Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Dale Jr.’s Next Step, Park’s NASCAR Comeback & Jimmie’s Chase to Lose?

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)
Kurt Smith (Fridays/Happy Hour)
Matt Taliaferro (Thursdays/Fanning the Flames)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)

Editor’s Note: Mike Neff had to jet after Question 1 this week, in case you’re wondering why he suddenly disappears.

Jimmie Johnson left Charlotte with a 90-point lead, the largest margin in history five races into the Chase. Does Johnson have the title in the bag at halfway, or is there still someone with something for the three-time champ?

Amy: Yes, and that someone is named “Talladega.” If he has a 90-point lead after ‘Dega, that’s a whole other ball o’ wax.
Kurt: Unless something happens at Talladega, I don’t see anyone stopping the No. 48 team.
Matt T.: I hesitate to say he’s got it in the bag, but at this point, it’s his to lose. We’ll know for sure after Talladega.
Beth: There is still so much that can happen in the final five races this season, but I doubt anyone will be able to catch Johnson and Knaus.
Mike N.: Until Talladega is over, nothing is certain. But even with a disaster there, Johnson still is looking awfully good. And he could have a big enough lead after this week that he could get wrecked at ‘Dega and still be OK.
Kurt: Right, Mike. We’re going to Martinsville next and Jimmie absolutely owns Martinsville.
Beth: I think by the time they get to Talladega, they’re going to have a points lead that will allow them a cushion if they get caught up in something there.
Mike N.: The dude has won 17 Chase races now – to put that in perspective, second place on the list has just six. I think there’s a close to 50% chance he could have 50 wins by the end of the year! He’s at 46 now.
Tom: Mike, it really annoys me when people say us media have already handed Johnson the trophy. Um, why shouldn’t we? That has nothing to do with whether we like Johnson or not. The dude and his team are just on a rail.

See also
Happy Hour: Is Anyone Even Willing to Challenge the No. 48 Team?

