They say the true mark of a man is how he handles adversity, the benchmark through which we separate the average and exceptional athletes. Yet for every Jamie McMurray, whose career nearly derailed for good before bouncing back into Daytona 500 victory lane last year, there’s a thousand men we’ll never know, drivers whose talent level could never triumph over their inward emotional combustion. Sport is a mental game, even more so when breaking to pieces just moments from reaching the top of your profession; it’s why people like Jean Van de Velde (golf’s British Open), Bill Buckner (baseball’s World Series) and perhaps even J.R. Hildebrand (Indy 500 – to be determined) go from promising futures to comprising an entire season of episodes for Dr. Phil.
Road course racing is a different animal from oval track racing, and the use of caution flags couldn’t be any different between the two configurations. While NASCAR runs a multitude of races on ovals every year, they only run a handful of road course races. And, while they’ve been doing them for several decades, the last few years it has seemed as though they’ve forgotten the proper use of the local caution. Fortunately for the competitors and the fans this weekend at Infineon, it appeared as though the folks in the flag stand and in race control remembered that a car off track or spun and stopped is not an imminent threat to the entire race and, given the chance, is often able to get back into the event without having to stop the entire race.
Behind closed doors, one can only imagine what Jay Frye must be feeling. The Vice President / General Manager of Red Bull Racing has spent over a dozen years as the benchmark of NASCAR’s middle class; building winning organizations from scratch, he’s living proof of how to succeed with half the resources and double the challenges. Riding the crest of a wave that peaked a few years back, his former team, Ginn Racing, once shocked the world by leading the points four races into the 2007 season with driver Mark Martin; in the process, they led the Daytona 500 until the final turn. No doubt, he’s capable of building a team that challenges for Victory Lane.
It’s just a matter of if he’ll have anything left to build.
The latest 500-mile marathon at Pocono turned into a numbers game, a NASCAR story of two men, two racers striving to be the best when only one could stand on top. The first is a future Hall of Famer; the second man aspires to be. On their own, they hold separate levels of accomplishments within this sport but until Sunday were connected by only one: the number four.
That’s the number of victories both Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin owned on this 2.5-mile triangle, tops amongst drivers who qualified for the 50 (err… 5) –Hour Energy 500. They actually started side-by-side, occupying the second row but both men, runner-up to Jimmie Johnson during his five-year reign are well acquainted with how second equals the first loser. Instead, their agendas centered around a fifth career victory here, coming up to speed knowing just the slightest hint of desperation revolved around their short-term futures.
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – _Michael Jordan_
Second place may be the first loser, but after a wild weekend at both Indianapolis and Charlotte both historic races will be remembered for the men who came up short. Certainly, all the credit in the world goes to winners Dan Wheldon and Kevin Harvick, drivers who put themselves in position to capitalize on Vegas-style racing luck. But both men will tell you, point blank the dirty truth behind their crown jewel thefts; all they did was put the money in the slot machine, then hit the jackpot while watching everyone around them go bankrupt.
Dover produced an unexpected twist on Sunday, Matt Kenseth stealing a victory after two other drivers – Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards – led about 99.9% of the race up until the last 50 laps. Mark Martin was a season-best second, Brian Vickers was fifth one year removed from being in a hospital bed, fighting for his life yet the story this Monday morning from Dover revolves around three things: a FOX split screen commercial, monotonous racing, and more empty seats than most stadiums have capacity.
Not the type of water cooler talk you want, right? For now, we’ll save the FOX hallelujah, some sort of TV one-week wonder and focus on the larger, long-term worry of what’s wrong with the Monster Mile.
As an athlete’s childhood dreams turn real, a career plan gets developed complete with goals they believe will take them on an express ride towards the top. Even the smallest egos compete with a catalog of their future success in mind: winning the biggest race, setting a new record, or sharpening your leadership skills are often tops on the list, in the process becoming the person children grow up to be and adults unconditionally respect.
What they don’t explain in the heat of the battle, though, is life has a way of automatically defining how the public perceives you. And sometimes, despite the best-laid plans, you’re often not given a choice.
Come with me, ladies and gentlemen and take a break from reality this Monday to understand the reality of someone else. Let your imagination drop those wonderful “Osama is dead” celebrations in your head – don’t worry, it’s only for a moment – and allow me to set the scene so the complexities of racing drama are understood.
Ready? Good. Let’s set the scene: it’s Daytona, February, 2010. The sun was setting on NASCAR’s biggest race, a green-white-checkered finish left to decide it; but for Martin Truex, Jr., each moment felt like his race to Sprint Cup stardom had just begun. The driver of the NAPA Toyota, replacing Michael Waltrip in free agency had played the draft perfectly, putting himself in position for victory in just his first time driving the car. Starting on the front row for the restart, he had plate ace Kevin Harvick behind him and as the cars came up to speed, the No. 56 car edged out front. Heading to Turn 1, victory for a fleeting few seconds slipped effortlessly into the hands of a New Jersey native who’s spent his career on the cusp of stardom.
Actions may speak louder than words, but when combined, they’re a dangerous force to be reckoned with. The written portion came in the form of a final petition, 45,000 signatures strong, presented at a town hall meeting where action was on the agenda. People packed tightly inside the room, clung together to the point it made sardines claustrophobic as the decision of a racetrack’s future came together. Guns blazing on both sides, the stage was set for the climax of a grassroots movement we rarely see, friends and neighbors bonding together to save a stock car landmark whose future lay threatened by bulldozers and those all-important recovery buzzwords: economic development.