NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Jeff Gordon No Longer Number 1? Is Parity in NASCAR Done? & Truck Series Fun…

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)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Tuesdays/Running Your Mouth & Various/Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)
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 (Wednesdays/Voice Of Vito & Fridays/That’s History)

Jimmie Johnson‘s remarkable achievement of four wins in a row gave him double-digit victories for the first time since 1998, when teammate Jeff Gordon dominated the sport. Should Johnson continue on and win his second straight title, is it fair to say the No. 1 driver in the Hendrick stable is now him – not Gordon?

Mike: No. Gordon has done it for years, and has earned that distinction. When Johnson gets to 80 wins, if Gordon is still around, then you can have that debate.
Amy: Jeff will be number one as long as he wants to be. That said, I think that of all the organizations, HMS operates the least around that theory, anyway.
Tony: I think it’s just like Mark Martin with Roush; he was always their number one driver, even when he wasn’t bringing in the most wins. The same can be said for Gordon.
Tommy: It would be fair to say Johnson’s been the most successful the last several years in the Hendrick stable, though. But seniority has to mean something!
Tom: The tough thing about it is, under the old points system, Gordon would have six championships right now. He would have clinched this year’s title at Texas, and no one would be even thinking about this debate. It’s a tough pill for Gordon to swallow; the two Chase championships that should have gone to someone else under the old points system would have been his.
Beth: And Johnson is about to get a second one under the new rules. So, it’s really hard to compare a driver’s performance under this system versus the old.
Tony: Exactly. In terms of championships, Gordon even pointed it out himself, that it’s tough to compare history now.
Tommy: There is only one points system… the one that everyone raced under this year.
Matt T.: And because of that, I disagree with you all; I’ve thought Johnson was better since J.J. won the title himself. Actually, I think Knaus and Johnson have been outperforming Gordon and the No. 24 for quite some time. This year’s first 26 races were different; but I think the No. 48 is the best team on the circuit, hands down.
Vito: I think Jimmie and Chad have approached things differently. They gear up for the final 10 races, while Jeff was going balls out all season long, that’s how he built up the 317-point lead he had going into Richmond.
Tom: Those are good points, guys. I will say it’s hard to claim you’re number one when you go toe-to-toe with someone else within your team… and you get spanked four races in a row. And make no doubt about it, Gordon did get spanked. He has historically been a poor finisher… and in the Chase, it came back to bite him.

