Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: NASCAR 2008’s Biggest Moment, 2009’s Testing Nightmare & Judging Johnson in 2050

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:
Bryan Davis Keith (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans & Sundays/Nationwide Series Breakdown)
Doug Turnbull (Tuesdays/Talking NASCAR TV)
Vito Pugliese (Tuesdays/Voice of Vito)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Kurt Allen Smith (Fridays/Happy Hour)

Jimmie Johnson became the second driver ever to win three straight NASCAR Cup championships by clinching the Cup at Homestead. Does that cement Johnson’s place among the best ever in the history books, or is the jury still out?

Kurt: Certainly it places him among the best. And let’s discuss that before we figure in the Chase factor. Jimmie has been great every year he’s been in Cup. Chase or not.
Bryan: It’s certainly an accomplishment, but trying to compare it to, say, Cale Yarborough‘s three-peat, is like comparing apples to oranges.
Doug: He is definitely one of the best. As his career play out, we will then know just where he ranks. Even right now, he is at least top 10.
Amy: I agree, Kurt. Johnson is, with or without the Chase, a fine racecar driver putting up better numbers than the very best in the sport today.
Vito: Clearly one of the best. Championships aren’t flukes, and his three certainly were not flukes, either. What’s really is scary is that he very easily could have won two or three more already.

See also
Happy Hour: Is Jimmie Johnson's 3-Year Run as Good as Cale Yarborough's Was?

