Welcome to Mirror Driving. On select Wednesdays during the offseason, 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:
Beth Lunkenheimer (Tuesdays/Running Your Mouth & Various/Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays/Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter)
Bryan Davis Keith (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans & Sundays/Nationwide Series Breakdown)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
NASCAR held its Champion’s Week festivities in Las Vegas for the first time in 2009. Rate the events up to and including the banquet – what worked, and what needs to change?
Bryan: Just stick with Vegas and end the stupid banquet. There’s no need to have a banquet in the first place… all it does is put a bunch of people that look ridiculous in tuxes on a stage to say canned lines about their sponsors and teams.
Phil: The banquet definitely looked put together at the last minute, and as a result most everything had nothing to do with the sport. I guess that’s what happens when you announce a host a week beforehand.
Amy: I think fans do not belong at the banquet, period, and the thing was WAY too long. I heard some of the fans there were totally obnoxious.
Beth: On the bright side, I got to catch parts of the roast online and it was hilarious. It was nice seeing the drivers in a different environment.
Phil: Roasts are definitely a good idea.
Amy: But the banquet is about the drivers and teams, period. It is not for anyone’s entertainment except theirs.
Bryan: Amy, if that was true, there would be no cameras there.
Amy: Maybe there shouldn’t be. Go back to how it was… fly in Thursday, hold the NMPA luncheon and banquet, let ‘em party and send them home. The whole year is about the fans… let this be about the teams.
Beth: They oughta just throw a big party in one of the garages and celebrate that way. I bet they’d have a lot more fun.
Amy: It used to be the winners had a huge party after the show… now those are media events, too. The thing is, as cool as the other events were, the whole week is just another media obligation for those guys… and I’m not sure that’s right. In New York City, the tradition was that the other drivers “decorated” the champion’s suite at the Waldorf. I know one year, Jeff Gordon and his first wife got back to their room to find there was no furniture there.
Phil: Including no bed? That must have been interesting. I know that Denny Hamlin spent most of his free time in Vegas in his basketball suite at the Palms.
Bryan: What was he doing? Building a pillow fort plotting to get Brad?
Phil: Classic. No, Denny was shooting hoops.
Amy: Back to the banquet… I thought an hour and 20 minutes to even get to the speeches was ridiculous.
Phil: I actually fell asleep before it was over. Jimmie Johnson didn’t come on until approximately 1 a.m.
Amy: Here’s one other thing to think about… the Nationwide and Truck teams get screwed in comparison to Cup. They get just one banquet between them, and only the top five are invited. Note to NASCAR… you treat them like crap, and that was the icing on the crap cake.
Phil: Yes, it is Bush League. Effectively, NASCAR used the economy excuse to minimize the series’ stars.
Beth: I do have to agree I wasn’t fond of combining the banquets.
Amy: Maybe they should do those IN Vegas, like Wed and Thursday nights. Treat them like champions and top-10 drivers… novel idea, I know.
Phil: That’s something to think about. They’ve always been separate from the Cup Series. But then you’d have the issue of them being completely undermined, again, if they’re in the same town….
Amy: They are undermined now. If it was in Vegas and played up like it should be, it would be a true Champions’ Week. They should at least get equal treatment. Five drivers each is BS.
Bryan: It’s the banquet. Who cares?
Phil: It’s only fair to invite the top 10 on stage for all three series.
Beth: And let the Cup banquet overshadow them? No thanks.
Amy: If it’s on a different night, how would it overshadow them? Do them big, air them live.
Beth: Because like always, Amy, the hype would be around the Cup series. I can’t even count how many times they’ve wasted time in the CWTS talking about Cup drivers. I like them having their own time for the banquet.
Phil: Cup pimping in the trucks is nothing compared to the Nationwide Series. It’s never been as bad.
Amy: Anyways, the bottom line on this topic – for me, anyways – is the banquet isn’t for the fans. Fans should not even be there, especially the way some of them acted like they were at Talladega and not in a black tie affair.
