Tachometer Logo: Men and Speed:  A Wild Ride Through NASCAR's Breakout Season
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Acclaimed author G. Wayne Miller spent more than two years on MEN AND SPEED, and here he recounts all of the scenes behind the scenes -- with encounters, conversations, and other inside developments that did not (or could not!) make the book. The series began on January 13, 2002, and continued weekly until Sunday, May 5, 2002.

And don't forget to check out the new edition, containing all the behind-the-scenes excitement of the dramatic 2002 season. Available now!

Part 1: A Quest for Speed
Part 2: Chillin' in New England
Part 3: Chicken Bones and Beer
Part 4: Death in New Hampshire
Part 5: The Right Stuff
Part 6: Darkness in Daytona
Part 7: The Kid Comes Home
Part 8: One High, One Low
Part 9: Alabama Slammer
Part 10: Floating It In
Part 11: On The Road With Jack
Part 12: Matt Opens Up
Part 13: Jeff and the New Fears
Part 14: Mark Bares His Soul
Part 15: The Arctic 300
Part 16: New Season, New Hope
Part 17: The Roush Revival




Part 1:
Saturday, August 25, 2001
Bristol Motor Speedway
Bristol, Tennessee

Late afternoon, and race time approaches. Passed a good part of today in Mark Martin's private lounge, which is located inside the hauler that his crew uses to transport his racecars and stuff around the Winston Cup circuit. I spent some of my time shooting the breeze with Jack Roush, who makes Mark's lounge his trackside office. But I also spent a long time alone with Mark, who seems really down today.

More than a year has gone by since I started hanging out with all of Roush's drivers: Mark, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch (and, to a lesser extent, Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, and Jon Wood). When Jack allowed me to be the first professional journalist to write extensively about his operation from the inside, he kept nothing off-limits, and so I have become a familiar face in the garages, infields, pits, and Roush Racing shops and offices back in North Carolina (too-familiar, some of the NASCAR PR people might say). I like the drivers's lounges best: small but cozy and quiet (well, usually!), this is where racers spend many of their speedway hours when they're not behind the wheel. Away from the crowds and the media, drivers let their guard down -- and it is by parking my butt in their lounges on race weekends that I have gotten to know them (and Jack) as people, not just racers.

I set off on a journey deep into NASCAR in part because I wanted to learn why the sport had become so wildly popular, even where I live, in New England. And wildly popular it is -- among the 146,000 or so people here at Bristol for tonight's race are O.J. Simpson defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, who is wearing way too much gold jewelry, and the more laid-back director of Toy Story, John Lasseter, who told me he owns stockcars and never misses the race at Sears Point, near where he lives. What a mixed bag NASCAR fans are -- a multiply varied demographic, as the marketing types might say. You look around the infield this afternoon and see a bunch of corporate suits -- mixed in with ordinary folk who would just about give up their firstborn before parting with their garage passes.

Or course, I soon learned that stockcar racing is incredibly thrilling: nothing beats standing in the pits with your insides rattling as 43 cars roar by at up to 200 miles per hour. But there is more to it than that, I have discovered, much more, and my quest has brought me to the provocative issue of danger. Spectators like watching risk, but what motivates these drivers to take such extreme ones -- risks that can kill, as the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt demonstrated anew? Why, as in the case of Mark Martin, would a driver endure 27 years hampered by injury, bankruptcy, and periodic on-track heartache? (I'll tell another remarkable story, Mark's successful battle with alcohol, in the book.) Is it money? There are safer ways to become wealthy. Fame? There are more successful actors than there are Winston Cup drivers. Is it the physical sensation of driving fast? The chance to win? Whatever, this much is clear to me: racers crave speed.

In the time I have known Mark, 42 years old and a racer since he was 15, I have come to like him an awful lot.

To some extent, this has surprised me, because we are from worlds that are about as different as you can get: Mark, the kid from rural Arkanasas who skipped his high school graduation so that he could indulge his passion, and me, the New England Yankee with the notebook and pen. But Mark is a supreme risk-taker, and risk-takers have always fascinated me. Mark is also both a straightforward and complex man: by this, I mean that he always gives a no-bullshit answer, but the answers reveal a man of multiple layers. Complicated people like Mark have also long intrigued me. They don't fit neatly into categories.

This has not been Mark's year. Winless since April 2000, he is 12th in the point standings, jeopardizing his record among active drivers for the most consecutive season finishes in Winston Cup's elite Top Ten -- twelve seasons, 1989 through 2000, all with Jack Roush.

"I don't want to finish my career out hoping and praying that I can break into the top ten with a good day,'' Mark tells me. "That's not satisfying to me -- it's humiliating. And I don't enjoy being humiliated.''

