Columns/Daily & Internet
Jeff Gluck, NASCAR Scene
HOW MUCH WOULD YOU PAY FOR JIMMIE JOHNSON TO QUIT FOR A YEAR?
LONG POND, Pa. – I’m all about helping NASCAR these days, so I offered Jimmie Johnson a deal.
If I could go through the garage and scrape together $100 million from various drivers, would Johnson be willing to sit out the Chase For The Sprint Cup and let someone else win the championship this year?
No one has been able to beat Johnson for the Sprint Cup title the last three years, and this season is starting to look like more of the same.
Four in a row? It doesn’t seem like that would be good for the sport, let alone the other drivers who keep getting their butts kicked. So I thought it was a pretty decent offer.
Deep down, I figured Johnson would probably say there was no amount of money I could pay him to quit for a year. But I was wrong.
“A hundred million dollars?” said Johnson, gears turning in his head. “Man…I don’t know. That’d be a tough one to consider.”
As he was considering, he paused and asked “Tax-free?”
Sure, why not? Then I told him that if he won in 2010, we could still call it his personal four-peat (since this season wouldn’t really count if he didn’t try).
“I guess I could buy a replica trophy,” he said, the momentum starting to build for my proposal. “I would seriously consider $100 million tax-free. But I really do want that fourth-straight [title], to do something that’s never been done before.”
So let me get this straight: All I had to do was raise $100 million over the next few hours, and NASCAR would be guaranteed to have a new champion?
“Yes. We’ll talk,” Johnson said with a grin, then added: “You could get a commission.”
Even better. Now it was just a matter of getting drivers to chip in.
The first people I pitched on the idea were Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman, who were conducting a joint press conference.
Thinking I was doing their championship hopes a favor, I told them what Johnson said and asked how much they could pledge.
Stewart said, “I’ll match whatever you spend,” but I informed him that wasn’t going to be much at all – I only had a few bucks in my wallet.
Kahne and Newman just sat there like silent speed bumps, staring blankly. They didn’t say a word; no help at all.
I asked again in case they didn’t quite get the concept, but now it was just starting to get awkward for everyone. The moderator quickly said, “No takers” and moved on.
Apparently they didn’t think much of the idea. Walking out of the room, Stewart stopped at my workstation and sarcastically said, “Good question,” while giving an unenthusiastic thumbs up.
Better than a middle finger, I figured.
Next up was Edwards – the man who was thwarted by Johnson in last year’s Chase despite an unbelievable run. Surely he would be willing to chip in $10 million or so, right?
“I’d just as soon go and stop Jimmie’s run on the race track, without paying him,” Edwards said. “But that would be nice. $100 million?”
I told Edwards there were no takers so far, and I needed him to step up and pledge whatever he could.
“I’d have to think about that,” he said. “If we went to the fans, we might be able to come up with something. It’s a good idea.”
As a side note, Edwards added: “It’d cost a lot more than $100 million for me to quit. But I don’t have three [championships].”
Denny Hamlin wasn’t interested in buying Johnson out of the Chase, either. Hamlin recalled his Late-Model racing days, when he won 25 of 35 races but ran out of money for the final event.
“An actual competitor of ours paid my way to go to the last race of the season, and we never understood why he did that,” Hamlin said. “But he said, ‘I wouldn’t feel like if I won that I was the best unless you showed up.’
“And it’s the same way with Jimmie. If he’s not here, I don’t consider it a win.”
I hadn’t thought of that when making my initial pitch. NASCAR drivers don’t want Johnson to go away; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Drivers want Johnson to stick around – foolishly believing they can actually beat him this time, therefore making their imagined victory that much sweeter.
But here’s the thing: We’ve already seen this episode before. In fact, the Jimmie Johnson Show is now in reruns.
Even smart drivers like Jeff Gordon would rather Johnson didn’t go away, but stay and fight to defend his titles.
