Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Earnhardt Extension, Delaying Drama & TV-Less Banquet?

Welcome to Mirror Driving. Every week, 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:
Amy Henderson (Mondays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays/Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter)
Mike Neff (Wednesdays/Power Rankings & Wednesdays/Full Throttle)
Kyle Ocker (Frontstretch News Reporter)

The banquet has gotten a lot of flak in recent years for being, well, too boring; even a recent switch to Las Vegas hasn’t helped. But should the banquet even be a made-for-television event in the first place?

Amy: If you hate this question, blame Bowles the editor. He made me replace a good one about Scott Speed with it.
Phil: It should be televised to a certain extent, but it doesn’t need to be a sideshow.
Kyle: Well, 1) it’s not made for television. 2) it needs to be tweaked if it’s going to be on TV.
Mike: I don’t think the banquet should be a made-for-TV event. It is about celebrating the season with the people who made it. It isn’t about TV. I would like to see them do all of the awards in one banquet instead of having the NMPA banquet the night before and do away with the dancing Elvises.

See also
Holding a Pretty Wheel: Imagine if the NASCAR Banquet Was Actually Fun?

Amy: I agree. It’s not about anyone but the champion and to a degree, the top-10 drivers.
Mike: Announce the award winners, hand them the trophies, take a couple pics and move on. Then let the top-10 drivers make their speeches.
Kyle: They do it for the added sponsorship exposure on TV. However, how many people were like me and fell asleep three-quarters of the way through? They didn’t get much exposure.
Amy: The Elvis thing was not only stupid, it was disrespectful. Seriously, it totally detracted from introducing the champion and his team.
Phil: It’s a Vegas thing, like a Jersey thing on South Park.
Mike: I will say one thing. If I go to Vegas anytime soon, there is no freaking way I’d go to see that Cirque de Soleil Elvis show.
Amy: Yet another reason they never should have gone to Vegas in the first place.
Phil: Some of our writing peers were talking on Twitter about how the banquet should be in Charlotte. What do you guys think?
Kyle: That wouldn’t be horrible.
Amy: Agree 100%, Phil. The banquet should be on the East Coast so it can start at a decent hour. Seriously, it needs to be over by midnight. It used to be fun to watch; now, it’s painful.
Kyle: That wouldn’t make the banquet any more watchable on TV than it is now. Although SPEED not running it live is a killer.
Mike: I love that they’re in Vegas, but the entertainment during the banquet is totally unnecessary. I’m pretty sure Frank Caliendo signed his death certificate with his performance this year.
Amy: Who knows, Mike, he sucked last year and they brought him back.
Kyle: Well, the banquet is on a FOX-owned station. Caliendo, FOX, catch my drift?
Mike: It would be smart to have the banquet in the hall that is attached to the Hall of Fame, but that would make sense.
Amy: Seriously, Mike. That thing is losing money hand over fist. I know! Let’s host a major event 2,500 miles away! That’ll show ’em!
Mike: The banquet, if it did what it was supposed to do, would not be great for TV. They can televise it if they want and get low ratings, but it will make some people happy to get to see it.
Amy: The banquets a dozen years or so ago were fun to watch.
Kyle: It could easily be changed to make it a better TV-fit. NASCAR could easily have everyone eat beforehand. SPEED could run their red carpet show that stunk during this time before joining it live.  NASCAR could plan some commercial breaks in, and TV would be done by a decent hour.
Amy: Jimmie Johnson‘s first speech was hilarious. “I have a lot of awful people to thank.”
Kyle: SPEED was too far behind though.
Phil: I guess they need to just let the drivers be themselves. Sure, they can toast the champion and so on (like Dale Earnhardt did to Jeff Gordon in 1995).
Mike: I can’t even remember when they started televising the banquet. Around 1994, wasn’t it?
Phil: I’m not sure. The absolute earliest I can recall was 1993, but it was televised on ESPN before that.
Kyle: Can someone please kidnap Carrot Top and hide him in their basement. I cannot stand him. He is not funny, not the slightest bit.
Amy: Hell, who’d want him in their basement?
Mike: Stick him in Bowles’s basement. Tom could use the company.
Kyle: I was hoping you would, Amy. Come on, take one for the team! If they could get the drivers to be like they were during NASCAR’s “After the Lap,” the banquet would be very interesting.
Amy: Anyone remember the time Mike Skinner tapped his notecards his entire speech? Classic.
Mike: I do remember the Skinner tapping. You could hardly hear what he was saying. They just need to forget about making the banquet some lavish entertainment event and get it back to what it was: The drivers celebrating the year. End of story.

