NASCAR's 5 Most Athletic and Fit Drivers

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistDecember 2, 2012

NASCAR's 5 Most Athletic and Fit Drivers

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    Riddle me this: What is one of the most-asked questions in NASCAR that has nothing to do with a race car, track, driving or winning a race?

    If I've heard that question once, I've heard it a thousand times: "Are NASCAR drivers really athletes?"

    You might say no if you've watched the video contained in Gabe Zaldivar's recent Bleacher Report/Swagger report on new Sprint Cup champ Brad Keselowski's basketball prowess, or complete lack thereof.

    Yes, NASCAR drivers—at least some of them—are truly athletes. Even though some drivers like to laugh about their so-called workout routines of lifting beer cans instead of weights, or riding a couch instead of a bike, there's no question that many drivers today take their fitness seriously.

    Whether you want to believe it or not, a fit driver is a better driver, someone who can withstand countless hours and laps around a racetrack. How would you like to spend four or five hours behind the wheel without any breaks—Except for caution periods—like in the grueling Coca-Cola 600?

    NASCAR drivers are indeed athletes.

    "In the last 10 years there has been a major push on the fitness side," five-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson once said during an interview with Men's Fitness magazine. "Before, the car would break down before the driver's fitness level would give up. Now the cars are so superior that the weak link is the driver in a lot of the cases. Older drivers, like Bobby Labonte and (now retired) Dale Jarrett, spend a lot of time [working out]. And the whole younger crowd like Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne are always in the gym, too."

    In fact, some of them take things to the extreme, meaning extreme sports and workouts at times.

    Carl Edwards is the perfect example: he takes his mountain bike with him on his private plane, has a home gym and can be found hitting countless other gyms when he's on the road.

    "Driving is 90 percent mental—and the last 10 percent is where the physical side helps you." Edwards said in an interview with Men's Fitness magazine. "Just like someone who sits in an office all day, you're going to make better decisions if you're well-rested and in good physical shape. I think NASCAR guys have realized in the last few years that if there's a way to get ahead, the gym is the best place to start."

    A few years back, Tony Stewart used to joke about his beer and cheeseburger belly, but then went out and bought $20,000 of workout equipment, hired a trainer and after several months of dedicated work, looked the best of his Cup career.

    Unfortunately, Stewart put back some of the weight he lost, scaled back his fitness routine, but still remains a fitness advocate—although maybe not as dedicated as some of the following drivers.

    So without further ado, let's take a look at the Five Most Athletic Drivers in NASCAR today.

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Carl Edwards

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    Carl Edwards is known as much for his six-pack abs and physical condition as he is for his driving ability.

    Edwards has been an exercise fanatic for the better part of the last dozen years, really getting serious about his physical shape during his pre-NASCAR days when he was both a substitute teacher and part-time sheriff's deputy to pay for his racing exploits.

    Even when he hit it big, Edwards never stopped his workout routine. In fact, he got more serious about it. That's why when Edwards does his trademark backflips in celebration of his latest win, he's able to do it because he's in such great shape.

    Yes, I realize Edwards is riding a 69-race winless streak in the Sprint Cup Series, dating back to March 2011.

    Edwards has been the subject of countless media reports about his fitness and conditioning routine, one that grew even more comprehensive when he took tips early in his career from former Roush Fenway Racing teammate Mark Martin (see next slide for more about him).

    "I was 18 when I realized racing was going to be tough and that I was gonna run out of money way quicker than I was gonna run out of the desire to do it," Edwards told Men's Fitness magazine. "I saw a story on Mark Martin on TV, and it talked about how hard he worked physically, and I thought that was something I could do for free."

    According to several stories, Edwards typically lifts weights four times a week, maintains a healthy diet (it helps that his wife is a doctor to keep him in line), and is an avid racquetball player, runner, stair climber and cyclist. During NASCAR's summer off-week, Edwards typically joins friends for bike rides that may last 200 miles or more.

    In a sense, Edwards is the antithesis of what NASCAR used to be about, with the series previously sponsored for 30 years by Winston cigarettes.

