They're on their way, five of NASCAR's key players in 2010. The four-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion (Jimmie Johnson) strolls into a small conference room in the infield at Michigan International Speedway. Next comes the leader in the points standings (Kevin Harvick), followed closely by NASCAR's most popular driver (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and one of the sport's most outspoken personalities (Greg Biffle). Finally, a driver who's taken five checkered flags in 2010 (Denny Hamlin) breezes into this stuffy room.
It's a mid-June afternoon, and these five drivers have been asked by SI to participate in a roundtable discussion on all things NASCAR, moderated by SI. They shake hands, exchange pleasantries and take a seat. The transcript of this talk, which has been edited for length and clarity, follows below.
"I've been looking forward to this," Biffle says as he leans back and takes a sip of water. "I think we all have a lot to say."
Did they ever. What was scheduled to take 30 minutes lasted twice that long. So pull a virtual chair to the table and find out where NASCAR's next tragedy is likely to take place, what Johnson really thinks of fans who don't understand him and why everyone here—Johnson included—thinks the champ will be vulnerable this fall.
SI: I want to start by hitting on some state-of-the-sport subjects, and let's dive right into the biggest one. A lot of fans have left the sport. You see this in the empty grandstands each week and in the falling TV ratings. From your perspective is there anything that can be done to enliven the sport and bring back those fans?
Harvick: I look at it like you walk into Yankee Stadium and they don't sell out their home opener. It's a sign of the times. There are still more than 100,000 fans at most of our races, which is more than [the] Super Bowl.
Johnson: I also think we react more to the fans' opinion than any other sport. We now have double-file restarts, the wave-around, three attempts at a green-white-checkered. Each year they talk about changes to the Chase and the format, and that stuff has been brought up again to try to keep people interested.
Biffle: There are so many other ways to watch a race now. Listen to it on your phone. Twitter updates every lap. So you can go hiking or camping or whatever and still pay attention to the race.
SI: All you guys are well versed in the history of NASCAR, especially you, Dale. Do you think the quality of racing in the '70s and '80s, when NASCAR first started to grow from a regional sport into a national one, was better than it is today?
Earnhardt: When I watch older races, which I still do—I watched four or five older races from the early '80s on Thursday....