NASCAR Race Weekend Central
Which driver was the biggest surprise in 2006, and why?

Mirror Driving: Who Shined… and Didn’t… In ’06

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)
Kim DeHaven (Frontstretch PR Coordinator/Tuesdays/Numbers Game)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Race Trax AND Tuesdays/That’s History)
Toni Heffelfinger (Mondays/Busch Breakdown AND Fridays/Second Fiddle)

Which driver was the biggest surprise in 2006, and why?

Toni: That’s easy. It was definitely Denny Hamlin. And I can’t believe I’d have to explain why to anyone who was awake in 2006. Rookies don’t make the Chase.
Tom: Hamlin’s the easy out, but I’m actually going to say Kevin Harvick. Here’s why: at the beginning of the season NO ONE expected him to even be with Childress by year’s end, let alone be contending for a championship. That check to send him to Toyota was all but signed, sealed, and delivered. That being said, Hamlin’s year was great… but he showed flashes of brilliance in ’05.
Toni: I think Jeff Burton deserves a mention, too. No one expected him to be in the Chase, either.
Amy: I think I’ll go with RCR in general. They improved by leaps and bounds.
Tom: Well, to me Harvick beats Burton in terms of how impressive their comeback was. Everyone always thought that, longterm, Burton would turn his career around there.
Amy: I don’t know, Tom… Burton’s the better driver of the two, and Harvick’s getting the top stuff…
Kim: How about Tony Stewart, reigning champ, missing the Chase?
Tom: Kim, the thing with Stewart was a surprise, but I think you have to take into account that he was hurt. Just the one race he “missed” was what cost him the Chase… and all in all, he didn’t have a bad year once he recovered from that.
Toni: I do think getting hurt had a lot to do with killing Stewart’s momentum, but he beat himself to some extent too. There were a number of occasions where he let his temper get him and used his car as a weapon. That affected some of his finishes, too.
Tom: Oh, yeah. I still believe a healthy Stewart would have been in the Chase, but he did learn such a lesson this year… it was almost as if the team just assumed they’d be running for the title, so they could screw around during the summer months and not worry about the consistent finishes.
Kim: Hey, how about Morgan-McClure Motorsports losing another driver before the season ends. And yes, that is oozing of sarcasm!
Toni: Scott Wimmer lasted longer in that car than a lot of others. That car is one of those career-ending black holes.
Amy: Without viable sponsorship, MMM can’t be too choosy… they need someone who can at least sort of perform… it becomes a vicious cycle.
Kim: Ward Burton‘s return wasn’t that big of a surprise, but coming back with MMM was. I am sure when he took the time off, he turned down FAR more competitive rides.
Tom: The thing is, though, Ward knew he couldn’t take another year away from the sport if he wanted to get back in it.
Toni: I’m sure the offers were getting fewer and farther between. He may have been thinking this would be one of the last ones he’d get.
Tom: Hey, one more surprise; how about Kasey Kahne winning six races? I mean, you knew with Kenny Francis coming over there that team was going to be better. But still… leading the circuit in wins was definitely more than expected.

Which driver was the biggest disappointment in 2006, and why?