Doug: Jimmie led the points during his rookie season – late in the season at that – and he hasn’t looked back since then.
Vito: There is a lot more competition today. In Cale’s day, there’d be maybe four or five cars on the lead at the end of the race. Now there are 20. There might still be three or four teams that dominate the sport, but half the field is a top-10 car.
Kurt: There’s always going to be the naysayers about the equipment he’s in…
Amy: Johnson has more wins than any driver in the series since he showed up in 2002 and more in his career than Tony Stewart – that is the real deal.
Doug: He has had the dream career, much like his elder, Jeff Gordon. Although Gordon has fallen on less days of late.
Kurt: But domination like Gordon’s in the ’90s just isn’t possible today.
Amy: Are you sure, Kurt? Johnson’s numbers say otherwise. Equipment and pit crews are more important than they were 30 years ago the way the sport is now, that’s just the way NASCAR has evolved.
Bryan: That’s the reason I’m not ready to jump on the “Johnson being among the best ever” bandwagon. Equipment means a ton and he’s had nothing but the best.
Doug: I don’t know, Johnson won seven races this year, 10 last year and has won three championships. Carl Edwards won nine, Kyle Busch eight. If this domination by the mega-teams continues, it can happen.
Vito: He is in the equivalent of the equipment Yarborough was driving back then. There was always disparities between teams and cars, but now there are 43 cars running the entire schedule, and that’s the difference. It wasn’t always that way.
Kurt: True Bryan, but Johnson doesn’t make many mistakes, and he usually wins the on-track battles even with guys that have equal equipment.
Amy: But that’s my point, Bryan, is that equipment does mean more than ever these days, because everyone has good equipment in the top 20 or 25.
Bryan: I disagree strongly with you there Amy. RCR, for example, is a top-10 team, but they do not contend for wins that often.
Vito: Hey, he’s making the most of what he has been given to work with. You can’t really hold that against him when his teammates have combine to win one race all year.
Kurt: Look at it this way: no one disputes that Gordon is one of the best ever, and driving for the same team, Johnson has outperformed Gordon in many seasons. The new car is a factor there. The mega-teams figured it out first.
Doug: Seven drivers who won last year did not win this year, I believe. That’s a lot of wealth in the hands of the few.
Bryan: In terms of best teams ever, I may be willing to say the No. 48 team is among, if not the best, ever. I guess that’s the distinction I’d draw.
Amy: Somewhere the driver has to come into that equation. Now, as for the argument that without the Chase Johnson wouldn’t have won the last two years… that’s only semi-valid argument at best.
Kurt: The thing is that Jimmie takes car of his stuff, diagnoses the car and gets it tuned up. And he does have the best crew chief on a pit box, no doubt in my mind about that.
Vito: And he’s been nothing short of remarkable since he got here. Remember his rookie year of 2002? He was leading the points with just a few races left to go at Talladega.
Bryan: Chad Knaus’s role in this stretch can’t be understated enough. He’s scary good.
Doug: I agree that they are one of the best teams ever. They have kept the same driver, crew chief, sponsor, crew. Legendary. Much like the Nos. 20 and 24.
Amy: It’s not his fault that’s the system he has to work with, and he should be commended for learning how to use it better than anyone else.
Kurt: True, but Yarborough beat everyone for the whole season, not just 10 races. Because of the Chase, the comparison is much more difficult.
Amy: But he had the luxury of not having the points reset, Kurt. These guys have 10 other guys in their way all of a sudden.
Bryan: I don’t think you can make a true comparison. Not only does the Chase change the points, it changes the approach. Johnson and crew, to their credit, were the first to figure out they could treat the Chase with more emphasis than the other 26 races.
Vito: Right, but if Carl doesn’t have that finish, the No. 48 probably races differently; same at Talladega.
Kurt: Johnson was lucky at Talladega. And true that, Bryan. But think about this, if Carl doesn’t have that one bad finish he probably wins it. The Chase makes one bad finish your downfall.
Amy: If you’re going to complain about the Chase (which I hate, by the way, but it is what it is), you also have to be willing to look at the flip side of that comparison: What if the Chase had been in effect all those years?
Kurt: I’m not trying to diminish Johnson and the No. 48 gang – they did what they had to do – but the Chase is a factor in the comparison of Jimmie to other champions.
Amy: But why is that Jimmie’s fault, Kurt? He didn’t create the system.
Kurt: I didn’t say it was, Amy, they did it right. But the Chase turns everything upside down.
Bryan: I attribute the preparation and approach of the No. 48 team to be far more the factor in their run than Johnson being behind the wheel.
Amy: Really, Bryan? Put David Gilliland behind that wheel and see how many championships you have in the No. 48 car.
Doug: Are we gonna start in on Gilliland again?
Vito: Yes! He’s earned it.
Kurt: Let me just repeat for the record that I think Jimmie is one of the best ever, hands down. But he doesn’t win three straight without a Chase. Probably ‘06, maybe ‘08, but definitely not ‘07.
Bryan: Maybe not Gilliland, Amy, but put a Denny Hamlin or a Ryan Newman behind that wheel and I’d hazard they’d be in the running for three titles.
Amy: Nobody was going to beat Gordon in ’07 without the Chase, but take a look sometime at how drastically different things would look if the Chase had been there all along. I wouldn’t put Jimmie in the top five all time, but you have to consider top 10.
Doug: The Chase does make it easier to win three in a row.
Amy: Why is it a knock on Johnson that he’s doing the same thing with the current system? Before the Chase, teams learned how to work the points system, just look at Matt Kenseth in ’03 and Terry Labonte in ’96. (Incidentally, had the chase been a factor, neither Labonte nor Kenseth would have won those titles.)
Kurt: Look, I’ve heard the talk about “what if there had been a Chase all those years,” but there wasn’t, just like there is one now.
Doug: It’s not and it shouldn’t be, Amy. If Busch’s points lead stays intact, I bet the No. 18 is more of a factor toward the end. I agree with Doug on the No. 18. I think mentally, they lost it.
Bryan: Busch’s immaturity showed detrimentally all year. If he doesn’t get frustrated for himself spinning out at Kentucky he wins the Nationwide Series title. Immaturity hurt that team bad. And no one is knocking Jimmie, we all know it’s a big deal. But there’s a long way between that and suddenly anointing him the greatest racer ever.
Kurt: Johnson = top-10 best ever.
Amy: I’d say Johnson ranks maybe ninth or 10th all time.
Doug: So far yeah, and if he wins three more titles and 30 more races, who knows?
Bryan: Johnson’s three-peat a big deal, but the jury still is out on the historical significance of it.
Kurt: In fact there isn’t any reason not to rank him right there with Gordon, outperforming him very often in similar equipment.

