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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Did Busch Pass Below The Line? Will Tony Stewart Leave? & Will Lepage Ever Regain Respect?

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 (Editor-In-Chief; Mondays/Bowles-Eye View & Wednesdays/Did You Notice?)
Tony Lumbis (Mondays/Rookie Report)
Vito Pugliese (Tuesdays/Voice Of Vito)
Tommy Thompson (Mondays/Points To Ponder & Wednesdays/Thompson In Turn 5)
Mike Neff (Wednesdays/Power Rankings & Wednesdays/Full Throttle)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
Kurt Allen Smith (Fridays/Happy Hour)

While the “out-of-bounds” rule was designed to make racing safer on restrictor-plate tracks, enforcement of the rule has been a crapshoot at best. In fact, many complained that Kyle Busch‘s winning pass came with two wheels below the yellow line, although definitive video and photos have not yet surfaced. Is there a way to make this rule work consistently, or does it need to be scrapped completely?

Vito: Scrap it. If you get to the grass, you’ve gone too far.
Amy: NASCAR hasn’t gotten a call right since they instituted the rule. I like the safety aspect of it, but if you can’t call things right, it needs to be scrapped or redefined.
Kurt: The infraction needs to be blatant, and Kyle’s move was not. He certainly could make the case that he was forced down there.
Mike: But the rule is necessary; otherwise, there will be far more Big Ones at plate races like there used to be. However, they do need to be stricter on enforcement. I don’t think Busch was forced below, but the argument could be made.
Amy: So, if they can’t decide the definition of “forced,” they need to get rid of it. I’ve seen the rule enforced with guys who were not only bodyslammed down there, they were pushed to the point where the car hit them to keep them below the yellow line.
Vito: Exactly, Amy; you aren’t supposed to block. If you have a run on a guy and are forced down there, you should be able to execute your pass. These things don’t change direction at 200 mph as fast as you think they do.
Tommy: I have to agree with Vito, except that I’m all for seeing some in-the-grass passes if a driver can pull it off. But blocking is an intricate part of racing. If you have the nerve to put your rear end in front of a significantly faster, overtaking car… go for it!
Tony: I agree, Tommy. I don’t know a driver out there who would say, “Sure, I’ll move over for you.”
Kurt: Why is the yellow-line rule in place anyway? So no one can pull a Kevin Lepage?
Mike: The rule is in place so people don’t drive on the freaking apron to make passes, and end up causing huge pile-ups like Mr. Lepage did. But what about the “no bump-drafting in the turns” rule? Holy crap, they did that all day.
Kurt: Bump-drafting is another rule that is clear as mud. The general rule is “it’s a no-no, but we will tolerate a certain amount of it.” Why not file it all under “actions detrimental to NASCAR?”
Amy: Can we file Helton and France there, too?
Tom: I have to agree with Kurt in that Kyle’s infraction was one of those “gray area” type instances, and that’s the problem with the yellow-line rule in general. The way it’s written invites gray area. The second you say “unless he was forced,” you’re turning that rule into a huge subjective call.
Kurt: Well, Busch certainly didn’t go down there to improve his position, as I remember it.
Mike: Kyle went down there because he had a run; and if he lifted, he wouldn’t have made the pass.
Tommy: I didn’t see it as a flagrant rules violation.
Tony: I think it needs to be up to the drivers to police themselves. If you want to be that aggressive, go for it; but if you cause the Big One, be ready to lose the respect of 42 other drivers for the rest of the year.
Kurt: Only restrictor-plate racing could introduce so many insane rules.
Tom: Honestly, I didn’t see it as a flagrant violation; but as with everything NASCAR does, you’re opening things to interpretation. But you know what I find funny? In qualifying, all those cars do is go under the yellow line. They drive it on the apron to get the fastest time possible, so it’s not like the cars can’t drive there without losing control. Why can’t they take the same chance during the race?
Amy: No other cars to run into, Tom.
Mike: Because there is a freight train of cars there that they can’t slam back up into before they hit the corner.
Tom: Well, if you’re saying “going under the yellow line is bad,” but drivers can still make contact on any part of the racetrack… aren’t you making a point that your track is inherently unsafe to begin with?
Vito: The issue is coming back onto the banking from the apron. The yellow line in the straightaways should have an inbounds part, where you have to be back up on the track by the following corner.
Tom: But NASCAR needs to be consistent. You can go below the yellow line in Vegas during a restart, come on up, and hit 10 cars in a row drafting off each other in that first lap. Not as likely, but it’s possible. So why isn’t the rule applied there?
Mike: Because they have throttle response.
Vito: Cars don’t get airborne at Las Vegas. But you can bet on it.
Tom: Well, I think trusting drivers to save the cars on 85% of the racetracks and not trusting them on the other 15% is just silly.
Tony: Generally, if you go onto the apron, it upsets the handling of your car so that it can cause havoc. But again, if you feel you can make it work, you should be allowed.
Mike: Hell, just put a wall down there with a SAFER barrier and be done with it.
Tommy: I have a hunch, though, that the new car is going to change things for evermore at ‘Dega. Looks like the high side may become the preferred passing lane.
Vito: Off topic: What was Jamie McMurray doing trying to drive into the side of Busch on the backstretch? Jamie drove about three lanes over to hit him.
Amy: Kyle came up on McMurray.
Tony: I thought he was showing his displeasure with Kyle, Vito.
Kurt: Back on topic, there was no need for a call on Busch. He was forced down there, and it’s just way too subjective.
Mike: The yellow-line rule is in place to protect the drivers from themselves. Unfortunately, there is no exact science to enforcing it, but it is better than the alternative.
Amy: Kyle was forced below the line far less than guys who have been busted. Until there’s a definitive and consistent way to enforce it, it’s a crappy rule.
Tommy: Which means it will always be open to criticism.
Vito: They raced from 1969-2001 with no problem going below the yellow line. Why it’s an issue now is a mystery to me.

