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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: No Bristol Bumps, Villeneuve Takes His Lumps & Can AT&T Get Back Over The Hump?

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)
Toni Heffelfinger (Frontstretch Assistant Editor/Mondays/Busch Series Breakdown)
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/Fanning the Flames)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
Vito Pugliese (Fridays/That’s History)

With the Chase drama all but played out with two races to go, were drivers at Bristol playing it a little too conservative? Rate how you felt the track did in its first Cup effort since the repaving, and whether we’ll actually have any drama left in the regular season come Richmond.

Amy: I thought it was great as far as the track was concerned. There were two grooves, and they tried to make it three a few times.
Mike: I thought the race was great. I thought three-wide at Bristol was awesome.
Beth: It wasn’t too bad… it was just different.
Tom: Frankly, I think all this stuff about boring racing is due more to the Car of Tomorrow and the Chase than anything else.
Vito: The truck race and Busch race particularly were great. The Cup race was a snoozer compared to what we’ve become accustomed to at Bristol. I don’t blame the track.
Amy: As for Chase drivers driving too conservative, I don’t think so. A lot of the Chase contenders just had crappy cars and didn’t contend for that reason. Let’s see… Jeff Gordon had a crappy car… Matt Kenseth crashed, Denny Hamlin blew, Jimmie Johnson got accordioned… none of them were holding back. They had no cars to drive.
Vito: I blame the hard tires and the car with no suspension travel and little downforce.
Matt T.: Yeah, the drivers played it conservative… but it was because the extra groove(s) allowed them to.
Mike: With Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch all within nine points, if one of them has trouble at California, then we’ll have some drama.
Toni: I think they played it a bit conservative but this is nothing new. It’s been this way for a few years.
Tony: I think the track was great. We just had two dominant cars, but a lot of side-by-side action back in the back.
Toni: But I do think having multiple grooves was a good thing too. The track was much better.
Tony: There is never any drama at California, there almost never is.
Amy: No, but it sure is good for a nice nap.
Tom: That’s the thing – if two cars weren’t dominating this week, fans would have been treated to the tons of side-by-side racing going on back in the pack.
Toni: If you wanted to see a race, the track was great because they could go two- and three-wide. If you wanted to see crashes, flying heat shields and ambulance abuse, you have been disappointed for the third year or so.
Tom: Anyone who claims that the repaving job didn’t work at Bristol didn’t see Friday night’s Busch Series race… or the Truck Series affair two days before that. We’re talking about two classics right there – and in those races, there was plenty of contact.

MCLAUGHLIN: WHO’S TO BLAME FOR BRISTOL?

Vito: It’s nice having more than one groove to race in.
Beth: The repave at Bristol was one of the best repaves I’ve ever seen in NASCAR.
Mike: The race there the last three years have sucked, at least there was passing this year.
Tony: It was good, it just didn’t have the finish like in the spring, and the Truck and Busch races were evidence that the boring finish wasn’t a product of the new pave job.
Matt T.: Look, the last two Bristol night races have been tame by Bristol standards. Yes, it’s a product of the Chase. The repave also allowed the drivers to take it easy on each other.
Tom: Maybe you say Kyle Busch raced conservatively in eighth in points. Ninth through 14th are the only guys with a chance, and 13th and 14th are racing their butt off.
Tony: True, so that means you had 9-12 with the only reasons to race conservatively, or better put, defensively.
Tom: So, you’re saying FOUR drivers… four… are ruining a 43-car event?
Toni: I have a problem blaming the CoT when they used them in the spring and had an exciting finish.
Tom: No, no, no. The problem with Bristol – and what the fans didn’t like – is you can slam into the back of someone with the CoT and not wreck anyone.
Toni: Some of the best finishes this season have been in CoT races.
Tom: AND, not only that, but two cars pulled away and made the show a stinker.
Tony: That was it more than anything Tom.
Tony: There was competitive racing, just not at the front where it gets all the attention.
Mike: I just didn’t think it was a stinker. I thought it was a hell of a race.
Vito: The Busch race was bad ass. The last few laps were like a video game.
Tom: The Cup race was compared to the Busch race – and it didn’t live up to the hype created by that and Wednesday night. That’s what happened here; and apparently, television didn’t show the greatest job of racing back in the pack, which WAS much better than what was happening up front. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be seeing the barrage of complaints.
Matt T.: The repave is a double-edged sword: You want two- or three-wide at BMS? OK, but that eliminates that rooting around and banging we all love so much. I guess Bristol has a new look.
Mike: The race was great. The fans who think it was boring needed to look behind the car that was in first place.

