March 30, 2005 | 8:07 A.M. EST
March Madness is not just about college basketball. If you can hack it on the short tracks in NASCAR, you can expect to do well on the other types of tracks on which the series competes. This is bump-and-grind, take-no-prisoners stuff, and the racing at Bristol this weekend and Martinsville the week following is some of the best all season.
Having been a short-track fan all along, racing at Bristol is mother’s milk. It’s fast, requires a steady hand and much fortitude, both intestinal and testicular. It’s not so much how the car handles, although that’s always an important part of it, it’s how the driver handles the car. Some, like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace and Kurt Busch, handle Bristol better than others, and if there was ever a time when Dale Jr. needed something to handle well, it’s this weekend.
Wallace would like to roll out of Bristol with another victory, his first on his Last Call Tour, and Stewart always wants a victory, no matter where it comes. Busch, who for once couldn’t overcome an on-track problem at Atlanta, might want a victory to reassert his control over the point standings, and he’s pretty good there.
There’s something about short-track racing that is visceral, up close and in your face. Perhaps it’s the fact that you are indeed closer to the action, and perhaps it’s the jet-planes-in-a-gymnasium feel you get when 43 cars are racing around a track that, save for the grandstands, looks like it could fit in your back yard between the swing set and the barbecue grill.
Add in the banking and you have mechanized mayhem at its best. Keeping in mind that it’s 500 laps, not 500 miles, it brings to mind getting stuck in a blender with 42 other luckless souls, all in front of 140,000 screaming people.
Short-track racing is more about the men than the machines, although the machines do play a major role in success or failure. There are many out there in the world of sports media who do not consider racing drivers to be athletes, including one particular host from Sporting News radio. This particular host, with as grating a voice as has ever been heard over the airwaves, needs a trip to Bristol to change his mind.
Spinning around the track at better than 140 miles per hour, lap after lap, takes something more than mere concentration. Sure, it’s hard to hit a fastball or drive a golf ball or catch a 25-yard out pattern against a rolled-up cornerback, but the action sometimes stops in those sports. With racing, it’s full-boogie-tilt all the time.
That’s what’s so neat about short-track season in NASCAR. The action never stops, and the thrills just keep on coming. The track has character, the fans are fabulous and the setting is superb with the mountains—those that haven’t been moved by Bruton and the boys—snuggled all around. The sound reverberates through the hills, and during a lull in the action you can almost hear the echoes coming back at you.
It’s glorious, and it’s happening in less than five days. Spring is here, short track season is under way and I couldn’t be happier about it.