Phil: I didn’t hear about bawdy fans. Did they get drunk or something and act like fools?
Amy: From what I heard, just yelling and hollering and being generally rude – acting like they do at the track, which is fine at the track… not at a black-tie dinner.
Phil: Well, there are better ways to incorporate fans into Champions’ Week without having them at the banquet – especially one that lasts nearly four and a half hours.
Many race fans have complained about the dominance of the No. 48 team over the last four years. It’s up to the other teams to beat them, but with so many restrictions on the cars and testing, how should other teams approach making their own title runs in 2010?
Bryan: Teams have to make do with what they can. They need to test at whatever tracks they can, push their technical capabilities to the limit, do anything they can. But they’re not going to magically catch up.
Amy: That’s an interesting angle… it night not be “who” but “how.” The two biggest things I can think of are total information sharing among teams and preparation.
Phil: Right. Teams with multiple squads have to share their information more readily.
Amy: That’s the reason things work at Hendrick – the total open book policy. Some of the other teams in big organizations guard their information rather jealously. The other thing is preparation – guaranteed the No. 48 team is already had at work for next year, and has been since the day after Homestead.
Beth: I think Bryan’s got a great idea. They’ve got to test wherever they can. Regardless of the track, that data will help them understand the car better.
Phil: Teams would have to find random short tracks not affiliated with NASCAR to test on.
Bryan: I mean, this isn’t rocket science. The formula to success hasn’t changed. The means to attain it have just been harshly restricted. And Amy is right, info sharing is also big. Smaller teams are going to need to start helping each other out.
Amy: The thing the No. 48 does so well, though, is they are prepared for EVERY situation… well before it happens. There is no panic, just fixing things. I think that has a lot to do with their success. They have half the possible issues that could arise worked on before they even leave Concord.
Bryan: Must be nice to have a sponsor committed through 2013, too.
Bryan: Back to prepping for 2010; teams are going to have to get creative. The rules are asinine, but they are what they are. Everyone that’s got the resources needs to practice and test, and those that don’t need to start pooling resources together. Clay Andrews when he was running his NNS team wanted to put together a network of sorts for smaller teams to network data… shame he’s not still around.
Amy: It’s not a bad idea, Bryan. But if you can’t get more info sharing among actual teammates, do you think teams would give stuff to other teams?
Bryan: Doubtful… but maybe not far-fetched. A lot of teams in the back already check air pressures with each other, share parts, pit for each other, etc.
Phil: I like that idea. Remember when Penske formed the “alliance” with Kranefuss-Haas in 1998? Yes, it ended up being a purchase, but it was originally a technical alliance during Daytona testing.
Amy: But is that going to work at the level where teams are actually contending for championships… say, info sharing between Red Bull and Gibbs?
Bryan: Well, there’s no way in hell any team without a huge $20 million sponsor and a big team affiliation has a chance of catching Jimmie. But could they go to a 25th-place car? Maybe.
Amy: I think those teams have to share stuff in house before they go to other teams.
Bryan: Regardless, Hendrick, Roush, JGR, or maybe the No. 2 are the only teams that can catch Jimmie. Period. For the rest of these guys, it’s a matter of getting up to maybe contending for the lead lap.
Amy: For a team that is close, like maybe the No. 11, getting the best of the best on pit road might beat the No. 48. There are places to make gains, but it won’t be easy.
Bryan: You’ve got to maximize what you got, hope it’s enough… and rail on NASCAR to open testing back up.
Phil: Hoping that NASCAR will do anything won’t work. Do the best you can with what you got. Figure out a good place to test out ideas. Make use of that simulator if you got it….
Several media outlets and organizations give a Driver of the Year award to the to NASCAR driver of the year – so, who gets it? And who wins the booby prize as the biggest disappointment?
Phil: For Driver of the Year, I’m going with Tony Stewart. Back in the spring, I predicted 12th to be at the top end of what his No. 14 was capable of this year. Boy, was I wrong.
Bryan: Stewart. Doing what he did as a first year driver/owner is a huge accomplishment.
