Commentary

JJ, Kahne, Almirola running, racing

Updated: February 16, 2013, 4:55 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Nobody knows for certain how NASCAR's new "Gen 6" car will perform before the 2013 season kicks off with Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited. It's like the Danica Patrick-Ricky Stenhouse relationship, we need to let it play out before making a final judgment.

But we do know the "Gen 6" driver, a few exceptions aside (see Tony Stewart), is sleeker and more athletic than ever before.

No more proof is needed than what Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Aric Almirola will attempt over about a 14-hour span from Saturday night through Sunday morning.

After racing 187.5 miles in the Unlimited -- assuming they don't crash and don't get eliminated after the second of the three segments -- they will run 13 miles in the Daytona Beach Half Marathon, which begins at 6:30 a.m. ET on Sunday.

And then, oh by the way, they'll attempt to qualify for the Daytona 500 beginning at 1 p.m.

Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip will be with them too, at least for the half-marathon and qualifying.

It makes what Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate said two years ago when he questioned Johnson's being nominated for ESPN's Male Athlete of the Year Award seem kind of silly now.

Remember? Tate tweeted: "Jimmy Johnson up for best athlete????? Um nooo … Driving a car does not show athleticism."

Tate came around in that thinking after being overwhelmed on Twitter by NASCAR fans. But if he isn't totally convinced, let him try what Johnson, Kahne and Almirola will this weekend.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson isn't just fit, he competes in triathlons.

Kind of kills the image of overweight men boozing it up the night before a race and smoking cigarettes in their race cars, as many did back in the day when Winston sponsored the sport.

"The time of staying out drinking and smoking a pack of cigarettes before the race has come and gone," Brian Vickers said. "I don't think you can do it at the highest level anymore and get away with it."

That's because today's driver, for the most part, spends almost as much time conditioning himself to drive the car as he does driving it. Almost everybody has a program, whether it's as extreme as Johnson's or as outlandish as Kyle Busch's.

Busch recently began -- thanks to his wife, Samantha -- working out like a ballerina with a video from a barre class.

"It's a total girl video, but it whips my butt," Busch said at Thursday's media day.

No more girlie than Jeff Gordon in his new "Harlem Shake" video.

You get the point, though.

"You have to be fit to do your job," Waltrip said. "I've always known that race car drivers are athletes. I contend today they're some of the most elite athletes in the world with what they can do between their brain and physical skills."

In case you're wondering what a legend such as Dale Earnhardt might say about drivers running a half-marathon before qualifying for the 500, let Waltrip paint you a picture.

"We were on his boat somewhere in the Bahamas," Waltrip recalled of a trip with the seven-time champion in the 1990s. "Ty [Norris] and I said, 'We're going for a jog.' Dale said, 'I'll go.' I'm like, 'Really?'

"A quarter of a mile in, you go right to go into town and straight to go back to the boat. Dale has on black socks, fishing shorts and a tank top. When we got to the place where we take a right -- Dale was a little behind us -- Ty and I looked over our shoulders and Dale went straight back to the boat."

When Waltrip returned, Earnhardt explained why he had bailed.

"He said, 'I don't like to run, but I can shimmy up a tree faster than any of y'all,'" Waltrip said.

Even Earnhardt might have a stricter workout program if he were alive and driving today. It might not be as extreme as running a half-marathon the morning of qualifying for the 500, but it would be something if he felt it gave him a competitive edge.

And if you ask those who are obsessed with working out, they'll insist it gives them an edge.

"Jimmie Johnson, I don't care what you say, it gives him a mental edge," said Waltrip, who completed several marathons earlier in his career. "If he's tough enough to run a triathlon or half-marathon, he just checks that off when the race starts. He says, 'I don't care how hot it is today, I've got this s---.'"

Mark Martin likely wouldn't be as competitive at 54 if it weren't for his workout program and diet that border on insane.

"I just believe that physical conditioning makes you better at any single thing you do, whether it's going to the grocery store or whatever," he said. "It can make you better physically. It can make you better mentally.

"Certainly it makes a difference in other facets of your life, so why wouldn't it make a difference if you were driving a race car?"

That doesn't make today's drivers better than those of yesteryear. There's no questioning the physical and mental toughness of the Richard Pettys, Cale Yarboroughs and David Pearsons. They began driving in an era when cars didn't have power steering, when firesuits weren't air-conditioned.

And this isn't suggesting you can't be an elite competitor today if you can't run a half-marathon. Stewart, who won his third title two years ago, seems quite proud of his girth.

"It's like people live in Alaska," Stewart said. "They're used to living in the cold. People that live in Arizona, they get used to being in the heat. They don't have to work out to do either one of them. You get acclimated to it and do it.

"Running a marathon or not running a marathon doesn't make an ounce of difference."

Again, Stewart is the exception to the rule. Most drivers will tell you conditioning is a big part of the sport today. It's why reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski pushed to upgrade the gym at Penske Racing.

"It doesn't always pay off," said Carl Edwards, who has been featured on the cover of a health and fitness magazine. "Last year, I finished 15th in points. I'm in pretty good shape, the best shape I've been.

"But it can't hurt."

Few will disagree.

"There is no way it hurts to do this other stuff and to be in really good shape," Kahne said. "Does it help? I don't know how much it helps because Smoke [Stewart] is about as good as they get and he doesn't do that stuff. For me. personally, it helps."

It also helps improve the image people have of drivers as athletes when they see them doing what Johnson, Kahne and Almirola will attempt this weekend.

That doesn't mean everyone has to be as extreme as these three -- particularly 37-year-old Johnson, who the morning after the season-ending banquet in Las Vegas last year finished first in his age group and eighth overall in the Palm Springs, Calif., Olympic Triathlon.

For those doing the math, Johnson swam 0.93 miles, cycled 24.8 miles and ran 6.2 miles in 2 hours, 17 minutes.

"Times have changed, for sure," said Johnson, who hopes to average a fast 6:50-per-mile pace Sunday. "I'm not sure anyone would have admitted training back in the Allison-Alabama Gang era, or even in the Earnhardt era."

They wouldn't have admitted it because they didn't do it -- at least not to the extremes of the "Gen 6" drivers.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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