Robert Yates has reached out to solve the Dale Earnhardt Jr. number dilemma, offering the No. 38 for him to use beginning in 2008 and beyond. Along those same lines, there’s a heavy push to have Mark Martin drive the number 8 next year at DEI, just to ease the fan transition. Bottom line… is this whole number thing being blown out of proportion?

Amy: To a certain extent it is. For the average driver, a number is a number.
Beth: I don’t understand what the big deal is. It’s just a number.
Mike: When you get right down to it, yes. Numbers are the owners to use as they see fit. Other than the No. 10, I don’t remember a number following anyone in the last 15 years.
Matt T.: Out of proportion or not, Martin is a much smoother transition from Junior than anyone else on the circuit.
Tom: I think drivers are just like everyone else in the world. We all have certain routines we don’t want interrupted. A number is not just part of a driver’s “routine,” its part of their identity. And that’s what’s so tough on Junior, I think – the number was the one piece of consistency he felt guaranteed he could take with him.
Beth: It’s not like the number makes the driver, and if it does, then they shouldn’t be racing in Nextel Cup anyways.
Amy: However, there are a few… the No. 43, the No. 3, No. 28… that are ingrained in our minds with a certain driver or organization.
Vito: I don’t remember people cutting themselves after Richard Petty gave up number 43 for, I think it was John AndrettiRick Wilson ran No. 44 I thought.
Tony: He did Vito, for one year.
Toni: Well now that’s kind of funny. NASCAR wants to be like other sports and attract the fans of those sports where athletes keep a number their whole career. So now you have a bunch of fans who think that’s the norm. But it hasn’t ever been in NASCAR. How many numbers did Darrell Waltrip drive?
Matt T.: Seven or eight for DW.
Tom: Toni, but Darrell had the No. 17 when he owned his own team. That was the number when his career began to blossom in the mid-’70s – before DiGard – and that’s what he had from ’87-’98.
Toni: But Darrell also drove the 88, 11, among others.
Matt T.: 72, 66, 1…
Toni: And now Kenseth has No. 17 and no one batted an eye about it.
Tom: The thing is, though, the number is like… it’s like having your favorite teddy bear or something as a kid. You just don’t want to let it go.
Matt T.: Really, Tom?
Vito: For a guy who’s won 17 races, that’s kind of blowing things out of proportion the way this has been drug on. It’s a NUMBER. Get over it.
Amy: I think for Junior, the issue was that his Daddy chose that number for him because of their family history. It’s not “just a number” to him.
Mike: Dale Earnhardt drove three different numbers in his career.
Amy: But as for the big deal over what number he’s going to drive? Who cares? It ain’t the eight, GET OVER IT!
Tony: More of a pain in the rear for fans who by gear than anything.
Amy: Sucks to have that No. 8 tattoo now, don’t it?
Vito: 8, 38, 81, 88… I think this has been more of Junior trying to appease his fans and keep some of his identity.
Tony: Yep, I still think Jr. should take 6.7.
Tom: Which is why I think Yates is doing a pretty classy, honorable thing to give Junior the number.
Amy: I’ve heard that’s not a done deal. Marty Smith says it’s not anywhere near as easy as Dillner made it out to be.
Mike: I think he’s going to go with No. 81. I wouldn’t want the No. 38. That number’s never done anything.
Vito: It’s been upside down a lot. Which is appropriate because of the frightened M&M that’s always emblazoned on the tail panel.
Mike: I just don’t think its worth getting that bent over. Yes, it would have been awesome to see him keep it, but it’s really not that big of a deal. It’s the way the sport works.
Vito: Not really… if Martin drives it next year. You still have someone pretty cool to pull for. Speaking of Martin… guy was synonymous with number 6 from 1988-2006. He’s No. 01 now, and might be No. 8 next year. What’s the big deal?
Tom: See? Identity… there’s that word. Junior has already taken this ordeal so much harder than I think people give him credit for.
Tony: This isn’t anything unusual though, when players are traded to a new football team, they’ll buy their numbers off of other players who may have them. Numbers have always meant a lot in sports.
Matt T.: Martin makes for the smoothest transition. Then Greg Biffle or whomever can come over and slide in without any “backlash.”
Vito: He does Matt. Who’s going to boo the U.S. Army car during a time of WAR and throw stuff at it… at a NASCAR race of all places?
Tom: That’s a great point, Tony. As for the No. 8 – like Matt T. said, Martin makes a smooth transition, in part because he feels no pressure at this point in his career. And replacing Junior comes with a lot of expectations. Especially if they’re considering adding Regan Smith into the fold – that kid doesn’t deserve to be placed under that unnecessary weight.
Mike: On a personal note, seeing Martin in the No. 8 will give me more reason to dislike him.
Amy: How can you not like Martin?
Tony: If you don’t have a soul…
Toni: OK, at the risk of getting crucified on saying this, why does this debate always come up when an Earnhardt is involved?
Amy: That’s true.
Toni: I mean how many guys have been in the No. 28? No. 43? No. 21 is Wood Brothers, not one particular driver.
Matt T.: Good call, Toni.
Vito: If the No. 8 is going to be on the Army car which looks like it will (since the Army of One/01 campaign is over), anybody should be able to drive it without fear of red-faced drunk fan retribution.

