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In fact, he isn’t that unlike Gordon, who burst onto the scene in the mid-90s and immediately challenged the status quo, feuding with drivers who had been around for years.

“I made a comment about Michael Waltrip my rookie year, and he wrecked me at Darlington, and I wish I could have taken it back,” Gordon admitted. “Looking back on the situation, he didn’t deserve some of the comments. It’s little instances like that where you should just, less is more.”

Johnson was just 26 when he led in points as a rookie, and while he wouldn’t capture the first of his five titles for a few more years, he still had to learn quickly how to act.

He’s only become wiser over time, too.

“I’ve said it before, Brad is a huge talent,” Johnson said, “but as we all know, Brad will say things, and if you’re in the sport long enough, you know when to be careful. … I think there’s a few lessons that Brad’s learned this year as to when to say something.”

Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

“I think everyone has said stuff they want to take back,” said Kenseth, the 2003 champion. “But I don’t know if that’s the case with Brad. He says what’s on his mind and that’s who he is.”

That’s what makes him such a polarizing figure.

He is loved and loathed, depending on the person and the day, but almost universally respected. Nobody doubts the talent of the blue-collar kid from Detroit, or questions the time and energy that he puts into staying in contention on a weekly basis.

The past couple of weeks may have demonstrated how glaring the spotlight can be when you’re on top, but it doesn’t seem to have mellowed one of NASCAR’s most colorful drivers.

“I think we all love how outspoken Brad is, but being that outspoken can sometimes get you in trouble and I think in this case, you know, it’s probably been a pretty valuable lesson for a young guy, a new champion,” Gordon said. “His opinion matters more. He’s got more people listening. So sometimes it makes you want to say more and be more outspoken and then there’s times when you think about it and you go, `You know what? `I probably just should have said less.’”


AP Auto Racing Writer Jenna Fryer in Long Beach, Calif., contributed to this report.