NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Richmond Renaissance, Dangerous Chasers & Doomsday for Dodge?

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:
Vito Pugliese (Tuesdays/Voice Of Vito)
Matt Taliaferro (Thursdays/Fanning The Flames)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)

Sunday’s race at Richmond provided some tense moments for Chase contenders and a 10-lap duel to the checkered flag – a brand of racing that has been absent for much of the season. Was this due to the track, the last chance to get bonus points for the Chase, more teams finally getting a handle on the CoT, or something else?

Matt T.: Richmond always provides great racing. I have to figure that the track had a lot to do with it, because I don’t think anyone has the car totally figured out yet.
Vito: Typical short-track racing; the first race at Richmond was the same way. You had three or four cars in that race that were very close to each other in speed.
Amy: Part of it is the track for sure, but I was surprised at how many Chase contenders actually raced hard instead of stroking it home.
Vito: There’s no point in taking it easy if you’re going to be tied for 12th like a few guys essentially are.
Matt T.: Clint Bowyer was the only one who really had to be careful. Kasey Kahne and David Ragan were all out, as were the likes of Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, etc. because they had nothing to lose.
Vito: Felt bad for Ragan, though. Anyways, these cars still do not look comfortable driving around out there. That, and they are all indistinguishable from each other.
Amy: Though I do think more teams are getting a handle on this car. The No. 48 just showed up to play in the last month.
Vito: The No. 48 has been lying low all season for a reason. Why tip your hand when it doesn’t matter?
Matt T.: Working on new things early, just keeping the leaders in sight.
Amy: Bonus points, guys. They weren’t hiding anything.
Vito: But they got a handle on things with that Brickyard win, and have been lying in wait ever since. They did the same thing last summer, and look how they did once the Chase started. Knaus and Johnson are this era’s dynasty. Heck, Johnson was competing for the title essentially when he was a rookie in 2002.
Amy: I don’t buy that, Vito. They were much more comfortable going in with the lead – if they could have, they would have.
Vito: Nah. What’s the difference, 50 points? One errant move by Busch (and let’s face it, that is very possible) and that lead is gone.
Amy: But that was a great race. Much, much better than Bristol.
Matt T.: Oh you’re right, Amy. That Richmond race was as good as we’ve seen all season. The way those guys could go up top was awesome.
Vito: There were more lines on that track than on a mirror in Robin Williams’s house.
Amy: There were lines all over the track Sunday. Day races at RIR haven’t been great historically, but that changed yesterday. It was a great battle for the win, too, and we haven’t seen enough of that this year.
Matt T.: Let’s run all 10 Chase races at Richmond. Just turn ’em loose.
Vito: A fitting end to what has been a rather beige season. I just hope that Jerry Punch can stay awake for the next 10 races. Somebody get that guy some Ephedra.
Matt T.: As usual, RIR definitely did not disappoint… in either race this year. And how much do you think Tony wants one?
Vito: Wants one what? A donut?
Matt T.: No, a turkey leg.

With 10 races left, the Chase field is set, and the points have been recalculated. So who’s the favorite, who will disappoint, and who is the darkhorse that could run away with it all when nobody’s looking?

