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:
Doug Turnbull (Tuesdays/Talking NASCAR TV)
Vito Pugliese (Tuesdays/Voice of Vito)
Matt Taliaferro (Thursdays/Fanning The Flames)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Following a dominant performance on Sunday, can anyone catch Jimmie Johnson for the championship? And if so, which team will do it?
Matt T.: Nope. Jimmie is the smoothest driver and Chad is the smartest crew chief. They won’t give this thing away.
Doug: Just like with Jeff Gordon and Evernham, J.J. and Chad have that “magic.” They shine when the light shines on them.
Vito: Unless someone slips them one of Kyle Busch‘s engines or Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s tires, this thing is over. Even then, if Johnson does pop a motor – or a tire – Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards have to be on their game and virtually perfect from here on out. And none of them has shown that they or their crews can do that.
Amy: What the No. 48 has that impresses me so much is the fact that every member of that team works together and has each other’s backs – always – and the communication is stellar. Johnson can drive, too.
Matt T.: You could see the No. 48’s momentum and confidence building as we entered the Chase, and now it’s just rolling. Pretty impressive.
Vito: They did the same thing last year – peaked at the right time. I would not be surprised to see them win out and set the modern-era record of five wins in a row.
Matt T.: Well, I doubt J.J. will run for a win at Homestead. He’ll run a smooth 15th.
Vito: I think all he’ll have to do to clinch by Homestead is crank the engine over. If he has it in the bag, why not go for it?
Matt T.: I’d love to see it, V. But they don’t play that way.
Vito: Don’t blame the gun, blame the one shooting it.
Matt T.: Jimmie “The Glock” Johnson.
Amy: Jimmie’s more of a Winchester… as in repeater.
Doug: As in silencer of the competition.
Amy: Anyways, I would love Johnson to win at least four in a row again, just so he has more wins than Busch this year.
Doug: I still can’t believe the No. 18’s performance and luck have fallen off like this. He was bulletproof for two-thirds of the season.
Vito: Just not when it counted.
Amy: You know, one stupid mistake by one driver and Biffle is right back in it, though. And I think Biffle is the one who could beat Johnson if something does happen.
Matt T.: I agree that if one driver has a remote shot, it’d be Biffle. The four tracks coming up favor him. He’s said himself he’s looking forward to all four. I don’t see him outrunning the No. 48, though.
Vito: I would say Carl. He had the one car that could contend with Johnson at Kansas, and there’s three 1.5-milers left out of four races.
Matt T.: Carl’s been so snakebit, though. The ignition, the wreck. Nothing seems to be going his way right now.
Doug: You never know with him. He could win three out of four and J.J. could puke a motor and it would be close.
Amy: I still think Biffle, but he has to win multiple times while the No. 48 falters bad somewhere. Stranger things have happened, though, so I’m not calling this one until the checkers at Homestead.
Doug: I just don’t see Biffle outdoing the No. 48 enough to gain enough to win the title.
Matt T.: Doug, don’t get me wrong. I’m just saying if anyone could do it….
Vito: The only thing that even makes this a plausible notion is that the No. 48 team suffers some sort of catastrophic failure in the next three races.
Matt T.: Sure, anything can happen, but this would be a monumental collapse, even under the old points system. And considering how the No. 48 is cruising, I just don’t see anyone giving him a hard time down the stretch.
Vito: Anyway, congratulations Jimmie – matching a feat only done before by Cale Yarborough. Hopefully, he’ll show up to the awards banquet with a monster comb-over as a tribute to honor him.
Amy: You mean that’s why Jimmie’s been growing out his hair this year?
Matt T.: I think his hair is nearly through the awkward stage. He’ll look like a beach bum by the time Speedweeks hit.
Martinsville featured the ninth qualifying rainout of the season. On the occasion that time trials are rained out, is NASCAR right to set the field by points to preserve valuable practice time for the teams? Or should qualifying be held on Saturday before practice?
Doug: They should try it on Saturday. It’s been nine times this year; if the conditions are good….
Vito: Hey, it wasn’t that long ago that we always had two rounds of qualifying; one on Friday, and another on Saturday.
