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Mirror Driving: Fuel-Mileage Snooze, What Did Roush Lose?, & Grading Rain Tires

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)
Kurt Allen Smith (Fridays/Happy Hour)

Sunday’s race at Pocono once again came down to fuel mileage. It seems that this has been the case this year more often with the smaller fuel cell NASCAR now mandates. Should NASCAR go back to the larger cell, or is there another solution?

Mike: No matter what you do, there are going to be fuel-mileage races, and I enjoy the strategy that it adds.
Bryan: Pocono’s accustomed to long green-flag runs all race long; when that happens, fuel-mileage racing occurs.
Kurt: And with the tire situation being what it is so frequently, they should probably stay with the smaller cell for now.
Amy: I agree with that, Kurt.
Tony: Good points all. Besides, there are many things that go into winning a race, and sometimes fuel mileage is one of them.
Kurt: Fuel mileage is a different game at Pocono, though. You can’t afford to run out in turn 1. That said, if they eventually get the tire thing straightened out, I’d like to go back to a larger cell. I don’t like when races are won in the pits. Nothing against pit crews, of course…
Tony: But you will never take fuel mileage out of the question at some tracks, even if you give them 100-gallon tanks… like Pocono and Michigan.
Mike: Well, it’s not like Carl Edwards was some backmarker that played a fuel gamble and won. He was one of the strongest cars all day.
Tony: That’s true too, Mike. It makes things so much more interesting when so many things have to go your way to win one of these – strong engines, good setups and good fuel mileage.
Kurt: True. And some teams, like the No. 48, figure out to the foot how far they can go on fuel and it pays off. They deserve credit for that.
Tony: Sure gives the engine tuners a challenge, too – finding the balance between horsepower and fuel mileage.
Amy: Here’s what I’d do with Pocono: Make the second race 150 laps, keeping the first at 200, which would make teams work on a separate strategies for both races.
Mike: How about tear it down and make it a shopping center? Oh no… wait, that’s what they’re actually going to do.
Kurt: Hey! I love Pocono!
Tony: No, they’re not. Lets stop with the rumors!
Bryan: Shortening races is unacceptable, Amy. Period. Shortening races is not going to save lots of money on gas. Racing fuel is what, $7 a gallon now?
Kurt: Actually, they may have to shorten races if the fuel is as expensive as it is.
Amy: And if the two races were different lengths, it would be more exciting for both of them. I do think the bigger cell made a difference; and at some point, I’d like to see if that’s true.
Kurt: I would be OK with that idea if only to spare the smaller teams some expenses, but I like 500-mile races. What’s the difference between 500 at Pocono and 500 (OK, 499) at Talladega?
Mike: 500 miles is the minimum any Cup race should be. End of story.
Tony: Actually, as a supporter of 500 miles (especially at Pocono) Amy’s proposal is one I think I can live with. It worked well at Darlington for many years.
Bryan: Pocono takes longer to run, sure, but part of the challenge is making the engines last 500 miles… it’s one of the few true tests of machine still on the schedule.
Tony: Tests of machine and man.
Mike: Which is exactly what racing is supposed to be.
Amy: That’s why you have two different race lengths, though… one tests the engine, the other makes you run harder. Many tracks do that already… Daytona and Charlotte are two. It changes strategy, which is good.
Kurt: That is a good point, Amy. I hadn’t thought of that.
Mike: That’s why you make one race 200 laps and one 220 laps. Or one 500 and the other 550, since each and every Cup race should be a minimum of 500 miles.
Tom: I don’t think you need to change the length of races to change the strategy, though. I mean, heck, you can have a 400-mile race where the cautions work out just right for fuel mileage (see: Michigan, every other year).
Bryan: If you want a change, change the time of year that they run the two races. Run one later in the fall or something.
Kurt: Well, 400 miles isn’t as hard on an engine, so it might encourage drivers to go a little harder with it.
