Commentary

Drivers have always handled 'issues'

Updated: April 5, 2010, 3:00 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

The Message. It is more fire alarm at 3 a.m. than mere wake-up call.

And it is a rite of passage in the Sprint Cup Series.

Young hotshots come in cocky and aggressive and without much concern for who may care; they race like they're entitled. They're anything but, of course. And eventually they overstep their bounds, and an ol' wily veteran gets fed up with it and steps up and delivers The Message:

There's a right way and a wrong way to do this, boy -- and your way is dead wrong. And it's high time you figured it out.

Sometimes delivery is subtle, say, by way of a love tap into the infield to remind the youngster who's boss. Some methods, however, are a bit more blatant.

"Phoenix, 1993. Dale Earnhardt Sr., and me backing into the wall," said Jeff Gordon, with the same sheepish grin every driver seems to flash when asked about his "Welcome to NASCAR" moment.

At the time Gordon was livid (imagine that pencil mustache crinkled on his lip), didn't think he deserved that treatment. But years later it clicked. He was racing entirely too hard, too early, for 10th place. He had it coming.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon
AP Photo/Ed BaileyThe same year Dale Earnhardt won his sixth of seven championships, he sent rookie Jeff Gordon a message on the track. Gordon says he's still thankful for it.

"It was the perfect time to teach me a lesson, from the best guy to do it," he said, still grinning at the thought. "I never forgot it, obviously, but I did learn from it."

That's the fundamental point, to help young racers learn. Five hundred miles is a very different challenge from 200, and even 300. Settle in, ride awhile. Your peers are the elite.

This is the show. You're a number. Get in line.

"Jack Ingram taught me a lesson I will never forget -- although I have to admit I didn't heed it as well as I should have," Jeff Burton said, chuckling. "I went down there and ran my little mouth, and he let me know real quick that wasn't going to be tolerated."

Ingram literally picked Burton up, feet off the ground. Burton remembers clearly Ingram's son imploring his father to put Burton down.

"He said, 'Daddy, put Jeff down! He's a good boy!'" Burton said. "These guys were racing to put food on the table. I never had to worry about where my food was going to come from.

"My father could afford to feed me. I never had to worry about that. Here's a guy that is making a living putting food on the table doing something I thought was just a hobby. It was an eye-opening experience for me."

NASCAR had no part in Ingram's tutorial. It was man telling boy to shape up or learn the hard way an old creed in the drivers' code: We were here long before you arrived and we'll be here long after you're gone.

"I didn't go running to NASCAR, although I wanted to. I wanted to go running to my mama," Burton continued, laughing even harder. "He let me know in his own way that my attitude wouldn't be tolerated in that garage.

"It is kind of funny the way it all went down," Burton said. "[Ingram] doesn't remember it. I asked him about it and he doesn't remember it, which says something about it.

"Because, to me it was a big deal, but to him, he doesn't even remember it. It kind of says something about the way things were, versus the way they are today."

It's very different now. Corporate America's dollars drive the ship these days like never before, and even the slightest controversy sends big companies with big dollars into a tizzy. As a result, owners follow suit. They'll do whatever it takes to appease financial backers.

So drivers must be more polished in every way. That includes dustups with competitors.

"One was Jeff Burton in Martinsville -- had to be '03 or '04," Jimmie Johnson said. "For a top-10 finish, he absolutely drove all over the top of me. He ran into me for numerous laps, and I couldn't understand why. He came over to the truck afterwards, through all my crew guys that were mad at him, and walked up into my truck and apologized, but didn't have an excuse.

"He just said, 'Man, I ran all over you.' He said he was wrong and he shouldn't have raced me like that. If you're going to run somebody over, it means a lot to have somebody step up and say something to you. With that experience, I've gone out of my way to talk to guys if I've meant to crash them or not."

Johnson recalled one hilarious exchange between himself and Burton's fiery brother, Ward. They were coming through the pack together and Johnson got into Ward Burton entering Turn 1. Burton spun out and hit the fence. Incensed, he got back on the track and spent several laps trying to repay the favor.

The next week Johnson, nervous about what transpired, tried to track Burton down. He called Burton's office. No go. Then he located Burton's home number, and dialed.

Jimmie Johnson I think he was cussing at me. It was a little tough to understand him. But he went on for 30 seconds in just four-letter words, and he finally calmed down and we talked it out from there. That's just a part of it.

-- Jimmie Johnson on Ward Burton

"I don't know what made him more mad, actually, whether it was me calling him on the phone, or calling him at home," Johnson said, cracking up. "I think he was cussing at me. It was a little tough to understand him. But he went on for 30 seconds in just four-letter words, and he finally calmed down and we talked it out from there. That's just a part of it."

Those phone calls happen every week. Even drivers who take a respectful approach get their medicine eventually.

"When I came in, I just tried to race my way in and show respect for some of the older guys," Kasey Kahne said. "I remember Jeff Gordon, I was under him at Martinsville one time and was probably at his left-rear tire, and he just pointed left, like he was coming when we got to Turn 3. I saw his finger out of the car and I was like, 'I guess he's turning left. I better slow down.'"

That was 2004. Gordon hasn't pointed left at Kahne since.

"I'm not sure which finger I was pointing out the window at Kasey that day, but it worked," Gordon said. "I think every rookie goes through that, and that's what makes being a rookie so tough. You feel the pressure. You feel out of your element."

Ultimately, it's about finishing races. If a young driver continually roughs up veterans, they'll gladly make his life miserable. Brad Keselowski is the current example.

One prominent Cup Series star told me, "If Brad's car didn't go airborne at Atlanta, 10 drivers would have been lined up in the motor home lot to high-five [Carl Edwards]."

Denny Hamlin learned that lesson from Kyle Petty. Back in 2007, the two had a feud, which came to a head at Dover International Speedway when Hamlin wrecked Petty, prompting Petty to walk over to Hamlin in the garage while his car was being repaired and smack Hamlin's helmet while he was seated in his car.

The lesson came the following weekend.

"What Kyle did that I appreciated the most was that we sat down in the motor home the following week and he says, 'When me and you got into it and I showed my displeasure with you, you don't know how many people texted me and said it was good and they didn't like you that much, and he needs to learn a lesson.'" Hamlin said.

"That kind of wakes you up and you think, 'Wow, maybe I'm not liked as much as I think in this garage.'"

Message delivered.

"I just learned a little about what it takes to be competitive on a weekly level," Hamlin continued. "When you're making guys mad and you don't have the garage on your side, it's tough to be consistent week in and week out. You might have a few good runs here and there, but you're not going to be a Chase contender or a championship contender in the future."

Mark Martin is the unanimous standard for racing ethics. His opinion is that drivers should resolve differences off the track. Do not involve those working tirelessly to build your cars. They have no stake in the feud, so don't give them a stake by ruining their hard work.

No one will disagree with his premise. It is indisputable. However, few adhere to it.

"I'm going to take care of it on the track." Kahne said. "What good does it do to take care of it off the track when you've already lost 100 points? Points are all that matters. That's how you send the message."

Time and experience bring the inevitable changing of the guard. And rest assured, competitors pay close attention to who learns what, when.

"It makes you a better driver, and it's what everybody has to go through," Gordon said. "If there's a rookie that comes in and doesn't go through that, will you let me know so we can make sure he doesn't get through the season clean?"

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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