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 Editor-In-Chief/Mondays/Bowles-Eye View & Wednesdays/Did You Notice?)
Tony Lumbis (Mondays/Rookie Report)
Mike Neff (Wednesdays/Power Rankings & Thursdays/Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans)
Matt Taliaferro (Thursdays/Fanning The Flames)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
Vito Pugliese (Tuesdays/Voice Of Vito)
With CoT testing on the intermediate tracks at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and California Speedway complete, the Toyotas looked strong, while the Hendrick juggernaut appeared to be struggling with setups. How does this change preseason expectations for these teams – as well as their competitors?
Tony: Two words: it doesn’t. Hendrick has been known to play around with its setups, so we don’t know what was on their agenda for that test.
Tom: I think it tells us that with the Car of Tomorrow, the difference between manufacturers is almost nonexistent. I mean, you’ve got common templates, limited adjustability, the only way in which you can create some difference is with the engine package. And Gibbs is certainly doing that.
Matt T.: I’m not sure how it changes expectations, but each team may have a better sense of what they’re working with. Now, they at least have a baseline of some sort to go on…
Mike: Eh, it still doesn’t say much of anything. Yes, Toyota will have some competitive moments, but Hendrick is still the big daddy and until you knock them off, they’re going to stay there.
Amy: But both Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were vocally upset with their setups. They could be bluffing, I suppose…
Vito: Hendrick will be fine. Let’s face it though, they know what works. This is testing. They try new stuff, which may not work, in an effort to find some speed. And I’ve been saying all along to look out for Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing… particularly Kyle Busch.
Tony: The only direction the Camrys have to go is up.
Amy: I agree with Tony; they’re bound to get better with (engine builder Mark) Cronquist’s engines.
Matt T.: Back to what Amy was saying about Hendrick… Chad Knaus only brought one car for Vegas and one for California, so you really don’t know what’s up some of their sleeves.
Tom: Yeah Amy, I wouldn’t put too much stock in what Knaus has to say. That guy could clean house at a Vegas poker table.
Tony: I remember thinking every time Hendrick was out to lunch on a race weekend last year, by the time the checkered flag flew, they were in Victory Lane! They always find their way.
Matt T.: The aero package, if anything, may throw HMS off a bit to start. Amy is right – they could be bluffing – but if one of the four teams will figure something out, then they’ll all be OK… unless the team that figures it out is the No. 24 or No. 48. Then Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Casey Mears are SOL.
Amy: Why do you say that, Matt? Those guys shared with the No. 5 and No. 25 last year.
Matt T.: Uh huh… sure, Amy.
Amy: It’s just that Kyle couldn’t drive any of their setups. Junior CAN. And will.
Matt T.: Consider this, Amy… the No. 24 and No. 48 cars get busted at Infineon last year with illegal fenders and the No. 5 and No. 25 don’t. That tells me all I need to know right there.
Vito: Ha, it sure does Matt.
Mike: The No. 24 and No. 48 had a lot less to lose at Infineon, Matt… They could afford getting in trouble.
Amy: That move tells me the No. 5 and No. 25 were playing it safe.
Matt T.: C’mon, Mike. If they’ve found something that will help them win, you’d think they’d share the knowledge and use it?
Mike: Yes, I think they would. But if they knew it was borderline illegal, and the No. 5 and No. 25 stood to lose too much ground in the standings by getting caught, I think they’d keep it off of those cars.
Tom: Well, they way I see it is I guarantee you that if there wasn’t sharing before, there’s a heck of a lot more pressure to share now with Junior on board.
Tony: Very true, Tom and Matt.
Amy: I agree with Mike: The No. 25 especially was just working its way up the points in June and could ill afford to get points tossed. Plus, there was never a driver at HMS before with a similar driving style to Johnson – and Junior changes that.
Mike: Bottom line for Hendrick, testing is just that – testing. They try different things to see what works. And with their considerable resources, they’ll be all over it by the time we get to California.
Vito: Gordon was fastest in California in Day 1’s afternoon session, so it isn’t like they’re running that bad.
Tom: And again, this is a team that never really shows all their cards. Fastest speeds are just that, fastest speeds. We really don’t know the average speeds these cars topped out on over a full fuel run. Denny Hamlin could have had one fast lap and then blew a tire. It didn’t happen… but you see how these times can be deceiving.
