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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Is Jimmie’s Success NASCAR Suicide? Grading Danica, And…

Welcome to Mirror Driving. Every Wednesday this season, your favorite columnists sit down and give their opinion about the latest NASCAR news. Love us or hate us, make a comment below and tell us how you feel about what we’ve said!

This Week’s Participants
Tom Bowles (Editor-In-Chief; Wednesdays/Did You Notice)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Fridays/Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays/Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
Toni Montgomery (Fridays/Marcos Ambrose Driver Diary)
Kurt Allen Smith (Fridays/Happy Hour)

Editor’s Note: Due to a computer glitch, Phil and Kurt were only able to be with us for the first question this week.

Jimmie Johnson won his second race of the season Sunday, with ratings plummeting 25% along with it. Many fans say that one driver winning so much is bad for NASCAR, but can one athlete winning really be that bad for an entire sport?

Beth: Look at the last three years… of course it can. It doesn’t matter who it is, but in this day of instant gratification, fans aren’t going to want to sit around and wait for everyone else to catch up.
Amy: I disagree. That’s just an excuse. The Yankees don’t hurt all of baseball.
Beth: You can’t compare racing to baseball. When the Yankees play, there are other games to watch. When Johnson dominates, there’s not another race we can switch to.
Amy: But one driver can’t hurt an entire sport. If fans aren’t watching because their guy isn’t winning, that’s just sour grapes.
Phil: I don’t think Johnson winning is so bad for the sport that it would cannibalize ratings that much. Keep in mind that this race was up against the gold medal game for ice hockey, which earned a 17.6 rating. After the game ended, there was a 20% increase in viewers. So there is other stuff out there that people can watch.
Tom: As we’ve talked about many times, Johnson is like the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA. He’s vanilla. But look at Tiger Woods: when he comes back to golf, it will be the highest-rated golf tournament in history because people want to see how he reacts to scandal. People in this day and age, like it or not, are attracted to uniqueness, aggression, something outside the norm – and Johnson is Mr. Everyman USA. That’s an automatic rejection.
Kurt: Jimmie just isn’t a polarizing driver. That’s the problem; he doesn’t generate a reaction like Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt did. People want to dislike Jimmie because he wins, but he never gives people any ammo. He generally races pretty clean and doesn’t say things that enrage people.
Beth: And because of that, the dislike grows. Odd but true.
Tom: Amazing, isn’t it? People like to point to athletes and go, “Did you see what he just did?” Not, “Did you see him just work 9 to 5?” Because that’s what Johnson does. He’s a typical 9-to-5er: comes in, works hard, gets the job done, goes home.
Amy: The talent he has shown is outside the norm. Personality-wise, no. But Richard Petty didn’t hurt the sport. David Pearson either. Or Earnhardt, Gordon or Tony Stewart. To say Johnson is hurting NASCAR is giving him too much credit for one man.
Beth: I’m not trying to bash on his talent. There is undoubtedly plenty there, but Stewart had a personality! And just as many people hated Gordon as they do Johnson. NASCAR fans love to hate drivers.
Amy: Yet the sport didn’t collapse, Beth. And it won’t now.
Beth: Stewart didn’t win four championships in a row.
Amy: Then everyone else needs to get better.
Tom: Amy, I’d have to disagree with you. I don’t get emails about Stewart and how much he’s hurting the sport when he’s winning races and championships. What are we, three weeks into the season? My inbox was flooded Monday with “I’m not watching anymore because Jimmie’s going to win it all again” emails. And we’re only three weeks in!
Beth: There’s just little to get excited about when there’s no competition. That’s why people don’t like it.
Kurt: Right. There aren’t any rivalries right now, because the No. 48 team beats everyone.
