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)
Toni Heffelfinger (Frontstretch Assistant Editor & Mondays/Busch Series Breakdown)
Mike Lovecchio (Mondays/Top 35)
Mike Neff (Tuesdays/Full Throttle & Thursdays/Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans)
Cami Starr (Tuesdays/Hot Or Not & Thursdays/Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans)
Matt Taliaferro (Scanner Static Fan Q&A)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
Vito Pugliese (Fridays/Driven To The Past)
Meegan Sweeney (Frontstretch Contributor)
It was officially announced this week that Erin Crocker is scaling back her schedule to run only 12 ARCA races and four Busch Series races this year. Is this the begininng of the end, or can she make it back and become a success after all that happened this year?
Mike N.: She certainly has some talent. But having her schedule scaled back most definitely isn’t a positive sign. She’s probably going to have to step it up in some early races or be headed back to sprint cars.
Toni: If she can prove herself in some of the races she runs this year, she deserves another chance. If she continues to show what she did last year, then the answer’s no.
Cami: I think it’s the beginning of the end unless she does really well. It’s going to be tough to get away from the label of “owner’s girlfriend.”
Vito: And 16 events is still more than enough races to wad up a bunch of racecars.
Amy: What happened this past year has little to do with it as far as I’m concerned. Erin just never proved she had the talent to race at that level.
Meegan: I think she should have stuck to trucks… she was doing better and better each race. That’s just my opinion.
Matt: Well, Meegan, in trucks she was a mid-packer at best every week anyway. She needs more seasoning, so I think the best thing is for her to get the past year out of her system and run ARCA & other lesser series.
Vito: This whole situation reminds me of an employee who keeps messing up until they gradually cut their hours back. I think Erin will run well in ARCA, though, because she’s driving a prepped Cup car against obsolete equipment.
Toni: This much was clear after last season: to continue to keep her in a car at this level long after other drivers who are not dating the owner would have been released can’t be justified, unless she starts backing it up with results.
Mike N.: I agree, Toni. There are a lot of drivers who would have been let go after what she showed on the track last year.
Matt: Mark McFarland and Burney Lamar were dismissed quicker and they had better results. She’s lucky she was with an owner who was as “forgiving.”
Amy: Erin has to race better to prove she belongs. Whether or not that’s right, it is reality.
Tom: Well, the thing is Erin’s got a reputation now that’s going to dog her wherever she goes. And the equipment she already had in Trucks was top-notch… her failure to perform there was a sign she wasn’t ready to move into the series.
Amy: The on-track reputation is not entirely undeserved. Every Busch Series start she has, it seems she wrecks half the field.
Mike N.: She just has a real problem focusing for an entire event. She shows some ability, but then has a lapse of concentration almost every race.
Tom: I do find it interesting that at this time two years ago, we had a ton of women ready to break into Busch and Trucks. Now, heading into 2007, it looks like we have none running full-time in any of the top three series.
Toni: None of the ones we had cut it, and there aren’t any out there who are at the level to be ready yet. And no one should be gifted a ride just because they are a woman, especially after this whole Crocker mess.
Matt: There’s one out there somewhere that’s capable… she just hasn’t gotten that break yet.
Amy: Honestly, though, it does NASCAR more good to have one good female driver than a few who wreck every week. One will come along sooner or later.
Vito: This makes me wonder if NASCAR if focusing more on ethnic diversity now rather than gender diversity, since there has been very little talk of more women drivers lately following the Erin deal and Danica Patrick staying in IRL.
Mike N.: I’m surprised no one has taken a shot at Katherine Legge. She has a lot of talent.
Vito: She crashes a lot too though, just in Chump, er, Champ Cars.
Matt: Check these stats out, guys. Crocker’s BGN average finish for the last two seasons: 31.1. In the Truck Series, it’s 26.7. Stats don’t lie.
Mike N: There are seven fewer vehicles in truck races too, Matt, so she’s still finishing near the back in both.
Tom: Oh, no question about it, Crocker was a back-of-the-pack runner in the CTS. Any personal relationship aside, no sponsor should return when you have a track record like that with a top team.
