The View From The Driver's Seat

With the Nextel Cup roaring to life this eek at Daytona, SI gets some answers from the men behind the wheel, including defending champ Kurt Busch (above), profiles last year's top rookie and predicts that a wily veteran will win hsi fifth title
February 21, 2005

SI posed five questions to three dozen Nextel Cup drivers, who were promised anonymity. What we got were straight--and often surprising--answers from NASCAR's leading men

Which driver do you least like to have on your bumper?

40% Robby Gordon

THE WORD: "Robby sometimes forgets to use his head. He makes more stupid mistakes than anyone."

THE DEAL: Robby Gordon (close behind Dale Earnhardt Jr., above) finished 23rd in the point standings last year, but he did win a title of sorts: NASCAR's most accident-prone driver of 2004. Though he has a reputation as one of the most skilled drivers on the circuit, Gordon is overly aggressive and fearless and was involved in a series-high 17 accidents and spins. He's also known for his short fuse. At the Sylvania 300 in Loudon, N.H., in September, he intentionally wrecked Greg Biffle after Biffle had bumped Gordon from behind. "Robby's a wild card out there," says one driver. "You really never know what he's going to do, which is why I don't like seeing him coming up behind me."

Which track is your least favorite on the Nextel Cup circuit?

23% Martinsville

13% Darlington • 10% Watkins Glen

THE WORD: "I can't stand Martinsville. It's too small, too narrow and too flat. Other than that, I guess it's perfect."

THE DEAL: The only track that remains on the Cup schedule from NASCAR's inaugural season in 1949, Martinsville is the Wrigley Field of motor sports. Despite its rich history, however, most drivers would prefer to put the track in their rearview mirrors. Located in rural Virginia, the nearly flat, .526-mile paper-clip-shaped track is the shortest and slowest on the circuit. Drivers consistently complain about Martinsville's rough, flaky surface--last April a chunk of concrete came loose and hit Jeff Gordon's Chevy, causing the race to be delayed for 77 minutes while workers patched the track--and about the boring, fender-banging racing (above) that it produces.

Which is your favorite track?

27% Atlanta

20% Daytona • 17% Bristol

THE WORD: "It takes guts to win at Atlanta. You've got to be brave--or a little nuts--to go into Turns 1 and 3 at 200 miles per hour."

THE DEAL: Drivers love Atlanta for one reason: speed. The 1.54-mile oval is the fastest track on the circuit, and its long, wide straightaways create plenty of side-by-side racing. Atlanta also boasts several so-called grooves in the track that enable drivers to pass each other easily and often. Though it's not a superspeedway, Atlanta produces higher lap speeds than Daytona and Talladega because the cars aren't saddled with the restrictor plates required at those two tracks. Add it all up, and Atlanta usually produces heart-pounding, outrageously fast races, which is why most drivers (and fans) relish a trip to the Capital of the South.

Which driver--other than yourself--do you think will win the 2005 Nextel Cup?

53% Jimmie Johnson

27% Jeff Gordon

13% Mark Martin

THE WORD:"Jimmie Johnson seems to be at a different level right now than everyone else. It's his championship to lose."

THE DEAL: In each of the past two seasons Johnson finished second in the points standings, and last year he had a series-high eight wins--including four in the final six races--among 20 top five finishes. Yet perhaps the biggest factor the three-year Cup veteran has going for him this season is history. The last three Cup champions (Tony Stewart in 2002, followed by Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch) all won their titles in their fourth season on the circuit. "I really think Jimmie has a chance to blow away the field," says one driver. Despite Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s breakout six-victory season last year, only one respondent said Little E would win the 2005 championship.

If you were head of NASCAR for one day, what one change would you make?

37% Shorter schedule

17% Return to the old title format

10% Add a midweek race

THE WORD: "I know one thing for sure: If you cut back the schedule, there would be a lot of happy wives out there--including mine."

THE DEAL: With a mid-February start and a late-November wrap-up, the Nextel Cup schedule is one of the longest and most brutal in sports. (Just ask Jeff Gordon, right.) Drivers say that the 36-race schedule--plus two all-star events--is so long and the travel so daunting that it causes burnout. But don't expect the calendar to be cut; in fact, Brian France, who is the head of NASCAR, has hinted that a 40-race schedule featuring midweek events could be on the horizon. "The season is such a grind that you feel like you don't have a life away from racing," says one driver. "We should be running closer to 30 races than 40. If you did that, you'd lengthen the careers of a lot of drivers."