The 2008 season had many headlines but what will the year be remembered for?

Bryan: The year the super teams truly took over.
Kurt: Johnson’s three-peat more than anything else, but I’m just getting started here. Gordon goes winless; Stewart’s controversial win at ‘Dega; Kyle’s win at Darlington was pretty memorable; Busch’s rise and fall; and the Indianapolis Cluster 400, which I think will come to most fans’ minds when they think of the worst race ever.
Doug: We need to wait until the dust settles. We are all hyped up on the championship now. I think Stewart’s departure and the economy are the two biggest stories.
Vito: The cold splash of water in the face of NASCAR, and reality setting in.
Amy: Kyle pulled the biggest choke ever.
Vito: I’d put that on the team, not the driver.
Doug: Busch’s dominance throughout the sport is the third-biggest story.
Bryan: The failure of the open-wheel invasion.
Amy: I think the big story is the steady decline of viewership and track attendance.
Doug: The viewing numbers were up until ESPN took the reins.
Bryan: Indy was the worst race ever. It wasn’t even a race.
Amy: Second worst. The restrictor-plate race at New Hampshire was worse.
Kurt: Charlotte, Nov. 2005, was worse.
Bryan: Indianapolis was worse. At Charlotte the segments were 30 laps, not 10.
Amy: The plate race was still worse.
Kurt: How about Junior’s not-quite-as-great-as-expected first season at Hendrick?
Doug: That’s a good one.
Bryan: He had a fine season. He contended for a lot of wins. If Busch wasn’t as much of an idiot, it would have been at least two.
Kurt: How many people were predicting at least four wins?
Doug: I predicted six. If he were actually better, it would have been more of a story.
Vito: Hey, if they were Busch Series races, he would have won six of them! Nationwide, whatever. They’d have that car spot-on the first half of the race, then… nothing.
Amy: I agree he had a fine season. He’s not Gordon or Johnson, and if that’s the kind of season people are going to expect from him, they will be perpetually disappointed.
Kurt: How about Clint Bowyer and Johnny Benson‘s championships? Two deserving fellows. That was a good story.

See also
Voice of Vito: Johnny Benson Jr. the Best Thing to Happen to NASCAR Championship Weekend

Bryan: Bowyer was another Cup regular beating up on the AAA ranks. Not a good story.
Doug: Bowyer had a great Nationwide season despite only winning one race.
Bryan: Benson on the other hand, job well done.
Amy: Benson especially. He, Greg Biffle and Bobby Labonte are the only dual champs in the modern era.
Vito: Benson’s was the most deserving and least covered. It’s a shame that more people have not taken notice or were able to see that last race.
Bryan: Man, talk about drama. The Truck finale was fantastic. But the Navy crew going after Hamlin’s crew on pit road at Charlotte was my favorite moment of the season.
Doug: The end of that last Truck race was incredible!
Kurt: That was a helluva battle. Here’s one: Tony’s Goodyear rant at Atlanta. That was balls-on funny.
Amy: Too bad nobody listened, Kurt.
Doug: His rant was incredible. I was there. It was the best press conference I have ever been in.
Amy: How about Jimmy Spencer asking Johnson how he was going to “get it up” next year?
Kurt: Edwards going after Kevin Harvick in the garage and the subsequent Photogate is another.
Amy: I think the economy and the decline of fans is huge, though.
Bryan: The Rocketman scoring the first ever plate win for the Captain, then leaving. But back to where I started, the super teams are now in complete control of Cup, even more than ever before. And that is not good for the sport.
Kurt: The No. 48 team winning three straight is probably the story of ‘08.
Vito: NASCAR is not what it used to be, and I think they finally started getting the hint that even they are not immune to the struggles faced by its fans.

