Frontstretch Staff · Sunday November 10, 2013
Welcome to “Mirror Driving.” Every Thursday, 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)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Truckin’ Thursdays & Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)
Allen Bedgood (Fan Contributor)
Amy Henderson (Mondays / The Big Six & Fridays / Holding A Pretty Wheel & Frontstretch Co-Managing Editor)
Two races left in the season and the top two drivers are separated by only seven points, the exact same margin that separated Johnson and Brad Keselowski in last week’s championship fight. Does the similarity end there or does Kenseth have the advantage?
Phil: Pretty much, that’s where it ends. I can’t count on Johnson blowing a tire and wrecking, then having a rear end failure. However, anything can happen.
Beth: I’d like to think that Kenseth has a shot at passing Johnson, but he’s pretty strong anywhere they race these days. I do think it’s better for the sport overall and the interest if Kenseth comes out on top.
Summer: I think it’s really impossible to say that anyone has an advantage just because they’ve been so close the whole Chase. No, Phil, I don’t think we’ll have the exact same ending. But I think it’s that unpredictability which makes it hard to pinpoint a champion.
Allen: I’d like to think Matt Kenseth has an advantage. He’s having his best season yet since he won his last championship. While Jimmie Johnson isn’t having a bad season either, I think he should be a little worried.
Summer: We’re setting up for another 2011.
Beth: Kenseth has had what you could only call a dream season in his first year with JGR. It’s certainly possible he could go out and win one of these final two races (or both) and surprise everyone.
Amy: I think Johnson has an advantage at Phoenix, just because he’s historically better there. Homestead is a wash. And last year, the No. 48 blew a tire at PIR, so that’s not a given, either.
Phil: Johnson’s going to be a tough out, as I’ve said numerous times. He’ll be tougher at Phoenix than Homestead, though.
Amy: I think it’s going to come down to mistakes… and where those are made. If the mistakes are on track or in the shop, I’d give an advantage to Johnson.
Beth: Historically better doesn’t really matter these days, Amy. Remember Keselowski last year? He ran better at nearly every track he used to suck at.
Summer: I agree, Amy. I have a hard time believing either will be perfect. Texas showed they both are capable of making mistakes while under pressure. And it will just get worse over the last two weeks.
Amy: If they’re in the pits, give it to Kenseth.
Phil: Yes, Johnson’s team showed Sunday that they might be a little vulnerable on pit road. That’ll really hurt him in Phoenix, since it’s quite difficult to pass there, last I checked.
Summer: Where is it not difficult to pass? But, yes, I see your point.
Beth: And of course, we can’t count out someone else getting in the middle and changing things, leaving it out of Johnson and Kenseth’s control. I’d like to think everyone will race smart around those two because they’re in the championship battle, but at the same time, that’s part of the problem with NASCAR as a whole these days. Everyone is so afraid of points implications that they’re too scared to really race each other.
Phil: NASCAR has made threats in the past to drop the hammer on anyone who thrusts themselves into the championship picture. There will be a warning along those lines given to the drivers on Sunday, and in Homestead.
Summer: It really is going to come down to who finishes ahead of the other. I didn’t think it would, but it literally is that simple.
Amy: I think others will race them clean…nobody wants to be “that guy.”
Summer: I also agree with Amy in that everyone is going to be careful. They will deny it to your face, but it shows on the track.
Beth: The problem, though, is that they’re so close that the championship battle is literally all ESPN will want to talk about… unless we have a repeat of last year at Phoenix.
Summer: Well, I think it’s reasonable that this is what they want to talk about. That’s the whole reason these drivers are here is to win a championship. I wouldn’t put it past some of these drivers to start some crap in the last two races. Heck, I wouldn’t put it past Bowyer to pull something.
Beth: I do think it’s reasonable to want to talk about the championship, but at the same time, there are 41 other drivers in that race. ESPN can’t think that every single fan tuning in is just a fan of Johnson or Kenseth. They’ll drive people away if that’s all they focus on.
Summer: They have to find a balance, yes, but at the same time it really doesn’t matter where Dale Jr. and Danica Patrick finish.
Beth: Ask their fans how they feel about that statement, Summer.
Phil: True. The championship focus drives me nuts. My column on Tuesday touched upon that, and how they completely miss every other story.
Amy: I do think they need to talk more about the actual race at hand, as well as the title.