Amy: The issue there was practice time for the second rounders. The ones locked in had an advantage.
Vito: Well, you really have an advantage over somebody if they don’t even have an opportunity to make the field.
Matt T.: I don’t see why qualifying isn’t rescheduled for Saturday. Setting the field by points doesn’t bother me too much because it normally doesn’t happen this often, but why not just hold it on Saturday? There is usually quite a bit of downtime, anyway. So you have to shuffle a couple sponsor appearances. Aren’t we here to race?
Vito: It should always be held the next day if weather permits. Just hold it in the morning or extend practice later. Heck, the companion races don’t get going until 3:00 p.m. anyway. I’m sure people wandering around the racetrack can wait for an hour. With the economy the way it is, and NASCAR worrying about having a full field of 43 cars, you had better allow teams and sponsors the opportunity to make a race.
Amy: I don’t know. The rainout rules are pretty fair. I don’t like drivers having to sacrifice practice time, especially in the Chase. And how many drivers has it really hurt? One or two? On the other hand, if they can schedule it early enough Saturday that they can do it without interfering with anyone’s practice, go for it.
Matt T.: I think we need some kind of provisional system, but the one we have now isn’t it. And the ones it really hurts are the go-or-go-homers. Talk about a waste of money coming to the track in the first place. No wonder they can’t keep up with the big money teams.
Doug: At Lowe’s, three potential Sprint Cup debuts got rained out. They should really focus on trying to get qualifying in – especially with the Top-35 rule.
Amy: But the ones who go home aren’t the ones who show up every week, they’re part-timers and rookies, so the racing was safer for everyone, Doug.
Matt T.: Part-timers and rookies deserve a fair shot at the field if they’re fast enough.
Doug: Amy, how are upcoming rookies that are running part-time schedules to prep for Cup going to get seat time when they get rained out? Remember AJ Allmendinger and Red Bull at the end of ’06? He got rained out twice.
Vito: Exactly. You have a lot of money being wasted, particularly for teams that are fast enough to make it in on speed, but get sacked because Terry Labonte or Bill Elliott show up one weekend. The top 25 should be locked in on points, since the ones clamoring to make races are those way behind in points.
Amy: 25, hell, make them ALL qualify on speed. 25th in points is a squarely mediocre team. Why reward mediocrity?
Vito: Because 35 rewards just showing up. And put a time limit on that champion’s provisional. Richard Petty‘s farewell tour was 16 years ago and Darrell Waltrip has been in the booth since 2001.
Doug: I disagree with having everyone in on speed. Teams that race the entire schedule and perform well have some right to be guaranteed into races.
Matt T.: Again, we need some kind of provisional system. You can’t send the No. 48 home because he lost an engine on his qualifying lap.
Vito: Exactly. The teams that are there in the top 25, sponsored, supporting the series every week and marketing it to the masses deserve some return on their investment, even if their car can’t perform.
Amy: Right, so have a second round. If Tony Stewart/Jeff/Jimmie/Junior can’t make it in two rounds, they don’t deserve to be there.
Vito: I would disagree. Then fans don’t buy tickets or show up because their boy is going home or has the potential of not showing up. I know it would prevent me from buying tickets to a race if that were a possibility.
Amy: When, under the old two-round system, did a top driver ever go home?
Vito: Petty did a lot in 1988.
Amy: He was way past his prime then. He was not a top driver in 1988.
Vito: You bite your tongue, Amy! Do not speak of the THE KING in that tone! He finished third the week after almost getting whacked at Daytona. He was doing OK.
Amy: OK and championship contender are not the same thing. I like the King, too, but he was past his prime then.
Matt T.: Anyways, whether we call it this or not, we’re close to being a franchised system anyways because we all know who is and isn’t showing up every week.
Doug: I don’t really understand how a franchise system would work. Would NASCAR and the owners congregate and decide on expansion teams and who gets to own what?
Matt T.: Well, in this case it’s not franchising, but it gives the impression of being one in that the vast, vast majority of drivers are guaranteed spots in the show.
