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!
1. The new Chase format is now three races old, and the first elimination has narrowed the field to 12. Is there anything about the new format that’s been a surprise?
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: I’m fascinated by the amount of “scoring tower” watching that seems to be necessary, especially as the races wind down toward the three-race elimination stage. Following the fortunes of drivers out of the top-20 was more important (and nerve-wracking) than keeping track of the leaders….
Justin Tucker, Contributing Writer: No surprises here as of yet. The twelve I expected to be in this round are there. I still think we gain nothing in this format and should have left well enough alone with the old format. It is basically one in the same when you really think about it. Just need a win or two plus rock solid consistency to win the championship.
S.D. Grady, Senior Writer: Nope.
Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: I’ll admit I was surprised that New Hampshire was as wild a race as it was, and, conversely, that Dover was so mild. I expected the elimination races to be at least a little more heated, at least among teams fighting for the last couple of spots. But the racing does reveal a flaw with this Chase format: while winning will get you in, you don’t have to win to advance or to win the title, and in many cases, the risk of going for wins outweighs the reward in the overall scheme of the championship. In fact, the ten-race Chase format from previous years put a greater premium on winning than this one does, except, perhaps, at Homestead.
Mike Neff, Short Track Coordinator: Not going to deny, the flip flop of racing intensity was a surprise. The racing at Chicagoland and especially at Loudon was insane on restarts. Cars were running everywhere there was asphalt the people were taking chances to try and gain positions. With the series moving to Dover you had to think the intensity would be ramped up and the racing off of the charts. Dover turned out to be one of the worst races in years. Three drivers dominated the event, the traffic immediately strung out three laps after the few restarts that took place and the intensity for the final transfer spots was nonexistent. With the end race of the next segment taking place at Talladega, it may be more of the intensity we saw early in the first segment or we could see the parade we saw a couple of years ago.
Huston Ladner, Assistant Editor: I don’t think there’s anything that’s been a surprise, per se, as the cars that have been strong all season made it through. The surprise may be that elimination races seem to bring out the worst in drivers. The ones who are scrapping to continue seem to lose their mind, the ones in good spots to advance seem to just maintain, and the rest of the field is trying to stay out of the way.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: Not really; the teams that have performed all year continue to perform. The Team Penske Twins are a constant each week, The No. 4 car is the fastest thing in town every week, but regardless of who is pitting the car, they shoot themselves in the foot at every opportunity; the driver also gets smoked on every restart too — it’s not just on the pit crew(s). Expected a bit more out of the No. 88 camp thus far, but feel they’re focusing on these three races along with their No. 48 shopmates. I still believe that Jimmie and Chad have this thing scienced out, and these three races will be similar to first three. Their haymakers will be dealt in the next round and will be up against the 2, 22, and 24 at Homestead.
Joseph Wolkin, Contributing Writer: There hasn’t been much that has been surprising about the format as of yet. However, I believe as the season comes to a close, things are going to get a lot more interesting. There are going to be drivers racing harder than ever, and it wouldn’t be a shocker if some drivers get too aggressive just like what occurred at New Hampshire.
2. Fans have been frustrated about the racing at Dover for several seasons now. Is it the track, the tires, the drivers, the cars… or all of the above? And should the one-mile oval retain its place in the Chase?
Mark: My thought is that it’s a combination of 1) the concrete track surface and 2) the tires currently being used. The drivers and their cars seem affected by the changing condition and composition of these two elements. These are variables that always seem to be part of the Dover equation. Regardless, I think having an East Coast/fairly metro-area date in the Chase is important. Keep Dover in the final ten events.
Justin: My thoughts are it is the current configuration of the Gen 6 car to go along with the tires. Hopefully the horsepower reduction to go along with less downforce and a tire that is softer and gives up a bit but stays durable will create better racing. Clean air means everything as is right now.