“I think all of us want to win the championship by beating the best that are out there,” Gordon said in response to my offer (though he initially asked me to see if I could pull together $100 million for him, too). “If Jimmie wins it, you know that everyone was gunning for those guys trying to keep them from winning four in a row. I think it makes that much more challenging for them to do it.”
I informed Gordon that he and the other Chase drivers would likely get their wish, since I had rounded up a total of zero dollars so far (although I did have a couple quarters from a vending machine).
“Yeah, I think drivers are willing to take the risk of trying to beat him,” Gordon said.
Clearly, this was going nowhere. I tried to help, but they all just wanted to do it their way.
Before the day was over, I ran into Johnson again.
“Sorry,” I said, “it looks like you’re going to have to win your fourth in a row. I couldn’t round up enough money from the other drivers.”
“Yeah, I figured,” he replied. “That’s a lot of dough.”
Then Stewart was back in the media center, apparently having thought more about my offer during a long rain delay.
Suddenly, there was a glimmer of hope.
He said he revisited my question. Asked me again how much it would cost. Asked which races Johnson would miss.
I supplied the information, feeling optimistic. But just like that, Stewart flatly refused.
His said the reasons were “A, because I’ve never seen that amount of money; B, because I’ll never see that amount of money and C, because I want to beat the best.”
Then Stewart, apparently quite insulted by the whole thing, turned the question on me.
“How much of a collection would we have to take for you to just retire from [writing about] NASCAR?” he asked. “I’m pretty sure I could go through the garage and have it by 5.”
A million bucks sounded good to me, but Stewart low-balled me with an initial offer of $30,000 before raising it to $70,000.
I’m not exactly sure why he wanted to get rid of me – after all, I’m not the one who whipped everyone in the Chase the last few years.
Anyway, I declined Stewart’s buyout offer. While both Johnson and I apparently do have a price, no one is willing to pay us enough to go away just yet.
AN OPEN LETTER TO KYLE BUSCH
Dear Kyle Busch,
Hey man. Tough weekend, huh? You dominated the Nationwide Series race at Darlington but lost it on an unlucky flat tire, then slammed the wall in the Sprint Cup race and finished many laps down.
Well, you know what they say: You can’t win ‘em all.
On second thought, maybe you’ve never heard that expression before. You certainly don’t act as if you have.
After the Nationwide race, you did that thing where you scowl and walk really fast and ignore reporters when they try to ask you for your reaction to what happened. You know what I’m talking about.
Then after you hit the wall in the Sprint Cup race, you refused to come out of your hauler for 45 minutes and talk to the waiting media and eventually offered just 15 words before getting back in your damaged car to finish the race.
Look, everyone knows you’re competitive and passionate about racing. And, no doubt, that fire helps you win races.
I’ve already gone on the record as saying I think you’ll eventually go down as the greatest driver in history when your career is finished. A ton of people think you have the best talent in the garage.
But you have become by far the worst loser in NASCAR. It’s no wonder fans have such a hard time rooting for you.
See, here’s the thing: When you win, you show a great deal of personality. You can be funny, engaging, interesting and entertaining. And you win so often, you’d think that you would learn how to take the bad times with the good times.
The problem is, there’s no in-between with you. If you don’t win, you often act like a child who didn’t get his way. People don’t like that, Kyle.
I heard your apologist Darrell Waltrip say the other day that you like winning more than anyone and hate losing more than anyone.
Uh, no. That’s pretty silly, actually. Other drivers despise losing, too. But most of them act like men and face the music when they have bad days.
We all have bad days, Kyle, but that doesn’t give us a license to behave badly. I don’t know if you realize this, but outside of the racing world, a lot of people – many NASCAR fans – have very difficult, high-stress jobs in which every day is not a victory. But that’s life – you have to go through adversity and learn how to deal with the down times.
And, dude, your down times aren’t even that bad. You storm off and refuse to talk when you have a bad finish, but at the end of the day you still fly home on a private jet to your lakeside mansion filled with expensive toys. How about a reality check?
