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c/o Bridget Holloman, Exec. Secretary
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Columns/Non-Daily
Kenny Bruce
NASCAR Scene

Second Place

Casual NASCAR fans need to learn the sport’s real lingo

     While there are many fans who keep up with NASCAR each and every week throughout the course of the season, there are plenty of “closet” NASCAR fans who don’t begin following the sport closely until the final 10 races. Because of this, they often have difficulty understanding much of the terminology that is heard when attending a NASCAR Cup race.
     So with the Chase For The Sprint Cup upon us, I offer the following helpful explanations to allow those fans to get the most from their occasional NASCAR experience.
     • Lucky Dog: Most casual fans think this term refers to those instances when the first driver one lap down is allowed to get back on the lead lap, despite the fact that his car is slower than molasses in winter, during a caution period. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Veteran race fans know that the term refers to the corn dog that they didn’t have to pay for when ordering food at the concession stand. If you order three corn dogs, for example, and are only charged for two, then the third one would be, of course, the lucky dog.
     • Three-wide: Especially prevalent on, but definitely not limited to, NASCAR’s larger tracks. Casual race fans relate the term to a situation that involves three cars racing side by side. That’s an easy mistake to make. However, the term actually is often used to describe the size of the rear-end of the fellow seated next to you.
     • Tight: Anyone who has accidentally stumbled upon one of the dozens of prerace shows might mistakenly think that “tight” refers to the condition when a race car’s front wheels won’t adequately turn. But that’s merely technical jargon that confuses the viewer. Anyone who has attended races for more than a season knows that “tight” refers to their best friend’s condition after indulging in several cold adult beverages. Before prerace.
     • Balance: The delicate setup determined by engineers to get maximum grip and minimum drag from a race car? While that may sound as if it has a ring of truth to it, it’s nowhere close to being correct. Balance is the ability to climb 64 rows in the grandstands while carrying four cheeseburgers, three orders of french fries, two diet sodas and a funnel cake. And doing so while keeping one eye on the action out on the track.
     • Banking: Does it have to do with the change in slope of the racing surface between the straightaways and the turns? Of course not! Banking is what those folks who lounge around up in the suites do when they’re not flying off to the Bahamas. And they’ve never seen the end of a single race.
     • Drafting: A term that has been used to describe two or more cars running nose to tail (or tail to nose) on the track, thereby traveling faster than a car running by itself. However, the term actually refers to anyone who breaks into a long line of fans waiting to use the restroom. As in “Dude, my kidneys were about to bust, so I just drafted my way up to the front of the line.”
     • Fabricator: A commonly misused term. Fabricators are those folks who climb out of their car after only three laps and tell anyone within ear-shot that “This car was a rocket today! I don’t know that I’ve ever driven a better car!” That, my friends, is known as fabricating.
     • Fuel cell: Typically made from aluminum, fuel cells hold a fan’s beverage of choice and come in 12-, 16- and 24-ounce sizes.
     • Sway bar: A mechanical device used to limit the amount of roll a car endures when going through the turns? No. Everyone knows a sway bar is where sways go to watch the races.
     • Turbulence: Most might think this has something to do with the air disturbance behind a car, sometimes also known as “dirty air.” Of course, real race fans know turbulence is the feeling in one’s stomach after spending an entire day eating greasy race-track food and drinking warm beverages. Which can lead to “dirty air.”
     So there you have it. Everything you need to know to make your next trip to the race track more enjoyable and gain you new friends as you sit crammed into your tiny seat next to a three-wide guy who is busy emptying fuel cells like there’s no tomorrow. While fighting both a tight condition and turbulence. Lots and lots of turbulence.

