FYI WIRZ: Jimmie Johnson, Travis Pastrana and More Talk NASCAR's Lofty Path

Dwight DrumCorrespondent IIIJuly 25, 2011

Jimmie Johnson during an introduction ride
Jimmie Johnson during an introduction ride

Jimmie Johnson used to wonder how he was going to get to NASCAR from the desert where he raced in an off-road series as a teenager. Johnson does not have to wonder about much anymore. He got to NASCAR and beyond. 

Often now, when the five-time champion gets a week off racing, he takes his wife and daughter to Europe. Recently Jeff Gordon headed for the Congo. Other Cup drivers take exclusive vacations as well. 

The rewards of a NASCAR career are plentiful. 

Getting to the top series in the NASCAR Sprint Cup involves navigating a winding steep path with many roadblocks. It takes an abundance of talent, resources, and timing.  

With only 43 race-day seats available in the Sprint Cup Series and probably thousands across the world qualified to race at the top level, it is obvious that many hopeful competitors never get a NASCAR chance.

Top race car drivers understand how fortunate they are to get paid well for their skills. Some willingly share their thoughts about getting and keeping a NASCAR ride. Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick are seasoned Sprint Cup drivers. Austin Dillon, Travis Pastrana and Cody Coughlin are working at various levels to get there.

All shared comments for fans.

When Jimmie Johnson was asked about the present mix of youthful and veteran drivers at the Cup level, he struggled to define retirement.      . 

“I don’t know what my generation and generations behind mine, what that mark is going to be,” Johnson said. “I don’t have a clue what Jeff (Gordon) is thinking and where he is at, you know he’s pretty young if you look at how many years he’s been driving he just got in so early, so I really don’t know if there is that number out there.”

“I know back when I was getting started the demands for the driver and the pressure and all of that in was greater then and might lead to a shorter career, but I don’t know. I don’t necessarily see it right now.”

NASCAR drivers not retiring early reduce the number of seats open for aspiring young competitors. Talented young drivers racing on dirt tracks face many economic obstacles if they are to reap the benefits of NASCAR stardom.

Joey Logano was lucky to be discovered early in life at age 16 and got resources to bring him along.

“A lot of my friends are my age or so trying to get a ride,” Logano said. “I see how hard it is. I think I made it right at the right time. Joe Gibbs Racing signed me at the right time; they got behind me, stuck behind me and was able to move me up really quick and get some sponsors behind me. That's really helped a lot.”

“These days it seems like there's no teams that have the money to invest in a younger driver to bring him up.”

Logano understands the meaning of team, sponsorship and the economy.  

“I can't sell all my Nationwide races, Kyle Busch can't sell all his Nationwide races,” Logano said. “That's how hard it is out there right now. Obviously we have a lot of people here at Joe Gibbs Racing trying to sell and trying to work and we have a lot of great sponsors right now, it's just harder and harder.

“If we can't do it, how is someone that's just started and no one really knows who he is and hasn't won races before and all that, how is he supposed to get sponsors?”

Getting to Sprint Cup is tough, staying in Cup is tougher.

Kevin Harvick shared his experience and an evaluation of a very tough NASCAR garage.  

“This is a tough garage to negotiate,” Harvick said. “There’s a lot of people in this garage that are friends, that have been here for a long time. There is kind of a mindset of how it should all work. Sometimes, I’ve been there, you get outside that mindset and they will just kinda push you to the side and things become a lot harder than they need to be. So, it is definitely hard to find your place. I came in and pushed and shoved and talked and did all the things probably the wrong way, but it will teach you how to do it the right way really fast.”
Austin Dillon is the grandson of NASCAR team icon Richard Childress and has solid resources supporting him in the Camping World Truck Series. Still, Dillion is aware of economic realities.  

“Economically right now the sport is really struggling to find sponsors and get the younger guys the sponsors they need to get up there,” Dillon said. “You take what you can get at this point in time and really work hard to make sure you're doing everything the right way to maybe impress someone to get a sponsor out there.

Travis Pastrana has mastered extreme skills in various motorsports and is a former X Games star. Pastrana is attempting to conquer the difficult and different techniques needed for stock car racing. He understands the economics well too.    

“We could never afford cars to get to the level where I'm at without the sponsorship I was able to bring in from the motocross and from the Rally and from the success in other sports,” Pastrana said. “We could never afford cars to get to the level where I'm at without the sponsorship I was able to bring in from the motocross and from the Rally and from the success in other sports.”

Pastrana was hopeful about young drivers rising to the top.

“But you know, if you're good enough, if you stand out enough, if you're passionate enough about something, I believe you go make it happen. And even talking to Carl Edwards and those guys, Carl, he went down and just started working at a race job and built his first car out of used parts and he went out there and he proved he could drive. If you can drive, you can be better than the other guys and you're passionate enough to make it happen, you can find a way.”

Dillon is hopeful about the future too.

“I think that's where our sport is going, the younger guys,” Dillon said. “If we can get some of these young fans interested, the college guys interested out there, there's great development series out there. This rookie class in the Truck Series is unbelievable this year, looking at all the rookies and young guys out there. It's very tough competition.’

Some might think at 15-years-old, Cody Coughlin should be worried about homework and not the next step up in stock car racing. As one of the third generation from JEGS Mail order, the high performance parts company, Coughlin chose circle racing over drag racing unlike most in his family. 

Coughlin’s father, uncles and grandfather are NHRA champions in various classes, but the JEGS business and family supports young Cody’s desire to race ovals.      

“I try to become a better driver,” Coughlin said. “We're not focused on anything but having fun,  learning, and so far that it's working well for us."

Coughlin has tall dreams mixed with a solid understanding of the lofty reality he faces.   

“I’ve watched Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart,” Coughlin said. “I’ve always wanted to be like those guys. Right now it's all about getting seat time and learning how to race. If things progress the right way and an opportunity happens it would be a dream come true. No one knows who the next big name is until it happens."

Two-time ASA champion Gary St. Amant, friend to Jimmie Johnson, serves as Coughlin's coach and introduced him to competitors in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East recently. The young driver sees this as the next step.
Converting NASCAR hopefuls to NASCAR stars is a tall order. Getting to NASCAR Sprint Cup is hard; staying is tougher because it takes talent, resources, team, timing and even luck.  

Second chances are rare.

FYI WIRZ is the select presentation of topics by Dwight Drum @ Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained from official release materials provided by NASCAR. 

Photo credit: Dwight Drum at