Jimmie Johnson, Sterling Martin, Ricky Rudd, Elliot Sadler and others weigh in on the state of NASCAR
Article originally published in 2004 Athlon Sports Racing annual
Opinions are like … well, you know the rest of that saying. Opinions are a little more valuable, though, when they belong to seven of Nextel Cup racing’s top guns. We think you’ll enjoy what they have to say on everything from rules changes to Cup contenders to the best toys — all of it refreshingly candid and unsanitized.
Would you change the point system? Does the winner deserve more points? Do pole winners deserve points?
Jimmie Johnson: I think that it would be beneficial if the winner of the race received more points. The way the points system works now, if you finish second and lead the most laps, you can finish with the same number of points as the winner, so I think there should be some reward for winning the actual race. The pole winner deserving points is a mixed bag. I could go either way. Track position is so important these days that if you win the pole it is a reward to have the track position. In addition, if you win the pole you have the best opportunity to lead the first lap and get five bonus points, so in some ways I can see how people want to reward the pole with points, but in a way, we already do.
Ryan Newman: I don’t really feel like the point system needs changing, but yes, I feel that points should be awarded for poles.
Elliott Sadler: I think the points system is just fine as it is. In all the years the points system has been in place this was the biggest year for controversy. The team with the most consistency earns the most points.
Mark Martin: They can do whatever they want to do with it. It doesn't matter to me. I don't think anything is wrong with the system. It’s the same system that we’ve always had and it has worked really well for us. Just because someone won by a lot of points this year, doesn’t mean we need to change anything. Last year (2002) Matt Kenseth won five races and finished eighth and there was no reason to change it then.
Ricky Rudd: No. I look at it like, why fix something that’s not broken. It’s been that way for many years. There are some arguments for pole position points and so on. But I think the system is pretty good as it is.
Ricky Craven: No, I think the points system is fine the way it is, with the exception of the pole winner. I think the pole winners do deserve some points. I mean, we spend an entire day each week focusing on nothing but qualifying. If we’re going to do that, I feel like the pole winner deserves some kind of reward or bonus for being the best on that day.
Sterling Marlin: I wouldn’t necessarily change the points system, but if they did then the winner and the pole winner definitely deserve more points.
Who besides yourself and your teammate do you consider the front-runner for the 2004 Nextel Cup?
Craven: Jimmie Johnson. His team just seems to have all the right ingredients in place to possibly claim the title. They have the equipment, but more importantly, Jimmie and Chad (Knaus) and the rest of the crew seem to have the chemistry and communication necessary to win it all.
Marlin: I’d say you’d have to look at Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson. They were real strong toward the end of the season. The 8 was really good there at the end of the season as well.
Martin: It’s hard to tell. There are a lot of factors that play into that and there is no way of predicting that now.
Newman: Jimmie Johnson is a good candidate and so is Junior or Jeff Gordon. It really depends on who has the best, most consistent season.
Johnson: I would say that there are about five to 10 teams that could win the championship next year. Just look at how close the points were this season. The No. 8, 12, 29, 24 and 48 were all battling it out for second through sixth and it came down to the last race. The No. 17 was so consistent this season they just didn’t have that many bad things happen to them. You also have to take into consideration the 18 and 20, who had bad luck this year, but they had new bodies this year and you could tell they were trying things that I’m sure will pay dividends for them next year. The team that will win next season is the team that has the fewest what-ifs at the end of the year.
Rudd: I think Ryan Newman is the guy. They have been very strong all year. They’ve had some mechanical problems, but they’ve been very fast on the race track and he’s got them beat I think.
Sadler: Ryan Newman — those boys are geniuses.
If you were building a new track, which current track would you use as a template?
Marlin: Homestead would be a good template to use. They have really fixed that track up nice.
Rudd: If I were building a race track I’d use Richmond as my template.
Craven: Dover International Speedway. I just think we need more pure, one-mile ovals on the circuit. I love the place. The fact that I usually run well there probably has a lot to do with that, but I love it.
Johnson: I would pick something like Lowe’s Motor Speedway, Dover and New Hampshire — tracks that I’ve had success on so I would have a better chance at winning some more races. In a perfect world I’d have them build an off-road track. I miss competing in those races and don’t really have an opportunity to with the schedule the way it is right now.
