Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Mark Martin’s Big Move, Kevin Harvick’s Big Mistake & NASCAR’s Big Attendance Problem

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)
Tommy Thompson (Mondays/10 Points To Ponder & Wednesdays/Thompson in Turn 5)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Bryan Davis Keith (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans & Sundays/Nationwide Series Breakdown)

Kevin Harvick‘s bonzai move at the end of the race at Infineon could be the difference between both he and Tony Stewart making the Chase three months from now. Was that move over the line, and does it paint the No. 29 team in the most trouble of all 17 Chase contenders?

Amy: I don’t think Harvick was over the line, per se – it was an accident, not intentional – but it was a stupid move. And I blame him for having to watch that insufferable little puke taking a bow on the start/finish line.
Tony: I don’t think he was planning a bonzai move when he started. Harvick just got in over his head, which is a little surprising given his experience.
Tommy: Harvick made a mistake – a bad one. Clearly, he was driving hard to clear David Gilliland and just didn’t get it slowed down in time. Not too late to recover, though.
Vito: He wasn’t over the line; he just locked up the tires and wheel-hopped it into the corner. At least this time, Harvick didn’t get out and try to hold hands with everybody like he did with Juan Pablo Montoya at Watkins Glen last year.
Bryan: But was a very stupid move, and it just seems to be a vivid example of how that team is sliding midseason.
Tom: Considering how Harvick has improved as a road racer, I was surprised to see him mess up to that degree. For that team, it’s clearly a wake-up call because they appear to be one of the weaker teams battling for the top 12 at this point.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: Kevin Harvick Victimizes Chase Chances While Creating Innocent Victims of McMurray, Stewart

Amy: Yeah, Harvick may have his work cut out for him as far as the Chase is concerned.
Tom: You know, we give Kyle Busch all sorts of smack about going to three different cities in three days. It’s about time we turn our attention to our man that’s supposed to be driving Dale Earnhardt’s old ride, but also spends a ton of time winning championships under his Kevin Harvick Inc. label. Now, that’s all well and good when you can balance it all, but right now, 13th in points with no wins in the Intimidator’s car isn’t what I’d call balancing.
Tommy: No offense, but Earnhardt has been gone long enough now that it is fair to say it’s Harvick’s ride without invoking the name Earnhardt. And yeah, you expect better out of a veteran like Harvick – but even the best just plain screw up occasionally.
Bryan: Harvick’s not the only RCR car that’s slipping right now, either. They’re in a slump across all three teams.
Vito: The No. 29 team hasn’t run very well all year – they were really only solid at Bristol. Everywhere else, they have been decidedly average. One top 10 since March? Don’t work too hard or anything.
Tom: Vito, as far as I’m concerned, Harvick hasn’t run well since the beginning of last year. Let’s put it this way; if the caution comes out when it’s supposed to in the 2007 Daytona 500, what would we be saying about Harvick now?
