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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Johnson’s Place in History, Brian France Rewriting History & Kenseth Looking Back on History

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:
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)
Vito Pugliese (Wednesdays/Voice Of Vito & Fridays/That’s History)

Jimmie Johnson took his second consecutive Nextel Cup title Sunday, joining Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon as the sixth driver in the modern era to put together back-to-back title runs. Should Johnson now be considered among the best drivers in the modern era?

Mike: He certainly should. He’s been in the Chase every year; you can’t deny that he’s been strong. He’s also the winningest driver since he came into the series in 2002.
Tommy: Gordon, Stewart and Johnson are the best among active drivers. Johnson hit Cup racing full speed ahead, and hasn’t slowed down since.
Vito: He’s knocked down 33 wins already… so I’d say so. That’s more than Dale Jarrett has in his entire career. He also has a Daytona 500 and a Brickyard 400 win, to boot.
Tony: Johnson certainly hit the ground running, albeit it was all in Gordon’s old cars. But that question can be looked at in so many ways. That’s the problem with comparisons – is it number of wins, total number of championships, equipment, or something else that makes a difference. I think it’s still too early to tell – but he is certainly on pace to do great things.
Amy: I also wonder if just six years is too early – although six years proved it for Gordon, too. I hate that sometimes Johnson’s team gets all the credit… sure, they are important. Every winner’s team is; but give the driver his due, as well.
Tommy: They are the same people that said Gordon wouldn’t be anything without Ray Evernham.
Vito: The guy is only 32 years old. He’s on pace to end up where Gordon is, and the way he and Chad seem to have this Chase formula figured out, winning a third consecutive title isn’t really a stretch. Like the King says regarding guys who are successful in the sport – they all come along at the right time, with the right people.
Mike: There is no question it is a combination of equipment, people, and talent, but that is what it has always taken to have a dominant stretch like this.
Vito: Exactly. Gordon came along with Ray at the right time. The program was built around the No. 24 camp, they started doing things differently – a different mindset, approach to setting up cars, building their own chassis, having dedicated pit crew members and focusing on aerodynamics. Gordon and Evernham helped lay the ground work for the No. 48 team to be as successful as they have been. That’s not to take away from what Jimmie and Chad have done – they’ve maximized their opportunity.
Amy: But that should complement a driver’s ability, Vito, not detract from it, which is what many people like to do.
Vito: It shouldn’t, but it’s part of the Hendrick stigma – they are a polarizing group any way you look at it. Either you love them, or you love to pull against them.
Amy: Well, bottom line is that Jimmie is one hell of a driver… anyone who doesn’t see that needs to pull their head out of the sand.
Tony: Johnson has definitely left his mark on the sport, even if he retired tomorrow. Is he one of the best of all time? We’ll see – but there is no reason not to believe he won’t be.

BOWLES: NASCAR’S ROOTS DISAPPEAR

Tommy: Johnson isn’t quite in the “all-time” great category, but he’s made the modern-era list.
Mike: Johnson is certainly the real deal. He may not be the wheelman that Tony Stewart is, but he can definitely drive a stock car and communicate what he needs to his team.
Vito: He’s working on it. He’s only been here for six seasons.
Tommy: What is more astonishing to me is that the competition has increasingly become tougher… yet Johnson was able to put 10 wins together in this day and age.
Mike: Johnson will very likely get to the top five all-time in wins if he can continue this pace for another 10 years.
Tony: But Mike, I just have to wonder if the era of this type of performance going on for 10 years is over. Talent is entering – and leaving – the sport at such a quicker rate now. Just take a peek at how younger drivers have risen and fallen. I mean, Kasey Kahne – is he for real? Who knows; maybe he’s a one-hit wonder, maybe not. Kyle Busch, what will he do at Gibbs? Jamie McMurray was expected to do a lot, but hasn’t.
Vito: McMurray is terrible. He’s Mike Wallace with nice hair. And if we are telling people to work with their hair, then someone please tell Stewart to do something with his. Grow some sideburns or something. He’s treading dangerously close to Mullet Country.

Matt Kenseth and Robbie Reiser ended a lengthy partnership with a win in the Ford 400. Will having a new crew chief hurt Kenseth and the crew that Reiser has led for years virtually unchanged – or will fresh eyes help him return to championship form in 2008?

