Welcome to Mirror Driving. Every week, your favorite columnists sit down and give their opinion about the latest NASCAR news and rumors. 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)
Tony Lumbis (Mondays/Rookie Report)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Tuesdays/Running Your Mouth & Truck Series Reporter/Commentator)
Mike Neff (Tuesdays/Full Throttle & Thursdays/Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans)
Matt Taliaferro (Thursdays/Scanner Static)
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)
With his win on Sunday, has Denny Hamlin vaulted into position to be Jeff Gordon‘s most serious challenger for the championship? Or is someone else still in better shape?
Matt T.: Hamlin is definitely a serious threat. Only Jimmie Johnson has shown the ability to keep up with Gordon till now.
Tom: I think it gets his team over a huge hump. Although to be honest, I think that whole Joe Gibbs Racing organization has needed to get over a hump.
Amy: Hamlin is a contender for sure, but like Matt said, you have to put Johnson high on the list of contenders.
Beth: If Johnson can get through this six-week period without their crew chiefs, he’ll be right up there.
Mike: The other driver who may very well prove to be stiff competition is Martin Truex Jr. If they can keep going like they are, the No. 1 team will have a serious shot at the title.
Tommy: But Hamlin is proving to be the real deal. Doesn’t seem to have any weaknesses.
Vito: I think Denny’s been in position all year long; he’s just been the recipient of some awful luck.
Tony: Hamlin needs to demonstrate consistency… Jeff Burton came and went, Johnson came and went, and now it’s the No. 11 team.
Tom: Tony’s right. Everyone’s seemed to take a stab at the No. 24 and Gordon, come close, then fallen right back off the pace. I’d even put Kenseth in that category.
Amy: Well, Hamlin’s issue all year has been pit stops.
Beth: And they finally fixed that on Sunday, Amy.
Tom: Which is why this week, that win was so great! They finally figured out the way to do it was to keep him off pit road for an extended period of time.
Tony: Look for Mike Ford to make a few more of those types of calls, too, especially as they solidify their spot in the top 12. But I think this conversation is so different from a few years ago because now, it really doesn’t matter so much who hangs on to Gordon… not until the Chase.
Vito: I’m just waiting for that No. 20 to catch fire, like he has every year for the past three.
Tommy: Tony Stewart is the elephant in the corner. He’s there; it is just a matter of when he gets it all put together.
Matt T.: Hamlin has been great all year, though. He’s going to give the No. 24 all he wants in the Chase.
Amy: You know, Hamlin really needs to thank Truex for his win. If Martin hadn’t held up Jeff for so long, we’d be busy talking about if there was a serious challenger for Jeff in the first place.
Vito: And kudos to Gordon for not doing the bump and run on the last lap.
Tony: Probably sick of having beer cans thrown at him this year… or maybe the new daughter has brought out the calmer side of Jeff.
Amy: Eh, Gordon tried to do something. But the bump and run is harder in the CoT. He did tap the No. 11 and get him loose.
Beth: But it just wasn’t enough.
Tom: Yeah, I think you can’t really screw someone up unless you really slam into him. As for the guy who finished third, Truex now has four top-three finishes in the last five races. I mean, it’s an absolutely stunning turnaround.
Vito: Funny, everyone was predicting the collapse of DEI, things look pretty good now, don’t they?
Tommy: I heard Teresa giggling all the way to Houston Sunday when those DEI cars were running 1-2.
Mike: Truex could very easily win this whole thing. I said that earlier.
Amy: I think it’s early for that kind of a prediction. DEI hasn’t shown for a couple of years that they are capable as an organization of being a real contender.
Mike: Amy, Junior nearly won the championship in ’04 before wrecking at Atlanta. I think they’re capable of contending just fine.
Vito: You also have to keep in mind just how “hard” everyone is trying right now. If you’re not on that bubble around 12th place, there really is no reason to go out and kill yourself, tear up cars, or show your hand completely at this point.
