Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Are NASCAR Rookies Out of Control?

Welcome to Mirror Driving. Every week, your favorite columnists sit down and give their opinion about the latest news from the past week or race weekend. Love us or hate us, make a comment below and tell us how you feel about what we’ve said!

This week’s participants:
Tom Bowles (Frontstretch Managing Editor/Mondays/Bowles-Eye View)
Cami Starr (Tuesdays/Who’s Hot & Who’s Not & Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans)
Kim DeHaven (Frontstretch PR Coordinator/Tuesdays/Numbers Game)
Tommy Thompson (Wednesdays/Thompson in Turn 5)
Jeff Meyer (Thursdays/Voices From the Heartland)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Race Trax & Tuesdays/That’s History)
Toni Heffelfinger (Mondays/Busch Series Breakdown & Fridays/Second Fiddle)

Editor’s Note: Mirror Driving was completed before the news broke that David Ragan was not approved to run in the Nextel Cup race at Atlanta.

With a number of inexperienced rookies coming into the Cup Series next year, should there be a higher standard set by NASCAR before a driver is allowed to race in Nextel Cup? Two very inexperienced rookies took out some big contenders Sunday.

Cami: There should be, but it won’t happen with sponsor money driving the sport.
Amy: Absolutely, there should be. It used to be a lot harder to get Cup clearance. Now, everybody who’s driven in any series can.
Toni: I think Sunday really illustrated the point something needs to be done. I think Ken Schrader, Kyle Busch and Casey Mears would all agree. At least Mears recovered; Busch and Schrader were sent to the house.
Jeff: Well, if the “veterans” don’t like it, they need to stand up to Brian France and demand changes.
Tommy: NASCAR should make a minimum number of starts required – something like 40-50 Truck or Busch series starts – in order for someone to be eligible in Cup.
Jeff: If they’d just fix the Buschwhacker problem, maybe you’d have more experienced young guys! Until then, less experienced racers are just part of the equation.
Kim: Yeah, what Jeff said!
Cami: I agree with Jeff.
Toni: I just think it’s sad that a rookie laps down in his first race at the track has to learn how to race at the expense of someone running in the top 10.
Tom: Well, I think guys like Ragan obviously need to have more experience under their belt before being given a NASCAR license at the top level. I like the idea of a minimum race count.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: NASCAR's Future is Worrying Me

Tommy: That would go a long ways towards fixing the Buschwhacker problem.
Cami: I think 40 or 50 is a bit high, though.
Tom: Yeah, sometimes numbers don’t make a difference. David Reutimann has 100 starts under his belt in Trucks, and I still don’t think he’s Cup ready.
Amy: Trucks are too different to translate. They need Busch or ARCA time, period.
Toni: You know, 40 or 50 is just under two seasons. 10 years ago, two years in a lower series was standard. It was controversial when guys started coming over after only one year in Busch, now, they are coming over after 10 races.
Kim: Hmm, both inexperienced drivers that wreaked havoc on Sunday come from racing families.
Tom: Wow, what a great point, Kim. You wonder if they automatically get some slack because of that. I think there’s a mistaken feeling, too, that the cars have become so technology driven anyone and their mom could drive them. I mean, it’s not as hard as it used to be, but you don’t hand Joe Schmo the car keys to a Nextel Cup car at Martinsville and say, “Go!”
Tommy: You have to be a Journeyman electrician for five years before you can become a Master. And electricians don’t move all that fast.
Jeff: They do when they’re getting zapped!
Toni: Back to Amy’s point about the Trucks – I don’t think they’re too different to translate into driving Cup. Just look at the success of Kurt Busch or Carl Edwards. You know, Rick Ren used to crew chief for Travis Kvapil, and tried to impress upon him not to go to Busch but to try to go straight to Cup. He told him Busch would only teach him bad habits – he already knew everything he needed to from the Truck Series.
Amy: And look where that got Kvapil. What does he know, exactly?
Tommy: Hey! I hear Kvapil’s a hot commodity right now.
Tom: Well, I think the two series aren’t all that different; maybe the standard should not be based on numbers then, but success in a lower series. Yes, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon never won championships in Busch. But they won races.
Kim: But David Gilliland won a Busch race too, remember? And his learning curve has been STEEP.
Tom: Yeah, but he didn’t run up front other than that one race. In fact, some of these guys being names for Cup rides haven’t run up front at ALL and are getting chances.
Toni: Like Ragan. On what planet does Ragan qualify as ready for Cup?
Kim: Heck, I am marketable and can drive a manual transmission, where is my contract?
Jeff: Look, Ragan didn’t do anything a Bodine of your choice wouldn’t have done Sunday.
Toni: Well Jeff, I think Juan Pablo Montoya is in better shape for this than Ragan is. He doesn’t have a year of adjusting to stock cars like Stewart. But at least he has had success in other series.
Tommy: Well, if a guy runs a year and a half in CTS/Busch, at least there’s a fair chance that an owner would know what they have before they turn him loose in a Cup car. Gilliland is a prime example. RYR is just throwing the dice with him.
Toni: But you know, Tommy, the only guys in Busch that are maybe ready are already claimed by other teams. And even they are maybes. Paul Menard is already with DEI and Johnny Sauter is with Haas. And with Sauter you are getting a Bodine, probably.
Amy: Well, I think there ARE options, more than we think. Kenny Wallace, Ward Burton, Johnny Benson are all far more talented and far more experienced. But the problem is, the sponsors care more about the face than the talent behind it.
Kim: Right. Those options are too old to be marketable to sponsors.
Tom: All while guys like Jon Wood end up getting thrown into Cup. What title has a guy like Wood won? He won the “I’m the Wood Brothers’ son, so I’m young and marketable” award. That’s all he’s won.
Kim: He did win a CTS race at Martinsville, Tom.
Jeff: Bottom line is that NASCAR gives them the license. THEY must know what they are doing. THEY are NASCAR,
Amy: Yeah, Jeff, because NASCAR ALWAYS knows what they’re doing….
Tommy: Don’t forget about guys like Rick Crawford and David Starr. They’ve proved their competency, but no opportunities. No pretty faces.
Tom: I think if Crawford got just one chance in Cup, he’d be there to stay.
Toni: I adore Crawford. He’s got an awesome personality. But his age is what makes him unmarketable. That’s a shame.
Amy: Same old song for all those guys… not young and cute. If you can’t make the teenage girls swoon, you’re out of luck, pal.
Tom: Well, I think the bottom line is that the standards for being a NASCAR Nextel Cup rookie are decreasing. And as those standards decrease, so will the quality of the product.

