Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Junior’s Pace Car Problem, Kyle Busch’s Solution & NASCAR’s Tight-Lipped Meeting

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:
Tony Lumbis “(Mondays/Rookie Report)
Mike Neff (Wednesdays/Power Rankings & Full Throttle, Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans)
Matt Taliaferro (Thursdays/Fanning the Flames)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Bryan Davis Keith (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans & Sundays/Nationwide Series Breakdown)
Kurt Allen Smith (Fridays/Happy Hour)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. snapped a 76-race losing streak at Michigan on Sunday with a fuel-mileage win; but should NASCAR have allowed Junior, who passed the pace car on more than one occasion in an effort to conserve fuel, to retain the top spot?

Kurt: Aye, this is a tough one. Whatever the penalty is for passing the pace car should have been applied.
Tony: I don’t think so, but I’m with Kurt – I have yet to hear what the penalty should’ve been.
Amy: Yes and no. I agree with letting the win stand – sort of – but in that case, NASCAR needs to rewrite the rule. To your question Tony, 10-4-D is the exact violation from the NASCAR Rulebook: “Cars may not pass the caution vehicle unless directed to do so by a NASCAR official. Any cars illegally passing the caution vehicle or race leader will be black-flagged or repositioned at the discretion of NASCAR officials.” So, according to that, he should have been black-flagged.
Matt T.: I didn’t think it was egregious. I think that rule is more for cars passing the pace car that are trying to hightail it down pit road.
Mike: Exactly.
Amy: That’s true enough, but the rule doesn’t say that.
Kurt: But intent isn’t supposed to apply to rules, Matt.
Matt T.: There’s letter of the law and spirit of the law, Kurt; this was a spirit thing.
Bryan: There were no safety concerns because of Junior’s coasting by, either.
Mike: I don’t know that it was much of an advantage, anyway. And when NASCAR got on him about it, he stopped.
Amy: Then, Junior didn’t need to do it in the first place, Mike, and shouldn’t have.
Kurt: But he didn’t know what he would need, Amy. He was on the edge. I think it was fine that NASCAR warned him. It wasn’t too big of a deal.

See also
Thompson in Turn 5: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Win Gave NASCAR What It Needed - Putting the Focus Back On Racing

Mike: And apparently, Greg Biffle did it earlier this year.
Tony: I guess my problem is that they told him not to do it and then he did it again. Those types of things got me in trouble when I was little.
Amy: They shouldn’t have had to warn him more than once.
Matt T.: Hell, if I’m Junior and I think I can get away with it, I’d do it too. And now we’re talking about this instead of the lawsuit.
Kurt: Any ruling involving Junior is a no-win for NASCAR.
Amy: The rule is much more black and white than Biffle going too slow at Kansas last fall.
Kurt: In Kansas, there were simply too many applicable rules, and any of them could have been applied. Clint Bowyer could have won with the right rule application.
Matt T.: Yeah, I thought Biffle’s Kansas deal was much more blatantly wrong than Junior’s pace car pass. And Junior’s below-the-yellow-line pass at Talladega, for that matter.
Kurt: I agree, Matt. Biffle almost didn’t make it.
Bryan: If you want to get really picky about this whole situation, that last caution lasted way too freaking long anyways.
Mike: Yes, it did; especially for a spin with no wall contact.
Kurt: Let’s get even pickier. The open-wheelers always seem to be causing the late cautions. Sam Hornish Jr., Dario Franchitti, Patrick Carpentier… seems to be those guys a lot.
Bryan: It’s not just the late cautions they’re causing.
Amy: But Carpentier had a lot of help.
Tony: The problem is that NASCAR is forced to make a split-second decision and suddenly, without being able to think, they just set a precedent.
Amy: Maybe, but all the drivers who passed the leader also could have been black-flagged; that is also very clear in the rulebook.
Kurt: And does anyone agree with me that was not a good call by Eury anyways? That could have turned out very badly.
Mike: How is it not a good call? They won the race!
Bryan: I stand by Eury’s call. He put Junior in position to win, and that’s more important to them than points right now.
Matt T.: Shoulda, woulda, coulda… Junior’s in the Chase, so they might as well roll the dice for a win when you get the opportunity.
Tony: And like Bryan said, for Junior there is much more pressure to win a race than to stay in the Chase, oddly enough.
Kurt: It worked out because Junior didn’t run out of fuel, but if he did and there was no caution with three to go, Junior may have been 25th like Mark Martin.
Matt T.: So? It’s worth the risk for those guys at this point. They needed a win.
Mike: It’s a fuel-mileage gamble. It’s got a lot of luck in it. And he would have only ended up about 10th if he ran out on the backstretch.
Kurt: Championship pressure, guys. Would Eury have pulled the same move in the Chase? I doubt it.
Matt T.: No.
Mike: No, I don’t think so. But they’re solidly in the Chase, and the ten bonus points are important.
Bryan: The bottom line in all this is, the spirit of the law triumphed in this case. If NASCAR wants to make the rule more black and white about passing the pace car, so be it, but Junior drove safely and won – end of story.
Amy: I agree completely; and if it’s a “spirit” thing, the rule needs to be rewritten to include when it’s OK and when it isn’t.
Kurt: If there’s a rule, NASCAR should enforce it. But at the same time, they have to be consistent. If they never have enforced it any other time, then no big deal this time.
Tony: It’s not the worst penalty in the world, but I guess my biggest problem is that NASCAR warned Junior not to do something, and he went ahead and did it.
Matt T.: I thought it was a tick-tack violation, one that should not have affected the outcome.
Mike: I’m not seeing a big problem with it. If Junior’d lagged further back, it would have been a non-issue.