BOWLES: WONDERING WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

Tony: I think the one argument in Johnson’s favor is that he and his team certainly adapted to the new format better than the No. 24.
Vito: I think there was a changing of the guard at Hendrick some time ago. Chad and Jimmie have been the top-performing car there since 2004, and I think that’s been the difference; the combination of driver and crew chief.
Tom: Again, I think the Chase just doesn’t favor Gordon’s style. He’s never been a guy that peaks at the end of the year… it’s like the exact opposite of Tony Stewart. I wrote about it Monday… if you take out 1998, he’s won just once over the final four races of a season. Once in 59 career starts, no less… that’ll never get it done.
Mike: Gordon has more points right now than Johnson had last year in the Chase. And there is a race still left to go. If it weren’t for Johnson going nuts this year, it would be Gordon’s title. The man has 29 top 10s, how many does Johnson have?
Beth: 23, Mike.
Matt T.: Who cares? Johnson has 10 wins.
Mike: My point, Gordon is the better driver when you look at consistency. And that is what used to win championships.
Tony: I don’t think a driver is knocked off the high spot on the totem pole in one year.
Matt T.: It hasn’t been just one year, Tony.
Tony: OK, Two years, maybe three, versus Gordon’s 14 years, still not enough.
Amy: Number one in an organization isn’t about one season or even two… it’s a career.
Vito: But Amy, you’re looking at two guys at two different points in their career and their life. Jimmie is where Jeff was in 1997. Jeff just got married for the second time, had a kid and is getting set up for the second half of his career.
Matt T.: Gordon missed the Chase a couple years back, ran OK last season. Used to win titles.
Vito: I mean, it isn’t like the guy’s chopped liver, either. Before Johnson went on this streak, Gordon won back-to-back races in the last laps of the race. But the No. 48 team is doing better.
Mike: Nah, I disagree dude. Gordon is still the man, and will be for the forseeable future.
Amy: Did anyone notice that while Johnson was winning Phoenix, Gordon was tying the record for top-10 finishes? That says a lot.
Mike: Yep. And he’ll break it this weekend. 30 out of 36 races in the top 10. Now that is impressive as hell.
Matt T.: Is he? I think Team Lowe’s, staring down back-to-back titles, is the team.
Tom: Amy, while Jeff was running up top 10s, Johnson was busy winning four times in a row. And he could conceivably win five in a row to close out the Chase. Five in a row! While I still think Gordon is number one, that’s pretty impressive.
Beth: Four in a row is impressive… much less five in a row.
Amy: Five in a row hasn’t been done in the modern era.
Matt T.: Here’s the way I see it: the No. 48 team is clutch. The No. 24 is consistent. I’ll take clutch because that wins big money races and titles. The Gordon of the mid-’90s was clutch, not so anymore.
Tom: Yeah Vito, but the Chase has proven there’s always going to be one guy that gets hot at the right time. With the exception of maybe ’04.
Amy: Being number one in an organization is about a career, and not just about wins and stats… Gordon will be number one at HMS until he decides to step down.
Tony: Although the way it is this year, they’re both clutch… just that one team is more clutch than the others. And then, there are the rest…
Mike: But that is the point for me, Tony. Gordon has more points now than Johnson had in 10 races last year. He is being clutch; he just ran into a buzzsaw.
Tommy: Does there have to be a clear number one driver? Does it really matter? They’re pretty much the “cream of the NASCAR crop.”
Vito: If anything, the Chase exploits just how farther ahead of the game HMS is then everyone else.
Matt T.: I think Vito just hit the nail on the head. We can argue J.J./Gordon all day. Point is, HMS has it together.
Tony: Pretty much. It’s not Gordon versus Johnson so much as Hendrick versus the world that needs to be argued here.
Amy: When you win half the races in a single season, what more proof do you need?
Tony: What happened to the other teams – bad luck not included – is pathetic, and they need to find an answer in the offseason.
Tom: The scary part is, Hendrick looks poised to dominate for years to come. Gordon is still near the top of his game and Johnson is in his prime. Now, you add the most popular driver… and Mears is inheriting what was a top-five car.
Mike: I don’t know about that. Gibbs with Toyota backing and their stable of drivers is going to be a powerhouse.
Tony: But it will probably be a few years until JGR is meeting 100% potential – there’s still some work to do. To me, it’s Hendrick’s arch-nemesis Jack Roush that has the duty of knocking them off in the short term.
Vito: I think Gibbs will get up to speed a lot quicker than people are expecting. These bodies don’t mean anything as far as the manufacturer is concerned. It’s all chassis now, and they have the most money and engineering support at their disposal.
Tom: Well, I don’t think it’ll be next year though, Vito. I think you’ve got a perfect formula established at Hendrick for a long time.

There’s so many people and things exiting the sport following Homestead, it’s impossible to make a complete list: Ricky Rudd, Robert Yates, Anheuser-Busch and the old brand of car are just a few of the things going away. Which one are you going to miss the most?

Tommy: Nothing on that list I’m married to. Looking forward to what the future brings.
Tony: Really? I’ll go with Rudd, for what he represents… the old school drivers of the ’90s. The Busch Series is a close second… that will be a tough habit to break.
Amy: Anheuser Busch. It will always be the Busch Series to me.
Mike: I’ve got Anheuser-Busch, too, but that is a personal thing for me. I just can’t embrace Coors Light as the official beer of NASCAR.
Beth: For me, it’s the old car, definitely.
Matt T.: I guess I’ll go with the standard car, too, but it’s about the CoT’s shortcomings more than anything. I thought that I’d get used to the CoT, but it’s just butt-ugly and that’s hard for a racecar fan to accept.
Vito: The current car looks like a racecar. The CoT does not.

