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In life, we cheer for winners. The search for victory – in NASCAR or elsewhere – is one of the aspects that defines our humanity. Hence, it’s not terribly odd that we tend to select our personal heroes from the short list of drivers that visit the winner’s circle on a regular basis.
But we are also fans of the sport. Thus, when a story comes along that has nothing to do with beating out the competition, it only helps to strengthen our passion and interest in it. I find these vignettes much more enthralling than chasing the statistics that payout for fantasy teams.
What am I talking about on this “off week?” Well, believe it or not, the Nationwide Series actually produced a story that is not about Kyle Busch taking home the trophy… again. Gasp and amazement… OK, I’ll stop.
But really, this struggling series needed a special moment.
Sliced Bread? To tell you the truth, I’m not even that wound up about Joey Logano’s second win in this series. I did get a little puffed up as he passed his teammate and held off Kyle through the late-race restarts at Nashville. I laughed when he climbed from his car and, like the teenager he truly is, found the glitter on his new guitar that actually stopped him in his tracks.
However, in the Nationwide car and on this relatively flat 1.33-miler, Logano’s success wasn’t that unexpected. This is the kind of car and track that he nailed in his Camping World East Series championship year. Little Joey did good and his second-place teammate managed to stammer his way through a post-race interview, at least saying all the right words. I can’t say that Busch has mastered the fine art of losing with grace, yet… but it wasn’t awful.
So then… what was so interesting, you ask?
With eight laps to go, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. turned down the track and ran smack into an unsuspecting Joe Nemechek. This resulted in Nemechek’s No. 87 taking a leisurely roll down the frontstretch. Moments later, the car righted itself… still pointing in the right direction! Nemechek immediately put his foot on the gas, bounced off the outside wall and drove away.
In fact, it took several minutes for the ESPN crew to decide it was Nemechek’s car that actually caused the caution. While he was bringing his battered Chevy down to the apron, several other cars were wrecking behind him, their drivers totally startled at seeing an upside down car blocking the track… and then not.
TV cameras swarmed to the No. 87 pits, showing us the cracked windshield, crumpled roof flaps, and battered cockpit. Still, the net was up. There was no indication from anybody that Joe had any intention of climbing out of his machine. After all, the car was still running. No water poured from the radiator, no oil could be seen smoking out the exhaust, and brake fluid was simply not spewing. As far as that driver was concerned… he was good to go.
For a moment, we were all brought back to Dale Earnhardt’s 1997 Iron Man moment at Daytona. Sitting in the back of the ambulance, Dale took one last look at his tattered car and asked the wrecker driver to see if the engine would turn over. It did. Earnhardt then got back into that car and managed to drive it for a few more laps – looking more like the latest entry in a demolition derby than a Cup car.
This Saturday, I could feel Nemechek’s desire and determination to return to the track… even if his car looked a bit like that ’97 No. 3 heap.
No, he didn’t have a hope of winning. It was even debatable if the car would finish. Once you put a car on its top, there’s no telling what parts it might start shedding given an opportunity. But one thing was clear – the driver was prepared to go the distance.
NASCAR had other ideas. The officials determined that the damage to the windshield and roof flaps was sufficient to sideline the No. 87 for the rest of the race.
While the safety-minded part of me understood the call, the racing fan in me wanted Nemechek to take those final laps. It called to that never-give-up, never-give-in credo that the strongest competitors in our sport live by.
Ultimately, Saturday’s race did crown a winner. However, to me, the man that pocketed the $20,508 for 34th place showed the stuff of a champion.
Nice move, Mr. Nemechek. Better luck next week!