Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Grading NASCAR in 2009, Why Kvapil’s Cryin’ & Pushing for a Pension Fund

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?)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Tuesdays/Running Your Mouth & Various/Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)
Mike Neff (Wednesdays/Power Rankings & Wednesdays/Full Throttle)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Kurt Allen Smith (Fridays/Happy Hour)

Four races in, how would you grade the 2009 Cup season to date? And what, if anything, can be done to make things better?

Kurt: Hmmm. Well, we didn’t have much of a Daytona 500 and Atlanta wasn’t a bad one. But the rest of the season has been average – with sprinkles of good racing thrown in.
Beth: Overall, the racing seems slightly better than last season, but that’s about it. Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely more passing in the pack; but once the leader gets out front, he tends to drive away from the rest of the field.
Tom: I’d have to give it a C- so far. And that’s being slightly generous. Other than the racing at Vegas, I think the fans are really frustrated with a number of different things.
Mike: I’d give it a solid B. I think there has been more passing, and the cars are faster. Interestingly, engine reliability has been more suspect for a lot of teams than in the past.
Kurt: Not ready for a B yet, Mike. Not until we make up for Daytona.
Amy: I’m going to give it a solid C. Strictly average – and that’s being generous, because the Vegas race was decent and Atlanta was OK.
Tom: I was really happy with both the crowd and the racing at Vegas. Atlanta? Not sure how I feel. Is everyone nearly crashing every lap the type of racing we want?
Mike: I think trying to wreck every lap is good. That means they’re driving on the edge. Isn’t that what we want?
Tom: I think that’s what we want at Darlington, Mike. But the fans are itching for some side-by-side action, and these cars just can’t stay side-by-side for a sustained amount of laps. And California and Daytona, well, NASCAR lost out on those races for different reasons. Daytona – it was bad timing. California – it was the timing of actually showing up to race.
Amy: Daytona was a total disappointment and California was California.
Mike: I actually don’t mind California and Michigan, but I know I’m in the minority.

See also
The Yellow Stripe: Who's No. 1? Listing the 10 Best NASCAR Tracks in the Cup Series Today

