Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Is Junior’s Situation Bad? Chase Changes: Did They Make You Mad? & Is Toyota Feeling Rad?

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

This Week’s Participants:
Toni Montgomery (Frontstretch Assistant Editor/Mondays/Busch Series Breakdown)
Tony Lumbis (Mondays/Rookie Report)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Tuesdays/Running Your Mouth & Truck Series Reporter/Commentator)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Vito Pugliese (Fridays/Driven to the Past)

If Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t make the Chase – and right now, it certainly isn’t looking good – how will the No. 8 team perform the rest of the season?

Vito: I think the No. 8 will perform as they have been – Junior and company aren’t just mailing it in. He has too much class and respects the wishes of his father too much to do anything different.
Toni: I’m not entirely sure why making or not making the Chase will make them perform any differently?
Beth: Well, they won’t have to worry about running for points.
Tony: I picture this turning out like Tony Stewart‘s team last season, with an all or nothing strategy. That could probably give Junior a win or two.
Amy: I don’t think you’ll see much difference. Like Tony said, if they miss, they can just race for wins, which usually produces them.
Tony: Exactly Amy, and probably a few DNFs along the way. But at this point, who cares?
Toni: I don’t know. This whole situation’s still got that lame duck thing going on, which is not a great motivational factor. It would just back up why he’s leaving if this team misses the Chase.
Vito: Not so fast, Toni. Junior has been the biggest cheerleader and motivator for this car all season long. You can hear it in his radio transmissions, statements to the press and the effort displayed on the track.
Tony: Junior even said during his interview that he needs his team to keep performing as well as they did on Sunday night. And so will DEI. They need to fix their engine woes for 2008, and the No. 8 team will probably become a guinea pig for some new combinations. I have to wonder how much he becomes a test team for the No. 1 car, as well.
Amy: Well, no matter what happens, it’s not like Junior’s going to lose his legions of fans because he misses a title shot. It’ll be status quo.
Toni: Because he can point to Hendrick cars in the Chase, of course.
Tony: Richmond has always been strong for them, so I think next week, he will be a factor, even if he doesn’t make the Chase.
Vito: Junior may have had a reputation as a hard-partier playboy early on in his career, but the last few years, he has matured into a professional racecar driver, and I’d expect nothing less from him going forward.

Looking back at the racing this season, was changing the format from 10 to 12 drivers – as well as adding more points for wins – a positive thing for the sport?

Beth: Adding more points for the win, sure. Fans have always complained about wins not meaning enough.
Toni: I agree with adding more points for the wins, too.
Tony: Well, I honestly don’t notice that much of a difference to this point… although the wins will come more into play in two weeks.
Amy: But the Chase has never been a positive thing. Why on earth would adding two more drivers undeserving of a championship improve it?
Beth: Well, 10 drivers vs. 12 drivers only means something to the Dale Jr., Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick fans right now.
Tony: But the top-12 thing is a crapshoot. You can make it 13, 24 or 18 drivers, and it doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily have a good fight to get in.
Toni: I’m not sure about the seeding bit for the Chase.
Vito: No. The adding points for the wins are fine, but the seeding system is ridiculous. Case in point: Busch, God bless him, is 657 points out of first place. After next week, he very well could be just 30 points out of first. There’s just something about that, that is contradictory to the term “champion.”

See also
Voice of Vito: Where's the Beef? Chase for NASCAR Championship a Far Cry From Past Battles

