Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Danica’s Surprise, Judging Underdogs & More

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
Tom Bowles (Mondays/Bowles-Eye View & Wednesdays/Did You Notice)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays/Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter)
Bryan Davis Keith (Tuesdays/5 Points to Ponder)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Co-Managing Editor/Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)
Vito Pugliese (Wednesdays/Voice of Vito)

Danica Patrick announced she’ll run the Coca-Cola 600, not the Indy 500 as part of the Sprint Cup Media tour this week. Bad “business decision” for the former open-wheeler? Or the right move for someone whose long-term decision is to focus on stock car racing? Most importantly, is the fact these open wheelers are no longer willing to try the double bad for racing in general?

Bryan: Sure, it’s the right decision … if she was ready for Cup. Danica Patrick hasn’t even run a full Nationwide season and we’re already talking starts in the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600?
Tom: I know it’s conspiracy theory-esque, but I almost thought this decision was intentional by those mysterious “business people.” NASCAR knows open wheel is on its knees right now at a critical time and now, the most marketable star won’t be within 500 miles of Indy the whole month of May.
Phil: The fact is the main purpose behind doing the double was trying to win both of the dang things. That is basically not possible today. Maybe the new DW12 will even the playing field a little.
Bryan: All they’re doing is building up the inevitable return of the Indy 500 to an earlier start time so Danica can pull the double, run 25th in both races and be lauded for it.
Tom: What’s puzzling is that Danica is going to be running nine other Sprint Cup races. She’s going to get the experience she needs, including at the Daytona 500, the sport’s biggest race. She doesn’t have to run Charlotte. She could easily run the Nationwide race that Saturday, fly to Indy after having qualified the week before and run the darn thing.
Beth: Well I’m not completely sold that she’ll be ready for the Coke 600 when it comes around, anyway. But if her long-term focus is stock car racing, it’s a smart move.
Phil: The Indianapolis 500 is considered to be “easy” compared to the Coca-Cola 600. Or, at least that’s how Tony Stewart considered it.
Vito: When Tony, Robby Gordon and John Andretti tried it, it was a much different time and they did not have the sort of media scrutiny – scratch that – unhealthy obsession with them that DP is going to have.
Tom: Regardless, it is a huge sucker punch to IndyCar at a time when they’re already weakened.
Vito: To make it work at Indy you need a dedicated team and to be focused on it the entire month of May. That’s just not going to happen with the focus that is going to be demanded of her in NASCAR, plus her time running a full Nationwide schedule and running 600 miles. The most she’s done so far is 300 in a stock car. Unless you know for a fact you have a car that is capable of contending for the win, what’s the point in even trying it? Then both programs suffer and she’s going to get a bunch of crap for it.
Tom: See I think she would have had a dedicated team, Vito, How do you not hire a woman who comes with millions in marketing support? And she has a great track record at Indy, too. She could have one of the best rides at her disposal if she pursued it.
Vito: She does not have one as of now – so unless it’s Penske, Ganassi or Andretti Autosport, why bother taking the risk?

See also
Professor of Speed: Is It May or December? The Teaming of Danica Patrick & Mark Martin

