Racing offers unexpected surprises

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF

   The past three Sundays are a perfect example of why stock car racing is my favorite sport. In a single word -- unpredictably.
   Sunday, I was traveling back from the Arby's Classic press conference was listening to the Winston Cup race on the radio. On the way to Bristol, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was the best car on the track and seemed to have the field covered.
   As I left the press conference, there were only nine laps to go. The announcers were saying how Jerry Nadeau was cruising to a second career Winston Cup victory. When the laps wound down to the final two, the announcers had all but handed the trophy to Nadeau. Less than a half lap to go, things changed dramatically. Nadeau ran out of gas and Bobby Labonte won the race.
   The week before at Homestead, it looked like Casey Atwood had the race wrapped up with 25 laps to go. Barring a late race yellow, the rookie driver surely would score his first Winston Cup win.
   Instead, the caution did come out and his teammate Bill Elliott passed him with five laps to go. Elliott won for the first time in 226 races. Although, Elliott was a former Winston Cup champion and a 40-time winner on the circuit, I had joined the chorus who felt that "Awesome Bill" would never again win on NASCAR's top circuit.
   This time all the critics were silenced as Elliott's winning pass showcased the veteran at his best, making an aggressive move where he got the rear of Atwood's car loose without ever making contact.
   The week before I enjoyed the Rockingham race emmensly from a fan's perspective. Kenny Wallace, someone I have become a friend with over the years, won the pole position and looked to be in prime position to take career win number one driving the Pennzoil Chevrolet that Steve Park won with in February.
   On the other hand, Chris Carrier, a good friend from Bristol, is the crew chief on the No. 33 Chevy that Joe Nemechek drives. Nemechek, someone who had struggled all season long, seemed an unlikely candidate to dominate the race. But, on that Sunday that's exactly what happened with him finishing six seconds ahead of second place Wallace. Wallace could take consolation in his Busch Series win of a day earlier.
   All in all, it's been a great three weeks and a stark contrast to three or four seasons ago when a handful of cars were winning almost all the events.
   LOCALS MAKING BIG MARK ON NATIONAL RACING SCENE
   As we mentioned, Bristol's Carrier made headlines a few weeks ago at Rockingham taking his first career Winston Cup win as a crew chief. It follows a highly-successful run in the Busch Series with car owner Ed Whitaker.
   Whitaker also made a return to NASCAR on a larger-scale this season, running his "Team Bristol" with Bristol driver Kelly Denton behind the wheel.
   However, the biggest impact of any Bristol native came in the form of NASCAR president Mike Helton, who has had to guide the organization through an incredibly tough time.
   After the public relations debacle following the death of Dale Earnhardt, Helton has faced a bombardment of safety-related questions. Even the question of to race or not to race, fell in his lap following the events of September 11.
   Moving to the Model City of Kingsport, Tony Glover made headlines as team manager for the No. 40 Winston Cup car that Sterling Marlin drives. Not only did the team score the first two wins at Michigan and Charlotte for Dodge in their return to NASCAR competition, but the team is locked into a top-five finish in the Winston Cup point standings.
   Kingsport businessman Don Smith sponsors the IHRA Pro Stock car that Gene Wilson, son of professional fisherman Orlando Wilson, piloted to the 2001 titie. Wilson also was in the local news in the special Pro Stock vs. World of Outlaws showdown held at Bristol Dragway.
   Wilson did what counterparts like Greeneville's Allen Johnson of the NHRA could not do by making it to the special event finals, before losing to this year's Outlaws champion Danny Lasoski.
   Onto Johnson City, John Miller III continues to make his mark in the BF Goodrich Trans-Am Series finishing third in the point standings behind Paul Gentilozzi and Brian Simo. Miller also got his first experience behind the wheel of a Winston Cup car, testing the No. 4 Kodak Chevy at Road Atlanta for the Morgan-McClure team.
   Two other Johnson Citians raced in the NASCAR Busch Series this season. Brad Teague ran in several events for Jimmy Means, serving a role where his duty was to simply make the field for races. Another stock car veteran Mike Potter, also of Johnson City, helped Teague on the pit crew in the early part of the season, but also got behind the wheel for two races.
   Bluff City's Nate Monteith made his ARCA debut earlier in the season at Nashville and recently followed it up with a solid 11th place finish at Talladega. This is in preparation for Nate's Busch Series debut tenatively scheduled for next February at Daytona.
   Last, but not least, is not a local person but a local place making the news. Bristol Motor Speedway once again was named the fans' favorite track in a national poll of race fans. It is the second year in a row, NASCAR fans have chosen Bristol and the August night race as the best track and best event on the Winston Cup calendar.