NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Championship Potential, Botched Calls and Double Dipping

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 & Wednesdays / The Frontstretch Five & Fridays / Holding A Pretty Wheel) Phil Allaway (Tuesdays / Couch Potato Tuesday & Frontstretch Newsletter Editor) Jeff Wolfe (Thursdays / Fantasy insider) Brad Morgan (Tuesdays / Who’s Hot/Who’s Not)   Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s Daytona 500 win virtually guarantees him a Chase berth… but the winner of the Great American Race isn’t usually able to turn the win into championship success. Can Junior buck the trend and win it all?   Brad: Why not? He would have won last season’s championship under the new rule system. Phil: It’s way too early to tell. Winning the Daytona 500 only shows that you’re pretty good on a plate track. It cannot translate to anything else. If he’s right up there in Phoenix and Las Vegas, then sure. The plate races basically operate in a vacuum. Amy: It hasn’t been done very often, but I’m going to say he can. He wants it, and here’s what I saw at Daytona: a driver who went out and _took_ something he wanted. Haven’t seen that in Junior in a long time. Jeff W.: I think if he has the consistency that he did last season, he is certainly capable. I also think there is a sense of urgency with Letarte leaving at the end of the year. Junior knows this might be his last chance. It took a while to find a good crew chief matchup for him. Phil: Yeah, I know he doesn’t want another crew chief. He’s a bit fragile at times. It takes a lot to get him in a comfortable place emotionally. Amy: He’s also got the advantage of having the next six months to basically prepare cars and test for the Chase because he’s in. I don’t see more than 16 different winners in 26 races, so his spot is pretty darn safe. Phil: I doubt Earnhardt, Jr.’s just going to “test” for the next six months. He’ll want to win even more. Jeff W.: Well, Johnson did do it last year, as in, win Daytona and the title. But he’s the exception to the rule usually. Amy: Johnson has done it twice. But he’s his own category. Jeff W.: I think once you get that taste of victory, where it’s a plate track or wherever, on a team like that, Junior is going to want the feeling even more now. I agree, too that he seems to have a little more fire in him, like he really thinks he can win now, instead of _hoping_ he can win. Amy: Junior’s team does have the luxury of using some tracks for working on the Chase, like Charlotte, Kansas, Loudon, Martinsville. They’ll still want to win, but the pressure to do so is off. Jeff, I think you hit on the difference. Junior wants to be a race car driver, not just drive race cars. Phil: I’d argue that being able to win at those tracks would be even more important. I can see additional tests at places that can mimic those tracks, but without spending official tests. Jeff W.: I think with the pressure off a bit, it may relax the team and may lead to more wins. Sort of a nothing to lose, let’s go for it attitude now. Brad: It will be interesting to see if there is a drop off in production now that the pressure is off. Phil: Yeah. Sunday was Dale’s first non-Michigan victory in nearly eight years. Crazy when you think about it. Knowing that he can win somewhere other than there can only help. Amy: I agree with Jeff… they might actually improve without the pressure. Jeff W.: Yes, I looked it up. He’s had three wins in 199 races now, Daytona Sunday being the first of those not at Michigan. Amy: I do think he can win the title this year. The last couple of years, I think he’s realized time is growing short, and that has made him focus in a way he hadn’t done in years. Phil: I think this is only the beginning. He’ll have more than one win this year. Maybe three. Brad: Yes. If he can fire off another win quickly, it could be ’04 all over again. Jeff W.: I’m not a member of Junior Nation, nor am I a Junior hater either, but it was just so good to see him so happy after the win. Yes, any driver is happy after a win, but he really seemed overwhelmed with it and that was nice to see. Also, he seems more mature now. That could help.   The racing at Daytona was helped by a six-hour rain delay which moved the race into the nighttime hours — and TV’s Prime Time. Is it time to make the season opener a night race for real?   