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)
Kim DeHaven (Tuesdays/Numbers Game)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
With Daytona testing for the three major series in the books, what have we learned and what questions do you still have heading to the Daytona 500?
Amy: We have learned that Daytona testing is the same as always… the guys who have to race in let it all hang out while the rest ride.
Tony: Toyota is looking more competitive this year – but honestly, not much more than that. Traditionally, offseason testing doesn’t tell us that much. All we need to do is look back no further than the days both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip were dominant with DEI at Daytona. They were crap in testing… but then did well in the race.
Mike: Toyota cars are fast by themselves, Hendrick is still going to dominate, everyone still doesn’t show all they have and the offseason is too long. I also think we learned that Earnhardt Jr. is going to try very hard to work and play well with others in the Hendrick organization.
Tom: I agree with Earnhardt Jr. trying to make a statement, Mike – that’s the biggest thing I take from testing. That, and there are a hell of a lot of cars without sponsorship. Hopefully, this media tour is peppered with announcements.
Mike: I don’t know. It seems like sponsorship is getting harder and harder to sign, at least primary sponsorship.
Tony: That’s a good, unspoken point Tom. It’s late in the game, and the current economic problems are showing in NASCAR right now. How Jacques Villeneuve – a Formula 1 and Indy 500 champion – goes without sponsorship heading into this year is definitely a sign of the times.
Mike: He’s driving for a field-filler team, Tony. It would be different if they were a Chase-potential organization, but they aren’t anywhere close to that.
Tony: True to an extent. But if sponsorships were only awarded on Chase potential, then half the field shouldn’t have financial support. The bottom line is it’s a bad environment out there.
Mike: I still don’t know, Tony. Have you heard Villeneuve talk? The guy is about as entertaining as a stump.
Tony: But most companies can advertise “Indy 500, F1 World Champion and NASCAR star,” not “Our driver is entertaining on TV.”
Amy: As for what happened on the track, I think the question remains that the CoT has run one plate race – and not on a handling track. Testing is only half the field, so it will be interesting.
Tony: And why they even have solo runs is beyond me… I know for qualifying and stuff, but some of the drivers think it’s just a waste of time.
Mike: It is interesting that they spend so much time on solo runs. I think they could do them for one day, or half of a day, and get enough information.
Tom: The other thing is, you have to wonder how much of what Toyota is doing was legal. I mean, I think it was to a certain extent… but those teams need to make a statement for their sponsors right off the bat. Making the Daytona 500, especially for a team like Michael Waltrip Racing, is so, so critical. These sponsors don’t want to sit through a second year of crap. NAPA was nice enough to stick around Mikey the first time… he comes around and struggles again, chances are much higher they’ll pull their deal.
Mike: Well, Toyota might have stretched the rules a little bit during testing, but at the same time, you’re not going to learn anything if you aren’t running legal.
Tony: I think we need to expect some sort of improvement from Toyota regardless… with Gibbs in their camp and a year under their belts.
Mike: Gibbs being under their banner is going to be huge for them. And using the same car configuration for everyone, a lot of it is going to come down to engines. Toyota has put a ton of effort in getting their engines up to par.
Tom: You know, something else underreported during Daytona testing was a quote from Tony Stewart in his teleconference… he said it wasn’t worth it to be outspoken anymore. That he was tired of putting out fires. Coming off a year where NASCAR seemed to be losing the concept of rivalries and personality, that’s a baaaaaad sign.
Tony: Um Tom, I give that about three weeks.
Mike: You’re not going to lose rivalries and fire, even if Tony shuts up. As long as the Busch brothers, Kevin Harvick and Juan Pablo Montoya are on the track, there will always be some sparks flying. You think Hamlin/Stewart was good after Daytona? Wait until you see Stewart/Busch.
Tom: Well, I sure hope so. But I was hoping to see more positive signs coming out of testing than I saw. Also, Junior looks like a heck of a Hendrick driver already, huh? Clean cut, says he wants to stay out of Hendrick’s office. That team looks more and more like the racing equivalent of the Yankees every day – with the only difference being a benevolent boss.
Mike: They are definitely looking like they are poised for another dominant run, Tom. I think Jimmie Johnson is going to have a very good chance of matching Cale Yarborough‘s three championships in three years.
