ATLANTA - The last thing Kevin Harvick wants to do during his time away from the busy racing season is take a vacation.
No airplanes, no hotel rooms, no cell phones.
When it comes to unwinding from a season that starts a week after the Super Bowl and ends the week before Thanksgiving, he's found the best way to get away from it all is to not get away at all.
"For the most part, we're going to sit at home and turn the phones off," he said. "We travel all year, so we're just going to sit at home. After about three weeks, we'll probably be bored and ready to get back going. That's the nature of the beasts that we are."
Drivers, crew and NASCAR officials clearly were weary after one of the longest, most demanding seasons in the sport's history. There were a lot more races on the schedule before the modern era started in 1972, but it was common for three or four races to be staged during a single weekend. More importantly, there were holes in the schedule, a time when teams could rebuild cars and drivers could catch their breath.
Not any more.
Only three open weekends are on next year's NASCAR Winston Cup Series schedule. And if 36 races and a pair of all-star events weren't enough, the final 20 races come in a grueling stretch at the end of the year.
Newly crowned series champion Jeff Gordon took a deep sigh on stage during the NASCAR awards banquet in New York two weeks ago, then he muttered the words on every driver's lips: "I'm ready for a vacation."
For Jeff Burton, that means taking the family and hiding on a boat in the Bahamas. For Sterling Marlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr., it means going on a five-day fishing trip. For Terry Labonte, it means going into the woods on a hunting trip. For Tony Stewart, it means not thinking about a race car for the first time in his life.
The off-season offers an emotional and physical escape that allows everyone to come back for more in February.
"You need the winter to get away," Burton said. "You can use the winter to get bulked up some, to get ready for the long grind. It's a mental thing. You can use the time to get ready for the next season, to make sure you haven't forgotten anything. At the same time, you can use the time to get away from it all so you're relaxed by the time you go to Daytona."
The off-season is hardly a vacation. Race teams are busy building new cars and conducting test sessions. Some teams already have tested at non-NASCAR tracks. In fact, Marlin raced in the season finale at Loudon, N.H., on Nov. 24, then he was at Lakeland, Fla., the next two days working on the short-track program. A day after that, he was in New York for the awards banquet.
"Me, I just need four or five days, and I'm ready to go," Marlin said. "When I'm home, I've got a shop behind the house, so I'll just end up down there tinkering on cars."
Stewart said he doesn't know how to have an off-season. He's been racing year-round since he was old enough to walk, but nothing proved to be as demanding as the Winston Cup Series.
"I'm relying on my girlfriend to show me what a normal life is," Stewart said. "She's strictly in charge between now and February, which sounds like a lot of time. But if you look at my schedule right now, there's 14 or 16 days where we can take a half-week's vacation.
"We're driving in the 24 hours this year; we're testing (the Winston Cup car) at Daytona. It's that, it's photo shoots, it's media obligations and other obligations that we have that didn't stop when we finished the race at Loudon (N.H.)."
Burton said the drivers who find a greater peace of mind during the off-season would be better prepared to withstand 10 months of travel, commitments and pressure of the racing season.
"The guys who are setting the standard for what it's going to take in 2002 are doing it right now," he said.
It must work for Burton. In the final 10 races of the 2001 season, he garnered the most points of all drivers.
"I've learned how to take short breaks - a day to just get away," he said. "That could be anything from going to Chuck E. Cheese with my daughters or just laying around with the remote being a couch potato."
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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