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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Dale Jarrett’s Road to TV Geek, Jason Keller’s Record-Breaking Streak, & Did Villeneuve Get the Respect He Seeks?

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:
Toni Montgomery (Frontstretch Senior Editor & Fridays/Rick Crawford Driver Diary)
Tony Lumbis (Mondays/Rookie Report)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Tuesdays/Running Your Mouth & Various/Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)
Mike Neff (Tuesdays/Full Throttle & Thursdays/Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
Vito Pugliese (Wednesdays/Voice Of Vito & Fridays/That’s History)

Editor’s Note: Toni Montgomery began participating with the second question this week.

After observing one restrictor-plate race with the Car of Tomorrow package, should there be changes made for future events at Talladega? Also, which type of restrictor-plate racing was better – the old car or the new car?

Mike: I don’t know that we can make a good judgment after one race. When people were willing to race, I thought it was a pretty good show.
Tony: Let’s see, we had side-by-side racing, then a freight train for a while, then the Big One, then a last-lap pass for the win. I’d say things were close to the same.
Beth: When the Cup cars weren’t lined up single file, they put on a darn good show.
Vito: The racing was decent… it wasn’t Petty/Pearson 1974, but it was OK. I still like the current car better, though.
Amy: I didn’t have a problem with the new car. Like Rusty said, after the beginning they knew the cars could pass, so why tear up engines and cars trying it too early?
Vito: I was watching some older videos of Talladega during the mid ’80s last week… and all I can say is, wow. Let’s just say the cars look like they’re parked today compared to then. With this package, I think they can stand to open the plate a bit on the CoT.
Amy: They should lose the plate on this car. I’m interested to see them at Daytona, where handling is a bigger factor.
Mike: They have to use a plate. This car could still go 220 without a plate, it’s still going to go airborne if they don’t put a plate on it.
Vito: But no one’s gotten one of these backwards yet at speed. That wing might act like another roof flap.
Mike: Or, it might launch it like a missile.
Amy: Mike, this car was designed to have no plate. They didn’t use one until a Daytona test, when Busch went 195. Um, they go over 195 at Atlanta…
Beth: Maybe you don’t lose the plate, but at least adjust it, because the trucks run nearly as fast as the Cup cars at Talladega.
Vito: Well, if you ever saw a race during the 1980s… that’s what this looked like. One big long line of cars.
Mike: Again, I thought the racing was pretty good. It was just during the middle – when everyone decided not to pull out of line – where it got boring.
Amy: I’m sold on the CoT, actually – it’s been fine everywhere it’s run so far.
Tony: Yeah, the racing hit a lull because the drivers chose to chill a while – not because of the CoT.
Mike: But when it came time to go, the racing was good, and multiple lines were able to move forwards and backwards. I still don’t think the slingshot is ever going to come back, though.
Vito: The slingshot needs more horsepower to work properly. Restrictor plates rob horsepower, but it also kills throttle response.
Amy: Taking away throttle response is a dangerous proposition – always has been.
Vito: That’s what makes guys do dumb things… making them afraid to lift and such. But, as Kenny Wallace said over the course of this weekend, that’s how you make up positions at the end. You don’t lift for anything, you just have to hold it wide open and run into guys square so you don’t wreck them.
Amy: Well, there has to be a better way to slow cars down.
Vito: They’ve been trying for 20 years to slow them down, Amy. Right now, the plate is the most cost-effective way and the best to police. I always thought running the current car in a short-track configuration would work, but it didn’t. They still ran way too fast in a test a few years ago. I do think the gear rule should go – making them run at 8,800 rpm all day long wasn’t so hot. They sounded good, but come on… not all engines perform the same.
Tony: Yeah Vito, it would be good to see them experiment a bit with that horsepower. Now that the cars are more the same than ever, let’s give them some more flexibility on the engines.
Mike: Bottom line guys, the racing Sunday was good. I think they will tweak the package a little and make it better, but for a first race, it was good.