Matt T.: Well, he hasn’t won yet, Tom.
Tom: OK Matt, I’m going to throw out some stats for you.
Matt T.: Go for it. I did all kinds of stats on J.J. today. Stats are great for the past, not necessarily the future. A cut valve stem and it’s an even ballgame again. The Big One on the last lap… same thing.
Tom: OK, well here we go. Last Chase DNF: 2006 at Talladega. Last DNF in general that was not crash-related: The Coke 600 in May 2008. Conclusion? He ain’t gonna fall out of the race.
Amy: Well he’s not getting another 90-point boost at Martinsville and a 180-point lead going into Talladega is the only safe lead.
Tom: Yeah, but who cares about the Talladega wreck at this point? Especially if Johnson goes to ‘Dega with a 150-point lead on everyone not named Mark Martin… a wreck won’t matter! It’s all but over.
Kurt: Something could happen at Martinsville too, Tom. But Jimmie seems to have a knack for staying out of trouble – partly because he’s up front so often.
Beth: Something could happen at any track, but the No. 48 has a knack for missing that stuff during the Chase.
Matt T.: Oh, I don’t think they’ll screw themselves, but there are 42 other cars out there.
Kurt: What’s amazing to me is we’re arguing about something happening to him at ‘Dega, but it seems to be the consensus that’s the only way he’ll lose. That’s how doggone good the team is.
Tom: Chances are he leaves ‘Dega with the lead even if he ends up wrecked.
Amy: But a small lead after ‘Dega can be beaten; so no, it is not over, not by a longshot.
Matt T.: Well, he’s the favorite right now, no doubt. But we’re only halfway through this ballgame. Still plenty of time. Stranger things have happened.
Tom: Well Matt, there’s no question they’re not getting ahead of themselves. But Chad Knaus had a grin like I’ve never seen before in the Media Center Saturday night.
Matt T.: I saw it on Friday, Tom. But again, they won’t shoot themselves in the foot. That’s not to say they won’t get caught up in something else. Anything is possible, ala Alan Kulwicki.
Amy: That’s because Chad got his perfect weekend, too, not because they might win the Chase if nothing happens in the next five races.
Kurt: Knaus = Best Crew Chief Ever.
Mike N.: Almost time to anoint him that, Kurt. When they celebrate their seventh championship in a row, he will be without a doubt.
Beth: I would love to have the chance to see him work with another driver.
Tom: Alright, let me throw something else at you guys: the top four in points are all Hendrick cars. The first non-Hendrick driver is Kurt Busch at 177 back, and with a crew chief that can best be described as MIA. So if the No. 48 was to by some chance have a mechanical failure, chances are it happens to all the Chase-running Hendrick cars.
Kurt: Interesting thought, Tom, but I doubt it will happen. Hendrick engines are usually pretty reliable.
Matt T.: I’m not worried about HMS mechanical failure. Junior is running the R&D stuff. The rest are in bulletproof equipment.
Tom: Right! So it either won’t happen or in the off chance it does, it should happen to them all… which means Johnson’s teammates are going to have to gain on him the old-fashioned way, on the race track. And there’s just too much ground to make up at this point, no matter what happens at ‘Dega. That’s not to say I wouldn’t welcome a little competition for the title, but I don’t see any.
Kurt: Tom’s right. The only guys that could give him a fight now are his teammates, and they can’t even keep up.
Mike N.: I’m just dying to see him clinch before Homestead. It would be awesome to see them celebrate in Phoenix.
Kurt: By the way, since the Chase was supposed to prevent someone getting a big lead, should we insert a second Chase with five to go? This shows that the Chase doesn’t guarantee a fight to the finish.
Beth: That’s pretty much how most people I talk to are looking at it.
Tom: And the sad part is not enough people care with Jimmie up front again. You saw the stands at Charlotte! The fans know it, too – and they’re tuning out. This is the 2009 Hendrick Memorial Chase – in dedication to Jimmie Johnson making history.
Kurt: But he is making history! If he does it, of course.
Mike N.: Yes, he is. And it is very impressive. I would love to see him win seven in a row and truly erase the doubt over who is the best of all time.