Amy: Driver of the Year for me is Johnson, hands down… four championships, what more can you say? Mark Martin is an honorable mention… Best Driver without a title.
Beth: Driver of the Year is Stewart. His accomplishments in his first season as owner/driver have been impressive and more than most people thought.
Phil: Biggest Disappointment: I’d go with David Ragan, for laying an egg.
Bryan: Ragan is definitely an egg, and of course Dale Earnhardt Jr. has to be mentioned as well.
Beth: Junior’s rough season has to be mentioned, but honestly I don’t think that was too big of a surprise. I just didn’t think he was going to have as tough of a season as he did.
Phil: Earnhardt Jr.’s issues started during the Chase last year.
Amy: Biggest disappointment to me is Richard Childress Racing as a whole. RCR had three cars in the Chase in ’08 – none in ’09. By the way, I disagree on the Stewart pick – he’s a championship-caliber driver driving Hendrick equipment.
Bryan: The equipment was good, Amy, but he assembled the personnel… and they are damned good.
Beth: Exactly, Bryan. Hendrick equipment is not the entire reason for that team’s success.
Amy: True, Bryan, but he had the resources to hire away the best personnel from a lot of places. He’d be Driver of the Year if he won the championship, but he fell off during the Chase… typical Tony.
Bryan: Amy, Jimmie had tons of resources too, and all he did was drive the car. Stewart blew every expectation for SHR out of the water, and will be a contender from here on until he retires. That’s a huge deal… he proved every person that questioned his move dead wrong.
Amy: Jimmie just did something nobody has done before… that’s bigger than the best driver in the series finishing sixth.
Bryan: Yes, he won four Chases in a row. Some of us don’t see that as that big a deal.
Beth: Most people thought if anyone would make the Chase, it would be Stewart. Very few people expected both Stewart and Ryan Newman to make the Chase. And I’m in that category.
Amy: As Stewart has said, he doesn’t do the day-to-day on his own… Haas still has a lot, if not most, of the input.
Bryan: Stewart took a tremendous gamble, gave up a title-winning team to do his own deal, and made it work. What Stewart did as a NASCAR driver was to become by far the most successful driver/owner Cup has seen in recent memory. That trumps another 10-race hot streak in my book.
Beth: I couldn’t agree with that statement more.
Amy: The thing is, with the summer he had, Stewart COULD have won it all… but like he did with Gibbs, he fell off when it counted. Johnson would have won under the old system, too… because Stewart slumped badly in the fall. I just find it hard to give it to the best driver in the garage, driving equal equipment to Johnson, and finishing sixth. Stewart could easily have four or five titles if he didn’t slump at the same time most years.
Bryan: Amy, if you are honestly going to sit there and just equate the equipment and dismiss everything going around Stewart in making your vote, NASCAR thanks you. After all, what story would there be in 2009 without Johnson, Johnson, Johnson making history.
Phil: The idea with Stewart is that the Haas team was pretty far down the totem pole in 2008. Even with his influx of talent to the team, I still didn’t expect him to be anywhere near title contention this year.
Bryan: Nobody at all did, Phil.
Amy: I’m not dismissing anything… but face it, Stewart could have won the title, and didn’t, because he fell off at the worst possible time.
Beth: Driver of the Year doesn’t necessarily have to be the champion. Stewart’s success this season far outweighed anyone’s expectations.
Bryan: Exactly. What’s more, equipment or not, it was done with a first-year team.
Amy: it was NOT a first year team, though… it was a revamped seven-year-old team with Hendrick equipment.
Bryan: The personnel were all new, Amy. It was a new team with cars they had not worked on before.
Beth: Oh, would you give it a rest about the equipment already! We get it. There are definitely other aspects of that team that helped them run the way they did this season… period.
Amy: There are, but none of those are a shocker.
Bryan: Taking Haas from only one team in the Top 35 to two Chase teams would not have happened with Johnson as owner, mark my words. And Johnson would not have won a driver’s title had he undertaken that role, mark my words.
