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 (Frontstretch Publisher)
Tom Bowles (Frontstretch Managing Editor/Mondays/Bowles-Eye View)
Jeff Meyer (Thursdays/Voices From the Heartland)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Race Trax AND Tuesdays/That’s History)
Mike Neff (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans AND Fridays/Full Throttle)
Toni Heffelfinger (Mondays/Busch Breakdown & Fridays/Second Fiddle)
Toni: They are both in a big hole, really. I think if anybody can dig out, though, Johnson’s team can.
Tom: To be honest, Kyle was probably hurt more than Jimmie just because New Hampshire is one of his best tracks, and he’s a first time Chaser. However, Johnson and the No. 48 just do not look like a championship team right now.
Mike: It is still too early to be counting anyone out, but the margin for error for the No. 5 and the No. 48 just got a lot smaller. I think Johnson has been struggling for awhile, though, so I think the No. 5 team will be the ones able to overcome it, not the No. 48. Johnson is in real trouble based on his recent performances.
Amy: Well, on the bright side, Mike, it’s not as bad for Jimmie as it was in 2004. Keep in mind that Johnson’s also won seven races in the past year and a half.
Tom: Amy, well said. It’s not like the No. 48 has been running bad all year…they just are always on the top of their game at the wrong time in the season.
Toni: I think I’ve said this before, but you can almost tell what month it is by how the No. 48 is doing. You can set your watch by it. Every year, they get in the Chase on early momentum, but limp in by the time they get there.
Mike: And once they do get it going again in the Chase, they are too far behind to be a factor.
Tom: Interesting stat for Johnson this year – through 27 races, he’s just 10th in the series with 368 laps led. And 195 of those were at Martinsville, where he didn’t even come out of there with the win. Jimmie has NOT run up in the top 3 as consistently as in past years. It’s just that he’s been great at salvaging top 10 finishes.
Mike: Very true, Tom. They have pulled a lot of finishes out of thin air this year…and it seems like it is catching up to them now.
Amy: I still think the No. 48 team has a good run for the title in them. This is what they’ve done in races all year long; have trouble early, then rally big. They made up 250 points in four races in 2004.
Tom: That’s the one reason I think people do need to be careful when they say Johnson is in deeper trouble than Busch. That team has been in this position before; Busch has not, despite the fact he’s running much better than Johnson right now.
Toni: See, that’s exactly why I said Busch is in bigger trouble. Johnson’s team is fantastic at the comeback. They do it all the time. Unfortunately, it hasn’t proven to be the road to the championship.
Amy: The No. 5 team ran second at Dover, but when you look at the average finish of Chasers at Chase tracks, they are in the bottom 3-5 at most of them.
Tom: The way Kyle runs at Kansas and the restrictor plates, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him completely out of the title hunt now after Talladega.
Mike: Busch has been a different driver this year, though. I don’t think people are expecting much from that team, so the pressure isn’t as great for them to make a comeback from this.
Amy: Look, they both need a top five at Dover to regroup, top 10 at worst.
Ren: They need top fives and a lot of bad luck for the other teams. That’s where Talladega comes into play.
Amy: Talladega is a crapshoot, it should NOT be a Chase track.
Tom: Well, if the No. 48 doesn’t recover, you have to wonder how much longer that team can tolerate the annual disappointment come title time.
Toni: At least they’re consistent.
Mike: I’m curious what kind of pressure will be on Knaus if they don’t seal the deal this year. Remember all the rumors of him leaving not too long ago?
Amy: He just signed a contract extension.
Mike: Didn’t Tommy Baldwin have a long term deal with Yates? And Slugger Labbe? If a team is going to make a move, the contract doesn’t matter.
Toni: Yeah, contracts don’t seem to mean much. But I still think Knaus is safe. Strikes me as the kind of guy you’d rather have working for you than against you.
Mike: That’s true, Toni, but Chad may not want to stick around. Especially if Ray Ray comes with a big check.
