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)
Mike Neff (Wednesdays/Power Rankings & Wednesdays/Full Throttle)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
Bryan Davis Keith (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans & Sundays/Nationwide Series Breakdown)
At the midpoint of the season, this year’s championship picture is taking shape, and the two strongest candidates right now are looking like Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. But who makes a better potential champion for NASCAR in the big picture – the brash, outspoken multiple-race winner Busch, or the mild-mannered Earnhardt, a picture of consistency with fewer wins but more fans?
Mike: Who would NASCAR like? Probably Earnhardt Jr. But the best spokesperson for the sport would probably be Busch.
Tony: Actually, they both have strengths. Kyle speaks more clearly, but what he says sure ticks off people. Earnhardt isn’t always the most eloquent speaker, but he is much more of a “fan friendly” guy.
Amy: Big picture, Earnhardt is better for NASCAR’s image.
Bryan: I agree, Amy… what better way to cap the year that the fans were supposed to get the sport back then by an Earnhardt hoisting the Cup.
Vito: But Busch is the odds on favorite to win it. He’s just getting warmed up, and has won seven times already. The only car that can contend with him isn’t Junior – it’s Carl Edwards.
Mike: In the long run, I still think Jimmie Johnson is the car to beat by the time the Chase gets here. They are getting closer and closer to making that car right. But I think Busch is the better option if you just make it between him and Dale Jr. Busch could end up being the Most Popular Driver in the series in 10 years.
Tom: Well, right now it’s Earnhardt who would be the more popular choice with the fans. But in a weird way, I think Busch is the better option if NASCAR wants to get more in touch with its roots. Busch certainly doesn’t have the rough-and-tumble, blue-collar upbringing of the Intimidator, but he’s not afraid to move people aside on the racetrack and push some buttons. I think over time that’s going to lead to a better fit.
Amy: Busch’s attitude is not exactly the corporate image NASCAR needs, though.
Tony: Which, in a way, is kind of cool, Amy. We’ve had “corporate friendly” champs for too long. It’s time to get back to racing’s roots.
Vito: To me, the championship doesn’t mean quite what it used to with the Chase, and honestly I think it has been diluted quite a bit from what it used to represent.
Bryan: Agreed, Vito. Unless the Chase winner strings three or four wins together to defeat Busch, it isn’t going to look right.
Mike: I’m with you, Bryan. But I think Johnson could very well do that when the final 10 races get here.
Vito: And that’s a shame. A 36-week bloodbath is what this used to be. Now, it’s hang around for eight months, have three to 10 teams race safely in, then scramble like crazy for the last few spots for only about five teams.
Tony: It really depends on what kind of sports you like. The 36-race season made NASCAR unique, but if you like more traditional sports, then the playoff system is your thing.
Tom: I still think we should give certain Chase champions their due. Only twice has the playoff winner overruled what would have been the champ under the old system – 2004 and 2007.
Vito: That would give Jeff Gordon six titles, Tom. I’d say that’s pretty significant.
Tom: Great point. Can’t argue that.
Mike: I still argue that Gordon would not have won the year that Johnson blew that big lead heading into the Chase. They were experimenting with a lot of stuff that cost them a ton of points they would not have lost under the old system.
Tom: I think in very many ways, all of us ache for that old system, Mike. But that’s not what this question is about. It’s about what direction the sport is headed. Is the Earnhardt name the most important brand in this sport to sell? Or is having Busch as champion the way for NASCAR to head in a new direction?
Amy: I think Gordon going for seven would be a huge story compared to the contrived excitement of the Chase, but that’s just me. And I don’t know, Tom, but when I think of someone who is truly a good spokesman for NASCAR, I think of Johnson or even Junior – but not Busch.
Bryan: If Busch is the “direction” of NASCAR, I’m bolting for ARCA.
Vito: To me, this speaks to the heart of the problem: Symbolism over substance – creating excitement where it doesn’t need to be created. Busch would be every bit a deserving champion, as would Dale Jr. As far as how popular it would be… does it matter? The season starts again in 10 weeks after the last race anyway, and it starts with the biggest race of the year.
