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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Did Jimmie Johnson Get Screwed?

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:
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 Series Breakdown & Fridays/Second Fiddle)

Was this week’s race at Kansas just an aberration, or are we finally beginning to see one of the “cookie-cutter” tracks come into its own and provide good racing?

Toni: I thought it was a pretty good race. But yeah, there is that whole “for a cookie-cutter track” thing involved in that assessment.
Tom: For whatever reason, I’ve always thought Kansas was the better track when compared to its sister, Chicagoland. But Sunday’s race might have been one of the best ones at a new track in the past decade.
Toni: I find it ironic that if any of them are going to come in it’s Kansas, the target of much of the cookie-cutter venom.
Tom: I know, Toni! I think it’s because since it was last one of those tracks to be added to the schedule back in 2001.
Mike: Kansas is a great track, if you like 1.5-mile D-shaped ovals.
Amy: The racing was good for a cookie-cutter… but it didn’t compare to a short track or someplace like Rockingham or Darlington. The fuel-mileage factor made it more exciting at the end than it really was all day.
Toni: You don’t think turn 4 made it pretty exciting at other points, too?
Tom: I thought the turn 4 madness was some of the most exciting stuff all day. It reminded me of the old turn 4 at Charlotte, notorious for all the bumps. I mean, look at all the talented drivers that lost it over there. Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman.

BOWLES: 2006 BANQUET 400 AT KANSAS BREAKDOWN

Toni: I have to agree with Tom. I literally jumped out of my chair when Newman lost it in front of three Chasers. Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon looked like they were doing a synchronized spin routine.
Tom: Seeing two Chasers spin through the grass on lap 15 provided more excitement at that speedway than in the first three years of its existence combined. That’s what I liked about it best, Toni… all these drivers spun out… but none of them hit anything. Very few cars got torn up… while two- and three-abreast racing went on for much of the day.
Toni: Funny how they both took the exact same action at the exact same time. Gordon and Harvick probably thought about what happened to Kasey Kahne at Dover. And since they had the open route he didn’t, they took it.
Tom: I think that cost Harvick in the end though – his car didn’t look the same after that.
Toni: No, he definitely knocked something out of whack. But if he plows into Newman, it looks a whole lot worse, and so does his finish.
Tom: Anyways, this track has truly come a long way – remember the great finish from 2004? Joe Nemechek and Ricky Rudd? This track has proved itself better than Las Vegas, California and Chicagoland.
Amy: Anywhere is better than California. I am still unimpressed with the amount of 1.5-2-mile tracks in the Chase.
Toni: OK, here’s the thing. It sucks that for whatever reason they built all the newer tracks exactly the same configuration. I agree with that. But I also understand why NASCAR needs to be in Kansas as opposed to being in Rockingham. I don’t necessarily like it, but I understand it.
Jeff: Why is that?
Toni: Because being in Kansas does serve the sport. It’s a track in a region where there aren’t already five other tracks.
Tom: And it’s a track set in a region where the fan base is expected to only grow.
Toni: It’s the same reason why NASCAR DOES need a track somewhere in the Northwest.
Amy: True, but I will never get why they need to run California twice. They don’t sell it out, so it’s basically useless.
Tom: Well, California is a harder sell. A track like Kansas Speedway doesn’t have the type of distractions California Speedway has not too far from it. The fanbase there appreciates the sport and will grow with it. The track is also magnificently designed… it’s got the best traffic pattern in and out of any NASCAR track I’ve seen.
Jeff: Then what you are saying is that you understand that NASCAR is not about the racing, but more about the market. Remember, market equals money!
Tom: But I think good racing is starting to happen at Kansas, though, so it doesn’t matter.
Toni: Before Kansas, this area was an underserved region of the country for NASCAR tracks. Why they couldn’t build a 3/4-mile like Richmond, I don’t know, but,
Jeff: But see, the sport will never, ever consider coming to the new Iowa Speedway, even if it did seat 100,000 people.
Tom: Jeff, you just don’t know that for sure yet.
Jeff: Trucks yes, Busch maybe, Cup NEVER. There will NEVER be another non-ISC owned track that will get another date.
Tom: Well, I don’t agree with that, but for the time being, Kansas certainly deserves theirs.