Cami: NASCAR teams should still look at female drivers, but they should be held to the same standard of performance as the guys. Erin wasn’t running well, so she shouldn’t been treated any different than a man running poorly.
Vito: Crocker’s situation wasn’t so special, Busch drivers are treated the same way. Look at Todd Kleuver. He was supposed to take over Mark Martin‘s car until he was sent back to the Busch series for ’07; now he’s splitting seat time with Greg Biffle. Of course, Roush also failed to retain its founding driver and the Busch Series Rookie of the Year,
Amy: In Kluever’s case, a step back was necessary… if for no other reason that the continuing health of the other 42 guys.
Mike L.: Well, David Ragan is not the answer either. Hell, Roush gave him “time off” after a couple truck races last year.
Has the presence of Juan Pablo Montoya taken the pressure off the rest of the rookie class (Paul Menard, Ragan, AJ Allmendinger and David Reutimann)?
Cami: Yes, from the standpoint they can try to do their jobs under the radar.
Mike N.: It will definitely take some media focus off of them. Montoya’s going to be in the spotlight all season.
Toni: In terms of the media pressure, maybe the spotlight will be off. But they will still have the same pressure from their car owners, and sponsors.
Matt: The “other” guys may not have a camera in their face 24/7, but the stakes are sky-high for everyone these days.
Vito: See, I think the answer to this question is absolutely not. Each of those drivers has their own set of problems that will bring pressure. Menard is going to be under the microscope because of DEI. Ragan is taking over the No. 6 car, the flagship car of Roush Racing, and Reutimann must try to qualify on time every week in Michael Waltrip’s Toyota.
Mike L.: Montoya and Ragan are the only two rookies locked into the first five races. I can’t wait to see the Duels this year simply because we’ll have all of these rookies trying to race their way into the field.
Amy: Ragan and Reutimann are going to drop out of the spotlight on their own unless they run well.
Cami: They will all need to perform. But at least they won’t have the media criticizing their every move.
Tom: Right. If Allmendinger fails to qualify five times, nobody’s going to be up his butt about it.
Toni: If anything, Montoya is the guy that actually won’t have that owner pressure, because Ganassi has infinite patience with rookies. And he will especially have patience with this one because they have a strong relationship.
Tom: What’ll be interesting is if one of these rookies breaks out early and gets ahead of Montoya in the rookie race.
Matt: Menard will.
Amy: I don’t see that happening. Montoya is by far the most talented driver of the group. If he doesn’t do well, it’ll be Ganassi equipment holding him back.
Toni: Agreed, Amy. He learns fast, so if he’s not showing improvement quickly I’m inclined to think it’s the equipment and not the driver.
Tom: Well, if Montoya does fall behind another rookie, that driver better watch out! They’re going to have millions of fans painting him as the villain.
Vito: I wouldn’t say they’d be characterized as a villain. Menard is a good guy, Reutimann is a humble guy. I don’t see Ragan doing a whole lot.
Tom: Vito, their personality has nothing to do with it; the reason they’ll be characterized that way is simply because they’ll be beating Montoya. Do you have any idea how many rabid millions of Montoya fans who have NEVER followed NASCAR are about to be flocking to the tracks? I read in a Sports Business Journal article last week, they’re having Montoya product giveaways in Russia. Even Siberia knows about this guy! If one of these rookies starts to beat him, he will get flack from the fanbase.
Vito: The rabid Montoya fans probably have no idea what a Reutimann even is, though.
Mike L.: If anything, I think Ragan is under the most pressure. We just talked about how loaded Roush is with development drivers. One slip and he’s got Kluever and Erik Darnell breathing down his neck. Not to mention he’s replacing a legend.
Vito: Ragan is the guy that AAA wanted, too.
Toni: I think Allmendinger is under a lot of pressure because of how things have already gone for him. He missed the two races they tried to run last year, and he crashed in testing more than once.
Matt: Rough weekend for him in Vegas, Toni.
Amy: Allmendinger IS talented, though.
