NASCAR & Auto Racing

Off track with the top 12

For 10 weeks, the 12 drivers with a chance to win this year’s Nextel Cup championship find themselves talking a whole lot about their chances of winning that title.

But even as the Chase for the Nextel Cup heads toward its halfway mark, Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, there has to be at least a little bit of time for something else.

So we cornered each of the Chase drivers for just a couple of minutes each – about all they could spare given their hectic schedules at this time of the year – and asked them to talk about something other than their Cup careers that’s interesting to them or about them.

JEFF GORDON | Driver starting to get the hang of fantasy football

It’s Sunday night, hours after the Nextel Cup race has finished and Jeff Gordon is on his computer searching for points.

Not Cup points – he’s been made aware of those statistics long ago. He’s searching for NFL results, trying to add up how many points his fantasy football team scored this week.

Gordon is in the fourth season of his newest interest outside of NASCAR. He was talked into joining the fantasy football league by his public relations representative Jon Edwards.

“I’d always heard about it but didn’t really know the details of it. Jon was talking about putting a whole group together to do fantasy football and I said I would do it,” Gordon said. “Then, I started looking into what all it took – the mock drafts, cheat sheets – and there was a lot to it.”

The first season Gordon ran his fantasy football team himself. “It was a disaster,” he said. “I couldn’t keep up with the trades and all that stuff and didn’t know what I was doing in the draft.”

When Gordon started, there was talk he was drafting players who were his neighbors in Charlotte. “Just because I happened to pick the quarterback of the (Carolina) Panthers (Rodney Peete) who happened to live in my building, that’s not why I picked him” Gordon said. “It was a bad choice regardless.”

The next season, Penny Copen, the public relations representative for driver Dale Jarrett, joined Gordon’s team. The duo has quickly become a powerful force in the league. So far this season, they are 3-2.

“Penny saved the day. She’s a good teammate,” Gordon said. “I got a really good, strong team this year and as soon as I get home on Sundays I’m on the computer.”

Copen said she and Gordon do a lot of consulting on their weekly lineups.

“Jeff has become very knowledgeable about it,” Copen said. “We took (San Francisco running back) Frank Gore with our first pick this season and he was real excited about that. Jeff was a 49ers fan growing up and loved having a 49ers player on our team that was a solid fantasy player.”

JIMMIE JOHNSON | Johnsons gain taste of the world one remarkable trip at a time

Jimmie Johnson climbed to the pinnacle of his racing career last season by winning his first Nextel Cup Series title.

That still didn’t compare to seeing the “Big Five.”

The phrase “Big Five” was coined by big-game hunters for the five large mammals hunted in Africa. The five are the lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros.

All were visible when Johnson and his wife, Chandra, took in a sightseeing wildlife safari in South Africa last year.

“Going on the safari was probably one of best trips we’ve taken,” Jimmie Johnson said. “It was very cool to go see the Big Five. You are riding around in a jeep and right around the corner is a bunch of lions, and then rhinos and hippos, all kinds of cool stuff.”

The Johnsons love traveling and take what free time they get to explore.

Their vacations cover the spectrum: Skiing in Colorado; lying on the beaches in the south of France; fishing in Alaska; and trips to the Caribbean.

Or, it could be as simple as attending a college football game, which they plan to do this year in Norman, Okla.

“It’s great to get out and see the world. I’ve spent time in South Africa and saw first-hand what that area of the world is about. At one point I was sitting on a cliff somewhere and looking out on the ocean – just incredible stuff,” he said.

“I’ve experienced a lot – the big cities, the small towns. I really enjoy all the different culture and the food.”

So what’s the next big adventure?

“It sounds odd, but we’ve been on the road so much lately I think the next off period, I think we’ll just stay home and enjoy our house,” Jimmie Johnson said.

CLINT BOWYER | When Mercury rises, driver sees stars, stuff dreams are made of

Clint Bowyer was on a radio show one day when the topic turned to hot rods.

“We were just talking about Mercs,” Bowyer said, referring to Mercurys. “He said, ‘You know, I have a Merc and I am kind of thinking about selling it.' ”

The lucky host had an eager customer. When Bowyer was asked if he was the kind who wasted time doodling hot rods, he laughed. “Actually,” he said. “I was the kid skipping school going to work on a hot rod.”

When Bowyer got to the radio host’s garage to see the 1949 Mercury, he didn’t exactly do much negotiating. “He pulled up the garage door about 2 1/2 feet and I said, ‘I’ll take it,’” Bowyer said.

“It was my dream car. I grew up around hot rods and it was always the car I wanted. As soon as I got my ride with Richard (Childress) and got a little bit of money in my pocket, it was the first thing I wanted to buy.”

