Those dangerous, devious midnight rides back when it all began are still vivid in his mind, alive as ever, as if it were just minutes ago that he was running moonshine through the Carolina darkness, lead-footing it away from the flashing red lights of the revenuers. The original JJ—Junior Johnson, now 80, still the most iconic figure in NASCAR history—is the last remaining link between racing's outlaw past (he began hauling 'shine at 14) and its corporate present. (He personally convinced Jim Lowe, the owner of Lowe's, to enter the sport in 1955 and sponsor his car; Lowe's now backs that other JJ.) Yes, Junior Johnson is old school NASCAR personified, gritty and hard, and on this summer day he steers his 2002 black Chevy pickup through the green hills and hollows outside of Wilkesboro, N.C., where American stock car racing was born with the moonshine runners in the 1940s.
As he scans the dirt roads of his youth, the memories of how it used to be come flooding back. "Bootlegging cars was the start of race cars," says Johnson, who won 50 Cup races and was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in the inaugural class of 2010. "We souped them up to outrun the law, and that's where they got the idea to start racing. We'd find a strip of road and race our moonshine cars. I retired from driving in NASCAR when I was just 35 because, honestly, the speed and the danger I experienced running moonshine and racing on those country roads was greater than the speed and the danger I dealt with on the racetrack."
Yet even Johnson admits he would have stayed in the racing game longer if the rewards were as high for him as they are for the Sprint Cup drivers competing this Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, the site of the first race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. To hear Johnson tell it—and, in fact, to hear everyone in the Cup garage tell it—this year's 12-driver field is as deep as it's been in the eight-year history of the Chase, as six drivers (Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Brad Keselowski) all appear to have the speed in their cars, the strength in their crews and the skill in their cockpits to be hoisting the championship trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 20 and collecting a check for close to $6 million, or nearly 20 times what Junior Johnson won in his entire Cup career ($301,866).
What do Johnson and other racing giants from the past think of NASCAR today and this year's Chase? To find out, SI spent time with Johnson, Richard Petty and Bobby Allison, soliciting their opinions on topics ranging from the quality of the racing to who they believe will be the driver to beat this fall to what can be done to make the driver more important to racing success than the car. (They all agree that's not the case now). What they say is revealing—and could hold a key to revving up a sport with well-documented attendance woes and flagging TV ratings.
"Back in the day you could come to the racetrack and anything could happen," Johnson says. "A driver with not that much money could actually win. That's not the case anymore. You can almost predict before the race the seven or eight drivers who actually have a chance to win. But I'll tell you what: I think the Chase this year is as wide-open as it's ever been. This year, you actually can't predict who will win, and that's good for NASCAR."
Wearing his trademark cowboy hat and cowboy boots, Richard Petty is sitting in a director's chair outside the number 43 hauler at Atlanta Motor Speedway, signing one autograph after another in his careful, delicate script. Between 1958 and 1992, Petty, now 74, won a record 200 Cup races, including one at North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1972. That day he and Bobby Allison banged against each other so violently and frequently over the closing laps on the .625-mile oval that their cockpits filled with smoke and their mouths with bits of hot rubber. Though Allison shoved Petty's Plymouth into the guardrail on the penultimate lap, causing sparks to fly, Petty beat Allison to the checkered flag. When people talk about wanting NASCAR to return to its hard-charging, hard-racing roots, they're speaking of returning to afternoons like that one in '72.
"You don't see action on the track anymore like what Bobby and I did back on that day," says Petty, his eyes closed, recalling the race. "You simply can't do that now because once you bump a guy out of the way and get past him, the guy you moved usually can't get back to you. We didn't have that problem, which I think is a good problem not to have. But that's why track position now is so important in the sport, which means pit stops and qualifying are critical if you're going to win the championship this year."
Which is why a steady grind-it-out guy such as former champ Kenseth (whose one-victory title-winning season in 2003 was a big reason NASCAR went to the Chase format, in the hope of putting more emphasis on winning races) may have an advantage over harder-charging types such as Kyle Busch or Edwards. Petty, however, like many other observers, feels that the racing these days is predictable enough that there's no reason to expect regime change.
"Until proven otherwise," he says, "Jimmie Johnson should be the guy that everyone is gunning for."
