Johnson: NASCAR susceptible to HGH

Dan Wetzel

CONCORD, N.C. – Jimmie Johnson pried two white Claritin tablets out of their protective seals, popped them in his mouth and chased them with a gulp of Aquafina.

"Seasonal allergies, pollen," he said before joking, "I'll probably be the random [drug test] this week."

All over NASCAR, the talk is about the suspension of driver Jeremy Mayfield, the first to get caught up in the circuit's new toughened drug testing program. The punishment is clear – Mayfield is out indefinitely. The details of the crime are not, even after the Associated Press reported it was not a performance-enhancing drug violation.

NASCAR still has yet to say what exactly Mayfield tested positive for. So in the meantime everyone gossips, including the man who's won the last three Sprint Cup championships.

"I want to know what the hell he was busted for," Johnson said Thursday morning from his office at the Hendrick Motorsports headquarters near Charlotte. "That's the million dollar question.

"There are rumors floating around. His side is it was this stuff [pointing to the allergy medication on a table in front of him]. Then the rumors on the other side are that it was some hard, illegal drugs. But there is no clarity to what it is."

Johnson doesn't think NASCAR has a drug problem and is glad the testing program appears to be working. His larger concern, though, isn't recreational drugs, but PEDs. As a baseball fan, he knows how quickly scandals can mushroom and overwhelm a sport.

While he can't imagine there's a drug that can help someone drive a stock car 200 miles per hour, Johnson isn't oblivious to the potential benefits of one particular substance.

"Human growth hormones," Johnson said.

"I've never researched any of it, but to me it seems from an athletic standpoint, the human growth hormone stuff could be beneficial; anything to help you recover."

HGH is believed to allow athletes to work out longer and stronger and then come back fresh the next day for another workout. It is also believed to repair connective tissue and maintain muscle mass.

"We don't have the physical strength in our sport that's required in others, but there's no doubt what we do requires endurance and over the course of a season you start to get beaten down," Johnson said. "I don't think you need something to be stronger but I do think the recovery side is important."

Johnson is part of NASCAR's fitness movement, where driver bodies once sculpted by Budweiser have now turned, with notable exceptions, buff. He trains two hours a day, four days a week – lifting weights, running, skipping rope, sprinting. The workouts aren't designed to build great strength, but to allow the body to rebound quickly and maintain hydration better.

NASCAR's grueling 38-week race schedule can wear out even the fittest of drivers. Races are often four-hours long inside a brutally hot car. Then there are the bumps, bruises and worse. This is, after all, a sport where a high-speed wreck is never too many laps away.

Some drivers even compete in up to three races a weekend, driving the truck and Nationwide series races, sometimes in multiple cities. The rejuvenating powers of HGH would seem ideal for the physical challenges of the sport.

"I think a lot about it," Johnson said. "I think [in baseball] people knew about [performance-enhancing drugs], but they weren't on top of it and let it continue."

He hasn't heard of any driver using PEDs and isn't accusing anyone, either specifically or in general. He isn't dumb, though. He knows that there was a time when baseball's conventional wisdom said PEDs couldn't help a guy hit a ball and had no benefits for pitchers, so it wasn't a widespread deal.

"I watch [baseball] and I think, 'How did it get this bad?' " Johnson said. "I watch it and think, 'Boy, I'm glad we're on top of it now before it is so out of control we'd have the same issues that MLB has right now.' "

The problem with HGH is there is no effective test for it. So while Johnson is pleased with NASCAR's drug testing policy, it can't detect HGH.

NASCAR, with its roots in Southern bootlegging, has always been a sport that considers rule bending a badge of honor. If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin', they say. Crew chiefs are constantly pushing the envelope. Johnson's own, Chad Knaus, has twice been suspended by NASCAR for rules violations.

But that's under the hood, in the garage stuff. Some fans are outraged, but most see it as part of the culture.

A performance-enhancing drug problem, though, would be a different, more ominous, thing.

"I hate to see guys sitting in front of Congress saying, 'I didn't use performance-enhancing drugs' and then six months later they're guilty of it or some story comes out," Johnson said. "That stuff sucks."

So as long as Mayfield wasn't wrongly busted for over-the-counter medication, Johnson sees this as a positive. Yes, NASCAR may be as exposed as any sport, but at least this is a start.