Donovan McNabb and Jimmie Johnson recently got into a Twitter war about whether NASCAR drivers are athletes. “Do I think he’s an athlete?” McNabb said. “Absolutely not. … He’s not an athlete. He sits in a car and he drives so that doesn’t be athletic.” Well put Donovan, an athlete who was benched by the Washington Redskins for not being able to run the 2-minute offense because he was out of shape.
But does Donovan McNabb have a point? NASCAR drivers compete weekly in 500-mile races where the cockpit temperatures inside the car reach 120-degrees Fahrenheit and oxygen is in less supply to due the aerodynamics of the cars; the cars are designed so that air travels up and over, not into the cars. Drivers experience 2-3 G’s on every (left) turn they take. (1 G is equal to the gravitational weight you feel sitting in a chair in your living room. 2-3 G’s is like feeling 2 to 3 times your body weight pushing down as you sit in your chair. High G roller coasters range from 3-5 G’s. Fighter pilots can reach 9-12 G’s.)
And of course whether we admit it or not, some foolish fans wait for the spectacular high speed crashes that do (unfortunately) occur during a NASCAR race. When these collisions happen, a driver can experience 20-50 G’s for a split second as the car smashes into the wall. With advanced technology and the HANS devise (Head and Neck Support) these seemingly deadly crashes result in relatively minor injuries.
And perhaps the biggest determining factor for the success of a NASCAR driver is his (or her, with respect to Danica Patrick) fear factor. Falling off a horse is one thing. Getting hit by a 95 MPH fastball is another and getting back in the batters box after a being hit by a wayward pitch takes some level of nerve. Getting back in a car and accelerating back up to 200 MPH with 42 other cars on the track after wrecking a few days earlier; that takes guts and nerves usually reserved for white rappers on open mic night.
But enough about whether NASCAR drivers are or are not athletes. How much do they get paid to strap into their numbered, logo smeared vehicles and put their lives on the line every week? According to Forbes a driver’s earnings are calculated by: a base salary + 40-50% of team winnings + a % of the merchandise sales + personal endorsements.
Did Jimmie Johnson, the athlete in question, earn the most for winning his 6th Sprint Cup Championship in 2013? Read on to find out.
5. Carl Edwards in the 99, $13.7 million ($12.2M salary/winnings, $1.5M endorsements)
Perhaps best known for his celebratory back flip in victory lane – is that athletic Donovan? – Carl Edwards has raced at the Cup level for eight years, driving the 99 Ford Fusion for Roush Fenway Racing. Prior to his NASCAR fame, Edwards studied at the University of Missouri; Go Tigers. Preparing for life not behind the wheel led Edwards to a stint as a substitute teacher. I wonder if he did backflips off the teacher’s desk at the end of class? Edwards married Dr. Karen Downey, who specializes in working with patients with traumatic brain injury, in 2009.
His success and natural on-camera personality has allowed Edwards to broadcast races on television and “crossover” into the endorsement arena, where he’s involved with companies outside of racing such as Aflac and Subway. In 2013, Edwards won two Sprint Cup races: the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix and the Federated Auto parts 400 at Richmond.
4. Jeff Gordon in the 24, $18.1 million ($12.6M salary/winnings, $5.5M endorsements)
Jeff Gordon, at 41, is an elder statesman of the NASCAR circuit. The four-time Sprint Cup Champion drives the 24 Chevrolet SS for Hendrick Motorsports. Inside that 5′ 7″ body lies a gambler. Gordon participated in Bravo’s celebrity Poker Showdown swapping cards with the likes of Angie Dickinson, Kathy Griffin, Penn Jillette, Seth Meyers and Dave Navarro. Gordon made it to the final round, but was sent home first.
Like Carl Edwards, Gordon has taken advantage of NASCAR’s popularity and negotiated sponsorship deals with Pepsi and AARP Drive to End Hunger. Gordon’s long time sponsor Dupont was sold to the Carlyle Group which changed the look of his 24 car to the Xalta Coating Systems black and red paint scheme. His lone win in 2013 came at Martinsville at the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 powered by Kroger.
3. Tony Stewart in the 14, $18.7 million ($12.7M salary/winnings, $6M endorsements)
Tony Stewart is one of the few “good old boys” left in NASCAR. In 1997, he bought his childhood home and moved back into it in 2004, that’s pretty cool. On Memorial Day in 1999, he became the first driver to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 (Indy Car) and the Coca Cola 600 on the same day. For those of you with math difficulties, that’s 1,100 miles of racing in one day!
As many true race fans know, “Smoke” races pretty much anything with an engine. That caught up with him last August when he broke his right fibula and tibia in an accident in a (relatively) meaningless race on a dirt track in Iowa. Stewart drives the 14 Chevrolet SS Impala for Stewart-Haas racing of which he is a co-owner. His “good old boy” image attracts sponsors like Bass Pro Shop and Mobil 1. Stewart won only once this year at the Fedex 400 Benefitting Autism at Dover. “Smoke” hopes to be ready for the kickoff of the 2014 Sprint Cup Series at the Daytona 500 this February 23.
2. Jimmie Johnson in the 48, $23 million ($16.3M salary/winnings, $6.7M endorsements)
To get a good idea of Johnson’s character, in high school, Johnson confidently rocked a Speedo swim suit while on the aquatics team where he participated in varsity swimming, diving and water polo. Johnson continues to be a fitness fanatic ti thus day. According to The Sporting News, Johnson averages five days of running (30-40 miles total), two days swimming (four miles total) and two or three days biking (100 miles) every week. Sounds pretty athletic to me.
Johnson drives the 48 Lowes/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet SS for Hendrick Motorsports and collected six wins in 2013 along the way to the championship. His sponsors include Gatorade and Tylenol, both of which will come in handy with all that training.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr in the 88, $25.9 million ($12.9 salary/winnings, $13M endorsements
Dale Earnhardt Jr. continues to be the darling of NASCAR despite his lack of success on the track, as he has never won a Sprint Cup Championship and has only won two races in the last five years. But life is good off the track. His home was featured on MTV Cribs with special attention giving to Club E; the basement of his home in Charlotte, NC outfitted nicely with televisions and plenty of Budweiser Beer. It looked like the perfect place for him and his buddies to hangout. In 2003, Junior played the role of Playboy Magazine Celebrity Photographer shooting the Dahm triplets at his home. Lucky guy.
Junior won his record breaking eleventh Most Popular Driver award in a row this year. His endorsement deals alone are worth double that of what Jimmie Johnson takes in. Junior pitches products for Progressive Insurance, Mountain Dew and the National Guard. Why is Junior a fan favorite and endorsement magnet? He is the son of the Intimadator, Dale Earnhardt, a seven time Sprint Cup Champion. And having a laid back, southern style personality probably helps too.
Are NASCAR driver’s athletes? They are certainly paid like professional athletes. The 2014 NASCAR season kicks off on Sunday, February 23 with the 56th running of the Daytona 500.
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