Kurt: You know, you’re going to have good and bad races in every season. It’s kind of early yet. I’m with Beth, though; the car out front just dominates too much.
Tom: I’m probably being a little harsher than what I truly believe because of all the negative criticism I’ve gotten in my inbox from fans – trust me, people are mad. I will say the racing at Vegas is coming in rather nicely, that’s a bright spot. It’s just too bad we couldn’t have finished out Daytona because that would have been such a great race to the end. But rules are rules, and rain comes back to bite you sometimes.
Kurt: The fans haven’t been made any happier with anything happening this year, Tom.
Beth: And you can tell just from the double-digit drop in ratings for Atlanta.
Amy: That’s part of it, Kurt: NASCAR has done nothing for the fans lately.
Mike: I think there have been several instances of cars running side-by-side for multiple laps. Maybe just not at the front. But we have had on-track passes for the lead, which is what everyone was bitching about before.
Tom: OK guys, here’s the litmus test for everyone: Name one moment so far that left you with hair standing up at the back of your neck. Truly, 110% excited.
Amy: OK, there was almost one, then NASCAR screwed up and forgot they had a red flag in their arsenal.
Kurt: Well, the green-white-checkered at Atlanta came closest, but not quite.
Beth: The finish of the race in Atlanta was good. There were three guys that could have won that race.
Mike: “Say goodnight, Gracie.” I thought it was awesome seeing Kyle Busch blow by those guys at Vegas.
Tom: Yeah, Vegas and the Bud Shootout come the closest for me. Some of the racing in the Shootout I thought was fantastic. The drivers were much looser, more aggressive than they were in the 500. That’s what made me so mad about Daytona. Leading up to the Sunday race, I really thought we were going to have some great storylines. But the rain wound up messing with everything.
Mike: And we all know the late start was to blame for that, Tom, but that’s a whole other discussion.
Kurt: You know, I think a lot of times it depends who a fan’s favorite driver is. A favorite driver winning is always exciting.
Amy: That’s true, to an extent.
Kurt: Between the Nos. 24 and 88 only winning one between them last year, I’m not surprised a lot of people didn’t like the racing.
Beth: That’s a valid point, Kurt.
Tom: Well, here’s the reason I brought up the whole excitement question – because there’s just not a whole bunch of excitement surrounding the sport as a whole right now. No “Kevin Harvick vs. Greg Biffle” type moment that’s got everybody talking. We haven’t had a first-time winner in almost two years. The races have been average so far and I think fans are looking for a spark.
Beth: I think we’re all looking for a spark, Tom.
Amy: But a good race is a good race, it doesn’t matter who wins.
Kurt: I just think that this year we’re seeing that while there are still a lot of fans, quite a few of them are gone for good.
Tom: And thus, the ratings are down almost 15%. That’s a lot for one full season, guys.
Kurt: And they have been steadily dropping, too.
Mike: I don’t know why the ratings are down (cough) DIGGER (cough).
Kurt: Digger certainly doesn’t help with people already annoyed with FOX and its coverage.
Amy: And until NASCAR gets their head out of the sand and makes the schedule to favor tracks that race well instead of market well, it’s only going to get worse.
Kurt: True, Amy. Too many tracks are too similar.
Tom: I think the fact there’s no new blood at the front is really hurting the sport, too. Although I agree with the point about the racetracks. So many people are simply looking forward to racing at Bristol this weekend.
Mike: All NASCAR needs to do is have one race per track, per year. Spread it out to other venues and put them back on dirt. You’ll see the ratings explode.
Kurt: With all of this being said, I’m not “not” enjoying anything. I still like when all the other BS stops and the races start. We may have a barnburner or two this year.
Amy: I agree, Kurt. But by the time the pre-race is over, most people are already sick of the broadcast. Save the airtime until after the race instead so they can interview more than three guys.
Mike: No pre-race should be over half an hour. And a good one would be 20 minutes. There just isn’t that much new stuff from one week to the next, and 15 minutes of Digger is ridiculous.
Tom: I do think the pre-race coverage for all networks has always done a great job of trying to connect the driver to the average fan. In the end, though, the fan doesn’t tune in to see the driver’s personality. They tune in to see him work magic on the racetrack, and if he’s just a part of a single-file parade, it gets boring.
Kurt: This car is so difficult to pass with, and it’s obvious watching a race.
Mike: I haven’t seen a single file parade this year. Just not much dueling at the front.
Tom: Overall, the quality of racing on all fronts is what brings people back to the TV set. Look at how the Truck Series ratings are up – and that’s with Busch creating a stinker out in California even. Those trucks are capable of racing side-by-side consistently, even up front.
Mike: Not in the corners, they aren’t. They spin out faster than Sam Hornish Jr. if they’re side-by-side in the corners.
Beth: Well, Busch put on quite a show in Atlanta, coming back from ninth without second or third gear.
Amy: I just think the Cup season has been disappointing. I attribute most of that to the schedule, and the rest to the ridiculous hype that no race can possibly live up to.
Kurt: I think this new car has caused real problems, but I also think people like the racing better when their guy wins. The Busch brothers and Matt Kenseth don’t sell.
Mike: It’s getting better. The teams are learning the cars, and Goodyear is getting better tires. Give it time and we’ll get there.
Tom: I’m really looking forward to Goodyear phasing in a new tire. That hasn’t been mentioned enough, and I really think it’s going to help these cars. That’s been a problem we’ve discussed several times: the different ways this car pushes weight around just doesn’t mesh well with the current tire.
Kurt: The big tire right, Tom? Like that Uniroyal Tire Statue size?
Amy: Or the one that fell on Kasey Kahne‘s car.
Mike: Monster Truck tires?
Kurt: Monster Truck Sprint Cup Racing! SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY!
Amy: Look, the tire is a huge problem for sure – but we don’t get new ones until when, 2011?
Tom: Overall, I will say the best non-restrictor plate race this year – as frustrating as it was to watch at times – was the Nationwide Series one at Vegas. That was wild. Cars on edge, spinning out, crazy action, you didn’t know what was going to happen next. That is the good thing about the parts failures coming back into the sport; there’s some unpredictability there, which leads to suspense even if a guy is running up front.
Mike: Very true, Tom.
Kurt: I thought that was a terrible race. Three red flags?
Amy: See, Kurt, I thought that was the best race this season so far except for trucks.
Mike: I’d rather see red flags than 15-lap caution periods.
Beth: I agree, Mike. I don’t want to see laps wasting away for an extensive cleanup.
Kurt: I’m in the minority on that one. I don’t like when the best drivers in the world all spin out in the same race. Something’s wrong with that.
Tom: I agree with Kurt that the red flags were frustrating, but the quality of racing was good. See, here’s the difference, Mike. You asked me before what the difference was between the CoT going all wobbly at Atlanta. Well, when the Nationwide cars were on edge at Vegas, they didn’t look like they were all over the place, they looked like they were racing smooth. The CoT car, when the handling’s ugly… it looks ugly. You know it, you can see it and it makes it more difficult to watch.
Mike: I enjoy seeing the drivers struggle for control. But when they look all wobbly, the drivers know it and are ready for it. When it just suddenly breaks loose, they can’t anticipate and they wreck. That’s not so good for them.

