The Frontstretch: Mirror Driving: Wrapping Up Grille-Gate, Setting Up Sonoma, And Regan Smith's Future by Thomas Bowles -- Thursday June 20, 2013

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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:

Tom Bowles (Mondays / Bowles-Eye View & Wednesdays / Did you Notice? & Frontstretch Editor-In-Chief)
Summer Bedgood (Frontstretch NASCAR Senior Writer)
Jeff Wolfe (Frontstretch Fantasy Expert)
Michael Mehedin (Frontstretch Power Rankings Coordinator)

It has been almost a week since Jason Leffler’s tragic death in a sprint car race at Bridgeport Speedway in New Jersey, but it is still fresh in everyone’s mind in the racing community. It has sparked debate about the cost of safety in the sport, the risks drivers should take, and what needs to change. While it is a difficult question to ask, we must ponder … are we asking these questions out of emotion or logic? After all, racing has improved exponentially over time in terms of safety, but can never be completely free of danger. What, then, is the “correct” response to tragedies like these?

Jeff W.: I was there, and there is no worse feeling than being there with a 10-year-old when something like that happens. Thankfully, we were running a little late and missed the accident. That’s a lot of emotion there when something like that happens, and I can relate to that. There are some accidents though that simply cannot be prevented.
Tom: I honestly think NASCAR, and the majority of our media brethren handled it pretty well. In some ways, safety can be better, especially at the local level. But you’re always going to have freak accidents. Sadly, this was one of them.

With Jason Leffler’s funeral yesterday, the tragedy slowly begins to fade into the rear-view mirror. But can tracks do more to ensure it won’t happen again?

Summer: He was even wearing a HANS device from what I heard. You’re right… freak accident. Though I did see many comments … certainly not a majority, but enough to notice … that drivers and tracks everywhere should be required to have these safety standards that NASCAR has.
Jeff W.: I think one thing people are not talking about, and though there is no official report due until probably later this week, is that it appears he had something major break on the car. That’s not the track’s fault. Also, let’s assume for a second that the tracks can afford safety barriers, there is no guarantee the track would be safer.
Mike M.: I agree. I believe a lot of this outcry for better safety is from emotion. Yes, it is tragic what happened, but these drivers have the best safety equipment out there. And remember, race tracks in New Jersey are state regulated and must meet even stricter safety regulations than other tracks throughout the US. When a tortion bar breaks, there isn’t little race tracks can do to stop the dramatic impact that can cause.
Tom: Right. I think Tony Stewart, on Friday went out of his way to push that Bridgeport Speedway had little if anything to do with it… and our peers correctly spread that around.
Summer: Yes, and it wasn’t Leffler’s fault or his team’s that he wasn’t adequately protected. It’s an unfortunate side effect of the world of racing. It doesn’t matter what new, tech-y invention someone brings that makes racing x amount safer. There will always be risk and occasionally a death.
