity for Smith. He’s one of those drivers who I really want to see in good equipment just to see what he’s capable of.
Summer: I think we got to see part of his potential at Kansas. I had to remind myself it was Smith in the car!
Kevin: Yeah, he really showed great promise when he was with Hendrick for two races. I think his season next year will be more of that.
Phil: I think Regan’s a championship contender for next season. It’ll be him, Sadler (wherever he ends up), and maybe one or two others.

Amy: Again, it’s going to depend on the people they put in place around Smith, but I think this could be a great chance for both team and driver to fulfill their promise. I think Vickers, if he does drive the other JGR car, is a huge favorite for the title along with Smith, Sadler, and maybe Trevor Bayne.
Phil: Should be a decent battle.
Kevin: Absolutely. Add Dillon in there, too.
Amy: Yes. A really tight five-way battle would be good for the series.
Summer: Whoa! Can we finish 2012 first before we start talking about 2013?! My head is spinning! :)
Amy: OK :). I don’t know that this move is a step down for Smith, either. He’s just 29, and it’s better to showcase his talents in a top car in Nationwide than to go virtually unnoticed in a lower-tier Cup ride. A NNS title could only help him find a good Cup car.
Summer: It worked wonders for Elliott Sadler.

Predictions for Texas?

Amy: I’m going to go with Clint Bowyer. He’ll look ridiculous in the hat.
Summer: I’ll go with another Matt Kenseth win.
Phil: That’s a good bet, Summer. I’m thinking that Aric Almirola can keep up his recent momentum and give me a good finish in our pool. I don’t think he’s winning, but he should put up a solid finish in the top 10 on Sunday.
Kevin: I just can’t get myself to make a more interesting prediction. Jimmie Johnson.

Mirror Predictions 2012

Welcome to our sixth consecutive 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

TUMS Fast Relief 500

Writer Pick Finishing Position Points
Amy Henderson Jimmie Johnson 1st 5
Phil Allaway Brian Vickers 8th 1
Tom Bowles Clint Bowyer 5th 3

Points Standings

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Amy Henderson 45 30 2 12 23
Mike Neff 40 -5 27 4 10 17
Kevin Rutherford 35 -10 23 2 11 15
Phil Allaway 29 -16 31 1 8 17
Matt Stallknecht 10 -35 2 2 2 2
Tom Bowles 11 -34 6 2 3 3
Rick Lunkenheimer 5 -40 1 1 1 1
Summer Bedgood 3 -42 7 0 2 3
Huston Ladner 3 -42 1 0 1 1
Beth Lunkenheimer 2 -43 19 1 2 5
Tony Lumbis 1 -44 1 0 0 1
Jeff Meyer 0 -45 1 0 0 0
Jesse Medford -2 -47 1 0 0 0
Vito Pugliese -2 -47 1 0 0 0

Connect with Amy!

Contact Amy Henderson

Connect with Phil!

Contact Phil Allaway

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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
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Michael in SoCal
10/31/2012 12:21 PM
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A few weeks back I said I thought James Buescher would be a candidate down the road for the 24 car. Now I’ll throw Regan Smith into that mix as well, and possible Brian Vickers, although the Toyota connection might make BV a moot point.

JD in NC
10/31/2012 01:21 PM
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Well, I think Jimmie Johnson will be hoisting the 2012 championship trophy. Brad is a tough racer and I don’t see him succumbing to the pressure like Edwards or Hamlin, but you guys failed to mention that its the 48 team vs. the 2 team. That is where the pressure of the situation could surface. Paul Wolfe has proven himself a great crew chief, but he doesn’t have the experience in this situation like Chad does. Furthermore, the pit crews and shop guys aren’t as experienced as the 48 guys. Having said this, however, the great thing is we still won’t know until the checkered flag drops and so many things out of either teams’ control could happen during the final three races.

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