Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Can Stewart Save Haas, Fans Save Milwaukee & NASCAR Stop Toyota’s Dominance?

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?)
Mike Neff (Wednesdays/Power Rankings & Wednesdays/Full Throttle)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Bryan Davis Keith (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans & Sundays/Nationwide Series Breakdown)
Kurt Allen Smith (Fridays/Happy Hour)

Did changing from day to night do anything to improve the competition at Chicagoland last weekend? Eight years after debuting at the 1.5-mile track, are there enough grooves to make NASCAR racing more exciting there?

Kurt: I read an article about how some local tracks got screwed out of their usual attendance. Other than that, the only thing I noticed that was different was the darkness.
Bryan: Personally, I didn’t think it made any difference at all.
Amy: Me either. There were two exciting laps out of what, 267?
Mike: Really? It sure seemed to me like there were cars all over the track. I don’t know that racing at night made the difference, though – probably just the track aging.
Tom: I also thought the racing was somewhat improved. Ever so slightly, the second groove is coming in there, but it’s taking a hell of a long time. I thought that the racing back in the pack was great.
Kurt: Eh, the racing wasn’t anything special except for the ending.
Bryan: Chicagoland is getting better as a track, but they could have put on the same show at 1:00 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon.
Amy: It’s a funny track. There have been some exciting finishes – but you can’t really say there have been exciting races. Honestly, the way these intermediate tracks are racing, I’d much rather be at Hickory on a Saturday night.
Tom: Well, I think the one thing that doesn’t change with these cars – and everyone says it – is track position. Especially on the 1.5-milers, it’s just so important. Because they handle so differently in traffic than they do in clean air.
Kurt: It seems like drivers still have a lot of trouble passing, but they’re not allowed to say so anymore.
Tom: Well, I’ll say this, Kurt: seeing Matt Kenseth slice through the entire field was a positive sign. Three months ago, I don’t think you would have seen that. He would have had that flat tire, gotten his lap back, and wound up stuck in 25th.
Bryan: Kyle Busch should have been thankful for that flat tire, too. The No. 17 had something for him.
Amy: Kenseth had a hell of a race.
Bryan: But even though Kenseth could slice through traffic, there didn’t seem to be a ton of passing in the middle of the pack.
Kurt: What happened to the splitter on the No. 99? I thought they were bulletproof.
Mike: No kidding. I thought the No. 99 was the car to beat.
Tom: That was just a freak thing that happened with Carl Edwards. The way I look at it, it’s not like splitters broke on any of the other 42 cars in the race. I look at it as a weird accident.
Amy: Was leaving the oil cover off a weird accident, too?
Kurt: I still don’t know how the brace could suddenly break and cause the splitter to drag.
Tom: You know, one thing I did notice is that Chicagoland looked to have better attendance than some of the other races we’ve been at this year. For such “poor” racing, there were a heck of a lot of people.
Amy: Well, if I had to fork out for like four races to get a ticket, I’d darn well show up, too.
Bryan: The track isn’t that big, Tom. It was nice to see full grandstands, but that still wasn’t a huge crowd.
Kurt: I agree, Bryan – I still saw some empty seats, and there’s only one race in Chicagoland each year. Editor’s Note: Chicagoland’s crowd was announced at 80,000.
Mike: But just like New York, Chicago is not a real stronghold for auto racing. Again, I continue to think the racing is better with these cars than the other cars.
Amy: It certainly isn’t worse, Mike.
Kurt: I disagree. I think it’s way too difficult to get the setup right, and if a team is just slightly off, they aren’t passing anyone. Look at Dale Earnhardt Jr. Couldn’t do a thing with his car all night.
Tom: Well, Junior was also getting passed. I think the problems at Chicagoland go deeper than the car. Chicagoland is the perfect example of the 1.5-mile cookie-cutter experiment that just never worked out the way people thought it would.
Kurt: 1.5-milers are the artificial turfs of NASCAR.
Tom: These opened at just the time aerodynamics started really ruining the quality of side-by-side racing, where speed became just as important as skill.
Kurt: Right, Tom. The car is much more important than the driver at the aero tracks.
Amy: All the more reason to get the setup right, then. These guys are professionals – they should have to get it right at this level.
Tom: Well, it’s just disappointing that you can go eight years at this track and still struggle to see quality racing at times.
Amy: Not surprising though, Tom. There are worse tracks that have been on the schedule longer than eight years.
Tom: Yeah, I guess. There’s one other thing to consider, too: teams and drivers get into a groove on the racetrack and just don’t see the incentive to pass each other because of the Chase. They’re all getting paid phat salaries, so the difference between 20th and 18th isn’t that great to them if they’re solidly in the title hunt.
Kurt: The Chase created a lot of points racing.
Amy: That it did. Another reason the Chase sucks.
Kurt: The bottom line is it was a boring race pretty much until the end. It must have been really bad for TNT to show a magic trick from Larry McReynolds.
Bryan: And there was nothing under the lights we didn’t see on Sunday afternoons at this race. Stop hurting the local tracks and go back to a Sunday afternoon show.
Kurt: I like racing on Sunday afternoons. I don’t know what the heck to do with myself on Sundays when there’s no race.
Mike: You know what’s going to be interesting? I think local tracks are going to start shifting their schedules to Sundays.
Amy: You think, Mike? It’s too hot for that in a lot of areas.
Kurt: Doesn’t stop NASCAR, Amy.
Amy: Yeah, that’s true. Those aren’t the same fans every week like a lot of local tracks have, though.
Mike: But when almost half of the Cup schedule is going to be on Saturday nights, I think they are going to have to change if they want to survive.

