NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: A Slap on the Wrist for Stewart & Busch? Junior Go Whoosh & Waltrip’s 2008 Push

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)

Friday night’s Budweiser Shootout final practice was filled with torn-up cars and aggressive moves. For the second time in a year, Kurt Busch took his frustration with Tony Stewart out on pit road. Busch was penalized with a points deduction and fine last year; but this time, NASCAR went for probation. Was this enough?

Amy: No, it wasn’t enough. If the points fine wasn’t enough last time, they think a “play nice” will be?! Please,
Mike: The action between the two was actually on the track this time, not on pit road… so I’ll cut them a little slack.
Vito: Probation was plenty. Kurt bumped into him a few times on the track en route to the pits… there was no danger to anyone.
Matt T.: Honestly, I think Kurt’s punishment came at the hand – er, fist – of Stewart. It’s over. Let it be. After all, it was during practice.
Tony: But this is not following precedent, and that’s my huge problem with it. I love the rivalry – it’s needed – but using your car as a weapon on pit road has got to be stopped.
Matt T.: Since when does NASCAR follow precedent, Tony?
Tony: Agreed, Matt; that’s why this year, they should start doing something right – and they can start here.
Mike: I will say this… if Tony did throw a punch in the trailer, that is a new precedent.
Amy: But it’s not enough. And I feel the wreck was Busch’s fault in the first place; his behavior on pit road was uncalled for… and he cut close to Tony’s crew heading to the garage. That’s definitely uncalled for.
Vito: But NASCAR could use the publicity. Things have been pretty quiet and boring for far too long around here.
Tom: Amy, anything more than probation would have gone against NASCAR’s new philosophy of letting “boys be boys.” I thought it was fine.
Matt T.: We be talkin’ ’bout practice, man.
Vito: PRACTICE??!!
Matt T.: Practice, man.
Vito: I know I’m supposed to be a leader and everything and set an example, but practice?
Matt T.: No, no, we ain’t talkin’ ’bout a game. We talkin’ about practice, man.
Amy: Practice?! If anything, that makes it worse. There are more fans in the pits during that time period…
Tony: To me, it doesn’t matter if it’s practice; you shouldn’t be going throwing your car around recklessly on pit lane. Other than that, let them do what they want.
Tom: Honestly, the fracas brought so much attention to the sport, it’s one of the best things that could have happened – and to me, that outweighs what I thought was very limited safety risk. You know, Busch and Stewart actually do have the ability to become a major rivalry; because, unlike situations such as the Gordon/Johnson deal, the two drivers really don’t like each other.
Amy: Tom, I don’t care how limited the risk is… that car still weighs 3,400 pounds, and there are people not in cars along pit lane.

STAFF SIDE-BY-SIDE: WHO’S AT FAULT – BUSCH OR STEWART?