Sadler: For the fans I’d have to say Bristol. For the drivers, I love Atlanta, Vegas, Texas and Darlington.
Newman: If I could build a brand new Darlington, that’s what I’d build because it’s my favorite track we race at.
Martin: Lowe’s Motor Speedway. A lot of the other tracks have tried to copy it, but it’s my favorite track to race at. I just like the style of racing there. It’s a driver’s kind of track. Handling, especially in the corners, is key, and that suits my style of racing.
If you could eliminate a track, which would it be?
Rudd: Nothing jumps out in my mind right now. I enjoy all the tracks.
Newman: Daytona or Talladega because restrictor-plate racing isn’t fun for any of us out there.
Sadler: I would have to go with Martinsville, I’ve struggled there my whole career.
Johnson: I’m not sure I’d eliminate any of the tracks we race on. Each track is different, and they all offer their own challenges, so I really like most of the tracks we race on.
If you had to start an ill-handling car and the only hope you had at a win was dependent on your talent and driving skill, at which track would you be able to make up the most? At which track would you not have a shot at all?
Newman: I’d be at a disadvantage at restrictor-plate tracks, but all the rest, I’d say I’d have a shot at. Especially, if the car isn’t handling well, you’d want a track you can win on fuel. The ALLTEL team is good at calculating fuel, so I’d have a good shot at Chicago, Pocono, Michigan.
Rudd: At this day and time, I don’t care who you are, you can’t overcome a car that is not driving correctly. There are just too many good cars out there to be able to do that. If you go back four or five years ago the track would probably be Bristol. There were different lines around the race track and some things that you could change that might make up a little bit for an ill-handling car, but today you aren’t going to win with an ill-handling car.
Craven: I think Rockingham is probably the track where I could make up the most. I’ve had a lot of success there, and I seem to be able to get up on that high line and make up a lot of positions when I need to. I don’t seem to have a lot of luck at Homestead Speedway, but I do like the way they reconfigured the place, so maybe my luck will change there in the next couple of years.
Sadler: Well, if you can’t fix a car at certain tracks everyone is wasting each other’s time. Crew chiefs are experienced enough to where if the driver is complaining about something it is up to the driver and crew chief to come up with something that will fix the car. You can’t ever just give up.
Johnson: Lowe’s Motor Speedway for the win. For some reason I can really get around that track.
At which track does the X-Factor come into play for you? The X-Factor being a combination of luck and being at the right place at the right time.
Rudd: That statement applies to any given race on the (Nextel) Cup circuit today. And that is what really determined the winner in many cases — the pit strategy on fuel and tires. That’s really what has won quite a few races this year.
Johnson: I think all the tracks require the X-factor. Just look at Bill Elliott in Miami last season. Look at the fuel mileage races we’ve had this year. With the new ‘Lucky Dog’ policy, the X-factor is at every race. For you to have a strong finish these days, I think the X-factor plays a part in about 90 percent of the races. Anything can happen out there and a lot of it is out of your control.
Sadler: Every track. Anything can happen at any time, man. You can be running first and be taken out by a lapped car or a blown tire. That has happened to me and it sucks, but sometimes it works in the other direction.
Newman: It could be at any track really. I’ve had days I came from two laps to win. That was at Dover last year, and then Chicago I went on and won on fuel.
Darlington losing its Labor Day race, rock music instead of country music on the pre-race shows, millions and millions of dollars to run a full-time team. All this has sparked debate over how to balance the growth of NASCAR with the tradition of NASCAR. In your eyes, how does this sport continue to grow while staying pure to its roots?
Craven: I think that more prime time, Saturday night races is one way to continue the growth. I also think that we should follow the NFL’s lead and have a special weeknight race, maybe on Wednesday nights. I mean, NASCAR used to race three or four times a week back in the early days, so if the goal is to stay true to the roots of the sport while also growing the sport, that would be an ideal way to do that. I think the ratings would be tremendous for something like that.
Johnson: That’s the billion dollar question right now. NASCAR is doing a good job of trying to balance the old and the new. There is no way that you can please everyone in this situation. But just like other major league sports, in order for NASCAR to continue to grow and gain new fans and please our committed fans, we need to continue to evolve as a sport. We can’t stay the same, so NASCAR is working hard to make the right moves and not make drastic changes.
