NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Friday Faceoff: Grey Areas, Hendrick Woes, and Rating the Rookies

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. Team Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski have gotten some criticism recently for jumping restarts and pulling out the side skirts on the Nos. 2 and 22. Are the questions legitimate, or is Team Penske hitting on something the competition have not?

Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief: I had a crew chief tell me once, “If you’re not in NASCAR’s gray area, toeing the line, then you’re not doing something right.” Everyone competing for this championship is pushing the limits as far as they can; there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s called being an athlete. Nor, we should note, has any NASCAR official found anything officially wrong with what these drivers are doing. However, I do think a warning with how Logano’s handling of restarts is coming. The one where Ryan Newman was leading at Kansas with Logano second only for the No. 22 car to charge into the first corner ahead, like Newman was stopped, was obvious to anyone with common sense. Crew chief Luke Lambert was beside himself for Newman, arguing feverishly that Logano jumped the start. I’d say he lost because NASCAR officials appear hesitant to penalize a Chaser for a subjective call. But a few more like that and the guys in the tower will have no choice. With Logano making it more and more blatant, he’ll keep doing it until someone slaps him on the hand and tells him “stop.”

Considering Team Penske's recent success, is it fair to suspect that they are operating in the gray area of the NASCAR rule book?
Considering Team Penske’s recent success, is it fair to suspect that they are operating in the gray area of the NASCAR rule book?

Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: Yes, they’re hitting on something, and while it’s understandable for fans of other drivers to have questions, everything is legit here until NASCAR says otherwise. One team finding an edge is how this game is played, and I’m glad NASCAR didn’t immediately put a stop to the side skirt issue. Other teams are doing it now as well, so it’s not like Logano or Keselowski is getting away with anything the others aren’t free to try. There need to be more areas where teams can find speed, not fewer, so kudos to all for a bit of innovation going on.

Mark Howell, Senior Writer: It’s called creative interpretation of the NASCAR rule book. When the rules are black and white, shoot for the gray…. jumping a restart is not the exclusive property of Team Penske, and history will show that plenty of other teams have engaged in such opportunities. Is being alert and competitive a sin in motorsports? Never. As for pulling out the side skirts, I worked with Cup teams where the reshaping of fenders was a necessary aero evil. It used to be a matter of peer pressure; if all the cool kids were doing it, you needed to as well. Every so often NASCAR inspectors would catch the change and send the car back for correction, but if you made it through, you were good to go and hopeful that your car slipped through the legal cracks. Team Penske is simply trying to be competitive.

Mike Neff, Short Track Coordinator: This just in, the idea of racing is to win. There are always games played on restarts and most of the time, the guys who complain about other drivers jumping are the ones who are being beaten. If the people who are calling the shots in the tower don’t have a problem with it, then the drivers need to suck it up and race. As for the side skirts, if there isn’t a rule against it then it is legal. There is probably some kind of an advantage to pulling out the trailing edge of the side skirt but there isn’t a rule against it so suck it up or let someone who will try harder in there to try and race against the people making the call.

Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: The sport is so competitive, if a team seems to find the slightest edge, questions arise. I mean, there were suspicions that Denny Hamlin‘s pit crew had faster working air guns? The NASCAR rule book is so thick, that if you can do something that is not against the rules, then you can’t blame a team for trying it. In fact, if the Penske team is somehow legally skirting the rules, then other teams are probably jealous they didn’t think of it first.

Justin Tucker, Contributing Writer: It’s called doing your homework. Penske has obviously found an advantage over the field and they are exploiting it on a weekly basis. It is just up to the rest of the field to follow suit as to what the Penske cars have done all year long.

Huston Ladner, Assistant Editor: Both Penske drivers have been strong all year, so it seems that they’ve definitely hit upon something.  As for the restarts and the side skirts, that would seem to be criticism that is coming after them due to the bright spotlight of being in the Chase and winning.  If Jimmie Johnson were winning all the Chase races, people would think his team was up to something, too.

