Originally created 11/27/03

2003 season was a wild ride



ATLANTA - The combination of rain, mud and a lost day on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series made for a miserable time at the Atlanta Motor Speedway last month.

Traffic jams only punctuated the despondent experience.

The two hours it took to get out of the speedway's parking lot provided a lot of time to think about the 2003 racing season. At Atlanta, traffic was one lasting memory.

I won't miss that in the next 2 1/2 months.

Come to think of it, I won't miss the words "aero-push" either.

Gas-and-go, two tires, four tires and fuel mileage will only come to mind while I'm on my riding mower during the off-season. The only head-and-neck restraint that concerns me will be my pillow; the only black box I'll notice will be on top of my television set and operated with a remote control; the only points system I'll watch is at Weight Watchers.

A season that starts before Valentine's Day and ends at Thanksgiving is too long, especially with only three open weekends. Throw in a couple weeks of testing at the Daytona International Speedway in January, and the stock car season suddenly becomes a stock car year.

That's a lot of traffic jams, a lot of time to think about the memorable moments of a season. And the things to forget.

Why won't traffic move?

I won't miss living out of a suitcase, eating breakfast in a drive-through lane and having my underwear searched at every airport.

I won't miss looking for a parking spot in one of the reserved lots at the North Carolina Speedway. I won't miss $200 nights in flea-bag hotels at Florence, S.C.; Johnson City, Tenn.; Dover, Del.; Oxford, Ala.; and Daytona Beach. I won't miss the rain at Atlanta.

Traffic still hasn't moved.

I'm glad it will be seven months before I'm subjected to Michigan's post-race traffic pattern that sends me 30 miles out of my way and takes an extra three hours. I'm happy I won't have to think of a clever way to ask Bill Elliott about retirement, Kasey Kahne about his future at Evernham Motorsports or who's going to drive the third car at Richard Childress Racing or Dale Earnhardt Inc. For the next 2 1/2 months, my biggest priorities will be raking leaves and cleaning flower beds.

It's going to be nice not to worry about calculating frequent-flyer miles or hotel points.

I can't wait to stick my credit card in a drawer for a couple months. I will spend the next few Friday nights watching my local high school football team in the state playoffs, and I will dedicate this off-season to learning the first names of all my neighbors.

I won't forget Kyle Petty's passion to make the Victory Junction Camp Gang a reality - perhaps at the expense of his race team. I won't forget Jimmy Spencer's continued shameless honesty or Terry Labonte's reverent demeanor.

Traffic is still stopped. I could have walked home by now.

I won't miss the argument about the points system. Although it doesn't reward drivers for pole positions and winning races, it still has a way of promoting the best driver to the head table at the awards banquet.

Does it really matter that Kenseth won one race and the championship while Newman won eight times and finished sixth? No. Kenseth had 31 finishes in the top 15 this year, while Newman finished on his roof at the Daytona 500, in a heap at the Aaron's 499 at Talladega and on the business end of a fire extinguisher at Michigan.

I won't miss how NASCAR continues to interpret and enforce its own rule book. There's too much money, too much credibility at stake to continually work in the gray area. "Actions detrimental to NASCAR" needs to be defined.

I certainly won't miss trying to walk through the land mines of moving golf carts in the infield. I can't wait to see whether the sport's new sponsor, Nextel, will do anything to improve cell-phone reception at the racetrack. Can you hear me now? No.

I will miss how the folks at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. took a personal interest in promoting the Winston Cup Series. Without their dollars and considerable elbow grease, stock car racing would be no bigger than the XFL, indoor soccer or team tennis.

Five songs have played on the radio, and I've moved 20 yards.

I can't wait for another Busch Series season to end with six drivers within 89 points of the lead and to see the way they raced to win, not to stockpile points.

And I can't wait for the day when the Busch Series is healthy enough so it won't need Winston Cup Series drivers - and their considerable mechanical and economic clout - to put on a show. Until that happens, it will never be any more than a support series.

I can't wait to see what happens to the sport when four or five men own every team. After all, it worked so well on the CART Champ Car circuit. I can't wait to eat another Martinsville hot dog. I wish we had two races at Las Vegas. I wish I hadn't had that jumbo soft drink before I left the speedway.

Since the race at Atlanta was postponed until Monday, the thought of sitting in traffic again is numbing. Just more time to think.