Welcome to Mirror Driving. Every week, your favorite columnists sit down and give their opinion about the latest NASCAR news, rumors, and controversy. Love us or hate us, feel free to 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)
Tommy Thompson (Wednesdays/Thompson In Turn 5 & Fridays/Turn 5 Cartoon)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
Vito Pugliese (Wednesdays/Voice Of Vito & Fridays/That’s History)
After waging a hard-fought battle with Jimmie Johnson over the final 10 laps, is Matt Kenseth being unfairly criticized for openly mentioning he’s going to settle for second on the radio?
Amy: Yes, he is. Kenseth wasn’t settling for anything; he was questioning whether going for the win was worth putting his car in the wall! Which – by the way – he almost did a couple of times…
Tommy: He was just debating whether going for the win was worth the high probability of wrecking… it’s nothing that drivers aren’t doing mentally, anyways.
Vito: It’s a natural question. He had two tires and was about losing it coming off the corner, trying to hold off a guy with four.
Tom: For someone who was just going to “settle for second,” Kenseth was certainly driving the wheels off that thing. I think this is being blown out of proportion. And remember, this is a guy with a pretty dry, sarcastic sense of humor. Do you really think any racecar driver is going to want to back off with five laps left?
Tony: Good point, Tom; you have to consider the context that he was saying this in. The thing is, if he wrecked Johnson, then he’d be criticized for driving too hard… he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.
Amy: Kenseth didn’t give an inch… but he wasn’t going to wreck them both, either.
Vito: Kind of a counter point. We had Matt asking if it was okay to back off and save the car to finish second. Last week was Kyle Busch saying, “If I bring it back wadded up, I don’t want to hear about it.”
Tom: And on another note, you have to consider how snakebit Kenseth has been this season. I mean, think about how many races he’s lost in the last 100 miles… Dover in the fall – mechanical failure,
Tony: And Texas in April in a very similar position. Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” comes to mind.
Tommy: You know, the only mistake Matt might have made is putting his thoughts over the radio, where everyone could micro-analyze them.
Tony: Exactly, Tommy, and TV always just plays snippets of the conversation for the fans. They don’t hear the context of what was said before or after.
Vito: Eh, whatever. The guy is a Winston Cup champion. He doesn’t have to explain himself to anybody.
Tom: What’s even more amazing is that he was able to vocalize those thoughts after dueling side-by-side with Johnson like that. On a side note, no one can certainly claim Johnson was racing for points these last few races… because that’s someone who was not settling for second. I couldn’t help but think this whole thing was a repeat of last year, when Johnson ended up taking the title away from Kenseth. Of course, the knock on Kenseth then was that he wasn’t being aggressive enough, just like now.
Tony: That’s an interesting point, Tom; it was a battle of two past champions who won their championships with two different driving styles. Both work; it just happens to be J.J.’s year… almost, anyway.
Tommy: That’s the bigger story, Tom. If Johnson does win the championship, no one can accuse him of “backing into it.” He’s going out and taking it!
Vito: No one has keyed in yet – this is Johnson’s most successful season so far. Nine wins, with two races remaining. He could very well win the next two as well.
Amy: Bottom line, that was a hell of a last 10 laps. Although under the real points system, Jeff Gordon would have clinched the big trophy Sunday.
Tony: Isn’t that ironic, don’t you think?
With two races remaining, Hendrick Motorsports car now sit first, second, and fourth in Nextel Cup points. Does this qualify as the most dominant season by one team in recent memory?
Tony: I think so since, well, since Hendrick dominated with Gordon and Terry Labonte.
Vito: HMS has been the most dominant team since 1995. The only real lean year they had was 2005.
Tony: It was an extremely impressive performance by Roush that year. What was a letdown, though, was that he had a 50% chance to win it all, and didn’t.
Tom: What Roush did two years ago – with all five teams making the Chase – was highly impressive. But in my opinion, what Hendrick’s been able to do this year goes far and above that. You’re talking about a team that has won half the races, with a driver that may win the Chase to go along with one that would have won the old title.
Vito: Roush doesn’t win a ton of races, either; Hendrick has nine wins by Johnson alone. Gordon has six wins, Kyle Busch has one, and even Casey Mears has one. Everyone else is fighting over scraps.
