Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Coming Clean at Roush Fenway, Cleaning Up NASCAR’s Ratings Decline & More

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:
Beth Lunkenheimer (Tuesdays/Running Your Mouth & Various/Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)
Vito Pugliese (Wednesdays/Voice of Vito)
Mike Neff (Wednesdays/Power Rankings & Wednesdays/Full Throttle)
Jeff Meyer (Wednesdays/Top 10 & Thursdays/Voices From the Heartland)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Kurt Allen Smith (Fridays/Happy Hour)

Continuing a recent trend, the race at Phoenix saw an 18% drop in ratings from over a year ago despite a popular Mark Martin victory. Why are ratings continuing to plummet, and is there any way to stop the trend?

Vito: People can’t pay their cable bill. Seriously, Phoenix is typically an uncompetitive and boring race. The racing this year has been endured, not enjoyed.
Kurt: Reason No. 1: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is running very mediocre-like. Reason No. 2: People don’t like this car and the way it drives. Reason No. 3: It takes seven months just to get to the playoffs, which diminishes the value of individual races.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: Mark Martin's Rise Leaves Dale Earnhardt Jr. Flat on His Face

Amy: Well, night races on the west coast are a pretty stupid idea, for starters. I think it also has something to do with the continuing poor quality of the broadcasts.
Kurt: That was Reason No. 4, Amy.
Vito: I was just going to say… can we throw Digger in there as well?
Beth: Yeah, people don’t want to tune in and see Digger. They’d rather see racing.
Mike: First of all, no one knew the race was on Saturday night. I had three different people ask me today what happened. If they advertised it a little better, they might have had a few more viewers.
Jeff: Or people just don’t care.
Kurt: The start time was also ridiculous this week. Matt McLaughlin is right, the races should be during the day out west.
Amy: There is no reason to have night races west of the central time zone.
Vito: With that late start, it made for a nice lead-in to the Grand Prix of China for Formula 1 though.
Amy: I thought the racing was decent at Phoenix, but I wonder how MRN’s ratings are looking.
Jeff: There isn’t a network out there that you all won’t complain about, so what difference does it make?
Kurt: The race itself wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. It was cool to see Martin win, but I’ll bet a lot of people were asleep by that point.
Vito: The race could have been a barnburner at the end had Kyle Busch been in the mix, but his speeding penalty nixed that.
Mike: That’s very true, Vito. It would have been a hell of a race.
Kurt: I think Kyle saw that No. 5 car he used to drive and overdrove to beat him.
Vito: The way Mark yarded out Tony Stewart on that restart, though, I don’t know if anybody really had anything for him.
Mike: Busch was faster than Stewart.
Vito: .005 seconds too fast. That’s a tough one to swallow. Ironic, because that was the margin of victory he lost by Jamie McMurray to at Daytona in 2007. A gust of wind and he ends up OK.
Amy: At least NASCAR was consistent on the Busch call. They nailed a couple guys for the same or less.
Kurt: I think, to get back to the question, that a completely spec car that is impossible to pass with is not helping the sport. The No. 88 was junk all night until they put him up front in the pits – and then he drove away.
Mike: Passing is possible in the new car – and happening. If ya’ll remember two years ago, we were saying the exact same thing, only there were no passes for the lead on the track. There have been passes for the lead on the track with this new car.
Amy: I agree with Mike. There was passing on Saturday and just because a pass isn’t for the lead doesn’t make it insignificant.
Kurt: But I think that the guy behind has to have a much superior car to get by someone. If you’re only a little better, it’s not going to work. And as for the leaders: you had Kurt Busch and Martin, as well as Junior and Newman who got there by staying out of the pits… that’s pretty much it. And this is at a mile track!
Vito: Take that surfboard off the nose and replace that contraption on the decklid with an actual spoiler. Also, that stupid splitter ruins racing – the crew chiefs have said as much.
Amy: The splitter works fine for trucks. Maybe the crew chiefs need to figure out how to race it. You know, a lot of guys passed a lot of cars last night.
Kurt: What I was saying was that Junior couldn’t pass anyone back in 33rd, but when they put him up front, even on older tires, he drove away from the field. Something’s wrong with that.
Vito: Exactly. Get a car out front in clean air, and you’re the fastest thing in town. Get back in traffic with disturbed air and unless you hit the setup perfectly, you’re stuck.
Mike: I say you take everything off below the bumper, let them run whatever the hell they want on the back, and you’ll see all of the racing in the driver’s hands. But they’ll be pissing and screaming like little babies, even more than they were when the new car came out.
Vito: No, these aren’t trucks. The trucks are twisted and contorted and have suspension travel. These have neither.
Mike: Which is what you had with the old car only you couldn’t pass anyone. At least you have some passing now, even if it isn’t a lot.
Kurt: Plus, no team in the car’s third year can get a consistent handle on it. They can win one week and be junk the next with a 10-degree weather change at similar tracks.
Amy: I have to say that as boring as some races have been, I’ve been more turned off by the poor quality of the race broadcasts. When I’m not at the track covering the race, I don’t watch the pre-race and barely watch the broadcast. I listen on the scanner with the sound way down.
Vito: The pre-race is a miserable endeavor that needs to be curtailed. And when did these guys become Barker’s Beauties? Get some new people in there. The ones they have aren’t exactly compelling people to tune in.
Jeff: You don’t have to watch the pre-race crap, ya know. Just tune in for the race… on mute, of course.
Beth: The drop in ratings can’t really be pinned on just one thing. Bad broadcasts, NASCAR constantly changing rules, and a car that just doesn’t handle all plays in.
Mike: I still think the whole slapstick comedy that they try and call a broadcast is getting old. Give me Bob Jenkins and Ned Jarrett telling it like it is, please.
Jeff: People are tired of the pony show and smoke and mirrors. Even the hardcore fan has been hard pressed to stay interested.
Amy: But the worst part to me was the start time. There should not be night races west of the Mississippi. I mean, how many kids saw the end?
Kurt: On Saturday night, it’s not as bad – but they could start it a little earlier.
Vito: No, they can’t start it too early because as it is, they think it’s a good idea to be driving into the sun for an hour. Speaking of that, get some billboards up there or something, for goodness sakes. That is ridiculous.
Amy: Maybe they should start it before the sun goes down, then.
Mike: They did.
Vito: I was out Saturday night and listened to the first two-thirds of the race on MRN. My God, it was actually interesting! There was something happening! I turn on the TV, and the race is secondary to what the guys in the booth are talking about.
Kurt: It’s ‘cause you don’t have the AllState Good Hands Move, Aflac Trivia Question, Ford Cutaway Car… what’s the new one? Cheez-it Cheesy Move or something? Gimme a break.

