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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Can Humpy Be Replaced? Gordon, Johnson Off The Pace? & How Will Logano Race?

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?)
Vito Pugliese (Tuesdays/Voice Of Vito)
Mike Neff (Wednesdays/Power Rankings & Wednesdays/Full Throttle)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
Bryan Davis Keith (Sundays/Nationwide Series Breakdown)

The Coca-Cola 600 produced long green-flag runs, tire and fuel strategy, and 17 on-track green-flag passes for the lead. Why was it so much better then the rest of the races on the cookie-cutter tracks this year?

Vito: Because four of those passes were for tires blowing out on the leader. I didn’t find it all that compelling… although 600 miles is more of an endurance contest than a normal race.
Tom: I definitely felt that – although we all complained the whole time – the extra test at the beginning of May finally made a difference for the 600. We may have had to suffer through a horrible All-Star Race, but it seems teams might finally be making a little progress on the new car.
Mike: I think the track has something to do with it too, Tom. The asphalt is aging a little bit. Teams are getting a feel for the car. Things are just getting better.
Bryan: Maybe they’ve got more races under their belts?
Amy: I think that’s it, Bryan… they were going to get better with these cars eventually.
Tom: The race also had a different kind of unpredictability to it that we haven’t seen in some of the other intermediate races this year. Every time you thought you had someone ready to dominate out front, something would happen to them.
Vito: It did, Tom, but a lot of that was due to tire (or lugnut) failures. I don’t know if that is such a good thing. I didn’t see any tire failures at Indy or Monaco this weekend…
Tom: Yeah Mike, I do agree with you that the whole loose-wheel phenomenon is getting to be a little bit of an issue. I don’t know if it’s guys being careless on pit road or what, but it’s definitely an abnormal amount of parts breaking in a short period of time.
Mike: I think Biffle had a good point this week. They were using some studs and lugs that are designed to make stops faster. But they seem to lead to more loose wheels, so Roush went back to the old studs and lugs this week and they didn’t seem to have as many.
Amy: It was the best race I’ve seen in a while on a 1.5-mile track though, Vito… it’s not Martinsville, but it was a huge improvement.
Vito: But that’s after spending two weeks at one track… you’d better get a pillow ready for Pocono.
Tom: To me, the question is whether putting a limit on the rear end housing will take these gains away.
Vito: I wonder if these toed-out rear ends have anything to do with it… notice it is always loose rear wheels, not front wheels.
Mike: I don’t think the rear end is going to make too much of a difference. They can still toe it out — just not too far.
Bryan: One thing I’m really not liking about this car… drivers shouldn’t be able to score top fives with pancaked cars like they are.
Mike: You’re right, Vito. You know, this race tended to have some weird twists and turns because of the length and the change in temperature.
Vito: Speaking of twists and turns… one lucky fan had the ultimate souvenir ripped from him. That’s not right.
Bryan: Oh, man; that was ridiculous in the infield!
Mike: Yeah, that was a bummer he didn’t get to keep that tire.
Tom: I’m glad Vickers is going to have stuff sent to the fans, though, because they deserve it.

