MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Jimmie Johnson occasionally would take a jab at his haters when he won championship after championship after championship. He reveled in it, challenging them on Twitter, calling them out all the while knowing that people don’t like it when one driver wins too much.
His way of embracing those who spewed venom and also keeping his competitors mostly in his favor allowed him to win six championships.
The two favorites for the 2015 Sprint Cup championship — Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick — haven’t done much to win over fans (or their competitors) the past month.
Logano has won 11 races in the past two years, more than any other driver. He won Kansas two weeks ago by turning Matt Kenseth, drawing the fans’ ire, and in the end, it kept Kenseth from advancing. Harvick has always been a little polarizing, but his controversial move last Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — potentially intentionally wrecking so that he could draw the caution and advance — has other drivers questioning his motives.
Fans will get to spew their hate on Logano and Harvick during prerace introductions Sunday for the Goody’s 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Drivers could take actions into their own hands after the drop of the green.
Logano and Harvick will try to ignore the boos and the potential drama.
“I know there are a lot of 22 T-shirts out there. I really enjoy seeing that, and I really appreciate the support that the 22 team gets,” Logano said about the fan reception. “And if you don’t like me, I don’t care.”
Harvick has had a similar attitude for a while. He does his best to avoid the noise late in the season, trying to stick to a routine, focus on his race car and family and cut out any distractions. He isn’t scrolling the internet to see what’s being said about him this week.
“I don’t even pay attention to it,” Harvick said. “I tell you guys that a lot. I just laugh. You just smile and move on, just for the fact that there’s so much happening, so many moving parts.”
Besides, Harvick said he doesn’t have time to stress out over it.
“If you sit and think about things too long while you’re at home, you’ll get hit in the head with a football,” said Harvick, who has a 3-year-old son.
While Harvick has made his share of enemies throughout his career, he might have made new ones last week as many fans (and at least a handful of drivers) believe he turned Trevor Bayne on purpose to bring out the caution, freeze the field and allow himself, nursing a sour engine, to hold on to his position to make the Chase.
Fans don’t often forgive quickly. Ask Brad Keselowski, who made enemies on the track at Charlotte and Texas last year and lost fans because of it.
“I certainly lost a lot of popularity with the incident I had with Jeff [Gordon at Texas last year],” Keselowski said. “You have to worry about your popularity in this sport because of the whole branding, sponsorship, etc. But you always balance that with trying to stay true to yourself.
“I feel like I stayed true to myself. I’ll play that path.”
Keselowski compared the hatred for Logano — fans threw beer cans at his car after he won at Talladega last week — to the boos Gordon received early in his career. Those boos have turned to cheers during the past few years as Gordon has entered the twilight of his career and especially this final season.
“It’s like the strange transition of wins one through 10 in your career are popular,” Keselowski said. “Wins 10 through maybe the next 20 years are not popular. Until you get to your retirement year. Then you’re popular again.
“(Logano’s) in that purgatory. There was another guy that had beer cans thrown at him at Talladega. His name was Jeff Gordon. When they did drier introductions with him, he got almost all cheers this year.”
With their cars running so well, Logano will brush off any boos or hatred he gets from the crowd, Gordon predicted.
“If things aren’t going well and you did something that caused that reaction from the fans, then that will eat at you a little bit,” Gordon said. “If you’re like Joey, you’re doing everything right [at Talladega]. … With what happened with him and Matt, that’s a consequence that he will have to weigh out. And we’ll see if that was a smart move or not.
“He was already locked in. Were you doing it to keep Matt out of it or were you doing it just because you’re aggressive and want to win? You can’t blame a guy for that. They’re doing everything right. They’re winning races, and they’re the team to beat. I don’t think any negativity is going to impact what they’re doing right now.”
In quoting a motorsports journalist post he said he saw on Twitter, Keselowski joked that NASCAR fans eat their young, and Logano is in the middle of the savageness.
“It’s just how it goes,” Keselowski said. “Joey’s being ate. I don’t know that I would say his circumstances are the same as Kevin’s.”
One thing Harvick and Logano have done is they typically don’t engage their haters on social media. Logano said he enjoys the clever insults — “It’s kind of funny because some of them are pretty creative and I’m like, ‘You put a lot of thought into that one,'” Logano said — but hesitates to respond as Johnson has throughout his career.
“It’s funny when Jimmie does that, actually,” Logano said. “I look at it and don’t really see where it’s worth my time to have to stand up for myself for one of those haters. I’ve got more important things to do with my life than do that.
“Yes, it’s fun sometimes when you write back. Some of them are just so lost. They’re just so far out there. It’s like, ‘You have no idea.’ And I just think, ‘No, it’s not worth it. I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.'”
If Logano, who has a three-race winning streak, keeps capturing trophies, Gordon said that could wear on Harvick more than the negativity, because Harvick and Logano have had an ongoing feud for years. Harvick also doesn’t have the luxury of any momentum as his average finish of 16.17 in the Chase ranks the worst among the eight still alive.
Logano will start from the pole Sunday. Harvick will start 12th.
“They’re kind of on the fence,” Gordon said about Harvick. “They’ve shown some weakness — not to mention I don’t think it sits well with him when Joey is doing well. It’s a double-whammy for him.
“But those guys have a great [team], and Kevin is really good at recovering and handling those kind of things.”
Logano needs to consider his attitude carefully, not because of fan hatred but in at least trying to keep from other drivers making his life miserable over the next four weeks. His former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch isn’t reveling in Logano’s situation, where it’s not only fans but certain drivers who feel that he hasn’t raced clean and it could make these next three races miserable.
“I don’t enjoy it,” Busch said. “Because I know what it’s like to be in that situation. I know how stressful it can be. I don’t wish it on anybody. But it is a heck of a lot easier when it’s not you.”
Busch doesn’t think, though, that Harvick and Logano should not have too much trouble. They won’t need any sympathy or favors from other drivers to get to the front. They have been the fastest all season with Harvick leading 22.58 percent of all laps and Logano leading 12.65 percent.
“They’re just good enough to make it their own,” Busch said. “I don’t know that you necessarily need to sympathize with them. It’s a way of how this sport will run itself and we’ll race these three races and the top four will be the ones to move on to Homestead.”
Logano said the key isn’t worrying about the sport running itself. It’s about worrying about his own self and keeping any negativity on the outside from penetrating the team cohesiveness. Harvick called the Chase elimination format “a more cut-throat system.” For Logano, that means he has to do his own thing and not worry about Kenseth or others retaliating against him.
“The way he thinks is totally up to him and I respect it, but the only thing I can really control is the speed in my race car and working with my race team,” Logano said. “As long as we do that, that’s all we can do and whatever happens, happens. We’ll be able to move forward and stick together as a team.
“I know one thing, none of this will break our team apart. We’re that strong of a team that I feel like we can recover from about anything. I feel that confident in everything we’re doing right now, so the main thing is don’t let stuff like that be a distraction because that can tear apart a team.”