Tom: That’s a Sprint Car issue, not a track issue. Where I fear owners may overreact here, though in the long-term as the emotion fades is freaking out about their driver’s safety outside of the Cup Series. I mean, as we know that could have been Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne… one of the biggest superstars the sport can offer in that car. Will Gibbs, Hendrick, etc. limit a driver’s off-track appearances at local places?
Mike M.: Well, after this incident… clauses in their contracts may become more popular as Cup teams look to protect their drivers.
Summer: Tom, I’m surprised that hasn’t been discussed more. It’s not like several of the Sprint Cup Series frontrunners don’t occasionally go for a spin at the local joints.
Tom: I think, Summer, fans are pampered because the worst they see in other sports, even football is paralysis. Racing has always been paired with risk… some of the newer people to our sport have never seen the downside of it. Yes, Dan Wheldon happened in 2011 but in many ways it wasn’t a direct impact on the NASCAR community. This one is. Leffler was a media presence. He was less than two years removed from a full-time ride… he once drove on the Cup level. People could feel his loss.
Jeff W.: That used to be a concern back in the day. Back in the ‘70s, when Gary Bettenhausen was one of the best drivers there was, he got a ride with Penske for Indy Car, but loved racing on the dirt. He got hurt in a dirt car race and Penske cancelled his contract. Hurt his arm really bad. But he did go on to drive a lot of more years after that.
Tom: Well Jeff, we just had a bit of a clause happen in the Cup Series with Kyle Busch. Gibbs demanded that as part of his new deal, he come back and run JGR cars in the Nationwide Series. Yes, a large part of that was branding… but they wanted full control of Busch’s career, as much as possible. The desire for that amongst ownership is there… how far will they take it?
Jeff W.: Well, since Stewart is his own owner, he won’t have that issue, unless Chevy somehow orders him not to.
Summer: Well, you also have to consider this isn’t an isolated incident. There have been several sprint car related deaths over the past couple of months. So would they technically be overreacting? I mean … I think so. If a driver wants to take that risk that’s technically his choice.
Jeff W.: I think with Sprint cars, to be good at it you can only drive them one way … all out. There’s no middle ground there. With the horsepower they have, they can be dangerous, no doubt.
Tom: Keeping the superstar drivers out would really hurt the local tracks. I mean, the local business these guys bring in just by a spot appearance in some cases keeps them alive.
Mike M.: Yes, I do feel it is their choice. However, these owners are spending millions of dollars building their “driver” brands.
Jeff W.: There was a nice crowd at Bridgeport with Dave Blaney and Leffler being there. Not sold out, but it was a nice night for that track.
Tom: I think there is a safety issue there, though Jeff. The Sprint Cars can be better… I think Shane Hmiel. Leffler. There have been several deaths in that series over the last few decades.
Mike M.: Bridgeport was just too fast of a track for those cars. Plain and simple.
Jeff W.: I don’t know if it is too fast a track or not. I’ve seen the Outlaws run there before. The other side of it is that fans love sprint car racing. It’s some of the best racing there is, anywhere so you can’t blame tracks and drivers for doing want the fans want.
Summer: Bottom line, I think there will always be safety issues in racing but we can’t overreact. Things like that will happen as long as racing exists. We should always try and be better but it will never be perfect.

