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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Where Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. Be In 2008?

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)
Tommy Thompson (Wednesdays/Thompson In Turn 5)
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 AND Fridays/Second Fiddle)

Thoughts on the passing of Bobby Hamilton. What will you remember about him the most?

Toni: I will remember him as one of the toughest competitors out there. And I will also remember him saying Kevin Harvick wasn’t fit to be a boil on Dale Earnhardt‘s butt.
Amy: I loved the butt comment! I’ll remember his ongoing feud with John Andretti in the late ’90s. Also, his win at Talladega in the No. 55 car after Earnhardt’s death.
Tom: Amy, remember how pooped he was after that win? And you know how eerie that was… Kenny Wallace had pushed Earnhardt Sr. to a win at Talladega in the fall of 2000 in the No. 55 car. The following spring, Hamilton goes out and wins in that No. 55 the first restrictor-plate race after Earnhardt’s death. Weird, huh?
Toni: I remember he made Andy Petree a very happy man with that Talladega win.
Mike: He even had to have oxygen in Victory Lane that day! As for what I’ll remember, what’s important to me is that he lived by himself on the streets, yet had the strength to rise up to end up owning a NASCAR team. He didn’t talk much, but when he did, you’d better listen, because whatever he said was something you could learn from.

NEFF: GOODBYE, BOBBY HAMILTON

Tom: I think Hamilton was vastly underrated as a Cup driver throughout his career. He was one of the best drivers out there, and an even better man to everyone he came in contact with.
Amy: It was just such a shock to hear the news. It was so unexpected that it doubled the impact. Last I’d heard, the cancer was gone and he was getting better.
Mike: Yeah, I had no idea he wasn’t doing well. I’m worried about Benny, too.
Amy: Yeah, me too. I heard the pastor at BP’s church said he wasn’t doing well at all.
Tom: Well, when Hamilton wasn’t coming back for ’07, something was up. I’d heard rumors things had taken a turn, but nothing more… certainly not that he was on his deathbed. Just goes to show you how quickly cancer can take you.
Tommy: His death really hit hard with me. I agree with Tom, he was very underrated as a driver. I think, given the equipment he could drive a short track as good as ANYONE.
Mike: I remember seeing him smile when he won the Truck championship. That was one of the few times I ever remember him doing that.
Tom: Well, the other time was when he won for Richard Petty. I think THAT is really the most underrated thing about Hamilton… when he went to that team, they were dead in the water. Three top 10s in six years until he got in the car, he had a better first season with the No. 43 than even Bobby Labonte did this year. Hamilton ended up winning with that team by his second year there… Petty has never been as competitive since Hamilton drove that car. I remember he should have won far more than he did… Earnhardt nudged him out of the way at Rockingham that one time back in ’96 when he should have won.
Mike: I remember how mad he was at Rockingham. I bet he could have yanked Earnhardt out of the car by the scruff of the neck if he’d have gotten his hands on him.
Toni: You know, he’s not a cuddly cute sponsor dream kind of guy – and that’s why he was underrated. Looks and TV persona count more than driving ability these days, and he is proof of it.
Tommy: How many “old-school” drivers that banged around the local tracks banging on their own equipment for years do we have left now?
Mike: Quite a few still actually, Tommy. Most of the guys in Cup have still worked on their cars coming up, they just didn’t have to do it as long.
Tommy: Quite a few?
Amy: Um, Mark Martin and who else?
Mike: Dale Jarrett, Ken Schrader, Kenny and Mike Wallace, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. They’ve all done it. They just didn’t have to do it for years before they got into the big leagues.
Tom: I think what Tommy’s referring to, though, is the longevity of the fight to get to the big leagues. Nowadays, these guys are plucked from wherever they’re driving and put in the Big Show at 20, 25.
Mike: Oh yeah, it is different. But they’re still doing that stuff to get there. I mean, Denny Hamlin just raced his late model. Danny O’Quinn was running his car at Hickory this fall. They still do it, but they don’t amass 200 wins before they get to the Cup level.
Amy: Where else was O’Quinn gonna run, Mike?
Toni: Mike, O’Quinn might be running that thing this spring, too….
Tommy: When you eliminate the advantage of nepotism and drivers that made it to the big leagues well before their 30th birthday… that leaves Schrader on that list as one of the few drivers remaining. I’ll add Greg Biffle, too, that’s it.
Mike: You think Jarrett and Labonte got their rides by who they knew?
Tommy: With help from their families, yes.

