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)
Vito Pugliese (Wednesdays/Voice of Vito)
Matt Taliaferro (Thursdays/Fanning the Flames)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Jimmie Johnson is now on the cusp of history at Homestead, needing only to stroke it and post a 25th-place finish to clinch. Looking back over this year’s Chase, is there any type of format that would have guaranteed a closer finish during these playoffs?
Vito: Hah, yeah, the original format! It would be 13 and 51 points right now between Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. That might be a tick more interesting than watching him run ninth all day this coming Sunday.
Amy: Ironically, Vito is right. Imagine that – NASCAR tried to fix something that wasn’t broken.
Jeff: The only format is to not have these “playoffs.”
Matt T.: I don’t think a different format would slow the No. 48 down. Knaus would just adjust the strategy. I mean, there’s a reason Jimmie hasn’t won at a place like Bristol… it’s not “big picture” important to them. They focus on Chase-like tracks.
Vito: Funny too, that in 2003 Johnson finished second to Matt Kenseth by 90 points with three wins and everybody was freaking out because Kenseth won once and it wasn’t that close. Looking back, was it really that big of an issue?
Amy: On paper, the format is what NASCAR said they wanted – the guy with the most wins is the points leader, after all. In reality, it’s what they made the Chase to avoid.
Jeff: The question implies, or is asking, what tweaks can we do to the chase. And the best tweak is to get rid of it.
Beth: I agree, Jeff. Get rid of the Chase and tweak the old points system enough to make racing for the win important. Unfortunately, I don’t know what that magical number would be.
Matt T.: Jeff, I don’t know that any tweak is going to change the outcome with the No. 48 running the way it is. Now, dropping the Chase might, but it’s hard to tell because these guys would race differently under the old format.
Jeff: That’s what I’m saying. Just get rid of the playoffs entirely.
Phil: I agree with Jeff. I’ve never been a fan of the Chase.
Vito: The old format worked well, and would be working well right now if we left well enough alone. Market manipulation never works – it always backfires long-term.
Jeff: You’d think a marketing major would know that.
Amy: There are ways to keep it closer in the Chase format, like point those cars separately. But I agree that getting rid of it would be best. I’ve hated the Chase since day one, but it’s kind of funny that a lot of fans that liked it at first hate it now. I don’t know anyone who hated it before and came to like it.
Vito: The Chase was cool the first year because there were five guys with a shot at it, everybody crapped their pants when Kurt Busch missed pit wall by two inches and the championship went down to the final lap.
Beth: I think that was the only year I actually enjoyed the Chase, Vito.
Amy: And even that wasn’t very good Vito, because the championship came down to luck. We all know sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, but not for the title.
Vito: See? Each year it has gotten worse, more contrived, and hit a low point when 12 guys were allowed to compete. It makes no sense how guys 600 points out are suddenly title contenders. Then they end up losing another 300 points in the next 10 weeks.
Matt T.: I just don’t believe there is any way to “Jimmie-proof” the Chase. Knaus is good enough that he’ll simply shift the focus of the team and win under whatever new format NASCAR throws their way.
Vito: Like with Kenseth in 2003, NASCAR needs not to be changing things to cater to one driver or team. Everybody else that is solidly in the top 12 eventually uses the same strategy.
Amy: One thing that could be done is to have a fluid schedule so that the Chase tracks change yearly.
Vito: That would be good, Amy; or add a road course and Bristol.
Matt T.: That’s what got me about the interview with Dustin Long had with Brian France, Vito. He says you can’t make knee-jerk reactions based on one team’s performance, but in essence, that’s exactly what he did after ’03!
Amy: That’s exactly what he did, Matt, but he’s never going to admit he was wrong… so we’re stuck.
Vito: Like Amy said earlier, a different points system for the Chase guys would work, too; make it a sliding scale, a Formula 1-type system.
Amy: Right, point those 12 separately and it’s a different race.
Vito: 12 is way too many, by the way.
Matt T.: Absolutely.
Beth: That makes four of us.
