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Authors: Monte Dutton

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Darlington is the most unique of all. Its racing groove, when compared to the wide, smooth comfort of the Michigan clones, is a sidewalk. It’s the greatest test of driving ability. Not surprisingly, given the current mind-set that seems to govern the future of NASCAR, its future is endangered. Rockingham and North Wilkesboro have gone the way of the dinosaurs. Darlington is the spotted owl. Leaving Darlington with one date and making that date Mother’s Day weekend is about like reestablishing the spotted owl’s habitat as the L.A. freeways.

Phoenix is, like Darlington, odd. Fortunately, its odd-ness is located near a huge western city. Huge western cities have become the Wal-Marts of NASCAR. They’re taking over the marketplace and running the “mom and pop” tracks, i.e., Darlington, Rockingham, North Wilkesboro, and other oddities to be named later, out of business.

But Phoenix is just fine, even if it is about as flat as a Dr Pepper left out in the sun with the cap off, and even though its back straight is as whop-sided as a two-dollar baseball after a line drive.

Bristol is high-banked, concrete-covered madness. Pocono has three straights, all of different distances, and three curves, all of different banking. Martinsville is the world’s largest paper clip. Infineon (Sears Point) is a NASCAR version of the old country song that says “up this hill and down … and up this hill again.”

“The track is so fast, it’s not made for racing. It’s made for speed.”

—RYAN NEWMAN

on Texas Motor Speedway

“I don’t even know why I’m going to watch it. I know he is going to win. He has gotten so smart sitting in the [TV] booth. It’s obvious that nobody else will stand a chance with all the knowledge he has gained.”

—TERRY LABONTE

on Fox commentator Darrell Waltrip competing in a Craftsman Truck Series race at Martinsville

G
reg Biffle was probably born too late, not that it was much of a disadvantage in 2005, when the thirty-six-year-old driver became a genuine NASCAR star.

Biffle didn’t start racing go-karts when he was four. He didn’t have a dad who gave up everything to make his son a star. He started banging around on short tracks when he was a teenager. When Jack Roush signed him to a contract, he was running a restaurant on the side to raise some extra cash to go racing.

His story doesn’t sound familiar anymore. Many of Biffle’s peers only go to restaurants where they park your car for you. They hire someone to flip the burgers at their motor coaches, and that’s when they want to try some “quaint” American cuisine.

“I didn’t really say I wanted to be a race driver, per se, but I loved to drive anything that had four wheels and tires and a gas pedal,” Biffle says. “When I was ten years old, I’m driving up and down the road, back and forth. We had some property and my grandmother lived at the end of the road, so I was taking the car and driving back and forth, and riding my motorcycle every day. I loved to ride my motorcycle.

“I begged my dad for a go-kart about once a week. He probably got tired of hearing it, but I didn’t have any place to ride it if I’d had one … I had that interest and I watched the racing, but I didn’t really connect the two—like, ‘that’s what I’m going to do’—until I was in high school and started racing oval track, hobby stock, street stocks. That’s when I kind of got the bug.”

Biffle had a knack for it. That’s the only way he could have gotten this far this fast. People look at him and can’t believe he’s thirty-six, but for a guy who started out with nothing—no rich dad paying the bills, no big-shot racer behind him—he’s risen to the top in quite a hurry.

He’s old school, and when you ask him about it, he says, “Yeah, pretty much.”

It almost makes you want to ask if Biffle ever “ran ‘shine down in Alabam’,” but then you remember he’s from Vancouver, Washington, and that the illegal-liquor trade was probably kind of sparse in the Northwest, although there probably was some bootlegging from across the Canadian border back during Prohibition.

On a Friday morning in Phoenix, Biffle wasn’t pleased with his car, so he did what racers used to do. He stewed over the matter with his crew chief, Doug Richert, and the two drank coffees at the crack of dawn because neither could get any sleep for worrying about it. Of course, racers didn’t used to have posh motor coaches in the infield. There are limits to old school. Biffle and Richert didn’t get together at a diner. They got together in the coach.

