CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Like prize fighters primed for battle, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards sat next to each other on a dais Thursday answering questions about their upcoming showdown. In this case, that is Sunday's Ford 400, the final race in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
But unlike most pre-fight press conferences, Johnson and Edwards, the last two men standing in this year's Chase, traded no barbs. Instead, they spent most of an hour trying to one-up each other with compliments. Jimmie talked about how much he respects Carl and Carl talked about what a good guy Jimmie is.
And about eight feet in front of them, Darrell Waltrip was going nuts.
"That nice thing," Waltrip said, "I understand it, but I really don't like it."
From there, Waltrip, known as much for his mouth as for winning three championships in the 1980s, went off, declaring that huge salaries have eliminated much of the urgency drivers have to beat their fellow competitors.
"We were fighting for survival," he explained. "First place paid a lot of money and second place nobody cared. And so it was all about being No. 1 back in the day. And you had to fight, scratch and claw – do everything you could to get there. And if it meant being a little rude and obnoxious off the track as well as on, well, you just did it. That's the way it was.
"I raced to make a living," he continued. "My first race at Talladega I made $680. Right now, there are like five guys who have made $7 million this year, already. Jimmie Johnson's going to go to New York, and if he wins this championship he's going to pick up another $5.5 million. So he theoretically can make $15 million in one year driving a race car.
"If I made as much money as these guys are making, I'd like everyone," said Waltrip. "Everybody would be my friend. Everybody would be my buddy, because I wouldn't want for anything. I don't really need anything. So I think that has a lot to do with it."
Richard Petty agrees, saying drivers today can "afford to be nice to each other." Sure they want to win, but they don't have to because win or lose there's still going to be a Learjet waiting on the tarmac to fly them back home.
"You know you're going to make 10 million bucks when you sit down in the car, these guys do, so why do they get excited about one race or one season?" said Petty, who never had a guaranteed contract during his entire career mainly because he owned the company he worked for. "They're going to make their 10 million bucks whether they win or lose. So that takes the competitive edge away from that part of it.
"It's competitive because I want to beat you, but that's as far as it goes. There's nothing else that gives them incentive to beat each other."
Don't misconstrue what they're saying. Neither Petty nor Waltrip begrudge the fact that today's drivers have it easier than they did. In fact, Petty points out that the influx of money has benefitted him and other legends of NASCAR.
But it's hard to argue with the idea that guaranteed money has sanitized the sport.
Pretend for a moment that NASCAR is a jungle filled with hungry lions. Now, consider how those lions would react to one piece of meat being thrown in the middle of that jungle versus having an unlimited supply.
This goes back to what Waltrip said about not wanting for anything.
Throw in the fact that corporate sponsors are never too far away to remind a driver that he must be a good pitchman and what you end up with is a love-fest reminiscent of a couple playing tongue hockey on a park bench. And who wants to be a part of that, other than the two people involved?
At one point in Thursday's press conference, Johnson, who holds a commanding 141-point lead over Edwards going into Sunday's race, was reminded that a few years ago Edwards made up 121 points on Johnson at this very track – Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson was asked if that worried him.
"Absolutely," Johnson said. "I feel good about things, but at the same time, I know that that possibility exists. This is motorsports. Things do happen. Like they say in football, you've still got to go play the game. We've still got to go run the race. I know that."
Johnson's was a fine enough response, but not the one Waltrip would have given.
"When they were talking about how Carl had made up 121 points on Jimmie at one time, I thought to myself, 'Yeah, but he's still 20 short,' " said Waltrip, "and that would have been my comeback."
Anymore, though, there are no comebacks, because they simply aren't necessary.
- Jimmie Johnson