It’s been talked about all year: the elephant in the room that is the supposed Toyota horsepower advantage. Is it myth or reality – and if it’s real, what needs to be done?

Bryan: It depends on what series you’re talking about. In the Nationwide Series, it’s out of control.
Kurt: I call it the “Gibbs” advantage.
Amy: You know, I’m torn on this one. On the one hand, if there were really an advantage, wouldn’t other Toyota drivers – not just JGR drivers – be winning? But on the other hand, Busch didn’t magically improve that much over one year.
Mike: Well, we’ll find out this week, since NASCAR took more engines to be tested. But I don’t think there is more than a 5-10 horsepower difference. And I bet they have that much variance within manufacturers.
Kurt: Team Red Bull, Michael Waltrip, Bill Davis – there’s no obvious horsepower advantage there. Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart have had great runs, but haven’t capitalized in the Cup Series. Kyle’s tearing it up, but I think most of it is that Gibbs is on and he’s a great driver. I don’t think Toyota is any better than any other manufacturer.
Amy: I don’t know, Kurt. Red Bull is certainly a lot racier than last year. I don’t buy that Busch is a better driver than Stewart, either. No way.
Bryan: But Stewart is not on top of his game right now.
Kurt: And Kyle won their duel the other night, Amy. Stewart couldn’t keep up with him.
Amy: No, but on pure talent Stewart’s still the best in the series.
Mike: He will be now that all of this negotiation crap is over.
Tom: Back on topic, I can see both sides of the argument – but I definitely think there’s a horsepower advantage. The reason you don’t see other Toyotas winning is just because they’ve got other problems. I mean, Michael Waltrip Racing is in the midst of scraping up the money to get to the track each week with three teams. Their engines can’t make up for chassis or leadership issues.
Mike: Again, we’ll find out after NASCAR dynos the engines this week. Assuming they make the results common knowledge, of course. And I have to think they will, or the conspiracy folks will go nuts.
Kurt: I think Gibbs is just on it this year, like Hendrick was last year.
Amy: I agree with Tom, I think. I don’t deny that Busch is a hell of a good driver, but he’s not that good without help.

