1) Those involved in the sport had mixed reviews about the new rules, including the driver track bar adjustment in the first weekend of unrestricted racing. Do you think the competition we saw at a 1.5-mile oval was better, worse, or about the same as we saw in 2014? Why?
Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief: I thought the competition was about the same. If you weren’t up front, in position to capitalize during a green-flag restart you lost your chance to pass for the lead. Atlanta is a track where tire wear should make for great competition but it seemed like the side-by-side battles died down fairly quickly. Passing in general proved difficult; not impossible, considering how many drivers charged from the back but the field seemed to stabilize greatly in the race’s second half. At times, the gaps between the top 10 stretched over nearly a full lap. I don’t call that description heart-stopping improvement; instead, it averaged out to about a C. Last year, NASCAR’s intermediate package was about a C at most of the tracks on the circuit. So there you go…
Mike Neff, Senior Writer: Unfortunately, it was about the same racing. Atlanta always offers multiple grooves and the tires drop off but when it was all said and done, people still couldn’t pass for the lead very easily. Times were about the same as the old package, they were just slower down the straight and faster in the turns. This weekend will hopefully tell the tale more of just how good or bad the new rules package is.
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: I’m looking at the rules package as a work in progress. The driver adjustable track bars were new and some teams and drivers seemed to fare better with them than others, as might be expected. Some teams (Hendrick Motorsports in particular) seem to have gotten their arms around the new rules package faster than others. Other teams are going to have to play catch up and with limited testing, that might prove difficult. The next three weeks ought to be interesting with a one-mile, 1.5-mile and a two-mile oval on the slate, but my guess is it takes until the Coca-Cola 600 in May for everyone to get everything sorted out so we can see where we’re at. At least this new rules package got a warmer reception than the late and unlamented COT. If I recall, Kyle Busch won the first COT race, climbed out his new mount and proclaimed to the world it sucked.
Joseph Wolkin, XFINITY Writer: The competition level was just about the same as last year. It’s tough to say since Atlanta’s surface is old and it eats up tires more than any other intermediate track. However, from where I sit, the level of competition had a slight increase from last year’s race at Atlanta. Tony Gibson told me during Media Week that the driver adjustable track bar could be big once the season continues and teams get more comfortable with it. But we’ll only be able to see major differences, if any, after another one or two intermediate races.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: About the same, if not worse. I think the horsepower reduction masked the benefit of lowered downforce. My fear still remains that we’ll end up with another XFINITY Series but with sedans and not muscle cars. Atlanta and Darlington are sort of their own animal because the pavement is so worn out. Once we start going to high-grip tracks where there isn’t much falloff, places where the teams have some more time to work with the package is when you’ll start to see the true face of it. Of concern, though is that the goal of these new rules was to reduce corner speed. They were up almost four miles per hour this past weekend, and we aren’t even to Fontana yet. Eek…
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: I thought the racing on Sunday was pretty good, but I watch with an understanding of reality. On an intermediate track, you aren’t going to have door-to-door racing for the lead for 500 miles, nor are you going to see 50 lead changes. It’s never been that way, and we shouldn’t expect it to be. What we did see was some good racing for position throughout the field, drivers able to complete passes, and some surprising names in the top 15. On a 1.5-mile track, that’s a pretty decent day overall, and I enjoyed it.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: I think, from a spectator’s perspective, the competition we saw on the first 1.5 of the year was better in that the cars made a Sunday afternoon at Atlanta look more like a Saturday night at your local bullring. Sliding, drifting, and wrestling 3,100 pounds of stock car at 190+ miles per hour was fun to watch (at least from TV camera angles). Barry Dodson once told me that the secret to being a truly great stock car driver was tire and brake management — something that excessive downforce tended to nullify. The new rule package seems like a throwback to the days when drivers had to actually work in order to gain positions.
2) It’s clear NASCAR has a qualifying problem. What isn’t clear is the solution. So solve it.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: Qualifying really isn’t the issue — it’s what goes on beforehand that is screwing things up. NASCAR runs into this problem even in the best scenarios, cars late to the grid having to go through inspection 2-3 times. Is there really a benefit to measuring everything with a laser to build identical cars? This inspection gets back to the spirit of competition and ingenuity. Whatever advantage someone has, everybody else figures it out in a few months anyway. If there is one tweak I’d make, once they blow the whistle to make a lap, you have one minute to break the plane on pit road and start your lap. This trying to time it when the clock strikes zero is stupid.