Amy: No, it wouldn’t. Tony deserves Owner of the Year, hands down.
Bryan: Tony did it as a driver, and was in contention to win a title from the first race he drove with his new team. Driver of the Year material, no question.
Amy: But you can’t finish outside the top 10 three times in the Chase and hope to win… and if the equipment and crew were the same as they were in the summer, what changed?
Bryan: I dunno Amy… maybe Hendrick stopped sending the good stuff?
Amy: And the spaceships start circling….
Beth: It’s definitely possible. Tony showed HMS up during the first 26 races, and they certainly couldn’t let him do the same during the Chase.
Phil: That’s always possible, but we can’t prove that.
Amy: Tony has slumped in the Chase before… it’s nothing new.
Bryan: But even Smoke has managed to win a Chase title… and what’s more, he won a real Cup too.
Amy: Give the “real” Cup a rest… the system sucks, but it’s the system.
Bryan: Doesn’t mean I have to like it… same way it doesn’t mean I have to give the Chase winner Driver of the Year.
Amy: No, Bryan, so give some credit to a guy who would have made up over 200 points in the fall to win it under either system.
Phil: I’m not going to diss Johnson’s skill, but I’d like to think that quite a few other drivers could do something similar in the No. 48 to Johnson.
Bryan: Amy, he had a great year. Stewart accomplished more nonetheless… the Chase is not my measure of success.
Beth: Just because he struggled in the Chase doesn’t discount the rest of his accomplishments throughout the season. Some of us still care about season-long performance…not just Chase performance.
Amy: Don’t reset the points, and Stewart chokes even worse.
Beth: Well, my awarding him Driver of the Year has NOTHING to do with winning the championship. NASCAR crowns their champion in whatever way they choose to score them. I don’t have to do the same when picking a Driver of the Year.
Bryan: Print that.
Amy: Nope, but I wouldn’t vote on someone who could have won and didn’t. Someone who shouldn’t have even been close and contended, like Juan Pablo Montoya, maybe…
Beth: The NASCAR world does not have to revolve around the championship. It is perfectly acceptable to honor someone who didn’t win the championship… especially when it’s the most successful driver/owner in many years.
Amy: If anything, it should be someone who exceeded expectations. Four titles in a row exceeds expectations. Winning it coming off two part-time seasons in subpar equipment exceeds expectations… folding down the stretch doesn’t.
Bryan: Amy, everyone expected four straight titles. Why do you think we’re so bored talking about it?
Amy: I certainly didn’t.
Beth: And you’re trying to tell me that Stewart didn’t exceed expectations? I expected Jimmie to win his fourth, and I fully expect him to win his fifth next season unless something drastic changes in that team.
Amy: Once summer rolled around, and you saw the stuff Tony had to work with, I reset my expectations.
Bryan: The stuff he had to work with… wasn’t anything he did.
Beth: Nothing like changing the rules midseason.
Amy: He hired the personnel, I get that. But they weren’t exactly unknowns from late model teams.
Bryan: They still clicked, Amy, The chemistry there was undeniable. When Stewart and Grubb have been together for five years, then you can argue they didn’t beat Johnson… but they had something for the No. 48 despite having been together for less than a year.
Amy: Seriously, I never ever thought anyone could win four in a row under any points system. I don’t think Johnson will win five.
Phil: Some of these competitors have had quite a bit of bad luck in recent years. That cannot continue forever.
Bryan: That’s what’s been said… since 2006.
Fresh off another NCWTS title, Rick Ren, is leaving the pit box of Ron Hornaday and KHI for a management role at newly formed Kyle Busch Motorsports. Is this the right move for Ren, and how big a signing is this for KBM?
Amy: Money talks, I guess.
Beth: Rick Ren’s knowledge will be huge help to the new team. I’m glad he’s getting the recognition he deserves and is able to move into a management position with KBM. He’ll still be able to participate in NASCAR while being able to spend more time with his wife.
Bryan: Not a bad move at all for Ren. Busch will get money to get that team going, and Ren’s done what he can at KHI as a crew chief.
