Welcome to “Mirror Driving.” Every week, your favorite columnists sit down and give their opinion about the latest news coming out of last week’s race weekend. Love us or hate us, make a comment below and tell us how you feel about what we’ve said!
Tom: What was the bigger surprise on Sunday: Carl Edwards’ come-from-behind win, or Greg Biffle’s shocking collapse after dominating the race here in April?
Toni: Greg Biffle’s collapse. It was like some sort of sad comedy of errors.
Tom: Toni, I’d have to agree with you. You could just see his
championship slipping away right before our eyes. Carl’s used to running up front at one-and-a-half mile tracks; but Biffle’s clearly been leading the championship battle out of the Roush camp all season. For him to fall flat when it counted most is a real shock.
Toni: Edwards doesn’t surprise me anymore.
Jeff: A come from behind win by Carl shouldn’t be a big surprise. He likes to do that. Honestly, I would love to see Carl win it all, but I don’t think Tony Stewart will allow that.
Amy: Carl’s way more fun than Biffle anyway.
Toni: Although the 16’s do-si-do with Junior on the frontstretch was pretty cool to watch.
Tom: Amazing that Junior didn’t hit him….Biffle was very lucky on not one but two spins there.
Amy: Every time Junior moved to avoid Biffle, Biffle followed. It was like Dale was saying "Just hit me, will ya? Then at least I’ll have someone to blame!"
Tom: Is it just me, or did it seem like Biffle overdrove it after that first spin? That team just appeared to put too much pressure on themselves after that.
Toni: That’s what was so surprising to me Tom. They’ve had bad luck before but they didn’t panic and managed to salvage something. This time, it was like the whole team fell to pieces.
Tom: Toni, so true! I mean, the day was still very salvageable despite all the madness. There weren’t many cautions, but Biffle had a car easily capable of getting back on the lead lap through the Lucky Dog. For him to keep from getting in that position until 15 laps to go is surprising.
Amy: It can’t help that Biffle makes nitpicky little remarks
about their performance in every post-race interview, either.
Jeff: They should be used to that by now though. It hasn’t seemed to affect the team performance wise in the big picture.
Tom: And this time I thought it was justified. The loose wheel was a mistake, you know? Biffle’s right…this year, those types of mistakes will just do you in. Just like the small mistake of no one telling Ryan Newman he had already won the pole in qualifying and to shut it off. That simple mistake comes back and bites you, and with the 20 running the way they are, you’re done.
Amy: True, but the team already knew that, the fans already knew that…it didn’t need to be said on national TV.
Tom: In my mind, Biffle had everyone right where he wanted them. Neither Johnson nor Stewart was really paying attention to him, and he dominated Texas in April and won Homestead the last time we were there. Not to mention he was easily within striking distance of the Top 2. He certainly had just as much a shot as Johnson to catch Stewart, if not a better one.
Jeff: So now Edwards is in that chair.
Tom: Yeah, who’d have thought Carl would be in that position?
Toni: I think a lot of it has to do with the mindset. Carl doesn’t expect to win it either, so they’re not stressing
about it. Reminds me of how Stewart is trying to keep his team from stressing about things.
Amy: I agree with that Toni—-the 99 team has nothing to lose at this point. The 20 and the 48 have a lot to lose…and you cannot play any game not to lose.
Toni: And when you’re opponents start falling apart at the first sign of bad luck like Biffle’s team did this week, it makes it even easier for Stewart and Edwards.
Tom: You wonder if Stewart and Johnson are leaving the door just a little too open for Carl. I mean, the last two weeks, they’ve both struggled. Well, struggle is a strong term…but they’re not trotting out winning cars, by any means. Meanwhile, Carl’s playing this nothing to lose game, and to be honest, Stewart isn’t putting Johnson or the 99 away when he easily could have.
Amy: Since when is a top-five struggling? Johnson and Stewart finished fifth and sixth at Texas…I don’t buy that either of them is struggling.
Jeff: Yeah, how can you say they are struggling? Both are in the Top 10.
Tom: But they’re not blowing their competition away. Stewart and Johnson need to take these hangers-on out of it once and for all, and they can’t seem to do it for whatever reason. Now, if either or both have a problem in the final two races, you’ve got Carl right there, and even perhaps Mark with an outside shot (Biffle to me is done).
Amy: But theoretically, if the Top 10 teams are the ten best
teams in racing, nobody should be blowing anybody away every week.
Jeff: Remember, last year came down to the final laps.
Amy: That’s certainly what NASCAR banks on.
Toni: With two races left I think I’m finally prepared to declare it a three man race.
Tom: The biggest question mark really is how Edwards and Johnson will do at Phoenix. And, of course, we know what happened the last time Johnson and Stewart were there (Johnson got into Stewart, causing a 5-car crash and sending both drivers to poor finishes of 15th and 33rd). Because of that, I wouldn’t count Martin out…it’s just not over yet.