NASCAR made the decision to ban testing for 2009 at all tracks sanctioned for Sprint Cup, Nationwide, Camping World Truck, East, and West series. Is this a great cost-cutting measure or do the cons outweigh the pros for the ban?

Kurt: Someone, John Close I believe, commented that there are better ways to do it, because testing is a way to employ people.
Amy: I think they finally managed to franchise the sport without actually having to say it. No new teams are going to come in if they can’t test.
Bryan: Their ban doesn’t fix anything. There are tons of tracks not sanctioned that teams with money will still test at.
Amy: There are, Bryan, but are there any 1.5-milers out there?
Bryan: Texas World Speedway, Amy.
Vito: It will save money… kinda. The top teams still will have access to their manufacturers’ proving grounds or tracks in Canada. And some of the larger teams may elect to buy or build their own tracks.
Kurt: Cutting back on testing is only going to help the big teams, though. They’ll have an easier time with more cars figuring tracks out in practices.
Amy: Penske has been trying to get approval to build already.
Bryan: Penske wanted a 0.75-mile oval.
Vito: Isn’t that one in College Station all grown over again? The teams with the shaker rigs, simulators, etc. are going to have that much more of an advantage, and if you’re behind early in the year, you’re done.
Amy: Is TWS a high-banked oval, Bryan?
Bryan: I don’t remember the specs, but it’s certainly an intermediate oval.
Vito: Yeah, it’s two miles. It looks like Michigan and probably still has better parking and crowd control.
Bryan: Vito is right. This will do nothing more than further separate the haves from the have-nots.
Kurt: Does anyone think NASCAR talked to the teams before making this decision? I’m not being a smartass, I’m just curious.
Bryan: I’m sure they didn’t, Kurt.
Kurt: They often don’t, but I would think they would consult with them on this one. This is pretty huge.
Vito: I believe they did. It is another expense that team owners often saw as a necessary evil. Remember Jack Roush’s reluctance to go CoT testing, which precipitated Pat Tryson’s departure in 2007? There are a lot of out-of-work test team guys today, which is an unfortunate by-product of all of this.