NASCAR and AT&T continue their bitter court battle, with Richard Childress choosing to outfit the No. 31 as a blank orange-and-black car for the foreseeable future. Is there an appropriate compromise that will work, and is allowing this issue to drag on a negative thing for the sport?

Toni: What legal issue hasn’t been a negative issue that dragged on too long when it comes down to it…
Tom: Right. But the fact that AT&T just signed a three-year extension to be on the No. 31 probably means they’re not going to back down anytime soon, it seems. And the negative fan reaction towards Nextel appears to be mounting the longer this drags on.
Matt T.: But no compromise will work here, Tom. NASCAR is setting a precedent for future situations.
Mike: I agree, Matt. NASCAR is not going to back down, and they don’t have to. A contract is a contract, and AT&T was not grandfathered in. There isn’t anything different now compared to when RJR was the title sponsor.
Tony: Yep. If anything, AT&T should run the Cingular symbol for the rest of the year, at least for some sort of recognition, and then call it a NASCAR career after this year.
Amy: Actually, this whole thing make me kind of laugh though – even if they win, Nextel is getting the opposite of what they want. They get painted as the bad guy while AT&T is the innocent victim.
Toni: Yeah, and really, AT&T is managing to get great publicity out of this… as the poor company “bullied by mean Nextel.”
Tom: Exactly, Toni. Which means – no matter who’s right – I don’t expect AT&T to back down. When you’ve got fans saying, “I turned my phone in just to back AT&T on this issue,” why would you? I personally think that AT&T has a case anyways… and I think this will be a long, drawn-out battle to prove a point.