See also
Thompson in Turn 5: Getting Over Kyle Busch - You May Hate Him, But He Sure Can Drive a Racecar

Tom: Yeah. I do think that Toyota’s pouring a lot of money into the engine program, and if you give unlimited cash to one of the smartest engine builders in the sport today in Mark Cronquist – even just to get his input and nothing more – you’re going to come out with top-notch stuff.
Kurt: I don’t argue that, Tom, but how much does the manufacturer really matter anymore?
Tom: Oh, I think it matters a ton, Kurt, because the manufacturer is still in charge of getting their base engine block designed and approved. And the development money to do that doesn’t all come from individual teams.
Amy: Kurt, the manufacturer matters if NASCAR is allowing one to have something the others don’t.
Kurt: But Roush has the horsepower, too; they’re just not as consistent. I’d rather NASCAR didn’t do anything.
Mike: I still don’t think there is that big of a difference.
Bryan: NASCAR is in a position anyways where they are going to have to hurt Toyota more than help the other teams if they do something – and I’m sure they’re hesitant to do that to their new cash cow.
Amy: As long as Toyota’s padding their pockets….
Kurt: Maybe. I’m not saying Toyota’s not helping, but I think it’s Gibbs who deserves the credit. They’re really the only Toyota team that’s tearing it up, and it’s only one driver, at that. I don’t know how Busch winning seven races and everyone else totaling one translates into a horsepower advantage.
Amy: Because Kyle’s an outstanding driver, but he’s not seven times better than any other driver. And Kurt, JGR got all that cash from Toyota to work as part of a TRD team – not take it and run.
Tom: Guys, TRD has a teamwork-style approach that I think is a little different than Ford or Chevrolet. I don’t think you see Rick Hendrick or Richard Childress sharing a ton of information with anyone.
Amy: If JGR perfects that in-house engine they were playing with, they won’t be sharing, either.
Kurt: Why should they? What’s in it for them? Free NAPA parts?
Tom: Well, when Gibbs perfects that engine, the engines they were running (which were pretty damn good themselves) will get filtered down to some of the other Toyota teams due to this teamwork philosophy. So, everyone still benefits. You don’t mind the other cars picking up a couple of extra horsepower as long as their total numbers don’t match up with yours, Kurt.
Kurt: Well, yes, but JGR should get something out of the deal too. It’s the only team that could make Toyotas go fast.
Mike: Tom, are you saying that Toyota is giving JGR better engines?
Tom: I don’t know that for sure, Mike, but why wouldn’t they? That is their No. 1 team, their bread and butter.
Amy: Which, in itself, is sad. They had other teams who were with them from the start.
Tom: But none of them have the success rate of Gibbs. At the very least, Gibbs has the best engine builder – and that’s exactly what TRD needed.
Mike: I thought the whole premise of Toyota’s approach was that everyone was getting the same engine equipment.
Tom: Still Mike, wouldn’t you think the best engine builder would save the most horsepower for himself? It makes logical sense. It’s like how Hendrick gives “engine support” to Haas CNC. Tell me with a straight face those engines are exactly the same as the ones the Hendrick cars run.
Mike: But Chevy doesn’t work like Toyota. I thought Toyota was building all of the engines in one facility and doling them out. Hendrick and Childress build their own engines from the ground up. I didn’t think Toyota teams were doing that.
Tom: Mike, the difference is even when TRD delivers their engines, it’s not like Mark Cronquist doesn’t get to touch them. The engines get fine-tuned beyond that.
Bryan: Chevy might not have a choice but to start acting like Toyota soon, and Stewart-Haas might be the team they use to try that out.
Mike: I still don’t think there is that much truth to the horsepower rumor.
Kurt: If there were a horsepower advantage for Toyota, it should have some other drivers with wins.
Bryan: Right. Brian Vickers has been a contender – but the other teams suck. The Nationwide Series is where the horsepower stuff is obvious and causing problems.
Kurt: The Nationwide Series is a funny business, though. A lot of teams that don’t cut it in Cup do well there.
Bryan: And on the Cup side, there isn’t that big a discrepancy. It’s the other teams’ jobs to catch up. It’s the Cup Series, for crying out loud!
Amy: I’m still torn. Busch didn’t suddenly find that much more talent over the offseason, and he was in the best cars in the business last year. There has to be something.

