Welcome to Friday Faceoff! What do you get when you take some hot-button NASCAR topics and hand them over to our dedicated and… er, opinionated staff? A little disagreement and a whole lot of thought-provoking insight! Check out this week’s edition to see what everyone is arguing… um, we mean, discussing this week!
Brad Keselowski fired the first shot in the war, winning at Chicago. Does that make Keselowski a clear favorite already, or will there be other players in the title hunt?
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: There’s no doubt that Keselowski is a clear favorite for the 2014 Cup title. His only real danger comes from the unexpected woes that befall contenders during the final ten (now nine) events. Should something like an engine failure occur, as was the case for Keselowski’s teammate at Chicagoland, then Brad returns to the world of mere mortals.
Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: BK is definitely the favorite right now. He’s matured enough to not let mistakes out of his control, like having to return to pit road for possibly loose lug nuts, bother him so much that he loses his focus. Also, the team has been strong all year and with five wins now, it would be no surprise to see them add two or three more before the season is over.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: Of course he’s a clear favorite — he won a title two years ago as essentially the only Dodge team in the field, and winning a race out of the box at an intermediate track where Toyota rolled out a new engine package to legitimate praise from Kyle Busch, and snookered the No. 4 team in the process to snag a win. His teammate is no slouch either, blowing up as he crossed the finish line, but proving again that not all Fords are created equal, and the Penske Twins are here to stay all the way to Homestead.
Tony Lumbis, Marketing Manager: The win alone doesn’t make him a favorite, but the win combined with his performance throughout 2014 to date certainly does. With two consecutive wins, nobody has more momentum than the No. 2 team and they have shown throughout the season that they can run well consistently. While Keselowski is a favorite, it’s hard to be flawless through 10 straight races, so look for Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick to pounce should the Blue Deuce have a bad race.
Mike Neff, Short Track Coordinator: Brad Keselowski came into the Chase as the number one seed. If you don’t think he was one of the favorites you obviously are not paying attention. In this sport, there isn’t a clear favorite unless you have someone with double digit wins when no one else has over five. Keselowski and his Penske teammate Joey Logano are most certainly in the running this year. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are also in the mix. Add in Kevin Harvick and you’ve got the odds on favorites to make the final four. With the nature of the win and advance Chase however, it isn’t out of the realm of possibilities for someone else to step up and win one of the three races leading into Homestead and take one of the final four slots. Keselowski is on the inside track to the finals but there are eight races left before we get there. It isn’t time to crown him just yet.
Kevin Rutherford, Senior Editor: He’s been a clear favorite since the beginning of the season; Keselowski’s been firing on all cylinders throughout 2014, as has the Penske organization as a whole. Going out and winning the final race of the regular season and the first of the Chase only solidifies that further. Not that it was unexpected; he’d won three times entering Richmond, and with five wins through 27 races, it’ll be a complete shock if he doesn’t make it to the final four at Homestead. Really, the only other driver that’s close to his level is teammate Joey Logano. It’s been a banner year for that organization and don’t expect that to change.
Phil Allaway, Senior Editor: There’s no such thing as a “clear favorite” in a ten-race Chase after just one of those races. To say that someone is a “clear favorite” to me is to say that someone is a prohibitive favorite. That’s not happening. You’ll never have a prohibitive favorite in this version of the Chase. For all I know, Jimmie Johnson might lead 268 laps Sunday at Loudon and win the race going away. Would that make Johnson the “clear favorite?” Heck to the no. It would make Johnson a regular favorite (not to mention a guarantee for the next round), but there wouldn’t be any guarantee that the trophy (and the millions that go with it) was his for the taking. There are still going to be other players in the Chase.
Joseph Wolkin, Contributing Writer: Keselowski is definitely a favorite to win the title. However, Jeff Gordon has emerged as his biggest competitor this year. Both drivers have been sheer examples of what consistency still means, even with the new Chase system. Keselowski has the edge with Joey Logano being as strong as ever – giving Team Penske the possibility of having two drivers inside of the final round. But we haven’t seen the best of Jimmie Johnson yet, and I believe that will change very soon.
Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: Yes, Kesleowski is the title favorite, but he’s by no means a lock. There is simply too much racing left, and with a points reset every third week, even if he wins the next eight races, there is no guarantee of a title at the end of the day at Homestead. He’s fired the first shot in the war, but there are many battles left to come. When Round Two kicks off, he could wind up with the same fate as Aric Almirola and eliminate himself. I think he will win the title, but there are soo many variables to say he’s the only favorite right now.
