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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Friday Faceoff: Analyzing Penalties, Johnson vs. Harvick & Pocono Setup

Welcome to Friday Faceoff, our weekly NASCAR roundtable where the Frontstretch experts give their take on major storylines surrounding the sport. Here’s a few major questions we’re trying to answer heading into Pocono this weekend.

1) Halfway through the regular season, two drivers stand out ahead of the pack in terms of victories and overall performance. Head-to-head right now, who would you pick in a race and why: Jimmie Johnson‘s team or Kevin Harvick‘s?

Mark Howell, Senior Writer: My pick between the two teams would be Johnson. The No. 48 operation, unlike Harvick, has organizational depth on its side. Even though drivers like Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne have yet to win a race in 2015, Hendrick Motorsports is wall-to-wall money and expertise. While Harvick is worthy of his success, I believe Johnson would prevail in a head-to-head runoff.

Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief: Gotta go with Johnson. Yeah, Harvick’s team has nine top-two finishes but the “Closer” hasn’t done so well at closing the deal. Johnson has won a race like Atlanta after starting deep in the field and the No. 48 Chevy is one of the few cars this season capable of passing at will. Looks like crew chief Chad Knaus has found a little something special (doesn’t he always?) and at times, their car appears to be toying with the field. The championship is once again Johnson’s to lose.

Amy Henderson, Writer/Photo Editor: Depends. Johnson has four wins, twice as many as Harvick, but Harvick’s mind-numbing consistency means he has a lot more points. That’s what will ultimately win the Chase title, even over a bunch of wins. So, if I only had one race, I’d take Johnson… but if I wanted all the marbles, the big trophy and check, Harvick is the easy choice.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: Kind of a coin flip between these two. The biggest issue with Harvick right now seems to be durability in the rear end with regards to the track bar adjuster. It’s failed in about half of the races so far this year and likely cost him the win this past weekend at Dover. The No. 48 is starting to gain momentum again, as well which is bad news for Harvick and the rest of the field. Given the elimination championship format, does it really mean all that much? Both teams are in, so whatever happens between now and September is just kind of filler. It’s one more reason why the new Chase format  raises more questions than it answers.

Phil Allaway, Newsletter Manager/TV Critic: Hard to say. I want to go with Harvick because he’s a little more versatile than Johnson. Johnson’s got more wins, but a lot of them are clustered at a few tracks. One-quarter of his career victories are at two (Dover and Martinsville). Harvick also has one aspect of the weekend covered much better than Johnson: qualifying.  Johnson (and by extension, his Hendrick teammates) have been stinking it up on Fridays recently.  With how difficult it can be to pass these days, putting yourself in a hole isn’t exactly your best card to play, regardless of who’s on top of the pit box. 

Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: I’d have to give the nod to Harvick right now. Both have had brilliant races but overall Harvick seems to always finish up front while Johnson and his bunch have had some off weekends. Their performance at Charlotte was downright embarrassing. Of course, with the team locked into the playoffs Knaus is doing some experimenting. Harvick, meanwhile seems more determined to win each week not play “Science Fair” with the car.

Aaron Bearden, Contributor: If we were going with a driver right now, I’d take Harvick. But if we have to pick teams? Give me Johnson. While Harvick and Co. are on a hot streak, Johnson’s team has shown incredible speed and consistency for over a decade, pushing Johnson into the possibility of a record-tying seventh championship. The big reason for that is Knaus, one of the most brilliant crew chiefs the sport has seen. He and Johnson would be great on their own, but together, the two are nearly unstoppable. Just ask the rest of the field.

Clayton Caldwell, Contributor: I would take Johnson. Obviously both drivers have been stout this season but we’ve seen what this No. 48 team is capable of when they are on their game. They can win anytime, anywhere on any given day. It doesn’t matter if they qualify badly or it’s “hard to pass;” the No. 48 always finds its way to the front.

2) NASCAR announced penalties this week for a variety of different offenses, from Jennifer Jo Cobb and Trevor Bayne‘s “safety miscues” to a serious list of consequences for another Xfinity Series team that had tungsten leak out and slam into another competitor’s car. Which one of these penalties did you think needs to be revisited, reworked, or rescinded… and why?

McLaughlin: The penalties for Bayne and Cobb are fair. I’m glad NASCAR took into account the small purses at truck races and Cobb’s limited budget when they assigned a low-dollar value to a fine she admitted she deserved. This whole bit with ballast weight falling out of cars is ludicrous. If you walk out on the track and get hurt, that’s your fault. If weight falls off your car and it hurts someone else, that’s a bad deal. I’d suggest a one-week automatic suspension for any team that loses weight out of its cars. It’s not that hard to do right, yet we’ve seen it happen twice in the last month. Sloppy only works for Joes.