Tom: The perception that Chad is cheating never went away either, and neither did Jimmie’s political correctness. So that’s a double whammy combination… with Tiger, at least we could overlook his cookie-cutter personality because he was setting records people believed in.
Amy: Everyone whined about Gordon 10 years ago. Johnson isn’t going to win forever, and people will get over it. If people are leaving the sport because their guy isn’t winning, well, that sounds like 5-year-olds in the sandbox to me.
Tom: But with Jimmie, people think he’s cookie-cutter AND he’s cheating. So they get pissed.
Amy: Are they pissed because of that, really? Or is it because their guy can’t beat him and, in reality, his cars tech clean every week? I just think that saying one driver can hurt or save NASCAR is giving one person too much power.
Tom: I agree with the “save” part, but hurting the sport isn’t about power, Amy. It’s about despising the success of someone or something else… and that’s why one driver can bring the whole house down.
Beth: Johnson isn’t the only reason ratings have decreased, but he is a part of it. There’s just so little competition for the win so far this season….
Amy: Exactly, Beth.
Tom: You know what would really help Jimmie? Kurt said it: a rival. Problem is, he doesn’t piss anyone off. People get mad at the Yankees because they “buy” championships. But at least there’s other teams that spend just as much money to compete… the Red Sox, for example. Gordon vs. Johnson? That’s not Yankees/Red Sox. That’s like a rivalry within a team itself. No other team comes close to Hendrick right now, making Johnson the face of a “Yankees” team that is so head and shoulders above everyone else, it’s like they’re playing in their own league.
Amy: I agree, but who’s going to be that rival?  It has to be about more than winning, and I don’t see that happening. Most of the other drivers like Jimmie.
Tom: You’re right. Just like most fans like the Spurs… but they don’t get attached to them. They just get bored.
Beth: Yes, Johnson’s dominance is affecting whether or not people watch the races, but like Phil said earlier, this race suffered a ratings decrease because of a huge hockey game on NBC as well.
Amy: I just don’t think one driver can hurt the sport unless fans are watching for the wrong reasons. People pull for drivers who haven’t won in nearly a decade at any level… yet that doesn’t turn them off from the entire sport.
Beth: You can’t start bashing on fans and why they’re watching. Everyone has their own tastes and enjoy things for different reasons.
Amy: I’m not bashing fans for what they’re watching. I’m just saying that letting one driver ruin the sport for you is fruitless.
Tom: People can buy into a feel-good story in sports if someone’s been through adversity. Case in point, that figure skater whose mom died of a heart attack. She came back and won the bronze for Canada. Joanie Rochette… people watched her performance by the millions. Or New Orleans in the Super Bowl, Amy. That was such a popular game because people could understand what the team has been through with the hurricane. But with Johnson, the perception is he’s been handed all this success on a silver platter. I’m not saying that’s true… but that’s what people think. And until they stop thinking that, or have someone to battle against him every week they can root for, it’s a lost cause.
Amy: Yet when Jimmie won Atlanta after the Hendrick plane crash, NASCAR fans called it a fix.
Beth: Not this NASCAR fan. I sat there in tears when he took the checkered flag.
Tom: The difference there and with Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s Daytona win in ’01 is that most people called “fix,” but they also watched in record numbers, didn’t they? Like it or not, that adversity brought them right to the television set. They wanted to see what would happen. And there’s no adversity in Johnson winning. It’s just a talented driver on a rich team executing with the “A”-level equipment he’s handed.
Amy: Well, I don’t know what else he could do to reverse that perception. Anyone can see for themselves it isn’t true.