Tony: It’s not necessarily a bad thing for NASCAR to have a champion like Kyle Busch. DW was “Busch-like” back in the day, and the sport didn’t fall apart when he won it all.
Tom: I agree, Tony. We as reporters ask these drivers to speak their mind… we want an injection of personality. But when a driver goes off the beaten path – when he acts immature – we chastise him, push him back into a shell where he’s forced to shut up. I don’t think that’s fair.
Amy: But there is a happy medium, Tom.
Bryan: And it is more than possible to be brash, a bad boy, without being a total jackass. Busch hasn’t figured that out yet.
Mike: I love the way Kyle speaks his mind and the way he drives. I think he’d be a great champion.
Tom: I think both Busch and Earnhardt do a great job of speaking their mind, and I would be content with either one as the champ.
Amy: Don’t forget that Junior’s not afraid to speak his mind, but he doesn’t mock the fans, throw his team under the bus, or embarrass his sponsors.
Bryan: Amy makes good points on all three.
Mike: You must not listen to Junior’s radio conversations much. He’ll throw his team under the bus in a heartbeat.
Amy: But on the radio, in private, is way different than in a TV interview. And Kyle doing it when he finishes 10th is just obnoxious.
Tom: See, that public image is exactly the problem for me. Hendrick Motorsports has been on top for two-plus years now, and their image is – shall we say – clean cut. A little rough around the edges champ like Busch wouldn’t be bad for anyone.
Vito: When Tony Stewart says something and mouths off, everybody likes it because he doesn’t shave, is chubby and has a mullet. When Busch does it, he’s a spoiled brat. What’s the difference?
Mike: I agree, Vito. I think it’s all about the age. Again, when Kyle is 10 years older, he’s going to be the Most Popular Driver in the sport.
Tony: We need heroes and we like villains, and sometimes, the villain has to win to give the heroes someone to defeat the next year.
Tom: Exactly, Tony. Junior may be popular, but hero worship is not what’s going to get fans back in the seats.
Vito: With the money that Busch donates to Kyle Petty’s charity and his brother’s cause, I would hardly call him a “villain.” That is terribly unfair.
Tony: That’s how the fans view him though, Vito. Maybe “antagonist” is the better word. Every sport has them.
Vito: Well, every time he pulls out one of those Bill Laimbeer bows, he goes up a few notches in my book.
Tom: You know, Nate Ryan made a good point about Busch’s popularity on SPEED Channel the other day. Even if Busch makes moves on the track that remind us of the Intimidator, there’s a question as to whether fans will embrace him, because he’s still a high-brow kid from Las Vegas – not a blue-collar hero. But at the same time, that’s going to be the closest thing they’ll get to Dale Sr. in this generation of the sport. So, I think they may have no choice but to embrace him over time.
Amy: Tom, that’s part of it, but Earnhardt was the type of person you’d have wanted to spend a day with – not because of his roots necessarily – but just because of the person he was.
Mike: I’d love to spend a day with Kyle though. He is very smart and a great conversationalist – not to mention the dude knows as much about the car as any driver in the garage.
Vito: Obviously, Junior would be a popular champion, but I hardly think Kyle would be an embarrassment. When you see him in the garage area with his fellow drivers, he is completely different than he is perceived on television.
Tony: People were worried about Kurt, too, but when he won it, he was respectable… except for the final few races of his defending year.
Amy: Kurt was respectable because he basically shut up and didn’t say anything stupid.
Tony: And Kyle may surprise many and do the same thing.
Amy: He might. But given that he has shown no inclination to shut up thus far …
Tom: Is that really what got us involved in the sport though, Amy – that got us interested in it long before we started covering it? When we first became fans, was it because of guys who shut up – or guys who spoke their minds and did some aggressive talking both on the track and off it?
Amy: What got me interested in the sport was the drivers, but it was also the sounds and the racing itself.
Mike: You know, I didn’t realize before this weekend that Kyle doesn’t get paid for driving the No. 51 truck.
Bryan: The guys that run the Truck Series full-time might as well not get paid, Mike.