“These cars are usually either too far done in somebody else’s way that it’d be too expensive to redo, or it’s too much of a pile of junk,” Bowyer said.

The one he bought was, he said, perfect. And he had a friend he used to race dirt cars with and who runs a hot rod shop in Wichita, Kan.

“We’re almost done with it,” Bowyer said two weeks ago at Kansas after a quick side trip to see how the project was coming along. “They just painted it. It’s black with candy apple red flames on it. It’s everything I always wanted it to be.”

There’s one thing he’s worried about.

“I am scared to ask for the bill,” Bowyer said. “Every time I am there, about six people are working on it.”

CARL EDWARDS | Missouri native wins hearts a trophy at a time

Carl Edwards’ mother is working on a trophy room for her son at her home in Missouri. There aren’t going to be all that many for her to put in it.

That’s because Edwards quite often gives away the trophy he gets when he wins a race. It’s a habit that started very early in the driver’s career.

“I was running at Capital Speedway in Holts Summit, Mo.,” Edwards said. “There was this guy, Danny Crane, and when I first started there he was winning every week. They gave out the same trophy every week and he had a bunch of them.

“So he’d get out of his car at the start-finish line and walk up to the fence. They would open the gate and like 150 kids would come running out. He’d pick out one and give him the trophy. I just thought that was the coolest thing.”

Edwards eventually started winning there, too, and he followed Crane’s tradition. And as Edwards started moving up in racing, he carried it with him.

“So many people have helped me out along the way,” Edwards said. “If you’ve got 100 trophies, the next 100 might not be as special. But it’s cool to walk into somebody’s house or hear from them because that trophy is the only one they’ll get and it means something to them.”

Edwards doesn’t give away all of his trophies. He still has one guitar he won for a Busch race at Nashville, Tenn., for instance, and said he knows it’d be hard to give away a trophy for a Daytona 500 victory, a win in a Cup race at Kansas Speedway or the Nextel Cup trophy.

Edwards’ mom has the trophy from his first Cup victory and will put that in the room she’s working on. Edwards is asking all of the people he’s given trophies to snap a photo of themselves with the trophy and send him the picture to display.

“The cool thing behind the trophy is the memory that goes along with winning it,” Edwards said. “So seeing those pictures is ... like winning twice.”

KEVIN HARVICK | He has home advantage on this track

From the time Kevin Harvick was 5 years old until he turned 16, go-kart competition was the only racing he knew.

Now 31 and in his seventh Cup season, go-karts are what Harvick turns to for fun.

“It’s something I really like to do. It’s a lot of fun and I get to spend time with my friends,” said Harvick, who won his first Daytona 500 this season.

Harvick had all but abandoned go-karts until about three years ago, when Richard Childress Racing teammate Clint Bowyer put a dirt track on his property and started running go-karts. Harvick made occasional appearances and enjoyed it.

Soon after Harvick and his wife, DeLana, built a home near Kernersville, he added an asphalt oval track.

During the week leading up to the April1 race at Martinsville, Va., Harvick and about 15 friends held their first race on the asphalt track. Fellow Cup driver Tony Stewart won and, despite a plan to have the winner hold a trophy until the next race, Stewart did not want to relinquish his.

“That shows you there are a lot of bragging rights on the line,” Harvick said.

The same group – plus maybe five or 10 more – anxiously look forward to the “Fall Brawl,” which will take place next week.

Stewart plans to return and will bring a trophy donated by a caller to his weekly radio show.

Harvick has put between $5,000 and $10,000 into a new go-kart for the Fall Brawl. There is one rule – drivers must use tires supplied at the race.

“No rules, no officials and racing under the lights against your buddies. What’s not to like?” Harvick said. There will be one change.

“DeLana served as the flagman for the last race and nearly got run over,” he said. “I don’t think she’ll be doing that again.”

KURT BUSCH | A memorable New Year’s Day deer-hunting trip

It was New Year’s Day on the eastern shore of Virginia, the final day of deer season.

It had been a productive day of hunting. Kurt Busch’s friends had enough venison to hold them over until they could go out again. But everybody was talking about the one buck they’d seen but nobody had bagged.

“Everybody, it seemed, had shot at it, but he didn’t go down,” Busch said. “So I said, ‘Let’s go back and get him.’ ”

Busch grew up in Las Vegas, the desert Southwest. Until he was a NASCAR driver, he said he’d never held a gun.

But one of his former spotters was from Virginia, and he talked Busch into trying deer hunting.

“I thought, ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done,’” Busch said. “You’re out there in the wilderness and it’s such a peaceful experience. And then, you see the deer and the adrenaline rush comes and you’re just so completely in that moment.

“You completely separate from the world. You see the animal and your attention is solely on that. You’re trying to stay calm and all you’ve learned as a hunter. You sit there and wait for the shot, and it’s a release.”

