Trash talk could get Johnson into a Waltrip-Earnhardt-like rivalry
The year: 1986.
Heading into the second race of the season at Richmond, Waltrip and his
It was the champ firmly asserting his authority. Surely, this story would end with him darting past Earnhardt to take the victory, right?
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
"I was on top, but Dale wanted to be on top," he said, looking back on the incident in the movie
"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.
"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,
"I think you just focus on going out and trying to beat your competition," says mind game critic and 2003 champ
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
"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
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
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.
• 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