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Panthers' Kuechly enjoys night in fast lane

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly started Saturday night's Sprint All-Star race as the driver of the pace car and coach Ron Rivera finished it in Victory Lane as the guest of winning team co-owner Felix Sabates.

Not a bad night for the reigning NFL defensive player and coach of the year.

I'm always curious what athletes and coaches from other sports think when they come to NASCAR, a sport I covered for ESPN.com for seven years before returning in August to the NFL, a sport I had covered for more than 11 years.

Do they appreciate the skill it takes to drive a car at close to 200 mph as they did on Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway? Do they respect the precision it takes to change four tires and fuel a car in 12 or 13 seconds, sometimes faster?

Do they understand the strategy of taking two tires or four, or staying out when others pit?

Do they think drivers are athletes?

The latter is a much-debated question, and occasionally becomes a national topic such as it did in 2011 when Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate challenged on Twitter whether six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson should be up for ESPN's male athlete of the year award.

He wrote: "Jimmy Johnson up for best athlete????? Um nooo . . . Driving a car does not show athleticism.''

Tate quickly changed his tone after being bombarded by angry NASCAR fans on Twitter and then researching some of what it takes to be a driver.

"Man, I got grilled from NASCAR country,'' Tate told me by phone after the backlash. "I honestly think every single person who follows NASCAR tweeted something at me, and they weren't too happy about it.''

Kuechly and Rivera didn't take much convincing. Rivera recognized the athleticism it takes to be a driver when Sabates, who co-owns with Chip Ganassi the car Jamie McMurray drove to the $1 million prize on Saturday, introduced him to the sport a few years ago.

He spent time with Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, earlier this year discussing things Knaus does to maintain a level of success that is unprecedented in sports.

Kuechly was sold on the athleticism after a few trips around CMS's 1.5 mile track on Thursday. And he only went 80 mph because it had been raining.

"After the first couple of times we went around the track, I was holding the wheel going around the turn and was, 'Man! Your forearms get a little sore,' '' said Kuechly, whose forearms are the twice the size of most drivers outside of maybe Carl Edwards. "It's a different kind of athlete. They're not running around, cutting around, but they're strong and they have endurance.

"I'll give it to them. They're athletes in their own respect.''

And as he added, "This isn't something that is easy, or else everybody would be doing it.''

The biggest difference for Kuechly on this night is he wasn't the aggressor. The middle linebacker that was dubbed a "tackling machine'' at Boston College because collects tackles than Dale Earnhardt Jr. does fans went from hitting to being hit.

On the laps before leading to the field to the green flag, holding the pace car at a steady 45 mph, the pole-sitter Edwards gave him a few friendly taps from behind with his 3,400-pound machine.

"It was cool,'' Kuechly said.

And no, there was no urge for Carolina's leading tackler to hit back.

"Not at all,'' he said. "I'm trying to stay away from those guys. Their cars are a lot more powerful than mine.''

Just as he does on the field, Kuechly performed his duties to perfection. He hit all of his marks, and got the pace car off the track exactly as instructed before heading to a pit road suite to watch the rest of the race.

Rivera was hanging with Sabates, one of the most colorful owners in the sport who has featured the Carolina coach in a television commercial for his high-end car dealership.

He spent time in the pits, getting a close-up view of how the crew worked together the way he would hope his offensive line would in protecting quarterback Cam Newton or making a hole for running back DeAngelo Williams.

When McMurray won, he found himself being showered in champagne with Sabates in Victory Lane.

"It is a little bit different [from a football celebration] because you bring this great big old car in the middle of it,'' Rivera said on Sirius XM radio during the celebration. "What is really similar is everybody joined in the celebration, everybody from the pit crew to the driver to the owner to all the people who work around it.

"That was really neat to see, and something we hope to experience as an organization with the Panthers.''

Both agreed seeing the sport up close and personal was much different than watching it on television.

"You don't really get a flavor for the excitement,'' Rivera said.

All in all, it was a pretty good night for Kuechly and Rivera. Now it's back to their world of offseason workouts as rookie join the veterans on Monday.

"This isn't something I would be able to do without football,'' Kuechly reminded. "Football gives you great opportunities and cool things, and this is one of them.''