Joseph Wolkin, Contributing Writer: Whatever advantage a team can get without getting penalized is fair game. Years ago, crew chiefs would always bend the rules until NASCAR officials caught onto what they were doing. From what I’ve heard, there isn’t much of an advantage to pull out the side skirts, but hey – a slight edge could give them a few hundredths of a second each lap and that adds up. We’ve already seen a few teams playing follow the leader with this, like Paul Menard, who was notably seen with his side skirt pulled out at a very large angle. As for the restarts, if NASCAR doesn’t penalize you and just warns you – it’s fair game. With the Chase format being what it is this year, you need to take advantage of anything you can capitalize on. Both of the Penske drivers have been seen making minor jumps on the restarts, but when they are so good on the long run, a tenth of a second jump probably doesn’t matter.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: As far as jumping restarts is concerned, absolutely not. All I saw at Loudon was Logano smoking Harvick on every restart. If a guy was truly jumping the start, then he’d be pulling on everybody behind him in his lane as well.  As for the side skirts, clearly it is providing an advantage to which I say, “So what?” Isn’t that the whole point of this not (allegedly) having become IROC on a grand scale? Going to go out on a limb here and say it’s something other than just horsepower that makes the Hendrick cars go fast and that Ganassi suddenly running Top 5 every week like it’s 2010 isn’t just because Jamie McMurray feels his job is on the line again with Kyle Larson contending for wins each week. Unless there is a rule that says you can’t bend the side skirt out, then shut up, find a pair of vise-grips and do it to yours.

2. Hendrick Motorsports currently has three of their four drivers outside the top 8 in points with only two races until the cutoff. How many drivers from HMS wind up making it, and how/why?

Joseph: Unless something drastic happens, it’s unlikely that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will advance. However, I believe the other three drivers in the team will advance. Earnhardt has struggled since winning at Pocono in August. It appears as if he has lost all of the momentum that he carried early in the year. It’s going to take a pair of top 5’s for him to advance, and I don’t see that happening when he has just two top-10s in the last nine races. As for the other drivers, although each had problems at Kansas, they have been strong this year at the intermediate tracks and should be fine for those events. The only concern is going to be for Kahne, who has been inconsistent as anyone this year.

Mike: Looking at the tracks left, it would seem like three of the four HMS teams will make it to the next round, but they could have all four miss it. Jimmie Johnson won the 600 and is strong at Charlotte. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is very good at Talladega and is looking to save face from his lackluster effort in May. There is no question that it is an uphill battle for Johnson and Earnhardt but they have the equipment to get it done and the tracks left in this segment are good tracks for the two of them.

What is to blame for Hendrick Motorsports' recent struggles?
What is to blame for Hendrick Motorsports’ recent struggles?

Amy: I think two HMS drivers make the cut: Jeff Gordon and most likely Jimmie Johnson, but Dale Earnhardt, Jr. could leapfrog Johnson and get past the cutoff next week. Kasey Kahne is most likely done, and unless Johnson and Earnhardt both win in the next two weeks (and the 48 is not the same team that won in Charlotte back in May, making an Earnhardt win at Talladega the more likely scenario), there just isn’t enough room at the top. You can’t count on someone else’s failure in this sport, which is what these guys need to have happen.

Mark: My guess is that all but the No. 5 will make the next round. Expect changes of fortune for Johnson, Gordon, and Junior. Of the four HMS teams, Kahne will be the odd man out following Charlotte and Talladega.

Jeff: Since we’ve got Talladega as the final race in the section of the Chase, it will make who gets in quite interesting. If Junior has another bad race at Charlotte, he’s still got the plate track to lean on where he is still very good. Johnson is so good at Charlotte that it’s hard to believe he will not bounce back there. Gordon has been solid all year, so I think he will be so again at Charlotte. That leaves Kahne, who also has been excellent at Charlotte. I would think at least three of the four Hendrick drivers are getting in, but I will only guarantee that Gordon will be one of them.

Tom: Call me crazy, but even with their recent struggles the No. 48 team knows how to rebound when their backs are squarely planted against the wall. If they don’t wind up in Charlotte victory lane, I’ll be shocked. Johnson should then be safe, avoiding the damage of a “Big One” potentially collecting him in Talladega. Gordon, while winless this segment, will join him in the field of eight, playing it safe at Charlotte and the following week knowing his long-range goal, a first title in 13 years is better than risking an extra “glory” trophy from running up front in Alabama. The ones that are on the bubble, probably out in my eyes, are Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Justin: I believe two of the HMS cars make the round of eight. Johnson and the No. 48 are the best when the chips are down and their backs are against the wall. I really believe Johnson makes a statement at Charlotte this weekend proving the road to the championship still goes through him. Jeff Gordon makes it in the round of eight just because I think a couple of Chasers will have bad races in between Charlotte and Talladega.

