Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: NASCAR’s CoT Both Safe & Boring, Toughing Out Texas & Managing RCR’s Future

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 (Editor-In-Chief; Mondays/Bowles-Eye View & Wednesdays/Did You Notice?)
Tony Lumbis (Mondays/Rookie Report)
Vito Pugliese (Tuesdays/Voice of Vito)
Matt Taliaferro (Thursdays/Fanning the Flames)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Kurt Allen Smith (Fridays/Happy Hour)

The CoT did its job at Texas, disintegrating to absorb Michael McDowell‘s horrific crash during qualifying while the driver compartment remained completely intact. The racing on Sunday, while lackluster, was no worse than some past Texas races with the old car. With that said, is it time to stop complaining about the CoT and realize the role it plays in today’s NASCAR?

Tony: Yes, I think so; and everyone has to remember that as much as we hate them, snoozer races are a part of this sport and will never completely go away.
Kurt: I think the drivers complain on television for the same reason Tony Stewart complained about Goodyear: so that their criticisms would be heard and they would be on record saying the car still needs a lot of work.
Matt T.: But we’re stuck with it, Kurt, so why continue to complain, right?
Amy: Well, I never had a major problem with the CoT. I mean, there are always things that can be improved, but safety is why we have it.
Vito: It is safe, Amy, but the old car wasn’t exactly a liability. Witness Mark Martin‘s head-on impact at Charlotte in 2006. He hopped out and stood on the door, waving to everyone; for sure, it’s not the only safety advancement that’s been made this decade.
Tom: I agree, Vito; I was talking to a driver just the other day who basically said you’re a moron if you give all the credit for McDowell’s safety to the CoT. The seats and the SAFER barriers had just as much to do with it, too. But with that said, I don’t think anyone will argue that the CoT is unsafe; it’s just NASCAR needs to take the next step as an organization and work on improving the quality of racing with it. That’s where the focus needs to change; my worry is that in the midst of all the “safety improvements,” NASCAR has or will lose sight of that.
Tony: I’m not sure if we can ever improve competition though, Tom. Some teams will always just be flat out better than others. It happened back in the day when drivers won by multiple laps, and it will happen now.

See also
Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Michael McDowell Terrifies at Texas

