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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: NASCAR’s Red-Flag Fiasco, Gordon’s Great Start &Which Small Teams Can Survive?

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:
Tony Lumbis (Mondays/Rookie Report)
Vito Pugliese (Wednesdays/Voice Of Vito)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Tuesdays/Running Your Mouth & Various/Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)
Bryan Davis Keith (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans & Sundays/Nationwide Series Breakdown)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
Kurt Allen Smith (Fridays/Happy Hour)

NASCAR had an up and down weekend in Las Vegas. There were three red flags during the Nationwide race, but none in the Sprint Cup Series event the following day despite several late crashes. Should NASCAR have thrown the red when Paul Menard pounded the wall with 17 laps to go, or was keeping the cars under caution the right thing to do?

Kurt: It didn’t make too much difference. I believe Kyle Busch was ahead for good then, wasn’t he? Although I think they may have underestimated how long it would take to clean up that wreck.
Beth: NASCAR made the right call, but it was frustrating just waiting for them to clean up what should have been a small mess.
Bryan: Personally, I don’t have a problem with red flags to clean up the track. Why not try to run as many late laps under green as possible?
Amy: I thought it was stupid not to bring out the red in that situation. NASCAR wasted at least five laps of green-flag racing. I don’t know, Kurt, the fastest car was in 10th place and we could have had a real show… or we could have had a yawner. But we’ll never know.
Mike N.: I think it would have served them better to throw the red and get the track cleaned up properly. It seemed like they went back racing before the track was really ready to.
Amy: LVMS was taking forever to clean up everything this weekend.
Bryan: They definitely didn’t seem to have their act together cleaning up the frontstretch.
Vito: Why is it so hard to clean up white debris on a black surface?
Mike N.: I don’t think they realized how poorly the sweeper was going to clean.
Vito: Well, at least that kept me alive in the ESPN Streak For The Cash standings! Otherwise, I think Jimmie Johnson was going to catch Jeff Gordon and pass him.
Tony: I always think of the red flag as a last resort, though. With the green-white-checkered, it’s not as big of a deal.
Kurt: Red flags are bad, bad, bad. They should be avoided – and I think that’s what NASCAR was trying to do. Anyway, I don’t think anyone would have caught Kyle by that point.
Vito: Kyle was on cruise control. He was taking it easy with Jeff Burton.
Mike N.: Right. Kyle was gone no matter what, but I think it made a dangerous situation that wasn’t necessary.
Tony: I’m sure if NASCAR knew it would take that long in the end, it would’ve thrown the red. Hindsight is 20/20.
Kurt: Three red flags, like the Nationwide race had, makes for a bad race.
Amy: I didn’t think so, Kurt. I’d rather see a red flag than lose five or more laps of racing.
Mike N.: I thought the Nationwide race was a good race. I never have a problem with red flags to clean up messes.
Amy: I’d rather see the red because it gives a better opportunity to get the track completely clean. The safety crew took forever, and there was no excuse for oil dry from the Nationwide race to still be on the track on Sunday.
Mike N.: That is just a stain on the track. That’s not a big deal. I always hate to see them just parading around under the yellow, though.
Beth: The mess should never have taken that long to begin with, but it killed me to see so many laps wasted.
Tony: One negative about red flags is that it interrupts the natural flow of the race. Turning a car off, then back on again presents chances for something to go wrong where it normally wouldn’t.
Vito: Eh, I don’t know Tony. They do it all the time during practice. These things are built a lot better today – they aren’t the cars of 20 years ago that wouldn’t re-fire if you turned them off.
Tony: Maybe not, Vito, but don’t tell Matt Kenseth that!
Vito: That thing was doomed from the start.
Bryan: Anyways, both races this weekend were entertaining. Vegas is coming into its own nicely.
Tony: Vegas is definitely making an argument to take one of Fontana’s dates, but that’s a whole different story….
Vito: I was pleasantly surprised – it wasn’t half bad. Now, if they’d actually show the racing going on in the pack that you can kind of see in the background during some camera angles, we’d be all set.
