Daytona 500 far from a novel opener for NASCAR season

Q: What’s the difference between Speedweeks 2012 and a Charles Dickens novel?

A: Not much.

At some point during our formative educational years, most of us were required – OK, maybe forced is a better word – to read Dickens’ classic novel “A Tale of Two Cities.”

We all know the opening phrase, and probably even use it every now and again. What we may not have known until now was that, 153 years after he penned that famous phrase, Dickens would be revealed as more than one of the greatest literary figures in history; he was a real NASCAR Nostradamus.

Although the novel’s most legendary 12 words are a spot-on description of Speedweeks 2012, Dickens didn’t stop there. Look it up. The passage continues in a run-on sentence that reads like some sort of prophetic synopsis of what was possibly the most bizarre season opener in NASCAR history.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …”

Danica Patrick ushered in her turbo-hyped fulltime NASCAR debut with a bang: several of them actually, including wrecks in the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series races and a scary spin into the wall during her Gatorade Duel qualifying event.

But hope springs eternal for those of us – and there are a lot of us – who want her to do well, and she did prove her mettle by winning her first-ever Coors Light Pole Award to become the star of the front row for the Drive4COPD Nationwide Series race.

A word of warning for those who believe Patrick will improve on her performance in her next scheduled Sprint Cup Series race: That race is at Darlington. Yikes.

It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …”

I honestly believe and have even gotten into squabbles over saying out loud that Chad Knaus, crew chief for five-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 team, is the smartest person I have ever personally met. To dream of calling him foolish would be, well, foolish.

But Chad, if you know that NASCAR won’t tolerate any modifications to the race car, maybe you shouldn’t modify anything on the race car, you know? Even things like C posts. Just because no one really knows what they are doesn’t mean they’re not important … like the spleen, for example. And speaking of the spleen, with a six-race suspension and a $100,000 fine, I’m sure you’re venting yours right about now.

It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity …”

Although situations involving him can get ugly sometimes, Kyle Busch’s skill behind the wheel of a race car is a thing of beauty.

In the Budweiser Shootout, Busch accomplished the seemingly impossible, saving a spinning car which all logic said should have been crashed out of the race not once, but twice. Busch then made a last-second pass to beat reigning Cup Series champion Tony Stewart to the checkered flag. When your fellow drivers – many of whom raced with Dale Earnhardt, remember – go on record as saying they’ve never seen anything to equal your performance, you may be on to something. Keep it up.

“It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way …”

Headed into the most highly anticipated NASCAR season in recent memory – perhaps ever — a rain delay sidelined the Great American Race for more than 24 hours. When the green flag finally waved over the Daytona 500, can you even imagine how Daytona International Speedway and NASCAR personnel felt as they watched an out-of-control stock car spinning into a jet dryer, which then spilled its fuel onto the track where it ignited into, as the late great Johnny Cash would have called it, a “burning ring of fire?”

Even in real time, it seemed to be happening in slow motion … and it all played out right before our eyes. Talk about some compelling reality TV.

We tend to be critical of various aspects of the sport from time to time, and sometimes it’s justified, but this is the time to offer our appreciation and respect to the safety workers and to NASCAR for cleaning up one heck of a big mess and not only getting the race back on track, but getting every lap completed. Great job.

“In short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

In the final analysis, we don’t need Dickensian prose to describe Speedweeks 2012. Amazing things happened, and so did horrible things. We couldn’t stop watching because we didn’t know what might happen and we couldn’t bear to miss anything.

With only gnawed nubs left where fingernails once were we are now waiting to see what happens next, and with tears in our eyes we are giving thanks for what might have happened, but didn’t, leading one to “borrow” another classic Dickens line and turn it into a couplet:

“The NASCAR season has begun.

God bless us, every one.”

NASCAR columnist Cathy Elliott is also the author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” Visit her online at www.mybrainonnascar.com.

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