Amy: That No. 48 is looming really, really large in the rearview mirror, and has momentum on his side. I wasn’t sold until this week, but Johnson has to be the favorite now – more wins in Chase races than anyone, and they know how to win it better than anyone. Meanwhile, I think Stewart is already a disappointment. I expected a better season from a two-time champ.
Vito: Johnson will win it. Carl Edwards will push him for it. Busch will win two races – but experience a meltdown of Chernobyl proportions. For a darkhorse, I like Burton.
Matt T.: I agree: the favorite’s gotta be Jimmie & Chad. To disappoint: After a season like Kyle’s had, if he doesn’t win it all it’s a disappointment. And for a darkhorse, I guess I’d go with Kevin Harvick. Problem is, he won’t win enough to keep pace. I just don’t see a real darkhorse sneaking up & winning it. You’ll have to win two, three, maybe four races this year – and the only ones capable of that are Johnson, Busch and Edwards.
Amy: My darkhorse is Harvick for sure, Matt. He could give the big three FITS.
Matt T.: He may top 10 ’em to death, Amy. Still, you gotta win some races in the Chase. Harvick has like seven finishes of eighth or better in the last eight. That’s impressive; but man, is that team streaky.
Vito: You never really know what you’re going to get with that No. 29 team. One week it’s a top-five car; the next, he’s perpetually in the left lane on restarts.
Matt T.: Yep. And it happens in bunches. Five great showings, followed by five where he’s off the radar.
Amy: If Joey Logano is sliced bread, does that make Harvick “Box of Chocolates?”
Vito: And Tony is a Baker’s Dozen. Anyways, it’s going to be a three-man race, but I don’t expect it to be that close. Johnson will dominate, Edwards will do a couple of more backflips to the chagrin of my buddy Nick and Busch will take a bow or two.
Matt T.: Agreed 100%, Vito.
Amy: I still have to give Busch the edge with Toyota power, but Johnson will be right there ready to pounce on the slightest mistake.
Vito: The only track where Toyota has an advantage is at Talladega, and that’s assuming they miss the wreck. The No. 18 will get caught up in some on-track incident, and you will see it speeding around the track with smoke trailing behind it – with some colorful language over the radio.
Amy: You mean like when he wrecked himself off Junior at Richmond?
Vito: Yes, like that.
Matt T.: I’m wondering which Chaser will get caught up in a mess early at NHMS. Happens every year… and they never recover.
Amy: I vote Kenseth there, Matt. He’s not been himself this year, either.
Matt T.: I vote whoever is running near Robby Gordon. He’s nuts at New Hampshire.
Amy: He’s nuts everywhere.
Vito: Those guys toward the back would be almost 800 points out of it under the old points system. That is ridiculous, but I think it’s also an indication that they are not going to be legitimate contenders for the title.
Amy: What Vito said.
Matt T.: It’ll come down to the Nos. 18, 48 and the 99. Those three have won 10 of the last 11 races. No one can score enough wins to keep up with ’em.
Amy: Disappointments go to Tony and Jeff Gordon – both should have gotten it right long ago. I might have to start revising my talent list. They might salvage a win apiece, but neither will contend.
Matt T.: I’m beginning to seriously wonder if the Nos. 20 or 24 will go winless. I didn’t think it would actually happen, but I don’t know about that No. 24 team…

Dodge announced that the it will no longer offer factory support to its Craftsman Truck Series teams in 2009, and not a single Dodge eked into the Chase this year. So what is Daimler Chrysler’s future in NASCAR – or does it have one?