Tom: It’ll definitely be interesting…Johnson’s season, again, has been spectacular in the big races, but that has overshadowed the fact he hasn’t had a car capable of running in the top five at most events. The year Johnson has had reminds me of Jeff Gordon’s tough one in 2005, actually – he won big races and ran up front in the big events, but was mediocre otherwise. Johnson has just avoided all of the bad luck Gordon had on top of that to be where he is in the standings.
Amy: Well, Johnson still came into this thing second in points, and it’s exactly this type of situation that shows how badly the Chase works. Under the “real” points, Johnson is still second by a good margin…right in line with one bad race.
Mike: The Chase is similar to the NFL. A bad first week doesn’t doom you, but two bad weeks to start the season and you are pretty much done.
Tom: Which is why I think Busch’s goose will be cooked in a week or two…
Tony Stewart mentioned Sunday that he thinks the Chasers should have a separate race, or at least do something differently so that 11th through 43rd won’t have to race the Chasers as conservatively. A separate race might be out of the question, but would a separate points system work in making the Chase more competitive?
Amy: I think so…if NASCAR really wants to manufacture an exciting point battle, give them points based on their finishing order among Chasers ONLY.
Toni: I kind of have to agree with that, actually. I’ve always thought that would keep it a lot closer, and the rest of the drivers don’t have to worry about hitting a Chaser. Even if they do, they won’t necessarily take the guy right out of the championship picture.
Mike: Well, it might give the non-Chasers a little break, but I think the Chasers themselves are still going to be conservative. Also, a different points system could spread it out just as much. If a team is ahead of most of the Chasers every race, they could actually lock it up before the last race because they built up a big lead. I’d have to do the math, but with Johnson’s big run in 2004, he might have locked it up before Homestead with an alternate point system.
Toni: Yeah Mike, a really good team could still lock it up; but I still think it’s better for everyone to have separate points. Especially for the non-Chasers. I mean, really, you don’t want to be responsible for ruining a guy’s year if you can help it, and yet you have to race him for the win each week. That’s tough.
Tom: I think the concept of racing with respect around championship contenders was always around under the old points system. The difference is, down the stretch you had far fewer drivers you had to worry about who were fighting for a title.
Mike: That’s true, Tom. Back then, it was only three or four guys, not 10.
Amy: Well, changing the system is easy to do…again, you give points to the rest of the field like normal, use the same system and points numbers, but point Chasers separately with the same system, simply based on where they finished relative to everyone else.
Toni: Yeah, then if someone slips and knocks Johnson into the wall accidentally, his Chase isn’t over before it even starts.
Ren: I have a different idea; if they do the Chase like they do the manufacturer’s points (nine for a win, six for second, four for third, etc.), then it would be very competitive.
Tom: Well, how you change the system is all about how much you want to eliminate consistency from the points battle and enhance winning. The different strategies for changing the Chase are just like the argument for adding points for winning – 25 extra points for the win will affect the system a little…250 will affect it a LOT. Any alternative points system, since having two separate races is out of the picture, needs to be careful not to upset that balance too much one way or the other, because it’s not as far off now as some people think it is.
Mike: Get rid of the Chase and this point is moot. If we can’t do that, then why not gerryrig the thing more and have different points for the Chasers.
Toni: I think if this idea of giving points to the Chasers separately would let everyone race and not just tiptoe around them, then I’m all for it.
Tom: Yeah, the thing is when 33 other drivers are scared to race normally on the race track around 10 other guys, we have a problem. Plain and simple.
Mike: Well, that is their problem. NASCAR claims that they want everyone to still race, so go race.
Toni: Brian Vickers didn’t seem to have any problem racing a Chaser.
Jeff: That was great! I love Vickers for that.
Toni: I do, too.
Tom: Yeah, kudos to Vickers. If I remember correctly, people didn’t race him like a teammate with two laps to go at Talladega. Why should he move over for Jeff Gordon now?
Amy: Vickers ran a great race on Sunday…and got zero credit because he’s not in the Chase. The same goes for Dave Blaney and JJ Yeley…yet another reason the format sucks.
