Bruce Martin
Monday March 30th, 2009

MARTINSVILLE, Virginia -- Maybe it's Jimmie Johnson's beard that unleashed this aggressive beast on the short track at Martinsville Sunday.

Just as Samson gained strength through his flowing locks of hair, maybe a beard on "Corporate Jimmie" has turned him into a bad-ass on the race track.

With 15 laps to go, Johnson flexed his muscles by pushing Denny Hamlin's Toyota aside, launching Johnson into the lead and propelling him to his 41st victory, which, incidentally, came on the 25th anniversary of Hendrick Motorsports first NASCAR Cup victory.

So, could "Mr. Nice Guy" be getting mean, thanks to the beard?

"No. The beard has nothing to do with it," Johnson said. "Chad Knaus [crew chief] hates the beard, so I'm going to keep it as long as I can because I know he hates it. I'm proud to win with the beard. It's going to disappear at some point. I guess I broke the jinx where some people thought it was bad luck."

After getting tagged by "Beard Boy," Hamlin must have felt as if he'd been roughed up by the "Hell's Angels" while he was on a Sunday drive. But at least Johnson didn't flip him off on the way to victory lane like a biker getting his jollies at someone else's expense.

Hamlin took the "bump-and-run" in stride but promised that if the roles are reversed, he won't think twice about knocking Johnson out of the way.

"It's not that hard because I know I would do the same thing," Hamlin said. "Nobody can sit here and tell me they wouldn't do the same thing that he did. Honestly, with 15 to go, I'd rather be in second than first because I'm going to move the guy out the way."

Hamlin chalked it up to "short track racing" and the code of honor that comes on the race track that only real racers understand. That is why he did not complain and whine afterwards.

"As a race car fan, I like going to short tracks," Hamlin said. "I like seeing guys move each other out of the way for the last few laps for a win. It's just part of it. I think that's what makes our sport as good as it is."

Hamlin may have kept his cool because of Johnson's cool reputation. Johnson usually wins races smoothly. Only a few times in his career has he been considered anything other than a "squeaky clean" racer.

Ironically, the one time a driver took exception with Johnson's aggression was also at Martinsville, in 2007, when he raced Jeff Gordon so hard in the closing laps that Gordon was furious afterwards.

Hamlin believes Johnson's reputation makes it easier to accept.

"Jimmie has always been really fair to me," Hamlin said. "We've raced really well together. We've raced like this a lot on short tracks. We've been around each other a bunch. His credibility is 50 percent of why it's easy to take because. I know he's the competitor he is and he's a clean driver. I think his reputation definitely helped him there."

So as Johnson soaked up the accolades of his first victory of the season -- a rare March win for the three-time defending Cup champion -- his beard made him look like a ruffian, a hell raiser....

Well, not quite.

"It's not a conscious effort for me to think about and to race people the way that I do," Johnson explained. "Denny and I have gotten along really well over the years, raced each other very hard. I don't anticipate that changing at all. I think the biggest thing is that we didn't wreck the race cars. If his car was three feet shorter and he was in the fence, I think he'd be much more upset. It's just one of those racing things."

And with that, Johnson took the trophy, went out with a biker gang and busted up a bar.

Just kidding.

He probably went back with his wife, Chandra, and enjoyed the victory with a nice Chardonnay.

The jury is expected to begin deliberating soon in the tax evasion trial involving two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, his sister Cate and agent Alan Miller in Miami Federal Court. IRS officials claim Castroneves owes $2.3 million in taxes from $5 million that was deposited in Panama and The Netherlands, and if convicted, he faces up to six years in prison.

It's a story with tentacles that reach across racing. In fact, Jimmie Johnson was the first witness the defense called Monday after the prosecution rested. Johnson was called as a character witness for Miller, who serves as the three-time Sprint Cup champion's attorney.

Kurt Busch drives for Roger Penske's NASCAR -- the same team Castroneves starred for in IndyCar. The NASCAR driver considers Castroneves a "really good friend" and hopes for a positive verdict for the popular Brazilian.

"We developed a unique bond when we raced the Rolex 24 at Daytona two years ago. [When I was] in South Florida, I'd call him up and we'd get together and the friendship continued," Busch said. "When I heard about the news, I would text him and call him and tell him to keep his head up and bulldoze through this.

"He texted me after I won at Atlanta and said, 'Great win, Buddy.' I texted him back and said, 'Good luck on your next win.' I'm hoping for the best for him."

Busch sees the crew members who worked on Castroneves' car when he goes to the shop in Mooresville, N.C. That car is now being prepared for another driver, Will Power.

"There is no sense having a dark cloud looming over your whole season and that is why they have moved forward putting Will Power in that car," Busch said. "On Helio's side, only time will tell. It's a family that is in support of each other. One guy isn't out on a limb by himself. We are all there together. Penske roots go deeper than most."

