Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Matt Crafton’s Penalty, Kyle & Kurt’s Big Problems & Johnson Playing Dumb?

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)
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)

After the dust settled at Richmond, Brian Vickers was in the Chase while Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth were left on the outside looking in.  Is not having the series bad boy or perpetual championship contender in the playoffs bad for the sport?

Beth: Not at all. It’s not like they’re going to be out of the races altogether.
Bryan: What’s bad is how a driver with four wins, regardless of who it is, is out of the playoffs while four drivers with no wins are in.
Tom: I don’t think it’s bad for the sport, though. Kyle was too inconsistent to get in, although it bothers me that another aggressive guy (Juan Pablo Montoya) changed his style and went more conservative to make it.
Mike: I don’t think it’s bad, either. There are 12 competent drivers in the Chase, and at least a third of them have a shot at the title.
Tom: It will be bad for the sport if Kyle feels like he needs to “points race” next year and not stir up the pot on the racetrack.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: Kyle Busch's Chase Crumbles Around "Points Racing"... Will He Be Next?

Mike: I don’t think it is in Kyle to “points race.”
Tom: Mike, I didn’t think it was in Montoya to points race, either. And yet, here we are.
Mike: We’ll see how Montoya runs now that he’s in. Sounds like he’s going to get more aggressive.
Jeff: Why wouldnt JPM points race? He is a professional, and that’s what you have to do in NASCAR. That is the game the sanctioning body set up, so that’s how you have to play it.
Tom: Back to Kyle, missing it this year won’t hurt his career in the long run. As one fan so nicely reminded me today, he’ll be winning races and championships long after I burn in hell (such nice fans we have!).
Beth: And in these final 10 races, Kyle doesn’t have a championship to lose. He’ll race to win, and it won’t matter who is in his way to do it.
Amy: I still think NASCAR needs to decide if the Chase is about wins or consistency. If it’s about wins, Busch, Kenseth and David Reutimann should be in over Carl Edwards, Montoya, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman. And if it is about consistency, then Mark Martin should not be in the points lead.
Mike: There’s the rub right there, Amy. You’re going to put Reutimann and Joey Logano in over Edwards?
Amy: Not Logano, but any driver in the top 15 with race wins? Yeah.
Bryan: Racing is about winning, not who can finish seventh 25 times a year. That’s what we need. The sport needs a new David Pearson that races to win; if the title comes or not, so be it.
Tom: That’s the thing, Bryan. And while the points race was about consistency before we never overemphasized it because you only had two, three, maybe four people fighting for the title in a good year. Now, the title is the major focus, so everyone plays it safe to get in the Chase.
Amy: I think the sport needs to go back to the old points system.
Bryan: Yeah, but with a greater reward for winning.
Beth: But that’s not what this question is about. We all know there’s a problem with the Chase; the problem is that NASCAR loves it.
Bryan: Well NASCAR needs to wake up and start awarding 250 points for winning. Make it significant to the point that even guys like Jimmie Johnson and the new Montoya will go for broke.
Mike: If you start paying 250 to win, then anyone who wins will be in.
Bryan: And Mike, that’s bad because…?
Mike: Because you have drivers with no shot at winning a title getting in.
Jeff: I’m thinking more like a 75-point cushion for the winner over second.
Tom: That’s a good number, Jeff. And even if you put a lot of emphasis on finishing in the top three… maybe add some points for running second and third. Because let’s face it, with the aero push right now on intermediate tracks sometimes the leader has it made.
Amy: If the Chase is about winning, then the winners should be in.
Jeff: If a race winner was that good, he’d be in the Chase, Amy.
Tom: You know, Kenseth not being in the Chase this year is a sign of how ridiculous the focus on playing it safe has become. Yes, Kenseth has had a bad year, but it’s gotten to the point the sport’s Mr. Consistency is getting beaten at his own game.
Mike: Why Tom? Kenseth said himself they’ve sucked for over a month.
Bryan: Kenseth has had a rough year since February.
Amy: Reutimann had more top fives than Kenseth!
Jeff: And neither one got in.
Amy: While there are four other drivers who got in by points stroking. I say if NASCAR wants it to be about winning, then you should have to win to get in. If it’s about consistency, then they need to dump the Chase altogether.
Tom: I wouldn’t say there are four drivers in by points stroking, but Montoya in particular stands out. He has only two top-five finishes.
Amy: Edwards, Montoya, Biffle, Newman – points stroking.
Jeff: Oh, BS Amy.