Beth: Exactly, Vito. I don’t need to just watch Kyle Busch pull out to a big lead. Show me some side-by-side racing for position.
Amy: I thought it was a good race, especially compared to Fontana. If the Brian Vickers/Jamie McMurray battle had been for the win, it would have been an instant classic.
Mike N.: I thought it was a pretty good race, too. For a cookie cutter, Vegas offers some good racing.
Kurt: It’s off topic a little bit, but didn’t anyone besides me think the Nationwide race was awful? It reminded me of Charlotte 2005.
Vito: I thought it was hilarious.
Bryan: The Nationwide race was messy, not awful. Plenty of guys got through the race without incident, including four of five Nationwide rookies – who all scored top 10s. Personally, I loved in the NNS race seeing Justin Allgaier pull off moves that both Kyle Busch and Burton couldn’t. You could see it when Allgaier made his lower lane passes. He feathered the gas just a tick, which Busch and Burton didn’t do when they lost it in turn 4.
Kurt: I liked the Cup race, but the Nationwide race took far too long and everyone was spinning out and blowing tires. It was like an ARCA wreckfest. I couldn’t believe no one complained about it.
Bryan: The drivers screwed up, not the tires.
Kurt: 18 cars DNF and five are 26-plus laps down at the finish. That’s all drivers screwing up? When guys are spinning out for no reason, something is wrong.
Vito: No kidding.
Amy: But the ones who spun on their own were making moves they maybe should have backed out of. I do think there was some validity to the idea that they need to move the pit entrance line back a little. It was fine when the track was flatter, but now it’s silly hard to slow down.
Mike N.: I get so tired hearing about getting on pit road. Just slow down. Sure, it might cost you some time, but you won’t blow a tire and lose the race. The better the driver is at getting on pit lane, the better they will run.
Amy: I agree, Mike, but that entrance was borderline dangerous. Move it back five or 10 yards so they get on better and every other guy isn’t busted.
Vito: Gordon’s the only one that missed it, and Johnson kept having trouble getting by Bobby Labonte into his stall.
Mike N.: I’m sure it was strange for Bobby, too. It’s been awhile since he’s been pulling out when others were pulling in.
Amy: There was a lot more than usual speeding coming on pit road, too.
Bryan: Again though, plenty of the drivers in the field did it without incident. A lot of guys were over their heads this weekend and they got burned. That’s not a safety issue – or an issue at all – just don’t speed next time.
Kurt: Vegas is tough on pit road, but that should bring up the concentration level. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was one of many guys to make a mistake on pit road, right?
Tony: Yep.
Mike N.: Really? Junior make a mistake on pit road? Unheard of.
Kurt: If Junior has one more race with mental mistakes, I’m going to wonder if his head is in the game this year. He hasn’t been himself in interviews either.
Beth: I’ve already started to wonder, Kurt.
Amy: Agreed on that. Junior has really seemed out to lunch so far this year.
Vito: I still predict a No. 88/No. 5 swap.
Mike N.: The No. 5 isn’t setting the series on fire, either.
Vito: He’s had top-five cars every week, they just keep blowing up. That’s what separates the No. 5 from the No. 48.
Bryan: Junior finished 10th Sunday, and he’s coming to his best track. Let’s relax a second… the last thing we need is Junior Nation becoming like Johnson Nation and screaming that the sky is falling when he runs 17th.
Kurt: I’m not saying that. I’m just saying it seems like something is weighing on the guy.
Mike N.: I agree, Kurt. Junior seems like he’s almost terrified to make mistakes or say the wrong thing.
Amy: Not only that, but it’s the team that Hendrick threw everything at.
Kurt: He needs a pick-me-up bouquet from Merlin Olsen.
Vito: At least he grew a goatee. Showing Jimmie how it’s done.
Amy: They both look terrible, but that’s another story.
Mike N.: What is the deal with the beards? Junior, Johnson, now Michael Waltrip.
Kurt: They’re for good luck.
Vito: “We are tough guys.” Junior can pull it off because he usually just doesn’t shave, but the rest of ‘em…

Several smaller Cup teams once again had strong runs on Sunday. Is this going to be the year that the small teams distinguish themselves – and who is going to lead the way for them?