Several NASCAR drivers are watching this case with keen interest because they are represented by Miller, including three-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer.

"I've been in touch with Alan, asking him how things are going," Johnson said. "We've still been working as we typically do, working on new projects and a new motor home we're getting ready to buy and all the purchase agreements and all that stuff. So our relationship has stayed the same. He's been gone a couple of days a week and working, really, around the clock in continuing to give his clients the level of service they need.

Kyle Busch was represented by Miller until contract negotiations fell apart with Hendrick Motorsports in 2007. After team owner Rick Hendrick announced he had hired Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to take Busch's place in 2008, Busch fired Miller and hired another agent, Jeff Dickerson, who is also his spotter.

"It's very unfortunate," Kyle Busch said. "Whenever you are at issues with the government, that's not something you want. To me, I like Alan Miller as a person. He was a great guy to me. His kid was always fun and his wife is great. Unfortunately, he is in a bit of a bind right now. I wish him the best and hope he pulls out of it.

Bowyer is also represented by Miller and said while he is following the trial, he has no plans to change agents.

"Alan has always done me right, has done a lot of work for me in the past and I'm just letting him take care of business while I take care of what I do best on the race track," Bowyer said. "I'm sure it will turn out just fine."

What remains to be seen is if the jury feels that way.

Jenson Button's victory in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix put the talented driver back in victory lane for only the second time in his 10-year Formula One career. By defeating teammate Rubens Barrichello of Brazil, he gave Brawn GP a 1-2 finish in just its first race.

It was the first time since 1977 that a team won its debut race in F1. The last time that happened, Jody Scheckter of South Africa won in the first race for the Wolf F1 team.

"This is a fairytale ending for the first race,'' Button said."Some people may say it's a pity the race finished under the safety car, but I don't care. I won the race and that's all I care about.''

Ten years ago, Button was the "can't miss future star" of Formula One, but he came up at a time when Michael Schumacher of Germany and Mika Hakkinen of Finland dominated the sport. In the cut-throat world of Formula One, if a driver doesn't win immediately, the good rides go to more promising talents, such as defending World Champion Lewis Hamilton, who finished third in Sunday's race when Toyota's Jarno Trulli was penalized for passing while the safety car was on the track.

What also made this win more remarkable is that Brawn GP rose from the ashes of the former Honda F1 team after the Japanese automaker left Formula One at the end of last season.

Button led by as much as five seconds throughout the race before suffering tire issues. Still, he managed to be the first to the checkered flag.

"It wasn't my best race I must say, but I still won, so I'm chuffed to bits,'' Button said, using a term that only a proper Englishman would understand.

Of course, this wouldn't be a Formula One race without some controversy.

Button's win and Brawn's performance will be subject to an FIA hearing following next weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix. Ferrari, Red Bull and Renault appealed a stewards' decision to clear Brawn, Toyota and Williams to race, arguing the rear diffusers of the three teams breached F1 regulations.

Maybe this hearing needs a "Whine Steward."

After spending the off-season looking for a full-time IndyCar Series ride when Rahal Letterman Racing parked his ride after losing its sponsor, Ryan Hunter-Reay finally got his "Reay of Hope."

Hunter-Reay reached an agreement with Tony George and Vision Racing to put the talented American driver into one of their cars for the 2009 IndyCar Series season, beginning with next Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The addition of Hunter-Reay brings the car count up to 20 for St. Petersburg but Terry Angstadt, president of IndyCar's commercial division, said another 1-2 car/driver combinations may be arranged before next weekend's season opener.

Last year's Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, Hunter-Reay went on to win at Watkins Glen last July when he was competing for Rahal-Letterman Racing. That team lost its sponsor when the American Ethanol Industry scaled back because of political unrest, and that left Hunter-Reay searching for a new opportunity.

In addition to Vision, Hunter-Reay -- who also is the national spokesperson for IZOD's partnership with IndyCar -- had been talking to a number of different teams.

IZOD will have a major presence on all IndyCar telecasts on VERSUS in addition to the races that will be on ABC as well as print ads in Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine and New York Times, newspapers, billboards, movie theatres and a clothing line at Macy's.

After consulting with Angstadt, George decided to make the commitment and add Hunter-Reay to the team that already includes American driver Ed Carpenter, George's stepson.

"Ryan is a very good driver, a very accomplished guy, a great representative of our sport," Angstadt said. "It's fantastic that we got him a ride. Quite frankly, at the 11th hour we were in serious conversations with Keith Wiggins and Dale Coyne and then talking it through with Tony George we arranged from some strong B to B (business to business) relationships to fund this program. In my opinion, six months from now, a year from now, this will be one of the most well-funded cars we have on the grid. We have a great foundation laid for Ryan."

George ran a two-car team last year that included Carpenter and A.J. Foyt, IV but had scaled back to a one-car team after funding could not be arranged to run two cars.

