Gimme Some Truth: What Makes a NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion?

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst ISeptember 10, 2009

18 Nov 2001:Jeff Gordon celebrates winning the championship at the NASCAR Winston Cup NAPA 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. Digital Image. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/ALLSPORT

In the course of a 36-race season, spanning from the New England region of Loudon, N.H. to the Southern California metropolis of Fontana, drivers and teams are constantly looking for ways to outwit, outlast, and outplay the competition.

Much like the oft-used words to describe Survivor, the internationally-renowned reality television program, the NASCAR Sprint Cup tour can also be perceived in that matter.

If you find it a struggle to get through the weekly rat race that's called your job, just imagine how these speed demons endure a grueling schedule, as they prepare for the next race on the schedule at a large market like Fort Worth or the most rural of locales such as Martinsville.

Some teams have it hard just to make it on a week-to-week basis in making the race. Fans and the media are quick to label them as the go-or-go homers, or operations that are on a limited budget with meager sponsorship.

They might consist of drivers who are experiencing their twilight years or may not have that famous motorsports name. Even so, if your name is Andretti, you're struggling to maintain a top-35 spot in the points standings (sorry, John).

Sometimes, these struggling groups have that Cinderella story which captivates the masses and warrants attention from television, internet, and radio outlets. Why not?

Think about how thrilled Kirk Shelmerdine felt after the 2006 Daytona 500 when he finished 20th, ahead of the likes of Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte, Kurt Busch, and Carl Edwards.

For one day, Shelmerdine outlasted and outwitted many superstar racers in the series, a moment that he has surely remembered three years later.

Remember the elation felt by Geoffrey Bodine, when he piloted the No. 09 Ford, an occasional entrant owned by James Finch, to a third-place finish in the '02 season opener at "The World Center of Racing?"

Bodine nearly died in an accident during a NASCAR Truck race at Daytona in 2000 when his No. 15 Line-X Ford F-150 tore up most of the catch fencing after the start/finish line and disintegrated into mere bits of sheet metal.

That is one of the more physical examples of being a survivor, especially when you consider how savaging the accident was for the long-time racer.

Some teams are loaded in cash and have Fortune 500 companies or corporations whose presence are made in the New York Stock Exchange. Resources needed to improve on team and car performance are easy to come by, just needing that wise accountant to make sure the checks are cashed to satisfy the corporate gods.

In other scenarios, you have the kid driver who experienced the American dream of rags to riches. As seen in this article's picture, the story of then 30-year-old Jeff Gordon reached a new chapter when the Vallejo, Calif. native was crowned NASCAR Cup champion for the fourth time in his illustrious career.

Having raced since the age of five, his dreams were realized with a little help from his friends as well as his family.

With the tutelage of stepfather John Bickford, mother Carol, and sister Kim, Gordon would encounter many amazing and incredible individuals who have molded and helped shape the prodigious driver into a beloved veteran.

You might be wondering why this article has such a title, paying homage to the late John Lennon's 1971 song from his album Imagine.

I could write to you all about how it boils down to either driver or team, which really, that kind of discussion and rationalization is fair and well, truthful.

But as Lennon said, "I'm sick and tired of hearing things from uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocrites, all I want is the truth now, just gimme some truth now."

Let's be honest: the game of Sprint Cup racing is truly a tough deal. Sure, it may not be the gridiron fields of an NFL practice facility on a sweltering summer day out in Foxboro, Mass. or being checked by the likes of Zdeno Chara (a Bruins fan can hope!) during the 2010 NHL Winter Classic at Fenway Park.

However, it requires a tremendous amount of attention to detail. Think of how you were living in your parents' house, having to listen and obey most (yes, most!) of their rules.

Discipline and maturity were some of the attributes that may have developed in those years at home.

You may have a father who's particular and somewhat of a neat freak, always precise about everything he does, from the garage work with his beloved vehicle to the position of his television set and remote control. He was certainly an individual who, nine out of 10 times (but in his eyes, all the time), was the master of being meticulous.

Or perhaps you had a mother who guided you to the point where it felt like learning how to ride a bike. She pestered you (if you perceived it that way) or at least supported you with her love and care until you grew the confidence to pedal your way around the neighborhood on your bicycle.

In a much higher plane of rigidness, mentoring, and disciplining, every NASCAR team on the Sprint Cup tour routinely ensures that its performance on the track is paralleled by the effort given by the men and women working diligently in the shop.

From the receptionist working the lines for a fledgling team in dire need of a sponsor to the shop foreman, overseeing every effort by the fabricator and a team's hauler driver, it takes absolute dedication to "Get the Balance Right," as Depeche Mode once sang in 1983.

Just because the checkered flag may wave the end of race day on a stirring Saturday night or the dusk of a Sunday some place in America, the race truly never ends.

Teams have most of their essential equipment stored in their haulers, housing at least two race-ready cars, pit equipment, and paraphernalia needed to ensure for a successful weekend at the track.

Just thinking about all the work needed to load up all the necessary components for the races, as well as the long-distance traveling done by these team hauler drivers on the highway is liken to a prestigious band on a grueling tour, with the roadies, RV drivers, and stage equipment hauled around for the next date at some venue far away.