Amy: If you’re 12th in points after 26 races, you don’t deserve to be the champion.
Beth: So the Chase is the real problem here, and no amount of tweaking is going to fix that.
Matt T.: Yeah, we’re going to have to deal with the hand that’s been dealt. Might as well see how many more the No. 48 can win. I actually would like to see Johnson rack up six or seven straight. We’ll see how NASCAR deals with it then.
Jeff: Play the hand dealt or quit the game. And more are quitting the game.
Amy: There are things that could be done, like creating a separate points system or changing the schedule around, but changing the points system to punish excellence didn’t work in 2004 and isn’t a reason to go wholesale now – unless you dump the system entirely.
Vito: Like everything else that is wrong with the sport today, go back to the way things were and what was proven to work for almost 30 years. Stop making up the rules as you go along and stop trying to make it something it isn’t. That is why it worked in the first place. It’s not basketball or the NFL.
Matt T.: Right, V. That was the appeal in the first place.
Since Lance McGrew was named the official crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2010, the No. 88 team has fallen to a new low, with a 25th-place average finish in the last four races putting them on the verge of dropping outside the top 25 in points. With all the turmoil continuing to surround the team, should Rick Hendrick reconsider keeping McGrew in charge?
Beth: I understand Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been struggling with McGrew, but could it be the real problem is the driver?
Jeff: Junior needs to consider quitting racing.
Matt T.: I don’t know about that, Jeff, but I don’t know that another crew-chief change will do anything, either, to be honest.
Amy: Changing things every six months isn’t going to improve anything.
Vito: Junior’s in a bit of a tough spot. If you rip the crew chief and give him another guy, it looks like the driver is pissing and moaning and demanding changes. But if you keep the guy in place, does Junior continue to search for a stepladder and an extension cord, as his demeanor appears lately?
Matt T.: They just need a clean slate in 2010. Get the hell out of the country for a month, come back fresh and start all over.
Beth: Agreed. Junior just needs a vacation to get his head back into the race. Now if they still struggle next season, it might pay to think about replacing McGrew.
Jeff: I never thought I’d say this, but mother Teresa was right: Junior needs to decide if he wants to be a celeb or a racer.
Amy: Junior and McGrew aside, that team has had some terrible luck this year. Some of it they created, but some… man, the luck fairy was pissed off.
Matt T.: They’re pushing too hard big time, trying to do too much. I really think a clean slate in 2010 will do wonders.
Amy: They are pushing too hard, I agree. Take a deep breath, back off and everyone do what you know you can do.
Vito: With Jimmie and Chad having scored four straight, perhaps it might be time for that “looking for a new challenge” press release with the announcement of a new crew chief for the No. 88. However, if that were the case, the pressure and expectations would be off the charts, I guess.
Matt T.: That’d be juicy, but I don’t know that Chad and Junior would get along in-race too well. Maybe that’s exactly what he needs, though.
Vito: Well, he said he wanted a dictator.
Phil: McGrew and Earnhardt Jr. need this offseason to learn to relate to each other better.
Jeff: I’ll say it again, if his name weren’t Earnhardt, he’d just be another driver begging for a ride from someone.
Vito: He is more than just “another driver.” A few years ago, he won six races and was battling for the championship. He got off track for a couple of years with team and family turmoil. I just think he’s in a compromising position at Hendrick.
Jeff: I think it’s time for the “nation” to face the music… that maybe he just ain’t that good.
Vito: Right. He forgot how to drive a racecar from a few years ago.
Vito: You have Jimmie, who has dominated the sport for the last four years, coupled with Gordon being the flagship at Hendrick. Mark comes in as the veteran and brings the No. 5 team up to par overnight and is a title contender again, while Junior is trying to get up to speed with a new crew chief in midseason. I’m not trying to make excuses for the guy, but in a sport where when you are off a little, you are out to lunch, it’s going to take its toll. Remember, he wasn’t doing that bad the first half of last season. It was the second half where things went sideways.
Phil: I think the CoT has really hurt Earnhardt Jr.
