NASCAR

These days, rivalries are friendly

Jimmie Johnson celebrates winning the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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SOUTHLAKE, TEXAS

In NASCAR racing, nice guys don’t finish last.

Jimmie Johnson proved that again Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway as he won his 66th career Sprint Cup race.

Despite taking a seven-point lead in his quest for a sixth championship over another nice guy — Matt Kenseth, who finished fourth — it’s unlikely the race or the title hunt will monopolize the water cooler talk this week.

There’s just nothing sexy about a friendly rivalry.

As these once-young guns have matured, started families and put aside their own toys to make room in the motorcoach lot for Big Wheels and baby carriages, maybe it’s become too politically incorrect to dump a guy Sunday after the families have barbequed together Saturday night.

The brouhaha between Johnson and Greg Biffle at Martinsville Speedway last weekend fizzled before a rivalry could ignite. Biffle was furious with Johnson after the two made contract during the race. He grabbed Johnson by the back of his collar on pit road only to have the five-time champ claim several days later that by “the look in his eyes … he didn’t want to fight.”

“I don’t even think he looked at me,” Johnson said of Biffle. “He was looking around me and saw all of you (media) standing there. I think he was just as shocked that he grabbed me like that as anyone.

“He was just pissed. So, I think at the end of the day that was really the energy in that moment that let me stay calm and just kind of handle it how I did.”

Johnson said he didn’t know what kept him from swinging after Biffle grabbed him, but he has no history of losing his cool. Sure, he called out Sam Hornish Jr. when he wrecked the No. 48 Chevy three laps into the Texas race during the 2009 Chase. And Johnson showed his displeasure with Kurt Busch after the two played bumper tag at New Hampshire a year later.

But it seems that Johnson’s unflappable nature has permeated his peer group as well. Have these driver’s mellowed, or has the complexion of the sport changed dramatically since teams have become so heavily reliant on sponsors to subsidize the competition?

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Brad Keselowski, who battled for the title with Johnson last season, believes the homogenization of drivers comes down to who is paying the bills.

“In this sport right now, the business model is sponsors,” Keselowski said. “With that business model, you would be a fool to alienate half of the fan base over a rivalry because half the fan base pays your bills and pays your sponsors’ bills, so indirectly they pay your bills. In today’s sport, you can’t feud.

“It reminds me of this Confucius thing I read the other day that said, ‘A man who lives a life of revenge will dig two graves, one for him and one for the next guy.’ That is how this sport is right now. You can’t really have a rivalry with a popular driver because what happens is their fans nag on your fans, and vice versa, and get on social media and tell the sponsors how you are a big A-hole and they won’t buy the product and then you don’t have a sponsor.

“Or you lose value, and then if that happens your team can’t compete. With that being said and with sponsors paying so much of the direct bill to cover the sport, I think it is unrealistic to expect anything different.”

Some drivers are more image-conscious than others depending on what their future agendas might be or what is expected of them by their sponsors.

Carl Edwards was once Keselowski’s greatest rival. Some of the best B-roll in racing came compliments of Edwards’ chrome horn when the two where racing in the Nationwide Series at Gateway and in the Cup Series at Atlanta.

Heck, it was just six years ago that Edwards’ run-in with Kenseth at Martinsville was reminiscent of the exchange between Biffle and Johnson. Now Edwards considers Kenseth one of his closest friends.

As Edwards has evolved from Cousin Carl to Husband and Father Carl, his persona has changed as well. At 34, Edwards says he prefers to keep an open mind when it comes to his fellow competitors and to “take a little time to understand the other person’s perspective” rather than being so quick to judge.

From the outside looking in, Edwards says the contest between Johnson and Kenseth is much different than his title battle with Tony Stewart just two years ago. Edwards believes much of Stewart’s head games were manufactured to enhance story lines.

“If you go back to even Tony and I, I think even Tony said at the time, ‘This is just talk’,” Edwards said. “At the end of the day, we both respect each other and we like one another. I think for me personally, this is a fun place for me. I like being here. I like racing. And so that’s why when Tony and I were in that battle, I didn’t want to engage in that stuff because I wanted it to win the championship and it be a fun thing. That meant a lot to me. Whatever Tony wanted to do, he could do.

“I think both Matt and Jimmie are more like me. They enjoy it. They want to walk back to their motorhome and shake their competitor’s hands and say, ‘Good race.’ That’s how they like to be. If that’s what they want and they’re the best at it right now, then that’s how it should be.

“I watch all types of sports, and it’s fun and entertaining to see those real harsh rivalries. But I also think it’s really neat to see guys who can battle real hard and respect each other. I think that’s a good thing, too. It may not be as entertaining to a lot of people, but I like it.”

Golly gee, Carl. That would explain why Johnson and Kenseth exchange texts regularly, canoodle in the media center and then ride off on their golf carts together.

And we can already write the headline that will run after the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway: Nice Guys Finish 1-2.

Maybe they can flip a coin to decide who gets the trophy.

Tagged: Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski

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