Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Gauging the Importance of Indy While Sorting Out Title Contenders in Cup, Nationwide & Trucks

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)
Bryan Davis Keith (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans & Sundays/Nationwide Series Breakdown)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)

With the season just past the halfway point, who looks to be the favorite to win the Sprint Cup championship? Also, who’s your darkhorse… and who is the biggest disappointment to date?

Bryan: It will be a Hendrick-backed car, and I don’t see anyone outside of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart having a realistic shot.
Amy: As of this moment, I’m thinking the title could come down to Smoke and Mark Martin, though there is none better in the Chase than Johnson – so I think it’s one of those three.
Vito: The favorite in my mind is still the No. 48. The biggest darkhorse (but not really) is Martin. The biggest disappointment… either Jeff Burton or Kyle Busch. Take your pick.

See also
Voice of Vito: Déjà Vu to You, Too - Hendrick Teams Virtually Guaranteed 2009 Sprint Cup Title

Beth: I would have to agree with you, Vito. Mark has been on a roll this season, but this is a contest all its own. Johnson and Chad Knaus have the Chase figured out and they’ll probably be the ones to take the trophy home once again this year.
Bryan: Mark has been inconsistent with his finishes; that’s the only reason I don’t see him as a title threat. When the No. 5 team is on, though, man are they on.
Vito: They’re hot right now and showing no signs of slowing down, either. He could easily win two or three more before the year is out. Honestly, though, I picked him to fall out of the top 12 and I did so in print about three weeks ago, so I have proof.
Amy: As much as I loathe to say it, Kurt Busch is my darkhorse.
Beth: I’m not so sure about that, Amy. It’s clear that the No. 2 team has improved, but I think they’re probably still another year away from title contention.
Amy: He’d have to have phenomenal luck in the Chase, but he’s done that before.
Bryan: The biggest disappointment this year would have to be Carl Edwards. Kyle’s inconsistency is nothing new and his actions in the Chase last year showed he had lots of maturing to do. Edwards, though, won nine times last year yet has no momentum heading into the summer.
Amy: I agree, Bryan, and it’s not just Carl, but Roush Fenway in general.
Beth: I was going to say Kyle Busch, but Bryan brings up a very good point. I’m honestly shocked Edwards hasn’t made it to victory lane yet.
Bryan: Amy’s right; the entire Roush camp is missing something right now.
Vito: They don’t seem to be making much headway, either. Wasn’t this the year that David Ragan was supposed to win a race and make the Chase?
Amy: While Kyle Busch is his own worst enemy, his meltdown, given his maturity level, isn’t as big a surprise as RFR’s complete drop. On the other hand, how about Juan Pablo Montoya for a pleasant surprise?
Bryan: JPM is doing a lot with what he has. There’s never been any denying how talented a racer he is, but for him to be this consistent in that No. 42 has been impressive. Though a team that hasn’t scored a top five all year has no prayer of actually winning a title.
Vito: That is another team I see slipping out of the top 12. He hasn’t run particularly strong, he’s just managed to not meltdown or wreck. The first time that happens though, it’s over.
Bryan: But we’re also coming up on some good tracks for him, Vito – he’ll be a threat at the Glen and the Brickyard.
Vito: Yeah, but what happens at Bristol, Richmond, Pocono and Atlanta? If he blows up, wrecks or has an inopportune flat (like there is a good time to have one), I can’t see him overcoming a bad run this late.
Amy: If I had to choose right now, I would say it’s the No. 17 who will be on the outside looking in for the first time ever. I think Montoya will squeak in, and I think the No. 83 could be a surprise Chase entry, too. Of the ones just out right now, the No. 83 is on a consistent improvement curve.
Beth: Honestly, that wouldn’t surprise me, Amy. After a hot start to the season, Matt Kenseth has just fallen off the face of the earth.
Vito: If they gave bonus points for poles, I’d count Brian Vickers in, but now he’s having contract issues and sounds like he’s getting a little chippy over it.
Bryan: The No. 17 is on thin ice, but right now, unless something turns, I’m putting my money on the No. 18 team missing out. That team’s gonna have to go through something cataclysmic before they change what they’re doing. As for the title, it’s Gordon, Stewart and Johnson’s to lose. That said, since the No. 48 is still in the hunt, they’ll be hoisting the Cup.
Beth: Until another team proves they can manipulate the Chase like Knaus and Johnson, they’re still a strong favorite to win.
Amy: Absolutely Beth, but the Nos. 14 and the 5 are going to keep the heat on. And by the way, I think RCR gets shut out entirely.
Beth: Oh definitely, Amy. RCR has something really wrong this season.
Bryan: Though I will say the No. 48 team will be facing an adjustment this time with no testing. There’s no way to tell how much they’re going to have stashed away for the final 10 races.
Amy: Like Johnson or not, four in a row, regardless of the system, would be impressive. And damn difficult.
Bryan: I’d still put “The Symbol” next to them.
Beth: Yeah, it would be more impressive if the championship were based on the whole season and not just 10 races, but that’s another issue entirely.

