Thursday, November 18, 2010

Start Your Engines

I have never been a fan of NASCAR. The concept of cars driving for hours in a continuous circle brings unpleasant memories of searching for a parking space in New York City. Also, I find it difficult to root in a sport where the athletes are machines wearing not shoes, but tires.

Perhaps my ambivalence towards the sport stems from growing up in New York, where racing is done by horses, not cars. While I have attended hundreds of sporting events in my lifetime, I have never had even a passing desire to drive to Daytona or Homestead, both easily accessible from my home, for a big race. Many have attempted to convince me otherwise, insisting that there is nothing like the noise and speed of a NASCAR race. But I worked on Fifth Avenue for several years and am pretty sure that the speed and noise of a NASCAR race were simulated outside my office building every day at lunchtime.

I bring this up because this weekend NASCAR comes to the Homestead-Miami Speedway for the final race of the 2010 Sprint Cup championship. For the past several days the Miami Herald has been running stories about the event, which promises to be one of the most exciting races in the history of the sport.

At stake is the legacy of Jimmie Johnson, perhaps the most successful driver in NASCAR history. Johnson, the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion, trails leader Denny Hamlin by fifteen points in the Sprint Cup chase, the closest the second place driver has ever been going into the final racing weekend. Throw in the fact that the third place driver, Kevin Harvick, is only forty-six points behind the leader, well within reach, and we have what is certain to be a down-to-the-wire, nail biting finish.

Here, however, is where the sport loses me. The outcome of the Sprint Cup championship is not as simple as who wins this final race. Many factors go into determining how many points a driver attains during the course of a race – factors such as numbers of laps led, laps completed, and final placing. If I could turn on my television and root for one driver, knowing that the first to cross the finish line will win the championship, I could more easily embrace the sport. It is more likely, however, that I will not know who the champion is until the announcers tell me.

One final thing that baffles me is the concept of teams within teams. Jimmie Johnson drives for fellow driver Jeff Gordon’s racing team. Most weekends this means that Johnson and Gordon, although teammates, compete against each other on the track, each relying on his own sub-team – the pit crew that is instrumental to a driver’s success. About a week ago, Johnson decided that his pit crew was not performing as efficiently as he expected. So he replaced it with Gordon’s pit crew. This final weekend Johnson will rely on Gordon’s pit crew, while Gordon will presumably rely on Johnson’s. This is reminiscent of the Yankees’ Fritz Peterson/Mike Kekich family-swapping scandal of 1972.

Like millions of others, I will follow the results of this weekend’s race with some degree of interest. As a sports fan, I appreciate the accomplishment of competitors who put their reputations (and their lives) on the line every time they climb behind the wheels of their cars. Yet I cannot imagine a result that will stir me the way that the underdog Giants’ World Series victory did a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps if the race were conducted on the streets of New York, with drivers forced to avoid jay walkers, I would tune in enthusiastically. Barring that, I will likely wait until Sunday night’s ESPN SportsCenter to learn whether Jimmie Johnson’s legacy lives on.

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