By Bruce Martin
April 14, 2008

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Jimmie Johnson may have stolen the headlines Saturday night in Phoenix, but the buzz around the garage concerned banished NASCAR driver Aaron Fike.

Days after Fike admitted to ESPN The Magazine that he had used heroin and later drove in a race the same day, NASCAR drivers criticized the organization for not having a more substantive drug policy.

"I had a long conversation with NASCAR the last time we had this policy brought up in the end of the year last year and it almost seems like it went on deaf ears," said driver Kevin Harvick. "I'm disappointed with the fact that we're in a case where we have to have a reaction instead of being proactive about the situation. So I'm disappointed that we have to answer these questions again and we haven't made any headway whatsoever on the drug testing policy."

Harvick admitted that in the 10 years he has raced in various NASCAR divisions, he has never been tested for drugs. He said that points out the clear lack of policy.

"To me that is not a proper professional sports drug policy, and as I went up and talked to them about it," Harvick said. "They were more mad that I had a reaction to the situation than they were as far as trying to move forward. To me, it was just kind of one of those meetings where they were content to listen to what I had to say and that was about it.

"My name is not Jeff Gordon."

Fike and Shane Hmiel are the only drivers currently banished from the sport for failing a drug test. When Fike was arrested for possession of heroin he was in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. Hmiel has failed multiple drug tests.

"I have been in a race with [Fike] and I know for a fact that he's not the only one (using drugs)," Harvick said. "There's another driver (Hmiel) [who] is suspended that I can almost guarantee you was in a race car while he was under the influence and that pisses me off. That is not fair to the 95 percent of this garage. That's the bad part about it: 95 percent of this garage I can guarantee you is clean, but there's a five percent chance -- it's just like the safety thing back in '01 [in the way] we reacted to it; we weren't proactive until that situation happened.

"There's no reason not to be proactive in the state of the world of sports, there's no reason not to be proactive in the drug situation, and that to me is irresponsible more than it is anything. I'm sure I'll be blasted from somebody for saying what I feel but I don't want to be on the race track with people like that."

NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp spoke on behalf of the sanctioning body in regards to its drug enforcement policy.

"The responsibility here rests across the board -- with the drivers and competitors, owners and teams and NASCAR," Tharp said. "We test an individual when we have reasonable suspicion and a positive test results in severe consequences and is a career-changing moment for that person. NASCAR's policy is also supported by the various policies that the teams have in place that are required under the driver/owner agreements. No system is flawless; but we believe our zero tolerant policy that is in place has served the sport well."

When told of Harvick's comments, Tharp said, "First of all, let me assure you that no issue or conversation that we have with a driver, owner or team member ever falls on deaf ears. Now, they might not always come out of the meeting with the answer they're looking for, but we listen."

Other drivers firmly believe that NASCAR needs to institute a more strict drug enforcement policy which includes random drug tests to call competitors.

"I'm all for it -- I would love it," Tony Stewart said. "I've never been asked to take one yet and I think it should be mandatory that we have random drug testing all the time. I think non-stop through the year. Obviously with this happening, as an organization we aren't doing a good job of seeing it before it happens.

"Aaron (Fike) coming out and saying that obviously is an indication we need to do a better job than what we are currently doing."

As NASCAR heads into its second weekend off before heading to Talladega Superspeedway in two weeks, the leading contenders have stepped to the front of the series standings. That means it won't be long before the term "The Chase" starts creeping its way into the NASCAR vernacular.

After just eight races of the 34-race schedule completed, both Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing are nearly on par with Hendrick Motorsports as the top teams in the Sprint Cup Series this season, but that may be about to change.

After a very slow start to the season, Hendrick Motorsports finally won its first Cup race of 2008 after Johnson rode to Victory Lane on fumes in Saturday night's Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. So after falling off the radar in the early stages of NASCAR's season-long marathon, Johnson finds himself fourth in points, just 99 behind points leader Jeff Burton and only 13 points behind his Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Much of Johnson's success at Hendrick comes from the trust he has built between himself and crew chief Chad Knaus. But Saturday night, it took a "little white lie" from Knaus to encourage Johnson to slow down and save fuel.

"Since I climbed out of the car I found out he was lying for the better good of the team," Johnson said after scoring the 34th Cup win of his career. "First, he said I was like 10 seconds ahead. Then, he said 'he pitted, you have 20 seconds, let off, two more seconds a lap.'"

The "he" was Clint Bowyer, and it wasn't a little lie, but a big one.

"Bowyer, I guess, didn't pit," Johnson admitted. "It worked, and [Knaus] knew what the gap was. I didn't know who was there. There were a lot of cars at full speed trying to get by me. I just tried to stay up in the second lane, be smart with the fuel, and not step on the gas pedal too hard and just kind of coast around."

The strategy worked as Johnson had plenty of fuel, enough to even rev the engine and smoke his tires to celebrate his victory.

"My instinct was to step on the gas pedal," Johnson said. "That was good. The white lies he was telling me were even more helpful.

