Frontstretch Staff · Thursday March 14, 2013
Welcome to “Mirror Driving.” Every Wednesday, 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 & Frontstretch Co-Managing Editor)
Jeff Wolfe (Frontstretch Fantasy Insider)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays / Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter Editor)
Mike Neff (Mondays / Thinkin’ Out Loud & Tuesdays / Tech Talk & Frontstretch Short track Coordinator)
Summer Bedgood (Frontstretch NASCAR Senior Writer)
Matt Kenseth’s win in Las Vegas was an emotional one, considering that it was only his third start with the organization plus the fact that it was his … er … “29th” birthday. Is this victory going to be a testament to the rest of his season or is it too soon to tell?
Summer: I think it will be a testament to the rest of his career. This pairing will be a great matchup, and he’ll make the organization as a whole that much better.
Phil: Well, I had always figured that Kenseth was going to win at some point this season. Didn’t think it was going to happen before St. Patrick’s Day, though. Kenseth and his team out-foxed everyone on Sunday. He was up in the order most of the day, but very quiet.
Mike N.: Considering the majority of the schedule is on intermediate tracks, I think it is saying a lot about the ability the No. 20 team will have to win races all year.
Jeff: I believe Kenseth thinks he has something to prove. After being with Roush his whole career, when you go to someplace new, you want to show them that you were a good choice. Kenseth is not Mr. Emotional, so him being that into it afterward really showed what it meant.
Mike N.: Kenseth may also have felt a little guilty about putting the team behind the eight ball by blowing an engine in testing and wrecking in practice at Daytona.
Phil: 41 isn’t old in Sprint Cup, by the way. People have won titles at an older age than that.
Jeff: Only six drivers have won titles in seasons they have turned 40 or more. Just so you know.
Summer: I agree with you, Jeff. It’s not like we see that all the time from him. I felt like Kenseth thought he was taking a risk by jumping ship; he’s relieved and excited that it paid off. I can’t help but think of this in terms of the whole organization, though, that Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin will have similar success on similar tracks. Something tells me Joe Gibbs Racing will be the team to beat this year.
Amy: I think Kenseth will win a bunch of races, but a title is a stretch. Not so much because of his age but because the Chase doesn’t suit his style.
Summer: I don’t think he’ll win the title, either, but I think he’ll finish somewhere in the top seven in the standings by the end of the year.
Mike N.: He could very easily win the title. Kenseth is usually there once the money is on the line. No need to “be there before.” Although the way Johnson and Keselowski are running right now, I think everyone else is running for third.
Jeff: If the Toyotas can get their durability issues straightened out, and they might have already done that, Gibbs could be a force.
Phil: Kind of hard to claim that someone’s the dude to beat three weeks into the year. Unless they won all three…
Summer: Yeah, I’m trying not to read too much into the whole Keselowski/Johnson run. How often do we see the people strong at the beginning of the season still there at the end?
Mike N.: Quite a few times over the last seven years, Summer; outside of Stewart’s run in 2011.
Jeff: Right now, Johnson and Keselowski have to be the favorites. They’ve been the most consistent.
Mike N.: Not only consistent, but up front consistent.
Jeff: Keselowski’s mad that he’s not winning. That’s a good sign for that team.
Summer: Well I expect Kenseth to win multiple races this year, make the Chase, and at least be a contender. I’m not sure I’d go as far as champion, but JGR will be a good move for him.
Mike N.: Kenseth is a stud driver. There is no question about that. And being in equipment as good as Gibbs, he could go on a heck of a run.
Phil: The No. 20 will be a lot better than 19th in owner points, that’s for sure. Kenseth will probably finish somewhere between fourth and eighth. And… he’ll win a couple more races. Where those wins come from are anyone’s guess, though.
How long will it take, if ever for NASCAR drivers to stop thinking twice about what they say in the wake of the Denny Hamlin fine? Is there any chance, based on fan reaction you think the appeal will cause the fine to be overturned?
Summer: That fine isn’t getting overturned. And I don’t think drivers will ever know when it’s safe to speak because NASCAR has been anything but consistent on this point. There have been much more disparaging comments made by drivers and they were hit with… nothing.
Mike N.: It is going to take an apology by the suits in Daytona, which will never happen. So they’ll be thinking twice, for the most part, for now. There will be the occasional blowup where a driver goes off, but NASCAR has set the bar pretty low for what they’ll tolerate. Which is terrible.