Tom: And now, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going to this team next year… there’s no telling how many more races they’re going to win.
Amy: Hendrick can put all four drivers in the playoffs next season. Childress put every team in… no reason HMS couldn’t as well.
Vito: This isn’t the first time they’ve run roughshod over the competition. Look at 1995-’98.
Tom: They had Ray Evernham then. To me, Chad Knaus has become that powerful an entity. Some very similar characteristics between them, too. Everyone was always accusing Evernham of cheating… and he did get caught a couple of times, just like Knaus. And they both had competitive, fiery personalities.
Vito: Evernham’s cheating was much more egregious than what Letarte and Knaus have been nabbed for this year.
Amy: Knaus and Letarte work together very, very well, especially considering they have drivers who have radically different setups.
Tom: And Letarte feeds off the competition offered by the No. 48 team… even though his style is totally different.
Amy: Did anyone see where Gordon said he thought they were nuts for making Knaus a crew chief?
Tom: I saw that, Amy… I thought it was intriguing to hear that, and that Gordon and Knaus wouldn’t work well together. Frankly, I agree with that assessment… Gordon’s grown out of having an Evernham-style crew chief at this stage of his career. But that’s exactly the type Johnson needs.
Vito: The only reason why these teams haven’t won even more was that they were laying off in late summer, gearing up for the Chase to start. Imagine if they weren’t taking it easy,
Tony: You can’t overlook Hendrick’s engine program in all of this; it has been far superior over the years. Just look at the No. 01 to notice the difference; the dropoff in performance once they lost those power plants has been pretty noticeable.
Vito: Eh, I think DEI’s power is on part with Hendrick. Reliability, however… completely different story. Hendrick makes power plants. DEI makes hand grenades.
Amy: True enough… Hendrick has exactly one engine failure this year, and that was in May.
Tony: Amy, I wouldn’t even be surprised if that one engine failure was over several years.
Tommy: The one big difference I see between Hendrick and the rest is their ability to tweak their cars as the race goes on. But yes… the horsepower and dependability is in their engine department.
Tony: Tommy, that used to drive me insane in the ’90s… Gordon would be all but out of it, and then the perfect adjustments would be made and he’d recover to win.
Tom: Well, that ’90s dynasty lasted four years… the way things are going here, I could see the same type of endurance coming for this one, too. At least until Gordon retires after around the 2010 season.
Tommy: I still think the CoT will even things up considerably.
Vito: I think the CoT is going to make Hendrick that much more dominant and competitive. There is less room to work with, and they have both tools and personnel to exploit what little is left to uncover.
Tommy: The CoT is going to take a lot of adjustability out of the cars, though, and that’s what Hendrick is ahead on. There’s a lot less that can be done with suspension and nothing on aero to speak of. They were way ahead of the curve… but I don’t think it will take long for other teams to figure it out.
Tom: But Tommy, in the first five CoT races, the Hendrick cars won five times. By the time everyone else caught up in development, it was way too late. And chances are, their offseason plan is going to pay dividends just like that next season – especially when you add in the additional financial kick Junior’s bringing to the table.
Tony: I just hope Rick Hendrick writes a book after he retires. I think there is something different that he does from a business perspective that makes a difference, and I would love to know what it is.
Amy: It’s the way he handles people, Tony.
Tommy: He apparently knows how to treat employees.
Tony: And that’s not always an easy skill to pick up on.
Sam Hornish Jr. is set to be announced as Penske Racing’s newest driver for Phoenix – with the No. 2 team’s owner points for 2008 to help him. Is using Kurt Busch‘s past champion’s provisional to their advantage unfair, or the right thing to do with the rules as they are get Hornish on track?
Vito: The absolute dumbest thing ever.
Amy: Completely unfair. NASCAR needs to put their foot down and not allow that kind of BS.
Tony: It’s a loophole though, Amy, one I think it’s perfectly OK for them to take advantage of. The problem here is Penske bringing Hornish up to this level so quickly in the first place.
Tommy: It is not wrong in the sense that they’re playing within the rules.
Amy: No, but it’s wrong that it is within the rules. What an insult to Busch, too.
