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Track smack: Is it for real?

Fightin' words fly as Chase rivals Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson vie.

By BRANT JAMES
Published October 30, 2005


HAMPTON, Ga. - Jimmie Johnson vs. Tony Stewart may not be a rivalry because there could be nothing behind the sniping but postseason gamesmanship.

It may not be a rivalry because, as Richard Petty sees it, they haven't been agitating each other long enough to meet the blood feud criteria he, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough helped establish decades ago.

Ultimately, it may not be a rivalry because being involved in one just doesn't seem to be worth it anymore.

But for now it surely feels like one. With four races left in the Chase for the Championship, whatever is percolating between the two top teams in the driver standings is unlikely to settle. Not with Stewart leading Johnson by a scant 15 points entering today's Nextel Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Though both sides assert that all this rivalry talk is a media contrivance, each continued to feed into it a week after Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus stoked their most recent controversy during a practice session at Martinsville by disparaging Stewart's car and crew over their team radio.

It is common knowledge that teams monitor each other's communications, though Knaus noted, "Why are they listening to that?" Stewart took the jab at his crew personally, comparing it to "somebody talking about your mom."

"For somebody who says it doesn't bother him, evidently it has. Indirectly, I guess, something's gotten to him," Johnson said of Stewart's reaction. "That's his deal and he's spending some time thinking about it. Last week, the reason we went out to follow him in practice was out of respect for him. He had the best car and we wanted to see how we stood up next to him. And we passed him."

The day after the slight, Stewart tapped Johnson from behind - a normal and accepted short-track tactic - to pass for position late in the race and finish second. Johnson was third.

Though Stewart, too, said there was no one-on-one rivalry, he had pointed words for Knaus, another hard-headed competitor and master motivator/manipulator.

"We'll see what Chad says the remainder of the season," he said. "I don't think Chad thought deep enough into it to realize that you don't want to do that with us because you're picking with the wrong guy there because we pick back. I think he'll be a little less vocal these next few weeks."

Knaus does not dispute he bad-mouthed Stewart's team, but defended it as "I do whatever I can to make my guys pumped up. And if I feel like telling my driver he is better than the 20 car in a particular run, and that pumps up my driver and that hurts Tony's feelings, well, I'm sorry."

Though Johnson and Stewart trade paint, it has been mostly Knaus and Stewart trading barbs this season.

Stewart banged fenders with Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet on the cool-down lap of the Daytona 500 in February, angry, he said, because Johnson had pinched him down into Scott Riggs late in the race. Stewart led 107 of 203 laps but was denied a first Daytona win. Johnson defended his spot vigorously to finish fifth.

Both emerged from the NASCAR hauler grinning after a post-race summons.

"We were trading cooking secrets," Stewart joked. Both declared the incident over, but Knaus followed Stewart through the garage barking, "What did you do to our car? What's your problem?"

"Talk to your driver, Chad," Stewart retorted. "He knocked me all over the track."

As interesting as the situation has become, Petty thinks they have a long way to go to reach what is a high bar for stock car-racing feuds. After all, this is a sport that punched its way into the national consciousness when Bobby and Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough tussled after a crash on the final lap of the 1979 Daytona 500.

"(Darrell) Waltrip, me, Cale, Pearson, Allison, we were there a pretty good while before there was any basic rivalries," Petty recalled. "(Johnson and Stewart) have been around just four or five years, so they've not been there long enough to have the foundation to be able to have a rivalry off of it.

"A rivalry doesn't happen in one or two races or in one year. It happens over a period of time to really get a rivalry going. We race together three or four races and get to beating on each other, that's not a rivalry, that's just a happening. You do that four or fives years, that's a rivalry."

But drivers may not necessarily want to be involved in rivalries anymore. Because in most such relationships there is a villain - Kurt Busch remained one even when his feud with Jimmy Spencer bloodied his nose and bruised his ego - and the bad guy can end up getting booed for years. Busch, still seen last year as the punkish kid Spencer slugged in 2003, was booed lustily as he raised his championship trophy last year at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Johnson's previously squeaky-clean image was sullied with drivers and fans after he caused wrecks in both Talladega races this season and was referred to by driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. as "an idiot."

"I think today's drivers are hesitant to get into a rivalry because they could be the bad guy," said long-time NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter. "Look at Jimmie Johnson. There was a period of time here this year he was booed everywhere he went. No one likes to be booed. I don't care who you are."

And in a series where sponsor money equals influence - Stewart was encouraged by Home Depot to take anger management classes after pushing a photographer at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002 - drivers can make life easier by going along and getting along, letting the unavoidable post-race blow-ups blow over.

"There are a lot of other guys to worry about," Johnson said. "I'm not going to let all this chatter get us something to worry about."