Matt T.: It’s Johnson’s to lose, no doubt. But again, we’re only halfway through here. I think you all are forgetting how much things can swing in five races. We’re wrapped up in the Johnson-love here.
Tom: Look Matt, I hope, hope, hope I eat my words. But right now, thinking otherwise is like saying a 16’s going to beat a one in the NCAA basketball tournament. It’s nice to root for the underdog, but it ain’t gonna happen – not in 2009, not the way the Hendrick cars are running and the way this Chase has played out. It’s Johnson’s to lose, and he’s got maybe 100/1 odds of losing it if there’s no mechanical failure. He wrecks at ‘Dega… maybe those odds go down to 20/1. But that’s as far as I’ll go.
Kurt: You know, this is what happens when NASCAR tries to legislate parity. One team runs away with it. Although I could see Martin or Gordon taking advantage of a mechanical failure for the No. 48 – even Tony Stewart, although he’s been falling off a little lately.
Amy: I think handing anyone a trophy, even Johnson in the Chase, before the last checkered flag falls is premature. How many people would have handed Dale Earnhardt the 1990 Daytona 500 trophy when the white flag came out?
Tom: You’re right, Amy. But right now, we’re not on lap 199… we’re on, like, lap 150, and Earnhardt has a 15-second lead.
Amy: Even less of a reason to hand him the trophy.
Tom: You know what scares me, guys? Brad Keselowski (who can be a little ego-ish at times, I admit) said that in order for Penske to be on par with Hendrick, they need a hundred more people. 100.
Kurt: Penske should hire 100 more people. I would like to see someone step up and give Hendrick a run for their money.
Beth: Hiring 100 more people wouldn’t help Penske if they can’t get a good driver/crew chief combination together.
Kurt: Agreed, Beth. They’ll miss Tryson.
Mike N.: Ganassi has way fewer people than Hendrick, and if it wasn’t for Martin, they might have had a winner Saturday night.
Matt T.: Yeah, it runs in cycles. HMS is whoopin’ everyone pretty good right now, though. Like I haven’t seen in quite a while.
Beth: In the end, though, this is clearly Johnson’s championship to lose. He’ll win his fourth… and more fans will tune out.
Amy: Just remember, Johnson still has a huge weakness in his pit crew. I think they have just one stop in the last two weeks where he’s actually gained positions on pit road.
Tom: Who cares? I think the bigger story is how all the Chase Cinderellas have fizzled. Denny Hamlin, Juan Pablo Montoya… and Carl Edwards is running awful. No one has stepped up to challenge Hendrick so far and it’s looking increasingly like their year.
Beth: No one seems to remember Brian Vickers made the Chase since they’ve pretty much fallen off the face of the earth since New Hampshire.
Matt T.: No. 83 used it all up.
Kurt: Did anyone seriously think Vickers would challenge?
Matt T.: No. They expended all their resources just getting there. Everyone else was testing for the Chase, not fighting to get in.
Tom: I think you’re absolutely right, Matt. Watch out for the No. 83 in ’10 though.
Amy: I agree with Tom. Most of you thought I was crazy in February when I said he’d make the Chase.
Kurt: Hell, I didn’t think Montoya would challenge and I turned out to be right! Actually JPM has run very well, but one messy restart and they’re pretty much done. Such is the Chase.
Tom: Montoya was going to have his falloff race… happens to all the Chase Cinderellas. He couldn’t have career-best finishes at tracks he usually sucks at every single week. And he usually sucks at Charlotte.
Kurt: Yeah, but he was doing very well in Charlotte even. He’ll still be pretty good, but that was devastating. One little restart problem….
Tom: I know the crash did him in, but I feel like over the long run there he would have been about a 15th-place car. That’s where he ran in practice.
Matt T.: The No. 42 never had it all weekend.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Friday that he is “at the end of [his] rope” with not winning in what is regarded as the best equipment in the garage. A crew chief change did little to alter the No. 88’s performance, so what needs to happen next for Junior’s team?