Indianapolis is a race that any driver would love on his resume, but does the Brickyard 400 live up to the hype?

Bryan: No. The on-track product is not in any way shape or form worth the hype. And Tom’s exactly right in his column from Monday – having the entire field all but locked in when they arrive voids the race of a lot of drama.
Beth: Definitely not as much as it used to. Honestly, it’s just another race on the schedule.
Vito: I think it does. I miss the old car at this track, though.
Amy: Here’s my take on Indy: the track has a ton of history and it’s an honor to race there, but it’s not and never will be a stock car track. The race is usually one of the less exciting ones of the year.
Vito: It was pretty good in 2007. And it was more than interesting last year, that’s for sure.
Bryan: Last year’s event wasn’t a race.
Beth: Of course, part of the problem with this year is that we’re just not quite sure what to expect. I know Goodyear has spent a ton of time testing tires there, but I’m still a bit wary about what we’ll see this weekend.
Bryan: We literally can’t do worse than what happened last season.
Amy: I don’t know Bryan, they could put restrictor plates on the cars at New Hampshire… oh, wait.
Bryan: I’d watch that race 10 times over before sitting through last year’s Brickyard again.

See also
Side by Side: Should Jimmie Johnson's 2008 Indy Win Have an Asterisk?

Vito: I thought it was interesting just out of morbid fascination. When Kenseth blew half the side of his car off, I was kind of wondering who was going to outdo him. No one did. But I thought the first few years at this track, in the mid-‘90s, was awesome. It isn’t the be-all end-all in the 2000s, but it’s always a race I look forward to just because of the size and scope of it.
Bryan: The Brickyard 400 is in the same vein as the Indy 500. If sheer spectacle, size and pomp & circumstance is enough for you, Brickyard weekend is great.
Amy: The Allstate 400 isn’t even close to the Indy 500 on any plane. Indy is not a good stock car track and nothing can change that.
Bryan: For those of us that want to see good stock car racing, this weekend sucks.
Vito: I think it’s fine for stock cars provided they have tires and are allowed to adjust on them. It’s no worse than New Hampshire, Chicago or Phoenix.
Bryan: NHMS and Phoenix are definitely better shows than Indy. And Chicago, uhh, I can at least see the whole track. If I want to see pomp and circumstance or whatever, this racetrack isn’t where I’m going. Any time I head to the track, I want to see good racing, and the Brickyard just doesn’t deliver something worthy of the hype it gets.
Beth: It’s just another race. I know it’s supposed to be a prestigious win, but the racing just isn’t that great there anymore.
Amy: The tradition is rich, but not in stock cars. This track is great for the cars it was built for… stock cars, not so much. 2008 aside, most of the races there have been pretty tame.
Bryan: Now, if they maybe would incorporate shifting at Indy, that would be cool (like they should have done this weekend at Gateway, dammit).
Amy: If NASCAR wants to hype races, they should hype its own traditions, like Darlington – not someone else’s.
Vito: There has been plenty of tradition built over 16 years. I look forward to the next 16. But whatever.
Amy: 16 years of boring races – great tradition that is!

The latest test results for Jeremy Mayfield again showed evidence of methamphetamine, yet many fans are solidly in Mayfield’s corner as he proclaims his innocence – even those who have been outspoken about a better drug policy in NASCAR. What’s going on here?

Bryan: What’s going on here is that fans are seeing a driver stand up to NASCAR and that’s the first and foremost image in their minds.
Beth: The latest NASCAR test results showed positive, but two independent tests show differently. Something odd is going on.
Amy: Two tests with no name on them, Beth, versus tests done at a lab that is a defendant in the lawsuit. How does a judge even allow that one?
Beth: And an ID number that correlates to Mayfield’s name.
Amy: It is so easy to manipulate numbers on a PDF file.
Bryan: There’s really not much that can be done to debate who is correct and who isn’t. The story is convoluted to the point that it’s almost incomprehensible.