Tom: Remember, the sponsor is the owner for Allmendinger. Just that alone relives some pressure. I think Team Red Bull knows they’re in for a long season… Allmendinger is too much of a marketing gold mine to be given up on.
Amy: Does anyone else find it just a little hard to take a guy nicknamed “‘Dinger” real seriously?
Vito: No more so than Dick Trickle.
Tom: I agree with Lovecchio that Ragan is the one that probably won’t be able to lose the pressure of expectations. Everyone still wants to kill him after Martinsville last year. If he starts the Big One at Daytona, he better change his name and hop on the Montoya train to Siberia.
Matt: On the other hand, I believe Menard will do well. He’ll surprise some folks this year.
Toni: He is one of the most talented drivers to come out of the Busch Series in the last few years.
Vito: He has pretty kickass sideburns… that’s worth 10 bonus points right off the bat.
Matt: And the soul patch is another 10.
Mike N.: I think Menard will be as good or better than Martin Truex Jr. as a rookie. His main concern will be not being locked in the first five races.
Tom: Menard qualified on time for most of the races he attempted last year… I don’t think he’ll have a problem with the first five. He’s my pick for Rookie of the Year; DEI learned the pitfalls of fielding a rookie team with Truex last year, and I don’t think they’ll make the same mistakes again.
After an entire offseason filled with concern for the upcoming season, what, in your mind, is the biggest question still left unanswered heading to Daytona?
Mike N.: Will the CoT actually fly?
Vito: What will end up in the stands first at Bristol… the rear wing or the front splitter?
Toni: Will anyone be watching it?
Amy: Can Toyota put more than one car in the field?
Vito: If Toyota struggles early on… how quick will NASCAR act to make changes to make them more competitive?
Tom: How quickly will the Top-35 rule be changed? After Daytona or after race five?
Cami: How will NASCAR change the provisional rules if too many big name sponsors go home?
Meegan: Are some of the vets going home because of the points situation would be my question, too.
Tom: Agreed, Meegan. I think when you see big-time drivers going home every weekend, that rule is going to be changed pretty quickly.
Amy: The Top-35 rule won’t change. NASCAR would have to admit they were WRONG… like THAT’s gonna happen. It’s a bad rule, though.
Cami: I think it’s interesting how they changed the champ provisional rule. Was that a direct slap at DJ or what?
Matt Taliaferro: Yeah, the PCP change really surprised me. You’d think NASCAR would want to help Toyota.
Vito: Well, if you have to use it more than six times, your car doesn’t need to be out there.
Matt Taliaferro: Back to the broader rule for a second; the big question concerning the Top 35 is how much pressure NASCAR will be put under by big name sponsors who are missing races to change it.
Tom: Situations are going to happen every week where a guy times in 26th and gets sent home.
Vito: NASCAR needs the sponsors there more than they need the fastest cars there.
Tom: It’s because Scott Riggs and Scott Wimmer missed the race in Atlanta in ’04 with big sponsors that this rule got put in effect in the first place. In the past, that was never the problem… but in this new era, suddenly NASCAR freaked out. Carl Long was in the field and Riggs wasn’t. Oh no!
Vito: And Riggs missed the Daytona 500 in 2006… I know this because Larry McReynolds told me EVERY SINGLE WEEKEND last year.
Looking at the Busch Series, who appears to be the odds-on favorite for this year’s title with Kevin Harvick not coming back to run the full schedule?
Mike L.: Carl Edwards. Best car, best driver, no question.
Mike N.: Edwards.
Vito: John Elway Jr., Edwards.
Matt: Cousin Carl.
Toni: Yup, Cousin Carl.
Tom: Cousin Carl will pick up right where Harvick left off. Sadly, it won’t be even close.
Meegan: I really hope it’s NOT a Buschwhacker. Please, anyone but a Buschwhacker.
Toni: I don’t want to say it’s not going to be a real Busch driver either, but reality bites. And I’m being realistic.
Amy: Carl’s team will pour in the most money and buy him the title.
Mike L.: The only thing that can stop Edwards is rain.
Matt: JJ Yeley will perform well this year in BGN too, though.
