Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Tony the Title Contender?, a NASCAR-IRL Promotional Blunder & Waltrip Playing Favorites

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)
Bryan Davis Keith (Thursdays/Fantasy Insider & Various/Nationwide Series Reporter)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)

Tony Stewart took home the million-dollar prize in Saturday’s All-Star Race. Does this signal the beginning of a third championship run for Stewart, or is that too much to ask, too soon, for a team without a points win to date?

Bryan: Stewart is a legit title contender, period… and that points win is a matter of when, not if.
Vito: It’s a nice story. Remember though, they haven’t had any bad luck come their way yet. I think they will be a contender in a year or so.
Amy: I also think SHR is a year away. Plus, come Chase time do you really think they will get equal stuff to the other Hendrick boys? That said, Tony Stewart is the best driver in NASCAR, period. He’d be a legit contender in a rusty Pinto.
Beth: I don’t think a championship is out of the question for the team, but it’s just a matter of how well they run in the final 10 races.
Mike N.: Stewart’s win is a big deal, but I don’t know if it signals a championship run. I think he needs to win a few points races first; but his consistency to start the season is impressive, and a win makes him more of a threat.
Bryan: They might not get the “A” equipment they’ve been getting come Chase time, Amy, but the people side of SHR is showing now. Those teams are ridiculously stacked and you can’t understate how much Darian Grubb contributed to that All-Star win.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: Patience Equals Power for Tony Stewart as Both Owner & Driver

Mike N.: Grubb threw everything but the kitchen sink at that car on the last stop and it all worked. He’s been through a championship run before and that certainly helps, but I don’t think they’re quite ready to take it all yet. I will always maintain that Chad Knaus will win the title as long as he wants to.
Vito: It’s amazing what Stewart and Ryan Newman have been able to do in that organization. Call them fifth and sixth Hendrick cars if you want to, they are starting to hit their stride right in the meat of the season.
Amy: I think Stewart can contend but will ultimately fall short, the victim of being a satellite operation. Newman is a year away from being a real contender. Mark Martin‘s team will be thoroughly stacked come September and that has to come at the expense of someone either already in or on the bubble.
Bryan: I will agree that Newman and the No. 39 team still have to prove they can constantly race the intermediates, but Stewart’s team has been rock solid everywhere.
Vito: I don’t even know about that, Bryan. Newman looked pretty competitive Saturday night before he got run up into the wall. If you can run fast at Charlotte, well, there’s your intermediate program.
Bryan: The 600 will tell the tale of the No. 39 team, Vito. Newman has been dreadful in that race, but if they run top 10 I’ll buy they’re onto something.
Mike N.: Interestingly, I think Stewart being a team owner has put him on more of an even keel this year. He seems more relaxed than he has in the past. He was really a hoot after the win Saturday – although winning will do that to people.
Bryan: I agree with you entirely, Mike. Stewart is eerily under control this year. That is bad news for everyone competing with him.
Beth: He’s probably getting a better understanding of what the boss goes through, and at the same time he’s got no one to blame but himself if he makes the wrong decision(s) for his team.
Mike N.: It doesn’t hurt that he is in such stellar equipment.
Vito: And he doesn’t have anyone to answer to, either. I mean, let’s face it, both of the owners are convicted felons. And at least one of them was pardoned. It makes Tony look like a perfect angel!
Bryan: Stewart’s team has gotten through the hard part: the chemistry-building phase. We all know he can drive and now that his crew knows what he wants, it’s all a matter of honing in rather than building up.
Mike N.: That’s true. Their chemistry is lightyears ahead of the No. 88 and those guys have been together since birth.
Amy: Totally off the subject, but I have to say I love their retro logo at SHR.
Vito: It does look pretty cool.
Mike N.: Yeah, I like the way it looks, too. So much of what they do is old school.
Bryan: That’s the biggest thing about Stewart this year: he’s never been this hot to start. The summer is his playground and we’re not even there yet.
Beth: I wouldn’t count them out this year, but I have to agree with what Mike said earlier… that Jimmie Johnson will keep winning those championships as long as Knaus is on top of the pit box.
Amy: These guys, I think, are a year away from really threatening to win a title; but the best driver in the business is in that No. 14, so he could prove me totally wrong at Homestead.
Vito: A great story – total surprise as far as I’m concerned – and a sleeper pick to take the title if there ever was one.

