Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Toyota Triumphs, Penalties Confuse & Hendrick Heartache?

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:
Tom Bowles (Frontstretch Managing Editor & Mondays/Bowles-Eye View)
Tony Lumbis (Mondays/Rookie Report)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Tuesdays/Running Your Mouth & Various/Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)
Vito Pugliese (Tuesdays/Voice of Vito)
Mike Neff (Wednesdays/Power Rankings & Wednesdays/Full Throttle)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Bryan Davis Keith (Sundays/Nationwide Series Breakdown)

Toyota broke through with their first Sprint Cup win as a manufacturer on Sunday. What else can we expect from them throughout 2008, and how will the other three go about stepping it up?

Tony: Toyota’s main strength seems to be not just with drivers, but producing power this year. The other teams will need to work on their engines as the season goes on – although Roush seems to not be that far behind.
Mike: One thing is for sure; Toyota learned last year that its engine was the liability, and it’s definitely fixed that issue.
Tony: Yep, Mark Cronquist was the solution there, Mike. With him in the fold, I expect a few more wins, at least.
Beth: Toyota has looked good all season. There are certainly more wins to come; and, I wouldn’t count JGR out for the championship.
Amy: I say expect the championship. Kyle Busch or Tony Stewart may darn well bring home the big trophy.
Mike: Toyota will win more races this year and they’ll have cars in the Chase. However, I don’t think they’ll win the championship, Amy.
Tom: I think Toyota’s acquisition of Gibbs has translated into a huge step up. But wins and championships are two separate things. I’ll tell you one thing, though – Toyota has two excellent drivers to build a future on in Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch.
Bryan: Vickers has been really impressive so far this year. Kevin Hamlin was a huge hire for the No. 83 team, too.
Amy: Having more horsepower than any other make helps.
Mike: But Vickers is certainly doing more with less. He’s made me more of a believer this year than I have been in the past. I always felt Vickers’s Busch Series championship (now Nationwide) was more about equipment than talent.
Tony: Vickers was the brightest young star last year for Toyota. They need to be careful he doesn’t get overshadowed by Busch.
Tom: Speaking of last year, you know what’s amazing? Right now, Toyota has the points lead and a win when this time last year, they had about one team in the Top 35. That alone tells you how far they’ve come.
Mike: I’m with you on that, Tom. Toyota is ahead at this point; but there is no way you write off Hendrick, Childress or Roush quite yet.
Tony: Yeah, I think Toyota still has some growing pains to get through before winning a championship. You have to lose one before you win one.
Tom: One telling stat about Hendrick, although I know they’ll get their act together, is that right now, there’s not a single Hendrick car in the top five in points. Four races in, I can’t remember the last year that’s happened.
Bryan: Hendrick’s gonna be back soon. Take out Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s wreck at Fontana and he’s in the top five in points for sure.
Tony: I still think Jimmie Johnson still has his Johnson luck, although I don’t think they have too many mulligans left.
Tom: I think Johnson is fine. Atlanta was typical No. 48: off all day, salvaging a decent finish out of it.
Amy: That was far from a typical No. 48 finish.
Tom: 13th isn’t that far from a typical No. 48 finish, Amy – it’s just off the top 10. When they get to the tracks where the CoT has run before, I think they’ll be an automatic top five.
Amy: 13th is pretty far from typical, Tom. That’s a top-five team every week last year.
Bryan: I agree; that was nowhere close to his Atlanta run last spring.
Mike: I think the other teams definitely caught up to Hendrick by the end of last year with the Car of Tomorrow. HMS teams were focused on the championship and let their testing slide. But they’ll be back; it’s just that they’ll have more competition than ever. I think JGR will have two or three in the Chase; but it will be interesting to see if they’ll be able to seal the deal.
Bryan: If Toyota has a title contender, it’s Stewart.
Beth: We’ve seen that Stewart can do it. The question is, whether Kyle Busch can calm down enough and run hard when it counts the most.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: Toyota and Kyle Busch the Unconventional Match Made in Heaven

