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September 19, 2011
On the eve of the most competitive Chase yet, NASCAR's old hero holds forth on the state of the sport he and his rivals created. Buckle up
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September 19, 2011

Junior Johnson Has A Lot To Say, Yes

On the eve of the most competitive Chase yet, NASCAR's old hero holds forth on the state of the sport he and his rivals created. Buckle up

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The point that Allison, whose 84 Cup victories tie him with Darrell Waltrip for fourth alltime, is making is that the cars won't grip the track as well without the front splitter—which stretches from the front grille to a few inches above the ground. This, he believes, would make the cars harder to drive and, thus, put the races more in the driver's hands rather than in the calculations of the team engineers who sit atop the pit boxes in front of computers analyzing the car's aerodynamics. "There's just too much engineering in the sport," says Allison, a native of Hueytown, Ala., and a member of the famous Alabama Gang that included his brother, Donnie, and Red Farmer. "Let the boys drive. And if they feel like it, let the boys really go after each other, both on the track and in the garage. Right now, that 'Boys, Have At It' thing that NASCAR announced [in 2010] has just turned out to be a p.r. move, nothing more."

Yet the much-ballyhooed "Boys, Have At It" directive may well play a crucial role in the Chase. For most of the season Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have taken turns expressing their antipathy for each other: Harvick took a punch at Busch at Darlington in May; three months later, in a Camping World Truck Series race at Bristol, Busch (the driver Junior Johnson calls "the most exciting guy in NASCAR right now") intentionally wrecked Elliott Sadler, who drives in the Nationwide Series for a team owned by Harvick. Said Busch after dumping Sadler into the wall, "Just look at where his paycheck comes from."

Harvick hasn't retaliated—yet. But if he's out of the championship picture at Homestead and Busch isn't, well, don't be shocked if Harvick goes after Busch in a way that would make Allison smile.

In March 1965, Thomas Wolfe wrote a story about Junior Johnson in Esquire in which Johnson was dubbed "the Last American Hero." In 1998 this magazine anointed Johnson the greatest driver in NASCAR history. Today, when he walks through the garage before a Cup race, drivers look at him with awe, and many have even sought his autograph. So when Johnson speaks, most in the sport tend to listen.

"I don't like the cookie-cutter cars in NASCAR today," Johnson says. "It's a safer car, but I'd like to let people build their own cars and see what they can come up with. When I raced, if you had the mind and the skills of knowing how to fix something, you won."

Indeed, Johnson was as innovative as anyone in the history of the sport. At Daytona on Valentine's Day in 1960, for instance, he invented the art of drafting. After qualifying for the Great American Race with a run 14 mph slower than that of the pole sitter, Johnson discovered during the 500 that he could go as fast as the leaders if he positioned his underpowered Chevy directly behind a much faster Pontiac, allowing the lead car to pull him in an aerodynamic draft—a technique that is still used today. (Johnson, for the record, won the '60 Daytona 500.)

Yet it's not just Johnson's on-track accomplishments that still make him a larger-than-life figure in NASCAR. Most drivers have a rebellious edge to them, but none quite like Johnson. In 1956—in the middle of his second full Cup season—federal agents caught Johnson at his father's still in Wilkes County, N.C.; he was convicted of moonshining and spent 11 months in a federal prison in Chillicothe, Ohio. (He was pardoned in '85 by President Reagan.) "I got more fans because I went to prison," Johnson says. "I was so damn mad when I got out that I went back to it. Never got caught again."

As Johnson speaks, he walks through the empty infield of North Wilkesboro Speedway, the site of some of his greatest triumphs. The track has fallen into decay; weeds sprout through cracks in the pavement, and paint on the old press box is flaking. The Cup series hasn't competed here since 1996. "NASCAR got too big for this place, and that's a good thing," Johnson says. "The drivers now come from all over the world; they're no longer just a bunch of country boys like me. So much has changed."

Yet, at least two things haven't: First, a JJ is the man to beat. And, second, the spirit of those midnight runs through the Carolina hills still fuels the sport.

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