With Saturday night’s victory, Martin showed he still has what it takes to win races at an age where most drivers are thinking about retirement. So, how serious a championship contender can he be against drivers half his age?

Vito: As serious as a heart attack. No pun intended.
Kurt: I think Mark can be right there. If he can win in the desert, he can last a season.
Beth: There’s no reason to believe Martin can’t win the championship – and he has the equipment underneath him to do just that.
Mike: Martin is as serious as anyone not named Jimmie Johnson. You still have to beat the champ to be the champ, though, and no one is beating Johnson.
Jeff: My God, when will people stop blithering about age? It’s about the equipment and talent.
Amy: I think he’ll make the Chase, contend, and fall just short. His biggest obstacles are his own teammates.
Vito: Martin has been as fast as anybody out there. His age is a non-factor. He’s had two years to rest up and prepare mentally and physically. There is nobody outside of Carl Edwards who is as conditioned for racing 36 races a year as Martin is.
Jeff: Mark has got the talent, no doubt.
Kurt: There’s no reason why he can’t beat those guys too, Vito. Remember that one needs luck to win a Chase, and if anyone is due….
Vito: True, but everybody’s luck has to run out sometime. Jimmie won No. 3 last year, but only because Edwards had an ignition failure at Charlotte.
Mike: Martin will be right there; but Chad Knaus is better than anyone else in the garage down the stretch.
Kurt: True Mike, but I think Martin proved he knows how to have his car adjusted. He was great all night in very changing conditions at Phoenix.