Tom: The IRL would bend over backwards to get her in just one race. With a capital B.
Vito: They’d probably bend over forward, too. If you know what i mean.
Phil: If she did it, GoDaddy would throw a buttload of money at it.
Beth: Could it be that she’s a little unnerved after Dan Wheldon and that played into her decision?
Tom: That’s an interesting point, Beth. Didn’t think of that.
Bryan: Here’s the final word. Even with a down field, I doubt Danica even could qualify as it stands for the 600. This is a complete non-starter issue and we’ve already given it more ink than it deserves.
Phil: Of course she’ll get into the 600. It’s not like Team Red Bull throwing AJ Allmendinger to the wolves at Charlotte in 2006 and him being 10 mph off the pace.
Beth: Meanwhile, the bigger problems in IndyCar need to be addressed if losing one driver is that much of a blow.
Bryan: You’d think NASCAR would learn that lesson from IndyCar. They built a huge cult around everyone’s favorite GoDaddy girl and the second she got bored their business model faltered.
Vito: The sport is bigger than Danica – but it’s NOT bigger than the Indianapolis 500. That’s IndyCar’s biggest problem. They have one race a year that anybody outside of diehard open-wheel fans and people from Brazil care about.
Phil: The whole Patrick thing had been an issue for the Izod IndyCar Series since her rookie year. It was all Danica, all the time. Made me despise Todd Harris.
Bryan: So why, exactly, is stock car racing preparing to go down that path?
Vito: I actually am glad to see her not trying it. It shows me that she is serious about stock cars, dedicated to the Nationwide effort and working towards being a Cup driver.
Tom: I think she can be serious about stock cars and still try Indy. It’s not like Gordon got kicked out of NASCAR for doing the double every year.
Beth: I still think it’s hands down, the right decision. Since she wants to be in stock car racing long term, it’s a smart move in trying to learn as much as she can before he’s full time in Cup.
Tom: See, I look at it differently in that this year is the only one where Danica doesn’t have the pressure of making the Chase. Every year starting in 2013, that’s going to be an issue and an easy excuse to preclude her from doing the double. So if she’s not doing it this year, forget it.
Phil: I can’t imagine her making any Chase before 2015.
Tom: Neither can I, Phil. But she’s going to be trying to make it every year. And Indy will take away from that.
Bryan: Can we talk about racecar drivers instead of glorified models now?
Phil: The lack of stars in NASCAR willing to do the double does hurt the Izod IndyCar Series. However, they’ve needed to do a better job marketing the rest of the drivers for years.
Beth: Exactly, Phil. And without Danica in that field, they’ll actually be able to do just that.
Vito: The Indy 500 will survive without Danica and frankly, I think it’s good that she isn’t running this year for both NASCAR and IndyCar. With the tragic passing of Wheldon, his win and memory will be the big story for Indy this year.
Tom: I will say this much, Danica will not win a race in Nationwide this season. But she’ll impress. Top-10 finish in the final points standings, guaranteed.
Vito: She can win a plate race.
Phil: I think a win’s possible and finish around sixth in points.
Bryan: Will there be 10 drivers that run the full season in Nationwide?
Tom: Yes, there will Bryan. We’ve already got about 25-28, 15 of which will be competitive.
Vito: Yeah … “full time” … 90% of the time they’ll be behind the wall with “ignition failure.”

The other big story of the media tour so far is Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards “cutting back” their schedules of racing in other series. Is this a sign NASCAR’s “one series” points rule actually worked And will this move improve their performances on the Sprint Cup level?

Bryan: I’m not 100% ready to say it vindicates the one series ruling, but it does a lot of damage to the Cup drivers’ argument that made Nationwide racing out to be such a necessity. Instead, we’re seeing proof positive that unless they can trophy grab, there’s not as much incentive to race.
Vito: Probably more of a focus from their respective owners to bring home a championship. These are the top-two drivers of the last five years to not win a Cup championship.
Phil: In Kyle Busch‘s case, it’s more his behavior. The cutback wasn’t necessarily all his idea.
Vito: Yeah, Kyle is probably walking a fine line with M&M’s as well after that little dust up at Texas.
Tom: I think Vito makes an interesting point. The best drivers not to win a title during that span have also had the most “extracurricular activities.” So why not try a different strategy? The sponsorship is always going to be there for these guys to win elsewhere.
Vito: With all of the money that Ford just threw at Carl Edwards, too, they probably have a say in who and where he spends his time and energies. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne can go Nationwide racing all they want; Carl needs to bring Ford home the trophy that matters on Ford Championship Weekend.
Bryan: Name me the last Cup champion that won the title with extensive Nationwide starts the same season. That’s all you need to know.
Tom: With Carl, I think it’s an opportunity to spend more time with his family, focus on the racing that really matters and seal the deal after coming so close in two of the last four seasons.
Vito: Not to poo-poo or diminish the Nationwide Series in anyway, but he’s paid handsomely to be the face of Ford’s involvement in the largest racing series on this hemisphere.
Phil: Bowles is right. Carl has a kid now and I don’t think he wants to miss too many important moments.
Tom: Two kids, Phil. And he’s also got the new multi-year contract along with the expectations that come with it.
Beth: You’ve hit the nail on the head with Carl. As for Kyle, I’m honestly not surprised. After Texas, people (fans, media, fellow drivers and sponsors) are all looking at him differently whether they’ll admit it or not.
Tom: I also think that it’s notable Kyle’s not competing in the TRUCK series. I wonder who might have pushed that.
Phil: I’m starting to think that if Kyle kept up that schedule of racing, he would start to break down at a somewhat early age.
Tom: Well the beefs with Kyle aren’t as strong in the Nationwide Series, where the last couple of seasons have been overrun by Cup guys anyway.
Bryan: Truthfully, there is probably an argument to be made money-wise, too. The budgets for Carl and Kyle’s NNS teams are borderline Cup money. A development driver isn’t going to be screaming for the kinds of resources those two will in the minor leagues.
Vito: After seeing what happened to his brother, Kyle knows he’s one slip up away from helming the wheel at Front Row Motorsports.
Bryan: The argument with Kyle can also be made … what do you have left to prove down there? The amount of races the guy wins, it’s like watching Alabama play SE Central Louisiana Tech 12 times a year.
Beth: Good point, Bryan.
Tom: Well, how you know Kyle’s getting pressured from the outside is because this hurts the pursuit of Richard Petty‘s 200 wins.
Vito: Kyle is about 170 wins short of the King’s mark. Beating Miguel Paludo isn’t exactly the same as going door-to-door with David Pearson and Bobby Allison.
Tom: Oh I know, Vito. In the world we call reality, you’re absolutely right. But how many times have we seen Kyle openly brag about how he wants to beat that mark? And suddenly, he’s cutting the schedule to the point that’s taking away a dozen opportunities, maybe more while in the prime of his career? That doesn’t make sense.
Bryan: We should totally count Kyle’s ARCA wins, too. Well, maybe Kyle will start winning 10 Cup races a year like he’s fully capable of doing to make up for it.
Tom: True. I think, intentional or not it will be VERY good for Kyle’s Cup career. That guy will be forced to focus, have more energy on Sundays and get more out of the season. But the bottom line is, Kyle believed in that record. And suddenly, he’s running just 15 events and no longer competing in a series where several drivers wanted to smash his head in after Texas. I think outside sources may have been at play there.
Vito: Right.
Beth: There’s no doubt it’ll be good for Kyle’s Cup career, Tom. We’ve talked about it so many times; stretching himself so thin is definitely one of the reasons he hasn’t found the success he’s wanted in Cup.
Phil: Plus, Kyle isn’t exactly considered to be in the best of shape. At least by Sprint Cup standards of today.
Beth: Maybe, just maybe, he’s growing up – albeit a very little bit – and realizes where his priorities really lie.

