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Keeping Pace

‘Story of the Year’ Designation Is Up For Grabs

Heading into the race weekend at Richmond, I asked my mom to say a little prayer for Brian Vickers; Mom has better connections in that area than I do.

Guest Column By Cathy Elliott

Heading into the race weekend at Richmond, I asked my mom to say a little prayer for Brian Vickers; Mom has better connections in that area than I do.

“Why?” she asked. “Is there something wrong with him?”

I assured her that Vickers was doing just fine as far as I knew, but that I would really like for him to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field, and Richmond was his final opportunity. I am a sucker for a good Cinderella story.

“I thought you were a Tony Stewart fan,” she said suspiciously, as if the Almighty might suspect my intentions were something other than consistently honorable. “What does NASCAR want?”

Well, I am obviously not the official spokesperson for NASCAR, but I felt confident enough to give this one a shot.

NASCAR wants the best story.

Well, obviously that would be Tony Stewart. Start-up teams – what some other sports leagues might refer to as expansion teams – traditionally don’t perform too well during their first season, or even during their first five.

While “start-over team” is probably a better descriptive for Stewart Haas Racing than start-up team, there can be no argument as to what word best describes their season: impressive. Stewart has won three races and has been sitting atop the driver standings for about as long as anybody can remember. For him to win his third championship in his first year as a team owner would definitely be the best story, right?

Well, maybe. The Mark Martin fan base, and it is a big one, might beg to differ.

What a pure pleasure it has been to watch Martin this year. At the age of 50, he is literally twice as old as many of his competitors on the track. Instead of letting that bother him, Martin has taken his cane and routinely whacked those whippersnappers over the head with it, winning four races headed into Richmond.

Some people say that the only thing preventing Martin from being considered one of the greatest drivers of all time is the absence of a championship from his racing resume, although he has finished second in the driver standings four times. Surely a series title for Mark Martin would be the greatest story of the year.

What’s that I hear? Oh, yes, I recognize that. It’s the howls of Jimmie Johnson fans crying, “Foul!”

In 2008, Johnson accomplished what many considered the nearly impossible feat of winning his third consecutive championship. This tied the record set by one of NASCAR’s true legends, Cale Yarborough. It was an emotional moment, and a groundbreaking one.

But Johnson looks equally strong this year. He has been to Victory Lane three times in 2009, and like that wacky cousin who shows up at your door unannounced around dinner time, there is always a chance you’ll find him there again, grinning and waiting for you to invite him in and hand him a Pepsi.

For a driver to win a fourth consecutive title would be unprecedented. It would be the best story of the year, no question.

Unless, that is, you would like to talk about Juan Pablo Montoya.

All the hard work NASCAR had put into its diversity initiative has hit the jackpot with Montoya this season. The former Formula One star and Indianapolis 500 champion had no wins in 2009 heading into Richmond, but has been a fierce contender all year. He has done what he needed to do to get where he wanted to be.

For the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title to be won by a Hispanic driver for the first time in history, now that would indisputably be the story of the year, wouldn’t you say?

Not so fast.

In the immortal words of that great philosopher Ron Popeil, “Wait. There’s more.”

How about the resurgence of Jeff Gordon, a strong contender for his fifth championship, or Kurt Busch, who sits in good position to win his second title?
And could anyone with a heart resist the image of Kasey Kahne and Richard Petty raising the championship trophy together?

Any driver in the top 12 would make a worthy champion. It’s too bad that 11 of them will lose, because thanks to them, all of us – the fans – are big winners.

In fact, the story of the year may not be who comes out on top this season. The 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season itself may be the story of the year.

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Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.

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