Pugliese: Cobb’s penalty was appropriate, and they are working with her to pay it off, given her team’s small stature; it isn’t a Carl Long banishment or anything. She is not appealing and understands the reason behind it. As far as weight falling off cars, this issue hints at something else more egregious going on. It’s now twice in one month; something’s up with teams looking to skirt a rule or shed some weight. I’d say you could get tougher about it, but the next time it happens could result in death. Best to put the teams on notice now: anything falls out of the car, you’re out for the year.

Henderson: None of them.  NASCAR got every one of them correct, and what’s more, they were consistent. (I know; I can’t believe I’m saying that either). I know Cobb’s fine was less than Bayne’s for the same offense, but when you look at it in comparison to the total purses for the two series, it’s much more in line.  Harvick’s was exactly what Johnson and Justin Allgaier got a week ago, so it’s totally fair. (And for the record, I don’t expect Johnson to win the appeal, nor do I think he should.  But I don’t think he thinks he’ll prevail, either, and I don’t think he cares.  He already got exactly what he set out to get when his team filed the appeal.)

Howell: Any action involving either competitor or spectator safety needs to be etched in stone and officiated in the same way. We know the possible consequence of leaving your car under “hot” track conditions (that goes for any division in any form or racing) and we understand what might happen when parts/projectiles “fall off” a damaged vehicle. I believe NASCAR should hold tight regarding these kinds of “safety miscues” and, if anything, police them even more strictly.

Bowles: I was fine with the penalties, actually. People will complain about how Cobb didn’t get fined as much as Bayne but keep in mind they’re two different series. Would a minor leaguer playing AA baseball be fined for a drug violation the same amount as, say, Alex Rodriguez? You have to keep that in mind although I’m only semi-comfortable with the idea of fining either driver at all. Yes, the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy was a horrific incident, one we hope will never happen again. But I feel like we’re removing all elements of emotion based on a tragic, once-in-a-lifetime quirk. Would Bristol be Bristol if Dale Jarrett didn’t have a chance to throw a helmet? If Tony Stewart didn’t throw gloves? Removing all risk may also be removing a reason to watch.

Allaway: I wholly agree with the penalty given due to the tungsten issue. That’s really dangerous. I do think that NASCAR needs to revisit what got Bayne and Cobb fined. I’ll fully admit that I was not in favor of the rule being instituted. My opinion is that if you’re stupid enough to leave your car, you’re putting your life in your own hands. NASCAR shouldn’t be in the business of treating drivers like they’re in fourth grade. It also technically goes against the whole “Boys, Have At It” philosophy that NASCAR’s been all about the last few years. Someone needs to explain to me why what Cobb and Bayne did is even remotely detrimental to motorsports while the stupidity we saw after Chase races last year is OK. As far as I’m concerned, fights on pit road hurt the sport far more than Bayne getting out of his car and walking away too quickly.

Bearden: Look, I know the “old school” fans love when drivers go onto the track to voice their displeasure. Trust me, I used to enjoy it quite a bit myself. However, as NASCAR continues to push to make the sport as safe as possible, it’s important that they hold tight on policies for incidents such as walking on a “hot” racetrack. We don’t need another preventable tragedy.

Caldwell: It’s a good question. I’ve never had a problem with someone expressing frustration after a crash but obviously that opinion has wavered since August of last year and the Ward situation. NASCAR created a rule, as they should have. To me, that is a very minor infraction compared to what happened with the No. 97 team. However, I do think NASCAR got it right here. I like the penalties this week; I think all people have gotten the message and will move on a little wiser from here on out.

3) HMS has won five straight Cup races at Pocono. Who’s got the best shot to stop the organization from number six?

Bowles: I’d go with Martin Truex Jr. at this point. The No. 78 team has been lights out every week, keeps knocking on the door and is bound to break it down one of these Sundays. Pocono, not a Chase track means there’s a different type of incentive for those guys who’ve already punched a postseason ticket. Without the speed to win, they won’t overdo it and that opens the door for guys like Truex, a surprisingly fast Austin Dillon and others trying to secure their spot.

Pugliese: No one. Mark me down for Jeff Gordon this weekend. He’s had a ton of success there, winning six races, his fan club has the most members from Pennsylvania, and he won Indy last year, which is very similar in layout. Different package for 2015, you say? Well, fine. HMS did the engine testing for this package, and this track is a honker horsepower wise. We’ll get to see how much ground the rest of the field has made up so far this year, but I think the Hendrick group (including the SHR bunch) will dominate this weekend.

Henderson: Right now, Joe Gibbs Racing has been the biggest threat, as they’ve really figured things out in recent weeks.  There’s always Harvick, too.

Bearden: While my heart says Truex, my head says that the best chance for a team to derail Hendrick will be one with Hendrick affiliation. My pick would be Kurt Busch, who’s shown tremendous speed in the months since returning from his incident with Patricia Driscoll. Plus, he has two wins and 11 top fives in 27 career Pocono starts. Don’t be surprised to see Kurt take win number two on the year this Sunday.