“I was drinking my coffee and reading the paper, and we kept talking about the car for about forty-five minutes,” Biffle says. “I didn’t see any other drivers or any other crew chiefs doing that.”

He ought to know. They were all parked nearby.

“I never said I
could
drive.”

—TERRY LABONTE

asked how he felt toward those who said he couldn’t drive anymore

“I’m going to party all night, and I don’t even drink. Lots of Gatorade, I guess. I may never win another one.”

—MARK MARTIN

after winning the 2002 Coca-Cola 600

W
hen Tony Stewart debuted in the Cup Series and enjoyed immediate success, he said it was because the Cup cars were easier for him to drive than the ones in the Busch Series. He still feels that way.

“I still think, from my aspect, it was probably easier to get used to the Cup car just because of the horsepower differences,” he said. “The Busch cars’ straightaway speeds are a little slower so you drive it a lot deeper into the corners than you do with the Cup cars. I still believe it was easier for me to make the transition from the sprint cars and midgets to the Cup Series versus the Busch Series.

“Now, having the Cup Series experience on my side, it does make it easier to go to the Busch Series and know what to expect once I get there now. So it’s kind of a backwards leap if you think about skipping the Busch and going to Cup and then backwards.”

“I had the big old piece of cake on my fork, and it fell right off on the floor.”

—JIMMIE JOHNSON

after making a pit road error that cost him the 2002 Coca-Cola 60

T
he combination of a pair of legends, Junior Johnson and Darrell Waltrip, dominated stock car racing for most of the 1980s. Out of the 132 victories credited to cars owned by Johnson, Waltrip won 43, not to mention championships in 1981, 1982, and 1985.

Johnson had himself been one of NASCAR’s premier drivers prior to his retirement in 1966. Dubbed “the last American hero” by author Tom Wolfe in a 1965
Esquire
article, Johnson began his racing career as an avocation. NASCAR founder William H. G. France tried to persuade him to run a full schedule by saying he wanted Johnson to “commit” himself.

As recounted by Johnson, his reply to France was, “I’m not committed to racing. I’m a bootlegger. I don’t race on the track; I race down the highway. It’s the same situation as when you’re having bacon and eggs for breakfast. That bacon comes from the pig. He was committed. The egg comes from a chicken. She was involved.

“Where NASCAR was concerned, at that time, I was involved.”

What led Johnson to become committed was a stint in federal prison, one that ended just a few months before he won the 1960 Daytona 500. He retired as a driver in 1966 after winning fifty races.

When Waltrip took over as driver of Johnson’s number 11 Chevrolet in 1981, he brought his attorney along to negotiate a contract. Johnson and Waltrip, along with their attorneys, met in a dimly lit law office in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Waltrip was astonished when he discovered that his new contract was only a page in length.

“My lawyer felt like we were dealing with a couple of hillbillies,” Waltrip recalls. “The contract wasn’t much more than ‘you drive and I’ll provide the car.’ My lawyer asked Junior, ‘What are you going to do for Darrell once he starts winning all the races?’ Junior got that serious expression on his face, paused for a few seconds, and finally said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do to him if he don’t.’” to one of his earlier drivers, Cale Yarborough, whom Waltrip disliked.

“Can’t you step it up a little, Cale?” Johnson would ask via radio.

“This ain’t no damn Cale Yarborough!” Waltrip would scream back.

“That always made ol’ Darrell go little faster,” Johnson says.

I
n the 2004 Daytona 500, Bobby Labonte’s Chevrolet carried sponsorship from the movie The Passion of the Christ.

Actor Ben Affleck was at the race and noted the pontential effect.

“[That] begs the question of the other drivers,” said Affleck. “Why even show up? I mean, Jesus is in Bobby’s pit. You know who’s side God is on. I guess Kid Rock is going to be here, too. My money’s on Jesus.”

Alas, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the 500

J
eff Burton, making his appearance in Richard Childress’s number 30 Chevrolet, overshot his pit stall on a stop shortly before the halfway point at Michigan International Speedway in 2004.