Kurt: But the car wiggles too much, and watching it you get the idea it’s really difficult to control. Frankly, I don’t know how a car that is so difficult to control can be safer.
Tony: It’s safer, Kurt. McDowell’s was the closest wreck we’ve seen to Dale Earnhardt‘s in 2001; but as the dust settled, two completely different scenarios unfolded.
Amy: To my untrained eye, it looked as if the CoT crushed differently in the impact than the old one did in head-on crashes.
Tony: Right, Amy. Based on the replays, it’s clear that we’ve seen a drastic improvement since then.
Vito: Well then, it’s good this car is safe, because it’s the ugliest thing on the planet and produces poor racing. It isn’t just Texas… virtually all of the races this year have been poor.
Matt T.: The only issue I have with what we’re fed is that NASCAR could have implemented the safety features on the old car by just tweaking the design. I didn’t think we needed a completely new piece.
Vito: Exactly.
Kurt: I agree with Matt. I don’t think any of the crashes we’ve seen would have been fatal in the old car, and it seems like the same teams are winning regardless.
Amy: But are the races really worse than ones on the 1.5-mile tracks with the old car? No.
Vito: The old car was proven. Had they taken away the offset and slightly enlarged the driver’s area, that’s all that would have been needed to increase the safety of the car. And I do think the races are noticeably worse on the 1.5-milers, Amy. Stewart and Jimmie Johnson at Atlanta in 2007 was much closer than this year.
Amy: How, Vito? You’ve always had guys running away by six or seven seconds. Racing in the pack hasn’t changed, either.
Matt T.: I think where NASCAR screwed up was by telling the masses how the new car would increase competition exponentially, as well as be safer and save the team owners money. Well, one out of three ain’t bad.
Kurt: It hasn’t exactly performed as we were told it would. Passing is certainly not easier.
Matt T.: Clean air seems to be more advantageous now, too. I don’t think anyone likes that, except the leader, of course.
Amy: But personally, I think fans – heck, I don’t want to watch a guy drive a perfect-handling car all day. I want to see them work for it.
Kurt: But wasn’t the new car supposed to reduce the aero push?
Tom: Great point, Kurt; it hasn’t. We still have the same old problems we’ve been accustomed to on these tracks, whether it’s the new car or the old car; you can have a guy gaining three tenths of a second on the field, and suddenly he comes up behind someone and his progress just dead stops in traffic. I’m well beyond admitting there’s a problem, actually; I’m all for working on solutions to get it fixed. You know, I was talking to a second NASCAR driver the other day, and he told me that raising the splitter an inch on the front of the cars would make a world of difference because the cars desperately, desperately need front downforce.
Vito: They desperately need some tires that are soft, grip the track and wear out, too.
Amy: Amen to that, Vito. I think the tires are a part of the issue. Races when real tire wear was an important factor in the outcome of the race, like Rockingham and Darlington used to be, were always good. Tires are still a strategy, but not like they used to be.
Kurt: The tires at Texas were better than Atlanta, though. You didn’t hear a dozen drivers complaining about the tires afterward.
Vito: Texas isn’t exactly a multi-groove racetrack, either.
Tom: I think both tires and mechanical failures in general have had their impact minimized with the new car, and that takes away from the overall excitement of the race.
Kurt: The car is also really unforgiving, as the No. 24 team found out. I can’t imagine how they could’ve been that far off, but the garage consensus is that it doesn’t take much.
Matt T.: Whatever the case, I fell asleep in the middle of the race on Sunday, and I never do that. It was flat-out boring.
Amy: I’ll agree with that. But 1.5-mile tracks have always provided ample naptime.
Vito: I have really racked up the minutes sleeping over the last few weeks, and I’m not bashful about it. It’s not NASCAR, it’s NAPCAR.
Matt T.: The only exciting part was waiting to see how Tony Eury Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. would screw themselves out of a win.
Tom: What’s interesting to me is how the racing differs at the short tracks as opposed to the intermediates. How could we go from such a great race at Martinsville to this?
Amy: See, I just can’t blame that on the car, though. Races on these cookie-cutter tracks with the old car was just as boring, even with phantom debris cautions.
Tony: Exactly, Amy. It will always be that way, no matter what car they’re racing.
Vito: Texas in ’04 and ’05? Kansas in ’04 and ’06? Remember, those were all last-lap battles. I think NASCAR had the right formula in 2004-05; but, as is usually the case, they screwed with a good thing and ruined it.
Tony: Last-lap battles, which will still happen, are almost always yawners in the middle, though.
Amy: And those were also the exceptions; and how many times were those last-lap battles the result of some contrived caution to make it that way?
Vito: Well, I could rattle off about five more, Amy, so it’s hard to blame all of them on yellow flags. And here’s another angle: If NASCAR didn’t have this goofy car with no downforce and 900 horsepower, would McDowell have lost it going into turn 1 in the first place?
Matt T.: I blame at least some of McDowell’s crash on slick conditions in turn 1. Jamie McMurray complained about it on his run, which was right before McDowell’s.
Tom: I think the oil issue is becoming more and more of a problem. I mean, the amount of time it takes for them to clean it up after engine failures on the track is incredible. I have never, ever seen it take longer to clean up oil spills than I have this year. And half the time, all that oil dry doesn’t even make a difference!
Matt T.: It’s a different type of oil they’re using, Tom. The Stay Dry doesn’t soak it up as well.
Tom: Well, if it’s a different kind of oil, then perhaps NASCAR should take a look at why that oil is being used. I know teams are going to use everything possible at their disposal to crank out horsepower; but not only is the safety of the oil becoming an issue, the time it takes to clean up these messes under caution disrupts the rhythm of the race.
Matt T.: No argument there, Tom.
Kurt: Maybe they’re using the official cat litter of NASCAR. Anyway, the car is not any safer if no one can handle it, and it isn’t improving the racing if it’s that much more difficult to pass. I am sure things will get better, but it remains a work in progress.
Amy: All the complaining is for naught. Regardless, the car is here, and we need to suck it up and get used to it.
Tony: I really think the races are exactly the same as they’ve always been: Some good, some bad, but at least we got safety out of it.
Vito: It’s safe, yes. But the old car wasn’t unsafe. This car produces awful racing, is painful to look at and is seriously making Sundays very, very long.
Matt T.: Especially at the 1.5-milers.