While Auto Club Speedway struggled to fill half of its seats a week ago, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, less than four hours away, recorded its ninth straight sellout in a less than stellar economy.  Why is Vegas so different, and what can ISC do about it?

Toni: Casinos. It has little to do with the racing and much to do with the fact that Vegas is a great vacation in addition to the race.
Amy: Vegas has marginally better racing, SMI treats the fans way better than ISC… and yes, people would way rather vacation in Vegas.
Beth: It’s all about the entertainment value. You make a week of it, and there’s so much to do in a small area in Vegas.
Tom: Especially compared to Fontana. Or should we say: “Pretend L.A.” – which is actually 60 miles from LA and nothing like it.
Amy: Exactly, and LVMS is close enough to LA that fans can go to Vegas instead. Oversaturation of the market, perhaps?
Toni: Oversaturation is a good point. People who live in the area and can choose would probably choose Vegas, too. And there might be something to the SMI vs. ISC thing. I’d much rather go to an SMI track, and if it’s in Vegas on top of it, well, it’s no contest in my mind.
Beth: I noticed on Twitter feeds from multiple drivers that very few of them went home after Fontana. If the drivers are sticking around, there’s no doubt in my mind that fans want to make that trip.
Amy: SMI is head and shoulders above ISC, because they put the fans first, whereas ISC puts the corporate sponsors first.
Tom: The only downside is traffic… because, you know, more than five people go to the Vegas race. And they’re all heading back to the same place.
Amy: Most of the hotels run shuttles, though. Shame on the fans for not taking them.
Tom: I was talking with several people in the media center this weekend, and the general consensus they had from Fontana (I didn’t travel out there this year) was that Gillian Zucker has started marketing to the wrong people. Instead of marketing to the people in and around Ontario – the inland empire of southern California filled with people who like racing – she’s trying to get people to come out from LA.
Toni: Really, it would require a philosophy change to the fan-first mentality that SMI has to get them, and I don’t see that happening.
Tom: Bingo. Hmmm… I’m a casual fan out in LA. It’s a Saturday night. Would I: A) Want to see what’s happening at a Hollywood club B) Go to a Lakers game C) Go to a track with no passing in the middle of a dust bowl 60 miles away.
Amy: Exactly, Tom. Especially if I can go for a weekend in Vegas the next week, still see the race, and have some fun the rest of the weekend.
Tom: The great thing about Vegas is even when you have a stinker, people leave there feeling like they had a good time. And that’s what happened this weekend. Gordon stunk up the show, but there were still plenty of autograph sessions, Vegas local events, and other great things going on that all the fans left happy. That’s why you have nine consecutive sellouts. And the Neon Garage beats Daytona, hands down, as the best fan experience in the sport.
Toni: I’m just realizing I’ve been dumping on Kansas for thinking a casino made them a more desirable track. Hmm… I might need to rethink that given that I just said it was the casinos that makes Vegas much more appealing.
Amy: Kansas is still ISC, and it’s only one casino. Big difference.
Toni: True. One casino versus the Las Vegas Strip.
Tom: Kansas was built the right way, though. It’s the most fan-friendly ISC track there is, which is why it’s no surprise the casino will attract enough people to give them a second date. Traffic in and out of there is fantastic, as well. They have great restaurants and entertainment close to the speedway and now they’ll have gambling.
Toni: I have to be honest, when I went to Vegas, I almost felt like the race sucked up all my time. I wanted to see Vegas, and you have to know for me not to want to be at the track every second when I am on a race fan trip is not normal. The following year, I went to Phoenix, stayed in the infield, never left the track, and I was happy as could be.
Tom: The funny thing is the racing at Auto Club was better than Vegas this year. But fans’ perception is such Auto Club needs three lights-out races in a row for them to change their mind on which one’s better.
Amy: What has happened is the same thing that happened in the Southeast: too many races in the same area, so people choose the best entertainment value/date/whatever.
Tom: So I guess the irony in all this mess is even if NASCAR goes down the tubes, Vegas may keep being the one race that gets 100,000-plus every year no matter what.
Toni: I don’t think there is any way for an ISC track with a bad rep to compete with the Las Vegas Strip. I don’t think it would make much difference if they had a barn-burner every time out at this point. Viva Las Vegas wins.
Tom: The fact the two dates are so close together just kills Fontana. Once you have a fall date for Fontana and a spring date for Vegas (once they lose the second Fontana date next year) things will be better.

Denny Hamlin got upset on Saturday when the media failed to ask him a question about his second-place Nationwide Series finish. He said, on his Twitter feed, “And people wonder why we can’t grow the sport.” Did the media fail in this instance, or are they just reacting to the difficulty of trying to cover Cup guys racing in AAA?