Sadler: As long as it stays a family sport and the most accessible sport in the world then we will always be staying close to our roots. We need to make sure we get new fans — they might be kids who listen to rock groups or whatever. We can remain close to the roots but escape stereotypes that racing is redneck or Southern. It’s much more than that.
Newman: Let’s face it, NASCAR is a business and if a business is going to survive, it needs to cater to the people that are buying into it. I feel like the sport itself is the tradition, but what drives it now is the sponsors and the demographics of the fans.
Martin: I’m just a race car driver. I show up each week and race; all of that other stuff is really out of my hands. All I can do is my part to help put on the best show possible for the fans.
Is 36 too many races? Would 30 be better? Theoretically, that’s a 16 percent decrease in revenue. Would you be willing to accept a 16 percent cut for fewer races?
Johnson: Yes. 36 or actually 38 races are too much. The drivers have it easy; it’s the crew guys that have it really tough. These guys work seven days a week, 13 to 15 hours a day and aren’t at home with there families. We have them going coast to coast and really take a lot away from them and take the balance away in their lives. I think that we should trim the schedule down and allow for more time at home for everyone. NASCAR has the longest professional sports season out there and I think that needs to change.
Rudd: I started my Winston Cup career when there were 28 races. I liked 28 races a lot better than I like 36. I’m not saying that we can’t handle more. It’s just that you would have a little more time for your personal life.
Sadler: No, 36 is cool. Actually it’s 38 if you count the Budweiser Shootout and the Nextel Cup All-Star Challenge. We are racers, and I’d race every day if you’d let me.
Newman: The number of races isn’t so bad, it’s the days away from home. If we could have the same amount of races, but make it a two-day show, that would be great.
What safety features does NASCAR need to implement?
Newman: I’m not going to make any decisions for NASCAR. They’ve been doing a great job listening to what the drivers have to say and work on those issues. We’ve come a long way in the last few years on safety, and it will get better.
Sadler: I’m a big guy — 6'2". Me, Dale Jarrett and Michael Waltrip are the biggest drivers on the circuit. I think that escape hatch will be good when it gets cleared. Hopefully I will never need to use it, but I think an alternative to getting out of the car besides the window would be helpful.
Johnson: I would like to see a traveling safety crew. I know that NASCAR is looking into this and I understand its reasoning as to why they have the current system. But for me and my family to know that the safety crew that might need to help me one day knows everything about me each week and I personally know them, that’s very important.
Rudd: I think NASCAR is looking at pretty much everything they need to look at right now. The one thing I would like to see them do is look at maybe getting the driver away from the left side door cage a little bit. Maybe locate the driver so many inches off the centerline of the driveshaft to get him out of the left side window. Maybe that will help prevent some of the injuries when the driver’s side smacks the wall.
Is the racing back to the yellow rule being handled correctly?
Newman: The first race NASCAR put the new rule into effect, I won. I got lucky, but I also had to gain one more lap before winning. I think the rule is good and NASCAR will work on it more and more.
Sadler: I think 13 seconds after the car stopped tumbling there was a safety worker talking to me through the window (at Talladega). That was also a good effort on the 42 other drivers on the track for slowing down to allow the safety crews to get to me.
Johnson: I think NASCAR is doing a good job with it. Things had to change because it was just a matter of time before someone got injured from racing back to the yellow. I’m not sure about the ‘Lucky Dog’ rule. It’s hard for the racer in us to see someone get a free pass, but as time goes on we’ll get everything worked out.
Rudd: I like the rule. I think it needs some adjusting on the shorter tracks a little bit where you have so many caution flags. At the end of the race virtually everyone is on the lead lap.
Should there be a traveling safety crew?
Martin: I wish there was.
Sadler: I think there needs to be a traveling medical crew. If I end up in the infield care center, it’s good that I know the person looking over me and they know me.
Rudd: I would say that before the new rules that NASCAR has on racing back to the flag, that we definitely needed a crew every week that was familiar with the rules. Today, it would still be nice knowing that you had people coming to your car that knew how to deal with your particular needs or knew about your previous injuries. That would be nice. But with not racing back to the flag, it has freed up how quickly they can move the safety crews. I think that all any driver wants to see is, when they have an accident, that you are going to have somebody there pretty quickly.