Jeff Gordon finished dead last at Texas for only the second time in his career — his only other 43rd-place finish has come at Texas, as well. In addition, before Sunday, there had been only one repeat Cup winner at TMS. Although it looks like every other 1.5-mile track on the circuit, what makes this venue so hard to master?

Matt T.: I have absolutely no idea.
Vito: Well, they only raced there once a year for the first eight years, for one thing. That, and they’ve reconfigured it a couple of times.
Amy: On the surface, Texas looks like every other track; but it’s brutally fast now.
Tony: Texas was a very different track from its sisters when it first came out with only one groove; but it’s gotten better.
Kurt: And Gordon hasn’t exactly been terrible at Texas. He’s just never won there. The No. 24 team had an awful racecar on Sunday, and it probably would have been just as rotten at any 1.5-miler.
Tom: It was mind-boggling to see Gordon go around the track Sunday. It just really seems that Texas is that Achilles’ Heel for Gordon every star athlete seems to have in their careers.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: Jeff Gordon's Kryptonite Comes in the Form of the Letters T-M-S

Matt T.: You know, what does Texas bill itself as? The “Great American Racetrack” or something? Hello, Texas, meet Darlington.
Tony: They also think their football team is “America’s Team” down there; and I have serious issues with that as well.
Vito: At least Texas has the common decency to sell out, unlike Crapifornia.
Matt T.: I don’t think Texas was sold out on Sunday. I saw empty seats again.
Amy: I don’t think it was, either. Nobody can afford the gas to get there.
Vito: Well then, why do we go there twice a year?
Matt T.: Ask Francis Ferko, Vito. He could fill you in.
Kurt: I think the weather helps. It’s a dry heat.
Vito: Texas, California, New Hampshire, Las Vegas, Phoenix. Places that don’t need two dates, ever, under any circumstances.
Matt T.: And Chicago and Kansas, in case NASCAR has anything in mind.
Vito: Chicago. Whose idea was that? Let’s build the worst track ever and only seat 80,000. The best thing that ever happened at Chicagoland was when the gigantic inflatable Tropicana Orange blew out onto the track.
Tom: Hold on a sec! I still think NASCAR should go to Texas twice a year, guys. Let’s not take one bad race and go crazy. I mean, look at the race we had here last year! Jeff Burton passed Matt Kenseth on the final lap. We all need to resist the urge of instant gratification to suddenly say a track should be off the schedule based on one bad race.
Vito: Maybe it’s just this new car, then. The one that works on a short track, but nowhere else.
Kurt: I don’t hate Texas, but I wouldn’t lose any sleep if it lost a race.
Vito: When I think NASCAR, I don’t think Texas. I think Darlington.
Tom: Yeah… I think people don’t have enough time under their belt with the new car on the 1.5-mile tracks, and that’s the problem. What I do find interesting, though, is that most of the drivers and crew chiefs you talk to suggest only minor changes to make the cars more competitive; but NASCAR is steadfastly refusing to do anything. It’s as if they think they’re always right or something.

Richard Childress Racing announced plans for a fourth Cup team next year with General Mills as the primary sponsor. There are conflicting reports about whether Bobby Labonte will follow suit or stay at Petty Enterprises; but there’s other drivers in the rumor mill, too, with the list including Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr. and Casey Mears. Who would be the best fit for this RCR team?

Vito: Scott Wimmer.
Matt T.: Right on, V. I’ve been rooting for Wimmer to get another shot for two years now.
Tony: I would agree with Wimmer.
Kurt: I think Wimmer could do well in Cup. He wasn’t terrible in the Bill Davis ride. If not him, Mears will go to RCR. I doubt they land Truex or Biffle.
Vito: Mears is fine where he’s at. He won his race, and can test stuff for his buddies at Hendrick.
Amy: Labonte or Truex will get the ride. Biffle and Kevin Harvick would kill each other at the company picnic; remember, whoever fills that seat has to be able to let Harvick think he’s No. 1 over there.
Tony: If Truex blows more engines while running in the top 10 this year, he may bolt. Seems like the RCR side of that engine program is much better right now.
Vito: Well, Biffle won’t go to a new team, and he has no reason to. He’s got a good thing at Roush, even though he’s been whining about it since he was driving the Grainger truck.
Amy: As for Wimmer, I’m not convinced he’s Cup material.
Matt T.: Wimmer drove for two underfunded teams. He can get the job done in big time equipment; but obviously, Labonte is the man everyone is expecting to make the jump, and I can’t blame them for thinking that. It seems he’d make a great fit at RCR and could resurrect his career, a la Burton. Labonte’s marketing firm also handles the General Mills account; that should tell you all you need to know.
Tony: Exactly, Matt. I don’t think Bobby is done yet.
Amy: I agree with that, Matt.
Vito: Labonte has been driving that No. 21 Nationwide car for a reason.
Kurt: I wouldn’t hold it against Bobby, but I’d honestly love to see him stay at Petty. And if he does leave, that should mean a wide open door for Wimmer at Petty.
Tom: I don’t really think Wimmer is going to end up at Petty; to be honest, my fear is that no one will end up at Petty. If Petty decided to tap out after this season, watch his dad sell the team, do a part-time driving career for someone else, and run the Victory Junction Gang Camp… I wouldn’t be totally surprised.
Kurt: Don’t throw in the towel on Petty yet, Tom.
Vito: Petty Enterprises has a history of making big moves to “resurrect the organization.” It works for like a month; then they go back to floundering.