With the ultimate gamble in Talladega coming up next week, should more of the Chasers have taken a risk on fuel in the closing stages? Is there something wrong with the fact that it’s the non-Chasers who get to be more aggressive under this format?

Toni: Well, I think non-championship contenders have always gotten to be more aggressive under any points system. The Chase contenders certainly shouldn’t have taken any risks at Kansas because of what MIGHT happen at Talladega.
Jeff: Just the simple fact that we ask this question is proof that the Chase system has drastically affected the racing itself.
Tom: The system has been repeatedly stressed as who has the least bad luck, and it bothers me that everyone is trying hard not to screw up instead of trying hard to win. At the same time, that’s what you NEED to do, so I don’t fault anyone for it. It’s a vicious cycle.
Jeff: There are two ways to fix the problem, OK, 3. 1) Just have a separate race for the Chasers; 2) Have a separate points system for the Chasers, i.e. 1-10 in points; or 3) get rid of the Chase altogether.
Tom: I vote for #2, simply because the Chase is not going to be gotten rid of… it just won’t.
Amy: I vote for #3. Look at the No. 48; they’ve had their chances almost taken away by Sterling Marlin, Scott Riggs and Kahne.
Tom: Well, I’m guessing Johnson wishes his team just gambled on fuel this week based on how the whole thing turned out.
Amy: None of the Chasers were close enough on fuel to have taken that risk, especially Johnson. They thought they were seven laps short.
Tom: But after dominating the race and knowing at least one Chaser was going to go the distance on gas… you wonder, should they have chanced it, knowing any additional bad luck could be made up at Talladega the next week? Of course, Johnson could have benefited from that final caution being thrown with four laps to go, too.
Amy: You THINK? So maybe those crew members pushing the car on pit road could have gotten someplece safer? NASCAR not throwing a caution for that was the most asinine call ever. It showed no regard AT ALL for the safety of Kahne’s crew members.
Tom: Amy, I was a bit surprised they didn’t throw the last caution. I think NASCAR didn’t want to get in the way of all the fuel-mileage gambles. But, at the same time, you had a spin through the grass… NASCAR has thrown the yellow for far more mundane stuff this year.
Toni: I pretty much thought a caution was standard when something was blocking pit road. Which Kahne’s stalled car was…
Amy: Exactly. They toss a yellow for a piece of tape on the track, but it’s okay to endanger six or eight crew guys on pit road?!
Tom: Well… I’ve seen crews push cars down pit road and NASCAR not throw the caution. There’s an assumed risk there.
Amy: I disagree, Tom. What if someone had come onto pit road a little too hot, like Kahne had… they could have spun into those guys. Guess the possibility of a crew guy being killed wasn’t as important to NASCAR as the “right” outcome of the race.
Toni: Crews have pushed their stalled cars down pit road in the middle of traffic before.
Amy: But that’s usually under caution when the cars are already there and there’s no way to prevent the crew hopping over… this time, there was, and NASCAR didn’t care.
Tom: Well, a crew member going over the wall can get hit at any time, Amy. Again, it’s an assumed risk.
Jeff: Had they thrown the caution, do you think J.J. would have won?
Amy: No, I don’t think so, because too many had already pitted for their fuel and would have stayed out… as much as I think Jimmie got screwed, that’s not why I’m pissed at the non-call.