Amy: I’d have to say Greg Biffle. He was supposed to be the next championship contender, and he fell off the radar. His luck would have been non-existent if it wasn’t terrible.
Toni: I’d have to go with Stewart. Only because of the temper thing coming back to the surface like I just mentioned.
Kim: Sterling Marlin‘s whole year was disappointing.
Toni: Yeah, Marlin REALLY fell off the radar.
Amy: Yeah, but with the team he drove for, it wasn’t below expectations, either.
Tom: I just don’t understand what happened to MB2 that they fell so far behind this year. I mean, Joe Nemechek was a solid top-15 team in 2005. And I don’t think Marlin has lost as much as people think he’s lost… although he’s no longer capable of winning the championship he should have won in 2002.
Toni: Loss of money. Valvoline left and took their dollars with them. They had to hustle to try to get sponsorship on that second car all year. And I’m sure that bled over to Nemechek’s team, too.
Tom: Marlin just had some awful luck as well… they’ve got a tough hill to climb in ’07. Making the races on speed with all those new teams? I could easily see them struggling out of the box… shame, too, because Marlin will likely retire after next year. Meanwhile, Jamie McMurray was downright awful.
Kim: Who, Tom?
Tom: Haha, yeah the guy that was qualifying with a provisional every week.
Toni: There are those who didn’t think McMurray was much to start with, and now he just proved it, being in good equipment.
Tom: You think about how much that guy has fallen off the radar.
Amy: Honestly, he wasn’t all that big a disappointment, because the expectations weren’t all that high. McMurray got lucky with his one win… that car was set up by the defending race winner.
Tom: I dispute claims he’s not talented; finishing in the top 15 three years in a row with Ganassi wasn’t too shabby. I don’t think McMurray is the next Jeff Gordon, but he’s got the talent to make the Chase.
Amy: Casey Mears was top 15 in the same car and came closer to winning in it.
Toni: And I think Mears is capable of more. I think the car held him back.
Amy: Mears should show how MUCH more this year.
Tom: One more thing on McMurray… you mentioned that the car was likely holding Mears back, but wasn’t it doing the same with McMurray all those years? You do the best with the equipment you have… I thought McMurray did a pretty good job in that equipment.
Amy: Maybe not… perhaps he was at his potential but we didn’t realize that until he got in better stuff.
Tom: Unfortunately, sometimes you can’t take chemistry with you. Just look at what happened with Jeremy Mayfield… they take his top-notch crew chief away and he goes from contender to also-ran. That’s the thing about this era… you can’t just do it as a driver alone anymore. At the very least, you need a crew chief that gets you on every level. And THEN, if you’re lucky enough to have that, the equipment’s got to back you up.
Amy: Agreed… you need all of the above… but the best equipment and crew in the world will only take a mediocre driver so far.
Toni: It’s got to be the whole package these days.
Tom: That’s why I don’t have Mayfield listed as most disappointing… in theory, he’s the driver that slumped the most this year. But he got the rug taken out from under him… you’re only going to be able to perform so well in that situation.
Toni: Mayfield seems destined to self-destruct every few years and have a nasty divorce.
Amy: It really seems like Evernham only has the personnel and equipment to have one team in contention at any given time, too.
Tom: Hey, do I technically have to say Carl Edwards here because I had him picked as the champ? I don’t think Cousin Carl had a truly awful year though, it’s hard to avoid the sophomore slump.
Amy: If that’s the criteria, then I’d have to say Stewart. I was SO wrong in my preseason picks it’s not even funny. I picked Johnson third… and the two guys I picked over him didn’t even make the Chase… oops!
Toni: And if that’s the criteria here, I’ll just point out that I did already say Tony. He might have avoided probation, but I’m not sure how.
Tom: Tony’s temper is always going to be a volatile thing… I still think that, in general, he’s a lot better with it than he used to be.
Kim: His temper is what his fans love and his detractors love to hate.
Tom: His blood pressure just automatically goes up when you ask a stupid question… you can sense it whenever you interview him. Even when he’s in nice mode, he’ll let you know it was stupid.
Amy: Well, with some of the questions, you can’t blame him.

What was the biggest off-the-track story that impacted the sport during 2006?

