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Mirror Driving: Where Do Penske, Piquet, Scott, And Hamlin Go From Here?

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)
Amy Henderson (Mondays / The Big Six & Fridays / Holding A Pretty Wheel & Frontstretch Co-Managing Editor)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays / Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter Editor)
Summer Bedgood (Frontstretch NASCAR Senior Writer)

Shocker! (sarcasm) A NASCAR-appointed appeals board has unanimously upheld the penalties against Penske Racing from pre-race inspection at Texas Motor Speedway. As a result, Penske Racing will appeal to Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook on May 7th. Did NASCAR get one this right… or is Penske right to continue fighting?

Summer: I think the penalties were too severe, so yes, I think they should keep fighting. That doesn’t mean I think it will do a damn bit of good.
Phil: I’d argue that the point penalties might not be worth appealing further at this point. I don’t even think Penske cares about them. It’s those suspensions that get you. That’s why he’s still going on, because I don’t think they needed to suspend that many people.

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Joey Logano (pictured), Brad Keselowski and Penske Racing are hanging on by a thread with their NASCAR appeal after a three-member panel denied their initial one Wednesday.

Tom: I think NASCAR is damned if they do, damned if they don’t on this one. It all boils down to trust. But here’s my first question: how in the world, for an appeal where you have 48 people to choose from do you end up with a former NASCAR VP, a track promoter for Bowman Gray and a track president on the panel? None of them, in my opinion are going to know the intricate details of rear-end housing. For a technical violation… wouldn’t you want at least one technical person? To me, it makes no sense.
Summer: NASCAR has never been accused of being efficient or sensical.
Phil: I’m surprised they didn’t have anyone with technical knowledge on that panel. I’m not really surprised to see Pinilis there, though since he always seems to show up.
Summer: Tom, it should be that way for all penalties involving technical violations. You need to only have people who know what they are talking about. The only penalty where that trio is acceptable is when a driver is fined for a fight or something. Otherwise, bring on knowledgeable personnel.
Tom: Look, I love Brandon Igdalsky as much as the next guy. He’s a great person and done a great job turning Pocono around. But he might have been the most technically knowledgeable of the three. And that’s not good. As for Pinilis… he’s been picked twice in two years for big-time penalties. There are 48 people they can choose from on this panel! To me, that choice makes no sense.
Amy: I think they found three guys available on the date and went with them.
Tom: Well, that’s not the way that you run an appeals board. “Oh, my neighbor Joe down the street is free so let’s just use him.” You find a way to make it work for the people that can most relate to the problem at hand.
Phil: I would have preferred someone like Robert Pressley, or Robert Yates.
Summer: I don’t 100% understand the process. Are they randomly chosen or what? Those are random names for a penalty like that.
Phil: I’ve heard it described as a blind draw.
Amy: I still think there’s no way to know if NASCAR got it right, because we don’t know what the violation is. With Kenseth’s engine, we know the exact violation. Here? Not so much. If they were in fact outside the rules, the penalties are fair. But we don’t know.
Summer: From what I understand from NASCAR, the issue is that the parts weren’t pre-approved per the rulebook. It wasn’t something like Kenseth where it was outside the tolerance. I mean it was, but it wasn’t. I know that’s confusing.
Amy: If what Summer says is true, then the penalties were correct. But we don’t know what was really wrong with the cars.
Tom: Well, to Amy’s point I was about to say the same thing she did. I hate that the verdicts don’t have to be explained. “Careful consideration of the facts…” What the hell are the facts? It’s one thing to get them from sources, another to get it written down on paper from NASCAR officials listening to the case.
Phil: NASCAR feels that they don’t have to explain. If they allowed the teams to have lawyers at these appeal hearings, maybe that would change.
Tom: I don’t think NASCAR realizes it’s a big part of the problem. The less information out there… the more it hurts them. And I commend Keselowski for how they handled penalty PR; it was a very effective strategy to leak that someone ratted them out to NASCAR. Because it pushes this perception that someone’s out to get them… that NASCAR isn’t playing fair. And without any information, about how the penalty was discovered NASCAR just isn’t trusted on their calls.
Amy: Like I wrote a couple of weeks ago, NASCAR desperately needs transparency. It’s the God honest truth. Too many weird inconsistencies through the years… and that’s why fans are up in arms.
Summer: NASCAR isn’t trusted, period. You would think they would try and change that.
Amy: If the Penske teams were cheating, they should be penalized as such. But NASCAR won’t tell us. Why not? Was it like the 48 last year, where it just didn’t look right but didn’t break an actual rule and/or wasn’t actually measured? If that’s the case, then there should never have been a penalty.
Tom: Right. I think if we had a three-page verdict, one we could access and explain it would be different.
Phil: The whole appeal process isn’t fair. It’s grooved in favor of NASCAR. If you wanted it to be completely fair, give the teams the option to go straight to Middlebrook, or have a completely impartial group that has no ties to NASCAR.
Tom: Instead, today was pointless, a total waiting game to see what Middlebrook does. And even then, we may not get all the facts.

