Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Toyota Already Underachieving in 2006?

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)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Mondays/Truck Breakdown)
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)
Mike Neff (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans & Fridays/Full Throttle)

Kevin Harvick and Craig Curione, a member of Scott Riggs’s crew, were involved in a post-race incident that left DeLana Harvick on the ground, a NASCAR official hurt, and everyone and their mother called to the NASCAR hauler. What’s your reaction, and should there have been any penalties?

Toni: The more things change the more they stay the same, really. These sorts of incidents are not new. However, I do think there should be penalties for these things because there always have been in the other cases.
Beth: There absolutely should be penalties. There’s no reason to go shoving anyone around, period.
Amy: There should always be penalties for injuring people in the pits after a race, period.
Toni: And I think the genius that pushes anyone over in front of a huge rolling pit cart needs a hefty punishment in order to review their personal actions.
Tommy: That type of stuff needs to be taken care of off track property and over at the Waffle House parking lot.
Mike: I don’t remember what the penalties were for the little scuffle in Tony Stewart‘s pit at Chicago a couple of years ago. It should have been the same as that, and I don’t think there were any. Editor’s Note: Crew chief Tommy Baldwin was fined $10,000.
Tom: As for whether Harvick should be penalized, I think it’s hard to penalize someone for causing an accident in which they never even touched the other person’s car.
Mike: The accident wasn’t anything. The replay showed Kevin Harvick didn’t touch him.
Beth: You can’t penalize Harvick for a car that got aero loose.
Tommy: Harvick pretty much has said he spun him for blocking him earlier. But it’s hard to say.
Mike: He didn’t touch his car, though. If they start handing out fines for that, there will be a LOT of fines handed down.
Toni: Harvick should not get a penalty for what was really just an accident. He didn’t take out Scott Riggs on purpose. You can tell he even tried to slow down to avoid contact because the No. 5 almost rammed into him from behind.
Jeff: Forget what happened on the track. It is a non-issue. What happened afterward is what needs to be dealt with, and yes, the suspensions are justified for the man who is responsible.
Amy: But I don’t believe Harvick was blameless in this, either. I’m sure he was saying something stupid.
Tom: Exactly, Amy! You know what, Harvick can blame his own reputation on this one. That’s exactly the first thing I said when I heard about this…
Amy: Don’t forget about DeLana, either. She’s as hotheaded as Kevin.
Beth: But at the same time, if a team has a problem with something a driver did, there’s absolutely no reason at all to go after that driver’s wife.
Mike: Well, I don’t remember Rusty Wallace being fined for throwing the water bottle at Dale Earnhardt Sr. years ago.
Beth: But Mike, throwing a water bottle is pretty much harmless.
Tom: The water bottle was also in the mid-’90s. We’re playing by a whole new set of rules now. In the “national” NASCAR, that stuff just doesn’t get tolerated anymore.
Amy: That’s right, Tom. I don’t necessarily always agree with it, but the rule and precedents are now there for penalties to occur.
Mike: Jeff Gordon didn’t get fined for pushing Matt Kenseth.
Toni: OK, hypothetical here but if I’m walking along with my significant other and a whole team of guys starts in on him, am I going to just be Miss meek and mild and stand there? I really don’t think so.
Tom: Well, I agree with you, Toni. But at the same time it should never get physical.
Toni: Look. Go ask Nicole Lunders if she’d let a team mess with her man.
Tom: (Laughs) Good point! Well, I’m glad that at least the crew chief wasn’t penalized.
Jeff: Don’t give me that, Tom.
Tom: You think he should be, Jeff? You’re telling me he’s responsible for the actions of his crew long after the race is over? I don’t know if I buy that.
Amy: I don’t either. He was back at the hauler with the car.
Jeff: The crew chief is responsible for the actions.
Beth: As long as they’re at the track and representing the team, he’s responsible for their actions.
Amy: Hmm, I don’t know. They’re held accountable for the guy who uses an unapproved part, but an unapproved shove?
Tommy: Someone on the team has to be responsible for the character of the crewmen they request passes for.
Jeff: Here at Van Horne Speedway, we duke it out, help each other up and finish our beers!
Tom: Well, if you look at it that way, it’s like the crew chief is the coach. Do they fine a coach when something ridiculous happens on the field? No, they fine the player and then the coach carries out internal discipline.
Beth: You’re talking about a completely different sport though.
Kim: That’s like comparing apples and oranges.
Mike: Remember, NASCAR teams are subcontractors. There isn’t a union to mete out discipline like in the stick-and-ball sports.
Jeff: You know, there is soooooo much more media now that this gets blown out of proportion. Like, why are we talking about it now? It’s stupid. This is stupid soap opera stuff.
Mike: Because any altercation makes headlines in the sport now.
Jeff: Brian France is LOVING it.
Kim: Maybe because it is not an every week thing. You don’t have to fight your way out of the track these days.
Toni: Doesn’t a bench-clearing brawl become the highlight of the week in any sport?
Amy: Pretty much, Toni.
Tom: Right, but in that bench-clearing brawl, the coach does not get penalized. And although they’re different sports, the same should be true here.
Amy: That’s because he’s usually been ejected!