Aric Almirola was running in the top 10 Sunday until an engine failure relegated him to a 41st-place finish. Can Almirola (or another driver who suffers a similar fate in an elimination round) come back to qualify for the next round?
Huston Ladner, Assistant Editor: Probability would dictate that Almirola is done. But can he? Sure, he can. But while I can run into Jennifer Lawrence tomorrow and begin a lasting and unforgettable relationship with her, the likelihood of that occurrence hovers in between not-a-chance and zero-chance. So Almirola’s prospects of getting to round two is about the same as me having that stroke of luck. For someone like Jimmie Johnson, however, he absolutely can falter in a race and still recover because unlike Almirola, he’s used to running up front and earning wins.
Vito: He can — but likely won’t. It’s really unfortunate for Aric, as had he finished where he was running when the typically bulletproof Roush-Yates engine he campaigns let go, he would have set himself up nicely to make it to the second round by just staying out of trouble at New Hampshire and Dover. All is not lost however for the 43 team; they finished 12th at Dover in the spring and can build upon that. They will, however, need to bank on one of the favorites falling out within the next two races, or having consistently bad runs. Ironically, one of those two might just end up being a Roush Ford — which is essentially what Almirola
campaigns under the Richard Petty Motorsports banner. Everyone is typically expected to have one bad race in The Chase; the difference now is you have to hope somebody has theirs immediately after you have yours.
Tony: Yes, but it is going to take two top three finishes, maybe top 5 finishes at worst to do it. If this were a Hendrick, Penske, or to some extent, a Gibbs car, that would be difficult but achievable. For a team like Almirola’s, top 10s are considered a great day and unfortunately, that might leave them just short of making the next round. Of course, anyone on the brink already who has a bad second or third race of a round, can probably forget about their chance of advancing all together.
Mike: With the ability to win and advance, anyone can come back from a setback. The problem for Almirola is that the next two races are at tracks that are not good for him. Almirola will have to score consecutive top-5 runs to have an outside chance of rebounding to advance on points but it is a tough row to hoe. The redeeming quality of the Chase format this season is that a driver can overcome a horrendous finish with a win. Almirola was not among the favorites to move to round two and this engine failure has all but sealed his fate.
Greg Davis, Contributing Writer: It was a great Chase debut run for Almirola and the iconic No. 43 team, no question. But past success, or lack thereof, leads me to believe that Aric Almirola will not come back and have strong enough finishes to advance to the next round in the Chase. If the team had better finishes than a very mid-pack average finish, then sure, maybe the 43 makes it through to the next round, but all arrows are pointing to no right now.
Phil: Sure, Almirola can come back and qualify for the next round, but it’s not going to be easy. Obviously, the easiest way to get into the next round is to win. However, that’s not even close to guaranteed. What Almirola needs to do is put together two great runs over the next couple of weeks. Likely, top 10 minimum in both races will be required to make up the 24 points necessary and jump four drivers ahead of him to get into the top-12. Newman, Biffle and Allmendinger are in the same boat as Almirola, but the situation is slightly less dire for them. Beyond this round, the task just gets harder and harder. Arguably, there is no coming back from a dastardly race in the next couple of rounds unless a bunch of fellow Chasers also have problems.
Matt Stallknecht, Senior Editor: Unfortunately, no, he cannot. Unless Almirola wins one of these next two races, he is pretty much out of the running as far as I’m concerned. Given his equipment disadvantage and points deficit, it all just looks to be too much to overcome. Almirola’s strategy for the Chase was predicated on banging out consistent finishes in the high teens and hoping others would be just inconsistent enough for Almirola to squeak into the next round. With his misfortune on Sunday, he’ll have to overachieve even more than he did in Chicagoland in order to make the next round of the Chase, and frankly I just don’t see that happening.
Amy: I hate to say it, but I think Almirola is done unless he pulls off a miracle win in the next two weeks. He needs to not only have two top finishes, but also for four others to have terrible luck, and that’s just too much to count on. The hard part to swallow is that he could have advanced, possibly for a couple of rounds, with the way he was running before his untimely first-ever RPM engine failure.
