Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Plate Power, Pointless Duels & Earnhardt’s Potential

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 (Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays/Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter)
Matt Taliaferro (Thursdays/Fanning the Flames)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Summer Dreyer (Mondays/Running Their Mouth & Frontstretch News Reporter)

After seeing the bump-drafting rule changes in effect during the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday, will they make for a more engaging Daytona 500?

Phil: I think the race will be fine. It’s not like it’s going to be the 2000 Daytona 500. Handling is still going to play a role in the race.
Matt T.: I don’t know that it will be much different from what we’ve seen at Daytona in the past. The track is too bumpy to get carried away with bump drafting.
Amy: I think it will be your normal 500-mile race. They’ll tone it down early, but it could get hairy late… pretty much like every race.
Matt T.: Yeah Amy, the last 20 laps will get nuts, as is usually the case.
Beth: You’ve got that right. If they couldn’t keep it together for a full lap for the Bud Shootout, what makes us think they won’t do the same this Sunday? I don’t think my happiness with the Shootout came from the bump drafting as much as it came from the restrictor plate change.
Matt T.: I thought the Shootout was pretty darn entertaining. I like the rules package in place.
Summer: It probably won’t be any different than races in the past. However, I’m hoping we see a “have at it” moment that generates some discussion!
Amy: I thought the Shootout was fun to watch. I think that with the bigger plate, the good cars will separate a bit from the not so good. Unlike in past races, the cars that weren’t right couldn’t push or be pushed.
Matt T.: Yeah Amy, the difference between the “haves” and “have nots” will be magnified.
Amy: The good cars pushed so hard and so fast it was scary.
Beth: I enjoyed the Shootout and was disappointed when it was over. I’m definitely looking forward to the 500.
Summer: The Shootout was definitely fun to watch! They were able to race two- and three-wide for long periods of time without wrecking. I don’t know if we’ll see that on Sunday, but I sure hope so! We don’t need a wreck-fest.
Matt T.: Just stay out of that middle lane!
Phil: It’ll be a little like it was when Dale Earnhardt won in 1998. If you’ve got a good car, you’ll do well. If not, you’re in trouble.
Amy: As it should be, Phil.
Phil: I don’t know what Talladega’s going to bring, though.
Amy: Talladega is a wreck-fest, anyway.
Matt T.: Wreck-fest or no, this rules package will be interesting when we hit Talladega. The bump drafting may get a little out of control there through the turns.
Phil: Note that there was no telemetry in the telecast Saturday. Perhaps they were scared to see exactly how fast everyone was going.
Amy: It was cool to see some different cars mixing it up. The No. 1, the No. 42, the No. 29… those guys had some good cars.
Summer: It was very nice to see a change of scenery. We didn’t see much of Hendrick or Gibbs, but the Roush and Childress cars shined, both of whom struggled last season.
Matt T.: Childress has been making some horses this Speedweeks. I agree with Summer, though; I was a bit surprised the HMS cars weren’t a little stronger in the pack.
Phil: Earnhardt Jr.’s car wasn’t all that good on Saturday. Stuck in the teens almost the whole race.
Summer: I predicted he’d win the thing!
Amy: But on the ownership side, the Earnhardt Ganassi pair was fantastic.
Beth: Did anyone see Jamie McMurray coming?
Phil: McMurray was really good… and really loose.
Matt T.: Give him credit – he held onto the thing all night. He’s becoming quite the little plate racer.
Beth: Seems to me he might want to drive a really loose car more often.
Amy: At least the Hendrick cars were equal. You can’t complain about Junior being the R&D car in this one.
Matt T.: The No. 24 had something for them until he ran into a Ford with used-up tires.
Summer: I hope we see more of what we saw on Saturday in the race on Sunday!
Phil: Agreed. It was a nice race to watch, with a significantly lower quantity of Digger.
Amy: Looks like the 500 could be a good race – and NASCAR needs that badly.
Matt T.: I predict the Duels will be tame by comparison, though.
Beth: Of course. They’ve seen how many cars have been wrecked in the last few days.