Matt T.: Well, Dodge only had one truck after BHR closed one team, so it’s not like they had a huge presence anyway.
Amy: I think Dodge is gone by 2010 at the latest, unless it can find a way to win races and contend for the Chase.
Vito: They’re teetering on the brink of bankruptcy just like they were in the late ‘70s and early ‘90s. I think racing is the least of their worries. But Dodge is working on a new Challenger for the Nationwide Series; so they aren’t going away, they’re just scaling back.
Amy: Dodge will pull support from all series.
Vito: I disagree. They need to have a presence, but this is just the manifestation of the edict that came down from on high a few months ago, when it was announced that the manufacturers were cutting back on unnecessary spending. Dumping money into a series that, although it has great action, virtually nobody is watching is not a good way of going about your business.
Matt T.: We’ll see what the future holds, but I don’t see Dodge out of Cup or the Nationwide Series for a while – if ever. GEM, Petty, Ganassi and Penske may not have “it” right now – but those are big names.
Amy: Win on Sunday, sell on Monday requires the ‘win’ part, Matt.
Matt T.: I was told the Big Three Detroit manufacturers sat down with NASCAR and had a Come to Jesus meeting. They’re not happy with the CoT because of the common bodies, and they aren’t happy that they can’t keep up with Toyota’s obscene spending. It was then Dodge made its intentions known.
Vito: Chrysler is trying to sell off the Dodge Viper program to a foreign investor, for God’s sake… so I think the Truck Series is a foregone conclusion. They pretty much announced that a couple of years ago, anyway.
Amy: Those former Dodge truck teams will all take Toyota’s money and run. And the CoT isn’t helping anyone – but everyone else has figured it out besides Dodge.
Vito: Don’t tell Penske that, Amy.
Amy: Lots of teams now are saying what I’ve suspected all along… they have the car figured out, but the tires just absolutely suck.
Vito: The car sucks too, though. Chad Knaus even said so, but then had to put his politically correct hat on and go with the trite, “We just have to keep working on it…” response.
Amy: Chad has blamed mainly the tires all year, as have Steve Letarte and Greg Zipadelli. They know of what they speak.
Vito: The tires and the car do not complement each other. Neither, however, appears to be changing anytime soon.
Amy: The new car on these tires sucks because it’s a different car and the same tire.
Matt T.: The lack of brand identity is doing the manufacturers no favors, either.
Vito: Absolutely. Homogenized cars with headlight stickers to identify what they’re driving? Stupid.
Amy: See, the car identity doesn’t concern me. I don’t really care what they look like.
Matt T.: But the manufacturers do. That’s why they pump millions in and why they’re now attempting to justify why to stay in the sport.
Vito: Race on Sunday – try to figure out what you were looking at on Monday.
Amy: I don’t buy that, Vito. In the end, fans know what their car is, and what the consumer buys is what matters.
Vito: Well, I can’t tell which is which, so to me and millions of others, it does matter. A big piece of the sport is lost when you can’t even tell what the drivers are driving.
Amy: But many fans would root for their guy if he were driving a Yugo.
Matt T.: It’s hard for a manufacturer to justify spending all the money they do in NASCAR when the cars aren’t even a Chevy or Ford. I know the engines may be, but Dodge at this point – like the other manufacturers – are basically glorified sponsors.
Amy: I’ve never understood manufacturer loyalty over driver loyalty.
Matt T.: It’s all a part of the puzzle, Amy. Would you like to watch a football game where both teams wear red jerseys and white helmets?
Amy: No, because you couldn’t tell them apart; but in NASCAR, you can because of sponsors. I can tell the Lowe’s car from the Home Depot car a mile away.
Vito: Well, that’s great if you could buy a Chevrolet at Home Depot – but you can’t. That is what it is like today. Everything is the same. The cars, the drivers, the races, the setups… virtually nothing changes week to week. Like you can’t mouth word for word what Johnson or Burton are going to say in an interview.
Matt T.: And it runs deeper than that for some, Amy. A common body just goes against everything this sport used to stand for.
Amy: But in all honesty, how much different do the street versions look?
Matt T.: Pretty different.
Vito: Uhhh, Charger vs. Camry? Night and day. And don’t get me started on that stupid wing and splitter. Unless your name is Kimi Raikkonen, your car doesn’t need a wing like that.
Amy: OK, street cars don’t have spoilers, either – they have wings. The spoiler died with the Monte Carlo.
Vito: Yeah, because you need that extra rear downforce to negotiate those exit ramps.
Matt T.: R.I.P., Monte Carlo SS. I’m laying some blame on the manufacturers here, as well. Since when would anyone race an Impala… or a Fusion? Those aren’t racecars. That’s pure manufacturer marketing and it hasn’t helped a bit. Honestly, a Fusion is a car that my grandmother would drive – not someone’s favorite racecar.
Vito: No, it does not. The market for two-door performance coupes is all but dead here. If only BMW, Mercedes and Audi would get in the game.
Amy: At least the CoT is shaped like a car that hasn’t been through a clothes wringer.
Vito: No. It just looks like a third grader designed it on his Etch-A-Sketch.
Amy: And the old car looked like it lived in a fun house. But seriously, Dodge is done in this game in a couple of years.
Matt T.: I’m not willing to say Dodge is out of NASCAR soon, Amy. Not by a longshot.
Vito: I doubt it. They need to stay afloat and stay in the public eye. They have some decent products – and the Nationwide Series with the Challenger, Camaro and Mustang will bring some sort of brand identity back to NASCAR. Speaking of, I watched the 1988 Watkins Glen race on ESPN Classic a couple of weeks back. Wow. What a difference. Racing has suffered tremendously. Absolutely pitiful compared to what we once had.
Amy: Unless it gets some major technology upgrades, Dodge can’t compete.
Vito: Amy, their engines make by far the most horsepower in the series! They just need some manufacturer support, and Penske needs to seriously unscrew itself from this malaise that they have been in the last few years. Ganassi is a festering sore, and Gillett Evernham is winning five races one year – and zero the next.
Matt T.: I think the reason Dodge cars are behind is the teams as much as the manufacturer. The Nos. 2, 9 and 12 should be Chasin’.
Amy: The No. 2 wasn’t even close to Chasin’. And without more manufacturer support, those teams won’t get better.
Matt T.: But he should be, Amy. Kurt Busch and the No. 2 team should be Chase contenders every year. There are management issues at Ganassi (duh) and Penske – that’s what’s killing those Dodge teams.
Amy: Why should he, Matt? Mediocre driver in a mediocre car.
Vito: Mediocre driver? That’s rich.
Amy: Not even top 10 on the talent ladder, Vito. 11th… 12th maybe.
Matt T.: Kurt is a past champion and all. And yes, I know Jimmy Fennig earned his bid into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame that year, but still, Amy.
Amy: His little brother is five times the driver he is. He’s a champion because sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
Matt T.: I could say that about a few drivers, but you can’t ride pure luck to a title. I’m not saying Kurt is the best of all time or anything, but comparatively speaking, he’s not bad. The big Cup on his mantle proves that.
Vito: Put Kurt in Kyle’s car and the results would be the same. I’d put him in the top five. If Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch are both sub-15th in points, something is wrong – and it isn’t the drivers.