Summer: It doesn’t matter if they don’t like it. It’s a true statement. Unless Dale Jr. wins the race — which he could, I’m not saying he won’t — it really doesn’t matter.
Amy: I agree with Beth. Those 41 drivers all have fans; they deserve better.
Beth: Amy, that’s something we can agree on. Yes, there’s a title to be won, and it’s fine to focus on that. But there has got to be a happy medium.
Summer: I’m not disagreeing there has to be a medium, but the championship is also what all these stories boil down to. That’s what it’s all about.
Beth: I don’t have a clue who’s going to come out on top when the checkered flag flies at Homestead. Both drivers have been pretty even, throughout the Chase, and it’s probably going to come down to someone making a mistake.
Amy: Exactly. There’s an actual race going on, and — gasp! — someone not named Johnson or Kenseth might win. Or get hurt. Or do something else that deserves coverage. Like, for example Ken Schrader is retiring after Homestead. He deserves some airtime, at least on prerace.
Phil: Schrader’s retirement will probably get something along the lines of a mention on Lap 210 when he’s 34th, 4 laps down or something from Bestwick. He’ll be lucky to get that.
Last weekend in Texas, Martin Truex, Jr. mentioned a small possibility that NAPA might follow him over to Furniture Row Racing next season as a sponsor. Considering what happened in Richmond and with MWR, is it a good idea for either party to continue to associate with the other? Will it hurt either one of them if that happens?
Amy: Staying with Truex would be the best PR move NAPA could make.
Summer: I completely agree. It’s saying, “We’re blaming the people responsible, not the innocent victim.”
Beth: I think it’s great NAPA wants to stick with Truex! I don’t really think they were trying to distance themselves from Truex so much as they were from MWR.
Allen: NAPA didn’t want to be associated with Michael Waltrip Racing. It really didn’t have much to do with Truex himself. I believe NAPA will return to be with Truex and play a major role in his 2014 backing.
Summer: I honestly think the fans who really care and will make that decision to support them on it will absolutely agree with that move.
Phil: If it happens, NAPA would probably be only a partial season deal. Barney Visser prefers to have Furniture Row on the car than anything else. Having said that, I’m all for continuing the NAPA-Truex relationship.
Summer: I’ve heard NAPA wants to take a year off, and I guess I understand that. But I think it would be a better PR move to say that they still think a lot of and support Truex.
Beth: Honestly, NAPA has been associated with Truex for so long, it seems like a natural fit regardless of where he is.
Amy: Truex didn’t do anything wrong at Richmond, and it would be great to see NAPA recognize that.
Summer: This is no fun. Every single person here agrees.
Beth: That’s because the crap that MWR pulled at Richmond was so stupid. They deserved to lose a sponsor over the bad PR associated with it.
Allen: Nothing to disagree about. Truex = innocent victim and didn’t deserve to lose his ride or sponsor.
Beth: Exactly. Well said, Allen.
Summer: I think the big problem with NAPA is that fans threatened to quit shopping there because of what happened… which I think had an impact on their decision. So I really hope the fans send them messages again, this time saying they really want to see them paired with Truex.
Phil: Truex may have left the door open, but I’m not sure if NAPA’s going to bite on it. NAPA taking a year off is understandable. Maybe they’ll want to spend their money elsewhere, have a new dude to plug in addition to Ron Capps.
Summer: Fans wield so much power with those types of comments, and I don’t know that they realize it. Maybe NAPA disagrees, but I think NASCAR is a much better investment than NHRA.
Amy: I don’t think you can compare NASCAR and NHRA; different sports with different fans. The return on investment for sponsors is from different things, in my opinion.
Phil: That’s the case with life in general. I read through a number of the comments on NAPA’s Facebook page back in September. I don’t recall a lot of people even defending Truex there. In fact, it was almost 100 percent negative towards everyone involved.
Summer: Right, Phil, and NAPA reacted from that! It was so freaking stupid because Truex became an innocent victim in two ways. He lost his Chase spot and lost his sponsor. The second one is no one’s fault, but the fans and people threatened to stop shopping there because of it. I think the sponsorship argument between NHRA vs. NASCAR comes down to the same things, which is in relation to both the eyes on the cars and loyalty to sponsors. I’d imagine NHRA fans are loyal, but there aren’t as many of them.
Beth: The sad thing is that beyond the investment they bring into the sport, NAPA has done some great charitable things, too. But no one really cares about that as much as they do when something controversial happens. Unfortunately, that’s a huge player in today’s super-connected, social media world.
