Jimmie Johnson was fined $10,000 yesterday for using a sign to hide the name of a sports drink made by a NASCAR sponsor because he has his own deal with a rival company.
"It ended up being an expensive move on my part," Johnson said. "The bottom line is I'm just trying to defend my options as a driver."
When Johnson climbed from his car after winning Sunday's Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway, he placed a sign in front of the PowerAde bottle that NASCAR officials put atop his car.
PowerAde, an official sponsor of NASCAR, is made by Coca-Cola. Johnson has a sponsorship deal with Pepsi.
Like several other Pepsi or Gatorade-sponsored drivers, Johnson has been knocking the bottle off his car when he gets to Victory Lane. Two weeks ago, NASCAR President Mike Helton told drivers they could no longer do that.
Johnson tried to circumvent the edict by blocking the bottle with a sign for Lowe's -- the primary sponsor of his car. NASCAR said Johnson was not "following the directive of a NASCAR official" and called the act "detrimental to stock car racing."
NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said Helton had warned the drivers about Victory Lane conduct two weeks ago in New Hampshire.
"We're going to address these situations in an orderly fashion, just as we always have," he said. "We expect our drivers to follow this protocol."
This is the latest flap between the companies that spend millions of dollars for product placement each week at NASCAR events.
Because so many companies are vying for air time, and teams and drivers all have separate agreements, there is often uncomfortable overlap.
Johnson had a problem earlier this year when he won the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway and knocked away several bottles of that soda that were on his car.
Often, sponsors will try different marketing ploys to get exposure. At the Pepsi 400 in July, Coca-Cola sponsored the cars of several drivers and had them wear special fire suits so they would stand out in a race dominated by its rival soft drink company.
Tony Stewart, who is sponsored by Coca-Cola, finds the entire situation a conflict of interest. He pointed out that NASCAR has a sponsorship deal with Coke and its products, but that International Speedway Corp. -- NASCAR's sister company -- has a deal with Pepsi products.
"I think it's a bad position corporate NASCAR has put us in to," he said. "We have sponsors that we're responsible to and we have obligation to, and I don't think it's fair for anybody to put anything on top of our racecars after we won the race."
Because Victory Lane is choreographed -- the TV networks have the driver wait inside the car until he is ready for the live shot of the post-race celebration -- Johnson said he can't escape being seen on TV in front of a rival sponsor.
"With all this controversy, we're creating more exposure for this other brand," he said. "So I'm not sure what I'm going to do next."