Toni: He’d have been more likely to keep his lead. And he probably wouldn’t have gotten the penalty.
Tom: Look, I can sympathize with the No. 48 over the whole deal. That clearly frazzled Jimmie enough that he sped off pit road.
Jeff: I don’t buy that, Tom. “Frazzled” or not, pit-road speed never changes. He is supposed to be a professional, especially at such a crucial moment.
Amy: If you looked at the tape though, when Jimmie really accelerated it was to GET BY the No. 9 which was still in the middle of it road and now in his way getting out. He sped up to avoid hitting Kahne’s stalled car… which shouldn’t have been there because the caution should have been out and pit road closed until the No. 9 was out of the way.
Jeff: Speed up to avoid hitting Kahne? Kahne, who is stalled and sitting still? You never mat it to get off pit road.
Mike: You don’t speed up to avoid a stalled car. You also don’t do 100 mph when pit-road speed is 45.
Tom: Yeah, I don’t know if you speed up in that situation. You slow down. It’s an unavoidable obstacle on pit road, it costs you time, but it’s the luck of the draw.
Jeff: The point is, J.J. screwed himself at a crucial moment. You never go above the speed limit on pit road!
Amy: So you drive the speed they’re pushing the car ahead of you down the middle of pit lane? That’s ridiculous. Look, the point is, the situation should not have occurred AT ALL… the caution should have prevented all of it.
Mike: Apparently NASCAR didn’t feel that way.
Amy: I do not buy that… what if Johnson had spun trying to pull off at the last second? He’d have hit those guys, who do NOT have a 3,400-pound roll-cage to protect them.
Jeff: They get hit all the time Amy, that is why they now mandate helmets.
Mike: Again, it is the driver’s responsibility to avoid it and stay at pit-road speed. So are you saying NASCAR should throw a caution whenever a crew has to push start a car?
Amy: No, because that usually happens when there’s already traffic on pit road. But in this case NASCAR had the opportunity to show that they are actually concerned with safety – and they failed to do so. They did not want a caution to tighten the field, so they basically said those crew guys are expendable.
Mike: I disagree. Most times that a driver runs out of gas, it is not during a caution. It is during green-flag runs.
Jeff: No caution was the right call.
Mike: I don’t know that no caution was the right call. If Kahne stalled in the grass, which he did, a caution should have been thrown.
Toni: I agree with Mike. A caution should probably have been thrown for Kahne’s spin, but not for him being pushed down pit road.
Jeff: Oh My God! You know what this means! Jimmie was cheated out of ANOTHER championship. Poor guy.
Tom: I’m calling Oprah as we speak.
Amy: NO, he wasn’t… he sped, he made the pass through… what happened was NASCAR failing to show any regard for the safety of drivers and crew members.
Toni: The push start does happen all the way down pit road when you are pitting at the entrance end… and if you are Newman a few years ago, it happens two or three or four times. With two different pit crews.
Tom: Look Amy, technically you can say with Gordon the same thing happened 20 laps before. He got going down pit road after they worked on the car… then the fuel pump failed again, and he stalled the car.
Jeff: You’re right Tom, NASCAR should have thrown a caution! They showed no regard for the safety of Jeff’s crew. (sarcasm)
Tom: Look, there may be an argument that the caution should have been thrown… but in my opinion, it’s because of the spin, not safety.