Vito: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the team that made a mockery out of NASCAR just a few months ago is going to be OK.
Matt T.: Good point, V.
Mike: Way to take a big chance there, Vito.
Amy: I think they’ll be fine. It was just interesting that they were struggling as much as they said.
Tom: When they don’t win, oh, any of the first five races, we can bring up the word struggle. Until then, Hendrick has a little bit of a leash before they lose their “dominance” label.
Tony: This is like when Earnhardt and Waltrip were off in testing years ago but then would dominate in the 500. It’s testing, that’s all. No conclusions drawn here.
Will the Robby Gordon/GEM technical alliance be a lifeline for Gordon’s single-car team, or is there truly no place for the independent owner/driver in today’s NASCAR?
Matt T.: There is a place for the indies – just not a place to be successful.
Tom: Um… is this question supposed to mean the GEM team that has Robby Gordon’s name on it? Because that’s what that team is now. Good for Robby, though. He wasn’t getting anywhere and he needed to make a move.
Tony: It should help Gordon, but I am surprised at how close to the beginning of the season this announcement has come. I think it will take a little while for a difference to be noticed.
Amy: I think it should help in the end – although I’m not sure exactly who it will help.
Mike: I think there is a possibility that this will help Gordon finish higher in the points. Don’t forget, they were solidly in the Top 35 last year.
Vito: I agree; I think it helps Robby. His Ford alliance wasn’t going to do much as the only real Ford “team” out there is Roush Fenway Racing, and it isn’t like they are exactly forthcoming with information and help. Just ask the Yates teams.
Matt T.: It can’t hurt Robby in the financial realm, but I’m not sure exactly what he brings to GEM’s table… besides a temper.
Vito: Another R&D car!
Amy: Road course help?
Matt T.: Whoop-ti-do, Amy. They have Patrick Carpentier.
Mike: Carpentier, funny.
Tom: I’ll tell you what he brings, Matt: a fourth car. Think about how hard GEM was pursuing Petty Enterprises. One of the first things George Gillett said upon purchasing GEM is that they’d like to expand to four cars… and as soon as Petty fell through he was pursuing other options, they just weren’t publicized. I know specifically of one car owner that was courted for that role.
Matt T.: I know Gillett wanted another team, Tom, but doesn’t GEM need to get some things in order under its own roof? Plus, PE brought something to the table with some engineering, technology and sponsor know-how.
Tom: Yeah Matt, but in today’s NASCAR “getting things in order” is synonymous with “buying things.”
Tony: The whole deal is kind of ironic if you ask me; this is like when the No. 7 car was an Evernham “alliance” car several years ago with Casey Atwood…
Tom: And how did that alliance do, Tony? Honestly, this is how the game is played now: getting to four cars at any cost. This is all about Robby saving himself, but I think in the grand scheme, GEM will care less about Robby… so he better watch it.
Vito: What Robby has been able to do on his own, with no help and no teammates, is pretty damned remarkable.
Tony: Alliances usually aren’t as good as teammates. See the Wood Brothers with Roush – or Haas CNC with Hendrick. That said, Robby turned out to be a much better businessman than I thought.
Matt T.: Agreed, Tony.
Mike: There is no doubt Robby’s run as an owner/driver has been far more successful than I ever thought it would be. He should be applauded at the banquet every year.
Matt T.: But Robby took a big hit on the Dakar debacle. Millions. Wish he didn’t split his priorities… I mean, what is a Laughlin Leap, and why the hell does he care about making it?
Vito: He estimates $4.5 million.
Amy: It’s because Robby just loves to compete. He’s a hell of a racecar driver; he’ll survive.
Vito: I admire Robby. He does what he wants, when he wants, with who he wants. There’s A LOT of guys out there that are envious of him in the sport.
Tom: I agree wholeheartedly with everyone that Robby’s had a heck of a run as an owner/driver. I just think this is the end of him being an owner/driver, though… maybe not today, but eventually Gillett will buy him out. Gordon could end up similar to the way Doug Yates is with Roush now.
Matt T.: Well, I would hope that at some point Robby has an ownership stake in GEM, and his No. 7 is on equal footing with the others. Doubt that will happen… but it would be ideal.
