Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Sorting Out Jeff Burton’s Title Hopes, the Harvick-Edwards Fracas & 28-Car Fields

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

This week’s race at Charlotte saw another shuffle in the point standings, as Jeff Burton took over the second spot. Is Burton, with just two wins on the season, a realistic title threat, or will it take more than that to bring home the Cup?

Kurt: Burton’s a legitimate threat, but he will need Jimmie Johnson to have some bad luck; and we’re headed to a few tracks where Jimmie is just awesome, especially the second time around.
Amy: I think if Burton can win one more, you can’t count him out. I also think whoever wins it is going to have to win at least one more race in the last five.
Bryan: On paper I’d say no, but based on what we saw at Lowe’s it’s hard to count the No. 31 out. It was among the top-three most consistent cars Saturday night and we saw Johnson, for the first time in recent memory, lose the handle at race’s end.
Tom: I think Burton’s made an impressive statement as to what type of leader he is. Whether it’s enough to pass Jimmie, I don’t know.
Kurt: The No. 31 was good Saturday night, but the No. 48 is good every week. It’s gonna take a lot to unseat Jimmie.
Bryan: Let’s not forget that Burton gained ground on Johnson at Jimmie’s best track, though.
Kurt: Good point, Bryan, but Jimmie rules Martinsville, too.
Tom: Burton does have momentum, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get closer on Sunday, Kurt. To me, just the fact Burton’s here contending for the title is impressive. In late summer, the No. 31 team looked like they lost their mojo. But Burton did a great job of bringing everyone back together and refocusing. I mean, no one had Burton coming close to where he is now in the Chase. Shows you what type of experts we are.
Kurt: We didn’t count on everyone wrecking or having ignition issues either, Tom.
Amy: But to pass Johnson at this juncture, you have to be more than consistent – you have to be brilliant.
Bryan: Burton is focused something fierce. Seeing him in the press conferences throughout the weekend, that dude is zoned in right now. And Johnson was noticeably worried about how his car declined during the final run Saturday.
Amy: That was weird, because Johnson’s car was a rocket early – then it just fell off.
Kurt: Usually, it’s the other way around for the No. 48.
Tom: Just goes to show you how much clean air affects the cars these days. Think about how much that clean air really helped Burton’s car. Once Johnson couldn’t make the pass on the restart, he was through.
Kurt: Clean air works for everyone’s car, and that is a serious flaw.
Amy: I agree, and it not only works, it KILLS the cars that don’t have that air.
Tom: And because of that, pit strategy really came into play. I mean, the No. 31 was ON POINT on pit road all night. Every single stop, the No. 31 either maintained or gained spots. Every single time. Yet another example of leadership on that team.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: With NASCAR's Chase Halfway Done, Experience - Not Youth - Has Already Won

