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. A last-lap move at Phoenix by Ryan Newman but him in the Chase, knocked Jeff Gordon out and knocked Kyle Larson right into the wall. Was Newman’s move acceptable considering the circumstances?
Huston Ladner, Assistant Editor: Acceptable? Sure seems to be the case as he wasn’t penalized. Isn’t that what NASCAR wanted?
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Given the tenor of the Chase thus far, and given Harvick’s domination at Phoenix, I’d say Newman’s bump-and-run on Larson was Brian France’s money shot for the weekend. No real harm, no real foul.
Joseph Wolkin, Contributing Writer: Ryan Newman’s move was 100 percent acceptable. It was bold, yet he had to do it in order to make it to the final round of the Chase. When you haven’t had the best of seasons and have a possibility at winning the championship, why not go for it? It might have been questionable and Kyle Larson might not have liked it, but if Jeff Gordon were in that position – he likely would have done the same thing.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: I guess. My biggest issue is, I don’t see how having one Top 5 in 26 races screams “Champion.” Running around the Top 10 all season long had him 8th in points at the time The Chase started; take a look back through history and see who was running 8th in points – with no wins – over the last 30 years, and how out to lunch they were compared to the actual champion that season.
Mike Neff, Short Track Coordinator: For the second week in a row people are talking about whether hard racing is acceptable or not when a championship is on the line. What is the sport coming to? We don’t want to see people being body slammed for 15th place every week but when the opportunity to win a race or a championship is on the line, anything goes. The body slam on Larson might have been a bit forceful but he didn’t turn him into the wall or spin him, he just used eight tires to corner better than four. Fans have complained for years that drivers settle for points and don’t put it on the line for wins. Now that they have drivers actually racing aggressively they’re whining. Be careful what you ask for.
Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: Was it completely unacceptable? Well, no. But it was a dirty move. There are two big differences between what Newman did at Phoenix and Brad Keselowski’s Texas move. First and foremost, Keslelowski was racing for a win, while Newman was points racing and dumped Larson for eleventh place. It would still be less than clean if it had been for the win, but that Newman was points racing, it seems a little over the top. Second, Newman intentionally hit Larson and put him in the wall. Keselowski made incidental contact with Jeff Gordon that unfortunately cut Gordon’s tire. A bump and run for a win is one thing, but Newman crossed that line both in wrecking Larson and in dumping him for points and not a win. He might get a slight bye because of the Chase, but overall, his move was pretty dirty.
2. Also in the news in the last week was Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kurt Busch, who was accused of domestic violence by his ex-girlfriend. NASCAR and SHR have taken a wait and see approach, as Busch has a hearing scheduled for December 2. Was that the right call, or should Busch have been suspended in light of recent domestic incidents in other sports and the way they were handled?
Huston: If one reads everything about this situation, like the parts that include a custodial battle with Driscoll’s previous ex, and that there seems to have been strange circumstances involving lawyers, then yes, the wait-and-see approach is just fine. Good for SHR. Now, if the incident had happened, and the police were summoned and Busch were taking from the track in cuffs, then it’s a different story.
Joseph: NASCAR and the team have been taking the perfect approach in this ordeal. In the cases for the athletes in other sports, they were found guilty of domestic abuse. There is no reason why NASCAR or SHR should suspend Busch until they find out the facts. Patricia Driscoll, who is in the midst of a custody battle with her ex-husband, waited over a month to report these allegations. If NASCAR were to suspend him without him going for his hearing and it turns out he’s innocent, they would get a lot of scrutiny for the way they deal with these situations.
Phil Allaway, Senior Editor: NASCAR should know that every move they make in regards to Kurt Busch over the next couple of months will be watched very closely. Their actions so far are consistent with what they did with Tony Stewart in regards to the tragedy at Canandaigua in August. If Busch is ultimately charged, they should suspend him indefinitely
Vito: This is not like more publicized incidents of domestic abuse that have dominated headlines as of late; Ray Rice punching his wife unconscious and caught on video, or Adrian Peterson who injured his 4-year old son, with photographic evidence and having been examined by a physician. In all honesty, it looks like a crazy ex-girl friend who is simply trying to shame her former boyfriend through the media using the topic-d’jour to do so. If you follow her Twitter feed, you’ll see she was posting pictures of him and supporting him in the weeks leading up to her filing a report. If he truly had done this, NASCAR would have been made well aware of it, and they would have taken appropriate action given Busch’s history and nature of the accusation.
