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*:
Amy Henderson “(Mondays / The Big Six & Fridays / Holding A Pretty Wheel)”:https://frontstretch.com/staffinfo/351/
Beth Lunkenheimer “(Wednesdays / Beth’s Brief–Frontstretch Newsletter & Thursdays / Truckin’ Thursdays & Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)”:https://frontstretch.com/staffinfo/3362
Phil Allaway “(Tuesdays / Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter)”:https://frontstretch.com/staffinfo/18439/
*A third of the way through this year’s championship battle, which drivers are looking like they’ll still be there going into Homestead… and whose bid is toast already?*
Phil: Well, Matt Kenseth for sure. That dude can’t buy a break. I’ve never heard a sound like the one produced when his track bar broke.
Amy: I know, Phil, that was crazy. I could almost hear the conversation at the shop: “Hey, what do you want to do with these weird track bars? Toss ’em?” “Nah, we’ll just use them on Matt’s car, why waste them?”
Beth: If you can say anyone is toast at this point, it’d be the Roush Fenway duo. Despite having led for so many weeks through the regular season, they just plain aren’t performing right now.
Amy: Obviously, Keselowski and Johnson are in the thick of it. Hamlin isn’t too far back, but I do wonder how he’ll fare at Talladega since Kyle Busch usually commandeers Logano and that leaves Denny on his own for someone to work with. I think anyone else is done unless they can gain at least 15 points at Talladega this week. If they can do that, they’re back in.
Beth: And that would take not only avoiding the big one(s) but would also require that those further up front have trouble as well.
Amy: Talladega is such a crapshoot, anyone can get taken out at any time, so I think that the bottom group in the title hunt can use it to their advantage… it’s their last, best chance.
Beth: But even with the crapshoot at ‘Dega, you’re looking at two drivers that are all but out of the battle in Kenseth and Biffle.
Phil: Guys, I don’t think Kyle will commandeer Logano at Talladega. Joey’s the lame duck. He’ll have to find his own partner when the time comes.
Beth: I disagree, Phil. Regardless of whether Logano is a lame duck, he and Kyle work very well together on plate tracks and you can bet both will be happy to take advantage of that.
Amy: I don’t think Kyle will care. He just wants to win, and Joey has been a good lackey in the past. Whether one of them will be told to work with Denny, I don’t know.
Beth: It wouldn’t surprise me given the position Hamlin is in at this point. Why wouldn’t the big bosses want them to work with the No. 11 as much as possible? He’s JGR’s only hope at a championship this season.
Phil: Who knows. Those agreements only last for as long as they feel like it, or until someone else throws a wrench in the proceedings. Of course, having said that, tandem drafting didn’t exist until a couple of years ago. Prior to that, people would leave you at the drop of a hat.
Beth: They still will as long as they know there’s someone else they can pair up with right away. Otherwise, the momentum lost is just too great to separate.
Amy: The crazy thing about ‘Dega is you can do everything right at the plate tracks and still get wrecked. I really think NASCAR made a mistake putting it later in the Chase next year. That close to the end, it should be about how good you are, not about who gets lucky.
Phil: They only put it later because Kansas got its old spot back. The switch was only so that Kansas had more time to renovate. Big deal.
Beth: Regardless of what weekend Talladega runs, one race does not make a championship run. It’s running well in the other nine events that would overcome bad luck at ‘Dega if necessary.
Amy: Maybe… I just hate the idea of a title being taken away by someone else’s mistake. Yes, the points are the same, but the probability of someone taking you out is greater.
Phil: “Someone else’s mistake” can take a potential title away anywhere. Not just Talladega. It just stands out.
Beth: If they’re really that good and deserving of the championship, they’ll have other finishes that will help them.
Amy: I disagree… I don’t think you get a true mulligan anymore. Or, more accurately, this weekend _was_ Denny Hamlin’s mulligan – and he still got a top 10.
Phil: If he finished eighth, then that wasn’t really a mulligan in my opinion.
Beth: That’s just because of the level of competition in the series at this point. But either way, all 12 Chase drivers have the exact same equation to work with when it comes to winning the championship. It’s who can execute in those final ten races that will come out on top.
*This week, the Sprint Cup Series heads to Talladega, which is always a bit of a question mark that gives everyone a chance at success. Which non-Chase drivers are most likely to steal the show at Talladega, and can a non-Chase team have any impact on the final points tally?*
Amy: Well, as noted above, it’s Talladega — anyone could win.