See also
Enough Already: Jeremy Mayfield's Latest Failure

Beth: There is definitely something wrong in the picture. As a defendant in the case, Aegis should never have had their hands on the second test.
Vito: This will all be done in about a month by way of an out of court settlement. It would be best for NASCAR at this point to just pay him and let him live his life and go away.
Bryan: What is true, though, is that Mayfield has stood toe-to-toe with NASCAR and NASCAR has taken some heavy blows as a result. The fans obviously have liked seeing that.
Vito: I have a hard time believing he’d be making this much of a spectacle out of himself, spending a lot of money in the process if he wasn’t innocent. Mayfield knows he’ll never race again, that much is clear.
Beth: I’ve got the same feeling, Vito. All along, I’ve just had this nagging feeling that if he weren’t being truthful, this would have just gone away.
Amy: I feel the same way, Beth, but then I did some digging and discovered meth users are often habitual liars who go to huge lengths to hide it. Honestly, I’m completely confused at this point.
Vito: Worst-case scenario for NASCAR: he goes Jose Canseco and writes a tell-all book, outing everybody in NASCAR who does like to “party.”
Bryan: I don’t know, Vito. If he was guilty, he likely wouldn’t race again. Going after NASCAR may be the only way he had to come up with retirement $$$.
Vito: There’s nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing left to lose.
Amy: I’ll say what I have said all along: if he was using meth or anything else in a race, he deserves everything he gets, but if there was a mistake and NASCAR is trying to cover it, shame on them.
Bryan: The reason this isn’t going away is because NASCAR is doing what it always does in handling situations – bumbling. They bumbled the first test, so now they’re bumbling attempt after attempt to reconcile their stance.
Amy: Mayfield isn’t exactly helping his own case either. Even his own lawyer is telling him to shut up at this point.
Vito: It just seems odd to me that, as Mayfield says, he has the whole encounter documented, yet NASCAR is claiming he was being evasive and would not let them into his house.
Bryan: And going back to what Vito said about Mayfield outing other drivers, NASCAR has definitely thought of that. NASCAR wouldn’t be going after him if they didn’t have something on him that would prove detrimental.
Amy: But NASCAR has handled it wrong from day one. Had they released the list, and the test procedure and been totally transparent, it would have been a lot harder to dispute.
Beth: I read somewhere that Aegis has had a problem before that caused a city employee to be fired after a mishandled drug test showed that he tested positive for something illegal. After a fight, the guy won his job back and plenty of back pay while Aegis was left paying $65,000 to the city that was involved. That could be the case here and if it is, it’s time to admit it and move on. The longer this goes on, the worse it is for NASCAR.
Bryan: NASCAR is playing with a powder keg and unlike with the Grant case a year ago, they’re not backing down and settling big. I can’t see them doing that if they don’t have a solid, solid case.
Vito: Well, now they’re in a no-win situation. You either have to keep going and try to bankrupt the guy you’re trying to implicate or you pull the plug on it, settle out of court and admit your drug policy is still virtually non-existent. Either way, Jeremy loses, and I think he knows that. At this point, I think he’s just trying to clear his name.
Bryan: Jeremy has nothing left but to clear his name, Vito. We already saw after his injunction that no sponsor/owner will touch him.
Beth: I saw it suggested that they just all sit down and agree on a testing facility not associated with either party and send a sample to them. That should give a good enough answer to satisfy NASCAR and Mayfield so we can all move on and quit hearing about this.
Amy: I’d add to that that Mayfield should sign a waiver to have the results released directly to the media, that way there are no mysterious nameless documents and no chance for NASCAR to have a hand in it.
Vito: First of all, Mayfield was being accused of being a habitual offender due to the most recent sample that was acquired. Does he exhibit any signs at all of a habitual user? Teeth: Check. Eyes not sunken: Check. Does not accuse his wife of being the devil: Check.
Bryan: He did accuse his stepmother of such, Vito.
Amy: Lying and making outrageous excuses for things can be a sign, and the whole stepmother saga reeks of that.
Vito: That’s not his stepmother, it’s some chick who married his dad.
Amy: I guess the part about her wanting money is plausible, so we’re back where we started.
Vito: It’s too bad he pissed so many people off in the past. He probably could use one of them in his corner right now.
Bryan: NASCAR knows Mayfield and his history very well. They know he has a very big mouth and nothing to lose. They can afford to buy him out and shut him up, just like they have with other hot-button cases before. And yet, they’re not. In the face of blunder after blunder, they’re not. That tells me plenty.
Beth: I’m more confused today than I was when the news first came out and I don’t see us having any kind of definite answers any time soon, if ever.

Both the Nationwide and Truck series are also at the midpoint of their seasons. Who are the early title favorites in those series?

