This year, NASCAR's made it clear that its new policy of "Let Boys Be Boys" revolves around getting drivers to show emotion on and off the track. Comedy, drama, tears ... anything but political correctness will do.
Their new plan has shown some serious potential. There's just one problem: not everyone wants to play along.
Monday showed the latest example, with two four-time champs banging fenders before choosing to bang heads outside public view. For those who missed it, the actions speak for themselves: Jeff Gordon raced Jimmie Johnson hard. Johnson didn't like it. One lap later, they had donuts on the sides of their cars, with J.J. eventually forced down pit road for a flat tire.
"I am pretty disappointed in how he was racing me today," said Johnson. It looked like a TKO punch towards his car owner was a heartbeat away ... only it wasn't.
"We will get to the bottom of it and sort it out. No need to play it out in the press," Johnson said.
Huh? Settle fights behind closed doors? It's great for the team, but bad for the "We Know Drama" credo NASCAR's trying to promote at every turn. Brad Keselowski vs. Carl Edwards? Matt Kenseth vs. Gordon? These guys have been trading barbs and starting food fights all over the high school cafeteria. Could you imagine the attention a public squabble between teammates would pull -- especially when it's the equivalent of the sport's New York Yankees?
Sadly, it's the type of conflict we'll only dream about; but that doesn't mean we have to stop discussing it. Remember, you can't join in the fun unless you speak up; email@example.com or Twitter @NASCARBowles are the best ways to do it!
Let's get started with the Gordon/Johnson spat and how it ties into the Kasey Kahne signing, of all things...
Tom, great insights on Kahne's inside story to leave Ford for Rick Hendrick. I'm a NASCAR purist and lifelong fan. I grew up in Daytona, used to watch Bill Elliott and Davey Allison test in January at 210 MPH, then go down to the garage with my grandfather to talk with the drivers and crews. I've been a fan of Kahne since he took over for Elliott, but this move smacks of the 80's, when J.D. Stacy tried to buy up all of the competition. Hendrick has managed to destroy all of the rivalry and competition within NASCAR by stockpiling the five most popular drivers (I'll include Stewart in that mix), and consequently caused NASCAR to lose me as a fan. It will take some major structural changes in the sport to win me over again. Who wants to watch a race when the only drama is which driver is Hendrick going to hug in Victory Lane?-- Steve Crowe, Orlando, FL
Lots to tackle. Let's start with a little education for the new school fans. After dabbling in the sport during the late 1970s, Jim "J.D." Stacy was a Kentucky coal magnate who bought the remnants of Dale Earnhardt's 1980 championship team. Excited about his foray into motorsports, he didn't stop there. By 1982, Stacy-sponsored cars numbered as many as 10 on the Cup Series grid some weeks. Wielding influence over 25 percent of the field, his power nearly overshadowed that of NASCAR officials down in Daytona Beach.
Before the sport could react, Stacy's tenure ended due to financial problems that left a handful of decimated cars in his wake. But while here, the control Stacy expected in return for financial support was legendary. In 1982, a Stacy-sponsored car, Dave Marcis, helped a non-Stacy car (Bobby Allison) at Pocono get to the pits after running out of gas. Marcis was out of contention at the time (he thought no harm, no foul), but the move still cost him in the wallet: he found his sponsorship pulled and Stacy refusing to work with him ever again.
How does this relate to Kahne, Gordon, and Johnson? Simple: Hendrick not only has future control over the sport's best drivers, but the power to set protocol on how to handle their conflicts. And instead of Stacy's fierce competitive fire, he's determined to make everyone work together for the common good. Take the Gordon-Johnson battle at Texas. Not only will HMS settle that matter internally, but it'll be squashed at once as it goes against the "teamwork" philosophy: individual crews working together as one to produce the best possible outcome for all.
That's my best guess why my inbox was overflowing with emails about Edwards-Keselowski and Gordon-Kenseth, but Gordon-Johnson didn't enact the same response. It's like Democrat vs. Democrat instead of Democrat vs. Republican; doesn't have the same type of ring to it. People within the Hendrick program aren't going to become enemies with each other long-term; it goes against their belief system. Johnson is right when he said for the press not to make too much of the incident, because there's nothing to see.
