The hot new NASCAR drivers cut their teeth on Sprint cars, trucks in the desert and CART, unlike the previous generation of big names.
By BRANT JAMES
Published August 28, 2004
Jimmie Johnson didn't know he was in an apprenticeship for his future day job when he was bounding over mounds of dirt and rumbling through ruts on his dirt bike. Motocross was about competition and fun at age 4, and winning was a bonus.
But as Johnson, now 29, contests his third full season in NASCAR's Nextel Cup, he realizes it was also about learning. Though the 250cc bikes on which he won championships back home in California bear no resemblance to the 3,400-pound, 750-horsepower stock cars he now pilots around oval ribbons, there are common threads to follow.
"Being on dirt gave me a new dimension on how to look at things," said Johnson, second in driver points entering tonight's race at Bristol Motor Speedway. "One, I know how much pain you can experience, because when you get thrown off a motorcycle it hurts; it's not like a car where it absorbs the wreck. It's something about being smart in decisions I make. I think being on a bike kind of gave me a 3-D sense."
As NASCAR and stock car racing continues to become the series of choice, the path of optimal prestige, money and opportunity in North America, and increasingly the world, the series' driver base becomes more diverse in terms of experience levels and background. Not every driver gained his confidence and his reputation on shadow-hewn short tracks and weekend stock car races.
Four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon, 2002 champ Tony Stewart and talented newcomers such as Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman began their careers in sprint cars on dirt tracks in the USAC series. Johnson graduated from bikes to stadium trucks before earning a chance in NASCAR. Robbie Gordon and Brendan Gaughan honed their skills racing trucks in the desert. Gordon and second-year driver Casey Mears broke into racing's major leagues in CART.
Robbie Gordon, who also has driven sports cars and stadium trucks, said breaking down in the desert helped him break into other forms of racing.
"When you have to fix your own car you learn a lot about cars," said Robby Gordon, who won the Baja 1000 in 1987 and 1989. "You learn a lot about setups and why cars are good or not."
Stewart credits Jeff Gordon's success with making USAC a conduit to NASCAR. In being named Busch series rookie of the year and winning the USAC Silver Crown title in 1991, he showed that open-wheel drivers could succeed at stock car racing's highest levels and made NASCAR interesting to kids all over the country, no matter what they were racing.
"We have drivers coming from Pennsylvania, California, Colorado, Wisconsin, Illinois, guys that normally didn't support the USAC National series," Stewart said. "A lot of them came and started participating in a lot more of those events because of Jeff's success and Jeff getting that opportunity to come to NASCAR. I think everybody looks that way anyway, and the Indy car option wasn't an option at the time unless you brought a big-dollar sponsor."
Young open-wheel veterans have become hot commodities for Cup team owners as they search for the next Jeff Gordon. These drivers credit the lightweight, high-powered cars for drilling into them the ability to maintain control through corners at high speeds. That doesn't mean that transitioning to the blocky stock cars is easy.
Mears, who has only recently begun to produce the results team owner Chip Ganassi foresaw for him in the No. 41 Dodge, said only about 20 percent of what he learned while racing in the CART series has translated into his new NASCAR career.
"The way we go out and run a qualifying lap in a Nextel Cup car is how you run an open-wheel car every single lap," said Mears, who won his first career pole at the Brickyard 400 in early August. "If you go out and try to do that in a Cup car, your tires are going to burn off. You're going to run hard for the first few laps and then you're going to go to the back. In open wheel, it's more about driving: The harder you drive the faster you go. Over here you have to save something.
"Learning that pace of what you have to do, now that I think about it, it was the hardest thing."
That said, Mears is comforted by his open-wheel experience when he is wrestling his car around tracks that are generally considered break-neck by his Cup foes.
"What I learned running open-wheel cars before running Cup cars was the speed," he said. "You're running way faster, and when you're on the fine knife edge in an open-wheel car compared to a stock car, you're able to get it out of shape a little bit and be okay. Being able to come back down to these speeds now, whereas other people are going to Texas and saying, "Oh, my God, that's the fastest thing I've ever felt,' I can say, "I've been there and gone 40 mph faster' so I'm comfortable with it. That's an edge I think guys have going from Indy car racing to Cup racing."
Everyone continues looking for an edge. And there's no telling where it's coming from anymore.
"It's hard to say where it's going," Johnson said. "It seems like every decade there's a new way of looking at it."