Mike: Speaking of racing the Chasers, did anyone realize Elliott Sadler had a top 10 Sunday?
Jeff: Elliott who?
Ren: Vickers got the airtime out of all the non-Chasers. I didn’t even know that the No. 19 car was in the race. I DID know that the No. 38 was in the race, though, thanks to David Gilliland‘s own special way of getting airtime,
Will the uncertain future plans for both the No. 6 car and Mark Martin in 2007 become a distraction to that team in the final nine races of the Chase?
Jeff: No. They will focus on the Chase and be fine. Todd Kluever was a sad choice to begin with as a replacement as it is.
Mike: I doubt anything will affect the team. They have always been about giving Mark the greatest cars ever created and being the best crew on pit road. It will be the same.
Toni: I don’t think it will be a distraction, either. I think they are worried about this year first. They will worry about next year when this one is done.
Amy: I agree; they won’t worry with a title on the line right now.
Tom: See, I think that over time it could become a distraction within the organization. These four rookie drivers Roush has are now all fighting for this spot to be in the No. 6 car.
Toni: Which has nothing to do with the running of the No. 6 car for now.
Mike: They’re fighting for the ride in other series, Tom. I don’t think that affects the No. 6 car.
Tom: Eh, don’t underestimate the power of internal competition. And since Martin’s been uncertain about his own future for months, the media circus will continue to surround this team. How can that not get to be a distraction over time?
Ren: But the driver that is there now will be there through the Chase. I don’t think it will make a difference until the Chase is over.
Toni: They have no reason or need to be worrying about those four guys fighting for the seat for next year.
Amy: Exactly. It’s not like the Nos. 42 and 97 last year when those guys bailed on their crews a year early.
Jeff: Mark’s future is more of a distraction than the actual No. 6 driver for next year.
Mike: Of course, if Martin announces he’s going to Yates, will Roush let him finish the year in the car?
Jeff: Of course he will, Mike. You silly goose!
Amy: As long as he doesn’t piss off the police somewhere in there…
Tom: It was interesting how they’ve worded Mark’s contract so he can’t drive a full season with the No. 88. You’d think Roush would WANT Mark to keep a Ford team afloat.
Jeff: I like Mark, but I’m getting tired of this I’m quitting, I’m not quitting business.
Toni: I just don’t see Martin staying another year anyways though, Jeff. He’s been dragging around doing the “tired of the grind” old man thing for two years now.
Tom: It’s also almost like Mark wasn’t happy enough with the performance of the No. 6 this year to consider staying in it another season…because Roush was definitely angling for him to continue in it.
Ren: I’m pretty sure that if Martin goes to the No. 88 next year, it is because he’s persuaded to and Roush would be one of the organizations doing the persuading, along with Ford.
Mike: Really? I can’t picture Roush pushing Mark to Yates.
Tom: Again, the Truck contract would make that all but impossible.
Toni: Roush needs Yates though. If they go under, he’s kind of screwed. And if they need Martin to keep the No. 88 afloat, I can see him playing a part in arranging it.
Ren: I’m betting that if Ford was involved in the pushing, Roush would bend. Ford’s not doing too well, and the drivers that Yates has lined up aren’t going to help Ford much at all.
Toni: The contract is weird, because Roush was sitting there at New Hampshire tossing out all kinds of options for where Mark might end up, and he mentioned both the No. 88 and the No Fear team. I swear I saw that this weekend. Although it doesn’t seem to me that Martin is particularly keen on it, but that’s just my opinion. Mark seems to have this attitude of “Leave me alone and let me retire already!”
Mike: I’m starting to think Geoff Smith is a bigger ass than Jack Roush.
Ren: Jack Roush is a great guy! Makes a heck of a Mustang. Seriously, I think Mark wants to go race Trucks and not be bothered while he does the Dad thing.
Jeff: You know, I never particularly liked Rusty Wallace, but at least when he “retired” he actually retired.
Ren: Well, he wasn’t at the peak of his career though.