Monday through Thursday is spent at the shop, where the driver will show up at the team headquarters to discuss the race held over the past weekend with their crew chief and anyone pertinent to the outcome of the event.

Meetings with the sponsor are conducted, either at their home base location or at a fan function at the amusement park (ask Jeff Gordon about Cedar Park for longtime associate sponsor Pepsi).

Battered machines, abused motors, and any component to the racecar are massaged, repaired, or perhaps thrown away in favor of brand new equipment that are ready to take on the four hour chariot event made for the racing immortal.

Like those times with your parents, you probably had at least one party at your house where your family and friends came over for a summer cookout.

Every room had to be cleaned up to near perfection, with each glass having to be polished or the grill outside washed and cleaned to ensure that the charred specialties are absolutely damn delicious.

If the propane was empty, it was off to the near refill station in the town. And oh yea, you might need to fill up your cooler with bags of ice to get all the refreshments ready to be quenched or to wash down all that food you'll eat hours later.

Eventually, all the tour dates take a toll on the performers and any participant assisting these acclaimed musicians, whose microphone or guitar is a 3,400 lb. stock car that ranges from a dream machine to an ill-handling beast refusing to negotiate a sweeping corner at Pocono Raceway.

It's almost like your arms and legs feeling sore after all the preparation put into making a great party. I haven't even talked about the clean-up, which may be a painstaking task as well.

Somehow, someway, 43 teams and drivers have that wherewithal to complete all the pre-race activities that lead to the big dance on the asphalt arena.

Every man and woman who has worked on that machine watches in anticipation as their driver switches the ignition box, gives the thumbs up to his teammates, and rolls off pit lane for some warm-up laps in double-file formation.

Each driver has some mental checklist of what has to be looked over before the signal is given from the flagman's stand, signaling the time to unleash their bests (thank you, Milwaukee's Best!).

Remember all that talk about it being driver and team? Well, during the race, that's just a quarter of the responsibility of what happens on the race track. Consider all those hard working people working behind-the-scenes each week who make sure our heroes of the asphalt are ready to put on a fine show.

Even if we have to contend with the beast known as the Car of Tomorrow, it's no different to the times when the legends drove their horsepower beauties years and decades ago.

Sure, the names aren't the same and the next-door neighbor's days of being a sponsor for the underdog are long gone, but the song and dance are still the same.

Come to think of it, when you need the simple answer as to what makes a Sprint Cup champion, it takes everyone to believe in each other to know that no matter the investment and time given to each race, if a total effort was given, then you are a Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, or Tony Stewart.

Fans, you are also champions in every right and degree. We are given the privilege and opportunity to express our opinions on Internet forums, sporting outlets like Bleacher Report, or social networking sites to show our colors, be it Pepsi blue or Budweiser red.

It takes a lot of devotion to stand by your driver through any time, good or bad, amazing decision or questionable, as well as the days when that individual cut their teeth at Bristol to their ultimate moment in hoisting the beautiful Sprint Cup championship trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

That's why the late Benny Parsons reveled in his miraculous Winston Cup title in 1973 and why the likes of the departed in Alan Kulwicki still resonate volume and valor by those in the NASCAR community.

Wrecked machine that didn't stand a chance to return to the track in a tight championship battle? No matter, everyone loved BP so much, opposing teams aided the L.G. DeWitt group to rebuild a battered car into a crowned vehicle by the season finale's last moment.

Or how about the independent college graduate who truly went against all odds over those conglomerate operations, experiencing his crowning moment as the Cup titlist in 1992? That's the story of Kulwicki, who continues to be the finest example of a dreamer who imagines and succeeds.

So when November strikes and the Ford 400 has concluded, I hope you come to this conclusion: Everyone is a Sprint Cup champion.

And what makes you and everyone a Sprint Cup champion?

Heart and soul.

A Personal Note of Thanks:

When I look back at my previous articles, I see a lot of growing pains. There have been moments where I have felt that I hit all the right notes and some where I was just a tick off the pace in turn three, but steady off turn four.

One constant, however, is the support that has been given to me, ranging from you, the readers, to those who have my absolute love and care for supporting me and my dreams.

Acknowledging everyone who has given me their assurance and votes of confidence would possibly mean that I'd miss a name or two. I could not do that, because such support is equally meaningful to me.

I will say this to you all: for my previous 99 articles, I want to thank you, the readers, the fine staff and crew of Bleacher Report, Jayski, all my friends, and last but not least, my family, who have always waved the green flag for me to win the race in realizing my dreams.

To reach No. 100 is a personal accomplishment and a goal I had set from the moment I signed up for Bleacher Report last year.

It is a significant number to me that speaks volumes for you, the reader, who at the very least, comes by to check out my works.

There have been moments when I disappeared on hiatus or needed time away, but I can assure you that what always kept me going was knowing I was writing to the best group of readers ever.

I thank you all very much for standing by me, commenting, liking, and most of all, for just reading my works. That, to me, is why the Bleacher Report is truly the most incredible site for a writer and fan to "Come Together."

With some modified lyrics from a great Jackson Browne song, I say this: "Stay, just a little bit longer, I plan to write just a little bit longer."

Thank you all very much!


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