NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Could Dale Jr. Still Make The Chase, Will Open Wheelers Ever Dominate a Cup Race & Did AT&T Get Put In Its Place?

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)
Mike Neff (Tuesdays/Full Throttle & Thursdays/Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans)
Tommy Thompson (Wednesdays/Thompson In Turn 5 & Fridays/Turn 5 Cartoon)
Matt Taliaferro (Thursdays/Fanning the Flames)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
Vito Pugliese (Fridays/That’s History)

In the midst of Dale Earnhardt Jr. overkill, the 12-car Chase field was set in stone on Saturday night. Looking at the final list of contenders, are there any surprises you see on that list? Anyone you think doesn’t deserve to be running for the title, and if so, who would you replace him with?

Amy: Wait… you mean there were other drivers in that race? Really?
Vito: Yeah. And fifth-12th do not deserve to be there. In the new system, everybody pretty much is a wildcard.
Amy: I agree with Vito.
Tom: Eh, I think that everyone earned their right to be in this thing based on the system NASCAR has. That having been said, for all intents and purposes Jeff Gordon would have won the title this season. No question.
Matt T.: Honestly, Gordon is the only one that truly deserves the title, under a different points system, but that’s not the real question here.
Tommy: If you’re going to have 12 Chase-eligible contenders… the list is about right. I guess an argument could be made against Bowyer being in the Chase.
Tony: I’d go with Clint Bowyer… nothing against him or his solid season, but he’s just not Chase material.
Mike: I think that’s the only one you could question. Bowyer didn’t win a race and he is in, but I don’t know that there is anyone I would replace him with.
Tony: About the only other driver who ran well enough to get in was Junior, maybe Ryan Newman.
Tommy: I still believe that 12 is just way too many participants in the Chase, anyway.
Amy: No kidding! Anyone outside the top five at this point doesn’t deserve to win the championship.
Tom: Well, the only people I could have seen with an outside shot at the title this year would have been Tony Stewart… maybe Jimmie Johnson. Otherwise, it was Gordon in a cakewalk. And if we didn’t have the Chase, I’m sure Gordon wouldn’t have sucked as much as he has over the past month.
Matt T.: I’m on Amy’s wavelength; I’d say seventh on back do not deserve a shot.
Vito: Yeah, there’s just something about being 700 points back that doesn’t shout “The Best of 2007” to me.
Matt T.: No joke.
Tony: I think it’s too bad that they took out the Chase points spread, too, instead of eliminating it all in favor of win bonus points. Gordon should have gotten at least a little credit for finishing first.
Matt T.: It’s a shame too, because we’d have had one hell of a battle for 10th had NASCAR not changed things.
Tom: Man, can you imagine that drama, Matt T.? Kevin Harvick would have just missed out… by five points. Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. would have tied for 10th.
Tony: So we would’ve wound up with 11, anyway.
Vito: But I think 12 is ridiculous. Does everybody get a trophy at the end of the year? Will Sterling Marlin and Joe Nemechek get “Participant” trophies?
Amy: What is this, Little League?
Mike: I think the new points system sucks even worse than the old Chase. Now, if they had the old points and the bonus points, it might have made some sense. But I still don’t like it.
Tommy: I’ve been a big supporter of the Chase from its inception, but I never could swallow expanding it to 12. 10 was kind of pushing it.
Tony: The question here is, is it better for NASCAR to go back to 10, or is yet another change, no matter what it is, destroying credibility?
Matt T.: What credibility?
Amy: NASCAR has credibility? Where?!
Matt T.: “Hey, let’s throw another red flag!”
Vito: I think a change fits in nicely with their practice of making up the rules as they go along. But as much as I don’t care for the Chase system, this might actually get interesting now. The last month or so, NAPCAR has lived up to its nickname.
Tom: I’d say of all the teams in the Chase, RCR looks to be the biggest underdog right now. Certainly, they’re the weakest of the Chevy operations in there, with the exception of possibly Truex.

BOWLES: THERE ARE MORE THAN 12 DRIVERS AND DALE JR.