S.D.: I don’t seem to be particularly frustrated with it…it does appear to me the surface is aging, cars are a challenge to handle, but they always have been at the Monster Mile. Are we disappointed in the lack of recent carnage? That in itself is disappointing. I actually enjoy the back-to-back one miler show that we get with Loudon and Dover. How different can two tracks with virtually the same distance be? Proof that cookie cutters don’t have to be. Leave it in the Chase.
Amy: It’s a little bit the cars, but for the most part, like at many tracks, the blame lies with the Chase system. There was no real reward for Chasers for taking risks, because most knew they could advance without a win as long as they didn’t wreck, and there’s a definite feeling that none of the others want to be “that guy” who takes someone out of the Chase, especially during an elimination week. Want the racing to be more exciting week to week? Deemphasize the championship, eliminate the season-end point fund altogether and reroute that money to the winners’ purses so each race pays a million to win, while all the champ gets is a trip to Vegas and a shiny trophy. The promote the individual events and not the title—that’s the only way to change things at the Chase tracks.
Mike: It is hard to point the blame anywhere or everywhere but the tires have to be a large part of the problem at Dover. They just aren’t giving up enough so there isn’t a benefit to short pitting. The result is drivers hammering down and the racing being focused to one line on the straights and out of the corners. They are fanning out in the middle of the corners but it just isn’t enough to offer quality passing. We continue to belabor the point but when Goodyear brings tires that wear out and fall off significantly the racing is at its best. As for whether it belongs in the Chase, lose two 1.5 milers before you think about touching Dover.
Huston: First, let’s shorten the race to 300 or 350. Whether or not that will help with bringing intensity to the race or not, it’s hard to say. Next, give Dover just the Chase race, which would make it a bit more of a wildcard, rather than being able to rely on the notes from spring. But of the options listed about, it seems like the tires are the biggest issue, as there once again seemed to be little in the way of fall off.
Vito: Being the third race in The Chase before the first round of eliminations, it has essentially become Richmond on concrete. The Richmond night race was always among the most anticipated but when it became the final race before The Chase, teams over the years have taken it easy and stayed out of trouble as long as they were safely in contention. The track hasn’t changed since some of the great battles were waged in the first part of the millennium. Normally there are one or two track-blockers here; nothing of the sort Sunday, and virtually nothing resembling racing. Chalk it up to cars going gonzo fast, aero-push coupled with the championship implications and you have the recipe for mediocrity. Whatever track is the final race before the cutoff will suffer the same fate, just as Talladega is a 475-mile parade with 25 lamps of carnage.
Joseph: In person, Dover is a fantastic track to be at. On television, it isn’t that great and that needs to change. When the speeds of the cars were slower, the competition at the track was amazing. But as time has gone on – the speeds have increased.With lower horsepower next season, I am expecting a lot more passing at this track. This year had a decent amount of it, but there were periods in which the cars were too spread out and it just wasn’t exciting at all. The track itself is still fantastic, albeit there are a few cracks in the racing surface. The track definitely should keep its place in the Chase. It is a unique track and provides a mixture of short track racing at high speeds. However, the clock is ticking and if there aren’t improvements to the competition level by 2016, then it is time to say goodbye to their Chase race.
3. There has been some speculation that some teams have been sandbagging to start the Chase, since the points are reset and the only incentive is to advance…is this plausible, or would not showing their hand be too big a risk to take at this point.
Mark: Sandbagging has been part of NASCAR since the first Strictly Stock race at the Charlotte Fairgrounds back in 1949. If cars are circling the track, there’s somebody out there who isn’t showing their true hand. This has only been amplified by the resetting of points after each Chase race….
Justin: I think maybe a couple of teams are sandbagging right now. The one notable team is the 48 team. They know their best tracks are from Kansas to Homestead. Did enough to get out of the first round look for them to turn it on starting this weekend.
S.D.: It worked for the last segment. Which 12 teams moved forward was fairly predictable. Sandbagging would be believable. However, with Talladega being the cut-off for the Contender Round, I believe playing it safe from here forward is more like a plan for self-destruction.