Huston: This question is a twofer.  The first part asks which drivers will make it, but the hidden question is which drivers in the current top eight would falter, allowing more HMS drivers in.  So here goes, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards don’t make it to the next round, allowing JJ and Junior to sneak by.

Vito: Two will make it. Junior and JJ are only there because of flat tires and Greg Biffle; Jeff Gordon is there because of Jamie McMurray. They were geared up for this round of tracks and those in the next three. Kasey Kahne is where he is because the No. 5 team runs like they got Justin Allgaier‘s switched over in the transporter by mistake due to horrendously bad luck with the exception of that Atlanta miracle to get into the Chase a month ago.

3. Kyle Larson has been far and above the top rookie of 2014. But quietly, Austin Dillon ran top 10 at Kansas and others have shown signs of improvement. How would you rate NASCAR’s giant rookie class with six races to go?

Vito: Kyle Larson is the second coming of Jeff Gordon, plain and simple. His presence has helped elevate the performance of Chip Ganassi Racing and he will be a championship contender from here on out. He’s actually my pick to win this weekend – just as Jeff Gordon won his first career race here 20 years ago and teammate Jamie McMurray did in just his second start 12 years earlier. Austin Dillon in comparison has done just as well – but in a different manner. While Larson has performed with cars that have pure speed, Dillon has mastered the fine art of taking what the car will give you, being patient, and not putting yourself in a position to screw up and ruin what might have been a decent day. He’s a throwback to the way rookies used to run – win a pole or two, notch a few Top 10s, and try to not make any enemies along the way.

Amy: Larson is clearly the valedictorian of this year’s rookie class; even Dillon pales in comparison despite having an edge in equipment. Larson is going to be a title contender within five years, maybe significantly less. Dillon will win races, but whether he’s got what it takes to win championships remains to be seen. Justin Allgaier has quietly improved, but he’s probably not going much further without a serious upgrade in equipment. Cole Whitt has been phenomenal given what he’s driving. Michael Annett has been solid as well. Alex Bowman and Ryan Truex are above their heads in terms of experience and equipment, so it’s hard to put them down when they just weren’t right for the job to start with.

Kyle Larson has lived up to the hype that preceded him prior to the start of the season. But what about the rest of the rookie contenders? Credit: CIA Stock Photography
Kyle Larson has lived up to the hype that preceded him prior to the start of the season. But what about the rest of the rookie contenders? Credit: CIA Stock Photography

Mark: I’d put Kyle Larson at the top of the NSCS rookie class. His consistency this year has been admirable, and he’s not just outrunning his fellow freshmen, but most of the Cup field overall. At this rate, he’ll win before Homestead and be a Chase spoiler.

Mike: Larson and Dillon absolutely have been the best of the class and Larson is the best at this point. If not for Larson there would be quite a bit of praise heaped on Dillon for his impressive season. Justin Allgaier and Michael Annett have been showing progress throughout the year while having typical rookie issues. I’d give the class as a whole an A thanks to Larson’s constant knocking on the door for a win and Dillon’s consistent season (he’s been running at the finish of all 30 races). It will be interesting to see, in ten years, how many of the members of this year’s class are still in seats.

Tom: I’d give it a D, for disappointment. Larson, while exceptional, has also been the exception to the rule. It’s a shame, because NASCAR needed new faces, badly, to make an impact and help stop declining interest. One driver, who didn’t even make this “Chase” everyone important seems to obsess over daily, won’t make a dent in this deepening hole. Austin Dillon, after winning the pole for the Daytona 500, has been all but invisible driving the No. 3 car. Despite leading the circuit in laps completed, he seems to be out there simply to make laps which is ironic considering he’s reviving “the number” of the most aggressive driver this sport has ever had: Dale Earnhardt, Sr. All other rookies, while driving for underdog operations, have simply served to highlight the canyon-like difference between NASCAR’s “haves” and “have nots.” By February, most of these names could be whisked off the grid and no one would bat an eyebrow, save for Dillon and Larson. That’s not good… and that’s not what this sport needed to grow.