See also
Mark Martin Breaks His Winless Streak, Wins 2009 Subway Fresh 500 at Phoenix

Mike: Oh, he can make the adjustments. But Knaus is the best during the final 10 and as long as he’s on the box, he’ll have Jimmie at the main table in Vegas.
Amy: Age does play a role, though. After a certain age, you lose reaction time no matter how good of shape you are in. When it comes to a thousandth of a second, a young guy has an advantage. There is a reason why we don’t have several 50-plus champions.
Jeff: You’re right, Amy… but the reason is also corporate sponsorship too.
Vito: I think Martin is the exception to the rule, Amy. He doesn’t make many mistakes, if any. Johnson still spins out by himself sometimes. Like at Las Vegas.
Beth: Mark will be just fine. Age is just a number.
Amy: Eh, I agree with Mike: Johnson is better right now. And so is Gordon.
Kurt: Martin could easily be leading the points right now. He’s had two blown engines and another DNF from a faulty tire.
Vito: I think this first win is the first of many for him this year. He has the pressure off now – did you see Martin in his post-race press conferences and interviews? He was more relieved than anything to finally get over and win one.
Kurt: Agreed, Vito. And he has been in contention in other races. If they ran the whole race at Daytona, he could have won.
Vito: And some of his favorite tracks are coming up in the next few weeks: Richmond, Charlotte, Dover. A rolling stone gathers momentum.
Amy: I think Martin will win a couple more, but he doesn’t really have experience playing the Chase game, and that will hurt him. Not saying he can’t win – because he likely can – but it’s unlikely.
Vito: Uh, yeah he does. He made it every year he was in it from 2004–06.
Kurt: He’s been in the Chase and did well but had some bad luck – like JJ Yeley running into him at Charlotte.
Vito: He would have won it in 2005 had his current teammate, Johnson, not ignited a 30-car pileup in Talladega.
Amy: That was three years ago, Vito
Vito: Yeah… so? The rules are the same… actually, no they aren’t. You get points for winning races now. Come seeding time, he will be sitting pretty decent.
Amy: Shape doesn’t have anything to do with the effects of age on racecar drivers.
Vito: Haha, oh no? Then why does Dale Jr. look like he just ran the Boston Marathon after getting out of a car and Mark isn’t even sweating?
Jeff: The wrinkles channel away the sweat.
Amy: After a certain age your reflexes and reaction time diminish. It has nothing to do with how in shape you are.
Kurt: I do think you need to be in great shape to handle this car for 500 miles.
Mike: The age isn’t a factor. It’s just going to be the experience factor in the end that costs him.
Beth: There are plenty of ways to keep your reflexes and reaction time sharp. Just because someone ages doesn’t mean it dooms them to a slower reaction time.
Vito: If you are worn out you aren’t going to be thinking clearly, your reaction time suffers and you aren’t going to be competitive. We’re talking about a sport that is dictated by tenths of a second here.
Amy: It’s minimal, but thousandths of seconds can make or break a season. Reflexes and reaction time does fade… it’s biological fact.
Jeff: Well then, they ought to just ban anyone over 45 and start a senior series.
Vito: It has everything to do with how you operate. Anybody who says different has never engaged in any sort of competitive sport, on any level. To think so is laughable.
Amy: I’m not saying it doesn’t pay to be in tip-top shape; but no matter how in shape you are, age diminishes certain things.
Vito: It makes you more mean and bitter.
Jeff: I ‘spose that is why Mark drove the Viagra car for so long.
Mike: Jeff said long.
Vito: To me, Martin looks no different than he did 10 years ago. He won an IROC title in 2005 and had the Daytona 500 ripped from him in 2007. I have a hard time believing he has lost much, if anything. His stats prove it.
Mike: He looks like he did 30 years ago. I think he’s Dick Clark in a driving suit.
Kurt: I’m 41 and still can navigate the Jersey Turnpike. If I can do that, Mark can still race.