Kurt: No. The smaller teams benefited from attrition of the others: Mark Martin, Kenseth, Kurt Busch, David Ragan, Tony Stewart, Johnson… all of those guys could have just as easily finished in the teens.
Bryan: I have been really surprised to see how effective the single-car teams have been. David Gilliland and Regan Smith were both shockers on Sunday. Heck, even Todd Bodine was top 30 for a bit.
Tony: I definitely think we owe this to the testing ban. It’s hard to tell who will take the lead, though. Tommy Baldwin Racing has a lot of good experience, but hit a speed bump at Vegas.
Vito: The small teams of which you speak are merely unnamed team cars to the larger operations.
Mike N.: I don’t know about distinguishing themselves. Get one of them in Chase contention at the 13-race mark and we’ll talk. They can always have good runs, but I don’t think they’re going to be Chase-worthy.
Tony: I’m not sure if you judge the smaller teams by making or missing the Chase. For a new, underfunded team, making all of the races and finshing has to be the number one priority.
Amy: I know it’s early, but I’ve been super-impressed by Brian Vickers and David Reutimann.
Mike N.: Are you saying Vickers and Reutimann are on smaller teams?
Tony: Good point, Mike – smaller in terms of number of cars, but not so much resources.
Amy: Compared to the Big Four, they are all smaller teams, Mike.
Mike N.: That’s where I was going, Tony. I was thinking Baldwin and Mayfield as smaller teams.
Vito: The Red Bull teams are well-funded, but they are not very large teams comparatively.
Mike N.: Well, the other 40 cars are smaller teams to the top four.
Vito: If I was Jeremy Mayfield, I’d just go home and get ready for Talladega. Bobby Labonte is the one that surprised me the most. Hall of Shame Racing was a joke until this year. Menard was a pleasant surprise too until he wrecked. That was really too bad.
Amy: Labonte’s run shocked me, not because of Bobby, but because of that wreck of a car.
Tony: The thing with Hall of Fame is that you can’t tell where HoF ends and Yates begins, or Roush for that matter. There are three different teams indirectly involved with that one.
Kurt: Hall of Fame didn’t get helped much by being aligned with Gibbs, Tony.
Tony: Maybe not, but that was last year. Yates practically moved Travis Kvapil‘s team to the No. 96.
Bryan: Yeah, Kvapil’s team now is probably more like the No. 96 of last year.
Tony: Exactly. They asked Kvapil to work a miracle last year and he practically did, so they thanked him by asking to work a bigger one in 2009.
Bryan: On an even smaller team note, seeing all of these new small-car teams able to be competitive is something I find encouraging. It suggests that teams like the Wood Brothers may well be able to pick and choose races and be effective at it again.
Kurt: Once Roush and Hendrick get rid of the engine gremlin, that will be that many more cars in the top 10 or 15. It is encouraging that so many new teams are jumping in and taking the opportunity, though. They may become better in a few years. And don’t forget that we’re only three races in, and one of them was a screwy rain-shortened Daytona. That still messes things up a bit.
Vito: You can’t really get a good look at anything until after Martinsville. Mark got off to a similarly crappy start in 2004, but got it right when it counted.
Beth: That’s kinda where I’m leaning, Vito. This is just three races in, and quite a few teams have had their share of bad luck so far. But in the meantime, Vickers has been impressive for the most part.
Kurt: I don’t see Martin or Junior staying where they are in the standings.
Beth: Or Johnson, for that matter.
Tony: This is all very true, and in the end the same names will most likely be at the top. But I think there is a good possibility that one of the new, underfunded teams could establish themselves for the long run.
Amy: And if it keeps going like this, Vickers can make the Chase – a big deal for a two-car team in this day and age.
Kurt: Right. Vickers is a good driver and Red Bull is improving. He may win one this year.
Vito: I see him winning the Coke 600.
Mike N.: Vickers should have won one last year.
Kurt: I’d like to see Snickers sponsor Vickers.
Tony: Snickers and Red Bull… Mmmm.
Kurt: “Vickers In The Snickers.”
Bryan: Snickers won’t be going anywhere – They’ve got the almighty Rowdy carrying their colors. Plus, their foray as a full-time sponsor with Ricky Rudd didn’t exactly go well. But anyways, I like what I’m seeing. Everyone from two-car teams to the part-timers like Furniture Row able to be more competitive is nothing but good for the sport.
Kurt: Daytona has screwed things up a bit, and there was great attrition at Vegas. The major players will find their way…. The Chase screws up everything.
Mike N.: Yeah. The bottom line is, when the Chase gets here, the big four will take all of the spots.

