Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Tuesday's Feature: The Straightaway

(every Tuesday, "Out of Bounds" will feature "The Straightaway," NASCAR commentary by longtime racing observer Siddy Hall)


by Siddy Hall


NASCAR fans have been blessed with a pair of white-knuckle battles between the circuit’s heavyweights in recent weeks. At Atlanta, it was Jimmie Johnson versus Tony Stewart. The defending champ Johnson, pulled the muscle move of the young season by pinching Stewart’s space and leaving him sucking his CO2 in the final laps of that one.

Johnson retained his crown at Martinsville too, as he held off Jeff Gordon in the final laps of that race. In both cases, the loser’s frustration showed afterwards as guys who usually win were feebly explaining why Jimmie Johnson was performing spinning burnouts for the crowd while they were experiencing the burn of losing a major battle. Second place never felt so bad.

One great aspect of these and other drivers is that if they win, they don’t hide their enjoyment. Jimmie Johnson does lots of burnouts. Tony Stewart meets the fans by climbing the fence. Then there is Carl Edwards who does his crazy backflip off his car.

From left: Edwards, Johnson, and Stewart let it all hang out after a win

More and more often we’re seeing the NASCAR version of a Victory Dance. Not that long ago, it seemed like the Victory Lane celebration was anti-climatic. The winning car would pull in, the Beverage-of-the-Week would be placed on the roof. The driver would stand on the car for a few moments and splatter a meager 32-ounce sports drink on the crowd and that was it. Whoopee.

While celebrating is on the increase in NASCAR, the NFL in recent years has been going the other way, thus earning the nickname, the No Fun League. Too much dancing, waving pom-poms or talking on your cell phone after scoring a touchdown will result in a penalty and/or fine. Countless times I’ve listened to fans and announcers say, “When a player scores he should act like he’s done it a lot and just hand the ball to the official.”

I couldn’t disagree more.

Barry Sanders used to do that here in Detroit. He’d score a touchdown and he behaved like a shy kid. It became vaguely deflating when your star player did not show any excitement or emotion. After all, isn’t that a part of what leadership entails?

Let it hang out, show your emotions. One thing I’ve always admired about Jeff Gordon is that he never gets bored with winning. He’s won 75 times and each time he’s the happiest guy on the planet. We saw the flip-side of that this week at Martinsville. Gordon failed to win when he had the best car. How often does that happen? He was madder than a bull with a bee in its ear. That’s one reason that Gordon’s so great. He’s gotta win.

The athlete in another sport that reminds me of Jeff Gordon is hockey’s Wayne Gretzky. Both dominated their sport at a young age against much older competition. And of course, they’ve both dominated at the pro level. I remember seeing Wayne Gretzky for the first time in person and my jaw almost hit the ground. Not because he was good, but because at first glance he looked lousy. He’s the last guy you’d pick to have on your team. He was skinny and he skated funny; he didn’t look right. But pretty quickly you realized that he was a magician on skates. He was hockey’s Houdini.

Wayne Gretzky had one important characteristic that he shares with Jeff Gordon: Gretzky loved scoring goals, just as Gordon loves winning races. I mean, Gretzky LOVED it. He scored the most goals ever and every time he’d have a huge grin and took time to celebrate it. He would never get bored with scoring goals. It never even became slightly routine for him. Jeff Gordon is the same way with a race car and winning races. That’s one reason why he has 75 wins in his back pocket.

Gretzky (left) and Gordon have more in common than you think

Speaking of NASCAR Victory Dances, a guy who created a good one, Alan Kulwicki, passed away so tragically about 14 years ago. His so-called “Polish Victory Lap” was a stroke of genius as he drove around the track in the opposite way, making right-hand turns so he could wave to the fans. Alan was only able to enjoy his amazing 1992 championship for less than five months. That title should rank among the great single-season accomplishments in the history of American sports. To see a video tribute to Alan Kulwicki please visit this link.

Kulwicki: right turns only after wins

(you can e-mail Siddy Hall at: cityhall172000 at yahoo.com)

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