In a more surprising move, Penske racing named Paul Wolfe crew chief for Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Sprint Cup team in 2011.  Is Wolfe, who made the transition from driver to crew chief just a few seasons ago, ready for the challenge, or is the team, with a second-year driver, better off with a veteran on the box?

Phil: It’s going to be a challenge for Wolfe. However, he’s got the chemistry with Brad Keselowski, so he’s got something going already.
Kyle: Chemistry is the only thing they’ve got going. This season will be something to watch this year, for sure.
Amy: I think Wolfe is a decent choice and he and BK obviously work well together. But I do wonder if it’s too soon. I’d hate to see Wolfe over his head and end up out of the series before he even had a chance.
Mike: I think Wolfe has done a great job so far. He and Keselowski seem to gel well, and chemistry is a big thing.
Kyle: Who else could they get? There aren’t many good crew chiefs available right now.
Amy: In Wolfe’s defense, he has proven to be an excellent crew chief. And he used to live in my hometown.
Kyle: Yeah, but you enter the Cup Series and it’s a whole different ball game. Different cars, different competition. The basics of the job are the same, but you are dealing with the Chad Knauses of the world in the Cup Series.
Amy: True enough, Kyle.
Mike: Wolfe has won a championship for Penske. No one else in a stock car role can say that.
Kyle: I’m not saying he is automatically going to be bad.  I’m saying that it may be a slow start.  I think Wolfe has a lot of potential.
Mike: It will be a slow start because the driver still isn’t a Cup-level driver.
Kyle: And I don’t want to get this debate going again, but just because you can win the Nationwide Series doesn’t mean you will in the Cup Series.
Amy: No, it doesn’t. Hence all the Cup guys running the Nationwide Series.
Mike: And vice versa, Kyle.
Kyle: Yeah, but if you can’t win the Nationwide Series yet win five straight championships in the Cup Series, does anyone really care? As long as you win in the big leagues, the rest is history.
Phil: Wolfe is an upgrade over Jay Guy, who sadly hasn’t produced all that much in Sprint Cup.
Amy: I do think Paul Wolfe has the potential to be a great, if not a superstar crew chief. I hope Penske gives him time to adapt and learn at the Cup level.
Kyle: Good chemistry, smart guy, has a lot of potential.  But like Amy said, I really hope that Penske is patient.
Mike: I’m pretty sure Penske will be patient. For goodness’ sake, Sam Hornish Jr. still has a ride doesn’t he? There will be a learning curve for sure, but having Wolfe learn with Keselowski could very well set them up for long-term success. I seem to remember a five-time consecutive champion started out the same way.

It was reported last week that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick Motorsports are working on a contract extension beyond 2012. Is that the right thing to do for both sides in light of Earnhardt’s recent performance?

Kyle: I think it is good to eliminate some distractions. Now he won’t have to answer the “You suck… are you worried about your contract situation” as often. Let him focus on improving and working with this new crew chief.

See also
Full Throttle: Hendrick Motorsports Makes Major Changes - Desperation or Brilliance?

