Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Atlanta’s Fan Frenzy, Picking the Chasers & Morgan Shepherd’s Swan Song?

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:
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays/Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter Editor)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Tuesdays/Running Your Mouth & Various/Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)
Jeff Meyer (Wednesdays/Top 10 & Thursdays/Voices From the Heartland)
Bryan Davis Keith (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans & Sundays/Nationwide Series Breakdown)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)

Swapping Atlanta Motor Speedway’s date to Labor Day weekend certainly improved attendance at AMS. But did the quality of racing match the fans’ enthusiasm?

Beth: It was a fantastic race. For the first time in a long time, drivers were actually able to race down and pass the leader.
Bryan: It was fun racing to watch. There wasn’t a driver out there who wasn’t manhandling his car.
Phil: Yeah, it was a pretty good race. I can’t remember an Atlanta race that was like that, to be honest.
Amy: It was one of the best cookie-cutter races of the year and the place was packed. I think this was actually a case of NASCAR catering to the right market at the right time.

See also
Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: 2009 Atlanta Fall Race Recap

Phil: Attendance was up 31,000 from last year. And up 41,000 from this weekend last year at Fontana.
Bryan: Fontana, eat your heart out. The racing was solid, the crowd was solid – it was a marked improvement over what the Labor Day race has become.
Amy: I wonder how many of the fans there used to go to Darlington on Labor Day? I’d guess a lot more than ever went to Fontana. It’s still not the Southern 500, but it was a step in the right direction.
Bryan: Exactly.
Phil: How far is AMS from Darlington? 250 miles?
Bryan: So close, yet so far. But AMS does deserve a pat on the back for recovering from how bad their attendance was in March. They darned near doubled the crowd this weekend!
Amy: I’d never been there before this weekend. It’s a very, very nice facility.
Bryan: It’s not Lowe’s, but it’s not bad either. The traffic is still horrendous, though.
Amy: Yeah, a friend of mine said they got home at 4:00 a.m. And they live in Atlanta!
Phil: I thought they had just built this direct link to I-75?
Bryan: That’s the problem, Phil. Everyone goes out the exact same way: to I-75. And 75 in that part of Atlanta is backed up any day, not just race day. Or am I thinking 85? Whatever the major one that goes through the city is. Anyhow, the on-track product was great. Lots of side-by-side, tires that wore, cars that had to be muscled. Good stuff.
Phil: Some people simply cannot be pleased with racing at intermediate tracks.
Jeff: Yeah, I don’t know what those fans expected!
Bryan: The only complaint I had about the event was the start time was too late. There’s no reason not to start at like 7:00 or so.
Amy: I really was impressed by how, on a long run, guys could reel in the leader.
Bryan: Amazing what happens when the tires wear, isn’t it Amy?
Beth: And it was amazing how much the track seemed to change for the drivers with each set of tires.
Amy: True Beth, guys who were great early had major trouble later.
Jeff: Well, that just shows the inconsistency of Goodyear’s tire.
Phil: It’s the kind of thing that only seems to be possible with a worn-out track.
Amy: I think that played a role for sure. That pavement looks rough.
Phil: It’s original from when they reconfigured the track in 1997.
Jeff: Yeah, but each tire set should be about the same. Sure, you are bound to get some difference, but those tires were just unbelievable.
Bryan: Didn’t they tire test at AMS this year?
Phil: Yes, I think so.
Bryan: Well, it still wasn’t the Southern 500, but it was also the first Labor Day race I’ve enjoyed watching since 2003.
Amy: I think this was encouraging as far as the new car goes. It could actually catch and pass other cars.
Phil: Yeah, again, the race was good… very interesting. And the turnout definitely helped Atlanta’s case to keep this date.
Bryan: Southerners like NASCAR. Who’da thunk it?

Brian Vickers rebounded from a broken axle to finish seventh at Atlanta and is now just 20 points out of making the Chase. Meanwhile, Kyle Busch looked like the dog meat on his hood those last 100 laps, finishing 13th and dropping to 37 points back. Can either one make it in at Richmond or is it too late?