Kurt: I think they were all trying to impress Kim on the pit box.
Tom: Regardless, Burton was smart enough to realize the importance of clean air. And rather than bitch about something you can’t change, he chose to work with the circumstances presented to him.
Bryan: If we had softer tires, Burton never would have gotten away with the strategy they used.
Kurt: That’s another thing. A couple of guys took four tires instead of two, and it did nothing. That strategy may go away in the future if track position is more important.
Amy: Goodyear needs to make a tire that teams can build strategy on.
Bryan: Personally, I see that as more distressing than clean air working. Both nights four tires, even with ample laps, couldn’t win a race.
Kurt: That used to be very rare. If a guy took four tires, he was gonna catch the guys that took two.
Bryan: And that’s how it should be.
Tom: Well, here’s the thing with that: the great thing about Chad Knaus is that he learns from those types of things. At the intermediates the rest of the year, you can bet he’ll change pit strategy to make sure that clean air is priority number one for the No. 48.
Kurt: Chad is the smartest danged guy on a pit box. I can’t believe how far ahead that guy thinks. It’s like he saw the videotape of the race beforehand and so he knows what move to make.
Tom: The ability for Johnson to win the title always comes from that ability to adjust. So that’s why I think Burton will get close, but when we get back to those intermediates, the No. 48 will edge him out.
Bryan: Chad Knaus may learn, but Scott Miller is no slouch either. His post-race presser made it very clear how much homework this guy is doing for these races.
Tom: Right Bryan, but no one has better tools to react with than Knaus. You punch that team, they punch back harder. At least, they have up until this point.
Amy: The last two 1.5-mile tracks are run in the daytime, too, so that will change things again.
Tom: Technically Homestead is a 1.5-miler too, Amy.
Bryan: Tom, this weekend we saw the No. 48 team fade late, and we saw the No. 31 win in the face of everyone saying they were running well but not contending. That flies in the face of everything we’ve seen in the last two Chases.
Tom: That’s a really good point. But I think it’s the whole innocent until proven guilty thing. Johnson earns the right to be the overwhelming favorite until proven otherwise. After all, he is up by 69 points still.
Kurt: Can we call Burton a “sentimental favorite,” or would it be better to see Jimmie win three in a row? I think unless you’re a Jimmie fan you’re probably pulling for Burton. Everyone likes JB.
Amy: I don’t know, Kurt. I’d way rather Burton win it than the Roush contingent, but three in a row would be cool. I don’t remember Cale’s.
Kurt: Cale can always say he had to be great all through the season for three years.
Amy: I will say sixth on back in the points are done now; fourth and fifth are longshots. If Jimmie wins Martinsville and survives Atlanta, I’ll think it’s his.
Kurt: Johnson has proven himself almost invincible in the last two Chases, so Burton will need some luck to catch him. I agree with you, Amy: if Jimmie survives Martinsville, it’s his.
Bryan: Entering the race weekend on Thursday, the talk of the Chase drivers was not Jimmie, but Burton. And he showed why this weekend: Burton’s got something for those guys.
Tom: Notice we haven’t talked about Greg Biffle at all. Shows you how little success he’s had at Martinsville and I think most people don’t expect him to survive that, for that to be the knockout punch for him.
Kurt: Yes, Biffle isn’t out of it, but I’m not betting on him or Carl Edwards at this point.

The No. 00 of Michael Waltrip Racing featured its third driver in three weeks at LMS and will have its fourth – Mike Bliss – at Martinsville. Right now, the team sits 36th in the owner standings, 63 out of the Top 35 and a guaranteed starting spot at Daytona. Is this musical chairs of drivers the best way to pinpoint what the team needs to do in the last five races to get inside the Top 35, or should they select one driver to run all the races through Homestead?