Matt T.: Vacation. He needs a vacation.
Tom: Great call, bud. Thinkin’ the same thing. Maybe the Caribbean, or a few weeks in the woods hunting deer to get away from it all.
Beth: First and foremost, the media needs to back off of him a bit. I understand that there were high expectations for him going to Hendrick, but focusing on his shortcomings does nothing for his confidence or that of his team.
Kurt: What the hell else could go wrong for that team? Seriously, Junior’s frustrated at not running well? Welcome to Jeff Burton‘s world.
Matt T.: Rick will get it all figured out. That whole operation is just too good to not get this thing figured out.
Amy: HMS has never had four great cars though, Matt. They always have three great ones and one that runs like a dog. I’m really stymied by Junior’s performance. He’s a good driver (not great, but very good) and has a good crew. I’d love to see Pops give it one more shot – but that’s not going to happen.
Kurt: He has been running better lately but had some bad luck. He’ll be better next year, if for no other reason than he shouldn’t miss his pit box quite as often.
Matt T.: I don’t even think he’s run that well lately. I keep hearing that, but he’s running HMS R&D stuff. Some of it’s bound to break. Exhibit A: Transmission.
Kurt: Why would Rick Hendrick give Junior R&D stuff, Matt? I have never believed that whole R&D thing. Why? To have one lousy car to learn how not to set the rest up?
Matt T.: He’s in R&D now. He wasn’t earlier in the year. Why do you think the tranny went at LMS?
Kurt: I see. You’re saying he’s helping the Chase guys out?
Matt T.: He is now.
Tom: Thinking back to what Beth said, you should have seen the press conference this weekend for JR Motorsports’ Hellmann’s car. It was a five-minute deal to announce a special paint scheme. The second it ended, I thought there was going to be a riot. 100 people stampeded Junior like it was the Running of the Bulls.
Beth: I can’t imagine the pressure and constant media attention does Junior any good. I’m sure sometimes he would love it if people would just leave him alone.
Tom: Well people want answers. He’s still the sport’s Most Popular Driver. Popularity has its price; poor Junior just needs a break to get away from it all and he won’t have one for another five weeks.
Amy: I think the pressure has really gotten to Junior in the last couple of years. It’s gotten under his skin like it never did before.
Kurt: Well, he’s out of excuses at this point Amy, and he feels like he’s letting everyone down.
Beth: And I’m sure that has a lot to do with leaving DEI for Hendrick when he expected he would be a majority owner in the company his father built.
Tom: Part of the problem, Amy, is there’s no one to hide behind at Hendrick. There’s five Hendrick-supported cars in the Chase and a sixth in Keselowski that runs top 15 every time out. Poor Junior stands out like a sore thumb. At least with DEI, he could blame it on the organization when there was a bad run. The focus wasn’t totally on him. And I don’t think Junior fully understood that when he made this move. He thought he did, but you always think the grass is greener on the other side, right?
Matt T.: I think the grass will be greener. They’ll figure things out. This isn’t six years ago – it’s a totally new landscape and he’s with the best outfit, hands down.
Kurt: They’ll be better next year. Maybe not in the Chase, but definitely better.
Amy: They can’t run much worse, Kurt.
Tom: Oh, I don’t think you can get any worse. It’s one of those “you need a clean slate”-type of deals, for starters. But McGrew is not the answer at crew chief.
Amy: No, but neither was Eury Jr.
Beth: I’m really starting to believe that, Tom.
Tom: I can’t harp on that enough. I don’t know why Hendrick would even consider keeping them together. Unless it’s just a facade right now while he’s secretly going after a big name.
