Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Chase Longshots, RCR’s Consistency & Judging Leffler

Welcome to Mirror Driving. Every Wednesday, your favorite columnists sit down and give their opinion about the latest NASCAR news, rumors and controversy. 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; Wednesdays/Did You Notice?)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays/Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Fridays/Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)

Six races into the season, history tells us nearly three-quarters of the Chase field will be there after the checkered flag at Richmond in September. So who’s the biggest name currently outside the top 12 that’s not going to make it back in, and why?

Tom: I think Denny Hamlin (post-ACL tear) is the obvious answer.
Amy: I think two of the following three will miss: Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin. Kyle is probably at the top of my list… he’s still got too much on his plate.
Beth: I still don’t think Busch is going to have enough focus on the Cup side of things. He’ll miss the Chase again.
Tom: I’m with you guys on Busch. I think Joe Gibbs Racing is going through the same type of downturn RCR had last year. Also, Juan Pablo Montoya looks like he’s got a tough road… probably too far back already to have a chance.
Phil: We’re still a little early counting people out of the Chase. However, there is a good sporting chance that Montoya will miss, as will Hamlin.
Tom: It’s amazing to me how much evidence there is out there that running Nationwide and Trucks can be a distraction for Cup. And yet all these drivers do it, then give us puzzled looks when they struggle all through the Chase (if they make it).
Beth: Kyle may have a little weight off of his shoulders now that his Truck team has made it to victory lane.
Tom: I think Kyle’s problem is twofold: yeah, he’s distracted, but it doesn’t seem like Dave Rogers has taken the bull by the horns with the Cup program. They just haven’t had the speed, Beth. Last year, you could blame it on luck: they had so many races where things just didn’t go their way. Not this time.
Amy: I do think these drivers need to pick one series to run for the title in and make that commitment. Perhaps that’s the biggest thing in Jimmie Johnson‘s favor the last four years – no distractions from his Cup program.
Phil: Righto. And by making that commitment to Cup, we can have more of an identity for the Nationwide Series.
Tom: But Gibbs and Toyota just seem to be off, period, this year. I think in Montoya’s case, it’s luck but he’s had too many bad breaks already to make a push.
Amy: Like it or not, luck does play a role. That’s not to say you can’t make your own luck, but sometimes things happen.
Tom: I’m a little worried about Carl Edwards, too. Along those same lines, he’s been the only driver where I feel his NNS involvement hasn’t been a distraction… but his Cup team is just off. Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth have contended this season and Carl hasn’t. I’m beginning to wonder if Roush will try and split him up from Osborne again.
Phil: It’s possible. However, we’re still early. If it’s still like this when we get to the 600, then, there’s a problem.
Amy: After winning nine races in 2008, missing the Chase the next two years might warrant that change for Carl. If they don’t pick it up after a year and a half, perhaps it’s time for new people. Another unlikely from last year is Ryan Newman. He’s been pretty off this year so far. I do think Paul Menard will fall out, and Brian Vickers may not have the equipment to stay in, either.
Tom: Newman, I think, will benefit from all the resources he has at his disposal. You’ve got the other five Hendrick/Stewart-Haas cars working so well. After that top five at Martinsville, I think they’ll get on the right track in a hurry. See, that’s the difference with Newman and Montoya. When your confidence takes a blow through bad luck, you need the people around you to pick your team right back up. I don’t think Montoya has that. Heck, he was ready to slit his teammate’s throat a month ago.
Amy: I disagree with Montoya. While teammates are a help, it’s a driver’s own team that needs to pick up the pieces, not the other drivers’.
Beth: But it certainly doesn’t hurt to have the rest of your team on your side as well.
Amy: No, of course not, but if Montoya is depending on Jamie McMurray to pick up his team, he’s looking in the wrong place.
Phil: McMurray’s the newbie to the squad and it should be the reverse. However, Montoya needs to stop wrecking. Once that stops, I think everything else will come his way.
Tom: Looking ahead, Montoya’s only got one career top 10 at Phoenix and two at Texas. He’s never finished higher than eighth in the desert and wrecked two of the last three times in the Lone Star State. Not exactly the track record of a team about to turn it around.
Phil: Montoya ran well at Texas last November before… wrecking.
Amy: I do think that if you look at the drivers sitting just outside the top 12 right now, though, the common denominator for Logano, Edwards and Busch is outside racing. Hamlin hasn’t been 100% all year and Martin just isn’t getting it done. Perhaps Joe Gibbs and Jack Roush need to tell their drivers to pick one series and go with it.
Tom: Well if you look at the way the top 12 stands right now, I think you’re looking at eight drivers already “locked.” Johnson, Biffle, Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart aren’t the type of guys to drop out. So that leaves four spots max and only three drivers really vulnerable: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Menard and Vickers.
Phil: I could agree with that.
Tom: Now look at the list of names trying to get in: Edwards, Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin, Kasey Kahne, Newman, Montoya. Almost everyone on that list is going to get locked out. And that’s a high-quality list.
Phil: I think Martin might get in. I don’t think Newman, Kahne or Montoya will.
Amy: Edwards and Busch are too busy trying to win in another series, Hamlin has a long road of rehab, and the others may be too far back, especially Kahne, Newman and Montoya.
Tom: I’ll stick with Hamlin and Kyle Busch as my first two out. I think Joey Logano actually has the best chance to get in from the JGR camp, which shows you how far his teammates have fallen in just one year.

