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  • Behind the Wheel

    Settling in behind the wheel of a stock racing car is an experience left to a few professionals and adventure-seeking hobbyists. True, you can visit a driving school and earn a few laps around the track. But driving a race car, year after year, is a yearning that drivers are born with―the need to race.

    Every year there are hundreds of drivers out there putting their race team up against the best in the country. The NASCAR circuit is competitive, points are tough to earn, and finishes are critical. So who are these guys behind the wheel? The drivers below run the gamut from rookies, veterans, and hometown heros to the progeny of multigeneration NASCAR families.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Some drivers are destined for the track. As a third-generation NASCAR champion, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one of them. Born in Kannapolis, N.C., to a family rich in racing history, Earnhardt was positioned for a future with fast cars.

    Earnhardt had not just one, but two grandfathers involved with racing. One grandfather, Robert Gee, was a well-known NASCAR mechanic and fabricator. The other grandfather, Ralph Earnhardt, spent his time behind the wheel. In fact, Ralph Earnhardt was voted as one of NASCAR's 50 all-time best drivers in 1999.

    The well-known NASCAR champion and Earnhardt's father, the legendary Dale Earnhardt, offered inspiration and motivation to his son. Even after the paternal Earnhardt's fatal crash, the junior Earnhardt is inspired by his success and dedication to racing.

    From the very beginning, Earnhardt was familiar with the routine and grueling schedule of a professional driver. Today, as a NASCAR driver, he is expected to win―for the team, the owner, the crew, and himself.

    When Earnhardt gets behind the wheel, he brings with him a strong background in mechanics (he has an automotive degree), vast experience with a variety of race cars, and business understanding as a Busch car owner and the co-owner of JR Motorsports Team. Apparently, for Earnhardt this experience is a winning combination.

    Denny Hamlin

    Every season there are rookies on the NASCAR circuit. In 2006, one very successful rookie is Denny Hamlin. From Chesterfield, Va., Hamlin (born in 1980) might be a rookie for NASCAR, but he has a long history in racing.

    When Hamlin was just seven years old he started racing go-carts. As he got older, he spent a lot of time at the Southside Speedway in Midlothian, Va., learning to drive stock cars. Finding some success in local races, the young driver expanded to race on more tracks.

    With additional experience in stock car racing, Hamlin built a solid platform from which to launch his NASCAR career. In 2004 he debuted in a Busch race run on the Darlington track. Finally, in 2006 he appeared on the NASCAR circuit as a rookie.

    Being a rookie isn't easy, though every driver has to go through it his first year. Hamlin has done well so far in 2006, with several top-10 finishes―and even a few top fives. This year, he has been a pleasure to watch on the track.

    Mark Martin

    Racing alongside the rookies are the steadfast veterans of NASCAR. Mark Martin, of Batesville, Ark., has been racing since debuting on a dirt track.

    Martin has had a challenging career but remained determined to stay in racing. After dirt tracks, he moved to Busch cars. Eager to get into the NASCAR circuit, he owned his own car. The responsibility of driving and owning your car can be challenging, especially if you run into problems collecting the promised sponsorship funds.

    In the NASCAR industry, successful drivers are usually supported by the system. Martin was able to drive for another owner and continue with his NASCAR career. Eventually, maybe even in 2006, he will retire. One can only agree that Martin has had a good run of it; by midway through 2006 alone he had finished in the top five and the top 10, securing significant winnings.

    Jimmie Johnson

    Born in El Cajon, Calif., in 1975, Jimmie Johnson got his start on motorcycles at the age of four―when most kids are just removing the training wheels from their bicycles. Then Johnson began winning.

    Johnson explored several racing styles on his way to the NASCAR circuit. Before he was 20 years old, he became expert at off-road racing―even announcing for ESPN because he knew the sport so well.

    Busch racing was the next step for Johnson. He began winning there too, and the logical next step was NASCAR. He entered the circuit as a rookie in 2002, but some rookie: He came in fifth for points that year.

    Johnson is a natural who loves racing. When he gets behind the wheel, good things happen. Of course, success isn't the driver's alone and Johnson credits his crew and team for supporting the finishes. He began the 2006 season with 15 top-10 finishes and seven finishes in the top five―with winnings in excess of $5 million.

    Geoff Bodine

    What makes a driver (and both of his brothers) take up stock car racing? The family Speedrome in Chamung, N.Y., pulled the Bodine boys into racing. Spending a lot of time at the Speedrome, Geoff Bodine was around race cars day-in and day-out. With this level of familiarity, it's no wonder he started racing micro-midgets at the fresh-faced age of five.

    Geoff's NASCAR career has been long and colorful. There were many wins and even some severe crashes. Still, he continued to drive when others might have been discouraged. And he inspired his younger brothers, Brett and Todd, to follow their racing dreams too.

    After Brett Bodine started with hobby cars, he stepped up to stock cars in Stafford, Conn. Brett began winning and the rest, as they say, is history. While Brett and Geoff were becoming race car owners in 1996, Todd was learning all he could about the mechanics of race cars.

    Todd Bodine spent many hours working in mechanics to get a deep understanding of how the equipment worked and why. This study of race cars has given him a strong base for his own NASCAR driving career.

    When a family begins in racing, supports one another, and eventually succeeds in NASCAR, the experience is elating. The Bodine family has worked hard and contributed so much to NASCAR and NASCAR fans. And it isn't over yet―don't expect that you have seen the end of the Bodine family.

    Drivers are drawn to NASCAR racing for many reasons. Maybe they are born into it, or maybe they take up the sport and discover a true love of driving. As a spectator, you can never really know how it feels for every driver behind the wheel of a speeding race car. You can only assume that the vibration you feel in your body when the cars roar by is a mere fraction of the intense rush felt by every NASCAR driver during a race.