Frontstretch Staff · Thursday January 24, 2013
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 (Wednesdays / Did You Notice? & Frontstretch Editor-In-Chief)
Amy Henderson (Mondays / The Big Six & Fridays / Holding A Pretty Wheel & Frontstretch Co-Managing Editor)
Toni Montgomery (Frontstretch IndyCar Managing Editor)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays / Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter Editor)
Summer Bedgood (Frontstretch NASCAR Senior Writer)
Matt Stallknecht (Frontstretch NASCAR & IndyCar Contributor)
Mike Neff (Mondays / Thinkin’ Out Loud & Tuesdays / Tech Talk & Frontstretch Short track Coordinator)
It’s hard to compare drivers across different eras of the sport. But 20 or 30 years from now, which active drivers are we going to look back at as the best of this current generation?
Summer: I think you have to look at Jimmie Johnson by default.
Tom: Jimmie Johnson is a given.
Mike: Johnson, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson.
Amy: Johnson is an incredibly smooth, intuitive driver. Jeff Gordon has been winning for 20 years now and is a certain Hall of Famer. But I still think the best pure talent in the sport today is Stewart.
Phil: In Cup, you’re looking at Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Stewart.
Toni: Tony Stewart is the equivalent of A.J. Foyt, 30 years ago.
Phil: But Stewart is A.J. Foyt in 1970, not 1982. Foyt in ’82 was cussin’ out Kevin Cogan in TV interviews.
Toni: OK, so 40 years ago. Time flies… I meant the ’60s and ’70s, just didn’t realize how long ago that actually was….
Mike: Foyt still sat on the front row of the Indianapolis 500 in 1982.
Summer: Anyone who has won a championship in the past five years — which is only three guys, but still — will have to be in the conversation.
Tom: I agree on Stewart. He may have the best raw talent that translates all over the board. Gordon’s legacy, while great has been hurt slightly by the past decade. At one point, he looked to be headed towards the title of greatest driver ever not named Petty. I don’t think that’s going to happen now.
Matt S.: Johnson is the easy choice. Stewart is arguably the most talented and well-rounded driver in the sport. Keselowski and Kyle Busch will most definitely be remembered as well.
Toni: Johnson, Gordon, and Kyle Busch are the best among NASCAR.
Summer: As far as those without championships, I feel like Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, and Denny Hamlin will be in that discussion once they come into their own.
Tom: But Kyle Busch still doesn’t have that Cup championship, boys and girls. That hurts him in the grand scheme of things… his victory total on that side is not as impressive as everywhere else.
Summer: I think he’ll get it, though, Tom. A lot can happen in 20 or 30 years.
Amy: I think Kyle Busch will be right up there if he can close the deal and win a championship. If he can’t, he’ll go down like Mark Martin… a great one but a level below the very best.
Matt S.: I think Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards would have won championships in any other era, but Johnson was so unbeatable from ’06-‘10 that it prevented other drivers from busting through for a title.
Phil: Kyle Busch is a work in progress. I think that he’ll eventually get that title. Just couldn’t tell you when that will happen, though.
Toni: Kyle will get that title if he ever grows up, stops being petulant and shooting himself in the foot…
Mike: To finish first, you must first finish. There are thousands of stories of drivers who almost won something. Foyt came through more than anyone else in everything he drove.
Tom: I still think, if I had to build a team from scratch I’d take a Stewart in his prime over Johnson. Only because we know, for certain Smoke can win with different crew chiefs. And he can win the Indy 500 for you, or the Daytona 500. That’s huge — even though he’s won neither yet! Good motivation for him to keep driving for a long time to come.
Amy: I’m not sure Stewart would fit in a Formula 1 car, but if he did, he’d be competitive.
Phil: Stewart would get back in shape like he did for the Seat Swap if that opportunity came up.
Toni: He fit. I don’t know if he could move enough to drive it, as good as Lewis Hamilton but they shoehorned him in there.
Amy: To me, that’s what separates him from Johnson, who is one of the finest stock car drivers I’ve had the pleasure to watch. Stewart could be competitive in anything. Johnson is an unknown in that area.
Mike: I just don’t know that Stewart could tolerate the political crap that swirls around F-1 all of the time.
Toni: No Mike, Stewart would blow up like a grenade in the F-1 world.
Matt S.: Stewart would likely need to drop about 30 pounds to be able to withstand a full F-1 race. People underestimate the physical prowess needed to pilot a 2012 era F-1 machine.
Phil: Those G-Forces are something else in F-1.
Toni: Exactly my point. Stewart is one of the best all around driving talents, period. Johnson, Gordon, and Busch will be remembered for stock cars. It will help Busch if he wins a championship, although he does have the talent.
Matt S.: All Kyle needs is one championship. He’s done enough at this point in his career to be remembered at some level. But until he wins that title, he will forever be the 2000s-era equivalent of Geoffrey Bodine.
Mike: Geoffrey Bodine? Wow dude, I think that is rather insulting to Kyle Busch. Busch has won a Nationwide title.