Tony: Really, last year’s lucky Daytona 500 win was the last time the No. 29 looked competitive.
Vito: Actually, the No. 29 got off to a really good start this year. They were consistently a top-10 car; but since March they’ve just been plodding along. It seems every month they fall 3-5 finishing positions behind.
Tony: Tony Stewart‘s reaction to not throwing Harvick under the bus was interesting, too. If it had been a handful of other drivers, things would’ve been a lot different. Goes back to how different drivers are treated differently.
Bryan: Stewart was having fun playing games with the media and he knew exactly what he was doing with that post-race interview. He refused to say anything about Harvick, which is exactly what every journalist wanted him to say. But TNT all but did it for him.
Tony: Us media sure did play into that one Bryan, trying to build a story.
Tommy: Well, I was shocked at the uncanny forethought Stewart displayed in the interview.
Vito: Kind of funny how he handled Marty Snider. The baiting question was pretty transparent.
Tom: I’m glad Stewart refused the bait; but with that said, the two are good friends and I think Stewart gives him more slack – which probably isn’t fair. As for fixing the No. 29, I’ve been an advocate of breaking up the Harvick/Todd Berrier partnership for a long time.
Amy: Have you ever heard Harvick and Berrier “communicate?”
Tom: Nah Amy, enlighten us.
Amy: Kevin tells Berrier what the car is doing, makes a suggestion, and then Berrier basically blows off everything he says.
Vito: Jeff Burton has got to be sitting there thinking, “Dear God, please do not let Richard try a team-swapping move between us and the No. 29…”
Tommy: Especially when Burton might stumble right into a championship.
Tom: Exactly, Tommy. But Harvick is not championship material right now, which is what you’d expect out of the No. 1 program. And again, while I agree with Tommy that it’s seven years since Earnhardt’s death, that’s still looked at as the flagship car over at RCR.
Tommy: Who looks at it as the flagship team? Harvick is the No. 3 driver at RCR!
Amy: Harvick isn’t the No. 1 program, Burton is. They all let Harvick think he is, and Burton works fine under that system.
Tony: Harvick is risking falling to No. 4 on the totem pole if he doesn’t do something soon.
Vito: I’d say all three teams are No. 1 at RCR in their own way. Harvick has a very high-profile sponsor and with his mouth, he sets the stage for them to live up to the hype.
Tom: The bottom line of all this is I think it’s a wakeup call for the No. 29 team. The next month or two is critical if they don’t want to miss the Chase and face critical changes to their program.
Tommy: It’s a free-for-all for the 12th place position among a number of second-tier teams, so who knows?
Vito: Well, DeLana has that firesuit on all the time – maybe put her in front of the laptop and let her make the calls.
Tony: Hell, put her behind the wheel.
Bryan: She is among the last people on earth I’d want ticked at me on the radio.
Tom: On a side note, do you notice they’re the only couple attached at the hip during the national anthem? They’re spooning on national TV every week.

