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Mirror Driving: Hating a Johnson/Gordon Chase, Why Carl Edwards’s Behavior Was Off-Base, & Grading the CoT

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)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)

Statistically, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have combined to win 41 races over the last four seasons – making them the two best drivers on the circuit in that category. Just 53 points separate them with four races left, setting up what should be a dramatic finish to the title – but fan reaction has ranged from plain disinterest to downright detesting this battle. Why?

Amy: Because they aren’t named Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Mike: It is just not interesting when it is two drivers from the same organization. Now if they piss each other off and legitimately start hating on each other, then you’ll have interest.
Tony: It’s also between two drivers who have traditionally been disliked. If it was between Carl Edwards and say, Jeff Burton, things are different.
Tommy: I think it’s because it gets old. That’s how it is in racing. I remember when people got tired of Petty winning so much and had kind of tuned it out.
Amy: That’s what it is – they win, so they are unpopular. Especially with those two – they’re on such good behavior that even the angel on their shoulders wants to smack them.
Tom: I think you’ve hit it on the head when you talk about perception, Amy. People like to see rivalries, see the concept of Good vs. Evil. When you’re dealing with two teammates, that idea of a rough and tumble just isn’t there… no matter how competitive they say they are. The inner circle of us media, the garage, those in the know might understand they really want to beat each other – but you’re not going to be able to sell it to the general public.
Tony: I think it goes deeper than that. A lot of people don’t like Gordon because he’s not a traditional Southern boy, or he comes off with a hypocritical attitude all the time. Getting pissed off at people for hitting him, but not hesitating to do the same thing himself.
Mike: That, and the fact that they are both California boys.
Tommy: I don’t think either Johnson or Gordon really fit the mold that many NASCAR fans like to see. Personality-wise, they are just a little too polished.
Tony: Exactly, Tommy. I was listening before Tom’s interview on Sirius Radio a few weeks ago, and Mojo, the host, was going off how he is a proud Southerner and doesn’t like this “Yankee” Gordon.
Tom: Well, it’s two drivers who do everything the right way. And I think a lot of NASCAR fans don’t like to see everything done the right way. As far as the whole teammate thing, this is also what you run into when you have three- and four-car teams dominating the sport. I mean, we’re probably going to see this scenario several times in the future… where two cars from the same team are competing down to the wire for a title.

BOWLES: JOHNSON PROVING EXCEPTIONAL IN TITLE DEFENSE

Amy: Gordon and Johnson are the two best drivers on the circuit right now.
Tom: And that should make the fans more than interested. After all, don’t you want to see the best compete against each other?
Mike: I would never say they are the two best drivers on the circuit, but they are definitely good. Gordon is one of the best. Johnson is top three or four.
Amy: The numbers say different.
Mike: Yeah, well the numbers have more to do with the team they drive for than their ability. If you put Tony Stewart in Hendrick stuff, it wouldn’t be close.
Amy: Maybe yes, maybe no… if Tony didn’t get along with a Hendrick crew chief, he wouldn’t win. It’s a combination.
Tom: Well, I think that if you go by pure numbers, there’s no argument Johnson has been more consistent across the board than any other driver over the past half dozen years. And Gordon – while not as consistent – certainly is still considered one of the top-five drivers of this decade.
Tony: Well, despite his dominance, I still think this Chase is one Gordon mistake away from being a close three-man race.
Tom: I don’t think so, Tony. I think you’re going to see Gordon and Johnson duel it out down the stretch at this point – Clint Bowyer just doesn’t have the experience or the wherewithal to stay in it. There’s just too much experience and organizational strength for the No. 07 to overcome.
Tony: You might be right, Tom, but he’s made it five races further than most thought he would.
Tommy: Honestly, the only thing that’s going to spice up the Chase is for Bowyer to win the next two races. Right now, Jimmie and Jeff have this Chase thing figured out, if you finish first, no one can beat you!

A few weeks ago, Mirror Driving reviewed the Car of Tomorrow and how it affected restrictor-plate racing – now, it’s time to do it for the short tracks. Time to assign it a grade – did it make the racing better or worse at those facilities, and why?