Toni: I truly think Mark has been trying to retire, Jeff, but Roush and Ford won’t let him go.
Jeff: I don’t even think Mark is even the sentimental favorite to win the Cup anymore. That would be Denny Hamlin, in my book.
Tom: Well, I don’t think anyone should hold it against Mark that he chose to be loyal to Roush. Hopefully, with his constant wavering on the No. 6 car Roush won’t make this into a big enough distraction to ruin Mark’s championship chances.
Toni: I don’t think it will be a distraction. I think they are focused on the here and now. I just think it’s funny that Martin denies even talking to Yates while Yates comes right out and says he’s trying to get Martin for the No. 88.
Amy: All about the image. They’re great drivers, OK, Benson is, but he doesn’t look like Kasey Kahne.
Toni: I don’t know about the image thing. So far for Toyota we have who? Mikey, DJ, Blaney….they don’t look like Kahne, either. I think the reason’s because neither one of them have much of a Cup showing to speak of…although I think, at least in Benson’s case, that’s more the equipment than the driver.
Jeff: Bodine is an idiot in a Cup car; always has been. Benson is sadly overlooked. He would be good in the No. 88.
Ren: Yeah, that would be a great place for Benson. But where would Martin go then?
Jeff: Martin could RETIRE.
Tom: I’m absolutely shocked Benson was never a strong candidate for the Bill Davis Racing ride.
Ren: Maybe he was, and is smarter than that.
Tom: If he did turn it down, that’s dumb, I think it’s a perfect spot for a middle-aged driver to revitalize his Cup career. As for Bodine, as much as I think he SHOULD be a candidate, I can understand why he gets overlooked…the man hasn’t exactly been Mr. Careful on the race track. However, a lot of teams he was with in Nextel Cup completely imploded as soon as he became a part of them, and he was constantly in poor situations that were not his fault.
Mike: I don’t think Bodine wants to go to Cup. I think he was offered a job last year and turned it down.
Jeff: I’d pick Jimmy Spencer to drive for me before Bodine.
Amy: With Bodine…well, Toyota wants to keep their other cars in one piece.
Toni: Bodine is in his niche in the trucks. I think he needs to stay there. It suits his style. And I’m not being smart on that.
Tom: Benson, Ricky Craven, and Bodine were all pushed out during the “young gun” craze a few years ago. People forget how good they were.
Jeff: Craven is another one sorely overlooked.
Toni: You know, the only young driver Toyota has right now is Vickers. And Mikey’s other car is between Travis Kvapil and David Reutimann. Shoots down that image theory even more, they don’t look like Kahne, either.
Mike: Maybe Benson will get a shot if he wins the Truck championship.
Ren: Winning a championship can certainly take a few years off your resume.
Toni: While we’re on this topic of Truck Series drivers getting overlooked, what are the Waltrip sponsors thinking? Why you wouldn’t put Reutimann in the third Waltrip car is beyond me….
Ren: Reutimann should be in the other car. If he isn’t, it’s because of politics and sponsorship.
Jeff: Politics and sponsorship influencing racing? Say it isnt so! I mean, Reutimann is 10 times better than Kvapil.
Amy: Yeah, he is…but is he ready for Cup?
Toni: I think he is. He’s more ready than Gilliland, or any of the people they are considering for the No. 6 car.
Mike: Kvapil makes some pretty good runs in some pretty bad equipment though.
Tom: To be honest, Kvapil is good with the No. 32 team. If Cal Wells ever got a sponsor for that second operation, that could be a team to be reckoned with again.
Mike: Don’t forget, Kvapil is a Truck champion.
Predictions for Dover?
Toni: Matt Kenseth.
Amy: Kyle Busch.
Tom: Jeff Burton finally pulls through. Hey, no one picks Jeff Gordon to win? I’m a bit surprised.
Toni: You know, I was surprised by this column last week when I talked badly about Gordon. Only two Jeffie fans came to his defense, so it wasn’t like ticking off Ward Nation.
Tom: That’s a shame, Toni…everyone should get to experience that wrath once in their writing career!