With all the talk of mergers and acquisitions lately, the Big Four of Hendrick, Roush, Childress and Gibbs are bigger and stronger than ever for 2009. Is that good for the sport’s long-term health, or does NASCAR need to find a way to cap team spending to give other organizations a chance to catch up?
Matt T.: Well, it is a free enterprise system….
Vito: No. It’s the equivalent of socialized auto racing. Then again, with the way things are headed in this country, why should I be surprised?
Amy: Absolutely. I’ve said for years they need a spending cap. Not necessarily at the Cup level, but at the Nationwide level for sure. If NASCAR really wants parity, it will cap teams’ spending and let them work on the cars instead.
Doug: I am always wary of spending caps. I do see the need for it, but that leaves little room for innovation, as well.
Vito: Spending caps do not work in auto racing. They are the quickest way to kill a series. Look at ASA and IROC – it just never works. You end up with a boring spec series that nobody cares about.
Matt T.: I don’t know how some sort of cap could be enforced. I just don’t think it’s feasible. Or a good idea in general, for that matter.
Amy: Make every team submit their books, and throw the book at them if you catch them cheating at it.
Matt T.: That’s just unrealistic.
Vito: Figures lie, and liars figure. With these satellite teams, you’d have some creative accounting, stuff that would make Enron look tame by comparison.
Amy: Equaling out the teams might make it more competitive from top to bottom.
Vito: How? You already have equal cars. Teams can’t work on the body, can’t change gears, and each brand has one main engine supplier – maybe two. Something that may work instead is a two-race engine limit like they have in Formula 1.
Matt T.: The weak die off, Amy. That happens.
Doug: A cap would create the same problem as the CoT. Everyone would complain that there is too small a window to adjust (or spend) in.
Amy: It’s not as bad as some sports, as in you can’t buy a Cup title as easily as, say, the Yankees did for decades – but it’s getting there. In the Nationwide Series, titles are bought, not necessarily earned the hard way anymore.
Vito: The days of Alan Kulwicki coming in and running his own deal are looonnnng gone. Maybe the economy taking a dive will actually help right the ship a bit financially though. Remember a few years ago when the economy was bad? We had field fillers, and one took out Gordon at Darlington because he couldn’t get out of the way fast enough.
Matt T.: Are things in good shape right now? No. But once the economy rights itself, sponsors will come back and more money will flow freely through teams across the board.
Amy: I disagree, Matt. More money will flow to the big teams with the popular drivers.
Matt T.: But smaller teams in a better economy will attract more sponsors. Sheer numbers dictate that. In turn, owners of smaller teams will have more money to lure better drivers.
Amy: I don’t know, Matt. If I can buy a decal on Junior’s car or a quarterpanel on Joe Nemechek‘s car, how many are going to go with Nemechek? Look at the Nationwide Series: if you don’t have a Cup driver, you don’t get a top sponsor and NASCAR does nothing to discourage that.
Matt T.: This isn’t NNS we’re talking about. That’s a whole different ballgame. If Furniture Row is able to attract more sponsorship because of a better economy in, say, three years, they can go get better equipment and ultimately more marketable drivers.
Doug: I sure wish that the Nationwide Series could develop more star drivers and attract star sponsors to create more competitive, funded teams. But I just don’t like the idea of limiting how much people spend. In the end, the big teams always find a way around the rule and stay ahead of the game, anyways. This is the ebb and flow of the sport.
Matt T.: Doug got it right: The ebb and flow of the sport. That’s what we’re experiencing right now. It’s just tough right now if you’re not one of the Big Four. They are more stable, and therefore attract the best sponsors and drivers.
Amy: I don’t know. 10 years ago, almost anyone could contend for a win any given weekend, or at least a top five. That’s not happening anymore.
Doug: I disagree. 10 years ago, there still were second- and third-tier teams that needed fuel strategy or a bunch of wrecks to even come close to the front. Back then, in fact, the disparity between teams was larger.
Amy: Yet, I could feel like my guy had a shot 10 years ago… that’s changed, big time around 2003-04-ish, maybe even a year before.