He ticks off a few of his many racing achievements: 32 Winston Cup wins, 41 Cup poles, four IROC titles and four in ASA, the all-time record for Busch Grand National wins. "I haven't forgotten how to drive,'' he says. "I'm the same guy that stood 'em on their ear -- the same guy. When I get in that car tonight, I'd drive it right straight to the front, be leading in 25 laps, if the car was good enough.''

But must of the vehicles he has driven all year are not, Martin says. Several factors have contributed, including engine, aerodynamic, and tire troubles -- but something else is involved. Call it the missing black magic.

"Everybody wants it to be mechanical,'' Martin tells me, "like a machine and you just go fix the machine and then it operates properly and it's better than everybody else's machine. It's not that.'' Rather, it appears to be some subtle shift in team chemistry -- and Martin's own struggle, similar to Jeff Burton's, to reconnect to his machine. Martin has lost his sorcerer's stone -- for the moment, anyway.

Mark can be very funny and very warm, with that great smile and those piercing blue eyes -- and he can also be unbelievably intense, like a jaguar ready to spring. That's how he was when I left him changing into his firesuit for the Sharpie 500 drivers' introductions.

"I have been in torment for 27 years -- or at least for the last 15, trying to live up to expectations, my own expectations,'' Mark said.

Thinking I have another clue, I continue on my quest into the need for speed. I am reminded of how far I have come, since meeting my first NASCAR driver, Matt Kenseth, on a frigid January day more than a year and a half ago...

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Part 2:
Sunday, January 23, 2000
Convention Center
Providence, Rhode Island

It is blustery and colder than a witch's you-know-what here in New England -- one of those mid-winter days when you want to cozy up by the fire and count down the minutes to cocktail hour. But I have ventured out, to meet my first NASCAR driver, Matt Kenseth, a rookie in 2000.

Matt is flying up from North Carolina to sign autographs at a car show -- and to my amazement, hundreds of people of all ages and both sexes are waiting in line before he arrives. This sure speaks to NASCAR's popularity: that a driver yet to spend a full season in Winston Cup competition can pull so many people out of their homes on such a lousy day.

Escorted by an official, Matt wades through the crowd and takes a seat at a signing table. He looks nothing like what I had imagined a NASCAR racer would be. I guess I expected some hard-bitten tobacco-chewing redneck, a guy with a thick neck and a Confederate flag kerchief -- but Matt is a well-dressed, clean-shaven, handsome man with close-cut sandy hair, and he looks much younger than 27. He could pass for a college senior majoring in accounting. Hard to believe he earns his living at extreme speed.

I have my six-year-old son with me, and before Matt starts signing, I introduce us. Matt is polite and soft-spoken, and he seems shy -- and that surprises me, too, since the only NASCAR driver I know much about is Dale Earnhardt, whose nickname says it all. I can imagine Earnhardt kicking ass in a barroom brawl, not courteously greeting my son and me.

Matt apologizes for not getting back to me on the phone. ``I was going to call you,'' he says. I have been leaving messages at Roush Racing trying to get through to him -- and I have even talked to his father, Roy, who I tracked down in his home town in Wisconsin. NASCAR drivers, I am quickly learning, have ridiculously busy schedules, even in the off-season.

I have sent Matt a letter describing what I would like to do: write about a season of Winston Cup racing through the focus of a driver or two. I have in mind the 2001 season (I will use the 2000 season to get to know the sports and its people) -- and Matt and Chad Little, his teammate at Roush Racing, as the central drivers. Matt seems agreeable. He promises to call me after he returns home so that we can discuss my book in more detail.

The idea for MEN AND SPEED came out of a discussion I had in the fall of 1999 with an editor. I am not a sportswriter, nor (not yet, anyway) a NASCAR fan; I write stories about interesting people facing challenges, and my subjects have included pioneering surgeons, the head of a Fortune 500 toy company, and a high school senior who loved taking risks. My editor and I agreed that I would surely find compelling characters in NASCAR.

Chad Little, who has the No. 97 John Deere car, was the first driver I contacted. I found him in late 1999 surfing the nascar.com Web site. Chad is no Top-Ten racer, but he has a law degree and that has caught my eye: someone with a law degree, I figure, must have a unique perspective on his sport.

I haven't met Chad, but in our telephone conversations, we have discussed my attending a race. I have never watched one, except on TV. Chad thinks the Cup race in early April at Martinsville, Virginia, would be a good one for me to attend. The track is only a half-mile long, and competition there is supposed be good old-fashioned beat-and-bang stockcar racing. Matt Kenseth agrees that Martinsville would be a great track for my NASCAR baptism. Deciding to make travel arrangements, I look at a map. Martinsville seems in the middle of nowhere -- moonshine country, I figure.