Tom: Well, the whole thing with Truex is he’s never been in the Chase before. And, as we’ve said time and again, the Chase is a unique type of championship. It doesn’t matter how many titles you’ve won in other series… I think you’ve got to go through it once to understand it. No first-time Chaser has won the title since ’04.
Matt T.: I’d take Hamlin over Truex. The driver/crew chief dynamic Truex has with Bono Manion reminds me of Matt Kenseth and Robbie Reiser.
Tom: The real question – and possible distraction – will be when the replacement for the No. 8 car is named. Especially if that driver ends up being Kyle Busch.
Matt T.: That’s the real question, isn’t it, Tom?
Amy: It won’t be a big deal. Teams at DEI aren’t expected to work together the way they are at Hendrick or Roush Fenway.
Tom: But Amy, they automatically did because Truex and Junior are friends.
Mike: That’s somewhat of a myth. I think it is a shame, but I don’t think the No. 8 shared crap with the No. 1 last year, and it just took them until week 28 to get it going.
Amy: Look at plate races… Junior has been working more with Stewart than his own teammates for a couple of years now.
Vito: Well regardless what help he’s getting, Truex should be a factor. Martin has two Busch Series titles. Scoff at that if you will, but there’s a ton of top drivers who have not won a title in either Busch or Cup. The all-out format of the Chase is more true to a close points battle under the Hanford system.
Tom: But Vito, racing for a Busch title is so much different than racing under the Chase system. Just the degree of urgency and different environment the whole thing creates makes it ten times tougher. Back to Hamlin… I think in general, we’ve seen wins add such sparks to teams like Mears and Truex this season, so it’s easy to expect the No. 11 team will experience the same type of boost.
Tony: Hamlin is definitely a top competitor for Gordon, but not THE competitor; there’s a group.
Vito: I don’t think you can pick one team that’s dominant going into the Chase. Right now, everybody’s showing a little of what they have, but it isn’t until the first 1.5-mile track that it starts getting heated.
Beth: And like Vito said earlier, we’re just coming into the traditional time when Stewart turns hot.
Vito: Tony’s been here before. He’s not making noise right now, because he doesn’t have to.
Matt T.: I don’t know, Vito. I think they all are in it to win it each week. I can’t imagine why anyone would be holding back, why would they?
Tommy: Tony does need some wins. Those bonus points are going to be big come Chase time.
Tom: Tommy, Mike Ford made an interesting point to that respect. Said the reason the No. 11 team got aggressive was for the 10 extra Chase points for a win.
Tony: Yeah Tom, I think that was the first time we’ve heard that actually said since the new system went into effect this year.
Matt T.: Exactly. So I don’t think too many teams are “just riding.”
Vito: I think that’s paying lip service to the Chase. They needed a win, period, and two tires was the only way they were going to do it.
Mike: I think the 10 extra points rule is going to be much ado about nothing. In the end, I doubt it will matter.
Vito: If you win six races, it will matter. Two isn’t going to mean a whole lot.
Tom: Hey, well every little advantage makes a difference. Ask Bill Elliott if 10 points mattered back in 1992.
What’s behind NASCAR’s sudden “militant” stance with the Car of Tomorrow? With a total of possibly three new violations announced this week, is it a case of teams stretching the limit – or teams going too far?
Matt T.: It’s over-policing and over-penalizing. Period.
Tommy: It amazes me that NASCAR has so little forethought when changing their policies. Don’t they know that for every change you make, there will be adverse effects that have to be considered?
Amy: NASCAR is not looking to police the CoT as much as they’re looking to prove a point: They don’t favor Hendrick. They don’t favor Toyota… it’s politics, not policing. Otherwise, how do you explain the 17 cars that failed initial template inspection at NHIS before being allowed to practice and qualify?
Tony: I think NASCAR gets pissed off when the rules say “Don’t touch the fender” and someone touches the fender.
Tom: But the thing is, Tony, everyone’s been having problems with inspection. Qualifying was a joke… they had to slow it down so it looked like cars were passing inspection in time.