You want to know how to make the racing 100 times better than it is right now in NASCAR?" says Bobby Allison, 73, as he leans back on a love seat in the living room of his house in Mooresville, N.C. "It's simple: Take off the front splitter on the cars and let a lot of air go underneath. Then let's go and see who can drive the thing and who can't when it's much harder to control. This will also make the cars look a little bit more like the cars in our driveways, which I think fans want. I know I do."
The point that Allison, whose 84 Cup victories tie him with Darrell Waltrip for fourth alltime, is making is that the cars won't grip the track as well without the front splitter—which stretches from the front grille to a few inches above the ground. This, he believes, would make the cars harder to drive and, thus, put the races more in the driver's hands rather than in the calculations of the team engineers who sit atop the pit boxes in front of computers analyzing the car's aerodynamics. "There's just too much engineering in the sport," says Allison, a native of Hueytown, Ala., and a member of the famous Alabama Gang that included his brother, Donnie, and Red Farmer. "Let the boys drive. And if they feel like it, let the boys really go after each other, both on the track and in the garage. Right now, that 'Boys, Have At It' thing that NASCAR announced [in 2010] has just turned out to be a p.r. move, nothing more."
Yet the much-ballyhooed "Boys, Have At It" directive may well play a crucial role in the Chase. For most of the season Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have taken turns expressing their antipathy for each other: Harvick took a punch at Busch at Darlington in May; three months later, in a Camping World Truck Series race at Bristol, Busch (the driver Junior Johnson calls "the most exciting guy in NASCAR right now") intentionally wrecked Elliott Sadler, who drives in the Nationwide Series for a team owned by Harvick. Said Busch after dumping Sadler into the wall, "Just look at where his paycheck comes from."
Harvick hasn't retaliated—yet. But if he's out of the championship picture at Homestead and Busch isn't, well, don't be shocked if Harvick goes after Busch in a way that would make Allison smile.
In March 1965, Thomas Wolfe wrote a story about Junior Johnson in Esquire in which Johnson was dubbed "the Last American Hero." In 1998 this magazine anointed Johnson the greatest driver in NASCAR history. Today, when he walks through the garage before a Cup race, drivers look at him with awe, and many have even sought his autograph. So when Johnson speaks, most in the sport tend to listen.
"I don't like the cookie-cutter cars in NASCAR today," Johnson says. "It's a safer car, but I'd like to let people build their own cars and see what they can come up with. When I raced, if you had the mind and the skills of knowing how to fix something, you won."
Indeed, Johnson was as innovative as anyone in the history of the sport. At Daytona on Valentine's Day in 1960, for instance, he invented the art of drafting. After qualifying for the Great American Race with a run 14 mph slower than that of the pole sitter, Johnson discovered during the 500 that he could go as fast as the leaders if he positioned his underpowered Chevy directly behind a much faster Pontiac, allowing the lead car to pull him in an aerodynamic draft—a technique that is still used today. (Johnson, for the record, won the '60 Daytona 500.)
Yet it's not just Johnson's on-track accomplishments that still make him a larger-than-life figure in NASCAR. Most drivers have a rebellious edge to them, but none quite like Johnson. In 1956—in the middle of his second full Cup season—federal agents caught Johnson at his father's still in Wilkes County, N.C.; he was convicted of moonshining and spent 11 months in a federal prison in Chillicothe, Ohio. (He was pardoned in '85 by President Reagan.) "I got more fans because I went to prison," Johnson says. "I was so damn mad when I got out that I went back to it. Never got caught again."
As Johnson speaks, he walks through the empty infield of North Wilkesboro Speedway, the site of some of his greatest triumphs. The track has fallen into decay; weeds sprout through cracks in the pavement, and paint on the old press box is flaking. The Cup series hasn't competed here since 1996. "NASCAR got too big for this place, and that's a good thing," Johnson says. "The drivers now come from all over the world; they're no longer just a bunch of country boys like me. So much has changed."
Yet, at least two things haven't: First, a JJ is the man to beat. And, second, the spirit of those midnight runs through the Carolina hills still fuels the sport.