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Part 3:
Sunday, April 9
Martinsville Speedway
Martinsville, Virginia

Talk about being blown away -- I mean literally blown away. I watched my first Winston Cup race today (first auto race of any kind, for that matter), and an hour after it ended, my insides are still rattling. Actually, all my senses are still overloaded. I can still smell burning rubber and exhaust, still see and feel the machine gun assault of racecars rounding Turn Four, where I watched the Goody's 500 from Chad Little's pit. This is way cool.

Mark Martin won the race, and Jeff Burton came in second -- damn the luck, I didn't get to meet either of them. But I was there in Victory Lane, where Mark celebrated with his crew and Jack Roush. I met Jack earlier -- with his Fedora hat and khaki pants, I didn't have any trouble picking him out of the crowd. He looks exactly like in those great Exide battery ads with Jeff Burton.

What an amazing weekend!

Had a quick tour of Lowe's Motor Speedway on my arrival in Charlotte on Thursday, and then I visited Chad Little's No. 97 shop, where I saw a bunch of cars in various stages of construction, and which he shares with Matt Kenseth. Early on Friday, I made the roughly three-hour drive from Charlotte to Martinsville -- past tobacco fields, lots of Baptist churches (lots of religion on the radio, too), plenty of rambling old houses and shacks, and that creepy kudzu shit growing like something out of a Stephen King novel all over the trees. Sure seems like moonshine country to me.

Crossed the Virginia line and soon the speedway materialized from the fields. It's bowl-shaped and huge -- although tiny by Winston Cup standards. No tunnel or overpass to the infield, so you have to wait until the cars stop running and walk across the track itself. The infield is crowded and colorful, reminding me of a carnival or a Middle Eastern bazaar. I get my camera out, to capture some of the spectacle, so new to me.

From my notebook:

Pit Road is jammed -- a sea of people, fans, crews and drivers. Constant motion. One men's room for all, even drivers: you can bump into a driver taking a whizz next to you. The smell of BBQ meat from grilles outside trailers; at the concession stand, weird red hot dogs buried in chili and mustard and served in a plain white untoasted bun are big faves (and damnably delicious). Hot -- low 80s -- sun beats down mercilessly, magnified by the asphalt. The smell of oil warming up (I think) -- a sweetish smell. Also, burning rubber, exhaust, fuel, degreasers, the smell of Detroit and engines, which changed America. The smells of the petroleum age. Babes patrol the infield: tight jeans, tight tops, shades, heels. Prettiest ones duck in and out of trailers -- they get invited in, a sort of mating ritual? Mostly white people, only a few blacks seen, and only one Asian-American.

I spent part of Friday talking with Chad in his lounge, which is at the back of his hauler. He is as nice in person as on the phone. Tells me that he has just returned from a visit at John Deere, which sponsors his No. 97 car (painted in that distinctive Deere green, naturally). Chad is optimistic that Deere will continue sponsorship, even though he has never won a Cup race or finished in the Top Ten, and everyone knows that sponsors love winners. Chad is building a huge log cabin house. I meet his wife, Donna, who is lovely.

Also spoke to Matt Kenseth and met his girlfriend, Katie Martin. Matt tells me he doesn't like this track. Rookies, I am told, always have trouble figuring it out -- it's short, and barely banked. Matt still seems shy, but hanging around enough should help break the ice.

I spent Saturday watching practice and qualifying, and also a Craftsman Truck race, in which Jack has two drivers: Kurt Busch, who looks about 15, and Greg Biffle. Today, raceday, I arrived by 8:30 a.m. -- beat the traffic, thank the lord. Leaving after the Truck race yesterday, I spent nearly two hours trapped under the grandstands. As I sat in my car, chicken bones and a suspicious brownish-yellow liquid periodically showered down on my hood. I like to think that the liquid was beer, but when I called my wife, Alexis, on the cell to report my predicament, she told me that I was crazy. Maybe I am.

Raceday morning passed quickly.

I lingered for some of it in front of Chad's hauler, watching his crew's last-minute preparations -- and Jack Roush fine-tune the carburetor on Chad's car, and also the cars of Mark, Jeff, Matt, and Kevin Lepage, his fifth Cup driver. This amazes me: that a man who has a master's degree in mathematics and who built a $250-million empire on speed still cares about such a seemingly small detail. But there he was, screwdriver in hand, going car-to-car until he got his carburetors just-so. The more I reflected on this, the more I realized that this must be a key to Jack's success: he's a perfectionist.