Mike: I think it is. Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs to get his confidence back and having constant questions about how long he’ll be at Hendrick can’t help. And I agree with Kyle; if they can ink an extension, it will keep that question from coming up every week. Look at how it dogged Mark Martin until Kasey Kahne finally inked a 2011 deal.
Phil: Well, it won’t benefit them next season. However, it would eliminate the shenanigans of 2007 well in advance.
Amy: As long as Junior keeps winning that Most Popular Driver award, it’s a good deal for Hendrick.
Mike: When the day rolls around that Junior can’t land a sponsor, we’ll know the sport is doomed.
Amy: Well, he can’t land one for his NNS teams.
Phil: He’s got some Nationwide sponsorship, Amy. All that Unilever stuff on the No. 88. TaxSlayer and Grand Touring Vodka.
Kyle: Well, on the Cup side it’s basically free sponsorship for Hendrick. I mean, the marketing department didn’t have to work at all for Junior.
Amy: True. And they sell his stuff hand over fist.
Mike: I’m not so sure about that, Amy. There was more Earnhardt Jr. stuff at the hauler clearance over Thanksgiving than any other driver. Although merchandise sales are a huge part of why they’re looking at extending the deal.
Amy: The stuff was there because there was more of it in the first place.
Mike: I will say this much: I scored some sweet Junior t-shirts for $5 apiece.
Amy: I saw five t-shirts for like $30 and one of them was $18.
Phil: Were those current (at the time) t-shirts?
Amy: Some, Phil, some older. The Earnhardt one is awesome.
Mike: Yes, the ones I got were National Guard and AMP shirts.
Amy: Anyway, we digress.
Kyle: From a writer’s standpoint, if Earnhardt could win the Daytona 500, well, I think we’re set for the season.
Phil: Man, I’d love to see him win a Cup race. He needs it bad. The confidence is still hurt, though.
Amy: Junior is a truly likeable guy. But merchandise sales and sponsorship money – not performance – have to be a huge part of the reasoning behind this extension.
Phil: It’s crazy how many people were wearing the Wrangler No. 3 stuff in Daytona.
Kyle: Earnhardt is a good loser, unlike other drivers (cough, cough) Kyle Busch.
Amy: He takes the blame for his mistakes, which is more than most can say.
Kyle: And he has proven he can win. He has 18 victories.
Phil: His dad never had a 90-race winless streak, though.
Amy: Bottom line is, now he’s got to produce.
Kyle: He has to produce, but I’m not going to buy this crap that he is talentless and the only reason he is still around is because of his daddy’s name. His dad may have gotten him into the sport, but you have to perform to stay here.
Amy: I don’t buy that either, Kyle. Talentless drivers don’t win 18 Cup races, period.
Phil: He definitely has talent. With the prolonged slump, if he wasn’t Dale Jr., he might not be in his current ride, but he’d still be in Cup.
Mike: Very true, Amy, and the majority of his wins are not on plate tracks, contrary to popular belief. But I agree, Phil. He’d be in lesser equipment.
Kyle: It’s a shame they can’t get Pops to come over and crew chief.
Phil: All but three of his wins have come with Pops. Pops quit after a six-win season.
Mike: I guarantee Pops would turn things around, but he doesn’t want to deal with the Cup circus.
Amy: I think Steve Letarte will be really good for him. I did call that, if you will recall.
Mike: I don’t know if Letarte will be good or not. I don’t know exactly what will be right for him. But Rick Hendrick is a smart man. He’s going to do everything he can to make Junior succeed, and taking away talk of a contract expiration will help that happen.
Phil: Letarte will be a different feel for Earnhardt Jr. I think he can adjust. Might take a little getting used to for him not being able to curse on the radio all the time anymore.
Mike: I am going to be curious to see if it helps having Junior’s cars prepared next to Jimmie’s, since Amy keeps telling us that they like to drive their cars very similarly as far as setup goes.
Kyle: I think the whole shop move and crew chief change should work out. The biggest thing about the whole deal, though, is that Martin got the shaft, big time.  It’s obvious he is merely a placeholder for Kahne. Which is a shame… you drag a guy out of “retirement” and then shove him aside.
Amy: Martin didn’t get the shaft. He gets major players from his 2009 run back, including engineer Chris Heroy. And Hendrick hardly “dragged” him out of retirement, Kyle… Martin just won’t leave. McGrew is a NNS champion crew chief. He can get it done if his driver will help.
Kyle: With Lance McGrew as a crew chief? I think he is a loser in the situation.
Mike: I agree, Kyle. You have a lame-duck crew chief with one career victory. I think Gordon is going to come out the best when we look back at the end of next season.
Phil: You guys are completely discounting Mark. He can easily adjust to McGrew. He’ll probably be equal to this year.
Amy: As he should, as senior driver. With his engineers back, he’ll be better than this year.
Mike: I will not be surprised to see all four Hendrick drivers win next season.
Phil: 2003 is the only year in which all four cars won.
Kyle: Anyone buy the conspiracy theory that they just wanted to separate Johnson and Gordon because the No. 48 team is kicking their ass?
Mike: I don’t buy into that, Kyle. It was just a move to get things moving again. I think things had become stagnant at Hendrick.
Kyle: After 10 NASCAR championships, I’m going to put full faith into whatever decisions Hendrick makes until something shows me he is wrong. Which I don’t see happening anytime soon.

NASCAR will reportedly wait until January to announce any rules changes to the Chase, Nationwide Series participation, and other areas. What do you think will end up happening, and are they waiting too long to announce possible dramatic adjustments to both series?

