(Photo: CIA Stock Photo, Inc. ©2014)

Friday Faceoff: Feuds, Winning & the Dynamic Duo’s Demise?

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!

Martinsville Speedway‘s race featured those typical short track tempers. Will any of those hard feelings carry over, for the rest of this season, and will they have an effect on the championship?

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: Doubtful; Harvick’s response was largely frustration. I don’t really see him pulling a Jeff Gordon/Clint Bowyer job at Phoenix in a couple of weeks; one thing about the new format is you really can’t afford this tit-for-tat nonsense in these final rounds if you haven’t won and locked yourself in yet. Should Harvick win this weekend, that would pretty much erase any ill-will that was the result of a legitimate racing accident.

Aaron Creed, Contributing Writer: I highly doubt it.   Texas is just too much of a potentially dangerous track to go around playing games and I highly doubt NASCAR officials will cut any slack compared to Martinsville.  A driver’s mentality typically is that they never forget, but at the same time they each have several team members that put hours of work into getting their machine in the best shape possible for the next one.

Joseph Wolkin, Contributing Writer: It’s doubtful that any hard feelings will transfer over at Texas. We might see a little bump or two here and there, but if there is any track where tempers will flare, it’ll be at Phoenix. The eight remaining drivers in the Chase are going to do everything they can to get into the final round at Homestead. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth tangled a bit at Phoenix after what happened at Martinsville, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Mike Neff, Short Track Coordinator: The only real temper issues were between Brian Vickers and Kasey Kahne. It seems that Vickers can’t keep his head in the game when he goes to Southern Virginia. The possibility is there for those two to renew pleasantries at Phoenix. Any time cars spin someone else could be caught up in it. Hopefully they’ll just wreck themselves and not impact anyone else. There are still issues on people’s minds that have not been settled and Phoenix is the place where they would likely bubble to the surface again. The one situation that could be interesting would be if Kevin Harvick is out of it at Phoenix and Matt Kenseth isn’t – will Harvick try and ruin Kenseth’s day? That would be a surprising development to say the least.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was quick to point out in Victory Lane that winning races is what his team still focuses on most of all. Do you think that’s still true, from team to team, and has too much emphasis been placed on the Chase?

Joseph: It is 100 percent true. Everyone that is inside of the top 15 or 20 is capable of winning a race with the right strategy and car is going out there to win a race. NASCAR wanted to put a greater emphasis on winning races and has definitely done that this year. Every team not in the Chase wants to play spoilers. There is nothing that will bring them more attention than getting a victory in one of these final races. However, drivers in the Chase need to make sure that if they don’t have a winning car, they must finish inside of the top 5, which is probably going to get them locked into the final round.

Credit: CIA Stock Photography
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. says Victory Lane is still the No. 1 goal. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

Mike: The media certainly puts too much emphasis on the Chase. The teams are about winning whenever they can. If they can’t win, then it is time to think about points. When an elimination race gets near its conclusion then teams might look at the teams around them in the points but until that point, racers try and win.

Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Winning a Sprint Cup race (or any race, for that matter) is both pretty rare and pretty special. Getting to Victory Lane is the overall goal for anyone who straps themselves in a race car. Winning means a picture in Monday’s newspaper and a mention on television and radio sports updates. Getting to hoist a trophy and cash a big check is much of the reason racers race in the first place. The Chase gets the majority of the attention because it’s intended to do just that: creating suspense is meant to attract more fans and a bigger viewing audience. Theatrics aside, winning is still on everyone’s to-do list.

Vito: I think it matters more to Dale Earnhardt, Jr., as he has a deep appreciation for the history of the sport and what championships used to mean. His dad won seven of them, season-long cumulative titles that sometimes went down to the final lap of the race; others were wrapped up a race or two in advance. As much “excitement” as the new elimination format produces, there’s still something that seems gimicky about it compared to those season-long slobber-knockers of the late 1980s-late 1990s that we grew to enjoy. Since he won the Daytona 500 this year and erased a decade of decline and trying desperately to remain relevant, winning marque races and enjoying himself and the people he’s win are taking precedence over Chase considerations.

Huston Ladner, Assistant Editor: If Earnhardt hadn’t been eliminated from title contention than his attitude may have been different, so really, it’s all about where you are in the standings and the prospect of winning the big trophy.  That being stated, shouldn’t the overall mindset be that a driver wants to win every race he/she enters.

Amy: From team to team, absolutely it’s true. As much as the broadcasts would like us to forget it, there are 35 teams on the track right now who are not in Chase contention yet still trying to get the best finishes they can. Yes, there might be times when someone takes one for the team, but for the most part, winning is still everything; for most teams, it’s the only chance they have to get noticed by the Chase-happy media.