The NASCAR Nationwide Series teams were at Richmond Monday and Tuesday testing a NNS version of the CoT. What does the introduction of NASCAR’s next generation car mean to the second series?

Vito: Cough… brand identity… cough.
Matt T.: Well, we’ve seen how well it’s worked in the Cup Series…
Amy: It means the death rattle. Let’s just go back to making it a Cup test session. And the expense of the CoT can just put all the real NNS teams out of business once and for all.
Vito: I disagree; it should work well. Camaros, Mustangs Challengers and… uhh… Camrys. Finally, there’s something different to look at and engender some rivalry, competition, and interest among the makes of cars out there.

PUGLIESE: NATIONWIDE COT HAILS RETURN OF AMERICAN MUSCLE

Matt T.: I just can’t believe NASCAR would go to a common body in the NNS. It’s obvious how bad it’s working in the Cup Series. We’ve had crew chiefs and drivers bitching about them for nearly two years now.
Vito: I don’t know, Matt. The Nationwide Series hasn’t exactly been a barnburner this year. Or last year.
Matt T.: Common-bodied stocks just don’t go over well with me, regardless of series.
Amy: I have no problem with the CoT in Cup, per se, other than it needs tires and adjustability. I’ll even concede that the safety of the CoT would be a great thing in Nationwide, too.
Matt T.: That’s bull. Those safety innovations could’ve been implemented in the old car. The CoT was about NASCAR bringing everyone under a blanket. It’s about control.
Vito: After seeing Kyle Busch’s tumble last year at Talladega and Jeff Fuller tacoing his car at Kentucky, there is nothing unsafe about the current car.
Amy: Bet Michael McDowell would disagree. But this change marks the end of what’s left of that series – the way it was supposed to be – and a caricature of the farce it is now.
Matt T.: It’s not a farce because of the car, it’s that way because of how car owners are abusing the series.
Amy: Yes, but the car would make it more of one, Matt, because it would encourage owners and drivers to abuse the system even more.
Matt T.: Oh, I agree. Absolutely.
Vito: Amy, McDowell wrecked like that because that piece of crap tipped over because it sits up so high. Anyways, I am holding out hope for the NNS, simply because they are different styles of cars. If they “look” like the street versions and have a common body that’s more similar to what we saw in 2004 – ’05 with no offset, then I think it will work out well.
Amy: It’s a CoT, Vito. It’s not going to suck in one series and be great in another.
Matt T.: Every racing series or division needs an identity to be successful. If the CoT trickles into the NNS, any sense of uniqueness is gone. Regardless if they call the common body a Fusion or a Mustang.
Vito: It’s the same 110” wheelbase and underpinnings, though. They haven’t settled on a body yet… perhaps there is hope.
Amy: Just rename the series the NASCAR Nationwide Cup Lite Test Series and get it over with.
Vito: Cup is already putting a gun to its head. Let me guess, this is where we wax poetic about the Truck Series, North Wilkesboro, and Rockingham…
Matt T.: Let’s not start that this week.
Vito: Here’s my favorite: “They should race at Eldora!” Right. Because that’s what Cup races are – 10,000 bleacher seats at a dirt track.

Predictions for New Hampshire?

Amy: I’m going to go with a driver who runs decent there but has never won and needs a win about now – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Vito: Stewart.
Matt T.: Denny Hamlin sneaks one in before the Big Three run roughshod.

2008 Mirror Prediction Chart

Kyle Busch has been a dependable pick all season long, but our Bryan Davis Keith didn’t expect the front bumper of Earnhardt Jr. to push for payback at the worst possible time. Crashing out of the lead at Richmond, Busch finished 15th and allowed Amy Henderson to close the gap to 141 with her selection of – you guessed it – Earnhardt Jr. She passes the idle Tony Lumbis for second, while Vito Pugliese’s selection of Mark Martin moves him up to fourth… but he still trails by nearly 1,000 with just 10 weeks remaining in our Mirror Prediction game!

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Bryan Davis Keith 3722 -0 24 4 13 20
Amy Henderson 3581 -141 27 2 9 14
Tony Lumbis 3520 -202 26 4 9 16
Vito Pugliese 2557 -1165 19 1 8 10
Mike Neff 2418 -1304 19 1 6 9
Matt Taliaferro 1802 -1920 14 0 4 7
Tom Bowles 1633 -2089 14 0 3 6
Kurt Smith 1562 -2160 14 0 4 6
Tommy Thompson 710 -3012 6 0 2 3
Beth Lunkenheimer 341 -3381 3 0 1 1
Danny Peters 190 -3532 1 1 1 1
Jeff Meyer 94 -3628 1 0 0 0
Kim DeHaven 0 -3722 0 0 0 0

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