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 race at Charlotte last weekend will be remembered more for its postrace antics among Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, and Tony Stewart. Did NASCAR react to the fireworks with the right penalties on Tuesday, fining Keselowski and Stewart and placing them on probation while not penalizing Kenseth or Hamlin?
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: The penalties were fair and accurate; burnouts through the actual garage –not just the garage area—are not smart; they’re unnecessary, and flat out dangerous. If Matt wants to arm bar a guy who ran into him once his seatbelts were off, that’s fine too. As far as being hit under caution by Kenseth, have yet to see that video and if he did, it was justifiable after Brad ran Matt up the track into the Turn One wall. It was hard aggressive racing that is a product of the new Chase format, however Brad did seem and sound a bit desperate as Denny stated after the fracas in the garage. While I usually think Brad is on the right side of things, this is one instance where he was wrong on a number of levels with a few different drivers. As far as Tony Stewart throwing it into reverse and mashing the nose of the No. 2 in, that was great theater. However, my first thought was, “Why the hell did he do that?” After all of the media firestorm of the past three months citing past instances and blowups, all it did was fan the flames again and give the non-racing media something to seize on and sensationalize.
Justin Tucker, Contributing Writer: I believe the penalties after Charlotte were fair and accurate. The garage area and pit road is the wrong place to try and retaliate on somebody.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: I believe the penalties were p
roper. While “Bad Brad” decided angrily to use his Ford as a weapon-of-choice, Smoke also showed poor judgment by backing his Chevrolet into the No. 2 after the race. If I were someone in Stewart’s driving shoes, I’d be careful to not use my race car in an act of aggression. Some folks in upstate New York may have been paying close attention.
Mike Neff, Short Track Coordinator: For the most part they got it right. In the ‘boys have at it’ world that we live in, scrapping in the garage area is the way to settle disputes. No problem with Matt Kenseth not being fined. I have a problem with Hamlin not receiving a fine because he did make contact with Keselowski in the garage. While the only video we have seen shows the end of the contact in the garage and there isn’t any that shows the contact coming into the garage area; he did hit Keselowski in the garage area. The precedent has been there for years that you cannot use your car as a weapon on pit road or in the garage. As a result, Tony and Brad deserved to be fined. Probation means next to nothing so we can ignore that part of the sanctions. One thing is for sure, Martinsville is going to be worth the price of admission.
Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: As I wrote Wednesday, I think NASCAR got it right with Stewart, but they did the entire sport a disservice by not penalizing Keselowski further and not penalizing Hamlin or Kenseth at all. Marcos Ambrose and Casey Mears should be given their previous fines back with an apology. If the line is at a punch but not a shove? Fine, then make that clear and rescind Mears’ penalty as his action at Richmond was less than Kenseth’s was last week. But to me the major issue was what went on in the garage between Hamlin and Keselowski. There were crewmen, their families, and media there, and that the pair didn’t hit anything is luck, nothing more. Had someone been struck, this conversation turns tragic, and the sport doesn’t need that. If Keselowski did, in fact, hit someone’s transmission, he should have had to replace it in addition to his NASCAR fine, and because he did that and smoked his tires to boot, he deserved slightly more than Hamlin. NASCAR has basically sent a message that Chase drivers can do whatever they want, safety be damned, while the little guys had better walk the straight and narrow. Uncool on every level.
Phil Allaway, Senior Editor: The whole thing is a quagmire. The penalties that were ultimately levied on Keselowski and Stewart amount to nothing. Granted, neither driver even technically has to pay the fine at all. As we found out last year, NASCAR will simply garnish race winnings to fill their coffers if need be. Frankly, I’m surprised NASCAR did anything. We all know that they’re going to use Saturday night’s antics in commercials that will premiere before the season even ends. They love this stuff, even though every tenet of NASCAR’s behavioral ethos goes against what everyone else in motorsports down to the grassroots level is doing. They clearly felt forced to do as much as they actually did on Tuesday. NASCAR has stated numerous times in the past, “Don’t make us have to make a decision.” Also, the presence of the Chase clearly came into play. If there wasn’t a Chase, I’d argue the whole discussion would be different.
Joseph Wolkin, Contributing Writer: NASCAR made the wrong calls overall for the situation at Charlotte. It appears as if they were pressured by the mainstream media to give Tony Stewart a penalty when he didn’t even do anything wrong. That was probably the smallest incident out of all the chaos that erupted. Putting Brad Keselowski on probation and giving him a fine that is less than one percent of his earnings this year is a waste. Keselowski and Denny Hamlin were incredibly reckless while roaring through the garage area, with plenty of people roaming around moments after the checkered flag waved. How was Hamlin not fined for throwing something at Keselowski, and also being a part of the madness that erupted? Then, there is Matt Kenseth, who had a rare moment of outrage that is rarely seen. It might have been due to a frustrating season and taking his anger out in the spur of the moment, but he jumped on Keselowski as he was walking away. This created a giant melee between the two pit crews, and Keselowski’s PR man, Michael Ribas, had to separate the two flaming drivers. NASCAR needed to be a lot harsher with this incident and it will definitely bite them in the back if anything like this happens in the near future.
