Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Sprint Cup [Print without images]

Friday, November 18, 2011
Verbal warfare nothing new in Cup fight

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Never has the most ancient and essential of all NASCAR proverbs rung truer than now: "When the green flag drops, the bulls--- stops."

Yet there have been times when you had to wonder whether, after the green flag dropped, the bulls--- might have rattled around in the head of the victim a while longer.

"When we get in the cars, we're not gonna be talking to each other."

That was Tony Stewart, finally locking down the brakes on his weeks-long, wide-open verbal assault on Carl Edwards.

"I know, and he knows," said Edwards, "that it's all just really for you guys and in fun."

Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart's verbal onslaught on the Chase front-runners -- namely, Carl Edwards -- started in earnest after his playoff win at Martinsville.

That is, the media and the audiences we tell stories to. The fodder has been bountiful this time. This has been the longest, most intense bombardment of one championship contender by another since Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s mustachioed mouth was in its prime.

But come Sunday and the season-ending Ford 400, "It doesn't matter if we're over there fist-fighting in the corner before this thing starts," Edwards said. "We're race drivers. We're going to do our jobs, whether we love each other or hate each other."

In my experience, mind games have rarely worked, but sometimes made you wonder. They've also been known to blow up in the face of the perpetrator.

Take Denny Hamlin, right here, last year. Calmly, matter-of-factly, from early on in the Chase, Hamlin had verbalized a plan to play it cool through the crapshoot at Talladega and then drop the hammer.

Just as we were treating him like Babe Ruth calling his shot, Hamlin had the wind knocked out of his sails by a fuel issue at Phoenix, and came here clearly nervous. Contenders Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick seized on that during media conferences. Then the green flag dropped ... and shortly thereafter, Hamlin spun out, handing Johnson a fifth straight championship.

Do mind games ever work in NASCAR?

"They might," Edwards conceded. "But it's hard to look at a situation and say what caused that person to have that stress and anxiety."

The most vicious mind game I've ever watched was Earnhardt on Mark Martin in 1990. That showed a black side of Earnhardt rarely noted in the lore.

The funniest, far and away, was Darrell Waltrip on Bill Elliott in 1985. What a pity there weren't as many TV cameras around back then. That one would have filled up a classic hour-long special that would be aired every fall during the Chase nowadays.

Yet I can't sit here and tell you that the mind games worked on either occasion.

Dale Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt was known as the master of mind games. Just ask Mark Martin.

At Phoenix in '90, a joint press conference was held for the two contenders, Earnhardt and Martin. The season finale then was at Atlanta.

A specialty at the Phoenix track was home-made lemonade. Each contender was brought a cup of it in the media center.

"This have any vodka in it?" Earnhardt chirped, an oblique but nasty shot at Martin's past trouble with alcohol.

Told no, Earnhardt kept punching: "We want some vodka in this, don't we Mark?"

Martin acted as if he hadn't heard Earnhardt. Earnhardt backed off for a moment, but then came again when asked about an open test session that would be held midweek at Atlanta.

"Tell you what me and Mark are gonna do," Earnhardt said. "We're gonna go out and make a lap, and then come in and have a beer. Then we're gonna go make another lap, and come in and have another beer ... "

And so on.

"Ain't we, Mark?"

He never got a rise out of Martin, but he went on to win the fourth of his seven championships.

"Of course, I was long past that," Martin said later of the alcohol problem he'd beaten in the 1980s.

More than a decade later, I recalled the nastiness of that exchange in a column, and at the next track I got to, I was told, "Mark wants to see you."

I went to his hauler expecting a complaint about dredging up the old problem, which Martin had so thoroughly put behind him.

Instead, "I just wanted to thank you," Martin said. "I had no idea anybody noticed at the time what he was trying to do to me, let alone that anybody would remember it."

Now to the young, glib, fiery DW on the upstart redhead from Georgia in '85.

Elliott had what still could be called the best year in the wins column of NASCAR's modern era -- 11 victories, including the Winston Million bonus for winning three of four designated races. His car was so dominant he came from two laps down, all under green-flag conditions, to win at Talladega that spring.

Yet Awesome Bill couldn't shake "Dirty Durrul," as the hard-core fans called him, in the championship standings.

Waltrip went on and on to the media for weeks about how the Winston Cup points system was simply unfair, that by all rights Elliott should be winning this championship and that Waltrip, with his measly three wins, didn't deserve it.

Waltrip even espoused his own revision of the points system, including the suggestion that, "You ought to get five points for taking Earnhardt out."

Then came the Southern 500, Labor Day weekend. Ernie Elliott, Bill's brother and crew chief, wasn't exactly the most media-friendly guy ever to walk into a garage. The Elliotts were going for the Winston Million in that race, and they requested -- and got -- a detachment of South Carolina state troopers to keep the media away from their garage stall.

Bill had been telling the media all season he didn't have time to talk the way other drivers did, because he did his own chassis setup work.

It just so happened that Waltrip's Junior Johnson-owned No. 11 Budweiser Chevrolet was parked nose to nose with the red No. 9 Coors Thunderbird in the garage.

About 20 of us media types gathered outside the perimeters set by the .357 Magnum-toting troopers. From the other side of the workbench, the wicked Waltrip spotted us and seized the moment.

DW grabbed a shop rag and began polishing his windshield.

"Y'all better leave me alone!" he howled in a mock-sobbing voice. "Can't y'all see I'm working on my car and I ain't got time to talk to y'all?"

We swarmed around the 11 car and Waltrip did a riotous standup comedy routine, during which ... finally ... Bill came out from under his car and we saw what amounted to a red-haired, blue-eyed deer in the headlights.

Oh, and by the way, Junior himself was walking around in a T-shirt that read, "Elliott's a-chokin.'"

Elliott won the million, but he lost the championship.

The thing about Stewart is that the crowing is new to him in a championship run. On the way to his first two championships, in 2002 and 2005, he was more subdued, and at times a bit jumpy and/or surly.

The difference?

"When we won the championship the last two times we were good, we just weren't great," he said. "This time we've been great the last few weeks."

No brag, just fact.

Makes you wish for time machines. Earnhardt or DW vs. Smoke. What entertainment.

Then the green flag would drop.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.