Kurt: I’m available if they need someone for Miami.
Amy: I think the driver-of-the-week strategy is killing them. There is no way they are getting consistent feedback about the car and if they can’t get the cars right, they aren’t any better off next year than this.
Bryan: What team raced its way back into the Top 35? The No. 84. How? They gave the keys to AJ Allmendinger and said the ride is yours. The No. 45, the No. 70, they’re both driver-by-committee and they can’t even sniff the Top 35.
Kurt: I think Waltrip’s going to take the guy with the best finish and put him in the car next year.
Tom: I’m not quite sure what Michael is trying to do here, to be honest. If they’re not sure who’s going to drive the car in 2009, you can’t decide by having six people you won’t sign for a full season drive that thing once apiece. I mean, is Bliss really going to be a candidate for the ride? No. So why have him in the car?
Kurt: He should switch drivers during the race. Now that would be cool.
Bryan: Hell yeah, hold a combine during the Cup race!
Kurt: It may be far-fetched, but maybe he’s seeking several different opinions about how to make the car better. Just a thought.
Amy: They should have chosen one veteran who can give good solid feedback about the car and figure out how to make it better.
Kurt: I’m not arguing with you, Amy, but maybe with a veteran you get a guy who is set in his ways about a setup.
Amy: But how do six guys in six weeks help you? Mike Skinner is a veteran whose feedback helped the No. 84 a TON earlier this year.
Tom: Yeah, I agree with Amy. Why the musical chairs?
Bryan: Six guys in six weeks doesn’t cut it. If you had one guy race the intermediates and a short-tracker tackle Martinsville and Phoenix, then maybe they’re getting accurate opinions.
Amy: I disagree even with that, Bryan. Because if you have one guy who likes a loose car and one who doesn’t, you’re getting conflicting feedback, no matter what track it’s on.
Tom: And the other thing I really disagree with is giving Marcos Ambrose another Cup start. For what? That’s going to be his eighth attempt, making him ineligible for the Rookie of the Year award next year.
Bryan: So what, Tom? It means nothing anymore.
Tom: Don’t you want to win that award?
Bryan: Regan Smith is going to win it this year and he’s not going to be in a ride next year.
Tom: It used to mean something… and it means something to sponsors when it gives you guaranteed coverage each week.
Bryan: Living in the past, Tom. Plus, with Joey Logano in the No. 20 next year, what chance would Ambrose have?
Kurt: Some years the ROTY matters, most years it doesn’t. I haven’t seen a great race for ROTY since 2002.
Amy: I’m not endorsing his driving skills long-term, but put a guy like Jeremy Mayfield in the No. 00 for the last eight or 10 races and get some consistency. Or Mike Wallace or Kenny Wallace… something.
Kurt: They could get Ward Burton, too, if someone could translate for him.
Tom: Amy, remember when Mayfield was a candidate for that ride? Back in ’06 he talked with Michael about filling the seat of the third car. I’m telling you, Mayfield is going to end up somewhere. I have the sneaky feeling it’s the No. 41 if Ganassi doesn’t merge that operation, but that’s besides the point.
Kurt: My guess is that Michael is either soliciting different opinions, or maybe this is just what the circumstances are dictating for him right now.
Bryan: Driver by committee doesn’t work in Cup, period. There isn’t a team running that has done it successfully.
Kurt: I agree with Bryan. It’s too much of a change every week. Put DW in the car for a week, what the heck.
Bryan: Give freaking Bliss the ride for the rest of the year. Bliss did great in his last full-time Cup ride and got screwed by Gene Haas. He’ll give that car some good rides.
Tom: And if you’re Michael McDowell, what the heck must you be thinking? I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t be signing on the dotted line there next year. Talk about a vote of no confidence.
Bryan: McDowell will hopefully go back to Nationwide and get the experience he should have gotten this season.
Amy: I never though McDowell belonged in that car in the first place.
Kurt: And wasn’t he the guy that took over David Reutimann’s ride after David put it in the Top 35? Strange decisions going on at MWR.
Amy: Yes, and McDowell took it right back out.
Tom: I say Waltrip should hire Johnny Benson.
Bryan: Not a bad call, Tom.
Tom: I’ve suggested that before. actually. If they could only get a sponsor for him, the Truck Series could-be champ deserves a chance.
Bryan: But he’s in a title chase, and I doubt Cup support is on his mind right now.
Amy: Benson would be an excellent choice. Him or Mike Wallace come to mind.

Mike Helton invited both Kevin Harvick and Edwards for a private conversation following their public dustup at Lowe’s. Does that mean their feud is over? And should NASCAR have tried to prevent pictures of the fracas making air?

Amy: Maybe, and absolutely not.
Bryan: The feud is probably done. As for censoring the pics, hell no NASCAR shouldn’t have.
Kurt: I could care less about the photos. I’m not interested in what those two do in the garage. Helton probably made the two of them go out to dinner together like Cole and Rowdy.
Amy: They really can’t afford to keep feuding if they want to seriously run for the championship, but they are the two biggest hotheads in the garage, so you never know.
Tom: I thought delaying the release of the photos was a heck of a lot worse than the feud itself because most people were pretty much over it. Then all of a sudden, those pics came out and things looked a hell of a lot worse than described. Edwards isn’t grabbing Harvick’s neck in a nice way.
Amy: Grabbing a guy by the throat isn’t just temper, that goes back to the days of tire-irons and axles. Those pictures look bad, but NASCAR had no right to suppress them.
Kurt: What would NASCAR be worried about? I don’t think anyone buys Carl’s persona anymore, not after he went after Matt Kenseth.