Bryan: The fact that world-renowned Montoya has been reduced to a points racer says all that needs to be said about the Chase. It’s castrating competition among these drivers.
Tom: You can get on Carl a little bit for that, too… but if you asked him about it, I know he’d say he’s doing what he needs to do within the rules to compete for a championship. Which means there’s a simple solution here: if you tweaked the rules to make him be more aggressive to qualify, he’d get more aggressive. And so would the other drivers.
Bryan: Newman’s not points-stroking, by the way. They’ve gone for the win multiple times this year – remember Phoenix? That team just hasn’t had any race-winning cars.
Mike: So you’re going to not let Newman in the Chase because he got the most out of his cars?
Bryan: I’m the world’s biggest Newman fan, and I say he shouldn’t be in the Chase… that’s right, Mike. If you can’t win a race, you don’t deserve to run for a title.
Amy: Reutimann has as many or more top fives than Montoya, Newman, Vickers and Kasey Kahne.
Mike: But he’s 15th in points. Just because Reutimann had a better weatherman, you say he’s in?
Jeff: Yeah, if he’s so good, why ain’t Reut in?
Tom: I think you can’t restrict winless drivers from being in the Chase – not when you have at least 12 spots available. Sometimes, we’ll go an entire year and not have 12 drivers win a race. It’s the format that’s a bigger problem for me.
Bryan: You know what, then? Drop the stupid Chase. After 26 races, just reset the points and let ‘em all go at it.
Jeff: Remember, they cut the season short by 10 races with the Chase.
Amy: Why do you have to reset anything?
Bryan: Because NASCAR’s hooked on the idea, Amy. So let’s make it the top 25; that way, even Dale Earnhardt Jr. could run for a Cup!
Mike: Seriously, if you didn’t, then Tony Stewart would walk away with the title, just like Kyle Busch would have last year.
Tom: The format has always rewarded consistency over winning. There would be more of an even keel if there were bonus points for winning and finishing in the top three.
Beth: But back to the question, having Kyle Busch and Kenseth out of the Chase isn’t going to be a bad thing. If anything, it might make it just a little more interesting because someone like Kyle isn’t going to think very hard about who is points racing around him. He’s going to be racing to win the race, not the championship.
Bryan: Exactly, Beth. There’s plenty of storylines in the Chase – Martin, Vickers, Newman back for the first time in four years, Montoya – lots of material without him.
Tom: Yet just 75 extra bonus points for winning would have put both Busch and Kenseth in at the expense of Biffle and Montoya. Well like I said, here’s where Kyle missing could be bad for the sport in the long term. Because you know what Kyle just learned? You go for broke on the last lap at Daytona, block Stewart instead of hanging back and settling for second, and you pay the price.
Bryan: And that is the last lesson on earth racecar drivers should be learning, Tom.
Tom: That’s right. So by going for broke – the stuff fans want to see – you can argue Kyle Busch missed out on the points he needed to get in the field of 12. And that’s where I have a problem.
Amy: The only way it could be a bad thing is if one of them (i.e. Busch) gets a bug in his panties and takes out contenders weekly trying to win all he can.
Bryan: Why is that a bad thing, Amy? If Kyle is going gung-ho to win the race, why are we frowning upon that? That means he’s the one driver out there doing his job.
Mike: Hey, if Busch is trying to win, then that is fine. If he dumps someone for 10th, I’ll have a problem.
Amy: But you push it and take out five guys because you’re mad you didn’t get invited to the playground, that’s another thing. Dirty driving is never acceptable.
Bryan: I hope Kyle takes the points-strokers out. I’ll actually root for him to do that.
Mike: I hope Montoya wins the son of a bitch without winning a damn race.
Amy: It would show the stupidity of the Chase, Mike, if he did that.
Mike: No, it would show that a driver finished better than everyone else over the course of the Chase, which is what the title is based on.
Amy: Then NASCAR needs to stop saying it’s about winning!
Jeff: You watch – NASCAR will change the rules just because Kyle didn’t get in and when they do, I’m done with ‘em.
Bryan: You know, I hear there’s a really good title Chase going on in ARCA-land, Jeff.
Jeff: And I care about that why?
Bryan: In case you wanted to see one.
Mike: Anyways, the only loss by Kyle and Matt not being in the Chase is their fans won’t get to see their drivers run for a title. Other than that, the sport is in for another spirited title chase down to the wire thanks to their contrived system.
Amy: You don’t need a bad boy and you don’t need Mr. Consistency to make it interesting.
Bryan: And you know what, I hope Jimmie wins a fourth, just so his one claim to fame can be that he mastered Brian France’s creation. That oughta put his career in perspective.

