NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Adjusting Auto Club, Points vs. Wins And Martinsville Maniacs

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*:
Phil Allaway “(Tuesdays / Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter)”:
Mike Neff “(Wednesday: Full Throttle & Friday: Keepin’ It Short)”:
Amy Henderson “(Fridays / Holding A Pretty Wheel)”:
Beth Lunkenheimer “(Truckin’ Thursdays & Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)”
Kevin Rutherford (Mondays / Top News)

*The crowd at Fontana was solid this past weekend but the racing? And the ratings? That left something to be desired. After all the talk about Bristol, should this track be next on the list to be torn up and redone?*

Amy: Next? It should be first on the list. Bristol is fine the way it is. Fontana should be blown up and made _into_ a Bristol.
Kevin: I couldn’t care less about Fontana, and haven’t for quite a few years now. I always kind of dread the week NASCAR goes to the place because the races just tend to be so yawn-worthy. Go ahead and mess with the track if you want… but I don’t think it’s going to do much.


Despite a strong attendance number on Sunday, empty seats have been the norm, not the exception at Fontana races in recent years.

Phil: What the heck are you going to do with the place? With the current infrastructure, you’re kind of locked in to the current design. It does need to have its drainage issues taken care of once and for all, though. We know dang well that if the rain stopped and they dried the track, heck would have broken loose again. Remember 2008? We would have seen a repeat.
Mike N.: Sure. That sounds like a great idea. Take another track where they can run from the top to the bottom and race each other and turn it into a one-groove track.
Beth: I’ve never been crazy about the racing at Fontana, but I have to admit, it was nice to see some passing on the track Sunday.
Phil: 90,000 is better than Fontana has had in quite awhile – I will say that. But it was not a complete sellout because they’re still covering up seats.
Amy: The Nationwide race was decent this week.
Mike N.: I thought the Nationwide race was one of the best I’d seen in a long time. There were cars racing everywhere!
Phil: The Nationwide race was nuts towards the end.
Amy: But the Cup race… typical Fontana. Or what there was of it, anyway.
Mike N.:The Cup race was more a product of the drivers refusing to cause a caution so that they could make it to halfway.
Amy: Refusing to cause a caution? Really? And here I thought that was the point…
Mike N.: Actually, it is the norm.
Amy: Because there’s no passing.
Mike N.: I always thought the point was to race.
Amy: It is. To _race,_ not to wreck.
Beth: And racing is what we saw on Sunday… what’s wrong with that?
Mike N.: Yeah, well if you all settle in and keep a safe distance between the car in front of you and the car behind you, you aren’t _racing_ anybody. You’re participating in a high-speed parade.
Phil: Hence, why I’m ticked.
Beth: I saw plenty of passing, Phil. Are you sure we watched the same race? I mean I know there weren’t all that many passes for the lead, but that doesn’t mean the racing isn’t exciting. Sure, the only caution we had was for the rain, but in my book that’s not a bad thing.
Amy: I had no problem with the zero cautions. But on a 2-mile track, zero cautions isn’t very exciting. Bristol with very few cautions is still good.
Phil: I’d like to think that race would have had a different ending if Kyle Busch’s crew didn’t screw up the last stop.
Beth: I actually thought Sunday’s race was one of the better ones I’ve seen at Fontana. Sure, the leader got out front and left the rest of the field in their dust, but there was plenty of passing going on all over the track.
Phil: I didn’t see much of that passing, Beth. FOX went out of their way not to show it.
Mike N.: I guess I missed the racing. I saw two on-track passes for the lead and about ten other passes on track during the whole race. I don’t care about cautions but I didn’t see anyone get close to anyone else during the entire event, except when Stewart ducked back up off of the pit road entrance.
Amy: Right, Mike, that’s the point. That’s because it’s a boring racetrack. The problem is, it’s a 2-mile track. Built for IndyCars with the mindset that if NASCAR could run there, too, cool; they’d make twice the money.
Beth: Maybe I’ve changed my point of view since last year, but I didn’t feel like it was that terrible of a race.
Mike N.: I have always loved the racing at Michigan and California. I am enthralled by drivers fanning out through the corners and figuring out a way to make their cars work.
Beth: I guess that’s what entertained me so much, Mike. Tony Stewart used that whole darn track for his win.
Kevin: As long as it’s still drawing a good crowd, whatever, I guess. Maybe the races are better in person. Can anyone speak to that having been there?
Amy: The Nationwide race was possibly the best in that series all year, including Bristol. The Cup race? Yawn.
Mike N.: The teams weren’t trying. “Read the quotes in my article.”: The drivers were trying to not cause a caution because they didn’t want to have to race on Monday.
Amy: I don’t blame them. Neither did I.
Mike N.: I’ve been to Michigan, I have not been to Cali. The Cup race was a yawner because they were just logging laps to get the race in. It had nothing to do with the racetrack.
Beth: Is it really that big of a problem that they were trying to avoid a caution? I mean we don’t have to have wrecks to enjoy a race.
Amy: If that’s true, Mike, what’s your excuse for every other Fontana race? They weren’t racing because they didn’t want the butt-ugly trophy the place gives out?
Mike N.: No, but we constantly complain that the drivers don’t try hard until the end of the race. If they aren’t trying then they don’t put themselves in harm’s way and therefore don’t cause cautions. I’ve enjoyed most of the other Fontana races. I’ve always enjoyed the racing there and at Michigan.
Phil: If I were racing, I’d love to have that surfboard trophy. I’d just have to figure out what the deuce to do with it once I got it.
Amy: Is that what the trophy is now? It used to be a helmet with a wing on it.
Beth: I don’t know… I’m pretty darn sure Kyle was trying hard to catch Tony.
Amy: Anyways, playing it safe is what’s called being smart. In a 400-mile race, you really need to still be in it at mile 399 to have a shot at winning.
Beth: That’s every race, Amy… rain or no rain.
Mike N.: OK, so Amy has officially said it is oK to stroke for 99% of the race.
Beth: But not to get into the Chase, Mike… don’t forget that.
Mike N.: I don’t know what they’re supposed to do now. I’m so confused.
Amy: No, I said, you have to play strategy and put yourself in position to win. You go out hell bent for leather and cause a crash on lap 50, you take yourself out of that position.
Mike N.: So you want them to stroke until the end of the race and go hell-bent on the final lap? How do you put yourself in position to win if you’re in 15th and you don’t pass anyone because you don’t want to take a chance on bringing out a caution?
Beth: If it were up to me, they’d go all out every lap for the entire race. I’m so sick of this points racing crap, but that has nothing to do with Fontana itself.
Amy: If you drive an entire race knocking everyone out of your way as you bully your way to the front, you’re not going to be around to win. You can race hard and still race smart. Causing wrecks isn’t smart. You’re in a better position to win if you’re 15th with ten to go then in the garage!

