NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: DEI on Edge? NASCAR Losing Credibility… Again?

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 Neff (Tuesdays/Full Throttle & Thursdays/Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans)
Tommy Thompson (Wednesdays/Thompson in Turn 5 & Fridays/Turn 5 Cartoon)
Matt Taliaferro (Thursdays/Scanner Static)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Vito Pugliese (Fridays/Driven to the Past)
Meegan Sweeney (Frontstretch Contributor)

Another questionable debris caution late in the race Sunday bunched up the field and led to an exciting finish at California. But is NASCAR losing credibility with the fact they may be “engineering” finishes with these yellow flags?

Amy: Of course they are. They have been for about three years now.
Meegan: I think so, because they happen to occur at opportune times. TOO convenient times.
Vito: Rollbar padding, hot-dog wrapper, air, throw a caution. Car upside down, on fire full of sod… eh, let ’em race to the line.
Toni: A track safety truck wasn’t big enough debris last year, why should a flaming car be big enough? The latest Vegas lines are not about who will win, but how many laps will be left when the “mystery” caution comes out.
Vito: This has been going on forever. It’s just more of an issue now because NASCAR’s credibility and consistency is under the microscope after the circus in Daytona last week.
Tom: Well, it was one of the better closing-lap finishes at California, that’s for sure… and it’s what some fans will remember. But it makes you raise your eyebrows how it got to be that way.
Matt T.: The fact that it happens more and more around the same time during races makes this thing blatant.
Mike: To me, this is old news; we wrote about it last year. NASCAR needs to have an official with each cameraman and point out the debris so that it can be shown on TV.
Tom: Mike, that was an amazing thought… but is it the network’s responsibility? If NASCAR has debris, they should be telling the network where it is, shouldn’t they? To reestablish credibility?
Mike: No, it’s NASCAR’s responsibility to make sure the network can find the debris. That’s why they need an official WITH the cameraman who can point it out.
Vito: Why can’t NASCAR hold up the debris that caused the caution to remove any doubt from anyone’s mind?
Amy: Don’t hold it up, make it easy to have one on hand… just stand there and point to it.
Mike: Exactly.
Matt T.: You know, it’s gotten to where they find a way to bunch the field up late almost every race. It’s all about giving the TV audience a good show… not about “May the best man win.”
Vito: I found it funny that Jimmie Johnson was complaining about how it all went down. How many “Miracle” Hendrick finishes have we been treated to over the years?

See also
Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: 2007 Fontana Spring Race Recap

Tommy: The questionable debris cautions along with all the rules inconsistencies are undermining the sport. There will always be a segment of the population that won’t ever catch on to the fact that the finishes are being manufactured, but for the rest, most of them will spend their time watching legitimate sports.
Tom: Well, the problem is you never KNOW if the caution is needed when you don’t see it. It could be a perfectly legitimate piece of debris… but again, debris is such a subjective call to begin with.
Vito: Apparently they didn’t pick it up, because it lacerated Kevin Harvick‘s tire with five laps to go.
Toni: You know, I have an idea blooming here, fans didn’t want to see races end under caution. So, NASCAR started red-flagging races so they won’t. And from there, it was just a little jump to realize red and yellow flags can set up exciting manufactured battles to the finish.
Amy: I don’t get it, though. With the green-white-checkered rule, isn’t the red flag redundant?
Matt T.: It’s a way to squeeze in more commercials.
Mike: You also don’t want to run 15 caution laps and then go GWC. You’ll have people running out of gas all over the place.
Vito: I’ll tell you one thing. I have a lot of family members and friends who are casual fans. They kept asking me questions all week about NASCAR, and how the rules don’t make any sense. It’s one thing if the hardcore fans question it, they always have, and they’re used to it. But to the “casual fan” that NASCAR tries so hard to pander to in order to grow the sport, they have little credibility to begin with, and stunts like that just make it look more and more like wrestling.
Tommy: That’s been my experience this last week also, Vito. Hard to explain to the casual fans the rules when we aren’t sure what they are.
Amy: That, Tommy, is EXACTLY where the problem lies – NASCAR doesn’t bother to explain themselves to fans, so we then see it as inconsistency and conspiracy.
Toni: In NASCAR’s defense, technically they do always stop the cars when there is an accident that dumps debris across the track. So, in this case the red flag was legit. They didn’t want to drive the field through what was left of David Reutimann‘s car.
Amy: So they threw the flag, as they should… but funny how those accidents only seem to happen in the last 10 laps.
Matt T.: The accidents happen in the last 10 laps because NASCAR calls a caution with 25 or 30 to go and everyone is on new tires… feeling frisky.
Tom: What’s worse is NASCAR is coming off a week where they looked like the bad cop. I had a friend tell me “It’s predictable at this point. Race gets boring, cars get spread out, NASCAR throws a yellow.”
Vito: Casual rules. NASCAR looks like an inept traffic cop shooting someone for jaywalking while they give the bank robber a parking ticket. But look at some of the drivers’ comments as to whether or not they should have independent referees. Ricky Rudd is dead set against it, as are a lot of other guys. It’s their baby, and outsiders are NOT allowed in.
Matt T.: The funny thing was, I thought the “spread-out racing” this weekend wasn’t bad, either.
Amy: Like ACTUAL RACING isn’t good enough for the casual fan.
Tom: See guys, that’s the thing! I’m listening to everyone about the debris caution, and I really didn’t think NASCAR needed to do that. I mean, it’s California. It’s never going to be spectacular racing. But there were almost 30 lead changes through the first 200 laps Sunday, and with the engine failures and battling up front between Matt Kenseth, Johnson and Tony Stewart, it was one of the more interesting races the track’s had.
Vito: Look, NASCAR needs to back off the drama for a while and quit trying to meddle with it. The sport got huge in the ’90s because it was DIFFERENT. The fans will come; you don’t have to shove it down their throat and dare them not to watch.
Amy: Racing IS drama… it doesn’t NEED to be faked and packaged.
Toni: And besides, even the fans find it obvious, and that can be a turnoff – NASCAR can shoot themselves in the foot and drive the fans off.