Tony: Or can Stewart calm down, He’s about to pop a vein.
Mike: I’m still not sure Tony isn’t ready for a meltdown of epic proportions. Seems to me he’s about to snap; not being No. 1 at JGR is grating at him, I think.
Tony: Tony was pretty gracious while finishing second to Denny Hamlin in the past, but I’m not sure if the same will hold true for Kyle. That will be interesting.
Mike: In the past, Tony didn’t consistently finish second to Denny. But right now, Kyle is kicking his ass.
Tom: I think that JGR is holding back on their engine package. So many have said it, and in the Chase, they’re going to go more aggressive. However, Toyota has never been in the Chase before; so, even though you have the experience of Gibbs, you have the question, “How much is too much?”
Beth: That’s my whole point, though. You absolutely can’t count Gibbs out when it comes to the Chase because of their experience. Consider who Toyota had running for them last year.
Tom: But Beth, that’s where Gibbs could get burned; because they don’t know how far to push it with the Toyota engine, they still may need a year to draw that line before a championship is a possibility. You know, if it were the old system, I’d say Toyota in a romp. But in 10 races…
Vito: I disagree. Stewart and Zippy have been here before. If anything, it makes them more of a threat. The majority of the tracks are fast tracks, and they’ve proven themselves to be the class of the field.
Beth: So far, in just four races, Kyle’s got a pretty good handle on things.
Amy: Wait until there are a variety of tracks behind them, though. Tony is more versatile.
Mike: Oh, yeah; and we all know that when summer comes, Tony shines.
Vito: If Kyle Busch can be reigned into, say, 105% instead of running 120% at all times (i.e., muscling lap cars out of his way on the last lap while leading) he is going to be hard to handle, especially if he gets even more confidence.
Tony: I think the bottom line is that Toyota has been strong; but with strong engines, you need durability. So far, so good for Toyota; but I think that will be the big thing to watch.
Tom: Right. I’m just saying, it’s the first year Gibbs is working with Toyota’s engine. This is the regular season, so they’re not going to push them 110%. And as great as Cronquist is, once the Chase starts, you wonder if Toyota’s engines are different enough from what he’s worked with in the past that he won’t know exactly what percentage to push them.
Bryan: But if what Cronquist has done so far is any indication, I wouldn’t expect the Chase to be much of a curveball.
Vito: It’s a big fancy air pump. They have enough experience with the truck motors and TRD’s input to know what to do with these things, a motor is a motor.
Tony: I thought Kyle’s comment throwing Cronquist under the bus in Victory Lane was kind of odd, though, unless it was more a joke.
Tom: I don’t think it was; seems Kyle’s actually been frustrated that JGR hasn’t realized its full horsepower capabilities yet.
Vito: That’s trouble for the rest of the cars out there, if that’s the case.

After a dominating season in 2007, Hendrick Motorsports has stumbled a bit out of the starting gate. What’s going on, if anything – and should fans be worried?