An oft-heard criticism of Saturday’s broadcast was that one voice in the booth was overly biased toward a certain driver on the track. Is that true, and where should race announcers and color commentators draw the line?

Bryan: Yes, it is true. They’re going three-wide for the lead and only one driver is being commented on in the booth – the one sandwiched and being passed twice at once.
Beth: Saturday night wasn’t the first time that has happened, Bryan.
Vito: Yeah, the love-fest needs to be tempered a bit.
Mike N.: That is a difficult question. We don’t want announcers who are robots, but we don’t want them to be total homers, either.
Amy: Ned calling DJ’s Daytona win was awesome and DW calling Mikey’s was great, but DW gushing over Kyle Busch like a schoolgirl with a crush is unprofessional – and kind of sickening.
Vito: In defense of DW, he does usually cheer on the guy who is leading or whoever is challenging for the lead.
Mike N.: I think the play-by-play announcer has to remain totally objective and show no bias. But color guys can have favorites as long as they aren’t over the top with it.
Bryan: I agree with you, Mike, but DW has long crossed that line.
Amy: There are certain guys who could be leading a race while running in reverse and driving with their knees while drinking a beer in each hand and DW wouldn’t find anything good to say about them. And he loves anyone in a Toyota.
Mike N.: I know DW is a little overboard on Kyle, but if Kyle wasn’t winning at all, or contending for wins, then it would be too much.
Vito: He had always been pretty complimentary towards Kurt Busch, too. I remember him always referring to him as, “My wheelman!”
Beth: Actually Vito, DW used to rarely have anything nice to say about Kurt until the team turned around and starting contending for race wins.
Bryan: Again, look at the three-wide episode. Jeff Gordon and Newman both were flying and making Busch look silly, but only Busch is being focused on for having a damaged car and a shot at victory lost.
Amy: Someone wondered if DW had a stake in Michael Waltrip’s team… anyone know for sure?
Bryan: The way DW gushes over David Reutimann, I’d say I’m sure of it.
Mike N.: Well Amy, that goes to a whole other subject of the announcers being affiliated with sponsors. I think that is totally unacceptable.
Vito: Well, DW did kind of find Reutimann and help start his career, but on the topic of announcers having a stake in teams, are Brad Daugherty and Rusty Wallace supposed to remain silent, too? Oh wait, that would be too perfect!
Mike N.: We could only hope, Vito.
Amy: The first thing you learn in Journalism 101 is “No cheering in the press box.”
Bryan: Benny Parsons “found” Greg Biffle but it didn’t sound like he had wood everytime he mentioned the No. 16 car.
Vito: This is exactly why the MRN bunch needs to be calling the races.
Mike N.: Oh my God, if they’d put the MRN guys in the booth, they’d pull a 10 in ratings every week.
Vito: I was driving out of Detroit Saturday night listening to the All-Star Race on the radio… man, I was getting up on the wheel on 696!
Amy: Everyone has a favorite and will comment favorably on them, but for that to happen in the TV booth to the extent it is being allowed is not cool. TV coverage is not an opinion column.
Bryan: Agreed, Amy. This isn’t college football, where every team has their own announcing crew. This is a national sport that has 43 full-time teams. A lot of NASCAR fans don’t want to hear about Kyle every other lap.
Amy: That’s what I mean, Bryan. TV coverage should be as unbiased as possible. An opinion column can be a little more slanted, but the networks have allowed those lines to blur. Especially when in a regular race, there are 5-10 drivers that get no mention at all.
Vito: Well they only show five drivers as it is: Jeff, Jimmie, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle and Carl Edwards.
Mike N.: I think Kyle’s fanbase is growing and growing, so I don’t know that it is totally true – but no one wants to hear non-stop fawning over one driver during a broadcast.
Bryan: And FOX hasn’t done anything about it. ESPN did pull Rusty Wallace’s leash a lot tighter after his first season in the booth. FOX hasn’t done anything like that.
Amy: The size of the fanbase shouldn’t be the whole issue – all drivers have a fanbase.
Mike N.: Kyle has a fanbase and it is getting bigger and bigger. There were a lot of cheers at Watkins Glen last year.
Vito: Yeah, they were glad the race was over. In the meantime, there are so many good stories out there this year of guys having promising runs during races and they barely got a mention. Reutimann, Marcos AmbroseSam Hornish Jr. has been a great story and so has Paul Menard in a couple of races.
Bryan: Don’t forget David Gilliland.
Amy: But the point is, a race broadcast should cover the events on the track and not be a one-man love-fest.
Bryan: Just tell DW to go to the back of the booth for a bit when the Kyle love hits too hard. In the meantime, try and listen to MRN if you can. They’ll teach any crew out there how a race should be called.
Beth: Saturday night wasn’t the first time the focus was centered on one driver and it’s bound to not be the last time either.