With two races left, it appears the championship will come down to a battle between Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson. Is that the way it should have been all along, or is there another driver out there who deserves a shot at the title based on the year they’ve had?

Amy: No. Under the old points system, nobody else is within 300. Based on the whole year, it should be Jimmie Johnson or Kenseth, period.
Toni: I’m still not convinced those are the only two left to fight for it, though. It’s been musical chairs the whole way through. Johnson just happens to be the guy on top right now, but then he has a crap race next week and the next guy moves up.
Tommy: I agree with Toni. I think it’s a little premature to write off the three drivers behind them.
Mike: Regardless of that, I think the points as they stand right now are a good thing. The current points leaders were the two best drivers in the “regular season.” I don’t think you can count out the top five, but Johnson and Kenseth will both have to stumble to give the other three a chance.
Tom: I agree with Mike. I think Kasey Kahne had too many mechanical issues this year to be a real factor. It should truly come down to Kenseth and Johnson, although Junior has somewhat of a case.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: Jimmie Johnson's Miracle Comeback

Kim: Too bad Tony didn’t make the Chase to blow them all out of the water!
Amy: The others are good top-five or top-10 teams. It’s not a knock on them, but did they have championship-caliber years? No.
Toni: I don’t really think anyone had a championship-caliber season, to be honest. At least, what I really consider a championship-caliber season. That’s why the Chase has been close. No one has been statistically fantastic.
Tom: Well, when you look over the full seasons of Kenseth and Johnson, Toni, I think they are the most deserving. This year reminds me so much of 2002. No one really put it together for a full season. It kept being anyone’s championship to step up and take… and no one would take it.
Tommy: Get used to it. It’s called parity!
Toni: Johnson and Kenseth have had the best seasons, Tom, but I don’t think anyone has been stellar. And Kenseth is limping down the stretch; only this time, he didn’t have a huge lead built up like he did the last time.
Amy: 17 top fives for Kenseth and 22 top 10s for Johnson are pretty stellar.
Tom: After what he went through the first four races, Johnson’s is the best points comeback I’ve seen with the exception of 1992. Of course, I was just a thought in someone’s head in the late ’70s. I’m sure some of those points battles compared.
Toni: Johnson’s season sums up so many of his races. He has made chicken salad out of chicken.
Tom: Johnson is doing what he has to do to win within the system. Case in point: backing off at Texas to ensure second place instead of challenging for a win. I do wish the system was set up better, though. Johnson should be trying to bend over backwards to win that race at Texas.
Mike: Tom, he already saw what could happen at Talladega if he went for the win instead of taking a second place.
Jeff: To me, that just proves the system is flawed. The fact that Stewart can do what he’s doing without being in the Chase shows how it’s wrong.
Kim: Well, had Johnson been thinking “I need to points race” at Talladega, he would be way ahead now.
Tom: Excellent point, Kim.
Tommy: Settling for second instead of going for broke to win isn’t a product of the Chase. That happens in the first 26 races as well.
Toni: Right Tommy, and it happened under the old system too. Not every title fight was a blowout under the old points system. Some of them were very close and produced points racing, too.
Tom: Of course, the big loser this past week was Jeff Burton. He’s going to end up finishing where everyone thought he was going to in points, but they definitely proved something this year. His Chase wasn’t for nothing.
Mike: He picked a bad time to have a bad run of luck.
Jeff: Just because he happens to have Cingular as a sponsor, poor guy.
Tom: They should think of switching to Nextel in the offseason.
Tommy: Still a big leap for RCR though!
Mike: I think the race is between the top five heading into Phoenix. After Phoenix, it may be a two-horse race.
Toni: I’m with Mike, I think the rest of the top five are still in this. We’ll see what happens in Phoenix. With all the crazy things that have happened so far, who knows?

Team Red Bull has had an auspicious debut, failing to qualify for any of the races it’s entered this season. Is this a true indicator that Toyota has a lot of homework to do, or is it hard to tell anything because they’re using Dodges?

