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Mirror Driving: Making Sense of Richmond Night Fights – Junior vs. Busch, Busch vs. Wallace & Waltrip vs. Mears

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)
Matt Taliaferro (Thursdays/Fanning The Flames)
Bryan Davis Keith (Sundays/Nationwide Series Breakdown)

Obviously, the number one topic following Richmond is the contact between Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. But here’s a question for you: If the roles were reversed, would the public be anointing Earnhardt. the “villain” the way they’ve been doing to Busch? Along those lines, is Busch getting a bad rap?

Tony: I think Busch made his own bed. I don’t think it was his fault the other night, but you won’t get the benefit of the doubt when you have his history.
Tom: The one thing I can’t get over is the irony that the Intimidator’s son got flat-out intimidated. That’s what gets me, because honestly, Busch shouldn’t be getting a bad rap; it’s one of those racin’ deals, and Busch isn’t afraid to mess around.
Vito: I wouldn’t say Junior got intimidated. He got rotated; Kyle was actually pretty contrite afterwards. But I agree with you, Tom; as the King would say, “Jes’ one a them racin’ deals.”
Matt T.: Of course, Junior wasn’t going to be deemed the villain. It’d be “good, hard short trackin’” had he turned Busch. But Kyle may be getting a bad rap because of his post-race comments – not because of the actual wreck.
Bryan: Busch is definitely getting a harsh response, but he took out a race-winning car, regardless of the driver – and that’s always going to anger people.
Tony: I think this is very similar to the Mark Martin incident at Vegas in the Nationwide race: two different reputations lead to two different outcomes.
Tom: Oh, totally; it’s all based on reputation. And it’s one thing for Busch to tangle with Steve Wallace… another for him to tangle with Junior.