Kyle Busch hung on to his Sprint Cup points lead at Michigan, finishing 13th. Has Busch’s recent cooldown resulted simply from other teams catching up to Joe Gibbs Racing, or is Busch hurting his own cause by racing too much in other series?

Kurt: That’s an excellent question, but I say no. Busch was running quite well at Michigan; he just got on the wrong end of the fuel game.
Tony: Just a quiet race for Kyle, that’s all. I think the other series played more of a role on the Pocono weekend, when he did much more traveling than a person should – then made a driver error.
Kurt: I don’t think Pocono was his fault – I think his spotter lagged. But on that point, he had most of the Pocono race off, so I doubt he was tired.
Bryan: I do think the other series are taking a toll, but not on his Cup performance. I think Kyle is shook up because of how stuff is suddenly not coming so easy to him.
Amy: I also think Busch has realized that traveling hurts, and that’s why he withdrew from the Milwaukee race this weekend. Personally, I say race all he wants…
Matt T.: Really? I don’t agree with him flying all over God’s green earth trying to race in all three series. I think it’s as much an ego trip as anything – that, and as long as people are willing to pay him to drive their cars…
Bryan: Busch needs to get away from the other series and get his head straight that the Cup title is what matters here.
Amy: He is still fast, but so are some other teams now, too.
Tony: He’ll win a few more.
Kurt: He’ll definitely be back. Just a couple of bad luck weeks. Happened to Jimmie Johnson last year.
Amy: I think so too, but I don’t think it’ll be all Kyle all the time like it was earlier this year.
Kurt: Agreed, Amy. The Nos. 9 and 83 in particular seem to be on fire lately.
Bryan: The No. 17, too.
Matt T.: Yeah, there are some folks coming – that’s for sure. And Jeff Burton hasn’t finished outside the top 15 since last October at Lowe’s – that’s just amazing and no one is talking about it. 21 straight.
Kurt: That is impressive, Matt. Consistency wins in this sport, whatever anyone thinks.
Amy: Burton has been nothing but impressive for years. How he doesn’t have a championship is beyond me.
Tony: Nobody is mentioning Burton, which is a shame – but I think it’s just the way he wants it.
Mike: Well, I can tell you this much: Ron Hornaday is going to hurt Kyle Busch. You can bet on that.
Amy: Hornaday is going to nail his pompous ass.
Kurt: He did nothing to warrant an intentional hit.
Mike: I find it hard to believe Busch intentionally hit Hornaday, but you never know.
Bryan: Hornaday kept himself off of the racing surface; it was the last lap. You’ve gotta let them race that out.
Mike: The lack of a caution did hurt Hornaday, but I’m glad they didn’t throw it. And man, what a finish it was!
Bryan: No confusion between Johnny Benson and Erik Darnell.
Kurt: Agreed, it was a great finish. And Hornaday was also hurt by no caution being thrown… what was up with that? But I think Busch’ll do well at Sonoma. He won in Mexico City against almost as many Cup drivers.
Bryan: Kurt, I have no doubt Kyle can road race, but his attitude has changed since then. He’s shook up right now.