With the Top-35 rule guaranteeing most of the field and some cars already locked in on qualifying times, the Gatorade Duels will see just four drivers race into Sunday’s Daytona 500. With the new rules in place, is it time to change qualifying procedures for Daytona?

Amy: No, it’s time to change the stupid Top-35 rule! But since that isn’t going to happen, don’t lock in anyone. They do need to change. At the very least, have one separate qualifying race for the last-ditch, go-or-go-homers.
Summer: Lock the top 20 in. Top 35 is way too big of a number.
Beth: I say leave it alone. We’re stuck with that dumb Top-35 rule, so I’d rather they not take away the Duels. It’s like a week of bonus racing to bring us back from the offseason.
Matt T.: Darrell Waltrip made some interesting points last week about the Top-35 rule serving as a sort of franchise system these days. I’d never looked at it that way. That said, I’d hate for NASCAR to change Daytona qualifying to where there were no Duels. As it stands, they mean very little anymore, which is a shame. They used to be as good as any race the entire Speedweeks.
Phil: I’ve said in the past that the Top-35 rule was, at best, a snap judgment. You can’t base those type of changes on a season as quirky as 2004.
Summer: But does anyone really pay attention to those who are racing in, anyway? It seems to me that most are paying attention to who’s winning the race – not those that are trying to race their way in.
Amy: I’m the opposite, Summer. I really care about the ones trying to race in. The locked-in ones don’t hold my interest – I like watching the underdogs.
Beth: Jimmie Johnson is hardly an underdog.
Amy: And he’s locked in, so who really cares where he finishes in the Duels?
Summer: Yeah, I guess that’s where we’re different. I try and pay attention to them, but I’m always more interested in who is winning. Part of me feels guilty, but sometimes the battle for the lead is a bit more interesting than a battle for 15th or whoever is back there. I guess it depends on what’s going on.
Phil: I’d argue that going back to the old pre-2005 system would be nice. But that would require the ditching of the Top-35 rule.
Beth: And I’d be fine with that.
Amy: That’s where the whole system is messed up. Guys like Johnson could start-and-park in the Duels and they race on Sunday, while the little guys race their hearts out for a couple of crumbs.
Matt T.: Speaking of, how about Derrike Cope start-&-parking in the Shootout? Shameful. (Editor’s Note: The Cope team claims they legitimately lost a valve.)
Beth: Somehow, I wasn’t surprised by that, Matt.
Matt T.: Anyway, I’m not sure how NASCAR brings back the suspense the Duels provided pre-Top 35, but it’s lacking in a big way.
Phil: Back in the mid-1990s, you know, they had three rounds of qualifying at Daytona.
Amy: Was the old second round (three at Daytona) system fair to those who had to re-qualify? Maybe not, because they lost practice in race trim, but it was a sight better than knowing they don’t really have an equal chance to make the race every week.
Matt T.: When I explain to people that only four cars transfer in from the Duels, their reaction is priceless. They’re like, “What???”
Phil: I can understand that kind of reaction, Matt. I get that when I tell people that I cover NASCAR.
Amy: If we could get rid of either the Chase or the Top-35 rule, at this point, I’d choose the Top 35. I’m sorry, I don’t care what you did last year. I care about what you can do now.
Matt T.: I’m not a fan of the Top 35 being used in the first five races. However, an owner’s equity in his car is lost if NASCAR doesn’t structure it that way.
Amy: Matt, the problem is, it’s become a big bidding war to get points from other teams, which isn’t fair either. Nobody should get in on the basis of points they didn’t earn.
Matt T.: It’s a business, Amy, and it does open up opportunities to those looking to break into the Cup Series. Are some S&Ping right now? Yeah, maybe, but maybe they won’t be in two years.
Amy: But it also slams the door on others trying to do the same thing – who just don’t have the extra money to buy the points.
Matt T.: Who is getting the door slammed in their faces?
Amy: What about teams who need sponsorship to continue? They might get it if they make the race and have a good showing. It’s hard to get noticed if you’re going home because some other guy bought points to earn a spot.
Matt T.: I agree it’s convoluted, but DW was right: This is our version of franchising and that gives the sport and its team owners a level of stability.
Amy: How is this remotely right: The No. 07’s points went to the No. 78 in exchange for some cash and R&D help. The driver who earned those points will likely watch the race on TV.
Matt T.: That ride no longer exists, though. It’s not about Mears and some inalienable right.
Amy: Then nobody should get the points, Matt. I say if the team no longer exists, the points should no longer exist!
Matt T.: Well I’ll state that an owner’s equity in a car – particularly if that car goes away – is important to the health of the sport.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. captured a front-row starting spot for the Daytona 500. Will this be the start of a turnaround for his team?