That's a shame for rivalry seekers. Take Stewart and Gordon as another example. Those two used to be fierce rivals until Stewart came in the Stewart-Haas fold, with his team getting engines and chassis from Hendrick. Now? The duo's buddy-buddy, with Stewart jokingly calling Gordon his "teammate" in almost every interview (a charge HMS adamantly denies). An incident like Monday's, where contact knocked both out of the race, would have incited a major brouhaha in past years. Now? They just talk it out, get ready for the next information-sharing session between the two teams, and move on.
Assuming Kahne lands in an HMS-supported car in 2011, that gives us the potential of eighteen cars on the grid getting engines and chassis from just two men: Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick. How can small-market teams and other owners compete against that? It's a major concern for the sport moving forward, especially with a four-team rule that struggles to maintain credibility. When the private contractors have more control over the sport than NASCAR officials, you wonder what the future holds.
Moving on, there's been a lot of venom spewed Danica Patrick's way this week following Kelly Bires' firing from JR Motorsports:
Tom, what happened to Kelly Bires is terrible. He's been successful at everything he's participated in. He finishes races, doesn't tear up equipment and what has Danica Patrick done?
-- Flip, Barnesville, OH
I'm still waiting for all the Danica fans to realize that she simply is NOT a competitive driver.
-- Damon, Hilliard, OH
Note to Danica: avoid the Buckeye State whenever possible. On a serious note, Bires' firing wasn't designed to give Patrick extra time in the seat. Signed up for a schedule of a dozen starts, that goes unchanged as Earnhardt is using the opening at the No. 88 for Cup veterans (Jamie McMurray) and promising upstarts (ARCA veteran Steve Arpin). Danica may bring the money, but her full-time IndyCar contract hardly affords her the right to just jump in the seat every week.
Some have speculated Danica's on the outs in IndyCar after a rough start (one top-10 finish in four races). But let's not jump the gun just yet. Patrick's strength has always been on oval tracks, and there are four such races ahead -- including May's Indy 500 -- which could right the ship on her season. Considering the "cash cow" she is, there's no way Andretti Autosport is going to let her out of a contract so easily.
As for Bires, he's going to land on his feet somewhere. It's just going to take awhile considering the rides for developing drivers have dried up faster than rain in the Sahara Desert. Too bad Earnhardt didn't give him more of a chance, especially considering his own car owner had patience to put up with him during last year's legendary slump.
I do hope that Kasey gets the No. 88 next year while Earnhardt goes to RCR or EGR. What I have not understood is the fact that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ran great with "Pops" (Tony Eury, Sr.) as his crew chief but now, Pops works for JR Motorsports. Why not put Pops back on top of the pit box?
-- Marybeth Wallick, Ellsworth, MI
First off, let's quash the Kahne-to-Earnhardt's car rumor right now. Not going to happen, folks. Earnhardt is signed through 2012, and Hendrick would have to eat the final two years of his contract. No way Earnhardt leaves until 2011 at the earliest.
As for Eury, Sr., it's true he won a lot of races with NASCAR's Most Popular Driver during five seasons together in Cup. But Eury's made it clear he's done with the Cup Series grind and is far happier working in Nationwide with up-and-coming stars. Even if Hendrick chose to fire Lance McGrew, the chances of him climbing back on top of that box are oh, about zero percent.
Sorry, Junior fans. Speaking of fantasies...
I am hoping RPM wins the Cup this year with Allmendinger and Bill Elliott goes to the No. 9 Ford in 2011 with Coors on the hood. That would be pretty sweet.
-- Ritchie, Richmond, TX
Aww Ritchie, nice to see someone using their imagination! But considering 'Dinger's spot in the points (23rd) and Elliott's age (55 this year) the only place you'll see that happen is in your dreams.
"A certain someone has sprayed his face with Beard-be-Gone. You can thank me later."--@MikeDavis88, Dale EarnhardtJr.'s longtime PR guru who announced to the world his driver has finally shaved his trademark beard. It's true; Junior was spotted beardless Tuesday in the middle of doing some shoots for sponsor PepsiCo.