Let’s dispel the myth that anyone can win a Sprint Cup race

     On any given day, anyone can win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. Or so we’ve been told. And that even includes Tuesdays, as long as you’re talking about racing somewhere such as Michigan.
     According to NASCAR officials, that belief – “anyone” being a number slightly larger than zero but no more than 100 percent – apparently includes people who mistakenly drive onto the race track after missing the exit for the outlet mall.
     What other possible explanation could there be for those drivers who somehow manage to win one race, never to be heard from again?
     “What happened was, my wife and I were looking for the Pfaltzgraff Factory Store, and the next thing I knew I was going door to door with Tony Stewart. Never did get that dinnerware set, but we got a nice trophy.”
Maybe anyone can, but the truth of the matter is that it’s a much smaller group of drivers – directionally-challenged shoppers not included, of course – that actually does make it to victory lane on at least a semi-regular basis.
     According to recent (meaning “hastily thrown together after lunch”) research, 23 drivers have won at least one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race since 2005. That’s a little more than 50 percent of the field on any given Sunday, Saturday (or Tuesday in Michigan), and really, half the field having a shot at winning isn’t a bad thing. Unless a portion of them were merely looking for Vitamin World.
     But I can see where touting the sport with something along the lines of “Half the field has a shot at winning on any given day” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. Even if it is closer to the truth.
     And it would require a much longer explanation from officials if they really wanted to be accurate. Longer, in fact, than some of the races.
     “On any given day [that Kyle Busch doesn’t show up], [almost] anyone [who drives for a multicar team with a minimum of 250 full-time employees and a generous health and insurance package] can win [well, enter is probably closer to the truth] a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race [as long as a meteor shower hits the track before the race and takes out every previous race winner].”
     See what I mean?
     Given the lack of passing today, maybe just telling folks that “There’s a good chance that half the field will still be on the lead lap by the halfway point” might generate a bit more interest.
     Sixteen of the 23 winners have two or more wins, which weeds out the bargain-hunters and the one-hit wonders. And puts the figure of potential winning candidates closer to 37 percent.
     Of those 16, only 13 have three or more wins. Which is 30 percent, and probably a lot more representative of how many drivers really stand a chance at winning.
     Three or more wins over a span of three and a half seasons isn’t asking a lot. We’re talking about 130 opportunities here. That’s one measly win a year. There have been drivers throughout the history of the sport who retired yet continued to win at least one race a year, so how tough can it be?
     I know, I know. NASCAR Sprint Cup competition is comprised of the greatest drivers in the world. It takes an immense amount of talent, physical prowess and intellect just to get the opportunity to compete. Which to a lot of today’s drivers apparently means ride around in the back of the field and become a multimillionaire.
     It also takes something called chemistry. Why it doesn’t take something such as, say, algebra or home economics has never been fully explained.
     Owners know that not everyone can win a Sprint Cup race. That’s why there are lawyers.
     Drivers know that not everyone can win a Sprint Cup race. That’s why there are agents.
     Race fans know that not everyone can win a Sprint Cup race. That’s why there are race pools. And coolers. Especially coolers.
     Even officials know that not everyone can win a Sprint Cup race. That’s why there are Fan Zones, prerace concerts and the Lucky Dog rule.
     Obviously, this is a matter that deserves much more study. Which I will gladly do. As soon as I get back from the outlet mall.

Johnson’s bad day proves he might be human after all

     Legends cars are buzzing around the frontstretch at Texas Motor Speedway. The sun’s long gone, and so is race winner Carl Edwards. Now I know how the competition must have felt.
     NASCAR’s Chase For The Sprint Cup? It’s alive and well, its life extended at least another week thanks to Edwards’ ridiculously impressive win at TMS. Stretching fuel mileage and soft-pedaling his Ford – thanks to a gaudy lead over second-place Jeff Gordon – Edwards won for the eighth time this season. And despite the fact that he challenged no one who made a charge at him for perhaps the final two laps, the Roush-Fenway Racing driver still coasted across the finish line with an 8-plus second advantage.
     Jimmie Johnson, the prematurely-crowned three-time champion, still leads the point standings, but race fans got a rare glimpse at a championship-caliber team on a below average day.
     Officially, Johnson heads to Phoenix with a 106-point advantage. If it was anyone other than the red-hot Edwards hot on his heels, maybe the leader could rest a bit easier. Instead, he’s seen what the kid can do. Has done. And still could accomplish. Objects in mirror, he knows, are closer than they appear. And Edwards’ No. 99 is squarely in Johnson’s rearview.
     Make no mistake. A 15th-place finish for Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team is less than average. It’s Ted Williams hitting .200. Michael Jordan held to single digits on the basketball court. Tiger Woods failing to break par. It’s rare, but it happens.
     The sight of crew chief Chad Knaus, his head buried in his arms after an extremely close call on pit road, told the story. Don’t. Beat. Ourselves.
     Johnson was burning rubber in an effort to get back on the race track during a caution when the cars in front of him suddenly slowed. Knaus yelled a quick warning over the team’s radio. Then dropped his head, no doubt convinced his driver wouldn’t get out of Texas unscathed.
     Johnson did, but just barely. Gone – or at least temporarily misplaced – was the magic that had ridden shotgun with the 33-year-old who is chasing history.
     You want color? Johnson didn’t mince words when asked to describe his day, likening the feeling to that of “getting kicked” in an extremely sensitive area. To sum it up, “It sucked,” he said.
     This time, those long green-flag runs, usually beneficial to the team that has raked the competition over the coals during the two previous Chases, proved to be just the opposite. By lap 60 of this year’s Dickies 500, he was out of the top 15; by lap 82, he was outside the top 20. And then a lap down.
     OK, no big deal. A round of wedge here, a pound of air pressure there and before the night ends, Johnson’s back up front and if not battling for the win, then nipping at the leaders’ heels. It’s happened often enough that now it’s noteworthy when it doesn’t.
     And this was one of those occasions. It more closely resembled the team’s early-season efforts, when they were good, just not great. Fast. But mired in rush-hour traffic.
     But in the Chase? Johnson’s been nearly invincible. He has more than twice the number of victories than his closest rival since he made his Chase debut.
     “I’m more frustrated in the fact we didn’t do the job we needed to today than the fact that I lost points,” Johnson said. “I mean, if I lose five or 10, 20 points at a time to those guys because they win and I finish fourth or fifth ... I can handle that.
     “But to go out there and not perform, get caught a lap down, stuck a lap down all day, that’s the part I’m frustrated with.”
     Johnson’s team doesn’t need to be great in these final two races to put away the title. But when great is what one has become accustomed to, everything else pales by comparison.
     So maybe the guy’s human after all. But is he beatable over the long haul? That remains to be seen.