BOWLES: THE GOOD GUY LOST AT RICHMOND

Vito: But let’s face it; if it was anyone else in that position except for someone like Jeff Burton, Martin or Bobby Labonte, they’re going to be the bad guy. But if it’s anyone other than Junior and Kyle does the same thing, Kyle is still the villain; because he is roundly rejected by the majority of fans.
Bryan: I just think it was totally unnecessary for Kyle to do that. He had a faster car and eight laps to pass the No. 88. There was no need at all for him to drive in so hard that he locked up his wheels and got out of control.
Matt T.: He didn’t intentionally wreck Junior. Not from my perspective, anyway. And he had a great quote afterward. Something to the effect of, “If I’m not driving as hard as I can in that situation, I can’t call myself a racecar driver.” Kyle drove it a bit over the edge, and someone paid the price. He was racing for a win.
Vito: I actually like Kyle; I just think he needs to ratchet down the rhetoric a little. You’d think he’d learn from his brother’s trials, but he’s following right in his footsteps.
Tony: Exactly, Vito. Busch is a championship driver, he just doesn’t have the championship persona yet.
Bryan: His quote about Junior Nation didn’t go over very well…
Tom: But did Dale Earnhardt Sr. ever have the “championship persona?” Or did he not have what we thought was a championship persona, and then used his talent to mold it into his own. What I mean by that is, Kyle may be too talented to ever change because that talent may always be able to overcome all the off-the-track brouhahas he causes.
Tony: I think Earnhardt said the right things when he needed to. He wasn’t exactly Mr. Squeeky Clean either, though.
Vito: That’s true, Tom. But Earnhardt Sr. had respect. Kyle is viewed as a spoiled kid who was a millionaire before he could buy a beer… and he thinks the world revolves around him.
Tony: True, Busch probably got to where he is with some help from a wealthy background; but if you have no talent to back it up, you won’t last in the Cup Series as long as he has thus far.
Tom: On the other side of the coin, Junior left Saturday night sounding like a cross between Eeyore and a patient on suicide watch.
Bryan: Junior was biting his lip really freaking hard.
Tony: That’s the difference between the two; why one is loved and the other hated. Junior holds back until he knows the facts, while Kyle goes off the second he can.
Vito: Junior’s never been one to go off, though. He’s a very humble guy who, over the last seven years, has had every right to lose it on somebody.
Tom: I am very interested to see how much longer it’s going to take before the pressure of the winless streak starts to get to the No. 88 team.
Bryan: This winless streak is getting to Junior big time.
Tom: What’s amazing to me is that even with all the success Junior’s had so far this season, when you look at this move on paper, Hendrick would be better off with Busch. That may not be the physical reality; but on paper, it’s true. And it’s getting really hard to ignore at the moment.
Vito: Eh, I don’t know about that, Tom. Kyle is winning because they have better cars. Yes, he’s good, but the No. 88 is consistently the best Hendrick car. He’s outrunning what has been the best team the last three years.
Matt T.: And Hendrick has more at stake than just race wins. Junior was the right move from a business standpoint, and Hendrick is a great businessman. Look; if I’m Kyle, I’m looking out for the No. 88. I don’t think that sat too well with Junior. He’s the cool, calculating type and I’d bet we’ll see some revenge – in some way, shape or form – down the road.
Tom: You think so, Matt? For that to happen, Junior needs to grow some kahunas. I’m not buying this whole “he’s still himself now that he’s driving for Hendrick” theory, either. He throws Eury under the bus on the radio, then comes out of the car and says he’s happy with how he’s running. He needs to be happy with how he’s running because he knows Hendrick would take him to the woodshed for doing anything politically incorrect. And in that case, that includes retaliation.
Matt T.: Come on, Hendrick isn’t going to bust him up for getting his revenge. That’s the way racing goes. And Rick knows that.
Tom: But that’s not how Hendrick does business, Matt. The expectation is going to be that Junior falls in line.
Vito: Considering how Rick Hendrick looked at Alan Gustafson after that All-Star Race wreck last year, I doubt he’d ever get mad at Junior for getting even if he elected to.
Matt T.: I’m not saying Junior will go out at Darlington and spin him on the first lap, but he’ll find a way to shaft him. Somehow, somewhere.
Bryan: I agree with Matt. Hendrick isn’t going to bust Junior’s chops for going after Busch should he choose to.
Tom: I’m not so convinced. I think Junior feels like that’s out of line for being a Hendrick driver.
Tony: I don’t think so either, Tom; that’s really never been his style.
Tom: And the cameras will be trained on those two like hawks for the next few months… if it happens, there will immediately be scrutiny and bad blood brewing between Hendrick and Gibbs. That would be great… exactly what the sport needs. But Junior knows that, and that’s why it won’t happen.
Matt T.: He’s a race driver at heart, though, Tom. So is Hendrick. It’s like plunking a batter after one of your own has been hit. It’s just the way things are done. It’s acceptable, in a sense, if you live by a driver’s code.
Tony: Whether it’s justified or not, we have a rivalry brewing. Maybe not between the drivers themselves, but it will be played out in the media and among the fans that way – and I think it’s great.
Bryan: And Busch will need a bubble – a la the pope – for driver intros.
Tony: Ohh! The Pope-Mobile gets loose coming out of turn 2!!! How did he save it?! It must be divine intervention. POT – Pope Mobile of Tomorrow.
Matt T.: Billy Bob Benedict.
Vito: They might want to restrict Junior’s AMP intake over the next few weeks. If anyone could have used a cold beer after that race, it was Junior.

In other news from Richmond, Michael Waltrip was parked during Saturday night due to his actions in creating an accident with the fellow lapped car of Casey Mears. Did NASCAR go overboard on this one, or should Waltrip have been penalized even further for his actions during the race?