NEXTEL CUP SCHEDULE (ALL TIMES EASTERN)

FEB. 20

DAYTONA 500

Daytona International Speedway

FOX/1 p.m.

FEB. 27

AUTO CLUB 500

California Speedway

FOX/2 p.m.

MARCH 13

UAW-DAIMLERCHRYSLER

400

Las Vegas Motor Speedway

FOX/2 p.m.

MARCH 20

GOLDEN CORRAL 500

Atlanta Motor Speedway

FOX/12:30 p.m.

APRIL 3

FOOD CITY 500

Bristol Motor Speedway

FOX/12:30 p.m.

APRIL 10

ADVANCE AUTO PARTS 500

Martinsville Speedway

FOX/12:30 p.m.

APRIL 17

SAMSUNG/RADIO SHACK 500

Texas Motor Speedway

FOX/12:30 p.m.

APRIL 23

SUBWAY FRESH 500

Phoenix International

Raceway

FOX/7:30 p.m.

MAY 1

AARON'S 499

Talladega Superspeedway

FOX/12:30 p.m.

MAY 7

DODGE CHARGER 500

Darlington Raceway

FOX/7 p.m.

MAY 14

CHEVY AMERICAN REVOLUTION 400

Richmond International Raceway

FOX/7 p.m.

MAY 29

COCA-COLA 600

Lowe's Motor Speedway

FOX/5 p.m.

JUNE 5

MBNA 500

Dover International Speedway

FOX/12:30 p.m.

JUNE 12

POCONO 500

Pocono Raceway

FOX/1 p.m.

JUNE 19

MICHIGAN 400

Michigan International Speedway

FOX/1:30 p.m.

JUNE 26

DODGE/SAVE MART 350

Infineon Raceway

FOX/2:30 p.m.

JULY 2

PEPSI 400

Daytona International Speedway

NBC/7 p.m.

JULY 10

CHICAGOLAND 400

Chicagoland Speedway

NBC/3 p.m.

JULY 17

NEW ENGLAND 300

New Hampshire International Speedway

TNT/1:30 p.m.

JULY 24

PENNSYLVANIA 500

Pocono Raceway

FOX/1 p.m.

AUG. 7

BRICKYARD 400

Indianapolis Motor Speedway

NBC/2:30 p.m.

AUG. 14

SIRIUS SATELLITE RADIO AT THE GLEN

Watkins Glen International

NBC/1 p.m.

AUG. 21

GFS MARKETPLACE 400

Michigan International Speedway

TNT/1:30 p.m.

AUG. 27

SHARPIE 500

Bristol Motor Speedway

TNT/7 p.m.

SEPT. 4

CALIFORNIA 500

California Speedway

NBC/Time TBA

SEPT. 10

CHEVY ROCK & ROLL 400

Richmond International Raceway

TNT/7 p.m.

THE CHASE BEGINS

SEPT. 18

SYLVANIA 300

New Hampshire International Speedway

TNT/12:30 p.m.

SEPT. 25

MBNA 400

Dover International Speedway

TNT/12:30 p.m.

OCT. 2

TALLADEGA 500

Talladega Superspeedway

NBC/1:30 p.m.

OCT. 9

BANQUET 400

Kansas Speedway

NBC/1:30 p.m.

OCT. 15

UAW-GM QUALITY 500

Lowe's Motor Speedway

NBC/7 p.m.

OCT. 23

SUBWAY 500

Martinsville Speedway

NBC/12:30 p.m.

OCT. 30

BASS PRO SHOPS MBNA 500

Atlanta Motor Speedway

NBC/12 p.m.

NOV. 6

DICKIES 500

Texas Motor Speedway

NBC/3 p.m.

NOV. 13

CHECKER AUTO PARTS 500

Phoenix International Raceway

NBC/3 p.m.

NOV. 20

FORD 400

Homestead-Miami Speedway

NBC/Time TBA

COLOR PHOTODAVE SMITH/ICON SMI (ROBBY GORDON) COLOR PHOTOASP, INC. (WRECK) COLOR PHOTODAVID J. GRIFFIN (MARTINSVILLE) COLOR PHOTORICHARD SCHULTZ/WIREIMAGE.COM (TWO CARS) COLOR PHOTODARRELL INGHAM/GETTY IMAGES (ATLANTA) COLOR PHOTODONALD MIRALLE/GETTY IMAGES (JOHNSON) COLOR PHOTODON LOGAN/WIREIMAGE.COM (JEFF GORDON)

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