Carl Edwards - Kyle Busch battle adds to Bristol’s legacy of mayhem

     A funny thing happened on the way to the winners circle. Well, funny if you happened to be anyone other than Kyle Busch. Leave it to Bristol Motor Speedway to provide the perfect backdrop for a sheet-metal dust-up that could not have been any more dramatic had NASCAR officials scripted it themselves.
     Not that the story itself was anything new. It’s one that has played out on occasion during NASCAR’s 60-year-history. Driver dominates race, driver gets bumped out of the lead just before the finish, driver decides to retaliate. It happens at tracks other than Bristol. Maybe it just happens better at Bristol, if there is such a thing.
     There is a reason that 160,000 fans pack the tight, tiny half-mile each August. And this time, that reason occurred on lap 470 when Carl Edwards bumped Kyle Busch out of the groove. Out of the lead. Out of sight.
     To no one’s surprise, it occurred again some 31 laps later, mere seconds after Edwards had clinched the win. That was when Busch “voiced” his displeasure of Edwards’ earlier tag by banging his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota off the side of the Roush Fenway Racing Ford on the cool-down lap in Turn 2. Cool-down being the relative term here, of course.
     And then again Edwards responded, brushing Busch aside a final time on his way to victory lane.
     Bristol Motor Speedway, that mother of mayhem, is one of several tracks that sets off fireworks as part of its postrace festivities. It’s perhaps the only one that doesn’t need to, for obvious reasons. The fireworks often begin long before the checkered flag is unfurled.
     A somewhat quiet, by Bristol standards anyway, Sharpie 500 went from fizzle to sizzle in the blink of an eye. That the most successful drivers in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, version 2008, were involved only increased the interest of the throng.
     Busch, an eight-time winner and, until now, heir apparent to the championship, led 415 of the race’s 500 laps. If the racing throughout the field was good, and for the most part it was, the racing for the lead often was not.
     If Busch is not the best driver on the track today ... well, forget that, because the 23-year-old is. And this time, it only took 55 laps to prove it.
     With Edwards leading, and trying to put Juan Pablo Montoya a lap down, and with Jeff Gordon filling Edwards’ mirror, Busch did what great drivers do – at precisely the right moment, with surgical precision, he shot his car low in the turn, roared off the banking ... and left all three in his wake.
     No one else did that. No one else tried to do that. Or anything like it. Truthfully, such thoughts probably don’t occur to most of his fellow competitors. Busch, though, didn’t think twice. The best ones rarely do.
     Still, Edwards proved once again that he has championship aspirations of his own. He can’t catch Busch before the Chase For the NASCAR Sprint Cup gets under way, but at this rate, he doesn’t have to. With six wins of his own, Edwards heads down the stretch at the top of his game.
     And so a rivalry is born.
     Of course, both will downplay it. Every week there is a race. Every race has 43 drivers. You’re not out to beat one guy. Unless, of course, he’s the only guy that matters. And that’s the way it’s shaping up. Sure, there is time for either Busch, or Edwards, or both for that matter, to cool off and another to rise. But with each passing week – seven of the last nine have seen one of the two in victory lane – it becomes less likely that will happen.
     There was talk of such a rivalry between the two well before Bristol. But it took the close-quarters competition on the high banks to cement the deal. No surprise there. The history of the track is filled with altercations, agitations and allegations.
     Perhaps Bristol simply brings out the worst in NASCAR’s stars. But that the track brings out the best is probably closer to the truth.

