Welcome to “Mirror Driving.” Every week, your favorite columnists sit down and give their opinion about the latest news from the past week or race weekend. Love us or hate us, make a comment below and tell us how you feel about what we’ve said!
This week’s participants:
Ren Jonsin (Publisher)
Tom Bowles (Frontstretch Managing Editor / Mondays/Bowles-Eye View)
Dennis Michelsen (Tuesdays/Making the Grade)
Jeff Meyer (Thursdays/Voices From the Heartland)
Cami Starr (Tuesdays/Who’s Hot, Who’s Not AND Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Race Trax AND Tuesdays/That’s History)
Mike Neff (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans AND Fridays/Full Throttle)
Most of the off week centered around the future of Robert Yates Racing, with crew chiefs Tommy Baldwin and Slugger Labbe released and Busch Series surprise David Gilliland unofficially signed for 2007. Now having officially replaced both drivers, crew chiefs, and its general manager for the start of next season, is this too much change to overcome?
Jeff: Sometimes it's good to start from the ground up.
Tom: I couldn’t agree more. Man, what a gutsy move by Yates to can the crew chiefs…they mean business. I think people forget they’ve seen their star driver killed and lost another one due to injury back in the ‘90s, and still rebounded to win the championship.
Cami: It’s probably a good idea to clean house and start fresh. They don’t have anything to race for really the rest of the year… why not do it now?
Mike: It will be a difficult adjustment, but I believe that is why Yates did it before the end of the season. I think the addition of Roush chassis is going to allow them to overcome a lot.
Amy: I’m not going to say RYR should expect to win right out of the box in 2007, but change could be good, since there was obviously a very deep rift there.
Dennis: Well, if Yates is hiring two inexperienced drivers, they should have kept some experienced crew chiefs. I am wondering if the best move for Yates is just to stick to building engines.
Ren: I disagree, Dennis; it’s going to be tough and it will take more than a season, but Yates has rebuilt before and gone on to win a championship.
Tom: How peeved are you if you’re Dale Jarrett? I mean, not that Yates should care about the rest of the 88 team’s season…or Sadler and the 38 for that matter. But the 88 is really going to suck the rest of the year.
Cami: When was the last time DJ had a crew chief for an entire season lately, anyway?
Jeff: DJ doesn't care. He’s looking forward to next year.
Mike: If I was DJ, I’d be trying to get over to Michael Waltrip Racing this year to start working on my cars.
Jeff: I was just going to say that DJ just may go this year.
Amy: You know, once Eddie D’Hondt went from Yates, the chemistry fell apart.
Dennis: Ha! Eddie D’Hondt’s leadership was a disaster…they went farther downhill since he came on. The only thing he did was hire good crew chiefs.
Amy: Agreed, Dennis. D’Hondt was NOT a good fit for that organization, but once he was gone, the people he hired fit in even less.
Tom: As for the drivers, I’m not so sure Yates won’t get Ward Burton, too, in a third car.
Dennis: Ward has to bring his own sponsorâ€¦I don't think that will happen.
Ren: They need to stay away from Ward Burton. If they are going to rebuild, rebuild. Don’t use a guy who has proved that he can’t win a championship.
Tom: I truly think Ward is the answer for Yates more than anyone else though. They need the veteran to step in and help these young guys learn how to drive. Leicht and Gilliland have so little experience at the Busch or Truck level that they need all the support they can get.
Ren: Ward is not a savior and he’s not a mentor. He’s never won anything.
Jeff: Ward is NOT the messiah? Must rethink my life.
Mike: Daytona 500 Champion Ward Burton?
Ren: Daytona 500 champion doesn’t mean squat. It’s not like they hired Terry Labonte or Bill Elliott. What’s Ward going to teach them? How to talk funny?
Mike: I think they need somebody that has driven a Cup car more than 200 laps.
Tom: Exactly, Mikeâ€¦I wouldn’t say Leicht set the world on fire last weekend, either, in his debut.
Amy: But he had a very solid first race, Tom…rebuilding is not an overnight process, I don’t care who you hire.
Dennis: Ward is a proven middle of the pack racer…need I remind you that Derrike Cope can also brag about winning the Daytona 500!
Cami: But what other veteran driver is going to want to step into a team rebuilding and play teacher?
Mike: Ward also won other places, Dennis. What has anyone else done in BDR equipment? I think Ward is a heck of a wheelman.
Tom: Listen, Ward has ten times more experience those other guys have. He's no Nextel Cup champion, but the guy knows how to drive! He can be the coach these guys need when they tear up equipment at the Cup level.
Ren: Robby Gordon’s won three races. I wouldn’t want him as a mentor though.
Dennis: Ward is an average racer, which is not that bad of an insult…but he will never build your team into a champion.