Jeff: It says absolutely NOTHING about Toyota.
Kim: This year has nothing to do with what they will attempt to do next year with the Camry.
Beth: You can’t judge anything without actually putting the Toyotas on the track.
Mike: But this does speak to where their program is now. I think the first few races are going to be a struggle for them, but over the year, they’ll be strong.
Toni: I think this was for the benefit of getting the personnel together and working, and the driver seat time. Because even if they had made the races, there was probably nothing they were going to be able to use next year from their notes with an entirely different car and motor.
Tom: You know, I’m undecided on this. I think that it was a bit telling for AJ Allmendinger to be that far off and for them to not even qualify with Bill Elliott. I mean, even though they’re Dodges they should be able to get speed out of them. I don’t think the equipment is junk.
Toni: Yeah, well I think I heard they used a couple of old cars and engines Bill Davis happened to have laying around. That’s a guy who hasn’t been part of a factory program in years.
Kim: Bill Davis’s BEST stuff barely makes a dent in the competition.
Tommy: Those attempts were nothing more than dress rehearsals for the personnel that will be going to the track next year. They needed to practice packing the hauler and such.
Mike: I don’t know what kind of testing schedule they have for the offseason. I would imagine they’ll have it together a lot better when they hit Daytona.
Jeff: Tom, how can you be undecided when the car has never been on the track?
Tom: Well, a friend of mine said it best when we talked about how the cars looked in the garage. If you look at those things up close, they come to the track cleaner, nicer-looking and more prepared than anyone with the exception of Hendrick, maybe Roush. So, I mean, they look like they have all their ducks in a row. But where’s the speed?
Beth: But you have to remember they don’t have the high-dollar names hired to back them up yet. These little teams aren’t made of money, and it’ll take them longer to figure out setups.
Amy: Cleanliness may be next to Godliness, but it doesn’t win races.
Kim: Everything can be pristine when you aren’t running 36 weekends a year.
Jeff: I think Toyota will win at least three races next year.
Tom: Well, the fact that they already have all their ducks in a row as a new team is a good sign. Usually, the whole first year is ABOUT that.
Toni: That’s typical Toyota. They don’t do things half-assed.
Tommy: You know, it really isn’t in their best long-term interest to make those Dodges too fast, anyways.
Tom: But it IS in their best interest to get Allmendinger on the track. So I’m a little surprised they just gave up for the time being. Allmendinger should have just as much prep as Juan Pablo Montoya, if not more so.
Toni: More, Tom. Way more. Allmendinger, as far as I’m concerned, is a one-trick pony. He can drive a Champ car, but there’s no proof he can do anything else. Montoya has at least done more than one discipline and done it well.
Amy: That’s not NASCAR’s fault. I’m not convinced Allmendinger should be cleared for Daytona.
Mike: I have to think Toyota will influence them to give Allmendinger the OK.
Jeff: Montoya is the only example of how it should be done as far as a transition, which it pains me to say because I so dislike Ganassi, but I have to say, he is doing this right with Juan.
Mike: Montoya should spend another year in the minors, in my opinion.
Tom: I fear the big wreck being triggered by one of these rookies in February. If there is, there will be a lot of questions raised.
Mike: Oh, yeah. If Montoya or Allmendinger makes a bonehead move, people will be screaming.

Toyota also announced their Busch Series lineup this past weekend. What do you think their impact will mean on that series in terms of money and financial support?

Tom: To be honest, I think Toyota investing in Busch is GOOD for the series.
Mike: Toyota will probably have some success in Busch. I don’t think there are enough teams to shake it up too much.
Toni: Money from Toyota won’t mean much if they are still having to run against the Cup guys.
Tommy: Glad to see anyone actually using money to develop drivers in Busch, though.
Tom: I’m for it, because like Tommy said, they are actually using it to develop talent. I don’t necessarily consider David Reutimann an awful “double dipper.” because he is a Cup rookie, and most of the rest are gone.
Toni: I’m also glad to see Toyota went with all real Busch teams. And who knows? Maybe it will be enough support to make them competitive with the big boys.
Tom: I was real down on the Busch Series for next year, but all of a sudden, it looks like some of the Busch-only teams will have clout. Finch goes to two teams. Toyota support for Braun.
Tommy: There’s supposed to be only three Cup drivers racing full time in Busch next year, that’s why. The CoT will make it less beneficial for Cup teams to run Busch as well.
Kim: At least the Busch only teams will be sure to get some airtime next year.
Beth: You know, this all comes down to how much backing Toyota plans to put monetarily into the series. Hopefully, the cash involved with bringing Toyota in will help to knock the Buschwackers back a couple notches and let the smaller teams have a chance on race day.
Toni: You know, Toyota is very clever really. Think about this: they are coming in with a lot of fans against them. But a lot of Busch fans are against the Cup teams in the series. So Toyota goes for the good guy angle and helps the little guys out.

Predictions for Phoenix?

Mike: Junior.
Kim: Smoke again.
Tommy: Kahne again!
Toni: Johnson.
Jeff: Smoke for me too.
Amy: Johnson.
Tommy: Is Stewart bringing that car again? Somebody check on that, will you?
Amy: He’s saving it for Homestead.
Toni: Kim, did you think Smoke would look silly in the hat? Because I thought that’s how you picked a winner.
Jeff: That’s how the rest of the media makes their picks.
Amy: It wasn’t Kim, Toni… that was why I chose Junior last week.
Toni: Oh. Well, I knew it was someone!
Mike: Jeff did take Smoke last week, too.
Tom: Man, I don’t know who to pick on this one. That’s why I’ve been quiet… looking up stats… I would say Mark Martin, but he has absolutely NO momentum. I’m going to go with Harvick, I think. This track has a history of drivers winning multiple races in a row, and if Harvick gets penalized for anything from Texas, he’ll be on a mission to get to victory lane.
Beth: Last but not least, my prediction: Kurt Busch takes his eighth-place finish and turns it into his second Phoenix win.
Mike: Wow, Beth finally loving on Kurt Busch this week!
Toni: Mike, you can’t use the word loving and Kurt Busch in the same sentence. It’s just not right.

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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