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Keeping Pace

Sun., Nov. 20, 2011, 8:05 a.m.

Giving Thanks For NASCAR Now And Next Year

Jimmie Johnson celebrates after winning the NASCAR race at Talladega on Sunday, his first victory of the year. (Associated Press)
Jimmie Johnson celebrates after winning the NASCAR race at Talladega on Sunday, his first victory of the year. (Associated Press)

Speaking of good guys, I am thankful for Jimmie Johnson. His five-year consecutive reign will end on Nov. 20, but for the past half decade the articulate, urbane champion has helped NASCAR make tremendous strides in changing its public perception from also-ran to frontrunner. What a class act.

Guest Column By Cathy Elliott

Thirty-five weeks a year, one of the most fun and challenging things about this column is the fact that it can often be quite speculative in nature.

Based on what happened the previous week or month in NASCAR, we have the luxury of utilizing what has gone before in order to predict what might happen next. Each week is an important link in a chain that begins when the season is tossed overboard in February, and ends in November when a champion lands to anchor it for the next 12 months.

But this is Week 36. As of this writing, mere hours separate us from the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and NASCAR’s championship anchor is dangling so close to the ocean floor that the sand is already swirling. After the closest and most exciting year in recent memory, all that stands between this moment and the end of the 2012 season is the simplest of toddler math, countable on a single hand: one race, two drivers and three points.

But as we all know, very few things are ever as easy as 1-2-3.

As we look forward to taking the bag off the head of the Unknown Champion, we are also anticipating a different day of celebration. Even the least sentimental and philosophical among us knows that a table piled high with poultry, potatoes and pie is the perfect setting in which to count our blessings and give thanks for them. Especially when they’re doused in gravy.

Next week we can look forward to singing the praises of a new champion, so this week seems like a good time to look ahead to Thanksgiving by looking back at some of the blessings – dubious or otherwise – that NASCAR has given us in 2011. Since we’re dealing with a food-oriented holiday here, this season could be compared to an unlimited salad bar, offering a truly eclectic array of toppings.

True-blue NASCAR fans simultaneously cheered and whispered a little prayer of thanks when 20-year-old Trevor Bayne won the season-opening Daytona 500 back in February.

The victory was a two-fold blessing. Watching Bayne draft with his childhood idol and four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon reminded us of NASCAR’s constant ebb and flow, showcasing exciting young drivers while celebrating those who have given so much for so long. Even better, though, was the opportunity to see the triumph of a team that was contributing to NASCAR long before Bayne was born. The Wood Brothers took a page from the soundtrack of "An Officer and a Gentleman," moving back up where they belong: Victory Lane.

Aren’t you thankful that NASCAR is so unpredictable? Undefeated seasons, after all, are only cool if your team is the one that goes undefeated. So while fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jimmie Johnson would have been ecstatic to see their drivers take the checkered flag every single week, everybody else in the world would most likely have been tuning out in droves. A salad bar with only one item isn’t too appetizing.

Although we did see most of our favorites win this year, I’m thankful we saw some other guys in Victory Lane, too. First-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winners in 2011, in addition to Bayne, included Regan Smith at Darlington, David Ragan in the July race at Daytona, Paul Menard at Indianapolis and Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen.

Additionally, due in large part to stock car racing’s wide variety of track experiences and racing styles, individual driver personalities and a long list of winners, interest and TV viewership gained ground this year. NASCAR and its broadcast partners and sponsors must be awfully thankful for that.

While we’re on the topic of unpredictability – and because some folks like plenty of pepper and spice in their salad – I’m thankful for Kurt and Kyle Busch.

This may seem strange, but from radio rants to knocking competitors’ rides around during (and sometimes after) events, this pair of pot-stirrers definitely gave fans something to talk about. You have to admit the shenanigans of the often bombastic Busch brothers were never boring. Good guys aren’t nearly as much fun without bad guys to battle.

Speaking of good guys, I am thankful for Jimmie Johnson. His five-year consecutive reign will end on Nov. 20, but for the past half decade the articulate, urbane champion has helped NASCAR make tremendous strides in changing its public perception from also-ran to frontrunner. What a class act.

The list goes on and on. After being sidelined by illness for most of the 2010 season, I was thankful to welcome Brian Vickers back to full-time NASCAR racing this year, although lately many of his competitors haven’t seemed quite so happy to see him coming.

I loved the announcement that Austin Dillon will be racing a black No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet in the NASCAR Nationwide Series next season, carrying one of NASCAR’s most magnificent and beloved standards proudly into the future.

This time of year, you often hear NASCAR folks complaining that they’re worn out and ready for the season to end, but it’s not really true. After riding high on a wave of adrenaline for so many months, hitting the beach at the end sounds better than it looks. There’s a sunset type of poignancy about it.

Not to worry. Before this season had even ended, testing at Daytona had begun, which already gives us something to look forward to. Thank goodness? Nope; thank NASCAR.

 




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Keeping Pace

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