See also
Holding a Pretty Wheel: A Tale of 2 Drivers, Will the Real Carl Edwards Please Stand Up?

Bryan: No one that follows NASCAR closely does, but the casual fan, on the other hand…. Edwards brings big-money sponsors that don’t want to be seen grabbing throats.
Tom: And that’s important, Bryan. They want to protect that reputation. I just think this disproved what Roush said a few months ago about Carl: “Carl will kill me, but he wasn’t ready to win a championship at the Cup level until this year.” Turns out this year was next year, and it’s because of losing focus like that. There was no need for Edwards to write that letter and go after Harvick. I mean, you’re going after a freaking title. Harvick isn’t even a speck in your rearview mirror. Leave it alone!
Kurt: It’s kind of funny to imagine someone seeing Carl in his first season and having someone tell you, “He’s going to need some anger management soon.”
Amy: I kind of wonder why NASCAR hasn’t mandated that, personally. Tony wound up going through that, and he didn’t grab anyone by the throat.
Kurt: Writing letters. You’re supposed to tuck the letter away until you cool off. That’s how Lincoln did it.
Amy: And Edwards caused the whole thing by wrecking Harvick. If you can’t handle being called a name by someone you just put in the wall, you need to consider a new career.
Tom: Great point. Anyways, while those two were feuding, Johnson and Burton were doing a little thing called racing. And that’s all I got to say about that, other than when you try and prevent photos from being released, you’re only going to draw attention to them.
Bryan: It gave ESPN a good way to market Saturday’s race. It’s not going to mean anything this coming weekend.
Kurt: Yeah, Tom, NASCAR added fuel to the fire. You know, if these two get close to each other at Martinsville….
Amy: NASCAR should have dealt with it. Let the photos out, mandated anger management for Carl, and been done with it.
Kurt: “Focus on a point straight ahead, Carl… Easy there, angry bear!”
Bryan: Racecar drivers should not be mandated to do anger management. That’s what we call vanilla.
Kurt: Imagine Tony Stewart without the rage. Wouldn’t be any fun. Tony is NASCAR’s Happy Gilmore.
Amy: Stewart ain’t vanilla. He did anger management and won a championship the next year. What I want to know, though, is what does NASCAR consider a fight? Does a punch have to be thrown? Grabbing a guy by the throat isn’t a fight?
Bryan: It’s just stupid.
Amy: Being able to control emotion wins championships, guys. Call Johnson vanilla all you want, the fact is, he keeps his cool and he’s the one with the big trophies.
Kurt: You’re absol-damn-lutely right, Amy. Vanilla means a guy is in control. Control is vital to excellence in any sport.
Bryan: It’s possible to show emotions and control them as well.
Kurt: That said, Jimmie winning does bring the ratings down.
Amy: If that’s what vanilla is, I’ll take it any day. That and the big shiny trophy.
Tom: In a perfect world, you’d like a guy to not be vanilla and still kick everybody’s butt. That’s what Kyle Busch was doing earlier this season, but in the end he showed he’s not a Dale Earnhardt-clone just yet.
Bryan: Well Tom, if Burton wins the Cup….
Amy: I still don’t think Johnson is close to being vanilla, but I’ve also taken the time to discover that. Not a lot of fans will. The guy is pretty funny and not at all afraid to make fun of himself.
Kurt: Anyways, Carl and Kevin need to share an Orange Julius and be done with it. Neither of them or their teams are served by continuing this feud. But Carl especially has more to lose.
Bryan: Let’s not forget that the fight had no impact on either driver this weekend. Edwards’s car cost him, not his emotion.
Kurt: He is funny, Amy. I think he’s considered boring because he doesn’t fly off the handle like a lot of drivers. That’s a good thing.
Tom: Right, Amy. I think if Jimmie were to become a national phenomenon, we would have seen it by now. Sometimes, you can be a winner and just not translate that into enormous fan support. Heck, look at the Tampa Bay baseball team. They’re in the playoffs and for most of the year they played to empty stadiums.