Phil: No. Let’s face facts. Daytona in February is not the warmest place at night. It can get kinda chilly. The ratings for the race are not necessarily going to increase by having it at night (in fact, it might do the opposite). Brad: No, it’s about tradition to me. Plus, there is already a night race at Daytona. Amy: You know, I’m kind of torn on this one. I like how there’s one day and one night race at Daytona, and July would be the logical time to keep the night race. It’s too hot for a day race then, and can be too cold for a night race in February. I also agree with Brad about the tradition. Jeff W.: I would like to see them start it at 6 PM on the Sunday of President’s weekend. That way, a lot of people have Monday off to travel or if it rains. There is definitely some excitement about seeing the first and biggest race of the year go in prime time. It’s the one time fans on the very, very fringe of NASCAR would watch. Amy: I do get the whole prime time thing, and the racing _was_ better after the sun went down. Whether that’s because it was night, or the track was green after the storms, I don’t know, but it did improve. Phil: I’d like the race to be back on President’s Day weekend, too. The only reason it was moved to its current date was that there was the fear the NFL was going to expand to 18 weeks and move the Super Bowl to the Daytona 500’s date. Well, the current issues in the NFL now more or less preclude them from ever making that move. Jeff W.: I must say, I was excited when I heard the race was going to be delayed until the evening. Just knew it was going to be better because of the track being clean and maybe because it was nighttime. Just seems to be more energy at a big night race like that. Brad: Many of the drivers hit on it; the cars handled better once the race started again. Amy: I like the Sunday afternoon start time to open the season. Fits the “any given Sunday” reality of the sport. Also, moving the race to Saturday night would move either the CWTS race or the Duels to Wednesday. Unless the Duels went back to daytime, which would be counterproductive. Phil: OK, that’s just a no. This is a Sunday race. Jeff W.: No, I wouldn’t want it on a Saturday night. Make it a Sunday night. Amy: I don’t like the Sunday night angle. Too many people have to work the next day, and if it runs overtime, you risk losing viewers. Jeff W.: Well, that’s why my proposal is Sunday night on President’s weekend. Brad: There is a buffer in case of bad weather with the afternoon time slot. However, if the race is moved to Sunday night, any bad weather would likely move the race to Monday. Phil: President’s Day seems to only be a holiday for public employees. I know I don’t get it off. Amy: Still too many people have to work Monday, Jeff. Many, if not most, businesses are open President’s Day. Phil: It’s another sale day, like Columbus Day. Amy: I thought it was a great race, and the change to night did help the racing, but I’m not sold on it being a night race by design. Too many little issues with that. Phil: I prefer the Daytona 500 to be a Sunday afternoon race. We don’t need any more night races in the Cup Series. Nearly half the schedule is at night or twilight today. Jeff W.: I think they will keep it at Sunday afternoon for now, simply because of the rain issue. But getting an unplanned Daytona 500 at night is kind of exciting.   With Daytona in the rear-view, the Cup Series heads to Phoenix for Race Two. Have we learned anything from the season opener that we can carry forward into the season?   Phil: Somewhere between bupkis and a little bit. We know who’s got some momentum, but almost nothing about how the cars will race in Phoenix. Amy: There isn’t a lot form restrictor plate racing that can be applied anywhere else, but we did learn a few things: Denny Hamlin is back, Junior is hungry and focused. Jeff W.: I’m not sure a whole lot translates simply because of the stark differences in the tracks. Brad: Austin Dillon needs to be careful for a few weeks. Amy: I bet ol’ Austin won’t be real popular at the RCR team meeting this week. Phil: And yes, Austin Dillon needs to calm down a little. He took out teammates multiple times Sunday night. Amy: He damaged all three of his RCR teammates and an RCR satellite car. Phil: It’s one thing to drive the Intimidator’s number; it’s quite another to intimidate his teammates into the wall. Jeff W.: Yes, Austin had some issues for sure. I don’t think he realized how much cars move around in the draft and how to see guys slowing just a bit. Amy: It’d be easy to think Dillon is a