See also
Kyle Busch Cuts Back on Nationwide, Truck Races In the Interest of KBM

Phil: What Kyle Busch has done in Nationwide over the past few years is Mark Martin times about seven.
Vito: I don’t even think his Nationwide record is as impressive as Martin’s. Half the field didn’t park it at the first pit stop, either.
Beth: If it helps any, I agree Vito.
Phil: The Busch competition Martin competed against was stronger, but he still won a lot. Also, he raced less.
Bryan: Well, no matter what two of the biggest talents in the sport are set to start treating Sunday like the job instead of a job. That bodes well for the sport at large. Why it took both these clowns almost a decade of getting owned in the big leagues to figure that out is beyond me.
Vito: Between going Bo Duke and Charles Bronson, Kyle would do best to focus on one thing and just hide inside his house or RV playing video games during downtime.
Phil: Or even do something with Sam. I’m sure she can think of something for the two of them to do.
Vito: There’s a side-bonus to this phenomenon as well – their absence frees up some airtime and seat time for other drivers who are coming up.
Bryan: Oh please, there’s no free airtime. Danica has all of it locked up. There’s why Carl and Kyle are running; their playground’s got girls now.
Phil: Bryan, the all Danica, all the time gambit has died down a little.
Tom: I think both Carl and Kyle will win more races this year because of better focus. But I think Kyle’s “reduction” in schedule is more of a one-year thing. He’ll be back running trucks in 2013. You just wait and see. They just need a year of politically correct Kyle for all the hubbub to settle down. On second thought, can they get a controversy-free year out of Kyle?
Bryan: I’ll take that bet with anyone stupid enough to think Kyle has grown up. That’s been the story of the early season for three straight years now.
Beth: Controversy-free Kyle? That won’t happen. But he’ll have less chances to get in trouble by not running as many races. And real quick, going back to not running the Truck Series … maybe he’s scared of what Ron Hornaday would do to him.
Vito: Also, as far as drivers getting their s— together, why is every driver at JGR in need of a freaking psychologist?

In just the last week alone, we’ve seen nearly half-a-dozen teams sprout up with their intention to run at least a limited Cup schedule. Are these guys underdogs with an upside or simply more start-and-parks to fill the field? Is there any team you’ve seen that makes you say “there’s real potential here?”

