NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Friday Faceoff: Down With ‘Dega, Top Contenders, and Martinsville Mayhem?

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 Talladega race featured a little of everything on Sunday, and Brad Keselowski was able to race his way into the next round of the Chase. But with its wildcard reputation, many fans and media questioned its position as an elimination race deep in the Chase. Did NASCAR put the track in the right place on the schedule?

Justin Tucker, Contributing Writer: Absolutely Talladega was properly placed in the chase. Other than maybe Martinsville, no track plays a bigger role in determining a champion. 

Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Like it or not, Talladega was properly placed within the Chase schedule. Granted, events there are pretty much unpredictable, but if hand-wringing and upsets were what NASCAR wanted moving into the Eliminator Round, that’s what it got. Big performances were rewarded and big names were dropped from contention — such drama would not have seemed so ominous at another track. My primary objection with Talladega was the screwed-up qualifying process NASCAR introduced. File that decision under “Total SNAFU.”

2014 Talladega II CUP pack racing vertical CIA
The action was hot and heavy all race long this past Sunday at Talladega. Credit: CIA Stock Photography

Mike Neff, Short Track Coordinator: Absolutely they did. If the 2.66-mile oval in northern Alabama is going to be on the schedule in the Chase it most certainly needs to be an elimination race. The event is going to have an impact on the Chase no matter where it is in the Chase but if it isn’t an elimination race you’re going to have the 12 contenders for the title riding around and trying to stay out of trouble. This weekend you at least had the drivers who needed to win mixing it up at the front. Despite the 100% rule, you’re never going to have every driver slicing and dicing at the front of the pack on a plate track. Some drivers just don’t want to do that all day long. However, when it is an elimination race some drivers have no choice and the end result was a fantastic race on Sunday. Kyle Busch truly had his championship destroyed but he was the only one. The other drivers either raced their way to the next round or didn’t perform well enough to get it done. If it is going to be in the Chase then it is in the perfect spot.

Joseph Wolkin, Contributing Writer: Talladega is the perfect race for an elimination event. Only the best of the best can survive, and we saw plenty of drivers hanging at the back of the pack to make sure they made it out of there without a wrecked race car. With eliminations on the line, these drivers were going all out – arguably more they have in any other recent restrictor plate race. Although people might not be happy with those who were eliminated, the drivers in the Chase made the race even more intense and that’s what the sport needs. Ratings were low, but if they keep this as an eliminator event for the next few years – people won’t take their eyes off of their TV or tablet.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: It wouldn’t hurt to place this track in the first round of The Chase; while I still fail to see how being 16th in points carries with it anything suggesting “season champion”, it would give those who are a bit further down the list a shot at making it to the next round. Then again, is that really necessary? To be fair, Kansas was more of a wildcard than Talladega was, but given the capricious nature of the draft and how you can go from Top 5 to tail end of the lead lap really quick if you get nudged out of the way (or make a bad choice like Jimmie Johnson did on a late race restart), having Talladega as an elimination race seems a little odd. But then again, Brad Keselowski made it work and did what he needed to do to advance into the next round.

Huston Ladner, Assistant Editor: If the goal of sports is to be entertaining, then it was slotted just where it should be.  And it paid off.  With Jimmie Johnson leading half the race, it looked like he might just once again pull off one of his miracles.  Instead, Brad Keselowski takes the win and keeps himself as a main storyline in the Chase.  That kind of result makes it hard to question the track’s position.

Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: To me, it’s in a terrible location. Restictor plate racing keeps me on the edge of my seat, but not in a good way; I’m just waiting for the inevitable big one to take out half the field and ruin lots of good days. It’s just too much of a crapshoot to be an elimination race deep in the Chase. I begrudgingly say it should be in the Chase because it’s a different type of track with its own skill set (like road courses, and one of those needs to be added), but it should be earlier, maybe where either Loudon or Kansas are now. There’s too much involved that’s out of a driver’s control, and as Kyle Busch found out Sunday, too much potential for a Chaser to get screwed by something he wasn’t even directly involved in. Sure that can happen anywhere, but you can’t tell me the odds aren’t significantly higher on a plate track.