Matt T.: NASCAR parked him, so I’d say that was a good start. Mikey lost his cool, and acted very inappropriately… but I’d say let it go.
Tony: I think he would’ve been close to parking it for the night anyway. Some more points taken away would’ve probably been good though, Matt.
Bryan: At least there was no ambiguity in this case. Waltrip hooked the No. 5 for a good quarter-mile.
Vito: It was kind of funny, and helped to liven up what was a pretty boring race. Besides, Casey drove up over the top of him… he kinda earned it.
Matt T.: I thought so too, V. I laughed out loud the whole time.
Vito: The best part was hearing Darrell Waltrip surmising that his throttle stuck. Sure, it stuck… until you heard Mikey accelerating, then blurping the throttle a few times while steering him around with his car.
Matt T.: Again, these guys are racers on a short track. This stuff is going to happen. We always complain that “the racing is boring” or the drivers are “too vanilla.” Well, Mikey took care of all that!
Tony: Yeah, it’s not like he did it on pit road or in the garage where someone could’ve got hurt.
Tom: Seriously, though, the last thing Waltrip needs is more negative publicity for sponsor NAPA. They’re nowhere close to being out of the woods with that program; all three teams are sitting 31st, 32nd and 33rd in owner points right now. And there are some pretty good teams underneath them that’ll leapfrog over if they’re not careful.
Tony: I’m surprised that they haven’t been able to capitalize further on their solid start.
Tom: To be honest, Tony, I wonder how much longer before NAPA just throws up their hands and says, “I’ve had it.”
Vito: Hey, NAPA got more exposure with that move than they would have if he was running 12th all night.
Bryan: They made highlight reels for the rest of the season.
Matt T.: Dave Blaney and the No. 22 car is pretty far back in 36th, Tom. MWR is safe for awhile.
Tom: The other thing about this penalty that gets me is just what constitutes a black flag for the rest of the race? It’s a real gray area… sometimes people spin other people out, and it’s a one-lap penalty. Denny Hamlin stops on the track, and it’s a two-lap penalty. But in that case, a caution was caused that changed the outcome of the race; shouldn’t it be more severe? What I’m getting at is these situations should be a little more black and white than they are.
Tony: Oh, yeah; I feel like they pick numbers out of a hat sometimes when they’re determining penalty laps.
Matt T.: But it really has to be on a case-by-case basis, Tom. No two incidents on the track are the same.
Vito: I kind of like how NASCAR approaches each situation differently. It’s short-track racing… that’s what we were expecting. Fightin’, gougin’, beatin’ and bangin’.
Matt T.: Real racin’!
Vito: That’s right. We’ve been conditioned over the last few years to accept this bland, beige, soulless style of racing with no emotion allowed to be displayed ever.
Tom: Well, I can be OK with some subjectivity; but I’ve seen worse than what Waltrip did to Mears, and NASCAR simply look the other way. I just want to know what constitutes them saying, “You can’t come back out there.” I agree with Vito; it definitely was exciting the wreck happened. I’d just like to see a little more clarity as to what brings you to pit road for good.
Vito: But that’s why it’s NASCAR. They make up the rules as they go along. It’s been that way for 60 years.
Bryan: They’re consistent in that regard, if nowhere else.
Matt T.: It actually plays into the suspense.
Tom: Yeah, but the WWE plays to suspense; it doesn’t mean it’s a legally sanctioned sport. There’s “entertainment” in the title for a reason there; NASCAR’s supposed to be a sporting competition.
Matt T.: Sincerely, Tony Stewart.
Bryan: Here’s a thought… stop penalizing drivers and let them sort it out themselves.
Tom: Ha! If we had that, Bryan, Busch is liable to get himself killed. I think we might have rules against that in place simply for his own protection.
Bryan: Thats what I was going for, Tom.
Vito: In two weeks, all will be forgotten. NASCAR handled it right, and Michael accepts it; so if he’s cool with it, let’s move on.

Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Bobby Labonte either signed or are on the verge of signing contract extensions to remain with their current teams far into the future. Which of these moves surprises you, if any; and does that allow some other drivers on the hot seat (Mears, for one) to breathe a sigh of relief?

