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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: NASCAR in New York a Rare Treat

It isn’t often the words “NASCAR” and “New York” appear in the same sentence. So, on the rare occasions when my two favorite worlds collide, I try to make sure I don’t miss out on any of the action. It’s fair to say that, living in Manhattan, it’s not often you see much evidence of NASCAR. OK, you’ll see the odd Dale Earnhardt Jr. jacket or Tony Stewart cap – usually being worn by a tourist – and occasionally, you see a UPS guy with a Dale Jarrett (er, David Reutimann) cap on.

But that’s about it.

To be honest, it doesn’t surprise me that Jeff Gordon enjoys living in New York, because I’m certain he can walk around the city almost entirely unnoticed. Yes, there is Champion’s Week, the Times Square Victory Lap, and the banquet in December, but in the hustle and bustle of the big city public viewing is largely confined to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel – and it’s just another event at that. New York – Manhattan in particular – is never going to be a heartland of NASCAR, as there are just too many other sports here already. And now that the plans for a Staten Island track have been killed stone dead, it’s even more difficult to bring them into the fold.

But like I say, when NASCAR does make a rare appearance in New York, I make sure I find a way to join in the fun. This rare occasion was the Pre-Chase NASCAR Media Tour, when the top-12 drivers came into the city for a whirlwind two-day extended Q&A session. The location for the Media Event was the Hard Rock Café in the heart of Times Square, where each of the drivers had TV interviews with satellite links on the stage of the auditorium – as well as radio and print interviews. In addition, the drivers attended some Fan Q&As with a handpicked crowd of NASCAR aficionados.

This media event, though, was only part of a whirlwind 48-hour program of appearances and glitz done up New York City-style for the Chasers. The previous evening, the 12 drivers had all appeared on The David Letterman Show; then, they divided and conquered the following morning on the various New York breakfast talk shows, appearing at a sports journalists’ roundtable and assorted other media and TV events. By the time they reached us at the Hard Rock Café, each Chaser had probably answered every question at least twice – and some a lot more than that.

Now, my loyal, regular readers will know that I am still very much new to the NASCAR beat – hence the title of the weekly column. But I had my tape recorder, my name was down on the list, and all I had to do was show up and hit record at the right moment. It couldn’t be that hard to get some decent content from the drivers, now could it?

Walking into Hard Rock Café I headed straight for the event reception desk, and confidently announced I was there with Frontstretch. After getting accepted, I was quickly ushered into the auditorium where I ran right into the producer of the ESPN Radio “Carey and Coffey Show.” The show is a wry, offbeat and humorous look at NASCAR, and I’ve been lucky enough to be a guest three times this season. But I’ve never met the hosts or any of the crew, so it was great to rectify that – albeit unexpectedly.

Matt Carey, one of the two main hosts, was broadcasting the banquet live and he ushered me into the chair opposite for a chat. Of course, no sooner had I sat down to start the interview when Matt Kenseth appeared. Needless to say, I was shepherded swiftly out of the hot seat – but the action was fast and furious! After Kenseth was done, I reassumed my position for… oh, about 20 seconds. Kevin Harvick suddenly appeared and, being a confident lad, smirked as he replaced me in the hot seat (and no, for those that are wondering, I didn’t remind him I wore his firesuit). Eventually, I got my turn on the show, and then I settled in to listen on the headset to some of the other drivers being interviewed.

One thing about these drivers in the city: they don’t just know how to talk the talk, but somebody’s making sure they walk the walk. Each man had top-shelf clothing that appealed to the boardroom types: Greg Biffle, in particular, was as relaxed and confident as ever, wearing a dark blue cufflink shirt more similar to that of a Wall Street trader than backstretch blazer. Gordon, curiously flanked by two members of New York’s Finest, looked like he’d just stepped out of the pages of GQ. Carl Edwards, meanwhile, appeared to be reprising his special agent role from the hit series 24, with his dark suit and grey shirt leaving him ready for a CIA meeting instead of a 400-mile event.

In general, I still find it strange to see the drivers in their civilian clothes, out of their garish and uniquely recognizable firesuits. Some look like you might expect, but others are completely different. Kyle Busch seems a little awkward in his duds, while Clint Bowyer definitely looks like a star out of the racecar. He always looks red and disheveled to me (not surprising, really, given he’s usually just run 500 miles somewhere) so it was interesting to see him looking cool in the heart of the big city. Earnhardt Jr., in shirt and sweater, looked like a regular dude; the same held true for Kenseth, who you’d walk right past on the street without so much as a second look.

Now, one thing we don’t normally do on Frontstretch is talk openly about any favorite drivers but, if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to talk about mine: Denny Hamlin.