Greg Biffle took some heat from Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards for not slowing down to allow Edwards to catch up and remove some debris from his grille. Biffle’s argument is that had he slowed down, Jimmie Johnson would have been more likely to pass him for the lead. Edwards says that teammates are teammates and they should act like it. Who is right?

Summer: Greg Biffle is absolutely right. If Edwards wanted help, he should have fallen back to Logano. Also, Edwards is already losing this argument because Jack Roush sided with Biffle.
Tom: I hate the team orders thing… every man for himself. If Biffle says he would lose the lead, and is that worried about it that’s his right.
Jeff W.: I like Carl, but I’m with Biffle on this one. He hasn’t won in a while, he’s got the lead, you just can’t back off in that situation. You can’t assume you are going to get the lead back. Clean air is a lot with these cars.
Tom: Nowhere in the NASCAR rulebook do I see that two drivers combine for one point total. It’s supposed to be an individual sport…

Greg Biffle’s all smiles after Michigan — no matter what Carl Edwards thinks about debris on the grille.

Summer: I think Roush would rather have Biffle in Victory Lane than worry about a hot dog wrapper on Edwards’ grille.
Jeff W.: Roush wanted a win bad, especially in Michigan with the Ford folks there.
Summer: And the 1,000th win storyline.
Tom: This team bull-you-know-what is one of the reasons fans are getting sick of NASCAR. It’s why Formula One went through a downturn; it’s the last thing people want to see. I respectfully disagree with Carl in this case; have a driver around you try and push it off the grille. There’s plenty of ways spotters can do deals.
Mike M.: When did NASCAR become the way it is!? If another driver barely touches someone else, they cry. They cry when someone doesn’t help them. Hello!? It’s called racing! If you have a problem, fix it yourself. Yes, you’re teammates but come on… you’re battling for a win.
Summer: Logano was actually offering to help. Why that was not good enough for him, I don’t know. It’s either that or a blown engine. And if Edwards was a real teammate, he’d rather have the win for the organization anyway. I don’t think it would have been any different had the situation been reversed.
Jeff W.: I think maybe Carl didn’t get what he wanted when he wanted it. But he still finished eighth, not a disaster. No way Edwards backs up there either and I wouldn’t blame him.
Summer: Nope. In fact, if Edwards has been leading and Biffle had been moaning and groaning about Edwards not falling back, I’d be just as hard on Biffle. It’s just not realistic to expect that of someone and I have yet to see anyone who disagrees.
Mike M.: Except Edwards fans!
Summer: Well … yeah. But they don’t count. Of course they would side with Edwards. That’s like asking Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans if he’ll ever win a championship.
Jeff W.: Dale Jr. is now 36 races and counting without a win for those of you snoring at home.
Tom: I think that Ford knew how important Sunday’s race was. They won’t have many opportunities to steal one the way Chevy and Toyota are running circles around them. That said, it was Biffle, not Edwards in position to claim the victory. Slowing down could have very well caused both to lose, Johnson to take control and where would they be then?
Summer: And for those saying team orders are destroying NASCAR … there were no team orders in that. That was all Edwards. Roush had nothing to do with it and in fact was totally against it.
Tom: In the end, Biffle winning helps the whole Roush Fenway Racing operation because now they’re virtually guaranteed two drivers in the Chase. I don’t think it’s a lock if Biffle doesn’t win there. It’s still not a lock, of course… but they’re in much better shape.
Summer: Right, Tom. What would happen if Biffle lost some of that clean air?
Tom: Agreed. I think it’ll be interesting to see how this mentality works going forward, though as Penske and Roush rededicate their efforts to work together. Where Hendrick screws the other teams (and Gibbs, to a certain degree) is that they do fly by those rules. Someone drops out of the draft at Talladega… they’re picked up by a team car. Everyone gets the same data and information to share, like going to an open library. You better believe Edwards sees that, has lost to it, and will push for more cooperation.
Summer: Oh, that’s just because they stole everyone else’s employees or whatever.
Tom: Hahaha Brad Keselowski has had a rough year, hasn’t he?
Summer: Talk about going from hero to zero.
Jeff W.: Anyways, maybe the wrapper thing is just the straw that broke Carl’s back, so to speak. Maybe there have been other things, and he’s just now getting upset about it.
Mike M.: Edwards needs to be quiet and race.
Tom: Carl has always been a good teammate, so he expects the same in return. But no one is obligated to have the same degree of on-track “manners.” For example, just because Mark Martin pulls over for people doesn’t mean the other 42 are obligated to do so.
Summer: Biffle would have helped him if it hadn’t have been for the win.

This weekend in Sonoma, NASCAR will introduce the group-based qualifying procedure that the NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Touring Series already uses on road courses. While it seems that most agree that it is a more interesting approach to qualifying as opposed to the traditional one-car-at-a-time procedure, do the fans really care about qualifying? If not, will this change that?

Summer: Short of doing a Daytona style duel each week or awarding points for qualifying, there is nothing NASCAR can do to get most to enjoy watching. This will help, for sure, but in the grand scheme it’s not the most important thing that will happen all week.
Jeff W.: Qualifying on a road course does matter, because it’s hard to make a lot of passes during a road course race. If it was on another track, not so much.
Summer: That’s true, Jeff, track position is different here than others but more than likely it won’t have a real impact. The drivers who will contend for the win will qualify up front anyway.
Jeff W.: That’s true, too. But if something goes wrong, or there is an engine change, it’s a much bigger deal on the road course.
Mike M.: Yes, track position is extremely important. However, strategy can easily bring someone starting in the back to the front. Road courses are a hard thing to market… NASCAR is trying what they can.
Summer: Oh, Mike, I wish they weren’t. The road courses are some of the best races on the schedule. I’m so looking forward to Road America in the Nationwide Series. That track has been great the few times they’ve been there.

Will a different style of road course qualifying help Clint Bowyer in his bid to repeat at Sonoma?