Summer: It can’t really get any worse for them, so probably.
Amy: Yes, for the same reason that the No. 5 enjoyed a huge resurgence last year. HMS is throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at the No. 88.
Beth: I’m not convinced it’s the start of a turnaround just yet after Saturday night’s performance. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
Matt T.: The team may have a turnaround coming, but Daytona will not be the barometer for it. The next two or three weeks will show us where they’re really at.
Phil: Definitely a step in the right direction. I imagine that they hit rock bottom last year, so there’s nowhere to go but up.
Amy: I do think Junior will reap the benefit of having first choice of everything. It worked for the No. 5 car last year and that kind of commitment from your team owner is worth a lot.
Matt T.: Well, Junior had more issues than unreliable equipment last year, too. Sometimes, he just needed to screw his head on straight. If he’s “there” this year, things will improve. But again, I won’t be convinced he’s a title contender even if he wins the 500.
Summer: I’m with you. I don’t care how well Junior does in Daytona; I won’t make any predictions on the rest of his season until I see how he does in the coming weeks.

See also
Turner's Take: NASCAR History Proves Shootout Success Means Nothing

Beth: I won’t, either, Summer. It takes more than one race to see whether a driver will be a title contender.
Phil: With Earnhardt Jr., it’s a “wait and see” thing. He’s always good in Daytona, but I’ll reserve my full opinion for a few weeks.
Amy: I find it kind of ironic this essentially makes Jeff Gordon low man on the Hendrick totem pole, since it’s a totem pole he built much of. And I’m not sure Junior’s a title-contending caliber driver as it is.
Matt T.: Well, he’s finished in the top five in points on three separate occasions. That ain’t bad. 18 wins are as many as Matt Kenseth in the same amount of time.
Summer: If Kenseth’s last name were “Earnhardt,” people would be disappointed in his last few seasons as well.
Amy: I still think he isn’t the driver that Johnson, Tony Stewart, Gordon and some of the other top contenders are. He’s a good driver and I’m not arguing that. But he’ll never touch the numbers of the top drivers racing today.
Matt T.: I think he could if the ducks line up in a row.
Amy: Summer is absolutely right. Kenseth has underperformed the last couple of years, too.
Summer: Right. And yet he’s considered one of the most underrated drivers in NASCAR. Maybe he is – but what’s that make Junior?
Phil: Then again, Kenseth has also won races in the past couple of years.
Amy: And you never have to question if Kenseth’s head is in the game.
Matt T.: You could make the argument that any driver not named Johnson has underperformed the last two or three years.
Phil: Mainly because the definition of “performing” in Sprint Cup may have changed with Johnson’s title run.
Summer: Look, even if Hendrick hadn’t finished 1-2-3 last season, Junior’s season still would have been a disappointment. All that did was add insult to injury. He made the Chase and won a race in 2008, so it was quite a dropoff from one year to the next. That’s a disappointment for anyone – not just Junior.
Amy: I will say this much – I wish people would ease off Junior a bit. I cannot imagine that kind of pressure.
Matt T.: I don’t think anyone – Junior included – will argue that point.
Beth: I said midway through last season that a big part of his problem was so much scrutiny. If he can shrug off everyone’s expectations and just race, we should see an improvement this season. But one front-row starting spot isn’t enough for me to call it the start of a turnaround just yet.
Phil: If Junior finishes 25th in points again this year, this will probably be his last year in the No. 88. I think he can get back in Chase contention, though, and maybe score a couple of wins.
Amy: If Junior doesn’t perform this year, it’s really time to stop looking at the equipment or the crew chief. But I think he will.