Why Denny, you might ask? The reason I chose the Chesterfield, Va. native is that he came into the sport only a few weeks after I started work at my former job, which was with Nextel’s ad agency. I figured since I was a novice, I’d give the fellow rookie a punt – and I’m happy to say it’s worked out nicely. I met Hamlin for the first time at Marquee, the location for the Sprint Nextel Champion’s Week party in New York in 2006. I had recently come back from a long holiday abroad and had grown a rather long, unkempt beard, so I looked more like a deranged fan than I did a supposedly responsible ad agency exec. Denny was friendly, but to my immense embarrassment I was starstruck, and the conversation was mercifully short (mercifully for him more than me, of course).

The second time I met Denny was in Concord, N.C., at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. We were shooting commercials with Jamie McMurray and Kasey Kahne and – while I was a bit more coherent this time – it wasn’t by much. Here’s what happened: the agency folks were out for dinner when into the restaurant walked Denny. He was by himself (Reed Sorenson joined him later) so I got a colleague to go over and ask if I could get an autograph. Now here’s the embarrassing part: as part of every commercial shoot, we had to make sure we got signed merchandise from the drivers. Sam, our trusty account exec, had spent the morning driving all around Charlotte searching for McMurray and Kahne 1:24 diecast cars; and in his travels, he’d seen a Denny Rookie of the Year t-shirt. Knowing my affection for the driver, Sam bought it and gave it to me on the set. Meanwhile, I put the garment in the pocket of my jacket and forgot all about it until I saw Denny in the restaurant. My only question then was simply whether or not it was too weird to go over and get it signed by the man himself. In the end, Denny was more than happy to sign the shirt once I explained what I had been doing in town that day.

So, after some rough introductions my goal last week at the Hard Rock Café was to ask Denny five questions like the proper journalist I’m supposed to be – and to definitely, definitely not act like a starstruck fan. I was confident it was going to be a case of third time’s a charm when I joined a crowd of some 8-10 reporters around him, thrusting my newly-borrowed digital tape recorder as close in as possible. And while I waited for my turn to ask questions, I couldn’t help but notice the absolute dinner plate-sized watch he was wearing. What is it with athletes and gaudy watches? Is it one of those unwritten rules you can only know if you’ve played at the very highest level?

Anyway, the vets eventually drifted off and soon, it was just me and two other reporters. Seizing my moment, I asked my first question.

“Denny, how different is your confidence headed into your third Chase as opposed to the last two?”

He answered quickly. I then followed up, asking about whether he considered 2006 a missed opportunity (given how close he had been to a championship in his rookie year) and also about the team dynamics next season with Tony being replaced by Joey Logano. I also asked about who he thought the darkhorses were in the Chase and which tracks he was most looking forward to. At the time, I remembered his answers as being good and thorough, and I’d love to share them with you – but here’s the problem: I can’t. Because in between the conversation and the transcribing, the interview was inadvertently deleted! So much for professionalism, huh folks? It seems the third time definitely wasn’t a charm, a case of star struck turning things sour once more.

But what I do remember clearly from listening to other writers question Hamlin was a real sense of confidence headed into the final 10 Chase races. Of course, all racecar drivers are confident, but with the momentum of three straight third-place finishes, you sensed that Hamlin felt things were coming together at the right time.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the much-maligned Chase is the race within the race, or how the top-12 drivers run against each other. For each, the season is on the line in every race (just ask Busch or Kenseth) so watching individual Chasers can be a sport all its own.

In the case of Hamlin, Loudon was a race that in many ways encapsulated his season. The ninth-place finish leaves him 72 points back, just two more than he was from Busch as the cars rolled onto the track in the first place. Yet, Loudon was also a story of what might have been. For the first 225 laps, Hamlin ran in or around the top five. But a fuel top-off gamble – he was in second place at the time – left the driver of the FedEx Camry mired back in 18th place. The numerous late on-track incidents and a plethora of caution flags meant the leaders could make it on fuel… in the end, the gamble didn’t pay off.

“Frustrating, for sure, to see all those Chase guys finish above us guys who we outrun for 250 laps,” Hamlin added. “Strategy doesn’t always work your way, and today just wasn’t our day.”

Looking at the overall picture, Hamlin was right – Sunday wasn’t his day. But no one is out of it yet, not even Kenseth at 177 points back – and certainly not Busch. A lot can and will happen in the next nine races, as the playoffs are just getting started – leaving a man like Hamlin still very much a contender. And when 10 of the 12 Chasers return to the bright lights of the Big Apple in December, I’ll have my tape recorder in hand for him once more; except this time, I’ll know exactly what buttons to press.

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