Vito: Oh geez, here we go again. Kurt the Murderer. Nobody was in danger. Tony’s crew all had bright orange shirts on… nothing was going to happen. ARCA drivers in competition pose more of a safety threat to spectators than Busch and Stewart bumping into one other.
Tom: Hey, here’s one thing no one is talking about: How does Kyle Busch feel now that Tony’s gone off and punched his brother? It’s going to be difficult enough for everyone to get along over there as it is… and now you add this to the mix?
Tony: Yeah Tom, that’s a new spin, and I think so far Kyle is doing the right thing by staying low and letting Tony and Kurt work this out.
Vito: It’s not like Kurt’s never been punched by a fat guy before.
Matt T.: What does Kyle have to do with this? He knows how racers are. Let ’em have at it and move on.
Tom: It’ll be interesting to see the position Kyle takes as this escalates.
Amy: Kurt deserved it that time, though.
Vito: He deserved it in 2003, but not this time. Tony made an error in judgment, putting his car where he did in practice.
Amy: Tony made an error, Vito?! Why was Kurt throwing a block that hard in practice? Tony was clearly faster – why not just let him go?
Matt T.: Closing rates, Amy.
Vito: You can’t see out of those cars with that goofy wing on the back. It’s a known issue that it’s a blind spot. The same thing happened during the Bud Shootout when Jamie McMurray and Denny Hamlin got together on the frontstretch.
Amy: But Kurt had zero to lose by letting Tony go by him. And Tom, why should Kyle have to take a position on this?
Tom: I’m not saying he has to take a position, Amy. I’m saying it’s his brother… so there’s a chance he’s going to. Which would upset the JGR balance a bit.
Mike: Kyle is going to have to say something because talking heads are going to ask him. But I don’t think he’s going to take any kind of major stand.
Tony: I don’t think Kyle is going to say anything this time. If he was going to, it would’ve been said by now. Kurt may be his brother, but this is his last shot at a competitive team.
Matt T.: And why was Kyle’s teammate trying to put his car where it didn’t belong, anyway? It was a “racing deal” end of story.
Amy: But if you watch the angle from in front of the cars, Kurt blocked him low, then slammed it right to block him high. Tony was trying to pass. How is that where it didn’t belong?
Tom: I think that if you go back and look at the tape, Stewart was a little peeved that Busch had blocked him on the track the lap before.
Tony: Exactly; the incident on the track was a racing deal. Now, the incident on pit road, that deserves to be looked at differently in my opinion.
Matt T.: Were they really on pit road?
Amy: The last hit was on pit road.
Matt T.: Looked to me like it happened on the way in, but not “on pit road.”
Vito: Daytona’s pit road approach is like 1/4-mile long.
Mike: It looked to me like it was before they got to pit road.
Amy: But Kurt made every move to hit the No. 20 again once they stopped. It looked as if only the other cars coming in stopped him.
Tony: From what I understand, Tony was blocking Kurt’s path or something, and Kurt used his car to try to move him.
Tom: The bottom line is these two have had bad blood that goes back a long time. Things were never settled following the June Dover race where they took each other out.
Tony: I think they can do what they want during practice (again, on the track), as long as they remember what goes around, comes around (no pun intended).
Amy: After the wreck was all Kurt. Frankly, I see Tony’s point in popping him one. Someone should have punished him.
Matt T.: Well, I blame them both for the wreck. I’m not taking sides.
Tom: 10-4, Matt… I’m with you there. They were fooling around too much in practice, pissing each other off and it caught up to them, although Tony made the final push.
Matt T.: And evidently had the final word.
Mike: I just hope both of them took their teams out to a very nice dinner for screwing up the cars and making them have to work overtime.
Tom: All I know is that right now, Kurt doesn’t appear to have many supporters.
Amy: Let’s see… there’s his Mom…
Tom: Tell me about it, Amy. As it is, Ryan Newman joked with Stewart walking to the hauler… that’s telling to me, having your teammate chatting it up with the guy that’s about to punch you in the face.

After a stellar performance in the Budweiser Shootout, is it finally time to put concerns about Dale Earnhardt Jr. and/or Toyota’s ability to perform behind us once and for all?

Vito: Uh, yeah… I don’t know why there were questions to begin with. Except maybe from wishful thinkers who don’t much care for Earnhardt Jr.
Amy: Toyota, yes. Junior, not yet. Toyota has won almost everywhere they have raced… this Cup thing wasn’t going to be different.
Tony: Not based on the Shootout, no way. Let’s take a look at both of them halfway through the season after they’ve competed on every type of racetrack.
Mike: It’s a plate race at Daytona… and we all know that Junior can plate race. When they get to intermediate tracks, let’s see where he runs.
Tom: No question this win is good for Junior; but in a sense, I think it pours even more pressure on him heading into the season. Because now that everyone knows he can win in that car, they’ll be expecting a whole lot more of it.
Mike: Toyota is looking like they have their engine package up to par, and that’s going to be huge for them.
Matt T.: Junior is fine. As for Toyota – and I can only speak to the plate program – I saw Stewart and Dave Blaney as formidable. Beyond that, it comes down to how the other teams handle. Going fast in qualifying is one thing…
Amy: But Junior would have had more pressure in a real race. His teammate was content to push this week… he won’t be next Sunday.
Vito: Junior will be fine; he won with relative ease. This is a whole new world for him, too… no more stepmomma-drama. You can see how much lighter and happier he is after that win; he wasn’t even out of breath like he usually is. Normally, he sounds like he just blew through a pack of Camels and ran three miles.
Tom: Junior would have pressure if they were running the Soap Box Derby. But it’s one thing to win an exhibition race – it’s another to finish 43rd the next week at Daytona. I think people will be a little harder on him now if the ends up struggling out of the box.
Matt T.: Junior will still need a “get to know you” period on the intermediates.
Mike: It certainly spoke volumes that Junior’s teammates seemed to be a lot more willing to work with him than they were willing to work with Kyle last year.
Amy: Or Junior was more willing to work with them, that’s a two-way street. To me, this win’s an indication that the problem at DEI wasn’t Junior; but it’s also not an indication that we should hand him the Sprint Cup trophy yet.
Vito: Earnhardt also has Tony Eury Jr. on his side who has been getting things in order for the last six months. They’re not going to be at the level that Chad and Jimmie enjoy, but they will be successful and they will win races.
Tom: The whole Hendrick No. 88 team is staying at our hotel… and let me tell you, they’re loose as can be. All smiles when I saw them around on Sunday.

