FORT WORTH, Texas — NASCAR’s biggest names aren’t driving with blinders on. They realize President Barack Obama essentially put General Motors on watch this week.
That’s a big deal in a sport synonymous with GM for decades. It’s also a big deal when some of the drivers are Chevrolet men Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
The Obama administration’s bailout of GM was the primary topic of conversation Friday, the first time most drivers faced reporters since the government asserted unprecedented control over the auto industry.
The answers struck a theme. The drivers are aware and concerned. Conversations about the troubles have been ongoing. They think GM will weather the difficulties.
“I’m definitely concerned about it,” said Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup champion. “I’m concerned for it more from the fact that I want to see them do well as much for General Motors as it is for all American car makers and looking at how many people they employ in our economy. I’m way more concerned from that aspect than I am from a racing standpoint.”
But Gordon joined several other drivers in saying Chevy should stay in racing.
“I don’t want to drive anything other than a Chevy,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and they’ve been so good to me and we’ve won a lot of races and championships with Chevrolet.”
Earnhardt said he wasn’t any more concerned now than a year ago when the automaker was struggling.
“People have such short-term memories on everything,” Earnhardt said. “I feel like there’s been a lot of positives in the last six months as well that are giving me a lot of inspiration and hope that the situation is going to get better, especially for Chevrolet.”
Jeff Burton, the first two-time winner in Texas, said he thought GM officials and race team executives were already discussing “worst-case scenarios,” although he didn’t specify what those were.
“I think in the climate that we’re in today, it would be poor business not to look at worst-case scenarios,” Burton said. “My biggest issue about all of that is just getting the economy moving so that people can buy cars again.”
Texas Motor Speedway chief executive Bruton Smith, who made part of his fortune through car dealerships, called Obama’s plan “major pooh-pooh.” He said he missed the president’s announcement Monday that the government would give GM enough working capital for the next 60 days so the company can continue working on a restructuring plan.
“I think I was watching Oprah or something,” Smith said.
MOVING ON: Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin maintain their differing views of Johnson’s late pass to win last week’s race in Martinsville. Johnson says the opening was there; Hamlin says it was pretty aggressive driving.
Either way, both say they have moved on.
“He didn’t take us out or anything like that,” said Hamlin, who settled for second. “We still had a good finish. Definitely no hard feelings or anything like that.”
Johnson said he left Hamlin a message, but they hadn’t talked in Texas as of early Friday afternoon. Both figured their paths would cross sometime this weekend.
“He and I have a great deal of respect for one another,” said Johnson, who also edged past Hamlin in the point standings, taking over fourth.
COMING OF AGE: Texas Motor Speedway has come a long way from the days of a huge crash on the first turn of the first race. And the mysterious water leak under the track in the second year.
Burton, the winner in the track’s disastrous debut in 1997, says the track has become what he believes was intended when it was built: one of the sport’s crown jewels.
“Going from ‘Shut up and drive’ T-shirts to where we are today is a great big difference,” said Burton, referring to shirts that surfaced after a loud chorus of driver complaints the first two years. “The first couple of years were a little touch and go. The track has truly become — I don’t want to call it an institution — but it’s become a huge part of what we do.”
THE POINT IS: David Reutimann has gradually climbed in the Sprint Cup standings over three seasons and finds himself in early contention for NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.
But he says he finds himself worrying less about points now than he did in his first full season, when he “counted every single point” while trying to hang on to a guaranteed spot in the race every week.
“Now I just don’t think it pays to pay attention to that,” said Reutimann, who won the pole for Sunday’s race. “I’m not smart enough to pay attention to that anyway. I just try to go in circles. I can’t add too much more to my plate.”
BALLEW DUI CHARGES DROPPED: Georgia officials have dropped DUI charges against NASCAR Truck Series team owner Billy Ballew stemming from his arrest at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 4.
Henry County Solicitor General Charles A. Spahos filed an administrative dismissal of the charges Monday in State Court. He says a jury would have had a hard time convicting Ballew based on the facts in the case.
A Henry County Sheriff’s sergeant arrested Ballew, who owns a condo at the track, after Ballew was stopped at a credential checkpoint. Authorities say Ballew had a beer can in the car and refused to take a field sobriety test.
Spahos noted in the dismissal notice that the officer at the credential check made no reference to smelling alcohol or seeing any evidence Ballew was impaired.