Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Is Tony Stewart Better Off Without Being in the Chase?

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)
Ren Jonsin (Frontstretch Publisher)
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 AND Tuesdays/That’s History)
Toni Heffelfinger (Mondays/Busch Series Breakdown & Fridays/Second Fiddle)

Is it feasible to say missing the Chase has helped Tony Stewart? Should there be a provision in the Chase that allows drivers in his position to finish higher than 11th?

Mike: It has turned out this gave him a lot more exposure. I don’t think he’d have won Kansas had he been in the Chase. It would be nice to see someone in 11th going into it have a chance to finish higher, but I don’t see how they can do that.
Amy: I don’t know that it’s helped him. Under the old system he’d be fourth. Unfortunately, the best the guy can do is 11th, reason number 462 the Chase sucks.
Ren: You bet missing out on a title has helped him. He says himself that if it weren’t for him being out of the Chase, he couldn’t afford to drive the way he has since Richmond.
Tommy: Yeah, he certainly wouldn’t have done the fuel gamble that won him Kansas.
Tom: I agree with Ren. Let me tell you, there are a whole bunch of people happy that Tony Stewart didn’t make the Chase. Their names are Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin…. Stewart would be threatening a runaway if he were in it.
Kim: He just hit his “slump” just prior to the Chase, bad timing. Those Chase guys better be thankful!
Tommy: As for a special provisional, there shouldn’t be one.
Amy: How would they give a special provisional? That’s just be letting 11 guys in instead of 10.
Jeff: There should be a provision that get rid of the Chase altogether.
Amy: Amen, Jeff.
Tom: Yeah, but we all know that’s not going to happen.
Kim: No provisions, the Chase is what it is. If they didn’t make provisions for Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. last year, do you think NASCAR would DREAM of doing it for Smoke?
Ren: Maybe they could start everyone out at zero points, then run a 36-race Chase.
Jeff: There’s an idea, Ren!
Kim: WOW Ren, how unique and fresh!
Amy: What a concept! NASCAR would never go for it, though.
Tom: As far as having some sort of provisional… it’d be nice for Stewart to finish higher, but I don’t know how you’d get the job done.
Toni: Wow, Ren.
Ren: Well, I’m no Brian France.
Tom: Eh, I don’t know. Tell Brian France there’s some sponsors dangling lots of money. He might bite! ‘Cause, of course, it’s all about the cash.
Kim: OK, so let’s pretend NASCAR allows Tony to finish higher than 11th, and then the guy in 12th would have been fifth traditionally. How could you then say, “Sorry, only 11th is allowed to advance into the top 10.”
Ren: You just have to know how to get noticed, that’s all.
Tommy: I agree. He’s locking in 11th place by virtue of performing so well, and gaining a spot in New York at the end of the season. That’s how it’s all designed.
Kim: At least he gets the next best consolation prize.
Tom: I do think the turnaround Stewart has accomplished with the fans was amazing. Did you see the people shouting, “Tony! Tony!” He’s really become adored now.
Kim: I thought he was going to fall off the fence this time, though.
Amy: For a second there, I was really wondering how Tony was going to get down.
Mike: I’m sure they have a ladder for that.
Tom: I’m still worried that one of these times, it’s not going to end well. Kind of like Carl Edwards and the backflip.
Tommy: That was a impressive climb. Some degree of difficulty.
Ren: That’s the easy part. The flagmen don’t really like the fence route, usually.
Mike: I got a kick out of the fan who climbed the flagstand. Bet that guy had a fun night in jail.
Tom: I think that for Stewart, missing the Chase really has become the best possible thing for him. I felt he was almost complacent in the summer, like they had the Chase in the bag. And it came back to bite him. Now, he’s kind of on a mission to prove something again, a mission that should carry well into next year.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: NASCAR Still Has the Power to Leave You in a State of Shock

Kim: Ya know, they should have shown him making his way down the flagstand and through the crowd. Now THAT would have been more exciting than the race!
Tom: Honestly, right now he’s the favorite in 2007 in my view. Again. And Edwards has used missing the Chase as the same motivator.
Tommy: Tony’s tough to beat when he just races and doesn’t worry about what everyone else is doing.
Jeff: It just proves that the Chase is all wrong. Anything that overtly affects the way guys run a race is downright wrong.
Ren: Well, the No. 20 team has ALWAYS come on strong toward the end of the season.
Tom: But Stewart is the equivalent of 445 points out with three races to go. He’d likely finish third under the old system.
Ren: Unless they start giving a couple hundred points for winning a race, it doesn’t matter what they do. The drivers racing for the championship will drive for points and not for the win, leaving an opening for Stewart.
Tommy: No one has ever come from 11th on back in 10 races and won the championship. That’s why the cutoff at 10 wasn’t a big deal to me. And they did sweeten the pot for 11th place.
Jeff: That’s not enough. Bring back the old system and award 100 more points for winning than coming in second.
Tom: Ironically, the two drivers in the best position to win the title are the two that performed the best over the regular season.
Amy: Yup! Under the classic points, it would be Kenseth and Johnson, the two that have been consistently best ALL YEAR.
Kim: If NASCAR awarded points for being entertaining, Kenny Wallace could be the perennial champion. :-)
Ren: Look. Stewart is having a ball now, no matter what, because he couldn’t care less HOW it’s scored since all he cares about is the points for a win. Tony’s not hampered.
Tom: Exactly. No points racing has set Stewart loose – and, not surprisingly, you’re seeing fantastic results.