Danica Patrick will make her Nationwide Series debut at Daytona in the JR Motorsports No. 88 after finishing sixth in the ARCA race. Will she fare as well this week, or is Daytona the wrong place for her to debut?

Beth: She did all right in the ARCA race, so I don’t have a problem with her NNS debut at Daytona.
Summer: A week ago, I would have said it’s the wrong place. But after her performance in ARCA, I’ve changed my position a bit. I just think she’s going to have a tougher time with all those Cup drivers in the race.

See also
Danica Patrick Quiets Critics, Finishes 6th in Daytona ARCA Race

Matt T.: I’ll give the girl credit – she did one helluva job on Saturday. But is she ready for Cup Lite? I’m not so sure about that.
Phil: Yeah, Danica can debut at Daytona. I’m fine with that. However, she shouldn’t be doing it at Kelly Bires‘s expense.
Amy: It’s wrong of Junior to boot Bires out of his own car to let her get the start.
Matt T.: It’s not Junior’s call, Amy. That’s GoDaddy backing her. It’s sponsorship.
Amy: Well what JRM is doing to their full-time driver is still pure manure.
Summer: You have to feel bad for Kelly.
Phil: Kelly was signed for the full year by JRM. Now, while he’s taking this thing in stride (based on what I saw on his Twitter), the move could be considered a breach of contract.
Amy: I don’t buy that Junior can’t afford to race Bires unsponsored in the No. 88 if GoDaddy is really that obnoxious. On the other hand, you can’t blame the sponsor – they will certainly get airtime.
Matt T.: He said $150,000 was too much to pony up without a sponsor.
Amy: As if Junior couldn’t afford it if he cared about doing the right thing. By the way, on TV expect it to be all Danica, all the time on Saturday.
Matt T.: It sure was in the ARCA race. Did anyone hear Bobby Gerhart won?
Phil: Yeah, Gerhart whooped some tail. I thought Mark Thompson could have beat him.
Matt T.: He’s about as untouchable at Daytona in an ARCA car as anyone ever. Very impressive.
Phil: Anyways, for all we know most of the practice sessions will revolve around the No. 7 car as well. I ranted enough about SPEED’s Danica-influenced issues in the ARCA event already.
Amy: Although I had to laugh during that race. Kyle Busch tweeted something along the lines of, “There are other drivers and sponsors that deserve coverage.” Uh, pot? Meet kettle!
Phil: Yes, he did. I saw that. Wonder what the other Cup drivers watching that thought about it.
Amy: Busch was the last person who should be making that comment.
Matt T.: And that’s why we love him, Amy.
Summer: You can’t get mad at Kyle just because the commentators slobber all over him. Same with Danica.
Amy: I disagree, Summer. They both love the attention.
Summer: They both like the attention, but they don’t force the media to give it. When they’re in their racecars, they aren’t telling them to pay attention.
Amy: No, but they sure don’t do anything to discourage it.
Matt T.: Well, we need some colorful characters to keep us on our toes. It’d get boring otherwise.
Phil: Back on topic – I would have liked to have been there to score interviews after the race. Apparently, if you stayed away from Danica, it was too easy.
Amy: If it’s about a female driver, Alli Owens drove a better race than Danica for the majority of the night.
Beth: Agreed. I really hoped she’d get that top-five finish.
Phil: That’s true. She was running third late in the race before dropping back. Also of note, she went to high school with our own Mike Lovecchio.
Amy: In any case, I have less than no respect for Junior. Bottom line, he could easily have kept Bires in his car and brought Danica’s car down for her. I’d love to see Bires pick up a seat last minute and kick her butt in the race.
Matt T.: Amy, it’s about money. You know that. And in racing money equals speed. The decision was a no-brainer.
Amy: Either way, Bires was the best hope for a real Nationwide champion. There goes that.
Matt T.: Justin Allgaier could surprise.
Amy: In any case, Junior should be ashamed of himself. There are cars running full races on smaller budgets and making decent finishes. Surely Junior could have run both cars in one race without winding up in the poor house.
Phil: Putting a third JRM car on the track probably would have only required a phone call or two.