Phil Allaway, Senior Editor: The current version of the Chase makes Talladega’s position on the schedule more dubious by the year.  Let’s face it.  You or your team can’t really determine your own fate there.  Everything’s left up to chance.  It’s insane and really doesn’t work.  I’d say to move the race to August, but it’s Alabama.  There’s a reason the race was moved to October back in 1997, and it had nothing to do with a “Chase.”  Instead, it was to avoid summer heat and humidity, along with the pop-up thunderstorms that come with it that ruin days.

2. Ryan Newman was not penalized after his car was found too low on both sides of the rear end after the Talladega race Sunday. In the past, height violations have been penalized with points deductions, fines, and/or probation. Did NASCAR do the right thing here, or is the sanctioning body too lenient on Chase contenders in recent weeks?

Mark: I get the sense, as I do every season around this time of year, that NASCAR’s all-powerful gaze has become more of a glance with regard to teams in the Chase. As the points battle begins to wind down, so does NASCAR’s “have at it” attitude. The new format has already upset the apple cart, but that shouldn’t exclude Chase teams from receiving their rightful penalties, even if those penalties mean losing a shot at the title.

Mike: Too low at a plate race is a special circumstance. NASCAR issues the spring and shocks that are run in the rear of the cars on restrictor plate race tracks. The springs and shocks dictate a large part of the height of the rear quarter panels of the car and the rest is established by the team before the car rolls through technical inspection. Once the car clears tech there is very little that a team can do to lower the car at a plate track. It is different at other tracks but the impound nature of plate races really takes it out of the teams’ hands. With Ryan Newman’s car, they took it to the R&D Center in Concord, NC and determined the car was low due to damage from rear contact during the event. We’ve seen cars in the past where the rear bumper cover came off due to contact and it was then faster on a plate track. We saw Dale Earnhardt, Jr. win at Talladega with a car that was covered with bare bond. NASCAR is stringent in their technical inspection prior to races, some of which seems excessive, but it determines that the car is in compliance with all of the rules. On a plate track the cars are then impounded so it would have been extremely hard for the No. 31 team to have affected a change to the car to make it illegal. That is why it was taken to Concord and the reason for the violation was determined. As for all Chase contenders, NASCAR is probably more precise in their tech inspection for those teams because they do not want any kind of possible shenanigans involved with the pursuit of the title.

Vito: The skeptic in me says, “Like they’re going to fine Childress for an infraction at Talladega and take a car out of the Chase” — how low it was was never really publicized. The level-headed side of me says, okay it was drafting damage and they kinda screwed RCR back in 2010 when Clint Bowyer got the bumper nicked a bit by the tow truck after the race at Loudon. Bowyer won by stretching fuel and running out of gas, and was found to be out of line by the thickness of a dime and it effectively took him out of title contention before it even started. Even if he was a little low, that infraction only carries with it a 25-point fine, and he was 27 points to the good, so it would not have made a difference on advancing to the next round. Besides, it’s a superspeedway race. If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying hard enough.

Phil: While yes, such violations have been penalized with points penalties in the past, Newman did in fact suffer some damage in the lap 103 crash on the backstretch.  The failure was at least partially caused by that damage, and the dragging of metal on the ground when Newman drove the No. 31 back to the pits on a flat left-front tire.  That said, the penalty that likely would have been given to the team likely wouldn’t have been big enough to swing anything.  With the point reset after Talladega, it would have been a wash.

Justin: NASCAR did the right thing here. It’s likely Newman’s car wasn’t low enough to provide a dramatic aerodynamic difference. 

Huston: Likely due to his car being wrecked, he got away with this one.  But even if he had been penalized 15 points he still would have moved on to the next round.  This one doesn’t seem like much of a big deal.