Mike M.: Road courses have a niche following. You have NASCAR fans that hate them, and others that love them.
Summer: Yeah, but I think they are coming around. I’ve seen that tide shifting the last few years. Great racing has a way of persuading people.
Mike M.: Yes, I agree. The last few road courses have been interesting and exciting. I for one couldn’t stand road courses and am slowly coming around. Sometimes, road courses are even more exciting than some oval tracks (cough, cough, California, cough, cough).
Summer: Michigan. Pocono. The list is endless.
Jeff W.: For some reason, they are better now. I guess more contact and also a premium on driving skill. More passing, too than there used to be.
Mike M.: It’s because road courses bring back the beating and banging that was the norm 10 to 20 years ago. Working your way through the field and finishing with a few dents in your door.
Tom: I do think the new road course procedure will help qualifying. For one thing, it’ll make it quicker. It’ll also be a whole lot more interesting to watch. One of the problems for Cup qualifying now, though is the lack of pressure on making the field. You’ve got 44 cars, most weeks and this week there’s 43 — everyone will make the race.
Summer: Which will definitely take away from the interest.
Tom: With track position changing so much throughout a 500-mile race, and most top drivers almost always in the top 20 or 25 most fans don’t care where their driver starts. So if there’s no fear they’ll miss the race, and the starting position doesn’t matter why watch qualifying? It’s not the most exciting thing to begin with. But having multiple cars on-track competing, on a right-turn and left-turn track will be a whole lot of fun.
Summer: Well yeah… when was the last time we actually cited qualifying as changing the dynamics of a race? It’s almost a non-issue.
Tom: And if it’s treated like a non-issue, Summer no one will bother to make it one.
Summer: It’s a non-issue if there is no drama. It’s that simple. And there isn’t.
Mike M.: They’ll spread out on the track and it’ll be just like regular qualifying. No one is going to want to get close to each other.
Tom: I think, as a fan in the stands it’ll be more exciting to watch. Sonoma could squeeze a little more cash out of the qualifying process, which is important because the support race isn’t as strong. No Nationwide. No Trucks.
Summer: It doesn’t make sense to do qualifying one car at a time there anyway.
Mike M.: Group qualifying is a good move, although it will most likely be a non-story this weekend.
Tom: But for most people, it’s the type of thing they’re going to check passively on their phones these days… not watch on TV live.

Regan Smith won his second race of the season in the Nationwide Series at Michigan last Saturday, further adding to his dominating performance in 2013. However, it’s hard to imagine that Smith’s long-term goals are in the Nationwide Series. Will his impressive performance earn him the second Sprint Cup opportunity he covets? Or is it the start of an extended stint in the Nationwide Series, especially with Chase Elliott potentially coming up through the ranks?

Summer: I don’t see Regan Smith ever running competitively in Cup again. Maybe a few sporadic rides here and there, but he is obviously better served by staying where he is. He can win a few championships in Nationwide. He will never, ever, ever be a Sprint Cup Series champion.
Tom: I think the Regan Smith story is interesting. He’s making a statement, to the point you would think people would take a look at him. But what ride is available? Chase Elliott is pegged to replace Jeff Gordon. When it’s going to happen, I’m not sure but the signs are there. So there’s no road at Hendrick.
Mike M.: Regan is sitting pretty until another Cup ride opens up. Regan is a good driver and deserves a Cup ride.
Tom: The key right now, Mike is “when another Cup ride opens up.”
Jeff W.: I think it’s possible that Regan Smith can improve and become a better driver. Whether he can convince a big-time owner of that or not remains to be seen.
Summer: Regan Smith is a good driver in Cup. He’s a great driver in Nationwide. No team owner is going to invest in Regan when you up and comers like Elliott, Ryan Blaney, and Jeb Burton sitting patiently on the sidelines.
Tom: Really, the only Cup ride available for 2014 might be Regan’s old stomping grounds, Furniture Row Racing. Maybe the No. 47 JTG ride. That’s about it; if I look at the landscape, just about every other Cup ride appears spoken for already for 2014. I know it’s early… if RPM has an open slot, you better believe they’ll try and stuff Trevor Bayne there.
Summer: Yeah but even then, Tom, who is to say he will be at the front of the line? I highly doubt Regan’s No. 1 on most peoples’ lists.
Mike M.: There are no “good” rides out there. Kyle Larson, Elliott, Blaney, etc. are out there waiting for their first shot. Regan already had one.
Summer: Nailed it.
Mike M.: Regan could be one of those drivers who excels in the Nationwide Series, and not Cup.
Tom: Another time, a better financial place in the sport I think Regan would get another shot. Why? Because the Furniture Row ending was a raw deal. In 2011, he was the man of the hour for bringing an underdog to Victory Lane. One year later and he’s suddenly a bad driver? FRR had to do what they did to grab a champion in Kurt Busch.
Mike M.: No, I’m not saying there is shame.
Summer: He gets another shot for winning one race at Darlington, Tom? It was a great story, but it didn’t mean anything afterwards. Unless my memory has failed me greatly, he was never even a small shot at making the Chase even on the wild card.