Vito: I think this comes down to the fact that NASCAR has conceded the guys working on the cars are way ahead of those inspecting and mandating them. They’re ruling out of fear.
Tony: Then they have to change how they penalize the teams, not whether they penalize them or not.
Tom: If you’re going to nail people for violations, you’re also going to have to nail them all at once, don’t let something sit. At the very least, maybe NASCAR’s doing that now.
Amy: It was funny. Darby said the allowance with the CoT was 1/8-inch in an interview last week. Then, Vickers was off 1/8 inch and he goes home.
Matt T.: Vickers was off 1/8-inch more than the 1/2-inch tolerance. Look, I have no problem with NASCAR telling a team to go back and fix something. But why all the fines, suspensions, and point penalties?
Tom: Well, isn’t it strange that the biggest violators are the three biggest drivers in the sport? Gordon, Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Tony: Could be conceivable that everyone has some sort of violation, but they know that penalizing those drivers will make the biggest difference?
Amy: I’m sorry, but once the No. 24 and No. 48 were pulled like they were at Sonoma, based on that precedent there should have been 17 cars in the garage on Friday.
Tom: I think NASCAR’s going to have to look at doing other things than just penalizing crew chiefs. That just doesn’t make a difference anymore. Not when you can have cell phone contact with your crew chief even though he’s not on headset.
Matt T.: What would you do, then?
Tom: I think they need to kick out the pit crew associated with working on the car. The entire team at the track that weekend, now that would send a message. When you don’t have your right-front tire carrier, then you suffer.
Tony: Maybe they need an education seminar on this stuff… now that everyone has worked with these cars for a bit, these guidelines will mean something.
Amy: For the time being, penalizing some teams in opening tech but not others is just asininely unfair.
Tom: I think they need to make inspection public. I mean, I know it’s open to a certain extent that other teams can see it happening. But it needs to be more public.
Amy: Apparently it was pretty public at New Hampshire, Tom. I talked to people in the garage who watched it.
Matt T.: You know, with the CoT problems the way they are, why doesn’t NASCAR just deliver a body to each shop every Tuesday and say, “Here ya go. Bolt it on and load ‘er up?” That’s what it’s coming to, right?
Tommy: At least we’re not listening to “aero push” explanations all the time.
Tony: As much as I don’t like the concept, the CoT races have been better.
Vito: What? The “aero push” is worse now. Now it’s who can manage to keep the left-front tire on the ground.
Tom: Tony and Tommy, what have you been watching? Some of the drivers have said this car adds MORE aero push. AND it drives loose.
Amy: The finishes have been close.
Vito: It’s kind of deceptive, though. Look what races produced great finishes: Bristol, Martinsville, New Hampshire. Those are typically close races with the old car. Phoenix wasn’t as close as it looked, Sears Point was typical gas-mileage nonsense, Dover was a runaway, and Darlington was just waiting for Gordon to blow up.
Tommy: Seems like it’s a hard pill for you to swallow, Vito, but the CoT hasn’t been the disaster that the anti-NASCAR group had hoped it would be. Looked like a hell of a lot more passing at New Hampshire Sunday than any time in recent memory.
Tony: The TV coverage didn’t help your cause, Tommy… commercials about every eight minutes, it seemed.
Tom: Well, the TNT thing is a whole other matter.
Vito: I like how they come back to show you that no one’s wrecked, then go back into five minutes of commercials.
Matt T.: The Closer… only on TNT.
Tom: Matt, I feel like I’ve already watched a whole episode. Why watch the freaking show?
Vito: SAVING GRACE!
Tom: A–maa-zing Grace, how sweet the sound,
Tommy: I once was blind,
Tony: …and now, I see,
Vito: I’ll make a deal with TNT. I promise to watch The Closer and Saving Grace, if they’ll stop daring me NOT to watch it every nine minutes.
Beth: Actually, The Closer isn’t really that bad…
Tom: Just think how many times these shows will be advertised Saturday night during Wide Open Coverage.
Vito: I’m going to make a show for TNT called Justifiable Suicide. It’s going to be how I hung myself watching three hours of commercials on a Sunday.
