Cham­pi­onship con­tenders very cor­dial

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Jenna Fryer The As­so­ci­ated Press

As ex­pected, NASCAR’s four cham­pi­onship ri­vals were cor­dial, can­did and com­i­cal.

No one tried to swing a chair, or even take a ver­bal jab. UFC, this isn’t. “Sorry we’re let­ting you down,” six-time cham­pion Jim­mie Johnson quipped Thurs­day.

The win­ner-take-all cham­pi­onship race Sunday at Homestead-Mi­ami Speed­way should be cre­at­ing a sem­blance of ten­sion be­tween four ri­val driv­ers. But this quar­tet went bike rid­ing to­gether in one of their many stops on a seem­ingly sun­shine-an­droses me­dia tour. A week af­ter Conor Mc­Gre­gor nearly threw a chair at Ed­die Al­varez in a UFC pre-fight hype ses­sion, NASCAR’s fe­ro­cious four let trash-talk­ing take a back­seat on an easy af­ter­noon full of heap­ing ac­co­lades for each other.

NASCAR had the four pull up a chair on the stage dur­ing a cozy cham­pi­onship in­tro­duc­tion Thurs­day — you know, just like a late night talk show — and the driv­ers de­liv­ered the yuks. They joked among each other, Kyle Busch re­peat­edly wise-cracked un­der his mic to team­mate Carl Ed­wards and every­body grinned like it was Christ­mas morn­ing.

Come Sunday, they’ll have to psy­cho­log­i­cally flip a switch and turn against each other. Even Busch and Ed­wards, team­mates in a proud Toy­ota ef­fort for Joe Gibbs who have shared every­thing in an open-book or­ga­ni­za­tion, must now toss aside pro­fes­sional cour­tesy to be the last man stand­ing on the cham­pi­onship stage.

But why do they have to be so chummy?

“You know that you’re not go­ing to beat up on a guy in a me­dia ses­sion and make his car go any slower,” said Busch, the reign­ing cham­pion. “To be hon­est with you, you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to make (the car) go faster. You’re go­ing to make him want it more. There’s no sense is do­ing any of that. That’s why with UFC fight­ers, they egg each other on, you’re just go­ing to get hit harder.”

This group is void of any con­flict, and there are plenty of other sto­ry­lines. Johnson is try­ing to tie Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earn­hardt with a record sev­enth ti­tle. Busch is try­ing to re­peat, and beat his team­mate. Logano wants a ti­tle to go with the IndyCar cham­pi­onship Team Penske al­ready won this year in its 50th sea­son of rac­ing. And Ed­wards? He’s fi­nally got an­other shot af­ter los­ing the 2011 ti­tle on a tie-breaker.

There’s a Chevro­let, a Ford and a pair of Toy­otas. The group is rep­re­sented by Roger Penske, Rick Hen­drick and Gibbs, three of the heav­i­est hit­ters in auto rac­ing.

Yet with all that on the line, this group is like four bud­dies putting on a one­act play. They’ve been asked and an­swered the same ques­tions so many times this week, they can al­most fin­ish each other’s sen­tences. They’ve got oft-told anec­dotes for the re­peated top­ics, every­thing is good­na­tured.

Part of it is be­cause it’s a gen­uinely lik­able group of driv­ers. Even Busch, so surly so many times, is at heart a good per­son.

There’s re­ally noth­ing bad to say to one an­other.

“Jim­mie is one of those guys you want to hate but you can’t be­cause he’s too nice,” Logano said.

On race day, it be­comes driver vs. driver, the bru­tal length of the NASCAR sched­ule has turned all of the rac­ers into a trav­el­ing com­mu­nity. They spend up to four nights a week inches apart in mo­torhomes, run into each other in the in­field play­grounds and gyms.

Bad blood doesn’t boil very long in these parts.

“We do have a rap­port, and we also do learn how to so­cial­ize out­side of the car and then how to flip the switch,” Johnson said. “It’s just something that I guess we grow up deal­ing with from a young age rac­ing, how­ever we did it as young­sters up un­til now. A fighter is some­body, they might see that guy one or twice in that mo­ment, and oh, by the way, in the UFC they try to kill each other any­way, so it’s all about killing the guy.”

Logano doesn’t think this cor­dial at­ti­tude is any dif­fer­ent than any other sport. The driv­ers do their jobs when the green flag falls, and they co-ex­ist when they climb from their cars.

“You watch a foot­ball game, af­ter the game they’re all shak­ing each other’s hands af­ter they just knocked the heck out of each other,” Logano said. “That hap­pens. You even watch a hockey game, af­ter­ward they all shake hands, whether they want to or not. It’s en­forced.

“But I do think there’s ob­vi­ously a switch that every­one, maybe when they put their hel­met on, things change. We’re all out there as com­peti­tors, but right now we’re out­side the car, we also get along, right?”

ALAN DIAZ » THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Jim­mie Johnson, left, and Carl Ed­wards talk be­fore Thurs­day’s NASCAR press con­fer­ence in Mi­ami Beach, Fla. on Thurs­day.

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