Now that he’s all but out of it, the question can officially be asked: Was Mark Martin the best driver never to win a title?

Kim: Of this era? Absolutely.
Ren: It’s a shame, but yes, he is.
Tommy: I’ll say yes. But Junior Johnson deserves an honorable mention.
Mike: Junior Johnson was the best to never win a title.
Amy: I agree with Mike… if he’d raced longer as a driver, that 50-win total would be much larger.
Tom: I was trying to think of anyone else today that has the record Mark Martin had in my lifetime and didn’t win. Harry Gant, maybe? But he didn’t have the longevity of success. Of course, I wasn’t around for the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
Amy: True. Martin has been consistently championship caliber for at least 15 years.
Ren: A lot of big names never won a championship when you stop and think abou it.
Tom: You’re right, Ren. I just remembered another driver from the old days who should have won one, Fireball Roberts. The thing is, Martin was consistently a contender for a much longer period of time than either him or Johnson.
Ren: And the 50 that Junior Johnson won weren’t at the quality of tracks that Martin had to run at, or against the quality of competition.
Tommy: I’ll give Martin the edge only because of his Busch and IROC success. But Junior’s 50 is a legitimate argument.
Tom: I give Martin the edge, too. But there is also that knock against him that he never won the big races, like Daytona and Indianapolis. Those are major goose eggs on his resume… which he still has the chance to correct, of course.
Ren: Tommy, you can’t compare wins from before the modern era with modern-era wins.
Kim: You almost have to break the “eras” down by decade.
Tommy: You’re right, Ren. There’s a lot of pitfalls to comparing athletes of different generations, regardless of the sport.
Amy: That is true to an extent, but 50 wins in any era is an incredible landmark that few reach.
Ren: Well, I think we could all agree that Martin was definitely the best driver not to win a championship in the ’90s.

Terry Labonte retires this week at Texas. What is your favorite memory of Terry, and how do you think he fits in among NASCAR’s greatest drivers?

Amy: That’s easy, his final Southern 500.
Tom: I couldn’t agree more, Amy. I feel like such a copout saying that, like I didn’t pay attention to the rest of his career or something… I mean, his win at North Wilkesboro in the mid-’90s was special, too. I believe that was his 500th straight career start. But the Southern 500… it was just the peak of what he had left to give, kind of putting the stamp on the end of an era for both himself and that track. I just knew that was the end for him after that. And sure enough, he stepped out of full-time racing and never won again after 2004.
Mike: For me, my memory is Terry Labonte crashing across the line at Bristol to win, and then rolling what was left of his car into victory lane.
Ren: Yup, Mike, I will always remember that steaming Kellogg’s car pulling into the Bristol victory lane after Dale Earnhardt spun him out at the line.
Mike: Of course, Bristol didn’t always treat him right, I remember that look on Terry’s face when they interviewed him after Earnhardt spun him for the win at Bristol a few years later. You knew he wanted to go kick the crap out of Earnhardt in victory lane.
Amy: I’ll also remember the day at Atlanta in 1996, the one where Terry won his second title and Bobby Labonte won the race. He’s a two-time champion, winning them in two different eras. He raced hard and raced well.
Ren: Two different eras?
Mike: The ’80s and the ’90s. The ’80s was about the driver, the ’90s was about the car.
Jeff: And the 2000s is about the money and ratings. I guess I’m a little bitter that Kellogg’s went from a guy like Labonte to a punk like Kyle Busch.
Tom: Well Jeff, it’s a tale of two different eras.
Kim: Speaking of two different “eras,” no one can forget the great “mustache or no mustache” debate for Terry!
Tom: Back to Amy’s comment about the win at Atlanta for a second, Bobby Labonte came out and said this week that’s still his most special win of all. He wants to win at Texas just as badly… goes to show you how close those two are.
Amy: Well, his older brother was a class act. Terry Labonte raced hard, raced well and raced clean. What more needs to be said?
Tom: You know, when I was lucky enough to interview Terry in May, I asked him if he misses all this stuff when he gets back to the racetrack. And he stopped for a second… he paused… and said, “No, not really. It’s given me more time to fish, more time to hunt, more time to spend at home in Texas.” I thought it was so appropriate. He never seemed like one of those guys that wanted to stay in the sport forever. Just do his thing, take care of business and retire to Texas.
Tommy: He, like Martin, has been good for the sport. He’s leaving with his reputation as a gentleman intact.
Kim: He was known for keeping his emotions in check. I wish all these young guys would take a page from the Terry Labonte school of racing book and learn from it.
Tom: I didn’t like Junior giving away Labonte’s name to Jeff Burton recently… the Iceman. Because it’s a sign Terry’s no longer going to be around.
Amy: He’ll be missed.