Mike: The premise of guilty until proven innocent seems to be taking a harder and harder hit as Social Media world continues to judge people. Every story has three sides and only one of them is available right now. Barring a video that shows the incident, Busch deserves to have his day in court before he is prevented from earning a living. Patricia has a reason for not coming forward for seven weeks with the information. Now it is in the hands of the authorities and will be heard in a court of law. Whether Busch actually goes to court or settles out of court is yet to be seen but until the case plays out he has every right to the presumption of innocence.
3. There has been talk in the garage of a possible crew chief change for Kasey Kahne, who has driven with head wrench Kenny Francis at the helm since 2007. Will a change be enough to revitalize Kahne, whose contract with Hendrick Motorsports is up after the 2015 season?
Phil: Next year is a very important season for Kahne. It’s a contract year, but he’s essentially a lame duck already. The guy could win 12 races and the championship next season and still get fired. His goal is to look good for other owners. Unfortunately, whatever ride he gets to replace the No. 5 will likely be a downgrade. In regards to a crew chief change, perhaps the chemistry went bad between Kahne and Francis after nine years. It’s a shame. It’s hard to say whether anyone available could do better, though.
Vito: Kasey Kahne is the odd man out at Hendrick Motorsports. You have the three faces of the sport, and Kahne, who just might be the most over-rated driver in the series. The numbers don’t lie; he has yet to measure up to the performance of the driver he replaced, and always seems to be on the cusp of contending for a championship — but 10 years later it has yet to happen. With Chase Elliott winning a Nationwide championship in a team thrown together at the 11th hour in his rookie season, Kahne needs a change of scenery and a new team sooner rather than later.
Mike: No one ever knows what chemistry will develop between a driver and a crew chief. Kahne has felt confident with Francis on the box for nine years and was reported to have had Francis as a stipulation in his move to Hendrick. A change on the other end of the radio could push Kahne to the next level or it could cause him to take a downturn to mediocrity. One race win in equipment that his three teammates won four races apiece with is not a strong resume filler.
Amy: A little Hendrick Motorsports math lesson: HMS currently has three drivers looking for Cup seats in 2016. Two of them have contracts which expire at the end of 2015. One of those is Jimmie Johnson, so you have to assume that, as a six-time champion, he’s probably safe as long as he wants to stick around. That leaves Kahne and young gun Chase Elliott eyeballing the same seat…and right now, the view is looking pretty good for Elliott, the Nationwide Series Champion. So yes, something needs to change if Kahne wants to show owner Rick Hendrick that he might have a reason to keep Kahne around, and usually in similar situations, that means a change in crew chief. Whether it’s Keith Rodden or someone else, Kahne has one year to prove that the performance issues with the No. 5 weren’t coming from the driver’s seat.
4. The season has come down to one race to decide the championship among Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, and Kevin Harvick. Who will hoist the Sprint Cup…and how will the champ be received by race fans?
Huston: The second part of the question is the key. Fans of any one of these drivers will be happy. But the overall sentiment already seems not to favor a strong/favorable reception. Of the four, Logano and Harvick can at least be seen as ‘legitimate’ but the other two don’t quite elicit the same reaction.
Mark: While it seems obvious that Harvick is the odds-on favorite to win the championship, given his ability to lead laps and post some overwhelming wins in 2014, it’d make me absolutely giddy to see Ryan Newman hoist the big trophy after Homestead. With all of NASCAR’s bluster about putting the emphasis on winning this year, it’d be great — in my opinion — to have a winless driver take the title. Winning races comes from being consistent week-in-and-week-out, but winning championships comes from knowing how to play the system (for more on this, check with Jimmie Johnson.)
