After a one-week breather, Nextel Cup racing resumes this week with just seven races remaining until the end of the regular season. Heading into that final stretch, who among the top 12 is the most vulnerable to drop out and why? And if someone does fall out, who slips in their place?

Mirror Driving: Chasing The Chase, Truckers Ruining The Race?, and Does ESPN Know Their Place?

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)
Tony Lumbis (Mondays/Rookie Report)
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)

After a one-week breather, Nextel Cup racing resumes this week with just seven races remaining until the end of the regular season. Heading into that final stretch, who among the top 12 is the most vulnerable to drop out and why? And if someone does fall out, who slips in their place?

Tommy: I would say Clint Bowyer. I’m just not convinced that RCR is all that strong… and Bowyer’s inexperience will get him in the end. Martin Truex Jr. is in trouble, too, for much the same reason.
Tony: It’s definitely Bowyer due to inexperience or Kevin Harvick due to inconsistency.
Tom: I think Bowyer is definitely vulnerable. I think the biggest thing for him is going to be whether or not he can handle the pressure of being on the bubble as this thing comes down to the wire.
Tommy: I agree, Tom. Bowyer’s getting ready to have his mettle tested.
Vito: For me, it’s Kyle Busch. Kind of self-explanatory there. Another driver to watch who might slip out… Harvick, as Tony mentioned. Jeff Burton‘s safe after a really strong start, and Harvick has picked it up as of late. But still… a blown motor and a bad pit stop, and suddenly things aren’t so rosy for him.
Mike: Don’t forget, though, Harvick is money at Indy, and he’s very strong at Bristol. He’s going to be pretty solid.
Tom: Yeah, Harvick is heading to several tracks where he’s won previously in his career. The final seven is a strong stretch for him… hard for me to see him missing it. I’d like to note that at California and Richmond – the two tracks right before the Chase cutoff – Busch was ninth and second. Truex was 42nd and 28th in those same races.
Mike: But I have to think Busch is on the verge of losing it. The straining relationship with both his team and his other Hendrick teammates is going to start taking a toll.
Amy: Besides Kyle, who could be out of a ride, let alone the Chase, I think Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in danger, too – that team has always been inconsistent. The other team that needs to stop a downward slide is the No. 48 – if their luck continues, it could be the second year in a row the champion misses the Chase.
Tom: Amy, there’s no way in heck Jimmie Johnson misses the Chase. I think Johnson’s just a little paranoid over what happened to Tony Stewart – but he’s not in that bad of a slump as Stewart ever was. He’s also over 300 points ahead of 13th with seven races left! About the only way he misses this thing is if he finishes 40th or worse seven times in a row.
Amy: Well, Johnson’s scared to death of missing it – he’s said so.
Tommy: Johnson is just too consistent to have to worry about. I would hardly say the No. 48 team is struggling… maybe by their standards, but not enough to be of any real concern. At least it’s good that he’s not taking it for granted.
Mike: I have a hard time picturing Johnson missing it. Yes they’re struggling, but that team is too good.
Amy: Meanwhile, I’m just not convinced that DEI as an organization has what it takes to get two cars in the Chase.
Vito: And look who’s on the cusp to challenge them: the two Penske cars. I do think Kurt Busch is going to make it in somehow. Pat Tryson has a knack for getting cars into the Chase, and he did a whale of a job of turning things around in ’04 for Mark Martin.