Bryan: But what does that have to do with fuel-mileage racing? A 400-mile Pocono race gets you long green runs and fuel-mileage racing at the end unless there are a lot of cautions… same as a 500-miler.
Mike: The current engines can supposedly run 800 miles without failure 95% of the time, so drivers already push it as hard as they feel they need to.
Tom: I think the problem is everyone can’t pass. To be brutally honest… how easy would it be to just pass all these cars and win?
Bryan: Amen to that, Tom. There was no movement in the pack at all on Sunday.
Amy: There never is at Pocono.
Tom: But what do you hear from crew chiefs all the time nowadays? That track position, track position and more track position is paramount. So, if you can’t pass for track position due to the aero push, you have to use pit strategy. It’s your only option if you’re mired back in the pack.
Bryan: Look at Kurt Busch: he was an 18th-place car, but once they got him in front he was a legitimate lead car.
Kurt: That’s partly because it’s so hard to pass with the car, Bryan. You have to be definitely superior to the guy in front of you.
Mike: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson were passing pretty well.
Amy: Tom, it was hard to pass with the old car, too, so what exactly are we complaining about here?
Tony: On the restarts, there were a lot of good passes. They always got spread out there during long green-flag runs, though, so I’m not sure how much of that is due to the new car.
Mike: And that’s what racing is supposed to be. The best cars can move through the pack… the average cars can’t.
Amy: Loop data shows more passing again.
Tom: Which is so ridiculous… if there’s more passing, where is it happening? I want a definition of what constitutes a green-flag pass. Can they document those 1,855 passes? And what about when a guy pits? Does that count for 20 passes?
Kurt: I think the air dam makes it more difficult to pass. You’re not getting the air when someone is in front of you, but as soon as you pull out to pass, you get an aero push.
Tony: I’d like to know what counts as a pass, too. Maybe it’s if Driver A’s nose goes beyond Driver B’s nose for a second… then it’s a pass.
Kurt: Absolutely, of course it is. But I don’t know how you can cite the number of passes like that and quantify it as a good race. When a race is good, we’ll know, regardless of what some data states.
Bryan: So true, Kurt. NASCAR told us that the tire issues at Indy were balanced out by the increase in passing… yeah right!
Mike: But I disagree the sport’s busy fudging data. It really is happening on the track. There has been more passing. I’m not saying it’s meaningful or dramatic, but there are more cars moving up through the pack than there were with the old car.
Tom: I think the problem we’re having is that the buck stops once you get up front. You just can’t pass for the lead.
Amy: Not every pass is at the front, but I’d argue every pass for position is meaningful.
Kurt: Talladega has 20 passes every lap.
Tony: You also have to consider that some of the difficulty of passing up front will be somewhat due to the fact that the drivers and cars are better.
Tom: I did think the racing at Pocono was better this past weekend than it was in June. The problem is, a lot of it just wasn’t occurring up front.
Amy: But if lapped cars can pass each other, then that proves this car can pass.
Tom: Also, it’s one thing to pass someone. We do it on the highway all the time – it’s another thing to pass someone.
Kurt: And that’s usually the way it is though, Tom. Pocono is such a difficult setup that few teams get it just right.
Amy: I do recall seeing the No. 48 blow by about four cars in one turn for position, too, so passing happened.
Tom: Yeah, I don’t want this to be all about Pocono, because I do think the racing was better. And I do think fuel-strategy races happen. But by and large, these cars are so aero sensitive that I think it’s difficult to pass in the way passing gets us off the edge of our seats.
Amy: I agree, Tom. I didn’t think it was boring; I was biting my nails waiting to see who was going to run out.
Kurt: I’d still like to see NASCAR move toward a larger fuel cell. The fewer pit stops, the better… within reason.
Bryan: I’d like to see them go back to 22-gallon cells… but until Goodyear can prove they consistently put the tires out to handle it, we’re stuck with smaller cells.