Tony: Fans shouldn’t be worried. A lot of it has been bad luck; but no one should expect the cakewalk that was the 2007 season for the Nos. 48 and 24, either.
Bryan: There’s no need to be concerned. The No. 88 is running like gangbusters and the No. 24 has been up front everywhere they’ve gone.
Beth: Every team, no matter how great they are, will stumble. It’s just a part of the balance.
Mike: I believe Hendrick’s main problem right now is that they didn’t get to focus as much on testing with their existing drivers at the end of last season. Their top dogs focused on the championship; however, the No. 88 has proven it has the equipment to be up there. It is only a matter of time before they’re back at the front.
Amy: The No. 88 is running OK, but hasn’t been a serious threat to win yet. The No. 24 is the same.
Vito: The No. 88 is strong, the No. 24 is strong and Casey Mears‘s car is a slug, like usual. The only real surprise is Johnson.
Tom: Only to a degree. I’ll expand on what I said a little bit ago: this weekend was an example of how Johnson wins championships.
Amy: But it was very unlike the No. 48 to miss the setup that badly two weeks in a row. Vegas was the worst finish ever for that team without some kind of crash or malfunction.
Tom: At the same time, Amy, it hasn’t killed them. They are 13th in points. I do think it’s a bit of an eyebrow-raiser they haven’t won; but once they get going, that’ll change. Perhaps the bigger eyebrow-raiser is that the Hendrick team which could have won two races already is Junior’s.
Vito: Nice pun, Tom. Johnson’s team looked pretty much like this through the summer months of last season, and they seemed to end up figuring it out. They know what they’re doing.
Tom: I like to use my eyebrows, Vito.
Vito: So does Jimmie, his one. This, coming from a guy who has to take a swipe down the middle of his when he’s done shaving…
Amy: Dario Franchitti takes all the eyebrow pressure off anyone else in the garage.
Tony: OK, since I’ve got two eyebrows, I think I’m safe getting back to racing. Everyone has aimed for Hendrick, and can you blame them after the past two years? They’ll certainly remain strong, but a greater number of teams will be at their level this year.
Mike: Hendrick will get the handle on the new car configuration on the intermediate tracks soon. I don’t know that they’ll win half of the races like last year, but they’ll win at least 10.
Vito: I can guarantee by the time they unload at Charlotte in May, these first few races are going to be a distant memory.
Mike: I’m with you on that, Vito. They’ll be right back up front with their three top teams. I don’t know what to expect from the No. 5, though.
Tony: What’s kind of interesting is that the former No. 25 team’s luck seems to have followed Mears.
Amy: The No. 5 will be fine. They were actually the best of the HMS cars at the end of the Daytona 500 – and could have won if not for a bad spotter call.
Tom: My biggest fear for the No. 5 is that Mears gets taken out in a Bristol wreck. He is not the best short-track racer; and if that happens and he falls out of the Top 35, it is not out of the realm of possibility that he could fail to qualify at Martinsville.
Tony: In the meantime, I am wondering how long it takes the Gordon and Johnson conspiracy theorists to start complaining that the No. 88 is getting all of the good equipment.
Beth: Actually Tony, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet.
Mike: I’ve been wondering that, too. I figured we’d be hearing already that Junior is getting the best stuff, and that’s why he’s been the best out of their stable.
Amy: I do kind of wonder why Johnson isn’t trying more of Junior’s setups, to be honest.
Tom: Huh? Didn’t Johnson’s setups last year work better than anyone else’s?
Amy: Last year, yeah.
Tom: Well, I would think they’d use their own stuff for a while, at least. You don’t have one bad week and be like, “Oh, Junior’s the best. My new teammate that didn’t even make the Chase last year.” You can’t just give up that quickly.
Vito: The whole point of having team cars is that they should run similar. They pretty much are, except that the No. 48 had a couple of bad weeks. I don’t see Jimmie and Chad reading ropes in rafters at HMS just yet.
Bryan: Vito said it best earlier: Come Charlotte, HMS will be contending with three of its four teams. And they’ll win Martinsville.
Mike: Hendrick is still the best organization in the garage, and they’ll continue to be until they don’t win the championship.
Amy: I think so, too, but they need to figure out these intermediate tracks to bring it home this year, and fast. What I did not like was hearing Knaus on the radio conceding defeat Sunday, that was odd.

Several appeals to the National Stock Car Racing Commission were successful over the last couple of weeks, which is something that has not occurred with much frequency. Is this an indication that NASCAR is being heavy-handed with penalties, or do they need to let the teams and appeal commission decide where to go with the appeals process?

Tony: It actually makes me wonder if the parties involved in the appeals process should be involved with assessing the initial penalty.
Beth: What a concept, Tony.
Mike: Well, NASCAR has done what they should do – hand out penalties consistently. No gray area. Just black and white, and the appeals board can differentiate. I thought the process worked nicely.
Vito: I think what you saw with Robby Gordon‘s sponsor getting involved is that people are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore! This is a sponsor-driven sport; if and when they get involved, NASCAR is forced to listen.
Amy: But I think that NASCAR has been fine. The Gordon thing was ridiculous because of how inconsequential the violation was, but the other penalties were spot on.
Mike: It was a joke that they penalized Robby for what was a mistake – not a failure to adhere to the rules.
Vito: The only benefit of the Gordon fine is that there is an extra $150,000 going to charity somewhere.
Beth: But even then, the extra 50 grand is like buying back those 100 points.
Tom: I just think the appeals board needs a set of guidelines to follow. Moving along, how ridiculous is it when the same oil cover penalty is interpreted five different ways? Because that’s how it was after the Nationwide appeals. Five appeals, five answers. It’s great that people have a chance of winning the appeal, but we need guidelines that those penalties can be reduced to.

See also
Did You Notice? Robbie Reiser Hasn't Lost a Beat, Newman Feeling the Heat... From Montoya and Old Friends Reunite?