    These days, a cigarette is hard to find in the NASCAR garage as a definite health movement has come over the sport. Right near the front of the pack is the pride and joy of Columbia, Mo., Carl Edwards.

    "It pays off if you can be focused without being worn out physically," Edwards said. "I can't (call in) sick."

Mark Martin

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    Yo, yo, yo, this Mark Martin cat is one with-it and happening dude.

    Just over a month away from turning 54, Martin is arguably the fittest driver of all in the NASCAR garage–in even better shape than Carl Edwards comparatively.

    Martin has been a fitness advocate for nearly 30 years and has the results that put drivers half his age to shame.

    But as ambitious as Martin's daily exercise regimen is, he pumps iron and does all his workout while listening either over speakers or through ear buds to some of the heaviest, hardcore rap music you'll ever hear.

    Martin has said that the beat and rhyme of rap works well in laying down a beat for his exercise routine.

    "I spend an hour and a half four days a week working out," Martin once told Yahoo Sports. "When I’m working out, I think about the weights and the rap music that I listen to. I listen to pretty much Gucci Mane all the time. He is who I go straight to every time I turn my iPod on. For now, he’s the man."

    Martin just completed his 30th year in Sprint Cup racing. While he's scaled back to a "part-time" schedule of 24 races (out of the regular season's 36 events), working out the way he does keeps Martin stronger and more focused than ever.

    Consider the following routine Martin adheres to, as told to Yahoo Sports. It's enough to make you tired just reading it:

    "Monday is back, biceps and abs. This Monday I did five sets of hanging knee raises for my abs. And I did 16 different sets of back exercises and eight different sets of bicep curls. Then I got on the elliptical for 30 minutes.

    "Tuesday I do shoulders and abs. I think I did crunches on the ball for abs, too, which is something different than the day before. I do 20 sets of shoulder exercises total—five different exercises, 20 different sets.

    "Wednesday I did legs and cardio again on the elliptical for 30 minutes. Mondays and Wednesdays I also do additional special work on my feet and ankles. I’m working on rehabbing them or strengthening them. That’s separate than my regular routine.

    "Thursday, I did chest, triceps and abs and hanging knee raises again. Four different exercises for a total of 16 sets there. Then I did two different triceps exercises for eight different sets

    "Almost always, depending on what week it is, I do pyramid. I start with lighter weight, do 12 reps, then add weight after each set. I bring it down to seven or eight reps on the last set. That’s typical strength training. Some weeks I flip that around. But that was this past week.

    "I don’t work with a trainer. I’ve been lifting for nearly 22 years now. I could be a personal trainer. These are my routines that I’ve learned and studied strength training and reading books. … That’s my workout routine to keep me fit for the racing."

Denny Hamlin

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    He may have just turned 32 on Nov. 18, but Denny Hamlin still looks young enough to be carded each time he walks into a bar. Much of that has to do with his penchant for physical fitness.

    While NASCAR racing is his job, Hamlin is an avid fan of and participant in several sports, including basketball (he's rumored to have a mean 15-foot jumper from just outside the key and is a season-ticket holder for the Charlotte Bobcats), golf and a number of other sports that allow him to work up a sweat, stay trim and in shape.

    In fact, before he sold it recently, Hamlin's mansion on Lake Norman in suburban Charlotte had something that you don't see very often in most other mansions: a regulation-size basketball court that's seen a lot of practice and game time.

    While other drivers may use a bevy of personal trainers, invest large amounts of money in workout equipment and sculpt their bodies with surgeon-like precision, Hamlin is more of a blue collar kind of athlete.

    He typically does weight lifting and exercises that he's been doing for years. The results speak for themselves; that's why he keeps on the same path.

    But at the same time, he also needs help at times to further refine some of the things he's tailored to his own needs.

    "I train 3-5 times a week, depending on my schedule," Hamlin said in an interview a few years back. "I have a personal trainer who likes to switch up my workout routine each day. One day I’ll focus all on upper body the next day we’ll do legs and back. I always try and get in some cardio every day I train."