Mike: I think they take home a pretty good check. The owners are the ones who should be whining about not getting paid.
Amy: Well, Busch took that ride from someone looking for a full-time ride, too – so you’ll get no kudos from me. Look, the bottom line is that Earnhardt is a better spokesman for the sport, and that’s my opinion – but Kyle’s record is what it is and if he wins it, he’ll deserve it.
Vito: I wouldn’t say that, Amy. Half the time lately Junior looks like he’s going to nod off in mid-sentence.
Tom: Amy, this sport doesn’t need spokesmen. It needs individuality.
Tony: NASCAR will be just fine with either one. True, they will lead in very different directions, but hell, that direction will only change again in November 2009 – so there is really no need to worry about it either way.
Mike: There’s no question that Junior winning the title would be huge for the sport; but unless he wins some more races or beats Kyle handily in the Chase, he won’t deserve it. And I still maintain that the No. 48 is going to be the team to beat when we get down to the last 10 races.
Amy: That would be a cool storyline – Cale Yarborough‘s record tied by the kid who idolized him growing up.
Tom: You know, instead of sitting back, listening to the crew chief and preserving his point lead, Kyle’s not afraid to dig in and go against the sport’s Most Popular Driver. That’s where I’d like to see Junior grow more of a backbone. Yes, he speaks his mind, but don’t be afraid to mix it up sometimes.
Mike: Just look at Chicago to see how hard Kyle Busch will push it. He’ll take a car that was going to finish second but got one more shot to win, and push it that little bit harder and made it stick to steal the victory.
Bryan: I have a hard time believing that the 41 other drivers in the Chicago race wouldn’t have made that move, though. Especially with a big points lead in the Chase era.
Mike: I can bet there are at least 10-15 who wouldn’t have.
Tom: I agree, Mike. The number is probably even closer to 50/50. And that’s not good.
JTG Racing announced last week it will go Cup racing in 2009 with Marcos Ambrose driving and a new co-owner in Brad Daugherty. Is this team ready for that step? The move also means that Daugherty becomes the second broadcaster to own cars racing on the circuit he covers. Is that a conflict of interest, and should it be happening at all?
Bryan: JTG is going to get their heads handed to them in 2009. Ambrose is not ready for Cup, and that team isn’t even consistently top 10 in the Nationwide Series.
Tony: I’m not sure that they’re ready for this, either. I really liked the way the HoF Racing came into the series, and JTG should mirror them – put a past champion in for the first five races and try to get themselves established before putting Ambrose in.
Mike: I don’t have a problem with Daugherty owning and commentating, though. It would be different if he were a NASCAR official…
Tom: I think owning a Cup team and then being forced to comment on the issues facing the sport can be both a positive and a negative. But it’s definitely a slippery slope.
Amy: I agree with Tom. It’s hard to be objective on some things.
Tony: We already see drivers with sons or brothers trying not to be biased in the booth, and they slip up. Daugherty will probably do the same.
Vito: You know, this team might want to win a Nationwide race before wasting a Friday afternoon at a Cup event. I don’t think Brad is going to have much to be conflicted about come Sunday.
Mike: Bryan’s right: they are going to get crushed. Ambrose is a good driver, but JTG has been working with the Woods, and they haven’t been showing much strength.
Amy: I think they’re making a mistake, honestly. I like Ambrose and think he has the talent, but the team as a whole is just not ready.
Tom: The only thing that makes me hesitate to agree is just how many other teams are going to close up shop between 2008 and 2009. I mean, we might struggle to get 43-car fields without some start-and-parks. So when you look at it that way, this team won’t be missing races – they’ll have time to develop. Maybe that’s why they’re doing it… it’s the only reason I can think of. I’ll tell you one thing, though, this looks like Death’s door for the Wood Brothers right now.
Bryan: But it’s not going to do Ambrose any favors to be running with the Front Row Motorsports entries week-in and week-out, because that’s where they will be.
Vito: Maybe Todd Braun can go Cup racing next year, too, along with Jason Leffler.
Bryan: Move Leffler somewhere and give James Buescher a ride.