Some drivers complained on Sunday that they did not get enough drafting help from their teammates at key points during the race. Should teammates be expected to help out until the closing laps, or is “every man for himself” the way to go all race long?

Tom: I think it’s interesting the way Sunday’s race played out. It was teammate coordination taken to a new level; I mean, there was one point where it was Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin… with the Yates guys hooked up behind them… and with the Ganassi duo of David Stremme and Juan Pablo Montoya hooked up behind them. It was crazy. I don’t know why teammates complained.
Tommy: There’s nothing wrong with working a little strategy with a teammate. But the object of racing hasn’t changed. Each driver is supposed to strive to finish as high in the running order as they can.
Kurt: Hamlin was also helping non-teammates all day, Tom. As I see it, this is something that’s got to be worked out with them before the race. You don’t know what it’s going to be like out there, so you have to play it as you go.
Mike: Teammates should help out when they can, but in the end, all that help goes out the window. Sunday wasn’t the first time Dale Earnhardt Jr. has hung his teammate out during a plate race… and it won’t be the last.
Vito: It’s every man for himself out there. It isn’t like it used to be when Chevy guys worked with Chevy guys, Ford guys worked with Ford guys, and never the two should meet.
Tony: I think that if a driver has an even choice, then yes, help your teammate. Otherwise, they have to make a split second decision, and they need to do whatever will help them at that moment. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of who you work well with.
Amy: I agree, and I am sick to death of fans complaining that their guy didn’t get help from his teammate. Personally, I think you should go with whoever helps the best… but that’s not to say you should leave a teammate to get freight trained, and then complain when he does it to you later.
Vito: It’s like they say in combat: All planning goes out the window as soon as you make contact with the enemy.
Tom: I agree with Amy… but the pressure to help your teammate is more than ever before when it comes to these drivers. I really keep going back to what happened in 2006 – the Brian Vickers incident which involved then-teammate Jimmie Johnson. That ruined it. So much media attention was put towards that, that now the drivers feel like they have to help teammates, Otherwise, they’ll be butchered by everyone; sponsors, media, etc.
Tony: Agreed Tom, especially since just about everyone has at least one teammate now… it’s becoming more of a necessity than a convenience.
Vito: This was never really an issue when there were mostly single car teams.
Kurt: You got to go for the win though, and I think every driver knows that. I was surprised that the Hendrick cars didn’t work together much at all. A little bit of Junior-Jeff Gordon, and that was it.
Amy: Junior left Johnson high and dry… Jimmie and Casey Mears worked together for a long time early.
Mike: Johnson and Mears were never up front to help Junior and Gordon.
Mike: They didn’t have much opportunity, but Junior did leave Gordon hanging and Gordon left Junior hanging.
Kurt: They all had strong cars… but only Mears and Junior finished in the top 10.
Mike: I am sure the team meeting at Hendrick this week was interesting.