Title favorites Stewart and Johnson stumble into the Chase with just one top 10 between them in the last four races. Can they turn it around, or has too much momentum been lost to Martin and Hamlin, making those two the favorites heading to Loudon?

Amy: Momentum is a funny and dangerous thing. It can swing in any direction at any time, and you’d better grab it on the way by. That said, I think Martin is the favorite right now.
Bryan: Oh, for crying out loud, Jimmie fans trying to build suspense where there is none. He’s going to win the damned Chase again – save the drama. Stewart and Johnson are going to be just fine.
Beth: Agreed. They’re going to be just fine.
Jeff: Teams like Stewart and Johnson can get the momentum back at any given time. It’s your lesser teams that have the bigger job of keeping it once they get it.
Beth: Johnson finished 23rd at Richmond before he won his first title.
Bryan: How many times have we seen the No. 48 team cruise into the Chase and then hit the afterburners?
Jeff: About three times now.
Bryan: Besides, if worst comes to worst, there’s no driver better at causing a Big One at ‘Dega than JJ.
Amy: They’ve hardly cruised all summer.
Tom: Well, I think that the loss of momentum means more for Stewart than Johnson. Like Bryan said, the No. 48 team has been here before. Stewart’s group hasn’t. So if you put the equipment question aside, the pressure of being in the Chase is new for a lot of guys on the crew. If Stewart gets off to a slow start, I see them struggling to recover.
Bryan: I don’t know, Tom. The team may not, but Darian Grubb has been there before.
Tom: Yeah, but not in a crew chief capacity. I think that’s a little different type of pressure.
Bryan: That I will agree with Tom, but NHMS and Dover haven’t been unkind to Tony.
Amy: Johnson has one top 10 since Indy – that’s miserable for him.
Tom: But since Indy, Johnson’s led 283 laps, and remember back in ’06, he entered the Chase wobbling like crazy and charged back to win it all. I think he’ll be fine. Remember, the tough finishes in August weren’t because Johnson was running in the back, it’s because Chad Knaus gambled and lost several times. Self-induced mistakes – the cars were fast.
Amy: He’s led 283 laps with nothing to show for it, Tom.
Tom: Amy, the No. 48 led laps and were in a position where they could go for broke, adding as many bonus points as possible. The final result really didn’t matter to them.
Bryan: Let’s be realistic, too; they’ve got the best notebook out there for the tracks in the Chase. It’s their title to lose and they don’t lose in the Chase.
Beth: But look at what happened with Kyle Busch last season. Everyone was ready to call the No. 18 team the champs before the Chase even started and then they fell flat on their faces. Momentum doesn’t mean everything in the Chase.
Amy: But a complete lack of it means something, and the No. 48’s pit-road mistakes have been too many and too often this year. Momentum won’t swing back with that going on. Stewart is also such a streaky driver – he’s not usually great in the fall. And while I don’t think Hamlin’s consistent enough to make a run, I think Martin is.
Bryan: You’ve also got to wonder for some of these teams, like Kahne, Montoya, etc., who have talked all year about making the Chase at all costs. OK, they did that. Have they honestly given a second of thought about what to do now that they’re in it?
Amy: I think that the bottom line here is that momentum is important. The Nos. 14 and 48 will have to find it fast while the Nos. 5 and 11 already have it.
Bryan: Again, we’re talking Stewart and Johnson – they’re going to be fine.