Amy: True, Tom. We never got them with the 48 last year… we never did find out how that piece was actually measured.
Summer: I’d love for the public to be able to see these hearings if they wanted to. I’m sure there are issues with it, of course, with teams leaking their “secrets”. Still, though, it’s a step towards transparency.
Phil: That would be interesting. Have the appeal hearings at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in their quasi-amphitheater.
Tom: As we’ve said many times… with a bad foul call, something that changes the outcome of say the NBA playoffs you at least get to see the videotape and make a judgment call. There is no such videotape here. Instead, Joey Logano could miss the Chase because NASCAR said all of a sudden he was cheating, there’s no explanation why and you’re asking fans to live with that. How the heck do you expect them to keep watching? Without an explanation, they’ll think their driver is a marked man.
Phil: This whole thing is looney tunes and will continue to be looney tunes.
Amy: Exactly, or even in a case like the No. 20 engine. We know what was wrong, and agree or not, at least we have something to base that penalty on.
Tom: I think nothing that happened Wednesday was surprising. That’s precisely the problem.
Amy: Middlebrook is far more likely to reduce this ruling than the appeals panel ever was, anyway. I believe he’s reduced penalties in all but one or two cases.
Summer: I hope they at least get the penalties reduced. The suspensions don’t need to be as severe.
Phil: At least the final appeal is pretty close. We won’t have to wait another couple of weeks. Of course, Middlebrook’s going to have another appeal to deal with shortly after the Penske stuff.

Denny Hamlin is in the process of being cleared to start the race at Talladega after his back injury sustained at Fontana. If he is, he plans to run until the first caution flies. Is this a smart move for Hamlin? And will this help him in his bid to at least make the Chase?

Summer: Absolutely ridiculous, stupid idea if he gets cleared.
Phil: It’s hard to say how much it will help him since you never know at Talladega.
Tom: Let me tell you, I’m not even sure he’s going to start. He sounds like a man who’s not getting back in for months.

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Denny Hamlin, still recovering from an L1 Compression fracture is trying to start the race at Talladega. But is that decision a big mistake?

Summer: There is no small caution at Talladega. It’s either green flag racing or a big freaking wreck.
Amy: I understand why he wants to do it, but the smart move would be to have the surgery now and have several months, rather than a few weeks, to rehab and recover.
Tom: That was my impression when I watched him at Richmond Saturday night, Amy. He’s already setting things up, saying if there’s no clearance at Darlington he’ll opt for more extensive surgery. Amy and others on this website have pointed it out, several times – people with Hamlin’s injury usually miss far more time.
Amy: As he should, regardless… he’s risking his career if he gets hurt again. Why do that for one season that’s already most likely a lost cause?
Summer: Absolutely. And Talladega is one of the worst places to start if he decides that’s what he wants to do.
Phil: I disagree. You don’t need a “Big One” to get a yellow at Talladega. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be like Davey Allison in 1992. He started the race the week after his infamous flip at Pocono, then got a caution really early and got out. If Hamlin does start, he’ll probably drop back and ride around until that caution happens.
Amy: But you can be caught in anything, Phil. If he rides around in the back and loses the draft, he’s going to get very few points regardless.
Summer: It would be better for Hamlin to go in after one lap and do the swap then. Vickers would have no trouble getting the Lucky Dog and it would be a no brainer. If he gets caught up in a bad wreck early in the race, Hamlin could completely screw his recovery.
Amy: If he runs in the lead draft, even at the back, he’s as much at risk for the Big One as anyone else.
Tom: I completely agree. Make the driver change early and you’re not going to lose more than a lap, two at most while Lucky Dogs / wave arounds will get you back in the race. ‘Dega’s not going to run caution free.
Summer: No. And what if his tire blows or something stupid happens? It’s just not smart.
Tom: Because here’s the other thing… if people play nice there, for the first 300 miles or so you’re looking at Hamlin staying in the car an awfully long time.
Summer: Which could happen.
Tom: If you make the change after Lap 1, Joe Gibbs Racing can order Kenseth and Busch to hang back with Vickers. He wouldn’t lose more than one lap. I hate the team orders thing — I’m not saying I agree with it — but it’s happened multiple times at plate tracks already. Why not do it again?
Summer: Yep. There are so many variables and it just doesn’t make sense for Hamlin to get in. As far as the Chase… I guess it would stop the free fall, but considering how long this recovery is being drawn out, that’s still largely unlikely.
Amy: Nope. Another injury could cause serious, irreparable damage.
Summer: Right, Amy. Even a “small” hit could delay him back in the car full-time.
Tom: That’s why I’m thinking if Hamlin doesn’t end up in the car, on Sunday you might as well write him off for 2013. Brian Vickers, welcome to your Sprint Cup audition for Gibbs’ fourth car.
Phil: If Hamlin doesn’t start this weekend, then who knows what happens. He might just sit out most of the rest of the year.
Tom: If he doesn’t get in, it’s because someone told him “you’re not going to be cleared for Darlington, so why bother.” He’ll have surgery within the next few weeks, Vickers and perhaps a road course sub will drive it and then Hamlin will come back strong later in the year.
Amy: His Chase chances are so slim as it is, even for a wild card… why risk ten healthy future seasons for one?
Tom: Right. It’ll be an interesting “wild card” anyways if he’s causing havoc, winning races in the Chase while not actually in it.