See also
Full Throttle: Time to Tighten NASCAR's Purse Strings

Kurt: I think they’re probably doing what they have to do, but I still say this helps the big teams more. And that might be only temporary though Vito.
Bryan: If NASCAR was serious about this they would have completely banned testing. This policy is not going to change anything, nor is it really going to save that much money. Teams with the bucks to test will spend it elsewhere.
Kurt: Well, it may be 2005 in reverse. NASCAR cut practices, so the teams that could test with more cars benefited and Roush put five cars in a 10-car Chase. Now it’s the other way around.
Vito: I still think the top teams are going to find a way to skirt the issue and go test somewhere. They will find a way.
Bryan: There is a way Vito, they just have to go to tracks not on the circuit. Sure, longer ovals are in short supply, but there are proving grounds out there that will serve the purpose.
Kurt: Well, they kind of have to. If one team starts pouring money into the program, the rest have to keep up. It’s not perfect but that’s the way it is.
Bryan: It’s all a product of stock car racing becoming too dependent on technology.
Vito: Exactly. That’s the first thing that came to mind when they came out with this. I’d love to see a CoT try to negotiate that cobblestone street section of Chrysler’s Chelsea Proving Grounds. That splitter would last about 20 feet.
Bryan: Put the “stock” back in stock car, Kurt.
Kurt: Well yeah, that’s what I was getting at. A spec car isn’t going to fix it. I’d love to see them mandate teams run the engines and cars they ran in 1991.
Amy: It’s heading toward a spec car, though, as much as that pains me to say.
Kurt: Certainly the manufacturers would prefer that.
Vito: That worked out really well. Sincerely, ASA & IROC.
Amy: The teams can’t work on much and now they can’t test what they do think up.
Kurt: Yes Amy, and the penalties are severe.
Vito: If you cut the schedule, you cut the costs and rebuild some interest by not saturating the market. It’s simple economics – scarcity of demand drives up the prices.
Amy: Banning testing is also a safety issue. What if something you test at Rockingham doesn’t work at Atlanta? Bad wreck could come of that.
Kurt: I wouldn’t be as concerned about that if we had confidence in the tires, Amy.
Bryan: They’re going to be lining up to tire test now.
Amy: And now how is tire testing fair? The big teams are always the ones chosen for those and they can take telemetry.
Bryan: Exactly my point Amy.
Vito: With the Big Three pulling back and not sponsoring races, here’s a perfect opportunity to cut back a few weeks out of the year.
Amy: For sure cut the non-points paying races.
Kurt: Matt McLaughlin talked about getting rid of 10 races which I see as a perfect opportunity to ditch the Chase.
Vito: If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. It’s the same in racing. They are going to test and find a way around it. Heck, Roush Racing was using Audi’s wind tunnel in Germany not too long ago.
Kurt: Vito’s got a point. The big team domination can fix itself if it is just let it alone. Let more drivers possibly win, attract more fans of more drivers, make the purses bigger… smaller teams are helped.
Amy: What I’d like to see, personally, is teams coming to races a day early and being allowed to run telemetry all day Thursday then practice and qualify as normal Friday. That way the only added expense is tires. At least do that the first time at every track. I’m all for helping smaller teams, anyone knows I am, but this is not the way to do it – not when the chief complaint of fans is already that races are boring.
Kurt: It wasn’t so much that the big teams dominated, it’s that three drivers dominated from three big teams.
Vito: If it costs roughly $500,000 to run a race and you cut out six weeks of racing, there’s $3 million saved. That coupled with the testing ban – there’s $6 million in recouped costs. By cutting out six or seven races, you’re going to sell out every race again and will in turn have more money for the purses.
Amy: Not quite, Vito. Cancel the $3 million saved from testing by the $3 million they have to now spend on a seven-post rig.
Kurt: NASCAR probably considered this decision mightily before making it. At least I would hope so. But this is going to help the Roush Fenways and Hendricks more than anyone. And I doubt cutting races is going to happen.
Vito: They’re going to have that anyway. Most of them already do. You only have to spend that once, though. Not every year.
Amy: No, Vito, most of the big teams do. The smaller teams rely on data from testing.
Vito: Hah, what little teams are we talking about? Yates? Robby Gordon? Petty Enterprises? Aren’t these all teams on the verge of merging with teams that do?
Bryan: We’re going to see a lot more smaller teams becoming satellite teams because of this. Stock cars are what’s missing from stock car racing. This testing ban is anything but. NASCAR’s franchising without saying so.
Vito: Most of them already are.
Amy: The small teams pay the big ones to use their seven-post rigs, so they get poorer and the big ones get richer.
Vito: Oh boo hoo. Let’s all just go work on a collective farm and be equally bankrupt. I’ll be honest, I get tired of hearing the “small teams” excuse. These aren’t small operations, they are small in comparison to Hendrick and Roush, which resemble a decent sized manufacturing firm.
Amy: And how many small manufacturing firms are still in business after being run out by the decent sized ones. Vito?
Vito: Isn’t that why they capped the number of teams?

The Nationwide and Craftsman Truck series finished their seasons at Homestead as well, with both championships being decided by less than 30 points-combined. Why is this the norm in those series while it wasn’t often the case in the Cup Series, even before the Chase?