See also
Voice of Vito: Is Petty Enterprises Circling the Drain?

Tom: Exactly, Vito. I know they’re about to sign an investor, but doesn’t that whole story seem fishy to everyone? They’ve been trying to align with someone for a long time.
Matt T.: Has to be done on their terms, Tom. Hopefully, for the sake of PE, it’ll work this time.
Kurt: But through it all, Petty Enterprises is still here. And I think they did show a little improvement in recent years.
Matt T.: I don’t think they’ve shown much improvement at all. Labonte, Loomis, Meendering, if these guys can’t make things work…
Tony: There are a lot of issues at Petty right now beyond money. Being essentially a one-car team has been one of them.
Amy: Petty hasn’t been able to keep up with the winds of change in the last 10 years in NASCAR, which is a shame because there was a time when they were NASCAR.
Vito: Richard Petty backed out at the last minute on Gillett for a reason. He isn’t going to sell the business his father started on a whim; they just moved into a new building and are still getting stuff caught up. Now, Loomis and Kyle Petty are in a pissing match.
Kurt: They should try to persuade STP to be the sponsor of the No. 43; that would draw some attention. It’s unlikely, though, in these economic times.
Tony: If they lose Labonte, it could be hard to draw anyone.
Amy: Anyone good? Yes. Anyone at all? Well, you can always get someone.
Vito: Mike Skinner.
Matt T.: Jeremy Mayfield is now available.
Kurt: Jimmy Spencer.
Tom: Yeah, but the problem is financially, PE they can’t survive with someone like a Jeff Green. Before, they were capable of getting anyone because they had what seemed like invincible financial backing from Cheerios. But now, just look at their “young gun,” Chad McCumbee; I mean, how long have they been trying to get him sponsorship to run a Nationwide Series program?
Kurt: Is Labonte really that important to the organization? I love Bobby, but I don’t think the whole company hinges on his staying.
Matt T.: I like Mike Neff’s idea of McMurray going over there. What Petty needs at this point is someone marketable, who will keep the car in the Top 35 and bring in sponsor dollars.
Tom: I don’t think that can happen, Matt; I’m really a firm believer that the Pettys are in big trouble. I just don’t see someone with the patience of Cheerios stepping up to sponsor the team. I mean, they’ve gone nine years without a victory.
Matt T.: I agree wholeheartedly, Tom. This is the beginning of a rough, rough stretch for that company.
Amy: I think their time has passed and it’s a shame, because they are probably the last tie to the early days, besides the Wood Brothers.
Tom: What’s crazy is that we could be staring at a franchised NASCAR in 2010 without either of those teams.
Kurt: Is that necessarily a bad thing?
Amy: Yes, Kurt, it is. Although the Top-35 rule is, in essence, franchising by favoritism.
Tony: Who would’ve ever thought that we’d see a day in NASCAR where the Nos. 21 and 43 were simply rolling chicanes?
Matt T.: And why the hell did they want to put McCumbee in the car? What’s he going to do in qualifying that Kyle couldn’t? Petty Enterprises dialed 911 this weekend.
Vito: I think Kyle voiced that same opinion to all of us, Matt. Put Kyle Busch in the No. 45 and see how fast it goes. It ain’t happenin’!
Kurt: Petty is going through a rough patch, no doubt about it; but to say they don’t have the resources and ability to bounce back from it is premature.