Current crew chief of Penske Racing’s No. 2 Dodge, Pat Tryson, announced that he’ll leave the team at season’s end to take the helm of the No. 56 for Michael Waltrip Racing. Does the timing of the announcement hurt Kurt Busch‘s title hopes?

Bryan: Um… yes.
Amy: Possibly, if he’s not focused in the right direction. But on the other hand, he wants Busch to run well, so he can take those ideas with him to Truex’s team.
Beth: I’m not quite convinced that it does. What better way to say goodbye to an organization than to win the championship?
Tom: It could work in their favor if Tryson wants to go out with a bang. But that relationship has been on the rocks for a long time. They seemed to lose favor with each other about midway through 2008 and never seemed to fully get back their mojo.
Beth: You’ve got a point there, Tom. Kurt Busch is a very hard driver to work with. Of course, that’s partly because Tryson rarely listens to what Kurt is saying about the car.
Bryan: There’s no way now for Tryson to be 100% focused on the No. 2 car, and considering he has to go against the teams of Grubb and Knaus to win the title, that ain’t gonna cut it.
Jeff: He’s staying the rest of the year. How does it hurt the No. 2?
Amy: Because he doesn’t give a rat’s ass how the car performs, maybe?
Jeff: Oh BS.
Amy: Or if he does, it’s to take the information with him.
Bryan: Jeff, he’s going to move at the end of the year, so it’s all going to be about learning what he can take to MWR, not what he can do for Penske.
Jeff: Well, I don’t think it will hurt Busch, but why would Pat want to go to MWR?
Tom: It’s a good question, Jeff. I bet you money’s involved. I’m actually more surprised that Tryson is heading to MWR, too. I had sources telling me Martin Truex Jr. was taking Bono with him over there. Especially since Jamie McMurray is headed to the No. 1… and word on the street is he’d really like his buddy Wingo to go with him.
Beth: From what I heard, Tryson wanted to start with a new driver and work with Brad Keselowski. When Penske said no, he went to MWR.
Tom: You know, Kurt’s a whole lot better than he used to be, but he’s the type of guy that takes his toll on a crew chief over time.
Beth: Well, it’s pretty bad when the driver asks for one change and the crew chief makes the change in the complete opposite direction.
Tom: When things are going well for Kurt, no problem. But the second they start slumping, he’s going to need a hard-nosed guy on top of the pit box. That’s why I think Busch worked really well with Jimmy Fennig.
Bryan: I wouldn’t be surprised to see Fennig reunite with Busch, seeing as how David Ragan has run like junk this year.
Amy: That’s a possibility, Bryan.
Beth: Yeah, the best thing for Kurt would be a reunion with Fennig.
Amy: But would Roush let him go?
Tom: No, and he wouldn’t leave Roush either – plus, I think the new car may have passed him by. Engineering means more than anything these days.
Jeff: But the question was, “Does this hurt Busch now,” and I say, “No, no, no!”
Beth: And I agree, Jeff.
Bryan: I say it does – Tryson’s focus is gone.
Jeff: Oh, it just left all of a sudden?
Beth: It seems he can still focus after their performance Saturday night.
Bryan: It’s not going to be 100% there, Jeff. And against Knaus that means no title chances at all.
Amy: Unless he really wants to stick it to Penske, he’s mailing it in.
Jeff: If that is the case, then Tryson is a lousy crew chief and you’d be happy to be rid of him.
Tom: Jeff, I’ll put it to you this way. You find out your boss is leaving the company in two weeks. For the next two weeks at work, do you still come in and give 110%?
Bryan: It’s human nature, you’re not going to be 100% focused on your job when you know you’re leaving for another one.
Jeff: I might give more effort! Maybe I didn’t like the jerk and by what you all are saying, that is the case with Busch. If they were known to be buddy-buddy, then I’d say it might hurt Kurt. But as it is, no.
Bryan: Tryson made the announcement with the title Chase just taking shape… what does that tell you?
Amy: Exactly, Bryan; he could have waited and chose not to.
Jeff: You know what this is? Us making a mountain out of a molehill.