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: Actually, the solution is painfully clear: go back to single-car qualifying. Group qualifying works for other series because it wasn’t created for entertainment and it doesn’t need to fit neatly into a television time slot. Qualifying isn’t supposed to be a show in and of itself; it’s meant to set up the race in the best, fairest way. If qualifying wasn’t televised, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Make no mistake, 13 cars missed their chance to make a qualifying attempt because FOX didn’t want to delay the broadcast. Do enough fans really watch qualifying on TV that it needs to be scheduled around them? I doubt it. NASCAR should stop trying to make it a circus it isn’t and go back to making it about Sunday’s race. As for the track bar, its effectiveness will lie in how teams use it. Jimmie Johnson carefully communicated every change he made to his team so that they could make other adjustments accordingly. That’s the attention to detail teams need to have to make something new, and contrary to what they’ve done previously, work.
Mike Neff, Senior Writer: Qualifying on mile and a half tracks isn’t a problem. Tech inspection is a problem and superspeedway qualifying is a problem. On the plate tracks, they need to just go back to single-car qualifying and forget about it. As for tech, they need to stop checking everything under the sun before every activity. Check a handful of items before practice, another handful before qualifying and a handful before the race. Postrace is when you tear them down and check everything. If NASCAR did that, they would eliminate the tech issues.
Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief: I don’t understand what’s so hard. If a car isn’t off pit road within the first 20 seconds of the clock starting, it’s disqualified. Have a poor spot in line? Deal with it. NASCAR used to pick the qualifying order from a random draw; the best teams will make it work for them.
As for inspection, you can’t have over a quarter of the field miss unless they’re all bringing supersized engines to the track. If you can’t find a reason to detain them, detain qualifying until they’re all ready to go. It’s really that simple.
Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: One way to solve it is maybe to schedule times for teams to go through inspection. That way, the inspection station doesn’t get a late rush. NASCAR and the teams had to know that with the new rules there would be issues in tech. I wonder if NASCAR just said the ones who don’t make it through in time are going to just suffer the consequences. I think the rules for actual qualifying will help now; it’s just a matter of getting the inspection routine figured out.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: My solution to qualifying: go “old school” and return to the single-car qualifying system. It ain’t great TV, but it’s a better way to sort out the starting order. For added fun: make qualifying count toward the Chase — award driver points in reverse order from where each driver starts. Qualify 43rd, get one point; qualify for the pole, get 43 points. Most poles for the first 26 races gets a spot in the Chase. Something catchy and competitive like that….
Joseph Wolkin, XFINITY Writer: I’ve always been in favor of single-car qualifying. I never found anything wrong with it. It’s less costly for teams, plus it doesn’t have the major possibility of causing an accident, especially at the plate tracks. The group qualifying has experienced too many issues, and it is costing NASCAR credibility in terms of level of excitement over productivity. Qualifying does not need to be a giant show for fans. The best part about single-car qualifying is that it showed raw speed, and it’s still that way at short tracks across the country.
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: Is Humpy Wheeler’s old giant Pachinko machine still laying around? Anything has to beat the current farce that is qualifying right now. Have we tried starting the next race in the inverse order of the previous week’s event? It works on the shorties.
3) Brett Moffitt went from a top-10 finish to three races driving the Front Row Motorsports No. 34 while David Ragan subs for Kyle Busch. Is there any chance we see him in the No. 55 again, though this season with Brian Vickers in the last year of his contract? Is Vickers on the hot seat?
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: I think you’ll see Moffitt in a Sprint Cup car, but it will be the No. 34. With David Ragan on loan to JGR while Kyle Busch recovers, I don’t see Toyota letting a Ford driver back into his ride after getting a glimpse into the inner workings for four months. It was Kyle Busch, remember who said they would be “idiots” to not work closer with MWR. Well, here’s your chance. I think Ragan will move to the No. 55 at some point this year because sadly, I don’t see Brian Vickers running the whole season and frankly, his career is at odds with mortality. At some point, his health and sustainability need to be addressed. A race team can’t take chances with someone who has a history of spontaneous, life-threatening health issues and a driver at some point has to face the reality that he might be better served in a career outside the cockpit.
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: Yes and no. Sending any message that Vickers is on the hot seat too soon after the guy had open-heart surgery isn’t exactly a great PR move. Vickers is capable of running well and making the Chase if—and there’s the key—if the organization is strong enough to suppost his efforts. Right now, that’s still a question as Michael Waltrip Racing was not at its best in 2014, still reeling from Spingate the season before. Aaron’s has stuck by Vickers and if they continue that loyalty, the team’s best option is to find the funding to field a third car (something they say is in the long-range plans) for Moffitt. At the end of the day, though, it’s awfully soon to be calling for him to replace Vickers. One good race does not a career make.
Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: I think Vickers is on the hot seat just a bit. The shame of it is that it probably has more to do with his health than his driving ability. How can a sponsor expect him to be in the car when these health issues continue to pop up. Vickers is a good driver and good guy and you want to wish him the best. But the fact is, he just can’t stay on the track for a full season. Moffitt wasn’t great, but he certainly showed he was capable of running well in a good car. I’m not sure if he would be the first choice to replace Vickers, but an outing like he had Sunday has to at least make him an option.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Moffitt’s top-10 result was a 200 mile-per-hour job interview. I think he’s a strong addition to MWR. For as much as I have always liked Brian Vickers, I can’t help but think that his ongoing heart issues are a major liability; we thought he was in good health after his previous procedure, but then he’s found to have further problems. Michael Waltrip and company will have to make some difficult decisions as the clock winds down to signing hour.
Joseph Wolkin, XFINITY Writer: Vickers is definitely on the hot seat after coming off a season where he didn’t crack the top 20 in points. Though the sponsor and team love him, results need to improve this season. Michael Waltrip Racing has been on a decline since NAPA left, but Vickers’ comeback story is incredible. If he can remain healthy throughout the year, he has the potential to snag a win or two. As for Moffitt, not much will be done in the No. 34 car since it’s a low quality ride. However, the added on-track experience following his impressive run could provide added interest in MWR officials attempting to go back to a three-car team in 2016.
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: Everybody loves a feel good story and Andy Rooney would be slated to play Moffitt right now if’n he was still alive and what not. But this is a “What have you done for me lately” kind of business. After a couple lackluster runs Moffitt’s strong run at Atlanta (due at least in part to attrition) will go the way of llamas on the loose and color-shifting dresses. Call me a cynic, but I haven’t even added his name to my spellchecker yet.
Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief: Brian Vickers the man? Great guy. Brian Vickers the driver? Bad health risk. That’s all you need to know and now, those truths are paired with a potential replacement.
4) Roush Fenway Racing has three cars inside of the top 4 in the XFINITY Series standings. Why such a difference between their XFINITY success and their Cup failures? Which driver amongst that RFR group has the best chance to move up if the Cup drivers struggle all season?
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: Roush Fenway has been strong for the past few years in the lower-tiered series with Ricky Stenhouse winning a pair of titles — this during the true dark days at RFR. I think the XFINITY program works because they have three young drivers with limited experience and a new engineering face. The level of competition is not what it is in Cup either, let’s be honest. Ryan Reed was aided by a couple of large wrecks to win Daytona, which helped he and Buescher to a 1-2 finish and is sustaining them in points for now. As for Cup, who knows. Just start buying cars from Penske for the time being until they can figure things out. If I hear Biffle start talking about “wait until this summer…” as we have the past few years, then you’ll know they are completely out to lunch.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: The RFR stable of XFINITY drivers is young, talented, and hungry. The RFR stable of Cup drivers is hitting an expected (and totally natural) performance slump. Maybe it’s bad mojo from Ricky’s mullet? I get the sense that the XFINITY Series is a better division, of late, for sheer racing than the Sprint Cup side. As such, RFR is allowing its young guns to mix it up and flex their muscles, like we saw in the season opener at Daytona. Late-race good breaks aside, Roush Fenway’s XFINITY program is a breath of fresh air. Call me overly optimistic, but I really like Ryan Reed and his potential as both a Cup competitor AND a popular spokesman for Type-1 diabetes concerns. He may become the next Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. only with more wins and a better hairstyle….
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: By most accounts, RFR’s internal struggles come not from a lack of funding or technology but from the team culture, which has historically been much more about personal gain than about teamwork and information sharing. Perhaps the youngsters in XFINITY are more interested in running well than in internal competition and are able to work more closely together. My guess, though, is that it has to do with the level of competition in that series. There aren’t 20 teams capable of winning every week like there are in Sprint Cup, so a team with money and resources can get a bigger piece of the pie, even if they then fight over it among themselves.
Joseph Wolkin, XFINITY Writer: Teamwork has been lacking at the Cup Series level for Roush for plenty of years. It has been the biggest difference maker in its success, and losing Carl Edwards put the icing on the cake. The XFINITY Series drivers for the team are more relaxed with better chemistry between all four drivers. Meanwhile, the Cup Series drivers are seldom seen together, and seemingly don’t share as much information. However, the XFINITY Series season is quite young, and it’s still too early to say if they can keep up their hot pace. But if any driver from the XFINITY Series were to move up, it would be Chris Buescher replacing Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. or running a fourth car. Buescher has been incredibly hot since late last season, and he is steadily becoming a more marketable driver as his results continue to improve. Plus, he doesn’t have a history of wrecking cars, which is something that Ryan Reed, Stenhouse and Trevor Bayne cannot say.
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: I’ll just say it’s awfully nice for Jack Roush and his organization to serve as a driver development team for JGR and Toyota.