Tony: Wonderful. Now we’ll have to see a preview of Vito hanging 27 times during the next race.
With Richard Childress Racing, Penske Racing and Hall of Fame Racing all adding teams for 2008, how are they going to fit into these starting fields – and what teams will bite the dust in their wake?
Tom: I think we’re actually going to see one of the big teams bite the dust next year at this rate. Even if you get rid of all the single-car teams – you’re going to have 40-45 cars attempting to qualify from the mega-teams alone.
Mike: I think it will be just like this year with Toyota, Scott Riggs and Paul Menard.
Vito: If Riggs is going to continue to go home, there’s one more spot open.
Tony: Haas is barely hanging on despite their strong finish this past weekend. One of the MWR teams may not make it, depending on how the rest of this year goes.
Tommy: Well, BAM already is in the death rattles, and the Wood Brothers will be in trouble soon.
Amy: Hall of Fame’s second team will struggle, and a few other guys, BAM, Furniture Row Racing. I heard NASCAR is seriously reconsidering the Top-35 rule for next year.
Vito: I am betting you’ll see a revision of the Top-35 rule to accommodate the big teams with the big sponsors.
Matt T.: So the single-car teams will be killed off, leaving what… six, seven owners?
Tom: I could see teams like BAM and Front Row Motorsports go Busch Series racing. Actually, Front Row already does with the No. 52 car.
Vito: With a new title sponsor coming in for Grand National, there should be more money in it, which will make it more attractive.
Tom: I’ve mentioned this before in this column, but look how well the Mullets and CJM Racing have done since they went from Cup back to Busch. I mean, they’ve become a top-10 team instantaneously. It’s cheaper, and a place single-car teams can afford to go in the wake of the Busch Series nearly dying…
Tommy: I want to point out that no one is talking about Robby Gordon folding up. What a story!
Mike: Robby has been doing an amazing job.
Vito: He’s a top-15 car every week for the last month. I’m proud of him.
Tommy: ‘Yota ought to be courting Robby!
Matt T.: Robby’s great… except for throwing a tantrum and being a sore loser when the No. 42 beat him at Infineon. Grow up.
Vito: He’s bent about getting not what he’s paying for with Roush/Yates. There’s bound to be a little bit of a disparity, but not as far as he was off. I don’t care if you put a 600cfm carburetor on it.
Tom: You know, I wonder if Robby won’t get picked up by another team for next year instead of continuing to go it on his own. At times, I wonder if he’ll get tired of looking for sponsorship and throw the whole shebang away for one more chance with a good organization.
Vito: He’s got a good gig doing what he’s doing now. He’s got job security, he’s making a lot more money, and most importantly, he’s doing it his way.
Tony: He’s the best owner/driver in the field right now.
Vito: Well… he’s the only one. Michael Waltrip doesn’t count, he doesn’t actually make the races.
Tommy: Reports are that Robby is actually operating in the black.
Matt T.: Robby’s a lone wolf. Just doesn’t play well in the team system.
Looking back on Ted Musgrave‘s one-race suspension, did NASCAR do the right thing? Along those same lines, was the sport playing a little bit of favorites when they didn’t penalize Travis Kvapil – known as a rather conservative driver – after he looked to “take out” Brad Keselowski to snag the truck win at Memphis?
Tommy: Bad call on the Musgrave deal. It was just a little “old-school” message being delivered by Musgrave.
Mike: If they didn’t park Kurt Busch, they never should have parked Musgrave. His activity was stupid, but at least it was on the track. Busch was in the pits and almost injured a crew member.
Beth: Absolutely. They were playing favorites.
Tony: Exactly. I think you have to compare Musgrave to Busch.
Amy: Yeah, that was ridiculous… Busch nearly ran down someone outside the car and only got a slap on the wrist.
Tom: What’s funny is NASCAR is sending a message that they’ll do whatever it takes to protect their drivers, but the crew guys, yeah, they can get run over.
