They're on their way, five of NASCAR's key players in 2010. The four-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion (Jimmie Johnson) strolls into a small conference room in the infield at Michigan International Speedway. Next comes the leader in the points standings (Kevin Harvick), followed closely by NASCAR's most popular driver (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and one of the sport's most outspoken personalities (Greg Biffle). Finally, a driver who's taken five checkered flags in 2010 (Denny Hamlin) breezes into this stuffy room.
It's a mid-June afternoon, and these five drivers have been asked by SI to participate in a roundtable discussion on all things NASCAR, moderated by SI. They shake hands, exchange pleasantries and take a seat. The transcript of this talk, which has been edited for length and clarity, follows below.
"I've been looking forward to this," Biffle says as he leans back and takes a sip of water. "I think we all have a lot to say."
Did they ever. What was scheduled to take 30 minutes lasted twice that long. So pull a virtual chair to the table and find out where NASCAR's next tragedy is likely to take place, what Johnson really thinks of fans who don't understand him and why everyone here—Johnson included—thinks the champ will be vulnerable this fall.
SI: I want to start by hitting on some state-of-the-sport subjects, and let's dive right into the biggest one. A lot of fans have left the sport. You see this in the empty grandstands each week and in the falling TV ratings. From your perspective is there anything that can be done to enliven the sport and bring back those fans?
Harvick: I look at it like you walk into Yankee Stadium and they don't sell out their home opener. It's a sign of the times. There are still more than 100,000 fans at most of our races, which is more than [the] Super Bowl.
Johnson: I also think we react more to the fans' opinion than any other sport. We now have double-file restarts, the wave-around, three attempts at a green-white-checkered. Each year they talk about changes to the Chase and the format, and that stuff has been brought up again to try to keep people interested.
Biffle: There are so many other ways to watch a race now. Listen to it on your phone. Twitter updates every lap. So you can go hiking or camping or whatever and still pay attention to the race.
SI: All you guys are well versed in the history of NASCAR, especially you, Dale. Do you think the quality of racing in the '70s and '80s, when NASCAR first started to grow from a regional sport into a national one, was better than it is today?
Earnhardt: When I watch older races, which I still do—I watched four or five older races from the early '80s on Thursday....
SI: In one day?
Biffle: That's a long day. [Laughing.]
SI: Is that a commentary on your social life, Dale?
Earnhardt: Yeah, pretty much. I'm not in any of those Yahoo groups, but I collect stuff [about racing history]. But it seemed like the leaders [back then] were able to get to each other and race in and around each other a lot easier than us. Today everybody is so equal. If I'm 10 car lengths behind Kevin, it's so equal that it's probably going to stay that way or one of us is going to overdrive our car, and that's the only reason I'd catch him. You just don't see guys driving on each others' asses lap after lap. I watched the 1984 Firecracker 400, and they would drive around the corners right on each other's ass. And we just can't do that, because our cars won't do that [because of aerodynamics]. Our cars just get so tight behind each other. I'm sure they had aero push then too. A lot of it has to do with the mechanics of the bodies of the cars. Back then they had chrome bumpers.
SI: So on any given Sunday how many guys have a legitimate chance to win?
Johnson: I saw a race in the '60s where Richard Petty won by five laps. I wouldn't want to pay to watch a guy win by five laps. I wouldn't sit there and watch it.
SI: Greg, if you were king of NASCAR for a day, what one change would you make?
Biffle: Hard to say one thing will fix the sport. One thing I will say is that we've lost fans, and people are probably afraid to say this, but there's a percentage of fans that want to see a crash. A wreck. People go to a hockey game wanting to watch a fight, right? These new cars don't crash as much as we used to. The old car, we had crashes. Now people don't spin out. Every once in a while when we're driving over our heads it happens, but we just don't wreck as much. For whatever percentage of fans who want to see that wreck and see that car in smoke and sparks and stuff flying, those fans are not satisfied anymore. And no matter what we do, we're not going to satisfy those fans unless we crash. And none of us want to crash. This is our livelihood. And the new car has been a product of that. To answer your question, I don't know of any one thing I would do to make the racing better. How can the racing be better than it is right now? We're so closely matched that no one can get away from one another.