MCLAUGHLIN: THINKIN’ OUT LOUD AFTER CHARLOTTE

Vito: I’d ask for the decklid and wing in return. Or what was left of it.
Bryan: And the No. 83 team should have dropped off the scrap at the Goodyear hauler like John Andretti did to Jimmy Spencer at Loudon a few years back.
Tom: Alright, back on topic; what it all comes down to is that pit road has become more critical than ever before – for as we all say, all the time, you have a lot more trouble passing with this car. And there’s still the aero push – so three positions on pit road could give you an extra five seconds or more on the racetrack under green before a faster car gets past traffic to reel you in.
Vito: This miserable, awful car…
Amy: I still don’t get the whining about the car, Vito… it’s here to stay, and the race was good this week.
Tom: The thing is – and this driver who’s my NASCAR insider said it best – the car’s not going to go away as long as the fans are still attending races. As soon as people stop going, NASCAR’s going to say, “Oh, wait a minute… we need to make changes.”
Vito: Well, so much for the mantra of “bringing back old-school racing” and “the better drivers will rise to the top.” No, it’s whoever doesn’t have a tire failure, and whoever gets out in front in clean air… more so than ever.
Amy: But whining about it gets nobody anywhere… and this means you, Kyle Busch.
Tom: Yeah, Amy, I agree. It’s one of those situations where at this point, we might be better off working with what we have and pushing for changes to the new car design.
Vito: The problem I have with the car – and further evidence of this occurred with the Haas cars getting yanked on Saturday – these teams are handcuffed. Every little thing they’ve requested is rejected out of hand.
Mike: Well, the Haas cars went through tech inspection and then removed the tabs that are placed on the wings to make adjustments. But I just don’t think the racing is any worse than the older design car, and the statistics say it is better.
Vito: But might NASCAR once – just maybe – listen to the teams, and get these cars to where they can turn and operate in traffic – not stall out behind one another?
Bryan: It just goes to show how radical the change to this car was… there are so many things that are coming out in competition that you just can’t test for.
Amy: Not to say NASCAR doesn’t need to find a way to give teams a place to work, because they do, but the car as a whole is not the entire issue this year… part of it, but not all.
Vito: The tires are another issue as well. It’s hard compounds with 50% less downforce, and just as much if not more straight line speed… not a happy combination.
Amy: Tires are a huge part of the problem, Vito… huge. The bottom line is that drivers and teams are learning this car… so the racing will get better. Part of the problem is the tires, and another part is the racetracks.
Tom: I was just happy to see a normal race on an intermediate track with this new car. It may have taken testing and a preliminary race to get there… but let’s be optimistic and call this something to build on.
Vito: If NASCAR and Goodyear would try, for a lark, what the teams have asked for, I would bet you would see a dramatic change in competition.

Much has been made of Dale Earnhardt Jr. being the top Hendrick driver in points and the most consistent top finisher among the four teams, despite not having a win. But has having Junior on the team somehow hurt those of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson – or are they simply having an off year?