Joseph: Kevin Harvick is going to capture this title. He has been amazing at the 1.5-mile tracks this year, and the only thing that would prevent him from winning the championship is a mishap on pit road or a mechanical failure, which has plagued this team plenty in 2015. I think fans will be pleased if Harvick or Joey Logano wins the title since a lot of people had predicted them to be the champion before the Chase began. However, if Newman or Hamlin wins it all, fans might not be too happy. All I have to say is – it’s like wild card teams in football, basketball or baseball. They made the playoffs and might not have been the best, but they were clutch and did what they had to do in order to make it to the championship event.
Phil: If you’re going solely on average finish, it’s Harvick’s to lose. He has the best average finish at Homestead by three full positions over Hamlin, but Hamlin has won before at Homestead while Harvick has not. However, Harvick has the momentum of Sunday’s finely executed butt kicking in Phoenix. I don’t think winning will be required. As far as reception goes, Harvick is the best performing driver for the full season that’s eligible. He would be warmly received. The others, not so much. You have a driver who missed a race early on and got docked 50 points for cheating, and two guys that could make a mockery of the format.
Mike: Kevin Harvick has had the car to beat for the vast majority of races this season. His team has beaten themselves far more than they’ve been beaten. With that said, Joey Logano has done the beating in more of those races than anyone else left. The smart money is on Harvick to win the title although Hamlin has shown that he can get around Homestead, winning the most recent race at Homestead and two in his career. Add in the rumors that Darian Grubb is about to lose his job as the crew chief of the No. 11 and he could be the first crew chief in history to guide two drivers to the title and lose his job both times. When you weigh all of the evidence it is obvious: Ryan Newman is going to win the title.
Amy: Looking at past history, Kevin Harvick is the best at Homestead in terms of average finish, though he’s winless there. In terms of a driver who’s been hot just about everywhere, though, Joey Logano could have an edge. Denny Hamlin’s got a win at the track but has been weak overall this year, while Ryan Newman has to beat them all, something he hasn’t done consistently, if at all. As to whether the fans will see the winner as legit…if it’s Logano, they might. He’d still be in it under a full-season points tally (the other three would be mathematically eliminated), and under the previous Chase rules, he’d be leading handily. The others could be a stretch for fans to accept simply because of the reality of the entire season: Harvick’s 2014 was a big roller coaster where he was fast but inconsistent; Newman’s lack of a win isn’t as disturbing as his tally of just four top-5 finishes and lack of a top 2 since July of last year; and Hamlin would be 14th in points if NASCAR hadn’t reset them so many times. Even Logano will be a difficult sell because he won’t have to go through Jeff Gordon to get there. For many fans, they simply are not championship caliber this year, and will never be viewed on the same level as previous champions.
One more time…picks for Homestead?
Huston: Ruffled at Texas
Solid second at Phoenix
Jeff: “F you Homestead”
Mark: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Since this is Steve Letarte’s last race, and Junior seems to be all about posting significant wins at meaningful events, file Homestead under “out with a bang”
Joseph: Kyle Larson gets his first victory in the Sprint Cup Series this weekend.
Phil: Brad Keselowski. Just because the Chase will be the focus doesn’t mean that everyone else isn’t going to give it significant amounts of heck on Sunday.
Vito: Dale Jr. gives Steve Letarte one heck of a going away present and bookends the season with a win.
Mike: Give me Jeff Gordon for the win to perpetuate the debate that he should have won number five this season.
Amy: Jeff Gordon clinched me the title last week, but we’ll see his teammate on top this week. Entering Homestead without championship pressure for the first time in more than a decade, Jimmie Johnson marks it off his bucket list.
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
Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500
|Amy Henderson||Jeff Gordon||32nd||3|
|Phil Allaway||Paul Menard||23rd||-1|
|Vito Pugliese||Kevin Harvick||1st||5|
|Justin Tucker||Kevin Harvick||1st||5|
|Mark Howell||Kasey Kahne||21st||-1|
|Huston Ladner||Kyle Busch||34th||-2|
|Ashley McCubbin||Kevin Harvick||1st||5|
|Writer||Points||Behind||Starts||Wins||Top 5||Top 10|