DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Before the sun even rose Sunday, Jimmie Johnson's race day had already begun. More than six hours before cars begin front-row qualifying for the Daytona 500, the five-time NASCAR champion was among a handful of drivers participating in a very different kind of event -- a half marathon that began on pit road at Daytona International Speedway and ended 13.1 miles later in Victory Lane.
Kasey Kahne was the first NASCAR driver to cross the finish line, clocking in at 1:28:45, just over 12 minutes behind the overall winner's time of 1:16.03. Johnson trailed Kahne by a little more than a minute, finishing the race in 1:29.48.
It's nothing new for Johnson, an early riser who has used physical fitness as a cornerstone of his NASCAR success. But it's also another indication of changing times in a sport once better known for moonshine and cigarettes, where some drivers are now less apt to stumble in at dawn than they are to try and squeeze in a run before it. Kasey Kahne, Aric Almirola and Michael Waltrip are also signed up for Sunday's run, which meanders from the speedway to the oceanfront and back again.
The 6:30 a.m. start makes for an early wake-up call for competitors who participated in The Sprint Unlimited the previous night, and will be back in their cars for pole qualifying in the afternoon. It's just another morning for Johnson, who on weekdays is often swimming laps or running before daybreak, and sneaks in a bike ride in the afternoon. The Hendrick Motorsports standard-bearer has competed in several triathlons -- which combine swimming, bicycling and running -- and maintains a rigorous workout regimen, so training for a half-marathon fits right in.
"I enjoy it, and if I'm away from my house too long and we're traveling and I can't get in my routine, it's amazing how it effects my temperament," Johnson said. "I'm frustrated and feel like I'm not getting things done. So for me, it's all good. Yes, it's physically helping me. But there are a lot of mental aspects to it that are helpful as well."
This is nothing new in NASCAR -- ageless wonder Mark Martin has been a gym rat for decades, and even wrote a book on how strength training can aid high-performance driving. Many top drivers have unquestionably become more athletic, even as the debate continues over whether a workout routine like Johnson's actually aids a driver behind the wheel.
"I believe that physical conditioning makes you better at any single thing you do, whether it's going to the grocery store or what," Martin said. "Physical conditioning can make you better. It can make you better physically, it can make you better mentally. It can. Does it? I don't know. It can, though. ? I don't know the science behind that, but I just believe it can make a difference. It certainly can make a difference in other facets of your life, so why wouldn't make a difference if you're driving a race car?"
Martin began strength training in 1988, and at age 54 still works out four to five days a week. Many younger competitors have followed suit -- Almirola regularly bikes for two to three hours, Waltrip has completed full marathons and Kahne hopes to complete Sunday's half marathon in an hour and 35 minutes, which would mean a 6:35-per-mile pace.
"There's no way it hurts, to do this other stuff and to be in really good shape and take care of yourself and to run a half marathon as fast as you can," Kahne said. " ? There's no way that stuff hurts you when you're in the race car. Does it help? I don't know (how) much that stuff helps. 'Smoke' is about as good as it gets, and he doesn't do that stuff. But for me personally, it helps me."
No, Tony Stewart doesn't do that stuff, and it hasn't stopped him from winning three championships in NASCAR's top division.
"I don't think it matters. Unless you got to get out and push the car, it's a different deal," he said. "Nobody is having to get out and push these things. ? Running a marathon or not running a marathon doesn't make an ounce of difference. That's all I got on it."
Clint Bowyer would wholeheartedly agree.
"I've never been tired in a car. I've certainly been tired running. As a matter of fact, I was tired at Phoenix -- that was a hell of a run," he said, referring to his anger-fueled dash toward Jeff Gordon after the two wrecked at Phoenix International Raceway last year. "I could not keep that pace up for 13 miles. I don't have trouble turning the steering wheel, it's not that heavy. It's power assist. Working out and stuff like that, there will be a time. When I get that age, I will workout. I'm going to enjoy myself now."
If anything, drivers like Stewart and Bowyer seem to harken back to an earlier age, when the most exercise drivers got was climbing in and out of their cars. Some puffed away on cigarettes while behind the wheel. "I'm not sure anyone would have admitted training back in the Allison-Alabama Gang era, or even in the Earnhardt era," Johnson said.
And that was before the implementation of power steering, headrests and other elements that made the cars easier to drive.
"I think their cars were far worse, with no power steering and things like that," David Reutimann said. "... I do feel like being as good at the end of the race as you were at the beginning is a huge deal, but I think those guys just had the stamina. And I don't know how they could do it, because obviously not many of them were working out. You look at the biceps on Junior Johnson back in the day, the guy had some arms on him. So a lot of those guys were pretty stout. They may not have worked out or ran marathons, but a lot of those guys were very strong in their own respect."
They were also able to turn late nights into early mornings. NASCAR's history is filled with larger-than-life personalities who played as hard as they worked, but somehow didn't allow it to affect them behind the wheel.
"I think the mentality was different in those days," added Reutimann, whose father Buzzie was also a driver. "You heard stories about guys staying up half the night and drinking and then running 500 miles. Evidently, they were a lot tougher than we are right now. Because they seemed to be able to pull it off. I could never pull it off, for sure."
Kahne said some of that still lingered when he broke into the sport in 2004, before the fitness craze and the baby boom combined to make the Sprint Cup motorhome lot a much more sedate place. The likes of Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly might not be able to relate to getting up before dawn to run 13 miles, but they'd certainly understand the reasoning behind it -- using another method to try and be the best.
"Everything's changed so much," Kahne said. "? I like where's it at now, with some of the training and things I've been able to do. Doing this half marathon, and a (triathlon) last year, it's pretty fun. And it keeps your focus where it needs to be if you want to try to beat Jimmie Johnson or Brad Keselowski in the points throughout the whole season."
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