Tony: Just like Talladega, I’d say no difference. B+.
Amy: I’d give it a solid B… better than a lot of people thought, but not perfect.
Mike: I think I would give it a C. There was some better racing early. Lately, it has been pretty much a runaway by a handful of drivers at each track.
Tommy: Not much difference on the short tracks. Martinsville ended up with 21 cautions, but I don’t think that was especially the fault of the CoT. I’ll give it a B-… there’s room for improvement, and credit given for not being easily destroyed.
Mike: I think it will be better next year, but so far, this car didn’t do much to make things better or worse.
Tom: I disagree with that – on Sunday, I feel like it made a difference in the worst way. Because it’s a track where no one can pass to begin with – and now that the cars have been made even more equal, it’s downright impossible to get anywhere now.
Tony: Remember though, track position has always been critical at Martinsville.
Tom: Eh, I kind of fall in line with Gordon’s comments at the end of the Martinsville race. He said that if he’s got one of the best cars on the track, gets put back in 26th, and then can’t get enough momentum to pass the 25th-place car, then it’s a problem.
Mike: True, the best car still can’t move forward too quickly in today’s NASCAR, whether in the CoT or the regular car. Everything is just that equal.
Tommy: And that’s what happens on a one-groove track, Tom! People can’t pass.
Tony: OK, let me get this straight. You’re sold on something Gordon said, the man who complains about everything? Track position has always been key at Martinsville – Mark Martin won here in 2000 when he stayed out and the dominant players got caught back in the back and couldn’t work their way up through.
Amy: I thought the race was very good this week… there was a lot of passing in the pack all day.
Tom: See, I just think these CoT races haven’t had the passing I would like from them, nor the ability for someone to get substantially faster or slower during the race. To be honest, I’d like to see more adjustments capable of being made on these cars, options to create more differentiation. I think that’s part of the problem – you just can’t change a whole lot of stuff anymore.
Mike: Very true, Tom, they do need some more adjustability.
Tony: That is a good point – so much is out of the hands of the driver/crews, which sucks, but I still think the end result is the same.
Tom: For me, what’s problematic is that the grade for the CoT has inched downward for me at every race this season. It started at a B- or so clip… now it’s in the D range.
Tommy: On improved safety alone, it can’t go below a C, Tom!
Amy: I agree with that.
Tom: Point well taken, Tommy… but at the same time, I see all the empty seats everywhere each weekend. I have higher standards for this car. And right now, it ain’t meetin’ them.
Tony: But is that the CoT’s fault? Just five minutes ago, we talked about the lack of interest due to the Jeff & Jimmie show up front. There are a lot of different reasons contributing to that type of stuff.
Amy: I agree… it’s the stupid rules and the inconsistency in applying them that’s turning fans off. The car itself isn’t going to fill a lot of seats.
Tom: Amy, it is if it helps create better racing.
Amy: I think it does create better racing.
Tony: In reality, this is not a good year to measure the complete success of the car. Next year, when all races are run with the CoT, it will be a true measure of whether the racing is good, bad, or ugly.
Mike: I agree, Tony. When the teams are working with it every weekend, I think you’ll see more and more advancements in performance and handling.
Tom: I just – I just don’t see it the same way. There are too many guys complaining consistently about the inability to pass with this car. And isn’t the ability to run side-by-side for a prolonged period of time what racing is all about? Isn’t that what provides the thrill? Yes, I understand there are other issues at play here – drivers are being overly conservative to protect the points or their job or their standing in the Chase. But I’d much rather hear about them choosing not to run side-by-side, instead of saying they can’t. At least in the first scenario, a driver’s mentality can be fixed.
Mike: You’re right in that passing provides the thrill – however it is achieved.
Tom: Well right now, Mike, I see too many people saying they can’t do that, and too many wrecks at Martinsville which were caused by people just so downright pissed off they couldn’t get anywhere, so they end up bumping into people.
Tommy: But Tom… have you forgot the “aero push” complaints as well?
Tony: The CoT is not going to be a miracle worker.
Amy: Yeah, like we said earlier this was nothing new for Martinsville – if anything, there was more passing.
Mike: I hate that I have to agree with Michael Waltrip, but variable banking at Martinsville would be a big plus.
Tom: Ugh! You know, I find it kind of funny – for all these years, all the tracks we run on didn’t have a problem. And now, all of a sudden we have to change them all to accommodate the cars that don’t work? Give me a break.
Tony: Look, I’m not a fan of the CoT concept – other than safety – on some of the tracks, but you know what, this is how it is, and everyone just has to go out there and drive the damn car! That’s how it’s always been.