Beth: Of course, I’m sure NASCAR felt bad that they parked Musgrave and didn’t want to see Keselowski win in his truck while he sat at home.
Vito: Ted kind of went overboard… I can understand it, but I don’t agree with it. It’s the TRUCK Series. That’s their whole mantra: Beating, banging, wrecking people.
Beth: Yeah, Vito he went overboard, but they used Kurt Busch in their defense as an example that ramming is OK.
Tom: Suspending Musgrave was the equivalent of NASCAR saying “We’ll suspend you if you take steroids in AA baseball, but we won’t do a thing if you inject it in front of us in the major leagues.”
Tony: And fining Kvapil would’ve been like the Ricky Rudd incident at Sears Point years ago and created a hell of a lot of controversy.
Vito: As far as Kvapil goes, that was a textbook example of dumping somebody. That was Russ Wheeler-caliber garbage. He should’ve been sent to the penalty box for rough driving. Had that been another truck other than the one that is driven by a suspended driver, NASCAR probably would have reacted differently.
Beth: Had it been, say, Mike Skinner, Kvapil would be in big trouble. Someone needs to snag Keselowski… look what he was able to do in that No. 9 truck.
Tom: That really is the sad part of all this – because that win would have defined Keselowski’s career. I mean, he’s with a D-league Busch team that just suspended operations. A win would have done wonders for him. Now, everyone will forget in two weeks what he did with that No. 9 truck.
Vito: I like Kvapil’s assertion that he “loves Brad Keselowski to death.” Oh and it shows! I’ll fly in from 50 feet back and just wreck you and win.
Mike: I think the whole thing was just completely bogus. Was Musgrave wrong? Heck yeah. Should he have been suspended? No way!
Matt T.: And we’ve seen drivers pull stunts 100 times worse on the track.
Vito: I don’t think Kurt was trying to run over someone. Let’s not get carried away. Ted was actually trying to ram somebody into a wall.
Tony: I don’t think he was, Vito, but that’s a huge risk of doing it on pit road.
Tommy: Musgrave never tried to injure any one. He hit him in the quarterpanel at low speed.
Mike: He hit him in the front tire. He was nowhere near the driver’s compartment.
Matt T.: I’ve really not heard Musgrave’s take on all this.
Vito: I have a feeling Ted dosen’t really care. The guy beat cancer.
Amy: I bet he cares. But what can he say?
Beth: I’m sure we’re more worked up about it than he is, but it’s just the principle of it.
Vito: After his demonstration following the 2003 Truck series finale… I’m sure he’s used to the BS by now.
Tom: I’m sure he did, and was told not to care. It’s the “Aric Almirola” policy.
Beth: It’s not like they’re going to run the race again and let him run his truck.
Predictions for the final Pepsi 400?
Amy: Gordon wins the Pepsi 400 in the Pepsi car.
Beth: It’s Daytona… whoever misses the big one has a shot. In all seriousness though, I’ll say Earnhardt Jr. gets back to Victory Lane.
Vito: Heading back to the scene of the crime, Mark Martin. A real good The Closer tie-in, with Martin CLOSING it out this time.
Tom: You know, I’m so tempted to say Martin, too. But that’s going with the heart and not with the head. Odds are he’s due to be involved in the Big One.
Matt T.: I’m going with Stewart for the second week in a row.
Tony: Kyle Busch.
Tony: Mike, who are you going for?
Matt T.: Have another, Mike.
Vito: North Carolina Man Succumbs to Budweiser Overdose. Story at 11.
Tom: See, I’m still torn. I’d like to go with Stewart… but he’s already won twice in a row. Three anywhere is tough to do. And I think at some point, the Fords will come through. But you know what, just to shut Mike up, I think I’m going to say that Truex pushes Junior to the line. A fitting return to Tony Eury Jr. atop the crew chief stand.
Tommy: Well, at least we know one thing, Tom.
Tom: What’s that?
Tommy: It’s not going to be Montoya. You see, to win at Daytona you actually need cooperation,
2007 Nextel Cup Prediction Standings
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