BOWLES: JUNIOR’S WIN STRESS RELIEF, BUT THE PRESSURE’S STILL ON

Mike: Well hell yeah, Tom – they just won the first race they competed in.
Amy: Talent-wise, Junior has a ton. He’s one of the best, but he’s still third in that department at HMS. They’re just that deep.
Tony: Dale Jarrett won his first race with a new Yates team – ironically, in the No. 88. He had a solid year in ’96, but they experienced some growing pains, too. Don’t expect Junior/Hendrick to be any different.
Matt T.: A fan asked about this for Fanning the Flames this week. The long and short of it is a win is the perfect way for anyone to start off the season… and the momentum and confidence will carry to the 500 this Sunday. Past that, it’s anyone’s guess.
Amy: I will not be at all surprised if Junior makes the Chase. But I will be if he wins it.
Mike: He will win races and make the Chase. But he won’t win the title.
Tom: The telling stat about Junior is 10 of his 17 wins, something to that effect, have come at Daytona, Talladega and Richmond.
Mike: Exactly. Stewart said it himself after the race that Junior very well could be a better plate racer than Deddy was.
Amy: Agreed, Tom. He is the best plate driver at HMS, but 32 races aren’t on plate tracks.
Tom: More telling for everyone will be races two, three and four… Just look at what happened to Harvick after Daytona last year.
Matt T.: There is definitely a Daytona hangover. Not that Junior has won the thing yet…
Mike: As far as Toyota goes, they’re going to have some shots this year, and Stewart and Busch will win. Blaney looked pretty good in the Shootout, too.
Tony: Yeah, Blaney looked great, although the same applies to him: He finished third at Talladega last fall, so we’ll have to wait and see beyond this week.
Tom: There’s a lot of buzz that Blaney will be a team to watch. A source told me that BDR held back some cash last year and didn’t want to spend money on the old car. And now that it’s just the CoT, they have a lot more cash flow than you might think – even with their owners’ trucking company in bankruptcy.
Tony: That’s interesting, Tom. That team really needs to watch their finances, as they only have sponsorship to run one team right now.
Tom: The more I hear about the Jacques Villeneuve thing, the more I feel like it’s turning into a completely separate deal. I mean, Barry Green was just hired by Villeneuve… like he’ll mesh with BDR. To me, it’s almost like a side project for Davis until Villeneuve gets his finances in order.
Matt T.: The JV deal is smelling fishy.
Tony: Yeah, there has been so much speculation around that deal from day one. But if that same power is under Blaney and JV’s hood… look out.
Mike: Toyota has the power thing worked out, there isn’t much question about that.
Tom: There’s no question Mark Cronquist and JGR have done wonders for the engine program over there…

Qualifying for the Daytona 500 saw the reigning champion on the pole next to a driver who was considered an underdog in 2007. What other surprises were there in qualifying, and can we take any more about Michael Waltrip‘s performance other than his guaranteed starting spot?