The latest reports have Mark Martin, the latest free agent, taking over the No. 5 at Hendrick Motorsports in 2009. Is this the right move for both driver and organization, considering the other drivers and rides that appear to be available for next year?

Tony: Martin and Rick Hendrick?
Bryan: No, no, no, no.
Vito: Hell yes. Casey Mears has gotten by on name recognition for years, though in his defense, he has steadily improved each year he has been in Cup. And he is a pretty nice guy.
Amy: I’d love to see Mears stay, and not just for on-track reasons – although I do recognize his lack of performance.
Tom: Well, I feel bad for Casey because, a la Jamie McMurray at Roush, this could keep him from getting a good ride again. The chemistry didn’t work, but it didn’t work in top-notch equipment.
Amy: Regardless, I don’t see putting a driver like Martin in a car for a year as a great long-term move.
Tony: But we’ve said before that Brad Keselowski isn’t quite ready for Cup. With Martin as the ultimate part-time driver and wanting to get back to Hendrick equipment, it could benefit all.
Tommy: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and… Martin? Shouldn’t be legal!
Bryan: Martin makes out great with his part-time schedule, but the development drivers that are supposed to be learning are getting screwed.
Vito: Well, it’s clear Aric Almirola isn’t going to get anywhere with driving in a Cup race once every two months. He is ready to get moving and get his own deal started there at DEI.
Amy: I love Mark, but he needs to man up on his promise and retire. Why not just put in someone long-term?
Tom: Really? I disagree, Amy; I think putting Mark in there is a fantastic move, another coup by Hendrick. Unlike Mears, Martin has already proven he’s got good chemistry in Hendrick equipment. The big question for him is, “Do you go for a championship one more time?”
Vito: The stage has been set for Mark to move to Hendrick since he first drove that No. 5 car at Darlington last year in the Nationwide race. He would be an excellent addition to that group over there and probably one of the few drivers who can slide in and get up to speed with Gordon, Johnson, and Earnhardt without being seen as an R&D driver – or the weak link.
Tommy: So far, I have been pretty understanding of Martin’s career choices – but now back to full-time? Suddenly I’m not getting it!
Tom: Well Tommy, how appealing is it that at 50 you have one more shot at a title? Plus, it gives Keselowski one more year to develop while perhaps setting the stage for a co-owned No. 5 team between Hendrick and Junior.
Amy: Tom, that’s a bad idea on a couple major levels.
Tony: And I’m still not sold on the fact that Mark is going full-time.
Tom: Why not? He’s running 26 races now. That’s not part-time, it’s three-quarter time. It’s really not going to take much for him to step up again. And remember, Mark has his younger son Matt in mind.
what better way to set him up for a racing future than to align with Hendrick Motorsports as he bows out of the business?
Tommy: If nepotism is an argument, then I’m totally against Martin going the Hendrick!
Amy: But that’s the R&D team, guys. What’s Hendrick going to do, give him Gordon’s cars?
Tony: And I’m just not sure one year will do it for a title, despite what we’re seeing from the No. 18 right now. I don’t see a new team and driver going for the championship in their first year.
Vito: But the allure might be there for him. Matt Martin is not pursuing racing as a career to Mark’s delight. However, I think his days of being a full-time driver are over.
Bryan: There are so many demands of being a full-timer that I just don’t see Mark jumping back into it for a one-time shot at a title.
Tommy: I have an answer to all this madness: Ryan Newman!
Vito: Newman doesn’t need a mentor.
Bryan: No, Newman just needs a Hendrick Chevrolet.
Tommy: Exactly, and he can give Childress a lot more years than Martin can.
Vito: But Mark at 50 has been in position to win more races this year than Newman – I honestly do not see how age has slowed him down at all, if any.
