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The women behind the men behind the wheel

Three different eras of NASCAR wives describe life in the fast lane. NBC News correspondent Kerry Sanders reports.
/ Source: TODAY

As the race for NASCAR’s prestigious Nextel cup is heading toward the championship, NBC News correspondent Kerry Sanders talks to the women whose husbands are constantly on the road, living life in the fast lane.

Behind the high octane life of NASCAR’s star drivers, meet three women from three different eras of stock car racing.

“I don't know that there's anything that people don't know about Kyle Petty because if you don't he'll tell you. We’ve been married for 27 years,” says Pattie Petty, who describes herself as a veteran NASCAR wife.

“We've been through the ups and downs and the ins and outs together,” says Kim Burton, wife of NASCAR driver Jeff Burton.

Chandra Johnson is married to driver Jimmie Johnson. They’ve been married 10 months — making her a newbie to the NASCAR sport.

They're all familiar faces at race time — more familiar than they'd like to admit.

Obviously, all of their husbands are famous, but if you put just the names of the wives into Google — you get more than 100,000 results.

“Mine? No way. I’m amazed,” says Kim.

“I don't think I have any notoriety at all,” says Chandra.

But they do, and for good reason.

Pattie Petty, of NASCAR’s Petty Dynasty, has been around the sport for decades — before it got hip and before the big money. “I raised a family in a different era. There weren't motor homes, we didn't have airplanes, and my husband made $88 when we got married,” she says.

Kyle adds, “You know it goes back to that old saying ‘Behind every man there's a great woman.’ [It] really is the way it works out, and that is the way it is with us.”

They’re a team that also walks the speedway for charity that benefits kids like 8-year-old Matthew Sheehan.

Sheehan attended Victory Junction Gang, a camp for sick and disabled children. The camp was created to honor the memory of Adam Petty, Pattie and Kyle’s 19-year-old son who died in a crash nearly six years ago.

“They come to camp and they have a smile on their face like Adam left us with. But the NASCAR community within itself is a family,” says Pattie.

It's a family that doesn't dwell on the dangers of the sport.

“It doesn't cross my mind. I don't think I could be that way before a race because I would just be a nervous wreck if I thought about that all the time. He's just going for it right now,” says Chandra.

Kim Burton, a former schoolteacher who's a mother of two, is as much a part of the race as the pit crew. “Growing up in racing isn't the usual way to grow up. Yes, they have a lot of advantages but they miss out. But we put a priority on trying to make sure that when he is here, he's available for them,” says Kim.

Their love story began when she was just 14 and Jeff was 15.

“I believe in the things she wants to do and she believes in the things I want to do, and we communicate a lot,” says Jeff.

Their great relationship doesn’t come from meeting at such a young age.

“Some relationships work better than others, and ours works,” Jeff says. “Ours is not without faults, mostly hers [laughs]. We truly want our marriage to work. We truly want our family to be happy.” 

Chandra Johnson was a model working in New York City who knew “absolutely nothing” about NASCAR before becoming a racing wife.

She's the woman from Oklahoma who took the checkered flag with one of NASCAR’s most eligible and successful drivers. “Initially, I started saying, ‘Jimmie, congratulations, you won!’ But he said, ‘No, we won, we won.’ He kept saying, ‘we, we.’ I think as a wife you learn that you're a part of it too,” says Chandra.

Jimmie adds, “A lot of people … you get married and then you lose that edge and you worry about getting injured or something happening. That's the last thing that happened because I’m better and stronger because of it.”

Chandra's husband, Jimmie Johnson, is right behind Tony Stewart for the lead as they chase the Nextel Cup. Live coverage from the Atlanta Motor Speedway begins at noon ET, Sunday, Oct. 30, on NBC.