NASCAR is apparently floating the idea of smaller race fields (36 in Sprint Cup and as few as 28 in the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck series). Is this a good move or simply a stopgap measure for the ailing health of small teams in all three series?

Kurt: I think it would be a good move only if it’s not much less than the amount of teams that are showing up. It would be great at a place like Martinsville, but of course, we don’t know how much longer Martinsville will be around.
Bryan: Cutting Nationwide to 36 and Trucks to 32 would be a decent idea, but Cup’s still got 43 full-time teams that are running the distance.
Amy: On the one hand, I like it; but on the other, I see it as NASCAR’s last push to drive the small teams out once and for all. And 28 is way too small a field in Nationwide.
Bryan: Agreed, Amy. I smell franchising.
Amy: Some weeks, there are 20 Cup guys in a NNS race, so that leaves a whopping eight real NNS guys.
Tom: Honestly though, Amy, we might be down to 28 full-time Nationwide teams.
Bryan: When I talked to Bliss this weekend, he was adamant that the NNS might not fill a 36-car field next year.
Kurt: This whole business about smaller teams is a little overrated. It’s not that I don’t sympathize, but they’re running in the back, so people romanticize that. 28 is usually how many you see anyway, at least as far as how many of them are competitive.
Amy: They’re running in the back because NASCAR has done everything they can to ensure they stay back there.
Tom: If NASCAR is going to shorten the field to that degree, though, there absolutely must NOT be any Cup guys in the lower series. Can you imagine those 20 Cup guys in a 28-car Nationwide race? I mean, come on.
Amy: That’s ridiculous, Tom. There has to be preference to the real NNS guys if they cut the field that much?
Tom: At Lowe’s, we had a 53-car field attempting that race, and of the 43 that made it, we STILL had six cars start and park. I mean, it’s getting ridiculous. I will say this much. For the trucks, they’re already down to about 30 full-time teams. So it wouldn’t kill them to go to 28.
Amy: I think the start-and-park thing is getting too much attention. Very few of those teams do that by choice. That’s as far as they can afford to run.
Bryan: Tell that to MSRP Motorsports, Amy. I’d buy that if there were no examples of unsponsored teams going the distance. But Specialty Racing is going the distance, Morgan Shepherd is more often than not.
Amy: I have talked to a couple of the so-called start-and-park teams and they hate that that’s the impression people have, because it’s not the truth.
Kurt: 36 would be a good number for a full field. Then, make the Nationwide series a second Cup Series. What the heck, they’re almost there already. And then all of the tracks could have a race,
Kurt: The thing is, the more cars the powerhouses put out there, the more guys have a chance to win. The backmarkers have always been in NASCAR – there’s actually fewer of them today.
Amy: But how do you decide? How do you weed out the few that are from the few that go as far as they can before the tires give up or they don’t have the parts to fix the car? See, I don’t think you can. 10 years ago, there were a lot more cars that could contend any given week. Now, it’s ALWAYS the same ones.
Tom: I think the way you do it is by getting fully-funded programs in there to kick the start-and-parkers out. Honestly, that’s how the start-and-parkers left the Cup Series. Remember when they were around in ’04? So many good teams came around that suddenly, the S&Pers failed to qualify.
Bryan: The economy also turned around then, Tom.
Kurt: I remember that. Derrike Cope did that a lot if memory serves.
Bryan: Cope ran full-time for a lot of ‘04. It was Kirk Shelmerdine, Andy Hillenburg, Andy Belmont and a few others.
Kurt: Well, it’s my contention that if Roush and Hendrick are willing to spend the money to put five cars out there, let ’em knock themselves out.
Tom: I think why people are more worried about the start and parking this time is it’s not JUST the economy driving this. The costs have gone up to the point there just aren’t enough companies out there to sponsor 119 “Cup” teams. Because that’s where we’re at now. Even the Nationwide and truck teams cost as much as what it did to fund a Cup operation just 10-15 years ago.
Amy: If you take every driver in the Top 35 in Cup and say, if you want to drive in the NNS, you have to own the car and finance it yourself, that’ll help out the NNS. No decals on the car, no logos on your suit, no thanks in victory lane other than to the people who worked on it.
Kurt: If NASCAR needs to cut costs in the times we’re in, I think it’s a good move. It’s going to weed out the lesser competition, sorry, but that’s ultimately good for the sport. Wow, listen to Kurt defending NASCAR management. Mark the date.
Tom: I’m about halfway in your corner, Kurt. I’d like to see a way for NASCAR to control costs so this just doesn’t happen. But they’ve tried and failed to control costs several times. So I don’t know if they can.
Kurt: Well, they’ve tried to control costs for teams with the car and with paring down the multi-car operations; but for NASCAR itself? They’ll never control costs for the cars, as teams will always spend what they have and what it takes to win. So, 36 is plenty of cars; it will be just as interesting. 28, on the other hand would be fun to watch at a short track.
Bryan: A shorter field would certainly open up more racetracks for the NNS to tackle.
Amy: And if you cut fields in Cup, make them all qualify on time.
Kurt: You mean you don’t want a Top-35 rule in a 36-car field?
Amy: In NNS and trucks, do something to lock in the regulars and not the Cup guys.
Tom: See, with Cup I disagree we need to shorten the fields. We’re always going to have about 43 cars or so. It’s just that when the economy picks up again, they’re all going to be fielded by the same six owners.

