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Those dangerous, devious midnight rides back when it all began are still vivid in his mind, alive as ever, as if it were just minutes ago that he was running moonshine through the Carolina darkness, lead-footing it away from the flashing red lights of the revenuers. The original JJ—Junior Johnson, now 80, still the most iconic figure in NASCAR history—is the last remaining link between racing's outlaw past (he began hauling 'shine at 14) and its corporate present. (He personally convinced Jim Lowe, the owner of Lowe's, to enter the sport in 1955 and sponsor his car; Lowe's now backs that other JJ.) Yes, Junior Johnson is old school NASCAR personified, gritty and hard, and on this summer day he steers his 2002 black Chevy pickup through the green hills and hollows outside of Wilkesboro, N.C., where American stock car racing was born with the moonshine runners in the 1940s.
As he scans the dirt roads of his youth, the memories of how it used to be come flooding back. "Bootlegging cars was the start of race cars," says Johnson, who won 50 Cup races and was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in the inaugural class of 2010. "We souped them up to outrun the law, and that's where they got the idea to start racing. We'd find a strip of road and race our moonshine cars. I retired from driving in NASCAR when I was just 35 because, honestly, the speed and the danger I experienced running moonshine and racing on those country roads was greater than the speed and the danger I dealt with on the racetrack."
Yet even Johnson admits he would have stayed in the racing game longer if the rewards were as high for him as they are for the Sprint Cup drivers competing this Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, the site of the first race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. To hear Johnson tell it—and, in fact, to hear everyone in the Cup garage tell it—this year's 12-driver field is as deep as it's been in the eight-year history of the Chase, as six drivers (Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Brad Keselowski) all appear to have the speed in their cars, the strength in their crews and the skill in their cockpits to be hoisting the championship trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 20 and collecting a check for close to $6 million, or nearly 20 times what Junior Johnson won in his entire Cup career ($301,866).
What do Johnson and other racing giants from the past think of NASCAR today and this year's Chase? To find out, SI spent time with Johnson, Richard Petty and Bobby Allison, soliciting their opinions on topics ranging from the quality of the racing to who they believe will be the driver to beat this fall to what can be done to make the driver more important to racing success than the car. (They all agree that's not the case now). What they say is revealing—and could hold a key to revving up a sport with well-documented attendance woes and flagging TV ratings.
"Back in the day you could come to the racetrack and anything could happen," Johnson says. "A driver with not that much money could actually win. That's not the case anymore. You can almost predict before the race the seven or eight drivers who actually have a chance to win. But I'll tell you what: I think the Chase this year is as wide-open as it's ever been. This year, you actually can't predict who will win, and that's good for NASCAR."
Wearing his trademark cowboy hat and cowboy boots, Richard Petty is sitting in a director's chair outside the number 43 hauler at Atlanta Motor Speedway, signing one autograph after another in his careful, delicate script. Between 1958 and 1992, Petty, now 74, won a record 200 Cup races, including one at North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1972. That day he and Bobby Allison banged against each other so violently and frequently over the closing laps on the .625-mile oval that their cockpits filled with smoke and their mouths with bits of hot rubber. Though Allison shoved Petty's Plymouth into the guardrail on the penultimate lap, causing sparks to fly, Petty beat Allison to the checkered flag. When people talk about wanting NASCAR to return to its hard-charging, hard-racing roots, they're speaking of returning to afternoons like that one in '72.
"You don't see action on the track anymore like what Bobby and I did back on that day," says Petty, his eyes closed, recalling the race. "You simply can't do that now because once you bump a guy out of the way and get past him, the guy you moved usually can't get back to you. We didn't have that problem, which I think is a good problem not to have. But that's why track position now is so important in the sport, which means pit stops and qualifying are critical if you're going to win the championship this year."
Which is why a steady grind-it-out guy such as former champ Kenseth (whose one-victory title-winning season in 2003 was a big reason NASCAR went to the Chase format, in the hope of putting more emphasis on winning races) may have an advantage over harder-charging types such as Kyle Busch or Edwards. Petty, however, like many other observers, feels that the racing these days is predictable enough that there's no reason to expect regime change.
"Until proven otherwise," he says, "Jimmie Johnson should be the guy that everyone is gunning for."
You want to know how to make the racing 100 times better than it is right now in NASCAR?" says Bobby Allison, 73, as he leans back on a love seat in the living room of his house in Mooresville, N.C. "It's simple: Take off the front splitter on the cars and let a lot of air go underneath. Then let's go and see who can drive the thing and who can't when it's much harder to control. This will also make the cars look a little bit more like the cars in our driveways, which I think fans want. I know I do."