Tommy: Good point, Vito. Tryson is a plus for Kurt Busch. You can just see the improvement.
Tony: The only problem for Penske or anyone trying to get in is that they need to be perfect, no more mulligans.
Mike: Very true; but even with that said, Busch should have a real shot. I’m still saying he’ll put his brother Kyle on the outside looking in by the time Richmond ends.
Tom: I’d like to say Jamie McMurray has a shot, too; but the way his luck always goes, I feel like he’s a lock for 13th.
Amy: Poor McMurray… always a day late and a dollar short.
Mike: McMurray is way too inconsistent to make it.
Tom: At the same time, I disagree with all this talk about Kyle Busch missing the Chase. At the very least, it hurts his future contract proposals to do so. As long as he shuts his mouth, he’ll be OK; he’s scored more points than anyone at Hendrick but Jeff Gordon since the announcement he won’t be back. I have no doubt he’ll make it… if only to spite everyone who’s doubting him.
Mike: But Tom, if Hendrick starts the crap about locking Kyle out of meetings, and they don’t share information with him, that could be a real detriment.
Tom: But Mike, he said this week he barely goes to meetings now as it is! Remember, Brian Vickers still won after all that stuff was said about how he got locked out at Hendrick. In all reality, he didn’t have an awful season last year – (Vickers) – if not for that string of crashes in May and June, he would have been 12th or 13th in points. Kyle is immature, but that hasn’t stopped him from winning races before – and it shouldn’t now.
Tony: Busch will be Busch’s own worst enemy this year. If he keeps it cool, that team, crew, and his abilities are good enough to make it in.
Amy: Is that like, “He’d be a really great driver if he didn’t keep on running into stuff!”?
Tom: Amy, the same could be said for Kurt Busch, too – just think where he’d be if he didn’t try and ram Stewart on pit road.
Vito: Both Busches are typically their worst enemy.
Tony: Yeah, they both can go back and look at races where they gave up points every year, I’m sure.
Vito: But if Kurt can just dial it back to running 90% instead of 110%… he’ll be a threat down the stretch.
Tom: Also, if he can make the Chase, I’d change my vote of Comeback Driver of the Year to Ryan Newman. I mean, that guy was about to leave his team three months ago – and now, top-five or top-10 car every week. Amazing turnaround.
Tony: Outside of Junior, Newman has the most Chase experience of all those on the bubble. That will count for something.
Tom: To be honest, other than Bowyer it’s probably DEI in the most danger. Their mechanical problems always seem to keep popping up at the worst possible times.
Tommy: It is hard to believe that DEI is able to possibly put two cars in the Chase… but look which one is in the most jeopardy of not making it.
Vito: The No. 8 will be OK. I think Junior has some extra motivation to go out on top and be a man about leaving DEI.
Amy: Those 100 points are probably looming pretty large to Junior right now.
Tom: Bottom line, I’ll say Newman and Busch get in, Truex and Bowyer get knocked out… but for Truex, it’s all bad luck and not at all indicative of how they run.
Mike: I think Truex makes it in solidly, probably around seventh in points. Instead, I’m voting for Kyle Busch to miss it and Kurt Busch to make it in.
Vito: I say Kyle drops out due to a string of mysterious mechanical failures… and big brother Kurt makes it in to be the only Dodge in the Chase.
Tommy: I’ll stick with Bowyer and Truex for the same reasons. Not quite enough seasoning yet. Look for at least one of the Penske cars to get in. Either Newman or Busch, possibly both.
Tony: I say Bowyer’s out and Newman slips in.
Amy: I see the same 12 in now, provided nobody hits a tailspin. I’m not replacing anyone… I really do think it will be these same 12.