With a later start time for the Indy 500 the last few seasons, it’s prevented NASCAR drivers from attempting the Indy-Charlotte double that was so popular earlier this decade. Does not having this promotion in place hurt both series, or is it a necessary evil to ensure that NASCAR doesn’t spoil the IRL’s big day?

Mike N.: I don’t think it matters. Stewart was the only driver who ever attempted it that had a legitimate shot in both races.
Beth: It doesn’t hurt anyone. Both races are a big enough draw on their own.
Bryan: If it hurts anyone, it’s the IRL. It’s not like the 600 lost an influx of drivers because of the time switch – the 500 did.
Vito: It’s silly. NASCAR just needs to push back the start time of the 600. After all, one track has lights, the other doesn’t.

See also
Side by Side: Is the Daytona 500 Now Bigger than the Indy 500?

Beth: The 600 already starts at 5:00 on a Sunday night. That’s going to make for yet another long night.
Amy: I don’t think it hurts anyone. How many did they really lose? Two? Three at most?
Bryan: Not many. The only name out there that would be a big deal is if Stewart wanted to make another go at the 500.
Mike N.: Others doing the double were just for publicity and did not have a real chance to win both. Robby Gordon had a shot at Indy, but not in Charlotte.
Amy: There are three Cup drivers who could contend at Indy any given year. It would only be a publicity stunt for the rest, even if they went.
Mike N.: Stewart and maybe Newman or Robby Gordon might do it. But to really contend you have to put a lot of time in at Indy. Most Cup drivers won’t do that.
Vito: I would like to see ‘The Double’ done once again by somebody, though. I think it would definitely boost the popularity of Indy. Did any of you know when qualifying was this year? They had it on Versus the other day, for Godsake. VERSUS!!!! I’m surprised Man vs. Wild did not pre-empt it.
Amy: Versus has all IRL coverage this year, Vito, and they do one hell of an awesome job, too.
Mike N.: I realize that Amy, but this is INDY. You don’t have Indy on Versus for Bump Day.
Amy: They have exclusive rights, Mike.
Mike N.: Versus had exclusive NHL rights too, didn’t they? But they still shared with network TV.
Amy: That’s assuming the networks wanted to cover Bump Day.
Vito: Versus had hockey after it came back and nobody cared. It is not a network one aspires to be on. Heck, even CBS carries the ALMS and Grand Am races.
Amy: But in any case, I don’t think not having The Double hurts either series significantly.
Mike N.: I don’t either. It is a novel thing, and would be cool if they had someone do it with Air Force sponsorship. Or the Marine Corps.
Vito: That’s the issue: nobody really cares anymore about Indy. Say what you will, but where would it have been the last few years without Danica Patrick to garner some attention? N now that her act has grown old, even less people care.
Amy: Danica, the Kyle Busch of the IRL.
Vito: …minus the wins.
Amy: I will say this to the comment about the significance: If I ever go to a race at Indianapolis, it sure as hell won’t be in August.
Bryan: It’s not going to hurt anyone, the 500 is huge and the 600 has plenty of star power without adding an influx of IRL guys that wouldn’t stand a chance in Charlotte.
Mike N.: I think The Double is a novel idea, but it doesn’t really have any importance unless the driver has a legit shot at winning both races.
Vito: NASCAR needs to push the start-time on the 600-miler back a bit so the Cup guys have a shot at it. It would serve Indy well (they have to keep the 500 start time alone since they’re begging for viewers and need to get as many on the West Coast as they can).
Bryan: The question is, Vito, would IRL let NASCAR do that? I could almost see them pushing the 500 back to 2:00 p.m. if they moved the 600 back.
Amy: The problem with that is, you have the 600 ending at like 2:00 a.m. if you push back too far.
Vito: Hey, Charlotte has lights, Indianapolis doesn’t. And there is nothing more obnoxious and irritating than an Indy car. They are ear-piercingly loud and satisfying.
Bryan: I know, guys… but I don’t think they should push the 600 back. I’m saying that if NASCAR did that, IRL would respond.
Mike N.: Well, I for one don’t think they should push the 600 back. A big part of the intrigue is the transition from day to night.