Matt S.: Bodine was highly underrated in his day, and he had a very similar demeanor and on-track aggressiveness to Kyle.
Amy: Speaking of controlled aggressiveness, I love to watch Keselowski drive, him and Jimmie Johnson. The clinic they put on at Texas and Homestead was how racing should be… as hard as you can and still driving clean.
Tom: Keselowski, I’m also lukewarm on, too. I think he’ll repeat next year… but he’s got to go out and actually do it. Once he does, in November 2013 I’m sold on him as one of the greats and I think he’ll win a bunch of titles, just like Johnson.
Amy: I think the ones who are not quite there are guys like Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch… they have championships, they’re talented, but they aren’t at the level of Johnson, Gordon, or Stewart.
Matt S.: Kenseth is the Terry Labonte of his era. Great driver who was good enough to win championships, but not flashy enough to be remembered as one of the best ever.
Phil: I’ll put some money on Kenseth to win the title in 2015 based on that.
Matt S.: Brad K., Kyle, and Stenhouse will be remembered as the three drivers who were most fun to watch.
Amy: Stenhouse? He isn’t on the list yet. Fun to watch now, but if he doesn’t do anything in Cup, he won’t come up in many conversations several years from now.
Tom: Ricky Stenhouse? Absolutely not. I don’t even see him winning a Cup title.
Phil: It’s a little early to project Stenhouse out like that. He’s started four Cup races.
Summer: Yeah, but aren’t we asking who we’re talking about in 20 or 30 years? I don’t think Stenhouse will, either but I think there are some Nationwide Series guys who have that potential.
Tom: That’s a fair point, Summer. But I don’t think Stenhouse has it in him… and he’s driving for Roush, on the downside of that team’s power. I just don’t see it.
Amy: It’s kind of funny – there are a lot of fans even now who don’t realize just how dominant Jeff Gordon was in the late 1990s. He was unreal.
Tom: Amy, people forget that at one point people thought Gordon could end up with 140, even 150 wins!
Phil: If you weren’t a Gordon fan in the late 1990s, it could be downright depressing at times.
Amy: Gordon also was successful in sprint cars — he’s not a one-trick pony. Speaking of Gordons, if off-road racing was as popular as NASCAR, Robby Gordon would be a freaking rock star.
Matt S.: As for me bringing up Stenhouse, I was only listing him because he’s so fun to watch and I think he’ll continue with that in the future. But I, in no way meant he’d be remembered as the best of his era. Way too early to tell.
Mike: I still think the name that we’re all going to talk about in 20 years is Kyle Larson. He is a Foyt/Stewart level talent.
Summer: Way too early to tell there. Remember, everyone was pretty much saying the same thing about Joey Logano.
Mike: Joey Logano hasn’t won in a Winged Sprint Car, Sprint Car, Midget… Larson has won in all of them in one weekend.
Tom: I am very interested to see how Larson does in the coming decade. NASCAR, with their diversity effort will put all the chips on the table for them to succeed. Toni, do you think any IndyCar drivers right now qualify as the “best of their era” to compete with the NASCAR guys? I think Will Power blew what could have been an amazing opportunity… what if he actually won all those titles?
Toni: I don’t really think we have anyone in IndyCar like that right now, honestly. Franchitti wins a lot, but I don’t see anyone really being held up to the best ever standards.
We could discuss schedule changes all night, but if you had the chance to make one change to the current Sprint Cup slate, what would it be?
Mike: No track gets two point races.
Amy: There are so many small things that could be done. But if I can only make one change, I’d put Darlington back where it belongs.
Summer: More diversity on the schedule. It’s hard to say these are the best drivers in the world when 90% of the races are on the same track configuration: 1.5-mile intermediates.
Toni: Ah, track diversity, the ongoing debate in IndyCars as well…although I do think they are better on that front than NASCAR. At least the tracks aren’t all the same. As for me, I’d add two more road courses… one of them in the Chase.
Amy: I agree with adding road courses.
Phil: If another road course were to be added, where would it be? A second race at Watkins Glen? Mid-Ohio?
Summer: In a perfect world, Phil, Road America.
Mike: How about Road Atlanta? Or even Miller Motorsports Park. Taking dates away from tracks would allow us to add two road courses, four dirt tracks and seven short tracks.
Amy: Mike, I don’t entirely agree with you. I’d modify that no track of 1.5 miles or larger can have more than one points race. I don’t think we should give up the miles or the short tracks.
Phil: Miller Motorsports Park’s issues are that it’s way the heck out there from anything and there is almost no tradition of racing in Western Utah. Discussed this with a Mazda PR rep in Lime Rock. No one goes to races out there, despite the place being beyond top notch.
Mike: You asked about other tracks they could run road races on. I was just spitballing.
Tom: I think right now, even though Darlington is so important my answer would be to add Iowa. We need good, solid short track racing… one of the 1.5-mile events would need to go. I’d rather go there than Chicagoland… heck, Iowa has a better chance of attracting the Chicago market share.