Amy: The only crew chief Junior has ever run well with was Pops and he’s not likely to come back to Cup.
Kurt: They should get Fatback to come out.
Tom: Kurt, you know that is not a bad idea. Because Junior is absolutely right – he needs a dictator to kick him in the butt a little bit, although it would be so much easier if he did it himself, right?
Beth: Sure it would be easier if he did it himself, but some people just need that extra kick in the butt to straighten up.
Kurt: Right, but why would he ask for a dictator? He doesn’t sound very self-confident saying that.
Matt T.: Junior needs someone to tell him what to do. No discussions. Junior drives, the crew chief calls the shots. I think that’s what he’s saying. Tough love, ya know.
Tom: People that can give Junior that kick: McSwain, Ray Evernham, Greg Zipadelli… it’s a short list. Not a lot of super-aggressive types out there anymore. Maybe Jimmy Fennig? Although I feel like that’s a stretch.
Matt T.: Fennig doesn’t want it.
Amy: He’s had Pops, Pete Rondeau and Tony Jr. before Lance.
Matt T.: Steve Hmiel, too. He actually liked Hmiel a lot. Maybe that’s your answer.
Kurt: What happens if he gets another crew chief? The anti-Junior Nation will be out in full force. He’ll look like Casey Mears.
Amy: But what happens if he doesn’t, Kurt? He’ll continue to run 25th every week.
Tom: Here’s the thing, though: you can’t change the driver unless Junior wants to leave. Hendrick won’t leave that cash cow, either. Junior is there through 2012 whether he runs bad or not.
Kurt: I’m sure he doesn’t want to leave. Where would he go?
Amy: I’m not sure Junior really wants to drive full-time anymore. And that might be the crux of the problem. He doesn’t drive like his heart is in it anymore.
Beth: He hasn’t driven like his heart was into it for a while now.
Matt T.: I certainly agree that he’s a little disillusioned. Again, the vacation….
Kurt: The thing is, when drivers have seasons as bad as Junior’s has been, it’s not often that they rebound and run great. He might be in the top 15 next year, but I don’t see him challenging for a title.
Tom: Think about how bad this year started: he missed his pit, then wrecked in the 500 (and was blamed for causing it) to cause the pressure on Tony Jr. to start almost instantaneously. He never, ever had enough good runs in a row to be given a chance to even breathe. And he desperately needs that chance.
Kurt: Still, he’s gotta suck it up and get going.
Amy: I agree… but I really do wonder if he might just walk away.
Kurt: I do think he may have considered retiring in a few years, Amy.
Beth: Wouldn’t you be if you were running races like he has this season?
Tom: If I were him, I would even go further than what I said up top. Pull a Marcos Ambrose, which means go to a foreign country, disappear for two months and don’t come back at Daytona. Film a speech for winning Most Popular Driver before you go. Just don’t be anywhere near NASCAR in the offseason and start fresh.
Beth: That would probably do wonders for his confidence and stress level, Tom.
Matt T.: I think Junior’s trying to make sense of things. He certainly needs this offseason to recharge the batteries and as Tom said, come back fresh.
Amy: He doesn’t need to go to a foreign country, just retreat to his compound.
Tom: I do get a kick out of people being like, “Junior’s depressed.” Well, duh… If you were outside the top 20 in points with the series’ best team, had the worst luck in history and everything on your car seems to break on command, wouldn’t you be just a little upset?
Amy: But something needs to happen. Junior is too good a driver to just fade into the back for the rest of his career.
Kurt: When the pressure is that great, maybe you do tend to tighten up and miss your marks.