Jack Roush denied reports last week that McMurray has already been selected as the odd man out when the team is forced to downsize for 2010. Is the writing already on the wall for McMurray, and if it is, should Roush Fenway continue to deny the reports – or should they make an announcement soon?

Kurt: What if he is denying reports because there’s nothing to them? I doubt if Roush has made a decision yet. Why make a move before you’ve had more time to evaluate?
Vito: They are probably holding off, considering the state of the economy and what might happen with their other teams and drivers.
Beth: But Roush has to downsize and get rid of one team. And McMurray simply doesn’t have the numbers to justify keeping him.
Mike: McMurray has sucked since he got into the sport. The writing has been on the wall for years… I still can’t figure out how the guy keeps a job. He should be a model, not a racecar driver.
Amy: The writing should be on the wall. McMurray’s numbers simply don’t support keeping him over a vastly improved David Ragan.

See also
Holding a Pretty Wheel: For Jamie McMurray, the Writing Is on the Wall

Kurt: Ragan hasn’t been very good this year so far. I’m not sure about that.
Vito: Ragan hasn’t looked all that great this year. Then again, none of the Roush cars have impressed. Besides, you know, Matt Kenseth winning back-to-back races.
Kurt: McMurray did well in lesser equipment at Ganassi, so some people still think he could do well.
Mike: Ragan is getting better, McMurray is getting worse. Plain and simple.
Vito: Now do they downsize, or does it become a “Yates” team?
Amy: I think if the team that is cut is simply going to move to Yates, then you wait and make them race for it.
Mike: If you look at it, drivers that leave Ganassi don’t do as well in other equipment. Ganassi equipment is actually pretty good when you get right down to it.
Amy: McMurray was better in Ganassi stuff than he has been at Roush Fenway. His numbers have declined recently, not improved. And he’s 33 years old.
Mike: Just like Casey Mears. His best points finish is with Ganassi.
Vito: McMurray was doing fine as last year came to a close, then he got his old crew chief back and has been running middle of the pack again. What’s the old saying? Do what you’ve always done, get the same results? Well, there you go.
Kurt: It’s not often that a driver’s results change going to a different team, actually.
Jeff: The bottom line here is Jamie is too old, and his reflexes ain’t what they used to be. To keep his job, he will have to pull a rabbit, not out of a hat but somewhere else.
Vito: Mears, there’s another one who gets by on hair and name recognition. Yes, I know, he shaves his head… unless you’re Kyle Busch.
Amy: Ragan is young, marketable and doesn’t have the numbers behind him showing a performance decline.
Kurt: True. McMurray has had more time to prove himself.
Amy: And he hasn’t, Kurt. I like McMurray a lot, but he’s not the caliber of driver that warrants dumping a young talent for.
Kurt: I like McMurray too, and I expect the sponsor wants better results. Roush is right to wait, though… at least until midseason. By the way, it’s a stupid rule.
Jeff: I don’t think many people really care if McMurray goes away.
Mike: McMurray is not getting better, he’s getting worse. Ragan is getting better. Sorry, Jamie; you’re going to be a Yates driver next year.
Beth: If they’re not going to keep Jamie around, they might as well let him know so he can start looking for a new ride.
Amy: McMurray is the logical choice to let go, but if the intent is not to send him and his sponsors to Yates, he should be told so he can look for another ride.

Fans and media alike have lambasted ESPN for their NASCAR Nationwide Series coverage. So what, specifically, can the network do to improve things?

Kurt: Let TNT cover the races.
Mike: Bob Jenkins and Ned Jarrett. They also need to show racing, wherever it is taking place. Like they did in the old days.
Amy: They could start with actually covering the Nationwide Series. The Kyle and Carl show was a joke on Friday.