Editor’s Note: Question #3 was asked prior to Tuesday’s NASCAR teleconference, in which Carl Edwards made his first public comments on Sunday’s incident.

Edwards and Matt Kenseth got into it not just during the race at Martinsville – they traded words and then nearly came to blows in what was a weird post-race altercation. What the heck happened, and should Edwards have been fined for what went on?

Amy: Without audio, it’s hard to tell. Didn’t look like horsing around to me, though – and the shove was very aggressive.
Tony: There should have been no fine on this, and I’m glad there wasn’t. This was way after the race, and nobody would’ve ever known if there wasn’t a camera right there.
Amy: I disagree. Gordon got a fine, so to be consistent, NASCAR has to fine them. The incident being so long after the race is more reason to fine, not less. This was no “heat of the moment” thing.
Mike: It was nowhere near the shove that Gordon did to Kenseth at Bristol, though.
Amy: It was harder than Gordon’s shove, Mike… Edwards moved him four feet down pit wall. Ask Stewart and Junior – they were there.
Mike: He moved him away from the camera. Gordon drilled Kenseth in the chest.
Tommy: Honestly, I really do not have an issue with drivers “sorting” out their problems how they see fit. Unfortunately, they all fly home – so people don’t have a Waffle House parking lot off-track to settle their differences at.
Mike: There’s an idea, Tommy! Let’s put a Waffle House in the infield at every track. I think we could make a mint.
Tom: I don’t have a problem with drivers showing emotion after the race, either. I think this is another case of perception skewing the reality of what happened. Everyone has Edwards pegged as the nicest guy on the face of the planet, so everyone is gasping for air when they see this video. The thing is, if that were Stewart and not Edwards, it would be par for the course. The bottom line is that everyone gets mad and says things in the heat of the moment they regret.
Tommy: Right, Tom.
Amy: Edwards is an ass when he doesn’t get his way, though. And that was not heat of the moment. This was 15 minutes or more after the moment.
Tony: Give Edwards credit, at least; he showed his emotion in person after the race and didn’t put a bunch of people in danger by using his car.
Tom: For every shove captured on a TV camera, there’s 10 more we likely never see. Which is why it’s difficult to fine them.
Mike: I just didn’t see it as some big altercation. They had a discussion, and it is over. I really think this is being blown way out of proportion.
Tony: Everyone loves drama… and there has been a lot of it off the track as of late.
Amy: Does anyone else see what I see about Edwards? He says he’d like to beat Tony bloody, comes very close to injuring Junior, and shoves Kenseth. What more does he have to do to get fined?
Tommy: Geez… who hasn’t jacked someone up at one time or another in their lives? You do it, and then usually have to pay for your actions. It wasn’t a bludgeoning or anything remotely similar.
Tom: It’s first impressions that are everything though, Amy. It’s just like how everyone has said Kyle Busch is such a bad guy – and he’s done some horrible things. But then, when he does something completely mature – like not giving up on his team during a playoff Chase where he had every right to give the middle finger and just say screw it – people don’t give him enough credit because they still have the impression in their head he’s a bad person.
Amy: Well, Carl had ages to cool off and act like an adult, and he still chose to be a complete ass. That “aw shucks” image is very carefully cultivated… but it’s not real.
Tom: Everyone has this impression Edwards can do no wrong – so when he does something wrong, it’s looked at far differently; and, fair or unfair, he gets a longer leash. I hate it – I think all of us do – but that’s part of the power of us media.
Tony: Actually, the truth is none of us know Carl personally or Kyle, so it’s hard to tell who his the real driver and who isn’t. We see these guys for a few hours each race weekend and that’s it; so, it’s hard to put a label on them either way – even though we all do.
Tom: That’s 110% true – and nobody, not Marty Smith, not Claire B. Lang, is ever going to know them personally enough to convey the true answer.
Mike: I’m just not seeing that he did anything wrong. He moved Matt away from the camera to tell him something. He didn’t give him a forearm shiver to the sternum.
Tom: Yeah, I think Edwards shouldn’t have been fined. But I do think it proves he’s not as squeaky clean as he’s been perceived.
Amy: He didn’t move Matt nicely, that’s for sure… and Dillner said he certainly wasn’t talking nice, either.
Mike: Maybe I need to watch the video again. He put his hand on his chest, pushed him back about 10 feet, and said something in his ear. I don’t see the problem.
Tommy: I apparently grew up on a different playground. To me it was no big deal. Guys being guys!
Amy: But he shoved him harder than Gordon did, Tommy, moving him away from the camera… it was a rude, classless move, and if Gordon got fined for it in the moment, Carl should be too for premeditated.
Tony: But if we fined people for being rude and classless, the government would have enough money to pay off the debt and stop world hunger.
Mike: I’m with you, Tony. I just didn’t see a big scrap.
Tom: Frankly, it’s nice to see Carl has a wide range of emotions – Good for him. Beaver Cleaver always did seem so fake to me.