Vito: Talk about the inmates running the asylum.
Amy: Well, RWI proved equipment failure. The other three NNS rulings had me scratching my head.
Bryan: You weren’t the only one.
Tony: That is a huge problem. I think they almost need to set up a third party who does nothing but assess and enforce penalties.
Mike: Each instance is to be judged on its own merit. And I thought that is what they did.
Vito: I think in the future what you’ll see is that the appeals process is actually going to mean something, because you’ll see wins being taken away in instances of blatant rules violations – as with the No. 99 last week.
Mike: You’re never going to see a win taken away, Vito.
Amy: Too bad. But probably true.
Bryan: Not from a major team, anyway. From Robby at a road course, maybe.
Vito: I disagree. With as much media coverage as there is, access to the internet, 20 NASCAR-related shows on TV and all the rest, I believe you will see a win stripped away in the coming years. Maybe not this year, but it’s coming. NASCAR was always an underground sport, and didn’t get much media attention; that was why they wouldn’t take a win away. But NASCAR is no different than MLB, NFL, NBA or the NHL now.
Mike: It’s still a tall order to change that direction, Vito. Big Bill always lived with the belief that the fans should leave the track knowing who won, and not having to wait for days to find out. They’ve lived with that edict pretty much ever since.
Beth: And that’s fine Mike, but there’s got to be a point where they say enough. If a team is caught cheating in a way that clearly gives them an advantage, that win should be pulled, period.
Vito: I think that’s a pretty flimsy argument against not taking a win away, anyways – just because someone saw it at the track. What about the millions seeing it on TV, being bamboozled out of an afternoon?
Mike: I think so, too. But I don’t think, as long as a France runs the joint, that it is going to change.
Tom: I just think they won’t ever strip wins away. I really don’t, Vito. While you have some valid points, there is something to be said about the whole guy who crosses the line first finishing first stuff.
Vito: Well, if you’re going to dock somebody 100-plus points, what’s the point of allowing them to keep some gaudy trophy? You’re losing points, plus the bonus win points. You’ve essentially taken away the win.
Tom: That’s right; and if you strip away all the points, then to me you’ve stripped the win. That’s what they need to start doing. In the end, though, you can’t erase the fact a driver crossed the line first.
Vito: OK, then fine. Cheat every race and win; that won’t do much to engender legitimacy to the series.
Tom: Vito, you don’t know whether cheating would have kept the No. 99 from winning any more than you know the absence of steroids for Marion Jones would have kept her from a gold medal.
Amy: I agree that if the violation’s blatant, bust them to 43rd-place points. The No. 99 had over 100 pounds of extra downforce at Las Vegas, though, and that’s a pretty clear advantage.
Vito: Over 200, according to Toyota.
Mike: Was that proven, Amy? Every person I heard who should have a legitimate idea of that said it was like 20-30 and that Toyota was exaggerating.
Tony: The amount of pounds seemed to get bigger as the week went on.
Vito: Agreed. Jack Roush didn’t seem to put much stock in Lee White’s comments.
Tom: Yeah, but whatever that number is, the bottom line is Carl Edwards still did 400 miles in Las Vegas faster than everyone else. You can strip the points, strip the credibility – but you can’t erase what you saw from the stands. In sports, we like to do things where we pretend we didn’t see things. But you can’t undo speed.
Beth: Why let a team keep a win if they were cheating? I mean, sure Edwards crossed the finish line first, but all that extra downforce undoubtedly helped him do that.
Tony: Like Tom said, Beth, that might be the million-dollar question… did it? That’s the thing that we can’t prove: If someone didn’t cheat, would they have still won? We can’t turn back time and see that.
Amy: Too low after a race is one thing… that’s pretty hard to prove something didn’t fail. But if it’s not a part failure, book ’em.
Mike: Then Edwards shouldn’t be booked Amy, because it was a bolt failure.
Amy: My butt it was a bolt failure.
Vito: Richard Petty got nabbed in Charlotte in 1983 with a big motor and left-side tires on the right side of the car. Had that been anyone else besides the King chasing No. 200, I bet they’d have taken the win away. Again, this isn’t at some bullring in 1958. This is big-time, primetime, major league world-class auto racing. Times have changed.
Tom: Vito, you can’t change what happened – which is what stripping the win does – but you can change perception. How good is a win when it’s the win everyone knows was illegal?
Beth: In the end, though, years down the road all people are going to see is another notch in the “W” column, Tom.
Tom: But how meaningful is that trophy if given to the second-place finisher? Because in the end, they physically finished second.
Vito: But how meaningful is a win, if you can get it by any means necessary?
Amy: Put an asterisk in the record book, Vito. Let every fan and historian know the winner was a cheat.
Vito: OK, then. Maybe Michael Waltrip should run a 500 cid engine at Talladega. He’ll win, and everyone will remember his big victory at Talladega in 2008.
Mike: I’m with you. Vito, although I don’t think they’d get that through pre-race inspection.
Vito: Wins are what get the press, print the ads and make the commercials. A points fine is pretty silly in a sport that resets the points with 10 races to go.
Mike: Amen, Vito.
Amy: At least they’re taking the bonus points away, a baby step in the right direction.
Vito: Oh, boy; 10 points. That’ll show those damned meddling kids!