After a second-place finish Friday night, Kyle Busch is complaining that Chevys have a horsepower advantage in the Truck Series. Is this a case of a superstar crying over spilled milk or does the tapered spacer need to be revisited in both the Nationwide and Truck series?

Amy: Pucker up, Kyle, those are some sour grapes you’re sucking.
Vito: The tapered spacer needs to be jettisoned in both series.
Bryan: Toyota is the last manufacturer out there that should be complaining about horsepower.
Beth: Well, the tapered spacer should never have been put in place to begin with.
Vito: I thought Kyle was awesome enough to overcome any horsepower disadvantage.
Bryan: Yeah, so did I. Remember when they adjusted the NNS one at ORP last year and he joked that “it cost me the pole?”
Mike N.: I don’t know about in the Nationwide Series, but in the Trucks I think it might be worth visiting. As boxy as those trucks are, the lack of horsepower is a real disadvantage.
Beth: And I don’t know what kind of horsepower disadvantage he’s got since he was able to run up through the field after being sent to the back… twice.

See also
Tracking the Trucks: 2009 North Carolina Education Lottery 200 at Charlotte

Mike N.: How many Truck wins does Toyota have since they put in the smaller spacer?
Bryan: Well, they did win the title Mike. And Toyota has taken four of six wins this year!
Mike N.: I thought they were chasing the Chevys more than that.
Beth: Well, they were just a bit last season, Mike. Toyota won four, and Chevy won five after they put in the tapered spacer.
Amy: Kyle Busch just needs to quit whining when he doesn’t win everything he enters. He’s not the only driver out there that got beat by the best on Friday.
Vito: Yeah, that act is getting real old, really fast. “I just want to win!” Well, no kidding!
Mike N.: I don’t think that is an act. Kyle hates losing more than Stewart.
Vito: I know it’s not an act, but it’s his act.
Mike N.: OK, I stand corrected.
Amy: Everyone hates losing, Mike. When you stomp off and bitch and whine about it, you’re just being childish. He reminds me of a spoiled 3-year-old throwing a tantrum because he didn’t get a cookie.
Vito: The best is when he RUNS away. Like it’s that big of a deal.
Bryan: Kyle was seeking an excuse. The fact is that his crew didn’t cost him that win… he made that gap up. He lost because he ran all over Colin Braun for no reason. And he got his trophy on Sunday when he won the Camping World Series race at Iowa. Baby got his bottle.
Beth: He lost because he didn’t have the fastest truck at the end. He was able to race back through the field twice, but Ron Hornaday and Rick Ren figured something out on that last stop. The result probably would have been different had Busch restarted in front of Hornaday on that final restart.
Amy: He is good, but he’s not the be-all, end-all… and there are drivers just as good who don’t stomp off and cry when they lose.
Beth: We get the point Amy – Kyle whines a lot. But he’s still a damn good Truck racer.
Amy: So are Hornaday and Johnny Benson and Mike Skinner and Todd Bodine… and the list goes on.
Beth: I get the point. But what do those four drivers you mentioned have in common that Kyle Busch doesn’t? Age. He’s still just a kid.
Amy: I am so sick of that excuse. Brian Vickers and Reed Sorenson are young and don’t act like spoiled brats. To moan about Chevy having an advantage after Toyota has won three-quarters of the races this year is nothing more than sour grapes.
Mike N.: Vickers and Sorenson suck compared to Kyle Busch.
Vito: Reed Sorenson looks like he’s happy just to be awake.
Bryan: Back to the original question, Toyota is not hurting for engine power. Skinner led a number of laps as did Bodine on Saturday, and he lost to a championship-title truck squad that happens to know a lot about chassis as well as horsepower. So, Kyle needed an excuse on Friday night because he lost a race he in all likelihood could have won. There is no issue with the engine packages in the Trucks. Done and done.
