Thanks to Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR fans have been reading and hearing a great deal about mentors the last year. More specifically, broadcasters and writers have been playing off the theme of Gordon as the great mentor to JJ. In '06, the stories were about how the protégé had zoomed pass the teacher on Johnson's way to winning the title. In '07, many have written or told of how the two Hendrick drivers started off with Gordon as mentor, but now they are equals, close friends and tough competitors.
Though this season is coming to an end with Gordon and Johnson battling for the Nextel Cup title, they face the same issues every pair does in navigating the often tricky mentor-pupil relationship.
Mythological mentoring: Many experts say that the term "mentor" comes from Greek mythology. The story involves the famous Trojan horse, and not horsepower. Homer tells us that Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, asked his friend Mentor to look after his son Telemachus while he was off fighting the Trojan War. Odysseus was gone much longer than he thought he would be -- at least a full NASCAR season -- and Mentor wound up as a pseudo-father, raising Telemachus to be brave, honest and respectable.
Master mentor: Perhaps the greatest NASCAR mentor of all-time is Mark Martin, who enjoys the role. In a classic example of the student surpassing the teacher, Martin helped develop Roush teammate Matt Kenseth into a Nextel Cup champion. Martin, on the other hand, likely will be remembered as the best stock car driver to never win a Cup title. Martin's mentoring magic with young drivers led him to a land a lucrative part-time ride this year with Ginn Racing, which has since merged with Dale Earnhardt Inc. And in '08, Martin will get to mentor four DEI drivers. In addition to continuing his relationship with Regan Smith, he'll share the No. 8 Chevy with Aric Almirola while also counseling Martin Truex Jr. and Paul Menard.
Both student and master: Dale Earnhardt Jr. learned much from his legendary father, and he's passed much of it on to DEI youngsters Menard and Truex Jr. Truex, in particular got to benefit from his time racing on the Busch circuit with Dale Jr. as his car owner. Now, it will be interesting to see if Little E can go full circle and allow new teammates Gordon and Johnson can mentor him to a Nextel Cup championship.
Two-for-one deal: Clint Bowyer doesn't need much mentoring at Richard Childress Racing, but he has two veterans ready to help. Kevin Harvick was Bowyer's first teacher, mentoring Clint when he was a part-time driver for Childress on the Busch circuit. The two often tested together, with Harvick going first and Bowyer taking notes. Fellow Childress teammate Jeff Burton also is well-schooled in guidance, getting to see first hand the magic of Martin when the two were at Roush Racing.
Mentors needed: Who could use a mentor? At least three NASCAR groups ...
• The foreign invasion, for starters, will be desperate for help. Several drivers are trying to jump from open-wheel racing to NASCAR and many of them hail from another country. Dario Franchitti, Jacques Villeneuve, Patrick Carpentier, A.J. Allmendinger and Sam Hornish are among the drivers who could use some guidance from a stock-car veteran. Juan Pablo Montoya, ahead of the curve since he's currently running as a Nextel Cup rookie, is still trying to find his own way. He could use some help of his own, though he might wind up serving as a mentor to Ganassi teammate Franchitti.
• The Ganassi team, since it consists of newbies Montoya and Franchitti plus youngster Reed Sorenson, could use some sort of mentor. The three Ganassi drivers are so diverse, however, that it would probably be impossible for one guy to serve as mentor to all three.
• Another team with drivers that could use a mentor is Red Bull, which started from scratch in '07 and has struggled most of the year. Brian Vickers is a promising youngster but he still has a lot to learn, and Allmendinger is one of those open-wheel transfer students.
Student needed: Chad McCumbee doesn't even have a full-time Busch ride, but the driver's part-time work with Petty Enterprises might make him the luckiest driver in NASCAR. Petty's two full-time Nextel Cup drivers, veterans Bobby Labonte and Kyle Petty, would make excellent mentors. A third car with a promising youngster ready to learn might be just what Petty needs to get back to the top.
Tony the teacher: Tony Stewart hasn't had to do much as his younger teammate, Denny Hamlin, has matured into a threat to win a Nextel Cup title. Stewart readily admits that he's given Hamlin more advice on off-the-track situations than how to drive a car. But Stewart will get another chance to be a mentor in '08 when he gets a new teammate, the mercurial Kyle Busch. Reminding many of a young Stewart, Busch may make great strides toward the maturity he is lacking with someone who also has struggled to control his emotions.
Relationships we'd like to have seen: No only was Dale Earnhardt a legend on the track, but also at passing his knowledge on to others. If you have any doubts, just realize that the most powerful drivers in NASCAR, Gordon and Dale Jr., learned a lot of what they know from the Intimidator. While Dale Sr. received plenty of credit for his driving skill, he rarely was recognized for all the drivers whose careers he boosted over the years, including protégés such as Michael Waltrip and Steve Park. One can only wonder what effect Earnhardt Sr. would have had on Harvick, who replaced Dale Sr. at Childress after the legend's untimely death in '01.
Another driver whose teaching skills were underutilized, Rusty Wallace, never mentored anyone while he was an active driver. He couldn't even get along with teammate Ryan Newman at the end of his career. Lucky for Kurt Busch, who replaced Wallace in the No. 2 car when Rusty retired, he didn't need any advice to win a Nextel Cup championship. But it would have been interesting to see the two as teammates. If Wallace could have embraced a role as mentor, the pairing could have been great.