Tony: Yeah, unfortunately Robby merged with a bit of a giant. That’s good for him… but probably bad for any future ownership goals he has in mind.
Mike: Hopefully, this is going to help Robby out with some engineering and R&D. In the long run, if GEM will share, I think Robby could end up in the top 20 in points.
Vito: As far as I’m concerned, I’d want him in my car more so than two of his teammates.
Tom: You know, it all depends on how deep GEM really is right now. It looks like the No. 9 is turned around, but will that info filter down?
This year’s Daytona 500 will feature a car that has not been raced at Daytona International Speedway. With an exhibition race for select teams the week before, is this fair to those teams who are not racing? What should, or could, be done to even the playing field for the cars not in the Bud Shootout?
Tom: You know what, more power to those who earned the right to be in that exhibition.
Matt T.: Fair? Those not in the Shootout should’ve won a pole last year!
Amy: It’s not fair, Matt. NASCAR needs to give the cars not in the Shootout that much extra drafting practice.
Tony: But everyone will have a shot at the 150s, Amy… so it’s fine. I don’t think struggling teams will fix themselves in one exhibition race.
Mike: The Shootout is a different animal, anyways – the benefits to the teams are not that great. The smaller field and the short distance don’t afford teams the opportunity to learn much.
Vito: They all ran Talladega and they’ve all been at Daytona testing. They have a ton of practice, the Gatorade Duels… they’re fine. And it isn’t like people are running their best cars out there for the Shootout, either.
Tony: Struggling teams (i.e. – the No. 66 team at the April Phoenix race) did better when they were running a new car at a track for the first time last year.
Amy: I still disagree; it puts teams already struggling even further behind.
Matt T.: You think the Shootout will rectify that, Amy?
Amy: Yes… ask a team and they will tell you every lap of practice counts. Otherwise, you’d not have teams rushing to make the last five minutes of Happy Hour. As it is, the Shootout’s time has passed… we don’t need a gimmick race to get fans interested in a season that’s too long already. Ditch it, move the 500 back a week and give them an off-week after Richmond in September.
Matt T.: Whoa there, Amy. I love the Shootout. Nice and short, full of action… a perfect primer.
Vito: It’s Speedweeks… not Speedweek.
Tony: Yeah, the Shootout is nice to get things going.
Amy: The Shootout is boring as hell.
Matt T.: Wha?!?! Saturday night under the lights, kicking things off. I wouldn’t miss it.
Amy: It’s a plate race, Matt. They suck anyway – the teams would benefit far more from an extra off-week.
Matt T.: Still, it’s a tradition in a sport where there isn’t much of that left.
Tom: I’ll tell you who this race is crucial for: Dale Jarrett, Michael Waltrip, Ken Schrader and Bill Elliott because they have to race their way into the 500. I think that despite it being an exhibition race, despite people sometimes using “junk” cars, you do learn something. Especially with the CoT having never been raced at Daytona before? Heck yeah, it’s an advantage.
Tony: Crucial because it’s the last chance for those drivers to get a win, Tom?
Vito: Everyone’s all bummed out that there isn’t an IROC race anymore. Well, now you have one: A short sprint race with identical cars.
Mike: I love the Shootout. I think its great to get to have a primer before the official racing starts.
Vito: I know. Where else is Tony Stewart going to have a chance to say such memorable things as “We’re going to kill someone out here” right before he swerves across four lanes to block Matt Kenseth into the grass?
Tom: I say those teams have earned the advantage. This is a special race because teams have earned the right to be in it.
Amy: If winning a pole is that important, give bonus points for it and give the teams a week off.
Tom: You know, it’ll be interesting to see if some of those teams actually use their 500 cars because with the CoT, cars are so similar. I mean, it’s not like the backup’s going to be much different. So the more I think about it, Amy’s right in that it is going to be an advantage. No question.
Matt T.: If it’s a meaningful advantage, which I’m still not 100% sold on, then some of these teams without a pole should use some foresight, bag a pole and then they’re golden. Theoretically, this thing is open to everyone.
Amy: The struggling teams aren’t winning poles though… and now they’re further behind for the 500. No wonder they can’t get in the Top 35.
Matt T.: Waltrip was struggling last year and won a pole. It’s doable.
