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Johnson wins Daytona 500, race shows that NASCAR drivers are classified as athletes

AJ Neuharth-Keusch
NASCAR held its annual Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 24. Fans cheered and engines roared as the 43 drivers started the 200-lap marathon.

     Leading the pack in the first inside row was Danica Patrick, the only female driver in the lineup.

Three hours after the starting gun sounded, third ranked Sprint Cup driver Jimmie Johnson crossed the finish first.

Twelth ranked Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second, and Patrick, ranked 59th, came in eighth.

The eighth place finish was the highest for a woman in Daytona 500 history.

The race and all of the coverage surrounding it raised a question for me: are NASCAR drivers athletes?

Out of curiosity, I posted the question on Twitter for feedback from my followers. Only two people argued that NASCAR drivers are athletes, while 24 disagreed. However, public opinion isn’t always the best way to receive accurate results.

I began to ask myself questions surrounding the driver’s athletic ability: Could NASCAR superstar Jeff Gordon beat Olympic runner Usain Bolt in a race? No. Could driver Tony Stewart beat Kobe Bryant in a game of one on one? Definitely not.

So, I took the question to the dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines an athlete as “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.”

But, is that all an athlete is? Are speed, strength, and agility the only thing that makes up a professional superstar? Is Rory McIlroy the strongest and most agile person in the world? No. Is he the best golfer in the world? Yes.

Athleticism is more than pure physical ability.

Mental toughness, hand-eye coordination, vision, etc. are all contributing factors to athleticism as well.

Although Stewart wouldn’t score a point against Kobe in one on one, would Kobe win the Daytona 500? He probably wouldn’t even finish the race.

Think of it this way: picture yourself outrunning an entire defense for a 50-yard touchdown and breaking a tackle attempt by legendary linebacker Ray Lewis in the process.

Now picture yourself driving at 200 miles-per-hour in a 120-degree cockpit for three hours against 30 other drivers hungry for a victory.

Neither scenario sounds so simple, does it? Which is why they take professional athletes to perform them.

The Merriam-Webster definition and all of the conversation surrounding NASCAR brought me to another question: Is NASCAR a sport?

ESPN, which stands for the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, continually broadcasts NASCAR events and currently airs two programs titled “NASCAR Now” and “NASCAR Countdown.”

So technically, ESPN, the “Worldwide Leader in Sports, would list NASCAR as a sport.

Athletes make up the roster and months of rigorous training goes into the events. A driver is sponsored, has a “team” surrounding him, and makes eight-figure salaries. Sounds like a sport to me.

So after much thought about a sport that very rarely crosses my mind, my answer to these questions: yes. NASCAR is definitely a sport and NASCAR drivers are definitely athletes. ESPN should continue to broadcast races just as much as it should continue to broadcast bowling or fishing.