When Leo Durocher said “nice guys finish last,” his point wasn’t that a competitor needs to trample on his opponents to win. What he was saying was that no one hates a loser.
It’s amusing to watch the tributes to George Steinbrenner from a sports media that absolutely despised the man while he was alive. A tyrant, a dictator, Big George was very often made to seem inhuman by the press. Once death made him a loser in the game of life, suddenly we’re hearing about how much he cared about his players, how charitable he was, how dedicated to the Yankees and New York he was.
Steinbrenner’s crime as owner of the Yankees was winning, and doing it a lot. Now that he isn’t doing it anymore, his heavy-handed ownership style doesn’t seem so bad. So there you go. When they’re all kicking you, you must be doing something right.
In a world dominated by television, few sports fans know their heroes personally. Often times their public persona is very different from the person one sees with the cameras off. You really can’t judge a person’s character by an occasional soundbite, and you definitely can’t do it based on a reporter’s opinion.
So we tend to fill in the blanks based on what we do know. Most NASCAR fans have their favorite and least favorite driver, and rarely is that least favorite driver someone that runs 25th every week.
Whatever Kyle Busch’s character flaws, he wouldn’t likely gall too many people if he was fighting to qualify for races on Fridays. Fans would probably be a lot more understanding of his refusal to answer inane questions if he wrecked out of the Top 35. Some time ago I wrote an article quoting members of the motorsports press writing about Busch and how all of them were littered with “buts.” He annoys the crap out of so many people, mostly because he doesn’t apologize for offending people by winning.
For years, I, like many NASCAR commentators, pondered the irrational hatred for Jeff Gordon. I’ve never seen so many middle fingers in one place as I did at my first trip to Martinsville.
Forget the wins and championships and Gordon’s personality is similar to Casey Mears’s. Nobody hates Mears. There might be some people that resent that other drivers were passed over to give him a ride when he hadn’t proven himself, but there isn’t a loud roar from the grandstand whenever he crashes.
But beat Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace and Bill Elliott, and people will cheer when you crash, call you names, throw cans at your car, and give all kinds of grief to people who root for you. And truthfully, in the end it’s just because a driver wins, not that he married Miss Winston or because he’s from Indiana instead of Alabama. When did Gordon start to become less despised by NASCAR fans? When he went into a winless skid in 2002. He was still hated, but the vitriol did seem to die off somewhat then.
Most everyone thinks highly of Mark Martin and rightly so. He is among the most gentlemanly racers and men who have graced this sport. But the most powerful emotion that grips NASCAR fans regarding Martin is sympathy—that the man has come within inches of a Cup so many times and fallen just short every time. What if the penalty at Richmond had been reversed and Martin won the Cup in 1990? He may not have been so revered in the garage and in the press. He would likely be seen more like Matt Kenseth is seen—as an even-tempered, clean racing champion, still well-liked and respected, but rarely if ever associated with the words “sentimental favorite” the way Martin is.
Meanwhile, sometimes even Gordon isn’t a big fan of Jimmie Johnson these days. Gordon always had kind things to say about his protégé, even as the student overtook the master in success. But once Johnson reached four titles, a mini-feud started to grow between the two, starting with bumping into one another in Texas followed by Jimmie cutting Jeff off at Talladega and Gordon spouting some not so kind words about a champion who has made him a nice chunk of money.
Jimmie’s as nice a guy as a driver can be, but that doesn’t matter, man. He’s beating Jeff Gordon.
David Reutimann and Jamie McMurray are two sentimental favorites in the victory column this year, largely because they don’t often stand in the way of fan favorites winning races. They’re both gentlemen, but it’s not likely they would be so highly spoken of by NASCAR fans if they were laying the competition to waste.
Running mid-pack consistently without offending anyone will sometimes pay off in spades for a driver. McMurray and Ryan Newman are well-liked in the garage and in the press. Part of it is that no one is jealous of either of them winning every other week. Both drivers earned Daytona 500 wins with some help from a teammate or a former teammate.
Would those 500 wins have happened if either of those two were racking up wins the way Johnson does? Maybe, but I doubt it. It’s not that Newman or McMurray didn’t earn their 500 victories by any stretch of the imagination. But I do suspect there might have been some wrecks if Gordon or Johnson were the ones up front on the final lap. If Tony Stewart was a backmarker, I doubt Kurt Busch would have been motivated solely to deny the No. 20 car a win.
Most everyone in and around NASCAR, including yours truly, was very happy to see Reutimann grab a “legitimate” win. Reutimann truly is, after all, a decent guy. And I was as happy as anyone to see McMurray win the Daytona 500. He’s a good guy too.
But if either of those guys were whooping on my favorite drivers all the time, I probably wouldn’t be calling them nice guys. Even though they are.