Commentary

Drafting 101: It's not rocket science ... or is it?

The best drafter in NASCAR? Junior Johnson, the man who invented the technique, says Jimmie Johnson is as good as they come, writes Ed Hinton.

Updated: July 30, 2008, 1:49 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Jimmie Johnson AP Photo/Steve HelberJunior Johnson says Jimmie Johnson (48) and Jeff Gordon are the best of the active drafters.

Jimmie Johnson flew by the seat of his pants as an art form Sunday, using the draft to go from ninth to first in the final laps at Indianapolis, then breaking the draft to hold off Carl Edwards and win.

It was a masterful job that would take a chalkboard full of equations on physics and aerodynamics to explain scientifically. But in the end, Johnson had little explanation.

"I don't know why," he said of his tactics. "It's just what I did."

The best drafters never have tried to understand the reasons. Lore has it that the late Dale Earnhardt could see the air as it swirled in man-made tempests. Truth is, he could feel and hear the air around him like nobody else.

Johnson's feel for the air could come in handy again this Sunday. At Pocono, as at Indy, the draft is widely overlooked as a factor because both tracks are so much flatter, with tighter turns, than draft-renowned Daytona and Talladega. What both northern tracks do have are long straightaways: Rectangular Indy has two; triangular Pocono, one.

On this past Sunday, a uniquely interested spectator, via television in his mansion on his North Carolina cattle farm, was the living legend Junior Johnson, the moonshine runner turned NASCAR driver turned team owner, who is now retired from racing.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt and Dale Jr
AP Photo/Phil CoaleDale Earnhardt, rear, was in a league of his own when it came to the art of drafting, a skill that rubbed off -- to an extent -- on son Dale Jr.

Junior Johnson, at age 77, could see and feel and understand precisely what Jimmie Johnson, age 32 (no relation), was doing.

It was Junior who discovered the phenomenon of drafting, invented the tactic, and became the first driver to win with it, in the second Daytona 500, in 1960. Then, as an owner, he understood sooner than anyone else that cars could be designed to optimize drafting for his drivers, who included Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip.

Junior keeps a sharp, still-savvy eye on all things NASCAR, while ranching, curing country hams and -- coolest of all -- distilling and distributing whiskey, legally now for the first time in his life.

Jimmie didn't surprise Junior at all Sunday, Jimmie being one of the best two active drivers at drafting in Junior's estimation, Jeff Gordon being the other.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is widely renowned as the best active drafter. "Well, he was," Junior Johnson said Tuesday. "He has been. But I've noticed he gets shucked out now."

"Shucked" is Junior-speak for getting shuffled or punted back in the draft in modern NASCAR parlance.

Drafting is a dying art, Junior reckons, even with all the close restrictor-plate racing at Daytona and Talladega … and even with all of NASCAR's efforts to bring back drafting for better racing, with the taller, wider Car of Tomorrow that knocks bigger holes in the air to facilitate drafting.

"I don't think a lot of these guys are really good in the draft," Junior said. "There's a lot of skill to it. You take [Sunday's race at] Indianapolis -- a lot of them guys got shucked out, right toward the end. Guys you thought had a chance to win it wound up 10th, 11th, 12th."

Who is least proficient?

"Now you take Kevin Harvick," Junior said. "I never see him draft anybody. It's either that he doesn't like to be that close to them, or something.

"About the only ones you'll see doing it are the top four or five runners."

Late in races on tracks where drafting matters, Junior Johnson watches for teammates Gordon and Johnson, plus, "Edwards and a couple more of them boys will hang right in there. Kyle Busch will hang. But some of them guys make mistakes. And they get shucked."

Though Indy isn't notorious as a drafting track, it actually requires more precision because it's less forgiving, and "once you get about three or four car lengths behind, you're capable of plumb losing the draft," Junior said.

Said Jimmie Johnson Sunday of his Indy tactics, "In these [new] cars, if you get within a car length of the guy in front of you, the lead car punches such a large hole [in the air] that you suck up really fast. I was just trying to get a two- or three-car gap on Carl, and I knew I'd be OK."

I don't think a lot of these guys are really good in the draft. There's a lot of skill to it.

-- Junior Johnson

So Jimmie zigged and zagged trying to break the draft. Finally he just zigged, concerned that zagging would wear out his tires. All in all, "I don't know why. It's just what I did."

In the Daytona 500 of 1960, Junior Johnson had no idea -- "none at all" -- what was happening to him in a 1959 Chevrolet that in practice and qualifying had been "25 to 30 miles an hour slower than everybody else," he recalled. (Huge speed differentials weren't unusual in those days.)

Early in the race, as he pulled out of the pits, "I could see Cotton Owens coming off Turn 4," in one of the Pontiacs that formed the dominant fleet that year. "I got up to speed, just wide-open. Here he came, up on me, and went around me. When he did, I ducked in behind him.

"And, dern, going down the backstretch, going into the third turn, I was running all over him."

Junior's Chevy wasn't strong enough to pull out and pass. So he remained tucked behind Owens for a while.

When Junior pitted again, crew chief Ray Fox "thought he'd fixed it." That is, Fox thought the Chevy was now fast on its own. But, "I went back out and ran by myself," Junior said, "and it was just as slow as it had been before."

On a hunch, "I waited on Jack Smith. He had the fastest car. He was a little bit faster than Cotton, but I could stay with him the same way I could Cotton."

As the race went on, "when I was sitting behind one of the Pontiacs, shucks, I wasn't running but about two-thirds throttle. But I was turning a thousand RPM more."

Amazing.

Toward the end of the race, all the Pontiacs had failed except for the older '59 Pontiac owned by Smokey Yunick and driven by Bobby Johns. Finally, with Junior leading late, "the Pontiac teams figured it out. Jack Smith had burned a wheel bearing, and they fixed it and sent him out. They sent Jack out to pull Bobby up to beat me."

Smith towed Johns up and past Junior in the draft, "and when they went by me, it [the force of the draft] took Bobby's back glass out, and he spun out down the backstretch, and when I came back around he was still sitting there. …

"After I won the race, I told Ray Fox, 'Well, we hitched a ride to the winner's circle.'"

And drafting was born. The technique turned 48, Jimmie Johnson's number, this season.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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