Amy: Well, Gordon is the prime example of a habitual complainer… he never helps, then complains when people don’t help him.
Tony: It’s always been that way with Jeff for anything, though. Everyone should do it his way or the highway.
Amy: Junior has never been much of a help to anyone in a plate race, either; at least since Michael Waltrip won Daytona.
Kurt: What about Stewart?
Amy: He’s out for himself – which is fine. Just don’t complain when you get hung by him down the road.
Vito: Hey, it’s a stock car race, not a collective farm. Why is everyone always expected to help each other? Junior has one teammate at the big tracks: That orange number 20. And you know what? That’s all you need. Too many teammates complicates things, and you take yourself out of the game. Like Mike Skinner and Dale Earnhardt ever really worked together…
Amy: Junior works with Stewart when it benefits him, not necessarily Tony.
Tom: That’s a great point about Stewart. I think he and Junior were really the only ones other than Hamlin who consistently bucked the trend. But also, when you think about the Stewart rumors – heck, Stewart and Earnhardt can be loosely associated as soon as next year. Maybe Stewart doesn’t care to help his Toyota brethren at this point.
Tony: I don’t think any driver in their right mind would sign a contract that says, “You will help your teammate at all costs.” This isn’t Formula 1.
Kurt: Bottom line, it’s a race. If someone helps you, great; but don’t expect it unless you talk about it beforehand.
Tom: Well, I think the need for a dancing partner at these tracks will always give you the teammate question as long as there’s multi-car teams.
Mike: Teammates should help each other when feasible; but in the grand scheme of things, this is an individual sport when it comes down to who wins.

Stewart responded to reports he’s leaving Joe Gibbs Racing that he’s got several offers on the table. If Stewart does take one of those offers, what do you think the defining reason will be – and where does that leave Joe Gibbs Racing in trying to fill his seat?

Kurt: I said in Happy Hour last week that Stewart leaving Gibbs for Haas CNC is like Paul McCartney leaving the Beatles for the Strawberry Alarm Clock.
Tom: If Stewart leaves, multiple sources are telling me it’s because of the boatload of money General Motors is putting on the table to get this deal done. Oh, and the whole “being a driver/owner” thing.
Tommy: The defining reasons will be financial. It’s time to put the finishing touches on the 401K for Stewart.
Vito: Tony is tired of the grind. He has nothing left to prove except winning the Daytona 500; and frankly, he’s been on the verge of quitting the last three years.
Tony: I think he feels he has done everything he could do at Gibbs and wants a new challenge… combined with the relationship he has with GM.
Mike: I also think it is going to come down to Tony having an opportunity to be an owner with a Chevrolet team. Other than that, he’ll stay at Gibbs.
Amy: The ownership stake is huge… Tony’s definitely not getting any younger. But in my opinion, the defining reason starts with “T” and ends in “oyota.”
Tom: See, I don’t think it has as much to do with Stewart hating Toyota as General Motors wanting Stewart back. Without him, who does Toyota have right now? They’ve got no one else around that’s won a championship. Sure, they have Busch. But he’s tumultuous young talent. Stewart’s a proven winner; this would be a huge asset to Toyota’s future, especially with Michael Waltrip Racing still floundering.

