Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Two Champions....Even If You Don't Like Left Turns

Obviously, I'm referring to NASCAR when I say, "left turns," though there are tracks that are not solely dedicated to drivers going around in circles.  Yeah, yeah, we've all heard the debate - are these guys really athletes?  Well, I'd say this - if you doubt that these 43 drivers in the Sprint Cup Series of NASCAR...or any racing series for that matter...are athletes, why not hop in one of their cars and take it for a spin around one of these tracks at 200 mph...for 500 miles.  They strap themselves into cars that have temperatures, during the summer months, that easily rise into three digits.  Again, for 500 miles.  They keep these cars about a foot apart, at harrowing speeds, while trying to figure out the best place on the track to set up a competitor for a pass, then work their way around them.  I know - left turns only, huh?  They do this on road courses twice a year, too, in what can become an endurance test.  I understand the debate will always be there - what is an athlete.  Wait...is it the guy standing on a patch of grass with a leather mitt waiting for someone to hit a ball so he can catch it?  is it someone that pumps their body up so they can deliver the most intense blow to a competitor?  Is it someone who walks up to a bar with weights on it, then lifts said bar?  We're going to argue this forever, so I'll offer this - there are times when that argument is a moot point and that the accomplishment itself transcends the, "Athlete or Not," question.  Sunday was one of those days.

Many people think NASCAR is a redneck sport.  Okay, we get it...and I'm not going to go into its southern, bootlegging roots.  You'd have to have been born in a foreign country to not know this.  Every year, these 43+ drivers start their season in Daytona Beach, FL in February.  They race virtually every weekend until November.  36 weeks.  Along the way, the garner points toward their Championship and the trophy - the coveted Sprint Cup (formerly Winston Cup).  As the season winds down and after the first 26 races, NASCAR's governing body decided they needed a little more excitement so they started the "Chase for the Sprint Cup," or, "The Chase," as we know it.  Only twelve of the top drivers, based on points, enter the Chase with a chance to win the Cup.  It's NASCAR's form of the playoffs.  Every year, they typically get to the final race and the points leader merely has to finish in 12th place or 18th place to clinch the Championship and take home the prize.  Typically.  That wasn't what happened Sunday in Miami, though.  What happened in Miami was poetry in motion, a clinic on how to perform under pressure, an example of dedication to the pursuit of excellence and doing what MUST be done to achieve your goals.  In short, this was an example that can, and will, be used for years to teach people that it is never over until the clock runs out or, more aptly, the checkered flag falls.

Miami's Homestead Speedway is the site of the NASCAR finale.  When the competitors arrived last week, there were only two in contention.  Two men that could possibly wind up taking home the prize.  They'd be on the track with 41 other drivers prepared to win the race, however it was down to the final two for the Championship.  To make the story even more compelling, they were only separated by three (3) points.  Consider that - each finishing position is one point less than the one above it, with a few bonus points being offered for leading a lap...and the most laps.  Three points.  Oh, and the leader, Carl Edwards, qualified first.  The other, Tony Stewart, qualified in 15th position.  I know, I know...I'm trying to explain so I can set the story up and it makes even more sense.  Bear with me.  So technically, Stewart had to finish 4 places (or more) ahead of Edwards.  If Edwards finished anywhere above say, 5th, Stewart would have to win the race.  As a matter of fact, the ONLY way Stewart could win the Cup and Championship, even if Edwards finished second, was to win.  At that point, they'd be tied and Stewart had won more races during the season.  He'd win the tiebreaker.  Seriously, though - a tie?  We all know the odds of that happening.  Still, Stewart was taking no chances - he told his team and, well, the world, he was going to win the race.  he was going to go out, spot Edwards 14 positions, and beat him for the Title.

Carl Edwards - the guy who once handed out business cards offering his services as a race car driver.  True story.  The same guy that appears in the Subway ads and with the Aflac duck.  He has even, if anyone remembers his cameo, appeared on the series, "24," with Kiefer Sutherland.  The guy gets around...and is a great race car driver.  As a matter of fact, this is the same guy that, last year, went flying into the catch fence at Talladega as his car flipped several times in a violent crash on the final lap, only to get out of his car and run the last 200 yards to cross the finish line.  great sense of humor.  This year, though, Carl wanted to win a Championship....badly.  