2014 Talladega II CUP BRad Keseloski Ryan Newman Joey Logano Kurt Busch CIA
Did Ryan Newman’s team receive fair treatment from NASCAR after his car was found to be “too low” during post-race inspection? Credit: CIA Stock Photography

Joseph: NASCAR made the right call by not penalizing Newman. There is very little that can be done to make a car low during the race, or even beforehand since it is a plate race. His car was damaged in the race, which is probably why he wasn’t fined. However, even if they were to fine him, it would have no effect on his Chase efforts since he had a 27-point cushion before he could be eliminated. NASCAR is probably keeping a closer eye on the Chase contenders during inspection, but they are never too lenient.

Amy: If the team could prove race damage caused the mismeasurement on the 31, then NASCAR made the right call. They need to be sure either way before making a decision that affects the Chase (and it could have; depending on NASCAR’s determination, it could potentially have carried a 25-point penalty plus an additional 10 because it was found in postrace inspection. That would have changed whether Newman moved on in the Chase.). However, I do think NASCAR is timid about penalizing Chase drivers in any significant way, or even at all. Matt Kenseth walked from what should have been at least a $15K fine, and I’m still not sure how Brad Keselowski avoided a more severe penalty from his Charlotte actions.

3. This week, the Sprint Cup Series heads to Martinsville, a track where tempers often flare, and drivers often remember past offenses from the competition. Will we see any retaliation this week, or will everyone be mindful of the Chase contenders and mind their P’s and Q’s?

Mark: Expect a few spins and slides into the fence at Martinsville, but chalk them up to competitive racing on a tight layout. Having the race become “Charlotte: Part 2” will do NASCAR more harm than good; the Chase is already falling short with fans.

Mike: It’s Martinsville baby!! Absolutely we’re going to see some contact and most likely some retribution. Look for Kurt Busch to remember what happened this Spring with Brad Keselowski. Joey Logano and Danica Patrick have supposedly patched up their differences but a wheel wrong during the event could very well fire those emotions back up. Austin Dillon ought to be watching his six for the No. 18 simply because his failure to slow down fast enough at Talladega ended Kyle Busch’s title hopes. There are many other discretions that have occurred this season, some that fans don’t even know happened. When you have 3,400 pound stock cars running that closely together for hours, contact is going to happen and some of it is going to be intentional. Whether a driver is in the Chase or not, they are going to be a potential recipient of some tit-for-tat.

Phil: I won’t be shocked if we see some retaliation, and it doesn’t necessarily have to pertain to something that’s already happened.  Remember when Brian Vickers lost his dang mind at Martinsville in 2011? I don’t recall any bad blood between him and Matt Kenseth or Jamie McMurray prior to that.  Retaliation knows no bounds.  Chasers could retaliate against other Chasers, non-Chasers against Chasers, and non-Chasers against non-Chasers (the most likely).  If it happens, NASCAR will be their usual lenient selves.

Busch Martinsville
Will we see Charlotte-esque fireworks in Martinsville this coming Sunday?

Justin:It’s all going to boil down on how the race plays out. If it is fairly clean and we see a long green flag run, it’s likely we’ll see everyone play it cool and fight another day. However if we see a yellow fly quickly, it’s likely it will breed many cautions before race end.

Huston: Would love to say yes, that pent up hostilities will show themselves, but probably not.  If something does get going, it will probably be with drivers not in contention for much.

Joseph: How could something crazy not happen at Martinsville? There’s going to be beating and banging like no tomorrow. If a Chase driver gets into another one – there are going to be some real unhappy folks down in the pits. However, I don’t think there will be any major incidents in terms of Chase drivers. The main thing is – short track racing is finally back and this is the perfect place to start Round 3.

Amy: I think you’ll have some aggressive moves and maybe even some frustrations boiling over. There will also be some long green-flag runs. I don’t think it will wildly differ from any other Martinsville race. You might see some payback, maybe even a well-timed “mistake” from a Chase driver’s teammate, but it’s not going to suddenly morph into a demolition derby. That kind of racing simply doesn’t work at the paperclip.

Vito: I doubt it. Matt basically pushed Brad to the win last week when he could have moved him out of the way and got his teammate Kyle Busch in. Logano and Patrick have spoken and Joey pretty much apologized and took responsibility for it.

4. Three weeks from now, half the field will be eliminated from the Chase and the final four will race for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Which teams are going to duke it out for the title?