Certainly, Dale Earnhardt Inc. isn’t off to the best of starts. Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. in real jeopardy of having problems with the Chase – already – and how will this affect his renegotiation with DEI?

Mike: I don’t think he’s in trouble yet. Two more finishes like this and he will be.
Vito: Well, Tony and Greg Biffle blew motors at California last year… and look how much they missed it by.
Toni: I don’t think anyone is in trouble in week two. And yes, I am starting to groan because of this question. Because I hate having to talk about who is in trouble for the Chase after week two. It’s ridiculous.
Tom: The heck with Junior, Martin Truex Jr. seems just as frustrated with the whole organization at this point. Did you see him after the engine blew? And it takes throwing a giant mountain of dirt on that guy for him to get mad.
Tommy: Agreed. I thought Truex’s comments said more about the trouble at DEI than anything Junior or Teresa has said.
Mike: Certainly, if they don’t get their ducks in a row it will impact the negotiations.
Vito: Maybe this is part of a planned exit strategy or a negotiation ploy by Junior? Maybe the guys in the motor room aren’t taking kindly to how their boy is being treated.
Meegan: Well, tell me why Richie Gilmore is in management again? Because of his business sense? Get him BACK in the engine shop!
Amy: If Junior can pull off a string of top fives or top 10s, he’ll be OK… if allows himself or his team to self-destruct, then he’s in trouble.
Matt T.: This may give Junior more credence in his negotiating… maybe he can run a tighter ship. That said, anytime you have two bad races in a row it stings. He may look back on these come Richmond.
Tom: I tell you what – Junior hasn’t finished better than 27th in Vegas in three years. He ALWAYS runs like junk there. That puts a lot of pressure on them for Atlanta and beyond.
Amy: But Vegas is a different animal this year. It will take a TOTALLY different setup, so you can’t count anyone in or out.
Meegan: DEI just has a crappy engine department.
Matt T.: They blew two motors at Vegas during testing. I think that engine program has fallen back to its old ways.
Tommy: You know, Junior was competitive at Daytona and got caught up in a wreck. Then, he just blows a motor at Fontana. 34 races to go, I’d say he’ll be OK.

Already, the schedule has an off week, even though there’s none after July. Should that be eliminated in future years, with the schedule rearranged to accommodate an off week after race 26 instead?