Harvick: If it were me, to make the sport better I would shorten the schedule. The schedule is so long—and I think the race lengths need to be shorter. I think there should be criteria for the markets we go to in terms of how many people are sitting in the grandstands. And there are a lot of new markets we could go to. We could go to Montreal. We could go to Iowa [Speedway in Newton]. Go to different venues. That's how the sport got to where it is today, because we went to all these new racetracks, and all of a sudden you had all these new fans all at once. Now we're sitting at the same racetracks.
Earnhardt: I look at the NFL. They have good product. The games aren't too long, and the season is too short if you're a fan.
Johnson: Got to leave that thirst in people's mouth.
Earnhardt: Shorter races and a shorter season are what we need.
Hamlin: Definitely need a shorter season. There's no longer a demand for race tickets. I hear people say, 'Oh, I'll miss this race because they'll be back later on and I'll catch the fall race.' A lot of people I talk to just don't see a relevance to our sport for the first 26 weeks. So then they tune in for the Chase, and once things get spread out, they tune back out. The season is just so long, there are so many events, so many racetracks; it's just oversaturated.
Biffle: I agree. Definitely a shorter schedule.
Earnhardt: I don't think NASCAR is ever, ever, ever going to shorten the schedule. So the only alternative is to shorten the races and put together a shorter span of action. I'd shorten them by 25 percent.
Biffle: Look at Talladega, a restrictor-plate race. We all casually drive around until there's 15 laps to go. You could make that race 20 laps long....
Johnson: Now that would be one hell of a race.
Biffle: That would be the craziest freaking race you've ever seen.
Earnhardt: All the s--- doesn't matter until the last 10 laps.
Biffle: We've all figured out that we don't get paid until the end.
Hamlin: NASCAR's response is going to be, "Well, you've only got an hourlong event, that's less commercials sold, that's less TV money you're going to get. So as long as you're O.K. with the purse being cut, then let's go for it." And then we're going to say, "Oh, s---, wait a minute."
SI: This season there have been more on-track altercations than in recent memory. Why is this happening? Is it because NASCAR said in the off-season that it was going to largely let you guys police yourselves out on the track?
Harvick: You know the consequences aren't near as much as they used to be when you got in trouble. But in the end it's just about getting the most you can out of your car and pushing as hard as you can. You hear everyone talking about how close the competition is. You wind up racing closer, and you wind up making more mistakes than you did before.
Johnson: I think it has to do with the environment on the track. It's really difficult to pass, and when you get a chance, you practically have to drive over your head to pull it off. Double-file restarts going on during the race are agitating everyone. It's nice that NASCAR isn't going to nail you if you slip up and cuss, but if I'm doing that, I'm pissed for a reason. On the track it's just a more intense environment than it's been in a long time.
Earnhardt: For a while we felt like we were in the principal's office all the time. Now it seems like it's no big deal [if you're aggressive on the track]. The competition being as tough as it is makes it frustrating. You can be two tenths of a second faster than somebody [on each lap] and run them down and then get stuck behind them at about five car lengths. Once you get the opportunity to pass, you've got to drive over your head to try to get around them. You can get pretty frustrated very easily now inside the car.
Johnson: All day.
SI: Because you guys are so close to each other physically so much of the time—in the garage, in the drivers' lot, where your motor homes are parked, shooting commercials—is it hard to stay mad at another driver?
Earnhardt: No. Being around them more sometimes makes you more pissed off at them. Just get sicker of them.
SI: Have you ever been in an awkward situation where you're pissed at somebody and you're forced to be close to him?
Earnhardt: All the time. Your p.r. people will f--- with you and stick you with people just to piss you off. [Laughing.]
SI:[Looking at Junior.] Do you feel a burden, being the sport's most popular driver now for seven straight....
Biffle: No, not really. It doesn't bother me that much.... Oh, you're talking to Dale? [Laughing.]
Earnhardt: It's no burden. It's good.
SI: Do you guys ever feel slightly sympathetic toward Dale because of all that he has to deal with every weekend?
Biffle: If I could collect his money for the souvenirs, I could probably handle it. I could work through it.
Johnson: I see the pressure Dale deals with, being his teammate. It's an amazing thing to have all those fans behind you, but with that come a lot of expectations. That's a tough thing.
SI: Do you guys think Jimmie's dominance has been good or bad for the sport?
Harvick: The dominance has been good for him, but bad for the sport. They've been so good that some people just think he's going to win every week and every year. We all wish we were in that same position and everyone didn't like us because we won so much.
Hamlin: What's right for competition isn't always right for the fans.