great plate driver because of the RCR connection and the number 3, but he’s really not, if his CWTS/NNS records are any indication. Jeff W.: There’s no way he’s trying to wreck teammates, but he’s got to be a bit more sensitive to how his car is handling in high speed traffic like that. Amy: He’s OK, but he’s nothing special on those tracks. Phil: The first part of the season is going to be a bit of a learning curve for Austin, and for the other rooks as well. Amy: Agreed, Jeff. Jeff W.: Yes, opening on a plate track can be a bit tough for a rookie in terms of just knowing what a car will or won’t do. Brad: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. might have taken the restraints off. He seemed a lot more aggressive at the end of the 500. Amy: One thing I loved about Daytona that we probably won’t get to see at other tracks was some of the little teams having some great runs. I was super impressed by some of them, especially Landon Cassill and Reed Sorenson. Brad: I was very pleased with Sorenson. I had him on my fantasy team. Jeff W.: Yes, it’s a chance for the underdogs to do well. To see Sorenson up there late in the race was nice — just too bad he got caught up in a late wreck. Phil: Agreed. I was happy to see Cassill and Hillman Racing get their additional sponsorship from Fuhu (via nabi Tablets) as well. Of note, I’ve never seen a nabi Tablet before. They’ll probably conjure themselves out of nowhere in two weeks. Amy: That was great news, Phil! That’s a great group of guys trying to do something with next to nothing. Also, Casey Mears deserves mention for his top 10… mainly because he won me the Mirror pool from last week. Brad: Mears dodged a lot of those big wrecks. Jeff W.: Mears has become a pretty underrated driver. Amy: It was good to see Mears finally have some plate racing luck. He could easily have two or three wins at Daytona and Talladega. Phil: Mears is the guy that had it all, lost it, then had to build himself back up from nothing. Remember the year he drove for Keyed-Up and TBR? Amy: He’s done a lot for the 13. Two years ago, they were starting and parking a bunch of races, now they have full technical support from RCR. And yes, Phil. I talked to him when he was subbing for Vickers and he knows how lucky he is to have another shot. Jeff W.: I think Mears having to work for it and help build a team means a lot to him now. He doesn’t take it for granted. Amy: No, Jeff, he doesn’t. Also, having the team have confidence in him has been good. Anyway, I think the small teams having a great day is less likely to happen at other tracks, but both Germain Racing and JTG-Daugherty will be interesting to watch this year to see if they show improvement similar to Furniture Row last year. I don’t think they’ll get quite to that level because while Mears and Allmendinger are both super guys, neither is “Kurt Busch” behind the wheel. Regardless, I’m curious to watch. Jeff W.: It would be nice to see them compete and be in the top 10 with some regularity, but it’s really hard to see that happening. I hope I’m wrong on that front. Anyways… while Daytona is certainly great and all, the real season starts at Phoenix. Phil: I agree with that. Phoenix should be interesting. It’ll be the first race with new unrestricted rules. We’ll see how they work. Amy: I don’t think we’ll see many similarities between Daytona and Phoenix, but I think one thing NASCAR _should_ learn from was a couple of bad calls over the weekend. Phil: Like the James Buescher tandem drafting black flag? That was a bit iffy, especially if NASCAR won’t share their timestamps with ESPN. Amy: The call on James Buescher on Saturday needs to be looked at before the next plate race. And the pit road call they made on Kahne could happen anywhere… they need to build a place for a judgment call into that somewhere. Brad: NASCAR needs to go back and look at their rulebook after watching Kasey Kahne get penalized. Jeff W.: I thought the Buescher call was not good. Yes, Kahne did speed in the pits, what’s the spirit of the law there? Stay slow and get hit? I don’t think so. Phil: Yes, that was whack. He got penalized for trying to avoid getting wrecked. Amy: The Buescher call was a lot iffy. And while still photos are unreliable because it _could_ have been the split second a driver was bumping, there were a few that sure looked like Kyle Busch was pushing during the CWTS race. Also, what happens if they’re running single file, a guy makes a move, and only one