Amy: The Jeff and Jimmie fans will tell you Junior’s getting better stuff. I don’t buy that, but I do see where it’s coming from.
Bryan: After the luck that Gordon and Johnson had last year, they were bound to slow down some.
Vito: They’re playing catch up a little bit. The Nos. 48 and 24 are their own seperate mini-entity at Hendrick. And Gordon has been off a little bit since the end of last season, it seems like.
Tom: Gordon has struggled in traffic – when they don’t have track position, they’re just off for whatever reason.
Vito: The No. 24 has struggled in traffic even when Ray Evernham was working on that car.
Mike: They have been struggling from day one on the intermediate tracks with the new car design. But obviously, they’re getting better at it, and in the long run they’ll get it figured out. Probably right in time to make a run for the championship.
Bryan: Not winning the title last season after 30 top 10s had to shake Gordon’s team a bit.
Mike: But Gordon was awesome during the Chase – Johnson was just stronger. As Jimmie has even said, they were pushing for the title and didn’t test the new car on the intermediate tracks enough because of that.
Amy: Right, Mike – I do think that the 24/48 combo got behind this year as a product of having to focus on the Chase. But for those two teams to be this far off… that absolutely floors me this year.
Tom: But also, Amy, you have to remember Gordon was at the top of his game last year. Heck, he had the championship wrapped up by Texas under the old system. I think he’s allowed to have somewhat of a slump – although certainly, the start of the season hasn’t gone quite as expected.
Amy: You have to laugh at that, Tom… were it not for the Chase, which was made to make racing “more exciting,” you’d have Gordon going for his seventh title this year… which would actually be exciting.
Mike: Y’all do realize both Gordon and Johnson are in the Chase as of now, right?
Bryan: For crying out loud… both cars are in the top 10 in points!
Tom: Bryan’s right. Gordon is 10th and has five top-five finishes under his belt. Five. Only Busch has more. Gordon’s just had a few more DNFs which have made the difference… that’s why he’s a little farther down in the points. But bad luck was going to hit them sometime…
Vito: Five top fives, six top 10s and two poles… there are a lot of teams that would kill to be “struggling” like the No. 24 is.
Amy: A slump is four or five mediocre races. This is 11 for both those teams. They’re in the Chase, yes, but if it started right now, I feel neither would truly contend… and that is weird.
Bryan: But just because they aren’t smoking the field isn’t a reason to hit the panic button over at Hendrick.
Mike: Gordon finished fourth Sunday night.
Vito: And Johnson and Gordon are only around 100 points out of fourth place. If they have a good weekend and a few guys stumble up front, they’re right in the conversation again.
Mike: Oh, they’re right there; and with Earnhardt running like he is, they’ll certainly be championship contenders by the end of the year.
Vito: Gibbs and Toyota just got off to a better start, while Hendrick cars both had a miserable Daytona 500 experience.
Tom: And Lowe’s was exactly the type of scenario for Gordon I was talking about a few weeks ago. It’s a scenario where Steve Letarte needed to step up to the plate… and he delivered. The car was junk, they needed a solid finish, and he pulled the fuel mileage trigger. Brillilant. Now that they’re in this hole due to the DNFs, that’s the type of gutsy call from the box they need.
Bryan: Letarte has definitely come into his own with this team.
Mike: I don’t know how gutsy the call was, though. The car wasn’t strong, and they had a chance to take a gamble and pull off a good finish.
Amy: Well, part of that was having Knaus to learn from, too. Considering his depth of knowledge, I am surprised the Nos. 24 and 48 have not caught up much more quickly.
Tom: The No. 48 was in contention to win late until the engine blew. Here’s a point I thought of in the last couple of days. Johnson and Gordon don’t have to run well right now. As long as they make the Chase – which they’re comfortably in – the pressure is not on them. Instead, all eyes are focused on Junior… and I wonder if that means something extra for the No. 88. The push to finish up front is definitely higher over there right now.
Vito: With 700-plus employees, it’s not all about Junior. Having said that, Tony and Dale are effectively working with a new team; I’d say they’re doing exceptional for being the new kid on the block.
Tom: No wins though, Vito. Sorry, but I need one to call that exceptional. I will say it’s exceeded expectations – that’s for sure.
Vito: But with a new team as entrenched with two other drivers such as Hendrick? I’d say they’re doing better than expected. I wouldn’t have dreamt in a million years that the ex-No. 25 team would be performing in anything other than an R&D capacity has they had the previous 15 years.
Bryan: The No. 88 has run like gangbusters on every type of track, led laps everywhere and had no luck but bad luck… as far as I’m concerned, their performance is exceptional.
Vito: And we’ve all heard the mantra from every team in the garage area; if you’re off a little bit, you’re off a ton. Take away things out of the No. 8 team’s control, and they have two wins already this season.
Amy: But why did you think the team wouldn’t perform, Vito? Hendrick made the No. 5 the R&D car instead. They weren’t going to make Mr. Popularity the R&D driver…
Vito: Everything is fine at Hendrick Dynasty. Four months from now, we’ll be marveling how three of their teams are in the Chase, duking it out with Gibbs’s three Toyota drivers.
Tom: I just hope Junior wins, Vito; because at the end of the year, the only thing that matters is the bottom line on that stats sheet.
Amy: I think… I understand where the fans are coming from, but I don’t really believe Junior’s getting better stuff. Like Tom said, maybe Junior just has more to prove.
Bryan: Gordon and Johnson have simply come back to earth, too. No one can stay on the run like they were on last year forever.
Mike: But like Vito said, Hendrick is fine. They’ll take the Chase by the throat and everyone will be bitching they were sandbagging all year.

H.A. “Humpy Wheeler, NASCAR’s top promotor, made a surprise retirement announcement last week and was officially finished at Lowe’s Motor Speedway after 32 years at the conclusion of the Coca-Cola 600. What will Humpy’s replacement have to do to win the fans and drivers, and is Humpy really retiring, or will he move on?