Travis Kvapil and Aric Almirola are in serious jeopardy of having their rides evaporate over the next few weeks after strong starts. Are they victims of organizations that should have given them more support, or do their poor starts justify what would be an early end to their 2009 Cup seasons?

Tom: Eh, I think Kvapil got the shaft. But it’s way too late to undo that damage now.
Kurt: No one wants to sponsor Kvapil because they can’t spell his name.
Amy: It’s a Catch-22. If you don’t run well, you can’t find sponsorship, and if you can’t find sponsorship, you can’t afford to run.
Beth: That’s just it, Amy. These teams cost a lot of money to run, and without that money, you’re just not going to make it.
Tom: Here’s the thing, though, Kvapil did run well last year. Four top-10 finishes and 23rd in the points was a clear improvement for a team that had patchwork funding.
Amy: But Kvapil’s not “marketable.” You have to look good on TV, too.
Mike: It is a product of today’s racing, apparently. I can’t figure out how Yates did it all last year with less money than they have this year, and now they’re folding it in so early.
Kurt: It’s a shame for both of these guys – I like them both – but it’s the reality of the sport right now.
Amy: Almirola has never had enough of a shot to impress anyone. But I think both of them will land somewhere.
Mike: Almirola has had some good runs. He’s just been in crap equipment.
Tom: The potential’s there for Aric, but that’s another driver who needed Nationwide for at least another year. The funny thing is for him, it’s absolutely the opposite situation than Kvapil. The guy’s marketable, he just hasn’t backed it up with talent at the Cup level consistently yet.
Beth: And I think that’s part of it too, Tom. These young guys are brought up to Cup way too quickly and then they end up disappointing after all the hype.
Mike: Kvapil is a hell of a driver. I can’t figure out why he’s not getting sponsorship. The guy is a good spokesperson and an average Joe, unlike many of the plastic men who are in well-funded rides.
Tom: Mike, he won the pole and had a car capable of winning Talladega last year before the big wreck.
Kurt: Kvapil is very good at protecting his equipment, so I’m also surprised that he has trouble with a sponsor. He ran better than anyone else in a Yates car last year, did he not?
Mike: He did amazing stuff with an underfunded team. And now this year, they’re going to pull the plug after five races. That just doesn’t make sense. They have two sponsors this year; last year, they had about a half of one.
Tom: The irony is that some of Kvapil’s sponsors went straight to the Yates… err, “Hall of Fame” team of Bobby Labonte this year. Kvapil was sponsored by Academy, and it suddenly went straight to Labonte.
Amy: Well, there is a certain allure to having your name stitched on the uniform with a patch that says “champion” on it.
Mike: Is Kvapil ahead of Paul Menard in points?

See also
Did You Notice? DNFs Are a Good Thing, NASCAR Needs a Senior Tour and Menard's Mediocrity?