Amy: I agree, Phil. He hasn’t figured it out, but that isn’t a knock on the car – the best drivers have figured it out.
Matt T.: Not necessarily. Gordon is still scratching his head.
Amy: Gordon is learning better than Junior has, though.
Vito: True. The No. 25 with Brad at the wheel hasn’t ran too poorly this year with Tony Jr. setting it up.
Matt T.: I think Junior has the talent. He has won what, 18 races? So he knows how to get it done. I really think that CoT has thrown him. It doesn’t do what the other car did and he doesn’t know how to communicate what he needs adjustment-wise to his crew chief.
Jeff: Then he should focus on the Nationwide Series.
Matt T.: They’re going CoT, too.
Jeff: So he can’t drive the CoT and can’t tell the crew chief what’s wrong… yeah, let’s hire THAT guy!
Amy: If Junior wants to race, he needs to take a deep breath, relax and just race. If the doesn’t, that’s fine, but no need to keep up the illusion. I agree with Matt: Junior never had to learn how to really communicate a car. He can do it when he settles down and thinks on it, but he too often doesn’t do that – he gets frustrated and complains instead of thinking on how to fix it. I’ve heard Junior communicate a car well, but I’ve also heard him fall apart and do nothing constructive.
Phil: In other words, he needs someone that can calm him down long enough so that he can describe the characteristics of his car.
Amy: Yes. Or someone to flat tell him to shut up and either tell him what the car is doing or to deal with it and drive.
Jeff: Sounds like you are describing a new young rookie!
Amy: One thing Junior has never done well either is change his line when the car changes. The funny thing is, he’s shown his teammates how to run better up top, but he can’t run effectively anywhere else.
Jeff: Something a rookie would have to learn.
NASCAR called Brad Keselowski to the hauler after a tangle with Denny Hamlin in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race, after which Hamlin overtly said that he would wreck Keselowski at Homestead. So why call in only Keselowski? And should NASCAR have even gotten involved at all?
Phil: They should have called them both in for a chat if they were going to do it at all.
Amy: Yeah, both of them should have been called in.
Matt T.: It’s nothing new for NASCAR to sit a young driver down and tell him a thing or two… I got no problem with that. And I’m sure they’ll say something to Denny Hamlin this weekend – real quiet like. Not that I expect him to listen.
Beth: NASCAR is going to get involved whether we like it or not, but both drivers should have been called in.
Amy: Did they need the reminder? Yes, because they didn’t learn the last time that a racecar is not a weapon. Hamlin hit Brad Keselowski first; he was trying to wreck him and couldn’t. But Kes got it done and now we’ve got Hamlin threatening Kes. Didn’t NASCAR bench Kevin Harvick for that once?
Matt T.: They’ll need to call in half the field to keep BK out of the fence this weekend! Last chance, boys!
Vito: Brad is the rookie about to move into Cup, and doesn’t seem to have any qualms about taking people out. He also seems to have a penchant for getting into it with Hamlin. In fact, Brad went out of his way to wreck Hamlin.
Amy: Vito’s right. He needs to know he can’t do that.
Phil: Truthfully, though, Homestead isn’t really the place to settle a score.
Vito: Homestead is a bit fast for paybacks. Bristol and Martinsville would be ideal.
Matt T.: I think BK getting roughed up this coming weekend may be good for him.
Amy: On one level, I agree, Matt, but on the other hand, Hamlin would be no more right than Brad was.
Matt T.: Well, it’s an eye for an eye on the track, whichever it may be.
Vito: That would be an eye for a stubbed toe. Though Dover isn’t exactly a jog.
Matt T.: It may not be the best place for it, but Denny’s tweets still sound like he’s PO’d.
Amy: Denny is equally at fault here, too. He needs to grow up as much as Kes does.
Vito: I remember Denny crying in 2006, saying Mark Martin was trying to intentionally wreck him at Las Vegas and Martinsville.
Amy: Now that is funny right there – Martin trying to wreck Hamlin.
Vito: However, Brad actually is wrecking him and taking him out intentionally, so he has a legitimate gripe.