Amy: I’m glad he’ll spend more time with his family… but I do wish KHI could have worked that out for him. Whatever happened to loyalty?
Phil: This is a big hire for Kyle Busch. Getting Ren shows the establishment that he’s serious about the whole affair.
Amy: Hornaday will still contend for, and likely win, the championship.
Phil: Oh yes, winning his fourth truck title at age 51, five consecutive wins, etc.… great year for Hornaday, he’ll be fine. Who’s going to replace Ren on the No. 33?
Amy: Haven’t heard anything yet.
Beth: That’s a good question. That’ll play a role in how well Hornaday runs next season.
Bryan: That’s going to throw a wrench in the 2010 Truck championship… the No. 33 is possibly vulnerable again. Especially the way Thorsport was running by year’s end.
Beth: With a new crew chief on the No. 33, Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter both have a decent chance at making a real championship battle out of the Truck Series next season.
Amy: Maybe, maybe not. I do think that if Johnny Benson signs with Kyle and they get him a good crew, he’s a threat.
Phil: Back to the new Busch team… we still don’t know who’s going to drive. Busch claims that he could have up to three trucks, but we haven’t heard anything.
Amy: The shop is huge.
Beth: And they’ve already been working on equipment for two more teams. If Busch can pull the sponsorship backing, they will have three drivers next season.
Amy: The facility is definitely built to handle multiple teams. Who will the other two opponents be – any idea?
Beth: Well, I would hope Aric Almirola would get a chance unless Billy Ballew is able to pull together a full-time sponsorship for him. And Brian Ickler has worked closely with Kyle Busch in the past, so he’s definitely a candidate.
Bryan: Ickler is on the short list.
Amy: Will he go or stay with Ballew?
Bryan: Ickler will go with Busch.
Phil: I think Ickler could do very well in the Trucks.
Beth: I agree, Bryan.
Amy: If he gets the No. 51 full-time….
Beth: I don’t think he’ll get the No. 51 full-time. Give him a full-time ride, though, and you’ve got Rookie of the Year material.
Phil: That is a good question. Since Kyle won’t be back in the No. 51 next year, who gets that ride, if anyone?
Beth: I’m hoping they’ll give that one to Almirola, since he had a pretty good season in the part-time role in the No. 15. If Miccosukee doesn’t stick around, they’ve had a pretty good relationship with Graceway Pharmaceuticals as well.
Bryan: Will Ballew run two trucks? Will Miccosukee keep sponsoring without Busch?
Phil: Would Miccosukee follow Busch to his new team?
Beth: I honestly think Kyle has had more in the works than he has let on.
Phil: The official announcement is scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday. SPEED will carry the press conference.
Amy: I think three full-time trucks might be biting off more than he can chew for the first year, especially if they are building in-house. Busch needs to be able to concentrate on his Cup efforts, and if he’s trying to run three teams and running 25 NNS races, how is that going to happen?
Beth: He’s just got to put the people in place to take care of his truck team.
Amy: Eventually, they will need to build or buy equipment though, especially running multiple teams.
Beth: According to Rick Ren, they’re already working on more equipment.
Amy: I agree, Beth, but I wonder if it’s that easy for him… or if he’ll want to be more hands-on.
Phil: I’d argue that he’s going to let Ren run things for the most part, but he’s definitely going to play a role in the team’s operation.
Amy: I wonder if JD Gibbs is happy about it?
Bryan: Please, Kyle holds JD’s leash, not the other way around. Between Hamlin’s whining and Busch being Busch, it’s clear JD has no control over his driver stable.
Amy: True, Bryan… hence, no Cup title. Now in KHI’s situation, DeLana does more day to day than Kevin, so he can concentrate on his Cup ride.
Beth: I wouldn’t be surprised if Kyle lets Rick Ren do the same for KBM.
Amy: Kyle needs to prove he can do it and not be distracted. Given how this year went, I’d have to see that to believe it.
Bryan: Gotta give Kyle credit, though… he landed a big fish.
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