Vito: How come Yeley can run good in a Busch Series car, but if it says Interstate Batteries on the side, it gets shortened by four feet every weekend?
Tom: Yeley won’t win the title, but he is exactly the type of driver James Finch always likes… the aggressive type who isn’t afraid to pull punches.
Vito: Hey, you notice that this is how ridiculous it’s become. Hardly anyone knows a REAL Busch driver and if they’re able to run a full schedule, and we’re the media covering the sport.
Mike L.: I’m interested to see how well Steve Wallace performs. He’s running all the races.
Mike Neff: Don’t count out John Andretti, either.
Vito: Wallace will be a serious contender in a couple of years, I believe. He ran competitively with a flat tire for 10 laps at Bristol in the spring before wrecking it.
Amy: The “before wrecking it” might be the key term there…
Matt: Wallace is being billed as the real deal. By Rusty. Seriously, I think he’ll be a good one.
Toni: I just wish I could understand a word he says when they interview him.
Vito: Like what do you mean, like when they like interview him? He seems to favor the word “like.” And blinking.
Meegan: In the meantime, Andretti could prove to be a good force to reckon with.
Mike L.: There’s a couple of Busch-only drivers worth watching: Shane Huffman, Ragan, Wallace, even Stephen Leicht in a Yates car will run the full schedule.
Meegan: I’ve seen Huffman in Hooters Pro Cup and he was really good… we’ll see how he does in his first full year in Busch.
Toni: But see, there you have it. Do you really think any of those guys can keep up with Cousin Carl?
Vito: On seven cylinders, maybe.
Tom: It’s because the Busch-only drivers don’t have quite the experience or the equipment.
Mike N.: Equipment is the real key there, Tom. Anyone can hit on the once in a lifetime deal like David Gilliland did last year, but for the whole season, the Cup teams will win out.
Predictions for the Bud Shootout and the Daytona Pole?
Mike N.: Junior in the Shootout. No explanation needed there. For qualifying, I’ll go with Riggs on the Bud Pole.
Mike L.: I agree that Junior should win the Shootout. For the pole, I’ll go with Menard.
Tom: I do think it’s about time Junior won something in a restrictor plate race again… so I’ll take him for the Shootout. 500 pole, who knows.
Matt: The soul patch produces too much drag for a pole.
Mike L.: Well, I think Menard gets the pole simply because they’ll concentrate on qualifying to lock him in the field, just in case.
Cami: Jeff Burton wins the Shootout.
Toni: Harvick for both the Shootout and the pole. He’ll mistake it for a Busch Series event.
Meegan: Denny Hamlin to win the Shootout again, but Tony Stewart could get the pole.
Amy: Stewart wins the shootout, Casey Mears wins the pole.
Vito: The Daytona 500 polesitter will be Ricky Rudd. As for the Shootout, I think Kasey Kahne will take it.
Matt: Stewart in the Shootout, Rudd on the pole. Stewart’s not a qualifier.
Mike N.: Daytona qualifying is all about the car. Even a monkey could qualify in some of these machines the way they’re set up. I’m surprised no one is picking Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson.
Matt: J.J. was a Brian Vickers fender away from going three for four in plate races last year…
Amy: They’ll both be up front when it counts.
Tom: I’ll go with Gordon then for the pole… I think Hendrick is still the restrictor-plate program to beat in terms of pure speed.
Vito: Way to take a stand there, Tom!
Cami: If Tom takes Gordon, I’ll take Johnson for the pole.
Meegan: All eyes will be on Knaus at Daytona… he won’t do what he did last year.
Mike N.: If he does, he’ll be out for the year, Meegan.
Vito: To quote The Big Lebowski, “This aggression will not stand… man!”
Matt: Does Stewart “wax poetic” after the Shootout again this year?
Vito: Wax Hypocrite?
Amy: Does he wax his eyebrows while he’s at it?
Vito: We know J.J. does.
Tom: Just J.J.? Try the whole Hendrick driving team.
Amy: The thing with Jimmie and the eyebrow jokes… he GETS it. He makes fun of it all the time on his XM show. The other day, he decided he needed a snowboarding name, so he chose “Flybrow.”