Mike: I think it speaks a little to how Mikey’s organization has made some solid strides over the winter.
Amy: I think MWR as an organization has turned a critical corner, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to win the 500 – and it doesn’t mean they can contend on the other tracks.
Matt T.: Mikey has been complaining about handling since January. Pointing it in the right direction in qualifying is one thing… we’ll see if that car handles better in traffic. It didn’t seem to in the Shootout.
Vito: Behind Waltrip, Joe Nemechek was a pleasant surprise.
Tony: Again, it’s only the restrictor plates… but the Dodges, once again seem to be out to lunch. Only Patrick Carpentier looks formidable, and that’s an early surprise in itself.
Tom: Vito, Nemechek was a pleasant surprise… until they revealed he was rockin’ the stache.
Amy: Nemechek is a good qualifier. Too bad he doesn’t know he has a teammate, though.
Matt T.: Nemechek and FRR are running HMS powerplants. They should do well in qualifying…
Mike: Nemechek was definitely a pleasant surprise. Carpentier will fall back through the field like a stone, though.
Tom: Seriously, good for Furniture Row. They’re a team that people have on death’s door, I think, with all these Toyota programs starting to catch up – so making the 500 would be huge for them. And if Kenny Wallace can somehow make it, too, they’ll really put a dent in some of these other teams’ Top 35 hopes for ’08.
Vito: I kind of like the new evil-looking Joe. He’s mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it anymore.
Tony: Yeah, I liked the Nemechek look too, both on the track and on the driver. He could be the 2000 Johnny Benson… a possible upset.
Amy: The other one that was a pleasant surprise and should not have been was Casey Mears… he could contend for the 500.
Matt T.: David Reutimann is going to be a guy to watch, too. Not just at Daytona, but on the 1.5-milers.
Tony: Agreed, Matt. If Reutimann can get himself into the Top 35 in the first five races, I’ll be very excited to see what he can do without having to worry about a qualifying setup.
Mike: Very true, Tony. Reutimann could have a great year if he didn’t have to qualify,
Vito: Meanwhile, Red Bull is still out to lunch; that’s proof that a sponsor and money don’t always breed results.
Tom: I’ll be pretty sad if MWR gets those two cars in but, with the whole Kurt Busch/Sam Hornish Jr. deal, they can’t get Jarrett qualified. Situations like his are what the champion’s provisional was originally intended for; but in the end, that No. 2 car is going to take someone’s spot away.
Tony: Yeah, that’s unfortunate, Tom. Hopefully, the MWR success will spill over to the No. 44 this Thursday.
Mike: Don’t be too sure, Tom. I think DJ could easily race his way in.
Amy: I agree with Tom, what a sad thing that NASCAR allowed that Penske sham to occur.
Vito: That Penske/Hornish deal is garbage. Great, Hornish gets in on a technicality so he can cause a big wreck and look stupid. Meanwhile, a three-time Daytona 500 winner is sent packing.
Matt T.: DJ, Mikey and Reutimann are all in the same Duel, as is Blaney, JV and all three JGR guys. Can you say, “team orders?”
Mike: Yep.
Matt T.: DJ gets in. Book it.
Vito: At least he has something to race with – something he hasn’t been able to say for a couple of years.
Mike: DJ is going to be really close if he doesn’t get in. He’ll be near the front of his qualifying race.
Tony: DJ winning his final Daytona this year would be very an appropriate end for his career.
Tom: I don’t know, Mike. Jarrett was struggling in the Shootout. I know those are old cars, but…

With the season now just five days away, what is the most critical issue for the Nationwide Series this year – considering there were no major rule changes to keep the Cup guys out?