Matt T.: I don’t know, didn’t Hendrick win like half the races in 1998?
Vito: 10 years ago? 10 years ago Gordon won 13 races, Mark Martin won seven and Burton and Bobby Labonte won a couple of times. Petty, Yates and Penske all won in ’98, too. It was worse 10 years ago then today.
Amy: And Rudd won as an independent.
Doug: Exactly, Vito. Does Haas CNC run the same as Hendrick? No. But they run better because of the association, and Hendrick runs about the same as before. There is no question that the teams are closer to each other now. The margin of error is smaller, so only the top teams win.
Vito: This year Gibbs, Childress, Evernham, Roush, Hendrick, Penske and, technically, DEI have won.
Doug: So DEI, Petty, Ganassi, Woods, Furniture Row and Yates have not won.
Amy: I just remember smaller teams, like Petty, Ricky Rudd’s indie operation and Andy Petree being able to compete back then. Now, not even Yates can keep up.
Vito: Yates can’t keep up because they threw in the towel four years ago. Petty has been rebuilding since 1983, and Rudd was the last of the privateers to be able to do anything. But that was a decade ago. Last year, if you want to get down to it, Ginn Racing won a race.
Doug: The Yates team has been falling behind slowly but surely for several years, partially because it didn’t conform to new technological and engineering advances in the sport.
Vito: And partially because Robert Yates didn’t want to keep going.
Doug: I spoke to Matt Kenseth about the relationship between Yates and Roush, and he thinks that there has been some benefit for both teams, but really, they still each do their own thing.
Amy: Anyways, Kenny Wallace had a couple top fives for Filmar back in the ‘90s, a very small, underfunded team. Bill Davis was winning. Morgan-McClure was contending. Those teams are now long gone – or close to it.
Matt T.: Again, the weak sometimes die off. That just happens.
Doug: Every once in a while, though, a team will luck out and get a top five that doesn’t belong there.
Amy: But it wasn’t every once in a while… you used to be able to find some smaller teams up there at some point almost every week. And now, if a smaller team is in the top 30 at the end of the day, it’s rare.
Doug: That just shows how much tighter the field has gotten. You need more than a few racecars and a driver to win. But there were plenty more that were also filling out the field. Now the bigger teams have four teams, instead of two or three, and they fill out the spots where the others were.
Matt T.: That’s true. Four cars per team is different that two per team 10 years ago. The power is consolidated a bit more.
Doug: What’s sad is that Elliott’s 16th was like a top 10 for the Wood Brothers; Allmendinger’s 14th was the best for that GEM team.
Amy: The top 10 at Martinsville had two cars not in the Chase. One was Hendrick, one was DEI. The top small team was Brian Vickers, and from there you have to go back to like, 30th.
Matt T.: But I don’t see a spending cap being the answer for any of this.
Doug: Me either.
Vito: A limit on cars would help contain costs some – or just force the bigger teams to gobble up more of the smaller teams in name only.
Amy: Not a spending cap maybe, but a cap on what you can get from a primary sponsor.
Doug: Sponsors should spend whatever they want. NASCAR should try and work on limiting the associations between the satellite and bigger teams. That will be closer to an answer than a flat spending cap.
Matt T.: I think the cap on teams within an organization is what would really make a difference. If NASCAR were to go down to three per company, there would be more available sponsors and sponsor-able drivers to smaller organizations.
Amy: When one team is raking in $30 million while another is getting by on $5 million, that doesn’t encourage parity.
Doug: No. But NASCAR shouldn’t try to enforce parity, necessarily. Some succeed and some don’t. That is how it is. If a team wins, they can attract more money.
Matt T.: Amy, how can NASCAR tell Rick Hendrick that he cannot accept $30 million from DuPont?
Amy: Easy; everyone can get $15 million from a primary. If Dupont wants to spend $30 mill that bad, it can sponsor a second car. Again, it’s a decal on Junior’s car or a quarterpanel on Nemechek’s. A smaller number of teams wouldn’t have to change anything, either.
