This piece appears in the Mar. 9 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
First off, NASCAR does not—repeat, does not—require 43 cars to stage a race. It does, however, prefer to keep things that way. "A full field just says the sport is healthy," says Jimmie Johnson. "To a lot of people, declining car counts show that we've lost a little something. That's not fair, but it's the perception."
Forgive JJ's sensitivity. Everyone in the garage has grown weary of questions about the recession. At Daytona those inquiries centered on the nearly 1,000 postseason layoffs and a slew of stickerless race cars. Now, with the season underway, the big issue is the size of the field. And while the qualifying pool will be shallow, drivers say don't count on low car counts.