Both Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. have been strong recently, and Reed Sorenson has also picked it up the past few weeks. If Hamlin became ineligible, which one would you pick for Rookie of the Year? Can any of them win a race as well before the year is out?

Toni: I’d have to go with Bowyer, because honestly, he’s had what would be considered a decent rookie year if it weren’t for Hamlin.
Tom: I’d go for Bowyer, too. Sometimes Bowyer can be a tough guy to feel sympathetic for, but I have to admit, I felt for him a bit at Kansas.
Mike: I think Bowyer can definitely win a race this year. Sorenson might, too, if they can get a race that is two laps shorter.
Amy: That’s hard to call… honestly, I think that Sorenson is probably the most talented of all of them, including Hamlin. But, he’s saddled with Ganassi equipment and he’s SO young.
Toni: I think Sorenson is very talented, but he really had a struggle up until recently.
Mike: Ganassi has done a lot with their short track program. Their intermediate stuff is still iffy.
Tom: The past two months or so, Ganassi has actually started to show some signs of life back at the No. 41. But in my mind, hands down, it’s Bowyer who has impressed the most with Hamlin out of the picture.
Amy: Bowyer has been impressive… but on raw talent alone, it’s Sorenson.
Toni: Truex has been the missing man. For a two-time Busch Series champ, his rookie season was really a disappointment even without Hamlin around. He’s started to come around a bit lately though.
Mike: Don’t be surprised if Truex doesn’t steal one this weekend.
Toni: This weekend is Truex’s best chance.
Amy: I like Truex, he’s a nice kid and a very good driver… but he’s also not shown his talent because of the equipment he’s in.
Toni: I still think Truex is talented; I’m just saying he’s not had a great year to show it.
Jeff: Truex has hardly been heard from all year!
Tom: The thing is, with Hamlin doing what he’s done it’s easy to forget this class has four drivers in it who will win many races in the series over the next decade. Now, JJ Yeley and David Stremme, I’m not so convinced they’ll stick around for the long haul.
Mike: I think Yeley will be a great driver. He just still has to work out the rough edges of running full-bodied stock cars. Yeley should have been the driver of the year when Newman won it.
Toni: Stremme I have my doubts about, but not Yeley. He’ll be fine.
Amy: Yeley is one hell of a sprint car driver… which does not always translate well. Stremme is so not ready for Cup it isn’t even funny.
Toni: Yeley just needs more patience than some. If you give him enough time to figure it out, he can do this.
Tom: Well, it’s hard to ignore the struggles of Yeley versus the development of Hamlin. I mean, drivers like Truex have struggled too… but Truex doesn’t necessarily have the support around him that Yeley does.
Mike: Yes Tom, but Hamlin comes from late model racing, not sprint racing. Big difference.
Jeff: Back to Truex, I’m not saying he’s a bad kid, but if he wasn’t Junior’s buddy, and he wasn’t driving for DEI, we wouldn’t be talking about him now.
Mike: Truex can get out of the garage area as fast as his boss can, that is for sure. That dude goes from the car to the motorhome faster than anyone.
Toni: The big thing is, unless there’s a surprise, I think all of these guys are going to get another season to show improvement. Even Stremme, Ganassi has the patience of a saint and not too many options for other drivers.

After months of speculation, today it was made official – next year, NASCAR will go Busch Series racing in Montreal, Canada. Good move, or big mistake?

Amy: Good idea to go to Canada, bad choice of venue. The drivers are already complaining about the lack of decent facilities.
Mike: How can they complain about facilities at a Formula 1 track?
Amy: There are no covered garages, no bathrooms… the F1 guys say it’s the worst on their circuit in that regard.
Tom: The track at Montreal has a bad history of complaints from other racing series. However, the location is great and I think that longterm, this move will pay off.
Toni: If they are going to go anywhere outside of the U.S. it should be Canada, even more so than Mexico. There is huge support for NASCAR in Canada.
Tom: I really like the fact NASCAR put this race on a weekend where the Cup stars are in Pocono, so not that many will race there, despite what Brian France says. I think that’s huge for the Busch Series to start developing their own following again.
Amy: This course is terrible for stock cars, though. There are two passing zones at best, similar to Infineon, and those zones are even harder to pass on.
Mike: Most road courses are terrible for stock cars.
Jeff: As long as they play the American anthem in Canada when they go, I don’t care.
Mike: Yeah, that will be cool. Just like a hockey game.
Tom: I think you’re going to see a large influx of Canadian stars enter that race, too. Patrick Carpentier, Paul Tracy. NASCAR will have a field day with that… and with them buying CASCAR, I think this is a way they can get some of the stars of those series spoonfed into Busch Series action.
Toni: Just like Mexico, Tom. A boatload of cars will enter with Canadian drivers, who will then be promptly dumped when the Busch teams come home. Except for Tracy, who got himself a longer deal.

Predictions for Talladega?

Mike: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Dark horse: Ken Schrader.
Toni: Gordon.
Amy: Gordon.
Jeff: Mark Martin will crash, Dale Jarrett will win. For real this time.
Tom: Actually, I think Martin’s going to make it through.
Toni: Love that darkhorse pick, Mike.
Mike: Schrader can still race short tracks and plate tracks. I think Schrader can still win a race before he quits.
Toni: And Schrader is excellent on plate tracks.
Tom: I agree, Mike. With the new asphalt, this race screams a surprise winner. You know what… I’m going to go out on a limb. Brian Vickers.
Mike: Vickers won’t win because he has no teammates. I think Hendrick, DEI or Childress will win though. The new asphalt is just going to make a dominant car even more dominant. I think it’s going to make it even more of a big-team race.
Tom: Well, it’s the most unpredictable race of the season… this one, you truly don’t know.