Amy: There are only so many questions to be asked when it’s the same people in there, week in and week out.
Beth: Well I can see his frustration with it, but Amy took the words right out of my mouth.
Toni: Right. A Cup guy finishes second in the Nationwide race. Big deal; it happens every week. Want to grow the series? Talk to the Nationwide guys who finished up front. Oh wait – never mind, there aren’t any because it’s all the same Cup guys just swapping positions.
Tom: When Denny and Carl came in, half the room was working on Danica Patrick stories because her wrecking was one of the big stories of the day. But I think Toni nailed it. These were two Cup guys that finished in the top three in a Nationwide race.
Amy: “Gee, Denny and Carl, how does it feel to beat the little guys again this week?”
Tom: Right. So we weren’t necessarily focused on them because we weren’t going to talk about them in our stories. What Denny doesn’t understand is how am I going to write a story about Roger Clemens striking out 28 people in AAA ball? How would any of us write that story and get people to read?
Toni: Bottom line, we don’t want to cover them because we’re not impressed. Finish second in your own series and then we’ll talk. Coming in with three times the budget – and in some cases experience – than the other drivers, you should beat them.
Amy: Tom’s right. The race recaps are practically written for the year: fill in the sound bites and you’re done. There is nothing more to say about Denny, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards or Joey Logano in the Nationwide Series.
Tom: And for that particular race, the storylines I saw were Kevin Harvick‘s amazing recovery, Trevor Bayne driving the race of his life and Justin Allgaier almost winning. I do think the media failed with Carl, though. We could have asked him about the championship, because like it or not, he is running for it and that is a story.
Amy: It is not a story. Or rather, might as well write the story now, because he’s got the championship bought, and there’s nothing more to say.
Toni: Exactly. The wins and championships are bought more than anything, and that’s annoying, not impressive. Besides, I don’t want to talk about the championship in week three.
Tom: Toni’s on point this week!
Toni: I’m also not keen on talking about a Cup guy winning it yet again, for that matter.
Beth: Now how in the heck am I supposed to add to this conversation when everyone keeps saying the same thing I’m thinking?
Tom: The Joe Gibbs guys dominating the Nationwide Series like no one else is a bit of a story. But usually, you tap that when they win… not when Denny finishes second. But there’s also another ramification from this, and that has to do with the people in the media center (or lack thereof). But you’ll have to turn to my Did You Notice? column for more on that….
Amy: It’s the same story every week, Tom. How much of a spin can be put on it after a while? Race wins and championships in that series have become basically meaningless because there is no story.
Toni: Denny was just jealous that the media was focused on Danica yet again rather than the Cup guys. But what we should be focused on is the Nationwide teams to start with.
Amy: Did you notice that there are no Cup champions racing for Nationwide championships?
Tom: Zing!
Amy: Pot, meet Kettle.
Beth: I get where Hamlin is coming from, but the media has a responsibility to get readers to click on their stories. Another story about Hamlin finishing second isn’t going to do the trick for anyone but a Hamlin fan.
Amy: It’s funny, because I don’t think that one guy winning a lot in Cup is a problem, but the same three Cup guys winning every week in Nationwide is a huge one. People are sick of talking about it.
Beth: Same thing, different series.
Toni: But the difference is… they don’t belong in that series to start with.

Danica Patrick finished up her three-race stint in stock cars with a wreck, making contact with Michael McDowell and totaling both cars. Give a grade for her first three races in stock cars, and tell us the one thing that needs to be done differently by either her, TV, or the other Nationwide drivers themselves when she returns.