Tom: I don’t think Newman would be a good fit at Hendrick. He’s more of a Joe Gibbs Racing guy. Would be perfect for the No. 20.
Vito: Here’s another thing to consider: the U.S. Army is moving to Bill Davis Racing. Bill Davis is from Batesville, Arkansas, like Mark is. They raced together early on – so that’s a possibility, as well.
Tom: I don’t think the Army is sold on Bill Davis, though, Vito.
Tony: I actually think a role in Stewart’s proposed team is better for Mark on a part-time basis. One of the reasons why he loved his deal at Ginn was the integral role in building the organization. I do think he needs Hendrick horsepower in some capacity to win one more, which is probably why he’s looking to opt out of DEI.
Bryan: But Martin part-time in the No. 5 will hurt Hendrick Motorsports’ fourth team, period. It certainly isn’t going to leave the No. 8 in good shape for Almirola in ’09.
Amy: And whether that’s Keselowski or whoever being set up behind Mark, why make the team learn another new driver in 2009 and then another in 2010?
Tony: I usually would tend to agree with that, Amy, but I don’t think Hendrick’s prospects will be ready in 2009. So, the question is: What do you do in the interim? Martin part-time? Or keep Mears for one more year?
Amy: Martin’s not going to bring any stability. Doing the right thing and honoring Casey’s contract is what Hendrick should do.
Tommy: Or Mark can go to the CTS, win championships, and we still get to appreciate the guy while he runs a reduced schedule like he has said he wants to.
Vito: Mark isn’t going to jerk around in the Truck Series. That’d be like Barry Sanders playing two-hand touch games at the park.
Tommy: When did Martin decide he didn’t want to run trucks, anyway? Wasn’t that the plan two years ago?
Vito: When he finished first or second every time he went out. There’s no challenge there. He’s racing guys who peaked 10 years ago or never won a Cup race.
Tom: One more thing to consider on the Hendrick end: I think if you’re Alan Gustafson, you’re intrigued by the idea of working with Mark.
Vito: Martin and Alan Gustafson already have some experience working together.
Tom: And what a brilliant crew chief mind; but right now, he’s stuck running 25th for whatever reason. Gustafson is the only reason that makes me think the No. 5 isn’t 100% R&D. I don’t think the man would have agreed to stay otherwise.
Amy: How great is Gustafson, though? He had Kyle Busch, and as much as it pains me to say it, has anyone ever considered it was Kyle making him look good and not the other way around?
Tom: I think he’s good, Amy. I really think Busch wasn’t the best fit for the Hendrick way of doing things; over there, the crew chiefs have a lot more control, and that doesn’t fit well with Busch’s style.
Bryan: That’s a good question, Amy, but I’m also inclined to give Alan the benefit of the doubt over Mears. Casey has underachieved in everything since he took over the No. 42, while Gustafson won two races with a rookie and has made the Chase.
Amy: I’m just saying that Kyle Busch could make any crew chief look good.
Vito: They worked well together, but when Kyle started blasting him on TV and walking off after he wadded up their cars the relationship degenerated from there. And Busch was never going to realize his potential when sandwiched between the likes of Johnson and Gordon. The bottom line is that three teams at Hendrick now have a chance to win and are on equal footing. If you bring Mark into the fold, you suddenly have four contenders, and you can attract that much more talent to work on the car.
Amy: But is putting Martin in the R&D team going to suddenly make it a contender?
Vito: It’s an R&D team because of the driver. Kyle Busch was always fast in the No. 5, but he wiped it out a lot. Put a veteran with Martin’s talent in it and his ability to work with the three megastars at HMS, and it would be a perfect fit.
Tony: I keep wondering what Jack Roush is thinking through all of this.