Mike N.: I didn’t say knock anyone anywhere. The drivers were in a parade Sunday. I didn’t hardly see anyone even come close to racing hard until the halfway point was crossed.
Phil: I don’t think Mike’s going on about causing wrecks. He’s talking about racing hard. Stewart did quite a bit of that on Sunday. See the swooping moves on Hamlin and Harvick.
Amy: You were complaining that they didn’t cause wrecks! That means knocking.
Mike N.: No, I was complaining they didn’t put themselves into a position to bring out a caution. No one was pushing their cars hard at all. It was a parade to the crossed flags.
Beth: What do you call the slide jobs Tony pulled on Harvick and Hamlin? He was racing pretty darn hard… and so was Kyle, who managed to bounce off the wall driving so hard to catch Tony.
Mike N.: That was after halfway, wasn’t it Beth?
Beth: Well I know the moves on Harvick and Hamlin were not… and I’m pretty sure Kyle’s smack with the wall happened around lap 90 or so.
Mike N.: I must have blinked when they showed that on TV. The only thing close to aggressive driving I saw was after the halfway point.
Amy: Jimmie Johnson bounced it off the wall running for position earlier than that, Beth. I don’t know if they mentioned Johnson’s hit on the broadcast. I caught it on his radio. You don’t hit the wall with the back end if you’re stroking.
Mike N.: So now you’re telling me that there was racing hard all over the place?
Amy: I’m telling you not everyone was stroking.

*Greg Biffle leads the Cup standings with a series-high three top-5 finishes in five races, while Tony Stewart sits fourth with two wins. Looking at the big picture of the next 21 races, are points or wins more important at this point in the season?*

Mike N.: Wins are more important. If you can score two wins, you’re all but guaranteed to make the Chase.
Beth: Well Tony Stewart proved last year that failing to win during the regular season doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t win the championship.


Greg Biffle may be looking ahead towards the playoffs already after a solid start has left him on top of the points after five races.