Bryan: Busch at 37 is more likely than Vickers at 20. I’m not ready to place trust in Red Bull’s short-track package.
Beth: After that team changed the axle and managed to finish in the top 10, that Red Bull team is fired up. I think they’ll make it in unless they get caught in someone else’s wreck. And Kyle Busch has a sixth-place average in nine races at the track. He’s also got a pretty good shot as long as he can stay out of trouble.
Bryan: Exactly. If Kyle could pick a track to have to perform on, it very well may be RIR.
Phil: Vickers can definitely make it in, and so can Kyle Busch. They just can’t screw up.
Amy: I think Vickers has a shot, but Richmond hasn’t been good to him. Keep in mind Matt Kenseth is also so-so at Richmond with a 17th-place average.
Bryan: I believe Kyle is in position to take care of business. We all saw at Bristol that the No. 18 hasn’t forgotten how to handle the bullrings, and again the No. 83 team has never gotten a handle on those same circuits.
Amy: Busch just has to handle the pressure to get in – and he hasn’t shown that he can do that. He has to beat Kenseth and Vickers to steal a spot. Not easy.
Phil: Kyle just has to make sure that he doesn’t get into any shenanigans – like last year with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Beth: His attitude is going to play a big part in making it into the Chase, I agree. If he gets upset, he’ll get distracted and lock himself out.
Bryan: Attitude will keep Kyle from making a run once the Chase hits, but at RIR there won’t be a need for an attitude. He’s going to run well. And for all the talk of attitude, Busch has proven (albeit not all the time) that he can shake off pressure to perform. As for Vickers, he’s going to have to shake off three years of the No. 83 car struggling on short tracks in one weekend and that’s a long shot.
Amy: I have to say I was more impressed with the No. 83 team at Atlanta than I have been with a team all year.
Phil: I’ve never seen an axle changed on pit road like that before.
Beth: Yeah, getting that axle changed without losing a lap was amazing. That’s the stuff championship teams are made of. Not that I’m saying they’re championship caliber this year, but things like that will add up when they get everything figured out.
Bryan: Yes, Red Bull did an admirable job… on an intermediate track. It was a Days of Thunder moment. But changing an axle doesn’t all of a sudden turn a 20th-place car into a car at Richmond that’s going to outrun a Chase contender by 20-plus points. Atlanta was the time they had to make up their ground and seventh was good… but they needed a top three there.
Beth: Maybe not, but it sure has got to fire them up enough that we can believe they’ve got a shot.
Amy: The No. 83 kicked the No. 48’s ass on the same change – that’s not easy.
Bryan: It’s not like the No. 48 had a lot to race for on Sunday, though.
Phil: I guess Vickers had a clean break.
Bryan: Good point there too, Phil. They had to have to pull that change off.
Jeff: The No. 83 got lucky with fishing that thing out with a magnet. It doesn’t usually work that way – they just got some of the No. 48’s luck.
Phil: With Johnson, it was a relatively small piece that broke off (which was shown on-air).
Amy: The No. 48 is good, but they couldn’t buy luck on Sunday.
Beth: They didn’t really need it, either. They’re locked in and waiting for the Chase to start.
Amy: I disagree. They’ve had three terrible races in a row, and momentum counts going in.
Jeff: Well, back to our original question. I say Vickers gets in and Busch stays out… or they are both out.
Bryan: Kyle’s in far better position going into Saturday than Vickers, regardless of the points at the moment. Vickers and the No. 83 have yet to prove their short-track mettle.
Amy: I agree, but Vickers has the momentum.
Phil: Vickers’s issues at Richmond go beyond his time in the No. 83. While he has two poles, he has only one top 10 (May 2004).
Beth: Well, with fifth through 14th so close in points, one bad race for any of those currently in the top 12 could throw this conversation out the window.
Phil: Heck, if Busch gets in, he’ll be leading the points!

Rumors popped up again over the weekend that we’ll see Danica Patrick in the Nationwide and/or Truck series in 2010. If she moves over to NASCAR, which teams offers the right fit for her to endure that type of growth?