Phil: That would be interesting. The Nationwide races there aren’t half bad (although, they can be runaways at times).
Tom: Guys, you want to hear something crazy? Here was the schedule breakdown in 1992, 20 years ago…
Tom: Short tracks (3/4 mile or less): 8 races. Road courses: 2 races. Restrictor plate superspeedways: 4 races. One-mile ovals: 5 races. Pocono: 2 races. Darlington: 2 races. 1.5-to-2-mile tracks: 6 races (Charlotte, Michigan, Atlanta). That was diversity across the board. Here’s the schedule in 2012…
Tom: Short tracks (3/4 mile or less): 6 races. Road courses: 2 races. Restrictor plate superspeedways: 4 races. One-mile ovals: 6 races. Pocono: 2 races. Darlington: 1 race. Indy: 1 race. 1.5-to-2-mile tracks: 14 RACES! (Chicagoland, 2 Kansas, 2 Michigan, Atlanta, 2 Charlotte, 2 Texas, Fontana, Kentucky, Las Vegas, Homestead).
Tom: There’s a direct correlation between that growth and NASCAR’s dwindling fan base. That’s almost half the races at 1.5-to-2 mile ovals.
Summer: That’s what I’m talking about, Tom. How are they the best drivers in the world when they don’t race on various types of tracks? It just seems ridiculous to me.
Mike: That shows, in a nutshell why fans are frustrated. 1.5-mile races are the least attractive of any we have to watch and they dominate the schedule.
Phil: Effectively, the balance is out of whack because almost everything added since 1997 has been on a 1.5-mile track.
Summer: I don’t think we should give up the intermediates, though. I just don’t think they should be the majority. I don’t think there should be a majority. We need different types of tracks.
Amy: I think moving Darlington to Labor Day would be an easy thing to do, and would be a great PR move. It doesn’t involve taking a date from anywhere or moving tracks… just one whopper goodwill gesture.
Matt S.: Can I reconfigure a certain track located out in Southern California? I say Auto Club Speedway gets a massive facelift — add 28 degrees of banking in the corners. It would become the Daytona of the West. Run the race at night. Presto, Auto Club no longer has any trouble filling up seats and NASCAR finally has a “must see” race in the coveted L.A. market.
Amy: I’d rather see them totally redo ACS and make it into a 3/4-mile oval like Richmond.
Summer: I’d be fine if they went either way with ACS, though it appears we all agree that it needs to be reconfigured.
Matt S.: Couldn’t agree more, Summer. That track needs to go to one extreme or the other. It’s not fit for stock car racing with the way it’s designed. With an aged surface, it puts on a halfway decent race, but it took 12 years to get “decent” racing at ACS. That’s not cutting it.
Phil: At the very least, something will happen out there in the next two years. Wouldn’t be surprised to see a repave there soon.
Amy: I’d hate to lose any more short track races. Martinsville should never, ever come up in any conversation about dropping a track from the schedule.
Mike: But it will, Amy. That is the nature of the beast.
Matt S.: Here’s a wild, wishlist idea: NASCAR at Italy’s Autodrome Nazionale Monza. It is arguably the highest speed road course on Earth and would be perfectly suited to the NASCAR brand of racing. Think Watkins Glen on steroids.
Mike: If you’re going to be ridiculous, then let’s go to the Nurburgring and run the full course.
Amy: I’d love to see a race at Monza, but not a points race; too expensive.
Phil: Monza for Sprint Cup might not be that much faster than the Glen’s short course. Maybe a 132 mph average, while F-1 has done 163.
Matt S.: It’s not the international flavor I’m concerned with here. Monza is the perfect road course for NASCAR. They ought to build a similar track here in America for NASCAR and Grand-Am competition.
Summer: With what money?
Tom: I think we just need to be realistic with schedule changes and what’s on the table. NASCAR is not in the same position as INDYCAR, where the investors need to take risks. It’s just not hemmorrhaging money and fans to the same degree; so they’re not going to risk an Italy race the same way INDYCAR did with China and it didn’t work out.
Phil: With that in mind, I would definitely not be opposed to Iowa having a Cup race. They would have to work out parking issues and seating, though.
Mike: The track in Austin looks like it would be a cool track for the Cup cars to run on. Too bad ISC doesn’t own it… not happening.
Matt S.: Couldn’t agree more with that.
Amy: Iowa would have to add some seats for a Cup date. How many do they seat now?
Phil: They have 40,000 permanent seats, expandable to 66,000 or so. They’ve gotten that 66,000 multiple times for Nationwide races.
Amy: OK, I stand corrected. 66,000 is the same as Darlington.
Mike: And 1,000 more than Martinsville. The other thing to notice is no dirt. I love that we’re at least taking a shot at getting back there with the Trucks.
Tom: There you go. Things like adding Iowa, experimenting with dirt racing in the Truck Series with Eldora and looking at more independent tracks down the road are more realistic.
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