Beth: I was shocked Busch admitted his mistake before he whined about the horsepower.
Vito: I have an idea: Put them on a chassis dyno! Then we’ll know if we can tell him to shut up or not.
Mike N.: And I still don’t think that was rough driving. It was a mistake, but it wasn’t rough driving.
Bryan: Absolutely, Mike.
Beth: I agree completely, Mike. There was no reason for that penalty.
Bryan: No need for the penalty at all, though I think Braun should have smacked Kyle upside the head for doing something like that.
Beth: Now that I would have paid to see!
Bryan: Here’s all the proof you need on this issue: Busch has won as many Truck races as Chevrolet total as a manufacturer. They don’t need a horsepower boost.
Mike N.: By the way, Kyle’s winning percentage in Trucks is higher than all of the drivers you mentioned, Amy.
Amy: Mike, that’s kind of irrelevant. Of course, your percentage is going to be lower if you run full-time and don’t cherry-pick races. But someone in some series is eventually going to get sick of taking Busch’s “part the waters, here I come” attitude and punt him into next week. And while he might deserve it, I sure hope it doesn’t cost him in the form of an injury.
Mike N.: He cherry-picks with a team that doesn’t run up front when he’s not in the seat, though.
Amy: Add in that those guys have been running the series for years, and percentage becomes insignificant.
Mike N.: If they’re that good, it should not be insignificant.
Beth: Um, actually, you forget about Brian Ickler‘s top-five finish at Kansas when Busch wasn’t there, Mike.
Bryan: And last season Shane Sieg had some good runs in that No. 51, too.
Amy: I was going to say the same thing.
Mike N.: I’m not saying they totally suck, but don’t compete for wins when he’s not in the seat.
Amy: That’s a good team and they have been around, many of them together for a long time.
Vito: It must be a sign of the apocalypse when Kyle Busch comprises the theme to half of our Mirror Driving output.
Beth: The one race Busch hasn’t run this season was Ickler’s debut – is he supposed to go up and win his first race? He hadn’t run a single lap in the series until that one. I’d say fifth was pretty outstanding for a debut.
Mike N.: I agree it was really great, I’m just saying that team doesn’t contend for wins when Busch isn’t in the seat.
Amy: True, and for the record, Kyle finished ninth in his Truck Series debut in a Roush truck, lower than Ickler.
Vito: Yeah, but did he have a driver’s license at that time?
Mike N.: I don’t believe he did. I think he was 15.
Amy: He was 16. That was the minimum age at the time.

Time to move on… predictions for the Coca-Cola 600?

Amy: I’m going to say Stewart backs up his All-Star win with a points victory.
Beth: There is no way I’m betting against Stewart right now. Besides, I said I was going to keep picking him until he won – and I meant a points race.
Bryan: Stewart is tempting, but I’m going with Jeff Gordon.
Vito: Martin. He’s at his favorite track, and he’s on a roll.
Mike N.: I’m going with Johnson. I know that’s weak, but Chad was pissed off Saturday night. They’re going to come back with a vengeance.
Amy: The No. 48’s luck has been horrendous lately. Until Jimmie stops peeing in the Luck Fairy’s Cheerios, it’s not happening.
Mike N.: Did you watch the first 50 laps the other night? He was flying!
Amy: Did you watch the last 50?
Bryan: You Hendrick lovers… seriously.

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 11 races, the Bud Shootout, and the All-Star Race this season, here’s how our experts have fared so far:

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Beth Lunkenheimer 17 12 1 5 6
Tom Bowles 14 -3 6 1 4 4
Kurt Smith 13 -4 11 2 4 6
Amy Henderson 9 -8 13 1 4 6
Mike Neff 8 -9 8 0 3 4
Vito Pugliese 7 -10 8 0 1 5
Bryan Davis Keith 6 -11 11 1 4 4
Tony Lumbis 0 -17 1 0 0 0
Phil Allaway 0 -17 1 0 0 0
Jeff Meyer -2 -19 7 0 0 2
Matt Taliaferro -3 -20 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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