Since meeting Matt Kenseth in January, I have been bounced from this Roush Racing official to that. At one point -- just before I was to leave for Martinsville -- I thought my book idea would die. Jamie Rodway, a Roush Racing executive, asked if I intended a licensed deal, in which I would pay money and they would have editorial control. I declined -- and there was a very long, awkward moment on the phone. Fortunately, Jamie had heard about one of my earlier books and (I guess) been impressed -- and so had his boss, president Geoff Smith, who reports to Jack. Jamie called me back and I was golden.

But I still needed Jack's seal of approval. A PR person was supposed to arrange a meeting with him this morning at Martinsville, but I waited a long time on the appointed spot at the appointed hour -- and no Jack. Finally, I spotted him, and ran up to introduce myself. I was nervous: I wasn't sure if his people had mentioned me or not, and in any event, he was the boss. I handed him one of my earlier books and outlined what I wanted to do -- and he agreed, there on the spot. I was speechless. Many details remained to be ironed out, but now, it seemed, I really had the makings of a book. So it was on to the race. I stood in Chad's pit, as the drivers started their engines and crew chief Jeff Hammond ran the No. 97 show.

From my notebook:

The race is underway -- this is a down-and-dirty track, with lots of contact expected. And in just lap two, the No. 55 hits the wall and wrecks. I am wearing headphones and listening to the chatter over the team radio. Looking at the straightaway you see blurbs of colored motion, the thunder vibrates your ribs, and even with headphones it sounds like a helicopter assault... another crash -- Chad narrowly avoids hitting it. Jeff encourages, times, directs, solves problems on the run -- he stands atop a small trailer right at pit road, with Donna Little next to him... under a caution, they change four tires -- crew is super fast and good... another caution: Kevin Lepage has overheated and left the track, for a new radiator change, right on pit road behind the pit crew and next to Chad. On this caution, Jeff tells Chad to check his gauges and cool his brakes down -- they can superheat.

At the halfway point roughly, Jeff says: ``After all the trials and tribulations we've been through, we're still no. 27. Lots of guys are tearing each other up. We keep our nose clean, we're going to be OK. Come on, baby now -- help yourself out here -- keep digging, digging...''

Chad: ``I've got to be careful. My brakes are starting to go away.'' With 11 laps to go, Chad wants to change tires, ``I'm skating out here,'' he says. Jeff wants him to stay out -- but he can't, he's afraid he'll wind up like Rusty into the wall. He says he'd rather finish strong than wipe out. So Jeff waves him in -- and he blows right through the pit area, would have wiped out the next car if it had been in, too -- no brakes at all -- he goes around again and comes in more slowly this time. Making it. Two fresh tires, then back out...

Chad finished 27th, and when the traffic cleared, I made the long trip back to Charlotte. Called Alexis, who still thinks I'm crazy -- she's only ever seen NASCAR on TV (``all they do is go in circles''), and TV can't do justice to what I've experienced today. Neither can I at this late hour, so I hang up the phone, eager to return to a Winston Cup speedway, and to meet the rest of the Roush drivers.

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Part 4:
Saturday, July 8
N.H. Int'l Speedway
Loudon, N.H.

Today I met Kurt Busch, who drives for Jack Roush in the Craftsman Truck series -- and once again, my preconceptions about NASCAR racers were shot all to hell. First, Kurt looks like he is still in high school (at 21 years of age, he's not too far removed). Second, the kid is tall and skinny. Third, he is polite, approachable, and smart. I liked him immediately. So I cheered for him during today's race, the thatlook.com 200.

Less than a year ago, Kurt was racing in the desert southwest, which is hardly a hotbed of racing champions. When he wasn't competing on the local tracks, he lived with his parents and worked the graveyard shift at the Las Vegas Valley Water District -- digging ditches, from what I can gather. To have come this far this fast -- to get a ride with the legendary Jack Roush after winning one of Jack's Gong Show auditions -- is already a Cinderella story. But the hot rumor around the garage this weekend is even more of a fairy tale. Word is that Jack is considering replacing Chad Little with Kurt in Roush's No. 97 Ford Taurus Cup car. Kurt would run seven Cup races in the fall, and the full slate next season, 2001. It would be hard to top that story. I ask Kurt, and he acknowledged the rumor. ``You didn't hear it here,'' he told me. But Kurt wouldn't confirm whether the rumor is true or not.

I watched the race with Kurt's crew from Kurt's pit stall. New Hampshire racing isn't as exciting as Martinsville -- even a novice like me sees that -- but the drama this weekend is beyond belief. Everyone is tense, and a sense of foreboding fills the air -- I mean, you can almost reach out and touch it.

The reason is what happened just yesterday.