Gordon wasn’t one of the drivers that got much attention during the offseason as a championship favorite, but has had some strong runs and is leading the points at this early juncture in the season. Can he contend for the title this year, or is the competition just not warmed up yet?

Bryan: Gordon can and will contend for the title.
Kurt: You’re never taking a big risk betting on Gordon, even after a winless season.
Amy: I think Gordon can win it. He’s got all the tools to do it… but his teammate’s tool box might be a little bigger.
Mike N.: He can certainly compete. He could even win it; but the end result, as long as Chad Knaus is there, is that Johnson wins.
Beth: With the winless season last year, Gordon is more than determined to show he still has it in him.
Bryan: That team right now is one win away from blowing the door down and whooping the field Kyle Busch-style.

GRADY: WHEN ONLY A WIN WILL DO

Tony: He can definitely contend, no question about it. One reason why he hasn’t won it lately was because of his teammate, not because his performance sucked.
Vito: Yes, he will contend. They just missed it by a little bit last year – it wasn’t like he was laps down and in the way or something. It happens. Nobody looked upon it with much surprise when Stewart came back after missing it in 2006.
Bryan: Once they win their first race, they’re going to take four or five more in short succession.
Amy: I agree, Bryan… Jeff has been strong every week and is going to win soon. And it won’t be just a one-win season for him.
Beth: I have to agree with Bryan. They just need to break the winless streak and even more will fall into place for them.
Kurt: Here’s a question: does he pass Waltrip or Yarborough this season?
Mike N.: In what… wins?
Amy: He needs what, four?
Kurt: I say yes.
Amy: He could win five, so yeah, I suppose he could do it.
Bryan: Gordon passes. He’s going to win at least five times this year, possibly all before the Chase.
Kurt: Wow Bryan, that’s bold. I don’t know if I’d go that far.
Bryan: Look at the three tracks we’re coming to: Atlanta, Bristol, Martinsville. The No. 24 is going to be money through March.
Tony: That’s what happened a few years back in 2002 when he went late in the season before winning. Once he pulled it off, he took a few of them. But I think with Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and now Kenseth, it’s going to be difficult to get more than five.
Mike N.: I think Gordon might tie them. It’s hard to say who will be the team that wins eight-10 races this year, although Kenseth looks like the initial favorite for that role.
Amy: Like him or hate him, this is still the best driver of his generation.
Kurt: Him or Stewart Amy, I agree.
Amy: On the numbers, it’s Jeff.
Kurt: So it’s unanimous on this one then?
Bryan: That Jeff Gordon will contend for the title? Um, yes.
Tony: Maybe we won’t be yelled at for being Gordon haters this week!
Kurt: I’m happy when we all are in harmony. Makes me feel part of something special…
Mike N.: I don’t know about harmony… I don’t think Gordon is winning five races this season.
Bryan: Nah, we’ll be accused of being Junior haters this week instead. Freaking Hendrick fans, they’ve got us every way we turn.
Tony: It seems like drivers go from championship contenders to winners, but not championship material to competitive – and then, well, hopefully retirement.
Mike N.: Don’t forget Terry Labonte, Tony. He had a couple of years between titles.
Bryan: A couple? Try 12.
Tony: An exception to every rule, Mike, and you got it!
Vito: The jury is unanimous: Gordon is a good racecar driver.

The Nationwide Series race at LVMS featured a huge number of caution periods, as well as several engine and parts failures. So what happened? And was it a fluke… or will it happen again?