Phil: True. It’s really hard to say who could put themselves in the hunt. Could realistically be anyone that doesn’t park it. My first thought would be either of the Earnhardt-Ganassi cars.
Amy: I think the best bet to win from outside the top 12 the rest of the season is Mark Martin. He’s not entered at Talladega, so it won’t happen there, but he has been inching closer every week. As for Talladega, it could be anyone – Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch are probably at the top of the list, but really, at the plate tracks you could pick the finishing order out of a hat. And as for a couple of real underdogs? Casey Mears and Landon Cassill have looked really good on the plate tracks the last year or so.
Beth: If you look at average finish in previous races at ‘Dega, Kurt Busch is the highest finishing non-Chaser. But he’s finished outside the top 10 in seven of his last nine starts there. Shoot, at Talladega Casey Mears could come out on top if the race unfolds the right way.
Amy: And for that matter, how about some poetic justice with Regan Smith taking the checkers? Weirder things have happened.
Beth: That would be one heck of a way to end his tenure at Furniture Row…
Phil: That might feel more like a stomach punch than anything else. Yeah, you won, but you’re unemployed.
Amy: Or like a giant F you…
Beth: As for the impact of non-Chase drivers on the final points tally … of course anyone outside the top 12 that wins is taking away valuable points from the Chasers, but those guys have to anticipate that and be able to compensate. I really don’t think anyone would intentionally cause a problem for a Chaser, though.
Amy: The impact from the non-Chasers is more likely to come from someone getting stupid and causing the wreck that takes half of them out than from non-Chasers winning races.
Phil: Heck, we don’t even know if there’s going to be a big wreck. It’s not guaranteed.
Amy: No, but it’s highly likely.
Beth: You’re right, Phil, it’s not guaranteed, but more often than not, you’ve got at least one Big One in the plate races. By the way, am I the only one that thinks Kyle Busch will be driving with something to prove this weekend? He was pretty upset about having to pit so late for fuel on Sunday.
Amy: Am I the only one who found it ironic that at New Hampshire, Kyle was complaining about not getting any TV interviews… and then at Dover, he declined one?
Beth: I was talking about that earlier today. Why should we go out of our way to cover Kyle, even when he runs well if he’s just going to decline a chance to talk after a seventh-place finish?
Phil: He claims that he didn’t deny it. Took to Twitter and everything.
Amy: ESPN’s reporters said he did, and there was no interview, so…
Beth: Right. Why did ESPN go out of their way to say that he had declined it? If that wasn’t the case, then shame on ESPN.
Amy: But I do think Busch will drive with a chip on his shoulder this week…and that could result in either a brilliant performance or a nasty multi-car wreck. It’s 50/50. If that is the case, Hamlin is probably better off not working with him.
*Kurt Busch will move to Furniture Row Racing after this week’s race at Talladega, while his current team, Phoenix Racing, is looking for a driver with whom to finish the season. With the team’s future in doubt, what moves should they be looking at now in hopes of creating a future for 2013 and beyond?*
Beth: Sponsorship, sponsorship, sponsorship. That’s really the only thing that can keep the team open in the future. With the cars changing, Finch’s entire stable will be pretty much obsolete and I’m willing to bet he can’t fund new cars out of his own pocket.
Phil: They need sponsors. And someone that won’t tear up as much equipment.
Beth: But with that said, the way to garner some sponsorship for the future is to find someone reliable to put behind the wheel for the remainder of the season.
Amy: I agree, and I think the best bet for that from who’s available is Regan Smith. If Smith were to get in that car for six races and outperform Busch like he has for much of this year, I think that shows the team has some potential, and he’s a proven winner and marketable to boot.
Beth: I know they’ve thought about AJ Allmendinger and David Reutimann to fill the seat.
Phil: They’ve already had Reutimann in for a race this year when Kurt got suspended, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he did a race or two when Danica’s in the #10.
Amy: I suppose they could go with someone from Trucks or NNS and hope that driver could bring sponsor money.
Beth: I’ve heard that Justin Allgaier and James Buescher’s people have reached out to Finch, but I don’t think that’s the right move for either one of them — especially Buescher.
Amy: I don’t know… I don’t see Allgaier getting to Cup any other way soon and if he brought Brandt with him, it would be better than they have now money-wise.