Stewart has now officially bought into what is now Stewart-Haas Racing. So, what can Stewart do and what has to happen to make SHR competitive in 2009 and beyond? And is recently released Ryan Newman the best driver to help?

Bryan: Stewart has done what he needs to; he’s coming back to Chevrolet. Now, Chevrolet has got to put Hendrick to the test and make it clear to them that they are going to get Haas up to speed.
Kurt: I think Stewart is in for a long haul and a lot of frustration. This is a team that is using Hendrick engines and can’t stay in the Top 35.
Tom: I don’t know, Kurt. I don’t think Stewart would have done this without a whole lot of muscle from Chevrolet behind him. Here’s the line that makes the difference: Haas CNC will continue to receive chassis and engines from Hendrick Motorsports. I think Chevy might put a call into Mr. Hendrick to add a little more horsepower to what they might be getting already.
Amy: We just said in the last question that engines can’t completely overcome bad setups, though.
Tom: Well Amy, that’s a good point, and along those lines there is one thing that makes me hesitant: Greg Zipadelli didn’t come with Stewart. I think that is a huge loss, more than even Stewart realizes at the moment.
Mike: I agree, Tom. Zipadelli had as much to do with Stewart’s success as Tony did. Stewart’s biggest problem is also that he can’t take anyone from JGR – those are the people he knows best. But what he can do is bring the philosophy he uses with his sprint car teams into Cup racing. He has been very successful there; and Rick Hendrick is going to be making sure he has the best stuff. So, it is going to be an impressive turnaround.
Bryan: You know Chevrolet is going to do what they can to make Stewart competitive immediately. They pried him away from the No. 1 Cup team right now.
Kurt: At least Stewart will have this advantage: he can use championship provisionals to get the car into the race. But he needs to overhaul that organization, and that’s not going to happen in a year.
Bryan: But Stewart is a driver more than capable of overcoming that.
Tom: I have to admit, Zipadelli not tagging along surprised me a bit. It’s a classy move on his part; no one would have blamed him if he left. But he chose professional over personal loyalty.
Mike: Zippy didn’t want to go through a rebuilding phase with Logano in the wings.
Amy: Crew chiefing for Stewart is no cakewalk. It’s going to be interesting to see who he ends up with.
Kurt: As for a second driver, Newman is the best guy to help this team out – especially because he can qualify with the best of them.
Amy: Yes, he can, but what good is that if he won’t share any of the setup with Tony? Newman’s well known for being stingy with info, and that is not what a team in that position needs.
Bryan: Newman’s stinginess was because Rusty Wallace would blab setups all over the garage. He and Kurt Busch have worked together fine.

See also
It's Official: Ryan Newman & Penske Part Ways After 2008. Now What?