Look, it might be understandable if you acted poorly after enduring weeks of frustration or something like that. But when you sweep the weekend at Richmond and then act as if it’s the end of the world because you didn’t win the very next week, that’s a problem.
Maybe you have too many enablers around you, Kyle. People let you get away with your bad behavior and don’t call you out on it or make you take responsibility for your actions. They make excuses for you and say, “Well, that’s just Kyle.”
I’m sure that makes things easier for you, because you never have to apologize and are allowed to just move on as if nothing ever happened. But Kyle, it sure doesn’t win you many friends. And the sad thing is, I think there are a lot of fans who actually want to like you. You just turn them off by being such a sour jerk.
What’s amazing about this whole thing is you could easily start to change your image by taking 30 seconds, answering two questions from reporters about what happened in the race – thereby sending a message to both the media and fans that you’re capable of dealing with defeat. It might require a deep breath and some self-discipline, but it’s not as if people are asking you to stand on the front lines in Afghanistan or anything.
I know there are good people giving you advice, the ones who understand how much you continually damage your image. Do yourself a favor and listen to them, Kyle. And aside from just your popularity, it wouldn’t hurt to try and be a better person in general.
TEAM OWNERS DON’T BELONG IN NASCAR BROADCAST BOOTH
Television is the most powerful medium out there, even better than the Internet when it comes to delivering your message to a mass audience.
When you watch a NASCAR broadcast, the information you receive from the play-by-play announcers and analysts enters your brain and is often accepted as fact.
But most viewers incorrectly assume the information is being presented to them in an unbiased manner. On NASCAR broadcasts, that’s not necessarily true.
ESPN’s Rusty Wallace is the team owner of Rusty Wallace Racing and calls races where his own cars – and own son – participate. The network’s Brad Daugherty is co-owner of JTG/Daughtery Racing and takes part in broadcasts featuring Marcos Ambrose. Analyst Ray Evernham still retains a share of the team once known as Gillett Evernham Motorsports.
The role of an analyst is to provide insight into the topic they cover, which Wallace, Daugherty and Evernham do very well. But another part of that role should be – or used to be – to break down events in an unbiased manner.
By their very nature, journalists are supposed to be unbiased. You can’t stop people from feeling certain ways one way or the other – everyone is human – but part of the job is being as impartial as possible.
Wallace, Daugherty and Evernham cannot do this. No matter how hard they try – and there’s no doubt they put a tremendous amount of effort into their jobs – they cannot be unbiased toward the events unfolding in front of their eyes because they have a personal stake in the happenings.
If Steve Wallace is involved in a wreck, father and team owner Rusty Wallace up in the booth shouldn’t be in position to comment on what just occurred.
Yet time and again, Rusty’s very presence on the broadcast team has made for uncomfortable moments. The former Cup champion is forced to choose either to comment on his car’s misfortune or say nothing while his colleagues awkwardly reference what just happened.
It’s a lose-lose situation for Wallace and the viewers: If he says something about his car, it won’t come across as unbiased commentary no matter how truthful it may be; if he doesn’t say anything at all, his silence still seems to speak volumes.
When Steve Wallace bumped Kyle Busch at a Richmond Nationwide Series race, then had an altercation with Busch on pit road, commentator Marty Reid said, “You may have to get your wallet out, Dad. There may be a fine.”
“I’m staying out of this one,” Wallace replied quickly.
But that begs the question: What are analysts with personal and financial interests doing analyzing the very events their teams enter?
Networks should try harder to hire broadcasters who fans know are presenting the truth as best they know it.
It’s not just ESPN, either. Fox’s Darrell Waltrip has close ties to Toyota, which mean many fans’ perceive that he praises Toyota drivers more than others.
That may not be fair to Waltrip – just like it’s not fair to Wallace – but they are in a position to be criticized based on their personal interests.