Amy: I wouldn’t call it sandbagging, per se. That implies that they’re not revealing their true ability in order to make the other teams complacent, and I don’t really think that’s the case. Rather, it’s like I said above: they’re not racing any harder than they have to to advance in the Chase, because the risk of a bad finish eliminating them is greater than the need to win. They’re not sandbagging so much as points racing. As for the 48, who have been the center of the discussion, they’re not sandbagging—if they had winning cars, they would have won Dover because Jimmie Johnson is so good there. They had to settle for third because that was all they had.
Mike: There was no doubt that the No. 48 was not going all out on Sunday. They were focused on advancing to the next round because there is only one race that they really care about winning. Truth be told, the next to last segment will also be a good place for a team to win a race. The teams that were expected to not run for the title but made the Chase had to go all out from the beginning. The teams near the top of the list had the ability to race conservatively in order to move on. Sandbagging is a bit of an extreme phrase because they are most definitely racing, they just aren’t right at the razor’s edge of control. This next segment may be a little different with Talladega being the cut race. Winning at Kansas or Charlotte will take a lot of pressure off of the teams at Talladega.
Huston: Well, I imagine the teams that got eliminated weren’t sandbagging. And it doesn’t look like Logano, Kes, Happy, or Ol Man Wonderboy are sandbagging. So who is that’s taking this approach, JJ, KyBu, Kenseth, Edwards? Yeah, not buying into this.
Vito: Uh, yeah. What did you think was going to happen? Wreck or blow up and you’re done for; Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch proved that to be true. If you’re a front running team, you can pretty much bank on three teams being eliminated simply because they had no business being there in the first place. That coupled with the first three tracks being a bit bland to begin with and the results are what we’ve seen in years past regardless of the format. Chicago provided a great finish, but that was due to a late race caution which set up a six lap shootout.
Joseph: I don’t believe that anyone is sandbagging. However, some drivers might be not taking as many risks at this point. Other teams have struggled like Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr., but they advanced onto the second round because they weren’t horrific. This Chase format recognizes winning and consistency. Winning is arguably more important later in the Chase, but a team needs to show consistency to get there.
4. Danica Patrick‘s improvement since she finished seventh at Kansas in the spring has gotten a lot of airtime. Is she progressing adequately, and who else has shown some impressive improvements in 2014?
Mark: Danica Patrick seems to be taking the slow-and-steady route when it comes to improving as a Cup driver. I think we’re seeing fewer hiccups than what we’re used to in her regard, but Victory Lane is still a spot along the distant horizon. She should like her chances come 2015. Another up-and-comer from 2014 has got to be Kyle Larson. The kid can race in the big time, and his consistency is staggering given his age and rookie status.
Justin: I think it is a mixed bag for Danica Patrick this year. Yes she has had some great finishes most notably 6th at Atlanta and 7th at Kansas but she is still not capitalizing on her great qualifying efforts and turning them into great finishes. However she is much improved and I like her chances for victory in 2015 with a rules package she is familiar with. Kyle Larson is absolutely beyond his years in the cup series. It is really incredible how consistent he is and how acclimated he has become with tracks he has little to no experience on.
S.D.: So, after how many years riding the media boom that is Everything Danica and we’re just finally seeing some solid Top 10 finishes from her, I’m supposed to be impressed? Not happening. Not until she wins a points race without a rain shower to help. Who is impressive? It’s been said before, but it’s still worth repeating: Kyle Larson. I’m still looking to see him win one this year. Not five years down the road.
Amy: Danica is improving, albeit slowly considering her level of equipment, and Kevin Harvick should be getting a nice Christmas card and fruit basket this year, because his mentoring has had an obvious positive impact on her. But if you want real improvement from the ground up, look at Tommy Baldwin Racing. That team has turned a little sponsor money and some young talent into some big gains—they’re a top-20 threat some weeks now, and they were not a year ago. They’re not packing it in early nearly as often as in the past, and their new dedication really shows that so much of the difference between the haves and the have-nots is not talent, but money.