Bryan: Humpy will move on. With all the rumors that he got pushed out the door, it doesn’t sound to me like he’s cooled on racing.
Vito: I have a feeling you will see Humpy appear somewhere else at another racetrack, doing for them what he did for NASCAR and the city of Charlotte as a whole.
Amy: Will he promote another track the way he did LMS? I doubt that, but he’ll do something interesting for sure… more than just writing a book.
Tom: I don’t know, guys. The thing is, Humpy isn’t young… he’s in his late 60s. I find it hard to believe that he can suddenly start over and turn everything around somewhere else.
Mike: In the meantime, his replacement needs to blow up everything in sight for the fall race. But Humpy already has three things working, guys – he’ll be busy.
Tom: I just can’t shake the thought that there is more to Humpy leaving than meets the eye, though. I don’t think he would have been so weird in public about it if there wasn’t some discord somewhere.
Vito: Yeah, that did seem a bit odd, Tom.
Bryan: And Humpy dropped some subtle bombshells all weekend.
Amy: I just don’t think him leaving was anywhere near on his terms, and he’s still got a lot to offer.
Mike: Humpy will be successful no matter where he goes as long as the owner lets him.
Vito: Hey, if Humpy can organize bus jumps and an armed helicopter rescue of Lug Nut from the frontstretch grass, then dammit, he can do anything he pleases!
Tom: But the one thing that sticks out to me is just the timing. Most people agree the racing has been a struggle ever since the levigation at Lowe’s. So, why would Humpy leave now – before Lowe’s has resurfaced as one of the best venues on the circuit? When there’s talk of moving the All-Star Race from his beloved track? There’s something that doesn’t make sense.
Amy: NASCAR should hire him as director of fan relations. Seriously, imagine what NASCAR could do to fix its image problems if they hired Humpy and then actually listened to him?
Mike: That’s the key Amy. Would they listen to him?
Tom: I don’t see Humpy getting hired by Brian France. The comments Humpy makes are just too negative towards where the sport is heading sometimes for them to suddenly want to work with him. I could be surprised, but he always seems to talk of the modern day leadership as “they.” Let me tell you, this was a guy that called Bill France Jr. by name when he was around – there seems to be a disconnect here with his son.
Mike: Personally, I think they will hire him for the Hall of Fame instead.
Bryan: The Hall of Fame would make sense, but I don’t think “it has enough commodes” for him.
Tom: I just don’t see Humpy being able to promote that with the same vigor he would a racetrack, either. But then again, I don’t see him starting over at his age somewhere else… so, I don’t know.
Bryan: Tom, unless you’ve heard something, I don’t think age is really a factor here. Humpy’s press conference this weekend was rather vivacious; he’s still charging along.
Tom: I thought he would have more of a slam bang ending on Sunday, to be honest. Although I loved his speech to the fans…
Bryan: Bruton Smith aside, a lot about Humpy that needed to be said got said this weekend. What a great asset to the sport.

Joey Logano makes his long-awaited NASCAR Nationwide Series debut at Dover. What can fans expect from the young phenom – and what can Logano expect from his first big-time NASCAR race?

Vito: In a Gibbs Toyota – that they will fine tune to ensure that their investment does well in – a top 15 is reasonable for Logano.
Mike: I think he’ll finish in the top 10.
Amy: I think the kid will do well – he’s in very good equipment – and a top 10 isn’t out of the question. But I do think the competition from here on out will be so much more fierce than anything he’s ever seen.
Tom: Personally, I think it’s a little silly to expect Logano to win the first time out. A top 10 would be good… but a top-five, even a top-three finish isn’t out of the question.
Bryan: His car will be among the best in the field.
Amy: I’m looking forward to seeing the driver who is making Tony Stewart expendable, that’s for sure. He sure put a hurting on the field at Rockingham in the ARCA race.
Bryan: Everything Logano has done goes out the window this weekend… he will not pull what he did at the Rock regardless of how good his car is. Walloping an ARCA field is nothing compared to the upper levels of NASCAR.
Mike: I agree. Talent levels are a lot higher the higher you go up in series.
Tom: And because of that, I think the most important thing is to temper expectations for this kid. Even with Stewart potentially leaving, Gibbs Racing does NOT need a savior right now, even if Stewart takes off. Heck, they’re leading the points in Cup and have been the most dominant team in the Nationwide Series. They have all the time in the world to give him to develop.
Mike: It is going to be interesting to see what Logano does. I know they’re going to try and rein him in, but he’s fast in whatever he runs in, and I can’t see him being any different in a Nationwide car.
Vito: And Logano has a level head on his shoulders. Kyle Busch, he is not.
Bryan: So far, Vito… so far.
Tom: Everyone starts out a good kid, to some degree… but the best ones are able to keep it from getting to their head. However, based on everything we’ve seen and heard, it looks like people around Logano understand that, and are determined to make sure he stays a good kid.
Mike: And listening to JD and Joe at the press conference at Charlotte, they’re certainly not going to push this kid to make the jump to Cup. I think he’ll be OK.
Tom: I agree with you, Mike; but past history is littered with “young guns” who were cast aside and didn’t make it. I don’t think Logano’s going to be one of those people… but you still have to be careful.
Vito: Kind of funny how Roush let this kid walk away from them without so much as batting an eyelash. Stupid.
Mike: When did Roush have his hooks in him?
Vito: 2005. Mark Martin found him, and was pretty tight with his family. He said that he would want the kid to replace him in the No. 6 when he retired – but Geoff Smith didn’t want to talk to his dad, so he went to Gibbs. Mark was pretty mad about it. I think he raced with Matt Martin in the late ’90s… that’s how he got to know them.
Amy: Bearing in mind that he was 15 at the time, that says a lot for him and his potential talent.
Tom: Well, for his own well-being Logano should be treated like any other prospect – major potential, just not expected to set the world on fire the second he gets in a car.
Vito: But he is so far ahead of the game it isn’t even funny, Tom. Gibbs is probably the best place for him, too. It’s big enough that he has all the resources in the world, but small enough to get some personal attention and mentoring.
Bryan: I don’t know, Vito…this whole thing with Stewart possibly leaving is not a good situation for him to be in.
Amy: I agree… who’s going to mentor him, Kyle Busch? Great role model there.
Bryan: And Denny Hamlin’s no better.
Vito: I was thinking J.D. and Joe.
Tom: But do you think Stewart is mentoring either Hamlin or Kyle Busch now?
Bryan: Stewart has done some work with Hamlin; but no one is going to mentor Rowdy.
Mike: Actually, Logano said that Kyle Busch, of all people, has really been helpful to him – especially when it comes to off the track stuff and being a teenager in the sport.
Tom: Sounds to me like Logano doesn’t need a mentor within his own organization. Hey, Carl Edwards still goes to Martin for advice – who’s to say Logano can’t do the same?
Mike: Joey said a lot of the drivers have been very helpful to him, and I think the whole garage wants to see him succeed.
Bryan: He’s been hyped so much, he almost needs to succeed.
Vito: But Logano’s humble, and willing to learn and take advice and input. He will be successful, and I think it will come sooner than many think.
Amy: I agree with that… but he’s under a lot of pressure for anyone. He’s expected to win right away, and that’s not always practical thinking.
Mike: I don’t think Gibbs expects him to win right away, though. And that is the most important thing.
Bryan: Exactly, Mike. We can yap all we want – but if JD is patient, who cares?

