March Mad ... er, mayhem, NASCAR style
So you say you want a little March Madness, do you?
Well wait I've got a call on the other line Hello yep uh huh mmmm OK, thanks.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have just been informed by the ESPN legal department that if I use that phrase again -- the one that starts with M and M -- I will be taken into custody by CBS Sports and forced to sit in a room and watch old Billy Packer tapes on a continuous loop, A Clockwork Orange-style.
Anyway, my point is this.
Whenever NASCAR fans and competitors hear all the talk about how brutal this month can be for the teams in the NCAA basketball tournament, we have to suppress a collective smirk.
Sixty-five teams, three weeks, 12 locations, one champion.
How about a 43-team, three-week, 1,334-lap, bunkhouse stampede that history says will separate the real contenders for the Cup Series title from the teams that are merely sheep dressed in wolves' sheet metal?
"I have always said that by the time we get to May we have a pretty good idea who is in this for the long haul and who isn't," says Jeff Burton, who will spend the month with one eye on the track and the other on his beloved, newly-crowned ACC champion Duke Blue Devils. "When the weather warms up, so does the points race. It all becomes very real come springtime."
When the checkered flag falls this Sunday afternoon, teams will no longer be protected by the top 35 owner points positions from 2008 and will be go-or-go-home based on the '09 rankings. That means I'm talking to you Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Aric Almirola, and Sliced Bread.
And a walk through recent history reveals that the top 12 once we reach April is a pretty safe bet to also be the dozen teams that make the Chase for the Sprint Cup in September. (One year ago only two of the eventual Chasers, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon, were outside the top 12 when we left Texas -- and they were 13th and 14th.) That means I'm talking to you Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Baby Burton, and yes, even you Mr. Three-time Defending Champ.
"The Chase really has shortened the season up," Jimmie Johnson admitted at this same time one year ago. "These races where we used to kind of feel things out and settle into a rhythm now feel just as intense as the races in the fall. You can't win the championship in the spring, but you can sure lose it."
Or as William Shakespeare almost put it -- Beware the rides of March.
We begin this Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway, a place that has humbled more young studs than Bobby Knight.
"I looked at the 2009 schedule when it came out and thought, all right, an off week to catch our breath," says Elliott Sadler, who is a professed UNC Tar Heels fan and was offered a hoops scholarship to James Madison before an injury forced him to concentrate on racing. "Then I realized that Bristol is the race coming out of the time off. That's like someone waking you up from a nap by slapping you in the face."
Yeah, with a tire iron. Sadler does own a victory at Thunder Valley, but it came eight years ago. In 21 career BMS starts, the best power forward in the garage has finished 24th or worse 11 times.
Next it's on to Martinsville, a place that is probably too small, too old and too crowded to be a modern-day NASCAR venue, but tradition demands that we keep playing there. In other words, it's racing's version of Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"The first time I went to Bristol, I just started laughing," recalls Missouri Tigers alum Carl Edwards. "Then we went to Martinsville and it was like we were racing in the Bristol parking lot. I said, 'You want me to drive one of these cars into one of those corners without wrecking? And you want me to do it 500 times in all four corners with 42 other cars? Yeah, right.'"
Then, as the NCAA welcomes its Final Four to Detroit (hey, isn't that Motor City?), the teams -- or, more accurately, what's left of them after two weeks of short-track racing -- head west to the cyclone-fast Texas Motor Speedway.
"Fans and experts like to talk about speed at Daytona and Talladega," observes Kentucky Wildcats loyalist Michael Waltrip, who comes out of the break clinging to 16th in points (UK would've been thrilled with a 16 seed, but didn't get an NCAA invite). "But nowhere do you feel how fast we're going [more] than you do at Texas. Especially when you get turned around backwards. Trust me, I know. Like Daytona and Talladega, things can go very wrong in a very big hurry and it can totally not be your fault."
On Monday, April 6, Ford Field will welcome around 75,000 fans for the culmination of March Mad & er, Spring Stupidity. One day earlier, The Great American Speedway in Fort Worth will more than double that crowd.
When the NCAA tourney comes to a close, one team will be rewarded with a big trophy, a cut-up basketball net, and get their names in the paper.
The reward for surviving NASCAR's month of madness? A weekend off to prepare for the searing heat of the Arizona desert, the door-banging restrictor plate of Talladega, more short-track racing at Richmond, and Darlington, aka the Track Too Tough To Tame.
"It never stops," team owner Robert Yates once told me as he looked over his two destroyed race cars as they were being sawed apart to fit back into their haulers at Bristol. "It's madness."
Yes it is, and it certainly is not confined to March.
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.