On the flip side, after missing the Chase entirely in 2009, Richard Childress Racing has all three of its cars inside the top 12 to start 2010 after dropping a fourth team when no sponsor could be found. Is it possible that less is more in Cup these days? And will RCR, or any team, see all of its players in the Chase come September?

Beth: RCR made the obvious decision to dump the team that isn’t bringing in the money. It’s not cheap to run in NASCAR, so I’m certain that the focus on one less team allows for more resources to the three RCR still has. Besides, they wouldn’t have realistically been able to run a fourth team without a sponsor for the entire season. It’s better to just acknowledge that fact and focus on the rest of your organization.
Amy: I think it’s entirely possible that the fourth team was hampering the operation as a whole if it was draining resources. And with no sponsor, dropping it was the right decision. Hendrick and Roush have sponsors for four teams, and can make sure all of them get top resources. If you can’t guarantee the best resources for every team, then run only as many as you can.
Beth: Agreed.
Phil: That’s true. Running four cars for RCR was going to be a stretch as best. Having said that, I’m not sure all three of their cars will get in come Richmond. I think Clint Bowyer might drop off later in the season.
Tom: I think four teams was a matter of right idea, wrong time. Childress expanded without recognizing the costs of expanding and then GM went bankrupt and cost them up to $10 million. That put them in a really tough spot. Contraction and refocusing with the money they had was the best possible thing they could do. They also never got the top-level driver they needed to anchor that fourth program. Casey Mears? They needed a Kasey Kahne-type.
Amy: I’m not sold on all three teams in the Chase yet, but I’d say RCR is the most likely to do it – unless Martin really picks it up for Hendrick.
Beth: I’m sold on Harvick for sure. He and the No. 29 team started showing improvement late last season and have been able to capitalize on it.
Amy: I agree that Harvick will make it, but that could change late in the year if Burton or Bowyer falter and need help. After all, those two are sticking around.
Phil: Especially since Shell/Pennzoil would go with him.
Tom: That’s my worry for Childress down the road – that there is no guarantee Harvick will stay. Where has he said he’s committed to the team through 2010? He hasn’t. And now that his hot start has faded a bit, if he’s hanging around 10th in points in July, I’m telling you, he’s gone. And that’ll shake up that team in a hurry.
Amy: Even if he drives the car through the end of the year, if he decides to leave, why would RCR throw the best stuff at them the rest of the year?
Tom: Exactly, Amy. And how’s this for a scary thought: Harvick leaves, Childress desperately needs a sponsor to keep that third team and Austin Dillon isn’t ready. That leaves… Zaxby’s wanting to bring their prodigal son up to Cup in 2011.
Beth: No no no no no!
Tom: John Wes Townley, driving the RCR No. 29 in 2011. Hide the women and children! And add an extra round of SAFER barriers!
Phil: Yeah, that’s not happening. JWT will not be in Sprint Cup in 2011. Bank it.
Amy: For the love of God I hope RC has more sense than to say yes to something like that.
Tom: Hey, at least Kevin Conway will finally have someone to run with.
Amy: No, Conway will have someone to get taken out by.
Tom: Amy, look who’s running in the Nationwide Series right now for RCR! Not Bowyer. Not Burton. Not Stephen Leicht. Townley. I’m telling you, it would be ridiculous, but I would not be surprised.
Amy: I know, but in Cup?!
Beth: I’d rather see Dillon rushed up to Cup before Townley.
Amy: Holy hell, you’d have 40 cars on the lead lap because they’d all be afraid to try and lap him.
Tom: The way things have been going, if Townley squeezes out a top 10 or two in that car late in the season, that’ll be enough justification for them. I mean, what did Conway have but money and a dream?
Amy: And some talent.
Phil: Agreed. Dillon has been more competitive in his limited action than Townley. Maybe we’ll see something more out of him later this year, but….
Amy: More out of Townley would be two weeks without wrecking someone. There’s a show on Travel Channel called America’s Worst Drivers. I wondered why they were making a TV series about Townley.
Tom: But RCR would have to stay a three-car team to be competitive. And CAT’s sponsor contract is up after this year too, I believe. Anyways, for 2010, Burton is definitely in the best shape out of the three. The chemistry with Gil Martin has been nothing short of impressive. They’re on fire. With Harvick, I think he’s on his way to buddying up with Stewart. Only a question of when. So I think they’ve got one for sure, one wildcard and one “maybe” (Bowyer).
Amy: I think they have two in for sure this season, but which two depends on summer slumps and Harvick’s commitment (or lack thereof) for 2011.
Tom: By the way, to Townley’s credit, he’s not the crash king of the Nationwide Series anymore. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: 5 for 5. Instead of selling sponsorship for him on QVC, Roush has to sell those broken parts and pieces to just break even on his “investment.”
Phil: That was just a shame what happened to Stenhouse Saturday. 35th in owner points through five races. Ouch.
Amy: Well, if he’d stop wrecking. To finish first….
Tom: When Eric McClure is running circles around you, you know things might not be going well in 2010.

