NASCAR pure Americana to this rider Cupboom

Aug 9, 2005 5:51 AM

NEW ORLEANS — Over the course of a 40-week NASCAR season, I find myself on vacation a few times. On most occasions, I go to the races, but this trip I decided see a bit of America and check off a few baseball parks that I haven’t seen yet.

For some reason, I started my journey (that includes Milwaukee and Chicago) down in New Orleans. After I had finished wrestling gators, downing some shrimp creole, and walking the streets of the French Quarter, I had to settle upon a spot to watch the Brickyard 400.

I found a place on Bourbon Street called the Old Opera House where they have live bands playing all day. This group was playing a great mix of covers ranging from Marshall Tucker, B.B. King, and Elvis. They had four TVs in the bar in all corners of the room. I asked the bartender to turn the race on and she obliged. Over the course of the Brickyard, it came upon me just how popular NASCAR really is.

I’ve been chirping for years about how fun the NASCAR is, how it is a real piece of Americana just like baseball. However, at this moment it really hit me. Not only was the band glued to the TV and making comments about the race, but the whole bar was in tune. In each part of the room they requested the race to be turned on. People walking by stopped to watch the race and hear the band. What a combination of fun!

I know I’m in the South and NASCAR is a bit more intense, but I’ve been to several places in Dixie and it never really dawned on me until that moment just how popular the sport is. The women knew more about the drivers and the strategies than the men, and that may be the whole key to the success of the marketing. If you can attract the women to your product, you’re bound to succeed.

This week the greatest touring show heads to the road course at Watkins Glen. Talk about a vacation destination, how about this one. You go to Cooperstown and see all of baseball’s great history, then go to Saratoga, one of the most beautiful race tracks in the world, and then go to the wine country of Watkins Glen and see a NASCAR race. That will have to be on my itinerary soon.

This time I’ll have to watch it in Chicago and I can’t wait. Most fans of NASCAR don’t care much for the road courses. Me personally, I love them. It is the true mark of a driver. They have to maneuver through the course making left and right turns. The NASCAR stock cars are so big and heavy compared to what we normally see on road courses with the Champ Cars and touring series.

It really takes a lot of effort and driver skill to do well and there is a select few that can make it happen. The drivers that don’t do well are the ones you’ll hear all week leading up to the race complaining about how NASCAR should get rid of these races.

Not only is it great to watch the drivers challenge the course, but from a viewer standpoint it’s just nice to see something different. Next week they go to Michigan, a track layout that is just so common. It seems like every week they are racing on a track that looks like California, Las Vegas, Kansas or Chicago. I want some diversity. I want the crews and teams to be challenged every week in creating a set up. So to break up the continuous monotony, a road course is perfect.

The best road course driver in NASCAR history is Jeff Gordon (9-2), but this will be the first time in a decade that he isn’t the favorite coming into this type of race. That distinction now goes to Tony Stewart (4-1). Stewart is about as hot as any driver can get right now. He just won the Brickyard 400, is the points leader en route to another championship, and captured the last road course race back in June at Sonoma.

Meanwhile, Gordon is the worst slump of his career. He had a decent run at the Brickyard, but needed a much better finish. His chances at making the chase for the championship with five races to go are fast diminishing. Basically, the race has become a must-win situation for him.

Can his team respond with the mounting pressure and put a quality car on the track that will stay for the entire race? Right now it seems doubtful, but I sure wouldn’t want to bet against it. If the team can come together, Gordon can’t be beat at the Glen. It’s that simple.

It looked like things were going the same as it ever was for Gordon at Sonoma seven weeks ago. He had the fastest practice times and looked to be the easy winner prior to the race. Then the transmission failed. Not only did it fail for Gordon, but the entire Hendrick team.

With Dale Earnhardt Jr mailing in the season early, we need Gordon to get in the chase to add more drama. NBC would probably agree, but the sands are falling and it’s now or never.

Others to watch this week are led by the hired guns, who are some of the best drivers in the world. Boris Said (10-1), Scott Pruett (10-1), and Ron Fellows (12-1) are drivers that are sure to be reckoned with. While never winning a Cup race, they have come really close. That says a lot because none of them have driven very good cars.

Watkins Glen is Ron Fellows’ home track. The Canadian could probably tell you every divot in the asphalt around the entire course. He’ll be driving the car Bobby Hamilton Jr. normally drives during the season and took it to a respectable eighth place finish at Sonoma.

Of the NASCAR regulars after Stewart and Gordon, you have to look at Mark Martin (12-1), Kevin Harvick (12-1), and Robby Gordon (12/1). Martin was the King of the Road before Gordon stole that title away. He’s a three time winner at Watkins Glen, doing it all in succession from ”˜1993 to ”˜95. Overall he’s had 12 top 5 finishes in his 17 starts.

Robby Gordon didn’t fare too well in his Sonoma run this year despite finishing 16th. He swept the roads in 2003, but that was driving a Childress car. His own program hasn’t been as successful as he would like. This most likely is his last chance to be real contender in a race and make his sponsors happy. He might have great value at books just because of his poor performance at Sonoma.

Keep an eye on him in all matchups and odds to win. If Robby’s car gives him anything, he can wheel it to a win.