Kurt: All drivers get shook up at times, though; he’ll snap out of it. A good run will do it.
Mike: He’ll win again soon when he gets to the long run of intermediates.
Matt T.: Yeah, I’m not worried about Busch. He’s got a couple of wins still coming in Cup this year, and I think it’s a smart move to give up the Nationwide and truck dreams.
Tony: It may not have been wearing on him yet, but I think it definitely would’ve by the end of the year – the most important part of the Sprint Cup season.
Matt T.: Watching Kyle slice through the Nationwide field in 40 laps was awful impressive, too. I don’t know if I’ve seen a driver get through the field like that since Cole Trickle at Daytona.
Mike: Did you watch Dale Earnhardt in the 1995 Daytona 500? Last to second in three laps. But hell yeah; Busch was flying.
Kurt: It says something about Joey Logano that he wasn’t fazed by Busch at all.
Bryan: Very true, Kurt. He passed him like he was standing still. But let’s look at Kyle’s run: Given the state of that field, I can’t say I was too surprised to see it happen. He started 35th, not 43rd, and passed like 15 backmarkers to start.
Matt T.: So? He went from 35th to the lead in 40 laps! That’s moving.
Amy: He came from the back Saturday, but did you see the way he did it? He acted like he was entitled to the real estate, and the Nationwide guys had better get out of his way or else.
Kurt: That’s the way to race!
Matt T.: It’s racing, Amy.
Mike: No kidding, it’s racing. Run fast or get out of the way.
Matt T.: Or stay the hell home.
Bryan: At least he didn’t wreck anyone doing it.
Kurt: Most guys are like that if they have a faster car. They’re not going to be patient.
Tony: That’s fine if Busch feels that way, but they will return the favor – and he’s got to be ready for it.
Amy: I agree with Tony: If he’s prepared to be raced like that, go for it.
Matt T.: I thought he got through pretty clean, but whatever.
Tony: Well, one thing I can agree with you on, Matt; one bad race and way “so-so” race for Kyle on the Cup side is nothing to get concerned about in the No. 18 camp.
Kurt: Yeah, Kyle will be fine. He can handle this, and no one was saying he’s racing too much when he was winning all the time. But he will remain strong all year. Gibbs is getting it done.
Amy: I think some other teams are catching up – it was only a matter of time.
Mike: But Kyle Busch is still the best driver in the series right now. He’s going to be leading going into the Chase.
Amy: Maybe, Mike, but the No. 99 has a shot at that, too.
Kurt: I still like Carl Edwards for the title, but Kyle’s gonna be tough. Even in Michigan and Pocono though, he was headed for the front most of the time.
Bryan: Busch is just coming back to earth a little bit, which is good for him and probably not good for the rest of the field.
Mike: I still think Johnson is the man to beat when Chase time gets here.

NASCAR’s not-so-secret closed-door meeting on Friday was essentially a reminder to drivers to “shut up and drive,” not making so many public complaints about how the cars handle, the heat, etc. Was this a good move for fan relations or simply a disguise for bigger issues?