It is rumored that in the coming season, NASCAR will raise the minimum age limit for the Sprint Cup Series from 18 to 21. Is this a good move, or should NASCAR keep the limit at 18?
Kim: The sport already has the right to refuse a NASCAR license to anyone too inexperienced – there’s no need for further age restrictions.
Mike: It is communistic. 21? C’mon. I’ll be curious to see if someone doesn’t sue them over that – specifically, Joey Logano‘s handlers. That is preventing him from making some serious money if they won’t allow him into the upper echelon of the sport until he’s 21.
Tom: Well, this is not unprecedented… many professional sports leagues have these rules. The difference is, NASCAR doesn’t have a drivers’ union to negotiate… and anytime any sort of union has come up, the sport has immediately struck it down.
Tony: I guess NASCAR is trying to keep these owners for rushing drivers up. I don’t really see any reason for it. What would help instead is to require at least a year in the Nationwide or Truck Series, similar to the NBA’s one year of college rule.
Mike: I’d be all for that, Tony. I don’t have a problem requiring a certain amount of experience in one of the lesser national series, but just making it 21 is too much. I just think it is a restriction of trade. I am no lawyer, but I have to think someone could take it on and win.
Tom: Well, the NBA Players’ Union brought down the age limit the NBA wanted to use with their clout. Initially, it was going to be 20, and instead they made it 19. If NASCAR only had a cohesive union to work with, they’d do a similar deal here. But once again, they don’t. NASCAR drivers don’t have any clout with this organization. It’s NASCAR’s word, and if you don’t like it, go home – which is why I certainly think they can raise the age limit without an issue.
Kim: Age has little to do with maturity.
Mike: Exactly, Kim. They can prevent people from getting a license – and they have already said loosely what their requirements are – but I just think 21 is ridiculous. Of course, I still maintain that 21 for drinking is ridiculous, too. If you can die for your country, fire a nuclear weapon, go to jail for life and decide who runs your life at 18, you should be able to have a beer.
Tony: Actually, it’s kind of ironic. “Hey, you’re 21, you can drink alcohol and drive a car at 200 mph. Have fun!”
Tom: In terms of how this could affect Logano – let me tell you, that would be the best possible thing for the Nationwide Series if he was forced to stay there a few years. And don’t think the sport isn’t thinking about that. I mean, this age limit thing came out of nowhere. If Logano is forced to stay in the Nationwide Series for a few years, he will invigorate the fanbase of that series. That kid is the real deal.
Mike: It didn’t come out of nowhere, Tom. This is their effort to breathe some life back into the Nationwide Series without having to actually legislate who gets to drive in it.
Kim: NASCAR has a new sponsor deal with Nationwide… now, they finally care. Coincidence? I think not.
Tom: I don’t think Gibbs would fight this, either. Pulling all of their cars just to make a statement against NASCAR is silly; certainly not when they have multi-million dollar sponsors, a two-time champion and three Rookie of the Years on their roster. They’ll work with what they have, and patiently wait.
Mike: You’re right, Tom. They won’t pull out, but I still think there will be a lawsuit out of the deal if they put it in.
Tom: I do think it’s not a bad thing for the sport. It gives drivers more time to develop in lower series. I mean, does anybody not follow the NFL because players who are sophomores in college don’t get to play in the big-time yet? No. They just watch college football… and that’s what’ll happen here.
Mike: I just think it’s un-American.
Tony: Regardless of how many years you spend in the lower series, I think drivers still should take at least a full year in Nationwide before Cup, and this rule still does not fix that.
Mike: I don’t have a problem with them limiting people to having a year in Nationwide or Trucks, but putting a flat age on it is not cool. Limiting drivers to being 21 to race in the Cup Series is limiting drivers who have the innate ability to drive at the top level from realizing their dream in the amount of time they should be allowed to.
Kim: I think it has more to do with experience and maturity than age. It should be on an individual basis at the owners’ and NASCAR’s discretion, not an across-the-board age limit.
NASCAR announced changes this week to its qualifying system – all cars outside the Top 35 (Top 30 for Busch and Trucks) that need to make the race on speed will run at the end of their session. Is this a good or a bad thing for the sport?
Amy: The rule is the crux of the issue. The whole rule should go, no two ways about it. But at last, it’s a little more fair now. Still stupid, but fair.