So much focus has been given to teams not in the Chase, but several teams not running for the championship have impressed recently. What team not in the Chase has impressed you the most over the past month and a half, and why?

Amy: Tony Stewart, hands down. He won at Kansas, placed second at NHIS and has always a contender for the past month and a half.
Kim: Definitely Stewart. Look where he would be in the “classic” points system!
Cami: I’d say Edwards, although it was good to see the Petty cars in the top 10.
Tom: I’d have to say a tie between Bobby Labonte and Edwards, actually.
Jeff: I picked Labonte to win last week, if anyone remembers….
Kim: Kyle Petty also got a top 10 last week. Maybe they are rounding the turn.
Amy: I’d love to think so.
Tom: Can you believe Labonte has four top 10s in the past five races? I’ve got to look up the last time a Petty car did that. It’s got to be over a decade.
Toni: Meanwhile, can I point out Tony Raines has scored two good finishes in a row? On two very different tracks, no less, which minimizes the chances it was a fluke.
Amy: Raines has been very impressive.
Kim: Philippe Lopez, blech! But Raines has run well.
Tommy: Yeah, the most improved have been Labonte and Raines.
Toni: Kind of sad, though, that Raines got even less attention than Dave Blaney did.
Tom: I think Raines’s resurgence is directly linked to the crew chief change. Two races with Brandon Thomas – two top-15 finishes. Same with Jeff Green… first race with new crew chief Harold Holly, top-10 finish. How about Haas CNC making a commitment to the driver for a change instead of just firing him?

See also
Bubble Breakdown: Kyle Petty Comes Through With Strong Run; Cal Wells's Top-35 Hopes All But Done

