Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: California Snoozin’ While Jimmie Johnson’s Cruisin’

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:
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Bryan Davis Keith (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans & Sundays/Nationwide Series Breakdown)
Vito Pugliese (Tuesdays/Voice of Vito)
Kurt Allen Smith (Fridays/Happy Hour)

Once again, Auto Club Speedway produced a less-than-stellar race for the sparsely-attended Pepsi 500. What makes the track race so different than its multi-groove twin, Michigan International Speedway and was this week’s race simply the product of the CoT and one team stinking up the proverbial show?

Vito: Well, it’s a stones throw from the largest metropolitan area in North America, and still nobody shows up.
Kurt: I don’t actually think it was a bad race. I like when one guy dominates. Jimmie Johnson darn near threw a shutout last night.
Vito: 70,000 people. That’s it. More people go to Wrestlemania.
Kurt: But I was noticing that it was difficult to pass again, which I think is going to be a problem with this car forever.
Vito: MIS is in Detroit’s backyard so there is interest, (albeit tepid) from fans and the auto industry alike. And it’s difficult to pass in Fontana because of a stupid car with tires that are not designed with said stupid car in mind.
Amy: Michigan races better, though. There are more passes.
Kurt: I can’t understand how Fontana got a Chase date. That is beyond my comprehension. That would be like giving Mexico City the second to last race of the season.
Bryan: The turns at Fontana, as wide as they are, require the field to almost get in line on exit, so even though there is a ton of track to race on, it really screws up getting competitive runs down the straights.
Vito: From an area that wants nothing at all to do with an NFL team, why does Fontana have two NASCAR dates, let alone a Chase date now? Pepsi must have sunk a lot of money into that deal.
Bryan: Of course Fontana got a Chase date. Do you honestly think on-track product even entered into that conversation?
Amy: Nope. Who needs good racing when you have a “market” to pander to?
Kurt: I wouldn’t say that the racing at California is terrible, but that track is kept poorly. I don’t think it’s any worse there than at any speedway.
Amy: I’d say so Kurt – it was falling apart during the race!
Vito: No, it’s uncompetitive. And the lights fall off onto the surface.
Kurt: But trash on the track, leaking asphalt and falling signals? For crying out loud! Someone upstairs at Fontana knows she doesn’t need to maintain her track very well.

See also
Fan's View: Because I Just Can't Take California Racing Too Seriously

Vito: There was the one shot of the whole field sideways coming off turn 4. That was aired once… the rest of the time they showed how much of a lead Jimmie had. Piss-poor coverage. I guess that’s OK, because it’s not like anybody was really watching anyway.
Amy: Maybe someone WAY upstairs was trying to tell NASCAR something…
Kurt: Not to get on Jimmie’s case, though. Got to hand it to the No. 48 team: they absolutely nailed it. Check the rear windshield. Sorry, Jimmie fans, couldn’t resist.
Bryan: I, for one, do not like having to tape the end of races and wait until after work the next day to find out who won. Off the next day or not, I don’t want to be up past midnight watching a race. And there were no red flags in this one! But just because one car dominates a race doesn’t mean you can’t have a good race. Richmond put on a good show when Denny Hamlin led 381 laps this year. And ORP put on a good one when Kyle Busch led all but three laps. Fontana on the other hand…
Kurt: I agree Bryan, it keeps you on edge waiting to see if they can finish the deal.
Vito: If it were run at Darlington at night, it would be acceptable. But at that cesspool posing as a racetrack, nope. Even as someone who covers auto racing, why should I have to cash a whole weekend to watch an awful race that nobody is even attending? Because it is unwatchable?
Kurt: Falling traffic signals. That says it all. This place is like Mexico City and NASCAR gave it a friggin’ Chase date. If only it had showed the same desire to prop up Rockingham.
Bryan: Fontana’s two race dates are the two weekends of the year I regret being a Cup race fan.
Amy: ACS sucks. Like K-Mart, only worse.
Kurt: Kevin, the floor is yours.
Vito: Give Darlington back its date, California doesn’t want and/or need it. The fans will come to Darlington. They do not go to California. SoCal is a little more populated than a tiny burg in South Carolina.
Bryan: I can’t wait to hear this year’s excuse for poor attendance. What did they hide under the bleachers this time to keep people out of their seats?
Amy: They were evacuating in case Gustav took an unexpected turn.
Kurt: Falling. Traffic. Signals. Wow.
Bryan: You know, ACS might just try to blame Gustav for the falling traffic lights.

Johnson absolutely dominated Sunday’s Pepsi 500. Was this the boost the No. 48 team needed to make it a Chase favorite or is it too little, too late for the defending champ to make a run at the three-peat?