The Hall of Fame tally is in, with Bill France Sr., Bill France Jr., Richard Petty, Junior Johnson and Dale Earnhardt making it in. Did the selection committee make the right call and should the first class have included more than five names?

Amy: I really think the first class should have been bigger – at least 10. Partly because some too-deserving people got left out, and partly because I’m not real big on paying the exorbitant ticket price I’m sure they’ll have to go see five plaques.
Matt T.: Yeah, I think more than five in the first class would’ve been the better way to go. And I think Pearson should’ve been in… over France Jr. or Earnhardt.
Kurt: Five is good, just like baseball. I’m OK with it, I guess, but David Pearson should be in.
Beth: With so many greats in NASCAR’s past, it’s hard to pick just five in the inaugural season. That being said, I’m happy with who is in this year.
Tom: I had Pearson over Johnson, personally. But I don’t really have a problem with the nominees. I also think five is a nice limit to start.

[irp posts=”24626″ name=”Thompson in Turn 5: NASCAR’s Hall of Fame Votes Are in and the Committee Got It (Just About) Right”

Kurt: I don’t know about Pearson over Earnhardt, Matt. Can’t really deny The Intimidator. And five is fine because it makes it special. You get to 10 and there aren’t any disputes for us to rant about.
Amy: No, Kurt, but look at it this way: Earnhardt deserves in, but if he were still alive, Pearson would have gone first.
Kurt: I don’t even know about that, Amy. Seven titles vs. what, three for Pearson?
Amy: 105 wins for Pearson.
Kurt: Different eras, Amy. Pearson wouldn’t have 105 wins in Earnhardt’s day. I’m not denying Pearson should be in, but not over Earnhardt.
Amy: Why? Would you honestly think that if he hadn’t been tragically killed? Pearson and Petty defined the sport for many, many years before Earnhardt did.
Matt T.: I think Pearson was the better driver. It’s that simple. That said, I’d have had Pearson in over France Jr. But again, it’s hard to make a wrong call here. It’s splitting hairs time.
Tom: And even people that hated Earnhardt would agree he’s one of the best in history.
Beth: I was one of those people, Tom. I never was crazy about him, but I always respected him and what he brought to NASCAR.
Matt T.: Earnhardt is more popular in martyrdom than he was while he was racing. With the fans, anyway. It sounds crass, but it’s true.
Amy: He is one of the best, but I still say he would not have gotten in of not for the wreck.
Tom: I love Pearson, but Earnhardt did more to bring the sport into the national spotlight. I think both should have been in the first class. And I can’t believe how many people are pissed off over the Frances being in. Hate to tell ya, but we wouldn’t even be here talking if it wasn’t for them. Just because it’s a family-owned sport doesn’t mean you don’t let those founders in.
Beth: Exactly, Tom. I thought those two were a given this year.
Amy: Bill Jr. should have gone in next round. I think they should have kept it chronological or something.
Tom: Well to me, it’s about overall contribution to the sport, and no one contributed more than the Frances – they own the darn thing. For the last spot, I think Pearson edges out Junior Johnson in that department… just barely.
Amy: I disagree. Johnson has 50 wins as a driver, but over 100 as a car owner.
Tom: Johnson was the best car owner, no doubt. But I think the sport came to national prominence through the drivers first and foremost.
Kurt: I might say Pearson over Johnson or Bill Jr., but I’m not losing sleep over it. All I know is there’s no way could Petty be denied.
Amy: Richie Evans and his nine championships got screwed, too. We talk about Johnson maybe winning four in a row… Evans won eight in a row!
Matt T.: Well, I don’t see how you could put Evans in over the five that got it, Amy. I mean, really. And I mean no disrespect to Evans, either.
Amy: Evans should have gone in over Bill Jr., Pearson and Earnhardt. Nine titles, Matt! Eight in a row… nearly 500 wins!
Matt T.: What series was he in again? Look, Evans was a great driver, but c’mon. He wasn’t even in the same series as Petty, Pearson and Earnhardt.
Amy: So what? Have you ever seen a modified race? If anything, they are more competitive, have more parity and therefore are harder to win.
Matt T.: It’s like putting in a career minor leaguer with the most home runs – hello, Crash Davis – over DiMaggio.
Amy: No, it’s not. Mods are not minor league, despite how NASCAR treats it.
Matt T.: Actually, they kind of are.
Tom: It’s not NASCAR’s top series, Amy. By your argument, Sam Ard should go in the first class. I have Richie relatively high on my list, but not the first class.
Matt T.: Thank you.
Amy: Sam Ard didn’t have nine championships.
Matt T.: Again, Evans was great in his own right, but how can you put him in over Petty, Pearson, Johnson or Earnhardt?
Tom: Petty = best driver on paper, Earnhardt = best in modern era, Frances = founders and responsible for the sport’s growth, Johnson = best car owner in two different decades AND darn good driver, too.
Kurt: But Pearson raced in a day when you could win 20 in a season, Amy. Earnhardt didn’t; if he could, he’d have had 150 wins.
Amy: 500 wins, nine championships.
Matt T.: We’ll agree to disagree on this one. First class is rarified air.
Kurt: What about Cale Yarborough? Did anyone think he should have been in on the first ballot? Or Darrell Waltrip?
Amy: Yarborough and DW should both go next year.
Kurt: As well as Pearson and Cole Trickle.
Tom: Second ballot, guys. Now see how fun this debate is? How fun would it have been if we allowed 25 people in the first class? NASCAR is not like other sports. You’re not going to have five qualified people retire every year… maybe two, and some years none, so we need some time to catch up. A limit of five allows us to do that.
Kurt: Yeah Tom, it’s more fun with fewer picks. And we can dispute it forever, but the choices aren’t a travesty by any stretch. Pearson should be in, but he’ll be there soon enough.
Matt T.: Right on Kurt. He’ll headline the class next year.
Kurt: As will Allison, Yarborough and Waltrip. They’ll have their day.