It was right around lunchtime, and I was in the media center with a mob of reporters and photographers. We had been listening to Richard Petty, who had returned to New Hampshire for the first time since his grandson, Adam Petty, a promising racer, had been killed here during a Busch series practice two months ago. Adam's father, Kyle, a Cup driver, could not bear to come back to New Hampshire so soon, and he was home with his wife, Pattie, Adam's mom. Adam was only 19 when he died, and they loved him desperately.

Richard, the all-time winningest stockcar driver (and himself the son of a driver, as well as the father and grandfather of one), has tried to put Adam's death into a philosophical context: fate, he declares, took Adam, not the inherent dangers of racing. ``I guess the Good lord put his number in the book and it just happened to come up,'' said The King.

Petty finished speaking, and I went out to stroll the garage area. Someone told me that there had just been a crash on the same turn (Turn Three) where Adam had died: Cup practice was underway, and Kenny Irwin, the 1998 Rookie of the Year, had hit the wall. His mangled car was still out there, but Irwin had been taken to the infield care center. A crowd was gathering at the fence that surrounds the center, which is a small, shack-like building that cannot possibly contain much in the way of emergency equipment.

As the minutes passed, the crowd at the fence built. You couldn't see into the building, but every now and then an official would enter or leave. I have recently met The Charlotte Observer's David Poole, a great guy and one of the deans of NASCAR writing, and we stood together at the fence. As time passed, David began to comment that things didn't look good. Drivers can survive bad crashes, but Irwin didn't appear, not walking on his own, not on a stretcher being loaded into an ambulance, and not headed for the Medevac helicopter that sits ominously in the infield. Poole was quickly becoming convinced that he was dead -- and even I was getting a bad creepy feeling, one that reminded me of the death watch I stood many years ago at my mother-in-law's hospital bed. Some ghoulish TV cameramen tried to shoot through the fence, and an official threatened to have them arrested -- another bad sign.

Finally, someone came out of the care center and hung a white sheet to block our view of the back of the ambulance, which had been parked near the center's back door. We saw some shadowy movement behind the sheet, and I suspected they were removing Irwin. The ambulance drove off, no sirens wailing or lights flashing. I was certain that Irwin is dead.

Back inside the media center, the rumors grew. I hadn't been keeping a close eye on my watch, but it seemed like more than two hours had passed since the accident when an official went to the stage -- and removed the New Hampshire International Speedway banner from the wall. I knew what that meant: they didn't want their logo flashed around the world once again in association with tragedy. The official then read brief statements from the Bahre family, which owns the track, and NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. The official announcement itself was chilling: ``NASCAR Winston Cup driver Kenny Irwin, 30, passed away today due to multiple injuries sustained in a practice accident at New Hampshire International Speedway. Further details will be provided when available.'' No one could state the precise nature of Irwin's injuries, but most of us assumed massive head trauma, which killed Adam Petty, too.

Kurt Busch won his Craftsman Truck race the day after Irwin died, and in his comments to the press, he graciously mentioned the dead racer. I must say that I am amazed at the ability of anyone, especially such a young kid, to go out and blister the track just a day after another race has died. How could he possibly concentrate? Wasn't he scared? Didn't he remember his own recent bad wreck, just three weeks before, at Kentucky? He hit the wall at something like 180 miles per hour, and then his car caught fire as he frantically struggled to escape. And when he finally did, he was dazed, although not seriously injured, thank God. Kurt acknowledged thinking of Irwin many times when he passed through Turn Three today -- and yet he went on to win. Speed certainly has a hold on racecar drivers. They are not like you or me.

As he faced the reporters, Kurt's girlfriend, Melissa Schaper, a high school senior back in Las Vegas, stood shyly at the back of the room. Jack sat next to Kurt on the stage, and if I read correctly between the lines of his comments, the rumors about Kurt soon driving in Winston Cup are true.

``I honestly hadn't expected that we would win two races this year,'' Jack said. ``I hadn't expected that we would be able to win as early as he has. And it's been just a really pleasant surprise that he hasn't torn up more equipment -- that he's been able to adapt to the racetracks. He's going to have a great future.''

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Part 5:
Tuesday, October 3
Concord Regional Airport
Near Charlotte, N.C.

Had lunch with Jeff and Kim Burton and Frank Stoddard after a press conference announcing that CITGO has come on board as the primary sponsor of the No. 99 Ford Taurus. Jack Roush was there, of course -- and he invited me for a ride in his P-51 Mustang, one of the World War Two fighter planes he has restored to shiny perfection. So after lunch, I drove out to Concord Airport, which is right near the Roush Cup shops.