No, that’s not exactly true.

What happened, apparently, was that Burton mistakenly pulled into the stall of his former team, the number 99 Ford in which Carl Edwards had succeeded him.

D
uring a June 2004 race at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, a NASCAR official displayed a flag indicating that pit road was closed to race leader Jimmie Johnson, then opened the pits as soon as Johnson had passed, allowing everyone else to pit. The mistake cost Johnson more than a dozen positions, although he miraculously came back to win the race.

Guess Johnson didn’t say, “Simon says.”

“At this point, I think if I saw someone on the side of the road selling horseshoes, I would stop and buy one.”

—BOBBY LABONTE

in the midst of a tough season

“I kind of led the team astray. I couldn’t even remember being here last year. I get this place and Kansas City mixed up.”

—MICHAEL WALTRIP

at Chicagoland

B
arbecue was once the staple of the North Carolina Speedway press box. On the track’s final NASCAR weekend, the fare was chicken and beef fajitas. Someone noted that one of the races went to Southern California, so California Speedway sent its food back to Rockingham.

B
efore the 2003 Chevy Rock & Roll 400 in Richmond, Virginia, officials put on a rock show that included appearances by Franky Perez and groups with names like Trapt, Staind and Uncle Kracker.

The music seemed sort of alien to many of those present.

Rosemary Rose, a fan wearing a “Proud to Be American” T-shirt and straw hat, said, “Putting these people onstage in front of us is unfair. This is not what I call NASCAR music.”

“I’ve been trying to focus totally on racing and forget about the rest of the stuff. I don’t want to run off and do a bunch of commercials. I don’t want to do movies. I want to be right here.”

—BILL ELLIOTT

after winning the 2002 Brickyard 400

“I thought maybe he needed a psychologist, first off for owning a race team and secondly for hiring me.”

—BILL ELLIOTT

on Ray Evernham

“He fits my mold. I like a guy who’s got some spunk and says what he believes.”

—Hall of Famer

JUNIOR JOHNSON

on Tony Stewart

A
fter Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2003 victory at Phoenix International Raceway, a “mystery woman” walked to the window outside the media center, banged on the window to get Junior’s attention, and proceeded to lift up her T-shirt and expose herself to the race winner.

When the resulting clamor subsided, Earnhardt Jr. leaned toward the microphone and noted, “I guess the demographic of this sport is changing.”

“We found about eight different ways to go the same speed.”

—KURT BUSCH

after practice and qualifying at Richmond in 2002

“They’re going to have to come in here and bulldoze the place.”

—RUSTY WALLACE

complaining about New Hampshire International Speedway

N
ASCAR president Mike Helton, upset with Kurt Busch in 2003, revoked the young driver’s “hard card,” which didn’t have any formal effect. It did, however, force Busch to stand in line each week at the credential stand and wait for a while after each of the season’s final races so that he could turn in his “pape credentials” to Cup Series director John Darby.

In short, it was the equivalent of having Busch stay after school to write “I must not misbehave in class” several hundred times on a blackboard.

R
etired air force general Tom Sadler, head of Speedway Children’s Charities, told a Texas Motor Speedway crowd of 180,000 that American troops were fighting in Iraq “to defend the Second Amendment.”

That particular amendment deals with the right to bear arms. The National Rifle Association is a generous contributor to Speedway Children’s Charities.

Most would concede that Americans’ right to bear arms was pretty clear in Iraq.

“The thing about an accident is that if you miss an accident by just an inch, it never happens. Sometimes the accident that could do you in, you don’t even know about.”

—JACK ROUSH

“If Richard [Childress] is satisfied and the people around me who need to be satisfied are satisfied, the rest of it really doesn’t matter. That’s the biggest thing that I had to understand: You can’t make everyone happy.”

—KEVIN HARVICK

“I really ain’t doing much, just turning left every once in a while.”

—DALE EARNHARDT JR.

BOOK: Haul A** and Turn Left
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