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A couple summers ago, I was standing in Victory Lane at Bristol Motor Speedway on an August Saturday, staring into a camera positioned just in front of a packed Turn 3 grandstand. "SportsCenter" was on the other end, licking its chops for all the juicy details of NASCAR's soap opera du jour: Dale Jr. versus Teresa.
Dusk loomed. It was a gorgeous evening, an hour before the green flag in Thunder Valley. Around the track swirled a fleet of pickup trucks carrying in its beds the Sprint Cup starting field, two-by-two.
In one of those trucks rode Earnhardt Jr., who, not surprisingly, was all the talk after publicly defending his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt, to a loyal, unapologetic fan base who had teed off on her on message boards and radio call-in shows after Junior's lifelong feud with her had gone nastily public.
I didn't know exactly what the anchor would ask me just then, but I had a good idea. I was prepared to discuss the feud, its history and how a decades-long relationship, always cold, had completely frozen. And when the red light came on and the question was posed, I suddenly changed course. The foundation of the feud's aftermath was simple, and age-old:I can say whatever I want about my family. I can call them out. I can criticize them.
I thought about that story last Saturday, when Kevin Harvick sent a message to Denny Hamlin at Dover -- first on the racetrack then off it. Harvick's message was one of the coolest things I'd seen in a NASCAR garage in quite some time. It was loud. It was clear. It was forthright and honest, and there was no mistaking it.
And, fundamentally, it was no different than Junior's message to his fans about Teresa.
Harvick can be very hard on his guys. He expects excellence in all facets of competition at all times. And if they're not excellent, he rips them to shreds -- sometimes mercilessly. But they're his guys. And even if they hate the tongue-lashings (I would), they know why Harvick doles them out.
And when another driver (Hamlin) took it upon himself to criticize the entire Richard Childress Racing organization, to publicly label it a cheater, Harvick instantly made it his personal mission to retaliate.
I love that loyalty.
But it wasn't until I spoke with Hamlin this week that I got a true sense of the story. Hamlin was defending his guys, too. He felt Clint Bowyer had slighted the No. 11 team during his media session, and at that point Hamlin went into defense mode.
He knew there would be repercussions for his comments -- and my, there were -- but he felt it more important to make sure his team was given due credit than to concern himself with any repercussions.
Hamlin went too far. He readily admits that. His crew chief said it was stupid. His owner reminded him that not everyone needs to hear his opinion on everything.
That is true. And while Joe Gibbs probably wanted to pull his hair out, I bet deep down he admired Hamlin's loyalty, too, once the driver explained himself. The most intriguing revelation was Hamlin's close friendship with Harvick. In fact, he said Harvick is among his best friends on the racetrack -- if not the very best.
That in itself speaks volumes about how these men feel about their teams.
You may be my best friend. But don't go trashing my family.