Mike: I think it was a response to my Full Throttle article last week. NASCAR saw all of the replies from the people on our site and figured they better do something.
Bryan: For fan relations, it had to be done – seriously. The Cup Series has looked like a bunch of sissies for weeks now.
Amy: I think it was a good move; I think the drivers need to shut up and drive. Kyle Petty had it right when he said that many fans form their opinion of the car based on the drivers’ criticism.
Kurt: NASCAR should shut up and count the money! I’ve never heard of any fan tuning out NASCAR because Junior was complaining about the car.
Matt T.: And I have a problem with NASCAR telling the media it was one thing, and all the drivers are saying it was something totally different. Shoot us straight, please.
Tony: The odd thing is, it kind of goes against what they said earlier this season about wanting the drivers to speak their mind.
Matt T.: NASCAR’s point was, “Quit telling the fans how bad the racing is, we’ve got attendance problems as it is.” Speak your mind… unless we don’t agree. Sincerely, NASCAR.
Mike: They never said the new car was going to be easy to drive, just safer with closer racing.
Kurt: But NASCAR did say that passing was going to be easier, and that there would be more side-by-side racing. It didn’t quite accomplish that.
Mike: Did you see some of the action Sunday? They were six-wide at some times.
Amy: There were more green-flag passes at LMS this year than last, and more green-flag lead changes at Pocono.
Bryan: Well, bad car or not, I was sick and tired of listening to millionaires complain that their work environment was too hot and workday too long.
Kurt: The drivers haven’t chased a single fan away.
Tony: Well, it’s one thing if it’s constructive criticism, which any car could use in its infancy stage, but it gets a little tiring hearing the same complaints over and over.
Matt T.: Well, if NASCAR is upset because they think the drivers are pushing fans away with their smack on the CoT, the sanctioning body needs to realize the Chase, the CoT and the freakin’ cookie cutters were their own ideas!
Kurt: Amen!
Bryan: It’s not even the car as much, though. Listen to the other complaints: “I’m not getting enough give and take!”… “It’s too hot!”… “The race is too long!”
Kurt: Did you see Junior after Pocono? He looked more spent than MC Hammer’s fortune.