guy goes with him? Do they get black-flagged for that? Brad: Kahne was livid on the radio, and it’s no wonder why. NASCAR didn’t do a good job drying those parts of the track. Jeff W.: That was a pretty obvious case of what was going on there. There was no gray area involved. Had he not sped up, he was going to hit. I thought bad job by NASCAR in that case. Phil: Mind you, Kahne was already a lap down because he spun out trying to leave pit road earlier in the race and NASCAR did not throw a yellow. Amy: Kahne had two choices: speed up or get hit. There should have been some leeway. I do wonder… perhaps if Kahne hadn’t stopped in his pit, maybe they could have said he was avoiding trouble? Brad: Yes, Kahne had a rough night all together. One single-car spin, one penalty, and two big wrecks.   NASCAR hinted over the weekend that they will consider limiting the participation of Sprint Cup drivers in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series. Is this move long overdue, or will it cost those series fans over the long haul?   Amy: I hope it does happen; it’s the best news I’ve heard for those series in a long time. Phil: We’ll see what happens. Any changes here wouldn’t take effect until the beginning of 2015 at the absolute earliest. Amy: They’re looking at 2015; that’s correct, Phil. Jeff W.: I would say long overdue. There’s some value in having 1 or 2 Cup guys in there, but when it gets flooded with 8 or 10, then that doesn’t do either the Trucks or Nationwide Series justice. Brad: The majority of fans are tired of watching Kyle Busch win race after race. But, preventing Cup drivers from competing could also kill viewership, because those are the most popular drivers in the sport. Amy: It used to be, the Cup guys drew fans. Now, I’m not sure. I can say I know more people who no longer watch because of them than who would stop watching if they went away. Phil: Granted, we have a lot less interlopers now than, say 2006 when 20 or more were in some Busch races. Brad: Experimenting with this idea is the only way of knowing whether it will help or hurt. I say go for it. Amy: I do think NASCAR is going about it wrong in one way. They would naturally limit it if they ran more short tracks and fewer companion races. Jeff W.: I think they could put a cap on it, like eight races per year for drivers who have declared to run for the Cup title. That way, you still get some Cup guys down there to help with sponsors, ratings, etc., but no one who just dominates all the time. Amy: I think that’s a good plan, Jeff, and I’d also limit the number of Cup guys who could be in a NNS race to, say, three. But overall, this is long overdue. The excitement I saw on social media because Smith won on Saturday, just because he’s a NNS regular speaks volumes. It’s been 13 years since a NNS regular had won at Daytona. Brad: That is way too long… Jeff W.: On the other hand, there is that side of it where when a Nationwide regular does win against a bunch of Cup drivers, it’s a pretty big deal. But I still say it’s long overdue. Yes, Kyle Busch, Logano, maybe even Kyle Larson this year, will win a lot. That brings to mind one thing, that maybe if there is a Cup rookie who is declared to run for the Cup title, maybe that driver gets 12 starts in Nationwide if they want to. Might help the transition some. Phil: Only three guys have ever pulled it off at Daytona. Chad Little (1995), Randy LaJoie (thrice) and Regan. Jeff W.: Didn’t realize that was so rare, but makes sense when I start thinking of past NNS winners there. Phil: Having Dale Earnhardt be unbeatable there didn’t help things. Prior to 1992, it was the only plate race of the year, so stupid things happened. It was like an ARCA race. Amy: It gets tedious when you can basically have the post-race report written before the green flag because it’s become so predictable. This is definitely a great step if it happens.   Alright, then — how about some predictions for Phoenix?   Amy: I’m probably crazy not to take Johnson and his incredible sixth-place average, but I’m going to go with Denny Hamlin, who’s on a hot streak. Phil: I’m going with Kasey Kahne. Jeff W.: My prediction for winning at Phoenix is … Kevin Harvick. Brad: Those guys who came up just short at Daytona will be extra hungry. Brad Keselowski has a way of defying statistics… why not him. Jeff W.: Well, Brad … I thought you might pick Brad. Amy: BK is always a decent pick.

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