Tom: Judging by the crowd and the racing on the track this Sunday, has Texas finally done enough to deserve that second date? Or should we be going somewhere else?
Toni: Texas has all along been more deserving of that date than some other tracks who got second dates, or some even that got first dates.
Tom: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but slowly but surely, it
appears Texas is developing some sort of second groove. The racing isn’t perfect yet by any means, but it’s improving, enough to swallow the fact they come back here for round two.
Amy: Couldn’t disagree more. Texas never deserved a second date, and certainly not in the Chase. It’s just another cookie-cutter track.
Tom: My issue with Texas in the Chase is it’s too much like Atlanta. And several other tracks, for that matter"¦10 races in the Chase, five 1.5 mile tracks (Charlotte, Atlanta, Texas, Kansas, Homestead).
Amy: I’m sorry, but no matter how many grooves it gets, Texas will NEVER race like Rockingham or Darlington. Texas was lucky to be able to steal North Wilkesboro’s date back in 1996…they should have left it at that.
Toni: I will agree that the racing at Rockingham and Darlington is better, but I can also understand to some extent that you can’t continue to go where the fans don’t. And that’s coming from someone who had to give up a track for precisely that reason (Nazareth).
Tom: Well, you can’t point at one track and blame them for taking a date away. It’s ultimately NASCAR that makes the final decision.
Toni: I mean, honestly, we all wanted Rockingham to stay on the schedule. I just assumed enough other people would go and take care of it.
Amy: I think in the long run though, where the fans go is less important than the TV ratings…and the cookie cutters will not generate those ratings long-term unless the racing improves.
Tom: The problem is, as was proven Sunday, the crowds will always be better in a market where there’s only one Nextel Cup track within driving distance. That alone will allow it to keep its second date"¦Texas also has better racing then New Hampshire, as well as possibly Michigan and California, all two-date tracks.
Toni: Texas is better than Chicago and Kansas too.
Amy: But I still think that, long-term, TV ratings will become more important than bodies in the stands.
Toni: Funny thing about TV ratings too though"¦when they race in a big urban market they do fine in the ratings. I don’t think it’s all about the track or how good the racing is for TV, personally. Because let’s face it, if it was trucks and IRL should get higher ratings than most Cup races.
Amy: True…but I do think that as the fans who watch NASCAR because it’s the trendy thing to do get bored with cookie-cutter racing, and ratings will change.
Tom: Well, I think the reason they haven’t made any major track changes to the Chase for 2006 is because this seems to be a three-year experiment. They don’t want to do anything drastic while the current television package reaches the end of its deal after 2006. Then, for 2007, when ABC probably reenters the fold and the Car Of Tomorrow comes on board…THAT’s when we’ll see some changes.
Jeff: Well, eventually the NASCAR bubble will burst and, at some point, it will become about the racing again.
Tom: Where will Bobby Labonte end up after leaving Joe Gibbs Racing? And are the new, young drivers coming up behind Bobby at JGR in Denny Hamlin and J.J. Yeley too inexperienced as replacements?
Jeff: Hamlin (as I said a couple of columns ago) is the future of Gibbs. So I don’t think he’s inexperienced. Yeley will continue to struggle.
Toni: Hamlin is ready now. I don’t think he’ll be a problem. But Yeley needs more Busch time. He takes longer to catch on, and
he’s just starting to get it there.
Amy: Yeley has talent, but it’s too much too soon. Hamlin is proving his readiness every week. I think Labonte, in the meantime, will end up at Petty Enterprises…not great equipment, but a good personality fit.
Jeff: Hall of Fame racing will get a 2nd car going and put Bobby in it. Have Terry and Bobby as teammates.
Toni: Nope, I’m with Amy, Jeff – Labonte will end up with the Pettys. It’s the only logical choice I see left for him with what’s out there.
Amy: As long as it isn’t Bill Davis Racing.
Jeff: Labonte to Yates in a 3rd car…that would be interesting.
Tom: Bobby, to me, would seem a perfect fit with the Pettys. He’s got enough years left in his career to see through a rebuilding process, and that team is quietly putting some important pieces of the puzzle together. Kyle is having his best year since 2002, and the team in general is finishing better and better every week. It’s the Charger that nips them more than anything else.
Toni: I am a little surprised though. I know Kyle and Richard were really hoping to get Bobby, but I didn’t think they’d pull that off.
Tom: Toni, I just don’t know where else Bobby would go. There’s not a lot of atttractive options out there at this point. I will say this, though…it says a lot to me that both Bobby and Ricky Rudd turned down Chip Ganassi.
Jeff: I was hoping they would.
Tom: That’s two class drivers saying no way am I getting into that mess…let me tell you, Chip’s got a heck of a hard road turning that around.
Toni: I agree, I don’t see any other better option out there at the moment.
Amy: Although at least Ganassi made one good decision at staying with three teams. They A) Aren’t ready for a 4th team at the moment, and B) Were really screwing Mears under the original plan.
Tom: It’s a shame Ricky Rudd’s gonna retire though. He’s running so well.