"When he (Knaus) says something, I might think about it for a split second, but I believe him every time."

But the most successful driver in Hendrick history, Jeff Gordon, is currently 13th in points, eight behind 12th-place Ryan Newman.

Although it is still early, this is usually the time of year that Gordon makes his move, but he has continued to struggle.

His 13th-place finish at Phoenix has been typical of Gordon's season so far, which is why Talladega could be the perfect opportunity for him to get the season back in a positive direction.

Despite his personal struggles, Gordon remains the ultimate team player at Hendrick, congratulating Johnson long after his victory while other drivers would have already been whisked from the track to the nearby helipad to begin their long journey home.

"Yeah, that's great," Gordon said. "I'm very happy for them. I'm happy for Hendrick. I hate that Rick Hendrick (team owner) wasn't here to see that in person. It definitely was a great day for them. They've gotten things turned around. They've done some testing and done some work and it's paid off.

"We're hoping to go down that same road in the next couple of weeks with some testing we're doing, too."

In Gordon's case, that needs to happen sooner rather than later if he is going to have the same impact on this season as last year. His three first-place finishes in the first eight races remain impressive but he continues to search for that magic setup that will get him back to Victory Lane.

Carl Edwards knows all about overcoming adversity this season. He is Sprint Cup racing's top winner this season with three victories but has had to deal with crew chief Bob Osborne's six-week suspension after the team was penalized for "blowing the lid off" the oil tank box when he won at Las Vegas in the third race of the season.

The team was penalized again on Saturday night when his crew left the pit wall "too soon."

Edwards was mired back in the pack. He had raced hard in order to have a fighting chance of a top-five finish.

"Yeah, it was an adventure, to say the least," Edwards said. "We passed a lot of cars, and then we just had a problem in the pits, got a penalty. We came back quickly, though. Everything fell into place, Robbie [Reiser, his interim crew chief] made some great calls, but then we had another bad pit stop, and that set us back.

"But to come out of here fourth with all the trouble we had tonight, that's a blessing. I'm not going to complain too much about that."

Edwards was able to persevere and fight back to a fourth-place finish.

"I don't know that I've ever passed that many cars at a race track ever," Edwards said. "The car was really good. That's a great Ford Fusion there, but we just got some setbacks there; one penalty and one tire got loose. My hat is off to Jimmie Johnson and those guys. They've been running really hard and getting better and better and he earned it."

Edwards made the best of a bad situation, but that still doesn't ease the pain of knowing he probably had the best car in the race. Anything less than a victory was not going to make this a successful outcome for the driver from Columbia, Missouri.

Ever since Earnhardt Jr. stepped up to Cup as a rookie in 2000, he has been a crowd favorite at Talladega Superspeedway, turning the stands into a sea of red when he was driving the Budweiser-sponsored car at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

But now that he has switched from beer to an energy drink when he moved over to Hendrick Motorsports, the color of the Talladega crowd is about to change to blue and green.

Fellow drivers such as Jimmie Johnson admit that will be an unusual sight, but they have already experienced a few things out of the norm this season by having him on the same team.

"I can tell you, it's been an interesting year, because at first the Earnhardt nation didn't really make any noise at driver intros when I was announced," Johnson said. "Now I hear them kind of cheering for me. I see guys decked out in 88 wishing me luck, where before they were wishing other things and throwing beer cans at me and other stuff.

"There are still a few diehards who refuse to be a fan of Hendrick or myself or Jeff (Gordon). But as a whole, there is some respect there, which is good to see. If we have a clean race car, it will save hopefully some beer can dents when the race is all over with."

Ryan Newman really "smoked 'em" in Saturday night's Subway Fresh Fit 500, prompting a red flag because of the oil and other fluids leaking from his car that made the race track as slippery as an ice-skating rink.

"We lost a front seal," Newman said. "It's the same thing that happened to us in Bristol. It's disappointing. That's two times in the first eight races that we had the same problem. Our engine company needs to get their stuff together.

"The motor still runs fine. It just pumps oil out the front-end and it gets on the headers and smokes real bad. I apologize [for] what I did to the race track, but that's all I had to work with."

After starting on the pole, Newman finished last, going from first to worst in Saturday night's race.

Singer Nick Lachey has a T-shirt with Jimmie Johnson's high school photo on it and calls it his lucky T-shirt.

"A friend brought that out for my birthday last year and I never thought I'd see the shirt again, and then Nick showed up with it again today," Johnson said. "That's my senior photo. That's going to haunt me for a long time."

Edwards backed his truck into Elliott Sadler's motorhome before practice at Phoenix last Thursday.

"We were all sitting in my bus eating some chicken and we were watching him try to back his truck in and he was getting close," Sadler recalled. "All of a sudden, the whole bus rocked. He has won three races this year and makes us all look stupid on Sundays; how can he back into a bus like that? It was a pretty hard hit."

Sadler winked and said it may be time to convince Edwards' insurance company to get him a brand new ride.

"I've had that bus a while," Sadler said. "It could be a total loss."

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