Justin: I give this year’s rookie class a C. Other than Larson this class has grossly underperformed.

Huston: Decent but not spectacular.  Rating the rookie class is problematic due to the disparity in equipment.  With that being noted, Larson has been exceptional, and Dillon pretty good.  But the other drivers, like Michael Annett and Alex Bowman?  Um, right, their rides have as much to do with anything that can be surmised.

Joseph: Larson has set a whole new standard for rookies. He is probably the best rookie driver since Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson ran incredibly well in 2002. However, he needs to improve on feedback before the race because it is clear that he struggles early on during events. If he can get a car handling before the halfway mark of a race, that No. 42 car is going to be contending for a win. Dillon has done a decent job for his grandfather’s team. The driver of the No. 3 is having a typical rookie season, and would probably be the Rookie of the Year if it weren’t for Larson. Justin Allgaier has done a solid job of steadily improving in the No. 51 car for a brand new team. As for the other rookie drivers, there has not been much to be pleased with for them. However, Cole Whitt has done a pretty darn good job since making the swap over to BK Racing thanks to Anthony Marlowe.

4. Drivers like Regan Smith and Sam Hornish, Jr. chose to stay in the Nationwide Series the past few seasons instead of accepting a subpar Cup ride. Is that the right way to get them back to where they want to be, or should they be taking whatever they can get on the Cup side?

Amy: They’ve followed the right path. Coming to Cup in poor equipment has not made a success of any driver, and there are some very talented drivers doing just that, like Landon Cassill for example. Wins and top 5’s turn heads on fans and sponsors, and getting those in Nationwide could pave the way back to Cup for Smith in the wake of Hornish signing with the No. 9 team. Is it a guarantee? No. Smith is talented, but so are a half dozen young drivers that he is now competing with for a ride. But taking whatever ride you can usually results in a career as a backmarker.

Mark: To me, the key to Cup success is actually racing as often as possible in Cup competition. While NNS rides will provide drivers like Smith and Hornish with seat time and a paycheck, they need to put their racing eggs in the Sprint Cup basket. Drivers may run well in lower-tier divisions, but such rides will never give them a true shot at becoming relevant in the Cup Series if they opt to “stay on the porch”, as the adage goes.

Was Regan Smith's decision to stay in the NASCAR Nationwide series the right one?
Was Regan Smith’s decision to stay in the NASCAR Nationwide series the right one?

Mike: This is always a difficult decision for a race car driver. There are some who feel that being labeled as a back marker due to being in inferior equipment can tarnish a driver and prevent him from getting a shot. Landon Cassill has nearly 150 Cup starts but he is perceived by many as being a subpar driver due to his lack of results. The equipment he’s been racing at the Cup level is inferior to say the least and the fact that he almost always qualifies in that equipment is impressive for sure. Smith is in a full-time ride in some of the best equipment in the Nationwide series so it is hard to blame him for chasing a title in that series. Hornish is a curious case, running part time in the series rather than going for a full-time inferior ride. It apparently worked since he’s now in the No. 9. If he doesn’t succeed there it is a safe bet that he’s done as a NASCAR driver.

Jeff: Well, first of all, it was good to see Hornish get the full-time ride with RPM. When he filled in at Penske when Kurt Busch was released two seasons ago, he did a very good job and showed he was ready for a Cup ride. So, maybe in his case, the waiting  was the best  thing. For a guy  like Smith, it might be better  for him to run a top level Nationwide car because it lets him see how a first-class operation works, and also his ability to run well  in good  equipment may be good for his future, too.

Tom: I think Hornish can officially stick his tongue out, send the “I told you so” email and smile after accepting a full-time ride in 2015 with Richard Petty Motorsports on the Cup side. It’s clear that “win and start once a month” seemed to work better for him than “run around every week with a 30th-place Cup team until you lose your ride.” The problem now for these guys is the cars can only be improved so much by the drivers sitting in the seats. A strong engineering crew, aero package, and the right funding makes a difference these days more than anything else. So if you’re unemployed, seeking the best chance to grow your career, why put yourself in a dead end position? Hornish and Smith may have set precedents here. Look for others to do the same, holding out for top-tier rides in any series over the dreaded start-and-park job to keep food on the table. Second place may be the first loser, but people remember that name over a 30th-place car television doesn’t even have the courtesy to show.