Did the Chase field need to be expanded beyond 10 drivers? Will this help or hurt the legitimacy of the playoff system?

Toni: I don’t really think it needed to be expanded. However, for the last two years people have come close and got cut out that NASCAR really wanted in so…
Tom: Unless NASCAR’s looking to expand the field of 43 that starts each weekend, I think this was a big mistake.
Mike: Leave it as it is.
Tommy: It will dilute the playoffs.
Amy: It hurts it.
Tom: The only thing I like is getting rid of the 400-point rule… it will be easier for fans coming into the sport to understand the system. I mean, people don’t understand the Top-35 rule half the time, so… it’s good to simplify it.
Mike: I think the 400-point rule gives a legitimate shot to someone if they are out of the top 10. If you can’t be that close, you don’t deserve it. Look, no matter how big this thing is, wherever you cut it off, someone will be left out.
Amy: If that 12th-place guy is 600 out with 10 to go and wins, it cheapens the title. It shouldn’t be about who NASCAR wants in, though, it should be about a team EARNING a championship by being there when it counts. If you’re 400 out with that many races to go, you don’t deserve the trophy, either. Seriously, has anyone EVER made up 400 points in 10 races?

HENDERSON: DON’T BREAK THE CHASE WORSE

Toni: There’s little option left other than to expand the Chase to get all of the crowd pleasers in there. If we are going to do that, why don’t we just go back to the old system where there was no cutoff? I mean, the idea was to make it 10 guys in a close race. Now, suddenly, we are going to have it be more than 10? Which strikes me a whole lot of the old system, just minus the artificially close margin.
Tom: Well, the interesting thing with the Chase system the way it was is that Busch in 2004 is the only one who WOULD NOT have won the title under the old system. Both Stewart and Jimmie Johnson would have won the title under both the old and the new points structure.
Amy: But it would have been closer and therefore MORE EXCITING under the old format this year. Which, to my thinking, means it hasn’t worked in two out of three years.
Tom: I think NASCAR was too short-sighted on this decision, thinking that Stewart would have been great to have in the Chase this year.
Tommy: 10 is a good number for the playoff. It’s just under 25% of the starting field. That’s about as far as I believe you should go down in the standings to find a legitimate champion.
Tom: Let’s look at other sports. Baseball: Eight of 30 teams make the playoffs. A little over 26%. Football: 12 of 32… 38%. Hockey: 16 of 30… over 50%. Same for the NBA.
Amy: And in baseball, six of those eight teams are division champs already.
Toni: Eight of the 12 in football are, too.
Tom: It’s almost like NASCAR is saying, “Well, the other four major sports have a playoff system involving most of its teams, so why don’t we have one, too?” Instead of recognizing the uniqueness of their product. That’s what’s threatening them, when I think about it. NASCAR’s making their product generic.
Mike: That’s the same argument against putting in the Chase to begin with, Tom. They want to be football.
Amy: One wildcard per league is interesting… eight is stupid. And that’s basically what you have in NASCAR.
Tom: See, they do all these changes without realizing that it’s the UNIQUENESS of what they did that attracts fans in the first place.
Mike: Right! Why not be NASCAR instead of football.
Tom: Excellent point, Mike. NASCAR doesn’t need to be like a major sport, because that’s not how it became popular!
Mike: Exactly.
Tommy: And we see how many times in other sports the “wild cards” do anything but extend their seasons. A 12th-place Chase-eligible contender that was 600 points out and wins the championship would make an absolute mockery of the first 26 races.
Amy: Kurt Busch would have had NO chance at a title if NASCAR hadn’t handed him a whole lot of points, period… he wasn’t just a wild card, he was outside the top five in the league… in a lot of sports, that’s BASEMENT.
Tom: Even Stewart this year. We did make so much of him in terms of where he would finish under the old system. But he wouldn’t come CLOSE to winning a title over Johnson and Matt Kenseth in that type of scenario.
Mike: Nope.
Amy: Tommy has a point from earlier… why not just run 10 races with the points starting at zero for all the marbles for all 43 teams.
Tom: 43 drivers starting at zero makes a mockery of the regular season. Although it would be funny to see the commentators concentrate on teams like Front Row Motorsports at Richmond. “Chad Chaffin vs. Derrike Cope… who will start-and-park last to make the Chase field of 43?”
Mike: No doubt, Thomas.