Newman: Most definitely. NASCAR has a traveling chef, why not a safety crew?
Should there be a yellow and/or red light on the dash board?
Rudd: I think some other series use that situation. I haven’t really seen a big need for that. Currently in Winston Cup with the rule change we don’t race back to the flag. If there is a problem and the caution flag comes out people slow down. It’s working real smooth right now. I really haven’t seen a need for a light on the dashboard.
Sadler: No, not necessarily. It might be too much of a distraction — I’d have to try it. My spotter Brett is 100 percent on his game. As long as he is paying attention, and I am paying attention I think we can avoid accidents with accidents.
Martin: That would be a nice addition.
Newman: I don’t think so.
What are some things (away from racing) you have been given the opportunity to do because of your position as a NASCAR driver?
Newman: Last year’s trip to NASA was about one of the coolest things I’ve done.
Martin: To be able to do all the charity things we have done over the years — it’s always a good feeling to give something back. We have the greatest fans in the world in this sport and it’s not always easy, but it’s always great to be able to help out charities and people in need of assistance.
Sadler: Gosh, too many to count. I’ve been to The Final Four, NBA games, MLB games, met celebrities like Carmen Electra, Serena and Venus Williams, the band Three Doors Down, WWE Wrestlers, and been in my buddy Blake Shelton’s country music video, Ol’ Red. I also get to travel in planes and cool cars. I’m real, real fortunate.
Johnson: I’ve thrown out the first pitch at a Phillies vs. Braves game, stood on the sidelines at a Georgia Tech (football) game, been able to get dinner reservations, meet actors and other celebrities. Just do things that you would never have guessed in a thousand years. I have the best job in the world that offers me a lot of benefits.
Rudd: A good example for me, I’ve always been an aviation sort of nut. I’m a pilot myself and having the U.S. Air Force associated with our car has given us a lot of opportunities to visit a lot of bases, to see a lot of the state of the art sort of equipment, visit with the Thunderbirds, things like that that I would not have had the opportunity to do otherwise.
Craven: The biggest thing that the notoriety of being a NASCAR driver has done for me is to allow me to put on my annual Snowmobile Charity Ride up in Maine. We’ve been fortunate to be able to raise a lot of money and help a lot of people. I can’t ask for anything better than that. I’ve been lucky to meet a lot of stars and go a lot of places during my time in the sport, but giving something back is the coolest thing being a NASCAR driver has allowed me to do.
Who was your favorite driver growing up? How has he influenced your driving style or how you conduct yourself at the track?
Rudd: I didn’t really have a favorite driver. I was always busy racing myself since I was about eight years old running go-karts and motorcycles. But I guess I did watch the Indy 500 and I remember watching A.J. Foyt. I remember Dan Gurney from road racing being a kid watching some of the races that came on ABC. I remember those guys, Gurney and Foyt, from when I was young. But I didn’t really follow the races that heavily because I was busy racing myself.
Sadler: My uncle Bud Elliott, my brother Hermie Sadler and Dale Earnhardt. They showed me how to be successful but stay real.
Craven: I really idolized Richard Petty when I was growing up. He served as a great example of how to handle yourself in the heat of the moment. He always had a smile for the camera, even after he might have just gotten wrecked on the track. Whenever I’m in a similar situation, I always try to remember how well he handled himself. I don’t always succeed in living up to the precedent he set, but I do try.
Johnson: I started out in motocross and Rick Johnson was a guy I looked up to. I also followed Rick Mears, since he was from California, thinking I’d take the same path from off-road to Indy cars. In stock cars, I was a Cale Yarborough fan. I also followed the Allisons and Dale Earnhardt. I had always wanted to race against Dale Earnhardt, and I’m sorry I missed the opportunity. As far as what I’ve taken from them, I would say that I’ve taken from them the desire to win and the work ethic. These guys wanted to win every time they got on the track and so do I.
Martin: Richard Petty. He is and always will be the greatest ambassador of our sport.
Newman: I always admired Dale Earnhardt for his way of mentally beating people before the race even started.
If you had to choose one driver to be NASCAR’s spokesman to America, who would it be?
Sadler: I think Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett are excellent spokesmen for the sport.