Tom: I just can’t believe Penske is ready to push it this much. How many more DNQs is it going to take? I wonder if NASCAR can find a loophole by not approving Hornish for certain tracks, but considering how they just put the rubber stamp on Jacques Villeneuve, that’s unlikely.
Vito: It’s crap like this that NASCAR needs to reign in. With guys struggling to make the field each week with fast cars, how in the spirit of competition does it make sense to just apply points to what teams you see fit?
Tommy: The problem is with the rule… NASCAR can change that with one pass of the eraser they keep handy.
Tom: I think this goes deeper than just the rules – I mean, look how Penske toyed with the careers of Brendan Gaughan and Travis Kvapil. Then, all of a sudden, he’s willing to bend over backwards for – granted, an open-wheel star – but a guy that hasn’t made a race?
Vito: First of all, Hornish in a stock car… is terrible. He wads up Busch Series cars and has never done much in IROC. Here is a prime example of a guy who needs a full year in Busch, or at the very least, Trucks. I would argue that Hornish has 10 times the potential of Gaughan and Kvapil; however, I don’t see how forcing him into races when he isn’t up to speed is going to benefit anyone involved. Himself, and the other 42 innocent victims out there.
Tony: Just think about MWR, too… Busch could potentially foil their plans for Dale Jarrett‘s guaranteed five starts. This is a textbook example of an owner promoting a driver based on name only. Referencing the last question on Hendrick being so successful… you never see him pulling this crap.
Amy: True. Well, unless you count the No. 48 team getting all the No. 24’s stuff their first year.
Vito: To be fair to Sam… the guy has won championships in Indy cars. That’s a lot more than most other guys are bringing to the table. Except, you know… Formula 1 champions and seven-time winners.
Tom: Yeah, but championships in other series can sometimes mean nothing when you make the switch as serious as this one. Some people can do it with ease – like Juan Pablo Montoya – but others find it a lot more difficult. And it’s not a knock on Sam that he’s finding it more difficult; he’s still so young, there’s NO reason to push this.
Vito: Why not get a solid 200 laps in a Bus… er… Nationwide car first?
Tony: The way things are going, Hornish will be making his debut at Daytona… and drivers should be up in arms about that just as they did with Villeneuve at Talladega.
Tommy: Exploiting the past champion’s provisional certainly goes against the reason it was established. I understand the logic… just think NASCAR needs to step in and reduce the number of provisionals… again! Just reduce it to two PCPs and they can’t be used consecutively… ought to take care of the problem.
Tony: Or get rid of the stupid Top-35 rule all together.
Tom: It’s sad, because the PCP does serve its purpose in certain circumstances. I think it’s a sign of how bad the current Top-35 rules are that people are resorting to taking advantage of that loophole. Even F1 doesn’t have that crap. Even… F1.
Vito: If Hornish is fast and can make it in on his own merits, fine. But to siphon off the No. 2 car’s points – unless he actually is going to be driving the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge – and make Kurt use a provisional… it is exposing everything that is wrong with NASCAR, and why people are getting more and more turned off by it.
Tony: As confusing as the old provisional system was, it served its purpose. It gave you so many freebees, but if you’re consistently bad, you went home, no matter who you were.
Vito: Let’s be honest: The past champion’s provisional was instituted to help Richard Petty after he missed races in 1989, and Darrell Waltrip in 1997-2000. It has outlived its usefulness, unless the King and Jaws plan on showing up at Daytona in Feburary.
Tony: Vito, when I looked at that really quick, I thought you said King of the Jews at first. I wonder if he would be granted a PCP?
Tommy: Who, Jerry Seinfield?
Vito: That would be quite a sight. Only crew that allows 12 men over the wall.
Amy: And if NASCAR starts offering Jesus a provisional, I quit… or would they just give it to Morgan Shepherd?
Tom: Back to Vito’s point from earlier; remember when everyone used to watch the Daytona qualifying races to see who would finish in the top 15? Now, it’s to see who’s going to “win” the PCP. It’s quite sad.
Vito: Bill Elliott, Labonte and Jarrett need not be allowed to whore themselves out to make a few token starts – the competition level has gotten to the point where it really should be a free-for-all. Whoever is fast races, and whoever is slow goes home.