Amy: But an average racer who knows his way around would be an asset to Yates…they aren’t looking at championships in the next couple of years, they’re looking at running consistently in the Top 15…big difference.
Jeff: Get Ricky Craven then. Just as good as Ward.
Dennis: How about Ricky Rudd?? That would be a better choice. Hell, people could even understand Rudd.
Tom: You know, I would like to see that, Dennis…I really would. But have Rudd and Yates fully mended fences?
Mike: Does Rudd want to come back and do it full-time again?
Ren: I Think Ricky Rudd has a No Trespass warrant against him at RYR.
Cami: I just don’t understand why everyone is so hot for Ward now. There are plenty of equally talented drivers still racing, even if it’s Busch or Trucks. You know, can Yates even find a sponsor for Ward?
Dennis: Yates isn’t looking for a sponsor for Ward…they said IF he brings one, they would hire him. If I could bring them a 20 million sponsor, they would hire me too!
Jeff: Ego check!
Mike: Knowing you, Dennis, you could talk someone into it.
Dennis: Well, there is a big difference between a team interested in you IF they can find you a sponsor or IF you can bring them a sponsor. And I am a proven commodity…I used to drive the tollway system every day and never wrecked!
Ren: Wow. You’ll know if it’s a good idea to pit when rain threatens.
20 races into the season, what do you think has been the most unexpected surprise of 2006, and why?
Cami: Biffle not being solidly in the Chase at this point.
Jeff: Tony on the verge of a breakdown.
Mike: I think the fact that Jeremy Mayfield, after two trips to the Chase, has been kicked to the curb without so much as a thank you.
Ren: Now THERE is someone who could go to RYR and make a difference.
Amy: Pleasant surprise of the year: Jeff Burton third in points. He’s always been a capable driver, but RCR hasn’t had a car in the Chase yet, and this year, they’re looking at two. Bad surprise: Carl Edwards. At the end of last year he was the best thing since sliced bread…this year, he’s proved he’s human.
Tom: I used to think it was Sterling Marlin, Joe Nemechek, and MB2, but recently I’ve been changing my mind to Jamie McMurray. Amy, I think Jamie’s failures may have spurred Carl’s team to fail itself.
Mike: I think Carl is more than human. I’d have been throwing stuff around the shop though if they took my crew chief and gave him to a driver who has never done anything because he sucks.
Jeff: McMurray never has been remarkable. Just a flash in the pan.
Amy: McMurray is an average driver, true, so he’s no surprise this year at all.
Ren: If you put him in the Championship car, he can win a race though. Problem is, he’s not in championship quality cars right now.
Mike: BS. Roush won two of the last three championships. The problem is, McMurray sucks. He’s never done crap in a car of his own.
Tom: Whatever the reason, that team has been the catalyst for Roush falling off the peak of the mountain. I mean, it's very possible they only have two teams in the Chase this year, and there's evenâ€¦I mean, I doubt it will get this badâ€¦but if Martin suddenly stumbles, they'll just have one. Now THAT would be a surprise.
Jeff: Yeah, but after 5 in, there is nowhere to go but down.
Amy: That’s true…although I’m not sure Roush is worse this year as much as everyone else has stepped up.
Jeff: Like Tony Stewart's temper.
Tom: Tony’s mental breakdown was a bit unexpected, to be sure. I think he’s completely unafraid to be himself againâ€¦and, for better or worse, that means being angry in public and spouting off ridiculous comments.
Ren: When he said that someone’s going to get killed at Daytona, I knew he was losing it.
Jeff: And then he tried to kill someone…
Tom: Meanwhile, poor Biffle not being in isn’t a surprise in my view. The guy just ran over a black cat in the offseason or something. He’s a poster child for a different points system if he doesn’t make it in, not Earnhardt, Jr. or Gordon. We could see the guy who leads the most laps all season not even be eligible to compete for the championship when there are TEN drivers eligible. How messed up is that?
Amy: Why is it messed up? If you lead a lot of laps and finish 35th, that’s not championship caliber.
Jeff: It's not that messed up, Tom. You have to lead the right laps.
Ren: It’s the same as it would be under the old system for Biffle. He's put himself there.
Cami: Tom, do you really think France is concerned about a stat like that vs guys with big sponsors and huge fan bases?
Tom: He should be. And Biffle being out of the Chase is messed up because he's constantly risking his neck to run up front, instead of stroking it for points three races into the season like certain guys do to make sure they make the Chase.
Amy: But if you’re not having good finishes, how do you deserve the championship?
Mike: That is all strategy. If you go out and burn your stuff up, you don’t deserve to make it. To finish first you must first finish.
Amy: It's bad enough a guy can have a decent 26 races, then 10 good races, and win the championship.
Cami: That’s how Kurt Busch managed to back door his way to a title.
