BRISTOL, Tenn. – NASCAR fans love it when a driver tells it like it is. Until, of course, one actually does it.
"If you don't say what somebody else likes, they're going to chew you up for it," Dale Jarrett says. "You have to decide how much of that you're ready to bite off. ...You hear all the time everybody likes it when everybody speaks their minds, but when they do they're damned for it. I just don't understand."
That's not Tony Stewart saying that, not one of the Busch brothers or Kevin Harvick or any one of the drivers race fans are too quick to label a "whiner" when he speaks out on a topic he feels strongly about.
That's Jarrett, the well-respected, second-generation veteran who makes his final career Sprint Cup points race start in Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Jeff Gordon is a four-time champion in the sport who will start second alongside teammate Jimmie Johnson on Sunday's front row. Gordon also knows what a public relations minefield a driver starts through when he decided to take a stand.
"In my experience, it's better off to stay non-confrontational and stay away from the controversy," Gordon said. "There is so much focus and attention when there is controversy, is it worth it?
" ... Life is tough enough as it is. ... I'm just trying to do my job and do everything I can.
"Trust me, I want more of my personality to come out, but I can't help the fact that when that time comes, in the back of my mind I'm thinking what are the repercussions of that. What am I going to go through?"
It was Stewart's postrace criticism of the tire combination at Atlanta that set off a weeklong discussion, not only about tires and the way Goodyear develops them but also about what role the sport's competitors should rightly play in helping set the sport's policies and influence how NASCAR governs it.
In such discussions, the idea of a drivers' union inevitably comes up. In a culture that has for generations treated "union" an expletive, the point that matters can be lost.
If drivers did have a union, eventually it would wind up fighting for a bigger share of the total revenue in the sport (and rightly so, but that's an argument for another day). There would be a lot of focus, and fans would quickly grow weary of that.
But there should be a more formal, structured way for drivers to have input in the key decisions in NASCAR's top series.
"I would like to see NASCAR have like a quarterly meeting where they bring all the drivers into a room and bring up hot topics," Gordon said. "Talk about things and allow us to vent, or allow us to share our opinions and just listen to us.
"This going up into the trailer one at a time and one guy says the exact opposite of what the next guy comes in, I think all it does is confuse them. I would love to work with them further on that, but I'm out of breath doing it individually. It doesn’t go anywhere."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat beside Stewart for much of the postrace discussion at Atlanta. He, too, said the tires should have been better, but never went as far as Stewart did.
"A lot of times you pick the battle," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I felt as bad as Tony did about the tires, but I just couldn't bring myself to be as vocal as he was about it. Maybe because I know what the backlash is going to be."
But Earnhardt Jr. says drivers absolutely do need to have a voice.
"The main situation is that you as a driver, you have a hard time listening and believing someone that has never been behind the wheel trying to tell you what needs to happen out on the race track or how things need to be," Earnhardt Jr. said. " ... Atlanta is just a reminder of that really, that the driver's opinions matter.
"We are paid a lot of money to do what we do and we all do sound off and go push buttons a little too hard sometimes, but for the most part, we don't want to ruin the racing for the sport. We don't want to make it worse for the fans. We want to make it as big as we can make it. We have the same thing at stake."
When a driver with a history of saying critical things about NASCAR or Goodyear speaks up, sometimes his message is overshadowed by the messenger. But for Gordon, Earnhardt Jr. and Jarrett to agree that the drivers' opinions aren't valued as much as they should be, perhaps that's a clearer indication that things need to change.
"So many decisions are being made by people who don't really have the understanding of what it's like to drive these cars," Jarrett said. "They're sitting there expecting you, regardless of the situation, to put on a great show because that's what our sport was built on. Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen.
"I think that the drivers need to be represented and NASCAR needs to understand that it's not that we're telling them how to go about their business, but helping them to understand how we can have better races.
"When we speak out about it, we're speaking not for a personal gain, we're speaking for what's going to make the sport better. Do we always know? No, we don't always know. Some things that we say aren't the very best things, but we have to be able to say those things, too, because a lot of the things we say are, and we are the ones who know."