Beth: She needs a little help staying out of messes on the track.
Tom: My grade for her is incomplete. Yeah, she wrecked twice, but she improved every run inside that car. She was headed for a top 20 in Vegas if she doesn’t spin.
Toni: I’ll give a D. And having said that, she performed about like I thought she would as a rookie with zero experience. Or like all the other open-wheelers in their first few races.
Amy: Grade: D. Now what needs to be done differently?  TV needs to stop the lovefest and broadcast races like real journalists.
Beth: You can’t blame Danica for what the media did, Amy. The way I saw it, she had a hard time avoiding each incident she was involved in. I didn’t expect much from her to start with, though.
Tom: What got me is she was trying to race conservatively at Vegas and still got caught up in someone else’s mess. So that was a double whammy for her… she tried not to push it and wrecked anyway.
Toni: Can I say, however, that wrecking and then dumping on the other guy for it being all his fault… yeah, I was just waiting for that. That’s classic Danica. Get used to that – there will be more of it.
Tom: I felt bad for McDowell. It was like the Prom Queen tripped on the dance floor and needed someone to blame. And he took it like a champ.
Beth: I was impressed with Danica’s ARCA run, and I still think there’s potential there. The question will be whether or not she’s able to be patient enough to improve.
Toni: You know, I think she actually has the patience.
Amy: See, now we’re rid of her until June but here’s how it will go: March will be spent talking about Danica and her start, April and half of May will be spent talking about Kyle, Carl, Denny and Joey, and then the rest of May and June will be spent on the Return of Danica.
Toni: To be honest, she did about like she figured she would. She wasn’t going out there to win races, and she knew it, even if others in the media didn’t seem to want to admit that. Lord knows I don’t want to take her side, but she never said she was going to go out there and contend for wins right away.
Amy: Her ARCA run was really no better than several other open-wheel drivers who then promptly bombed in NASCAR. It’s not like the real Nationwide teams will get any more airtime with her gone.
Tom: It’s almost like one of those $200 million blockbusters that gets crappy reviews to start. The first week it comes out, word-of-mouth is critical or it’s going to be a huge bust. The first three weeks, Danica’s gotten crappy reviews by the critics. It’s if she struggles these next three weeks where people will run out of patience. And by people, I mean the normal race fan. They’re already at their wits’ end… and the new ones won’t put up with her by the end of the year if she keeps sucking.
Toni: Of course they will, because everyone seemed to expect her to go out there and win in week one… media included. They painted her to be the savior of NASCAR and the best thing to ever hit the series. And I just don’t know why in the first place – she didn’t have the record in Indy cars to back it up. Well, I do know why… the swimsuit thing.
Amy: Give some equal time to the other rookies out there learning instead of praising her for every little thing she does, even when it’s nothing 42 other guys didn’t do.
Tom: I just don’t know how you’re going to learn it in 12 races, with four months in between starts. Tony Eury Jr. has been fantastic, but he’s not a miracle worker.
Amy: How’s this for broadcast journalism at its finest: Kenny Wallace has gotten zero airtime this year, and he has finished ahead of Danica every week.
Beth: That’s not surprising, Amy.
Amy: Maybe some of these Nationwide guys need to break out the Speedos or something.
Toni: NASCAR tried to pin their hopes on her to save the Nationwide Series without caring that she didn’t have the talent to win on the track. That’s an insult to the fans, trying to sell them a bill of goods because she looks nice on TV.
Tom: And without realizing she’s only there for a handful of starts. What happens now that she’s gone, and that’s all ESPN has marketed? Oh, wait… forgot! They’ve got her coming up in IndyCar. So it’s a perfect transition for them.
Toni: And what did they get for it? A one-week bump in ratings, until the curiosity factor got old and everyone realized the performance wasn’t going to back up the hype.
Amy: ESPN has IndyCar?
Toni: ABC has five races. The rest are on Versus.
Amy: Face it, Danica is only the media darling she is because she’s pretty. She doesn’t back it up with talent.
Toni: Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti are five times the IndyCar driver that Danica is, and look how they struggled in stock cars. She has one win and a best points finish of fifth in a series that only has maybe 22 full-time drivers. She’s an average driver, but she looks better in a bikini than Kenny Wallace.
Amy: Exactly. She’s average.

OK, predictions for Atlanta?

Toni: Gordon. He’s still pissed about last week.
Amy: I’m going to go with Harvick. He’s seriously due.
Tom: Johnson. He wins three in a row and leaves NASCAR and its fans either panicking, fast asleep, or not caring depending on who you are.
Beth: Kurt Busch was pretty pissed when he got knocked out at his home track. I’m looking for a rebound in dominant fashion just like this race last season.

Mirror Predictions 2010

Welcome to our fourth 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, here’s how our experts have fared so far:

Writer Points Behind Predictions (Starts) Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Amy Henderson 11 3 2 2 3
Phil Allaway 5 -6 3 0 1 3
Summer Dreyer 3 -8 3 0 1 1
Bryan Davis Keith 3 -8 2 0 1 1
Beth Lunkenheimer 1 -10 2 0 1 1
Jeff Meyer 0 -11 1 0 0 0
Tony Lumbis 0 -11 2 0 0 0
Matt Taliaferro 0 -11 1 0 0 0
Kurt Smith 0 -11 1 0 0 0
Tom Bowles 0 -11 0 0 0 0
Mike Neff 0 -11 0 0 0 0
Toni Montgomery 0 -11 0 0 0 0

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