Ashley McCubbin, Contributing Writer: I think the odds are stacked against Aric Almirola moving forward. He wasn’t originally thought capable of moving past round one simply based on his performance throughout the first 26 races, and probably won’t put together what it takes to move forward. As for if someone else could do it if stuck inthe same situation, it depends on whom that may be. If it’s someone like Johnson, Gordon, Logano or Harvick – they can do it because they have proven in the first 26 races that they can win races and bounce back from adversity. Though if it is someone else, there may be some trouble brewing.
With Marcos Ambrose headed to Australia to compete in V-8 Supercars in 2015, David Ragan is rumored to be the frontrunner to replace him in the No. 9. Is Ragan the best choice for the team, or should they be looking elsewhere?
Huston: This move just seems uninspiring. Chris Buescher, who yes, is still getting his feet under him would be more intriguing. Is there no one else in the Ford camp to bring along? And furthermore, what’s the reason for sticking with manufacturers for something like this. Jeff Gordon jumped at the beginning of his career. Matt Kenseth did it recently. What difference does it make as long as the driver performs?
Mark: Ragan seems to be a good enough choice, but is “good enough” good enough? There’s a ton of young talent walking around the garage area every weekend, and a hungry NNS or NCWTS driver with something to prove could maybe set the sport on its ear given the right opportunity. Could that opportunity come with RPM? That’s another question altogether.
Jeff: If they are not looking at Sam Hornish, Jr. as a potential replacement they are dumb. Sure, it will probably come down to a driver who the sponsors like more and can bring the team in more guaranteed money. We know talent is not necessarily the overriding factor in who drives these cars.
Tony: Ragan is a solid choice. He takes care of his equipment, has several years of experience and will certainly represent his sponsors well. For those reasons, Ragan would be considered a good replacement. On the flip side however, based on history, he will not be much of an upgrade over Ambrose. Some good runs surrounded by some mediocre ones with the chance to sneak in a win is what Ragan will give you. Sound familiar? This might be the opportunity to try their chances with a young gun from the Nationwide Series. Perhaps stealing Brian Scott away from the Chevy camp or staying within the Ford family with Chris Buescher would be good considerations as well.
Mike: Absolutely not. David Ragan has had the opportunity to run in top level equipment in the sport and has not succeeded. His only established ability has been his limited success on plate tracks. Sam Hornish has also been rumored to be in the running for the seat but he’s not a much better choice. The best option is right under the nose of the decision makers at RPM. While it would be great for him to run a couple of years of full season’s in Nationwide/Xfinity, Corey LaJoie is the best talent to put in the No. 9. He is a very talented driver who also brings a great personality to the table. The RPM roster has had very little to show from a personality angle other than Ambrose bitch-slapping Casey Mears at Richmond. LaJoie pulls no punches but will wheel their cars for all they are worth. He’s advanced to where he is in his career through blood, sweat and tears because he doesn’t have a deep pocket sponsor. He’s built his own cars and then gone out and whipped big money backed teams in development series. He was robbed of a K&N title when he was running against high dollar teams with some extremely underfunded cars. While it would be a learning process and a difficult year or two until LaJoie got all of the way up to speed, he’s far more deserving of the ride than drivers who’ve already failed in equipment that is better than what the No. 9 puts on the track.
Kevin: Best choice is probably a driver like Ragan; he’s one of the better potentially available drivers out there in terms of past results, not to mention he has some fans – casual and otherwise – who think he deserves another chance with a better team. I’d rather see Richard Petty Motorsports give a driver without a shot in a car capable of winning outside of the restrictor plates his or her big break. Landon Cassill is chief among my shortlist.
Greg: Putting David Ragan in the No. 9 Ford in place of Marcos Ambrose might be the worst decision that RPM will ever make. Ragan is a great guy, there’s no question. He’s a Ford driver now with Front Row Motorsports, but he has terrible numbers in terms of wins, and let’s face it- not a ton of upside.
Matt: Yes, yes, a million times yes. I have long felt that David Ragan got a raw deal when he was at Roush, and I think he is long overdue for a return to a “real” ride in the Cup Series. Ragan is, at the very worst, the 5th best restrictor plate racer in the sport and, depending on who you talk to, is considered to be even higher up on that list. With better equipment, Ragan is a serious threat to win plate races on a consistent basis and just-good-enough on the other tracks to be able to compete for Chase spots on a yearly basis. Oh, and should I mention that he is only 28 years old? The guy has upside that you won’t get in the other candidates competing for this ride. For the money (Ragan won’t break the bank), Ragan is the most sensible choice on the market right now to fill the void at RPM left by Marcos Ambrose. With Ragan, you’re getting a restrictor plate ace (something Ambrose was most definitely not) along with better overall production on the 1.5 milers where Ragan frequently showed promise during the Roush years. If you ask me, this one is a no-brainer: sign him before Front Row locks him up again for 2015.