Busch married into a family of hunters, so he’s had a lot of chances to learn more about hunting with wife Eva’s cousins and uncles. But ask him about his best moment and he goes back to that New Year’s Day and that buck he and his friends went back to get.

“We were doing a man drive, and I was on the tree line,” Busch said. “All of a sudden I hear this guy yell, ‘It’s coming to you!’ This buck is running to me. I see him and it’s almost like he and I are in this alley. He’s coming right at me and he jumped over this fallen tree.”

Busch squeezed off a shot. “I hit him in midair and he went down,” Busch said. “And I never saw him pop back up.”

TONY STEWART | You want to know real Stewart? Fish with him on his lake

Give Tony Stewart some fishing line, a hook, water, some bait and an hour or two and he thinks he can learn a lot about just about anybody.

“If you spent an afternoon fishing with me, it wouldn’t matter if we caught anything or not,” Stewart said. “You’d get to see a totally different side of me and I think I’d really get to know a lot more about you.”

Stewart grew up in southern Indiana where just about every farm has a pond. But he was busy racing go-karts and laying the foundation for his racing career, so he came to the activity relatively late.

“I refuse to take my phone with me when I go fishing,” he said. “I let a couple of people know where I am and they know how to find me, but to the rest of the world I am gone.”

It’s especially nice when have your own fishing hole, and Stewart has an eight-acre lake on the 400-acre property he owns near his hometown of Columbus, Ind.

When Stewart bought the property, where he’s building a log home he’ll eventually live in, a dam holding water in the lake had several leaks. So with the help of a friend who owns a construction company, Stewart drained the lake and cleaned out debris in the west end.

After a winter of snow and rain refilled it, with some expert advice he drained it again the next year and put in gravel beds and trenches to provide a suitable habitat for the fish he restocked.

“We have four automatic feeders that go off two times a day,” Stewart said. “We just put about 200,000 bait fish in it. It’s the best we could make it. It’s like Club Med for fish.”

JEFF BURTON | There’s no debating political interests

Jeff Burton was not student body president in high school. “I was too lazy at that point in my life to do anything like that,” he said.

But as he looks toward the end of his driving career, Burton thinks he might like to see how he’d fare in another race – one for office.

“I like the debate, the argument,” Burton said. “I enjoy listening to different opinions about whatever subject you’re talking about. That’s the part that appeals to me. I enjoy forming an opinion based on information I can gather.

“The older I’ve got, the more analytical I’ve become. Having the opportunity to do a lot of things and see different ways of life and opinions on how to do things has opened my eyes to the fact there are a lot of ways to be successful. There’s no one formula that always works.”

Burton has said he’d consider running for a U.S. Senate seat some day, something quite different from a sport where many stars could not be more apolitical.

Burton has strong opinions on a lot of things in his current profession. He has some concerns about what could be his future vocation, too.

“It seems like a very frustrating way to make a living,” Burton said. “People have been saying this for 100 years probably, but if you can find a way to help make that system work better, that would be a good thing.

“One of the confusing things to me about politics is that when you change your mind you’re viewed as wishy-washy, a guy who won’t take a stand or who changes his opinion because he wants to get more votes. But if you don’t change your mind, you’re stubborn and hardheaded. There’s no way to win. So the only thing you can do at the end of the day is do what you think is right.”

DENNY HAMLIN | He converts house next door to Gibbs to his dream home

First, Denny Hamlin wanted a house on Lake Norman.

He found one but decided it wasn’t quite to his liking. So, he gutted it and had it redone.Keeping a watchful eye on Hamlin’s progress over the past several months has been Hamlin’s Nextel Cup Series team owner, Joe Gibbs, also coach of the NFL’s Washington Redskins. The house Hamlin bought is next door to Gibbs on the Peninsula.

Gibbs is away much of the time, but he and his neighbors have seen a startling transformation.

“It’s funny because the house has been sitting beside Joe for quite a few years and no one has really done much to it,” said Hamlin, 26. “So, when I came up in there with bulldozers and cranes that really made him laugh.”

One day Gibbs’ son, J.D., who also is president of Joe Gibbs Racing, was in the area and witnessed a large crane lowering a fountain in place on the property.

“Keep spending that money,” J.D. Gibbs joked at the time, “you’ll be here for a long time.”

Hamlin, in his second full-time season in the Cup series, is far better known for his online racing skills than his talent as a decorator.

“I’m very particular about it. I spent a good eight months redoing the house. When you have that much time invested, you want it to be right,” he said.

“I gutted it from scratch and I wanted everything the way I envisioned it.

“Really when it came out done, it pretty much was what I was hoping for.”

Hamlin insisted the first room finished would be his master bedroom.