All weekend, there was trepidation by a number of drivers and media concerning Jacques Villeneuve‘s Nextel Cup debut at Talladega; the Canadian responded to that by dropping voluntarily from his sixth starting spot to the back of the field. Do you think that was fair, and how do you evaluate his first Cup performance overall, especially when compared to the recent debuts of other open wheelers?

Mike: I thought that was a very classy move on his part.
Beth: It was fair, and a very smart move on his part. I really liked that out of respect, he moved back, he scored a lot of points with me after I was so dead against him starting that race.
Amy: Dropping back was the right thing to do, but NASCAR should never have allowed him to start there.
Vito: Like Dale Earnhardt Jr. says, there’re guys out here every weekend that he’s more afraid of than Villeneuve. That may have been more of a team decision than Jacques’s, but having said that, it was the smart thing to do. He stayed out of trouble, got some experience, and earned some respect amongst his fellow competitors.
Toni: I think it was fair from the standpoint that he was there to learn, not to win, and he knew it. And it was a good move to make some friends, too. It didn’t hurt that he was solid all day either – he never did anything crazy.
Tony: I didn’t think starting him at Talladega in general was the best idea, but he really showed patience, and that will take him a long way. I was impressed, he made short-term sacrifices for long-term gains.
Mike: I thought he did a good job of staying out of trouble during the race and logging laps.
Amy: Yeah, Villeneuve did the right thing and ran smart. But NASCAR also got lucky… had he caused the Big One, they’d be to blame. The bottom line is there’s no amount of open-wheel experience that equates to a full-body stock car on a plate track.
Mike: The IRL runs close, but CART never ran that close.
Tony: Yeah, restrictor-plate racing is its own animal not seen anywhere else. There definitely would’ve been some questioning going on there.
Amy: I think NASCAR should go back to their old approval system; short tracks first, then intermediate, with speedways last.
Vito: But Amy, Al Unser Jr. raced the Daytona 500 in 1993 after running just a few IROC races on superspeedways. Everyone embraced it; now, we’ve got a guy who won an Indy 500 to go along with CART and Formula 1 championships. There is no reason for him not to be out there. Kyle Petty made his first start at Talladega in 1979, he finished ninth. It can be done.
Toni: Personally, I’d be more comfortable with Villeneuve out there than, say, David Ragan.
Tony: Nothing against Bobby Labonte whatsoever, but like I pointed out in the Rookie Report on Monday, a Nextel Cup champion can easily cause the Big One. So, it can happen to anyone, the big question I have is, does anyone know anymore what the rule is for allowing someone in their first race? Or is that a gray area now, too?
Beth: Seems to me like it’s a pretty gray area, Tony. If it wasn’t, NASCAR would never have allowed Villeneuve to make Talladega his first Cup start.
Mike: NASCAR makes the call. There isn’t a set guideline.
Tony: Yeah, last year they told Ragan he couldn’t compete in a few races after he struggled out of the gate, so it seems like they treat every situation differently.
Amy: But it used to be much more set in stone then it is now. You had to test first, then run a short track; and if you did OK there, then you could run a cookie-cutter. THEN – and only then – could you run the big tracks. And in response to Vito’s point from earlier, Petty had run Talladega in ARCA, Vito. Villeneuve had not.
Toni: OK, here’s a good question then. Why is it OK to run Talladega in an ARCA car with no stock car experience if it’s not OK to run Cup? I know they are different sanctioning bodies. But my point is, they put Juan Pablo Montoya in the ARCA race first. Why shouldn’t they all have to start on smaller and work their way up to big tracks?
Vito: Keep in mind that veteran Jimmie Johnson has caused umpteen restrictor-plate wrecks, too, two of them at Talladega.
Tony: Good point Vito, and great question, Toni. ARCA and Cup are essentially the same car.
Amy: ARCA is a series where drivers race to develop.
Mike: But they’re still running 190. That is dangerous as hell for drivers with less experience.
Amy: True.
Vito: Ha, I like how everyone puts credence in making an ARCA start. Those guys are your local short-track drivers turned loose in a Cup car. If there’s a wreck in turn 1 and they’re in turn 4… they’re still going to be in it.
Beth: Well, regardless of where Villeneuve should have made his start, I’m impressed with his performance and look forward to seeing more from him.
Vito: It’s much ado about nothing. World-class drivers typically do the right things.
Tony: But I think it’s the exception, not the rule, Vito. NASCAR shouldn’t let this performance dictate future rulings.
Mike: Still, Villeneuve did a good job. I think it was a wise choice to start at the back, and I think it showed that he’s using his head about this whole thing.