OK, how about some predictions for Martinsville?

Kurt: This week at Martinsville Speedway, NASCAR brings you the endless Jimmie Johnson nightmare!
Bryan: I’m sticking by my words tonight: Burton is for real, and he’s going to prove it with a Grandfather Clock on Sunday.
Amy: I see yet another Grandfather Clock in the Gordon household up at night… and Jeff Gordon gets relegated to the couch for a week until he stops.
Tom: I think I’m going to go with Gordon, too. In my heart of hearts, I have a hard time seeing him going an entire season winless. Not one year after dominating the points under the old system.

2008 Mirror Prediction Chart

Amy Henderson caught a lucky break last week when Frontstretch rival Bryan Davis Keith failed to show up for Mirror. But that surprising DNS wasn’t enough to let her pull away with this year’s title. Her upset pick of Brian Vickers netted a mediocre 18th-place finish, allowing her to take the lead by just 78 with five races left.

In the meantime, Vito Pugliese is waging a spirited battle to make it to the year-end podium in third. His last four predictions have netted a win, three top-five and four top-10 finishes to pull him within 500 points of Tony Lumbis (who’s finished with Mirror Driving for the year). So, if you’re looking for someone else to trust besides the top two, Vito’s your man… when he shows up. The Tuesday and Thursday columnist played hooky on Mirror this week, so you’ll have to wait ’till next time to see his prediction skills in motion.

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Amy Henderson 4,239 -0 32 2 12 17
Bryan Davis Keith 4,161 -78 27 5 15 22
Tony Lumbis 3,520 -719 26 4 9 16
Vito Pugliese 3,059 -1,180 23 2 8 13
Mike Neff 2,418 -1,821 19 1 6 9
Matt Taliaferro 2,265 -1,974 17 0 5 10
Tom Bowles 2,077 -2,162 18 1 5 8
Kurt Smith 1,705 -2,534 15 0 4 7
Tommy Thompson 710 -3,529 6 0 2 3
Beth Lunkenheimer 341 -3,898 3 0 1 1
Danny Peters 190 -4,049 1 1 1 1
Ren Jonsin 155 -4,084 1 0 0 1
Jeff Meyer 94 -4,145 1 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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