Amy: I still can’t figure this one out two days later.
Bryan: What happened? For starters, a lot of Cup guys driving way over their heads and getting burned.
Mike N.: It’s the Nationwide Series… they’re supposed to wreck and break stuff.
Vito: Yeah, really.
Tony: But considering they are mostly Cup teams, they should be good enough to figure out the mechanical issues before the next race.
Amy: Some of the stuff that happened was just weird. I think I counted six leaders in a row with weird issues while they were leading.
Vito: Part of it might be that stupid tapered spacer. They are constantly on the gas, feathering it. That plays hell with valve train components. A restrictor-plate engine at least keeps the revs down in a Nationwide car. These things are wound out all day long.
Kurt: Have we not established yet that these cars are different?
Amy: I do think the test ban here has a bigger impact than in the Cup Series. These teams don’t have the money to haul to Texas World Speedway all the time. Not saying that was the issue this week, but I do see it as playing a bigger role, whether villain or hero remains to be seen.
Kurt: Here is what I can’t believe: the best in the sport are spinning out and blowing tires, the leader spins out half a dozen times, and no one complains? No crew chiefs, no drivers, no announcers said, “Hey, what’s wrong here?”
Bryan: There is nothing to complain about that hasn’t been complained about a million times. It was a messy race on a tough track, and lots of guys were being over-aggressive.
Kurt: That would be like 10 of 18 figure skaters falling, and the announcer saying, “What an amazing coincidence!” I’m just mystified by it.
Mike N.: It was a development series race. Guys crashed. What’s the news flash?
Kurt: It was a development series half full of pros, Mike.
Amy: I really didn’t think it was a terrible race – weird, but not terrible.
Vito: Well, they have to run harder tires because the Nationwide cars are the old twisted/cock-eyed cars and make a lot of downforce. They’ll tear up soft tires, and probably go faster than the Cup cars would.
Bryan: It was weird to see guys like Burton spinning out by themselves. John Wes Townley, no surprise – but Burton?!
Vito: John Wes Townley sounds like a serial killer.
Tony: Is he from Michigan?
Mike N.: There’s no testing. Guys are jumping between car types and the tires were a little too hard. I think it was no big deal.
Bryan: The second half of the race was very good. Seeing Allgaier charging through the field was fun to watch.
Kurt: Next time, I think Goodyear should bring a different compound of tires, though. I don’t want to sit through three red flags, and I just think something was wrong this time and people weren’t saying what.
Vito: Really? I thought it was a great race for a change. Most of those are just painful to watch on Saturday.
Amy: Props to Morgan Shepherd for his run, too. Sure, there was a lot of attrition, but it was nice to see him in it at the end with a decent run.
Vito: I know, and that got ZERO mention from ESPN… shameful. Jesus is Morgan’s spotter, so he’ll have a chance at one this year.
Tony: I thought Jesus was his co-pilot. At least that’s what all the license plates say.
Mike N.: Jesus didn’t get NASCAR clearance for tracks over one-mile in length. Meanwhile, Allgaier was really wheeling it – but I figured he’d graze the wall at some point.
Tony: Allgaier was impressive in the ARCA series and Penske is taking the time to bring him through the system right, very similar to what happened with Newman: ARCA, Nationwide, Cup.
Kurt: And it’s likely Penske will have an opening soon enough in Cup.
Bryan: Allgaier is exactly where he should be, and it’s good to see him getting a legit shot.
Mike N.: Allgaier is the ARCA champ from last year. Although Scott Speed should have been the winner….
Tony: Are you guys thinking there may be a vacancy in that No. 77 car?
Bryan: Sam Hornish Jr. to Formula 1. I want to see that happen…
Mike N.: Sam would tear up more stuff than Steve Wallace if he was in an F1 car.
Bryan: Hornish is the guy for that new F1 team. He’s an awesome open-wheeler.
Amy: I’m thinking the No. 2. It’s no secret that Kurt hasn’t been thrilled.
Beth: Depends on how this season goes, Amy.
Vito: He should have stayed put at Roush with Fennig.
Beth: I agree, but if we see major improvement in that No. 2 team, Kurt is there to stay.

How about some Atlanta predictions?