Dale Jarrett is set to announce his future plans this week. Is cutting short his tenure with MWR the right thing to do, or should he grin and bear one last season of full-time racing? Also, if Jarrett heads to the broadcast booth, that likely means Rusty Wallace will be let go; is it fair to cut him loose after just two years of experience (he did IRL in 2006)?

Mike: Jarrett is getting tired of the grind associated with a losing team. I think scaling back was a good choice for him.
Toni: Cutting short his tenure with MWR is sort of like shooting the horse with the broken leg…
Vito: But the horse is trying to pull the trigger.
Tony: He’s earned the right to do what he wants, but I think MWR will be better next year, and he deserves to go out on a better note.
Amy: Since when was racing OR entertainment “fair?”
Toni: And as for the TV booth, hey, you go with who you think is better. Like, NBC made the inexplicable decision to choose Bill Weber over Allen Bestwick, but hey, it’s their call.
Amy: Jarrett is a better commentator than Rusty.
Vito: They’re both equally grating. DJ is not his dad or his brother.
Mike: Rusty is quite annoying.
Amy: And he’ll still be annoying a few years down the road. I like DJ in the booth, personally.
Vito: But we’re going to go from “cats, hot rods, and I’ll tell you what” to “uhhhh” every fourth word. That will wear thin, really quick.
Tony: Maybe they can kick Andy out of the booth and have DJ and Rusty instead.
Toni: Personally, I like Kyle Petty in the booth better than any of them.
Vito: KP is the best thing to happen to broadcasting since CBS put cameras in the cars.
Tony: Which is why it’s probably a good thing for ESPN to hang with Rusty another year until Kyle retires. DJ kind of reminds me of his dad, I think he’s good. Rusty, I don’t mind, but I think he mentioned the draft lock type thing about 15 times on Sunday. That was annoying.
Amy: Basically, every time I hear Rusty, I want to buy stock in duct tape.
Mike: Oh man, I was so tired of hearing about draft lock.
Vito: Yeah, what the hell is draft lock?! I’ve been following racing for 25 years, and never once have I heard that term. It’s not even real. It’s just something to call “white” on that dopey draft tracker. What happened to the gauge that showed the horsepower improvement from drafting? That was useful and interesting. The draft thing is useless,
Amy: As far as DJ retiring… it’s time. He’s not in top equipment, so why hang around? He’s got nothing to prove, and this is a dangerous game – if he gets hurt racing for 30th place, what’s that do for him?
Mike: Exactly, Amy. If the passion is gone, it is a dangerous thing.
Vito: The equipment is not as bad as it used to be. His teammate won the pole yesterday, and he had a decent car.
Tony: Jarrett has a great relationship with UPS, and he wants to do right by them, too. I bet he wouldn’t mind finding something like Mark Martin did – running what he wants, where he wants, how he wants.
Vito: Mark’s more of a competitor, though. DJ doesn’t seem very intense to me anymore. I think he just enjoys driving racecars.
Amy: Right, Vito; so if he doesn’t want to do it anymore, it’s time to bow out. Like Tony Stewart said… when it’s not fun anymore, it’s time to retire.
Vito: Which is fine – free up some time to do the things you’ve put on hold for the last 20 years.
Tony: Jason is pretty done too, I think – so there’s no reason to hang around to race against him. I’d like to see Dale go out on a much better note, but if he feels he is done, then he deserves to be done.
Mike: It is Jarrett’s call. He knows what he wants to do.
Vito: Hah, remember that Jason Jarrett video game for Playstation? It wasn’t even stock cars… it was British Touring Car racing.
Tony: I didn’t even know he had a game out.
Amy: I vaguely remember that. He beat on the cars with a hammer in the commercial…
Vito: Jarrett-Labonte Racing was the name of it. Jason Jarrett and Justin Labonte.
Tony: Jarrett and Justin – who are they?