Mike: Keep in mind Newman’s old crew chief Matt Borland works at Haas, too. But I think Stewart should bite the bullet and hire both Newman and Martin Truex Jr.
Amy: I think Truex would be a better driver fit there than Newman.
Bryan: Couldn’t disagree more, Amy. Newman and Stewart have got an unspoken bond – they get each other.
Amy: Newman isn’t going to share anything, though, and a team in rebuilding mode needs all the teamwork it can get.
Kurt: Stewart and Newman have clashed in the past, haven’t they? Then again, that will be a problem for Stewart with just about anyone.
Mike: Who hasn’t clashed with Stewart besides Kevin Harvick and Junior?
Amy: Regardless, it’s been well known and a big complaint of both Wallace and Kurt Busch that the No. 12 car wouldn’t share.
Bryan: The No. 12 really hasn’t had much to share as of late.
Kurt: I was of the opinion that Rusty was the problem in that partnership. Newman and Busch work together just fine in plate races.
Mike: Rusty may have said he tried, but anyone I ever talked to who knew him said he thought Ryan was a cocky punk.
Tom: Yeah, keep in mind we’re also talking about Rusty and Kurt Busch – not exactly two people that fit in Newman’s personality type of hanging out and fishing on the lake. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: all you need to know about the Busch-Newman relationship happened back in Daytona in February, when Busch and Stewart tangled. Newman was caught joking with Stewart right after the incident instead of going over and supporting Busch. At the very least, that indicates they’re not exactly the best of friends. They’re certainly on better terms than Newman was with Rusty – but not by much.
Amy: True, Tom, but for them both to say that the No. 12 wouldn’t give them anything makes it sound a lot like it was mostly Newman’s problem.
Bryan: And you don’t need to be hanging out to work together.
Tom: Yeah, but it helps. Ryan and Tony? They’re friends. That’s a fact. And Stewart and Truex have a mutual friend in Junior. That’s why I still think he’s in the running.
Kurt: I’ve seen no evidence of Newman not being a team player, ever.
Mike: I think he’ll work just fine with anyone who’ll work with him.
Bryan: Keep in mind that in this situation, Newman’s teammate would also be the car owner, so that’s got to count for something, too.
Kurt: I think Newman is the right guy for that job if he can deal with it.
Tom: I also think Newman is the best fit, and I’d be surprised if he’s not the one, but Truex is definitely in line if Newman says no.
Amy: I’d actually like to see Newman at DEI because he might be able to get something out of that equipment.
Bryan: No, Amy, no!
Mike: Dale Earnhardt Sr. couldn’t get something out of that equipment right now.
Tom: And back to the partnership itself, I think the bottom line is that Stewart’s not going to own his own team to run 25th. He doesn’t handle running 25th very well. Money means everything in this business nowadays, and I’m sure there’s a lot of money behind this deal.
Kurt: He has an uphill battle though, Tom. Keep in mind Michael Jordan wasn’t a great manager… so Chevy is taking a big risk, too.
Tom: Still, if Chevy got Stewart back, the expectation is he performs. And I’m sure he will. Stewart-Haas won’t be a title team next year, but if they don’t make the Chase, I’d be a little surprised. The second team… er, that could be tough. But Stewart’s not doing this to be out of the Chase next year. He’s a lock to make all 36 races, the equipment’s coming from Hendrick. Heck, he was even rumored to go to Hendrick at one point. They’re not going to suck.
Bryan: I agree. Chevrolet has gotten one of their poster children back; they are going to have to put him up front.
Mike: They’ll be in contention for the Chase, at least.
Amy: I disagree; I don’t think either team will make the Chase next year.
Kurt: Just three words for people who think Stewart-Haas will be good: Michael Waltrip Racing. And here’s a question: what will happen to Scott Riggs?
Tom: I feel bad for that guy. Not a bad racer, but got into a bad situation.
Bryan: Riggs hasn’t performed anywhere, though. He needs to bite the bullet and go back to the Nationwide Series.
Amy: You know, there’s always DEI. They’re going to have two open cars.
Mike: Noo

Some members of the Wisconsin state legislature have recommended closing the Milwaukee Mile, making way for redevelopment of the land for more profitable use by the state. If the Mile does close down, how big a loss is it for NASCAR – and should they step up and try to save it?