Tom: Well, the reason they’re putting the non-Top 35 cars at the end is to increase the drama…
Tony: It will be interesting to see what happens after this year. If the Top-35 rule is still highly criticized, I’m hoping NASCAR will take look at this rule, figure they tried their hardest to make it work, saw that it doesn’t, and do away with it.
Tom: The biggest thing this rule does is put everyone on that level playing field. But even still… I mean, say you have 17 cars outside the Top-35 qualifying. At night, the draw will be less of an advantage… but it’ll still be there.
Mike: I agree. I think they still need to change things back to two rounds of qualifying and then the top 43 race.
Tom: You’re still going to have a disadvantage/advantage compared to the first qualifier… too much time has passed.
Mike: Again Tom, why I think they should go first instead of last. You wouldn’t think it would be a big deal Amy, but apparently, it was to begin with, or they wouldn’t have moved it in the first place.
Kim: But then what reason would I, the underdog-loving bleeding heart, have to watch the rest of qualifying Mike?
Mike: How many people watch qualifying to begin with?
Amy: Um… 58 crew chiefs and 10 guys’ Moms. Oh, and three Junior stalkers, so make it 71.
Tom: One other note: having non-Top 35 guys qualify higher could potentially be more embarrassing for the sport. They’ll be running their times at the end of each session, and often that’s usually when the faster times of the day come about. You’ll have people qualifying 20th, 25th on the grid and then going home. That’s going to make people start paying attention to this rule real quick.
Amy: I like that thinking, Tom.
Tony: Poor David Reutimann… he was sick to his stomach for qualifying, nervous as it was, and now he has to wait an entire qualifying session to get his chance.
The Nationwide Series is is danger of a short field in the season-opener at Daytona. What, if anything can be done to ensure a full field?
Tom: To me, NASCAR may have stumbled upon a short-term fix with the age limit proposal. That would force Cup teams to keep up and comers in the “minor leagues,” and that truly turns the Nationwide Series into a harboring series for up and coming talent.
Mike: Why do we need a full field, though? Do we really need James Hylton qualifying and making two laps and parking? I would rather see 36 cars that have a somewhat legitimate chance of winning than 43 cars and seven of them parking shortly after the green flag.
Tony: Let’s just hope those 36 you speak of are legit ones, and not containing some of the start and parkers. That’s how bad the climate is.
Kim: This really isn’t a new problem, though. I can remember NASCAR paying teams to enter backup cars in Cup in the not so distant past, before the mass influx of Cup drivers. It’s the ebb and flow of teams in the sport.
Tom: My biggest worry about ensuring a full field is you’re going to have a hard time convincing teams to come back if the car they’re using will be radically redesigned for ’09. I mean, why would a team like McGill – the old No. 36 Chevrolet – come back if they have to spend a whole lot of money buying a whole new fleet?
Amy: That is a good point. From a business standpoint, why not concentrate on next year from the start and come into the series then instead of now?
Mike: Putting a car together for one season just isn’t very fiscally responsible.
Tony: Yep, unless you can get sponsors to contribute the right funding. But as long as we have a multitude of Cup teams featuring Cup drivers, finding those sponsors for Nationwide-only teams to fund those expenses will be difficult.
Amy: NASCAR better sit up and take notice that this is what they did to their second series – turned it into Cup Lite.
Mike: Having a full field is not that important in this case, though; especially when you have cars making races that are not competitive.
Tony: I think everything seems to work in cycles for NASCAR. 2008 may be a down time for Nationwide – as was 2007, to some extent – but it will come back with a little help.
Amy: And it will hurt the Cup Series in a few years if the collapse continues.
Tony: Not sure if this is where you were going Amy, but yes, I think if the Nationwide Series falls apart, there will be less qualified drivers in Cup, and soon those unqualified drivers in Cup will be exposed and let go.
Tom: Until there’s no one left in CART and IndyCar, at least… it’s almost like if you’re the IRL champ, you automatically move up to NASCAR.
Tony: Which I’m not sure if they are qualified to do so – but this year, we’ll certainly tell.
Tom: The IRL’s become so engrained in where the rookies will come from, it’s like some sort of automatic bonus! Look what we have to look forward to next year – the ’08 IRL champ will be NASCAR’s ’09 Cup rookie.