The Frontstretch: Mirror Driving: A Closer Look At Larson, Haas, And The Championship by Frontstretch Staff -- Saturday August 31, 2013

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Mirror Driving: A Closer Look At Larson, Haas, And The Championship

Frontstretch Staff · Saturday August 31, 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:

Phil Allaway (Tuesdays / Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter Editor)
Summer Bedgood (Frontstretch NASCAR Senior Writer)
Allen Bedgood (Fan Contributor)
Mike Neff (Mondays / Thinkin’ Out Loud & Tuesdays / Tech Talk & Frontstretch Short track Coordinator)

After a troubling day for Kevin Harvick at Bristol, and a brief, heated discussion with Denny Hamlin on pit road, Harvick made a statement to ESPN afterwards saying that he thought the old Bristol was more fun. However, the consensus from fans seems to be it was an exciting race. Is Harvick right?

Summer: If I even see so much as a bulldozer on the Bristol racing surface, I will personally lie in front of it until they leave. That was a great race.

The “new” Bristol may be different, but it’s still a race plenty of fans, drivers, and media look forward to.

Phil: I thought it was an interesting statement. Almost everyone else on track wouldn’t agree with him.
Mike: No, Harvick isn’t right, unless having to hit people and move them out of the way is how you want your short track racing. Seeing two and three-wide competition, for lap after lap was fantastic this weekend. The battle that Justin Allgaier, Kyle Larson and Trevor Bayne had near the end of the Nationwide race was outstanding.
Summer: Mike, that’s something I never understood. I understand Bristol made for some classic finishes, but I don’t think the actual racing was that great. Bumping someone doesn’t require talent.
Phil: It just requires impatience.
Summer: Exactly, Phil. Dale Sr.‘s move on Terry Labonte was classic, and fun to watch, but he didn’t win that race solely on talent. I’m not calling Dale Sr. talentless. We all know he was one of the best drivers ever to sit in a racecar. But that win itself was won because of a bumper.
Mike: The thing about the races this weekend, especially the Cup one, is that there was an incredible amount of contact. Every car in the pits on Saturday night was used up.
Summer: Right. But there weren’t a ton of cars destroyed, either. There were some, for sure. But that close quarters racing is what made the race so good.
Phil: Used to be a lot more wounded cars in these races.
Summer: Well, that kind of debunks the fact that fans want to see wrecks. There was really only one big crash all night and the fans loved it. That’s because drivers could pass in this race without having to wreck people.
Mike: There wasn’t a lot of passing, but I blame that on the tires lasting forever more than the aero or the track configuration.
Summer: The drivers seemed to feel the same way, Mike, from what I understood. There wasn’t a lot of passing, but it wasn’t impossible either. In other words, the race wasn’t generally won or lost on pit road. Kasey Kahne did pass Matt Kenseth a couple of times at the end of the race. Kenseth just passed him back.
Mike: The last 12 laps of the race were fantastic at the front. I really thought Montoya was going to win when the front two wrecked out.
Phil: It was an interesting race. Not a complete runaway. That was the Food City 250.
Mike: Again, running a 250-lap race on two sets of tires is just silly.
Phil: Don’t think the tires did anything to change things. Kyle Busch was just that much better than anyone else, and ESPN seemed to let you know that on a regular basis.
Mike: I agree, but if he had to make four pit stops instead of one there might have been more chances for someone else to make a move.
Phil: Making one pit stop in a 250-lap race at Bristol isn’t necessarily new. That’s been around for years.
Summer: I did think the Kyle Busch/Bristol thing was overplayed. Not that he doesn’t deserve it, but there were other stories going on at the same time. Anyway, as far as Bristol’s future just don’t change anything on the racing surface. If the tire or aero package needs changed, change that. Though I would be fine if everything were exactly the same way next year. It was a great race.
Phil: The surface is fine. Also of note, is it possible for the cars not to pick up all the rubber under yellow? Makes for a near permanently “green” racetrack.
Mike: Bristol in its new configuration is amazing to watch. The old track had its own kind of racing but I’d rather see the current one.

Matt Kenseth’s win at Bristol was the fifth of the season, which now eclipses point leader Jimmie Johnson’s win total for the year. If the two of them go head-to-head at the end of the season for the championship, who wins? Why?

Summer: I’ve been thinking about this since the two established themselves as the early season favorites, and I honestly have no idea. I’m leaning towards Johnson, because he’s been the more consistent of the two, but that might change when the Chase starts.
Phil: I feel like Johnson would get Kenseth most of the time, but the Chase is intermediate-heavy. Too intermediate-heavy. Kenseth has been strongest there. I think he could get him, especially if he starts the Chase with the advantage.