Amy: It’s totally stupid to wait, not to mention totally unfair to teams and sponsors to keep them in the dark.
Kyle: I think it would be better for them to make these announcements now, to keep the series in the headlines.
Mike: They still need to finalize the rules regarding drivers running in both series. They’re also going to announce some kind of change to the Cup points, too. I wish they’d stop awarding points for drivers finishing lower than 22nd, but they won’t do that.
Amy: That should have been done weeks ago.
Kyle: One thing the NFL and the NBA have to their advantage is that through the entire year, they are still in the headlines. While NASCAR has the longest season, as soon as it ends the news is over until February.
Phil: They should have announced these changes in September or October.
Amy: Exactly.
Kyle: I don’t think it was done at that point, Phil… but if they are at the point where they are saying they are going to announce a points change in January, then whatever they are doing is decided and going to happen. Might as well announce it now.
Amy: Especially the NNS thing. As much as I detest the Cup guys running over there, it’s kind of unfair to wait until the sponsor deals are inked and then tell them they can’t race for the championship.
Kyle: That’s so true, Amy. There are going to be some gun-shy sponsors, too, which means teams will only have a month to sell sponsorship.
Amy: Right. And if you’re a $8 million sponsor that did stay on board, wouldn’t you have liked to know you can’t get the championship before you signed the contract?
Mike: I don’t know that it would matter much to me. The sponsors are about television mentions and recognition. I don’t think too many sponsors care about whether their driver wins the Nationwide championship.
Phil: The Nationwide Series will still allow Cup drivers to drive whenever they want, but they can’t get points.
Mike: I don’t really understand why they’re waiting, except they like to try and build hype starting near the beginning of the year. It is what they’ve always done. I also hope they’ll announce the elimination of the Top-35 rule, but I don’t see that happening either.
Phil: They’ll probably announce Brian’s stupid new Chase format (15 drivers with an elimination somewhere) that almost no one wants and probably 5-10 more points for winning.
Amy: As for the Chase, I totally don’t get it.  How fans could make it clearer that they HATE the whole idea, I don’t know.
Mike: Apparently, they don’t speak loudly enough, Amy. France was stunned to hear a writer had talked to anyone who didn’t like the Chase just last month.
Phil: I’m on record as stating that it’s here through 2014 no matter what. It has to be tied into the TV deal.
Amy: But the vast majority don’t like it. How can NASCAR be that clueless?
Mike: I don’t know, Amy, but somehow the word isn’t getting to the top and that is where the decisions are made in this sport. I’m guessing they’ve never asked the fan council their opinion of the current championship format.
Amy: The problem is, I’d bet that the majority of the fan council is the bandwagon fans, not old-school fans.
Phil: Plus, you’ve got the demographic issue. NASCAR’s audience is the oldest of the major sports and those people are probably the least likely to participate in online groups.
Kyle: I’d like to see the feedback from the fan council. Their numbers must be skewed dramatically. I know we’ve covered that our readers are in almost total unison when it comes to eliminating the Chase.
Phil: NASCAR.com had a poll in which over 75% wanted it killed immediately.
Kyle: I don’t know how much louder fans can scream it.
Mike: I think this is a classic case of the emperor’s new clothes. Much like Elvis Presley in his final days. No one would stand up and tell him like it was.
Amy: And look where Elvis wound up.
Mike: My point, Amy. NASCAR could poll people however they choose and get great feedback. I think Brian’s minions know the fans hate it and just aren’t telling him because it is his baby. That, or he is just completely ignoring it.
Phil: I’m pretty sure he’s ignoring it.
Amy: Brian’s plugging his ears and going, “LALALALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”
Mike: I just wish they’d leave the Chase alone, tweak the points and let us all know what it is. Trying to build up artificial interest during the heat of the NFL playoffs is just dumb.
Kyle: I wish them all the luck with that. If anything, they need to announce it now, otherwise the NFL playoffs will bury it.
Phil: True. The NFL is so popular these days that they might as well disappear during the offseason.
Amy: At this point, anything NASCAR does is done for the wrong reason, period.  Not for the fans, not for the racing, for the Big BF and his giant ego.
Kyle: I think we all know what ESPN cares about more. They can’t even spell Jimmie Johnson’s name right: seriously, folks. Typos happen, but geesh, he has won the last five championships!
Phil: Really? When did they screw up Johnson’s name, Kyle?
Kyle: On SportsCenter.
Amy: NASCAR Online spelled it wrong a few times, too.
Kyle: Check out this link to see what happened.
Phil: It’s Sportscenter. They’re not all that knowledgeable about racing.
Kyle: Yes, but they need to have an expert for every sport at all times. That type of stuff is inexcusable. Mistakes happen, but you can’t have that.
Amy: You don’t need to be an expert to know how to spell the champion’s name. It’s spelled with an IE on the guy’s birth certificate, for Pete’s sake.
Kyle: Yeah, it’s on the friggin’ press release, Copy/Paste? That was the problem, ESPN has access to all of this, but instead they initially cast a football guy for their NASCAR shows. I’m waiting for them to announce Chris Berman as the host of NASCAR Now.
Mike: Erik Kusilias or however you spell his name was the worst choice in the world for that show. I have no clue what they were thinking putting him on there.
Phil: Erik Kuselias? He was pretty rough, but sadly the best of the revolving door of dudes in 2007.
Kyle: He may have been the best NASCAR idiot ESPN has hired.
Phil: I think they had a hip-hop DJ hosting at one point.
Kyle: I still don’t know why they don’t have Allen Bestwick calling the races, too. He seems so wasted with his role in the infield studio.

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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