From beer pong to the ‘Cool Crippler,’ season filled with surprising twists

     We may be a bit shy of the mark, but NASCAR is closing in on the first 100 days of the 2008 Sprint Cup season. So what better time to look back over the past three months to see what has transpired?
     January: As they have done for decades, teams began arriving in Daytona to prepare for the biggest event of the year. Which, of course, is the annual Hawaiian Tropic Bikini Contest. Fans are not impressed, however, when they discover most of their favorite drivers have pretty much let themselves go to seed during the offseason.
     Meanwhile at the track, two questions are asked approximately 14,000 times by the media: 1. Can anyone stop Hendrick Motorsports from winning all the races in 2008; and 2. Will Tony Stewart ever get a haircut?
     But it’s only testing, so everyone is still in a jovial mood. Especially NASCAR officials, who win a hard-fought court battle over the rights to the name “Kentucky,” and Sam Hornish Jr., who wins teammate Kurt Busch’s owner points in a late-night game of beer pong.
     Team owner Joe Gibbs returns to his Cup team only to discover that he left the light on in his office when he departed for Washington four years earlier.
     Following testing, teams return to the Charlotte area for the Lowe’s Motor Speedway All-You-Can-Eat Media Tour. NASCAR officials announce that they would limit the amount of changes to the series in the coming year and are studying ways to reconnect with the sport’s “core” fans. To that end, the Plymouth Superbird and Dodge Charger Daytona are approved for competition in this year’s events.
     February: The pressure to win is tremendous and quickly becomes evident as Stewart and Kurt Busch get in a shoving match after being called to the NASCAR hauler. NASCAR officials refuse to comment on the altercation while World Wrestling Entertainment officials rush to Daytona to sign the two drivers for Wrestlemania XXIV.
     Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins the Budweiser Shootout, a non-points event, sparking concern that Hendrick Motorsports will once again dominate Cup competition in 2008. NASCAR officials immediately regret not allowing the race to count toward the 2008 Cup championship. Earnhardt Jr. continues to dominate the headlines, winning five days later in one of two Gatorade qualifying races, proving that he is virtually unbeatable in races sponsored by beverages.
     Thirty-six drivers fail to win their first Daytona 500 and Ryan Newman rolls to the victory thanks to a push from Penske teammate Busch, who is now going by the name “Cool Crippler.”
     With only one of its drivers finishing in the top 10, members of the media immediately begin asking the question: What is wrong with Hendrick Motorsports?
     Teams head west where they discover that the city of Fontana has been renamed Auto Club, Calif. After four days of rain, the win is awarded to Carl Edwards, in part because he is judged “most hottest” in a wetsuit.
     March: At Las Vegas, Edwards wins again. However, his victory is tainted when the cover on his car’s oil cooler is found to be loose during postrace inspection. CSI investigators descend on the track and obtain DNA samples from several Elvis impersonators, at least one Las Vegas showgirl and all four Hendrick drivers.
     By the time the series rolls into Atlanta, Edwards had been penalized 100 points. Upset over comments made by Toyota executive Lee White, team owner Jack Roush immediately threatens to vibrate White’s harmonics.
     Kyle Busch gave Toyota its first Cup win, but another controversy arises when drivers voice complaints regarding Goodyear’s choice of tires. Officials with the tire company respond by saying that the Atlanta race “really didn’t feature the world’s 43 best drivers.”
     Reporters ignore the controversy, concentrating instead on the age-old question: What is wrong with Hendrick Motorsports?
     At Bristol, Richard Childress Racing drivers sweep the top three spots after RCR driver Kevin Harvick tangles with Stewart just two laps from the finish in a rush to be the first out of the infield. Race winner Jeff Burton immediately dedicates the win to Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski.
     Roush is once again in the news when the series heads to Martinsville, after the car owner claims that a Toyota team had stolen one of his organization’s sway bars a year earlier. Hendrick Motorsports drivers, meanwhile, claim someone has stolen their “mojo.”
     Denny Hamlin closes out the month with a win at Martinsville but admits disappointment when he learns that the grandfather clock, presented to each year’s race winner, isn’t digital.
     So as the series moves from the salad and into the meat of its season, we have already learned that the competition on the race track is closer than ever. But more importantly, getting your harmonics vibrated by an irate team owner isn’t something to be taken lightly.