Amy: I say that Martin’s engines have to stop blowing up, and when they do, he will win. Might as well be this week.
Kurt: I’m gonna go with Jeff Gordon pulling within two of DW and CY.
Vito: I’m going Kyle Busch back-to-back.
Beth: I agree with Vito on this one. Kyle Busch goes back-to-back.
Bryan: I’m with Kurt: Gordon starts the Drive for Five on Sunday and takes the checkers for his troubles.
Vito: The usual faces will be back up front this week; a Gibbs/Roush/Hendrick weekend in the top 10.
Tony: I’m going with Junior. He had a great car at this event last year. He’ll figure out his pit stops this week and put it in victory lane.
Mike N.: Agreed. Junior gets his win this year earlier than last season. He shuts up the doubters with a win this weekend.
Amy: The doubters of what?
Tony: The doubters of Jesus being able to drive on tracks over one mile.
Kurt: Doubters of the amazing knowledge found on Frontstretch!

Mirror Predictions 2009

Welcome to our third consecutive year of Mirror Predictions! Each week, our experts take the end of this column to tell us who the winner of each Cup race will be. But as we all know, predicting the future is difficult if not completely impossible… so how do you know which writer you can trust when you put your own reputation (or money) on the line?

That’s why we came up with our Mirror Predictions Chart. The scoring for this year is simple:

Prediction Scoring
+5 – Win
+3 – Top 5
+1 – Top 10
0 – 11th-20th
-1 – 21st-30th
-2 – 31st-40th
-3 – 41st-43rd

Through three races (and the Shootout) this season, here’s how our experts have fared to date:

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Beth Lunkenheimer 3 -0 3 0 1 1
Tom Bowles 3 -0 1 0 1 1
Vito Pugliese 3 -0 4 0 0 3
Mike Neff 2 -1 2 0 1 1
Amy Henderson 2 -2 4 0 0 2
Jeff Meyer 2 -1 3 0 0 2
Kurt Smith 1 -2 3 0 0 2
Bryan Davis Keith 0 -3 4 1 1 2
Matt Taliaferro -3 -5 1 0 0 0

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Bryan Davis Keith

Well, let’s see – first, Sam Hornish is not going to Formula I. He never was much of a road course driver; his strength was always on ovals. Kurt Busch had to leave Roush; he had worn out his welcome there, and it was said, at the time, that his new contract at Penske was the second best in NASCAR. As far as him wanting to leave Penske, where else would he go?

Jeff Gordon will win no more than three races this year. Too much competition, especially if the other teams can solve their engine blowing woes and Earnhardt can quit counting his money long enough to get his head back into his racing.

Finally, one wonders what Morgan Shepherd could do with a full time sponsor and a trained pit crew.

Bryan Davis Keith

If F1 ran all ovals instead of all road courses Hornish would be the guy, but he struggles on road courses. He had success in Indy Cars when it was all ovals and part of the reason for him jumping to Nascar was likely his inability to run well on road and street courses. Allmendinger or Speed would be much better choices if they wanted to go to F1 or maybe Graham Rahal or Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Bryan Davis Keith

I think NASCAR overuses the red flag many times. The last few years they seem to red flag a race just because a few cars wrecked and there’s pieces here and there on the race track when they can easily run under caution. Anyone who watched the ARCA race at daytona a few weeks ago saw that despite the numerous accidents, that ARCA never freaked out and red-flagged the race just because of cars everywhere, and they only red-flagged the race for that last wreck because it would take awhile to remove those drivers involved. We all remember the days before GWC when in the last 10 laps a caution would come out for a accident and NASCAR would red flag the race to at least try to finish the race under green. They should return to doing that, on the basis that it would eliminate running unneccessary caution laps at the end of a race and would eliminate the race extended by up to 10 laps past regular distance. In general, NASCAR needs to only use red flags only in really serious situations. 3 red flags last week was a little overkill in my opinion.

Bryan Davis Keith

Don’t mean to be picky, but i was wondering how three people can have 2 points in your predictions standings with two being 1 point behind and the other 2 points back. And why is Matt only 5 behind when he has -3 points? Perhaps there was a red flag thrown before the calculations could be done….

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