Tom: I think the Mile’s one of the more unique tracks in the U.S. today. And we can’t stand to lose another unique track.
Bryan: It is a huge loss, another racetrack with character off the schedule. But why should NASCAR give a crap? They already killed half the southeast. In fact, they’re probably thrilled at the Mile closing; they can move another Nationwide race abroad or to California.
Kurt: Milwaukee seems like an OK track, but I don’t know if it’s NASCAR’s responsibility to save it.
Amy: What can NASCAR do? There’s no way the state would sell a chunk of their fairgrounds to ISC.
Mike: I think legislators should be shot for recommending such idiotic things. The Mile is the oldest operating speedway in America! How can they even think of something so stupid.
Amy: I agree, Mike, and I hope nothing comes of it.
Kurt: Tell me ‘bout it, Mike. I loved Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.
Mike: Freaking Cheeseheads. Can they possibly screw up Brett Favre and the Mile in the same year?
Kurt: I’d like to see it saved, but what if it isn’t profitable? Our nostalgia aside, unfortunately that matters.
Mike: How is it not profitable? It’s in the middle of the fairgrounds. Are they going to shut down the whole fairgrounds?
Tom: Well, the bigger problem to me is the Milwaukee Mile is in the middle of a heck of a lot of development. Having covered a race at the track, I can tell you it’s the last place you’d expect to see a speedway. Development has creeped in all around it, and the track – historic as it is – does stick out like a sore thumb. But at the same time, tearing down an iconic track for condos? It makes no sense.
Bryan: It’s the government. Since when did making sense have anything to do with it?
Mike: Indianapolis is in the middle of downtown, too. Should they shutter the Brickyard for a shopping mall? I just think is it ridiculous to make a short-term money grab out of a place that can make money year round.
Tom: Well, for the Nationwide Series if you lose that date, you know you’re headed towards another doubleheader weekend with the Cup Series. More Buschwhackers and more money spent by each of these teams – ‘cause they’ll be traveling to Infineon.
Amy: Maybe not, Tom. What if they pulled that date in favor of Rockingham?
Tom: No way that’s happening, Amy. I think if NASCAR were going to return to the Rock, they would have done it already. There’s other markets they would like to head towards – even with Nationwide and Trucks.
Mike: Well, I will never support the Mile shutting down. It would be like shutting down Indy. I think that is nuts.
Kurt: Hopefully, there will be some kind of a movement to save the place – like Fenway Park had.

Predictions for Gateway? No points towards the prediction standings — just for fun here.

Kurt: The Cardinals in seven.
Mike: Kenny Wallace. OK, kidding. Whoever is in the No. 20.
Bryan: Who is in the No. 20 this weekend? I think it’s Joey Logano – I’ll take him.
Tom: I think I’m going to go with Stremme. Steve Wallace can’t win it, but a Rusty Wallace Inc. car certainly can.
Amy: Kenny is a bit of a long shot, Mike. But how about Mike Wallace?
Mike: Steve won’t wreck him – you can bet on that.
Kurt: That was classic!
Bryan: Best interview of the season.
Mike: It’s a family matter… that’s all I have to say.

2008 Mirror Prediction Chart

Heading into the final off week of our predictions tally, the battle for the season title appears to be narrowed down to three. Just 64 points separate first-place Amy Henderson from third-place Bryan Davis Keith, and just one separates Keith from runner-up Tony Lumbis. At Chicagoland, Henderson was able to make up a bit of ground, with a top-five finish from Greg Biffle leading the way amongst all our Mirror Driving experts. Can she carry that momentum through the second half of our season? Only time will tell.

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Amy Henderson 2,640 -0 20 1 5 10
Tony Lumbis 2,577 -63 20 3 6 11
Bryan Davis Keith 2,576 -64 17 2 9 14
Vito Pugliese 2,003 -637 16 0 6 8
Mike Neff 1,812 -828 14 0 5 8
Matt Taliaferro 1,543 -1,097 12 0 4 6
Tom Bowles 1,204 -1,436 11 0 1 4
Kurt Smith 1,049 -1,591 9 0 3 5
Tommy Thompson 710 -1,930 6 0 2 3
Beth Lunkenheimer 341 -2,299 3 0 1 1
Danny Peters 190 -2,450 1 1 1 1
Jeff Meyer 94 -2,546 1 0 0 0
Kim DeHaven 0 -2,640 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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