Matt T.: This race will be much more publicized nationally with Danica. You think Bires is going to draw national attention? Again, the decision was a no-brainer. The series needs the attention and the money that comes with it.
Amy: If Danica was drawing the attention for the right reason, it might be different. It’s a Band-Aid at best – Danica isn’t going to save the Nationwide Series.
Matt T.: Neither is Bires.
Amy: No, but true, full-time Nationwide drivers are what will save the series – and Bires is that.
Beth: Who says Danica won’t be by next season? If she finds enough success, I’m willing to bet she’ll want to stick around.
Matt T.: She was going to be in that NNS race regardless, and I think we all know that. GoDaddy’s marketing is all about hype, and they hyped this Danica/NNS/Daytona thing to a tee.
Amy: Danica isn’t in it to improve the series. Danica is in it so more people look at Danica.
Phil: Yeah, that’s pretty much the truth.
Matt T.: Well, the added pub for the series this season is a good thing. Remember, we bitch and moan all the time about how the series is on life support. Well, all eyes are on it now the same as the ARCA race the other night was in the spotlight.
Amy: But in the end, Matt, what will deliver the CPR that saves it will be full-time teams with full-time, non Cup drivers, and one of them just got shoved out of the biggest race of the year. I also don’t think one ARCA race is enough to judge her talent. Bryan Davis Keith pointed out in his excellent column that other open-wheelers have fared as well in ARCA, but it didn’t transfer to NASCAR.
Phil: I just can’t see the Nationwide Series getting real help without significant schedule realignment.
Matt T.: Me either, Phil. It’s not going to naturally happen.
Summer: I don’t know. I think having some of these Cup drivers run it is what’s made it so popular.
Amy: I agree that the Cup name recognition helped the new breed of fans get involved, but it has killed the series’ infrastructure. It is rotten to the core.
Phil: The entry list for this weekend is fairly healthy, with 57 cars, but I have no clue what it’s going to look like next week.
Amy: Well one driver isn’t going to save it – especially not one mediocre IndyCar driver.
Matt T.: But in the meantime, her presence – regardless of performance – helps the profile of the Nationwide Series. Sports fans are watching it, not just “race fans.”
Amy: Sports fans read the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, too. And it’s pretty much for the same reason.
Phil: To gawk and stare, slack-jawed?
Amy: Exactly. It doesn’t matter if any of those models can actually swim, does it?
Phil: Ultimately, no. But a 300-mile race cannot be compared to a photoshoot. There is a lot more at stake. When you really sit down and think about it, this is the biggest race of the year for the Nationwide Series.
Summer: Well where is all this hype when Owens ran ARCA? There were six female drivers in the ARCA race and you really didn’t hear much about any of them. But if any of them had been in SI, don’t you think we would have?
Amy: In any case, if NASCAR feels that Danica sufficiently proved she can be licensed, cool, let her race. But it’s just crappy the way it went down.
Phil: This is the equivalent of jumping in the deep end.
Amy: Danica’s not the only woman attempting the NNS race, either.
Summer: Chrissy Wallace.
Phil: I hear they have a really good engine for Wallace’s No. 41.
Summer: There you go. If Chrissy had been in GoDaddy ads or SI photoshoots, don’t you think we’d be hearing about her, too? I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen say, “Danica is the only female driver in NASCAR, that’s why it’s a big deal.”
Amy: Summer is right and NASCAR is doing nothing to inform fans otherwise.

OK, predictions for the Daytona 500. This week’s for points.

Amy: I’m going with McMurray.
Summer: Kyle Busch to victory lane!
Matt T.: I second that. Kyle Busch has been awfully tough at Daytona the last couple of trips. I’ll take him.
Phil: My prediction: I’m going out on a limb and saying Carl Edwards.
Beth: Greg Biffle was almost there Saturday night. I’m going with him this week.

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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