Amy: I don’t think it’s an either/or. Both are important. BUT, you can get in the Chase on a couple of wins if you’re not inside the top 10 in points.
Mike N.: Exactly, Amy. I would rather have two wins now and start working on testing for the final ten races.
Amy: On the other hand, if you go out and wreck the car trying to win every week and finish 30th… you’re not going to make the Chase.
Mike N.: True, you do have to be in the top 20. But if I had two wins already, I’d be experimenting for the final ten the rest of the regular season.
Phil: I agree with Amy on this one. At this point of the season, I’d rather have Biffle’s start. Sure, he hasn’t won yet, but he’s been knocking on the door all year. It’s only a manner of time before he breaks through. Maybe once that happens, John Roberts on _SPEED_ will quit his stupidity.
Mike N.: I’d rather see Biffle go the whole year without a win and take the title just to prove it can be done.
Kevin: I think you need a good combination of both strategies. Yes, points are good, but a lot of wins at the beginning of the year put you in a good position no matter what happens later on.
Amy: I think that winning breeds winning as it builds confidence and momentum.
Mike N.: Well, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus used to experiment up until about three weeks before the Chase every year. And while the wins are good now, I’d rather be strong going into the final ten personally. Winning two of the four before the Chase would seem like the better thing, although that didn’t get it done for Keselowski last year.
Phil: Edwards had a Kenseth in 2003 season last year. The Chase was specifically created to prevent someone having that type of season from winning a title.
Amy: Right now, I’d rather have two wins than the points lead. In June, I’d be rethinking that.
Kevin: That’s what I’m thinking too, Amy.
Beth: Having the points lead come September doesn’t mean a darn thing anyway, so why not have wins under your belt?
Amy: The wins are what will give you the points lead after the reset.
Phil: This system isn’t designed so that you have to win early, too. You can basically win whenever the deuce you want. However, you need to run well. Wins will eventually come your way if you’re in position to capitalize.
Amy: I think teams will take fewer risks to win as it gets closer.
Beth: But if you’ve got a car that’s strong, why not race for the win? I mean sure, Stewart put himself in a tight spot racing with Busch and Montoya, but it was nice to see that kind of risk-taking on the track. I’d rather see that week after week… to hell with points racing.
Mike N.: Well, the only way that is going to happen, Beth, is if they stop paying big money for the championship.
Amy: But tearing up a 10th-place car trying to win with it doesn’t help in either department.
Beth: Drivers can run for a win without tearing up their equipment… even if they don’t have a car strong enough to do so.
Amy: Guys who have a car capable of winning are, for the most part, going to try and win. If they don’t, they aren’t going to risk not finishing at all. They will race for position, but not take outlandish chances.
Beth: And that’s all in the name of points racing.
Amy: To a degree. But it also goes back to what I said before… to finish first, first you must finish. Jeff Burton said it best… you can’t win a race if you don’t first put yourself in the position to win a race.
Phil: That’s true. You can’t rely on something nutty like NASCAR black-flagging the top 12 dudes because they were illegally bumpdrafting in the turns.
Mike N.: So they have to race hard, but not too hard.

Amy: Look at the Chase last year. Stewart didn’t win by taking unnecessary chances. He put himself in position to win, and he won. Edwards stroked and it cost him.
Beth: I’d say wins and points are both equally important, but Tony Stewart is proof that you don’t need regular season wins to take home the championship. And Kyle Busch is equal proof that regular season wins don’t guarantee a championship.
Kevin: There’s been talk in both questions so far about drivers racing hard or not racing as hard as they could. To be honest, I’d much prefer we got to the point where only the former happened. But that doesn’t seem like it’s even possible these days.
Mike N.: Are you kidding me? Stewart drove like a man possessed during the Chase. Do you not remember him diving across the track and going three-wide to take the lead?
Amy: At Homestead, yes, because at that point he had nothing to lose.
Mike N.: He did it at Phoenix, too.
Amy: But that’s not how he won Chicago. He won Chicago by being smart. Had Carl Edwards taken just _one_ chance, he’s the champion. There’s a fine line.
Mike N.: Well, yeah. Then again, if the point system wasn’t screwed up to a point where you lose bonus points during the final ten races, then Stewart would have won by 15 points.
Amy: You have to balance the winning with the points. You can’t go hell bent every lap of every race, but you can’t settle for finishes either. It’s both that wins titles.

*Kurt Busch scored Phoenix Racing’s first top 10 in two years on Sunday. Is Busch’s talent enough to turn this team around in time for a Chase appearance?*

Beth: I’m not 100% sold on a Chase appearance yet, but Sunday was a huge step in the right direction.