BOWLES: DID YOU NOTICE? AFTER TALLADEGA

Vito: Stewart never really seemed too enthused about driving for Toyota. He wants to set himself up for the next part of his life and have a race team, and he has a chance to acquire some distressed merchandise in Haas CNC Racing.
Kurt: I didn’t think Stewart would have the temperament to be an owner, but who knows?
Amy: He’s had success with owning sprint cars.
Mike: And if Harvick can be a successful owner, so can Stewart.
Kurt: Gibbs doesn’t want to offer ownership to Stewart. I don’t understand that. It worked fairly well with Gordon and the No. 48.
Tom: But Kurt, I don’t think Stewart ever had the relationship with Gibbs that Gordon had with Hendrick. Gibbs had to mentor Stewart like he was a son at one point; and all of a sudden, you’re going to take the guy you babysat and give him equal decision-making power? I just don’t think that would work.
Vito: I just don’t know how much good that coaching did, either. Tony still blows up from time to time; it’s just accepted now, and part of his persona. I’m sure they can find someone to plug into that No. 20 car. Somebody named Greg Biffle.
Kurt: Yeah, and whoever replaced Stewart would have some quality equipment, too.
Mike: Joe has a couple pretty talented drivers in the seat right now, with Joey Logano and Marc Davis in the wings. I don’t think he’d give up some ownership to keep Tony.
Tommy: As much as Joe Gibbs would like to see Tony stay… I can understand him not wanting to share. And I’m sure Gibbs understands that drivers come and drivers go… but he can still manage a viable operation nonetheless.
Amy: The bottom line at JGR is that Joe has to put JD and Coy first, so an equity stake in a team is unlikely.
Tom: And I think there’s another reason why Gibbs won’t give him ownership; because he doesn’t want Tony sharing in those decisions. It’s like giving the wild child too much power; and that’s Gibbs’ prerogative. If Tony started off somewhere else, it would be different; but at Gibbs, he’s been on the verge of getting fired. It’s a different scenario in which they wouldn’t be comfortable giving Tony that power.
Vito: Tony doesn’t want to own “part” of JGR, just like Dale Jr. didn’t want to own “part” of DEI. It’s a negotiating ploy. He knows there is no way they’d ever go for it. It simply isn’t an option.
Amy: And if he went to Haas, I think the tech alliance with HMS would ramp up considerably.
Tom: Heck yeah, Amy; and we all know what “support” is doing to the Yates program. Heck, they’re unsponsored and those teams are both in the top 25; David Gilliland is an outsider in the Chase hunt right now. What do you think Stewart – with Hendrick “support” – could do at Haas?
Vito: Honestly, with the franchising plan that keeps getting floated around, Stewart would be a fool not to try and get majority ownership of a team. It’s a license to print money.
Tom: Ding ding ding ding, Vito! I think we have a winner. And that’s why I’ve got every source I trust telling me that not only is that deal farther along than even I’ve printed, but that it would be a complete shock if this thing doesn’t get done.
Tony: I’m sure Tony has some drivers in his program that he wants to place in Sprint Cup one day; what better way to do it than have your own team?
Kurt: Personally, I don’t get the idea of a Haas move. Not even Jeremy Mayfield could run well with them.
Amy: But I think Tony would look for – and get – a lot more support from HMS than Haas gets now.
Vito: Tony wants to run Indy, and do what he wants to do. He sees what his buddy Mark Martin is doing; enjoying life, not stuck at a racetrack for three days.
Tom: Great point about Indy, Vito. I don’t buy for a minute this has nothing to do with an Indy car. I don’t.
Mike: I am sure Stewart wants to take another shot at Indy the right way. Spending the whole month there, practicing every day…
Tom: And as far as GM and Hendrick fit in, they’re just trying to keep up with the Joneses. Roush is setting himself up to have significant influence over two teams of four (see: Yates Racing’s all but acquisition of their team). So it’s a case of monkey see, monkey do… and look how successful Roush was early in the season. Hendrick would be silly not to try and do the same. And why put all four superstars on one team when you can spread the wealth?
Amy: Plus, Tony’s setting himself to retire and still be at the track.
Tony: If you want to stay in the sport after driving, you have two options: 1.) Broadcasting and 2.) Ownership. And we all know broadcasting isn’t Tony’s thing.
Kurt: Now that would be fun. Tony ranting in the booth… that would be classic.
Tom: Can you imagine Tony and D.W.? My bet is five minutes before Tony would tell him to shut up.
Tony: It would turn into the Howard Stern Show.
Kurt: Has there been any public acrimony between Tony and Toyota? I haven’t heard anything.
Amy: Tony never wanted to go to Toyota and was very outspoken about it, Kurt.
Tom: I’m telling you, I don’t think this is about Toyota. I think Stewart is totally fine with the manufacturer change; if GM wasn’t offering him a boatload of money, Stewart would stay with Gibbs. He trusts Gibbs. But people have discovered that for this contract, the key to winning Tony’s heart is to offer him what Gibbs can’t possibly come up with. And then, they win.