Vito: If they’d cut the Top-35 rule to Top 25, then yeah, maybe this move would be worth a shot. But come on; the sponsor is going to get taken to the cleaners, and 50 guys are going to be unemployed by the second Pocono race.
Amy: I don’t see a single-car team succeeding in today’s NASCAR. Even Robby Gordon has slipped from just last year.
Mike: I just can’t imagine they are going to be any better than the Woods, and I don’t think Ambrose is that good of a qualifier.
Tony: And as we’ve said before in this forum, there are more qualified veterans who should be getting a shot before a rookie who needs more time to develop.
Tom: To a degree, Tony. For as much as I love people like Ricky Craven, Ward Burton and Steve Park, their record of success is long in the past at this point. And most of the other veterans left look to be snapped up, with the notable exception of Jeremy Mayfield. On a side note, I will say it’s nice to see a new team with a new owner entering the top level of the sport.
Tony: It is refreshing Tom, and it’s been a while before we say a new team enter and be competitive (Evernham, maybe?) But I really think they should look at HoF’s plan for entering.
Mike: I think a big part of why they’re doing it is that the purses are so much larger in Cup that making half of the Cup races will pay more than making all of the Nationwide races and running top 15.
Vito: To me, it isn’t about fielding a competitive team. There is a chance to make some money, and get Marcos some Cup exposure in the process. This isn’t Stewart-Haas we’re talking about here, which is a team that actually has a chance of competing.
Bryan: And Tony’s right. JTG should look at HoF’s plan and realize that the team it’s allying with needs to be competitive in the first place. HoF had help from JGR… help from the Wood Brothers isn’t going to help get them into the field anytime soon.
Mike: But HoF is aligned with JGR, and they still struggle to make races.
Tony: When they entered a few years ago, starting from scratch, they did a really good job. They messed up by replacing Tony Raines.
Bryan: Why Haas hasn’t put Raines in that No. 70 is still blowing my mind.
Tom: Again, the way we’re headed, making the field next year just may not be a problem. We’re already down to 43 full-time teams now. Let’s say JTG replaces the Wood Brothers as a full-time team… we’re adding one more in Richard Childress Racing. But there’s up to six that could also go away.
Bryan: It’s a valid concern. But if Ambrose is content to run 38th every weekend, it’s a dream come true.
Mike: I still think it is a big mistake for JTG. I don’t blame them for putting Ambrose in the car, though. He can wheel it as well as anyone else in middle-of-the-pack-equipment.
Tom: I think one thing to consider here too – and it’s awful to say – is NASCAR has a $225 million lawsuit on its hands, a lawsuit that is claiming racial discrimination. All of a sudden, we have the most visible African-American spokesman for the sport owning a Cup team. I’m just throwing it out there.
Amy: I just think they’d be better off pushing for a Nationwide championship. Maybe running a solid two-car operation in that series and moving up when they are on solid ground there.
Vito: Bottom line, I see this having all of the competitiveness as the No. 36 360 OTC team had last season for Bill Davis Racing. And that’s being generous.
With all the engines being taken for dynamometer tests in the Nationwide Series, one piece of news from the series’ swing through Gateway was virtually overlooked: the confiscation of illegal brake calipers from Edwards’s No. 60 car at Chicago. NASCAR chose not to penalize the team, as it was a “first offense.” Is not punishing teams for a first infraction fair, or should the team have gotten a penalty?
Amy: That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.
Tony: It’d be a little less ridiculous if that precedent was followed before…
Vito: Well, NASCAR never really explains why a car was illegal or what, if any, the perceived performance advantage would have been. But in this case… unless they’re anti-lock brakes, who cares?
Bryan: Edwards’s calipers definitely didn’t seem to have much of a competitive advantage.
Amy: But “first offense” as an excuse is silly. Truex’s penalty was the first time his team had the roof too low, too. Should we give him a free pass? It may be the Nationwide team’s first offense, but it isn’t the driver’s or owner’s.
Mike: It depends on what was wrong with the calipers. If it was just some measurement issue, then I don’t have a problem with it. If it was a blatant attempt to circumvent the rules, then they should have been penalized.
