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:
Toni Heffelfinger (Frontstretch Assistant Editor/Mondays/Busch Series Breakdown)
Mike Neff (Tuesdays/Full Throttle & Thursdays/Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans)
Tommy Thompson (Wednesdays/Thompson In Turn 5 & Fridays/Turn 5 Cartoon)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
Vito Pugliese (Fridays/Driven To The Past)
Editor’s Note: You may notice there’s one glaring omission from this week’s Mirror… reaction to the penalties involving the four Nextel Cup crew chiefs. That’s because by the time the penalties were announced, our chat had already happened, and there wasn’t enough time to get everyone together to get a proper reaction.
The top five qualifiers for this year’s Daytona 500 had a whopping zero top-10 finishes in 2006. Is the strength of teams like Robert Yates Racing and Chip Ganassi a good sign for the upcoming season, or are these qualifying times simply a flash in the pan? Can any one of these guys be contenders on Sunday?
Tommy: I don’t think much can be culled from the qualifying times of the Top 35.
Vito: Qualifying means a lot for Thursday… that’s about it. Has no impact on the race at all, because you have a total of 650 miles to fix a bad qualifying run. It only matters for the guys that qualified in the top two, and it’s true the Roush-Yates cars are really fast this time down here… more so than usual. However, in the Shootout Saturday night, it was the typical Chevy Show at Daytona.
Toni: Does qualifying for a restrictor plate race and the Daytona 500 ever count for much? Plus, that stat is deceiving. Juan Pablo Montoya didn’t have any top-10 finishes because he is new to the series, and Ricky Rudd didn’t run last year.
Vito: Two of those guys had a combined total of two starts.
Amy: It’s a plate race – anyone can be up front at the end.
Mike: Rudd can be. He’s run well there before, and Yates makes the horsepower. But it’s still a Chevy deal on race day, generally.
Tommy: I guess if we really knew who was in full race trim, and who wasn’t on Sunday, it would indicate more, Vito.
Toni: Exactly. It’s the old story about the guys focusing on racing rather than qualifying… they’ll race much better than they qualify.
Vito: Then there’s the story of the guy going out to qualify and having to drive into a 30 mph headwind…
Amy: Winning the pole and winning the Daytona 500 aren’t even in the same league.
Tommy: I think we can draw more from the Bud Shootout. But, of course, not everyone was in it.
Mike: All I can draw from the Shootout is that there still isn’t going to be too much passing.
Toni: Agreed, Mike. Smartest thing David Gilliland did was sitting where he was.
Vito: Well, that was the same old, same old… Yates cars are always fast down there, as are the Hendrick cars, the No. 8 and the No. 20. Nothing will be different this year either, except that No. 2 is a sleeper pick, I believe.
Tommy: All the more reason to get those CoTs on the track!
Vito: Gilliland should just park it after the first pit stop on Thursday. Do a quick fuel and tire run, then put it away.
Mike: I’d pull in once I lost the lead if I was Gilliland.
Tommy: But the kid is shining!
Toni: He quietly got better as he went last year.
Tommy: He did. Steady improvement.
Toni: Everyone just stopped noticing him because he stopped crashing.
Mike: Gilliland’s going to be OK. He’s still gonna wad up some more cars this year, though.
Amy: He is, but I still think that a year in Busch would only make him better.
Mike: I do think having Rudd around is going to be just as important as having Dale Jarrett around last year.
Amy: Speaking of young guys, the line of the weekend was Ken Schrader during the ARCA race, in which David Ragan was running. He said that Ragan would get some experience on the plate track so the rest of the 500 field would be safer for it.
Toni: He’s still not Schrader’s favorite person after Martinsville last year.
Mike: No, and he shouldn’t be.
Toni: I don’t blame Schrader at all. It’s all about attitude, and Ragan never had the proper attitude that day or after it.
Mike: I don’t know if he ever has apologized.
Toni: He apologized to Tony Stewart, but never Schrader as far as I know.
Vito: Ragan has Jimmy Fennig in his corner, though. Look what he did for Kurt Busch. Kurt stopped running out into race traffic and getting beat up by Jimmy Spencer long enough to win a championship.
Tommy: With Jeff Burton and Mark Martin gone at Roush, they are short on a good mentor. Not knocking Matt Kenseth, but I don’t think he’s quite to that status yet. Ragan could have really used Martin.
Vito: Yes, he could have. But, someone at Roush Racing didn’t think it was worth finding a satellite team for Mark to be a part of.