Steve Park‘s return to NASCAR’s top-three series in the Camping World Trucks next week will mark over a year since he has competed at this level. How long is too long for a driver to be away from upper-level competition and still be capable of a strong comeback?

Beth: You can’t put a number on how long is too long. I could understand if Park hadn’t been racing all this time, but he’s run the last two full seasons in the Camping World East Series. It’s not like he’s just been at home sitting on the couch hoping for an opportunity to come his way.
Kurt: I think he’ll be fine if he can see OK.
Amy: But I don’t think he’ll ever be the driver he once was.
Beth: Given some time to work at it, he could be Amy.
Matt T.: We’re talking Steve Park here, so he’ll be fine. In general I don’t know that it’s an issue if a guy has proven Cup experience and has been running a series like Camping World East. I think Beth hit the nail on the head.
Tom: With Park, Jerry Nadeau and Ricky Craven, the first thing I think for each of them is “what might have been.” With head injuries like all three of them received, there’s no timetable that works because they’ll never be 100% behind the wheel again in my eyes (unfortunately).
Kurt: I don’t know about Nadeau, but Craven and Park, certainly. Always did think Park was underrated.
Amy: I agree, Tom. And the thing is, after a relatively short amount of time, there are many subtle changes in setups that work, and if you aren’t driving them, you can’t keep up. What was fast a year ago isn’t fast now.
Matt T.: You have a feel, though, Amy. He’s a world-class driver. If Ambrose can jump in, Park can jump back in.
Beth: Exactly, Matt.
Amy: But what you have a feel for is outdated and slow, Matt.
Matt T.: Park still has the chops. He’s been behind the wheel of something ever since he “got through” the rehab.
Amy: Park never should have attempted to come back when he did. If he had waited, he might have made it.
Matt T.: Maybe, but he also may have been forgotten. You know how it works: Out of sight, out of mind.
Tom: OK, so Ricky Rudd was out of the sport for a year and then jumped back in a Yates Racing car. First five races: 26th, 27th, 30th, 26th, 38th. Didn’t get on his feet until the sixth race, a 13th at Martinsville.
Beth: And that’s fine. No one’s expecting him to go to Talladega and win.
Tom: But that’s what bothers me about the Park deal. It’s not top-level equipment, and it’s been a while.
Beth: You’re right about one thing, Tom. Corrie Stott Racing doesn’t exactly bring the best equipment to the track.
Kurt: It amazes me that these guys can sustain these types of injuries and still want to come back.
Tom: Kurt, I was talking to a Nationwide Series driver this weekend that had a serious injury five years ago.
Matt T.: And…?
Tom: Don’t want to say the name cause we’re doing a feature on it a little later this year… his answer?
Matt T.: Teaser.
Tom: “I can’t ever think of doing anything else. This is what I was born to do.” And I get it. I’ve been a fan of NASCAR for 20 years, writing for eight, working it professionally for four. It’s hard to imagine anything else I’m that passionate about.
Kurt: Most drivers seem to think that. I know it could be seen as a getting back on the horse thing, but I would understand if they didn’t want to risk it.
Beth: Well, it’s kind of like falling off your bike and then getting right back on it. Agreed, it’s on a much bigger and much more dangerous scale when it comes to racing in NASCAR, but sometimes you just gotta get up, dust yourself off, and try again.
Tom: I think people can’t change. They don’t have their heart in anything else… and this is the one sport where as an athlete, the comeback story is possible even when you’re older.
Amy: I hear you, Tom, but if you left for five years, would you be able to come back and write about it as if you had never left? No, because things would have changed drastically. And a driver who already has diminished response and reflexes? Makes it even harder – maybe impossible.
Tom: Good point, Amy, but the same basic skills would be there. I’d just have to adjust.
Beth: No one is saying he’s going to come back and race exactly like he used to.
Matt T.: Like Beth said earlier, Park hasn’t been fishing for five years. He’s been driving. Of course he won’t win (especially in that equipment) but he’s not some rookie all over again.
Kurt: He should be fine. A few races to get the handling and he’ll be back.
Amy: He’ll be OK. But he’s not going to set the world on fire, either.
Beth: He can still be competitive given the chance to get himself back into driving a truck. Not right away, but with the right equipment, of course he could.
Tom: That adjustment won’t happen in one week. The bonus for Park is it’s Talladega, which is not exactly a track that’s a driver’s worst nightmare. They can put trained monkeys in there and qualify those things… great way to get him back up to speed.
Amy: What about, say, Ward Burton? Do you really think he could jump in a CoT tomorrow and run top 10?
Matt T.: Not top 10, but after a few weeks he’d get back in the swing of things. If he had good equipment.
Amy: Well I’m not sure he’d ever be a top-10 points driver again, and that is someone who didn’t sustain a life-threatening brain injury.
Beth: Put him in the right equipment and see where that takes him. Put him in a KHI truck for a year and if he doesn’t run that great, then I’ll come back and swallow my words.
Amy: This nothing against Park, for sure, but I do wonder if he’s been gone too long to come back to the party and dance with the queen.
Kurt: Why do I have an ABBA song going through my head now?
Tom: Betcha that’s on Matt’s wedding playlist!
Matt T.: Probably. In my defense, though, it’s not my call. My fiancé is a dance teacher. She has trump privileges there.

OK, how about predictions for Martinsville.

Beth: Put me down for Johnson. He has won five of the last six races at Martinsville and has finished outside the top 10 once at the paperclip.
Matt T.: Well, after I said what I said about Johnson in the first question, this pick isn’t going to make sense… but I’ll take Johnson.
Kurt: Jimmie? Ya think? Me too.
Amy: I think Martin reminds us it’s MARTINSville, not Johnsonville.
Tom: I’m gonna go with Jeff Gordon to finish us off.
Kurt: And ABBA does the National Anthem.

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 31 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 43 31 3 13 19
Bryan Davis Keith 34 -9 27 4 11 15
Amy Henderson 28 -15 33 4 9 15
Kurt Smith 26 -17 20 4 7 11
Mike Neff 24 -19 20 2 7 12
Vito Pugliese 23 -20 16 1 6 10
Tom Bowles 21 -22 11 1 6 7
Jeff Meyer 14 -29 24 1 7 11
Tony Lumbis 0 -43 1 0 0 0
Phil Allaway 0 -43 7 0 1 3
Matt Taliaferro -3 -46 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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