Mike: She is progressing. I don’t know that I’d say adequately considering the equipment that she is in. However, if you look at her boss and her other champion teammate, they haven’t been all that much better in the finish department. Kurt Busch has run very well during some events but his finishes don’t show it. Whether you are a fan or not you can’t deny that she is improving although she still isn’t running where the equipment should be. Beyond Patrick the established drivers in the series have not really done any improving in 2014 over their career numbers. Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon are having strong seasons but they don’t have a history to compare to. The remainder of the garage isn’t doing anything this year that they haven’t done in the past and several of them have regressed.
Huston: Huh? Being 28th in points is progress? I guess I forgot where she finished last year – oh, that’s right, after a quick check, she finished 27th in points last year. From an overall perspective, it’s hard to call that progress. What she has shown this year is that every now and then she can do pretty well and notch a solid finish, something that didn’t seem to happen last year. As for the second half of the question, there are two drivers who have shown impressive improvement this year: Logano and Gordon. And maybe McMurray, who seems to have been invigorated by Larson’s presence.
Vito: Danica has shown marked improvement this year. She’s actually passing people for position, not getting destroyed and losing ten positions on every restart, and advancing in qualifying rounds. Consider her role within the team hierarchy as well: Harvick’s team is obviously the A-team and the one that they’re staking the reputation of the company on. Kurt Busch is Gene Haas’ guy, driving for a team that was cobbled together in the off-season, while Tony Stewart had been battling physical trauma following last year’s Sprint Car accident which saw him nearly lose his leg, and this year’s Sprint Car tragedy which resulted in a young man losing his life, and the media feeding frenzy which resulted. It is real and tangible progression in the most competitive and difficult racing series next to Formula One, and in an environment where not every car is created equal. Oh, and it would help if her boyfriend would quit wrecking her, too.
Joseph: Danica Patrick has made gigantic strides this year. After an abysmal 2013 season, she has shown that with time – she will be contending for top-15 finishes on a weekly basis. Although she hasn’t been outstanding and still shows signs of struggling, Patrick is slowly progressing to what Stewart-Haas Racing expected out of her when they signed her. Josh Wise has shown some impressive improvements this year. No, it is not only because his team no longer is part of the start-and-park effort. The fact that Wise is able to compete for top 30s on a weekly basis without sponsorship on most weekends has shown why he deserves a better ride. He has 12 top 30s this year and has done a solid job at beating the drivers that he can beat instead of over driving his car and wrecking it. Another driver that has improved in 2014 is Paul Menard. He has already surpassed his career-high for top 10s (previously nine), and he was inside of the top-15 in points until the Chase began. Menard might not be competing for wins, yet his No. 27 has been running near the top 10 on most weeks.
Predictions for Kansas? You know you want to…
Mark: Kevin Harvick
Justin: Jeff Gordon
S.D.: Who to win in Kansas? We’re back to the cookie-cutters. It’s time to see Dale Jr. wake up again.
Amy: I’m not convinced that Kansas King Jimmie Johnson has what it takes to win Sunday…but his teammate Jeff Gordon does.
Mike: Brad Keselowski
Huston: Struggled at Dover
Foiled by errant lug nut
It’s Harvick, Toto
Vito: Kyle Larson
Joseph: I’m going with Kasey Kahne to get his second victory of the year with a win at Kansas this weekend.
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||Kyle Larson||6th||1|
|Mike Neff||Jimmie Johnson||3rd||3|
|Vito Pugliese||Matt Kenseth||5th||3|
|Matt Stallknecht||Jimmie Johnson||3rd||3|
|Mark Howell||Jeff Gordon||1st||5|
|Greg Davis||Brad Keselowski||2nd||3|
|Justin Tucker||Jimmie Johnson||3rd||3|
|Aaron Creed||Matt Kenseth||5th||3|
|Writer||Points||Behind||Starts||Wins||Top 5||Top 10|
About the author
The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.