Tom: That doesn’t make Smith incapable, either. Busch has blown his numbers out of the water, yes, but there’s also been increased support from Richard Childress there and for good reason — he’d eventually like Kurt to end up at RCR.
Summer: So Smith was only sometimes slightly better than mediocre. You can blame some on equipment, sure, but other team owners and sponsors won’t see it that way.
Jeff W.: No matter which team you are with, you can tell if a driver has talent or not. Even with Kurt Busch doing what he can with a one-car team, you can still see he’s got talent if he can keep his temper at least a little under control.
Summer: That is very true, Jeff. Did Regan ever do in small equipment what Busch did? Very, very rarely.
Mike M.: He wrecked less cars than Kurt.
Summer: OK, so Kurt is a more reckless driver. But are you really going to tell me Regan is more talented? I guarantee you Busch gets more out of that car and that team than Regan ever did. Regan is a great Nationwide Series driver. He’s so-so in Cup, and that’s on a good weekend.
Tom: I still think Regan is proving he can drive a great car under the right circumstances. Most good drivers can. Is he going to have a Hall of Fame career? Of course not. In the past, Smith’s results meant there was a mid-level Cup ride still meant for him. Nowadays… I don’t know. I think the No. 47 is a longshot, and there’s not much else available he can fit into.
Summer: Regan will have a great Nationwide Series career. He shouldn’t let that go just so he can say he’s a Cup driver.
Tom: Too bad there’s no money in the sport, though because he shouldn’t be in Nationwide if he dominates and takes the title.

Predictions for Sonoma?

Summer: I’m going with… ironically enough … Kurt Busch.
Jeff W.: Marcos Ambrose.
Mike M.: Jeff Gordon finally does something this season.
Tom: I’m going to say Bowyer repeats. He’s hungry, due for some good luck and last year this is the moment they got going.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
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Tech Talk with Tony Gibson: Taking Stock Of Danica Patrick In Year Two
Vexing Vito: Three Drivers In Need of a Role Reversal
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Truckin’ Thursdays: Lessons Learned Just Two Races In
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Bill B
06/20/2013 12:43 PM

Racing is a dangerous endeavor. People will get hurt, people will die. While I am all for addressing safety issues where ever possible, there is no way that the danger can be factored out to zero. Therefore if you are a participant in a race or a fan of racing and can’t deal with that fact then find a different sport.

Biffe was right Carl was wrong. Carl could have given up a spot to Logano and gotten the trash off (that’s why Logano was so willing, he would have gained a spot). What we saw there was Carl wanting to have his cake and eat it too, perhaps at Biffle’s expense.

The new qualifying process at road courses will be, as they say on The Simpsons, much Apu about nothing. Once on the track the cars are going to separate to the point where they will be able to run around the track by themselves uninhibited by others. I don’t see where having multiple cars on the track will make qualifying more interesting. In fact, I think it will hurt because it will be too unstructured for viewers to follow. More like watching a practice session that ends up being used to set the field due to qualifying being rained out.

06/20/2013 01:17 PM

They should give the pole winner 2pts and 2nd 1 or something like that. Also Regan Smith was always viewed as a talented driver. Driving for a small team gave some people (some people here) the impression that he’s a midpack at best. How could he possibly make the chase in the 78? Kurt is one of the most talented in the garage and he’s a longshot.

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