Where will Earnhardt Jr. be driving in 2008?

Mike: DEI. Junior ain’t going anywhere.
Amy: DEI. Teresa can’t afford to lose Junior. Despite the fact that she runs the company, it’s Junior’s name on it. They don’t have the equipment to attract a top tier driver if Junior were to leave.
Tommy: Honestly, I don’t believe it will be at DEI unless he gets a piece of the ownership pie.
Tom: I can’t believe DEI would ever think of letting him go though, Tommy. You have to think some of this is your basic public negotiating tactic.
Mike: And Junior is the face of the company. That would cost them a mint if he left.
Tom: With that said, though… I mean, it’s a longshot, but Jeff Burton is free after 2007. That opens up a spot with a Childress car… I couldn’t imagine Burton being let go under ANY circumstance, but who would have thought Jeremy Mayfield would have lost his ride this time last year?
Tommy: Read that USA Today article where Junior discusses his and Teresa’s working relationship. I look for Junior to take his commercial appeal and move on.
Amy: I did read that, Tommy… but the bottom line is, if Junior walks, DEI goes the way of Bill Davis Racing or Wood Brothers Racing.
Mike: Anything is possible, but Teresa is smart enough to know that Junior is responsible for over half of the revenue that comes into that company.
Tommy: According to him, they haven’t even spoken in months.
Mike: They don’t need to. As long as Junior, Tony Eury Jr. and Richie Gilmore are on the same page, they are fine. Teresa just signs the checks.
Tommy: Well, she’ll have to “pony up” to keep him. His options are innumerable.
Mike: I don’t know that his options are that numerous, but any Chevy team is going to sign him.
Tom: Well, like I said, you’re going to use these tactics when you’re negotiating a new contract. And DEI is a business, family ties aside. Junior wants his stake.
Mike: Oh yeah, but at the same time, Junior has his own team. It is growing, he doesn’t need ownership in DEI.
Tommy: No driver has more options than Junior. Look what Michael Waltrip did. And he isn’t the commercial magnet that Junior is! He can move over to Childress (as an example) and bring $40 million with him.
Mike: Chevy isn’t letting Junior walk. So that makes it only Chevy teams.
Amy: ANY team would take Junior for the exposure and sponsorship dollars he could bring.
Mike: MB2 can’t afford him, so it’s basically Hendrick or Childress.
Tom: I think we’re going way overboard, guys. Junior has said he wants to drive for Childress later in his career. You think he would go to HENDRICK over Childress? And Richard would make a place for him, I can guarantee you that.
Mike: If Hendrick offered him more money, Junior would go there.
Tom: No, I don’t think so, Mike.
Amy: If they offered him the equipment to win a championship in, yes, I do agree.
Mike: Junior still has years to drive. He could go to Hendrick for 10 years and then go to Childress.
Tom: I think Junior’s genuine when he says driving for Childress has always been a dream of his. And where would he go at Hendrick, anyway? All those drivers are set for years.
Mike: Oh, please. You don’t think Hendrick makes room for Junior?
Amy: He’d go where he could get the championship. Kyle Busch or Casey Mears would be out on their ears if Hendrick thought he could get Junior.
Tommy: No shop would turn down Junior. He would bring his own financing.
Mike: “Hey Casey, we appreciate you coming over to Hendrick, hope you like driving in the Busch Series for the next 10 years!”
Amy: He’d get Budweiser back in the Hendrick fold, too.
Tom: You guys think Junior can’t win a title at Childress? What Chase for the Championship were Harvick and Burton in, bull riding? If Junior makes a move, it’s going to be to RCR.
Amy: Not unless RCR starts WINNING championships.
Mike: I don’t think Junior is going anywhere.
Tom: But RCR is in better shape than DEI. Look, I think you guys are misinterpreting his stance. It’s all about the money in terms of he wants his FAMILY stake in the empire his father built. If he doesn’t get that, he’ll bolt to his dream ride. He cares about the money in terms of personal pride with his father and his family. If Hendrick offered him $30 million and Childress $20 million, I’d bet the FARM he’d go to RCR.
Amy: I don’t know, Tom… HMS has the equipment that could win him a championship RIGHT NOW… I think that’s more to Junior than money. He might go drive for RCR later, but it’ll be for sentimental value, not racing.
Tommy: I expect him to be gone if he doesn’t get a piece of DEI.
Mike: Don’t y’all remember when the last contract was coming up? The same talk was going on. He isn’t going anywhere. The deal will get done. Teresa is too smart to let him walk away.
Amy: I think so, too… but not out of any loyalty on Teresa’s part… which is really a shame. That organization is nowhere NEAR what Earnhardt had envisioned for it. And it could easily have been that and more.
Mike: It’s not quite there yet, but it is close. It is a championship contending team now, it will get there before Junior leaves.
Tom: Well, I do think he’ll likely stay at DEI… but I’m not surprised this is happening, and wouldn’t be totally surprised if he left.
Amy: Junior is good enough to contend… DEI isn’t… that they finished where they did is a testament to Junior’s desire to win.
Mike: Junior isn’t going anywhere. DEI is on the verge of a championship and Junior is going to win it. Teresa will ultimately give him a stake in the company, and the contract will be signed.