Summer: Is this the first time all of us have so strongly agreed? It’s so rare, I’m at a loss.
Phil: I didn’t. As far as I’m concerned, if Hamlin can get himself cleared to start (and I think he has), then he can go right ahead and start. I’m not his momma.
Tom: Phil, do you realistically think Hamlin can make the Chase if he comes back, starting Sunday for the rest of the year? Because these penalties have made the road that much more difficult. Kenseth is on track for a “wild card” now, and I don’t think Harvick will stay inside the top 10.
Phil: Probably not. It’d be a toughy.
Tom: No matter what, Hamlin’s going to have to win at least twice, if not three times because he’ll be down around 20th in points if he even climbs back up there.
Summer: OK. Well I don’t think you can trust Hamlin to make his own decisions on this one. He’d be back in the car at Talladega for the full race if it were up to him. But this really shouldn’t be up for negotiation. It just doesn’t seem worth it to me to have Hamlin in the car for … what … points that will ultimately mean nothing? Just, no.
Phil: He’s 126 points out of 10th and 71 out of 20th. Yeah, he’s gotta win a bunch. Not an easy feat.
Amy: And even then, there are a ton of guys gunning for that spot… if there are two guys higher in points with two wins, he’s still out.
Tom: Look, I understand the racer’s mentality. I have no problem with Hamlin running a few, slow laps under green near the back of the pack, hoping for a caution and then darting in if he doesn’t get it. Anything more than that, well, that’s silly. Even if he hangs at the back, with his teammates providing security a tire can blow at any time. And that could blow his back out for life.

After a “relevancy hiatus” for the past few weeks, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing is starting to make some noise with strong runs from both Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya early in the year. Though both are an unimpressive 12th and 25th in the standings, appearances can be a bit deceiving. Are they on the upswing or will they fade again by the end of the year?

Summer: I’m still thinking about this one, but in all honesty the Montoya run shocked the hell out of me. And there have been several times this year where I was tweeting the top five or ten, did a double take, and said, “McMurray?! Where’d he come from?!”
Phil: I’d argue that 12th for McMurray isn’t exactly that bad. Montoya’s run was more surprising than McMurray’s. He’s been decent on a regular basis this year.

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Juan Pablo Montoya’s recent success makes you think he’ll be a contender when NASCAR gets to the road courses of Sonoma and Watkins Glen.

