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Best Of Mirror Driving 2006

Editor’s Note: In honor of the 2006 Nextel Cup champion celebrating in New York City, the Mirror Driving crew has decided to throw a little party of their own… taking a hard-earned week off after a long season. In their stead, we hope you enjoy some “Best Of” Mirror Driving from the past year… a review of questions that we feel raised crucial issues about the present and future health of the sport.

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)
Ren Jonsin (Frontstretch Publisher)
Cami Starr (Tuesdays/Who’s Hot, Who’s Not AND Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans)
Tommy Thompson (Wednesdays/Thompson In Turn 5)
Jeff Meyer (Thursdays/Voices From the Heartland)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Race Trax AND Tuesdays/That’s History)
Toni Heffelfinger (Mondays/Busch Series Breakdown AND Fridays/Second Fiddle)
Mike Neff (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans AND Fridays/Full Throttle)

Tony Stewart mentioned after New Hampshire in September that NASCAR should have a separate race for just the top-10 Chasers themselves. While the plan seemed outrageous, he claims something has to be done 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 points 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 Jimmie 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 manufacturers’ 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 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 racetrack 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.

There were several disturbing reports of team orders during the last regular-season race at Richmond this year. For example, Kevin Harvick would have reportedly given up the lead if Jeff Burton needed five extra points to make the Chase. There were even whispers Carl Edwards intentionally spun Johnson to keep Matt Kenseth as the points leader. How long before we see this type of thing make an actual difference in the final results, and how will the fans react?

Jeff: As long as there is a Chase, you will have that.
Toni: Agreed. That was definitely team orders, but then isn’t it part of strategy? Harvick’s sponsor might not have been happy, though, to sacrifice a win for Burton.
Amy: The Harvick thing was blatant team orders… they said all that on the radio. Edwards… I heard that, and I could frankly go either way on it. He’s made plenty of driving mistakes this year for sure, and this looked accidental.
Cami: It didn’t do much good to wreck Johnson. He was already in.
Toni: He was already in, and wasn’t even the points leader anyway.
Amy: BUT, Roush Racing has made “mistakes” in the past that ended up padding a point lead heading into crunch time… if it had been any other team, it wouldn’t be a question.
Toni: I will say that if Mark Martin needed positions, if you wreck Johnson you can control what Kenseth does if you are Jack Roush. That could have been big.
Mike: I was wondering about Kenseth reporting his brake issue. I was thinking that if Martin struggles, they take Johnson out and Kenseth drops out and the 400-point cutoff comes into play.
Tom: I still don’t see why Edwards would do it, though. I mean, we’re talking about five points. That’s the difference between first and second now… who cares if Kenseth or Johnson is the points leader? And the 400-point scenario sounds farfetched to me.
Amy: I don’t know, Tom… I think having the point lead would have been HUGE for the No. 48 team, mentally.
Tom: I don’t think Roush would stoop that low… the Harvick thing, though, is definitely true, it’s been confirmed and speaks scary volumes about where the sport is headed.
Mike: I thought that Harvick’s orders were to let him lead a lap, not the last lap. That happens every week.
Tommy: We’ve been seeing teammates letting each other lead a lap for the five bonus points. I don’t like that, and it’s hard to police. However, if NASCAR doesn’t get on top of team racing and let it be known that it won’t be tolerated, they are going to lose a lot of fans.
Cami: Sounds like Formula 1 to me, with the team orders. At least how they used to be.
Tom: Right… and no Americans follow F1 because of that. NASCAR is traveling a very slippery slope here.
Mike: What is wrong with that, Tom? It happens every week. And lots of people follow F1.
Tom: Not as many as follow NASCAR… and the fans who follow NASCAR, I don’t think, appreciate a car just pulling over and letting another guy win in order for them to make the playoffs. In no other sport will you see someone intentionally “lose” so someone else can win.
Mike: Harvick would have had to stop on the track, Tom. Burton was way too far back.
Tom: Mike, if Burton was three points out of the Chase with one lap left, Harvick would have slowed down.
Cami: Look, if NASCAR teams are going to use team orders, they can’t be so obvious about it, to a point they have been used before when there was racing back to the yellow.
Mike: They do this type of thing every week. Remember the Roush orchestrated lead dance at Chicago last year?
Tom: You make a good point, Mike. But I don’t want to see it rather obviously in the season’s final race.
Jeff: It is something that is impossible to police.
Tom: At least in those other races, though, we can look the other way. Not at Richmond. Not when you have blatant team orders.
Mike: I don’t see how you can look the other way at one race and not another. Every race pays the same points.
Cami: I think if it gets blatant, NASCAR might have to do something. But there isn’t much you can do about it unless it’s just totally obvious.
Tommy: The answer is simple, team racing needs to be addressed by NASCAR before it becomes a problem. Not afterwards.
Jeff: As long as there are teams, there will be team racing.
Amy: There’s also a difference in team orders that say “let him pass you” and ones that say “take that guy out.”
Cami: Exactly, Amy.
Mike: True that. I have to think that would be addressed. But you are always going to have that lead changing deal now with the Chase in effect.
Tommy: I don’t think American race fans will stomach team racing. It goes against our grain, and everything we think racing is.
Mike: American racing fans are already having to stomach it with the Chase.
Cami: Look, who complained when the race leader used to slow down in turn 4 to let his teammate pass by to get a lap back when they raced back to the yellow?
Amy: Getting a lap back was different than getting the race lead.
Cami: True, but it’s still team racing to a point.