MEYER: SIMPLE SOLUTIONS FOR THE CINGULAR LOGO PROBLEM

Vito: The thing I find funny about this is, with all of the court wrangling and legal disputes… do the fans really even care? I use Verizon. I have no intention EVER of using AT&T, Cingular, Nextel, etc. I can’t even understand why AT&T wants to be in NASCAR so bad. It’s had to put up with this since when, late 2003?
Matt T.: Well, I agree with what Tom said on our podcast last week, though. How can NASCAR tell an independent contractor who they can or cannot put on the car? I know the issue is bigger than that, but that’s what this is at its most basic core. That said, I think NASCAR/Nextel are in the right here.
Amy: They are in the right, Matt. But the fans see the big bad corporation trying to take the good little race team’s sponsor away. You know, AT&T gets more mileage out of this than if they’d stayed on the car, because we’re all talking about it.
Tom: The thing is, though, guys, again the publicity is never going to swing towards either NASCAR or Nextel’s side. And I think RCR is prepared to run that car without logos the rest of the year… and can you imagine if Jeff Burton wins the championship without logos what the fallout will be?
Mike: Oh yeah, that would be huge.
Vito: That car looks ridiculous, by the way. Bright orange with the white and blue AT&T logo, it looks like a car a 6-year-old designed it in the career mode of NASCAR Thunder.
Tom: Anyone else notice that Ryan Newman and Burton don’t wear Nextel Cup hats in their driver headshots now? Just NASCAR hats.
Matt T.: Newman and Burton also do not wear a colored Nextel logo on the uniforms. Just white, last I checked.
Tom: But the funny thing is, what do they think? The fans are just going to magically stop and think, “Oh, that’s right, I never saw an AT&T logo on the No. 31 car.”
Mike: They have always done that, Tom. If you watched the IROC when True Value was on it, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart wouldn’t wear True Value stuff.
Tom: Well honestly, I’m beginning to look at this as the guy who’s about to get tackled by 50 football players on the field. And then he holds up a contract and says, “Well, you can’t do that because of line 5A, section C.” Sorry to say, he’s still going to get tackled, no matter what he says or does. And that’s the thing here; negativity is surrounding this issue to the point where Nextel may just be better off to compromise, regardless of how strong their case is.
Tony: Exactly, but Nextel can’t because it will set precedent.
Mike: I don’t think NASCAR will let them do it because it would open a can of worms for the future.
Amy: Back in the day, only RJ Reynolds tobacco brands were allowed. But Camels and Skoal fell under their label.
Toni: Exactly Amy. That’s why we never had the Kool or Marlboro car in NASCAR. Or the Bourbon and Branch.
Vito: Well, the real losers here are the fans, who have to listen to this being babbled about ad nauseam. The Chase is about to start up in two weeks, and what are we still talking about… a court case involving billons of dollars.
Matt T.: See, I don’t think the fan reaction will hurt Nextel. We all have our service providers… you gonna get out of your existing contract just because you’re mad at Nextel over this?
Vito: You know who would look awesome on Burton’s car? KOOL-AID MAN!
Tom: I’m ignoring Vito. Anyways, the thing is, AT&T was already part of Cingular when the contract was signed – they had a percentage stake in the company. It’s almost like Nextel is trying to use a loophole – and NASCAR fans don’t react well to “technicalities.”

Jacques Villeneuve will begin the process of building a stock car racing career in Craftsman Trucks. What can we expect out of him the rest of the season over there, and is that an appropriate division for him to take “his knocks?”

Tony: Absolutely. Truck, Busch, ARCA; give him everything he can take this year before going to Cup.
Matt T.: He’ll have some wrecked trucks though, I’d say.
Beth: But it’s a better place to start than Nextel Cup.
Mike: I think it is a wise choice. The truck is closest to the CoT, so he’ll get some valuable seat time out of it. I think he’ll do a good job and keep his nose clean.
Tony: Sources say he’ll be scheduled for a lot of testing this year, and that is smart.
Toni: I think Trucks are a great place for Villeneuve to start. That being said, well, I’m not sure he’s cut out for this.
Beth: He sure is, Vito… Bill Davis announced Friday at Bristol that he’ll run the rest of the truck season.
Matt T.: Hasn’t his name been bantered about for five years now? Makes me wonder why no one else took a chance with him.
Tom: Well I talked to Jacques this week, and he was super excited about the whole thing. He knows it’s going to be a transition – but the thing is, the man has done Formula 1. He was talking to me about the difference between AJ Allmendinger and Juan Pablo Montoya – about how high the competitiveness is of F1 versus any other type of open wheel, and how that’s helped contribute to Montoya’s success over AJ. That’s made him convinced he’s going to be more on the JPM side of the learning curve.
Mike: And he’s actually an F1 champion, Tom. That’s more than JPM can say.
Beth: I’m sure Bill Davis has been inspired by the season JPM has had so far, though.
Amy: And I agree with Toni – trucks are a great choice for Villeneuve to start his learning curve, especially with Davis’s success in that series. Other teams ought to pay attention to that.
Vito: Yeah, but look what car he would be driving next year… the 360 OTC car. OTC = Outclassed Terrible Car.

STAFF: JACQUES VILLENEUVE – BOOM OR BUST?