Toni: I think pairing Green and Holly up was a great move for Haas. For both teams. I think Sauter will fit well with Booty, too.
Tommy: Holly’s slick!
Amy: Toni, Booty’s just got to convince Sauter not to hit anything. By the way, do you guys know there are 11 Sauter kids? Only three race at this level, but there are 11 total.
Tom: 11? Wow, Mrs. Sauter was buuuuuusy.
Kim: Those Wisconsin winters are long and cold. What else are they going to do?
Toni: Seriously, could you imagine the carnage if there were 11 Sauters racing?
Tom: Maybe that should be Ragan’s punishment for Sunday. Just force him to enter a demolition derby with all 11 Sauters. And then make sure every Sauter got aggravated just before they got in their car. That’d make him learn real quick!
Amy: That should be all the offenders’ punishments. You get in trouble, you have to race all 11 Sauters at once.
Toni: You don’t want to get those Sauters fired up.
Kim: My Ragan punishment? Make him run in a car with Schrader on the obstacle course during Ford Fan Appreciation days.
Amy: “Here boy, put your thumb right there, see what happens….”
Tommy: How the hell can Roush have so many developmental drivers and none of them be worth a lick?
Jeff: Cut the kid some slack! Martinsville for his first Cup race was not a good position to put him in. I bet we could look in the archives and find a bunch of you who said in the past that this Ragan kid was going to be one to watch. Now you all want to nail him to a stump by his, well, you know,
Toni: I am sorry, but the first Martinsville race is no excuse for not understanding you don’t push around a guy in the top 10 when you are three laps down. Ragan should just be glad it was Schrader and not Stewart.
Amy: We said he was better than Todd Kluever, which he is, but being one to watch and being ready right now are two different planets.
Toni: To be fair, Dale Earnhardt Jr. hit everything on this track his first year there. Including a tow truck.
Tommy: I don’t know, you see Mark Martin drive that Roush truck, and then Ragan, and you just know he’s got a long, long ways to go.

If Johnson or Kasey Kahne come back to win the Chase, should that be considered the greatest comeback in championship history, considering their competition? Or is this just a bizarre year?

Kim: This whole Chase is strange. It seems NO ONE wants to dominate and win it.
Jeff: Just a bizarre year. Now, if Busch came back and won….
Toni: It IS a bizarre year, nobody seems to want to win this one. I never thought you could pull off a title with this many mulligans. HOWEVER, I believe I have been saying all along not to count out Johnson. Neither Gordon nor Busch are as far out of it as they once were, either.
Amy: They’ve all had at least two bad races. I think the teams that’ll bounce back are the teams whose mulligans were not their fault.
Cami: Or the ones that got them early enough to still recover from them.
Toni: Has it ever gone this far through with eight guys still being that close?
Amy: Nope. Closest top five and top 10 after six races, ever.
Toni: I mean, if Kahne goes and does what he did in the spring at the next two tracks, he is potentially leading this thing.
Tommy: I think it’s just a bizarre year. There really is no one dominant team. NASCAR parity… I love it!
Tom: I think that Kahne may have a great chance again too, Toni. I mean, he could win three of the last four races. In this wacky Chase, won’t that be enough?
Cami: He’s made up 174 points on the leader in three races. He can come back all the way.
Amy: Johnson could do the same. Honestly, those two are probably the best at three of four tracks. Maybe toss Matt Kenseth in there, too.
Tommy: Funny how a week has changed our opinions on chances.
Tom: I know, Tommy, I refused to write much about the Chase this week because it’s just so unpredictable. No one’s running well consistently, so it’s kind of like, “Who wants it?” No one is stepping up and grabbing the title.
Kim: I still think Gordon and Busch are done!
Amy: I said last week only Gordon and Busch were probably done. I’ll say the same this week.
Toni: Until the math says it is impossible, I still refuse to count anyone out. We just said Kahne made up 174 points in three races. Gordon is what? 141 back with four races to go?
Tom: Busch is done done done. That is the one thing I will go on record as saying. I’ve said that since race one… they are not quite a championship-contending team.
Amy: The difference is, Gordon and Busch have made much of their own bad luck. Kahne and Johnson have had bad luck foisted on them by someone else. In the end, that’s easier to overcome.
Toni: Sure, because Johnson and Kahne never really lost their momentum. Those teams knew they were still running good enough to do it, and they just came back next week and kept at it. But you have to admit the bad luck of others played into it, too, neither one of those drivers pulls themselves back in without the others tanking a few races.
Tommy: Loving the Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship!!!
Cami: It would be a totally different conversation we’d all be having if Jeff Burton finished in the top 10 on Sunday.
Tom: I’d been waiting for him to fade. Burton is giving it his all, though, you’ve got to give him that. I always had such a hard time envisioning them winning the title, though. Even if they come back and win it now, it will be hard for me to believe.
Cami: How do you figure that? Burton has more top 10s in the Chase than anybody.
Toni: See, now I wouldn’t be surprised to see any one of them win it; the way the year has gone, I just don’t see a clear favorite. No one looks bulletproof.
Amy: Honestly, right now, the points leader is who it should have been all along, although the No. 17 team has been just a bit off the last few races. But a bit off for them is better than many.
Toni: And poor Matt seems to the one guy no one is pulling for. Everyone has this sentimental favorite or that, or wants to see the rookie get it, or have a dual champion.
Amy: Matt has more top 10s ALL YEAR than anybody. He deserves to win the championship. Ugh, a dual champion is ALL they need.
Cami: Actually, your pal Jimmie has the most top 10s.
Amy: OK, Matt has been more consistent since May, either way… it should be Kenseth or Johnson.