PUGLIESE: KEEPING THE COT FROM BECOMING A POS

Tom: And that’s one of many reasons why I’m going to miss the old car. It also had its problems – aero push among them – but the new car appears to just make them worse.
Amy: It doesn’t even look like a car, Vito.
Tom: I do appreciate that the old car does look enough like a real car to make it viable they could be stock cars. A tough sell… but at least you could sell it.
Amy: It looks more like a street car than the old car did. Way more.
Mike: Yeah, sure Tom. Whatever you say. The cars have sucked for years. When they put that damn valence on there, I lost respect for the cars.
Tommy: There’s clearly some tweaking that’ll need to be done on the CoT.
Tony: Honestly, the CoT races to me have been exactly like the old ones… I will miss the old cars, but more for what they stand for – manufacturer identity – than the races.
Vito: Mike, check out Talladega 2000. Try having a race that exciting in that crap heap they’ve saddled them with.
Amy: But if you have to go back seven years to find an exciting race for an example, the new car is not the problem!
Tommy: At the race yesterday I never even once thought about the fact that they were running the CoT. They were fast… that’s what I like!
Mike: I think the CoT is bringing driver ability back into it slowly but surely. It will be interesting to see it on big tracks.
Matt T.: It better happen quick. I couldn’t hardly watch yesterday’s race.
Amy: There was good racing yesterday. Side-by-side, three-wide at times.
Matt T.: There were some good NFL games on, too, and countless fans were watching them.
Vito: Phoenix usually is a snoozer. But the CoT brings out engineering ability. Parity like this does not make for good racing; it makes everybody look average.
Matt T.: Rusty constantly says “with the new cars, everyone is so equal…” like it’s a good thing. They just can’t pass!
Tom: That’s the biggest problem, Matt! It’s like they’re too equal… and there’s nothing to adjust. I’ve been preaching it I feel like every single week on here – they need to bring adjustability back.
Tommy: They keep talking about the CoT being unable to pass, but I kept watching the top drivers fall back after pit stops and then thread their way back up through the field just like they’ve always done.
Tom: As for Rudd, I think what’s lost in all the talk of his retirement is the fact Yates is going out with him. Yates Racing looks to be no more than a figurehead, now… that organization nothing more than a Roush “B” operation. Which is a shame, because Yates is one of the best owners to be a part of the sport, went through some of the worst times and the best.
Tony: Yates got screwed so many times… especially losing two potential champs in Davey Allison and Ernie Irvan within a year.
Amy: He was one of the best, but he also let his team die under him the past couple years.
Tommy: Yates was tired. You really could see it coming for the last couple of years, I wish him luck!
Matt T.: Yates had been looking to get out for two years. Doug was the only thing keeping him around. I’m glad he’s finally getting his wish, but I hate what that team has become… a JV squad.
Tom: Before we move on, I want to mention Rudd for a minute, too. My favorite Rudd moment was later in his career… in 2003, when he fought with Kevin Harvick after the race.
Beth: I remember that Tom… that was great.
Vito: Hah, the Harvick fight: “He keeps opening his yip-yap mouth, I’m gonna shut it for him.”
Tom: It’s not that often someone stands up to that cat like that – I thought it was cool, showed you how tough that guy was. He really was one of the true iron men of the sport – and one of the more respected individuals.
Tony: Great moment, Tom, but the one I liked best was the same race in 2001 when Harvick booted Rudd and then Rudd came back and did the same thing… and took the win.
Mike: I will always remember the story about him duct taping his eyes open.
Vito: My favorite Rudd moment was Martinsville in 1998. Suffering from heat exhaustion, they spray him with a hose… with hot water, when he wins the race.
Amy: I have never been a huge fan of Rudd’s myself, but I respect the heck out of what he did in this sport. He’s the last owner/driver to really make a go of it successfully, and knew when that era was over.
Tommy: Rudd’s another retiring driver that is leaving the sport a lot better than when he entered it. NASCAR owes a lot to guys like Ricky Rudd.
Matt T.: My favorite Rudd moment was at Rockingham I think when he and Dale Earnhardt got together late. Both spun out and Earnhardt said, “They oughta fine the SOB and suspend him.”
Tony: Out of all people, Earnhardt complained about someone’s aggressiveness.
Matt T.: What about Rudd in the Quaker State Buick?
Vito: AND BOTH OF THEM SPI-YAAHNN!

This year has been the opposite of the parity in college football and the NFL. With a few exceptions, it is likely that any team can win. But with Rick Hendrick clearly dominating the field this year, what can NASCAR do to achieve this level playing field that creates such excitement in the sport that they trail? Should this even be a concern in NASCAR, or are things better off as they stand?