Kurt: It’s fair to say the No. 48 team’s California performance was a statement, but Jimmie won’t dominate like that every week.
Bryan: Johnson and crew hooked themselves up on a true intermediate track and with Homestead, Lowe’s, Texas, Atlanta and Kansas on the Chase slate, they definitely made a big statement on Sunday.
Vito: Nah, they’re just getting started. The same thing they did last year. They took it easy during the summer, and turned it up when it was time.
Amy: I think they can make a run, but I really am not sold on the No. 48 having the CoT dialed in the way the Nos. 18 and 99 do. But that team does come alive in the Chase.
Kurt: He will be right in it, though, I’ve always said that. And the Nos. 18 and 99 might wreck each other out of the Chase.
Vito: This was the same car they used to dominate at Indy, and I suspect it will return to do the same at Lowe’s, Texas, Atlanta and Homestead.
Bryan: The No. 48 put together an effort that rivaled what the Nos. 18 and 99 have been doing, and Team Lowe’s has more Chase experience than either of those guys. This has definitely become a three-driver race.
Kurt: They didn’t really take it easy last summer Vito; they did reel off two more wins in the last two regular season races.
Kurt: How was the No. 24 so weak yesterday in comparison?
Vito: Compared to what they did during the Chase, they were taking it easy last summer.
Kurt: Maybe, but I wouldn’t say they were coasting. Jimmie had a couple of DNFs if I remember correctly.
Amy: If the No. 48 wins Richmond, it will be looking to make the mother of all Chase runs.
Vito: Nah. They will not win Richmond. No need to go out there and make a mess of things. When the Chase starts at New Hampshire though, look out. As I have said all year long, the No. 48 is the team to beat.
Amy: I think that if anyone can come from behind it’s the No. 48. I have never seen a team overcome adversity the way they do and they do it all the time. I think they can go for it at Richmond – the top five are locked in and have nothing to lose by going for a trophy.
Kurt: I still say that Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards are the guys you’ve got to beat. The No. 48 was awesome yesterday, but it was only one race.
Kurt: They should take the week off and test somewhere.
Amy: I agree with Kurt there. I want to see a couple more solid wins by the No. 48 before I’m sold.
Vito: I’m pretty sure you will see three or four wins by the No. 48 come the final 10 races, Amy.
Bryan: It’s the perpetual “we’re the underdog” role that all Johnson fans try to play, Vito.
Kurt: I would like to see the No. 24 team turn it on and clean up the last 10. The Chase owes Gordon one.
Amy: The Chase owes Jeff Gordon two!
Kurt: I think all the teams that are locked in should take Richmond off. NASCAR would have a conniption.
Amy: If anyone can come from counted out to counting the money, it’s the No. 48. They have a steep hill to climb, but if anyone can get it done, it’s those guys.
Kurt: Final thoughts: the No. 48 team can definitely get it done in the last 10 but the Nos. 18 and 99 are both tough.
Bryan: I think Johnson and crew served notice on Sunday. They finally did what the Nos. 18 and 99 have been – dominant – plus their experience in the Chase makes them a legit contender.
Vito : The No. 48 is the team to beat. Once the Chase starts, they will be trailing by less than 100 points and that’s not a bad position to be in. These guys have won two straight titles for a reason.
Kurt : I don’t think there has been any doubt since the middle of the year when they started picking it up. But again, California was only one race. It’s very hard to consistently nail it like that.
Amy: I do think the Nos. 18 and 99 need to adjust their mirrors because the No. 48 is coming. What remains to be seen is if they can make a clean pass.

With one race to go until the Chase field is set, only five teams are locked into championship contention. Is anyone in the final seven spots safe and which outsider is most likely to be a surprise spoiler?

Kurt: Is David Ragan in it yet?
Amy: I think seventh and eighth are safe. The rest… one bad mistake early and they could be watching the Chase from the outside.
Bryan: Ragan lost a golden opportunity this weekend with Clint Bowyer scoring a top 10. Now he’s gonna have to top Bowyer at Bowyer’s best track.
Kurt: I think the RCR guys are good. They usually run well at Richmond.
Amy: Richmond is a track where it’s easy to get caught in someone else’s deal.
Kurt: Matt Kenseth and Gordon would have to DNF out of it to miss the Chase.
Amy: All it could take is a Robby Gordon moment and someone’s Chase hopes evaporate.
Kurt: Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s probably breathing a sigh of relief that he doesn’t have to pull a Pickett’s Charge again.
Vito: Ragan might make it, but with Bowyer and Hamlin’s record at Richmond, it is likely to be heartbreak for the young man.
Kurt: Hamlin has been prone to bad luck this year, but I think he makes it. Unless his crew sabotages him.
Bryan: The only two guys currently in that I see vulnerable are Bowyer and Hamlin. Ragan was top five in this race one year ago, so Bowyer has to run near the front and Hamlin’s car needs to hold together.
Amy: Ragan will have nothing to be ashamed of if he misses. His dart grew some nice feathers this year.
Vito: Ragan lost his Chase chance at Watkins Glen. Kahne… hard to believe that he’s probably not going to make it until you realize that he’s Kahne, and he’s been on a roller coaster since he came into Cup in 2004. “Checkers or wreckers” fits him perfectly.
Kurt: Ragan has been gradually getting better. I think he makes it next year.
Bryan: Dodge has got to be sick.
Kurt: Kahne is always a possible wild card. He could win or hit the wall.
Bryan: GEM equipment is just so hit or miss, too. They’ll dominate a race and the next week be completely out to lunch.
Amy: Yeah, for GEM the equipment is a bigger factor than for some teams.
Kurt: I think that’s the new car, Bryan. The setup is very unforgiving with almost every team. Look at Busch, he was lucky to make the top 10 last night.
Bryan: Kurt, that’s been true of the No. 9 car since they started, though. Look at 2006 for Kahne: he dominates Michigan and wins, then the next intermediate race at Chicago he finishes a distant 23rd. That team has never been consistent. Period.
Kurt: Oh yeah, I’m not denying the inconsistency at GEM, but I think a lot of teams can be just right one week and horrible the next.
Amy: I also think that while he has a very outside shot, should Bowyer and Ragan get caught in something early, Brian Vickers could be a darkhorse.
Kurt: I hadn’t thought of that. That would be a real lift for Red Bull.
Vito: Eh, I think Vickers is all but out of it.
Bryan: Vickers and Red Bull still don’t have good enough short-track packages to put together the kind of run they’d need to do that.
Amy: It would take some real bad luck for some guys, but I’m not willing to write them off entirely. They’ve surprised me too many times this year.
Kurt: Richmond shouldn’t be the last race before the Chase. It should be an intermediate without plates.