Summer: It was pathetic watching the drivers fall all over themselves complimenting the car last week.
Mike N.: The fine should be overturned because Hamlin didn’t say anything disparaging about NASCAR. But I’m with Summer. I doubt it will be.
Amy: NASCAR said constructive criticism was OK, and that’s what Denny gave.
Phil: Sure, Denny gave constructive criticism. However, NASCAR’s move says that they don’t tolerate that either… at least not publicly. Maybe if he said it privately, to Mike Helton, we wouldn’t be talking about this right now.
Jeff: I’d be shocked if the fine gets changed, too. It’s one of the worst fines I can ever remember for NASCAR. They are so image conscious, because of lack of fans in the seats they can’t roll with it.
Phil: I wouldn’t be surprised if the appeal results in an increased fine.
Amy: I don’t know, Phil. If he loses the appeal, I hope he’ll take it to Middlebrook.
Summer: Unfortunately, we’ll probably see more of the same old problems. The race could have five green-flag passes and the drivers would still be like, “The car drives great!”
Phil: Yeah, the drivers are in a tough spot here. Apparently, “Boys, Have At It” is dead now.
Jeff: Drivers, especially the younger ones, are going to be a little more careful with what they say. Maybe Stewart or Gordon could get away with complaining more than the real young guys.
Summer: Which is weird, since Stewart has more negative things to say about NASCAR than Hamlin ever has. He was talking about “entertainment cautions” during the race yesterday. How is that not detrimental, but Hamlin’s comment was?
Mike N.: What did he criticize, anyways? All Hamlin said was it was a work in progress and that it drove similar to the previous car.
Summer: Right, Mike. He didn’t even say the car sucked or didn’t drive well. He just said it drove like the last one. I don’t think anyone actually took that as criticism, constructive or not. In fact, no one even noticed it until they fined him.
Mike N.: NASCAR didn’t fine Kyle Busch when he got out of the old car in Victory Lane and called the car a piece of crap. How can they fine Hamlin for this one?
Phil: NASCAR was in a different place in March 2007. They didn’t feel the need to go after Kyle Busch that day.
Amy: Going forward, if fans wonder why guys like Jimmie Johnson are so careful with what they say, this tells us why. Of course you’re going to be labeled vanilla if you can’t say anything for fear of someone not liking it. NASCAR should be begging drivers for feedback.
Summer: They really should. The drivers need to be offering feedback.
Amy: Or do they only want feedback from certain people? They don’t think Denny’s is valuable for some reason? I don’t know. The whole thing was just weird.
Jeff: The fine was a huge PR mistake by NASCAR. If they don’t fine, this issue would have already gone away. They created their own PR mess. I don’t know… maybe they are thinking bad press is better than no press. But I don’t believe they think that far ahead in such matters.
Mike N.: No doubt. Instead, they are killing the sport when it needs to have some spice more than ever.
Summer: It’s a new car. I don’t think anyone expected it to be perfect. The thing is, Phil, people had a much bigger reaction to that. Like I said, no one even noticed Hamlin’s comment until they said something.
Jeff: Those of who watch it know the crew chiefs and engineers and drivers will adjust and make it better.
Mike N.: I just think they have focused the spotlight even more on the car now than it already was because of the fine. If they had just acknowledged it is a work in progress and moved on, everyone would be better for it.
Mike N.: I also find it odd they called Keselowski in for a talking to after his piece with Nate Ryan, but they publicly backhand Hamlin for an innocuous comment.
Jeff: Odd, too, that Hamlin doesn’t have a bad boy history, and then to pick on him. No sense at all.
Phil: It’s a bad precedent, and Hamlin’s appeal isn’t going to do diddly-poo.
Summer: You can’t manufacture happiness and perfection. It’s irritating they think they can. People see right through it.
This weekend, the series heads to Bristol for the first short track race of the season. Though this half-mile oval is always somewhat of a wild card, there are several drivers who tend to shine brighter than others. Who, in your opinion, is the best short track driver in the series today?
Mike N.: Jimmie Johnson.
Amy: I don’t know if there’s one that comes to mind. Not Johnson; he’s not good enough at Bristol or Richmond. Maybe Jeff Gordon. Kyle Busch would be my choice.