Ford executives are still deciding whether Mark Martin can race full-time in the Truck Series in 2007 in their truck. Should they allow him to race it? And if not, what does his departure mean for the future of the series, if anything?

Kim: It means other drivers will have a chance to win a CTS race.
Jeff: Who the hell is Ford?
Amy: Ford is losing teams left and right over the last few years… they can’t afford to say no.
Toni: They hurt themselves as much as anything if they say no. And while it would be nice to see Martin’s fans watching truck races, they will survive without him. They still have a lot of great drivers.
Amy: Yes, they do. They have a great championship battle going on, and they don’t need gimmicks to have it.
Jeff: Well, if Martin doesn’t drive the car, they could make a commercial that says, “When Mark wants to win, he drives a Ford truck!” I need a job on Madison Avenue.
Tommy: Martin ought to withdraw his request and hook up with a Toyota team full-time in the CTS. He could wave at the Ford entourage from Victory Lane every race!
Tom: I thought the same thing Amy did… Ford needs to have the star power of Martin in some capacity. It’s not like he’s going to become this incredible spokesperson for Chevrolet. They know his loyalty to Ford and would let him do it. So if I were Ford, I would suck it up and let him do it.
Tommy: Roush/Ford should have anted up and met Bobby Ginn’s offer to him. Lord knows Ragan sure could use a mentor in the No. 6 next year.
Toni: You know, I would almost prefer Martin not race in the CTS. Too much dominance can be bad.
Tom: Oh… well, I think that Mark’s dominance might actually be even better for the series.
Jeff: Me too.
Tommy: Me three. The real loser will be the CTS.
Tom: Yeah, Mark being there will cause drivers and teams to really step up their game to try and catch him.
Jeff: Exactly.
Toni: Well, people start tuning out by the boatloads when you think the same guy is going to win every race. Why bother to watch? See Formula 1 in the Michael Schumacher era.
Tommy: Martin has star power. For him to go there next year would only grow interest in the series as a whole. Instead of the failed Cup drivers they presently have, here’s a guy that is driving in this series because he wants to.
Kim: Failed Cup drivers? OUCH, Tommy. Cup failures are the ones who go to CTS and fail there, as well.
Amy: Mike Skinner and Todd Bodine I buy, but Benson is a Cup winner and a Busch champion. That’s no failure.
Tommy: Don’t hear anyone stumbling over themselves trying to sign Benson to a Cup contract.
Jeff: That’s an oversight on the Cup teams, Tommy.
Toni: It’s because Johnny isn’t 23 and cute as a button. He can drive, but who really cares about that?
Tom: Couldn’t agree more. Benson can still wheel that thing.
Amy: Goes back to the pretty face thing, Tommy. If you aren’t a teenage heartthrob, you don’t get a ride.

Predictions for Atlanta?

Cami: Kahne.
Kim: Everyone there will be screaming for Junior. But, I’ll be a follower and say a Kahne sweep at Atlanta.
Tom: I’m going to go out on a limb this week… Labonte. He looked like he was going to drive away with that thing the first 15 laps in the spring… this time, I have a sneaky feeling they’ll make sure that engine is good.
Jeff: Sure Tom, after seeing how good he did when I picked him. Whatever, I’ll go with Edwards this week!
Amy: Kahne wins and gets within shouting distance of the title… and then takes the points lead at Texas.
Toni: Johnson. I’m not sure what hurts me more – when I pick him or when I pick Gordon.
Tommy: I’m going with Harvick! But to be honest, I’m still stuck on Benson. He was a bust in Cup! Surprised me, thought he was the real deal after winning the Busch championship.
Jeff: No way! Benson could be doing the same thing Burton is doing now.
Amy: How was Benson a bust? HE had crap equipment his whole career and still won a race.
Tommy: Never saw it in Benson at the Cup level. Seemed content to be an also-ran.
Amy: Why, because he wouldn’t wreck a guy to win? He almost won the Daytona 500 in an unsponsored car!
Cami: The JB Fan Club can send their emails directly to Tommy, right?
Tom: Benson’s problems at the end of his Cup career were with the team… it wasn’t the driver. He’s a very Terry Labonte-style type of guy, and he wasn’t going to get aggressive… that cost him his future Cup opportunities.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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