THE MASTER'S PLAN
Looking for what it takes to win the Chase? After five successful runs, Jimmie Johnson has some ideas
Jimmie Johnson stepped into the number 48 team hauler at Atlanta Motor Speedway, removed his sunglasses and quickly smiled at what he saw spread before him on a countertop: the 2011 Chase schedule. His reaction was hardly surprising, given that Johnson has dominated the 10-race playoff format since it was adopted in 2004. And after finishing second in the points standings in the regular season, Johnson and his team appear well-equipped to capture a sixth straight title. "Just looking at the Chase schedule, it's very hard to pinpoint, before it starts, what the critical moments will be," Johnson said. "I've won championships many different ways. The key is to simply be consistent and try to capitalize at the tracks where you historically run well." So what will be the most significant Chase races? Johnson points to three:
• The opener on Sept. 18 at Chicagoland Speedway.
"You always want to get off to a fast start," he says. "You can't win the championship in the opener, but you can make it very hard on yourself if you have a bad race. Plus, this is a 1.5-mile track, and there are five of these in the Chase. So we'll have a pretty good idea of who will be strong and who won't right out of the gate."
• Race number 6 at Talladega Superspeedway.
"This is the one that everyone worries about because so much is out of your control at Talladega," Johnson says. "You know that the big wreck is going to happen, you just don't know when. A lot of key moments in the Chase have taken place here. This is a race you just want to survive and move on."
• Race number 10 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the Chase finale.
"This race is about being smart and knowing what you have to do to win the title. There's so much pressure, as the entire season comes down to this race. But I love that, and I feel like my experience, having gone through it five times, is a huge advantage."
A WILD RIDE TO THE CHASE
A new format designed to inject drama into the sport and reward victories was a big winner for at least two drivers
The news was delivered by Brian France on a January day in Concord, N.C., at the NASCAR R&D headquarters. Brad Keselowski, sitting in a conference room with his Penske Racing teammates and crew, listened intently as the NASCAR chairman and CEO explained the "wild card" concept that would be introduced in 2011 in hopes of revving up the racing and putting a premium on winning. France said that along with the top 10 points leaders, the two drivers with the most victories from among those finishing 11th through 20th in the regular-season standings would advance to the 10-race playoff. As he contemplated France's words, Keselowski whispered to himself, "I like this."
Eight months later, he loves it—and with good reason. Last Saturday night at Richmond International Speedway, Keselowski, 27, finished 12th, leaving him 11th for the regular season. With his three wins this year he clinched a Chase berth. The other wild-card driver is Denny Hamlin, who had one victory and finished 12th in the standings. Though neither receives bonus points for his regular-season wins—the other Chasers will carry three bonus points into the playoffs for each regular-season victory—Keselowski and his number 2 Dodge team has the look of a championship contender.
"We've got a little momentum going," Keselowski said on Saturday night. "This is one big step."
Photograph by GREG FOSTER
JUNIOR TO JIMMIE At age 80, NASCAR's original JJ (left, on hallowed asphalt at now defunct North Wilkesboro) still cuts an imposing figure, while the sport's latest hero, Mr. Five-Time (48), roars on.
TODD WARSHAW/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR
[See caption above]
WALTER IOOSS JR. (JOHNSON)
DRIVING FORCE Junior (above, and 3) brought a moonshiner's wide-open style to the track in an era when the cars allowed for back-and-forth racing, Here, he and Petty (43) duke it out in the 1962 Southern 500.
TOM KIRKLAND/SMYLE MEDIA (CARS)
[See caption above]
COMING THROUGH Jimmie's historic five-title run has been based on preparation and a mastery of the Chase tracks, but there's been some luck too—as when he dodged the Big One in 2008 (top).
[See caption above]
GEOFF BURKE/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR (PETTY AND ALLISON)
WHEEL MEN Both Petty (near right), who holds the record for Cup victories with 200, and Allison, whose 84 wins tie him for fourth alltime, have always put a premium on driving skill.
JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES (KESELOWSKI)
WINNING ISN'T EVERYTHING... ... But for Keselowski, here celebrating his triumph at Kansas Speedway on June 5, his three Cup victories were enough to earn him a wild card berth in the Chase after he finished the regular season 11th in points.