Amy: Absolutely. Those teams need a week off to prepare for the Chase, and those not in it need the time to regroup.
Mike: Of course. That is the perfect time for an off week, having two off weeks so early in the season is idiotic.
Tommy: Yes. Actually, last week would have been a good week for a bye after the 500.
Toni: Yeah, but if they did that it would be too hard for the Buschwhackers to overrun the Mexico Busch race.
Matt T.: Why not just spread the off weekends out evenly… like one every seven weeks or so.
Mike: That would make too much sense. Next thing you’ll want is consistent rules enforcement.
Vito: Now you’re just talking crazy.
Amy: Those teams go flat out from late July to November… but have off two weeks in the first month. For a sport that is all about safety, they aren’t taking the health of the teams into account at all.
Vito: Well, it wasn’t that long ago that Daytona was the second race of the season, and a West Coast race was the first one.
Tom: Being one that travels every week, honestly I don’t know how the drivers go to Mexico. After California, I’m dead. Literally half functioning… it’s going to take me days to recover. One other thing about the schedule, I don’t see why California and Vegas are so close together. If I am trying to decide whether or not to go to one or two races a year… why would I go to two when I live in southern California and both races are within TWO WEEKS of each other?
Vito: That, and the garbage racing that is offered for four hours… doesn’t start until 4 p.m. Could I maybe have half of my Sunday free?
Tom: If I had my choice between California and Vegas, I’d do Vegas every time. As most people would.
Matt T.: Vegas is a great place to watch a race.
Mike: We’ll see how the new track surface works out there.
Vito: And at least there’s something to do in the area.
Matt T.: So… why exactly do we take off after the second race of the season? Anyone know for sure?
Tom: I think it had something to do with when exactly Mexico was free for a Busch date. They really want to cultivate the audience down there.
Amy: Honestly, it’s to get a couple Cup teams to go to Mexico to ensure a full field.
Tom: Do you guys think that now that Juan Pablo Montoya is running the Cup Series, there will be a bigger push to get a Cup date down South?
Tommy: That’s funny. As if Mexicans are going to follow Montoya. Why, because he speaks the same language?
Matt T.: Didn’t we have an off weekend before the Mexico deal?
Mike: Yes. I didn’t understand it then and I don’t understand it now.
Matt T.: Somebody get NASCAR on the phone.
Amy: I like the course at Mexico City, but the trip just isn’t practical.
Matt T.: But we get Adrian Fernandez!
Mike: And Jorge Goeters.
Tom:: I think this week should be moved to an off week before the Chase. It gets the teams in the Chase revitalized, and gives the ones that missed that opportunity to change their strategy and get a head start on the following year.

Does the lack of a full field for Saturday’s Busch Series race indicate that the Cup-owned teams have decimated the true Busch teams to the point where if the Cup teams DON’T run, there are not enough teams left for the series to survive? Or was California an anomaly brought on by the expense for the smaller teams traveling that far?

Matt T.: I think it speaks to both. There’s a reason why some BGN-only teams have consolidated.
Vito: One thing’s for sure; it’s not going to get better any time soon. Now the Busch Series HAS to keep the Cup guys in, otherwise there won’t be a show.
Mike: It speaks volumes on the state of the series. The fact that the second and third biggest racing series in the U.S. did not have full fields this week proves that they are both in trouble.
Toni: I agree that this question speaks to a little bit of both. The West Coast races have always been a tougher field to fill. HOWEVER, I’d like to point out how many Busch only teams there are this year. Braun Racing itself absorbed Akins, Biagi and ppc this season, just to run the same number of cars they had before the attack of the Cup teams.
Tom: Honestly, it was amazing to me this weekend when you really sat and counted how many Busch-only drivers there were versus Cup drivers. It was 23 drivers in Cup versus 18 in Busch… and one of those was a start-and-park team. Things are bad. Really, really, really bad.
Amy: Once the Cup teams came in, a lot of Busch teams dropped off the radar and out of the sport.
Tommy: The effect of the Buschwhackers was evident at California. Small teams didn’t have the money to be going all the way to the West Coast in hopes of getting lucky enough to make the show.
Vito: Right. Because Kenseth and Biffle need the experience. (rolls eyes)
Tommy: 14 of the top-15 finishing drivers in the Busch race were Cup regulars. That’s pretty discouraging to someone wanting to compete in Busch.
Toni: Technically, the highest finishing guy not running in Cup this year was 17th Saturday. Regan Smith is full-time in neither series; he finished ninth.