Jack was waiting for me out on the tarmac, where the plane was parked in the hot sun. I'm not an aviation buff, but I do appreciate neat aircraft -- and this is definitely one neat plane. From my notebook:

This was WW2 ace Bud Anderson's plane -- he flew with Chuck Yeager in the war and later at Edwards AFB, where they were intent on breaking the sound barrier and later the biggest flying thrill of all, getting into space. Jack lets Bud fly the plane still -- Anderson is age 75. It's plane #414450, B6, on the nose: ``OLD CROW.'' Bud was a triple ace. ``US Army P-51-D-20-NA'' serial no.: AAF44-14450. Pilots' names on fuselage: ``Maj. CE Anderson, CC Schueneman, Orm Zimmermann.'' Has a 1,700-horsepower engine, made by Rolls Royce, rebuilt by Roush. Now that's power.

Jack fished a couple of parachutes out of the trunk of his car, and handed one to me, which I put on. Then he pulled a flight suit over his street clothes, performed a pre-flight inspection, and had me pose for a photograph. Finally, we climbed aboard. Originally a single-seater, the plane has been modified with teh addition of a passenger seat in back. I buckled myself in and put on headphones. Jack spoke a few words about my parachute. ``Only two reasons you'd need it,'' he said. ``One is if we catch fire. The other is a mid-air collision.'' I couldn't tell if he had a twinkle in his eye or not.

Jack cranked the engine over, and it caught with a roar that vibrated the plane. The canopy closed, imprisoning us. Jack got the OK from the tower, and we rumbled down the runway, gaining speed. With a final shudder, Old Crow lifted into the blue. Jack took us up fast and set a course that would take us over the corporate headquarters of Roush Racing, which I have visited. They wear suits in there, and the walls are mahogany. Jack points the building out to me. Suddenly, we are upside down and falling at a great speed.

The CITGO announcement, held at an indoor go-cart track in Charlotte, was attended by all sorts of VIPs and reporters. Jack spoke, and he was very funny -- and so was Jeff Burton when he took the stage. Kim is pregnant with their second child, due any day now in fact, and everyone wished her well. A nice buffet luncheon, and then some competition: Jack, Frank, Jeff, and a bunch of others get out on the track for a go-cart race. Man, these guys are serious. They're just about up on two wheels on the corners, and they all want to win. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that I would be eaten alive, and imagine if I spun out. I'd lose my credibility. So I decline, and hope that no one notices my sorry ass standing on the sidelines.

I met Jeff in New Hampshire in September. My immediate impression of him was that he is smart, has a great sense of humor, likes to tease, knows racecars inside-out, and follows the news (he's no hillbilly). I spent part of the weekend in his hauler, and I more or less fit in. Of course, it goes without saying that he's a great driver. If any doubt existed, it was dispelled in the race -- he led every lap, something last accomplished in Cup competition almost 25 years ago. Not the most exciting race if you want beatin' and bangin', but an extraordinary achievement nonetheless.

The best part of that September weekend, though, was joining Jeff on his visit to his sponsor's hospitality tent the morning of the race. We rode a golf cart from the infield out of the track, to a tent village outside New Hampshire International Speedway. It was about 9 in the morning, and already people were everywhere. And when they saw Jeff, many of them went crazy -- running after us, reaching out for an autograph, a picture, a handshake, even just his touch. It was like riding with Elvis. Funny thing was, some of these folks mistook Jeff. They thought it was his brother Ward, who races the No. 22 Caterpillar car. Well, they do look alike. And Jeff was good-natured about it. ``Happens all the time,'' he said, as we reached the tent.

The tent was full of men, women, children, all big Jeff Burton fans. He got a big round of applause when he took the mike -- and took over. Jeff works a crowd masterfully, with quick answers to any technical questions, and lots of jokes. He was at his best when he opened the tent up to questions. Asked about why Ward's accent is so much thicker, he said it must have been because Ward grew up in the southernmost part of the house.

It's going to be fun hanging with Jeff in the 2001 season. I already wish it was the Daytona 500!

Back in his P-51 Mustang, Jack put us through some rolls, loops, and other maneuvers -- at 300 miles per hour or more, a speed that pulled something on the order of five Gs. Over the intercom, Jack kept asking me if he was making me sick. I think the kid inside of him wanted to. But I've done a bit of flying, including once with the Blue Angels, and I loved it -- the adrenaline rush was incredible. ``You're tough,'' Jack said. I had the feeling Jack had put me through an audition -- and that I had passed.

After the aerobatics, Jack took us north, where he buzzed a friend's farm at treetop level. An hour or so after taking off, we returned to the airport.

What an American original, this guy, I write into my notebook. And what a bunch of racers he's got. Next year should be awesome.