Bryan: Kyle Busch has the Nationwide title wrapped up. As for the Trucks, it’s Ron Hornaday‘s to lose. Matt Crafton has to prove he can win before he can seriously expect to win the title.
Beth: Yep, Kyle Busch on the Nationwide side but it’s still anyone’s game in the Truck Series.
Amy: Kyle Busch wins the now meaningless Nationwide title but the Trucks are still up for grabs – especially if NASCAR lops a few points from Hornaday’s total for the illegal rear end.
Beth: Hornaday will most likely see a 25-point penalty that will put Crafton within 71 points.
Bryan: Even if they do, Hornaday’s still won three races in a row.
Beth: I’m sure that has a lot to do with the fact that Johnny Benson hasn’t been around. Speaking of Benson, he had surgery on his shoulder on Monday and has a pain block in that will last until Thursday night.  Then he’ll start physical therapy next week.
Amy: I wouldn’t count out Mike Skinner yet. He knows how to win a passel of races.
Bryan: Skinner is my darkhorse, too. The No. 5 team is good right now, but they’re not there… yet. Still, the potential is there to go on a tear and win a bunch of races quickly. But Hornaday’s bunch is hot and they’re definitely still bothered about how they lost last year’s title.
Beth: Skinner’s a proven winner, but that was with a different team. You have to remember that Randy Moss Motorsports hasn’t run their first full season yet.
Vito: Carl might catch Kyle in the Nationwide Series but he’ll have to have a lot more bad races, like losing four in the final five laps.
Bryan: The NNS title chase is over Vito. Over. The only way anyone catches up is if rain screws up the final few standalone races to keep Busch out of the seat.
Vito: “NOTHING IS OVER!!! NOTHING!!! YOU JUST DON’T TURN IT OFF!!!!!!!!” Sorry, I watched First Blood this weekend.
Bryan: “He drew first blood sir, not me.”
Amy: The NNS title is simply the one who shows up with the most expensive toy. The veterans in that series think the championship is basically a joke.
Bryan: As the site’s NNS writer, I will say that my writing about the series week-in and week-out is proving all the more challenging. There’s only so many ways to describe races like the one we saw at Gateway this past weekend.
Amy: That’s why I went to Hickory Saturday night where it A) took six tries to complete one lap in the first race and B) featured a fight in the infield in the fifth.
Bryan: “…all I wanted was something to eat….”
Beth: That’s pretty much how I feel when Kyle Busch runs all over the Truck Series field, Bryan.
Vito: “That place that you call hell, he calls home.”
Bryan: The Trucks definitely have some drama, but the way Hornaday’s No. 33 is running they’re clearly the frontrunners. Crafton has to win a race before they can start thinking title.
Beth: It’s going to take some pretty tough luck on the side of Hornaday and the No. 33 team if anyone is going to have a shot at them.
Vito: “What’s it going to say, ‘Here lies Rambo, John J., decorated veteran, killed in podunk town for vagrancy?!’”
Beth: And I do agree with you about Crafton, Bryan. He has definitely shown some improvement over the last couple seasons, but until they can contend for the win (or win for that matter) on a regular basis, they’re still not title ready.
Amy: Crafton isn’t quite there yet, but he’s got that look. If he wins one, he may well reel of a few more.
Bryan: I don’t see ThorSport having the guns to catch KHI. They’ve done a remarkable job this year, but they’re lacking that something to catch the No. 33. I see Skinner’s team catching up before Crafton’s.

OK, how about predictions for Indy?

Beth: Stewart.
Bryan: Smoke. It’s not going to be close.
Amy: I think the raisin wins the big check. Martin for all the marbles.
Vito: The smart money says Smoke, but I am neither smart nor do I have money, so I’m stickin’ with the hot hand. Martin for the win. Though Ryan Newman is a good bet, too.
Bryan: Newman is a dangerous bet that I would not take. Even in his awesome 2003 season they were missing something at the Brickyard.
Vito: There is a Penske car in the field too that might be a contender.
Bryan: Yes, there is.
Vito: And those Dodges don’t hurt for horsepower.
Amy: But not the one you’d normally think. I hear they have some guy over there who runs Indy pretty well.
Vito: I’m way ahead of you.
Bryan: Oh, I thought Amy was jumping on the David Stremme train since his career kinda resembles that Mears guy.
Amy: Johnson would love to end any doubt that last year was a fluke.
Bryan: Last year was an asterisk, to be more precise.
Vito: Like Rambo, he won by attrition.

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

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Beth Lunkenheimer 28 21 1 9 12
Bryan Davis Keith 23 -5 18 3 8 9
Amy Henderson 20 -8 22 3 7 10
Kurt Smith 17 -11 17 2 5 9
Vito Pugliese 14 -14 12 1 3 7
Tom Bowles 14 -14 6 1 4 4
Jeff Meyer 11 -17 14 0 4 7
Mike Neff 10 -18 15 0 4 8
Tony Lumbis 0 -28 1 0 0 0
Phil Allaway 0 -28 1 0 0 0
Matt Taliaferro -3 -31 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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