Rich Feinberg, ESPN’s Vice President for Motorsports, says the network doesn’t try to cover up their analysts’ interests – in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
“We’re not trying to hide that Rusty is an owner,” Feinberg says. “When you hear the guys talk with him about it costing him money, it’s quite the opposite. We’re addressing it right up front.
“As long as we are up front with our viewers right from the beginning about their other interests…and in if in our opinion, their commentary doesn’t have that bias, then we’re OK.”
Feinberg says Wallace and Daugherty’s presence on the broadcast benefits viewers to the point that it outweighs these issues, which he calls “interests outside of their journalistic interests.”
The awkwardness felt by both viewers and those on the ESPN team is the collision of those separate interests, which don’t belong together at all.
“Have there been times in four years where there’s been an uncomfortable moment? If I’m being honest, I’d say yes,” Feinberg says. “We talk about those and try to move on. But the key is not to hide it.”
This is the sport where two of the most famous TV moments of all time featured broadcasters rooting on their relatives to Daytona 500 victories: Ned Jarrett calling son Dale across the finish line, and Waltrip crying as his brother Michael took the checkered flag.
So perhaps NASCAR is filled with so many family ties and sponsor relationships that conflict is unavoidable.
But putting broadcasters in the booth who have known conflicts leaves much to be desired for any network, whose on-air talent should still be viewed as journalists and strive to be unbiased.
No matter how much Wallace and Co. try their best to present a fair broadcast, there is no real solution to this issue until none of the analysts have a financial stake in what is being covered.
ESPN, though, disagrees.
“The audience is the ultimate judge,” Feinberg says. “The audience judges our work, our ethics and our credibility on a daily basis by whether they choose to watch us or not. That’s who we do this for.”
NASCAR WAS RIGHT ON CARL LONG PENALTY
Let’s say a struggling Major League Baseball player picks up a corked bat and uses it in a game.
He didn’t realize it was corked, but it was. He gets caught, and despite making just a fraction of the money a superstar would make, is suspended as if he’s Sammy Sosa.
Rules are rules in the big leagues, and exceptions can’t be made depending on who you are.
Carl Long is NASCAR’s version of that small-time hitter. And he was found to have committed one of NASCAR’s cardinal sins: Bringing a big engine to the race track.
Everyone feels sorry for Long, and certainly he was caught in an unfortunate situation. He bought the engine from a reputable source and didn’t attempt to cheat intentionally. And given that his livelihood depends on working in NASCAR, his 12-race suspension from the Sprint Cup Series, $200,000 fine for the crew chief and 200-point penalty at first appear quite excessive.
People from both inside the garage and out have accused NASCAR of picking on the little guy. But that’s hardly the case – if this were a major race team, the penalty would have been exactly the same. And really, applying the rules the same way to the same situation every time – regardless of who committed the crime – is all you can ask for from a sanctioning body.
This is the sport where fans and media often cry foul when they perceive NASCAR treats certain drivers with favoritism. How many times have you heard people say Dale Earnhardt Jr. got special treatment for this or that? How often have you heard someone accuse NASCAR of preferring one driver over another?
We’re constantly asking NASCAR to be fair to everyone. Now we’re going to tell NASCAR it should give special treatment to someone because he’s not on a big race team?
There cannot be different standards for penalties based on who you are. Sadly for Long, he broke the rules in a major way – whether he meant to or not – and now it will cost him dearly.
Such are the risks when you ask to compete in the highest form of motorsports in the United States.
This isn’t amateur hour. And this isn’t the NASCAR of 10 years ago. This is a big-time, major-league sport that decided several years ago it was going to start acting like it by eliminating cheating.
Penalties have grown increasingly severe – and every competitor knows the consequences for infractions now, knows they will get worse and worse until rule-bending stops altogether.
And bringing a big engine to the track – even if it was just a fraction of an inch over the tolerance level – is a major mistake. While Long didn’t build the engine, it was his responsibility to ensure it was legal.
Whether from a small team or a large one, the fines must be the same. Long lamented that NASCAR is no longer the down-home, family-oriented sport it once was.