Phil: It almost depends where you are. At Bristol, it’s probably Kyle Busch. Denny Hamlin shines at Richmond, and Johnson at Martinsville.
Summer: The only answers I can come up with are those who are good at every track. Johnson is great, and Kyle Busch is a pretty damn good short track driver.
Mike N.: I don’t know that he’s that good at Bristol vs. the other short tracks but if you check the numbers, Johnson has the best average finish of anybody on short tracks.
Jeff: You have to look at Keselowski then also both of the Buschs, even though I’d rate Kyle ahead of Kurt simply because of equipment. Sure, JJ can be mentioned at about any track. I think Brian Vickers is underrated on short tracks, too.
Summer: Keselowski is a great choice. But he’s a threat at pretty much every track.
Amy: Vickers is underrated.
Phil: I’d never really noticed Vickers on short tracks until he got in the No. 55. He was on fire last year.
Mike N.: Vickers is a good driver in general. He definitely made a statement last year at Bristol about his talent.
Summer: As far as Johnson, maybe he’s not as good at Bristol as, say, Martinsville. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a threat, either.
Mike N.: I’ll put in a word for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He is a very underrated short track driver.
Amy: Junior is a very good short tracker.
Phil: Earnhardt Jr. is sneaky good on short tracks. Hasn’t hit pay dirt in a long time, but he’s been strong recently.
Amy: I still think Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon are at the top of the list.
Summer: I do too, but I have to put Hamlin there. You think how many wins he has at Richmond and Martinsville alone… he has to be a part of the discussion. By the way, does anyone else hate that we really only have three tracks to choose from?
Phil: Yeah, it bites. However, when we had four to choose from, North Wilkesboro never really changed much as far as who to look out for.
Summer: We have 36 races on the schedule and only 6 of them are classified as short tracks? I hate that.
Amy: As it is, Richmond is pushing it.
Mike N.: It is completely wrong Summer. Short Track racing is the best year in and year out. There should be 20 races on short tracks, all around the country every year.
Summer: There needs to be an even distribution of racetracks across the schedule. I’ve said this 100 times before: you can’t label these drivers as “the best in the world” when their schedule has almost zero diversity.
Summer: Anyway, I think Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch are the best short track drivers. You always, always have to watch them at all of the tracks we call “short tracks” (Richmond, Bristol, and Martinsville).
Mike N.: Kyle Busch is at the top of every list, but if we’re talking all short tracks, I’ll take Johnson. But anybody can win on any weekend. This weekend, the short track drivers will rise somewhat, although every driver in the field started on short tracks.
Amy: Overall, i still have to go with Gordon, with Kyle Busch a close second.
Sam Hornish Jr.’s dominating performance in the Nationwide Series last Saturday was impressive considering some of his struggles in both Nationwide and the Sprint Cup Series. Does this give hope to open wheel crossovers and should we expect to see more of this from Hornish?
Amy: It certainly demonstrates the enormity of the learning curve.
Summer: I think definitely, yes, we should expect Hornish to continue down this path. As far as open-wheel crossovers, it largely depends on the driver.
Phil: I suppose it gives them some hope. But, it still shows that you can’t just show up and expect to kick butt and take names. It takes time.
Amy: Hornish is a good driver, and it took him this long to really figure out stock cars. I’d say he, Franchitti, and Montoya are by far the most talented open-wheelers to make a full-on switch and none of them have been close to as good.
Mike N.: Montoya can drive most anything but has actually slipped backwards on ovals the last couple of years. Tony Stewart is the only driver in the last 30 years to successfully transition from open wheel to stock cars.
Amy: Stewart is an exception.
Summer: Stewart is a huge exception. I don’t think we’ll see that again for a long, long time if ever.
Mike N.: Kyle Larson is the next Tony Stewart. But I don’t think he’ll get the shot in open wheel. He’s still going to be running sprint cars, though.
Phil: Hornish was always a lot better on ovals than road courses, even when he was in the IRL (IndyCar). Danica Patrick is somewhat similar, but has run best on road courses (kind of surprising, actually). Most of the other open-wheel guys that have come over have been road racing specialists.
Summer: I think if open wheelers are looking at Hornish for inspiration, that’s rather sad. He was a running joke for a long time.