Joseph: If David Ragan can continue building relationships with sponsors like he has at Front Row Motorsports, he would be a perfect fit to replace Marcos Ambrose. He is more of an all-around driver compared to Ambrose, who has only excelled at a few circuits. Ragan can be competing for top 20s on a weekly basis if he can bring sponsorship with him. However, the team should consider signing Sam Hornish Jr. Hornish has a relationship with Ford, and would bring a great resume with him to RPM. But he has experienced trouble finding sponsorship in the past, which can hurt his chances at getting this ride. Either driver would be a good fit for the organization as a second driver behind Almirola.
Amy: I’m not convinced that Ragan is a great choice here. Yes, he’s got two Cup wins, but he doesn’t bring that much to the table other than his plate track excellence. Corey LaJoie is a solid up-and-coning talent, but he needs at least a couple years of seasoning as a regular in a national touring series before he’ll really be ready for Cup. The best choice might be Sam Hornish, Jr., who got the shaft from Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing. Hornish is ready to prove himself. Another choice for a team whose sponsors have announced they’re moving on would be Brendan Gaughan, who’s as solid a journeyman driver as Ragan and comes with sponsorship from his South Point Casino.
Ashley: David Ragan is obviously a rumored front runner as he is a past race winner and can run well if put in a decent car. However, there are other options that should be entertained. Sam Hornish Jr. may not have had the most stellar Cup career before, but has shown with a trip back to Nationwide and more experience that he can get it done. Should he be given a second chance? Another option is Landon Cassill. The young driver has some talent, proven by the top 15 Natiownide Series runs that he put in, despite driving for a poor-fitted team. He also is good at bringing sponsors – as seen in the Cup Series despite being a backmarker – and right now, RPM needs a sponsor with Stanley leaving.
With the next nine weeks being focused on the Chase and the championship contenders, will any of the non-Chase teams win races, or should they concentrate on coming out of the box swinging for 2015?
Huston: Considering that all the drivers that won races are already in the Chase, it’s doubtful that any non-chase driver will do so. But if someone might, it looks like it could come from the Ganassi-Sabates organization, as both Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray were racing near the front at Chicago. For a team like Michael Waltrip Racing, a win would be pleasant, but getting started on next year might be the better plan — and if they happen to steal a win, gravy.
Mark: Stealing thunder from the Chase teams is sort of a moot point — it’s akin to the old “kissing your sister” idea. If a non-Chaser wins during the next nine weeks, it’ll mean a mention over the wire services (do we even still have those?), and maybe a photograph in Monday’s newspaper, but that’s about all. Even though drivers like Larson and McMurray and Bowyer are capable of upsetting Brian’s apple cart, those guys should set their sights on Speedweeks 2015.
Jeff: I think the part of being able to come out of the box strong for the following season can be fueled by winning one of these later races this season. Carl Edwards was out of the Chase in 2010, but won the final two races and came within one point of the title the following year. If you can’t win the title, the next best thing is to try and win races. It may allow teams to gamble a bit more to find what setups work on their cars at certain tracks, but any team worth its weight wants to win, no matter what the situation.
Vito: If the performance by Kyle Larson was any indication last weekend, I’d say absolutely. Talladega is always a wild card and loves a first time winner as well. I
could see their being two non-Chasers post wins; and I think they will both be rookies and first time winners. Mark me down for Kyle Larson to win at Charlotte, and the Chase front runners who are secure in their seedings to take a page from Dale Jr.’s playbook earlier this year at Talladega to not risk getting caught up in the mayhem to take a knee, with the No. 3 returning to victory lane — the site of it’s last win in the Cup Series with Dale Earnhardt, Sr. at the wheel in 2000. In addition, with the rules changes not yet set in stone for 2015, getting too wrapped up in 2016 might not even be worth it; might as well exhaust the existing inventory, and try to be part of the story while ratings are up.