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Part 6:
Sunday, Feb. 18
Daytona Int'l Speedway
Daytona Beach, Fla.

Almost 7 p.m., and I am sitting inside the media center, which is a small room to begin with, but so packed with reporters and photographers now that you literally can't move an inch without touching someone. The mood is surreal, a combination of apprehension and growing dread. Dale Earnhardt crashed on the last lap of the Daytona 500 today and was taken to the hospital. Some two hours have passed, and there has been no official word of his condition. Memories of Kenny Irwin come to mind.

More than an hour ago, the rumor began to spread that The Intimidator is dead. It can't be true. I was standing near Earnhardt during drivers' introductions, and I watched him brush by Kurt Busch, for whom he apparently bears a grudge. He had that signature smirk on his face, and while he is only an average-sized man, he seemed, I guess, larger than life. On his radio as the race started, he told his crew he was ready to kick ass for a record eighth championship. His goal seemed within reach.

The six-thirty news was just on, and they played the clip of Earnhardt's crash. ``That doesn't look bad,'' said one reporter. ``It wasn't driver's side,'' said another. We keep asking, but the PR officials here keep saying they have no new information on Earnhardt.

But suddenly, a reporter who's been surfing the Web announces: ``USA Today is reporting he's dead online.'' I quickly go to the site myself, and the newspaper indeed is making that claim. But I still can't believe it. Earnhardt has crashed before, and survived.

The day began on a much brighter note.

I got to the track before dawn -- the traffic was already thick -- and went to see Jack Roush, who was tuning carburetors in Mark Martin's hauler. Jack's shoulder still hurts from recent surgery, and he didn't sleep well or long last night. ``I tossed and turned,'' he told me. ``It has something to do with anxiety.'' There is a lot of pressure on Jack to win, not only today but all this year. Many writers are picking Jeff Burton to be champion, and that ups the pressure even more.

But Jack has thrived his entire career on pressure, and so has Jeff, who was in good spirits when I hooked up with him at his motor coach later in the morning. He was taking out the trash when I arrived -- I find that funny, considering how big a star he is. ``Somebody's got to do it,'' he explains to me. Kim and the kids are inside, apparently sleeping. As we ride a golf cart to his CITGO hospitality appearance, Jeff talks about how he likes to cook. I find this endearing -- but the truth is that Kim is not wild about cooking, so it falls to Jeff. The more I get to know him, the more I find him intriguing, and layered. This is not your basic racecar driver.

Returning from hospitality, I left Jeff and found Kurt. He was anxious -- although not overly so. After the off-season, he was ready to go racing. But Kurt's mother, Gaye, was very nervous. ``I hate this race,'' she says. And she has sharp memories of Kurt's Truck debut in 2000, when he was involved in the horrific wreck that nearly killed Geoff Bodine. ``I stopped breathing,'' Gaye said. I see Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth, and they seem cool and collected. Mark, of course, has been here so many times before -- and Matt is just a born racer, nothing seems to unnerve him.

Well, the race is over now and it's fair to conclude that this was not the start to the 2001 season that Jack and the guys had wanted. But the Big Wreck struck, just as Jeff had predicted, and there went Jeff's hopes and Mark's in an explosion of metal. Matt and Kurt had troubles of their own. But the year remains young, and one bad race does not a season ruin.

Here in the media center, the mood keeps worsening.

I was at New Hampshire when Kenny Irwin crashed during practice last July, and that's all I can think of: how with each passing minute, I became more and more convinced he had died, even though I had no proof and the officials said nothing. It's the saying nothing part that's spooky. Silence at a time like this only feeds the dark thoughts we all have. And the online reports -- several more sites now saying The Intimidator is gone -- don't help. Why the heck won't someone from NASCAR tell us what's going on?

Suddenly, NASCAR president Mike Helton appears.

He makes his way through this impossibly crowded room to the podium, where he takes the microphone. Mike is a big man, intimidating looking even though I'm told he's a decent guy -- but now he looks pale and shaken, like a little kid who's seen something terrible. He clears his voice and confirms what we have suspected: Dale Earnhardt is dead. The words are numbing, and I know it will take time for them to sink in -- for me to really believe. The room is painfully silent. One race in, the 2001 season already seems the most extraordinary in the history of NASCAR racing. There is no question that the events of today will become a major chapter in the book.

I wonder what this will mean for the sport, the fans, the drivers -- Jeff Burton especially. He and Earnhardt have traded barbs over safety, with Earnhardt all but implying that Jeff is a sissy because of his safety preoccupation. I am guessing that Jeff will be stunned. I won't be at Rockingham -- if they even have the race -- but I will be at the race after that, in Las Vegas, Kurt Busch's hometown.