Amy: But that goes to show you, Summer, how hard it is. Hornish was one of the best IndyCar drivers of his generation. By the way, Patrick isn’t even close to the caliber of open-wheel driver that Hornish is. Not even in the same conversation.
Phil: True, she wasn’t as good as Hornish, but the overall tendencies in the series were similar. Hornish was not all good on road courses once the series introduced them.
Amy: I do think it’s sad that NASCAR fans don’t acknowledge the huge talent that some of those drivers have. And here’s the flip side… would all of today’s top NASCAR drivers be successful in open wheel? Some would, I think, but not all of them.
Summer: I think the equipment is a large part of it. At the same time, there is still a learning curve in even the best of equipment. The only people who would be successful there are those who have already raced open wheel.
Amy: I think some NASCAR guys could do it.
Mike N.: Not at all. They are different specialties. Different drivers are better in different vehicles. Just like some are better on short tracks than Intermediates in stock cars.
Amy: I think there are a few guys in NASCAR who would be more successful in Indy Cars. But most would struggle.
Summer: Define “successful.” Is that one win? Championship? I would say 99% of NASCAR drivers would struggle mightily in IndyCar.
Amy: In my opinion, multiple wins on a variety of tracks.
Summer: I have a hard time seeing that with anyone other than Gordon or Stewart, Amy. Even then, that would be hard to imagine.
Phil: I think only a few would. Patrick would be better than she currently is in Cup. People like Johnson and Gordon, along with the Buschs would do well. Stewart would be Stewart and instantly contend.
Summer: A few, like the ones Phil mentioned, would eventually pick up on it to a certain degree. But only drivers like Stewart would ever be serious championship contenders.
Mike N.: There are probably 5-8 guys who would succeed. The rest would flounder. I think Gordon, at an earlier age, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch would all be championship contenders.
Amy: I think, had he chosen to go that route, a young Jeff Gordon could have been a star in open wheel.
Summer: Gordon could have been a star in whatever he chose to do.
Phil: A number of guys in NASCAR have very little road racing experience. They’d get their butts handed to them on a weekly basis. Maybe not to the level of say, Milka Duno, but it wouldn’t be pretty.
Summer: IndyCar has the diversity aspect that we were mentioning NASCAR doesn’t have. Phil’s right. That would throw a monkey wrench into so many driver’s seasons.
Amy: I’m going to add one more driver to the list: Robby Gordon. I think he’d have had more NASCAR wins if he’d had better rides for more of his career. Robby is one hell of a talent.
Summer: I was just thinking of him, Amy.
Mike N.: I think Gordon’s biggest flaw was his inability to work and play well with others.
Phil: Yeah, Robby’s demeanor is probably the main reason why he didn’t have better rides in Cup. By 2001, the general belief was that Childress was the only person who could work with him.
Amy: There are some NASCAR guys who I think could have done equally well, maybe even better, had they gone to IndyCars from the start. A young Dave Blaney or a young Casey Mears could have probably had more success over there.
Summer: As far as Hornish, he’ll contend for the Nationwide Series championship this year. But if other open-wheel drivers are looking to him when thinking of coming to NASCAR, they had better be damned committed.
Phil: Hornish has done well so far this year. The ultimate goal is to get back to Cup. By the time he’s back there, he’ll be a much better driver. Maybe he’ll contend for top 5s at places not called Pocono.
Amy: To me, Hornish is a huge talent who had a hard time learning this car. And that he did, should not take away from the fact that he was one of the best IndyCar drivers of his generation.
Summer: I don’t think he’ll ever be a top-5 driver in Cup, Phil. But he’ll do well in Nationwide.
Mike N.: Every talent is different. You never know who is going to excel and who will struggle. Jimmie Johnson did not set the world on fire in Nationwide. Neither did Stewart. Now look at them.
Amy: I don’t think he’ll ever have the equipment to do well in Cup. Even at Penske, sponsor dollars matter.
Phil: Stewart was decent, but he was also splitting time between Busch and the IRL (IndyCar).
Who do you think will win Bristol?
Summer: I’ll go with Kyle Busch.
Mike N.: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Amy: I’ll go with Kenseth going back-to-back.
Jeff: Keselowski’s my pick this week.
Phil: For this weekend, I’ll go on a limb and take Marcos Ambrose. He’s actually pretty good at Bristol.
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