The Joe Gibbs Racing cars of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch may be the only ones who have the speed to keep up with Hendrick Motorsports and Jimmie Johnson in the Chase.

Mike: Right now, I think it is a coin flip. Prior to the last three weeks, I would have said Johnson but they have lost their momentum. Not saying they can’t gain it back, and I expect them to make a run for it on Sunday night, but they certainly need to make a statement after this weekend.
Summer: I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them win Atlanta. The No. 48 team, rather.
Mike: Me either. I would not be surprised to see Johnson win Atlanta and Richmond, then take another four in the Chase.
Summer: And it’s nothing against Kenseth. It’s just that we’ve seen the No. 48 team do the same thing many, many times before.
Phil: Johnson will be a factor in the championship, though. It should be close between the two, regardless of what happens. But I don’t think Johnson’s winning six more races before the season ends.
Mike: The No. 48 team has also stumbled into the Chase before and lost a championship we thought they were going to walk away with. The next two weeks are extremely important for them.
Summer: Oh, I don’t think so either, Phil, but at the same time I don’t think any of us would seriously come here and say, “Wow, I’m really surprised they’re winning all these races!” Johnson will be a part of the championship no matter what. I think Kenseth will, too, but I can’t say that with the same degree of certainty. If anything, we’d probably say, “Here we go again.”
Mike: I could see Johnson win Atlanta and Richmond, then take Chicago, Charlotte, Dover and Texas.
Summer: He could win Kansas, too. And Martinsville.
Mike: Yep.
Summer: Seriously, there is no track in the Chase where Johnson won’t be a legitimate threat. It’s slightly a different story for Matt, though not by much.
Mike: Johnson’s not much of a threat at Homestead.
Summer: I bet he would be if he ever really needed to be.
Phil: Johnson’s never really had to do jack in Homestead. I still think that had he not had his issues, he would have won last year, and claimed the title.
Mike: I don’t know. I’ve seen a couple of times where he could have made a difference at Homestead but he didn’t.
Summer: If it comes down to he has to win Homestead to win the championship, similar to what happened with Stewart and Edwards a couple years ago, he’ll be in the top 5.
Mike: I still need to see it to believe it.
Summer: Well, regardless, Johnson will likely have put himself in a pretty good position by Homestead anyway. And based on this discussion, it sounds like we’re all default-ing to Johnson.
Phil: I’m currently not really sure that Johnson’s taking the title. He might. Kenseth might. Maybe someone unexpected will, like Harvick or Clint Bowyer.
Summer: If you pushed me to choose one of the two, I’d still choose Johnson. But I hope it’s close. Though I had a conversation with my husband the other day and said my real thought is, like Phil said, someone we’re not talking about will sneak in and take it.
Mike: I am curious to see what happens if Bowyer actually wins a race. He could go on a run and walk away with it, completely debunking the runner-up jinx.

Despite Kyle Larson’s status as a rookie in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, his statistics don’t show it. Six top fives and 13 top 210s in a total of 23 starts is certainly impressive for someone with no prior experience in the series. But are his statistics Cup-worthy?

Summer: Um, no. They aren’t. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be a quick study.
Phil: It’s a little hard to tell. Success in Nationwide doesn’t always equal success in Cup. Only Bobby Labonte and Brad Keselowski have titles in both series. And Keselowski’s title actually came after he moved full-time to Cup. Jimmie Johnson was OK, but driving for an underfunded team. Tony Stewart did one year and did OK while still racing IRL full-time.
Summer: Especially more now than in years past, the talent gap between Nationwide and Cup is astounding.
Mike: I would rather see Larson spend another year in Nationwide, to learn how to win a title, but he’ll be strong in the Cup Series. It would be better if he was going to be in better equipment.
Summer: It’s funny because Phil and I were actually talking about this before we started, and pretty much said the exact same thing. I’ll reference Logano and say that, despite the fact it’s taken him this long to get there, he’s doing just fine in the Cup Series.
Mike: Larson still has a title in both. I am curious to see if Bobby Labonte takes a step back and runs Trucks full-time to try and win a title in all three before anyone else.

Kyle Larson has mixed it up with Cup veterans like Kyle Busch… in the Nationwide Series. Will he be just as competitive when doing it on Sundays in 2014?