Phil: Buescher’s actually had a really good year.
Beth: Four wins for Buescher in trucks alone.
Amy: He lacks the maturity to compete in Cup, though, I think.
Beth: I’d really like to see him spend a year racing full-time in Nationwide before making the jump to Cup.
Amy: They could also go with built in money with someone like Brian Scott.
Phil: Brian Scott would bring money, but he’d tear up stuff.
Beth: He’d only be fast if they improved the equipment at Phoenix. They’re usually running a mile or two off the pace of the leaders — Scott wouldn’t be able to make up that gap.
Amy: That’s why I’d like to see what Regan Smith could do with it, since it would be a pretty lateral move.
Phil: Yeah, Regan Smith would be the right guy here. He’s not one to tear up stuff very often.
Amy: But thinking about Scott gives me an idea… why not take him and partner with JGR and Toyota.
Phil: That wouldn’t be a horrible idea. It would mean that they would get newer chassis.
Amy: If Gibbs want to keep Scott or another driver in the fold, why not do it that way… partner with Finch. In any case, that team needs money to continue… and there are a few ways to find it. I think it depends on what the surest thing is.
*The Nationwide Series has a final off week this week. Who needs to regroup, and who’s cursing the momentum killer?*
Phil: Well, no one’s running badly right now. Sadler did well to finish fourth Saturday. Stenhouse was in the top 10 all day. Dillon got held up by Kasey Kahne on the final restart, but still got a top 10. Hornish could use the break, though.
Amy: I think almost everyone should be welcoming the time to regroup. They’re running OK, but not winning at the rate they were earlier this year. Hornish’s team especially, though I think his contract situation may be the real culprit… talk about shafted…
Phil: It’s kinda hard to win when Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick show up and stomp everyone, but the Nationwide regulars are still holding their own. They’re not stinking up the show.
Beth: It’ll be a great time for each of the teams to regroup and hunker down for the final handful of races to the championship. You know Sadler and Stenhouse both want this title pretty badly for their own reasons.
Amy: I don’t think any of the top four truly have momentum in their corner, so whoever can use the time to regroup and come back strongest has an advantage.
Phil: Hey, am I missing something? Didn’t Stenhouse win just two weeks ago in Joliet with the terrible reproduction of a school bus?
Amy: Yes, but he hasn’t been nearly as hot as he was early in the season.
Phil: Part of that’s just bad luck (and stupidity). I’d like to think that he should have been able to avoid Eric McClure on pit road at Kentucky.
Amy: I have the same concerns with Sadler, Phil… he hasn’t been bad, just not where he was earlier this season. But in his case, the lame duck status is way different than Stenhouse’s.
Beth: Stenhouse isn’t really a lame duck since he’s just moving up within the same organization.
Amy: Exactly, but Sadler is, and i wonder if the tide at RCR hasn’t turned to Dillon.
Beth: Well, Dillon does have an average finish two positions better than Sadler in the last five races, and he’s got a win in that time period.
Phil: Yeah, they might be favoring Dillon, but I just don’t think Dillon’s going to get it… this year. Next year, he may be a prohibitive title favorite.
Amy: Meanwhile, Hornish doesn’t know _what_ his situation is, and I think that’s really hurt his performance recently.
Beth: I’m almost positive those performance problems began popping up once Penske announced they’d signed Joey Logano to their No. 22 in Cup.
Amy: I agree…and if they had at least thrown Hornish a bone and signed him for NNS at the same time, it might have been avoided. If he’s not re-signed, that’s a pretty lousy thing to do.
Beth: Especially since they’ve said all along they intend to re-sign him.
Phil: What the heck did Hornish do to not get retained for next year? About the only thing he hasn’t done this year is win a race.
Amy: He’s done an admirable job. And I’m not even sure not winning is a measure of anything… the focus at Penske was more on the 22, even though Keselowski is part-time.
Phil: The only thing I can think of is that they have a contract for Sam, but he hasn’t signed it yet.
Amy: I’ll go with Keselowski for the sweep.
Beth: You’re smart to snap up Keselowski first. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finds a way to avoid the Big Ones and takes the checkered with a last lap pass.
Phil: I’m going with Montoya. He’s always been decent on plate tracks.
*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:
+5 – Win
+3 – Top 5
+1 – Top 10
0 – 11th-20th
-1 – 21st-30th
-2 – 31st-40th
-3 – 41st-43rd