Although Lepage finally did apologize for the melee he caused by pulling in front of the field following a pit stop in Saturday’s Aaron’s 312, Clint Bowyer was penalized during the race for a similar move. Is there more that should have been done, and can anything more happen to assure that that kind of accident doesn’t occur in the future?

Vito: Bowyer didn’t make the same mistake in front of 30 cars going 195 mph.
Kurt: My wife listened to me rant about that move for three hours after the race. But NASCAR is in a bind trying to enforce a penalty for something like this. It is restrictor-plate racing; and frankly, that’s why the plate belongs in the trash.
Tony: I don’t think any more could have been done… the rule works 99% of the time.
Mike: Well, if they build the wall on the inside where the yellow line is, that should eliminate the problem. Otherwise, there isn’t anyone to prevent someone from being an idiot.
Tom: To be honest, that was one of the most fascinating mistakes I’ve ever seen. I mean, it’s not like Lepage is a rookie. Do you know how big the speed difference was? It was 65 mph. 125 to 190. How ridiculous is that? How did you think you could “catch the draft” going that slow?
Kurt: You don’t even merge onto a highway like that.
Amy: It was just flat stupid.
Mike: That wreck is exactly why people can’t turn around in the median on the interstate. The closing rate is the same.
Tony: And the spotter clearly said the pack was coming, stay low. You can’t blame her.
Vito: It reminds me of that scene in Saving Silverman. “Which way did they go?” “Left?” “I’M GOIN RIGHT!”
Tom: I just hope he and his wife don’t get divorced over it. This is why families shouldn’t spot for each other…
Tommy: There’s no real way to defend Lepage. He screwed up. I don’t think NASCAR can cover the bases on every possible “bonehead” move.
Vito: If they penalized a driver for every dumb thing they did during a race, Robby Gordon would be working at a car wash and Kurt Busch would be wrenching on fire hydrants still in Las Vegas.
Amy: To be fair, Lepage got his car wadded up, a penalty in itself. But, I couldn’t help but think in those cases there should be some penalty… especially if Bowyer got one and didn’t wreck stuff.
Mike: It’s kind of hard to penalize someone who has been knocked out of the race, though.
Amy: Take his check, Mike, and distribute it between the cars he wrecked being an idiot.
Mike: That’s a thought.
Kurt: NASCAR was probably so flabbergasted by the whole thing they didn’t know what to do.
Tommy: Lepage is a veteran. He has a ton of experience. He just messed up.
Tony: Yeah, I think it’s as simple as that. His defense was that the blend line was always in turn 1, but he was barely there.
Kurt: I actually feel kind of sorry for Lepage… imagine his next drivers’ meeting.
Amy: I talked to Kenny Wallace today… he said he actually feels sorry for the guy knowing the backlash he’s going to get.
Tom: In Lepage’s defense, it’s not like no one’s allowed to make mistakes. It’s just that his mistake happened at the most dangerous track on the circuit. As Carl Edwards said, that mistake could have killed someone.
Kurt: I’m with you on that, Tom.
Tom: In my view, the backlash at the track was already bad enough. The No. 61 crew was getting screamed at and people were ready to fight them. Which is sad, because those guys did nothing wrong.
Vito: Well, Martin and Gordon took out half the field and launched Ricky Craven four stories into the air at Talladega by doing something not too smart. Brain farts happen.
Amy: But they were racing at the time… this was coming off pit road.
Tom: And not for anything, but what more does the Nationwide Series have to do… this was a guy and a team who was actually doing everything right. They are investing money into the series, trying to find a sponsor, and not starting and parking. Considering the equipment they have – some of which is from the old No. 14 Haas team – they’re not running too shabby. But now, they become the poster child for a mistake… the worst thing in an argument to have more Nationwide-only teams.
Vito: Imagine that: A sport where all you do is turn left, and there was an accident because someone turned right.
Mike: There isn’t anything that can be done when someone makes a huge mistake. It is just that. I don’t think you can take a guy’s license or anything for making a mistake.
Amy: One person I talked to said they should take his license for the next Talladega race, and make him test to earn it back beforehand just like a rookie.
Vito: Between that and Larry Gunselman drilling Dario Franchitti in the door… maybe it’s best that only the big teams get to run some of these races.
Mike: Holy Schnikees, did Franchitti get drilled. Gunselman was in the middle of the frontstretch when that wreck happened, and he was still flat on the gas when he got to turn 1.
Kurt: Franchitti did get pounded. I was wincing at that one.