Summer: It’s more fun to get angry, I guess.
Phil: Admittedly, those comments read like Truex knew what was going on and co-signed it. That’s not true, but it seemed that a lot of people thought it was so.
Summer: When it was obvious that he didn’t. So I definitely think NAPA should stay with Truex. I think they would benefit from that even if fans weren’t vocal about it.
Amy: I think staying loyal to Truex would be a smart move for NAPA. He’s marketable, and I think most fans now get what went down at Richmond punished the wrong people.
Phil: I don’t have a problem with Truex bringing NAPA to Furniture Row. However, like it or not, they’re going to have Furniture Row on a short leash. They’ve gotten burned before, and they don’t want it to happen again.
The Sprint Cup Series drivers aren’t the only ones racing for a NASCAR championship. While the Truck Series championship is all but wrapped up, the Nationwide Series championship is even tighter than the Cup Series. Does it hurt the Truck Series when their championship doesn’t have the same level of competition as the other two?
Beth: How in the world can anyone say that the Truck Series championship doesn’t have the same level of competition as the other two? This is just a single season and Crafton has been absolutely immaculate this year.
Summer: Well, because you don’t have the “down to the wire” fight that the other two have.
Beth: Alright, so Crafton has pretty much won this championship, but it’s not the down to the wire fight this year only.
Amy: That’s not the norm, Summer. Usually the Trucks have the best battle.
Summer: The question isn’t in regards to the individual races. I’ve never met anyone who disagrees that the Trucks put on the best show. But it’s not this year.
Amy: And they still have the best races.
Beth: More often than not, the series has the tightest championship battle across the board. Beyond that, the Cup one is a manufactured, down-to-the-wire battle. And please, no Chase in the trucks, Allen! Are you crazy?
Phil: It doesn’t necessarily hurt the Camping World Truck Series that Matt Crafton has been untouchable for most of the year. He earned that.
Beth: Plenty care about the championship there. And frankly, they’ll put on the best racing of the weekend at Homestead anyway. The No. 88 team has earned every bit of their point lead right now and they deserve the shot to celebrate.
Amy: Remember when you had to run well and race for top 5s all year? Not just run mediocre for 26 weeks and then have 10 great races? Yeah, me too… Crafton has flat earned this one. No finish worse than 17th all year? That’s an incredible stat.
Summer: Again, I don’t think anyone would deny that Crafton would earn it.
Beth: And it’s just two races outside the top 10. Honestly, while Crafton has got the championship all but locked up, you’ve got a pretty epic battle going on to round out the top 5. Remember that with the combined Truck and Nationwide banquets, only the top 5 drivers are honored.
Phil: Yeah, that’s weak, Beth. They did it to save money, but even ARCA has the top 10 on stage at their banquet.
Beth: It may be weak, but there are two drivers just six points behind fifth right now. There’s still plenty that could happen to shape that top 5.
Amy: Yeah, the combined banquet deal is just beyond cheap on NASCAR’s part.
Summer: I don’t think it will matter because I don’t get the impression that fans generally watch the Trucks for the championship anyway. They watch for the racing.
Summer: I think it’s great that Crafton is doing that well… but it’s great for Crafton. I think it’s great the Truck Series is so exciting, because they need it to keep fans interested. If the Nationwide Series wasn’t as close as it was, I don’t think anyone would watch anymore. And, like Phil said, no one even talks about the driver’s championship in Nationwide. It’s even closer in Cup. In fact, the driver’s championship is way closer than the owner’s championship and that’s what keeps overshadowing them.
Phil: As for Nationwide, it is going to be a big race for the title between Hornish and Austin Dillon. However, you might not hear much about it on ESPN. They seem more concerned with the owner’s Championship battle between Penske Racing (#22) and Joe Gibbs Racing (#54).
Summer: And it’s because Keselowski and Busch can’t quite acting like toddlers. I guess no one cares when the champions are civil with each other.
Amy: I don’t think I have watched a Nationwide race this year if I haven’t been covering the race. Why bother; you know who’s going to win before the green flag 99% of the time?
Phil: Looking at Nationwide points, we’ve got 7 dudes fighting for 5 guest tickets to the banquet. Hornish and Dillon are in, while Regan is close to a lock. Sadler, Allgaier, Scott and Bayne are fighting over the final 2.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second for the third time in the last six races last Sunday at Texas. Will he be able to pull out a win in the final two races this year?