In your opinion, how was Juan Pablo Montoya’s Busch Series debut? Should he be spending a year in the series to get more experience, or does 11th at Memphis prove that just a handful of races is enough?

Mike: Juan Pablo Montoya will be fine in a Cup car. Once he learns what his spotter means when he says “high,” he’ll be up front. Oh, wait, he’ll be in Ganassi stuff. Never mind, he’ll be mid-pack at best.
Jeff: He’ll need to get a spotter that speaks the same language, so to speak.
Tom: For what little experience he has in a stock car, on a short track 11th place is pretty impressive to me.
Amy: Well, he was 11th in Memphis in a great car, a car that’s already won this year, so his performance was on par. Not spectacular, but not terrible, either. He did get into some scrapes, but he got out OK in the end.

See also
Busch Series Breakdown: 2006 Sam's Town 250 at Memphis

Ren: Once he’s comfortable in a stock car, which he probably is already, he won’t have any problem at all getting in a Cup car.
Kim: Montoya is a great driver. He will do as well as Ganassi equipment will take him.
Amy: I mean, will he light the world on fire? No. Will he flop? No. Will he run the equipment about where it’s capable of and also cause a few crashes? Sure.
Tommy: The 11th has to be considered encouraging. There’s no telling what his learning curve will be, but things look hopeful, anyways. He certainly wasn’t a disaster.
Tom: No, not at all Tommy. His one spin, he was actually turned by someone else. Short tracks are the hardest thing to learn when you’ve been driving open-wheel cars all your life.
Amy: Yes, but they’re also the easiest place to make mistakes and get away with them.
Tom: Good point.
Ren: That’s why they let David Ragan out on them!
Amy: But he finished about where he should. Put anyone in a winning car with a winning team and they should run well. That’s what happened on Saturday.
Mike: Montoya should be used to the horsepower by now. I’m sure the lack of traction control will be an issue on some early restarts, but he is talented enough that I don’t think it will be a big learning curve. I’m just curious how other drivers will respect him compared to a rookie coming in from Busch or ARCA. I’m just wondering if some people will rough him up because he’s a Formula 1 guy coming to Cup.
Kim: I don’t think that will be an issue, Mike. I think the opposite will happen. They will cut him more breaks.
Tommy: I’m confident with time he’ll be competent, but whether he’ll be a top driver or not is the question. I agree with Mike, I don’t see the Cup guys cutting him any breaks.
Amy: Well, if Montoya is simply competent next year in Cup, it’s enough How many open-wheel guys are spectacular in their first season in stock cars, anyways?
Mike: Stewart. Ryan Newman.
Amy: Stewart’s first year out of open wheel was 1998 in the Busch Series. That was hardly a world beater.
Tom: I do still think refusing to put him in Busch for a full season is a mistake. In the Busch Series next year, you’re going to see competition dry up a bit. Because all these Cup guys are not running full-time anymore, there’ll be a downgrade in teams and talent, a tremendous opportunity to jump in and learn.
Tommy: Well, I’m assuming Ganassi knows he’s in for a rough year or two.
Amy: Heck, he can’t be worse than David Stremme has this year, can he?
Tommy: Good point.
Mike: Ganassi is as patient as they come as an owner. He knows the publicity Montoya gets out of his first year in Cup will pay for a lot of sheetmetal.
Jeff: Ganassi and patient never crossed my mind together. They were just the best drivers on the market he had.
Tom: Well, Ganassi has the patience to develop these drivers, there’s no question about that. I don’t think this is a case of Ganassi having the best he has, Jeff. I think he truly believes Montoya can be successful.
Jeff: Montoya is his best move in years.
Mike: Montoya is notorious for being a hothead, though. If he blows his top when he isn’t competitive, will his team be able to keep it together?
Amy: That’s true, Mike. How patient will Montoya be with the other 42 competitors? He needs to earn his respect in the NASCAR garage.
Mike: That’s why I mentioned the respect thing a while ago. I am curious how it is going to play out.
Ren: I don’t think that’s going to be a problem though. It’s not like he’s a 19-year-old rookie.
Mike: Lucky for him, Ren, he had a team that could handle it because they had been through a championship run before.

Predictions for Texas?

Tom: I think Kenseth takes this one. The sense of urgency is there, his team knows they have to make a move, Johnson is coming. I just don’t feel like it’s Johnson’s year, again.
Jeff: Stewart.
Kim: I’m with Jeff. Smoke wins again, why not? Nothing to lose!
Tommy: Kasey Kahne.
Mike: Junior.
Amy: Junior… because I want to see him in the goofy hat.
Ren: Johnson.
Amy: I wouldn’t mind seeing Johnson, too, because he’s the least “cowboy” of all of them.
Amy: See, I think you have to base Texas picks on who looks funniest in a cowboy hat. It’s a rule.
Ren: Alright. Gordon then. Jeff, not Robby.
Amy: The hat would swallow Gordon whole. It’d come down to his ankles.
Kim: I say Busch. He’s already goofy looking, so the hat might actually help.

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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