See also
Today's NASCAR Drivers Don't Hold a Candle to Old-School Toughness

Tony: I’ll keep saying this and maybe I’m completely in the dark about something, but the racing is not much different than it was any other year. Still exciting at Bristol, still stretched out at Michigan with some five-wide here and there.
Mike: I’m with you Tony. I think it is slightly better. And that says a lot considering how long they had in the last car.
Amy: Tony is 100% right there.
Kurt: I disagree, Tony. These cars look about to wreck every lap.
Matt T.: I see a difference.
Kurt: The best race of the year was Darlington, and that’s because it’s Darlington.
Tony: The cars may not be driving the same, but from a fan’s standpoint, I’m not seeing the difference in terms of the race itself.
Amy: Tracks and tires have such a huge role to play, too. A boring track is going to be boring if you race the CoT or Ben Hur’s chariot. The car was also designed for a softer tire, one that that Goodyear is not providing.
Kurt: But drivers can bitch about Goodyear, Amy. I’m not saying the new car will never come around; but drivers won’t stop bitching either.
Bryan: Kurt, I agree, but it’s not just the new car that drivers have been bitching about lately. And the race this weekend wasn’t that bad given it was MIS. The field is going to get strung out some on 2-mile tracks; that’s unavoidable.
Matt T.: The bump stops aren’t helping the racing, either.
Mike: Well, the racing seems better to me. I guess we’ll always argue about it.
Amy: True.
Tony: It’s a big compromise, actually. Jeff Gordon was saying at Pocono that it’s a little tire, a little car and a little setup that’s the “problem.”
Matt T.: But fans want to hear what the drivers have to say; we as fans or media get ticked off with the PC talk. So, the drivers mouth off and NASCAR tells them to shut it after they encouraged them to speak up in the preseason. You can’t have it both ways.
Tony: A bunch of things need to come together to help these drivers, and working together is the only way to fix it, not constant complaining.
Bryan: It is more than possible to be non-PC and not sound like a spoiled rich kid, though; just ask Hornaday.
Mike: I want to hear the drivers’ opinions about the race and their competitors. I don’t want to hear them talk about the length of the races.
Matt T.: But NASCAR won’t work with the drivers or the crew chiefs even when they try to give input.
Kurt: This is not good for NASCAR PR. They really don’t think about how low the opinion of their leadership is, and when they do stuff like this they send the message that they can’t take criticism. What else is new?
Amy: You get little in life by complaining – come up with a solution!
Matt T.: But even if they had one NASCAR would not listen! We’ve seen that all year.
Kurt: Well, I think some of them have offered solutions, but NASCAR won’t hear any of it. I wonder what was on Tony Stewart‘s mind during the meeting.
Amy: Well, you got the same thing when they switched to the previous car. They whined about the valance and how they couldn’t drive those either.
Mike: And every year was a big whine about spoilers. Every three weeks they changed the spoiler size for manufacturers.
Bryan: NASCAR should ask for a show of hands next meeting about who can’t drive the CoT and revoke their Cup license.
Kurt: So then they’re always gonna complain, why should NASCAR worry about it?
Tony: At the same time though, NASCAR isn’t going to make every single change the drivers and crew chiefs want. I’m not sure where to draw the line, but they have to meet in the middle.
Kurt: Well, the fact that they had this meeting suggests that NASCAR thinks it’s hurting them.
Amy: True, and I think it is hurting them, but not as much as holding a secret meeting maybe did.
Bryan: How can it not be, though? If you are a casual fan and you flip the sports page to read, “NASCAR drivers think racing too hard, hot,” what would you think?
Kurt: I wouldn’t really care what a driver says after a race. I’ll never stop watching from a fan’s standpoint just because a driver is moaning.
Matt T.: Yeah; I don’t think race fans are going to walk away because the drivers are moaning about the car. Doesn’t that just add to the storylines?
Tony: I don’t see it either, Matt. There is always something that someone is complaining about and NASCAR never lost any fans because of it.
Kurt: Well, this meeting was a big mistake on NASCAR’s part. It only worsens the problem, which isn’t really even a problem.
Mike:. Well I, for one, am glad they had the meeting. Hope it gets them to drive and not whine. Shut up and drive, fellas!
Bryan: The meeting had to be held. It’s time for the Cup Series to stop sounding like glorified crybabies.
Matt T.: NASCAR’s problem is more economy than crybabies.

The Craftsman Truck Series produced a nail-biting finish on Saturday, with a .005-second margin of victory. The series seems to produce better racing, with more teams in the hunt each week than the Nationwide or Sprint Cup Series. So what’s the secret?