Doug: I will say it would keep the very large teams from using the mid-level teams as R&D. And then, teams would simply split sponsors and get more money or would demand more from associates.
Matt T.: Yes it would. If each power organization – the Big Four – were limited to three teams per company, you’d have more available drivers and it would encourage sponsors to follow them to smaller teams. That, in turn, would help build the smaller teams into larger organizations. It just so turns out that the team cap is four right now. That’s the number, so this is what our fields look like.
Amy: See, I disagree, Matt. If I’m the sponsor, I’m going with Junior over Nemechek every time.
Matt T.: You’re not getting my point, Amy. This isn’t about Nemechek. This is about Hendrick having to cut a team, so Martin is suddenly in Front Row’s Chevy and he will attract sponsorship for them.
Amy: So? Junior has 57 tiny associate sponsors for the price of a quarterpanel on the No. 88 and still, nobody’s buying the quarterpanel. Without a spending cap, Vito, how is half that money going to mean a damn thing?
Matt T.: Bigger name drivers, if shipped to other teams, will bring sponsor dollars.
Amy: Nobody’s going to ship out a big name driver with a three-team cap. They’re going to ship out David Ragan and Casey Mears and wait for Martin to retire.
Matt T.: Just using him as an example, Amy.
Doug: Ragan and Mears wouldn’t be bad to attract sponsors for a small team, either.
Amy: That says it all right there, Doug. The media ignores the small teams, so sponsors buy the sticker on Junior’s car instead of sponsoring a small team.
Matt T.: By the way, Ragan would stay, Jamie McMurray would go, and I guarantee someone would sponsor him only because of his face. I hate that, but it’s the truth.
Vito: I think with the economy tightening and the manufacturers pulling back, you are going to see a lot of organizations dropping their fourth team.
Doug: I agree that it is true; I just don’t think NASCAR should stop it. If we would cover these smaller, hard working teams more, then they would have more exposure and attract more sponsors.
Amy: One final thought: what about NASCAR mandating in their TV contracts that every team gets five minutes of media exposure per race?
Ford announced this week that it will cut some support from its Craftsman Truck Series programs, following the news that Dodge will pull out of the series. What does this spell for many Truck teams and the series itself?
Doug: The sport’s best series has the least funding. Go figure.
Amy: I think it’s a huge issue. It’s not like Roush can switch to Toyota trucks. So, they have two options: stay with Ford and pay for it themselves, or pull their teams and another level of driver development goes away.
Vito: I think this was expected, though. They’re not getting much exposure, and the Big Three have more pressing matters than Dennis Setzer or Erik Darnell at the moment.
Matt T.: It’s something that has been coming for awhile, I agree – and I contend NASCAR has known about it since August. I do think it’s bad for the series – a series with no sponsor, let’s not forget.
Doug: The only positive I see is that maybe some teams would graduate to the Nationwide Series and make it better, but that may kill the trucks. The Truck Series would be a good one to put a cap on, since so many mainstay sponsors are pulling out.
Vito: Look, the winner of the race and current points leader didn’t even have a freaking sponsor this weekend. It’s bad for everybody, even for the series’ Most Popular Driver.
Matt T.: Ford is still lending some support, just not on a scale of what we’ve seen up to this point. In other words, Roush Fenway may be OK…
Vito: Roush Fenway will be OK because it is a mammoth organization that can draw on its engineering resources from Cup and Nationwide teams.
Matt T.: Exactly.
Amy: Well, you can bet that Ford and Dodge won’t just say, “Sure, run another make in trucks, we’ll still fund your Cup and NNS teams!” It’s not that farfetched to have just two manufacturers in trucks in a few years – with the lion’s share being Toyotas.
Vito: Toyota will most likely pull back from the series as well. It matches their business model. They don’t want to blow GM up in the global market because they feel that it would be bad for themselves. And why spend money where it isn’t necessary? Toyota would probably much rather dedicate more resources to the Sprint Cup side of things, including adding a new team. GM, I think their presence will remain about what it is. They don’t pour a ton of money into the trucks anymore, but still won the drivers’ title last year.