Amy: I’m going to say if he does, it will be at Phoenix today.
Summer: I was going to say he wins at Homestead and no one cares because the championship is so great. It would be just the perfect story if he finished second again at Phoenix, took a huge risk at Homestead on fuel mileage or tires or something, and won it. But the Cup Series ends on a tie or something close to it and everyone forgets about him.
Amy: He has one top 10 in 13 races at Homestead. The odds are against it. He does have two wins at PIR, though.
Summer: The only reason I don’t think he’ll do it is because there are only two races left. I think Jimmie Johnson will win one or both of them.
Amy: I think someone other than Johnson or Kenseth will win Homestead, but not Junior.
Beth: His average finish at both tracks is far from pretty…outside the top 15 at both. That’s not exactly statistically in favor of him getting to Victory Lane. In fact, he’s finished outside the top 10 at Phoenix in seven of the last nine races he’s run there.
Phil: Odds are in favor of Earnhardt Jr. winning at Phoenix over Homestead. Thing is, it’s been nine years since Earnhardt Jr. won there. “Pops” was still hanging around back then.
Summer: I don’t understand some of these other analysts saying that Dale Jr. is coming into his own and might finally be a championship contender next year. I mean, right, because the rest of his career was as just a development driver?
Allen: A Ford will win at Homestead. I’m thinking Carl Edwards at the moment.
Beth: As far as the analysts saying he might finally be a championship contender, I honestly think that has more to do with the fact that he’s finally learning to step outside of himself and just be Dale.
Summer: I was thinking Carl Edwards too, but he’s been so under the radar this year. Then again, if he won at Homestead, that would certainly be under the radar.
Phil: Earnhardt Jr. is becoming a lot more consistent of a driver now. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were a championship contender next year, but he needs to get back to Victory Lane and get those dudes off his back. It’s been seven years since he’s won anywhere other than Michigan.
Beth: I was actually thinking it would be Keselowski who makes a statement at Homestead.
Summer: Right. He’s not consistent and he’s certainly not a tried and true winner. He needs to be both to be a championship contender.
Amy: He’s been quite good lately. The problem is, that won’t cut it when he’s racing with drivers like Johnson and Kenseth who are stellar.
Summer: I don’t think he’s good enough of a driver to get to that point. I could be completely wrong, but gosh, I just can’t picture that.
Beth: He’s certainly had a consistent Chase, though, Summer. He’s only finished outside the top 15 once, and the other six races were inside the top 10.
Summer: I know, but like Amy said, he’s just not “there.” He doesn’t have that extra something that he needs to be a champion. He’ll need to win more races. That’s what’s missing. I don’t care how many second place finishes he has.
Amy: I think he’s good enough with luck on his side. Problem is, teams like the 20 and 48 make their own luck much of the time.
Beth: I do think he’d be better off away from HMS. Problem is, I don’t really know where that would leave him. I’m pretty positive that Hendrick would do everything in his power to hang onto him.
Phil: Earnhardt Jr.‘s had confidence problems in the past. That’s what killed his pairing with Tony Eury, Jr.
Amy: You don’t win the number of races he has in his career without being good—very good. The problem is, Junior’s running against a few drivers who are truly great
Phil: I don’t think we’ll see Earnhardt Jr. win this season. However, I think he might pick up one or two next year.
Beth: I honestly don’t see Earnhardt, Jr. finding victory lane before the season is up, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing since he’s showing the kind of consistency he needs to. His time will come soon enough.
Summer: I don’t think he’ll win either, and I don’t think he’ll win a handful next year either. I’m not saying Dale Jr. sucks. I’m just saying he’s not great or championship material.
Beth: No one would have said Keselowski was great and he came in with five wins and a championship last year. It’s NASCAR…anything can happen.
Predictions for Phoenix?
Summer: I say Jimmie Johnson.
Phil: I’m feeling like Clint Bowyer will win.
Beth: It’s easy to go with Johnson or Kenseth, but I’m going to say that Jeff Gordon pops in and wins another one. It’s just going to be too little, too late for it to benefit him in the championship battle after the blown tire last weekend at Texas.
Allen: Jeff Gordon.
Amy: I will go with Junior. He’s driving like he means it.
Connect with Summer!
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Contact Beth Lunkenheimer
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Contact Amy Henderson
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