Vito: Taking a decent Nationwide ride at least provides you the opportunity to run up front, win, and remain relevant. Even though Regan Smith does have a Southern 500 win to his credit in the Cup Series, and won Daytona this season in Nationwide, he hasn’t really contended for wins outside of the plate tracks in Nationwide. He’ll be back for another season with JR Motorsports next year, but will need to win some races or the championship if he wants to get back to Cup. Elliott Sadler is another example; Cup wins are on his resume but once you’re out of the Cup scene for so long, your chances of returning diminish with each season. The other end of that spectrum isn’t exactly promising either. David Ragan took one of the subpar rides after being released from Roush Fenway and despite having actually won a race with a Roush loaner assembled in a shed,  he has yet to be able to rebound. Hornish is NASCAR’s Rocky Balboa; he’s been bounced by Penske three times – twice in Cup and once in Nationwide. Hornish helps his own case as well with his history of three IndyCar championships — and an Indy 500 win. It’s a dicey proposition either way, and ultimately depends on what your priorities are in life and for a racing career.

Charlotte this week, baby…who’s your pick?

Amy: While I think this is the race where we see what Jimmie Johnson is made of, I’m not convinced the recipe is a winning formula…so I’ll take Kevin Harvick as your winner. He’s too fast not to make a statement.
Mark: While my mind says Jimmie Johnson, my gut says Kyle Larson.
Mike: Kevin Harvick
Jeff: I’m going with a bit of an upset pick here with Jamie McMurray.
Tom: Jimmie Johnson
Justin: Jimmie Johnson: book it!
Huston: Done in at Kansas,
Hello wall, bad Goodyear tire,
Kes will win again
Joseph: I’m going with Matt Kenseth to win his first race of the year at Charlotte just like Brad Keselowski did last year.
Vito: Kyle Larson

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:

 Prediction Scoring
+5 – Win
+3 – Top 5
+1 – Top 10
0 – 11th-20th
-1 – 21st-30th
-2 – 31st-40th
-3 – 41st-43rd

MyAFibStory.com 400

Writer Pick Finishing Position Points
Amy Henderson Jeff Gordon 14th 0
Mike Neff Brad Keselowski 36th -2
Vito Pugliese Kyle Larson 2nd 3
S.D. Grady Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 39th -2
Mark Howell Kevin Harvick 12th 0
Joseph Wolkin Kasey Kahne 22nd -1
Justin Tucker Jeff Gordon 14th 0
Huston Ladner Kevin Harvick 12th 0

Standings

 Writer Points Behind Starts Wins Top 5 Top 10
Amy Henderson 32 30 2 9 14
Phil Allaway 23 -9 27 3 8 13
Mike Neff   20 -12 19 0 8 10
Tom Bowles 9 -23 5 2 2 4
Matt Stallknecht 9 -23 3 0 3 3
Huston Ladner 8 -24 3 1 2 2
Summer Bedgood 7 -25 3 1 1 2
Aaron Creed 6 -26 7 0 2 5
Justin Tucker 6 -26 2 0 2 2
Vito Pugliese 6 -26 3 0 2 2
Kevin Rutherford 4 -27 2 0 1 1
Greg Davis 3 -29 1 0 1 1
Beth Lunkenheimer 3 -29 2 0 1 1
Jeff Meyer 3 -29 1 0 1 1
Jeff Wolfe 2 -30 4 0 1 1
Mark Howell 1 -31 4 0 1 1
S.D. Grady 1 -31 2 0 1 1
Joseph Wolkin 0 -32 3 0 1 1
Brad Morgan 0 -32 3 1 1 2

 

 

 

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JohnQ

Interesting column, two quibbles though. First a quality NW ride provides a driver with nothing more than a chance to finish 6th in a race no one is watching and maybe be the last series regular lapped by the Cup drivers. How is that an advantage over a lesser Cup ride where at least a driver can get some exposure? Second, RPM has like two wins in the last decade, that qualifies as a first rate ride? Hornish is a perfect fit though, an also ran driver for an also ran team.

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