While television ratings are stable compared to 2007, attendance at the track is dwindling faster than Harvick’s hairline. Is it the racing, or something else? And how can NASCAR stop the bleeding – or can they stop it at all?

Amy: NASCAR doesn’t control gas prices, and that’s the real issue. People just can’t afford to go to a race anymore; many tracks are offering some very good ticket deals, but nobody can afford to get there.
Tony: Yeah, the economy is not good and races are just too damn expensive. I met someone at Pocono who said he spent $1,000 on transportation from Florida and tickets alone.
Bryan: It’s the economy. When I was last at a race – the Coca-Cola 600 – the environment was electric, the fans enthusiastic, the show as loud and exciting as ever. Cup races are still more than worth the trip – if you can afford it.
Tommy: The downturn is simply taking a slice out of family budgets.
Vito: Let’s see: high ticket prices, high fuel prices, an economy that isn’t exactly thriving… oh, and a poor product on the track. Yeah, that’s a recipe for what we’re seeing in the grandstands.

See also
Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Gas and Go Home - How Fuel is Keeping NASCAR Fans Away

Amy: Tracks like Chicago and Kansas also need to drop the all-or-nothing philosophy.
Tony: All or nothing?
Amy: You have to buy a ticket to every event at the track in a given year – Cup, NNS, Trucks, IRL, even ARCA.
Tony: Wow, I never knew that. You have to pick and choose in a year like this! That will never go over well, you’re right.
Vito: At Michigan this year, there were entire grandstands empty in turn 1 and turn 3. In my 25 years of going there, that is the first I had ever seen that. Traffic was easy getting in and out. It was weird.
Tony: There were a lot of seats open at Pocono, especially in the stands behind the pits. Those were always filled, but this year they were almost completely empty.
Tom: Sonoma, it was ridiculous how many of the stands were half-filled – or less.
Bryan: Sonoma’s crowd looked awful on TV.
Amy: As much as I like the road courses, I can see why they’re a hard sell. You just can’t see all the action.
Tommy: Sonoma is easy enough to watch a race from. You can’t see the whole track, but pretty much most of it from most any place. Not much worse than ‘Dega in my opinion.
Tom: But especially with the new car, there is terrible racing at Sonoma. Passing was difficult, and clean air made a huge difference.
Vito: Sonoma is another example of taking something good and ruining it. That track has been an absolute joke since they reconfigured it in 1998. Road courses have always been a tough draw.
Tom: Well, I do agree with y’all that the economy is the biggest factor. It’s no secret that most of NASCAR’s old core fan base are those who the hardest hit. And if you’re attending one race instead of two, or three races instead of six, which are you going to cut first? The tracks that don’t have good racing.
Amy: Not necessarily, Tom. I’m going to cut what’s furthest away. I’d rather go to Darlington or Bristol than Lowe’s, for example, but LMS is a half hour from home.
Tony: I went to a Phillies game this past Saturday and it was sold out. Regional fans and public transportation versus people coming from all over the country is the difference.
Amy: But they do need to look at scheduling more races in a weekend.
Bryan: Amy, I couldn’t agree more. NHMS has got the schedule down pat with the Modifieds and Camping World East races in addition to Cup and NNS.
Tommy: Truth is, NASCAR is not big in northern California. I have plenty of personal experiences of trying to get sports bars to turn one of their 12 TVs to a race to back that up.
Bryan: So, should they yank Sonoma and find another road course?
Amy: Road America.
Bryan: No joke. I was at Caraway Speedway in March and I ran into a guy that talked about just that: pull Sonoma for Road America.
Tom: I’ve heard VIR is a really good track, but that’s right in the region of some other races. What about running a race in Montreal? The Nationwide Series race was nuts last year.
Amy: Montreal raced much better than I thought it would.
Bryan: Honestly, the race at Montreal wasn’t that good, though. The ending fireworks were great, but that track doesn’t have that many more passing zones than reconfigured Sonoma.
Vito: Why don’t they use the original configuration at Sonoma? Think of all the great races they had there up until 1998. After that, it’s been an exercise in futility to enjoy a race there.
Tommy: You can’t abandon an area just because it isn’t as productive as others. You just keep banging away at it – especially if NASCAR wants to truly be a countrywide sport.
Amy: But how long can you have empty stands, Tommy? Racing should be about racing, not pandering to a demographic.
Tommy: Amy, the place wasn’t deserted. The main grandstands were full. I would be interested in knowing what the attendance was. I’d bet it was over 70,000.
Tom: And I think the problem we can’t forget is no amount of new road course will fix the problem of clean air.

The NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Milwaukee featured two “move it or lose it” moments, one between series regular Keselowski and newcomer Joey Logano and another between eventual winner Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer. Is that type of racing good for the series’ ailing image, or is it a detriment, given the circumstances?