Jimmie Johnson

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    You don't win a record five championships in a row—as Jimmie Johnson did from 2006 through 2010—without having some kind of physical conditioning program to help get you through not only the grueling season, but the even more grueling 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

    A native of suburban San Diego, where he grew up surfing and riding dirt bikes, Johnson doesn't talk often about his own fitness program. But under that everyman exterior, and beard, lays the body and spirit of a true athlete.

    Admittedly, Johnson is a big golf fan—let's not forget how he broke his wrist in 2006 when he fell out of a golf cart engaging in some horseplay on a course.

    But when it comes to real exercise, Johnson is real serious, to say the least.

    "I really have to work hard to make sure I'm eating right and doing the right things so that I can get a good night sleep and then have the energy to train," Johnson once told Men's Fitness magazine. Over the last eight months I've done a very good job at that and I'm probably in the best shape I've been in.

    "I work with weights four days a week—just the different muscle groups and trying to get more endurance and strength rather than mass, given what we do. There are a lot of core routines. A lot of jump-rope between weight sets, sprints, running, and stuff where we're elevating my heart rate and trying to teach my body to recover. The mindset being that I'll have more energy and perform better at my job. I also love to cycle, but it takes so long to get a good ride in—between that and the gym it's like a three- or four-hour commitment."

    One other tidbit about Johnson that you may find interesting: while he rarely exchanges information about his car to rival drivers, Johnson readily exchanges workout tips and pointers with fellow drivers, with one driver giving Johnson credit for the help he offered to her.

    Yes, we're talking about Danica Patrick—and she's featured in the next slide. 

Danica Patrick

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    Danica Patrick has had to work even harder than most other drivers because of her gender. Even in this modern age, female drivers have not been the most readily welcomed group to the racing community.

    Patrick has blazed the trail for a number of other female drivers in both IndyCar and NASCAR.

    While there's no question that Patrick is an attractive woman, being in shape and looking good require almost as much work as she puts in behind the wheel.

    Unbeknownst to many, the 5'2", 100-pound Patrick is almost as passionate about her physical conditioning as she is about her racing.

    That's why she works out several days a week, is an educated consumer when it comes to eating healthily and she's seen the results more than enough to know that her workouts are indeed working.

    “I eat healthy all the time,” she once told “It makes me feel better as well as makes it easier to do photo shoots and look the way I want to look. I work out a lot to stay fit and have endurance for the car.”

    Patrick, who was an athletic cheerleader during her high school days in Roscoe, Ill. (about 75 miles from Chicago), isn't as public about her training and workout regimen as other drivers, but to be her best as a driver (and not just because she's a female), she has to be her best in the gym and the kitchen table.

    "She works out," former crew chief Tony Eury once said of Patrick. "She eats very, very healthy. She's almost like a perfect athlete.

    "The only other driver that I've been around that is conditioned to the same degree is Jimmie Johnson. He's pretty impressive when it comes to knowing what to eat and the workout routine that he does. It's inspiring when you can be around people like that who take care of themselves and really want it."

    Even with her small frame, Patrick is big on lifting weights.

    "I do a lot of strength training," Patrick once told, who finished a career-best 10th in the Nationwide Series standings this season, and now prepares to move to the Sprint Cup Series in 2013. "I work with a trainer and he sends me programs every four to five weeks.

    "And provided, of course, that I follow them and stay on the four- to five-week plan that we're on each time because the most important part is performing in the car. So if I ever feel like my lifting program interferes with my strength and my endurance inside of the car, then I don't do it, because that's the only thing I'm weight training for is for the car.

    "And, mind you, I feel like weight training is very beneficial for your physique. There's nothing like reshaping your body with weights. But I definitely do. I lift three days a week. I do two days of upper (body) and one day of lower (body exercises)."

    So, you see, Patrick isn't just another pretty face or pretty body. Just like being a success at racing, being physically fit takes a lot of hard work.