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Was the opening round of the NASCAR playoffs at the Chicagoland Speedway a rude awakening?
That's what Ford driver Brad Keselowski predicted via Twitter, forecasting a strong day for the Toyotas.
When Toyota driver Kyle Busch replied with a colorful, profane version of "shut up" via Twitter, Keselowski's mission might have been accomplished. Since NASCAR is not likely to change the rules during the playoffs, the next best thing for rivals might be aggravating Toyota drivers and their crews via social media.
At least 2012 champion Keselowski seems to think so.
Although Martin Truex Jr. ran away to win the opening round aboard his Toyota despite two pit road problems, Busch's Toyota ended up 15th following pit road snafus. It's more likely Busch's pit crew -- transferred from the entries of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Daniel Suarez for the playoffs -- were rattled by the pressure of suddenly being thrust into the spotlight.
On the other hand, that spotlight includes media coverage and Keselowski's widely circulated opinion that Toyotas only win due to an unfair advantage.
Cole Pearn, the crew chief for the Toyotas of Truex, said earlier this week during an interview with Xirius XM NASCAR Radio that he can't remember seeing much negativity in stock car racing between competitors in the past. But hacking away at your rivals on and off the track has been a way of life in NASCAR. About the only new element is Twitter.
Darrell Waltrip, now a commentator on NASCAR for NBC Sports, was the first to weaponize the media by jawboning the competition. After the arrival of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and series sponsor Winston in the early 1970s had created a better media platform for NASCAR's premier series, Waltrip was quick to take advantage.
Looking to change the established order led by the likes of Richard Petty and David Pearson, new arrival Waltrip regularly scoffed at the older drivers' version of how races should be run and won -- suggesting they had rocking chairs in their cars instead of seats.
It was a two-way street and eventually Cale Yarborough would dub Waltrip "Jaws" when asked about an incident between the two during a Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Intentionally rubbing his rivals the wrong way, it helped that Waltrip was photogenic and articulate, as comfortable in a TV studio as in his car. And, he could fearlessly back up his palaver in races.
During the 1981-83 seasons, the battle for the championship between Waltrip and Bobby Allison -- who had replaced "Jaws" at DiGard Racing -- became the height of NASCAR trash talking, and more. It became so bitter between the teams of Junior Johnson and DiGard that after Allison finally beat Waltrip to the championship in 1983 at Riverside International Raceway sugar was discovered in his gas tank. That confirmed some mid-race sabotage designed to ruin Allison's engine had taken place with the DiGard team's fuel cans.
The fashion in NASCAR tends to follow the form of the sport's champions. The 1980s eventually became the decade of Dale Earnhardt Sr. Although he shrewdly understood how to use the media on occasion to boost his cause, "The Intimidator" tended to mess with other drivers' heads on the track, often using fenders. It was Earnhardt Sr. who dubbed Jeff Gordon "Wonder Boy," but the two eventually became friends and marketing partners.
Four-time champion Gordon, now a broadcast commentator alongside Waltrip on NBC Sports, rarely had anything negative to say about fellow drivers. Three-time champion Tony Stewart often had negative things to say, but they were invariably aimed at the sanctioning body. Jimmie Johnson, meanwhile, has been a model of probity in route to seven titles, preferring to concentrate on his own emotional equilibrium versus trying to disrupt that of others.
In recent times, Pearn's perspective is relatively accurate. The gamesmanship via the media has been episodic and rarely sustained in the manner of Keselowski's broadsides this year versus Toyota and, indirectly, Toyota drivers.
"It's a little bit a sad sign of the times," said Pearn. "You do a lot of hard work and a ton of people put a lot of effort into it and then people try to take the wind out of your sails a little bit. That's just the world we live in, unfortunately.
"I don't know I remember racing being that way when I was growing up, but that is the way it is now, and unfortunately that just comes with the territory and you just deal with it."
Interestingly, Keselowski's team owner, Roger Penske, used the occasion of his driver's tweet to remind his crew it had some work to do to catch the Toyotas after discounting the possibility of any rule change by NASCAR. But prior to his driver Josef Newgarden clinching the IndyCar championship at the Sonoma Raceway last weekend, "The Captain" also suggested that Busch would probably rather be driving a Toyota.
In other words, it might be more the car than the driver...
As it turned out, Keselowski's forecast in the first round of the pursuit of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup was spot on. Despite the two pit road errors by him and his crew, Truex Jr. stormed back to win at Chicagoland. Busch's crew may have made two errors after he led the most laps, but he was able to rebound due to the speed of his Camry. Elsewhere, drivers were saying you can't make errors in order to advance and then paid dearly when they didn't follow their own advice.
The best evidence the Toyotas have found an advantage? The Hendrick Motorsports crew for Chase Elliott elected to use tape on his Chevy's rear spoiler to add some speed at Chicagoland. This week, Elliott's runner-up finish was declared encumbered by NASCAR officials. It cost Elliott 15 points and his crew chief and car chief for Sunday's playoff race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
It will be interesting to see if the Toyotas can maintain their dominance on a 1.0-mile oval. If so, does that mean the Twitter wars will continue?