Tommy: That’s pretty radical thinking, Vito!
Carl Edwards finally won his much-hyped Busch Series title Saturday. But was this season one that can be compared with Kevin Harvick‘s dominance of ’06… or just a case of a team that had more money and resources than all their competition?
Amy: It was easy, they bought him that championship. Any of the Roush drivers would have won it running that car full-time.
Tom: When everyone in the world pegs you to win the Busch Series title before the engines even start in Daytona, that’s a sign the competition surrounding you is weak. Not to take anything away from Carl…
Tony: But I think both 2006 and ’07 were cases of more money and resources.
Vito: Like Bobby Hamilton Jr. said this weekend – if Edwards didn’t win every race or the title, he should be ashamed of himself. He was running against what… a handful of full-time teams?
Tom: Edwards drove awesome during the first half of the season. But if Harvick drove a full schedule this year, do you know how badly that team would be smoked right now? They’re not even winning the owners’ title.
Vito: In the last 11 races, Edwards has only had two top-10 finishes. It wasn’t even the first half of the season where the No. 60 team did well… it was the first nine races where he racked up a couple of wins and a bunch of top fives.
Tommy: What are there… four consistently competitive teams in Busch anyways?
Amy: If that, on a good day. On that note, I love the idea of no points for the guys in the top 35 in Cup… love it. Or at least the top 20. Let them race, but let’s not take it away from the Busch/Nationwide guys.
Tony: That would be one of the few solutions left, Amy, since they are going to the CoT in ’09. I like it, too.
Tom: But see, here’s the thing with that. If the Cup guys are still driving in half the races, and the first Busch Series regular finishes 14th… what type of championship is that? They need to make the cars different, more challenging, so it’s not a freaking test session series for the Cup guys. Let the Cup guys win on their own talented merits – not because they got more practice time than everybody else.
Tommy: A guy like Regan Smith, David Ragan or David Reutimann should never be restricted in running both series.
Amy: How many Cup guys are gonna do all the races if they don’t get any points, though? Especially those June races. They aren’t going to fly to Milwaukee from Sonoma and back. Or Nashville and Pocono.
Tony: I think the hope, Tom, is that the points change would deter Cup guys from doing a full schedule; but you’re right, that combined with different cars would be ideal.
Tom: Look, there are certain financial benefits for teams to make their Cup drivers run Busch that just aren’t going to change. Every Cup team has a $2 million sponsor that wants some primary sponsor exposure for their investment – because let’s face it, that’s part of why these Busch Series teams run. It’s overflow Cup money from companies that want primary sponsorship exposure. And not only that, the ability to use the racing series as an extra test session on the weekend won’t change. Nor will any monetary incentive for the drivers. So, the dropoff wouldn’t be as steep as you think.
Tony: The monetary incentive is huge. Pocono is a perfect example. If drivers were really interested in meaningful experience, they’d race in the ARCA race that weekend at that track. But sponsors don’t get the same exposure there that they do in Busch.
Tommy: I don’t know how to get around the problem of sponsors wanting the Cup guys in the cars, guys like Joe Gibbs, who share that No. 20 with his Cup driver and a developmental driver. No Cup driver, no sponsor,
Tom: Yeah, I think financially the series is going to take a hit, period, until some different stars are reestablished. There’s no other way to do it… you have to take the short-term pain for long-term gain.
Vito: Next year probably won’t look much different than this year. Maybe in 2009 they’ll go to a different car (i.e., Challenger, Camaro, Mustang), and help give it its own identity again.
Predictions for Phoenix?
Tommy: Ryan Newman.
Amy: Junior wins one for old times’ sake.
Vito: Jeff Gordon. It’ll make Homestead interesting.
Tony: Stewart. He usually has success at the flat tracks.
Tom: I’ll say Bowyer comes back from that awful incident with the tires to score a win at the track where he made his Cup debut.
Tommy: Wow! Bowyer… Ballsy!
Tom: Yeah, you don’t win titles by laying up… that’s what Johnson taught me.
Vito: You know, it is kind of sad: two races left, there’s 30 points between first and second and the reception from the fans is lukewarm at best.
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).
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