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Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Dancin' fool Castroneves steals NASCAR's thunder

By David Newton
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- A female staffer grabbed Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson by the arm on Wednesday morning and moved him toward the main set of ABC's "Good Morning America," where newly crowned "Dancing with the Stars" champion Helio Castroneves was performing.

Johnson was playfully chest bumping with the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion 30 minutes earlier, but the thought of dancing on the same stage sent fear down his spine.

"Hell no!" he said when asked if he would perform. "That's why I slid back. I was, 'No way. It's not going to happen.'"

That's too bad. NASCAR could use a little personality these days.

Castroneves earned more fame after one night of dancing a sexy rumba in front of 31 million viewers than he did for either of his Indy 500 wins. He definitely upstaged what was supposed to be an event focused on Johnson and NASCAR on "Good Morning America."

"I put my arm around Jimmie and said, 'Sorry this had to happen on the day [they honored you],'" 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch said with a laugh.

Busch and Johnson are perfect examples of why NASCAR needs a personality makeover. Both are model champions, saying and doing all the right things on and off the track.

But to much of the general public they're boring because they don't show the personality that their friends and family members see. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon believes that's an issue NASCAR needs to address in order to grow and stop the decline in television ratings.

He misses the days when Busch would lock horns with Jimmy Spencer, when 2002 and 2005 champion Tony Stewart would knock a tape recorder out of a reporter's hand.

"I look at it as entertaining," Gordon said. "If they said something that was silly or people laughed about it or talked about it or criticized it, it still was generating entertainment or buzz.

"Now Tony doesn't knock cameras out of his way. You don't hear him getting riled up. You don't see the controversy. Some of that has taken away some of the entertainment package."

Gordon said Busch's press conferences have been so focused on saying the right thing that they all sound scripted.

"It's keeping him out of trouble," he said. "It's keeping him out of being involved in controversy, so for him it probably works out better that way. But for the sport, it takes away from it."

Gordon would like to see NASCAR lighten up, not fine drivers for occasionally getting into shoving matches and encourage everybody to be themselves.

"Let your personality come out," he said. "This is what the fans want to see. This is what the audience wants. The drivers, their personality has become a big part of the sport. It's not just about what happens on the racetrack."

Wednesday morning's event, which moved from a drive around Times Square for the top 10 Chase drivers to the main ballroom of the Hard Rock Café, could have used more personality. Outside of Kyle Busch putting a dent in the back of Matt Kenseth's car, it was as dry as many of the races were this past season.

Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson drives the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet onto Seventh Avenue on the way to Times Square.

They could have used cardboard cutouts at times, the drivers were so stiff.

"The reason is because we're representing the sport, fans, sponsors, and you have to be cautious about letting yourself get too far out there," said Gordon, who has shown more personality than most with appearances on "Regis and Kelly" and "Saturday Night Live."

"Sometimes we get caught up in trying to be, and I'm a perfect example of this, what we think the fans want us to be or the sponsors want us to be. You still have to be yourself, but you also have to have limits on that because we are under a microscope. There's a lot of criticism that comes on if you step out of line. ''

Kurt Busch learned that in 2005 when he was detained by police two days before a late-season race at Phoenix. He was accused of everything from drunk driving to verbal assault, when the records show he simply had a traffic violation.

"It used to be where you jumped out of your car and had a fight on the back straightaway," said Busch, who was suspended by Roush Fenway Racing the final two races because of the incident. "The first Daytona 500 ever broadcast on live TV, that's what happened.

"Nowadays, your sponsor would call you and tell you they're going to drop you. Or your car owner would say they didn't like you getting pulled over and getting a harmless traffic deal. It is tough to balance out the racing world versus the real world."

Carl Edwards agreed.

"People to this day still come up to me and say, 'Ah, [Kurt's] a jerk,'" he said.

Edwards understands. He was scrutinized more than any driver this season after physically pushing teammate Kenseth while on camera and raising his fist as though he were going to hit him after the October race at Martinsville.

"Here's the whole problem with that," Gordon said. "Here are two guys that had an issue. It gets publicized and televised, and now they're going to sit on their hands. Certainly Carl. He's not going to say anything. He's not going to do anything. We're going to miss out.

"I'm just looking at it from the outside in. Carl has an awesome personality. An incident like what happened at Martinsville shouldn't stop him from continuing to be himself. It's OK to be angry or mad. Maybe don't act like you're going to punch the guy with a smirk on your face."

Not to worry. Edwards doesn't intend to stop being himself. He went so far as to ignore attempts by his public relations person to get him to change the subject while sitting on stage at the Hard Rock.

"If somebody pisses me off they're going to know it," he said. "It's complex. The biggest thing to me is to remember this is a great thing and I'm very grateful to be a part of it. At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter. It's a sport."

Right now it's a sport without a strong personality outside of Gordon or maybe Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It's a sport that could use a little of the flair that Castroneves showed on the set of "Good Morning America." It's a sport that needs to see drivers turn their heads and gawk when "Dancing with the Stars" professional Edyta Sliwinska walks by.

Yes, they all gawked.

"Anybody that's on there and makes it to the end and wins is going to get a tremendous amount of publicity," Gordon said. "But there is no way any NASCAR driver, in the Cup series for sure, can do it. It doesn't fit in the schedule.

"And the other thing, our sport is solid enough that we've still got good enough numbers that as a marketing idea I don't think it's necessary."

But if anybody could pull it off, most agree it would be Gordon.

"I've seen him break-dance before, so he has the best range," Johnson said.

Gordon doesn't think there is anybody in NASCAR, including himself, who would have the guts to take such a risk on the dance floor any more than they would risk losing a sponsor by saying or doing the wrong thing at the track.

"It's unfortunate in some ways, because I think that our sport has grown into something that is about entertainment, television ratings," Gordon said. "Fans in the stands want to see more personality. It's a tough balance.

"Sometimes I wish that we could find a way to stretch those limits a little more so more of our personality could come out."

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