Mark: My thinking has Keselowski, Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, and Logano racing for the riches at Homestead.

Mike: Three of the teams seem like they are obvious choices for the final four at Homestead. The No. 4 team with Kevin Harvick has been the best car all season and will manage to head to Homestead with a shot. Brad Keselowski has been the second best car all season and, after willing his way to this round last weekend, he’ll travel to Homestead with his eyes on the Cup as well. Jeff Gordon slipped into this round by a mere three points at Talladega. He’s going to rectify that at Martinsville, two days after the tenth anniversary of the Hendrick plane crash, with another win at the historic track in Ridgeway, VA. The fourth driver will be up for grabs but the No. 20 team of Matt Kenseth has been truly consistent all season and looks to redeem themselves after stumbling at Phoenix last season. Kenseth will transfer into the Homestead crapshoot and give his best shot at taking down his second career title.

2014 Charlotte II Cup Kevin Harvick Burnout credit Yvonne Leonard
Will Kevin Harvick be among the four drivers who advance to the finale in Homestead? Credit: Yvonne Leonard

Vito: 24, 2, 4, 99

Justin: 4,24,22,11

Huston: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, and Jeff Gordon, pretty much the four best cars all year.

Joseph: Originally, I had Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick fighting for the championship. With Johnson out, Joey Logano has emerged as a very serious candidate for the title. Prior to the Chase, I thought Gordon was going to win it all with how he was running, and I still do. But Logano and Keselowski have been insanely fast at the intermediate tracks. There is no doubt in my mind that it will come down to these four drivers.

Amy: I’m sticking with the four I had on my original grid: Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon, and Kevin Harvick. They’ve been the best all year, and the cream has risen to the top, for the most part, so far.

Phil: Cripes, I hate this format.  It’ll probably be Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.  Of those four, only two at best will win in the next three weeks.

Martinsville predictions: have at it.

Mark: It’s time to get Happy, as in Harvick.
Mike: Jeff Gordon
Vito: Jeff Gordon. Defending race winner and they’re running tire they ran here last fall.
Justin: Its Denny Time!!! Denny Hamlin.
Huston: Bummed out by last week
JJ is still tough to beat
Knock rust off horseshoe
Joseph: I’m going with Jimmie Johnson.
Amy: Jimmie Johnson has to win sometime, and if he can’t do it at Martinsville, his best track along with Dover, it’s going to be a long winter of wondering when it will happen.
Phil: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.  He’s been strong at Martinsville in recent years and the pressure’s off now.
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

GEICO 500

Writer Pick Finishing Position Points
Amy Henderson Casey Mears 10th 1
Mike Neff Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 31st -2
Vito Pugliese Jamie McMurray 35th -2
Phil Allaway Michael Waltrip 16th 0
Mark Howell Kyle Larson 17th 0
Joseph Wolkin Paul Menard 36th -2
Justin Tucker Jamie McMurray 35th -2
Huston Ladner Clint Bowyer 3rd 3

Standings

 Writer Points Behind Starts Wins Top 5 Top 10
Amy Henderson 38 32 3 10 16
Mike Neff   23 -15 21 1 9 11
Phil Allaway 23 -15 28 3 8 13
Huston Ladner 11 -27 5 1 3 3
Tom Bowles 9 -29 6 2 2 4
Matt Stallknecht 9 -29 3 0 3 3
Summer Bedgood 7 -31 3 1 1 2
Aaron Creed 6 -32 7 0 2 5
Vito Pugliese 5 -33 8 0 2 3
Jeff Wolfe 5 -33 5 0 2 2
Kevin Rutherford 4 -34 2 0 1 1
Justin Tucker 4 -34 4 0 2 2
Greg Davis 3 -35 1 0 1 1
Beth Lunkenheimer 3 -35 2 0 1 1
Jeff Meyer 3 -35 1 0 1 1
Mark Howell 2 -36 6 0 1 2
S.D. Grady 1 -37 2 0 1 1
Brad Morgan 0 -38 3 1 1 2
Joseph Wolkin -2 -40 5 0 1 1

 

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