Cup drivers still figuring out how to handle the long season

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- For Jimmie Johnson, this weekend means wrapping up his second consecutive championship and further establishing himself as one of the top drivers of his generation. For everybody else in the Nextel Cup garage, it's like the beginning of recess that is coming after 11 months of class.

The Cup season unofficially begins in the second week of January with testing and extends through the banquet in early December. If a driver has driven in every lap in every race this season, he will have covered almost 14,000 miles. That's the equivalent of driving from New York to Los Angeles and back two and a half times, minus the lousy road food. Sure, the drivers arrive at the track in fancy helicopters and travel on private jets from city to city, but it's still a load to bear. And that's not even considering the schedules of the crew members, who put in longer hours at the track.

When most people who aren't NASCAR drivers get tired after having driven for a long period of time, they usually pull over or ingest caffeine or other stimulants. ESPN.com asked a few Cup drivers and one crew chief for their perspective on how to avoid burnout.

Ryan Newman
How do you prevent burnout?

For me, I just try to do things that I enjoy: the outdoors, fishing, hunting. Obviously, running good makes the biggest difference. As a whole, you're just going have to manage it. You have to have good people around you with good attitudes, and that goes a really long way.

Do you find that it affects you on the track?

You don't. Once you get in the race car, everything relates to that racetrack, not being burned out. Performance drives a lot of the attitude, no doubt. … We do get to go home; we do get to do different things as far as where we're at on a given weekend to have fun, to enjoy things, and that makes a big difference. It's just a matter of what kind of lifestyle you want and what you like to enjoy.

Denny Hamlin
How do you prevent burnout?

Really, it's tough to not get burned out when you have the on-track problems that we've had these last 10 weeks. It's hard not to get frustrated and wish for it all to be over, so, really, I don't know what we could do to make it any better other than just get the monkey off of our back, you know? It's the only way. All it takes is one really good run to fire you back up. So, that's the biggest way to stay focused, is just have that one run that gives you that spark.

How do you feel physically?

Really good. Really, there's no real wear and tear on you physically at this point in the season, it's just more mental than anything.

How do you prevent fatigue from affecting you during a race?

More of it has to do with dehydration; you definitely lose a lot of focus when you're dehydrated. So, for the most part, as long as you stay hydrated, your focus stays there. … There's a physical aspect to it, but it's probably not as much as what it was back in the '70s or '80s.

Kevin Harvick
How do you prevent burnout?

You just learn how to pace yourself and just try to take the time off when you get the time available. It's all just about experience. The first year, I did all this stuff and I wore myself down to nothing. Ever since then, we've been able to maintain a pretty good pace.

What's the best way to avoid feeling tired in the car?

Keeping yourself in shape. I don't think it's one particular thing, but running good doesn't hurt anything.

Tony Stewart
How do you prevent burnout?

I haven't figured that out yet. I think everybody [gets burned out] at some point. It's a long, grueling season, and it's not just the three days you're at the racetrack; it's the four days you're testing, or appearances, traveling to and from, that's all the stuff that just constantly adds up and keeps it going. That's probably the hardest part of the whole equation is just the fact that it is so long and there's not a lot of days off.

Does burnout affect you in the car, on the track?

I don't know that it does. You still get in there and do what you do. It's not like it used to be in the old days where you didn't have power steering and everything. Everybody's a little better about being more physically conditioned. I mean, I'm probably on the low end of that list, but still, I can go out and do that; I go out and run a Late Model the same night, come back, run a Cup car the next day, and still not have any problems. I don't think it's that as much as it's just mentally draining during the season.

What do you do to relax?

I don't tell anybody what I do to relax. When you start telling everybody what you do, then they start hunting you down, and that then makes it non-relaxing again. It's for us to know and for you guys to make up.

Chad Knaus
How do you prevent burnout?

It's probably easier for me than most; I really enjoy what I do. I don't have a whole lot of outside interests, so I don't mind going into work and working on the race cars. I really enjoy it. We go through great pains to make sure that the guys are rested, they get a day and half, two days off a week, Jimmie [Johnson] gets his ample time off during the week and stuff like that. We really try to make sure that everybody's rested so that when we get to the final 10 races, everybody's pretty fresh.

Is that a factor in the series, overall?

We've got 43 competitors every week, 50 teams that show up every week and everybody's trying to do everything they can to go as fast as they can. It can be really grueling. So, making sure everybody gets time off, gets rested and clears their mind of the actual day-to-day runnings of the race shop is important.

Do the fans have a real idea of the travel and commitment that's involved?

I don't think anybody can really understand it unless they live it. We don't get home from the racetrack until late, late Sunday nights. We usually give the guys Mondays off and then they're in there first thing Tuesday morning. And they work Tuesday, Wednesday and sometimes Thursday, and fly out again on Thursday. It's a tough cycle and it's a tough schedule, but you wouldn't be here if you didn't enjoy it.

How does it affect you physically?

It's tough. That's all there is to it. It's very tough, it's difficult. You've got to make sure the guys eat right, that I eat right, so you stay healthy, keep the nutrients in your body. A lot of our guys work out, so that's a good combination, so we try to push for all of that.

Paul Grant is a senior coordinator at ESPN.