Jimmie Johnson said last week “that day is out there” when Chad Knaus won’t be on the pit box for the No. 48.  After the team’s performance in 2014, should they consider making a change sooner rather than later?

Huston: Holy what the hell.  Seriously?  This team just won a championship last year!  Their only real struggle is that they haven’t figured out the current car set up to match the driver-crew chief combo.  They’ll figure things out.  However, these pairings don’t last a lifetime and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Knaus move into another role in a few years.  Oh, and Jimmie Johnson ain’t no young gun at this point.

Aaron: I don’t think it is something to be too worried about at the moment.  Teams go through ebbs and flows, and this is probably the first ebb we have ever seen between Johnson and Knaus.  Johnson is right that there will come a day they are no longer together, but that goes for every successful driver/crew chief combination in history and just because this season has been lackluster compared to so many championship seasons does not necessarily mean immediate action needs to be taken.

Mike: Absolutely! Knaus is obviously washed up and should pack his bags. Or not. Let’s get a grip. Certainly the day will come that Knaus will leave the No. 48 but it will be shocking if he does it before they win the seventh title. It will more likely be after they win an eighth but they’ll have to win the seventh first. Knaus most certainly wants to win an eighth to tie Dale Inman for the most all time by a crew chief. Once he gets there, then leaving might be a possibility just to prove he can win one without Jimmie Johnson behind the wheel. Johnson might want to prove he can win one without Knaus for that matter. In reality, if they stuck together until one or both of them retired it would not be surprising at all. As for now, people are insane to think those two should be broken up one year after a title and after a season where they have won three races so far.

Vito: Like coming within one race of winning four in a row? Oh, the horror. Let’s be honest, if not for Johnson getting hooked by Greg Biffle at Kansas this wouldn’t even be a topic of conversation. They got a little chippy with each other at Charlotte and many have seized on that. It’s the same argument they had at Loudon a couple of years ago and what happened? They won the title going away in 2013. They will do whatever is necessary to win a seventh championship together and join the rare air of The Intimidator and The King. When they both decide to hang it up however, you’d be hard pressed to find a better broadcast booth duo than these two.

Amy: I’m going to take a different track and say maybe. The team is only a year removed from a title, but Knaus isn’t making the kind of strategy calls that win races anymore and hasn’t foe the last couple of years. If anything, there have been times when Knaus’ strategy has cost Johnson on the racetrack. And strategy will be very important next year as the cars will be have less horsepower and downforce, something that Johnson always struggled with in the Nationwide Series. A change isn’t necessarily a necessity, but the right change wouldn’t automatically be a hindrance to Johnson, either.

Mark: Johnson and Knaus don’t seem to enjoy the chemistry and/or magic they once did. Sure, they still run well and have the ability to win races, but the competition seems to be catching on to the techniques that made the No. 48 such a dominant force in the Sprint Cup Series. All creative innovations eventually spread throughout the garage area to other teams, or they get legislated out of commission by NASCAR. I get the sense that they are blending back into the herd. Not sure if that’s enough for Rick Hendrick to make personnel changes, but Knaus has got to be feeling some pressure.

Texas starts the final three-race stretch for all three of NASCAR’s national touring series. What, or who, should we expect to stand out over stock car racing’s final month of 2014?

Mike: Jeff Gordon is obviously in the best position to take the title at this point but we’ve seen that the penalty for a bad race is extremely high at this point of the season. The possiblity of Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman or Matt Kenseth winning the title is just as high as Gordon at this point. Gordon is the choice for now but Texas could change that dramatically. Chase Elliott would have to have an unmitigated disaster to fail to win the Nationwide title. The Truck Series is where things could be very interesting. No driver has ever won the title back-to-back. Matt Crafton has the lead but Ryan Blaney is 18 points back. Don’t count out Darrell Wallace, Jr., either. He could jump up and pass both of them.

Joseph: Jeff Gordon is really coming on strong and has a ton of momentum after Martinsville. But the one guy in the Cup Series that I have my eyes focused on is Joey Logano, who has been insanely fast at intermediate tracks this year. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he goes out and wins the title with a win at Homestead since he’s been that good this year. Anything can happen at Texas or Phoenix. Carl Edwards or Ryan Newman could go shock the sport and take a victory at one of the next two races to be one of the championship finalists. That’s just how close it is. In the Nationwide Series, not much is going to stop Chase Elliott from becoming an 18-year-old champion As for the Truck Series, the title will likely come down to Matt Crafton and Ryan Blaney. Crafton will likely win it unless something happens to him that takes him out of the top 10 in one of these events.

Mark: I think Texas will demonstrate that both Matt Crafton and Chase Elliott fully deserve their respective 2014 NASCAR championships. I also believe Texas will emerge as the new Talladega when it comes to creating Sprint Cup title tension; there’s a ton riding on the Cup race this weekend, even though Phoenix is supposed to set up the final four. Texas will play, in my mind, a larger and more important role.