Amy: If Johnson’s wrist is the biggest, that’s just really kind of sad. I’m kind of leaning toward the BF incident, which is also lame, except that there seem to be all kinds of excuses as to why he wasn’t investigated further. Seems kind of a sad commentary that the president of a motorsports organization basically condoned drinking and driving.
Toni: I missed the whole BF incident. I was Down Under at the time. But there you have it. I missed the last two races of the season and didn’t bat an eye about it. And looking at the Homestead ratings, so did a lot of other folks. I think that is kind of big.
Amy: I’d forgotten about the ratings drop… knew it was going to happen, so it wasn’t a surprise, but it WAS a big story.
Kim: Don’t forget about Gordon’s marriage and baby-to-be, but that only matters to the women that obsess over him.
Tom: Honestly, I think the biggest story just happened recently. That’s NASCAR pulling out of the Staten Island property in New York City. No matter if they keep trying, that’s a humongous defeat no matter how you slice it.
Kim: Staten Island. Can you imagine trying to get race traffic out of there within three days following an event?
Amy: Exactly… that was a logistical nightmare from day one.
Tom: I think the Staten Island thing plays up to this whole theory that NASCAR’s growth has basically been unstoppable for the past 20 years. For the first time in memory, they were stopped. And stopped on the cusp of capturing the nation’s biggest market, a place that would have gone a long ways towards convincing the stick ‘n’ ball fans they covet that NASCAR belongs among the elite sports in America. Now, you add that in with the ratings and the general warnings that growth may be slowing down… there is a growing tide of concern that’s getting harder to stop.
Amy: The growth was bound to slow… and it will recede, too. Too many new fans are bandwagon fans who will move on to the next big trend to come along.
Toni: See, in a way I don’t count the Staten Island thing because I knew from day one it was not going to happen. Which makes it almost a non-story to me. I definitely don’t think they were on the cusp of capturing that market.
Amy: Pocono and Dover are a stone’s throw from NYC anyway… a lot of people commute that far daily.
Kim: You are NOT going to convince a Mets fan that a seat at a NASCAR track is as good as a seat at Shea Stadium.
Toni: Kim is right. I don’t think having a track there will really do it for them either.
Tom: Well, I still think that even if you think Staten Island was never going to happen from the start, people showing casual interest in the sport believed that it would… because they didn’t know any better. And again, NASCAR has had a history of just throwing money at something and things magically go their way. This time, they threw money at something… and it didn’t happen. That’s a big change.
Kim: People showing casual interest in the sport are not going to spend hundreds of dollars to attend a race.
Amy: People not knowing better isn’t NASCAR’s fault.
Tom: Well, NASCAR was hoping that it would be able to turn that casual interest around into something meaningful.
Toni: Again, for me it’s just not that big a story because it was when they gave it up, not if, in my book. The only part I didn’t know was when it would happen.
Tom: I think one other thing we need to mention was the Knaus cheating incident as well. That pretty much will always be talked about in the shadows of Jimmie Johnson‘s Daytona 500 win, fair or unfair.
Amy: OK, you know what? Even is NASCAR had fined the No. 48 team points, they would have still won the title.
Toni: And, it was fair because the car he ran in the race was legal.
Kim: On the flip side of that penalty, Knaus built a strong team that was able to carry on without him.
Toni: And he served his penalty just like all the others who get caught. Knaus is far from the first guy to try to cheat.
Amy: Exactly. Todd Berrier is a bigger cheater than Knaus will ever be, but nobody ever mentions him because he’s RCR.
Tom: It set what became a tougher precedent throughout the season, though, that NASCAR is becoming less and less tolerant of people who don’t follow the rules.
Kim: They just began being more consistent with the penalties, Tom.

Who is the driver we saw in either the Busch or Truck Series this year that we’ll be talking about in the Nextel Cup level five years from now, and why?

Amy: Aric Almirola… because he has a lot of talent that he hasn’t even shown yet. And nobody can pronounce his name.
Tom: I’m going to say Erik Darnell… that kid was really starting to come on at the end of the Truck Series season this year. If McMurray continues to struggle, or if David Ragan can’t replace Mark Martin that well, Roush will no doubt make a place for him in 2008 or 2009.
Toni: Marcos Ambrose, as soon as he figures these things out. He learned trucks very fast, but we’ll see what he does in Busch.
Amy: I’d like to see Brendan Gaughan get a fair shot.
Kim: How about Steve Wallace?
Toni: Chad McCumbee is another one. He did more with less this year, I’d love to see what he’d do in a decent ride.
Tom: Well, I don’t really count Gaughan… because he’s had his shot. And I wouldn’t say he’s exactly impressed since his return to the Truck Series.
Amy: I said a fair shot, Tom.
Tom: I like Toni’s pick of McCumbee… in a rare move, he actually stayed with the team that propelled him to national exposure, even though Green Light Racing is an underdog.
Toni: He impressed me for sure.
Kim: McCumbee did a lot with a little with MRD Motorsports in the first few races last year as well.
Tom: Notice we didn’t mention anyone from the Busch Series.
Toni: Yes, I did notice.
Tom: Simply because all the young talent didn’t even last the season over there.
Toni: They didn’t do much shining over there, either.
Kim: That’s because everyone is either a veteran or a Cup driver.
Tom: Of the top five drivers in the Busch Series rookie of the year standings this year, only one has a full-time ride for 2007 – John Andretti, who shouldn’t have even been eligible anyways. It’s also the second time in four years no Busch rookie won a race. And they call this the driver development series? Well, not so much anymore.

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About Frontstretch Staff

Frontstretch Staff
The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.