Summer: But, also, he was dominant in Nationwide before he ever moved up. So there are two sides to that coin.
Phil: Logano was great in Nationwide, back in 2008, but he had maybe 20 races of experience in Nationwide by the time he got to Cup. There was nothing else in NASCAR’s top series because he was too young.
Summer: Right. But Larson doesn’t have a win and he has 23 starts.
Mike: Don’t forget Logano started in the Cup series at 18. Larson is 21. He may look 12, but he’s 21. Also, Larson frequently outruns Steve Kinser, Donny Schatz and Sammy Swindell in a 410 sprint car, where he only runs a few races compared to the hundreds they run.
Phil: Larson has more racing experience. I think he can be more of a plug and play driver. I’ve never personally seen Larson race a Sprint Car, but he’s got a lot of natural talent.
Summer: Eh… I’m not convinced of that completely. A rookie is still a rookie. And he won’t have the resources Logano did. I would think they would at least want him to learn how to win and, like MIke said, compete for a title.
Phil: Personally, I would like to see Larson do another year with Turner Scott Motorsports. If this were 2007, Larson would be in a Ganassi-owned car instead of being farmed out. That would actually be more beneficial than the current setup.
Summer: I highly doubt he’ll be able to outrun Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, and Jeff Gordon in the Sprint Cup Series. Those are two completely different breeds.
Mike: I’m not saying they aren’t. But a 410 sprint car is probably the hardest car to drive and he beats guys who run them four nights a week.
Phil: I don’t think the learning curve will be as steep for Larson as it was for Logano.
Summer: Why not? Because the gap between Nationwide and Cup is growing, not shrinking. I think he’ll have a hell of a time.
Phil: Larson just has more seat time than Logano did. Having said that, it won’t be easy by any measure.
Summer: Seat time in other forms of racing that only have some application. Like, good for him. He’s a great talent in sprint cars. That doesn’t mean they will translate.
Mike: Oh no, it won’t be easy, but I think he’s going to win in the Nationwide Series before the year is over and he’ll end up just fine in the Cup Series.
Summer: I’ll admit that part of my doubt comes from the fact that he’ll be driving for Ganassi. If he were driving for Gibbs, I might give him a little more leeway.
Phil: He’s looked great at times in Nationwide. I agree with Mike’s assessment that Larson will win somewhere before the year is out. However, the pickings are kind of thin when the Cup guys show up.
Summer: If he can’t run with the Cup guys in Nationwide, what makes you think he’ll be able to run with in Cup?
Mike: Because he is that talented and the cars are more equal in Cup.
Summer: I think Larson will struggle at first. In the long run, he’ll be fine. It’s hard to say for sure how well he’ll do, but I think if he can get in some good equipment, he’ll do just as well if not better than Logano.
Phil: He’ll be with a Cup team in Sprint Cup, not a Nationwide/Camping World Truck/K&N Pro Series team that has to be stretched quite thin. He’ll learn quicker than you think.
Mike: I still wish he’d spend another year in Nationwide and learn how to run for a title, but you can’t be picky.

In Tuesday’s press conference with SHR, where they officially announced Kurt Busch as a fourth driver for the team next year, Gene Haas admitted that he pursued Kurt Busch without the knowledge or approval of Tony Stewart. Stewart, was, understandably, not thrilled about that. Did Haas overstep his authority and will this blow up in his face?

Mike: I’m not sure what happened there. I know if I was Ryan Newman, I’d be pissed off.
Phil: This was Gene Haas’ power moment. He’s never been able to do this before.
Summer: That’s another thing and that set a lot worse with me than Haas’ move. He basically said he didn’t pursue Newman because he wanted to be able to control the sponsor stuff, and he could do that with a new team and Busch.
Phil: I agree with you guys on the Newman point. That has to hurt. Like King dropping 44 on the Boston Celtics in the playoffs back in 1984.
Mike: It was rather weird that they let Newman go and within three weeks, they’re hiring Busch. The hilarious thing is Stewart, Harvick, and Busch have had some great run-ins on the track and now they are teammates. I’d love to be a fly on the wall in some of those Monday Morning Meetings.

Gene Haas (right, pictured here with Rick Hendrick) has mostly stayed behind the scenes since Tony Stewart bought into his Cup operation four years ago. But the hiring of Kurt Busch, this week brought him back to the forefront.