Predictions for Dover?

Mike: Edwards has enough fuel to win it this week.
Bryan: God’s gift to racing – Rowdy Busch – graces victory lane again.
Amy: I like Martin Truex Jr. repeating last year’s success at his home track.
Vito: I went with my head last week and got burned with Vickers’s wheel falling off. So, I’m going with my heart and picking Martin. He finished fourth here last race in his first DEI-built car following the Ginn merger, and Dover is his second favorite track next to Charlotte. Don’t forget, the No. 8 team has been money as of late… on tracks under 1.5 miles.
Tom: I think that I’m going to have to go with Truex, too. He’s been picking up the pace a bit as of late, and this is a critical race for him to get his season jumpstarted.

2008 Mirror Prediction Chart

Not sure which writer’s prediction to trust? Well, here’s a little inside info for you – our 2008 Mirror Prediction Chart tracks just how well their picks are panning out. Every week, we give each writer the number of Sprint Cup points his driver earned during the race – and if they skipped out on Mirror, well, then, they’re plumb out of luck! At the end of the season, we’ll tally up the totals and crown our Mirror Driving champion – chief prognosticator amongst all our experts! Editor-In-Chief Tom Bowles won the award in 2007.

Right now, it appears Tony Lumbis has a firm grip on first place for this year’s award; but he better watch out! Both Amy Henderson and Bryan Davis Keith remain well within striking distance one third of the way through the season – and by taking this week off, Lumbis is giving each of them a free chance to gain serious ground on him.

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Tony Lumbis 1844 -0 14 3 5 8
Amy Henderson 1761 -83 13 1 4 7
Bryan Davis Keith 1516 -328 10 1 6 8
Vito Pugliese 1376 -468 10 0 6 8
Mike Neff 1171 -673 9 0 3 5
Matt Taliaferro 1094 -750 8 0 3 5
Tom Bowles 924 -920 9 0 1 3
Kurt Smith 573 -1271 6 0 1 2
Tommy Thompson 500 -1344 4 0 2 2
Beth Lunkenheimer 341 -1503 3 0 1 1
Danny Peters 190 -1654 1 1 1 1
Jeff Meyer 94 -1750 1 0 0 0
Kim DeHaven 0 -1844 0 0 0 0

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