Jason Keller will break Tommy Houston‘s career record for Busch Series starts this weekend. How significant is this achievement, considering this was a driver who was never able to ascend up to NASCAR’s top level?

Toni: It is a Busch Series record, so I am confused about why Cup matters in this at all? This was a separate series that used to have its own identity, own records and own drivers.
Vito: I guess if you hang around long enough…
Amy: Uh, Keller never wanted to ascend to Cup. He was happy in the Busch Series and chose to stay there.
Tony: The Busch Series isn’t exactly an easy time either, especially lately. I think it’s a significant achievement.
Mike: It is a testament to his ability as a racecar driver. He’s been a very good Busch driver for a long time.
Vito: 17 years, 10 wins, $11 milllion in winnings and now 418 starts, Mike. But the Busch Series was usually a stepping stone, so the records aren’t going to be as awe-inspiring as Cup records.
Amy: It’s still a significant accomplishment, though, and I truly hope he gets the recognition he deserves, that it’s not lost in all the Cup Lite hype.
Toni: You know, considering how hard it is for a Busch-only driver to get a ride the last few years because of that, I think it gives the record even more significance. Keller has survived even with the invasion of the Cup guys.
Tony: Exactly, Toni. How many Busch drivers have we seen fall victim to the Buschwhackers?
Amy: And it isn’t like Keller is breaking the record because he wasn’t good enough to move up. Keller had Cup offers, but chose to stay with the Series he wanted to race in – that’s pretty admirable. He’s good enough to run Cup, but chooses not to.
Tony: There’s also something to be said if you are living comfortably in Busch working a much less hectic schedule. You get to do what you love for a career and have a little bit of family/friends time too. Kind of like Frank Kimmel in ARCA.
Mike: The Busch Series does give you Sundays free!
Vito: Look, I’d love to make $11 million working for three hours on Saturday. I’m just saying most guys don’t run exclusively in the Busch Series for 17 years!
Mike: See: Randy LaJoie.
Amy: Elton Sawyer,
Tony: Yes, and David Green, too – minus those few years he tried to go to Cup. Heck, Keller may have taken notes from LaJoie’s failed attempt with the No. 22 and Green’s with the the No. 96.
Amy: Bottom line, Keller is one hell of a Busch driver. A lot of the drivers in that series – young guys and Cup guys – could stand to learn a thing or two from him.
Mike: I hope they make a big deal out of this thing. Unless Kevin Harvick decides to go Busch racing after his Cup career is over, I don’t think the record will ever be broken.
Tony: You never know, Mike. Harvick may just get bored and want a third championship, just for the hell of it!

Predictions for Charlotte?

Mike: Johnson.
Toni: I’m going to be insane – Kasey Kahne.
Amy: I say Mears completes the season sweep.
Tony: Johnson – Hendrick is starting to make some noise in the Chase, and it usually gets pretty loud when they start.
Vito: Kind of hard to pick against Jimmie… whatever, I’m going with Martin. Johnson has to not win there sometime…
Beth: Johnson… been a few races since he won there, and it’s about time for him to do it.
Tony: Vito, I’d feel so much better about Mark’s chances if the DEI/RCR engines could hold together.
Vito: I think they’ll be OK this week. It’s only Junior’s motors that always blow up.

Want to see which Frontstretch staff member is on board with your Chase picks? Click here to see what all your favorite staff members decided upon.

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 22 3 11 15 10.1
Amy Henderson 30 5 14 22 11.0
Tommy Thompson 22 3 7 13 11.2
Tony Lumbis 23 1 10 14 11.4
Matt Taliaferro 20 2 7 11 12.0
Vito Pugliese 28 2 12 18 12.4
Cami Starr 7 0 2 4 12.7
Beth Lunkenheimer 12 1 2 7 15.1
Mike Neff 25 1 7 12 16.3
Toni Montgomery 19 2 6 7 17.3

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