Bryan: Labonte. I had him pegged with the fourth RCR car weeks ago.
Tony: Definitely Labonte. Unless he sees something at that team that the rest of us don’t.
Tom: The move for Labonte was a real surprise. But I had a source tell me today it’s not a 100% done deal; this is contingent on Medallion Financial investing in the Petty teams. Apparently, their ceiling is in the hundreds of millions… that’s what’s making the difference.
Bryan: Is Medallion going to throw a primary sponsorship of the No. 43 in?
Tom: That’s a good question, Bryan; I don’t know that answer. Supposedly, Petty’s been talking to several other companies; but to seal the deal, they needed to rope Labonte in.
Matt T.: Bobby’s lack of a move really surprised me. I like Bobby, but I just don’t know what he’s expecting to accomplish in the No. 43.
Tony: I wonder if he is content with his one championship and wants to ride into the sunset.
Vito: It’s not like the No. 43 is running God-awful, Matt. All of the Dodge teams are equally mediocre.
Tom: Matt, I think Labonte really may like the challenge of trying to resurrect a legend, too.
Matt T.: OK, but he’s going to run 18th every week doing it.
Tom: But Labonte’s not going to set any records if he moves to RCR; and he’ll be the fourth guy on the totem pole there. It’s kind of hard to win a title when you’re number four, and there’s a lovable veteran named Burton without one ranked ahead of you.
Tony: That’s a good point, Tom; maybe like Stewart, Labonte wants a challenge. But he’s been with Petty for a few years, and I haven’t seen much improvement to date.
Matt T.: Come on, Tom. All three of those RCR cars are in the TOP FIVE! You can’t tell me Labonte couldn’t be right there with them.
Tom: And Scott Wimmer missed the race with the fourth car this weekend, Matt. It ain’t easy to start a team from scratch. Of all the new teams that started in 2007, only Haas’ No. 70 wound up in the Top 35 at the end of the year. Remember, these mega-teams have been purchasing existing outfits to add to their operation… not adding one from scratch.
Tony: Labonte will be the most recent past champion, though, so he’d have that to protect him.
Matt T.: As far as I’m concerned, Tom, there is no fourth team at the moment. Labonte could build one there, and eventually win races in it.
Tom: Yeah; but to play devil’s advocate, what’s going to be more gratifying for Labonte? Winning five more races and a Chase berth in the fourth RCR car, or going out by winning two or three races with the sport’s most legendary team? In that case, he’ll leave the sport knowing that team not only survived, but stepped up a level because of him?
Matt T.: I don’t see that happening. He’s a championship contender again at RCR.
Vito: But if Labonte wins a race in the No. 43, he’ll forever be celebrated. Winning races there will overshadow and foster more memories than his title in 2000.
Matt T.: Resurrecting a legendary ride is noble and all, Vito; but shouldn’t a driver want to win and win often?
Bryan: I’m sure Labonte is far from content not winning week in and week out. That Nationwide Series win he had in 2007 proved he’s still got it behind the wheel.
Tom: Again, Labonte’s proved all he has to prove. If he retires now, he’s a borderline Hall of Famer… that won’t change no matter what he does.
Vito: He’s pretty close with Kyle Petty and does a lot of work with the Pettys for the Victory Junction Gang. Running yourself ragged for 10 months a year might not be his biggest motivation.
Tony: That’s another good point, Vito; his off-the-track responsibilities may be lighter at Petty.
Tom: As for the other half of this question, I think all these drivers staying in one place might open the door for Mears to have a little more time to prove himself. His car owner nearly having Edwards in the bag should be a wake-up call for Mears that he’s running out of time.
Bryan: If a Martin Truex Jr. or Ryan Newman makes noise later this season, Mears is going to be on the bubble.
Vito: Edwards was going to Hendrick??
Matt T.: Yeah, Vito; Edwards admitted that Hendrick sent out a feeler his way. That tells me Casey is on real thin ice; I don’t think he’s going to survive past this season. Not at this rate.
Bryan: There’s no way for Mears to justify how far behind the three Hendrick teams the No. 5 car is.
Tom: Well, there really aren’t a whole lot of drivers coming up the pipe right now. Brad Keselowski, maybe?
Vito: Word is Truex is on the way out at DEI as well; even though Max Seigel has indicated they are going to exercise an option to keep him.
Matt T.: They can exercise all they want. Truex has to agree to terms.
Vito: I wouldn’t want to be Mears, Jamie McMurray or Reed Sorenson right now.
Tom: Vito, Sorenson has been out of the No. 41 since before the season started, I think. That is Dan Wheldon‘s ride to take or leave.
Matt T.: I see Truex as the major player right now. He can make a move regardless of what Tony does. He doesn’t have to wait for that domino to fall.
Vito: But I don’t know why Truex would want to run a fourth Penske car. That just seems silly. DEI has been running great the last few weeks.
Bryan: Truex could take the No. 12, though… Newman’s not set in stone for ‘09.
Vito: Truex to the No. 12, I would get. But… the No. 1 isn’t a bad car. He’s had a top-five car the last two weeks.
Matt T.: I don’t think Truex will go to Penske. If he makes a move, it’ll be to jump in a HMS car. Penske is not a step forward.
Vito: I think he’d be a great fit at Hendrick. Truex and Junior would be a fitting counterpoint to Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. It’s like eyebrows vs. stubble.
Tom: I’m with you, Vito… if Truex bounces, it’ll be to go with his boy Junior. DEI will give him everything he needs to be the No. 1 driver over there if he stays.

Steve Wallace engaged in a war of words with Busch after the two exchanged last-lap contact in the Nationwide Series race Friday night. In that one, Wallace intentionally gave the position he earned back to Busch, washing up the track in fear of getting turned by the No. 32. Was that fair enough to make Busch’s temper tantrum following the race ridiculous?