After Daytona qualifying, who out of the big name drivers is in the most trouble to make the Daytona 500 starting field?
Toni: Michael Waltrip.
Vito: Definitely Waltrip. They took his car!
Amy: Yeah, you DO sorta need a car to make it in.
Toni: They took his car, but he wasn’t all that fast to start with.
Vito: Maybe they did him a favor and can find out what’s wrong with it. I guess if you consider Joe Nemechek a big-name driver, he’s on that list too.
Amy: The way qualifying works right now, any one of a number of well-known drivers could be watching on TV.
Toni: I still think they made this whole qualfying deal more complicated than it used to be. All thanks to this Top 35 thing.
Mike: Other than it’s nearly impossible for a non-Top 35 car to race their way in, no, its not simpler.
Amy: It’s ridiculous, locking in 35 and not changing the basic format. At the very least, the teams NOT locked in should have their own Duel race and not have to race with the teams who are assured a spot.
Toni: The Top 35 thing makes the duels irrelevant for the locked in drivers.
Vito: It would be funny if they all just pulled in and parked. It’d give James Hylton a shot at the win.
Toni: They may as well – the two best pit stalls are gone already, anyway.
Mike: Hylton’s only shot at making the race is if everyone in front of him piles it up and he’s so far back he makes it through clean.
As the Truck Series begins its season this week in Daytona, who arrives as the man to beat for the series championship this year? Does Todd Bodine have it all wrapped up once again?
Toni: Not if Johnny Benson has anything to say about it…
Mike: I think Benson gets it done this year. Of course, that depends on whether Toyota still puts as much money in the series as they have in the past.
Vito: Would love to see my Hometown Hero get it done. Wonder how he’ll do with a new crew chief, though.
Toni: Ted Musgrave should be a contender; don’t forget, he’s in the same stuff Bodine is in, too.
Amy: I agree with Vito – and I think Benson CAN win it this year.
Toni: I see no one is going with a non-Toyota driver, though.
Mike: How could you go against them after last year? Since Martin isn’t running a full schedule, Ford doesn’t have a shot. Dodge is hardly supporting the series, and Chevy has scaled back. It’s Toyota’s title to win.
Toni: Oh, I agree. The support series are not promising much excitement, in some senses. We all agreed on the probable Busch champion, and we all agree on at least what the Truck champ will be driving.
Vito: Nope, it’s becoming just another semi-test session for part timers to make some extra money.
Amy: The sad part is guys like Benson can get it done in Cup, too, in less than stellar equipment.
Vito: No kidding. Remember the 2000 Daytona 500?
Mike: He won a freaking Cup race in less than stellar equipment.
Vito: Poor guy had the Brickyard 400 won in his rookie year, too, until his pit crew blew a pit stop late in the race. He’s got to be one of the most underrated drivers in the sport the last 10-15 years.
Mike: Yes, he is. And he never gets a fair shake because he’s so mild-mannered.
Tommy: Hey, don’t forget Travis Kvapil… I hadn’t picked yet before you made all those assumptions, and I am picking someone besides a Toyota.
Toni: Oops! Sorry, Tommy… I did forget Kvapil was running. He might be the spoiler for the Toyotas if anyone will be.
Tommy: He has always been solid in Trucks. He’s got a shot at it, as long as he’s not driving the No. 6 Cup car before the year is over.
OK, predictions for the Daytona 500?
Amy: Jimmie Johnson returns the favor and pushes Casey Mears across the line.
Toni: Burton. After last year, someone has to! And I saw a lot of Cingular Orange in the Shootout.
Tommy: I’m going with Burton, too.
Mike: Junior. It’s DEI in a plate race.
Vito: Stewart to win. Dark Horse: Kurt Busch. If the other guys realize who is driving the Army car this year and will work with him, maybe Martin… the No. 01 runs strong at the plate tracks. With the way the tires suddenly have zero grip and the front ends slide around, look for the “Big One” this year. I don’t know if Kevin Harvick or Kyle Busch would have gotten away with those Shootout saves in a 43-car field.
Mike: Well, I think the passing will be nonexistent again and the race will be a snoozer. Just hope it’s warmer down there this year.
Toni: Why? So we can think of Tom being nice and warm while the rest of us freeze?
Mike: Don’t forget, I’m going down there, too!
Amy: I’m shipping you guys the 12-18″ of snow we’re getting Wednesday. Not fair!