Tony: Old-school drivers racing an old school style.
Bryan: cough cough Lower ticket prices! cough cough
Amy: Part of it is the trucks themselves. Their aero package encourages better racing. And ticket prices are actually good; way more bang for the buck, but that doesn’t help the actual racing.
Mike: They have a bigger vehicle that pokes a bigger hole in the air. And that’s where the new car design is headed.
Kurt: Well, that does seem to be the goal, Mike, and NASCAR hasn’t had to lower the “shut up and race” bit on the truck drivers. Just good competition. It’s a little easier to pass, and there’s a lot of good teams. But what is the series going to do without Craftsman as a title sponsor?
Mike: They’ll continue to pay out the worst freaking purses in major motorsports.
Bryan: The shorter races aren’t helping attrition in that series, either; they’ve got almost as many field fillers as the Nationwide Series.
Matt T.: But you can’t overlook the level of competition at this level for the teams that do compete. Guys like Hornaday, Benson, Jack Sprague, Todd Bodine, Ted Musgrave, Dennis Setzer. I mean, these guys have been doing this their whole lives.
Amy: The veteran drivers do seem to have found a niche in the CTS.
Matt T.: And the aero package allows for some of the good racing. I also think – and don’t blow a gasket, Mike – that the shorter races mean less attrition and more cars running at the end. There is more a sense of urgency in a shorter race. And, of course, the vets help a lot.
Mike: They’ve been running the trucks for a while and the guys have figured them out.
Kurt: That’s a good point, Matt. There aren’t as many pit stops either, so they have to get it right. These guys really compete! They aren’t taking it easy for 400 miles.
Amy: I also think that guys that were seen as bullies or wreck magnets in the cars can drive more to their style because the trucks are more forgiving.
Tony: To Matt’s point, and not that I want to see this in the Cup Series, but when drivers know they have less time to accomplish something, the races will get more intense.
Amy: That’s right. The whole race is go time if you only have 150 laps instead of 400.
Matt T.: Right. There’s no “let’s settle in until the final 50 laps” mentality.
Tony: Of course, part of the challenge of the Cup Series is to keep your car and body in shape for four hours, too – so every series accomplishes something different.
Mike: But you also don’t see people start out like crap and adjust their truck enough to catch up. It’s pretty much the guys who are fast at the beginning that are in front at the end.
Bryan: I think the closer a race comes to ending, the more intense it gets, regardless of how long the length at the start.
Kurt: I would like to see to qualifying heat races.
Mike: I’d love to see qualifying heat races every week.
Bryan: Heat races would be cool, as long as the feature length didn’t shorten.
Kurt: Well regardless, the truck racing seems to be getting so much better. And yes, I’ll say it… part of the reason is Kyle Busch.
Bryan: No, no, no, the trucks have been good long before Rowdy barged in.
Mike: Right. The trucks are good partly because the trucks haven’t changed substantially in years.
Bryan: And the rest of the field that runs the Truck Series is money. There are tons of personalities down there.

OK, predictions for Sonoma?

Mike: Robby Gordon.
Kurt: I say Jeff Gordon finds one this week.
Bryan: I smell Smoke.
Tony: I would like to go with Robby Gordon, but he just has such a difficult time sealing the deal, so I’m going with Smoke as well.
Amy: Johnson. You know, they have to learn road courses eventually, and they can’t win anywhere else…
Matt T.: Suddenly, road courses are tough to predict. I’m going with Harvick. Not sure why, but he needs to get his stuff together – and this is a good place for him.
Mike: Jamie McMurray is my darkhorse for the week.
Kurt: Another prediction for Sonoma… every driver sings the praises of the new car – while scratching his eye with his middle finger.

2008 Mirror Prediction Chart

Not sure which writer’s prediction to trust? Well, here’s a little inside info for you – our 2008 Mirror Prediction Chart tracks just how well their picks are panning out. Every week, we give each writer the number of Sprint Cup points his driver earned during the race – and if they skipped out on Mirror, well, then, they’re plumb out of luck! At the end of the season, we’ll tally up the totals and crown our Mirror Driving champion – chief prognosticator amongst all our experts! Editor-In-Chief Tom Bowles won the award in 2007.

At Michigan, Tony Lumbis’s near-winning pick of Kenseth allowed him to put a dent into Amy Henderson’s lead. However, it still stands at a healthy 80 points heading into Sonoma, with Bryan Davis Keith hanging tough in third place. No one predicted a lower finish than 20th last week, but three of our writers had Biffle, including Amy – don’t they know what his pit crew is like?!!

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Amy Henderson 2,157 -0 16 1 4 9
Tony Lumbis 2,077 -80 16 3 6 9
Bryan Davis Keith 2,046 -111 13 2 9 11
Vito Pugliese 1,694 -463 13 0 6 8
Mike Neff 1,667 -490 12 0 5 8
Matt Taliaferro 1,367 -790 10 0 4 6
Tom Bowles 1,074 -1,083 10 0 1 4
Kurt Smith 733 -1,424 7 0 2 3
Tommy Thompson 500 -1,657 4 0 2 2
Beth Lunkenheimer 341 -1,816 3 0 1 1
Danny Peters 190 -1,967 1 1 1 1
Jeff Meyer 94 -2,063 1 0 0 0
Kim DeHaven 0 -2,157 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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