There are certain months of the year in which a sport just absolutely shines, busting out all the stops to deliver its most competitive and memorable moments for fans and participants to remember for some time.
September ushers in the regular season for pigskin fans in the high school, collegiate, and professional levels, with NCAA and NFL action taking the center stage for the next four months. Tailgating parties commence as quickly as the leaves across the country fade from eloquent greens to shades of reds and oranges adorning the roads to these modern day coliseums.
Baseball fans would be hard pressed to decide on a time in which they'd be most enthusiastic, relishing in their excitement of the season from the moment that the loading trucks are stacked with equipment for spring training in February to the last out of the World Series in late October.
No matter the allegiance, it's safe to assume that any time that there's three-hour chess matches on the diamond is a good time for fans of America's pastime. From any of the 162 regular season match-ups to the All-Star contest in July and postseason in October, there's nary a dull moment for fans who just love one of the oldest American games.
However, when it comes to auto racing, make no mistake about it: The month of May is the best time for motorsports enthusiasts across the globe. From Formula One's Monaco Grand Prix to NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600, it just doesn't get any better for fans of high speed action on some of the finest asphalt arenas worldwide.
For NASCAR loyalists, while there are races held at Richmond and Darlington (with the exception of this year, in which Dover has its annual spring race held this weekend), the only races that matter are the ones held at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It's the backyard for many teams who are headquartered just mere miles away from the 1.5-mile speedway located just outside of Concord, N.C.
Think of it as the annual homecoming game for high school teams, who are rearing up for a battle under the Friday night lights. Playing at home just carries more resonance and meaning with winning, as you're able to soak in the glory and accolades in front of family, friends, and fans who may only venture just to this one game.
Just as the manufacturers bask in the revelry and battle calls of the annual races at Michigan International Speedway, just about a stone's throw from the American car capital known as Detroit, Charlotte offers drivers, crews, and fans a more homely feel to a sport that has grown up as the child that's become quite popular from earlier, more humble times.
As if racing at home wasn't enough, there's two races that Sprint Cup series aces look forward to all year long. First, there's the money and go-for-broke action that can be found with the NASCAR All-Star event, in which present and past race winners duke it out for one of the largest paydays of the season in an event carrying as much tension as a dirt car feature at Eldora or Williams Grove.
With no points on the line and perhaps some drivers who have some unfinished business from earlier incidents in regular season events, you can bet that there will be some who will settle some scores, especially under the "have at it, boys" era of NASCAR.
While Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have somewhat fizzled their competitive rivalry in the past few events, there's no reason to think that the No. 24 and 48 teams may try to one up each other. At the same time, there's no reason to also think that Gordon and Johnson are going to race and beat the living hell out of each other, especially if either driver finds themselves running in the top two in the final segment.
Then there are some racers who are free agents next season that wouldn't mind leaving a lasting impression on their prospective employers, such as the case for Kasey Kahne and possibly Kevin Harvick.
Kahne may have a ride for 2012, but next season still has some loose ends for the popular Enumclaw, Wash., racer. A victory for "Special K" may force Hendrick to reconsider his lineup for 2011 or to ensure that his latest acquisition ends up with one of his satellite teams next year.
As for Harvick, it appears more likely that he'll stick with Richard Childress Racing after all, given his immensely successful season thus far with a victory at Talladega and his current reign as the points leader. That's not to say that the pride of Bakersfield, Calif., is going to back down when the money's on the line, having won this event in 2007.
Just as the NBA All-Star game allows players to experiment with various and unorthodox plays, NASCAR's "late spring classic" offers many chances for racers and pit crews to try out different car set-ups as well as pit strategies that can be used on the following weekend with the grand finale of Charlotte's version of Speedweeks.
First, the good.
In 2002, Jeff Burton's No. 99 Citgo Ford team decided to pit on the final lap of the first segment of the All-Star race, cleverly called by crew chief Frank Stoddard. By the time their stop was complete, Burton found himself sitting pretty in the second segment, beating out the rest of his peers.
Now, the bad.
Last year, Jeff Gordon went away with his somewhat conservative approach, gunning for the win in a daring three-wide formation against Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch. As the trio headed off the fourth corner, all hell broke loose with the No. 24 DuPont colors sliding scarily down the frontstretch grass before smashing into the outside-retaining wall after the dogleg.
With the exception of the 2008 event, in which even a daylong marathon of Golden Girls had more action than the All-Star race, there's a million reasons to think that this year's edition will be the most exciting one yet, right along with 1985, '87, '89, '92, and '94-'01.
Just as the fireworks have dissipated and the walls adorning Charlotte Motor Speedway are repainted from Sprint yellow to an ominous white, crews and drivers have to gear up for the all-important event in May for stock car racing. Spanning at least 600 miles in the course of 400 laps, it is the ultimate test of man and machine when the barometer and mercury levels start to rise near intolerance.
It can serve some cruel fates to drivers, as in the case when Fireball Roberts was critically injured and burned in a crash between turns one and two in 1964. He'd later lose his life that summer from injuries sustained in an accident while gunning his way to the front in the early stages of the World 600.
Having been renamed the Coca-Cola 600 since 1985, this race has been a showcase for first-time winners, like Gordon in '94, Bobby Labonte in '95, Matt Kenseth in 2000, and David Reutimann last year. Be it by luck, smarts, or an all-around attack with a good car and consistently fast stops, the longest race in NASCAR proves equally as dramatic, prestigious, and important as its open-wheel cousin up the road in Speedway, Ind.
Memorial Day is synonymous with this event, often provoking patriotic thoughts and feelings with the spectators at the speedway. Cars will adorn the American colors of red, white, and blue, competing in a sport that may be dangerous, but not as perilous as the battles of the finest and braves of the nation overseas who defend our liberties and freedom.
When it all comes down to it, there's just no other month like May for NASCAR fans. Serving appetizers with a 400-lapper at Richmond, the Southern 500 in Darlington, and the annually tough 400-miler at Dover, Del., what more can a stock car fan ask for?
Of course, the main meal comprises of two white knuckle events that will surely be the talk around the water coolers in the days after; a pair of hard-fought races with all the excitement, hype, drama, and controversy that only the stick and ball sports can offer.
Part Two will look into the open-wheel circuit's foray with the month of May, particularly with the Grand Prix of Monaco and the Indianapolis 500, two crucial and prestigious events for the F1 and IZOD IndyCar Series, respectively.