With several drivers now in “lame-duck” rides for the rest of the season, some – most notably Ryan Newman at Pocono – have been accused of giving up on their seasons. Should car owners start releasing drivers immediately after they make other plans – as Ray Evernham did with Jeremy Mayfield a few years ago – or let them finish out the year? Where do you draw the line?

Kurt: That’s really an individual question. Evernham did the right thing with Mayfield – that was too much of a distraction. But I hardly think Newman has given up on the season.
Mike: I find it hard to believe that a Cup level driver would just mail it in, but I suppose it can happen. I guess it depends on the relationship he has with his team.
Amy: Yeah, I don’t think any of them are mailing it in. Tony Stewart wants to win as bad as anyone.
Mike: Kyle Busch certainly didn’t mail it in last year.
Bryan: Stewart and Newman aren’t leaving on bad terms with their current teams; they’re going to give them a good ride out.
Kurt: Actually, flip the question around… should a driver just ask to be let out of the contract immediately? I’ll bet Junior wished he did that last year?
Tony: Being a lame duck alone isn’t enough to give the driver a boot. Drivers and owners alike should honor their contracts with their teams… Stewart situation aside.
Kurt: I agree, Tony. Unless both sides are in agreement, finish the contract.
Tom: I think it’s a tough situation for both driver and team. Mayfield’s case was pretty extreme. I mean, he was pretty much ratting out his car owner’s relationship. What was supposed to be a secret relationship, at that.
Bryan: Gotta remember the sponsor deals too. That’s a messy sale trying to throw out a yearlong sponsorship months in advance.
Mike: That’s very true, Bryan. You’d have to really convince your sponsor that it was the right move.
Amy: This is really a tough call. What about the drivers who have not signed? Does being released immediately hurt their chances of finding a ride because they aren’t running every week?
Kurt: That’s something a driver has to think about, Amy. Mayfield kind of burned his bridges at Evernham – and I think paid the price for it.
Tom: Well, I’m not a big fan of the way Newman is handling his current situation.
Mike: Newman has been complaining about his cars all year, though. At least since Daytona.
Bryan: His cars haven’t been good, Mike.
Amy: Newman has been complaining about his cars for three years.
Mike: I didn’t say they were. But I’m just saying he’s being more vocal about it this year.
Kurt: I think Penske and Newman probably mutually agreed that it would be best to finish out the season, and Newman doesn’t seem to be the type to not honor a contract.
Tom: Well, I think the further down you are in the points (not specifically referring to Newman in this case) it makes sense for both parties to end the misery now. But Amy has a good question: does it hurt you finding a ride somewhere else? Like an out of sight, out of mind type deal? I’ll tell you one thing, though; if I’m a car owner and you’re a driver looking for a job, it doesn’t help your resume to be running 40th every week either.
Bryan: You’ve got to think that’s true, Tom. Look at Stephen Leicht, Tony Raines, etc…. they got released late and now they’re gone.
Tony: It also depends on the driver. Some – like Newman – won’t go too far from owners’ minds. But there are others who will easily be forgotten about if they are not on the track every week.
Mike: I’m sure Scott Riggs feels that way. On second thought, maybe we can get David Stremme or Ward Burton to answer that question…
Tom: Anyways, I thought Newman’s non-chalant comments during the rain delay were out of line. I got the impression it was, “My team made the wrong decision to pit, but whatever… it doesn’t really matter.”
Kurt: True, but that’s in the frustration of the moment.
