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Analyzing Races Can Put Loyalties To The Test

| Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 10 2016
Darrell Waltrip and other former drivers who now work in television can be put in uncomfortable positions. (File photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Darrell Waltrip and other former drivers who now work in television can be put in uncomfortable positions. (File photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mark Armijo | Senior Correspondent

PHOENIX, Ariz. – Four months removed from the driver’s seat, Jeff Gordon remains a fixture at the racetrack.

Ditto Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds, just three of the many former drivers and a crew chiefs now applying their talents in front of the television camera instead of behind it, buganalysisundoubtedly hired in part for their ability to offer insights gained from numerous years of experiencing on the racetrack and pit road.

Waltrip already has learned what Gordon may one day learn, which is driving bumper-to-bumper at breakneck speeds is not nearly as uneasy as sometimes having to speak harshly of former peers for questionable moves or strategy on the racetrack.

For instance, when Matt Kenseth purposely wrecked Joey Logano in a crucial NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship race last November at Martinsville, Va., Waltrip, a Fox Sports analyst since 2001, likely cringed knowing he eventually would be asked to share his opinion of the blatant maneuver.

“The toughest thing we have to do is try to maintain a good relationship with all the drivers, but call them out when necessary,” said Waltrip, who along with Gordon will be in the Fox broadcast booth Sunday for the Good Sam 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. “A good example of that was Matt and what happened at Martinsville. He’s one of the most respected drivers in the garage and has a lot of friends. But I felt like he stepped over the line. He did something I couldn’t condone.

“I’m paid to tell people what I think.  You can’t have the respect of viewers and not be honest. You don’t want to be overly critical, but you can’t sugar coat it, either.

“I’ve had drivers knock on my coach or send me a text many times saying that they didn’t

Jeff Burton is on the other side of the microphone these days. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

Jeff Burton is on the other side of the microphone these days. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

appreciate what I said. It’s a fine line you have to walk. You don’t want to be critical when it’s not necessary and you don’t want to show favoritism. You have to call it like you see it.”

Kyle Petty, an NBC Sports analyst along with Jeff Burton and former crew chief Steve Letarte, said the key is “just being honest.”

“I wouldn’t say I’ve had friendships become strained from something I may have said, but there’s been times some acquaintances have been strained,” Petty said. “The thing is we have incredibly intelligent fans in this sport and you can’t BS them. When you try to do that, you lose your credibility.

“I’ve always spoken my mind. I’ve said some things about Danica (Patrick) and I may not have said it the right way. But what I’m basically saying is I’d just like to see her race more. Dig a little harder. She can go fast and she has talent. But once you get in the game, you have to do something.

“There were even a couple of times last year I had to criticize (Kenseth) and I love the guy. He’s a great friend. But I didn’t like what I was seeing on the racetrack.”

So Petty said so.

Patrick, although not addressing Petty’s critique, said she enjoys what she’s heard on television from former drivers and crew chiefs.

“(ESPN analyst) Ricky Craven does a great job because he’s so passionately opinionated and (Letarte) brings a lot of great information,” Patrick said. “I don’t really think anyone goes overboard (with criticism). If they do, it’s entertainment. Not everyone will agree, but some will, wholeheartedly.”

Like Patrick, six-time driving champion Jimmie Johnson also is a Craven fan. Johnson also gives a thumbs up to Burton and Letarte, who in their first season as analysts last year were in the booth for the second half of the season.

“Ricky does a fantastic job of shedding a deeper light on things that if you don’t live in this industry, it’s hard to see,” Johnson said. “They are going to give an opinion even if it doesn’t make the masses happy. But everybody is entitled to an opinion.”

As a former driver, Craven, who is in his 10th year at ESPN, said he has “no interest in embarrassing anyone.”

“I also absolutely have no interest in avoiding the elephant in the room or not saying what I

Ricky Craven says he is out to protect the sport. (File photo courtesy of ESPN)

Ricky Craven says he is not out to hurt the sport. (File photo courtesy of ESPN)

absolutely believe should be said,” Craven said. “From my seat, it’s a simple as just being honest. The responsibility I have and the code I live by with this job is what I say is going to be said from experience and what I believe. I want to be clear, be fair and be objective.

“Honestly, I believe we’re all guardians of the sport. We’re not trying to hurt it.”

Before becoming a television analyst last season, Burton, who previously won twice at PIR, said there were many occasions when disagreed with what former drivers were saying about him from their positions in the broadcast booth.

“I never thought it was out of malice or they were trying to screw me, but I felt I wasn’t geting a fair evaluation,” Burton said. “Now that I’m on the other side, my approach from Day 1 is to take the time to know what went on before you comment. You have to be careful not to come to a quick conclusion. Then, if someone disagrees, they just disagree.

“I did get one call last year from a really close friend. He took exception to what I said. We talked it out and he understood why I said what I did and I understood where he was coming from.

“Listen, there’s a right way to call someone out without saying he’s a bad guy. In no way am I advocating I’m going to be ugly, rude or disrespectful. But you have to tell the truth.”

Letarte and Burton decided before their turns arrived at the microphone for the second half of last season was they would make themselves visible in the garage during each race weekend. If someone had a beef, then Letarte and Burton were willing to face their detractors up close and personal.

“I have a lot of respect for the members in the garage because I used to be there,” said Letarte, a former crew chief for Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. “There were a couple of times

Steve Letarte, Jeff Gordon's former crew chief, says. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Steve Letarte, Jeff Gordon’s former crew chief, says his time in the garages has earned him respect as a television analyst. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

where someone didn’t agree with what I said, but it wasn’t a cold-hearted accusation. It was good, healthy conversation. We gave our point of views and agreed to disagree.”

Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, said the Burton and Letarte decision to interact with their former garage brethren is heartily welcomed.

“(Letarte) is really knowledgeable,” Childers said. “He understands what these cars are doing and what the setups are like because he’s out here asking questions and talking to crew chiefs. Not everyone does that.”

Before he traded in his driving suit for a coat and tie, Gordon said late last season at PIR that he also admired Craven’s work ethic and hoped to display some of that same passion when he moved into his new job.

“I sent (Craven) a text (last November) and told how much I appreciated his honest opinions and his passion for motorsports,” Gordon said. “He’s articulate and he really thinks about what he’s going to say and how he’s going to say it. I just like the way he comes across. He doesn’t sugar coat a lot of things and drivers seem to appreciate that.

“As long as you have the knowledge to back it up or you’re in the garage area talking to people and asking questions, then whether you’re spot on or off a little bit, people really respect that.

“To me, it’s not just about being critical. It’s about seeing something and analyzing it, but doing it in an honest way that is not going to offend somebody. I just want to try and call what I see as honestly as possible. Do it in the way I’ve done my interviews (when I was still a driver).”

In the end, Waltrip said it’s all about trust.

“Drivers have to trust you,” Waltrip said. “They’ve got to know you’re not against them. Hopefully, they respect you for what you do. And respect begets respect.”

| Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 10 2016
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