The Coca Cola 600 is always going to mean a lot to me because it was the race that solidified my return to NASCAR fandom.
After Dale Earnhardt’s death I had walked away from the sport for which my husband and I shared a strong passion. It was overwhelming for me as Earnhardt was my driver, my one and only.
My husband grieved as well, but had a much more inclusive approach and appreciation for watching NASCAR, so he didn’t feel the need to abandon his sport.
When social networking was just starting to become popular my husband joined a NASCAR site where fans connected, blogged, and commented. He was rather active, listened to the podcast that had spawned the site, and was becoming well known amongst its listeners and members.
It was difficult for me to stay away from NASCAR when my husband was spending so much time at the site and was still watching races weekly.
The year was 2007 and the Coca Cola 600 was on the television. The children were sleeping peacefully as night completely fell.
I decided to throw myself into the race. I started to learn the numbers of the drivers, and tried to recognize any names on the circuit from my earlier years of fandom.
To my utter surprise, amazement and delight, the top five was filled with a mix of new names – to me – and one veteran.
Casey Mears experienced his first (Nextel) Cup victory that night. J.J. Yeley placed second, his highest finish to date.
And Kyle Petty, one of my favorite drivers from my first go around as a fan, earned a third-place finish. It was Petty’s first top five finish in 10 years.
Reed Sorenson and Brian Vickers rounded out the top five, respectively.
Accidents, fuel mileage gambles and other situations led to the unlikely names in the top five, but that’s what this sport is all about.
When the race was over I was talking to the television and my husband at the same time. Right then and there, my husband set me up with an account at the same NASCAR social networking site he used, the now defunct Rowdy.com.
I wrote several pieces that night even though it was late on the East Coast, where I live.
Petty was the subject of one. I gushed about Petty’s character, his hard lot in life, not only being The King’s son and not having his own identity, but also to lose his own son years earlier. Yet he remained a good man who gives back through his Victory Junction Gang Camp.
That piece struck a chord with the members and garnered a lot of comments and discussions.
Dr. Jerry Punch was the topic of another. He was one of the main commentators and pit reporters when I began to watch NASCAR on ESPN in the early 1990s.
In my absence ESPN lost most of the Cup races and Dr. Punch was not on air with NASCAR much. His return corresponded with mine.
This was comforting to me because Benny Parsons, another familiar and well-loved NASCAR announcer (and former winning driver), had passed in January of 2007. Having Punch’s voice fill my ears soothed my transition back to NASCAR seamlessly.
I look at the landscape today and see a complete field of drivers’ names I know because I have thrown myself back into the sport completely.
I can make comparisons with Petty and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who both will always bear the unfair, yet all-too-real yardstick, that will never allow them to measure up to their respective fathers, both mythical legends in the sport.
I can take comfort, for the time being, that Mike Joy still sits firmly in the broadcasting booth for half of the season.
And, as I prepare to watch the 2012 Coca Cola 600, I look back on the last five years. From what began as casual blogging I have built a career that revolves around NASCAR.
My fandom has come full circle. My passion for the sport coupled with my passion for writing has netted me a second career that propels me to new heights.
The sport of NASCAR, though not without its flaws, still entertains, delights and enthralls me.
The Coca Cola 600 is a race that will always be special to me, and now you know why.
What race established the jumping off point of your NASCAR fandom?