Kyle Busch’s Camping World Truck Series win on Friday night was the third time in four races that a full-time Sprint Cup driver won. Is this going to become a problem similar to what the Nationwide Series is experiencing, or is this just an early-season deal?

Amy: I hope that it’s not a trend. I think things will improve when the schedules diverge.
Tom: Well, it’s happened before. Remember when Mark Martin and Busch won a bunch of races a couple of years ago?
Beth: It’s starting to look like a trend. I’m only slightly annoyed at this point, but if it keeps up for much longer I’ll have a real problem with it.
Tom: The bottom line is, unlike the Nationwide Series, those guys will not run for a title. So it’ll all sort out once the Truck Series runs its standalone races these next couple of weeks.
Amy: Title aside, it still makes watching the races less than exciting.
Beth: Especially when SPEED spends way too much time following the leader with no one on the lead lap even remotely close. I wish I had kept count of the time spent while Kyle Busch and Harvick have been up front by a second or more so far this season.
Amy: Exactly, Beth. I like to see the other guys and when the Cup guys stink up the show, we never see anyone else.
Tom: There are so many new guys trying to make a name for themselves in the Truck Series and they’re not starting-and-parking. It was always SPEED’s forte to show them. But this year, it seems like they have fallen victim to a little KBM-mania, so to speak.
Beth: Exactly, Tom. And that’s what my problem is.
Tom: At the same time, there’s so many good truck teams with a chance to beat these guys any given week. It’s not like Nationwide, where Roush, Penske and Hendrick make the gap simply overwhelming.
Phil: True, count is up slightly this year in the Trucks, but there still aren’t that many teams that can beat KHI. Kyle Busch’s team is the only newcomer to that list.
Amy: But watching the individual races, it is that way, Tom – the Cup guys running away with the show. I’m not talking about the championship, but the individual races we have to suffer through.
Tom: Well, I do think the problem just isn’t as big a deal in Trucks as in Nationwide. In Trucks both Busch and Harvick are running what, 14 of 25 races?
Amy: That’s still more than half the year.
Tom: It stills leaves plenty of time for the other drivers to establish themselves. And you have superstars go back to, say, local dirt tracks and moonlight all the time. I don’t have a problem with it as long as they’re not running for the title.
Amy: So we get to watch the regulars in only 11 races? Kind of sad.
Tom: I do think what is hurting everyone is in Busch’s and Harvick’s case, they’re able to pour a lot of money into these side efforts. It’s not like they’re going in blind at a late-model track and hopping into a random car they’ve never seen. These teams are custom-built for their success.
Phil: I don’t know so much about Busch since they’re having sponsor problems, but agreed on Harvick.
Tom: I don’t think they’re going to win every single week in Trucks! Busch and Harvick have won the last three in a row but this same thing happened last year! It was Busch, Busch and Harvick in races 2-3-4. Two months later, the regulars were winning and everything was fine.
Amy: It’s nice to be able to afford to buy wins, I suppose, but it sucks for fans of less fortunate drivers. And another thing with Busch: right up until the season started, he said he was trying to find a sponsor for Johnny Benson, but he had no problem taking one for himself first.
Beth: Hate to break it to ya Amy, but money is the name of the game when it comes to NASCAR. Just look at the number of teams that start-and-park all across the sport each week to make the most money with the least wear and tear on their equipment as possible. And that could just as easily have been a sponsor call, not a Kyle Busch call, concerning Benson.
Amy: Benson could have been in that truck on Friday instead – and how much more popular would that have been?
Beth: It’s all a matter of what Dollar General wants. They know Kyle Busch can win in just about anything and I imagine they wanted him behind the wheel.
Tom: And to play Devil’s Advocate, who knows if Dollar General would have gone with Benson, Amy? It all boils down to marketing dollars and what’s available.
Beth: My point exactly, Tom. You put the driver behind the wheel that the sponsor wants. They’re the ones paying the money, so they’re the ones that dictate who races.
Tom: Let’s not forget Kyle’s also employing Tayler Malsam, so it’s not like he’s shutting out other drivers completely.
Amy: Maybe, maybe not. If the team owner puts his foot down and says, I’ll drive five races, but I want to put a series champion in the truck the other nine, I bet they’d have gone for it.
Phil: I think that someone like Benson is very talented behind the wheel. In that No. 18, I think he could easily win. However, I don’t think he’s as brash as Kyle.
Tom: If NASCAR doesn’t want the occasional moonlighting in Trucks, they need to ban the drivers from taking the wheel. But they’re afraid, for reasons I don’t understand.
Amy: And he also picked Malsam after making all that hype about a ride for Benson.
Beth: So now you’re saying Kyle shouldn’t bother to race his own equipment? Give me a break!
Amy: I’m saying he should have kept his word.
Beth: And I bet he would have if – and that’s a big “if” – the potential sponsor was to agree to it.
Amy: I think if he’d really insisted they likely would have – possibly for a bit less money, but maybe not. Being able to say you sponsor a champion is probably a big deal.
Beth: We’re going to have to agree to disagree. Kyle has to do what’s right for his team and if that means putting himself behind the wheel for a sponsor, then that’s what it takes.
Tom: Agreed. The sponsors are going to want to go with Busch. It’s a no-brainer for them in terms of exposure.