Toni: I’m not sure he’s got the temperament for this, Vito, or the stamina for the schedule, as far as that goes. I’m not saying he doesn’t have the potential talent…
Tom: But Vito and Toni, remember Toyota’s engine will be better next year. And they might have the resources of Gibbs to pull from… as well as new sponsors at BDR generated by Villeneuve being there. Ganassi’s equipment isn’t all that much better than what BDR is putting out on the track right now… and Montoya’s doing just fine. As for the schedule, you’ll adjust.
Mike: He’s going to struggle, though – although Dave Blaney has been doing really well in BDR stuff.
Vito: Look – you’ve got a car here that’s 44th in owner points, never makes the race, sucks and is slow. It’s only made 10 races this year – I hardly think Villeneuve is going to be making races with it.
Beth: That’s why it’s best that Bill Davis is starting him in trucks this year. He’s likely to make more races there.
Tom: And Vito, that No. 36 was doomed the second the Ginn Racing team antics caused it to miss the Daytona 500 by one spot. When you’re outside the Top 35, it is just a totally different deal. Just look at Scott Riggs… I mean, you’re never going to get momentum back when you miss the first four races in a row, and your driver is an – shall we say, independent – thinker who already has an impatient streak.
Tony: And I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bill Davis pull something to get another number for ’08.
Toni: I mean honestly, fans who don’t know what to do with JPM will have no idea how to take Villeneuve. He can be… well, not very cuddly… I’m not sure how to put it.
Amy: And Montoya is cuddly, Toni?
Matt T.: But seriously, how long has Villeneuve been talking about a jump to stocks? Suddenly Toyota hits the sport, suffers, and he’s offered a ride? I find the timing somewhat suspect.
Tom: Well, Jacques brings a completely different attitude and set of attributes to the table.
Mike: Jacques can be abrasive, that is for sure, so it will be interesting to see how his team deals with him.
Toni: Montoya’s a charmer compared to Villeneuve when he gets rolling.
Amy: But weren’t we saying this about Montoya last year?
Vito: For all of the hype about Villenueve, the guy hasn’t won a race in 10 YEARS.
Toni: And Villeneuve was widely considered the biggest pain in the ass in F1 for awhile.
Mike: He is certainly more of a primadonna than Montoya is.
Amy: I like Montoya, though, personally.
Vito: The way I look at it, Villeneuve’s Kevin Harvick with glasses and an accent.
Tony: Jacques will benefit if he doesn’t come in and think he’ll run the sport like he did in CART and F1, at least in the beginning.
Vito: I think having not done jack in a racecar for the last decade has humbled him a little bit.
Toni: See, but that’s the thing with Jacques that I find funny – I don’t see any humbling. He took a while to get to NASCAR because he expected to come right to Cup. He didn’t feel he needed to do any lesser series first. Obviously, he’s been schooled on that thought. And what I do find comical is the release from his side where his agent said they were looking for something like the Truck Series, because they feel that’s the best place for him to start. Since when? Since no one took him seriously and put him right into a Cup car.

Predictions for California?

Mike: Kenseth does the season sweep.
Tony: Kurt Busch.
Amy: Johnson… he isn’t going to suck forever.
Toni: A nice long nap. Oh, not what you meant, sorry, Johnson.
Matt T.: Cousin Carl makes it two in a row. Move over, Kurt, Carl’s heating up at the right time.
Tom: Hmm… for this race, I think I’m going to go out on a limb. Since I dogged the kid all summer, saying he’d fall out of the Chase due to inexperience… and since he…
Matt T.: Well… we’re waiting…
Tom: (deep breath) Alright, I’ll say it; it’s time to give Clint Bowyer his due. RCR and Bowyer always run well at California… and the night race there has had some surprises. Elliott Sadler, Kyle Busch. So, this time I think it’s Bowyer…
Tony: Tom – you know Clint can now blame you when he blows up, finishes last and falls out of the Chase.
Tom: Well, the two-member Bowyer fan club doesn’t scare me.

Not sure which Frontstretch writer to trust with predictions this week? Check out their success – or failure – with the current season standings listed below.

WriterPredictionsWinsTop 5sTop 10sAverage Finish
Tom Bowles18310148.2
Tony Lumbis17110138.9
Vito Pugliese222111610.1
Tommy Thompson20371211.3
Amy Henderson243101712.5
Cami Starr702412.7
Matt Taliaferro1524813.8
Beth Lunkenheimer811515.9
Toni Montgomery1515616.0
Mike Neff2015917.0
Kim DeHaven200123.0
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