MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) — As expected, NASCAR’s four championship rivals were cordial, candid and comical.
No one tried to swing a chair, or even take a verbal jab.
UFC, this isn’t.
“Sorry we’re letting you down,” six-time champion Jimmie Johnson quipped Thursday.
The winner-take-all championship race Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway should be creating a semblance of tension between four rival drivers. But this quartet went bike riding together in one of their many stops on a seemingly sunshine-and-roses media tour. A week after Conor McGregor nearly threw a chair at Eddie Alvarez in a UFC pre-fight hype session, NASCAR’s ferocious four let trash-talking take a backseat on an easy afternoon full of heaping accolades for each other.
NASCAR had the four pull up a chair on the stage during a cozy championship introduction Thursday — you know, just like a late night talk show — and the drivers delivered the yuks. They joked among each other, Kyle Busch repeatedly wise-cracked under his mic to teammate Carl Edwards and everybody grinned like it was Christmas morning.
Come Sunday, they’ll have to psychologically flip a switch and turn against each other. Even Busch and Edwards, teammates in a proud Toyota effort for Joe Gibbs who have shared everything in an open-book organization, must now toss aside professional courtesy to be the last man standing on the championship stage.
But why do they have to be so chummy?
“You know that you’re not going to beat up on a guy in a media session and make his car go any slower,” said Busch, the reigning champion. “To be honest with you, you’re probably going to make (the car) go faster. You’re going to make him want it more. There’s no sense is doing any of that. That’s why with UFC fighters, they egg each other on, you’re just going to get hit harder.”
This group is void of any conflict, and there are plenty of other storylines. Johnson is trying to tie Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with a record seventh title. Busch is trying to repeat, and beat his teammate. Logano wants a title to go with the IndyCar championship Team Penske already won this year in its 50th season of racing. And Edwards? He’s finally got another shot after losing the 2011 title on a tie-breaker.
There’s a Chevrolet, a Ford and a pair of Toyotas. The group is represented by Roger Penske, Rick Hendrick and Gibbs, three of the heaviest hitters in auto racing.
Yet with all that on the line, this group is like four buddies putting on a one-act play. They’ve been asked and answered the same questions so many times this week, they can almost finish each other’s sentences. They’ve got oft-told anecdotes for the repeated topics, everything is good-natured.
Part of it is because it’s a genuinely likable group of drivers. Even Busch, so surly so many times, is at heart a good person.
There’s really nothing bad to say to one another.
“Jimmie is one of those guys you want to hate but you can’t because he’s too nice,” Logano said.
On race day, it becomes driver vs. driver, the brutal length of the NASCAR schedule has turned all of the racers into a traveling community. They spend up to four nights a week inches apart in motorhomes, run into each other in the infield playgrounds and gyms.
Bad blood doesn’t boil very long in these parts.
“We do have a rapport, and we also do learn how to socialize outside of the car and then how to flip the switch,” Johnson said. “It’s just something that I guess we grow up dealing with from a young age racing, however we did it as youngsters up until now. A fighter is somebody, they might see that guy one or twice in that moment, and oh, by the way, in the UFC they try to kill each other anyway, so it’s all about killing the guy.”
Logano doesn’t think this cordial attitude is any different than any other sport. The drivers do their jobs when the green flag falls, and they co-exist when they climb from their cars.
“You watch a football game, after the game they’re all shaking each other’s hands after they just knocked the heck out of each other,” Logano said. “That happens. You even watch a hockey game, afterward they all shake hands, whether they want to or not. It’s enforced.
“But I do think there’s obviously a switch that everyone, maybe when they put their helmet on, things change. We’re all out there as competitors, but right now we’re outside the car, we also get along, right?”