Vito: Start-and-parks, filling a vacuum on the starting grid – and little more than that.
Tom: I think what’s interesting is there are a bunch of Nationwide teams realizing there’s going to be trouble filling Sprint Cup fields. But right now, I see it as little more than a money grab. I mean Jay Robinson, who can barely afford to run a full Nationwide race is suddenly going to compete the full distance in Cup? Come on.
Beth: Unless they’ve got the budget to compete with Hendrick, Roush, Penske, etc. they’re just another group of start and parks to fight for those last few spots in the field.
Phil: Turn One with their limited schedule could possibly be competitive, since they apparently have some backing for a few races. However, a lot of these squads are unknown factors. Anyone hear anything about Hamilton-Means Racing? They released a scheme layout for their car a few weeks ago, but their sponsor (Crusader Staffing) is Hamilton’s company.
Tom: The Sprint Cup business model is still badly broken. Just because these teams are “competing” doesn’t mean they’re going to be able to compete with the Big Five: Penske, Roush, Hendrick, Gibbs and Childress.
Beth: Exactly what I mean. And at what point do they finally realize that and either start-and-park or just give up altogether? Don’t get me wrong, new teams is a good thing for the series, but competing with the Big Five on a shoestring budget is a losing battle at best.
Vito: The horse is already out of the barn. Unless you are affiliated with a Cup team, forget it. I mean, there’s nothing questionable about them trying to qualify for races, show up, earn a living, that’s fine. But just being part of the show does not make “the show” any more interesting, unless NASCAR plans on running more plate and short-track races where the smaller teams have a shot.
Bryan: There really aren’t any new teams to begin with, anyway. It’s existing backmarkers buying a CoT and rolling it out on companion weekends. It’ll make for some entertaining 150s at Daytona and that’s it.
Tom: What’s troubling is that despite the big guns (like Roush Fenway) having to lay off employees, they’re giving no thought to reducing the sponsorship money per car. That’s killing the business model, because the big boys are still asking for $25 million per team. And it’s taking 10-12 sponsors to get the job done.
Phil: Yeah, that’s brutal. They’re essentially swallowing everyone up that would be interested. It’s hurting every series.
Tom: The only way you get the cost down is to break up these juggernauts. And NASCAR doesn’t have the power to do it – these teams are private corporations. And obviously, the teams themselves aren’t going to jump up and say, “Let’s break apart into pieces for the good of the sport.”
Vito: Still can’t believe that the No. 6 is being left idle.
Bryan: This is where the whole spec car model is getting them burned. You reduce the places to experiment and innovate, money will always tell the tale.
Tom: The only other possible way this pattern will change is if a Bayne/Wood Brothers car is able to pull off an improbable victory at, say, an intermediate track. Someone needs to prove you can contend consistently at a fraction of the cost and then have an A-plus marketing department that can convince Fortune 500 companies of that same thing.
Phil: Technically, they could have nipped it a long time ago by putting weight behind the two cars per owner rule. You know, the one that teams circumvented by listing their grandpappy as a car owner.
Tom: It seems recently they’re putting more weight behind that rule now, Phil. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Busch both came out and said because of their affiliations, expanding to Cup would not be possible.
Bryan: Going to actual stock cars again wouldn’t hurt. And speaking of which, Ford’s new Fusion car is badass with a capital B.
Phil: It is a nice one.
Bryan: The new Fusion was the best car I saw at the Detroit auto show. It’s beautiful.
Vito: Has a bit of an Aston-Martin look to it.
Bryan: Anyways, you aren’t going to fix a broken business model with more rules. It can be fixed by removing what money buys from the equation as much as possible. Go to cars that don’t require weeks in the wind tunnel and millions to build and just see what happens. There’s more talent in terms of car development out there than teams to work for right now. Lower cost racing gets those guys in the door and innovating.
Vito: It used to be money was used to buy new parts, test more and build more cars. Now it’s all engineering, simulation and testing at non-NASCAR tracks.
Phil: I would have nipped that and the seven-post rigs a while ago.
Tom: I thought it was interesting that Monday at the Media Tour, Martin Truex Jr. popped up and said, “We have the best simulation people of any team out there.” Not the best mechanics, not the best driver, the best “let’s make a pretend track and try and race in fantasyland” people. NASCAR has become a world of engineering geeks. And that costs a lot of money, while taking away from the driver’s input. The car now comes gift-wrapped to succeed or suck heading into the weekend.
Beth: Most definitely. The problem is that the people who can change that refuse to do so.
Tom: And you know what? With the parity there is today, that means there’s less and less both driver and crew chief can do about it. That new car in 2013 needs to be groundbreaking.

With the Nationwide and Truck series going through major transitions, there’s a lot of big name free agents still without a ride. Who’s the best driver out in the cold who deserves one and will they get their career sorted out in time for Daytona?

Tom: I think it’s amazing that two Truck Series legends, Todd Bodine and Mike Skinner are sitting on the sidelines as of now. Bodine did tweet he has a ride with Red Horse this week – if he can get sponsorship. Which has been a problem for that guy for oh, about five years.
Phil: Yeah. Bodine’s No. 30 nearly shut down in the middle of what turned out to be a championship season.