James Finch has been successful at restrictor plate tracks through the years, like this 2009 victory with Brad Keselowski with Talladega. Will Kurt Busch be able to build on that success and connect that with other tracks in 2012?

Kevin: I just don’t see it. Busch is proven, but that team isn’t for an entire season in terms of running well week-in and week-out. And while he had a good run yesterday, Busch’s season hasn’t exactly been the best so far.
Phil: I don’t think Kurt’s getting in the Chase, but the No. 51 will surprise some people this year. I still say the 17th – 22nd range in points is a more reasonable expectation. There, he could qualify via a “wild card” if he finds a way to win.
Mike N.: I think a Chase berth was always a longshot for Phoenix Racing. The possibility is there for the team, but it is going to be a stretch.
Amy: See now, Busch is an example of what we’ve been talking about. I do think this team can win at Talladega or Daytona, but like Mike said, making the top 20 in points will be difficult. They could have a couple of wins and still not qualify.
Beth: How is that going to be tough, Amy? They’re just three points out of there right now.
Amy: I think we need to see more weeks like Sunday before we can say either way. The most top 10s Phoenix has ever had in one year is three. They’ll need to do better than that.
Mike N.: Busch has been sucked into other people’s problems more than had his own issues. The team has Hendrick equipment, which is enough to get them to the Chase. However, it is a stretch just because they aren’t a top-10 team, so they have to win to make it.
Amy: It’s a long season, and this team is one that was 30th in points last year. They’re probably an upper-to-mid 20s team with Busch.
Kevin: Exactly. The team has never been a factor each and every week. Having Busch in the ride helps, but I think he can only do so much.
Amy: Sunday was the team’s first top 10 in two years. I don’t think it’s time to talk Chase yet.
Phil: It was also their first ever top 10 at an intermediate track and 12th overall. Ten of the other 11 were in plate races.
Beth: It’s not just the top-10 finish, though. There was so much more to that ninth place than just the result itself. There was a point where Busch ran as low as 35th before the team worked on the car and he started clicking off positions.
Mike N.: I think they’re a 15th – 20th place team with Busch.
Beth: I’d have to agree with you, Mike. After all, they’ve been involved in two wrecks this season. Other than that, they’ve finished inside the top 20 each week.
Mike N.: I am not talking Chase for Busch because I don’t think they can win two races. But I think they can finish in the top 20 without much luck.
Amy: Phoenix Racing has been around (though not full-time Cup) for 19 years. They have exactly three top-5 finishes. Some of that may be driver, but you can’t say that all the time.
Mike N.: They haven’t had Hendrick equipment for all 19 years, have they?
Phil: Yeah. Also note that they haven’t been anywhere near full-time for something like 16 of those 19. They had Morgan-McClure equipment for a good chunk of their existence, as well.
Mike N.: But they haven’t had a Cup champion behind the wheel.
Beth: Exactly, Mike. I think the No. 51 team will actually surprise people once they really get into a good rhythm this season.
Amy: Rick Hendrick did say that they had run R&D stuff on occasion to save Finch money (they gave him R&D motors for cheaper than the price of a tested and proven race motor). I don’t know if that’s happening this year or not. Hendrick didn’t know at the time, either.
Phil: Phoenix Racing has to be frugal. They’ve only got what, 18 employees? That’s nothing. We’ve got more than 18 employees here at Frontstretch.
Mike N.: I don’t think Finch is going to cut corners. They’re starting to figure out what Kurt wants and they had a good run. Assuming they can get their car inventory built back up without spending their whole budget for the year, they should be good for awhile.
Amy: But then there’s the elephant in the room: Busch. If he self-destructs, it’s going to make contending that much harder. And he’s already smoldering at times.
Beth: Oh, give the man a break already! If it had been Junior that threw the water bottle at Vegas, no one would have cared!
Phil: If that incident went down as reported, I’m sure James Finch brought Kurt down to earth afterwards during the week.

Amy: I heard he did more than throw the bottle. But in any case, you have to admit, Busch has a history of dragging himself down.
Mike N.: I think Busch is enjoying racing for Phoenix and he knows that he has to mind his Ps and Qs before the end of the season.
Beth: On the surface, it appears Kurt’s still enjoying racing for the first time in a long time. And frankly, that’s the kind of thing that can help on the track.
Phil: Now, if the team can stay out of other people’s issues, I see no reason why Busch can’t finish inside the top 20 in points.
Kevin: I don’t think we’ll have to worry about Kurt having a breakdown this year. I also don’t think we’ll be seeing him and Phoenix in the Chase. I’d like to see them do well, but I don’t think they’re up to the Chase standards at the moment.
Amy: Can they make the Chase? Yes, because they can win at a plate track. But is it realistic? Consider the teams they’ll be fighting for the “wild card.” They are teams capable of winning and who will likely be higher up in the points.
Beth: A ninth-place finish Sunday is definitely a step in the right direction, though and since they’re only three points out of 20th at this point, there’s a chance they can qualify for the Chase — if they make it to Victory Lane at least twice. Look at it this way… Kurt’s in a better spot to grab a Chase wild card than Jeff Gordon is right now. And he’s a four-time champ.