Amy: OK, my thought is that most of these guys are still auditioning for a ride, and in the case of Stewart, he is going to run for a championship – so no one is going to throw anything away. And bitching about your team every other week is not positive.
Tom: If you’re a guy like Stewart, Amy’s right… you’re in the Chase and competing for a spot, so you won’t do anything to throw it away. But someone like Newman or Junior last year… they’re in that tricky middle ground. No Chase, but guaranteed a shot at a ride somewhere.
Kurt: Do you think Newman is mailing it in, Tom? I didn’t think that.
Tom: I think either the team is mailing it in because they have nothing to shoot for the rest of the year or Newman’s like, “Whatever, I don’t need this team anymore.” And that’s that.
Bryan: Newman and Roy McCauley are not going to throw the season out. Those two have been together far too long to do that to each other.
Tom: But do you really give 100% when you give the equivalent of two weeks notice?
Kurt: I have done that, Tom, and I never worked harder than those last two weeks. Leave a good impression walking out the door, I say.
Tom: Well, you’ve got more loyalty and goodwill than most people, I think.
Mike: I think Stewart might kick in a little extra Christmas bonus if Riggs keeps the No. 66 in the Top 35.
Kurt: Aw shucks, Tom…
Bryan: In this industry good runs at the end of the season get noticed… short-term memory works well in racing.
Tom: More power to you… but once you let people know you’re leaving to go elsewhere, I think the majority of people, especially if they know they have another opportunity, begin to move on subconsciously.
Amy: Kurt makes a point though. Do you want the reputation of being a sore loser or a slacker to walk out that door with you? Because it will.
Kurt: Exactly, and this is a big stage.
Tom: Maybe Newman’s not thinking he’s mailing it in… but he’s mailing it in. I’m telling you, and again, just my opinion, but every interview Newman’s had since he announced he’s leaving Penske, I get the feeling he’d rather not be bothered with the No. 12 at this point. That it’s a sinking ship, he’s glad to be off it, he’s taken care of elsewhere and let’s just get on with it. And if that’s truly the case, then you wonder whether it’s in both Penske’s and Newman’s best interests to keep going if they don’t make the Chase.
Kurt: Tom, that may be because of the press hammering at him trying to find out where he’s going. He can’t say right now, and it’s probably getting under his skin.
Mike: I think people in the garage will notice if someone quits on their team, and that will follow the driver or crew member wherever he goes.
Amy: And if you’re a crewman staying, you don’t want that rep either.
Bryan: Newman’s very outspoken, he wears frustration on his sleeve, but you’ve got to look at the people around him. He may be frustrated as hell but he’s not going to hang the team he’s built for nine years out to dry 2/3 of the way into a season.
Amy: But if I’m a team owner deciding between say, Newman and Martin Truex Jr., and Newman has that attitude, and Truex is digging every week…
Tom: It was just like whether it was in DEI’s or Junior’s best interests last year to stay together when they didn’t make the Chase.
Tony: I think if you don’t have the fire to give it 100%, every lap, every race, then you are in the wrong profession.
Bryan: Honor the contracts, period. Unless you’re sleeping with the development driver and your other driver knows about it…
Kurt: I say if the circus isn’t an overwhelming distraction like Mayfield’s was, finish the job.
Amy: Owners are watching drivers and crewmen. It’s in their best interest not to get labeled a quitter if they want a job down the road when they need one.
Tom: Again, it’s not about being a good or a bad person, it’s about moving on with your life. And once you make that decision, subconsciously you start moving on. Why do you think very little gets done between the election and the inauguration by an outgoing president?
Mike: Not much ever gets done by politicians, Tom.

