ATLANTA -- The racing circuit often goes years without the kind of emotional salvo that Joe Nemechek delivered Sunday at the New Hampshire International Speedway.
In one glorious afternoon, the years of work, the years of tears, the years of faith against impossible odds finally paid off. And with it, comes eternal hope for all the other also-rans in racing, drivers who on most Sundays are relegated to distant blurs in the rear-view mirrors of the corporate giants.
Nemechek came to Winston Cup in 1993 -- more than 270 races ago. He tried it as a car owner and driver for a couple years and failed. Until Sunday's win, he had tried it as a hired hand during the past two years and failed.
The mechanical engineering graduate of the Florida Institute of Technology has endured all the pain the sport can offer. His brother, John, died in 1997 from injuries suffered in a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at Homestead, Fla. Then a month ago, car owner Felix Sabates informed Nemechek his contract with SABCO wouldn't be renewed for 2000.
"I'm still looking for a job in 2000," Nemechek said. "I don't know what I'm going to be doing. Hopefully, this will definitely help.
"I'm talking to a few people out there. Who knows? Maybe Felix may come back tomorrow and start hammering me. They've got a heck of an organization. We've just struggled up to now. Now to have it all come together, it's kind of disappointing."
Sabates had so much confidence in his driver, he was in Charlotte, N.C., during the race watching the Carolina Panthers play the Jacksonville Jaguars. Moreover, he said the decision to fire Nemechek at the end of the season probably ignited a fire that's been missing from the start. Sabates also said it won't change his mind.
"We made a decision, and you can't look back on the decision you made," Sabates said. "Maybe that put a spark in Joe, a desire in him. I never had any question about Joe's ability.
"I told Joe a month ago that winning is like sex. The more you do it, the more you like it. If you win a race, you might win two or three by the end of the year."
As Nemechek circled the New Hampshire International Speedway during his victory lap, one by one, competitors pulled beside him to wave their approval.
Dale Earnhardt didn't wave. He pulled beside Nemechek, then he veered his Chevrolet into the side of Nemechek's Chevrolet, leaving black circles of tire smudge on the door panel. It wasn't a bump of retaliation, but rather a rite of passage.
Now, drivers such as Johnny Benson, Rick Mast, Mike Skinner, Michael Waltrip, Ted Musgrave, Robert Pressley, Kevin Lepage, Steve Grissom, Rich Bickle, Ricky Craven, Wally Dallenbach, Chad Little, Dick Trickle, Steve Park, Kenny Wallace and Kenny Irwin -- drivers whose collective careers reflect more than 2,600 career starts and no victories -- have reason to keep pushing forward.
The odds still are stacked against the multitude of winless hopefuls. The stock car circuit has followed the same path as open-wheeled racing where only a select few have a real chance to win.
Need proof? The top seven drivers in the current point standings -- Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt -- have combined to win 22 of the 26 races on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series this year.
It's so hard for an also-ran to win on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. First of all, the fact that the top drivers are part of the best-funded teams is no mistake. Money buys speed. Money buys people. Money buys technology. And in the end, money buys victories.
Second, like Sabates said, winning is contagious. It becomes an attitude. Drivers who've won never have the sense of urgency seen in the eyes of the non-winners.
"Believe me, there were tears coming out of my eyes pretty heavy coming around that last lap," Nemechek said. "These Winston Cup races are the hardest things in the world to win. We hit it today."
Now that Nemechek is part of a special fraternity on the racing circuit, his next challenge is to win again and avoid being a one-shot wonder. It's hard to win one race, but it's even harder to prove it wasn't a fluke.
Ron Bouchard, Jeremy Mayfield, Brett Bodine, Bobby Hillin Jr., Ward Burton, Lake Speed and Greg Sacks broke away from the pack of also-rans by winning one race. Each have faded to their familiar spots deep in traffic -- or out of racing -- by never winning again.
"I don't know what's going to happen," Nemechek said. "We'll let this set in for a little while."
Enjoy it while it lasts.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
Next race: MBNA Gold 400 (Race 27 of 34).
Where: Dover Downs International Speedway (Dover, Del.).
When: Sunday, 12:30 p.m.
Broadcast: Television - TNN; Radio - Motor Racing Network.
Track: 1-mile oval.
Last year's winner: Mark Martin.
Last year's pole sitter: Mark Martin (155.996 mph).
What it takes to win: It takes patience to survive 400 laps around the 24-degree turns and concrete racing surface. Those who go out too fast usually wear out their tires 40 miles short of scheduled pit stops. The exits of the second and fourth turns are narrow; therefore, it seems to attract several multi-car crashes during the afternoon. Since accidents play a big role in who survives Dover, 38 of 59 winners have come from the top-five starting positions.
Morris News Service pick: Bobby Labonte.
Drivers to watch: Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd, Jeff Gordon.
Winston Cup point standings: 1. Dale Jarrett, 3,972; 2. Bobby Labonte, 3,718; 3. Mark Martin, 3,700; 4. Tony Stewart, 3,683, 5. Jeff Burton, 3,576.
Other races: Friday - Las Vegas 250 (NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway; Saturday - MBNA 200 (NASCAR Busch Series) at Dover Downs International Speedway; Sunday - Texaco Grand Prix of Houston (CART); European Grand Prix (Formula One) at Nurburgring (Germany) Grand Prix Circuit; Las Vegas 500K (Indy Racing League) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
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