Considering the different experiences we’ve had with open wheel drivers this season – Juan Pablo Montoya‘s Cup win versus AJ Allmendinger‘s struggle to even make races – how would you think Sam Hornish Jr. would fit in during a transition from stock cars to Indy cars?

Tommy: A long-term project.
Vito: It’s a terrible idea. Hornish is decidedly average in IROC, and has a fleet of wrinkled Busch cars already as it is.
Tony: I think he would fit eventually, but his performance would all depend on the type of team put under him. Penske needs to look no further than Allmendinger to see what happens when someone’s gut is thrown right into the fire.
Amy: I agree with Tony – I wouldn’t expect an overnight sensation, just based on his track record. Other than Montoya, nobody has set the world on fire their first year in stocks from open wheel – remember Stewart’s rookie year in Busch? Me neither.
Mike: Well, as long as they put him in the Busch Series more and let him transition from open wheel to stock cars the way it should be done, I think he’ll be fine. But if they try and rush him into Cup, it will be a disaster. He’s already proved to be remarkably average in his stock car efforts so far.
Vito: Hornish’s best finish so far is 15th.
Tom: I think his performance in the Busch Series to date proves he has a lot to learn. To be honest, Allmendinger had better results in a Truck before they put him in Cup with a new team. I foresee a number of struggles ahead for Hornish… but because it’s Penske, he’ll have a much quicker learning curve.
Vito: Well, Allmendinger’s problem is he’s driving for a new team, with no points, having to try and do too much with too little, because of that, he’s not making races, not getting any experience. It just keeps perpetuating itself.
Tony: Yep, I think if AJ had maybe a full season under his belts, and of course, didn’t have a new team, we’d be seeing better results.
Mike: Allmendinger has looked decent in Busch when he’s run. I think he has potential, he just needs seat time.
Amy: He could be a real fan favorite if he just sticks around – how can you not like a guy nicknamed “‘Dinger?”
Tom: I think over time, AJ will be fine, and I think Hornish will be as well. But I hope the expectations set for Hornish aren’t unrealistic for his first year. Because unlike Montoya, I don’t think he has a chance to win any race. I think even making the Top 35 with a new team and qualifying for every event would be somewhat unexpected.
Mike: Me too, Tom. I think if they expect him to come in and be competitive in Cup right away, they are setting him up for a big disappointment.
Tony: And they better start him off by finding a sponsor who understands that. I think Red Bull is devoted to ‘Dinger, and so too should any potential sponsor for Hornish.
Vito: Hornish will be given much more time over someone like Brendan Gaughan or Travis Kvapil. Two Indy 500 wins, three IRL championships… he’s more of a marquee name than those other two.
Tommy: Exactly… and you have to give them time. I think there’s some unfair expectations set for these guys.
Vito: As it is, I feel like Hornish is making the move purely for financial reasons. He doesn’t sound that enthused about running NASCAR, and his reasons given in interviews are always A) financial and B) “a new challenge.”
Tom: Yeah Vito, but you can’t blame him – open wheel is just not going anywhere.
Tony: I’m sure the following or lack thereof of the IRL is a factor.
Vito: Still, he always seems ambivalent about NASCAR. He’s always “50/50” on it; to me, he says he’ll do it so he can get a fat payday. There’s nothing wrong with that… I just don’t know that the commitment is going to be there for 36 weeks a year based on that mentality.
Tony: Good point…that’s a much longer season than he’s used to.
Tommy: I know what you’re saying, Vito. They really need to want to do it. And the differences between the cars are huge.
Amy: Astronomical… and it takes time to learn another style, no two ways about it.
Tom: That’s the thing. I think people see the past success in other forms of racing and expect it to be automatically repeated once drivers cross over – without necessarily understanding the differences between the cars.
Vito: You know, people saddled Montoya with that tag, not being able to handle the grueling schedule… but he seems like he’s just more into it. Hornish doesn’t.
Tony: That may actually keep him from getting the ride, though – Roger has been around long enough to know when not to put someone in the car. And the thing with Hornish, it’s hard to tell – he’s so quiet and laid back that he could hide the enthusiasm really well.
Tom: I think having Hornish do these additional Busch races is a way to ease him into that longer schedule, too. Because when you think of it, he’s actually racing almost 30 weekends this year, not 17. So I don’t think the schedule will be quite so much the problem as the inexperience.
Vito: But the races are twice as long, the season is twice as long and the competition is 10 times what it is in IRL.
Tommy: Hornish is certainly talented enough. But he needs a few seasons in the full-bodied cars before he can get a fair evaluation.
Amy: I agree, but in this day and age, nobody gets a few seasons – a few months, at best, but no more.
Mike: He’ll also have to keep his old man out of the pits. That kind of stuff from Watkins Glen won’t go over to well with the folks in Daytona.
Tony: Mr. Hornish would get to know Mr. Helton really quick.
Vito: What’s he going to do, bodyslam Kasey Kahne?
Tom: Nah, but he’s been busy bodyslamming the walls in the Busch Series, so I expect that’ll continue in Cup!

This week marks ESPN’s return to covering Cup racing after a seven-year absence. What are your expectations for the coverage this season, and can the network repeat the magic they had in previous years that had most fans excited to tune in every Sunday?