Kurt: Um, fewer races maybe.
Amy: Maybe, but Nationwide only has what, only one less?
Kurt: What happened in the points standings this year for the series was a bit of an anomaly, but it makes the argument that you don’t need a Chase for a close finish.
Vito: Because those series don’t have a ridiculous championship format that resets points with 10 races to go.
Bryan: Exactly.
Kurt: Well, the Chase by definition is supposed to bring the title closer, but it’s not guaranteed to do so, which was a great reason not to implement it.
Amy: I agree, Kurt, that you don’t need a Chase but those series have been closer than Cup when Cup didn’t have a Chase.
Vito: Again, this is what happens when you meddle with what works.
Kurt: It may be because there is more parity in the Cup Series. The lesser series don’t have as many competitive drivers on the track week after week, so the title battles have fewer drivers and are closer. Just speculating.
Amy: I think there is certainly more parity in trucks, and that is why they are better. NASCAR needs to look at why that is.
Bryan: Cup has fast become like college football where there truly are tiers within the Cup Series in terms of the ability of the teams to win.
Vito: Trying to create excitement and conjure up a playoff, when you don’t need one is poisoning the series, diluting the championship and creating the malaise that NASCAR is suffering through right now.
Amy: And find a way to create parity.
Vito: Yeah, everybody is equally average.
Kurt: I don’t like parity when it is forced. Look at the restrictor plate races – that is forced parity.
Vito: The thing is, in Sprint Cup you have too much parity. You have 1-3 top cars and 20 that are about the same speed. Same with the Nationwide Series.
Amy: When I first started watching racing, there was always a chance, albeit small, that anyone could win or contend on Sunday. That is simply not true anymore and that is why the sport is losing fans.
Kurt: That is only going to get worse if there are no changes to the car.
Vito: I don’t know about that. Look at 1993 when you had four guys that won virtually all the races. It’s really not much different than it is today, except you have two or three guys winning eight or nine races instead of one guy winning 10 and three others winning five.
Amy: But you had others in the top five, top 10. Now you don’t even have that.
Kurt: Vito’s right, a much smaller percentage of drivers had wins, say, in the ‘70s than today.
Vito: Look at 1998; Gordon and Mark Martin combined to win 20 races.
Kurt: I think we need another year of the snowplow before we can determine if there’s too much dominance by one or two teams. Jamie McMurray seems to be improving and so are some other guys.
Amy: Time will tell, I guess
Bryan: McMurray always runs well enough to save his job.
Vito: Why in the name of all that is holy, are they ripping McMurray’s crew chief from him? They finally get the ship righted, and they throw the captain overboard.
Bryan: Laissez-faire works.
Kurt: Limited government. Libertarian NASCAR.
Bryan: On and off the track, Kurt.
Vito: We’ve given the Chase five years now. In my mind it’s an answer to a question that nobody asked.
Kurt: (Nods head.)
Vito: Much like the CoT, they went way overboard. All they had to do was subtly tweak what was in place, but they wiped the slate clean for no good reason.

No predictions this week, unless anyone wants to predict how boring the banquet will be.

Vito: Does anybody even watch that anymore?
Bryan: Never have, never will.
Amy: My boy won, of course I do, Vito.
Vito: Last one I watched was in 2002.
Amy: Maybe Jimmie will tell Jimmy how to get it up in his acceptance speech.
Bryan: Jimmy Spencer doesn’t need to be told how to get it up, I don’t want him procreating.
Kurt: I don’t think I’ve ever watched one. Doesn’t Frontstretch have a table?
Bryan: If Frontstretch ever gets a banquet table… dibs!
Vito: Photo sequence of me and Harvick in choking contest.
Amy: If we do, I’m there. Screw my actual job.

Final 2008 Mirror Prediction Chart

Congratulations, Amy Henderson on taking home the 2008 predictions championship! Check below to see how your favorite writer fared in picking winners this season.

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Amy Henderson 5,073 -0 37 4 16 21
Bryan Davis Keith 4,723 -350 31 6 16 24
Tony Lumbis 3,520 -1,553 26 4 9 16
Vito Pugliese 3,417 -1,656 26 2 9 14
Matt Taliaferro 2,607 -2,466 20 1 7 11
Mike Neff 2,418 -2,655 19 1 6 9
Tom Bowles 2,242 -2,831 19 1 6 9
Kurt Smith 1,900 -3,173 16 1 5 8
Tommy Thompson 710 -4,363 6 0 2 3
Beth Lunkenheimer 547 -4,526 5 0 1 1
Jeff Meyer 289 -4,784 2 1 1 1
Danny Peters 190 -4,883 1 1 1 1
Ren Jonsin 155 -4,918 1 0 0 1

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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