Matt Crafton was penalized at Gateway Saturday and sent to the back of the longest line for not one but two incidents in which he made contact with the truck in front of him. Should NASCAR have thrown the black flag or was Crafton simply an innocent victim of typical blocking behavior in front of him?

Amy: No way that was “innocent victim” territory.
Beth: The incident with Todd Bodine was clearly blocking on Bodine’s part and Bodine paid the consequences.
Amy: If it were the first time Crafton had dumped a guy, I might buy that, but it wasn’t even the first time that race.
Bryan: It doesn’t matter if Crafton was a victim or offender – NASCAR needs to back off black-flagging for making contact. Let the drivers police themselves.
Amy: There’s a big difference between making contact and putting a guy in the fence on purpose.
Beth: How can you say Bodine didn’t block him, Amy? He turned right across Crafton’s nose. He made the decision and paid the consequences – just like Kyle Busch did when he blocked Tony at Daytona.

See also
Tracking the Trucks: 2009 Copart 200 at Gateway

Tom: The Bodine incident was ridiculous. No way Crafton should be penalized for that. He was almost halfway alongside the No. 30, for Christ’s sake. Bodine has been so hypocritical to call Crafton out on that, because he’s been pulling that crap his entire career.
Bryan: Crafton was racing hard for the win – that’s not cause for a black flag.
Amy: I have no problem with beating, banging or a correctly done bump-and-run on the last lap. I have a problem with deliberate wrecking and Crafton’s act is getting old. It was sort of funny when he dumped Kyle Busch, but it stopped being funny at Gateway when he became a repeat offender.
Bryan: So what if there was contact involved? Rubbing’s racing.
Tom: Well, the Ron Hornaday incident – that’s a little different. You have to consider those two are fighting for a championship.
Beth: My initial thought on the Hornaday thing was that Hornaday turned across Crafton’s nose. But Hornaday had the line and Crafton stuck his nose in a space where there just wasn’t room.
Amy: Leader controls the start.
Beth: I am well aware of that.
Bryan: Close quarters, Crafton needs points, he gave no quarter. That’s not conduct worthy of a penalty. I want to see more of it.
Amy: Hornaday had the position and Crafton ran him over.
Tom: Eh, I wouldn’t go with “ran him over.”
Beth: It was more like he tried to stick his truck in a space that just wasn’t big enough.
Bryan: Again, if Crafton ran him over, Hornaday needs to make it clear to Crafton that he’s not going to take it. NASCAR needs to stop being an overprotective parent in the box and let the drivers race and police the races themselves.
Beth: Crafton knows he’s racing the No. 33 for the championship and every position counts. He’s got to at least try to beat his competition.
Tom: At the same time, Crafton could have used more discretion. It was not the last lap. Backing off there would have still given him another chance.
Amy: Agreed, Tom. If he’d have backed off, he might have won without getting flagged.
Jeff: I just hope it’s not a precedent type of thing that NASCAR gets into in any of the series.
Tom: Well, I think NASCAR doesn’t want a championship to be decided by that type of bump and run. And that played into the decision to black flag Crafton. Keep in mind if Crafton wins that race, he cuts another 35-40 points out of the championship lead. As it is, NASCAR thought they evened it out by kicking him back to 12th and he gained so many spots over the final two laps they nearly penalized him another lap before the final results came out to make their point.