*Both the Cup and Truck Series head to Martinsville this week, and last time they visited, tempers flared. Are there any rivalries we should expect to reignite this time around?*

Mike N.: It is a short track, so anything can happen. I don’t know what we’ll see, that’s why we watch the races.
Beth: Brian Vickers versus the field, perhaps?
Phil: I don’t think Vickers is going to do that again. That was just a bad day for him.
Amy: Vickers drove a beautiful race at Bristol, clean as can be. If he’d wanted to be a bully, he’d have done it. The guy just wants to race.


Will this carnage be the kind we see at Martinsville this Sunday?

Mike N.: True, Amy. If Vickers had a full-time ride, it might be different though.
Kevin: Yeah, I’m really interested in seeing what Vickers does this week. Good things could be coming for him if he runs well again. But I don’t think any old rivalries will reignite… it’s been five months since the last race there. I think any bad blood that occurred then has gone. Now, tempers flaring over totally new circumstances? I’ll bet we could see some of that.
Mike N.: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jeff Gordon might destroy each other.
Phil: My best guess is probably something along the lines of Kyle Busch against somebody. Six days before the race is way too early to guess that, though.
Amy: If the last race is any indicator, we’re in for a lot of action in both races. But I don’t think there’s anyone going in with the “I’m going to get him” mindset. They might leave with it…
Mike N.: There isn’t anyone mad over the last two races, in my opinion except maybe Gordon. So unless someone is still ticked about something at Daytona or Phoenix or Vegas, then we won’t see much.
Amy: I think rivalries are much more likely to spark in Trucks. There were a lot of heated tempers after the Fall race, and they haven’t had a chance to get back to a short track to settle them. On the Cup side? I think you could see some stuff pop up if someone doesn’t race clean.
Mike N.: Then again, if the jet dryer dude sees Montoya under caution that could lead to something.
Phil: What about Tony Stewart versus either Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick? Neither of those two liked the aforementioned swooping tactics.

Amy: That’s true, Phil. Harvick and “Uncle Smoke” weren’t real happy after Fontana.
Phil: Whatever happens, it’ll be interesting.
Amy: One question. If the reason the fans weren’t at Bristol because it’s no longer a one-groove track where the cars have to use the chrome horn to pass, what’s their excuse for not filling up Martinsville?
Mike N.: There is no reason for not filling Martinsville.
Phil: Access. That place is way the deuce off the beaten path. Getting there is a nightmare.
Mike N.: It actually is very easy to get to, in my opinion. The only drawback is that it is far from most hotels.

*Speaking of Martinsville…how about those predictions?*

Amy: I’ll go with Denny Hamlin.
Mike N.: And once again, Amy steals my pick. Give me Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for Martinsville, then.
Kevin: I’ll take Jimmie Johnson this week.
Beth: I’m going with Jeff Gordon to start turning things around.
Phil: My pick for this week will be Brad Keselowski. Why not? He was decent here last year.

*Email the Mirror Guys ‘N’ Gals!*
“Contact Amy Henderson”:
“Contact Beth Lunkenheimer”:
“Contact Kevin Rutherford”:
“Contact Mike Neff”:
“Contact Phil Allaway”:

*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

*Auto Club 400 Results*

*Writer* *Pick* *Finishing Position* *Points*
Amy Henderson Jimmie Johnson 10th 1
Beth Lunkenheimer Matt Kenseth 16th 0
Mike Neff Tony Stewart 1st 5
Phil Allaway AJ Allmendinger 15th 0
Kevin Rutherford Greg Biffle 6th 1

_You can “click here.”: to see race results from the full season._

*Points Standings*

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Kevin Rutherford 14 4 *2* *3* *4*
Mike Neff 8 -6 5 1 2 3
Beth Lunkenheimer 4 -10 5 0 1 2
Amy Henderson 3 -11 5 0 2 3
Jeff Meyer 0 -13 1 0 0 0
Phil Allaway -1 -15 5 0 0 1

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