Commentary

Who could be a Hollywood idol?

Updated: March 24, 2011, 12:16 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

Jimmie Johnson will have a busy day on Thursday in Los Angeles, except it will involve a trip to a studio instead of the racetrack, a director and writers instead of a crew chief and engineers, makeup artists and wardrobe consultants instead of a gas man and tire-changers.

Welcome to Hollywood, NASCAR-style.

The five-time defending Sprint Cup champion is the latest driver to turn part-time actor, filming a segment for Christian Slater's new television series, "Breaking In," before starting preparations for Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway in nearby Fontana.

"Shouldn't be too hard of a spot playing myself," Johnson says with a laugh. "But who knows? I might screw it up. Acting is not my specialty, by any means."

You never know. There's a long list of athletes from other sports who have gone Hollywood and been successful.

Remember when Merlin Olsen was a member of the Los Angeles Rams' "Fearsome Foursome" before becoming a television star in "Father Murphy" and "Little House on the Prairie"? Remember when Rick Fox played in the NBA for the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers before making appearances in "Ugly Betty" and HBO's "Oz"?

Remember when O.J. Simpson was a Pro Bowl running back for the Buffalo Bills before starring in "Towering Inferno," "The Naked Gun" and a collection of other things before his acting career was derailed by that reality show in which he was chased around Los Angeles in a white Ford Bronco?

The list goes on and on, from former NFL stars Ed Marinaro ("Hill Street Blues"), Jim Brown ("The Dirty Dozen") and Fred Dryer ("Hunter") to former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ("Game of Death," "Airplane") to former Major League Baseball player Chuck Connors ("The Rifleman") to bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger ("Terminator," "Conan," "Kindergarten Cop," etc.).

So isn't it time a NASCAR driver got into the mix? Wouldn't Robby Gordon be the perfect replacement for Charlie Sheen in "Two and a Half Men"? And if he isn't, then former driver Jeremy Mayfield surely should be considered because he already has experience with drug testing.

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon and Matthew McConaughey
Kevin Mazur/Getty ImagesJeff Gordon, left, already has Hollywood friends such as Matthew McConaughey, right. Will Gordon go on to screen stardom?

"We are pitching Kyle Busch," says Zane Stoddard, NASCAR's managing director of entertainment marketing and business development in the Los Angeles office, jokingly.

Actually, Gordon would be a better fit after his recent run-in with Kevin Conway. Garage fights and police reports make much better tabloid fodder than winning races in Hollywood.

"That's a good call, actually," Stoddard says, still laughing.

All joking aside, Hollywood is important to NASCAR. It's a big reason a Los Angeles office opened in 2000, why tracks work so hard to get actors to attend their events as grand marshals and honorary starters, why the governing body wants to get drivers on television talk shows with Leno, Letterman and Ellen.

NASCAR wants the sport to be the hip event in the same way the Lakers are perceived when the camera shows Jack Nicholson and other stars in the stands.

Star power makes the brand stronger.

"We like to think we are quite proactive and aggressive about it nowadays," Stoddard says.

That means getting drivers more involved in things they wouldn't have dreamed of 15 or more years ago. It's why Carl Edwards has played a cameo role on "24," Jamie McMurray on "West Wing" and Jeff Burton on "General Hospital."

It's why the next "Transformers" movie will feature the cars of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya and Johnson.

"I've worked with other leagues. I'd say our drivers compared to other professional athletes are on par with the best of them in terms of charisma and ability to communicate," Stoddard says. "I would say our drivers on the whole are naturally pretty good actors."

Some might claim they are better actors than drivers. Michael Waltrip has enjoyed far more popularity for his commercials and comedy routine than for his four wins in 764 career Cup starts.

Maybe he'll be the driver who breaks the Hollywood barrier for NASCAR. Or maybe it'll be Jeff Gordon, who already has broken down barriers, hosting "Saturday Night Live" in 2003 and "Live with Regis and Kelly" more than 10 times.

There once was speculation that Gordon might replace the retiring Regis Philbin after this year, until Gordon decided to drive for a few more years.

[+] EnlargeTim Richmond
Racing Photo Archives/Getty ImagesMany believe Tim Richmond had the looks, charisma and attitude to make Hollywood an option.

"If Tim Richmond had lived, I would have expected him to do it," team owner Rick Hendrick says. "But if you look back, Jeff really was the first guy that stepped out and took us to all different areas. That 'Saturday Night Live' appearance was impressive."

Most of the drivers and owners surveyed last week at Bristol Motor Speedway agreed that Gordon is the most likely Hollywood star. Most of those surveyed on Twitter agreed on the four-time champion as well, although Edwards, Trevor Bayne, Kasey Kahne, McMurray and Johnson got a few votes.

Matt Kenseth got a vote, too, suggesting he could play the robot in a remake of "Lost in Space."