Beth: Nope. Kvapil is 40th, Menard is 38th.
Tom: He’s just 55 behind Menard, though, despite missing a race. Menard at times has shown flashes of potential talent. But Daddy can’t support him forever… kid’s gotta pick it up.
Kurt: Menard was actually pretty good in the Busch Series. I thought he’d be decent in Cup.
Amy: I think that was as good as he was ever going to get.
Mike: Menard is a decent young racer, but Kvapil is better, and a series champion at that.
Tom: What’s interesting is I never thought of Menard as a guy who tears up equipment. But he’s looked like he forgot how to drive these things ever since he stepped foot in a Yates car.
Amy: He was never good enough to run at the top in Cup.
Kurt: And when he keeps a ride because of his father, it kind of looks bad. It’s not that he hasn’t earned it, but he isn’t showing it.
Tom: Back to Kvapil for a sec. People will look at his results this season and say, “Oh well, he deserves to get canned. He started off struggling.” But what they don’t know is he got his whole team torn apart.
Kurt: Kinda like Jeremy Mayfield at Evernham?
Tom: You got it, Kurt. Menard and Labonte got the “A” team and he was left with a ragtag bunch of leftovers. Heck, Ben Leslie never officially left his old job at Ford when he came over to be the crew chief.

See also
Don't Let the Owner Tag Fool You: Jeremy Mayfield Still a Driver First

Mike: I think if you give Kvapil a year of learning from Labonte, he’ll be better than 60% of the field.
Beth: That’s gotta count for something, Mike.
Mike: It should. Kvapil is a really good driver. I’d love to see him land a sweet ride like the one Casey Mears is currently stinking up the track with.
Kurt: You know, even this being the sad thing that it is, we have had full fields this year, which we didn’t expect. Some guys are losing their rides – but more guys have rides than we thought.
Mike: That isn’t going to last much longer, Kurt. Mayfield and Scott Riggs are about done – and Joe Nemechek is hurting.
Kurt: Well, we say that… but who knows?
Tom: Kurt, you take Mayfield, Riggs, the No. 28, and the No. 8 out of the equation and we’re down to 41 cars.
Mike: Kvapil is looking to be out of a ride, and Almirola might be right behind him. I think the full fields may be tougher to come by soon.
Kurt: Well, hopefully something will work out for these guys. I’m pulling for them.
Tom: I feel so terrible for Nemechek. I remember back at Daytona, he had the decals of his primary sponsor sitting in his hauler. All he was doing was waiting for the check… and it never came.
Kurt: You know, it’s a can of worms, but how does that four-car team limit look now?
Mike: Just means Jamie McMurray will be running for Yates next year.

Over the last couple of years, it has come to light that many of NASCAR’s early drivers and crewmen are struggling to make ends meet in their retirement. What, if anything, should NASCAR step in to do?