Tom: It’s not necessarily a template violation, though, so I think 100 or 150 points would have been too harsh. But certainly, it doesn’t help shed the image of Edwards’s teams doing things on the shady side. Can someone say “oil cover?”
Vito: Well, what was the problem? Weight? If it’s unsprung weight, then it was probably a caliper that had not been specifically legislated against, or material that was non-conforming – but not outlawed.
Tom: In which case, Vito, you’d hope the sport would actually make up some rules about it. Based on their findings.
Amy: The report just said illegal calipers.
Tony: We have this same argument every time a penalty comes up. It’s a question of how much advantage was really given, and until NASCAR finds a way to accurately measure that, we will never see “fair” rulings.
Vito: Here is my problem with this: Just because something is “illegal” or unapproved, that does not constitute cheating. We need to take a step back here before we go running off at the mouth about fines and rules violations. This is a sport that already has way too many rules, and every square inch of the car is boxed in with mandates and limitations. That’s the whole point of auto racing: trying to find a competitive advantage.
Amy: Still, illegal is illegal… you can’t just brush that off. The penalty itself should be based on when it was found, and how much of an advantage there was. But every infraction should be penalized.
Bryan: It sounds like the problem here is more how NASCAR handled it. Go figure, right?
Mike: I want to know what was illegal. If it was a gray area thing, then they may be justified in not penalizing them.
Bryan: And that’s just it, Mike. If NASCAR came out and said what was up, a ton of this speculation would be gone.
Amy: The report said illegal, guys – not questionable or in the gray area.
Mike: So maybe the person who wrote up the report misspoke. I can’t imagine NASCAR wouldn’t penalize them if they were blatantly illegal.
Vito: Um, this is the same sport that fined Edwards for having low quarterpanels, and therefore, less downforce at Dover – a downforce track… a couple of years ago!
Bryan: Let’s not forget the fact that the No. 60 struggled to a 16th-place run in the race in question.
Amy: But legal cars finished 17th on back, Bryan. Look, here’s my take on illegal: if you can get it by the inspectors, it’s fair game. But if you get caught, you should get busted, and not just by the teams NASCAR feels like punishing. The penalties should be based on when they are found and by how much of an advantage is gained.
Tom: I think Bryan’s got the best point of all in this. If you’re going to make an unclear statement — especially if that unclear statement defies precedent — you end up with confusion and controversy.
Bryan: It just goes to show how much NASCAR is bringing on itself by being so vague.
Tony: I feel like we’ve discussed this about 10 times so far this year, and the season is only halfway over. This is a sure sign that a penalty system needs to be the No. 1 priority this offseason.
Bryan: We’ve spent 15 minutes dissecting the inconsistencies of enforcement, when all NASCAR needed to do was include a sentence about what was wrong with the calipers in their report.
Amy: I think there should have been a smaller penalty (25 points and a fine) just to get the point across. Either that, or every team now gets a freebie on their first infraction.
Tony: Interesting point, Amy, but the danger there is that a team needs to make up ground late in the Chase and has saved a “freebie” for that very situation.
Bryan: And as for the explanation that it was their first infraction; man, was that a dumb statement. Does the word precedent mean anything to NASCAR?
Vito: To me, this is like Mark Martin at Richmond in 1990 – the spacer penalty. It added nothing, especially on a short track where it was 30 degrees out that day; but NASCAR gave them the penalty anyway. They just need to spell out specifically what the violation was to help remove any doubt from anyone’s mind. I assume the reason they didn’t in this case was so as not to give anyone else any ideas.
Tom: Good point, but in NASCAR’s case, what everyone doesn’t know does hurt the sport as a whole.
Bryan: This could all be solved if NASCAR did a better job writing their reports. Hey, Brian France, I’m for hire!
Vito: NASCAR has a way of making things right in their own way. This could be a payback for something that happened earlier this year that they felt they made a mistake with. It’s no different than a referee keeping it even with penalties in football.
Tony: Like I said, they need to assign a team to work on a thorough and consistent penalty system, and do it ASAP so we have one ready to implement in the offseason.