Jeff: JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series, because Stewart-Haas Racing has no NNS or Truck teams.
Bryan: Well, Stewart-Haas is the team rumored and that makes sense. SHR is all but Hendrick, so they can get a JRM car for her in the NNS.
Amy: I think a team with an actual development program is the one that offers the right fit.
Bryan: Tony Stewart has made the jump and he will be one of the few able to hold her leash.
Beth: It’s not surprising that Stewart would be a mentor for Danica. And KHI runs two trucks every now and then… I’m sure they’d be happy to have her run a few races with them.
Phil: I think JRM sounds like it would make the most sense, especially if Tony’s going to be mentoring her. Plus, Stewart has a good relationship with Earnhardt Jr.
Jeff: And lets not forget GoDaddy.com.
Amy: Hasn’t the whole team owner-does-development driver deal been done? Besides, JRM doesn’t have the sponsorship right now.
Bryan: Danica will bring sponsors, Amy… come on. I’ll put a sponsor’s tab down that Danica will score any dollars she needs should she choose to race NASCAR.
Jeff: Is GoDaddy leaving Brad Keselowski?
Phil: I would think GoDaddy would stay if Danica’s coming to the team. Would Boost Mobile sponsor her Nationwide endeavors?
Beth: I don’t see why not.
Jeff: Joe Nemechek and Extenze for women….
Bryan: If they have to sign 22 sponsors for her to run a limited NNS schedule, it’ll happen. She’s way too hot a commodity.
Amy: I think she will need an owner who can handle her behavior, first and foremost. Tony does fit that bill.
Beth: Yep, Tony is just that owner.
Amy: He is if he doesn’t get dragged into her stuff.
Phil: She needs to take it slow in NASCAR. Tony will be beneficial to her if she goes over there.
Jeff: She will not be racing with SHR.
Beth: They are going about this the right way, though. Starting off slow in trucks and NNS is a good idea.
Bryan: The parallels between Tony and Danica are surprisingly similar. Tony’s the best possible mentor to bring her over. And if SHR has shown anything, it’s that they’ve got their heads on straight when it comes to not biting off more than they can chew.
Amy: Well, Danica is Kyle Busch with boobs, so she’ll need a sponsor prepared for that.
Bryan: The boobs will excuse a lot of the Kyle.
Beth: Nothing excuses a sore loser attitude.
Amy: I agree, Beth. I think she’ll be a harder sell, long term, than some people seem to think. Plus, she’s not the driver that Kyle Busch is.
Bryan: Amy, she’s not a great Indy driver either, but she still gets more exposure than any three IRL drivers. The sponsors, even without the results, will get tons of TV time with her in the car.
Phil: Danica isn’t horrible behind the wheel of an Indy car. Marty Roth is horrible.

Morgan Shepherd’s dream is in danger after being forced to lay off all but two crew members prior to the race at Atlanta. Is it finally time for the 67 year-old to hang it up, or should Stewart, Kevin Harvick and others keep stepping in to prop up this struggling outfit?

Amy: As much as I admire the effort, it’s time to hang ’em up.
Phil: I’m wondering what kind of money Shepherd has set aside for retirement. He may not be able to retire.
Bryan: Morgan really should cut back to a part-time effort.
Beth: If others want to step up and keep helping him, then what’s to stop them?
Amy: Nothing, but it shouldn’t be expected of them, either.
Beth: I agree, Amy. It shouldn’t be expected, but if they want to help, then let them help.
Bryan: The man can still drive – he has a number of top 20s this year – but they need to pick a type of track and hone a qualifying setup in so they can consistently make races.
Jeff: If the Lord wants him to keep racing, then the funds will be found. Seriously.
Beth: Amen, Jeff!
Bryan: If that No. 89 car takes the approach the Wood Brothers have in Cup this year, I can see the performance picking up. Earlier in the year when Shepherd had his KHI car before it got banged up at Bristol, he was fast on the cookie cutters.
Amy: I agree, Bryan. Shepherd was no slouch behind the wheel in his heyday and he can still get around some of these tracks.
Bryan: There’s no reason for Morgan to quit racing; his team just needs to accept that less is more sometimes. Once he’s made the field, he’s raced well this year, but it’s like any other operation out there trying to do full-time on a shoestring, you can only do so much.
Jeff: And now he has to build new NNS CoTs.
Amy: I hate to see him step down, but he does need to at least step back. Harvick and Stewart have been very generous, but they can’t field his team every week.
Jeff: If I win the Powerball this week, I will sponsor Morgan all next year!
Bryan: Hell, they should put him in the No. 33 car once or twice and see what happens.
Phil: I actually wonder what Shepherd could do in the No. 33. I think he’d be really good.
Jeff: And now he has to build new NNS CoTs.
Bryan: Well remember Jeff, he tested one for JD Motorsports at the first NNS CoT test, so he’s got some inroads there. But that’s the funny thing; in a good car, I can see Morgan running top 15. For crying out loud, the man ran 13th at Las Vegas this year. And he could punt Kyle Busch with impunity! I mean, who’s going to get mad at an old man?!
Jeff: He could say, “The devil made me do it!”

OK. Predictions for Richmond?

Beth: Stewart.
Jeff: Vickers in, Busch out! And Mark Martin takes the win.
Amy: Stewart — he’s got nothing to lose.
Bryan: I’m taking the other SHR car… Ryan Newman breaks through at last.
Phil: I’m going with Clint Bowyer.

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 25 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 30 25 2 10 14
Bryan Davis Keith 24 -6 23 3 9 11
Amy Henderson 24 -6 27 3 8 14
Kurt Smith 22 -8 18 3 6 10
Vito Pugliese 20 -10 14 1 5 9
Tom Bowles 15 -15 7 1 4 5
Mike Neff 15 -15 17 1 5 9
Jeff Meyer 8 -22 18 0 5 8
Tony Lumbis 0 -30 1 0 0 0
Matt Taliaferro -3 -33 1 0 0 0
Phil Allaway -5 -35 4 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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