Tom Bowles
Friday April 2nd, 2010

The year: 1986.

NASCAR's Darrell Waltrip had won three of the previous five Cup titles, asserting himself as the sport's dominant force of the 1980s. A man not known for keeping quiet, he was nicknamed "Jaws" by Cale Yarborough for never backing down from talking a big game. But despite a rocky start early in his career, Waltrip had spent most of the decade practicing exactly what he preached.

Heading into the second race of the season at Richmond, Waltrip and his Junior Johnson Chevy were prohibitive favorites to take the title once again. After running third at Daytona, Waltrip stalked Dale Earnhardt through the final laps of Richmond. Earnhardt, six years removed from his only Cup title and viewed then as more of a journeyman driver, had led a race-high 299 of 397 laps. But with two laps to go, Waltrip -- a man known for coming out of nowhere at the end of races -- planted himself squarely on the inside of Earnhardt.

It was the champ firmly asserting his authority. Surely, this story would end with him darting past Earnhardt to take the victory, right?

Wrong.

Earnhardt let Waltrip pass him, then turned the No. 11 Chevy in a wreck that took out both cars. A major melee ensued, one that gift wrapped Kyle Petty's first Cup victory but, more importantly, made a statement that the champ now had a challenger on his heels.

"I was on top, but Dale wanted to be on top," he said, looking back on the incident in the movie Dale. "I had everything that Dale wanted, and Dale was going to take it away from me."

"It started as a friendly rivalry ... but it grew out of that."

That was the day when everything changed. Neither driver won, but Earnhardt's message was clear. He went on to win the title that year, and four of the next six. Waltrip never won a championship trophy again.

***

The year: 2010.

Jimmie Johnson has won four straight NASCAR titles. Winning three of the season's first six races, he's assumed the points lead and seems an unstoppable force. Once again, he's starting to walk the walk; but in a departure from previous years he's starting to talk the talk also.

After Kurt Busch, who finished second to Johnson at Bristol, let loose his frustration about the champ's recent run of good fortune, the reigning king of NASCAR mustered a smile and admitted he relishes in seeing others come up short.

"I wanted to win a lot to frustrate the competitors," the formerly mild-mannered, nice guy said in his post-race interview. "I think over the last few years, we've been able to get in some guys' heads and I think it's been helpful. I don't want to lose that advantage if we can prevent it."

"I get caught up in that mind game of stuff and find a lot of satisfaction in it."

It's the most open Johnson's ever been about ways in which he tries to beat the pants off the competition. Mental warfare is nothing new in a sport where attitude can mean just as much as speed.

When asked if he played mind games en route to his two championships, Tony Stewart replied, "definitely." "But the thing is, there is a group of guys that is easy to do that to, and there is a group of guys that it is impossible to. No matter what you try to do, you can't get in their heads."

"I think you just focus on going out and trying to beat your competition," says mind game critic and 2003 champ Matt Kenseth. "That's all I've ever really tried to do is worry about our team and what we can control. I can't really control what the other teams and cars do, so I've never really gotten to into that before or paid that much attention to it."

In the reigning champ's defense, those tactics certainly work for a few drivers. When asked about Johnson's comments Friday at Martinsville, former teammate Kyle Busch let loose in a tirade that simply seemed to reinforce that the No. 48's dominance is bothering him.

"I can only go as fast as my car will let me go," he said. "Jimmie Johnson's not going to beat me because he's in my head. He's going to beat me because he's got a better car than I do. I'm driving my butt off every single week [to beat him]."

Guess you can cross Johnson off Busch's Christmas list this year.

So why is Johnson's newfound focus on mind games a factor? Because during one of the most dominant stretches by a driver in Sprint Cup history, fellow drivers have been more reluctant to pull the Waltrip-Earnhardt move for the same reason fans find Johnson too vanilla.

"He doesn't do anything on the race track that makes [drivers] mad other than win," said Stewart. "He's the kind of guy that it's hard to not like. Every time I won a race last year, he was one of the first people to send me a text message congratulating me. He's just not one of those guys that gets into trouble with guys on the race track that creates some of that animosity that the fans have sometimes."

"A lot of people give him breaks," adds Brad Keselowski. "I watch video and very rarely do I see anyone ever race him hard. That means he has a lot of respect from his competitors, and I don't see a lot of people who are willing to do what it takes to beat him."

So that makes talking trash a dangerous game for the four-time champ. In NASCAR's self-proclaimed era of letting "Boys be Boys," they've shown with Carl Edwards' three-race probation for flipping Keselowski at Atlanta, on-track payback won't hurt drivers where it counts most: the championship. Any retaliation towards Johnson on the race track is likely to end up the same way the Waltrip-Earnhardt fracas ended in 1986: a $5,000 fine and "probation" that was never activated as the Intimidator waltzed to the championship.

With the new rules in mind, why give drivers the extra resolve to go out there and take you out? For Johnson, the best thing he could do is keep the "nice guy" image flowing in the garage as long as possible. Because one haphazard comment, one iota of cockiness could fuel the fire of the next Dale Earnhardt coming up and pushing the four-time champ out of the way. Most fans have gotten to the point that they feel it will never happen, but those tired of his dominance need only look at history as a reason to hope.

At some point, Johnson will be beaten. And the more he plays those mind games, the more he might be messing with a formula that will wind up challenging his place at the top sooner rather than later.

BOWLES BITS

Ryan Newman's endured heavy criticism this week after claiming in an interview that he thinks the moon landing was fake. My take? People are being a little hypocritical. Fans claim drivers are too politically correct, yet the second they give an opinion, people openly slam them for it? You can't have it both ways.

• Tony Stewart continued his assault on the media at Martinsville, continuing a cantankerous spirit from Daytona in which he went after a reporter for what he thought was a "stupid" question. While many are bothered by Stewart's antics, I at least respect him for forcing those of us in the media to raise our standards. Perfection is expected from athletes; so shouldn't reporters be on their "A" game at all times?

Sure, not every question Stewart's gotten grumpy about deserved an insult. But I'd rather have an athlete willing to reward good questions with good answers than a generic athlete who gives you the same, canned response no matter what.

• Be careful who you believe on Twitter today. The April Fools' jokes started at midnight, when Scott Speed announced he and wife Amanda are expecting their first child (False). And there's already been a successful hoax: Texas Motor Speedway snookered ESPN and several other news outlets with a fake story about a local DJ changing his name to Texasmotorspeedway.com for $100,000. With NASCAR's social media explosion, drivers and teams are more accessible than ever, so expect many to try and get you hook, line and sinker on a story that just isn't true.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.