Summer: 12th for McMurray is good for a driver who has never made the Chase, though in perspective it’s still mediocre.
Phil: As for Montoya, he’s had everything under the sun go bad in 2013. If that’s what he can do when nothing goes wrong, then good for him. Whether the team can keep that up is anyone’s guess. We won’t be able to find out this week, but Darlington and the 600 should be a decent gauge.
Summer: I was just going to say, Phil that I’d argue Montoya would be higher in points if not for a few things that didn’t go his way. Richmond being a big one.
Amy: Montoya has had terrible luck, so it’s hard to gauge if he’s running better this year or not. If Richmond was indicative, though, he’s come further than we thought. McMurray has also made some gains this year for sure.
Summer: I don’t think we’ll see Montoya up front like that every week, but they might be able to pull more top 10s than they have in recent years. And, gosh, McMurray has been much, much stronger than I thought he would be at this point. I remember looking up at Martinsville, seeing him battle for fourth (or something) and initially assumed he was a lapped car.
Phil: That’ll be good to see. Montoya’s never been great on short tracks, either, so seeing him run well at Richmond was quite interesting.
Tom: I think Earnhardt Ganassi has been the surprise of 2013.
Amy: Perhaps. They did make an engine switch and that has obviously helped.
Tom: I think that’s the key… and McMurray seems to have his confidence back, which is huge. For so long, he strapped into that car hopeless, thinking 20th is the best the No. 1 car could do on any given day. Now, he’s getting up on the wheel and fighting for those extra spots… you could see it. The complaint from the garage was always that the driver didn’t make the effort with a B+ car; you can’t say that now.

Amy: The RCR teams are, as a whole, a bit behind by comparison, running ECR power.
Phil: I don’t know where I would have put McMurray at the beginning of the season. Maybe 16th or so?
Summer: I’ll be interested to see how long this lasts for EGR, but something seems different there for sure. I would have put both either outside the top 20 or close to it.
Amy: McMurray has shown he can come through big when it counts, so if they can get just a bit better, he could easily win. And Montoya is always a threat on a road course.
Summer: Yeah, but obviously everyone would be much more impressed if he won on an oval.
Phil: Montoya would have been up there at Watkins Glen last year if his car didn’t fall apart on him. Wasn’t last year a wash because they had so many high profile new hires behind the scenes? Now, they’re finally jelling together.
Tom: I think this year is the best chance ever for McMurray to make the Chase. He seems to be showcasing the consistency in a way he never had in 2010, when he won all those races. Here’s the other thing: people forgot that, at Richmond McMurray could have easily finished inside the top 5. He was on old tires for the green-white-checkered restart.
Summer: I guess I was more fascinated by the Montoya story to notice, though I do remember McMurray was running well. Honestly, both Montoya and McMurray have done well on short tracks more than any other track.
Phil: Without the caution, McMurray probably would have had a top 10.
Summer: I would put McMurray as a possible Chase wild card/dark horse. Montoya might fall into that category if he can get to Victory Lane, which they’ve shown they can.
Phil: Montoya would probably have to get a Wild Card to make the Chase, though. His bad start has really hurt him. In other words, he isn’t in much better shape than Hamlin.
Tom: I’m curious to see how Montoya handles himself post-Richmond. He’s got a ton of momentum after that fourth-place finish…
Amy: They are a pleasant surprise. They’ve got better power now but are still playing catch-up in other areas just a tiny bit.

Last Friday night’s Nationwide Series race at Richmond was … er … “nuts,” for lack of a better word. An ill-timed crotch shot between Nelson Piquet, Jr. and Brian Scott post-race, on pit road led to further confrontation in the driver/owner’s lot that ended with two arrests. NASCAR levied various penalties against the arrested individuals, along with the crew chiefs and drivers. Are incidents like this good for a series struggling to find its identity?

Phil: I’m going to say no. It’s not cricket to kick someone square in the nuts.
Summer: Incidents like that are great for a series struggling for an identity. Especially since both of those guys were Nationwide guys.
Amy: The incident doesn’t matter one way or another, but NASCAR’s reaction is bad for the series. Why were they put on probation for something the Cup drivers haven’t been all year? That just looks bad; at least, until NASCAR comes out and says the rule is different for NNS.

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Brian Scott had another “swift kick” delivered, this time in the form of probation this week after suffering the hit to the groin heard around NASCAR Nation.