Kurt: Have an old timer’s day.
Mike: Try and help them out, for goodness’ sake. These guys gave their heart and soul for the sport, and they’re hurting right now.
Tom: This is where some type of drivers’ or crew union would be helpful. But I don’t think it’s the type of thing that would ever take off.
Amy: There needs to be a pension fund or foundation or something.
Beth: If NASCAR steps in now, they’re really going to have to step in for everyone – not just some. But they should definitely help them out. Shoot, with penalty money doled back out to the drivers, put that money into some sort of pension or fund.
Tom: Well again, it’s a sticky situation for NASCAR because these teams and crews are private contractors. I think the only way to solve this problem is for the crew guys to bond together and help them. But a union would be very, very difficult to achieve in this environment.
Mike: Well, today’s drivers should do things, like Kyle Busch did, and give some money to them; or better yet, start a fund.
Kurt: I’m not sure what to do. Does NASCAR really owe them anything? I mean it would be nice, but I don’t think they’re obligated. If I were one of those people, I think I might be embarrassed by that. AND unions are the reason baseball tickets are $40 a pop today. Not that players weren’t getting screwed – but it’s gotten out of hand.
Tom: Just think about what would happen if NASCAR established a pension fund. What would the criteria be? How many times would you have had to “work” on pit road to get a pension? And does that violate their whole private contractor theory?
Amy: Why not use the fine money for it? At least it would be something.
Beth: That’s what I’m saying, Amy. The drivers don’t need to be given that money back.
Tom: This problem is not unique to NASCAR, by the way. The new NFL Players’ Association President came out and said right away there are a lot of former players suffering in their sport as retirees. And that sport actually has a union and a completely different setup. So I don’t think anyone’s found the perfect solution.
Amy: Today’s drivers and crews are different. They make enough to invest or save in most cases; but back in the day, a good year meant you made five grand.
Kurt: I don’t know. If NASCAR made some gesture, they should be applauded for it. I would acknowledge it.
Amy: I agree. NASCAR’s PR is so bad these days, it wouldn’t hurt to do something good to change that.
Tom: One other thing to consider is that these crew guys are employed by car owners. It’s hard, because a lot of those old owners are out of business; but for stable companies like Roush, Hendrick, Gibbs… could they create a fund for their retirees?
Kurt: You’ve got a point, Tom – they’re kind of the direct employers. A pension fund doesn’t seem out of the question.
Amy: Perhaps today, those companies have the money, but 40 or 50 years ago, they didn’t. Drivers like Sam Ard made a lot less in their careers than the ones today do – and that was only 20 years ago.
Kurt: But what happens that makes these guys struggle? In the NFL, you hear stories about guys selling their Super Bowl rings for drugs. I’m not interested in helping someone who got himself in that situation.
Tom: And that’s what makes it so difficult, Kurt. In helping a person from the past, you can’t do something that jeopardizes everyone’s future.
Beth: I agree, but I think the point is these guys who raced in NASCAR years ago didn’t make nearly the kind of money the drivers make today.
Amy: I’m thinking Suitcase Jake Elder wasn’t hawking his stuff for drugs.
Kurt: Well, we don’t make a heck of a lot of money either, but we know that going in. I’m not trying to be mean – but I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do about it.
Beth: That’s why we have retirement funds and 401k accounts (such as they are right now). But I can’t imagine that was on the minds of these guys racing 20-plus years ago.
Amy: Again, why not use the fine money to start a fund? The NASCAR Foundation makes loads with events anyway.
Kurt: NASCAR could use the fine money for a pension fund and I wouldn’t have a problem with it.
Tom: Well, it’s a real gray area in where you draw that line. I think that’s what Kurt’s getting at in terms of who you help. But donating fine money is a terrific idea. There’s no better charity than helping out those of your own in need.
Kurt: And I think that would be a nice gesture from a sport that does show a tendency to forget the past.

Three races in, Brendan Gaughan stands out as a big surprise in the Nationwide Series standings in third, just 108 points behind leader Carl Edwards. Does he have the resources to contend for a title, or do the Nationwide-only teams still have no chance with 10 or 11 Cup guys still in the field each week?