Phil: It could be interesting…or they could be a bunch of angels whistling all the time and nothing juicy happens.
Summer: Haas’ excuse was that Stewart was hurt and he couldn’t talk to him. Which is kind of BS. They have telephones in a hospital.
Phil: Every room has a telephone in the hospital I work in. Often more than one.
Summer: Or… he could have waited. I don’t know. I just think the whole thing was handled like crap.
Mike: I’m pretty sure Stewart was out of ICU pretty early in his hospital stay. Haas could have gone to see him if he wanted to.
Phil: Haas decided to go “over his helmet,” much like Sal Viscuso did to Rick Moranis in Spaceballs.
Summer: Right. I think that was an excuse more than anything. Stewart’s not the kind of guy to say, “I’m hurt. I want no part of it.”
Mike: It is also going to be interesting to see how SHR handles running four teams. Three has been a stretch and four has damn near killed RCR when they’ve tried it.
Summer: And even Haas admits they don’t have the resources. Which just makes me wonder what business Haas has helping run a race team when he cares more about what he can and can’t do in the team than the actual product of the racing. You can’t convince me that there weren’t other sponsorship opportunities on the other three cars. From my understanding, even Patrick doesn’t have all 36 races covered next year.
Mike: One thing Busch has proven, though is he can run decent with an underfunded team supported by Hendrick.
Phil: True. And if Haas is willing to foot the bill entirely himself, who’s going to stop him?
Summer: Right, Phil, that’s what I don’t understand about this whole thing. Was SHR really going to say, “No, we don’t want your money?” That’s crazy. As for Busch… he can do great anywhere he goes. But he’s been the focus at all of his teams over the past year or so. He’s going to have to share now.
Phil: I’m assuming Haas is using his own money to expand the shop to cut down on the space constraints as well here.
Summer: He doesn’t have much of a choice.
Phil: They won’t. You’ll have a scenario similar to the No. 39 in the past, just with more races with Haas plastered on the car. But, they’re not dumb enough to turn away sponsors. Watch for roughly half the season to be sponsored by something other than Haas Automation.
Summer: This whole thing just doesn’t make sense.
Phil: Also, I hope they’re hiring some more dudes to work in the shop. Can’t add a car without more people on the floor, or everyone gets stretched too thin.
Mike: It is a very odd scenario. I’m sure they’ll add a bunch more people.
Summer: Well, it was a crappy way to do business. I think that much is simple. It just makes me wonder what is really going on behind the scenes at that team.
Phil: I know. Haas has thrown down the gauntlet. He’s not so silent anymore (if he ever was). Busch’s success is essentially all on Haas. If he fails, it’s Gene’s fault.
Mike: I think Newman got screwed, Busch is going to have at least one argument with his teammates during the season, and there will be two SHR cars in the Chase next year.
Phil: Ryan Newman probably wants to throw some of his weight around with Haas right about now. I’m sure he’ll finish out the year in the No. 39, but he definitely doesn’t feel wanted.

Predictions for Atlanta?

Summer: I’m going with Jimmie Johnson to rebound.
Mike: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. wins a race to silence all of the talk about him possibly missing the Chase.
Phil: I’m feeling Greg Biffle this week. Not sure why, but I am.

Connect with Summer!

Contact Summer Bedgood

Connect with Phil!

Contact Phil Allaway

Connect with Mike!

Contact Mike Neff

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Today on the Frontstretch:
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Truckin’ Thursdays: Lessons Learned Just Two Races In
Fantasy Insider: Team Revelations For NASCAR’s Short Tracks



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08/31/2013 02:32 PM

Good article. I am 100% not convinced of this whole Larson thing. The hype with this guy is freaking annoying. If I read “real deal” one more time! He hasn’t proved much to get that ride, but its Chip’s money. I am baffled by all the bandwagon jumpers. An obvious benefit for Cuppers racing in NW is to test the NW drivers, Larson has not beaten a one on his playground, so why does Chip think he is Cup ready, heck he hasn’t even won a race yet. As for the SHR stuff, the whole thing is a bunch of rotten bologna how it was handled.

Robert Eastman
09/02/2013 02:32 PM

P-L-E-A-S-E… Give me a break! The whole SHR/Newman/Bush story is an absolute joke! It’s an attempt to cover for Tony’s excuses regarding Ryan’s firing. Both Stewart and Haas have known all-a-long what they were doing.
Newman doesn’t have the “Competitive Fire in the Belly” nor the consistent results that Bush has, so his contract wasn’t renewed… it’s as simple as that!

Self-made Billionaires like Gene Haas succeed because they “stay in control and know what’s happening” at all times when their investments are at stake!

Though I’m neither a Kurt or Ryan fan I hope they both make the Chase. The next eleven weeks should prove exciting!

Old farmer
09/02/2013 04:23 PM

Wow! Great predictions for Atlanta.

I’m still laughing.

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