See also
Thompson in Turn 5: Richmond a “Must-See” Event

Bryan: No way Kurt. What a boring way to end the Race to the Chase.
Amy: Richmond should be in the Chase. Make Atlanta the last one or something.
Kurt: I think that the chances of being taken out in someone else’s wreck should be minimized. It’s not that bad at Richmond, but it’s there.
Amy: I also think that Gordon could be in trouble.
Bryan: Ragan is the only guy not currently in that I see having a shot, but trying to overtake Hamlin or Bowyer at Richmond is going to be a tall order.

Two of the top-three drivers in Nationwide Series points are also poised to run for a Cup championship. Fairness aside, how big of a distraction (or advantage) is running both series and what impact does it have on a driver trying to concentrate on a Cup title?

Kurt: I doubt it has any impact whatsoever. These guys won’t have a problem.
Vito: As long as they aren’t bouncing around from track to track, taking helicopters and planes to run the junior series, I don’t see it as a distraction. If anything, it keeps them sharp, focused, and with much less time to having to deal with the media asking if they are distracted by running the other car.
Kurt: The fatigue they may experience is offset by what they learn sometimes.
Amy: I think it’s a bigger deal for Bowyer than Edwards. Bowyer is running for a fairly close title in one series and struggling to make the Chase in another.
Bryan: But in Bowyer’s defense, both of his teams are turning around, Amy. The No. 07 had a great run at Bristol and got a top 10 out of Fontana. His No. 2 car nearly won Bristol and was top 10 at Fontana as well. The one weekend that I’d look at it being a problem is when they’ll have to leave Martinsville to go to Memphis.
Kurt: I wonder if Mark Martin is going to try that next year.
Vito: I think personally it’s a waste of time to be running the Nationwide Series for these guys. Except for the money, what’s the point? You risk getting hurt like Tony Stewart did in 2006 or like Dario Franchitti did this year at Talladega. Besides, is anyone even watching the Nationwide Series anymore?
Kurt: The what series?
Amy: I still think about Stewart a couple years ago when he had the Busch Series wreck at Charlotte that took him out of the Chase, plain and simple.
Kurt: I think in the heat of battle, the adrenaline keeps you going. It’s probably good for Bowyer to get his mind off making the Chase. That’s a lot of pressure.
Amy: I think mentally it’s not a bad thing, unless they let one series distract them to the point of making mistakes.
Kurt: Still, when Kyle was told he was racing too much, he cut back his schedule a bit and immediately started winning again, so who knows. Maybe these guys do get tired.
Bryan: The injury point is a good one, and honestly, if I’m a car owner or team member, the last thing I want to see is my star Cup driver running to get into the second-tier car.
Vito: Bowyer is floundering in both series. Maybe he needs to go get a race setup at his go-kart track.
Bryan: That scene at Bristol where the Cup drivers lost practice time to be at the Nationwide drivers’ meeting would have killed me if I were a crew member for one of them.
Amy: I’d have killed them if I was a crew member for them – pick a series and run for the championship.
Kurt: I would at least make sure that if the choice is Cup or Nationwide, that the priority is clear.
Kurt: If you own the lesser series car, you usually want your big name driver in it – or at least your sponsor does.
Bryan: In a perfect world, NASCAR would do what a lot of short tracks do and limit guys to running in one division a night. Or one a weekend.
Kurt: Go Bobby Hamilton Jr.!
Bryan: Hamilton Jr. is the man… awesome! I got to say that in Mirror Driving.

Predictions for Richmond?

Kurt: The No. 18 again.
Amy: I say Junior gets even and takes this one.
Vito: I’m going to go with Martin.
Kurt: Go with it, Vito!
Amy: Where, Vito?
Vito: To the bank. Bank on it. That’s right, Google that… look it up.
Bryan: Busch is going to win and not need a bump-and-run to do it.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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