17 February 2008

It's The Great American Race Season

...and it's starting with its Big Kahuna today, otherwise known as The Daytona 500. And, just to add to the nostalgia, it's the 50th running of said race, so no chance to over-promote it will be missed by all the powers that be. (The hoopla is already going on with various television channels...and has been for all this week...but technically the race coverage starts at 2pm EST today on FOX. Truly, while this is the season 'opener' of NASCAR®, it's also their equivalent of the Super Bowl®.) I've been waiting for this day for a bit now...as Lord knows I love my racin'...but now that it's here I want it over and done with already. Enough of the hyperbole, can we get some action going here, fellas? Dunno why the impatience exactly, but I suspect maybe it's because I'm growing a bit weary of supporting a sport that has strayed so far from its roots, and its original fans, and has become such an overblown media event every week. Let's go racin', already.

I'll be watching today, as I always do, trying to figure out where my loyalties should be placed this year. Being from the Midwest and having spent far too many years gulping in Ozarks-area dirt track fumes alongside my father, I always go back to cheering for 'my boys' from the area. Longtime fave Mark Martin (starting 12th) is running out of opportunities to finally win this race, as he's getting up there in age and viable chances...and God Bless Him, he came so damn close last year. Carl Edwards, a fellow Missouri native (via Columbia way) and genuinely nice guy, also has strong credentials and could do well here. Carl (ahem, "Mikey" as he's called by those who've known him from way back) starts just ahead of Mark in 11th position. Kenny Wallace (starting 17th)...the court jester of NASCAR®, or at least The Speed Channel® where he is a part-time host on their pre-race coverage...hails from St. Louis and is actually a helluva driver, if he can ever get a team and sponsorship behind him for a full season. (Like everything sports related in the US, no and/or little money or sponsorship = wasted and unharvested talent.) Then there is Jamie McMurray, another driver from my Ozarks backyard of Joplin, Missouri. Jamie (starting 38th) is one that I wish I could say the same glowing remarks about as the others, but sadly, I cannot. I'm not really sure where Jamie's career is going these days, as it seems to have stagnated and maybe even retreated a bit. I hope I'm wrong about Jamie's potential...today and in the future...I really, really do.

I'll also be watching two of my international faves this year: 40th place starting Scotsman Dario Franchetti (husband of actress of Ashley Judd, so I'm sure there will be more than the average in-the-pits camera shots for that reason alone) making his first ever intro to NASCAR® racing, and Aussie (and super-nice guy) Marcos Ambrose, who is trying to move up from the 'juniors' to the 'majors' of NASCAR®. Marcos didn't qualify for this big race today (and actually had a bad day with the 'junior' race yesterday), but his skills are extremely sharp and constantly improving. (Incidents with Robbie Gordon in Canada notwithstanding.) Franchetti leaves international racing with a storied career of both victories and crashes under his belt...including a 2007 victory at the Indianapolis 500. Both Francetti and Ambrose are top-notch drivers from other formulas, but...as any proud NASCAR® fan will tell you...'that is that, and this is NASCAR'®. In theory, the inclusion of these two should 'legitimize' NASCAR® in the international racing world, but in practice I suspect what will happen instead is that these two greats will figure out 'the good ole boys' way' and then proceed to show them a thing or two (with an accent and a ready smile). Time will tell how those 'good ole boys' and their fans will react if and when that happens. The more things change, the more we want things to stay the same, after all.

And, finally, still on my race radar...although I sometimes question my sanity on this...is the Drama King himself, Tony Stewart. Smoke starts 6th today, and won the 'junior' race yesterday...a deadly combination for a man already known for his confidence level. Hands down, Tony is the most off-track news making character the sport has right now for all of his antics (both good and bad). We haven't even started the season yet, and he's already on a six-race infraction watch by race officials for essentially a practice race about a week ago. (So welcome to 2008, people. To quote The Who in "Won't Get Fooled Again": "meet the new boss, same as the old boss." Sigh.)

Arguably Smoke's the best driver out there, and as we fans of his like to say, Stewart could find a way to drive a bathtub to Victory Lane. (Only with the help of his long-suffering #20 support team and Crew Chief Greg 'Zippy' Zipadelli, though...somehow those guys get all too frequently forgotten in the media writeups.) Arguably he is also the most anxiety-causing driver out there to his fans, too, as there is no 'peaceful' season...but instead we fans just have to ride out the next incoming tidal wave, one right after the other. Between the temper tantrums, the verbal throwdowns with the media, some physical throwdowns with others (including other drivers) and all the miscellaneous other personal actions off the track...there is no wonder why Smoke's own fan base constantly wars against, splinters, and then has to reglue itself back together again. His driving and on track causes are worthy of fan appreciation and support...Tony is, in many ways, seen as an (perhaps one of the very few) 'old school' driver against all the 'new school' stuff that NASCAR® seems all too willing to shove down the fans' throats...it's just all the off track nonsense that can be totally draining. Hell, this season he's even got fans supporting him for his on track racing, but boycotting his merchandise sales for his off track activities...and I think that just may be a first, even for NASCAR®. For the rest of us Smoke fans we volley from being jubilant, to being embarrassed, and then to see a glimmer of maturity...so we get hopeful again. Wash, rinse, repeat. For the first time in years, I'm back to being on the fence with Smoke. And that really pains me, as I think he's the last of a breed of drivers we may never see again. It could be a very, very good year for him and his team...new car, new manufacturer, new enthusiasm, new support...but it will only be a good year for his fans too if Smoke starts to grow the hell up (again) sometime soon. We're simply done with all the crap. It's Dr Tony, Mr Smoke most of the time now...and it's a tough road show.

And, on that positive note LOL, I'm off to go get some lunch before the flag gets dropped and before WR stops over to help me sample the incubating beer brew we created last month. (By the way, those who have DirecTV satellite can see the entire race, Hotpass©-wise, for free today. Stewart, perennial fave Dale Earnhardt, Jr., (Friend of Blog's Baby Abba's champ) Jeff Gordon, and Kevin (Happy) Harvick are the four drivers you can watch and/or listen to. And, as always for the 'language' people, have the remote and/or mute button ready if you're watching with small children. All four of these guys, but especially Smoke, can be blistering on their radios if things don't go well. Remember, these are team communications, not a commercial that Miss Manners would approve of. That said, they're also pretty damn funny, too, most of the time when things are going well, or at least okay. Consider Dale, Jeff, and Happy potentially 'PG-13' rated, while Smoke's more of a 'R'. Consider yourself warned.)

May the best (or at least the luckiest) team win today. And may everybody go home safe and ready to compete in this new season.

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