Wish that was my line.

Earnhardt didn't get a vote, but Hendrick could see NASCAR's most popular driver making that transition after watching him do 40 different versions of a commercial spot for his dealerships.

"He was kind of moping around before the shoot, but when he went on camera, he was on the money," Hendrick says.

If you can sell mayonnaise and insurance in commercials, surely you can sell yourself in a movie.

In other words, there are plenty of good choices. An attempt to get a producer to pick the best driver candidates to turn actor failed, but we came up with a top-five list anyway.

• Jeff Gordon: He did fly straight to Los Angeles from his victory at Phoenix to hang out with his Hollywood friends after the Oscars. He's close with John Lasseter, a Hollywood animator, director and the chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, with whom he shared texts after his win.

"He was like, 'Hurry up and get here. We're going to celebrate, and hopefully we'll win the Oscar,'" Gordon says.

And Lasseter did, with "Toy Story 3."

"The whole night was just spectacular to go into that room with that level of celebrity and power and Hollywood and everything," Gordon says. "You're just in awe of it. But then people come up to you and congratulate you. It was pretty cool."

Gordon definitely has the cool that makes actors into stars. He also has more experience in front of a camera than any other driver. He'll be on "Ellen" Friday -- taped, of course, so he doesn't miss practice.

So it's natural that everyone picks him to make the transition first.

"It's just because I've done "Saturday Night Live,'" Gordon says with a laugh. "I'd go with Trevor Bayne. He's got the personality and the look."

[+] EnlargeCarl Edwards
Jerry Markland/Getty Images/NASCARCould Carl Edwards be the next Terminator?

• Carl Edwards: Tony Stewart once compared Edwards to the sneaky Eddie Haskell character from "Leave It to Beaver," and others have referred to him as Opie Taylor from "The Andy Griffith Show" for his aw-shucks personality, so he's already been compared to a few actors.

But beyond that, Edwards has the Hollywood smile and look that producers crave. He also is well-spoken and willing to take chances. How many drivers do you know who will bungee-jump off the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, take a bicycle vacation in Vietnam and submit themselves to humiliation on "Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?"

Edwards also has the body, so he wouldn't mind taking his shirt off if the script called for a steamy scene or for him to play a "Conan"-type action character.

There was talk a while back about Edwards playing a Confederate general in an HBO miniseries that never got off the ground. Edwards already is slated to be the voice of Kick Buttowski on an upcoming Disney project.

The Academy Awards can't be far away.

• Trevor Bayne: Did you see the 20-year-old after he won the Daytona 500? Talk about charismatic. He had everyone from George Lopez to Ellen to Pamela Anderson in the palm of his hand.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Bayne
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images for Infineon RacewayTrevor Bayne shot to stardom quickly in NASCAR. Could he do the same in Hollywood?

People were calling him the next heartthrob, ready to make people forget Justin Bieber. It was like watching a young Donny Osmond with girls swooning over and proposing to the Knoxville, Tenn., native.

"It's been pretty wild," Bayne says. "I didn't have a Valentine this year, and I don't think it will be that way next year."

He's funny and well-spoken, too.

Just don't pencil Bayne in to replace Sheen. He has a religious side that would force producers to find an entirely new set of writers.

• Brad Keselowski: This one may come as a surprise, but stick with me. We already know he likes drama, as we've seen in run-ins with Edwards and Busch. He's not afraid to say anything, as we saw at Bristol last year, when he said "Kyle Busch is an ass" over the public address system during prerace introductions.

He also has a look that would allow him to play all kinds of parts, from comedy to heartthrob to serial killer.

And he has that bad-boy image that the cameras and tabloids love.

• Jimmie Johnson: A fan got upset a few weeks ago when it was suggested Johnson already had one thing in common with Sheen -- winning.

Jimmie Johnson I don't have a desire to be an actor," Johnson says. "It's really neat to have cameos and these one-off opportunities. But that's a tough world. It's very different to come off [good] on camera. I've only played myself, and that's hard enough.

-- Jimmie Johnson

That was not to suggest that Johnson has anything else in common with the controversial star. It was just meant to point out that in NASCAR, nobody is a bigger winner than the California native.

Just look at what he's done at Auto Club Speedway, winning four of the last seven races, including this race a year ago.

There's no reason to believe Johnson couldn't transform himself from driver to actor using the same work ethic that got him to the top of the Sprint Cup Series. Maybe someday he will have fans claiming he ruined Hollywood the way he has NASCAR by winning every award at the Oscars.

"I don't have a desire to be an actor," Johnson says. "It's really neat to have cameos and these one-off opportunities. But that's a tough world. It's very different to come off [good] on camera. I've only played myself, and that's hard enough.

"I have a great deal of respect for that industry, but I'll stick to what I'm good at."

That's probably a good idea for all of them.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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