My Brain on NASCAR: Contentiousness adds spice to racing stew

Most fans would probably agree that while it is great to debate the finer points of NASCAR, sometimes these discussions bring to mind the old saying that “It’s only fun until someone loses an eye.” But in the world of NASCAR partisanship, it’s even more fun when someone loses their temper.

Case in point is a conversation I recently overheard between a couple of fans who were discussing the relative merits of Jimmie Johnson versus Brad Keselowski in this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. It started out friendly, slid rapidly down the scale to barely civil, and then nosedived to stage three which, for lack of a better term, we’ll just refer to as spitting. When the third person at the table remarked that they were being awfully “contentious,” they took a small break to express their surprise that he knew such a big word, and then went right back at it.

The thing is, these two guys are friends. They love NASCAR and watch the races together most Sunday afternoons. They hang out and have fun. But when those engines fire up, so do their competitive natures.

That sounds a lot like the behavior of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers themselves. So here’s the question – when did being contentious become a bad thing? Isn’t fighting for what you want just another way to describe a will to succeed?

It hit me as I was watching the first couple of games of the World Series – the San Francisco Giants and the Detroit Tigers are the only two teams that remain. Everyone else is gone and, so now are the Tigers.

The process of winnowing down an entire field of hopeful contenders – whether they are teams or individuals – is like cooking with onions. Sometimes they caramelize into something sweet; sometimes, they just make you cry. But they always add zing to the dish.

Every sports fan has suffered through the strain of watching favorite teams rise and fall. Professional sports, after all, are not immune to the concept of ebb and flow. Just ask a Miami Dolphons fan if you don’t believe it.

Every NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team begins its championship quest with the same ambitions, the same hopes and dreams and, unless you’re Chad Knaus, the same equipment and rule book. With the clean slate of a new season stretching out before them, each driver’s story is his (or hers) to write. All of them are in contention for the same prize when that green flag waves at Daytona in February.

Some advance farther down the road than others. As the numbers in each column – things like wins, top five and top 10 finishes, and DNFs — rise or fall in direct proportion to the numbers in the other, dreams begin to fall or take flight along with them.

This isn’t exclusive to drivers; it is also true of fans. It was difficult to watch the cockiness of Carl Edwards supporters gradually dissolve when they began to realize that, just as money can’t buy happiness, immense popularity and a spectacular 2011 season couldn’t buy him a spot in this year’s Chase.

After their driver won the 2012 Daytona 500, Matt Kenseth fans weren’t on Cloud 9; they were so giddy, they were floating somewhere above it. Being number one in the biggest race of the year is super cool; what wasn’t so cool for Kenseth was having the ESPN pre-race broadcast crew stick a fork in him. Even with a Chase win, he’s done.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fans were absolutely convinced that, with crew chief Steve Letarte at the helm for the past couple of seasons, their hero would finally ascend to his rightful spot: champion of NASCAR as well as king of the world. To see the frustration in their eyes when Earnhardt suffered serious injury-related issues during the Chase and things didn’t happen according to plan has literally been painful to watch.

Drivers who did make the top 12 have faced their share of disappointment, too, as one by one they have watched their championship hopes slip away.

After a valiant effort to make the Chase field and a string of great finishes since the championship run commenced, Jeff Gordon, a true NASCAR legend, is all but done. Maybe if Johnson, Keselowski and a couple of other guys decide to say “the heck with it, I’m sitting out the rest of the Chase” Gordon might have a shot, but even then it would be iffy.

Kevin Harvick fans unequivocally maintained this was “his year.” Harvick hasn’t won a race.

Greg Biffle has two wins in 2012, and reigning champion Tony Stewart has three, but nevertheless both are hovering in the bottom third of the top 12.

The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup hasn’t come down to the point where only two remain, but it’s close. Let’s just say we’re looking at the league championship playoffs right about now.

Still, all of these drivers keep right on showing up at the track every week, ready to race. To a man, they believe they can win, and they will work as hard as they can for four or five hundred miles to prove it.

Why? Because they are contenders, and that’s what they do. This may be the best example I can think of where being contentious doesn’t create trouble. In NASCAR, it generates respect.

May they never stop fighting.

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