Tony: So did Dave Blaney for that matter.
Amy: What would it hurt NASCAR to give them an extra hour of drafting practice? Nothing.
Tony: Because I’m not sure what more they’re going to learn at the Shootout that they didn’t already learn in testing and will learn during Speedweeks.
Vito: Gordon is perfectly aware of drafting at Daytona. He’s only been doing it for 15 years, was doing it last month in testing, and ran at Talladega last fall in the CoT.
Tony: Exactly, Vito. If rookies have to be thrown into the Shootout like Hamlin a few years ago I think the benefits are far greater.
Amy: It’s basically an extra practice session. Ask any team out there if they’d like NASCAR to hand them an extra practice session for the Daytona 500 and find me one that would say, “No thanks, we learned enough in testing.”
Mike: Boris Said‘s team would probably say that. They can’t afford the miles on their engine.
Vito: Just another opportunity to get your car mangled. But that’s just the pessimist in me…
CTS driver Andy Lally, with a second-place run in the GT class, was one of five NASCAR drivers with a podium finish in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. With NASCAR’s tight testing restrictions, is this type of extracurricular racing the wave of the future?
Matt T.: I don’t think so in relation to the Rolex 24. It’s more for kicks.
Vito: I think it’s just part of being a racecar driver to want to run this race. If someone is going to pay you money to drive their car and have fun, why the hell not?!
Mike: I don’t think that running in the 24 Hours of Daytona is going to help Lally much in his Truck Series career. I think it is just something fun to do when a driver can secure a ride.
Matt T.: And more and more drivers are securing rides in the 24, Mike.
Mike: Well, it does help with sponsorship deals, Matt.
Tom: I mean, it’s an effective marketing tool for the Rolex 24.
Matt T.: Sure. I’m thinking the sports car owners don’t mind having a Cup boy on the team to get a little pub. They tend to do well, too.
Tony: Different cars, different type of track, I would be surprised. I think that race is best served as knocking the rust off the competitive juices and having fun.
Amy: I think those races are more for fun than anything. But road-course experience is road-course experience.
Vito: He probably just wanted a shot at winning something.
Amy: There are a few who race it to practice road racing, Johnson being one, because they want to improve their skills on those tracks.
Tom: I think it’s more the Rolex 24 being taken over by NASCAR drivers than that the drivers are looking to those cars to gain experience.
Mike: Taken over, Tom? I believe there were five NASCAR drivers in the race out of something like 150. That’s hardly taking it over.
Amy: Two Cup champions had podium finishes, though. That’s pretty impressive.
Tom: There were more than that, Mike. And Memo Rojas is not necessarily a household name to millions of fans, but Dario Franchitti is! And Johnson and Scott Pruett. They provide the marketing value some of these other names might lack…
Matt T.: Big names get big rides and make big money. That’s why owners are successful businessmen. Insert Bobby Ginn joke here.
Tony: Why did Bobby Ginn cross the road?
Mike: To pick up a buck.
Amy: To get away from the angry hoards of investors.
Matt T.: He was running away from Sterling Marlin.
Tony: Well, I’m glad you’re all coming up with good answers to that one – because I had nothing.
Bud Shootout predictions?
Vito: Kyle Busch. Wait, I’m stupid. Kyle Busch didn’t win a pole last year. I’ll go with Kahne.
Matt T.: Junior. The Earnhardt sort.
Mike: Junior wins in his first run in a Hendrick car.
Tom: Yeah, I’m going to go with Junior, too. It’s a good race for him to make a statement with Hendrick. I don’t know that he’ll win the 500, but he’ll be more motivated than most people are in an exhibition race.
Tony: Waltrip. And no, I haven’t smoked or drank anything today.
Mike: I think Junior wins the Shootout, sits on the front row, wins his qualifying race, and then fails in the big one. Stewart is finally going to win the 500 this year.
Tony: I like Junior’s chances in one of the 150s. Mike, you’re painting a Speedweeks like his old man used to have all the time.
Amy: What the hell… the ‘Yotas have been strong, Blaney.
Tony: Amy! I’m glad at least two of us like to go out on a limb!
Tom: It would be really cool for Jarrett or Schrader to win the Shootout.
Matt T.: Or Elliott.
Amy: It would be really cool for pigs to fly, too.