See also
Talking NASCAR TV: Jump the Shark

Vito: The races are miserable to listen to. I love Jerry Punch, but he was perfect in the pits. Andy Petree also seems disaffected by cars upside down or on fire. At least Tim Brewer has started to trim his fingernails, though.
Kurt: Look, I don’t like that ESPN doesn’t pay attention to Nationwide-only guys, but they’re hardly the only ones: sponsors, teams, Cup drivers. Why should ESPN be any different?
Amy: They pretty much told us everything about the two of them short of what color underwear they had on. Meanwhile, a three-time most popular driver is off track and doesn’t warrant a mention – I had to call him on the phone to find out what happened. And since your average fan can’t do that, the coverage was irresponsible to say the least.
Mike: So what happened?
Amy: With the No. 28 Nationwide team? That had a bad plug wire. Cost them eight laps to diagnose and fix.
Kurt: Nationwide also has a problem the Cup Series has… silly starting times.
Vito: Why is Alan Bestwick languishing in the trailer doing pre-race shows? Why is he not the voice of the network? This seriously needs to be addressed before anything else.
Kurt: I don’t get that either. Vito. TNT replaced him with “you don’t have to look that up” Weber.
Vito: And why is Brad Daugherty qualified to offer his opinion on something? Because he used to own a truck team? Why am I not on the air?
Amy: With his presence, maybe a basketball fan will tune in, thereby allowing NASCAR to call them a NASCAR fan and increase the fanbase.
Vito: Oh that’s right. THE CASUAL FAN! How silly of me! Let’s draw some more parallels….
Kurt: I like Daugherty fine. He doesn’t bother me. But he doesn’t seem to get along with Rusty. Then again, neither did Rusty’s teammates.
Mike: Nobody gets along with Rusty.
Amy: Sometimes I don’t think Rusty gets along with Rusty.
Jeff: Rusty comes across as fake. On the air and in person. The perfect used car salesman.
Vito: As for Daugherty, Brad is legit. He wore No. 43 because he was a Richard Petty fan. He actually isn’t bad. But the guys who should be on the air during the race AREN’T.
Amy: I think the Nationwide Series needs to be broadcast as its own entity, not as Cup Lite. I get my fill of Kyle and Carl on Sunday – there are other drivers in the field. Basically, ESPN need to watch tapes of their Busch Series broadcasts from about 12 years ago, then do it like that.
Kurt: It won’t happen Amy, for the same reason you don’t see many Nationwide-only guys. Everyone involved with NASCAR seems to think the Cup guys are the mainattraction.
Jeff: Well… they are usually running up front.
Vito: Barney Hall, Joe Moore, Alan Bestwick. That would be best team EVER.

Predictions for Talladega?

Jeff: Big crash. I’ll go with David Reutimann.
Amy: I’m going to go with a big rebound for Jeff Gordon.
Kurt: I’m going with Jeff as well.
Beth: I keep thinking Stewart is just so close to that first win as driver/owner. And I’m not giving up on him this week.
Mike: Junior shakes it off to make it four for four for Hendrick.
Vito: Junior. Why not.
Kurt: Why not? Because he’ll have to pit sometime!
Vito: I like the Reutimann pick. “The Franchise….”
Kurt: Out on a limb guy! He’ll call in for a pizza from victory lane.
Jeff: Maybe he will be the “new driver” in the No. 55 next year Robby Gordon spoke of…

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 eight races (and the Shootout) this season, here’s how our experts have fared so far:

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Kurt Smith 8 12 1 3 5
Beth Lunkenheimer 9 -3 8 0 3 3
Amy Henderson 8 -4 9 1 2 4
Tom Bowles 8 -4 4 1 2 2
Bryan Davis Keith 5 -7 8 1 3 3
Mike Neff 5 -7 5 0 2 2
Vito Pugliese 4 -8 6 0 0 4
Jeff Meyer 2 -10 4 0 0 2
Tony Lumbis 0 -12 1 0 0 0
Phil Allaway 0 -12 1 0 0 0
Matt Taliaferro -3 -15 1 0 0 0

About the author

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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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