Biffle: I look at how the media has handled his dominance. I go back and watch the races, and I'm leading, Denny's running second, and Jimmie's fourth, and all they're talking about is Jimmie. So at some point the media brought it on themselves as well because all they talk about is Jimmie. I think they've multiplied the issue by only focusing on that car.
Earnhardt: He's not completely unbeatable. Other guys are winning races. I don't think it's a big issue with the fans.
Johnson: I think it has a lot less to do with the individual than with what's going on. When I was trying to get into the sport, Jeff Gordon was winning all the time, and they booed his ass. They hated him. I wasn't around a lot to see what went on with Junior's dad, but I went to races and heard him get booed. I think people get irritated with the same person winning all the time.
SI: Jimmie, most fans probably don't know that you grew up in a trailer park outside San Diego. Most see the Jimmie Johnson who's got a place in Manhattan, someone who's a metrosexual kind of guy....
Biffle: It's true! [Laughing.]
SI: Do you find that people still don't know your biography very well?
Johnson: I'm tired of talking about all this s---. For the last eight years of my career I've spent more time defending myself and explaining who the hell I am, and if people don't care or want to find out, then the hell with it. I'm tired of talking about it. I've done nothing but carry myself in the right way, thank my sponsors, been respectful to my peers and the people I compete with, and if someone doesn't like me, that's fine. Go cheer for someone else. I've got plenty of fans. I'm cool.
SI: What do you guys think is the Number 1 skill behind the wheel that it takes to make it at this level?
Earnhardt: The first thing you have to have is raw speed. To be able to get to the edge of the race car. There are a lot of guys that have that, and they tear a lot of [cars] up, and they find themselves out of the sport. The first thing, as an owner myself [in the Nationwide Series] who has gone through a half-dozen drivers in the last several years ... is you want to see raw speed first, and then you want to know he can contain it and control it and keep the car in one piece.
SI: Is that something you're born with or is it learned? Kevin, you own a Truck series team. What do you think?
Harvick: You might be born with it, but you still need to have the right upbringing as far as how you race and what you race. To Dale's point, you want someone who's fast, but I also look for someone who's worked on his own race car and understands how they work. There are so many guys who come into the sport now that just don't really understand anything about the cars. If you give them a fast car, they can drive it fast, but they're not going to be able to help you when you're slow.
Johnson: There's a big mental aspect to our sport that I think is extremely important. To verbalize what you feel when you're pissed off, hot, hurt, cars not driving right—and all those emotions that come along—how do you stay calm enough to verbalize what you need to stay comfortable in the car?
SI: All you guys have been in really bad wrecks. How hard is it mentally to get back into the car and once again straddle that fine line of achieving maximum speed while maintaining control?
Biffle: Maybe for somebody who hasn't been in a bad wreck it might take a little more time to get back into it, but we know where the edge is all the time, and we're going to drive there no matter what.
Harvick: And if you're going to race, you're going to wreck. No way around it.
Hamlin: Every single week our fastest single lap on the racetrack is our first lap. For everyone. So we're dumb right from the get-go.
Harvick: When I first started, I was like, "All right, what's this going to feel like? How bad is this going to hurt?"
Biffle: Oh, yeah.
Harvick: Once you get past that point it's O.K.
Johnson: The few bad ones I've had, it knocks you out, and you really don't remember a lot of the fear that was running through your body before you hit the wall. It kind of erases that moment. But the cars today are so safe. We're not hitting the blunt end of walls, because we've got SAFER barriers in most places.
Biffle: They could probably still do a little bit of work at Pocono. They're going to kill somebody there.
Johnson: Can you imagine if Kasey's car got out of the track without a fence back there?
Biffle: He was this close [Biffle holds his fingers six inches apart] to mowing those trees down.
Harvick: He said he had tree limbs in his trunk.
Johnson: God dang.
Biffle: If they don't change that racetrack—maybe not next year, maybe not three years from now—they'll hurt somebody there.
SI: So can anyone beat Jimmie in the Chase this season? Denny, you're having a terrific season so far. What's it going to take to beat Jimmie this year?
Johnson:[Laughing.] I love how everybody just thinks it's mine to lose....
Hamlin: I'd change the racetracks in the Chase. They are all Jimmie's better racetracks. [Indeed, on Sunday, Johnson won at New Hampshire, which is where the Chase opens on Sept. 19.] Is it because he steps up in those last 10? I don't know. But looking at the schedule, we always tend to run good this part of the season. These are good tracks for us. The Chase tracks are so-so for us. Jimmie and his team just do a really good job of not making mistakes in those last 10 races. I think this year is the most competitive year in recent memory. I think the on-track incidents we've talked about have to do with people feeling like Jimmie is a little more vulnerable right now and there are more race wins to be had. So guys are fighting for that because it's wide open. He's not dominating every lap. We're pushing harder and getting into each other.