Like it or not, that’s true. This is big business now, major league in every sense of the word. And there’s simply no room for a small-time team to bring an illegal engine to the track and expect to be treated with kid gloves.
You want to play in the big time? You’d better be ready to play by the rules.
NASCAR has taken a positive step by showing its justice is blind, whether your name is Carl Long or Carl Edwards.
I CHALLENGED JEFF GORDON AND LOST
When it comes to racing, about the only thing Jeff Gordon and I have in common are our initials.
He’s a four-time NASCAR champion. I can’t even drive a stick shift.
He’s won three Daytona 500s. I’ve been to three Daytona 500s.
And Gordon grew up racing karts. I’ve raced them a few times and usually spin out or finish last.
With that in mind, I have absolutely no idea what came over me when, just before entering a kart race against Gordon on Wednesday, I pointed at one of NASCAR’s all-time greats and yelled, “Hey! You’re going down!”
Gordon, who was walking by my kart at the time, stopped in his tracks and looked down at me.
“We’ll see,” he said with an amused expression. “You’ve been practicing, right? Bring it.”
Actually, I had practiced before racing against Gordon and several other media members as part of a Jeff Gordon Foundation fundraising event at Victory Lane Indoor Karting.
I mean, if you knew you were going to race against Jeff Gordon, wouldn’t you want some practice first?
It was certainly a priority for me, given my severe lack of racing skills. So I contacted Hendrick Motorsports’ Landon Cassill and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Brad Coleman, who agreed to give me tips and race against me the night before the main event with Gordon.
Cassill preached the basics before we actually got in the karts: Sliding through the corner will cost too much time and slow me down. Try to brake in a straight line, then roll through the turns and get in the gas as soon as possible. Set myself up for the long straightaways, which are the best areas to make up time.
I tried to listen and take careful notes, but I must have started to look confused and overwhelmed because Coleman interjected with a simple message: “Go as straight as you can the whole time,” he said.
Cassill took my notepad and drew a map of a sample course, marking it with lines where a good driver would start his braking.
“You have to be able to be patient enough to sacrifice the first corner in order to set up the next one,” he said.
“So how am I going to beat Jeff Gordon?” I asked them.
“Wreck him,” Coleman replied.
That didn’t seem like much of an option; seat time seemed like a better bet.
So after watching a league race from the pits just before Victory Lane’s closing time – a mere 10 hours from my showdown with Gordon – I buckled into a kart behind my instructors and a few ringers who were also practicing to face Four-Time as part of the event.
Practice didn’t go too well for me. Of the 13 drivers on the course, I finished 13th – about 2.5 seconds off Cassill’s best lap and two seconds behind Coleman’s. Almost every driver lapped me, and I stood up from my kart both exhausted and frustrated.
I was drenched in sweat, my throat was dry, my back was sore, and my arms ached from trying to manhandle the kart.
And by the way, we were only out there for eight minutes. This was harder than it looked.
Cassill and Coleman weren’t entirely pleased, either. They finished sixth and eighth, respectively, though we quickly learned that the winner of our heat was the defending indoor national champion. All of the leaders were practically professional karters.
“You did pretty good considering who we were up against,” Coleman said, trying to restore some of my confidence.
Cassill was more realistic.
“You’re not going to beat Jeff Gordon,” he said.
Still, I had to try.
After a short rest and visions of karts driving around in my dreams, I returned to Victory Lane for race day.
Gordon made a few cracks at the media’s expense during a news conference announcing his foundation’s generous efforts to fund a new pulmonary lab at the Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital (which will help doctors aid children with asthma). He said the media members he’d be racing against were simply “obstacles” on the track because we’d be so slow.
I informed him that I’d practiced the night before – just to give him a heads-up of how much incredible competition I was sure to provide – but he didn’t seem very worried.
In fact, he appeared completely confident and focused when he strapped into the No. 24 kart, wearing a DuPont helmet, Victory Lane firesuit and black racing gloves.
