On NASCAR: Game On

Cathy Elliott

It gets a little upsetting at times, when one of NASCAR's rare "off" weekends rolls around, to hear the inevitable lament, "Aw, man, there's no race this weekend."

Let's correct that statement right off the bat, because it is inaccurate. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series does not compete every week, it is true, but even when the nation's premier racing series is enjoying a couple of rare and well-deserved days off, there is plenty of action for fans to enjoy, and some serious stargazing to be done.

Every off weekend for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2008, beginning with Easter weekend in March and ending in mid-July, features a NASCAR Nationwide Series race.

The Nationwide Series, often described as "NASCAR's Triple-A," is at its core a proving ground for drivers looking to move up to the top tier of racing.

In NASCAR, of course, this lofty height is the Sprint Cup Series. In baseball, it is the major leagues, described by Kevin Costner's Crash Davis character in the movie "Bull Durham" as "the show". ("Bull Durham" generated renewed national interest in and enthusiasm for minor league baseball when it was released in 1988, and is considered one of the best sports movies of all time.)

"You know, you never handle your luggage in the show; somebody else carries your bags … You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service …" says Davis to one of his Durham Bulls teammates.

I'll admit that does sound a lot like the Sprint Cup Series. The finest equipment is always in use; the venues are some of the largest and grandest in all of sports. And I have personally never seen Jeff Gordon schlepping his suitcase up the stairway at any Speedway Slumberland location, although I'm not saying he wouldn't be willing to do that, if the need ever arose. Which is unlikely.

But America's second-most popular form of motorsports, despite slightly different equipment and smaller paychecks, isn't necessarily second best in the eyes of fans. Many actually prefer it to Cup racing, and the "minor league" reference carries some credence.

A large percentage of people in the US have attended baseball games at both major and minor league parks. The fields look the same. The concession stands post the same laminated Soft drinks-Hot dogs-Peanuts-Pretzels-Popcorn-and-Beer menus. Fans proudly wear the jerseys of their favorite players.

There is a difference, though. The atmosphere at a stadium like Wrigley Field or Camden Yards is more formal, somehow. The organ music seems to swell more loudly. The grass looks, and smells, greener. The players, with last names like Jeter, Pujols and Smoltz, appear larger than life.

At minor league parks, things tend to be more laid-back. There may be some wacky promotions going on – in "Bull Durham," it was "Hit Cow, Win Steak" – or a fly ball chasing dog in the outfield. There are occasional star-sightings, usually players from the big leagues trying to recover from an injury, or from a slump, but for the most part, it's a very casual environment.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events are definitely the majors. A fan could get whiplash just trying to take it all in, from the Clydesdales over here to a live concert performance over there to a movie star grand marshal whizzing past in a golf cart on the other side of the fence. All this before the drivers are even introduced and a period of high-speed competition lasting longer than some Vegas marriages begins.

At a NASCAR Nationwide Series event, the races (and the television broadcasts) are shorter, and therefore produce longer periods of intense action.

An early mistake in a 500-mile event can sometimes be overcome, but in a shorter event competitors must race their hardest from green flag to checkered, and the margin for error is much slimmer.

Five hundred mile races can last four or more hours, but Nationwide Series events run about half that long. They are perfect for families with small children, who bring short attention spans to the track along with their sippy cups.

Then there are the players. Many of the two series' competitors don't just appear to be identical; they really are.

Since the early days of the NASCAR Nationwide Series, many NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers have used their days off to compete there, for a number of different reasons – to gain more "seat time", for example, or to familiarize themselves with a particular track. Some just want to race. It is their hobby as well as their job.

In recent years, those claiming that NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers racing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series take opportunities away from the series regulars, who are often younger and less experienced, have criticized this practice. While there may be some validity in this view, the fact remains that the premier series’ superstars do attract large crowds and generate a tremendous amount of fan interest, ultimately drawing more attention to the lesser-known series and making more money for the venues.

This is not specific to NASCAR, by any means. If you don't believe it, ask the manager of the Birmingham Barons how game attendance was affected when a former basketball player by the name of Michael Jordan decided to try his hand at minor league baseball for a season or two. Then ask the manager if he considered that a bad thing. When he picks himself up off the floor and finally stops laughing, I'm thinking he'll tell you he liked it. A lot.

As Tom Hanks once stated so succinctly on the silver screen, "There's no crying in baseball". (Okay, different movie, but it's still a cool line.)

The same applies to NASCAR. Let's not bemoan the absence of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series during its breaks – it always comes back – and settle in for a wild ride with the NASCAR Nationwide Series, during "on" weekends as well as "off" ones.

In NASCAR, there is no such thing as an "off" weekend.

It's always Game On.

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