Predictions for Richmond?

Tommy: I’ll go with Hamlin.
Mike: Hamlin with the spring Virginia sweep.
Tom: I’m going to go with Hamlin, too. He’d been knocking on the floodgates of winning in Virginia for quite sometime; and now that he got over the hump in Martinsville, it’ll be easy for him to cash in at that other Virginia track.
Amy: All of you picked Junior last week to get that first HMS win… so I’m taking him this week.
Kurt: How about Johnson? I think he’ll get the job done Saturday night.
Vito: After that stupid decision in Phoenix, I’m going to go with Martin to snag one here; as long as his crew doesn’t make him pit with five gallons left in the car.
Tony: I’ll go with Martin, too. The No. 8 car has always been good, and they’re coming off a strong run at another flat track.
Tom: At least one thing’s for certain; we’re guaranteed great racing this weekend no matter what. Richmond really is one of the circuit’s best tracks.

2008 Mirror Prediction Chart

Not sure which writer’s prediction to trust? Well, check out our handy predictions chart below to see which of our writers has had the best luck looking into that crystal ball this season! At the end of the year, we’ll tally up the points and award our Mirror Driving predictions champion. While Talladega was a crapshoot, Amy Henderson took a gamble with Mears and it paid off; his seventh-place finish allowed her to retake the point lead over Tony Lumbis 10 weeks in.

WriterPointsBehindPredictions (Starts)WinsTop 5sTop 10s
Amy Henderson1351-010036
Bryan Davis Keith1299-528157
Tony Lumbis1298-5310346
Matt Taliaferro970-3817035
Mike Neff969-3827035
Vito Pugliese857-4946045
Tom Bowles594-7575012
Tommy Thompson399-9523022
Kurt Smith362-9894011
Beth Lunkenheimer341-10103011
Danny Peters190-11611111
Jeff Meyer94-12571000
Kim DeHaven0-13510000