Amy: Hamlin isn’t blameless, Vito. Hamlin tried to wreck Keselowski at Phoenix before Brad got him.
Jeff: Settle it behind the trailer, I say.
Matt T.: Denny and BK are cut from the same cloth. Neither will give in and that’s what we need right now. Let’s be honest, there’s a lot of handholding and Kumbaya going around these days.
Vito: True Matt. Everybody is content pulling $2-5 million a year in salary, 40% of race winnings and souvenirs. Doesn’t leave much to get riled about.
Phil: Is any bump these days considered “attempting to wreck somebody?”
Matt T.: Good question.
Jeff: Yes it is, Phil. Cars should not touch while racing!
Vito: In the CoT, it’s called drafting. In the Nationwide car, it is getting jacked up.
Amy: When you run slam into someone without attempting to avoid them, that’s pretty blatant.
Vito: Gotta keep that momentum up with that dumb carb spacer, though!
Matt T.: BK’s turn 3 deal was wrecking. I didn’t think Denny was so blatant in his turn 1 bump.
Jeff: Maybe because Denny didn’t succeed.
Amy: Maybe Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven should teach that: Close Racing 101.
Matt T.: Just hard racing. Problem is, when those two race hard against one another, the get all PO’d again and someone ends up spun out. And it’s usually Denny.
Beth: You’ve got a point there, Matt.
Matt T.: This all started last year at Charlotte.
Beth: It’s pretty funny that Brad pretty much wanted to let it go as a racing incident, Denny threatened a retaliation wreck next weekend and Brad was the one talked to by NASCAR.
Matt T.: Well, Denny was also the one who was facing the wrong way at the end of it all. Turn the tables and the reactions would probably be reversed.
Jeff: But if Denny had succeeded first….
Phil: It does sound a little odd when you look at it like that.
Amy: Exactly, Jeff. Hamlin was the instigator and he cries now because he couldn’t get it done… but only the other guy is dirty!
Matt T.: IF, Jeff. I just hope NASCAR lets this run its course. They’ll be back next season and it’ll have cooled considerably.
Vito: Is this really the rivalry we need, though?
Beth: I’m not really interested. It’d be more interesting if both parties were into it as a rivalry.
Phil: Right. Brad basically doesn’t say anything about it, to be honest.
Jeff: Overall, I’m with Beth – I’m not really interested.
Matt T.: Again, that’s because BK never ends up with the smelly end of the stick.
Vito: It is nice to hear somebody get into it, rather than the normal, “great job by the all the guys today” drone response.
Amy: Not disputing that, Vito, but since when does NASCAR allow one guy to outright say he’s going to wreck someone and call the other guy in?
Vito: Probably because they know he deserves it. In five days, it won’t matter. Season will be over and that will be that.
Phil: Emotion is always good. As long as no one gets hurt, this could benefit both of them in the long term.
Amy: Again, didn’t they park Harvick for that? So why allow it now?
Matt T.: Don’t have an answer for ya there, Amy. I enjoy the old-school grudge match myself. Reminds me of Saturday nights out at KMS! NASCAR probably realizes this little tiff is good for the entertainment value, so they’re letting it go.
Amy: Well, if you feel the need to deal with this issue, deal with both of them. If not, then don’t call out either one.
Phil: I agree with Amy. Singling someone out in this situation can set a bad precedent.
Matt T.: Can’t say I disagree, but again, I’m enjoying the show for the time being. Beats Harvick and JPM’s playing pattycakes at the Glen.
Vito: The slap fight heard round the world.
At 51 years old, Ron Hornaday became the oldest champion in NASCAR’s top-three series. He’s now the only driver with four titles in the Truck Series; but with a Cup career that’s spotty at best, are those efforts enough to make him a “lock” for the NASCAR Hall of Fame someday?
Amy: They certainly should be. It’s the NASCAR Hall of Fame, not the Sprint Cup Hall of Fame.
Beth: Since when was the Hall of Fame supposed to be just for Cup drivers? Ron Hornaday holds nearly every record in the Truck Series right now and should definitely go into the Hall of Fame when he’s eligible.
