Drivers walk fine lines between being themselves, athletes and entertainers

CORNELIUS, N.C. -- The owner/driver few took seriously last season after an unidentified substance was found in his engine during qualifying for the Daytona 500 hired a comedian to open Wednesday night's stop on NASCAR's media tour.

He then spent the next half-hour cracking more jokes than the comedian, in particular making fun of how every driver and owner on the tour has been overusing the word "excited" heading into the 2008 Sprint Cup season.

"I think that word is reserved for other special areas," Michael Waltrip cracked, avoiding the word by using "ecstatic" and "overly optimistic."

Nobody has to tell Waltrip to show more of his personality like NASCAR chairman Brian France wants drivers to do in accord with the back-to-basics theme he declared for the tour.

The two-time Daytona 500 champion puts himself so far out there that one wonders just how many personalities he has.

This isn't to suggest all drivers should be like Waltrip, but they can find a balance between being themselves and being so far out there that they offend sponsors and force NASCAR to tighten the reins through fines and suspensions.

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon brought this issue to the forefront during last season's championship week in New York City. Asked if there is a side to teammate Jimmie Johnson that most don't see, he went into speech about how sanitized the sport has become.

He said too much of the general public sees the drivers as boring and the governing body needed to address the issue in order for the sport to grow and television ratings to stop declining.

"We've got some amazing personalities in this sport," Gordon said. "And there's a lot of guys that I know that I see them on TV, and it's not the same guy that I know."

Gordon wants fans to see Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer locking horns as they did a few years ago when ratings were soaring, to see the Tony Stewart who knocks a recorder out of a reporter's hand and says what's on his mind.

"It's a tough balance," Gordon said. "I'm very passionate about the sport. Whenever I look at the sport, I think, 'What can we do to be better? How can we put better racing on the track?' I think of race cars. I think of the best quality drivers.

"I also look at the entertainment aspect of it, the fact these personalities are very important to the sport. We all shouldn't be saying the same things, looking the same. That's not what separates what fans pull for. They all want to find something in somebody that's in them. It's not about trying to be something that you're not."

Gordon used Busch and Stewart as examples.

"[They] said a lot of things that maybe got them in trouble but were highly entertaining," he said. "It gave the media a lot to write about and gave the media a lot to show on TV. Those guys are, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa! I can't do that anymore because of my sponsor, because I got criticized by the fans.'

"What they didn't realize was while a handful of people were criticizing them, five times that many were saying, 'I like that guy for what he says.'"

H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, the president of Lowe's Motor Speedway and one of the top innovators in the sport, agreed. But he said that to draw out those personalities, NASCAR must first get back to the basics of good racing.

He said developing the Car of Tomorrow to the point where drivers can go fender to fender and wheel to wheel without a felony offense is essential.

"The roots thing is more of a racing thing to me," Wheeler said. "You've got to have drama. You've got to have personality. The personalities depend on the type of racing you have. If you don't have good racing, you're not going to have dramatic personalities, because they won't come out. They'll just finish fifth and go in the trailer.

We've got some amazing personalities in this sport. And there's a lot of guys that I know that I see them on TV, and it's not the same guy that I know.

-- Jeff Gordon

"I'm going to tell you something nobody has told you here. Ticket sales are flat and they are below, and ratings are down. It's because we need to get back to our roots. We need to get this Car of Tomorrow to work."

Carl Edwards, who easily could have gone into a shell last season after his highly publicized confrontation with teammate Matt Kenseth at Martinsville, called it "awesome" that NASCAR has recognized the need to get in touch with its grass roots.

"It's good they're recognizing that NASCAR was built and is this great thing for a number of reasons," he said. "We need to make sure that whatever was going on to do that continues."

Rick Hendrick, whose organization won half of the 36 races last season and who claimed his second straight title with Johnson, hopes NASCAR is sincere in wanting drivers to be themselves.

"I think they ought to let them fight," he said with a laugh. "The fans want to see the spirit in competition. [The drivers are] gladiators, and they ought to let them go at it a little bit."

Hendrick then looked at his stable, which includes Gordon, Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Casey Mears, and said, "That doesn't mean you guys can say anything you want to say."

That also doesn't mean NASCAR won't step in when the reins need tightening. President Mike Helton pointed out that Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Donnie Allison were called to the hauler and fined after their fight at the end of the 1979 Daytona 500, which many point to as the catalyst for NASCAR's rise in popularity.

He also pointed out that NASCAR cut back on the severity of fines last season and let confrontations, such as Kevin Harvick and Juan Pablo Montoya shoving each other on the track at Watkins Glen, go unpunished.

Gordon understands NASCAR's dilemma. He admits he's been guilty of holding back his personality. He even suggested to Johnson that the best way to fly under the radar is to avoid the controversy that draws headlines.

"Sometimes you just want to be under the radar and go do your job," Gordon said. "What's important about this message that NASCAR is sending out is they're saying, 'Hey guys, we're OK with you getting out there a little further. Don't think we're going to come down on you. Now work with your sponsors and work with your fans, and find out where that boundary is and try to stay within it.' "

Or just be like Waltrip and don't worry about what you say.

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