Amy: Johnson won four races when Busch won his title, Busch won one in the Chase…NASCAR set up that system to reward winning in the last ten races, but it hasn’t worked that way.
As we enter the final 16 races, much of the focus will shift into Chase for the Championship mode, but that “other” race known as Silly Season is still very much in high gear. Who is under the most pressure in this final part of the season to keep their ride?
Tom: I still maintain Tony Raines is under the most pressure.
Jeff: And he shouldn't be. They need to stick with Tony.
Amy: Yeah, Raines has done with the equipment he has exactly what it’s capable of…he’s done a good job.
Mike: I think Todd Kluever is facing a lot of pressure. He was anointed to the No. 6 for 2007, and now I don’t know if he’ll even keep his Busch ride.
Cami: Yeah, that might blow up in their faces.
Amy: Kluever has done nothing to show he’s ready for Cup.
Tom: Eh, Martin’s Cup team has fallen off to the point I don’t think he wants to risk coming back in 2007 just to run midpack. Since there's no one else out there to sign, that may automatically give Kluever the nod.
Ren: Kluever came out of that racer X program. If he stays true to form, he’ll do fine.
Tom: Also think Blaney may be in trouble…with Baldwin back at Bill Davis, should the Yates – Ward thing fall through I can see Ward back there.
Ren: You know, if it were based on merit, this would have to be Ryan Newman. He hasn’t done anything this year, and you’d think that with the Evil Rusty gone, Newman would have at least have won one or two by now.
One of the unfortunate consequences of David Gilliland signing with Robert Yates is that his Busch Series team, Clay Andrews Racing, closed up shop. Sign of the times, or a case of a team that’s unable to carry on?
Amy: Sign of the times, unfortunately. Until something is done about Cup owners in Busch, more and more small teams will go by the boards.
Jeff: COT will help for awhile. Until they mandate the COT for Busch, too, of course.
Tom: Well, here’s a team that WON a race, against the Buschwhacker juggernautsâ€¦and you're telling me they can't get a sponsor with another driver? That’s a TERRIBLE sign for this series.
Dennis: Busch is hurting big time. With all these new Cup teams, are we seeing any new Busch teams?? Nope.
Mike: I don’t know the circumstances around the Andrews deal though. I thought that they were kind of put together just for David.
Amy: There just isn’t enough ready talent to go around like Gilliland…the sponsors are going to go with teams that might win. His team also won just one race…it was a great race and the car was outstanding…but it was one race, and they didn’t contend anywhere else.
Tom: Still Amy, that’s one more win than Johnny Sauter’s team. David Green’s team. Kenny Wallace’s team. They were part of an elite group of Busch only teams in that category…and still, sponsors didn’t bite. I mean, you can’t blame Gilliland for leaving…but…
Mike: If NASCAR doesn’t change how the money is distributed to the Busch only teams, I think we’ll see more of this type of thing in the future.
Jeff: Well, you are starting to see sponsorship issues in Cup, too. Like I said, the bubble has burst.
Amy: That’s the networks’ fault. Toni nailed it in her article last week. The networks’ shoddy coverage not only is unfair to the fans, but it discourages sponsors from continuing in or entering the sport.
Ren: TV can only cover so much. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t thing. If they try and give equal time to all the sponsors, they’ll miss the on track action most of the time and then you’ll see complaints about how they aren’t showing Junior and Jimmie Johnson enough.
Tom: Right. Point being, you won’t have people talking about the Cup drivers if you don’t allow the Cup drivers in the race. â€˜Nuff said.
Predictions for Indy?
Jeff: Denny Hamlin.
Mike: Kasey Kahne.
Cami: Kasey Kahne. Damn, Mike!
Mike: Beat you!
Tom: I also think Kahne is going to get the job done. He’s been close, and he wants it pretty much as bad as Stewart wanted it last year.
Cami: Well, now that Tom jinxed it, I’m not using Kasey in the column. He’s all yours, Mike.
Amy: Jimmie Johnson.
Ren: Denny Hamlinâ€¦or Tony Stewart.
Dennis: Going out on a limb…give me Jeff Burton.
Cami: Jeff Gordon (maybe I’ll jinx him).
Mike: I was going to say Burton is my dark horseâ€¦OK, I'll take Junior then.
Ren: Wait, change my pickâ€¦Cale Yarborough.
Mike: Don’t you mean Cale Gale?
Tom: Look for a lot of big names to DNQ this weekend. Stremme could be in big trouble.
Dennis: Stremme is a big name?
Tom: Waltrip could be in big trouble, too…and not have a ride to buy out this time.
Amy: And the whole field would be safer…
Mike: Yeah, I think this could be a tough week for the NAPA car.
Ren: It’s always a tough week for the NAPA car. Apparently the driver forgot how to drive.
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