Huston Ladner, Assistant Editor: I think I’ll use the sagacious Ricky Bobby to sum things up here: Hey NASCAR, I didn’t realize you’d gotten experimental surgery to have your balls removed. Keselowski felt that burning out in the garage area was a good idea—ya know, the place with bystanders, unprotected fans, and lots of metal—and gets the proverbial slap on the wrist. Laughable. As one commenter put it, NASCAR basically just thanked Kes for the attention he brought to the sport. Stewart may have been foolish but the governing body should have let him walk.
Beth Lunkenheimer, Managing Editor: We’ll start with Tony Stewart since he was the least involved in the post-race altercations. While he didn’t have anything to do with the majority of what was going on, he did back his car into Brad Keselowski’s while on pit road, something that you just can’t do for safety reasons. As far as Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth are concerned, it’s absolutely the right call. Sure, the normally mild-mannered Kenseth jumped Keselowski in the garage area, and many are comparing that incident with the one between Casey Mears and Marcos Ambrose earlier this season. The big difference? Ambrose actually connected when he punched at Mears. Kenseth was just a ball of swinging fists and was quickly pulled away from Keselowski. Where I do think NASCAR dropped the ball a bit was Keselowski. The sanctioning body could have sent a strong message that moving through the garage area in the unsafe way he did (that wasn’t really a burnout… more like spinning the tires on a painted floor) is unacceptable by barring him from any chance to move forward in the Chase, regardless of whether he manages to win at Talladega.
2. Much of the championship focus this year has been on Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports, but if the cut happened now, from 12 to 8, they’d have just three drivers in the field. Can another driver, from another team steal the title trophy from under their nose and if so… who?
Amy: Yes, absolutely, and his name is Kevin Harvick. Harvick dominated at Charlotte and he has insane speed in his No. 4 Chevy every week. If his team can rise above the internal strife that’s plagued them, they’ll be there until the last lap at Homestead and could easily carry off the trophy when the checkers fly.
Phil: Assuming that for the sake of this discussion, we’re not considering Stewart-Haas Racing as part of Hendrick Motorsports, Kevin Harvick is definitely the most likely driver. He’s in the hunt every week, almost regardless of the venue. If the pit crew doesn’t hurt him too much, he could do it. The man can win at any one of the five remaining tracks on the schedule.
Mark: If anyone steals the hardware from Penske and/or Hendrick, it will most likely be Kevin Harvick. Happy seems to be finding his groove going into a pivotal stage in the Chase.
Mike: Kevin Harvick, duh! While Keselowski and Jeff Gordon have been the class of the field for most of the season in terms of wins, Harvick has had the fastest car for the majority of the year. Assuming they’ve finally used up all of the bad luck that has haunted them all year they will be tough to beat for the title. A Harvick championship wouldn’t really be stealing the title. The greater theft would be if any of the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers rise up and grab the trophy. With all three of their teams poised to make the final eight they just might pull off the upset that no one really saw coming before the last couple of weeks.
Huston: Um, didn’t Kevin Harvick, who’s only been one of the fastest cars all year, just dominate Charlotte? NASCAR could only be so lucky to have the final four be Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Harvick, and Jeff Gordon. The outlier in that group would be Busch, as Joe Gibbs has been “slow” most of the season and most people didn’t expect him to get out of the first round of the Chase.
Vito: Yeah – Kyle Busch. I was quite vocal early on saying that Busch would be a no-show come the Eliminator Round and if he wasn’t out in the first round, it would be Kansas that sunk him in the Contender round. Based off their miserable mid-season performance and the obvious discontent of Dave Rogers coupled with Kyle calling out TRD routinely, I figured it would be another inglorious early exit. Busch, Rogers and the No. 18 bunch keep putting up numbers at places you wouldn’t think, and rumor has it that TRD has made gains since Daytona in July as well for the plate motors. If they can avoid the carnage on Sunday at Talladega, Busch, as well as the rest of the JGR trio, has a chance of giving Gibbs three of the final four qualifiers going into Homestead.
