Eddie Gossage spent Sunday afternoon in a television studio at Texas Motor Speedway, publicizing his upcoming race weekend in satellite interviews with local stations across Texas and Oklahoma. He kept one eye on a TV off in the corner, where the event at Martinsville Speedway was wrapping up. The Texas track president finished his interviews just in time to see Tony Stewart overtake Jimmie Johnson for the victory, and issue his now-famous challenge to points leader Carl Edwards -- the latter a large chunk of promotional manna that had fallen right into Gossage's lap.
"It's almost like, you can't talk because all these ideas come gushing out on how to capitalize on it," Gossage said. "You can't sleep, because you can't wait to get to work. I kick myself for not calling everyone [Sunday] afternoon and saying, 'Meet me at the office. Let's get together Sunday night, because we've got some stuff.'"
Oh, they've got some stuff, all right. As if this Chase for the Sprint Cup wasn't riveting enough, now it heads to the big top otherwise known as Texas Motor Speedway, with one title contender doing all he can to get under the other's skin, and Gossage waiting like a ringmaster ready to turn a couple of big cats loose. It may be too late to erect billboards, a Texas specialty, but the track has already whipped up a promotional poster promising an "epic Texas showdown" and using the drivers' words from Sunday, when Stewart pulled out a large stick with which to stir the pot.
"Carl Edwards had better be real worried. That's all I've got to say," Stewart said. "He's not going to sleep for the next three weeks."
Edwards refused to take the bait, believing those comments stemmed from Stewart being all wound up in Victory Lane. "We'll see what happens at Texas," the championship leader said. Stewart, now eight points back with three races to go, got in one last jab.
"My adrenaline has worn off, and he better not sleep too long the next three weeks," he added. "It's no disrespect to him. He's a great competitor, he's a great guy, he's with a great organization that deserves their shot at that championship, too. ... I feel like our mindset into these next three weeks, we've been nice all year to a lot of guys, given guys a lot of breaks. We're cashing tickets in these next three weeks."
For a race track promoter like Gossage, that kind of back-and-forth makes it feel like Christmas has arrived two months early. Although none of the other Chase drivers have been mathematically eliminated, and a few remain within striking distance -- most notably third-place Kevin Harvick, 21 points back -- having what amounts to a head-to-head matchup stoked by wordplay reengages fans of other drivers who might be out of contention, and gives Texas a chance to fan the flames. After Danica Patrick grabbed Dan Wheldon in a 2007 confrontation between the two IndyCar stars at Milwaukee, everyone arrived in Texas the next week to find the track draped in "Dan vs. Danica," with everything from their quotes to a "tale of the tape" blown up and posted for all to see.
So get ready for "Carl vs. Tony."
"Basically, it's pulling up the 'Dan vs. Danica' play sheet and just following the music," Gossage said. "But you don't want to get boring for everybody, so we've got to come up with some new stuff, too."
Of course, Gossage isn't the only one who enjoys this kind of interaction, which clearly adds another layer of intrigue to the championship race, and is nothing new in NASCAR. Gossage can remember one of the years when Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison were dueling for the title, and Waltrip stating that he wasn't worried about Allison, because he had a member of his rival's crew on his payroll and knew everything that team was up to. "So Bobby's team, they're all looking at each other and pointing and each other saying, hey, it's not me," Gossage said. "Well, [Waltrip] didn't have anybody on his payroll, but Darrell was trying to implode that team from the inside. Just classic mind game stuff. Those things are part of the competition. It's good stuff."
It certainly can be. Stewart's comments Sunday were reminiscent of a similar message Johnson delivered last year after a risky pit call helped the then-four-time series champion stay close to Denny Hamlin following the penultimate race of season at Phoenix. "I hope he has a hell of a time sleeping all week. I hope he hears every rattle in that car, and everything you could imagine at Homestead," Johnson said then, before overtaking Hamlin to win the championship the next week outside Miami.
"It's an off-the-cuff thing," Johnson said Tuesday. "There are questions that are asked, and you climb out of the car after a strong finish, close the gap and pick up points, and the emotions are high and your confidence is high, and you just speak your mind. We don't have enough time when we get out of the cars to work on statements to put together. I guarantee you, Tony isn't someone who's been waiting for that opportunity to speak what's on his mind at that point in time. So it's really an off-the-cuff thing."
None of this is personal, mind you, but that doesn't mean tensions can't be tightened and feelings can't be inflamed. "If I were a really good promoter, I might send a few pillows to Carl's house with a note that says, 'Carl, I hope you sleep well.' And I wouldn't tell Tony that I did it," Gossage said. "That's going to tick Carl off. And Tony's going to say, 'Well, I didn't send them.' And Carl's going to say, 'Well, if you didn't send them, who did?' And they're going to be mad at each other, and a good promoter would just stand over there grinning as they talked about it. That's the kind of crap I would do."
Edwards tries to stay out of it, as evidenced by his unwillingness to respond to Stewart's comments Sunday. "I don't participate," he said Tuesday. "My job is to go out here and do the best I can and win these championships. I just got done talking to Tony, and we joked about it a little bit. It is kind of fun. It's fun to go back and forth and give each other a hard time. But at the end of the day, I think Tony and myself, we'd both be foolish if we thought that all we had to worry about was one another. That would be the best case. I think we've still got three or four guys behind us, maybe even more, in this championship."
Of course, there are some who would say that the above-the-fray approach is a mind game in and of itself. No matter. Ultimately, both of these championship contenders will make their loudest statements on the 1.5-mile Texas race track, with a steering wheel between their hands. But until then, NASCAR's preeminent carnival barker is going to try and squeeze every last ounce of drama -- and, he hopes, every last ticket -- out of the situation while he can. Let's get ready to rumble!
"You're going to see in here a lot of Fight of the Century, World Heavyweight Championship, Ali vs. Frazier, Thrilla in Manila-type promotion," Gossage said. "I'm leaving here in a few minutes to get my hair cut, so I can just comb it straight up. Don King is a friend, so why not? In fact, I need to call Don and see if I can get him to come down this week."