Amy: Why do we keep insisting on comparing NASCAR to the NFL?!
Tony: Because Brian France does.
Matt T.: Here’s a thought: make a common car, call it a CoT, and that’ll even things up!
Vito: NASCAR does have a level playing field. That’s the problem; there is one team just a little bit better. Everyone else is pretty much the same.
Tommy: The CoT was a big step towards creating parity. NASCAR needs to leave things alone and give teams time to catch up with Hendrick. At some point though, it may be a matter of some organizations are just better than others.
Beth: And if we really must compare NASCAR to the NFL, HMS is to NASCAR what the Patriots are to the NFL right now.
Mike: This stuff goes in cycles. Roush was the team a couple of years ago. Childress was in the ’90s. Gibbs will be before long. NASCAR doesn’t need to do anything, this is Hendrick’s day in the sun. You can’t legislate excellence – it finds its own way to the top.
Tony: Legislating excellence… I like it. But you’re right, if NASCAR interferes, fans will cry foul even more than they do now.
Tom: If there are any left, Tony. I think the biggest thing to look at when you consider NASCAR versus the NFL is how each sport got there. The NFL is the marketing king of everything stick-and-ball sports did to grab an audience. NASCAR used to be the king of doing everything 180 degrees differently, growing with the audience they already had while attracting disenfranchised stick-and-ball loyalists. Now, NASCAR is trying to spin itself to become the exact same thing – and that’s why the fans are breaking off. Because the sport was never run the way stick-and-ball sports were – that’s why fans liked it. That’s what made it unique.
Matt T.: Agreed. NASCAR became popular because it’s not a stick-and-ball sport… do your own thing and people will come.
Amy: Except now, they are not growing with their audience, guys, they are alienating them.
Mike: The casual fan is going elsewhere and the hardcore fan is disenchanted.
Amy: And they are boring the snot out of the new audience… one of these days, they are going to turn around and find there’s nobody left.
Tony: Yes, those in the Daytona offices can’t seem to get it through their minds that the core base of fans that they alienated are what made the sport what it is today back in the ’90s.
Vito: NASCAR was the king of doing things differently. It went from being an underground sport to national prominence to being shoved mercilessly down everyone’s throat in about 20 years. NASCAR is going down the same road as the NHL was in the early-mid ’90s. It got popular really quick, then a lot of people got sick of it, they had that stupid glowing puck…
Tommy: Well, auto-racing fans are terribly fickle anyways. You see it in their support of even their local tracks. There will always be that core base, and then the curious and fleeting group.
Matt T.: I see the sport as going down the same dark road as open wheel in America a few years back. Don’t know if it’ll get to that point, but some things need to change.
Vito: There have been a ton of exciting finishes this year. Both Daytonas, Martinsville, Talladega (fall), Loudon (spring), Bristol (spring)… but no one seems to care.
Tom: I think what Matt is saying about the open wheel comparison has a lot of merit. You do NOT want to be compared to the CART series’ downfall – and that’s what a lot of people are doing as of late. The fact Brian was in such denial the other day with his statements really concerns me. Does he truly understand what’s happening?
Mike: No, Tom, he doesn’t. That has been obvious for some time.
Beth: And he won’t understand until it hits him where it’ll hurt the most… his wallet.
Tony: Exactly, Beth; he sees this as a business and nothing more. While you have to view it that way to a certain extent, it was a sport first and that can’t be forgotten.
Mike: That has been the problem for years. NASCAR has this idea that they need to make a fortune instead of putting on great racing and making a good profit.
Tom: And there’s too much money entering Brian’s coffers for him to ever stray from that – I mean, just think of all the money they’re making from the TV contract alone.
Tony: The answers are actually quite simple for NASCAR’s problems, and we talk about them here every week… bad tracks, late starts, more commercials and hour pre-race shows take away from the excitement… and most importantly… give the fans less racing.
Tommy: So… with NASCAR down the tubes… how did Phoenix sell out?
Vito: Because the Lions were in town and the Cardinals are terrible.
Tommy: But New Hampshire? With the Sox in the World Series and the Pats in town? Of course, the TV ratings are down and I expect them to stay down. The casual fan is moving on. But there is a strong (but smaller) dedicated stock car base that will be there.

With the Truck Series championship steamrolling towards a dramatic conclusion, who’s got the upper hand in this battle: Ron Hornaday or Mike Skinner?