Tony: I think they’ll be solid, but anyone expecting the magic of the 1990s will be disappointed.
Vito: If they abandon that ridiculous introduction with Aerosmith, who stopped being cool like 15 years ago, then yes. They have a driver who has been in the game within the last couple of years in Rusty Wallace. They have Alan Bestwick, Mike Massaro, and Andy Petree for the crew chief’s perspective.
Tom: No question, they’ve put the best possible pieces in place in order to be successful. Now, it’s all about execution.
Amy: Hey, Vito! Aerosmith NEVER stops being cool! Seriously, I expect more of the same with ESPN, no real changes from the other networks. As an added bonus, er, NOT, we have to listen to Rusty for four hours.
Tony: Really? I am looking forward to Rusty’s commentary; I think he’ll be pretty good.
Mike: At least Rusty will be talking about something he knows about instead of open wheel cars.
Vito: As long as he gets to say “cats” and “hot rod” 10 times per race, everything will be fine.
Tommy: Well, Rusty to me is a bust; he just looks so uncomfortable up there. To be honest, I don’t expect much from ESPN. NASCAR nixed the split screen commercial idea after the announcement that they would be doing the broadcasts, that says it all.
Tony: Well, fans would be happy if nothing else, they cut down on the commercials of the other channels.
Mike: I don’t think they will, and frankly, I don’t think they’ll be any good. Based on what I have seen from them so far, they are more intent on doing the same crap that FOX and NBC do rather than being like they were in the old days.
Vito: Keep in mind, they’re broadcasting to a wider audience then they were in 2000, so they have to dumb it down a little bit.
Mike: I don’t know why they won’t bring back Bob Jenkins. I know he’s not as flashy as the others, but I think he was the reason I liked ESPN so much.
Tony: Jenkins was awesome.
Tom: Honestly, I do think this group is a good mix of old and new. I think Jerry Punch provides an important connection to the old ESPN crew that I think a lot of the old-time fans are looking for. For obvious reasons, you couldn’t just bring back the same three-man booth you had in the past. Time necessitates change… and if they convince the fans enough they haven’t lost that old-time feel, things will work out just fine.
Tommy: I just can’t get too passionate about who’s in the booth. Don’t really care. Fans should be pretty much able to tune them out as long as the camera works good… and commercials are kept to a minimum.
Mike: I don’t see why they can’t have the same old crew. I would have liked to seen that.
Amy: I agree with that; the old ESPN crew was great.
Vito: But I’m sure you’ll see Ned show up from time to time. Jerry Punch is on-site. The only real weak link is Shannon Spake, and she’s acclimating quickly.
Mike: Hopefully they’ll keep Marty Smith off the air as much as possible.
Amy: I like Marty… he knows of what he speaks.
Mike: I know he does, but he just comes off like he KNOWS that he knows. You don’t see Mort acting like that on the NFL broadcasts.
Vito: Mart-Dogg is solid. He’s a shill for Junior, but that’s fine. I think it’s good to see commentators show their preference for certain drivers.
Tommy: It’s just a matter of time before Marty becomes the opening act for Dane Cook.
Vito: I just can’t wait to see Aerosmith screaming at the fans every weekend. Guys my dad’s age running around in Spandex. File that under “something I don’t ever need to see, EVER.” Let POD play “Boom” or, you know, they could play nothing.
Tony: OK, I think we all know which guy won’t be tuning in until lap 10…
Mike: At least they don’t have to hear Hinder anymore. I like their stuff, but “Born to be Wild” was getting on my nerves.
Tom: Look, which opening would you rather have? An old-time rock band attempting to juice you up before the race, or FOX guys running around with crazy wigs in a Corvette doing stupid stuff? Personally, music is what jazzes me up.
Amy: I love Aerosmith.
Vito: I just want to know what poorly animated computer graphic will be employed to help me understand the unexplainable nuances are between “loose,” “tight,” or “drafting.”
Mike: I’d like to see them film a car that was tight driving into the corner and going straight into the wall, or a car that was loose backing into the wall.
Tony: Hey guys, you just figured out something you can do with the “old” car!
Vito: I’m really going to miss the current car. I’ve become accustomed… to her face…
Tony: Not to mention her body.
Vito: Baby Got Right Rear. Remember, beauty is only skin deep… but ugly is all over.