Joseph: As of now, the Penske drivers are clearly the strongest in the field. It’ll be interesting to see if Saturday’s incident will be a distraction for Keselowski, or if it will be extra motivation for him to go out and win more races. With Joey Logano, he’s emerged as a championship favorite and proved his worth while at Charlotte after running outside of the top-20, but coming on strong late in the race. The only Hendrick driver that has been consistent all year is Jeff Gordon. Even if the other three can somehow find a way to advance, they clearly aren’t strong enough to contend for the title. I think that Kevin Harvick is going to give these guys a run for their money. He’s going to make it to the final round without a doubt, and he’s been incredibly strong at the intermediate tracks. If the bad luck has run out for this team, the rest of the field better watch out. Then, there’s Kyle Busch, who has been consistent in the Chase, but just doesn’t have the speed to win races. Consistency can go a long way with this new format, and if Busch can keep piling on the top 5’s, he’s going to go deep in the Chase.
Beth: It’s easy to point to Kevin Harvick, especially now that he’s guaranteed to move on into the next round. However, with that said, I wonder if his team can consistently keep him in position to win as the races wind down. There’s no doubt that he’s got the speed underneath him, and if the crew can continue to avoid mistakes and the driver can stay out of trouble, there’s a very real chance he’ll sweep in and win it all. And then there’s Kyle Busch who’s quietly building a championship run. Everyone, myself included, expected the younger Busch brother to implode in the Chase, much like he’s done for the last several years. But since he made it through his Achilles’ heel in Kansas and will most likely move forward to the next round, the driver of the No. 18 could be building a case to have his name engraved on the big trophy at Homestead in a few short weeks.
3. We’re now halfway through the ten-race Chase, and non-Chasers have made almost as much noise as the drivers fighting for the title. Which driver who did not make the postseason do you think is building the most momentum for 2015, and why?
Amy: Hello, Chip Ganassi Racing, how’s the weather at the top? Both Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray have been running at the front in recent weeks, and either or both could easily visit Victory Lane this year. 2014 was a rebuilding year for CGR, but look for them to come out swinging in 2015 and have at least one driver in the Chase a year from now.
Vito: The guy who should have won three races so far, Kyle Larson. What else hasn’t been said about the rookie phenom that hasn’t been written or observed? Calling him the next Jeff Gordon is not an exaggeration; how many other rookie drivers have elevated the performance of an entire racing organization like Larson? If a former Formula One winner can’t get the job done, then is shown up immediately in his old cars, you know he’s going to be something special. Let’s not overlook Jamie McMurray either. While he has a habit of performing when it appears his job might be on the line, Ganassi has been fielding cars that are worlds better than they have the past few seasons. Part of this is McMurray having a teammate who can provide mutual feedback and support, as well as the change the company made last year to Hendrick Engines. If they can maintain this momentum and not be undone by the rules changes coming in 2015, this tandem will be tough to beat next year.
Justin: For me it’s Kyle Larson. Just take a look at how he has performed in the chase races and think if he would have made the chase this season he would be directly in the championship conversation.
Mark: Is anyone else on the track besides Kyle Larson? The rookie has been spot on during the post-season and it’s amazing to me that he has yet to visit Victory Lane. When Chase drivers talk about the present state of late-season NASCAR, Larson’s name is the one you hear in every interview.
Mike: It is an obvious answer but Kyle Larson is absolutely looking like 2015 will be a breakout season for him. He’s running near the front of the pack with more and more frequency and learning the ins and outs of winning one of these races every time he loses one. Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates has been catching up all season and looks to be on the verge of getting back in Victory Lane, not only with Larson but with Jamie McMurray as well. Larson is a very strong candidate to make a title run next season and possibly duplicate the feat that Dale Earnhardt accomplished in 1979 and 1980, winning Rookie of the Year and then the Championship.
Beth: Is there anyone besides Kyle Larson that belongs in this discussion? I was in the camp of those who believed the young phenom would be better suited for another year in the Nationwide Series before being thrown into the Sprint Cup circus, and boy was I completely wrong! If he doesn’t manage to find Victory Lane this season, I would be shocked, though time is running out. He’s not afraid to race where others just won’t go on the track, and he has a legitimate shot at the championship next season as he’s learned to adapt to the longer events in the Cup Series. Honorable mention goes to AJ Allmendinger. While I don’t see him being a serious Chase contender just yet, back-to-back top-12 finishes since being eliminated from this year’s field is the kind of consistency his team needs to move forward and continue improving next season.
4. This week the Cup Series heads to Talladega Superspeedway for a Chase elimination race. Should fans expect a wild one or a mild one when all is said and done?
Phil: You’re probably going to get some wackiness, but a number of drivers are going to try to hang back and stay out of trouble. Almost no one wants to go to Talladega, but the Chasers really don’t want to go. You’ll see a number of guys mixing it up (mostly non-Chasers and those who need to win to advance), but the race will be more restrained than in May with everything on the line. The fans ultimately might not like it much.