See also
Fan's View: Is It Time for Daytona Yet?

Vito: Same with Johnny Benson. Wins you a championship, then gets his ride yanked from him.
Beth: Well, Skinner’s been on the sidelines for a while now and I’m just floored that Bodine doesn’t have one.
Bryan: You’d think Toyota would throw Bodine a bone for at least Daytona. The guy is 24-karat gold there.
Tom: I’m surprised Germain Racing is basically throwing their Cup operation away. It’s GEICO, Casey Mears and … that’s it.
Beth: I don’t understand why they made that decision. They’d have been better off running Trucks where the cost to run is so much lower. And Ricky Carmichael pretty much got screwed by the Monster deal with KBM. Not that he’s really done much on the track, but it’s still just a shame.
Vito: Costs too much to run in the back.
Phil: Benson’s a real shame. Basically hasn’t raced more than a couple of times since he won that title.
Tom: Bodine, Skinner and yes, Benson too are all championship contenders sitting on the sidelines.
Vito: Benson got dumped for Timothy Peters because of “sponsorship”. Yeah, OK … Strutmasters. Brilliant. Then he got hurt at his track he owns in a super mod.
Phil: Benson had a deal with some Michigan businessmen to sponsor him (via Pure Michigan) at Turn One, but the deal soured.
Bryan: Because Michigan has no money.
Vito: Pure Michigan was the sponsor of the race at MIS last year – and on Greg Biffle‘s car. Note: Ford’s ballyhooed best-selling Fusion isn’t made in Michigan.
Phil: You forget that Red Horse basically bought Peters’s team (Premier Motorsports), the operation that ran out of a two-car garage.
Beth: Sadly, Vito it’s money that talks.
Tom: Right. Not driving talent. And the trucks are too expensive to run out of pocket. I think it’s important for these “senior” guys to run against the young ones, too. It’s always that mix of ages that made the Truck Series the best NASCAR division out there.
Phil: I think Skinner’s just about done, to be honest. He’s about 53 now, right? We’re talking about someone who made his Cup debut in 1986.
Bryan: Skinner also tears up a lot of whatever he’s driving. He’s fast, but at a cost.
Tom: I do think in the end Toyota is going to put up the money for Bodine to keep racing. I don’t think Skinner or Benson are going to get the rides they deserve, though. Bodine just has been so consistently top five year after year with no signs of slowing down. Skinner is a bit further removed from those championships and Benson has been out of the game for too long.
Beth: Agreed, Tom. Of the three, Bodine is definitely the one that’s most likely to succeed given the chance.
Vito: JB would be fine if he got in a decent ride. It was just a few years ago that he won a TITLE.
Tom: In the Nationwide Series, you would think Mike Bliss could pick something up. One of the most underrated drivers that never gets a chance to stay consistent, in one ride for a full season.
Phil: Speaking of Bliss, is FAS Lane coming back? Haven’t heard anything about the No. 32.
Bryan: I’m sure they’ll be back in some form. Those teams never disappear, they just slap new stickers on the tool boxes.
Tom: FAS Lane No. 32 will be back, with Ken Schrader running at least 10 races.
Vito: Speaking of underdogs, it’s an eye-opener when you see the backmarker trucks in person behind the garage. TV hides A LOT of flaws … most of the trucks have mangled body panels, painted over duct tape and puddles of oil under them.
Beth: Oh, definitely. It was a shock when I walked through the “garage” the first time at Texas.
Phil: Sometimes, it’s pretty obvious on TV. Especially with the smaller squads.
Vito: You can hear the smaller teams running at half throttle on the big tracks when they go by, too. Seriously. Like pace car speed.
Bryan: Same thing in the NNS garage. You should see the smoke cloud that follows Mike Harmon‘s No. 74 whenever they start it.
Tom: It’s the difference between rich and poor. And there’s one thing NASCAR is missing, which I think Obama is mentioning now in his State of the Union … the middle class. NASCAR needs it to survive.
Phil: Middle class = Donlavey Racing in the mid-1980s. Schrader talked at length about that in his book, Gotta Race! He admitted that he didn’t go all out in pole qualifying so that they could come back on Saturday and set the fastest time in second round to claim extra money.
Vito: Maybe the middle class would be better off if we weren’t paying $3.50 a gallon for gas and preventing more oil from coming here from Canada, and surrendering it to the Chinese. Oh, there I go again.
Bryan: The middle class would be better off without free healthcare.
Beth: Don’t get me started on all that right now…
Tom: From racing to politics, that’s when you know you’ve got to cut Mirror off!

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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