Amy: The final tracks are a mixed bag as far as producing great racing. Phoenix is most likely to be memorable on that front as the 1.5-milers aren’t known for producing a lot of memorable races. As far as Cup drivers, I think the season is likely to be remembered as much for those that had near misses as for whoever wins the title, especially if neither Brad Keselowski nor Kevin Harvick make the final cut. In Nationwide and Trucks, hopefully 2014 will be remembered for some talented youngsters like Darrell Wallace, Jr., Erik Jones and Chase Elliott rather than the Cup drivers who won races.

Aaron: I am still keeping my eye on those Ganassi teams.  It’s become a regular occurrence that one or in many cases both teams are running toward the front.  It’s a matter of time when one of them gets to Victory Lane, and it could be earlier than the 2015 season.  Among Nationwide regulars, I see Chase Elliott continuing to widen the gap at the site of his first series win and onward to a title in his rookie season.  The Truck Series is probably the most unpredictable of them all between the championship contenders and the part-timers.  Expect some sparks to fly.

Texas predictions… what say you?

Vito: Kevin Harvick
Mark: Kevin Harvick
Mike: I’m going to put my eggs in the Kevin Harvick basket. He won at Charlotte and could rebound from the disaster at Martinsville to lock into the title battle at Homestead.
Huston: Did good enough at
The paper clip, at Texas
Win for Logano
Aaron: It’s hard to go against Jeff Gordon.  The team is on top of their game.
Amy: Matt Kenseth ends the talk about the possibility of him becoming a winless champ when he dons the cowboy hat.

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      

WriterPickFinishing PositionPoints
Amy HendersonJimmie Johnson32nd-2
Mike NeffJeff Gordon2nd3
Vito PuglieseJeff Gordon2nd3
Phil AllawayDale Earnhardt, Jr.1st5
Mark HowellKevin Harvick33rd-2
Joseph WolkinJimmie Johnson32nd-2
Justin TuckerDenny Hamlin8th1
Huston LadnerJimmie Johnson32nd-2

Standings

 WriterPointsBehindStartsWinsTop 5Top 10
Amy Henderson363331016
Phil Allaway28-8294914
Mike Neff   26-102211012
Huston Ladner9-276133
Tom Bowles9-276224
Matt Stallknecht9-273033
Vito Pugliese8-289034
Summer Bedgood7-293112
Aaron Creed6-307025
Jeff Wolfe5-315022
Justin Tucker5-316023
Kevin Rutherford4-322011
Greg Davis3-331011
Beth Lunkenheimer3-332011
Jeff Meyer3-331011
Mark Howell2-346012
S.D. Grady1-352011
Brad Morgan0-363112
Joseph Wolkin-4-406011

 

 

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4 comments

  1. Avatar

    Any pressure on Chad Knaus is self-imposed. He’s still the best in the business and HMS isn’t going to do anything to make him consider moving on. He’ll leave when he wants to and under his own terms.

    Hard to bet against Brad Keselowski at Texas… he wins when he needs to. That’s my pick.

    Looking at the current results on the Frontstretch Staff Prediction chart, it looks like there’s a three way battle for the fourth and final transfer spot between Houston, Tom and Matt. Everyone else gets eliminated after Phoenix, right? And poor Amy loses that big lead going into Homestead when the points get reset. This chase business is fun stuff, huh?

  2. Avatar

    I figure JJ & Chad are just having one of their spats, who know what will happen with the rule changes (again) next year?

    Amazing news, isn’t it? the drivers want to win! The fans want to see them win and w/o the chase BS, the fans and the drivers would most likely be pretty happy. It would be a win/win for everyone.

  3. Avatar

    I think this recent emphasis on winning the championship instead of winning races has hurt the sport in general. It used to be the logical conclusion of a team being strong all year, and no one used to question the validity of the eventual champion. This ridiculous ‘chase’ scenario has, to me anyway, cheapened to title, and taken a lot of interest away from the individual races…thus empty seats and sagging TV ratings. It used to seem more exciting when all that mattered was winning a race on any given Sunday instead of flogging fans with ‘title chances’ 2 races into the season. And this newest incarnation has a closer resemblance to a lottery ticket than a championship.

    • Avatar

      IMHO the chase and its associated hoopla is merely a marketing gimmick. A device to continue interest in the sport/business throughout the week and thus the season. From that standpoint it has been totally successful. Even the negativity being preferable to silence.
      As far as empty seats and declining ratings, it seems that most of the participating sponsors are in it for the Business to Business opportunities rather than attracting customers. That and the TV contracts are enough to ensure the continuation of the sport.