Doug: Maybe the manufacturer support doesn’t matter as much as we think. Unless, of course, the team is sponsored by a manufacturer.
Matt T.: Here’s the irony: The Truck Series is the one that best differentiates between makes, and it’s the series the makes are running from.
Amy: It’s the same deal as the last question, though, Matt. Sponsors will pay more to put a decal on a Cup car than be top sponsor for a truck. And the trucks needed to be on network TV, like, yesterday.
Vito: Again, this harkens back to the problem with this series: It’s run on the wrong day and at the wrong time. If it’s Friday night, I have things to do, so I’ll record it and watch it later, or watch the replay when I get home.
Matt T.: I agree that it’s marketed all wrong.
Vito: Exactly. SPEED is a great network, but not everybody has it, and it isn’t available everywhere in HD. It is going to lose every time against college football and the World Series.
Amy: The marketing probably helped the manufacturers’ decisions to leave.
Doug: The same thing, in a way, happened to IROC. It was great racing but had no coverage, lost a sponsor, and was done.
Vito: That, and the point of the Truck Series in the mid-‘90s was to cash in on the burgeoning light-truck market. With gas at $4 a gallon, OPEC threatening to tighten production, and those who some of us have elected who don’t want to use our own oil, the trucks aren’t so popular anymore. Maybe an electric car racing series is what we need to spruce things up a bit!
Matt T.: But at a time when casual fans are not paying much attention to NASCAR at all, the trucks will take the biggest hit. A friend told me just today that he tried to watch a race a couple weeks ago and couldn’t because it looked the same as every other one he’d watched in the last year (which wasn’t many). A lot of people are just over NASCAR and they won’t be coming back. That’s a tough truth.
Vito: True, Matt. It reminds me of hockey. It became very popular and mainstream in the mid-to-late ’90s, then it kind of faded, and once it had the strike seasons, that kind of sunk it. The Truck Series will still be a viable one, but it is a microcosm of the sport and the economy as a whole.
Amy: Those hockey fans moved onto the next big thing – NASCAR. And now the sheep will do it again, move on to curling or whatever “everyone” says is cool.
Vito: Right now it’s MMA, because every idiot wants to shave a mohawk and buy an Affliction t-shirt because they think they’re Chuck Liddell.
Doug: I still think that NASCAR has more fight and appeal than hockey. Its show takes place all at one time, meaning it can beat most sports in ratings still.
Vito: The thing draining NASCAR is: 1. Overexposure, 2. Coverage that is an absolute abomination, and 3. A mind-numbingly boring product on the track.
Matt T.: I think the sport in general will be OK in the long run, but the Truck Series and NNS will definitely feel some nasty, nasty shockwaves over the next year or so.
On that note… predictions for Atlanta?
Amy: I say Edwards wins, and makes a whopping 25-point dent in Johnson’s lead – if he’s lucky.
Matt T.: Gimme Carl for AMS; he was awfully tough before his engine let go in the spring. But Jimmie finishes top five and once again no one makes any headway.
Vito: I am going to go with Edwards. Had a chance to beat Jimmie at Kansas, might have had a shot at Charlotte, and was the car to beat here in March.
Doug: I’m going with Carl, with the Biff and Junior in the wings.
Vito: Damnit, are we all going to pick the same guy?
Matt T.: Change yours, V. Do it. Do it.
Vito: %^&* it. I’m picking Martin.
Matt T.: Yeah!
2008 Mirror Prediction Chart
Just as Johnson is threatening to run away with the Chase, Amy Henderson is appearing to do the same with our Mirror championship. Predicting Gordon as the winner at Martinsville, his solid fourth-place run allowed her lead to widen to 131 points over second place Bryan Davis Keith (who watched his pick, Burton, struggle to 17th). And with Keith absent for Mirror this week, Henderson gets a free chance to pad what will likely be an insurmountable edge with four races remaining.
Further down the list, Kurt Smith was the sole writer who predicted winner Johnson at Martinsville. But with only 19 appearances this season, he’s over 2,500 points off the top spot and was eliminated from the title hunt long ago.
|Bryan Davis Keith
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