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Hairpocalypse Now

3/11/2009
It ages the young and makes young the old. Such an enigma, the beard. Getty Images

Every Monday on ESPN.com, I do a live NASCAR chat (join us at 2 pm ET for the biggest gearhead block party in cyberspace!). And each week, it never fails how one "are these people serious?" question manages to dominate my inbox.

For the last two weeks, the question that keeps popping up over and over again is either the perfect symbol of why NASCAR fans have become legendary for their tireless dedication to their favorite stars…or proof that they are in need of some very intense psychotherapy.

Exhibit A: Hey Ryan, have you noticed that Jimmie Johnson hasn't run very well since he grew that beard over the winter?

First, it must be explained that yes, Johnson has struggled this season by Johnson standards. He showed up for the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona with his new face coverings and in the middle of the event sliced his hand open with a kitchen knife. Since then, the three-time defending Cup champ finished 31st in the Daytona 500, 24th at Vegas and a bizarre series of pit miscues have kept him bogged down at 13th in the point standings.

"No, the beard has nothing to do with it," JJ said over the weekend in Atlanta, where he struggled to battle back from a lap down and finished a season-best ninth. "We've got a lot of fans who are worked up about it, but I don't think that's what our problem is. Besides, (wife) Chandra likes it. And what Mama wants Mama gets."

Believe it or not, this is not an isolated incident. Fan furors over man fur have been around nearly as long as NASCAR itself.

What, you think I'm joking? Here's a look at the five biggest Bristle Beefs, Whisker Wrangles and Coif Controversies in recent NASCAR history.

5. 1998 — Texas Terry Trims The Trademark

From the time he arrived in the Cup garage at the tender age of 21, Terry Labonte was known for two trademark characteristics—a silky smooth driving style and his bushy upper lip. So when he showed up at the 1998 NASCAR Awards Banquet in New York 'stache-less, there were double takes up and down Lexington Avenue.

At a banquet press conference, Cup championship crew chief Ray Evernham was asked if he'd seen Labonte yet over the weekend. Ray said no, but when told that Terry was now clean-shaven admitted, "Oh, well maybe I did see him and just didn't recognize him."

The following January I asked the still-clean Ice Man about his whiskerless winter. He shook his head as he explained, "You wouldn't believe what a big deal people are making over this. Especially back in Texas. I've had women literally begging me to grow it back. That didn't bother me. Then their husbands started begging too."

4. 2003 — Contractually Clipped

At the end of the 2003 season, Gillette launched its Young Guns ad campaign, selecting six young studs to represent their brand—Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Junior, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson.

The corporation reportedly talked to more racers about coming on board, but several balked at one of the provisions of the Young Gun contract, which stated that their drivers had to be clean-shaven whenever at the track or in public.

The most high profile of those who reportedly chose to sidestep the cash in order to remain a scruffy looking nerf herder was two-time Cup champ Tony Stewart, who has always been more of a tweener in the game of scruff, somewhere between bearded and clean, but never completely one or the other.

3. 2004 — Wonder Boy Becomes Cue Ball

Jeff Gordon's '03-'04 offseason was one giant two-month catharsis in which the four-time champion finally allowed himself to shake the emotional scars of a two-year divorce proceeding that made the Britney-K Fed split look like a hug and a handshake.

His winter of hand-washing included a turn swimming with a school of sharks in the Bahamas. Then he did something even more dangerous—shaving off his luscious brown locks, all the way down to the scalp.

"I bet women are throwing themselves off of bridges today," cracked Kyle Petty when Gordon showed up for preseason Daytona testing looking like Michael Chiklis. "When he first arrived in this sport, the only thing people talked about more than his winning races was his pretty hair."

Then Petty reached back and tugged on his foot-long braided pony tail. "And I know a little something about pretty hair."

2. 2007 — The Barber Of The Wheel

You remember in high school when everyone on the football team decided to shave their heads in an act of unity and motivation, only to realize the next morning that they'd made a terrible mistake?

In 2006 Tom Giacchi, driver of Carl Edwards's motorcoach, decided to take the total opposite approach. The end result, however, was the same. A bad idea.

In an effort to spur his friend and boss out of a miserable losing streak, Giacchi announced that he would not shave until Edwards finally won a Cup race. Unfortunately the losing streak reached 52 races, nearly two full seasons, and Giacchi's beard-growing abilities were spotty at best, resulting in a face covering that was one part Abe Lincoln, one part Cat Stevens and one part Osama Bin Laden. He looked like Ben's buddy Martin at the end of Knocked Up, and the jokes from his fellow crew members were just as brutal.

Edwards finally ended the drought with what he called "a razor thin margin of victory" over Martin Truex Jr. at Michigan and shaved Giacchi's beard on live TV the following week.

1. 1999 — The Intimidator, The Snorkel and The Razor

If Terry Labonte's decision to shave his mustache created a stir, then Dale Earnhardt's lack of a soup strainer was nothing short of the Hairpocalypse.

I was there the morning he strolled into Gasoline Alley at Indianapolis and it was as if a tidal wave rolled over the garage. As usual, fans were lined up along the massive chain link fence that bordered the garage area. It was a middle-aged couple dressed head-to-toe in GM Goodwrench gear that first informed me of what had happened.

"What the hell…What THE HELL?!" The husband yelled, yanking on the sleeve of his wife's black jacket and pointing frantically. She responded by grabbing the fence and shaking it with both hands to try and get Ironhead's attention.

"Oh my God! Dale! No! What did you do?! What did you do?! No! No!"

At first he laughed it all off, explaining that he'd spent the week on his boat "Sunday Money" in the Bahamas and decided to do a little snorkeling. When the mask wouldn't seal around his face properly he shaved off his lip broom to make room.

But as the weekend rolled on, he realized that his lack of a 'stache was creating a lack of joy at the world's most famous speedway, so he publicly addressed the crowd to assure them that it was purely temporary and that he was already working on growing it back.

It took about three weeks for the shelf to completely fill back in. That weekend he won at Bristol, just his second victory in 55 races. A few weeks later he won again and the following season he finished second in points.

So let that be a lesson to you, Jimmie. Don't be so quick to dismiss the stubble stress being expressed by your fans. And never, ever underestimate the power of the peachfuzz.