Sunday, February 20, 2011


Jimmie Johnson passed on an opportunity for a huge win last week, even before the Daytona 500.

Wednesday, the five-time Sprint Cup champion appeared on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption show. That was after co-host Tony Kornheiser had recklessly tossed-out the gossip that Dale Earnhardt Jr. had won the D500 pole because his car wasn't legal.

First, let's be clear: Kornheiser is no longer a reporter. He is no longer a journalist. He trades off his past in those roles, but they no longer apply. Kornheiser said on-air several years ago that he doesn't like to interview athletes; he prefers talking to reporters. THAT IS NOT REPORTING! And it bit Kornheiser in the can big-time in this case, because his "source" for this rumor-mongering was a Washington Post writer. Sub co-host and out-of-control egomanic Dan LeBatard actually praised Kornheiser for having done some "reporting" on Junior. Which proves how little LeBatard actually knows about journalism.

No, I've never worked for the Post or the New York Times, but I know this: IF Kornheiser had talked to Junior, or Rick Hendrick, or Steve Letarte, or a NASCAR official, THAT WOULD have been REPORTING.

He didn't. And it wasn't.

Credibility is supposed to mean everything in the news business, but, apparently ESPN management doesn't apply that standard to PTI. What out-of-touch-with-their-audience media elites like Kornheiser don't accept, because their egos blind them, is the impression left with NASCAR fans is this: If Kornheiser knows so little about racing and is too lazy to learn but that doesn't stop him from mouthing-off, why should we think he knows about anything else he talks about? INFORMED opinion is perfectly acceptable. Gossip, rumors and speculation are not.

I put Kornheiser right there with the likes of Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace. They speak loudly, but say little.

Anyway, back to my point about Johnson.

A very legitimate argument can be made that Johnson should have either said "no" to the PTI interview, or, immediately have taken on the intellectually-empty Kornheiser. If these options weren't discussed with Johnson, they should have been. If sponsor Lowe's objected, fine. If Hendrick thought it wasn't a good idea, OK. If Johnson decided, "That's not me," his choice.

But think about it.

The rap against Johnson is he's too vanilla. What if, in defense of his team and his teammate -- and let's remember that this season Earnhardt's No. 88 is in the same building as Johnson's 48 -- Johnson had come right out of the box at the start of the interview and taken on Mr. No Nothing? Challenged him directly, not rudely, but aggressively.

Junior Nation would have been thrilled. It says here that, overnight, Johnson's fan base would have grown significantly. By stepping out of character, this one time -- and I say again it would have been completely justifiable in defense of his team and his teammate -- Johnson's image and popularity would have turned faster than his Chevy into turn three at Daytona.

Humor can be an effective way to deflect controversy. That's what Cranky Korny attempted to do. Johnson went along with it. I wish he hadn't. It was the perfect circumstance to show some anger; a different side of his personality. It would have been a huge win for Jimmie and for the NASCAR industry, trying as it is to sell tickets and regain TV viewership. Mark it down as Opportunity Lost.

I'm not one to moan about Johnson's historic championship run. I believe in celebrating excellence, not complaining about it. But I wish this was one "pass" Johnson hadn't made.

FAST LINES: ESPN, which oh-so-desperately needed to start the season with a quality production, ended the Daytona Nationwide race on three flats. Marty Reid called the wrong winner -- a mortal sin in his line of work. And, no Marty, Brad Keselowski is not the "defending" Nationwide champion. A new NASCAR rule doesn't allow him to "defend." The network lost the audio in victory lane -- we didn't heard a word of Tony Stewart's "live" interview. And Jamie Little talked to crashed-out Keselowski BEFORE he went to the infield medical center for a mandatory exam. It is ALWAYS MORE IMPORTANT for a driver -- even one who seems OK -- to be seen by the doctors before being heard from by TV. NASCAR officials should enforce that policy -- no exceptions . . . Proving again the power of the NFL, next year's Daytona 500 has been moved back one week, to Feb. 26. The track and NASCAR are anticipating an 18-game NFL regular season and a mid-February Super Bowl . . . The black Budweiser car doesn't look good. Red is right . . . Rookie mistake: A Terrible Towel and sunglasses cost Trevor Bayne's sponsors Big Time TV exposure in Daytona's victory lane . . . From the standpoint of family, good that Tony George has returned to the Hulman & Co. board. From a business standpoint, it's more of the same thinking -- All four new directors are Indiana people. It's a big, wide world out there beyond Indiana and all the Hulman ventures would benefit from a wider perspective. When will they ever learn? . . . The "creative" concept of those singing NAPA commercials has long outlived its shelf life . . . Last week I noted the prospectus for the Williams Formula One team's public offering listed many "risks." Here's an example torn from today's headlines: Political unrest in Bahrain, which is supposed to host a major pre-season test, as well as the series opener . . . Interesting news on the credential front: NASCAR, in addition to allowing drivers' children into the garage area, has relaxed the dress code to OK shorts, open-toed shoes, sleeveless blouses and skirts/dresses. NHRA, marking its 60th anniversary, is offering a free 2011 hard card to past national event winning drivers in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Pro Stock Truck and Top Eliminator.

Mark Armijo and I will have full coverage of NASCAR in Phoenix all this week in the Arizona Republic. Below is a link to my Sunday season scene-setter. Thursday, I'll have a story on Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick Motorsports. Sunday, my now-traditional Newsmaker Q&A will be with Kyle Busch. If you can't get the Republic, read us at .

Please note I'll also be covering the PIR events for National Speed Sport News. I'll do the Cup, Nationwide and Truck race reports, a weekend notebook, and column. See next week's NSSN and also check out .

[ more next Monday . . . ]