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Passion drives NASCAR, both fans and drivers

by Cathy Elliott
Saturday, October 31, 2009

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Cathy Elliott
Most fans would probably agree that while it is great to debate the finer points of NASCAR, sometimes these discussions bring to mind the old saying: “It’s only fun until someone loses an eye.” But in the world of NASCAR partisanship, it’s only fun until someone loses their temper.

Case in point is a conversation I recently overheard between a couple of fans who were discussing the relative merits of Jeff Gordon versus Tony Stewart in this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. It started out friendly, slid rapidly down the scale to barely civil and then nosedived to stage three which, for lack of a better term, we’ll just refer to as yelling. And a little bit of spitting.

“Jeez, you guys,” another shameless eavesdropper observed. “Stop fighting. You don’t have to get so contentious about it.”

Contentious. What an underrated word that is.

The thing is, these two guys are friends. They love NASCAR and watch the races together most Sunday afternoons. They hang out and have fun. But when those engines fire up, so do their competitive natures.

That sounds an awful lot like NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers. So here’s the question -- when did being contentious become a bad thing? Isn't fighting for what you want just another way to describe a will to win?

It hit me as I was watching the first couple of games of the World Series -- the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies are the only two teams that remain.

Everyone else is gone.

The process of winnowing down an entire field of hopeful contenders –- be they teams or individuals -– is like cooking with onions. Sometimes they caramelize into something sweet; sometimes, they just make you cry. But they always add zing to the dish.

Every sports fan has suffered through the strain of watching favorite teams rise and fall. Sports, after all, are not immune to the concept of ebb and flow. Just ask a Washington Redskins fan if you don’t believe it.

Every NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team begins its championship quest with the same ambitions, the same hopes and dreams, and roughly the same equipment. With the clean slate of a new season stretching out before them, each driver’s story is his to write. All of them are in contention for the same prize when that green flag waves at Daytona International Speedway in February.

Some advance farther down that road than others. As the numbers in each column –- things like wins, top five and top finishes, and DNFs -- rise or fall in direct proportion to the numbers in the other, dreams begin to fall or take flight right along with them.

This isn’t exclusive to drivers; it is also true of fans. It was difficult to see the cockiness of Kyle Busch supporters gradually dissolve when they began to realize that, just as money can’t buy happiness, four visits to Victory Lane couldn’t buy Kyle a spot in the Chase.

After their driver won the first two races of the 2009 season, Matt Kenseth fans weren’t on Cloud 9; they were so giddy, they were floating somewhere above it. But being No. 1 in the biggest race of the year couldn’t guarantee Matt a season finishing spot any higher than 13th.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fans were absolutely convinced that if only he were given a new crew chief their hero would ascend to his rightful spot at the top of the driver standings. To see the frustration in their eyes when that didn’t happen according to plan has literally been painful to watch.

Drivers who did make the top 12 have faced their share of disappointment too, as one by one they have watched their championship hopes slip away.

After a valiant effort to make the Chase field, Brian Vickers has yet to post a top 10 finish headed into Talladega Superspeedway.

Carl Edwards fans unequivocally maintained this was “his year.” Edwards hasn’t won a race.

Kasey Kahne has two wins this year, and Denny Hamlin has three, but nevertheless both are hovering in the bottom third of the top 12.

The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup hasn’t come down to the point where only two remain, but it’s close. Let’s just say we’re looking at the league championship playoffs right about now.

Still, all of these drivers keep showing up at the track every week, ready to race. They believe they can win, and they will work as hard as they can for 400 or 500 miles to prove it.

Why? Because they are contenders, and that’s what they do.

May they never stop fighting. In fact, this may be the best example I can think of where being contentious doesn’t create trouble. In NASCAR, it generates respect.

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