NASCAR parked Jason Leffler at Nashville after Leffler, apparently intentionally, put James Buescher in the wall after Buescher spun the No. 38 earlier in the race. Was the three-race probation handed down to Leffler appropriate?

Beth: Three races probation is fine.
Phil: If NASCAR escalates the penalties, you throw out the idea of “Have at it, boys.” They’re not going there.
Tom: I think Leffler had a right to be mad in this case. Buescher flat took him out. I put this under the category of, “Teaching a rookie a lesson.” Three races probation is the perfect penalty. I’d be OK with two because he didn’t flip. And as I’ve said before, this policy is here to stay and it’s going to be like it used to until someone gets hurt. The second there’s a sprained ankle, NASCAR will about-face and send these guys to prison because they’re afraid of a lawsuit.
Amy: I hate to say it, because in the end I still think it’s wrong, but there is no way Leffler should’ve gotten one bit more than three races probation. And neither should the guy who intentionally wrecks someone and gets badly hurt. NASCAR made its bed.
Tom: I agree. I do think Buescher learned his lesson; man, was he humbled walking out of the care center. But we were reminded of both sides of this issue Saturday, how NASCAR is playing with fire… literally. I mean, the No. 1 car caught on fire! Buescher could have been seriously hurt. But then again, Steve Wallace broke his foot in a random wreck. They know the risks.
Phil: I would’ve been fine with two-race probation. I could’ve also been fine with zilch.
Amy: I do believe that someone is going to get seriously hurt if NASCAR allows the trend to continue. But at this point, they need to live with that after their pansy-ass slap on the wrist to Edwards. I will hand it to Leffler – at least he tried to make it look unintentional. And he didn’t wear white gloves!
Phil: ESPN had a good shot of Leffler’s gloves, but I couldn’t see anything. I really don’t see this being an issue every week, though.
Amy: I think it has the potential to be a big issue, Phil. Say Buescher comes back at Phoenix hell-bent on taking Leffler out. What’s to stop him? Ditto with Kenseth and Gordon.
Phil: Technically, nothing. However, these drivers need to pick their spots.
Tom: I thought Leffler’s post-race interview was awesome. Kyle Petty said it best… so hard to bull$%^& with a straight face!
Phil: It was kinda classic. One of those “You just know he’s lying” quotes.
Tom: And I think that’s something Buescher has learned as well. He’s a guy with a history of getting cocky.
Amy: NASCAR isn’t going to stop them if they want to do it every week. It’s unsportsmanlike, but hey, it’s “policing themselves!”
Tom: Well, unless you come out and win your first three races, these guys have a way of cutting you down to size when you move up a level.
Amy: I don’t disagree that Buesher needed a lesson taught, but you don’t have to wreck a guy to get the point across.
Beth: Why not? NASCAR said it was all right when they gave Edwards such a tiny penalty.
Phil: I think NASCAR was afraid that essentially doing anything would usurp their new philosophy.
Beth: And I get that Phil, but I definitely don’t completely agree with it. I don’t have a problem with the veterans putting rookies in their place at all. In fact, I’m alright with Leffler’s lesson to Buescher.