SI: What do you think about that, Jimmie?
Johnson: It's weird to hear....
Hamlin:[Laughing.] You weren't in the room when I was talking, by the way.
Johnson: I don't know how in the last four years we've left this impression with people. We're out there fighting and scratching for everything too. And I'm just as impressed with what we've done as everybody else, but that doesn't mean it's going to happen again. I've got to go out and prove it again this year. We typically have a slow part around the summertime. This May kicked our ass, and we went through a tough time. But we're going to show up and race and see what happens. I look around this table and think everyone here has a chance to win it.
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"Shorter races ... are what we need. All the s--- doesn't matter until the last 10 laps."
"I think this year is the most competitive year in recent memory."
"We know where the edge is ... and we're going to drive there no matter what."
DALE EARNHARDT JR.
Most popular driver
A tip of the helmet to the best—and worst—of the Cup campaign so far
Top Driver: DENNY HAMLIN
Ever since the spoiler replaced the rear wing on March 28, Hamlin has been the class of the field. He's won five of the last 12 races and is clearly established as the favorite to end Jimmie Johnson's four-year title reign. Says Hamlin, "I like our chances." So do we.
Best Feud: KYLE BUSCH VS. DENNY HAMLIN
After Hamlin (11) blocked Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Busch (18) into the wall at Charlotte on May 22, Busch announced over the radio that he wanted to "kill that mother------." The two have made up, but make no mistake: This relationship could blow at any time.
Biggest Surprise: KEVIN HARVICK
Harvick entered the season with low expectations after he finished 2009 in 19th place with only nine top 10s. But after reshuffling his crew in the off-season, Harvick has shone in '10. He leads in points and has more top 10s (12) than any other driver. He still lacks the straight-line speed to win the title, but he swears his team won't peak until the Chase.
Most Disappointing Team: ROUSH FENWAY RACING
One statistic reveals everything you need to know about the state of Roush-Fenway Racing, which as recently as the spring of 2009 was considered a NASCAR powerhouse: The team's four drivers—Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan—have gone a combined 204 starts without a win.
Best Drive: DALE EARNHARDT JR.
Sixth with a mile to go at the Daytona 500, Earnhardt (88) carved through traffic to nearly pull off the comeback win. He finished second behind Jamie McMurray (1), but that night Little E dispelled any notion that he'd lost it as a driver.
Best Line: JOEY LOGANO
After Kevin Harvick (above, with safety-conscious wife, DeLana) wrecked him at Pocono on June 6, an angry Logano said, "It's probably not Harvick's fault. His wife wears the firesuit in the family."
Top Crew Chief: DAVE ROGERS
A calming presence atop the pit box of Kyle Busch, Rogers, 36, is the man most responsible for transforming Busch from a win-or-wreck wild child into a more prudent and patient veteran. Currently third in points, Busch, 25, will be a threat to win his first Cup this fall if he keeps heeding Rogers's advice and stays calm behind the wheel.
Most Disappointing Driver: MARK MARTIN
A year after being NASCAR's feel-good story when he finished second in the standings, Martin (below) has faded and become a mid-pack driver in 2010. Is it possible that the 51-year-old Martin, winless and currently 11th in the standings, has lost his edge? It's starting to look that way.
Photograph by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY
FRED VUICH (CARS)
NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (CARS)
DRAFT NOTICE Despite dicey aerodynamics, Earnhardt (88) stays close to Johnson (48).
Photograph by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY
[See caption above]
WORTH CANOY/ICON SMI (CAR)
BURNING IT UP After an early-season knee injury, Hamlin has won five of the last 12 races.
Photograph by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY
[See caption above]
MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE (CAR)
FREE WHEELIN' Biffle, here on the road course at Sonoma, recognizes racing's risks.
Photograph by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY
[See caption above]
MICHAEL DINOVO/CAL SPORT MEDIA (HAMLIN)
BOB JORDAN/AP (HAMLIN AND BUSCH)
TODD WARSHAW/GETTY IMAGES (HARVICKS)
FRED VUICH (MARTIN)
FRED VUICH (EARNHARDT)