Amy: Tom, that wasn’t a bump and run, that was a deliberate wreck. There’s a difference.
Bryan: One driver’s rough driving is another’s competitive contact.
Jeff: Exactly.
Amy: Spinning a guy out on purpose is competitive contact now?!
Bryan: Crafton’s running for a title, he grew a pair and gave no quarter to his closest competitor. Good for him.
Amy: Giving no quarter means racing hard and clean.
Jeff: What the hell?! Everyone has been bitching about how it’s not done at Bristol anymore! Let ‘em race! Part of racing is wrecking sometimes.
Bryan: Amen, Jeff.
Amy: Racing clean and on the edge takes more balls than dumping a guy ever will.
Jeff: If you dump the guy too many times, he’ll punch you in the teeth for it. It all evens out.
Amy: Rubbing is racing, moving a guy over is racing. Deliberately wrecking a guy isn’t racing because racing is a sport and there is zero sportsmanship in that kind of driving.
Tom: I do think that if Crafton wasn’t black-flagged there, you would have seen him taken out at New Hampshire or a couple of weeks down the road. Now, I don’t know.
Beth: I don’t think Bodine’s going to let it go. Even though he was the one that put the block on Crafton, I’m pretty sure he’ll be willing to show Matt he wasn’t happy about it.
Amy: Crafton isn’t making friends out there, that’s for sure.
Jeff: Well, no one can imply Crafton’s intent but Crafton himself. Maybe he intended just to move him and the other guy had the loss of talent.
Bryan: Fact is, when it comes to contact, there is never a definitive call, and in that case NASCAR needs to back off.
Amy: What about when a guy says on his radio he’s going to wreck a guy? Then what?
Bryan: Then it’s the job of the guy who gets wrecked to make it very clear to the other guy that he won’t get away with it again.
Jeff: National Association of Sissy Crybaby Auto Racing.
Bryan: We’re fast getting there, Jeff.
Amy: Or, they can just shut up and race clean. Plenty of guys make nice careers out of racing clean. NASCAR has had dirty driving rules for 60 years – if people don’t want to play by them, there are other places to race.
Jeff: And the latest truck race was the worst case and they chose to enforce them?
Amy: Maybe they learned their lesson the last time they let a title be decided by a dirty driver.
Jeff: And that would be who? Dale Earnhardt?
Bryan: Yeah, Dale Sr. was a terrible influence on the sport.
Jeff: Set it back almost 60 years!

OK. Predictions for New Hampshire?

Jeff: Stewart.
Beth: Kurt Busch hasn’t finished outside the top six in the last three races at NHMS, so I’m going with him this week.
Amy: I’m going to go with Jeff Gordon.
Bryan: Johnson.
Tom: I think I’m going to go with Hamlin. He’s won at New Hampshire before and Gibbs is coming in with a bit of momentum. Remember, the guy who’s the favorite to win the title never seems to win New Hampshire. It’s usually the Cinderella instead.

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 27 races, the All-Star Race and the Shootout this season, here’s how our experts have fared so far (updated through New Hampshire 9-23-09):

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Beth Lunkenheimer 31 27 2 10 15
Bryan Davis Keith 28 -3 25 3 10 13
Amy Henderson 24 -7 29 3 8 14
Kurt Smith 22 -9 18 3 6 10
Vito Pugliese 20 -11 14 1 5 9
Tom Bowles 18 -13 8 1 5 6
Mike Neff 15 -16 17 1 5 9
Jeff Meyer 11 -20 20 0 6 9
Tony Lumbis 0 -31 1 0 0 0
Matt Taliaferro -3 -34 1 0 0 0
Phil Allaway -4 -35 5 0 0 1

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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