Beth: I said it before, and I’ll say it again. Skinner.
Vito: Skinner. Although, Mr. Restart could always plow into the back of him. He seems to be pretty good at turning people.
Tony: Yeah, Skinner. The guy in front always has the advantage with just one race to go.
Matt T.: Geez… push. Anything can happen at this point.
Mike: Skinner, Matt. How many times do we have to say he’s in the lead?
Tom: 29 points is not a huge lead, guys. To be honest, I think Hornaday’s got a great shot.
Beth: They were racing side-by-side at Texas in some of the best racing I’ve seen.
Amy: And even though Hornaday wrecked, if making contact with a competitor made you undeserving, nobody should win a title.
Vito: It’s the Truck Series. Aren’t they supposed to be driving over the top of each other all time? That is kind of their shtick.
Matt T.: Hornaday makes a habit of it, though.
Beth: They’re not afraid to fight for the position they want. Tom, even if Hornaday wins and leads the most laps, if Skinner finishes second, he’ll still win the championship.
Tom: Yeah, but all Hornaday needs is for Skinner to finish third under that scenario. I think one other guy is capable of beating Skinner. And honestly, Hornaday has been running a little bit better as of late.
Beth: Well, he took a big hit at Texas.
Mike: Skinner has done whatever he needs to in order to get good finishes. That move at the end at Texas was impressive to end up fourth.
Tom: But Skinner was much stronger over the first half of the season. Hornaday’s been gaining ever since.
Beth: He’s had his fair share of good runs this half, too, though.
Vito: I am a little concerned if Skinner does win the title. No one really knows what Angie will do to him in Victory Lane. I mean, I have a pretty good idea judging by how she usually attacks him after a win.
Tommy: If I’m betting the farm, I go with the guy that has the points lead. But I could see them ending the season wrecking each other on the last lap and ending in a ball of smoke and twisted metal. Those guys are tough!
Mike: I think if they take each other out early, that would be a hoot. Both go to the garage, and come out running looking like modifieds for the last 70 laps.
Matt T.: The thing about the CTS is you honestly never know what’s going to happen at any given moment, and that is what makes it the most entertaining touring series.
Beth: They don’t drive cautiously because they’re fighting for the championship. They still want to win week in and week out.
Tom: I still think this one goes to the underdog. Hornaday has a win at Homestead… Skinner does not. Skinner crashed out here last year. He also only has two top-10 finishes in five starts… Hornaday has six in seven.
Amy: And until yesterday, Johnson didn’t have a win at Phoenix. Point?
Tom: Johnson was also coming into that track fiery hot. Skinner, not so much.
Amy: Skinner has been hot all season.
Matt T.: I’m tellin’ ya, I like Hornaday’s chances, too.
Beth: Stats say nothing about what’s going to happen Friday. It’s going to come down to who has the better luck and stays out of everyone else’s problems, but I think Skinner has enough to do it.
Mike: Like I said, I hope they tear each other up early and end up battling it out with wrecked trucks that are laps down.

Predictions for Homestead?

Tom: I actually have one already up my sleeve this time!
Mike: Then say it.
Tom: Johnson wins the title, but we see another type of history happen at Homestead – Greg Biffle goes ahead and wins four straight.
Tony: Roush continues his dominance, but this time with Matt Kenseth – he’s overdue.
Amy: Yeah, I say that Kenseth gets sick of looking at the wrong end of a Lowe’s car and wins.
Matt T.: Kenseth continues the top-five streak… and lands on point this time.
Mike: Martin Truex Jr. finally has good luck and wins.
Beth: Well, since three of you have already picked Kenseth, I say Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins it… to leave DEI on a good note.
Tommy: I’ve got Kyle Busch.
Vito: I agree – Kyle Busch goes out on a high note at Hendrick.
Tom: No one thinks Gordon will win the title, right?
Mike: He has a shot. Don’t forget about Johnson crashing out at Homestead a couple of years ago.
Matt T.: I’d love to see Gordon win it, but it ain’t going to happen. What J.J. and Knaus are doing right now is amazing…

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 26 4 14 18 9.2
Tony Lumbis 28 1 12 17 11.2
Matt Taliaferro 22 2 8 13 11.4
Amy Henderson 35 7 16 25 11.5
Vito Pugliese 31 2 13 20 12.1
Tommy Thompson 26 3 8 15 12.6
Cami Starr 7 0 2 4 12.7
Beth Lunkenheimer 13 1 2 7 15.1
Mike Neff 29 1 9 14 15.2
Toni Montgomery 20 2 6 8 16.9
Kim DeHaven 2 0 0 1 23.0

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