Vito: Well, he is the King of the Restarts. I don’t know what basis would be used to exclude him from the Hall of Fame.
Matt T.: I say he’s earned a slot. If Richie Evans can be a first-class nominee, why not Hornaday when his time comes?
Amy: It’s bad enough the winningest driver in NASCAR history was excluded first round – this is the best driver in the history of his series.
Vito: If you’ve won multiple titles, you’ve kind of punched your own ticket I would think.
Phil: I’d agree. I’m struggling to figure out whether NASCAR’s Hall of Fame is going to be more inclusive or exclusive, to be honest.
Amy: Hornaday is what he is – the best driver in the history of the Truck Series. That alone should make him a Hall driver someday.
Matt T.: It’s tough to think of other Truck drivers that might warrant a spot. How many multiple-time champs are there in that series?
Beth: Jack Sprague, for one.
Matt T.: Yup. Looks like Sprague is the only other one for now.
Beth: I think Mike Skinner should be included on that list, though, since he played a major role in the early years of the series.
Vito: Johnny Benson should make it, too. A Truck and Busch title, as well as Most Popular Driver honors. And for having the distinction of being a defending champion to lose his ride before midseason.
Phil: It’s pretty much Skinner, Hornaday and Sprague to me.
Amy: And the Most Popular Driver should never influence the HoF factor.
Vito: I guess Junior’s screwed then.
Amy: Benson is one of only a small handful of multi-series champions.
Vito: He was Cup ROTY and has won races in all three series.
Amy: By default, Vito.
Vito: He finished 11th in points that year. I wouldn’t say by default. And he almost won Indy if not for a botched pit stop.
Phil: And that botched pit stop was in Benson’s rookie year. He also nearly won at Richmond later on.
Matt T.: So if Greg Biffle doesn’t win a Cup, is he in based on the CTS and Busch titles?
Amy: Biffle and Benson are marginal at best.
Vito: Sure, sign him up. Pretty much everybody should get in at some point if they’ve won a title.
Beth: There is absolutely no reason Hornaday should be excluded from the Hall. He is undoubtedly the best driver in series history.
Phil: I think that Hornaday’s career in the lower categories will warrant induction at some point, but I think it might be a while (2020 at least) before he gets in.
Matt T.: It’ll be interesting to see the criteria for inclusion as we go.
Vito: If you’ve won four titles, you’re doing something right. Even if you’re Jimmie Johnson.
Amy: I still say they have the voting process backwards. They should do it like baseball does.
Vito: Because then NASCAR will be like other sports! And we all know how well that’s worked out.
Amy: Yes, but in this case, the other sport does it right. Fans should not be making a final HoF vote.
Vito: It would make sense, since NASCAR never listens to the fans as it is.
Matt T.: Sincerely, the Fan Council.
Amy: The problem with the fan vote is that too many fans don’t know who some of the drivers are and don’t bother to learn before hitting the send button on the ballot.
Matt T.: I don’t think the fan’s vote plays into it that much. What do all the fan votes equal? One vote? And how many voters are there?
Phil: It’s one vote out of 51, I think.
Vito: 51: Rowdy Burns.
Predictions for Homestead?
Matt T.: Who?
Amy: I say Biffle wins, and once again, gets shafted out of a decent interview and celebration.
Matt T.: I’ll take Kenseth to bookend this deal.
Vito: Martin. Johnson finishes 24th. Shannon Spake asks Mark how he feels.
Beth: Kurt Busch is taking his winning Texas car “Patriot” to Homestead, so put me down for him closing out the season with one more win.
Phil: I’m going with Kyle Busch.
Jeff: I’ll take Carl Edwards.
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:
+5 – Win
+3 – Top 5
+1 – Top 10
0 – 11th-20th
-1 – 21st-30th
-2 – 31st-40th
-3 – 41st-43rd
Through 35 races, the All-Star Race and the Shootout this season, here’s how our experts have fared so far:
|Bryan Davis Keith
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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