Amy: I think it’ll be a learning process for Matt, actually. He’s one heck of a driver, but he’s never tried this without Robbie calling the shots.
Tommy: My guess is it will hurt. That was an uncanny relationship that Reiser and Kenseth had developed – it’ll be hard for anyone to duplicate or improve.
Tony: If this were five years ago, I’d agree that it might have. But Matt has matured to the point where this will not hurt his performance.
Mike: Matt was in championship form for part of this year anyway, and just had some really crappy luck. If Roush Fenway Racing can make a car that doesn’t kill the battery, he’ll be fine. Robbie is still going to have his hands in building the cars, so I think he’ll still be competitive.
Vito: And change can be good. Sometimes things can get stale between a driver and a crew chief who stay together too long. If you both think alike, coming up with new ideas can be difficult.
Tony: I think Kenseth will remain strong and the entire organization will get better. Jeff Burton‘s words were telling the other day when he said he’d probably still be there if this move were made years ago.
Mike: Reiser will make the whole organization better, and Kenseth will be a force as always.
Tommy: Roush will make sure Kenseth has a competent crew chief. But there’s an intangible here that Kenseth is losing with Reiser’s promotion; what he’s going to miss is the communication between the two. They seemed almost like twins; Reiser just knew what Kenseth wanted.
Amy: Exactly… and until that gets learned, it could be a struggle for Matt. But I don’t expect it right away.
Mike: But he’ll win races even without communication if the cars are capable. Not much they can change on the new car – and there were several times this year where Matt seemed frustrated by decisions being made.
Tony: The No. 17 has been the class of that organization for years. It will be interesting to see what happens when Robbie shares that same mindset with the rest. Kenseth certainly won’t be hurt by it; and championship drivers can adapt easy. Look at how Gordon has adapted to crew chief changes through the years.
Vito: Earnhardt won two championships without Kirk Shelmerdine and Mark Martin won a ton of races with Jimmy Fennig after Steve Hmiel moved on. Also, engineers are the ones increasingly making the calls, and that will be further exacerbated with the CoT. With that in mind, what better person to put in place than an engineer?
Amy: By that logic, should we expect Ryan Newman to win it all next year then?
Vito: I don’t know; that No. 12 seemed to be picking up the pace by the end of this year.
Tommy: Based on the last few weeks, Newman might need to start being considered.
Vito: A race engineer and a guy with a degree in mechanical engineering are two completely different things.
Tony: Amy, Matt flourished consistently in Nextel Cup, combined with what he did in the lower ranks. It’s more of a way of getting their thinking on the same page. Some drivers work better with engineers, while others work better with old-school crew chiefs (i.e. – Doug Richert, Dave Charpentier)
Vito: The more these cars are set up on a chassis dyno, you’re going to see more and more engineers become crew chiefs, with the computer and the engineer setting up the car.
Amy: That’s great, but the computer can’t listen to the inflections in a driver’s voice and fix the car accordingly.
Tony: If only I knew back in the day when I was a nerd in school that I could’ve been a crew chief one day…

Brian France has hinted that there will be few changes to the rules in the top-three series next year. What rule does need to be changed the most, and what should the sanctioning body do to fix it?

Mike: Well, the rule they need to change is the Top 35 – but they won’t dump it.
Tony: I think you’re right, Mike; NASCAR will take a compromise on it, even though we’d all like to see it out of here. But the Top-35 rule needs to go – get rid of it and replace it with a version of the old provisional system.
Amy: It’s even worse than the Chase, which should be the next chopping block in line.
Vito: Go back to two rounds of qualifying, just like the old days. One for 1st-36th, the second round for everybody else. There should be a provisional for the previous year’s champion, and that’s it.
Tommy: I also agree the Top-35 rule should be the one to get the axe. But a rule they need to implement most is no team orders, with a threat of expulsion from the sport!
Amy: You can’t enforce no team orders.
Tommy: Yes you can, Amy.
Amy: How?
Tommy: Just put in a “whistleblower” provision with a big payout, and require owners to have a no team orders rule in driver clauses.
Amy: But what if team guy A is actually faster than team guy B, he passes him for the lead, and then 10 laps later, guy B’s car comes in… it looks like team orders, but it wasn’t. So are you going to penalize them for racing?
Vito: Team orders are a part of motorsports, have been since the first time a guy had more than one chariot.
Mike: You can’t enforce the no team orders deal.
Amy: Nope, not unless you drop owners to one team each with no alliances.
Tommy: You can if you make it very risky for them. Granted, you can’t ever be sure a pitcher isn’t “delivering” a big fat one down the middle. But they better not get caught.
Amy: But how do you know – if there is no radio transmission – that it is team orders?
Vito: And the driver doesn’t have to obey the “order” – he is the one holding the steering wheel.
Mike: Talk to Johnny Benson about that, Vito.
Tommy: What driver wants to move over – none! NASCAR needs to back these drivers and make it clear that this is not acceptable.
Amy: Anyway, how much did it really matter that Kyle Busch got that one spot from Casey Mears.
Mike: It didn’t in the end – but it could have.
Amy: Well, the rules that keep whole teams form competing fairly on a weekly basis – like the qualifying rule – are far, far more important to fix than one spot gained by Kyle Busch.
Tommy: But obviously, nothing’s going to change if sportswriters don’t even have a problem with “fixed” racing.
Mike: Fixed races, Tommy?
Vito: You mean, like the number of “miracle” finishes we’ve been treated to over the years?
Amy: If it were obvious and rampant, I’d have a problem… it isn’t. NASCAR tweaks the outcome more than the teams do with their stupid debris cautions.
Tony: But Amy, the pollen on the track presents a huge hazard! Water isn’t good either at 200 mph.
Amy: Yeah, I know; and the driver sneeze is damn slippery.
Vito: I think these things wind up policing themselves. A driver doesn’t have to obey an order – and if he’s reprimanded, I’m sure his sponsor will have something to say about that. And let’s face it – sponsors are the ones who run the sport.