Tommy: Kick the Daytona 500 winner out for Junior?
Tony: If we see the Truex we saw in the Chase races last year, then we see a surprise challenger for the title. Otherwise, I think my darkhorse is Carl Edwards. Editor’s Note: Tune back into Frontstretch this Friday to get all the Chase predictions from your favorite Mirror experts!
Matt T.: Truex could make some serious noise early in the Chase… New Hampshire, Dover. Too bad his teammate isn’t in it to help him.
Tony: Well, the Raiders had a better chance at getting to the Super Bowl than Junior had to get in the Chase Saturday night.
Tom: Even if Harvick was going to blow his engine. I mean, if Junior had finished second in that race… all Harvick needed was 40th or better. At the point where his engine would have blown up, I think he could have gotten that running around on a unicycle.
Amy: I’d pay to see Harvick make laps on a unicycle!
Tony: ESPN didn’t see it that way though, Tom.
Vito: Well, they had to do something to maintain a modicum of interest. The last couple of weeks have been pitiful – at least as far as short-track racing has been concerned.
Tommy: What? That was the best Bristol race I’ve ever seen!
Mike: I agree, Tommy. That was the best Bristol race since the ones you see on Back in the Day.
Vito: I guess you guys didn’t see too many from the early ’90s, then. Also, is it just me, or is it more than curious how the No. 8 seemingly blows engines at will, yet the No. 15 and the No. 1 teams seem to hold together alright…
Tony: DEI’s engine woes this year have validated his move.
Tom: Well, I think Junior’s engine failure at Watkins Glen was self-inflicted, Vito. And the other two engines don’t always hold up all the time… it just seems that way. Truex has two engine DNFs. Paul Menard‘s had a lot of mechanical problems.
Vito: Well none of the other Chase contenders, save for Carl who was already in it, have blown anything as of late.
Mike: I don’t get the whole DEI engine woe thing. I thought the RCR/DEI joint venture was supposed to be a good thing. Doesn’t seem like it.
Tommy: Aren’t some glitches to be expected as DEI and Childress combine their engine programs, though?
Matt T.: But if that’s the case, Tommy, I want to know why the RCR cars don’t blow up like the DEI cars. Jeff Burton grenaded one at Chicago, but that was in practice. Otherwise, neither Harvick nor Bowyer has had one let go. So, what’s the difference?
Tom: Well Matt T., even though Junior emphatically denies it, I’m sure in the past month they’ve gotten aggressive on their engine setups. Plus, all last year Junior complained about needing more power, power, power. So they end up giving him the engine with the most power, but of course, with power comes risk.
Tommy: That would be my guess Tom. Junior was probably running some pretty rad timing in his power plant.
Tony: Well, as the “Rolling Stones” put it, Junior has to realize you can’t always get what you want, sometimes you get what you need.
Vito: But Richmond isn’t a horsepower track.
Matt T.: And how about the No. 1 & No. 15’s problems?
Mike: Well, I have to question them going back to the old engine for Richmond. That seemed desperate to me.
Tom: Look, the Childress drivers have been choosing to go with a more conservative engine package. In the Childress – DEI engine merger, Childress was obviously the more reliable of the two motor programs. So they’re always going to start off with the upper hand. It’s just like the Roush/Yates thing, guys… Roush supposedly gives Yates chassis help, so why does Yates suck?
Amy: Is that a segue?
Tom: Perhaps…

On Friday, Robert Yates announced his retirement from the sport, effective the end of the current season. More importantly, the team he’s leaving behind appears to be heading towards a “merger” with Roush Fenway Racing. Is this the right move for Yates, or will heading towards a closer alliance with Roush Fenway leave their team as a permanent red-headed stepchild for Ford?