See also
Busch Series Breakdown: 2007 Stater Bros. 300 at Fontana

Mike: Where were the West Coast field-fillers we could always count on? Back in the day, when there weren’t million-dollar teams, they still had full fields everywhere. Local people would try and make the race, just for the exposure. Now the local guys don’t even try because they can’t sell a potential sponsor on it.
Matt T.: It’s become a Catch-22. BGN can’t survive without Cup drivers.
Amy: Exactly. So the little teams go away, and when the Cup guys don’t want to play anymore – presto! Short field. The NHIS Busch race used to be standalone on Mother’s Day week. MAYBE one or two Cup guys ever came. And still, cars went home from qualifying.
Tom: The one thing I’m hoping is that some of these teams that fail to qualify in the Cup Series time and time again will end up going Busch Series racing. Like perhaps Furniture Row… or Morgan-McClure. Because they’re guaranteed to make the field every week, and their money and equipment will go so much farther.
Vito: No kidding. Stop embarrassing yourself in Cup. At least you’ll make the Busch field and save yourself $15 million a year.
Amy: Furniture Row didn’t do any better in the Busch Series, though.
Mike: And making one Cup race pays more than placing well in three or four Busch races, Tom.
Tommy: Looking at the Busch purses, it doesn’t seem like a real lucrative deal for the Cup drivers.
Mike: Right. It just doesn’t make economic sense to run for such measley payouts.
Vito: But it pays a lot better than going home every weekend and netting $0.00.
Mike: But making one out of four Cup races pays more than finishing 10th in three Busch races, Vito.
Toni: Furniture Row and Morgan-McClure don’t have the budgets to be competitive in Busch either. Because, obviously, you need a higher budget than a regular Busch team has to make things work in 2007. That’s why they are an endangered species.
Amy: Funny that Morgan-McClure used to be a top Cup team… and now we’re telling them to go home.
Tom: Well Amy, in their defense (or lack thereof), Morgan-McClure hasn’t been a good Cup team in awhile.
Matt T.: My idea was to switch the BGN and CTS schedules. Make the Busch guys the ambassadors of NASCAR; heck, run them in with IRL if you have to. The standalone coverage may help grow some teams.
Vito: No kidding. People might actually show up to IRL races too, and not just because they earned enough Marlboro miles from killing themselves slowly.
Amy: I agree with Matt, I’ve been saying that for two years. Heck, if all NASCAR did for these smaller teams is tech them first so they get full practice time, it would do wonders for them. But a few Cup guys in CTS would boost that series, and the Busch cars are popular enough to run alone more.
Mike: You’d think NASCAR could tweak their schedule so tech would be done before practice started.
Amy: They all race together on Sunday… why can’t they practice together on Friday?
Amy: South Boston was always a great Busch race. Myrtle Beach, Hickory…
Mike: Orange County.
Matt T.: Nashville Fairgrounds.
Tom: The sad thing about all this though, guys, is we know NASCAR won’t do anything. Until the Car of Tomorrow fully replaces the current Cup cars, the Busch Series will be nothing more than a convenient test session for NASCAR’s top teams.
Mike: I don’t know, Tom. Not having a full field can’t set well with the promoters.
Matt T.: So when is BGN switching to pony cars? That’ll give the series an identity it is sorely lacking.
Amy: By the time that happens, in two years, the damage to the Busch Series will have already been done.
Matt T.: It’s a step in the right direction, though. Then it could be a true feeder system… not a practice session.
Vito: Now, to me it would be cheaper just to adjust the schedule. But I think seeing a Challenger, Camaro and Mustang slam-bangin’ (yes, that’s a real word) together at IRP will be something else.
Mike: Once it becomes the Monster Energy Drink Series, you won’t recognize it anyway. Monster is actually pretty awesome though. They have names like CHAOS and ASSAULT. It’s pretty good stuff.
Toni: I am going to get slaughtered for this, but here goes. NASCAR won’t fix their second-best series because the Stepford Fans that just want to see Cup drivers keep buying seats and oohing and aahing over how great this Busch Series thingy is.
Amy: Toni is exactly right.
Toni: I mean, if you were a Cup driver under the current rules, why wouldn’t you race Busch? “Wow! How nice of NASCAR to run these exhibition races for us…”
Mike: It does put butts in the seats, Toni.
Vito: And they’ll even throw a caution for you if someone’s Dixie Cup rolls out onto the apron.
Amy: Too many “fans” can’t be bothered to get to know the drivers in NBS and CTS; they just want the Cup names.
Matt T.: Yes, they’re selling personalities as much as racing.

Predictions for Mexico?

Vito: Boris Said. If Boris isn’t running, I’m going to feel real stupid.
Meegan: Montoya.
Matt T.: Kyle Krisiloff. Kidding… I’ll take Kevin Harvick, if he runs.
Amy: I’ll go with Fernandez. Or how about Denny Hamlin, then, if Fernandez falls through?
Tom: I’ll go with Fernandez, too, just because it would be so popular down there. What a great thing for the sport that would be.
Toni: Carl Edwards.
Amy: PJ Jones? You know what, Jones has a great ride… I’ll take him for a surprise win.
Matt T.: You know, Harvick’s Busch cars seem to runs as well as RCR’s.
Meegan: He gets his motors from RC, doesn’t he?
Matt T.: Yeah, I believe so. No doubt about it, Kevin & DeLana have one hell of a little empire on their hands.

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