When NASCAR moved the Mexico City date for the Nationwide Series, the reasoning was to make travel easier by allowing teams to go straight from Phoenix to Mexico. However, this puts the smaller teams at a huge disadvantage, because they don’t have the resources to have a second team back at the shop preparing cars for Talladega and the May races. Did NASCAR make the right call on the change, or is it an even bigger flop than before?

Kurt: Since when do smaller teams matter in the Nationwide Series?
Amy: I don’t know if, financially, there is a good way to do this for anyone but the big Cup-owned teams. Not to Mexico.
Vito: Right. The smaller teams don’t have to show up, because there’s enough Cup teams that will. In the meantime, the Mexican teams will show up. Aren’t all of our cars built in Mexico now, anyway? Plus, it’s a road-course race. More added expenses; it’s like running another restrictor-plate event.
Kurt: If racing at Mexico City once a year is worth the cost in what the teams have to endure… well, that’s a business decision. But they can’t be liking it.
Matt T.: If I’m a single-car operation, I’m skipping Mexico City. What’s the point? You’re not racing for a title anyway. Save the money and manpower and come back rested.
Amy: The Top-30 rule is the point, Matt. The Cup drivers won’t go, so those teams toss in a road guy and go; but the part-time Cup-owned teams won’t bother.
Tony: I agree, Amy, and I don’t think there is an efficient way to pull off this distance. So, I think this is the best answer for a situation that has no answers.
Amy: If they must go international, flip-flop years between Mexico and Canada.
Kurt: I would think a struggling team would want to make the effort, though. It is Mexico City, and you’re getting exposure in a different market.
Tom: You know what this race always reminds me of? The Japan exhibitions of the late 1990s. And that’s the way I feel like this race is treated. Even worse than Montreal… I mean, the No. 25 team is replacing their main driver with Boris Said. So many Nationwide regulars won’t even go. It’s crazy.
Tony: Good point, Tom. This is basically a great opportunity for the Hideo Fukuyamas of Mexico.
Matt T.: It may be a big draw in Mexico City; but after the first two years, I could care less about a Mexico City road course for the Nationwide Series. I bet ratings are horrendous.
Kurt: Are the ratings bad? I thought they were pretty good from what I heard, especially when there was no Cup race that weekend.
Amy: That’s the only reason they’re good…
Vito: Let’s put it this way; the forecast for Mexico City calls for mostly sunny, with a 40% chance of kidnapping.

OK, predictions for Phoenix?

Vito: Biffle.
Tony: I’ve got to go with Kyle Busch. He runs well there, has won at Phoenix before, and is simply on fire this season.
Amy: Kyle Busch.
Kurt: I’m thinking a Gibbs car… Busch or Stewart. I’ll go with Smoke.
Matt T.: Mr. Clint Bowyer.
Tom: I think I’m actually going to go with Bowyer, too. He’s always been good out West. And it’s the same track where he’s made his Cup debut; I think this is the race he gets it together for 2008.

2008 Mirror Prediction Chart

Not sure which writer’s prediction to trust? Well, check out our handy predictions chart below to see which of our writers has had the best luck looking into that crystal ball this season! At the end of the year, we’ll tally up the points and award our Mirror Driving predictions champion. Last week, Bryan Keith Davis returned from a DNS to retake the points lead – despite having one less appearance than the other contenders. That alone should tell you how trustworthy he is; however, this week he took another night off, meaning you can’t rely on him for Phoenix! Tony Lumbis and Amy Henderson are still second and third, with the gap between them and the rest of the pack holding its own after Texas.

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Bryan Davis Keith 1,160 -0 7 1 5 6
Tony Lumbis 1,105 -55 8 3 4 5
Amy Henderson 1,071 -89 8 0 3 4
Mike Neff 830 -330 6 0 3 4
Matt Taliaferro 800 -360 6 0 2 4
Vito Pugliese 660 -500 4 0 4 4
Tom Bowles 424 -736 4 0 0 1
Tommy Thompson 399 -761 3 0 2 2
Beth Lunkenheimer 341 -819 3 0 1 1
Kurt Smith 241 -919 3 0 1 1
Danny Peters 190 -970 1 1 1 1
Jeff Meyer 94 -1,066 1 0 0 0
Kim DeHaven 0 -1,160 0 0 0 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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