Tony: I think this is probably a good move. They’ve had a few years now to fix things on their own and they haven’t been able to.
Matt T.: They could possibly end up as a HOF Racing to JGR, but I think this will be more like what Toyota has in mind for their teams. Share the wealth.
Tom: I heard from a reliable source the whole Newman/Haas merger was engineering related anyways, only capable of being pulled off if the new partners could bring in sponsorship. They weren’t making much progress there… so that, in part, is why the deal is dead.
Mike: I don’t know what Yates gets out of any relationship with Roush, though. It seems to me that Roush got horsepower from them in the past, and didn’t do very much to assist Yates with their chassis woes.
Vito: But it makes more sense to merge with the guy who they build engines with, as opposed to a CART/Champ Car outfit that stopped being relevant about a decade ago.
Amy: For the team, I think they’re paying for the merger twice, they were supposed to get all that help when they merged engine programs in the first place. Obviously, they didn’t.
Tom: But if there’s one team that can find Yates sponsors, it’s Roush Fenway. And now that Poppa Yates is out of the way, Doug has no problems partnering up with the man who’s clearly the number one guy at Ford now. I mean, it’s a lot easier for Doug Yates to accept second fiddle than his father.
Amy: As a tradeoff, they had to take the driver Roush wanted in the No. 88.
Tony: I think that’s exactly right, Amy. And now, Yates indirectly has a “financial partner.”
Tom: This thing proves incredibly unfortunate for Kenny Wallace. Kenny got screwed out of this whole deal.
Tony: Yeah, Kenny could’ve continued the stability that Ricky Rudd brought to the team this year. Travis Kvapil is rolling the dice, which they’re already doing with David Gilliland.
Tom: That’s the key, Tony. Now, instead of a veteran like Kenny helping to bring David along… you have… Kvapil? I mean, nothing against Travis, but he’s got just a slightly higher amount of experience than David does.
Mike: Kvapil is a Truck Series champion. There is something to be said for that.
Vito: He’s OK, but come on… who is more marketable than Wallace? Turn the camera on, walk away and just let him run amok.
Matt T.: I don’t have a problem with Kvapil’s hiring. Maybe Childress will wake up and put Wimmer in the seat, too.
Tommy: Meanwhile, don’t blame Doug Yates for wanting to align with Roush… but this trend is not good for the overall health of NASCAR. We’re going to end up with only about 8-10 actual operations before long.
Tony: It’s not great for NASCAR, Tommy, but probably good for Ford.
Tom: And for Yates, it’s about the right fit for the whole organization. Gilliland could be a star in his own right with the right people around him. Although without a veteran to guide him, I fear that whole organization now becomes Roush teams six and seven… with a new flagship organization headed their way after 2008, when Roush has to downsize from five to four. Again, unless you’re running your own chassis and engine program, you’re never going to be as strong as the car owner who’s giving you the equipment you need.
Tony: Keep in mind Kvapil could be keeping the seat warm for someone else as well… there are a lot of good free agents coming up at the end of ’08, as DEI has pointed out.
Tommy: Would have preferred to see Yates take Joe Nemechek though. “Front Row” did a great job this season for Ginn Racing.

First Jacques Villeneuve, then Sam Hornish Jr.… now, it looks like IRL champ Dario Franchitti will head over NASCAR’s way. Can these open wheelers perform up to the level of Juan Pablo Montoya next season, and what’s going to happen to all the NASCAR talent they’re replacing?

Amy: Talent is talent. I have no problem with them if they’re really better than the guys they’re replacing… and only time will tell, on that count.
Mike: It is hard to say. It is probably speaking to the fact that NASCAR has become so engineering oriented that they just need to get the right monkey to drive the car while the pocket protectors tweak on it.
Tony: I don’t think so. For every Montoya, you’ll have an AJ Allmendinger. And that’s nothing against AJ, but he represents an open wheeler being thrown into the Nextel Cup fire with no experience.
Matt T.: That’s right, Tony. Hornish has shown nothing. Zilch. Nada. Villeneuve… we’ll see, and Dario… wasn’t he almost out of a ride last season? Props for what he’s done and all, but,
Vito: It depends on what guys NASCAR gets. I don’t know, Matt, Franchitti is a personable guy who’s very likable, Ashley Judd aside. He seems like a stock car driver to me. Villeneuve, I’m not so sold on him. Probably won’t sell well to the fans.