Tom: It’s happened through 60 years of competition, guys. Rookies have been cut down to size by the veterans. The best rise above it. It’s sink or swim. So now, Buescher will sink or swim. Unfortunately, hazing at 200 mph presents a risk along with it, but there’s a risk anytime you tackle someone on the football field, too. Danger exists in all of athletics and the athletes understand that when they sign on the dotted line.
Amy: I’m just saying there are ways of effectively intimidating another driver without dumping him.
Phil: That’s definitely true. Burton mentioned something recently about an incident with Jack Ingram. Ingram doesn’t remember any of it, but Jeff remembered the whole thing. Apparently, Jack was unhappy with Jeff’s on-track conduct, so he walked up to Jeff, picked him up and berated him.
Amy: Now see, that’s effective and entertaining! Does anyone else remember the time Kurt Busch took out Junior and Junior shadowed him lap after lap? Classic and effective. 2001, I believe. One of Busch’s very first races – I think it was at Dover.
Tom: I think there’s a fine line here and when you open it up, it’s going to take drivers a while to know where it is and how not to cross it. But I’d rather have them open it up – with drivers knowing the inherent risks – then have everybody buttoned up, run single-file and play nice.
Amy: But it doesn’t have to be either of those extremes, Tom. You can rough a guy up without wrecking him. NASCAR says it’s not a fine line and that’s the problem. Either they have to let everything go or stop it with real punishments.
Phil: A simple shot in the door is plenty most of the time. I still think that post-race out-of-car meetings are probably better to get over these beefs.
Amy: And NASCAR could have easily made it clear that one is acceptable and the other is not. To me, you should never have to wonder if the penalty would be the same with the roles reversed, and so far I wonder, especially with the Edwards incident.
Phil: Some people would have considered NASCAR spelling out what’s acceptable and what isn’t to be nothing more than the previous status quo.
Amy: I don’t think they had to spell it out – just make it clear through appropriate penalties what’s acceptable.
Beth: I’m OK that NASCAR didn’t give Leffler anything more than three races. NASCAR chose how they would handle intentional wrecking, and they stuck to it.

How about some predictions for Phoenix?

Beth: Johnson.
Amy: I’m going with Johnson too. I need some points.
Tom: You know, I was thinking Johnson but for some reason I feel like it’s a Martin-type of weekend.
Amy: Mark needs one.
Phil: Oh, man. After seeing the Top Gear dudes drop a piano on a Morris Marina from the 1970s, I’m going with Gordon.
Tom: Remember the teamwork philosophy… they’ve got a fallen man right now.
Amy: That didn’t help Junior much last year.

Mirror Predictions 2010

Welcome to our fourth 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 five races, here’s how our experts have fared so far:

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Amy Henderson 16 6 2 3 6
Phil Allaway 11 -5 5 0 2 5
Beth Lunkenheimer 9 -7 4 1 3 3
Bryan Davis Keith 4 -12 3 0 1 2
Summer Dreyer 4 -12 4 0 1 2
Jeff Meyer 1 -15 3 0 0 1
Tony Lumbis 0 -16 3 0 0 0
Matt Taliaferro 0 -16 1 0 0 0
Kurt Smith 0 -16 1 0 0 0
Tom Bowles 0 -16 1 0 0 0
Mike Neff 0 -16 0 0 0 0
Toni Montgomery 0 -16 1 0 0 0

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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