But as the season great closer, the opportunity developed to sign Hunter-Reay, who is considered one of the next American IndyCar stars.

While the agreement in principle has been reached, the contract is expected to be signed once George returns from a family vacation.

But Angstadt confirmed the deal is done.

"I was on and off the phone with Tony 10 times over the last two days and this deal is good to go," Angstadt said.

Hunter-Reay was contacted Friday and was excited about the opportunity with Vision but wanted to wait until he signed the contract over the weekend before discussing it further.

"We still have to sign the contract here, but it came together last-minute," Hunter-Reay said.

There are many reasons why it was a priority for IndyCar to get Hunter-Reay a full-time ride.

He is an attractive and talented American driver who along with other young Americans Danica Patrick, Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti, gives IndyCar a solid foundation of young, fast and aggressive drivers from the United States in a series that also features a strong contingent of international drivers.

Another great Indy tradition has come to a sad end as Bill York was let go by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after serving as the press room manager for 51 years.

The 75-year-old York, who hitchhiked to his first 500 as a spectator in 1951, was a helpful hand to nearly every long-time media member covering the Indianapolis 500.

York was like the casino greeter who made sure everyone felt at home covering races at the Speedway. York began his career at Indy in 1957, when he was a representative of Stark & Wetzel, by bringing lunch meat to drivers, mechanics and media in Gasoline Alley. He helped Stark & Wetzel begin sponsorship of the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Award.

York began as press room manager when sports writers worked out of a small room under the old Tower Terrace grandstands in the 1950s and 1960s. A larger press room was built in 1970 and York was in charge of that facility until the massive, current media center opened in 2000. York continues to operate the press rooms for the Indiana Pacers of the NBA and Indianapolis Colts of the NFL. In fact, the media facilities for both teams bear his name.

Hopefully, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will do the same thing with the Media Center. His absence from the Speedway will be noticeable and here's wishing York is able to "keep his chin up."

With Dale Earnhardt Jr's longtime crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., under fire because of the team's slow start, team owner Rick Hendrick said he has no plans to break up the relationship between the two men, who are also cousins.

Earnhardt is off to a horrible start as he begins his second season at Hendrick Motorsports. NASCAR's most popular driver has won just one race since May, 2006.

"We have been looking at that team, as we do every team, trying to make sure that we are doing everything that we can and we have the right chemistry, the right people and are performing to our potential," Hendrick said. "Last year at this time, the 88 [Earnhardt was the best team we had on the complex, and they were the ones that were leading the charge. And then we kind of fell off toward the Chase when things just didn't seem to work."

The amazing thing about Hendrick Motorsports is throughout its history as a multi-car team, there is always one car in the equation that doesn't match the results of the better cars in the stable. For years, it was the No. 25 car and it didn't matter if the driver was Ken Schrader, Ricky Craven or Jerry Nadeau, it was usually lost in the shuffle. In recent years, it was usually Casey Mears.

But this year, it is clearly Earnhardt . And while Hendrick has offered his complete support for the combination, over time the results will have to get better or it will become an embarrassment for Hendrick Motorsports.

"I ran out of brakes, ran out of tires, ran out of talent and somehow we managed to finish." -- Marcos Ambrose of Australia after his 14th-place finish at Martinsville.

"I'm sure Kyle Busch is going to offer to buy me dinner, since this is the second time this year he's wrecked me. So I'm looking forward to that. We really had a good car today before the wreck, and for some reason, we had a really good car even after the wreck. It was just one of those days where we were in the wrong place at the wrong time." -- Scott Speed after he was involved in several wrecks, including one early in the race with Kyle Busch. Or, as Kenny Bania would say on Seinfeld, "The swordfish at Mendy's is the best, Jerry, the best!"

"Well, he has been and he has every right to brag as much as he wants, I guess. I wouldn't trade positions with him, though. I like where I'm at and I like my owner and I like my position and I like my opportunity. But right now, he has every right to say what he wants and he's been able to back it up on the race track." -- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. referring to Kyle Busch's comment at Bristol that he would rather win races than sell souvenirs and be the guy that "doesn't win very often."

"I'm proud of the fact that I'm outperforming a guy that replaced me at Hendrick Motorsports." --Kyle Busch, who was replaced at Hendrick Motorsports by Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

"I'm a little upset I didn't get credit for the idea, because I've been preaching that for a couple of years." -- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. referring to the announcement that this year's All-Star Race would end with a 10-lap shootout.

The 2008 IndyCar season ended with Scott Dixon clinching the championship on Sept. 7. But the circuit's long offseason ends with next weekend with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. It's a weekend of sun, fun, speed and a party atmosphere that makes this race one of the highlights of the season. It also means the return of Danica Patrick, who looks better in a driver's suit than anyone else in auto racing.

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