Roush Fenway Racing had the most cars of any owner in the Chase a couple of years ago. This year, with five races left in the regular season, RFR has but two teams in the top 12 – one less than Gibbs, RCR and Hendrick – while only one of their cars has reached victory lane at the Cup level in 2008. What’s going on there?

Amy: What’s going on is Matt Kenseth misses Reiser BAD… but David Ragan and Jamie McMurray were never expected to make the Chase this year.
Mike: They have a bad driver, two unlucky drivers and a sophomore who is almost there.
Bryan: What’s going on? McMurray’s the biggest bust in recent memory, Ragan’s developing very well for a driver of his experience and Kenseth is knocking on the door… they’re not in half bad shape. In fact, they could very well end up with four teams in come Richmond.
Kurt: Kenseth should make it.
Mike: Kenseth is going to make it. As is Greg Biffle. And Edwards is a lock.
Bryan: Ragan’s knocking on the door too. Look at the tracks upcoming… Michigan, Fontana, Richmond… take out the Glen and Ragan’s got a solid shot.
Amy: Kenseth is the only one here who is having an abnormal year. Not making the Chase for him would be huge; he’s one of only two to make them all so far.
Kurt: The reason Roush put five cars into the Chase in 2005 was because of two rule changes that NASCAR made to help smaller teams. But those rule changes ended up giving the biggest team the advantage instead. They also have had to adjust to the car like everyone else, and Roush admitted they were behind last year.
Tony: They’ve had a lot of transition this year and really, their resources are going to seven cars now with Yates.
Tom: Right, Tony. I think Roush Fenway is being hurt by being the sole Ford operation left out there. I mean, at this point Roush Fenway is Ford. They’ve got five teams, and they’re basically Yates, and they reach out to the Wood Brothers… JTG Racing is the only operation that seems to have any type of full independence. That’s a lot to have on your shoulders.
Amy: I agree, Tom… that was not the case five years ago.
Tom: Right, Amy. And once you get behind on a project – like they did with the Car of Tomorrow – it takes more than a second or two to catch up. When you look at Chevrolet, it’s not all Hendrick all the time. They don’t have to carry all the burden of innovation if they ever fall off the pace.
Mike: I saw a story last week that Yates is running their two-car operation with 70 employees. That is unbelievable.
Kurt: Yates is doing great given the circumstances… that makes me happy.
Amy: It does seem like all the eggs at RFR are in one basket. But compared to Hendrick, which is the gold standard, how much info is being shared?
Tom: I think that just like with Haas and Hendrick, enough info between the two is being shared for the cars to be somewhat competitive. But there’s a limit… I don’t think Roush ever wants those teams to outshine one it really cares about. Right now, they’re only outshining the No. 26. Which will one day be the third Yates team, anyway.
Amy: I didn’t mean with Yates and the Wood Brothers, Tom, I meant internally… just between the five core RFR teams, Tom. Do they have the same open book policy? Or do they share what they want? Because only the No. 99 is a winning car.
Mike: The No. 16 could win if they had some luck for a couple of weeks in a row.
Bryan: I dunno there, Amy… Kenseth had the field covered at Chicago if he had gotten back up front.
Mike: I think they are. I remember, I believe it was Darlington where all of the teams put on one of the car’s setups that was so much better.
Bryan: Remember Kenseth vs. Edwards at Martinsville last year, though… Carl’s rep as a teammate isn’t squeaky clean.
Kurt: No, but I think they’re over that. Give Edwards some credit, too. He’s a heck of a wheelman.
Amy: Edwards’s style should, on paper anyway, be similar to both Biffle and Kenseth with their backgrounds.
Tom: I think Amy’s got a point about whether these guys are a cohesive five-car unit. But I think that no matter how much information is shared internally, it’s obvious that Roush and Yates are connected.
Kurt: They have been for a while, Tom, haven’t they? Didn’t Yates build Roush’s engines some time ago?
Bryan: You know, when RFR has four cars in the Chase come Richmond (and they will)… we’ll look back at this and laugh.
Kurt: Roush put five drivers in the Chase in 2005 because of lowered spoiler height and impound races, and they had the advantage of being able to test more.
Tom: I think Roush Fenway still has a star in Edwards, so if they end up with the championship, this is all water under the bridge. But it’ll be interesting to see if Kenseth looks elsewhere next year, because I think he believes they’re stretched a little thin.

NASCAR made a historical call on Saturday, running rain tires for the first time in the Nationwide race at Montreal. Was it a good call? And should NASCAR look at doing this more often in the future – including on the Cup cars?

