Like this guy, in almost 18 years of sports reporting, I've covered virtually every major professional sport. And, like this guy, I've even competed in my share over the years, a few at a reasonably competitive level and with some success. But, unlike this guy and at risk of pissing off a whole bunch of people, I just don't think NASCAR drivers are athletes, per se.
Of course, it will likely come as no real surprise, then, that I don't consider NASCAR a sport in a conventional sense. But then, I don't consider golf a sport in a conventional sense, either. Hell, I'm not terribly impressed by most professional baseball players (former Philly John Kruk, who once famously told a female fan, "I ain't an athlete, lady, I'm a baseball player," remains a hero). Regardless, I love each competition and appreciate and respect the unique skills necessary to do any of them at a high level.
Are there athletes, as I define the term, who are drivers? Sure -- and just as I tend to think Tiger Woods is an athlete, I acknowledge that Elliott Sadler or Kyle Petty or Dale Jarrett could well be excellent athletes. I just don't happen to think one needs to be an athlete to be a successful NASCAR driver. Put another way, I can and have played 18 holes of golf before, but, I can promise you, I'm no golfer.
Do NASCAR drivers need to be athletes to do what they do? I don't think so. And to all those who will doubtless be annoyed and disagree, I give you ... Tony Stewart.