Martin: Jeff Gordon.
Newman: I don’t know if there is just one. Jeff Gordon’s made a good name for himself, but there’s a lot of guys out there.
Craven: I think Jeff Gordon has done a great job of being a spokesperson for NASCAR. He handles himself extremely well in interviews, and he’s a very intelligent, well-spoken guy. I think he helps to dispel a lot of the stereotypes that some of the country might have about our sport. He’s a hard guy to dislike, I think. I mean, he’s young, he’s a good-looking guy, and he’s very articulate.
Marlin: Rusty (Wallace) would be entertaining as a spokesperson. He’d be honest.
When you came into the sport, who took you under their wing?
Martin: Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison.
Johnson: This isn’t going to surprise anyone, but when I got into Winston Cup Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick really took me under their wings. Jeff has taught me a lot about racing both on and off the track. Both Rick and Jeff have taught me a lot about the business side of the sport and how to deal with the pressures and what it takes to be a winner. I’ve been fortunate to get in with a tremendous organization and have a very supportive sponsor in Lowe’s.
Newman: Buddy Baker.
Marlin: No one really took me under their wing; I had been around racing so much already because of my dad that I knew everybody. It wasn’t like I was first starting.
Sadler: Dale Jarrett as a matter of fact. He and I were testing at Darlington — he in a Cup car and me in a Busch car. I went to him for advice on how to get around the ‘Lady In Black’ and he pretty much dropped everything, put me in a rental car and drove me around the track for 30 minutes. It’s cool because I won my first pole there in 2003. DJ and I have been tight ever since. I’ll never forget that.
Craven: Jeff Gordon really took me under his wing, even though I’m older than he is. He had already had a couple of years in Winston Cup before I moved up in 1995. When I joined Hendrick Motorsports, he really taught me the right way to do a lot of things. I really treasure his friendship, and the way he’s always been willing to help me. Among the drivers, he’s probably the one I’m closest to.
What other drivers or crew chiefs would you want to play poker against? Which would you not?
SadIer: I wouldn’t want to play with my own crew chief, Todd Parrott. He has too good of a poker face. Also, Matt Borland and Ryan Newman — forget it man.
Newman: I don’t know, but I can tell you, you don’t want to play against my crew chief Matt Borland. He’s a good poker player who actually competes in tournaments when we’re not racing.
Craven: Well, let me think. First, Mike Helton. I know he’s not a driver or a crew chief, but I think he’d make one heck of a poker player. Jimmy Spencer, just because he’d make for an entertaining game. Matt Borland and Ryan Newman would make for a good game, because of how analytical and intelligent they are.
It’s said that the difference between a man and a boy is the size of his toys. What are some of your favorite toys?
Sadler: I am not allowed to ride on motorcycles. My mom won’t let me. I have a pontoon boat and in my motorcoach I have two Xbox’s and a karaoke machine.
Craven: I love my snowmobiles and my Sea Ray boat. I love getting out on Moosehead Lake in Maine first thing in the morning on the Sea Ray. There’s nothing better than that. With the Snowmobiles, we have a lot of trails around Moosehead that we ride on, and we’ll just go for hours and hours on those things. It really clears my mind and recharges my batteries.
Rudd: I guess most of my toys are something I can share with my son, Landon. He is nine years old now and we enjoy doing a lot of different things, but one of the things he really enjoys is riding four-wheelers, running through the woods chasing each other. We enjoy doing that. And a little bit of go-karts; nothing real serious there. The other thing is airplanes. I enjoy aviation and because flying is a necessary part of our sport I enjoy the airplane and I enjoy the flying part of our sport.
Marlin: Some of my favorite toys are bulldozers and other farming equipment.
Newman: I’ve got a Ranger 520 Bass Boat, wave runners. I’ve got a 1928 Ford Roadster with a 1953 Ford engine that has dual 94 Stromsburg carburetors, Offenhauser heads, and a 1957 Ford 3-speed transmission. I have a 1953 Plymouth with the original flathead six cylinder and a 1957 Ford Thunderbird (one of Krissie’s favorites) with a numbers matching 312 engine and automatic transmission.
Johnson: I have a 36-foot Fountain boat, a couple of motorized bar stools that will go about 40 mph and a Harley-Davidson fatboy. We’re so busy I hardly have time to use them, but they’re great when I can.