NEFF: OPEN WHEELERS BECOMING THE CHOICE OF NASCAR OWNERS

Tommy: Yeah, I’m hoping this trend is just a fad. Internationalizing NASCAR will not be well received.
Amy: Well, in these situations, while I’d rather see a deserving stock car guy get a shot, Franchitti is a talented driver. Face it, though; David Stremme wasn’t the world’s greatest stock car driver, either.
Tommy: Not going to dump on Stremme. I believe he’s immensely talented. He maybe needed another year in Busch… but he showed amazing car control.
Vito: That’s not something Hornish has; he’s good at running into stuff. He sucks in IROC and he’s marginally better than I am in the Busch Series.
Tom: Hornish will have people like Newman and Kurt Busch to lean on… where I worry is the Dario situation, because he’s kind of coming in blind to an organization that doesn’t have much in the way of veteran driver leadership. However, that didn’t stop Montoya’s success last year… so we’ll see. But I’ve always thought the key for all these drivers is the support system they’ll have around them. Like Villeneuve, he’s already got a veteran like Mike Skinner working with him. That’s great.
Amy: You know, I do hate it for the guys who have been in NASCAR for years and are now unemployed. But the trend is young, good-looking drivers.
Tony: That’s a good point, Amy. I feel bad for the deserving drivers in the Busch Series (what little are left) who deserve a Cup ride and have been knocking on the door for years.
Tom: Well, the problem with the Busch Series, guys, is there’s no one left! What support series? It’s all Cup drivers now!
Tommy: I still prefer to see guys that come up through the Saturday night short tracks… then a stock car touring series, continuing to pay their dues and get the breaks.
Mike: I think it just stinks for the support series, like the weekly racing series. What is it saying to the guys who are sweating it out on Saturday nights in stock cars?
Tom: I think, honestly, the open wheelers are getting their shot because the feeder series are desolate. Unless you want to bring up the Truck Series veterans, old Nextel Cup guys like Bodine, Benson, etc.
Mike: I agree Tom, but what is it saying to the guys that are running on Saturday nights? Do they need to chase the Indy Pro Series instead?
Matt T.: I think there is a lot of talent in the IRL Series. Only now, when NASCAR outranks them, do they want to “drive the school busses.”
Tommy: Open wheelers have nowhere to go. I understand that.
Tom: Getting back to Mike’s question, I agree… for the local short-track aces, there’s a sudden disconnect there. I don’t know how you fix that… because suddenly, the have nots can no longer turn into the haves over time. And unless NASCAR takes major steps to fix the Busch Series, I don’t know how these guys are going to show themselves off anymore. I mean, the Truck Series is increasingly NASCAR’s version of a senior tour. And without Busch running well… the next high-profile series is IRL.
Tony: Remember, Gordon started the trend of young guns among owners. Some made it, but a lot didn’t. The open-wheel trend will be the same, I think.
Mike: Open wheelers shouldn’t need to go anywhere. IRL should be their top series.
Vito: You know, for the most part, the IndyCar Series this year has been far more entertaining than NASCAR has.
Amy: I agree with Vito – the championship came down to the third turn of the last lap. Without faking it to get to that point.
Vito: Compare the Chicago Cup race to the Chicago Indy race…
Matt T.: And the IRL safety crews can clean a track in no time!

With the AT&T situation settled this week, they’ll be leaving as a Nextel Cup sponsor by the end of the 2008 season. Is it possible AT&T could land with a team in the Busch or Craftsman Truck Series after that – and do you think that’s an appropriate longterm compromise?