Bryan: Why not? The speeds slowed down, but the road-racing cream of the crop rose to the front.
Amy: It was the best call NASCAR has made in a long time. I thought it was great… you have to remember, the Nationwide Series teams don’t usually have the option of running next day, and waiting ‘til Monday really cuts into prep time.
Mike: Depends on which call you are referring to. I thought it was great that they put them on the tires. I thought it stunk that they took forever to drop the green, and then said they were going to tell them when to go back to slicks.
Bryan: Agreed on that point, Mike.
Tom: I think the tires were the right call to experiment with.
Kurt: OK, I keep hearing about how great this rain race was. Did anyone ask someone sitting in the grandstands in the pouring rain?
Bryan: Kurt, the cheers coming from those grandstands were awful loud.
Amy: Rescheduling a race in Canada would have been a nightmare, though. What Kurt said is why it should be avoided in Cup if possible… but if it rains on Saturday – run ‘em.
Bryan: A red flag was appropriate for a changeover… after that, it should have been at the team’s discretion.
Mike: I’ll tell you one thing: Goodyear deserves some kudos for the fact that 14-year-old tires held up as well as they did. That was impressive.
Bryan: Talk about saving face…
Amy: But overall, running at all was a gutsy call – and it worked great.
Kurt: Eh. I would rather just wait until it stops and then race. I guess the novelty of it is OK, but it’s still kind of weird.
Tom: Along those lines, I think it’s notable NASCAR says they’ll only use that for Nationwide and not Cup races. That shows you how much confidence they have in the product. But I agree that for tires that old to work that well… you gotta give credit for that.
Mike: I don’t see why they couldn’t do it with Cup. It worked. There weren’t a lot of wrecks. I thought it was pretty cool.
Amy: I think you could do it eventually in Cup – but not without extensive tire tests with the CoT first.
Bryan: The tires were never an issue at Montreal, and that’s exactly what we should be saying at every track week in and week out.
Kurt: Does anyone think that this may have been a ploy to make Goodyear look good? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Goodyear had an opportunity for kudos after Indianapolis.
Bryan: NASCAR didn’t make it rain though, Kurt.
Mike: Look, I think the teams did learn one thing. If they are going to a road course and rain tires may be used, they’ll put RainX on the windshields at the shop instead of during the race.
Kurt: RainX is the bomb. Love that stuff.
Mike: I do think NASCAR should have thrown the red at the end two laps sooner though. Would have saved cars for Jacques Villeneuve and Joey Logano.
Amy: I agree, Mike… but 30-plus guys managed to hang onto it.
Kurt: Are we ever going to try racing on ice? I’d definitely tune in for that.
Mike: Stewart would crush them on ice.
Bryan: Hearing the No. 20 crew chief Dave Rogers whine that they waited too long made me laugh, though… that dude has no room to complain about anything this season.
Kurt: Well, if the fans in the stands weren’t complaining, I won’t.
Bryan: The bottom line is it was a great call to run the rain tires.
Kurt: And a nice distraction after Indy.
Amy: The details need a few tweaks, like leaving the switch call up to teams; but overall, bravo NASCAR!
Mike: I thought it was cool. I’m glad they finally got to do it. I was very surprised the tires didn’t disintegrate, though. I enjoyed it quite a bit.
Bryan: And it definitely allowed the road ringers to shine.

Predictions for Watkins Glen?

Tony: Stewart.
Tom: Ditto.
Kurt: I’ll make it three for Stewart… he’s due.
Bryan: Smoke breaks through.
Amy: No way! Jeff Gordon shows he can still take ’em to school on a road course
Mike: I agree. Gordon is going to shake off the slump and take the win.
Kurt: Who is winning the season-long prediction battle?
Amy: Bryan, I think.
Mike: Bryan Davis Keith owns this competition. It’s not even close.

2008 Mirror Prediction Chart

Bryan Davis Keith held on to his slim lead in the standings after Pocono… but barely. Tony Lumbis came through with his staff-high fourth correct prediction of the season Sunday, picking Edwards to correctly use up every drop of fuel at the Tricky Triangle. But when it comes to who you trust to pick a winner, you can’t go wrong with any of our top three: both Keith and Amy Henderson picked Jimmie Johnson, who came home third despite running out of gas just past the start/finish line.

Now, with 15 races remaining, Keith is clinging to a 28-point lead over Lumbis and 79 over Henderson. Fourth-place Vito Pugliese is over 700 points behind, and is all but eliminated as a title threat.

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Bryan Davis Keith 2941 -0 19 3 11 16
Tony Lumbis 2913 -28 22 4 7 13
Amy Henderson 2862 -79 22 1 6 11
Vito Pugliese 2212 -729 18 0 6 8
Mike Neff 2038 -903 16 0 5 8
Matt Taliaferro 1543 -1398 12 0 4 6
Tom Bowles 1458 -1483 13 0 2 5
Kurt Smith 1104 -1837 10 0 3 5
Tommy Thompson 710 -2231 6 0 2 3
Beth Lunkenheimer 341 -2600 3 0 1 1
Danny Peters 190 -2751 1 1 1 1
Jeff Meyer 94 -2847 1 0 0 0
Kim DeHaven 0 -2941 0 0 0 0

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