Vito: Wild one for sure; there’s four drivers that are going home and even those who would typically appear safe, there is not enough points separation to risk riding around in the back and finishing on the tail end of the lead lap. In this group, any of the current 12 have a legitimate shot at winning here and those who are at the bottom –Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Brad Keselowski –three are champions and all four have wins here. I think you’ll see a replay of the last two chase races here, except the wreck won’t happen on the final lap, it will happen with about 10 to go as somebody gets antsy trying to get into position for the final push towards the front.
Justin: Talladega is going to be wild from the minute they unload to the checkered flag.
Joseph: Talladega is going to be flat out insane. These drivers are going to be fighting for every single point they can get. It’s going be intense enough to make some drivers back down and ride at the back of the pack, and that’s probably the best strategy for a driver like Johnson or Earnhardt, Jr., who are both on the outside looking in. As the laps come to a close, those drivers are going to be beating and banging like no tomorrow. There is going to be a “big one,” but I think it’s going to happen with about 20 laps to go. They are going to be gearing up for the final run at the lead, and with track position being at a premium – well . . . boys, have at it.
Huston: Call it a crescendo, with the first half of the race taking on a tame feel, followed by a second half where all hell breaks loose.
Amy: For the most part, a mild one. Yes, Keselowski, Earnhardt, and Johnson need to win, but to finish first you must first finish, so don’t expect them to go all-out all day. Harvick has already said he’d rather avoid the fray, and that leaves Joey Logano as the only driver who can afford to riase hell all day and say “to heck” with the consequences. The rest of the teams simply have too much to lose to make this race a replay of Daytona in July, so look for a parade for much of it.
Beth: I’m a little torn on this question actually because it could come out either way. On the one hand, there are a few drivers that can’t afford to just ride around and hope to survive the race if they want to move on in the Chase (see Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., etc.), and it’s likely that they might push the envelope to find their way to the front of the field and stay there. However, there is this thought in the back of my mind that the other 31 drivers that aren’t in the Chase will be too afraid to race out of a fear of inadvertently ending championship hopes for another driver. I do know one thing for sure, though: I’m not missing this race because it will still be an exciting one to see.
Mark: After what happened at Charlotte, my thinking is that Talladega will be more cautious than chaotic. Expect NASCAR to drop bathtub-sized “hints” about paying attention and giving space and such at the drivers’ meeting on Sunday. There’s a ton riding on the outcome of Sunday’s race, with several big/popular/profitable names looking at getting the boot, so I anticipate less mayhem than usual.
Mike: The majority of the race will most likely be a mild one. The Chase drivers who are solidly in position to advance are not going to want to put themselves in an unnecessarily risky position to endanger that so they’ll most likely ride in the back. The drivers who need to make something happen will be near the front but there are only five or six of them, so they will probably get to the front and ride since they won’t be pushed. The drivers who are out of title contention don’t want to affect the championship negatively so they will probably take it easy until the final 40 laps. Once the field makes the pit stop that will get them to the finish on gas, all bets will be off. The desperate dudes will be fighting to stay up front, the non-title contenders will be looking to win a race and the drivers solidly in the next round will be trying to finalize that transfer. The odds are someone will be upside down and on fire before the checkered flag flies but it will almost all happen in the last 40 laps.
Talladega predictions…who gets it done?
Amy: ‘Dega is probably the last track where a small team can shine and one driver waiting for his turn is Casey Mears, who had a solid top-5 at Daytona in July.
Phil: I’m going with Michael Waltrip. It’ll more than make up for when he gets voted off Dancing With The Stars Monday night.
Vito: Jamie McMurray
Justin: Jamie McMurray makes it two in a row in the fall race.
Joseph: I’m going with Paul Menard.
Huston: Down and up season
Missing the Chase, new baby
Bowyer takes the win
Mark: This is the week when Kyle Larson seals the deal.
Mike: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. wins the race and the fans tear down the grandstands.
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
Bank of America 500
|Amy Henderson||Kevin Harvick||1st||5|
|Mike Neff||Kevin Harvick||1st||5|
|Vito Pugliese||Kyle Larson||6th||1|
|Jeff Wolfe||Jamie McMurray||3rd||3|
|Mark Howell||Kyle Larson||6th||1|
|Joseph Wolkin||Matt Kenseth||19th||0|
|Justin Tucker||Jimmie Johnson||17th||0|
|Tom Bowles||Jimmie Johnson||17th||0|
|Huston Ladner||Brad Keselowski||16th||0|
|Writer||Points||Behind||Starts||Wins||Top 5||Top 10|