NASCAR's prerace pairings make for some interesting conversation
Moments before they concluded their championship duel at Homestead-Miami Speedway two years ago, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin found themselves riding around in the same pickup truck. They waved to the fans attending the Chase season finale but said little to each other, avoiding eye contact for the most part.
"That's a long five minutes around the racetrack,'' Johnson said.
It's not that they disliked each other but with a championship at stake that day, there was little to say during the prerace activity. Hamlin sought his first NASCAR Sprint Cup title, while Johnson vied for his record-extending fifth in a row. Eventually, they revealed postseason vacation plans to each other before refocusing on the race.
"I'm a friendly guy by nature, so I'm sitting there trying to have my competitive mindset, and it's not very comfortable, to say the least,'' Johnson said.
NASCAR often pairs competitors together in the back of a vehicle to salute fans shortly before those drivers compete against one another. Sometimes the banter between drivers is light, revolving around family, the crowd's response or their car's handling. Other times -- as drivers say happens so often -- they're paired with someone they've recently had a dispute with and it creates as much tension as a bad date. An "awkward silence," Martin Truex Jr. calls it.
Such a situation arose at Atlanta in 2006. The week before, David Ragan, in only his second career Cup start, finished a respectable 25th but didn't earn Tony Stewart's respect. Stewart labeled Ragan "a dart without feathers'' for his driving that day.
While Ragan finished the race, NASCAR officials ruled that he was not approved to run a Cup car at Atlanta the following week. Egged on by friends, Ragan bid on and won a charity auction for the opportunity to ride around the back of a pickup truck with Stewart after driver introductions. He had hoped to talk to Stewart about his comments.
"We chit-chatted some and then he reached out to me the following week," Ragan said. "That was the first time I had ever met Tony. It was funny looking back on it, you're a little nervous at first like I'm sure a lot of the fans are.
"It showed Tony that I wasn't scared to face one of my critics and stand up and say, "Hey, let's talk about it, I'm not going to run away and be scared for something I did last week.' It was a good ice-breaker.''
Dale Earnhardt Jr. recalls a time that a parade-lap pairing helped resolve issues with another driver. It was with Jimmy Spencer in 1999. Earlier that season Earnhardt said he wrecked Spencer because he ran out of brakes. They hadn't talked since the incident, so Earnhardt used the time in the pickup truck before a race to discuss matters with Spencer.
These days disputes are often resolved or at least discussed via text or calls after the race. In that sense, the prerace parade lap in a pickup truck (or some other vehicle) has lost a bit of importance as a chance to make peace.
Also, some tracks place one driver per vehicle after driver introductions, so there's not always that chance to talk with few people around to eavesdrop. Drivers will not be paired up in a vehicle this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. The following week at Kansas Speedway only the top three starters will be in their own Humvee. The other 40 starters will be paired in Humvees.
The value of being with another driver in a vehicle before the race is different now.
"Sometimes if you are lucky enough to get in the back of a truck with someone like Bobby Labonte, then you have a chance to get in their ear a little bit and get some advice from them," Earnhardt said. "You know, guys that are good at that but don't talk too much."
One topic drivers often discuss when paired together is how their car is handling. It seems odd that competitors would discuss their car before the race -- Can you imagine Tom Brady talking to Aaron Rodgers about the New England offense before the Super Bowl? -- but drivers say it's not a big deal.
"I don't try to do any type of fake out or anything like that or try to psych someone," Hamlin said.
Points leader Greg Biffle said that "when we're standing there next to each other, we're completely honest.''
As Biffle notes, when the green flag drops, it's going to be clear immediately if the other driver told the truth.
Of course, there's a limit to what's said. Just as Brady isn't going to reveal his team's playbook before the Super Bowl, a driver isn't going to say too much.
"I don't really talk about the nuts and bolts of the cars too much,'' Hamlin said.
Other times, drivers who are friends and in the same vehicle will talk about a variety of subjects.
Kasey Kahne notes how he recently was paired with Biffle and how "we talked the whole time. We were talking more about other racing. That happens a lot. People ask about how my World of Outlaws team is doing.''
For others, the talk is about families. With so many babies born to competitors in the last couple of seasons, discussions turn to diapers, milestones and other memorable moments with their children.
"With the baby coming there's a lot more that you can relate to with the guys in the garage," said Kevin Harvick. "That's kind of fun, and fun to talk about experiences that they've had, and try to get a little insight on things that are going around. You never know what kind of conversation is going to pop up when you're riding around. It depends on how long the ride is."