Mike: Kyle Larson already showed that a non-Chase team can win a race in the next nine weeks. Don’t forget that Tony Stewart is still trying to notch a win this season. While he is certainly dealing with things that are more consequential than winning a race, he still has pride on the line and wants to continue that win streak. Austin Dillon is also good on intermediate tracks and could surprise before the end of the season. Jamie McMurray has also shown some strength at times this season and could be a potential winner. With Talladega still on the horizon, anyone could score a win there so it is certainly a possibility. As for looking to come out swinging in 2015, the folks at Roush Fenway Racing should be doing some serious work in the next nine weeks because they are far from title contenders at this point.
Kevin: Sure, someone’ll win. It may not happen that often, because a 16-team Chase means you have a lot of the best of the best already in the hunt for the title, but there are a few teams still hanging around outside the playoffs that occasionally show they have the capability of winning, including Clint Bowyer and the No. 15 team. I do think concentrating on 2015 should be of heightened importance, but I also think teams with a lot more to lose – a sponsor departing? Unsure future? – should focus on seeing the checkered flag first, because watching a team test out new things only to fail and finish 40th the next nine weeks probably isn’t going to look good to sponsors both current and potential. Either way, someone will break up the Chase party in Victory Lane on occasion. It just may only happen once or twice.
Greg: This season has been filled with so many talented teams, from all four of the Hendrick Motorsports teams, to Kevin Harvick, both Penske teams (Keselowski and Logano), Kyle Busch, and even Carl Edwards. For another driver outside of the Chase Grid to take home a victory in these last nine weeks is probably going to be pretty tough. But, if any driver was to win outside of the 16 challengers on the grid, you’d have to look at someone like Kyle Larson, Clint Bowyer, or (a long shot) Tony Stewart.
Phil: My best guess is that yes, we’ll have a non-Chaser win. Heck, Kyle Larson came pretty close to winning Sunday in Joliet. It’s not impossible. The most likely place for a non-Chaser winner is obviously Talladega, where anything can happen. However, don’t count out any of the other eight remaining races. As far as concentrating on winning or prepping for 2015, can you do both? I believe that you can do both. Why not? Having said that, if you’re not in the Chase, ESPN made it pretty clear on Sunday that you either have to win or come pretty close to it in order to get noticed. That’s another argument for another time, but that’s reality. You’ll see the non-Chasers, if they can, try their darndest to win races and beat the Chasers at their own game.
Matt: I think Mr. Kyle Larson already answered this question a couple of days ago. There are no less than four non-Chase drivers (both MWR cars and both Ganassi cars) who have the speed and driving talent to steal a Chase victory. I fully believe at least one of them will grab a win before the season ends.
Amy: For sure someone like Kyle Larson or Jamie McMurray could grab a win. For that matter, with Talladega on the docket, an underdog like David Ragan or Casey Mears could steal one. But that would really be icing for those teams, and concentrating on next year would give teams like the Ganassi bunch, Michael Waltrip Racing or the Richard Childress teams who missed the cut, a leg up on 2015 and being in the show a year from now. For them, it’s all about the big picture.
Predictions for Loudon? Bring ’em!
Phil: Kasey Kahne
Amy: It’s hard to ignore Denny Hamlin’s 8.9 average finish, but I like Jeff Gordon for the win this time around.
Joseph: I’ve got Denny Hamlin winning this weekend.
Tony: Kurt Busch gets his second victory.
Mike: Jeff Gordon, please.
Ashley: Jeff Gordon.
Kevin: Brad Keselowski is my pick.
Matt: I’ll go with Kevin Harvick.
Huston: In haiku:
In test mode last race,
Ready to roll this go round
The winner: JJ
Frontstretch Staff Predictions 2014
Welcome to our seventh year of staff 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 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
|Amy Henderson||Kevin Harvick||5th||3|
|Mike Neff||Kevin Harvick||5th||3|
|Phil Allaway||Brad Keselowski||1st||5|
|Jeff Wolfe||Jimmie Johnson||12th||0|
|Matt Stallknecht||Joey Logano||4th||3|
|Mark Howell||Clint Bowyer||39th||-2|
|S.D. Grady||Kyle Larson||3rd||3|
|Justin Tucker||Jimmie Johnson||12th||0|
|Joseph Wolkin||Jeff Gordon||2nd||3|
|Vito Pugliese||Kevin Harvick||5th||3|
|Huston Ladner||Brad Keselowski||1st||5|
|Kevin Rutherford||Joey Logano||4th||3|
|Writer||Points||Behind||Starts||Wins||Top 5||Top 10|