In the aftermath of a wild weekend at Martinsville, Mike Skinner has taken over the points lead and the momentum in the Truck Series – except now, team owner Bill Davis has called on him to drive the No. 36 Nextel Cup car for the next two races. Is that a bad move that will distract from his championship chase, or can running Cup actually assist his cause in the Trucks as the title race heats up?

Tony: Good drivers won’t let racing more distract them.
Tommy: I doubt that Skinner is complaining. Good to see him back in a Cup car for awhile!
Mike: I can’t imagine it being that much of a distraction. Racers want to race. Anytime, anywhere.
Amy: Running the Cup car is an ego boost. It won’t hurt him.
Tom: I think it’s the same type of thing people were talking about when Kevin Harvick was trying to win a Busch Series championship during the Chase. But in this case, there’s not as much pressure, other than during Friday qualifying. Skinner can just go out and have fun – it’s going to help him.
Tony: David Reutimann was saying it was weird to sit around at Martinsville without a Busch Series race. It seems the more races they have, the more focused they are.
Tom: Yeah – and Ron Hornaday‘s not going to have the extra track time Skinner has at Atlanta.
Tommy: This is a nice segway to give a shoutout for the Craftsman Truck Series. What a championship battle!
Tony: That’s true, Tommy. And we need to shout them out – I was talking to executives from one of the top teams and they said CTS is one of the most difficult sells. That is a shame with the competition down there.
Tom: You know, it’s funny – at the beginning of Mirror Driving this week, we were talking about two people you couldn’t really consider rivals. And right across the way in the Truck Series, we’ve got two people that form one of the best rivalries in the business – Skinner and Hornaday – battling for a championship.
Tony: Good point, Tom. You have a contingent of people who are pissed at J.J. and Gordon – but I think everyone is loving the Skinner/Hornaday battle because it’s exactly that – a battle.
Tom: Skinner really needed that win last weekend, too – he’d finished outside the top 10 in three of the last four races before that. It looked like Hornaday had all the momentum – now, it’s a draw.

Predictions for Atlanta?

Mike: I’m going to go for Cousin Carl to put one more in the win column this year.
Amy: Gordon puts another nail in the coffin.
Tony: Roush shows a little muscle with Greg Biffle.
Tommy: I’m going with the heart…“Flyin’ Ryan” Newman.
Tom: I’ll say Johnson. I think he may make a race out of this championship yet.
Amy: Hey Tom, I believe I added another win to my tally last week, no?
Tom: You’re coming fast, Amy, but Tommy and I are still hanging on in front. Considering the comeback you made from earlier this season, though, we should anoint you this year’s Bowyer…

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 (writers must have at least five predictions to be listed).

Writer Predictions Wins Top 5s Top 10s Average Finish
Tom Bowles 23 3 12 16 9.8
Amy Henderson 32 6 15 23 11.0
Tony Lumbis 25 1 10 15 11.3
Tommy Thompson 23 3 7 13 12.0
Matt Taliaferro 21 2 8 12 11.6
Vito Pugliese 29 2 12 18 12.5
Cami Starr 7 0 2 4 12.7
Beth Lunkenheimer 13 1 2 7 15.1
Mike Neff 27 1 8 13 15.7
Toni Montgomery 20 2 6 8 16.9

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