Amy: Brendan is an underrated driver, but when it is all said and done, he doesn’t have a chance.
Kurt: I think it’s doubtful. Although there are fewer Cup guys rolling full-time this year, aren’t there?
Beth: Gaughan has some talent and is certainly holding his own, but in the end it comes down to the financial backing of the Cup guys.
Amy: Exactly. Brad Keselowski couldn’t get it done in better stuff last year, and RWI won’t get it done this year – through no fault of its own.
Tom: I still think the Cup guys have too many resources for the others to compete, but I am pleased that the numbers have gone down a bit this year. We’re only looking at 10-12. I know people still groan at that but it was 25 at some races two years ago. Of those 10-12 in each race, I only think about four or five are running for the championship, too.
Amy: There should be no Cup drivers in Nationwide full-time, period, but that’s another story. It will be 15-20 Cuppers at some races this year, and that’s four or five too many.
Beth: It’s definitely an improvement, but still too many to give the Nationwide teams an actual chance.
Kurt: We’ve discussed this a few times. I don’t like Nationwhackers, but I don’t know what to do about it. Maybe the Bobby Hamilton Jr.s who aren’t happy about it could just start taking matters into their own hands, so to speak.
Tom: But do they? I think Gaughan is one of the better-positioned Nationwide guys to do some damage. The RWI equipment has always been good, it’s just been the drivers that have… well, let’s just say talent often skips a generation.
Kurt: So you’re saying Steve Wallace isn’t a future champion, Tom?
Tom: Umm… with about another 8-10 years behind the wheel, he could develop. But that’s an awful lot of patience. Seriously, in my eyes this is a make or break year for Wallace. People don’t get as much time as he has to prove himself these days.
Amy: Steve would make a great drag racer. He can go real fast in a straight line. It’s when you add corners you have issues.
Tom: He would! That’s so true.
Kurt: I’m not sure why he doesn’t do better drinking that 5-Hour Energy stuff.
Tom: As for Gaughan, I think he feels like he has something to prove outside of the Truck Series. I got the impression that by the end of his second go round there, he had the whole “been there, done that” thing on his mind. This guy wants to make it up to Cup – he’s motivated and he’s got some decent backing behind him. A championship is probably out of the question, but I could see him giving Cup guys a run for their money at some races. After all, he used to be a Cup guy.
Kurt: Do you see Gaughan ever getting another Cup shot, Tom?
Tom: He could get in a mid-pack car and have a shot.
Kurt: Yeah, but he didn’t do much in the No. 77 car. Then again, no one has. It’s like I said last year, there are so many Cup drivers in Nationwide that there is no great place to develop talent. That goes to what Tom said about no new blood in the front of the Cup races. I mean, the rookies were all coming from open wheel for a while.
Tom: Justin Allgaier might have a chance to make something of himself. Verizon is throwing a lot of money out there – but that’s pretty much it.
Kurt: I don’t see a championship happening for Gaughan. I think Allgaier is great, though, and I can’t wait to see him in Cup.

Predictions for Bristol?

Tom: Bristol? Hmmm… I think it’s pretty wide open. You know, I’m going to go with Kurt Busch to go back-to-back. He’s won there more times than anyone else this decade, and we all know that pedigree of the No. 2 car at Bristol.
Mike: Gimme Kurt Busch.
Kurt: I’m gonna go with, uh… hmm…
Beth: I think Bristol is going to come down to two five-time winners: Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon duking it out. But in the end, Kurt has the momentum coming off a dominating win in Atlanta and will come out on top.
Amy: I agree. Kurt wins.
Kurt: I’m gonna go with Clint on this one.
Tom: Hey, who do you guys think wins the Saturday Night Shootout? I’m gonna say the late entry, Cale Yarborough, gets it done. That’ll be a fun race to see – I’m definitely glad ESPN2 is televising it. Maybe a preface to some sort of senior tour?
Beth: Other drivers expected to compete are Harry Gant, David Green, Jack Ingram, Junior Johnson, Terry Labonte, Sterling Marlin, LD Ottinger, Phil Parsons, David Pearson, Jimmy Spencer and Rusty Wallace.
Amy: That will be fun – almost worth going up to Bristol for. I say Cale.
Beth: I’ll go with Yarborough, too.
Kurt: I’m going with Pearson. This can help with these guys’ pensions!

Mirror Predictions 2009

Welcome to our third consecutive year of Mirror Predictions! Each week, our experts take the end of this column to tell us who the winner of each Cup race will be. But as we all know, predicting the future is difficult if not completely impossible… so how do you know which writer you can trust when you put your own reputation (or money) on the line?

That’s why we came up with our Mirror Predictions Chart. The scoring for this year is simple:

Prediction Scoring
+5 – Win
+3 – Top 5
+1 – Top 10
0 – 11th-20th
-1 – 21st-30th
-2 – 31st-40th
-3 – 41st-43rd

Through three races (and the Shootout) this season, here’s how our experts have fared to date:

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Kurt Smith 4 4 0 1 3
Bryan Davis Keith 3 -1 5 1 2 3
Tom Bowles 3 -1 1 0 1 1
Vito Pugliese 3 -1 5 0 0 3
Mike Neff 2 -2 2 0 1 1
Jeff Meyer 2 -2 3 0 0 2
Amy Henderson 0 -4 5 0 0 2
Matt Taliaferro -3 -7 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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