“It got to a point where I was so anxious to get in the house that I wanted to get the bedroom done so I could stay there,” he said. “Once that was done, I wasn’t so worried about the rest.”

Asked if he had completed all his improvements to the home, Hamlin replied, “I’m finished. Unfortunately, my pocketbook won’t let me go any further.”

MATT KENSETH | Driver finds cabin perfect getaway from engine roars

Sometimes Matt Kenseth just needs to get away – really away.

Whether it’s for Thanksgiving or just a few days’ break following a Nextel Cup race, there is one place where Kenseth knows almost no one can find him.

About six years ago, Kenseth, a native of Wisconsin, found a secluded location in the southwestern part of the state not far from the Mississippi River, bought about 130 acres of land and built a log cabin on the property. It’s there where he seeks escape from his NASCAR career.

“When I feel like getting away from crowds or traffic or what have you, I go up there and it’s just about in the middle of nowhere with not much going on,” Kenseth said.

When asked if the conditions would be considered “roughing it,” Kenseth said, “Well, I did get a TV last year. It’s just real quiet. If you want to go hunting you can. If you want to go fishing you can.”

Cows owned by a neighbor roam nearby fields.

The only sound heard might be Kenseth’s occasional venture into nearby woods to clear more land.

Kenseth and his wife, Katie, headed there for few days’ rest immediately following the Sept.30 race at Kansas. Matt Kenseth combined the trip with a stop to see his son, Ross, race in Lacrosse, Wis.

One might assume trips to Wisconsin also might bring a welcome break from the warm weather of the South. Not necessarily so, Kenseth said.

“It’s been unseasonably warm up there; it was in the 80s while we were there after Kansas,” he said.

What about Thanksgiving? “Depends on the year. With the global warming things are changing,” Kenseth said.

“But during Thanksgiving there isn’t usually much, if any, snow. Twenty years ago you might have been snowmobiling then, but not now.”

KYLE BUSCH | Busch’s gambling isn’t restricted to the track

Kyle Busch grew up in Las Vegas, so he knows how to play most of the games you can find in a casino.

Most of the games.

“The only game I don’t know how to play is craps,” he said. “I have no idea how to play craps.”

Every Monday night, though, Busch welcomes several members of his race team and other friends to his house for a classic guy’s night out. A little pizza, a few beverages, some “Monday Night Football” and, of course, Texas Hold ‘Em poker.

“When I am serious, I can be pretty good,” Busch said. “But more times than not I am just messing around and betting on hands I shouldn’t be betting on.”

Busch said the people who talk about poker players on television would have a field day analyzing some of the stuff that goes on in his game, which most often begins with two tables and then works its way down to one big game as the night wears on.

“Stupid stuff wins in our game, like a jack-deuce,” Busch said. “Sometimes you have to bet that stuff, especially late in the game when guys are just betting to try to scare you. But if guys start betting stupid stuff  I’ll back out.”

Not that Busch watches much coverage of poker tournaments on television. He said he can’t imagine a bigger waste of time.

“I don’t know how you watch poker on TV,” Busch said. “It’s a game that you have to be playing it to be excited about it.

“When you watch on TV you get to see everybody’s cards and know what’s out on the table. When you’re playing, you don’t get that. It’s like you want to say, ‘OK, show me your cards so I can see what I am playing against!’ ”

MARTIN TRUEX JR. | Truex satisfies urge to tinker by building fleet fleet

Martin Truex Jr. loves to get lost in little things.

Specifically, he enjoys working on small radio-controlled boats he builds and rebuilds at his house on the lake.

“I have a work table in there and I will go in there and work until 3 or 4 in the morning sometimes,” Truex said. “I lose track of time. It’s my time and I can get my mind off of racing and where I have to go the next day and who’s worrying about what I am doing. I just get in there and think of ways to make it go faster.”

Truex said he has been playing with and working on radio-controlled cars since he was a kid. When he moved into a house with a lake as part of his yard, boats just made sense.

“I had an RC boat when I was about 6 or 7 and the only place I had to run it was in my parents’ swimming pool,” Truex said. “Now I have open water. So I went out and got a boat.”

Now he has five. The smallest is 24 inches long, the largest twice that size. Two are scaled versions of cigarette racing boats, while two are catamarans. The fifth, Truex said, “is kind of a weird-looking thing, too hard to explain.”

The smallest is his favorite. A month or so ago, he got it up to 44mph – a GPS device rides along to measure the speed. “Then I took it all back apart and rebuilt the whole thing,” he said. “I made it all lighter and did some work to the engine.” When he got it back on the lake, the speed was nearly 50 mph.

“One thing I miss in racing is working on my own cars, taking ideas you think about and applying them to the car to make them work better,” he said. “I miss that, getting my hands dirty and having the satisfaction of winning with it.”

Or going a little faster.