What, if anything, should be paid attention to the most as Daytona testing gets underway?

Mike: That we are barely over a month away from the season, and the fastest teams spent the most money on development over the winter.
Amy: You think the DLP team spent the most on development over the winter?! I beg to differ, meanwhile, the No. 48 looks like Johnson ran over a herd of zebras.
Mike: I think Joe Gibbs might have. And that is where Hall of Fame gets their cars.
Amy: Yeah, and Gibbs is going to give them the chassis they spent all that money developing? I don’t know about that.
Tom: I don’t think you learn much from testing at all. It’s just a giant tease to all the fans that racing is coming.
Amy: Me either.
Tom: I do like the thousands of questions being asked about Johnson’s wrist. I mean, leave the guy alone.
Amy: The best one was if it was in his contract that he couldn’t ride on top of golf carts.
Tommy: I’m curious as to how the Dodges and Toyotas are stacking up against the two American brands. It will be interesting to see how far along Toyota is out of the blocks.
Tom: But see, Tommy, you can’t even see that. Everybody doesn’t even show their full hand in testing. All the good drivers intentionally don’t give it their all, they do R&D, simply learn what they can.
Amy: The top teams sandbag, the little guys give it all they have. The Top-35 rule enables that to happen.
Tom: The top teams don’t need to try. They come back for TWO WEEKS of practice at Daytona in February.
Tommy: I don’t think Toyota has the luxury of sandbagging.
Tom: I mean, Tommy, I think Toyota will give it their all to some extent. But there’s no way we can tell where they stand against everybody else.
Amy: The guys who have to race in HAVE to put it all out there. The Top 35 can drive backwards while sipping tea and know they’re in the 500.
Mike: Exactly. The teams that have to earn their way in are going to lay it on the line. The top teams are testing different things. But they are going to test to make sure they are where they want to be. All testing does is whet appetites.
Amy: IF testing was really an indicator of the season to come, would Joe Gibbs let Tony Stewart skip?
Tom: Exactly. Stewart knows it’s not important. He was talking to me back in December about how he needs to get away for the offseason, there’s no reason for him to be in Daytona.
Mike: The drivers don’t make a difference in plate testing.
Tom: No, and it’s not like Mike doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Amy: With the 10,000,000 practice sessions the teams get at Speedweeks, it may be time for NASCAR to consider using these test dates at a different track. That would actually better serve the teams.
Tom: Wouldn’t everyone love to see a Car of Tomorrow test at Bristol? Oh, wait… sorry, can’t happen. Nobody can get those things approved! My bad.
Amy: Yeah, so far ONE team has ONE CoT approved. That’s going to be a real exciting race.