Amy: The seeding is ridiculous. Unless Jeff Gordon wins Richmond, he loses the lead come New Hampshire to the SIXTH-place guy.
Tony: I think they should’ve found a middle of the road solution. Why don’t you leave the points for the first race of the Chase as they were last year, THEN add the bonus for wins?
Toni: You know, you had to think adding more drivers would cut down on the drama they wanted so much. Half the excitement has been watching a few guys fight it out for those last few spots. Making it 12 pretty much takes that out of the equation. Why? If the Chase is supposed to be about adding excitement, wouldn’t you take some spots away?
Vito: And you can use the excuse (or rationale) that you race differently knowing that the Chase is coming. Look at Tony in the last few laps at California. He would not have done that under a traditional points system.
Amy: Not to mention… has Harvick had a championship-caliber season? Has Busch? Martin Truex Jr.? Junior? HELL NO. In three Chases, you’ve had one guy who got lucky and won it over two guys who were good all year long, one guy who won it as he should have, and a third with the right winner but one that cheated us out of what would have been the closest points finish in history. That’s a good thing HOW?
Tony: But, if making NASCAR is trying to become like other sports, they succeeded. For the most part, the playoffs are a new season in football, baseball, hockey, etc.
Beth: NASCAR wants to appeal to a larger audience. That’s why they went to the Chase. Do you really think fans of anyone outside of the top two or three would be watching right now if we were under the old points system? So many more fans are casual and only watch when the watching is good.
Toni: Beth does have a point to an extent. Maybe now more than ever, in a way. Fans have been going away in droves as it is. Have a blowout points race – especially with Gordon in front – and I can hear televisions across the nation switching off right now.
Amy: If you’re a real race fan, you watch races.
Vito: But Amy, if there wasn’t a Chase this year, you’d have Gordon with a 314-point lead over Stewart, and that’s AFTER getting a 100-point fine.
Amy: Yeah, but at least Gordon would deserve the trophy he’d tote home. As of now, he starts the Chase SECOND, despite a stellar season that would have won him the title any other year. I’d rather see a blowout any time than some guy getting lucky and taking it home instead.
Tony: Well, whether you agree with the Chase or not, we are all talking and debating about it and that’s what NASCAR wants – for people to be talking about their sport.
Amy: The first time is what still leaves a bad taste in my mouth – Busch proved it’s better to be lucky than good. That’s a great motto for one race, but it sucks for the championship.
Vito: Meanwhile, Matt Kenseth had nearly a 400-point lead at this point in the season in 2003… and I still tuned in to watch the races back then.
Amy: Me too, Vito – Matt EARNED that lead and that title.
Tony: One of the seasons Gordon stunk things up during the ’90s, I still watched because there were still a lot of storylines to follow.
Vito: That first year was the best thing that ever happened for the Chase, Amy – it helped gain support by the fact that it was an eight-point difference that went down to the final lap.
Amy: And last year, how differently might Johnson have raced Homestead had there been a four-point margin instead of a 50-point margin? Might have been a whole different story.
Vito: Very true. Kind of ironic what happened last year; like you said, that would have been the closest in history under the old points system. But keep in mind, Gordon got a gift in 1997 when he won his second championship. Everything evens itself out.

Wednesday will make it official – Joe Gibbs Racing is switching to Toyota. What do you expect the immediate impact on the team will be, and how does this affect the other teams already a part of the Camry program?

Beth: All I can say is I hope the team is ready for the switch.
Vito: Immediate impact: further discounts on No. 20 and No. 11 apparel featuring Chevrolet emblems on them.
Tony: I think Gibbs will raise the entire program up a level, but everyone has to remember that it’s still a fairly low level right now…with a lot of work to do to make it good. Their impact on the engine program will be what’s most welcomed.
Vito: Gibbs chief engine tuner Mark Cronquist said it will take some time, but he believes they will be able to transfer things they’ve learned for the R07 Chevrolet engine to the Toyota engine program. You won’t see an impact until next season. Right now, JGR is working on winning a title for 2007; they’re even still building new “old” cars for the upcoming Chase races.

See also
Thompson in Turn 5: Toyota Banking On Some Old-Fashioned American Ingenuity... From Joe Gibbs

Toni: That means plenty of overtime to rebuild the fleet when the change goes into effect after the season.
Tony: Yep, not much holiday time for the JGR boys this year!
Amy: Toyota’s going to toss a hell of a lot of money Gibbs’s way, though. And they have very quietly been sucking less in recent weeks because of it.
Vito: I think that’s kind of the point.
Tony: That’s JGR’s big gamble.
Vito: I don’t think it’s much of a gamble, personally. DEI’s CoT program is on par with Hendrick as the best out there. All they’re really changing are some headlight decals; the motors are going to be as good, or better, than they have now.
Beth: If you put Tony and Denny Hamlin into a Toyota, who knows what they might be able to do?
Amy: Toyota HAS a car win in the Busch Series now, and Brian Vickers has been up there quietly.
Tony: The CoT does make this manufacturer change a lot different than any other in the past.
Vito: I think it matters whose Toyotas they’re getting into. I don’t see Tony doing a whole lot in Dale Jarrett‘s car.
Tony: I still think its a bit of a gamble, though.
Vito: Gamble… more like calculated risk. They’re going to get a ton of money and they are the flagship Toyota program now, one that can support the money and engineering support they will have to work with. No offense to MWR employees, but come on. They don’t have the tools the JGR has or the infrastructure that they have in place.
Toni: Plus, it’s always a better deal to be higher in your manufacturer’s pecking order.
Tony: Honestly, what has hurt Toyota is that Bill Davis was the only established team that they went with this year. They will be fixing that problem in a big way in ’08.
Amy: True, Toni. And JGR was about second in Chevys. Now, they’ll be top dog.
Vito: I don’t think Toyota was really expecting much this year. Lets face it: developing TWO new cars, motors and teams. This year was a shakedown year for the engines, and building some prototype CoT cars.
Amy: If they expected much more, they’d have had to find different drivers.
Vito: Right, so if they add JGR this year, and probably one other top-tier team following 2008. Penske, anyone…?
Tony: Penske has manufacturer ADD. He will be with Toyota soon, I agree with that one.
Vito: As Tony stated earlier, the CoT now makes changing manufacturers a breeze.
Tony: They can all pretty much run Yugos next year, and it wouldn’t make that much of a difference.
Vito: Comparatively, at least. There’s different routing for some things in the engine compartment, but for all intents and purposes, the cars have identical bodies.