Jeff: Did he finally make that official?
Toni: He will be soon. He said he was retiring unless Penske needed him for the 2 car.
Tom: The biggest problem with Ganassi right now is they need a Bobby Labonte or a Ricky Rudd on their team. There’s no veteran leadership there anymore once Sterling leaves…just two rookies and a third driver that’s still proving himself after three years on NASCAR’s top circuit.
Jeff: Ganassi made his own bed, and now has to lie in it.
Tom: To be honest, Toni, I wish Rudd would just stay with the Wood Brothers one more year. I don’t know why he wouldn’t.
Jeff: I don’t feel sorry for him one bit.
Toni: One year can be a long time if you really don’t want to do it, Tom. Rick Hendrick would have preferred if Terry Labonte had given him one more year to get Kyle Busch ready, too; but he didn’t. Not everyone is Mark Martin and can be convinced to do it.
Amy: AND, with Rudd’s indecision, the Wood Brothers may have got tired of waiting.
Tom: Yeah, but Wallace and even Bill Elliott had strong years right before they hung up the helmet full-time…Rudd still doesn’t have that championship, nor has he won in three years. Seems to me there’s some unfinished business.
Toni: Maybe Tom, or maybe you turn into Darrell Waltrip trying to get that one more win long after you should have hung it up.
Tom: With Kevin Harvick now rumored to run a full Busch schedule again next year, that’s up to six Nextel Cup drivers trying to pull double duty. How is this going to affect the series on 2006?
Toni: Do you think it’s a coincidence that they’ve talked about rule changes to discourage the Buschwhackers? And now all these guys are going to do a full schedule in both series?
Amy: It’s not the drivers that are necessarily the problem here"¦it’s the Cup owned teams they run for, and using their names to lure sponsors from Busch teams. That is where the real problem lies.
Jeff: I think it’s funny really Kevin Harvick is coming back. Why would Harvick want to run a full Busch schedule? Can’t beat the big guys? It’s like a high-schooler playing football on a junior high squad.
Tom: I disagree with Amy on the driving pool not being affected. I just don’t know how you’re going to develop new stars in that series, when the stars already there don’t leave. And not only do they stay, but they’re running a full schedule with what is being advertised as a higher level of competition somewhere else. That, to me, absolutely kills the series. How can the David Greens and Randy Lajoies stand a chance with that?
Amy: That should not be allowed either…a driver should be able to run for ONE title-and not accrue driver or owner points in another series.
Toni: That’s a good question Tom. Where are these young guys
supposed to go? Harvick running full time puts Brandon Miller out of a ride. You can’t even put him in Bowyer’s car, because Bowyer’s planning the full tour, too.
Tom: Well, the Miller thing is debatable, because in my opinion he hasn’t been all that impressive. But even if they release Miller, there would be someone else to take his place without this ridiculousness.
Toni: But Tom, what if Miller was a Paul Menard? What if he just needed seat time he didn’t get? At the beginning of this season, I’d have thought Menard was a lost cause, too.
Jeff: Paul Menard’s biggest pull is the built in sponsor that comes with him.
Tom: Right…and because he had that built in sponsor, Jeff. Menard was allowed the patience and the chance to grow into his
job as a Busch Series driver and succeed. Now, with more Cup teams invading Busch and running more times, there’s less high profile runs for these young guys, and that will make the Busch teams even more desperate in terms of patience. Some guys struggle in the first five races, they could be gone even quicker than Ryan Hemphill was this year.
Amy: Right, a young driver and a new team need time to gel, no matter what series you’re in.
Jeff: Here’s my thought: I think what you do is that anyone who is not a rookie in Cup cannot run more than 6 Busch races, no matter what team you drive for.
Amy: But the teams have to be denied owner points from Cup
drivers for any other restriction to work
Tom: I agree that putting a limit on the number of Busch races you can run seems to be the best option though…otherwise, this is only going to get more popular as drivers get younger and new kids in Nextel Cup need more seat time to be successful.
Jeff: The problem is, I can always see NASCAR itself encouraging Cup drivers in Busch just to sell more tickets.
Toni: And how many have to run full time in both series before we can’t tell them apart? That’s my problem with it. It starts with six now, but eventually there will be so many that you’ll have basically two of the same series. I think this is even worse than Buschwhackers cherry picking races here and there.
Tom: Phoenix Predictions?
Jeff: Carl Edwards?!?
Tom: I’m thinking a veteran wins this one. To be honest, for some reason I see Ricky Rudd pulling it off. He wins, then announces his pending retirement in Victory Lane.
Toni: I say Mark Martin gets it right this time, and doesn’t get passed with two to go.
Amy: Tony Stewart, all the way on this one. Stewart can all but put the title away with a win and he knows it. That’s strong motivation if ever there was one.
Tom: To be honest, I think the title gets decided here this year. Two of the three drivers I think will struggle—- but the third will
pull away to have a nice cushion heading into Homestead.
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