The CTS is off for the next two weeks before racing at Martinsville on March 29 – then they race only once more before May 16. Is this dearth of early-season competition healthy for teams and fans?

Beth: Absolutely not!
Amy: No, it’s terrible. The series should open in late March.
Beth: They really need to spread the races out evenly. The trucks have a large amount of off weeks early on, and then are hit with back-to-back-to-back races to end the season.
Mike: I think they should open at Daytona, but race more frequently in the spring. They should be running a 30-32 race schedule.
Vito: The trucks still need to be at Daytona to start Speedweeks, Amy. They could skip California… nobody goes to that race, anyway.
Amy: I don’t think they need to be at Daytona. Make the Trucks run there, but later – a standalone event.
Vito: But everybody in NASCAR is at Daytona in February!
Beth: They really should be at Daytona with everyone else.
Tom: You know, it’s almost like NASCAR treats the trucks as their red-headed stepchild. They just fit Truck races in when they have the time.
Beth: They have for a while.
Mike: And that is sad, Tom, because they offer the best racing of any of the series.
Tom: The thing that’s somewhat worrisome for the trucks is that they could only get 32 participants at Atlanta. The two feeder systems for them have been cut off; there’s no minor league, younger drivers getting hired to work their way up through the ranks, and no older drivers left who want to retire to the Truck Series. That’s troubling.
Beth: And it’s not looking good that they can’t fill a field, especially while in search of a new title sponsor.
Vito: The trucks need big money races at big-money tracks. You can’t have them trucking out to California to get socked with a rain reschedule. These aren’t big-money Cup teams; I think it’s unfair to expect them to balance a Cup schedule on truck money. It just isn’t going to happen; right now, these teams have speedway trucks, short-track trucks and downforce trucks. They’re not all that different from the Cup Series a few years ago; they need some time to fix busted-up rigs and get their short-track stuff ready. These guys don’t have a crew of hundreds like the Cup guys do. This is still a stepping-stone series.
Mike: I agree, Vito. And the purses are a farce.
Tom: Wouldn’t it be great to have Truck Series racing in coordination with the ARCA race at Rockingham? Or Wilkesboro?
Amy: That would be awesome, Tom.
Tony: Yes, it would; in fact, it’s a combination that already works great at Nashville. It definitely helps both series.
Mike: I predict trucks will be at the Rock within three years. The track is going to be strong and will definitely bring in a bunch of races.
Bryan: Here’s hoping the Carolina 500 goes well!
Tony: I hope you’re right, Mike. Andy Hillenburg seems pretty set at bringing that track back to life.
Tom: I think it’s going to be an outstanding event. ARCA is booming right now with all the inventory of old Cup cars lying around. But as for the truck schedule, I agree there needs to be a few more events away from Cup and Nationwide. Because when they’re paired up with both, they run on Fridays, making them an afterthought, when in many cases they’re better than the other two races that run ahead of them.
Mike: I personally think there should be more Nationwide events away from Cup, letting the trucks run more companion events.
Vito: Again, run the trucks on Saturday afternoon before the Nationwide races; that would help this series tremendously.
Bryan: Definitely put more unique tracks on the slate.
Tony: Good point, Vito; everybody is thinking happy hour (not the Sprint Cup kind) on a Friday evening, not the truck race.
Mike: I still think the series should end up running 30-32 times a year.
Vito: I don’t know that the sponsorship is there to run that many, Mike. Racecars and trucks run on money, not gasoline.
Beth: You’ve got that right, Vito.

Predictions for Bristol?

Vito: Would you believe Greg Biffle?
Beth: No. Kurt Busch.
Amy: I want to barf saying it, but Kurt Busch.
Tom: Kurt Busch. That team has run strong from the start of the year, and just hasn’t had the luck to show for it.
Mike: Kevin Harvick is going to run away with it.
Tony: I say Jeff Burton does one better than last year and gets it done. RCR has been quietly strong the last few weeks and it’s time for them to break through.
Bryan: I agree; Burton finishes what he started last year. RCR will be strong.
Vito: You know, predicting a winner at Bristol is kind of funny. All logic, stats and reason instantly go out the window if somebody gets nerfed.
Tony: Nerfed… I like that.

Mirror Staff Prediction Chart

Returning starting next week. With the chart, you’ll begin to figure out which staff members you can trust with predictions… and which ones you’ll need to steer clear of.

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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