Bryan: Busch’s tantrum was ridiculous, anyway… for crying out loud, Wallace barely nudged him.
Tony: I think Busch had the right to be a little angry, but his reaction was way over the top. He got bumped on the straightaway, for God’s sake; not in the corner.
Matt T.: Yeah, but I think Kyle was just as upset with the cooldown lap bump.
Tom: All I know is one of the funniest quotes all year came out of Wallace’s mouth when he called Busch a little girl. But in all seriousness, the way in which Wallace got out of the way for the No. 32 shows the reputation Kyle’s developed on the circuit.
Matt T.: Still, I’d say this to Kyle: take your helmet off and wait for Wallace to get out of the car.
Bryan: When are drivers going to realize how pansy it is to go after someone with their helmets still on? Seriously!
Vito: If I was Busch, I wouldn’t be lipping off to Steve Wallace. He looks and sounds like a madman.

PUGLIESE: ONE HAND CLAPPING, ONE MILLION BOOS FOR KYLE BUSCH

Bryan: Busch shouldn’t be messing with anyone in the garage.
Tom: Busch is like that one buddy who has one too many drinks, and then wants to fight the lamp post because he thinks it’s moving.
Vito: Steve could very well run through a brick wall like Kool-Aid Man. OH YEAH!!!
Tom: I do think it would have been one of the scrawniest white boy fights in the history of mankind.
Matt T.: But Busch has plenty of crewmen to keep him safe. He’s like Kevin Harvick early in his career; a grandstander. And this coming from someone who is actually learning to like Kyle!
Tony: I wished I could’ve known what was going through Rusty’s mind at the moment…
Bryan: Rusty was too busy talking about his last win at Richmond to notice.
Matt T.: Well, I’m all for a little pit-road hysterics after a short-track race; so whatever got Kyle all fired up, I’m all for it!
Vito: But Matt, Kyle needs to lighten up. For someone that has done his share of bonehead things on a racetrack, Steve tried to do the right thing after incidental contact. Funny, I didn’t see Dale Junior grabbing a handful of helmet after getting driven into the side of and costing him a win. Busch was mad about getting a spot back??
Bryan: Exactly, Vito… Busch stole a third-place finish with a crappy car and still found a way to cause problems.
Matt T.: But this is part of the equation that made NASCAR what it is. If the guys are pissed off at each other, let ’em sort it out for all to see.

Predictions For Darlington?

Tony: RCR is running well, and Burton is solid at that track… so I’ll go with him.
Bryan: I take great pride in making this pick… Newman takes the heat off Penske for one weekend.
Matt T.: This is a tough one. I’d like to say Greg Biffle, but they’ve been so off lately. I think I’ll take Johnson.
Vito: New surface… old track… hmmm… my heart says Martin, since he’s had a top-two car the last few weeks, and my head says Johnson – so I’ll pick Dale Junior in that badass Mountain Dew car.
Matt T.: Can’t wait for the MD car.
Tom: I think I’m actually going to go where Matt didn’t and side with Biffle. I know he’s been struggling, but the No. 16 was at that tire test this spring. And when you’ve won two of the last three races at a track, that extra time has got to pay off. But honestly, is the Lady In Black a possible answer here? Because I’m trying to figure out how all 43 cars are going to peddle it 200 miles an hour into the turn and survive.
Vito: 200 mph at Darlington. Something isn’t right here.
Bryan: Qualifying will be messy
Tom: The race will be messy.
Vito: They’re going to have to replace those 2x4s they jam in the quarter panels with I-Beams.
Tom: At least Kyle will have a whole lot more company this week when it comes to drivers happy they simply made it out of the track alive.

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.

Last weekend at Richmond, Amy Henderson clung to a slim lead courtesy a 15th-place run by perennial fan favorite Earnhardt Jr.; but unlike Junior, she never recovered from her late race spin and took the Darlington Mirror Driving off. Who will be the new point leader amongst the experts? Tony Lumbis will likely be your answer; after picking Martin last week, his top-five finishes moved him within 11 points of Henderson for the top spot.

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Amy Henderson 1474 -0 11 0 3 6
Tony Lumbis 1463 -11 11 3 5 7
Bryan Davis Keith 1299 -175 8 1 5 7
Mike Neff 1070 -404 8 0 3 5
Vito Pugliese 1022 -452 7 0 5 6
Matt Taliaferro 970 -504 7 0 3 5
Tom Bowles 695 -779 6 0 1 2
Tommy Thompson 500 -974 4 0 2 2
Kurt Smith 435 -1039 5 0 1 1
Beth Lunkenheimer 341 -1133 3 0 1 1
Danny Peters 190 -1284 1 1 1 1
Jeff Meyer 94 -1380 1 0 0 0
Kim DeHaven 0 -1474 0 0 0 0

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