Do people give the California race in September a bad rap simply because it replaced the Southern 500, or is the racing REALLY that bad?

Amy: It’s really that bad. Given the market, I understand why NASCAR races there, but it should NOT be this week and it should NOT be one of the deciding factors in the Chase. NASCAR had to throw debris cautions to try and make it remotely interesting.
Toni: I thought it was really that bad, too. I was working on my Busch Series article through it and almost nothing happened that was enough to catch my attention. Except for when they cut away from commercials to show a live restart, that is.
Ren: Actually, I think the racing has improved. I think the track is just starting to come into its own and open up wider for better racing.
Mike: I agree, Ren. I think people give it a hard time because they don’t think Cali should have two races.
Cami: It’s not any worse than half of the other tracks. I think people dog it because it caused so much change.
Mike: The fact that they can run five different lines at some points on the track is pretty cool.
Ren: Even if they did have some debris cautions, it wasn’t a bad race otherwise. It was about the same as any other speedway race. Probably better than Chicagoland.
Toni: Honestly, the last 70 laps was interesting. The rest of it, I had this feeling everyone was just cruising around to get to the end. Which I can understand, but it doesn’t make for good racing.
Amy: Look, there simply do not need to be four races a year at California and Michigan.
Mike: Oh, Amy, do you really want to go there? How many races do we have among Chicago, Kansas, Texas, Atlanta, Charlotte and Vegas? Four races at Chicago and California isn’t any worse than 10 races at the cookie cutters.
Cami: I’d rather have Michigan or California than have them cut those tracks down and put it on another cookie-cutter track. Or, worse yet, build a new one.
Amy: For all intents and purposes, California and Chicago ARE cookie cutters; just the ones where the dough was too fat, so it comes out all funny looking.
Mike: So are Kansas, Texas, Vegas and Atlanta.
Amy: Yes, and the racing often sucks at those tracks, too.
Mike: I agree, but if you are going to call out Cali and Michigan, you have to call out all of those other tracks. California wouldn’t be a problem with most fans if it wasn’t on Labor Day weekend.
Toni: It’s not only the weekend, it’s the tracks that lost a race. If it wasn’t the Southern 500 that was killed off but one of the Rockingham races, I think people would still be down on it.
Amy: Exactly, Toni… they took the oldest tradition in NASCAR and replaced it with a watered-down facsimile of a race.
Tommy: Did everyone agree that California was good racing? There were fast cars, fast pit stops, plenty of passing and pit strategy,
Toni: I agree the end of it was good racing. The beginning was just riding around to get there.
Cami: But like Tommy said, the racing was pretty good. Guys could drive several different lines. And most races are riding around to get there, they all say it, that we just want to be there the last 50 or 100 laps. People gripe when they race hard and wreck in the first 50.
Amy: They could drive several lines, but there wasn’t much passing.
Tommy: Look, there was a reason the Southern 500 wasn’t selling out. Not even close to selling out, actually. And I doubt that they could put 75,000 fans in the decrepit old place as they advertised anyways.
Amy: It was packed to the gills when I’ve been there.
Mike: They sell out now on Mother’s Day, Tommy.
Tommy: Yes, they do. They’ve seen the light, and are making some overdue improvements to the facility.
Mike: If they ran the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend now, they’d sell it out big time.
Amy: Agreed 100%, Mike. Even if that’s the only Darlington date, it should ALWAYS be Darlington’s date. I’d go to decrepit old Darlington before California any year.
Mike: Preach it, sister! If NASCAR seriously thought about giving Darlington a chance, they’d have given them a date in June or July.
Tommy: Well, where did all the money go Darlington made over the years? Not much was put back into the track.
Ren: Look, that’s very sentimental of you, Amy, and if you’re into tradition, then yeah, Darlington should have the Labor Day race. If you’re into growing the sport, though, then you have to let some things go.
Tommy: Well said, Ren.
Mike: Why do we need to grow the sport? I still think the sport is freaking big enough already.
Amy: Why, Ren… Cali would draw the same crowd and TV ratings on ANY date. They didn’t need this one.
Mike: I still think the sport is freaking big enough already.
Tommy: Well, NASCAR is all about growth.
Mike: WHY? Please tell me why we have to grow? I’m not. I won’t let go! You can’t make me!
Cami: We have to because King Brian said so, Mike!
Ren: California has a larger capacity and better facilities. NASCAR is a business, and if you stop growing, you wither away.
Amy: Well, what happens when all you bandwagoneers move on to the next trend? What will the real fans be left with?
Mike: 36 races on a bunch of tracks that real fans don’t want to go to.
Ren: But if you refused to change, Mike, your traditional fanbase would die off, and then all you’re left with is a bunch of old broken down tracks.
Tommy: Look, California will be THE EVENT in 10 years.
Mike: Bull crap. Cali will never be the event. LA fans are way too fickle. Why do you think the NFL isn’t there? Because the fans aren’t loyal.
Tommy: No, because LA fans won’t subsidize millionaires.
Mike: How many fans make a pilgrimage to Cali for a race?
Tommy: Give it time.
Amy: Well, as a fan I’d pay to fly to Darlington or Charlotte or just about anywhere before paying to watch parade laps at California,
Ren: They don’t need you to go to California, Amy. NASCAR needs people who wouldn’t go to a NASCAR race to go to Cali, and they will.