After a wreck for Mike Skinner at Gateway, Ron Hornaday Jr. and Skinner are shaping up for another one of their classic championship duels – one decade later. Which one, in your mind, has the upper hand in this rivalry?

Amy: Hornaday, because he’s a more careful driver.
Toni: Hornaday – simply because it is always better to be the chaser than the chased.
Tony: I think Skinner’s in control – he has the better team under him right now.
Amy: He knows when to be really aggressive and when not to. Skinner doesn’t always do the same.
Vito: I disagree. Skinner might wreck his own mother to win a race, but he dosen’t punt people intentionally on a restart and shrug it off like it was the other guy’s fault.
Tony: I see California Feb. 2007 is on somebody’s mind!
Vito: No, but did raise my eyebrows and open my eyes wider.
Amy: No, but he sin’t the most patient of racers, either.
Vito: Jimmy Spencer and elephants have nothing on me as far as memory goes. Hornaday and Harvick… so much for me to pull against there.
Toni: But isn’t it funny how many “exciting” drivers there are in the Truck Series?
Toni: Skinner, Hornaday, Todd Bodine, Jack Sprague….
Vito: Totally. And they get the races over in under six hours as well.
Amy: Well, the trucks are less aerodynamic, which means a tap or even a shove doesn’t always mean a spin.
Vito: Anyone who has fears of JGR and Toyota being non-competitive next season, they need only to look at the Truck Series to see how they’ll perform next year in Cup with the El Camino of Tomorrow.
Toni: And I have to hand it to Skinner, he doesn’t just take people out because he doesn’t even mind if it’s himself that he takes out – he’s just giving it all he’s got. He’s either bringing back the trophy or the steering wheel.
Tony: Skinner’s determination, experience and team will definitely pay off, as long as they avoid the bad luck (there’s a racing cliche).
Beth: Skinner’s gonna win this one again.
Vito: I believe a Skinner championship, even in a Toyota, will be more popular than Hornaday in a Chevrolet.
Beth: This weekend was only his second finish outside the top 10 all season. The team will bounce back and be stronger than ever.

Predictions for Richmond?

Beth: Dale Jr.
Vito: Dale Jr.: too little, too late.
Tony: Dale Jr. at Richmond: giving it 110% is a good bet.
Beth: You know, Amy and Toni are over there scheming about their picksagain.
Toni: Alright, I’ll say Truex. I want to be different.
Amy: I think Harvick has something to prove running in 12th… and he proves it with a race trophy.

Not sure which Frontstretch writer to trust with predictions this week? Check out their success – or failure – with the current season standings listed below.

Editor’s Note: Even though it wasn’t listed in the column, both Vito Pugliese and Beth Lunkenheimer took Kurt Busch as their driver last week.

Writer Predictions Wins Top 5s Top 10s Average Finish
Tony Lumbis 18 1 10 14 8.88
Tom Bowles 19 3 10 14 8.89
Vito Pugliese 23 2 11 17 10.0
Tommy Thompson 20 3 7 12 11.3
Amy Henderson 25 4 11 18 12.0
Cami Starr 7 0 2 4 12.7
Matt Taliaferro 16 2 5 9 13.1
Beth Lunkenheimer 9 1 1 6 15.1
Toni Montgomery 16 2 6 7 15.1
Mike Neff 21 1 5 10 16.5
Kim DeHaven 2 0 0 1 23.0

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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