Tony Stewart, on the other hand, has always been racing.  He's one championships in 9 different series of auto racing including, the year before he came to NASCAR full-time, the Indy-car series.  Versatility, I believe they call it.  He has already won the NASCAR Championship twice and he, too, badly wanted to win in 2011.  In the end, it would come down to who could perform the best under pressure.  Oddly, they both did.  As I said, Stewart started 14 spots behind Edwards.  He (stewart) let it be known immediately how badly he would challenge all day as he dropped out of line as the green flag flew and was side by side with three other cars - 4-wide, they said - going into just the first turn.  He moved up a few spots and was headed to the front as they raced.  Then, as the caution flag came out and the cars came to pit road, his crew discovered a hole in his grill.  For anyone that is a fan that was watching, it spelled disaster.  I remember using a few expletives as, even though it was early in the race, I was certain it was the end of his chances.  The crew, however, didn't see it that way.  They fixed the grill and Stewart returned to the track...in 40th position.  Edwards?  He was leading, of course.  For some reason, though, Stewart remained calm.  I think they call it, "focus."  As they began racing again, he moved up in the standings.  40th....then 32nd...then 23rd....then....wait, what?  How'd he get to 15th?  This was a man on a mission and everyone watching will, one day, be glad they can say they witnessed it, if even on television.  Again, though, something happened.  Air wrenches got stuck and, when he came in to his pits leading, he left in 10th place...twice.  With all things going wrong, it almost certainly was a sign he was not supposed to get to the front.  He was going to have to settle for second place in the standings again.  Notably, though, he remained calm.  he kept his crew calm.  The pressure, at least in his position, was nothing short of intense...yet he remained calm.  A lesson in there?  I'd say.  You see, not only is he the driver of the team, he is co-owner.  No one that owns a team has gone on to win as a driver in 19 years.  As the race laps were winding down, all other cars came to their pits for tires and gas...except Stewart.  If he could stretch his fuel mileage, he might be able to make it to the finish on one fewer stop than the others.  We, the fans, sat transfixed...and screaming at the television for what seemed like a ridiculous move.  There was no way he could come back once again and win this late in the race.  The guy is 40, for goodness sake, and no one at that age has ever won a Championship, much less doing it by going from the back to the from several times.  The funny thing was that, during the race when starting from the rear, Stewart remarked to his crew on his radio that, "They're really going to be embarrassed when we get up there and beat them from back here."

As the laps wound down and the controversial call regarding his fuel was forgotten, we watched, transfixed, at someone summoning the will to win.  He would do what was needed to get the red and black Office Depot Chevrolet to the finish line before Edwards.  He took the lead with 30 or 40-some laps remaining...and never relinquished it.  He and Edwards (who was running in second behind him) were driving noticeably faster than the other cars.  They were anywhere from .8 to 1.3 seconds apart, consistently, for the remainder of the race.  On the final lap, somewhere between turns 1 and 2, Stewart radioed to his crew, "I got this,".....and he did.  

Stewart crossed the finish line ahead of Edwards by about one second, as promised.  The numbers told the story - they were, points-wise, tied for the Championship.  Only 11 weeks ago, Stewart had not won a race for they year and told the media his team was merely taking up a spot in the Chase.  They weren't doing well.  He then proceeded to go out and, in a 10-week playoff Chase, win 5 of the races.  In the end, he had passed a total of 118 cars on the day.  He had come from the back of the pack twice.  He became only the ninth driver to win the Championship three times.  He became only the fourth driver to enter the final race out of the lead...then win it all....and he's now done it with two teams.  This was the lesson of determination and will, of drive and intensity, and focus and promise.  A great lesson for anyone in every aspect of life. 

Carl Edwards?  He was the other lesson on the day.  As he just watched the Championship being wrestled from him rather than seeing it slip away, he crawled out of his car and had to face the media.  In his words,

"This night is about Tony Stewart. Those guys rose to the occasion, and they beat us fair and square," Edwards said. "That is all I had. We came here and sat on the pole, led the most laps and Tony still managed. That's it. That's all I got at the end. That's as hard as I can drive.
"I told my wife, 'If I can't win this thing, I'm going to be the best loser NASCAR has ever had.' So, I'm going to try really hard to keep my head up and know that we'll just go next year and we'll be just as hard to beat."
In the end, Edwards taught the lesson of humility and class.  he taught the lesson most of us try to teach our kids - Always give it your best and, if you don't succeed at achieving your goals, go try harder next time.  It was a great race and incredible life-lessons...even if you're not a NASCAR fan.  Oh, and for those that doubt they're athletes, still, know that Stewart can make his car fly, too.....

Until next time..............

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