Amy: Racing like that among NNS guys is good for the series. Cup guys doing it to indulge themselves is what’s detrimental; and for the record, Logano reminds me more of Kyle Busch daily.
Tom: Logano, meet Kyle Busch. Logano, get mentored by Kyle Busch. Oh, no!
Bryan: Logano’s squeaky clean image is gone, that’s for sure.
Vito: Logano just lost it and got into him – I don’t think it was deliberate. He accepted responsibility for it afterwards. The quote I read sounded like he owned it.
Bryan: I dunno, Vito. He was awfully evasive in his post-race comments.
Tony: I always go back to the same thing in these situations: That’s racin’ and it’s perfectly legal. Just expect to be raced like you race. You really can’t expect a guy like Logano to come up through the ranks without having some run-ins here and there.
Tom: But Logano is being paired up with Busch at a very impressionable age. Martin isn’t the mentor here anymore.
Vito: I don’t know that Kyle is allowed to mentor anyone. God, I hope not, anyway. And let’s not forget, the kid just turned 18. He is very, very unpolished. Gibbs is doing well to not rush him out there too quickly. Logano has the speed, but he just needs to learn a bit of control. Having said that, he’s no worse than any of the other guys out there.
Bryan: It’s too bad the whole that the race came down to Bowyer versus Edwards, because it was a good race for the NNS guys. Seriously, since Charlotte the NNS has had some good weeks.
Amy: But Edwards, in his over priced Cup car knockoff, knocks aside Bowyer in his overpriced Cup car knockoff with 25 to go – why? Just because he could?
Tom: Well, again part of the problem is these guys get bumped, and the aerodynamics of the car prevent them from coming back. You know part of the reason why people never passed the Intimidator by bumping? Because if they did, he’d cut underneath and either pass or bump right back. In 2008, you get bumped out of the lead, you’re in aero-push land and suddenly you’re screwed.
Amy: Well, I don’t have an issue with moving a guy without wrecking him on the last lap, but with 25 to go? That’s just arrogant.
Tom: I don’t know if it’s arrogant, Amy – it’s, “I haven’t won a Nationwide race in a year, to the point they removed my crew chief.” Desperation causes people to do things they usually wouldn’t.
Amy: Last lap is desperation. 25 to go is being an ass.
Bryan: The fact that Edwards is that desperate to win a Nationwide Series race just makes me wonder…
Vito: Is Carl is that desperate to win? Maybe he should hang out in Sonoma with his Cup team instead of jerking around in the Nationwide Series in Wisconsin. Not that there is anything wrong with it, but come on; these guys make it sound like they really are running on a short track on a Saturday night. They aren’t; it’s arguably the second-highest form of motorsports in North America!
Bryan: David Stremme sounded like a little baby after his crash.
Vito: Well, Stremme’s team is essentially on life support. Their sponsor is going away and is having trouble kicking in money. They can’t afford to be wiping out both his and Steve Wallace‘s cars.
Amy: Did you know that – excluding DEI and RCR – only one team that finished in the top 10 in Nationwide Series points in 2000 still exists? That is not the sign of a healthy series.
Tom: Back to Edwards, I think part of the reason he’s racing this series is that sponsors come in and want some primary sponsorship on a car. And what better way to give them more bang for their buck than to be an associate sponsor on the Cup car and a primary for a Nationwide Series race for Edwards?
Tony: I think it’s a combination of Cup guys and the market – sponsors want to spend money on guaranteed results and can’t take the chance on an unproven prospect.
Tom: But still, I think these guys love to race in the Nationwide Series. Especially those not running for the title, because it’s no pressure – especially with the old car that has the older handling characteristics.
Amy: I love to ride horses, Tom, but does that mean I should go in beginner classes and steal ribbons from little kids?

Predictions for New Hampshire?

Vito: Stewart finally wins.
Tommy: Johnson.
Tony: Edwards makes up for the one that got away last year in this event.
Bryan: JGR dominates, Denny Hamlin brings it home.
Amy: Hamlin reminds Kyle Busch he’s not the only driver at JGR. And then Stewart reminds Denny why he’s still there, by beating him to the checkers.
Tom: The last seven races at New Hampshire have had seven different winners, but the one constant was that Gordon finished second in each event last year. So, I’m picking him to get over the hump.
Vito: Toyota is effectively dominating every series in NASCAR. Interesting.
Bryan: Suddenly, all those worried fans from 2006 sound prophetic.
Amy: It’s not hard when NASCAR won’t allow other teams to make equal horsepower.

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 Infineon, both Bryan Davis Keith and Tony Lumbis had a prime opportunity to close in on point leader Amy Henderson. Some untimely cautions left her pick, Johnson, stuck in traffic – eventually, he finished 15th. That left Lumbis and Keith riding high with Stewart; that is, until Harvick made a tragic braking mistake that cost Stewart an almost-certain top five. Stewart rallied to finish 10th, but that allowed Henderson’s point lead to narrow just slightly – she leads by 69 heading to New Hampshire this Sunday.

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Amy Henderson 2,280 -0 17 1 4 9
Tony Lumbis 2,211 -69 17 3 6 10
Bryan Davis Keith 2,180 -100 14 2 9 12
Mike Neff 1,722 -558 13 0 5 8
Vito Pugliese 1,694 -586 13 0 6 8
Matt Taliaferro 1,440 -840 11 0 4 6
Tom Bowles 1,074 -1,206 10 0 1 4
Kurt Smith 898 -1,282 8 0 3 4
Tommy Thompson 500 -1,780 4 0 2 2
Beth Lunkenheimer 341 -1,939 3 0 1 1
Danny Peters 190 -2,090 1 1 1 1
Jeff Meyer 94 -2,186 1 0 0 0
Kim DeHaven 0 -2,280 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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