Martin: Well, they’re not toys but my Citation Jet and my Vantari motor home. I’m very proud of both.
Do you play NASCAR video games? Do they ever help you prepare for a track?
Newman: I used to play them more, but definitely. I feel I’ve learned a lot about Darlington and Bristol by playing the NASCAR game.
Sadler: Yes, tons. I play EA Sports NASCAR Thunder 2004 all the time. It helped me get used to the new Homestead-Miami Speedway configuration before we got on the track.
Johnson: Yes, I play a lot of the games. The 2004 EA Sports NASCAR Thunder is pretty realistic. When I first came into the series, I played a lot of the games to experience the track and see what they were like. It helps a little in giving you the feel for what it will look like.
Martin: No. I leave all the video games to my son Matt.
What would be more entertaining: 43 NASCAR drivers playing Augusta National or 43 PGA golfers shooting it out at Bristol?
Craven: The 43 PGA Golfers at Bristol would be more entertaining to watch, but it would be a very short race. You could probably make a lot of money off the scrap metal that would be left over, though.
Johnson: I would say the golfers in Bristol. There is no way people would want to see me golf. I can play about seven or eight holes and then it’s off to the clubhouse.
Sadler: As much of a golf fan I am, I have to go with Bristol. Its heaven on earth. Those PGA Golfers need to try it out sometime.
Martin: 43 PGA golfers shooting it out at Bristol.
What is your favorite sport other than racing?
Marlin: My favorite sport other than racing is football. I love watching the Tennessee Vols play every week.
Newman: I watch hockey only because my wife Krissie is a Devils fan, but I really don’t like or watch other sports. I like watching fishing shows mostly.
Craven: Hockey is a lot of fun for me to watch. Growing up in New England, Hockey was one of the biggest things around. I was never very good at it, but the game has a lot of speed and excitement, which appeals to me for obvious reasons.
Sadler: Golf and deer hunting.
Who is your favorite athlete outside racing?
Craven: Carlton Fisk, the Boston Red Sox catcher. Being from Maine, the BoSox were everything to me as a kid as far as baseball was concerned, and Fisk was just such a strong player.
Sadler: Too many to name. I am a sports nut so I have favorites in every sport.
Martin: Michael Jordan. We shot a Gatorade Commercial with him a while back and he is great.
Do you have any crazy rituals or superstitions for race day?
Craven: I always try to carry something in my car that my kids (Riley, age 11 and Everett, age 7) have given me. My daughter even knows how much luck each good luck charm has in it. One time, I was in a wreck, and I told Riley that the good luck charm must have run out of luck. She said, “No daddy, that one still has at least two more races worth in it.”
Sadler: I don’t really, but I just do the same thing every week. Get lots of rest, drink a ton of water and Powerade, and breathe pure oxygen. A lot of resting and relaxing.
Newman: Not a one.
Johnson: No. I used to be superstitious, but now I just try to stay focused.
What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done on the track?
Sadler: Probably that little helmet toss in the Winston a few years back. I was mad at Ryan Newman because he wrecked me. It cost me a little bit of money when I got fined by NASCAR, and I also felt bad for all my sponsors at the time for acting like that.
Marlin: I can’t remember the exact year, it was 1976 or 1977 at Nashville. I had won the pole and we started the pace lap and I ran out of gas. I thought the crew guys had put the fuel in it and they thought I had put the fuel in it. I coasted right into the fuel pump and put about five gallons in and went back out there.
What track, NASCAR sanctioned or not, do you consider your home track?
Sadler: South Boston. That is where I grew up. I won a track championship, and they have a grandstand named after me. Richmond is my home track on the NASCAR circuit.
Newman: IRP (Indianapolis Raceway Park) — maybe since I’m from South Bend. I raced there a lot in open-wheel.
Martin: Daytona, because that’s where we live now.
If not for racing, what would you be doing now?
Sadler: I’d be working in the family business or playing ball somewhere.
Martin: I'm just not sure.
Johnson: I’d be a fireman. Growing up I use to live next door to a fireman and have always wanted to be one. I’m not really sure what draws me to it. It might be the sense of being on the edge and trying to control something that isn’t controllable, but who knows.
Newman: Fishing, of course.