It’s not just Cup drivers that infiltrate the Busch Series anymore; a few “Truckwhackers” participated in the Busch race at Gateway, including Todd Bodine and Ron Hornaday, both of whom came home with top-10 finishes. With all the commentary on how Buschwhackers are ruining the system, should Truck Series interlopers be looked at any differently?

Vito: Carl Edwards has an 800 point lead. I’d hardly call Bodine and Hornaday “stinking up the show.” Busch Series racing is horrible for the most part anyways. I’d hardly call it “Truckwhacking;” it’s a step up for them.
Tony: You’re right. The natural progression is trucks to Busch, so no, they’re not ruining it; even though in this case, it was two veterans running the series over the weekend.
Amy: I don’t think it’s the same thing at all… those guys aren’t taking a championship away from a guy in a lower series.
Mike: I don’t think Truck Series drivers should be viewed the same when you can get a bigger purse (as embarrassing as it still is) in a Busch race rather than in a truck race.
Tommy: Don’t see any problem with the truckers moving up. Good for them.
Tom: I also think it’s a completely different situation – one in which the Truck Series veterans can actually teach the Busch Series drivers a whole new bag of tricks.
Tommy: I just want to see some good drivers in the series.
Tom: I think the Busch drivers have a whole “protect their territory” kind of thing. I was hearing a lot of talk in the Busch Series garage this weekend about that. About how with the standalones, you want to protect your territory even more as a Busch regular because of the different type of drivers coming in – and it’s drivers they think they can beat. In reality, though, both Cup and truck drivers are doing the same thing – they’re invading another series and robbing the regulars in that series of top finishes.
Vito: That’s the thing. The Busch Series is kind of becoming a free for all. Cup guys, open wheel guys, truck guys, Busch regulars… everybody’s here!
Amy: The RACING should draw the crowds, though.
Tom: That’s true… it’s all part of the Busch Series losing its true identity. At the same time, you’ve got all these young guys pressed into just a few quick starts. Which puts more pressure on them to perform… sometimes too much pressure, as we saw in the wreckfest on Saturday night.
Amy: And there are no Busch stars like there used to be because there are no rides for them – there are a lot of guys who could draw if the Series had its own identity and was marketed as such.
Tommy: I guess I’m in the minority, but I wish they had 30 Cup drivers in every Busch race. I like to see the best equipment and drivers.
Tony: Owners need to start adhering to the ABC, or TBC program more strictly.
Vito: Maybe that’s part of the growing pains of the series. More guys come into Cup through trucks now than Busch.
Tom: Oh, no question. Although I will mention Poor Landon Cassill was like a back and forth battering ram… swung ahead and got swung at from behind.
Amy: Cassill did a good job for an 18-year-old rookie – I was impressed – but again, look at the equipment.

Predictions For Indy?

Mike: Harvick. He wins the three biggest paydays of the year.
Amy: Gordon.
Vito: Matt Kenseth. Kenseth is almost always a top-five car there. I think he closes the deal this time… though Gordon is a pretty safe bet, too.
Tony: It’s been a Penske week, and we’re going to a Penske-dominated track (in the other series, at least), so I’m going with Kurt Busch.
Tommy: I say Gordon… he’s got nothing better to do than win races right now.
Tony: I’m also going to go out on a limb and say that the Brickyard winner is NOT the champion this year.
Tom: I think this is honestly Stewart’s race to lose. He’s heading into Indy on a roll – during the time of the year where he stays on that roll. With the pressure of winning one here off his back, don’t see any reason why he can’t win number two.

Updated Frontstretch Prediction Standings:

WriterPredictionsWinsTop 5sTop 10sAverage Finish
Tony Lumbis1318117.5
Tom Bowles1528119.1
Vito Pugliese18191210.9
Tommy Thompson16251011.0
Cami Starr602313.7
Matt Taliaferro1424714.3
Amy Henderson19271214.6
Toni Heffelfinger1415615.8
Mike Neff1713619.1
Beth Lunkenheimer511220.4
Kim DeHaven100037.0
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