Vito: Start the races before 3:00 p.m. For the love of God. Please.
Amy: Keeping a full field. The economy is on a downturn, and the Cup teams ruined the sponsorship picture in this series.
Matt T.: Money. The Nationwide-only teams are just going to get throttled. They need sponsorship dollars and are having a hard time getting it. Look at Team Rensi and Bobby Hamilton Jr. as the perfect example.
Vito: And tell Carl Edwards no more backflips.
Amy: Amen, Vito.
Mike: I think it is going to be interesting to see Joey Logano get into a Nationwide car. That could be the start of something big.
Tony: Yeah, let’s hope he’s successful and stats a new trend of drivers coming in. The series desperately needs it.
Vito: He will be the next Jeff Gordon. Mark my words.
Mike: I think he’ll be the next Stewart, myself.
Vito: Logano… with Stewart’s Rambo IV haircut.
Amy: You know, the other issue for the series is money, as in purse money.
Mike: Purse money is a farce. NASCAR should be ashamed by the paltry sums they hand out.
Amy: The purses need to be raised for the backmarkers, and the Cup guys shouldn’t get any of it. If they want to race for fun, fine, they don’t need the money.
Vito: It’s a racing series, Amy; not a collective farm.
Tom: You know, amazingly enough there were 53 cars on the entry list for race one at Daytona. But most of those were Cup guys.
Amy: But the series isn’t viable if nobody can afford to race in it, Vito.
Vito: I’m tired of hearing the Nationwide Series whining. Look, almost all of the cars are satellite Cup teams, anyway. It hasn’t been a fair fight for about five years now.
Matt T.: But Vito, if NASCAR wants this to be a legit series, they have to keep it healthy. And it’s not.
Amy: Exactly, Matt.
Vito: It hasn’t been for a long time.
Matt T.: Then they should FIX IT! What’s the series going to be in three, five, eight years? Will there be a series?
Amy: It’s rotting from within, and that’s starting to show on the outside.
Vito: It’s past the point of no return. There is a new car being introduced next year, and that’s not going to be cheap, either.
Mike: I don’t know how you fix it, though. If you can figure that out, you can get a job in Daytona.
Matt T.: Daytona isn’t trying; they like the money that the Cup guys bring in.
Vito: I would say that if they are looking to rebuild the series and get it back to where it was, a lot of the smaller teams should take this year off. There’s no point in maintaining a fleet of cars that will be obsolete in a few months.
Matt T.: I wouldn’t disagree with you there, V.
Amy: There are about five things they could do to fix it; they just don’t want to.
Tony: We’ve come up with a bunch of solutions in this forum; the solutions are out there.
Tom: The key to me is the Car of Tomorrow. If the teams could somehow fend off that car coming to the Nationwide Series, you’d see the number of Cup drivers somehow wane away.
Vito: I think the new car will help a lot if they use bodies that offer little in the way of aero, like the pony car concept that was floated last year.
Matt T.: Yep. A quasi-Truck Series.
Vito: And having seen the new Challenger and Camaro in person, yeah. They NEED to do this. I would watch it just for the cars; I could care less who would be driving them.
Tony: Yeah, I was a big fan of that concept, eliminating some of those drivers who were just looking for an extra practice session.

Daytona 500 predictions?

Mike: Stewart.
Amy: Earnhardt Jr.
Vito: Earnhardt Jr. And the darkhorse is Waltrip.
Tony: Mears.
Matt T.: He’s had a bad week, with two wrecked cars and one busted nose — but Kurt Busch rebounds and wins it.
Mike: Wow, props to Tony for going out on that limb.
Amy: Not that thin of a limb… Mears could damn well win it.
Tom: This one’s real tough. I think it’s totally wide open this year, but I’m going to say Junior backs up the Shootout win with a 500 triumph… and the expectations shoot through the roof. But I think Stewart will be a factor and, honestly, I can see Blaney scoring a huge upset.
Vito: Blaney is strong… I just don’t think he has the team and crew to do it.
Matt T.: What about if Sterling Marlin races the No. 09 in and pulls the biggest upset since, uh, Ward Burton?
Tony: I can see Sterling pulling off a top 10 with no problem should he get in.
Mike: Wow, I think there might be some problems pulling that off.
Matt T.: Actually, I was joking; I don’t think the No. 09 makes the show. They’ve looked like crap this year.
Tony: I really don’t know who to choose from among those drivers having to race to get in; there are so many underdogs to pull from. I just wish more of them got in.
Mike: Me too. I hate that they’re all racing for two spots.
Amy: Especially when some of the teams locked in aren’t really any better.
Tony: Yep, the rules took some of the luster off of what really was one of the best events of Speedweeks.
Amy: Some? That’s being generous.

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