Matt T.: If I’m AT&T, I say, “Screw you” and take my millions elsewhere.
Mike: I’m sure they’ll end up somewhere, although it’ll probably be as the title sponsor of some lower-league series. I don’t see them being involved with NASCAR at all.
Vito: No. The Truck Series, which draws an ARCA-type crowd, is NASCAR in name only. Cup is Cup. Anything else is kind of a weak comparison.
Tony: As disappointed as I am, I think the compromise works well. Nextel’s “grandfather clause” is still held up to a degree, while RCR isn’t left without a sponsor for the rest of the year.
Tom: I think that it would be great for AT&T to at least market themselves through a Busch Series sponsorship, stay involved in the sport in some way. I still really feel like they’re getting screwed.
Vito: A good compromise is a deal where both parties walk away equally dissatisfied. I don’t think that’s the case here.
Mike: It worked out well for NASCAR. It threw a pacifier to RCR and AT&T. I don’t think they got much else out of it.
Vito: I don’t even know why AT&T is fighting this so hard. I’d pull the plug and put my money somewhere I’m wanted.
Amy: The funny thing is… Nextel was in the right. The grandfather clause did not allow sponsors to rebrand… AT&T was a rebrand.
Tommy: Exactly, Amy. As I said in my article, AT&T got a gift from NASCAR/Nextel on the compromise!
Tony: You know, if AT&T aligns themselves with, say, Jeff Burton in the Busch Series, they’ll still get a bunch of PR and wins. Not what they get today, but Holiday Inn has certainly benefited from being on the No. 29.
Tom: Tony, I think that’s a remarkable idea. Shift AT&T to Burton’s Busch Series ride and let Holiday Inn come on as a sponsor for the No. 31 Cup team, maybe combine that with a few other companies.
Tony: That’s what I was hearing.
Vito: Well, I think the Budget for Holiday Inn running a few Busch races is decidedly different than ponying up the money to run a full Cup season. I don’t think it’s that easy; Holiday Inn gets great bang for their buck in the Busch Series.
Tony: I’m sure they have the money, it’s just a matter of aligning with the goals of the company. They could do great promotions with their hotels in the areas of each race.
Tommy: AT&T wouldn’t take the series sponsorship when they had an opportunity to cause enough bad PR for NASCAR to get a couple of years they didn’t deserve… but good for RCR!
Tom: I disagree, Tommy. Look, the title sponsor has always enjoyed exclusivity, but AT&T already had part ownership of Cingular when this contract was signed way back in ’03. Let’s face facts: Nextel watched AT&T merge and become their number one competitor in the industry, and they didn’t like it that they could spend all these marketing dollars based on a contract they had signed fair and square. It was a much bigger piece of the market share this new company’s eating up in the cell phone industry. It behooves Nextel to kick them out.
Matt T.: So, wouldn’t it be the classic NASCAR (Gatorade vs. Powerade, Victory Lane) if AT&T became the Busch Series sponsor?
Vito: You know, this is what we’ve been reduced to this season: talking about sponsorships and legal wrangling over a sticker on someone’s car. Too bad the racing isn’t worth discussing as in-depth.

Predictions for New Hampshire?

Mike: Burton leads all 300 laps. Oh, wait; they don’t have plates on this time.
Vito: It’s Chase time, Gordon.
Tommy: Newman.
Tony: Edwards, Roush has figured out the CoT and Carl has been on a bit of a roll.
Matt T.: I’ll say that Stewart doesn’t lose his cool this time. He stays away from Newman and takes the checkered flag.
Amy: I’ll say Stewart wins, too, and takes the point lead.
Mike: I’m going to go with Truex taking the points lead on his “home turf.”
Tom: This one is really tough to call; it’s basically a crapshoot. I think anyone from Hamlin to Gordon to Johnson has a shot, but considering the last few years, the winner hasn’t wound up in serious title contention, so I’m going to say Truex.
Vito: You know, the last few races at New Hampshire, admittedly have been very watchable. Is Ron Bouchard racing?
Tom: Yeah Vito, and I hear he might have a shot at the Chase. As long as he wins and leads the most laps.
Mike: I still can’t believe no one has tried to put David Pearson in a car yet. He would wear these new wussies out.
Vito: If his back didn’t hurt, he would. He was going to come back with the Wood Brothers in 1989, but the next day after the test, he couldn’t walk.

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

Writer Predictions Wins Top 5s Top 10s Average Finish
Tom Bowles 19 3 10 14 8.9
Tony Lumbis 19 1 10 14 10.0
Vito Pugliese 24 2 11 17 10.9
Tommy Thompson 20 3 7 12 11.3
Amy Henderson 26 4 11 19 11.9
Cami Starr 7 0 2 4 12.7
Matt Taliaferro 16 2 5 9 13.1
Beth Lunkenheimer 10 1 1 6 16.6
Toni Montgomery 17 2 6 7 15.1
Mike Neff 21 1 5 10 16.5
Kim DeHaven 2 0 0 1 23.0

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