McLaughlin: Define HMS. Are we admitting here that Stewart-Haas Racing is part of the group? If so, I’d pick Harvick. If not, then I’ll color outside the lines with Truex.

Howell: Two names come to mind when thinking about derailing Hendrick’s Pocono Express: Greg Biffle and Truex. Biffle seems to have Roush Fenway’s Cup program headed in a positive direction while Truex will get an emotional bump from racing close to his hometown at Dover. Either of these drivers have a shot.

Allaway: It’s probably going to be someone like Denny Hamlin. He’s got a good record at the scalene triangle and can put himself right up there when he needs to. That being said, Sunday’s race should be somewhat interesting. The race is 400 miles now instead of 500, but hanging RPMs are going to be an issue. Mark my words.

Caldwell: Well with what we’ve seen from JGR over the last few races they certainly have a chance at winning. IMO, the Hendrick team needs to rely on either Johnson or Dale Jr. to get a victory this weekend. Both Nos. 5 & 24 have been off this season and their shop doesn’t appear to be as strong as the Nos. 48 & 88. That, IMO, eliminates Gordon from victory this year. Hamlin is strong at Pocono and it will be interesting to see if the added horsepower is for real at Toyota. Also, don’t sleep on Ryan Newman: he’s finished inside the top 10 in seven of the last eight races.

4) Chris Buescher and Darrell Wallace Jr. remain not the best of friends after Saturday’s contact in the Xfinity Series. Is anyone at fault, and if so, will we see payback down the line?

Bowles: No one’s at fault. Wallace was the victim of hard racing, two drivers knowing they were battling for a win. As I wrote last week, wasn’t it nice to see two teammates acting like racers? Last I checked, it’s a full field of 40 and not “best result” among 10 four-car teams. Until those rules are changed, it should be every man for himself and rivalries like the Buescher-Wallace one will only make the racing better going forward. We need emotion in this sport, the evolution of friends and enemies instead of everyone holding their hands around in a circle singing kumbaya.

Pugliese: A team owner’s nightmare: teammates racing, wrecking and scrappin’ afterward. Wallace had every right to be mad. Did he slide up the track a little? Yes – but if your teammate is behind you, there’s no reason to think he’s going to divebomb and doorslam you. To Buescher’s credit, it wasn’t like he just plowed into him, popped him in the bumper or in the middle of the corner. He saw an opening and seized the opportunity. Given Roush Fenway Racing having an open fourth car potentially in the Sprint Cup Series, they very well could be auditioning for a ride – and Buescher is aiming for the No. 1 slot in line.

McLaughlin: If you’re talking payback as in Wallace stuffing Buescher into the fence Days of Thunderstyle, I don’t see that happening. What he might do is hold up his teammate  when Buescher clearly has a faster car, refuse to work with him in the draft or stuff like that. Maybe he’ll even shortsheet the bed in Wallace’s motorcoach.

Caldwell: Buescher did what he had to do at the end of the race on Saturday. He didn’t “wreck” his teammate like he was accused of doing. He simply drove hard into turn 3, the car came up the track and he made contact with his teammate. Should Wallace be upset? Sure. However, late in the race your teammates no longer exist, in my opinion and you have to go for the win, which Buescher did. I don’t see an issue with that at all.

Allaway: At the time that the teammates were fighting for the win, Buescher was faster than Wallace. That said, I do blame Buescher for the issues that arose. It was unnecessary, and he would have taken the lead in another lap cleanly if he could have been patient. Wallace should not be paying back his own teammate on-track for Saturday’s issue, either. RFR has a good thing going right now in the Xfinity Series and nothing will wreck that quicker than inner turmoil. SEGA found that out the hard way back in the 1990s when they were battling Nintendo during the infamous “Console Wars.”

Bearden: If anything is at fault for the incident, it’s the cutthroat racing of the Xfinity Series. RFR took a significant risk both competitively and financially to put Buescher and Wallace in their Fords. Both drivers know that they may have a limited time to prove themselves and are doing the best to make the most of it.

Under different circumstances, I’m sure Wallace might have given a little more, and Buescher might have taken less, but they were racing for a win. I doubt we’ll see any true payback come from it in the near future – they are still teammates, after all – but NASCAR may be blessed with a new rivalry, one it desperately needs.

Henderson: The incident Saturday was just a racing deal. Those things happen; this one just happened to be between teammates. Wallace can run hot, so retaliation is not out of the question, though it can be argued that Jack Roush shouldn’t tolerate it. Personally, in his shoes, I’d be letting the driver know that if he retaliates, he pays for the cars he wrecks, so I don’t have to worry about disciplining drivers.

Howell: While the dust-up between these two looked like “one of them racin’ deals,” I wouldn’t count out the possibility of Wallace seeking some kind of revenge. He was en route to a win when the contact occurred. The cut tire and eventual 17th-place finish, while the result of colliding with Buescher, seemed to carry a ton of emotional weight. The silent treatment between feuding teammates only lasts so long; payback might soothe Bubba’s pain more quickly.

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