Summer: I don’t think NASCAR’s reaction mattered as much here. I don’t think it will make much difference.
Phil: Well, the incident reinforces a number of bad stereotypes, not just of NASCAR, but of foreign racers as well. Shoving is one thing, but Piquet should have thought that through before going for the scrotes.
Amy: They were all weak moves, in my opinion. Scott going over there wearing his helmet, Piquet’s low blow, and the RCR guys ambushing him and his group later.
Phil: Right. The second fight was all bad. We’ll probably never see video of that, but you don’t want the fuzz involved.
Tom: I think anytime you kick someone in the groin and it hits the national airwaves, it doesn’t look good for the sport.
Summer: Why, because it reinforces stereotypes? So? People fight in hockey. What difference does it make?
Tom: It’s because two people wound up getting arrested because of it, Summer. The whole incident turned from “Boys, Have At It” to “Boys, What The Hell Are You Doing?”
Phil: The whole thing makes Piquet look like a wuss.
Summer: That’s Piquet’s fault.
Amy: I agree with Piquet’s probation, but Scott didn’t deserve it. He never threw a punch that I saw.
Summer: I agree that getting the police involved looks bad, though I’d like to see it to decide for myself if it was an overreaction or not. Scott never even touched Piquet until Piquet reached out at him.
Amy: The two that got arrested, yeah, they deserved everything they got. But the drivers? Especially Brian Scott… the Cup guys have done what he did and worse all year and it’s been Kosher with NASCAR.
Phil: Scott seemed to have every right to be angry. However, he wasn’t the aggressor here.
Tom: I agree Scott wasn’t the aggressor; the “low blow” was uncalled for.

Amy: Every time NASCAR is inconsistent, it’s bad for them. This was just another example.
Summer: I don’t mind probation and fines. As long as NASCAR doesn’t take away points, it’s fine.
Phil: I doubt these issues are going away anytime soon. Apparently, they’ve had other run-ins in the past, and Scott was under the belief that Piquet would take him out for 15th.
Amy: Piquet did take him out for 15th.
Summer: There you go. I do think in the best of worlds, though, that NASCAR stays out of it unless it becomes dangerous and reckless. If you look at the racing incident, Piquet flat dumped Scott. On purpose or not, he wrecked him.
Tom: I think the incident itself, again isn’t the problem here. It’s that five-second clip that goes viral. You’re not focusing on the racing, and it’s the type of fight that’s not going to get people tuning in to see what happens. It’s the type of fight that people look at, go “WTF” and then there’s no extra incentive to watch.
Phil: Yeah, that wasn’t really all that cool. I wish we could have seen that live on ESPN Friday night. Didn’t get the full scope of what happened until after the race.
Amy: What hurts the series isn’t the incident itself … but NASCAR’s inconsistency in handling it does hurt.
Tom: It was interesting to see some Twitter conversation Wednesday on the state of the Nationwide Series. George McNeilly, who’s a former ESPN guy was talking about the network’s struggle to get a Return on Investment for the series. That’s one of the reasons it may not bid on it after 2014; the series has struggled to grow. This fight surely isn’t the sole reason why it’s not growing… but it doesn’t help.
Phil: Yeah, doing the full season is quite expensive. There’s a reason it was tied into the Cup deal from 2001-2006. ESPN found that out the hard way.
Summer: Well, I think this Piquet-Scott issue a good thing for the sport as long as it stays controlled. You need conversation generators. A rivalry is great for Nationwide.
Tom: Summer, I’m sorry, but kicking someone in the groin is not controlled! Hmm. Think about it: the two biggest things that come to your head now, for this series in 2013 is Kyle Busch dominating (not a Nationwide driver) and some dude kicking someone else in the groin – while others get arrested. Not ideal.
Amy: That series struggles because NASCAR had it wrong from start to finish. Sanctioning fees too high, broadcast fees too high, purses too low, inconsistent rulings, not enough promotion… the list just goes on.
Phil: It’s struggled to grow because of the lack of identity. Sadly, a lot of that is being joined at the hip to Sprint Cup.

Predictions for Talladega?

Summer: I’ll go with Jeff Burton. Why not?
Amy: I’ll take Junior.
Tom: I’m going to go with Tony Stewart. Why? He needs it. Bad… and SHR will have the speed.
Phil: Well, this is where you come on with an unusual pick. I like Front Row Motorsports on plate tracks. They’ve done very well there recently. I’m going with David Ragan for an upset.
Amy: I’d really like to go with Casey Mears, who should have had a top 2 last fall, but luck never goes his way. If Tony doesn’t wreck half the field again this time, he has a shot…
Tom: Here’s the big prediction from me — the dark horse of all dark horses. Danica Patrick. Top 5. Mark it down. She’ll survive the wrecks, she’ll have the speed and she’ll qualify well, keeping her up front. Did you know she’s still beating Stenhouse in the Rookie of the Year race?

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