Amy: I agree with Tony. It isn’t rocket science to have a clear and consistent disciplinary system.
Tony: Yep. I’m sure there will be a few instances that would slip through the cracks, but they should be few and far between.
Mike: There are so many things on a car that can be wrong, though. It is extremely hard to make a black and white rulebook for things that have thousands of pieces on them.
Tom: Agreed, Mike. I think all they can do is the best they can. What they really need to do is fix what Bryan said… the explanations. So much gets lost in translation, and that’s what creates these descriptive messes.
Once again, the Craftsman Truck Series has the closest points battle raging as summer heats up, with the top six within 101 points of one another and only five markers separating the top three. What’s the difference between that series and the Cup and Nationwide divisions when it comes to the points championship?
Tom: It hurts the Cup Series to say it, but a shorter schedule. Even without the Chase, there’s a bigger sense of urgency – each race is more meaningful.
Amy: Two words: Finances and parity. There’s less separation between the haves and the have nots.
Bryan: Agreed, Amy.
Tony: There’s definitely more even teams. It seems like every year in Cup, there are one or two dominant teams – but not so in the trucks.
Vito: And trucks are inherently un-aerodynamic, no matter how many splitters, spoilers, and Lexan windows you strap onto them.
Vito: And the races are shorter, so it’s all out as soon as the green flag drops.
Bryan: The aero stuff can’t be underestimated.
Tom: Also, you’re talking a lot of drivers with nothing to prove – most of them have already been there, done that as far as the Cup Series is concerned. They’re not in the Truck Series to collect a check – they’re there to race and to win.
Amy: And they don’t need the stupid Chase to do it.
Tony: When you drive harder, too, more unfortunate things are likely to happen to you, so it’s harder to pull away in the points.
Tom: Yeah, it’s also been one of those weird years in the Truck Series where everyone has had a few problems. As much as you can bash Kyle Busch, he’s halfway responsible for the close points battle… he’s spun out two of the top three, and helped clear the way for the third to win his first race ever and establish momentum.
Amy: The Truck Series is just so underrated… and it’s the best racing at the top level of NASCAR.
Predictions for Indianapolis?
Amy: I will fall asleep, as the track is not made for stock cars. Then I’ll wake up as Kevin Harvick gets even for last year with a win.
Mike: Earnhardt Jr. ties his father’s record for wins at Indy. I also predict Gordon continues to “suck” this year and fails to win his fifth Brickyard.
Tony: Kasey Kahne proves his Pocono flat track win was no fluke.
Bryan: Johnson starts his push to the Chase.
Amy: You wish, Bryan. But Jimmie generally sucks at Indy.
Bryan: Not in 2006.
Vito: Well, Martin said he felt they had a shot at Indy. Whenever that happens, he’s in contention for the win before his pit crew does something wrong or a tire explodes. So, I’m going with the little guy to win. Darkhorse pick: Brian Vickers.
Tom: I disagree with Mike: I think Gordon’s going to take it. He really needs a win in a bad way, and this has been Chevy’s house. Five straight wins… so if they’re going to challenge Toyota for the manufacturers’ title, it needs to start here. Also, did you notice we didn’t talk about Indy during all of Mirror? It’s kind of sad… one of my colleagues at SI had a great article about how the race is losing its luster a bit.
Amy: I love the history of IMS… but what I don’t love is stock cars racing on it, because it is boring.
Bryan: Couldn’t have said it better.
2008 Mirror Prediction Chart
Following the final off week of our predictions tally, the battle for the season title appears to be narrowed down to three. Just 64 points separate first-place Amy Henderson from third-place Bryan Davis Keith, and just one separates Keith from runner-up Tony Lumbis. At Chicagoland, Henderson was able to make up a bit of ground, with a top-five finish from Greg Biffle leading the way amongst all our Mirror Driving experts. Can she carry that momentum through the second half of our season? Only time will tell.
|Writer||Points||Behind||Predictions (Starts)||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s|
|Bryan Davis Keith||2576||-64||17||2||9||14|
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