I peered over at Gordon before we were released onto the track and thought about past experiences racing against karts that had a No. 24 or 88 or 18 on them, pretending it was Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Kyle Busch.
But when I looked over at the No. 24 this time, the guy driving really was Jeff Gordon.
The karts ahead of me pulled out of the pits, and Gordon lagged behind to make sure he gave us all a head start. Suddenly, the race was on.
I tried to remember everything Cassill and Coleman had told me the night before, and that helped me get off to a great start. But then I accidentally skidded through one corner, lost momentum and looked behind me to see how close Gordon had gotten.
He was on my back bumper. Yikes!
At that point, I figured I had three choices:
1. Move over and let Four-Time pass me;
2. Block as if I was on the last lap at Talladega;
3. Run my race and see if he could find a way around me.
There didn’t seem to be much honor in Option No. 1, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be shoved into the wall if I chose Option No. 2.
So I hit the gas and decided on Option No. 3, successfully holding Gordon off for one complete lap.
But that was all. He passed me just after the start/finish line, outbraking me into a turn, and I figured he was gone for good.
Surprisingly, I was able to stay with him for about 30 seconds. Most people would blame the traffic in front of Gordon for slowing him down, but I prefer to think I was actually keeping up based on my newfound driving talent.
Speaking of the traffic, two karts in front of us caused a slowdown that resulted in a moment of sheer panic.
At the end of the second lap, the slow karts got in Gordon’s way, and he apparently had to hit the brakes. I didn’t react in time and the next thing I knew, I had slammed into the back of the No. 24 kart. Hard.
You’d be surprised what ran through my head. I figured I might have injured Gordon, who just undergone a procedure on his ailing back less than 24 hours earlier. The headlines flashed in front of me: “GORDON TO MISS COKE 600 AFTER WRITER SLAMS HIS GO-KART.”
But there was no time to dwell on the incident, and I was suddenly side by side with Gordon, who was pinned behind slow traffic.
Holy cow. I was going to make a pass on Jeff Gordon!
Sadly, just as I cleared the karts and steadied myself for an inside line on the next turn, Gordon swooped around everyone on the outside and began to zoom away. I never got close again, and soon after, he disappeared.
The race ended, with the stat sheet showing I finished fifth out of nine drivers. Gordon won, of course, with his best lap time 4.7 seconds faster than mine.
Still, I didn’t embarrass myself, which was really the most I could hope for. The practice somewhat paid off, and apparently my driving caught Gordon’s attention because I suddenly noticed him walking toward me as I stopped my kart.
I wasn’t quite sure whether this was good or bad. Was he coming over to congratulate me for a good run or perhaps shove me like Matt Kenseth at Bristol for rear-ending him on lap 2?
“Dude!” he said excitedly, reaching down and shaking my hand emphatically. “You did good!”
Immediately, I apologized for getting into the back of him. I felt like one of those rookies you hear on TV after they cause a wreck.
He didn’t seem to be bothered by it and said he was having trouble passing the slower karts because it was so slick (our race was the first of the day, meaning the track was cool).
“The track doesn’t have any rubber on it right now at all,” he explained. “When you get guys running and everything gets hot, the track gets so much faster. You’ll see those times just keep coming down.”
I nodded, actually knowing for once what Gordon was talking about. I had heard drivers make comments like that millions of times at the track but had never felt what they meant.
Now I did. It was as if we suddenly had more in common than just our initials.
After shedding my firesuit and putting my helmet back on the shelf, I wandered out to the lobby and bumped into Coleman, who was preparing to race a bit later.
As we chatted and reviewed my lap times, Gordon walked up to us with baby Ella in his arms.
“This guy helped me prepare last night,” I said, pointing to Coleman.
“Well you must have done a good job,” Gordon told Coleman, “because he looked good out there.”
With that, he turned away and left me beaming like a kid who had just brought home good grades from school.
I think he was just being nice.