The Craftsman Truck Series once again provided the closest and most exciting championship battle this year without the benefit of a Chase format. What are they doing right that the Busch and Nextel Cup Series are missing the boat on?

Tommy: Fewer races? Whatever it is… they have had some great championship battles over the years!
Mike: The series allows for teams to dominate with more flexibility, and therefore, the top dogs run up front every week.
Tony: Probably more parity among the teams, but that’s not something you can really control.
Vito: I wouldn’t say there’s parity. Benson was third in points, 425 back. How about short races, smaller fields, more short tracks.
Mike: No kidding – it was the top two and then the rest this year.
Amy: I think it’s the trucks themselves. The trucks allow for closer racing, the ensuing wrecks keep it close and interesting… it isn’t dirty racing, it’s just hard racing. I think it’s also less huge, multi-car teams that dominate everything.
Tony: True – it seems like you have different teams and different drivers up front each year. Everyone thought that Germain Racing was going to dominate for years to come – and then, they were replaced.
Vito: Toyota is beginning to run wild in that series, though, Ron Hornaday‘s title not withstanding. They won over half the races this year.
Tony: I guess “Team Toyota” is the closest thing they have to a super team.
Amy: I hope it stays that way! And NASCAR has never had to fake it in this series with a Chase, either. Perhaps it’s a blessing that NASCAR ignores them… they haven’t paid enough attention to the CTS to really screw it up yet.
Tony: Sometimes though, it’s just the way things work out. Just like in Cup, even before the Chase, you’d have a stinker of a show; and other times it would boil right down to the racing at Homestead. The trucks, for whatever reason, are enjoying a good run.
Vito: You have old-school drivers in vehicles that drive like the cars used to. That’s why it works – it’s the Cup Series circa 1997.
Tony: Drivers who are there because of their ability and not because they look good on TV.
Amy: And they’re allowed to drive old school.
Mike: The Truck Series is still the best racing NASCAR offers, and as long as they don’t try and monkey with it, they’ll be a great series for years to come.

Banquet predictions, anyone?

Editor’s Note: Mirror Driving will be off this Wednesday, November 28th, returning with a new edition on Wednesday, December 5th.

Mike: I bet Kyle Busch says something stupid again.
Amy: I bet nobody starts a food fight. Which is a real shame… imagine the ensuing hilarity. Seriously, imagine if Tony popped the Big Brian France in the ear with a dinner roll? Or if Gordon tomatoed Johnson during his victory speech? The banquet is so boring, that would make someone take notice.

Final 2007 Mirror Driving Race Prediction Standings

After a year filled with ups and downs, none other than the Big Kahuna himself – Managing Editor Tom Bowles – took home the best finishing average for each race winner predicted this season. But as you can see from the chart below, all of our writers who played the game experience a high degree of both accuracy and success! Tom will be back, of course, to defend his title in 2008.

WriterPredictionsWinsTop 5sTop 10sAverage Finish
Tom Bowles27414189.3
Tony Lumbis291131810.8
Matt Taliaferro23391410.9
Amy Henderson368172611.3
Tommy Thompson27391612.2
Vito Pugliese322132012.4
Cami Starr702412.7
Mike Neff30191514.9
Beth Lunkenheimer1412716.6
Toni Montgomery2026816.9
Kim DeHaven200123.0