There were several instances of Busch-only drivers getting spun out by the Buschwhackers this season, including the Phoenix race this April. Should NASCAR start imposing stiffer penalties on Buschwhackers who take out Busch only drivers in a wreck, or is doing that type of thing unfair?

Note: This question refers in part to incidents from the Phoenix event.

Cami: I am sick to death of this whole Buschwhacker crap.
Toni: I’m sick of seeing Busch regulars get run over though, too. That’s what the majority of accidents this year seem to be. Cup guys running over Busch guys.
Cami: I don’t think they can single them out from any other driver out there.
Mike: I agree; you can’t do that. We all scream about NASCAR being consistent.
Cami: All NASCAR is worried about is filling the seats. They want the stands just as full for the Busch race as the Cup race.
Cami: Like Jeff said, I’m sick of all the Buschwhackers anyway. They need to worry about fixing that problem instead of who’s running over who.
Toni: I think it is interesting that NASCAR is doing this policing though. Are they making some kind of comment on Buschwhackers themselves? Or are they just making a gesture by penalizing Cup guys for rough driving to appease those fans that are unhappy?
Cami: I know NASCAR loves the extra crowds in the Busch Series, but I have a hard time believing that’s why so many teams run both, just to help NASCAR fill seats.
Toni: I don’t recall seeing any other rough driving penalties in the Busch Series this year, either, for Cup guys wrecking each other or for Busch guys wrecking anyone.
Cami: If NASCAR really does change the cars run in Busch so they are different from Cup, I wonder how many Buschwhackers we’ll see then.
Mike: Not nearly as many as we do now. NASCAR made the Buschwhacker thing worse by taking away those test dates.
Amy: I think the rules should be the same for everyone… that said, I sure had a big old smirk on my face after the penalty that cost these drivers.
Toni: Cup guys have taken about 1/3 or the total starting spots available this year. They also have like 75% of the top-10 finishes.
Mike: That proves the point, Toni. Mikey and some others keep spouting off about how they would not have full fields without Buschwhackers. That is just BS.
Toni: I’m aware of that, Mike. They would never have trouble filling a Busch field without 18 Buschwhackers there.
Cami: It’s sad that the biggest story in the Busch series is the Cup drivers taking over and running the small guys out.
Toni: They almost succeeded in squeezing out Kertus Davis. I really wish he’d have gotten a shot in Erin Crocker‘s car in Nashville.
Amy: The business did squeeze out Ashton Lewis a couple of years ago… lucky for him, he got the ride with Rensi.
Cami: Even though I hate all the Cup guys in Busch, you can’t really start penalizing them differently when NASCAR has got to be happy they are there.
Toni: I say, keep on penalizing Cup guys who run over Busch guys. It makes me feel better, at least. Doesn’t help their finish or their budget, but at least I feel like the Cup guys aren’t getting away with everything. I also say bring on the pony cars so the Cup guys have no reason to run.
Mike: It definitely makes you feel better, Toni, but NASCAR can’t make judgment calls based on the driver’s name or position.
Cami: I agree that would be a great way to fix the problem.
Mike: True, but they can’t make that a public position. They can still do it privately… but…
Toni: I think it sends a message though. If NASCAR keeps doing it, maybe the Cup guys will learn they need to have a little more respect for the Busch guys working on a fraction of the budget they have.
Mike: Of course, that begs a very interesting question. Are the lives of the Busch drivers not as important as the Cup drivers?
Amy: I’d love for there to be a way to make the Cup teams pay for the wrecked cars from Busch-only teams…. I’d love for Clint Bowyer‘s team to have to pay for Jason Leffler‘s car.
Mike: I really didn’t think Bowyer did anything wrong.
Amy: It would definitely suck if say, Aaron Fike had to pay if he wrecked Kyle Busch.

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