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Part 7:
Saturday, March 3
Marriott Suites Hotel
Las Vegas

This has been Kurt Busch's weekend. Returning for the first time to his hometown speedway since becoming a Cup driver, he has been featured in glowing newspaper accounts (Busch: Home at Last) and on TV (with his parents and his little brother, Kyle), and he has been mobbed for autographs and pictures whenever he leaves his hauler. He's handling his newfound celebrity beautifully, although the kid in him is obviously excited. On a trip to the media center, he noticed a photo of him on the wall. He had signed it before it went up: ``To Las Vegas Motor Speedway. There is no place like home. Kurt Busch, 97.'' But seeing it still stopped him momentarily. ``It's like I'm supposed to be watching a Winston Cup race, not racing in it,'' he tells me.

Since arriving on Thursday, there has been a feeling in the Roush camp that it's time to get serious about the new season. After Daytona's poor showings, and another bad weekend at Rockingham, especially for Jeff Burton, picked by some Vegas oddsmakers to be Cup champion, the guys need results. Las Vegas has been very good to Roush drivers, and Jack himself remains confident that the last two races were aberrations. Still, the pressure grows. ``Hopefully this will be the week that turns it around,'' Junior Paxton, the engine specialist who reports directly to Jack, tells me. Licensing chief Jamie Rodway is more blunt. ``It's put-up-or-shut-up time,'' he says.

The speedway sits across a desert road from the home base of the Air Force's Thunderbirds, and it seems like the flyboys are out to show who has the biggest you-know-whats when it comes to speed. Since I arrived, they have been repeatedly swooping low overhead, kicking in their afterburners as they roar by and the shoot straight up-- now THAT'S loud, and gut-rattling, and cool. ``Pretty frickin' bad ass,'' says a member of Jeff Burton's crew.

Because this is Kurt's hometown and his Cinderella story (as it were) is a major part of my book, I have been pretty much glued to him all week. After fearing a bad run, he qualified ninth on Friday, and was surrounded by well-wishers when he got out of his car and headed back to his hauler. One of those congratulating Kurt was a previous owner, who couldn't resist a poke at Kurt: ``Can I have your signature -- on my ass!'' the guys says. Kurt laughs, and later tells me: ``That's when it hits home -- talking to an old owner.''

Back at his hauler, some dude who was taping a public service spot for the Las Vegas police trained a camera on Kurt and asked him to read the message on a large piece of cardboard. Except no one had bothered to change the name of the driver. The message read: ``Hi, Las Vegas, I'm Jeff Gordon. Speed can make you a winner here at the speedway, but it can just as easily make you a loser on the roadway.''

As they were about to tape him Kurt laughed and said: ``I'm just a peon, I guess!'' The camera dude hadn't seen the mistake, and wasn't sure what the laughter was about. He apologized when he learned, and of course Kurt was then supposed to use his own name when the camera rolled. But he read the name of Jeff Gordon, deliberately, and everyone howled.

This afternoon, Kurt drove me and Melissa on a golf cart out to a Roush souvenir trailer for a signing. The line was long, and held steady the whole time he was there. A lot of these folks know or have read about Kurt, but those who haven't are amazed by how young he looks.

``How old is he?'' said a woman with a camera.

``Fifteen,'' said a Roush employee, adding quickly: ``Just kidding!''

But the woman tells me she would have believed it. In fact, she had guessed he was ``Not much over fourteen. I have a son that age. I thought you had to be old enough to have a license to drive.''

Kurt's youthful looks only add to the Cinderella aspects of his story. As he signed, a man said to his young daughter: ``He's moving right up. He's playing with the big boys now.''

Said another fan: ``You're looking at one of the future champions right there.'' For now, Kurt has his sights set on being Rookie of the Year. He seemed a lock going into the season, but a strong new competitor has emerged: Kevin Harvick, who has Dale Earnhardt's ride now.

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Part 8:
Sunday, March 24
Bristol Motor Speedway
Bristol, Tennessee

Talk about a difference in emotions.

Just a few hours before the Food City 500, and Kurt Busch is down, displeased with his car's handling and missing his crew chief, who was penalized in a questionable fine that NASCAR has levied. Mark Martin, on the other hand, is sky-high. He won the Bud pole for tomorrow's race, and that's the first thing he's won in months. He came to the track's tiny media center for a group interview, and the energy radiating off him was almost nuclear.

``I think this is the first time I've been to the media center this year, so it's good to be here!'' Martin said. I've started hanging around Mark's hauler lately -- that's where Jack Roush makes his trackside office, too -- and I am coming to appreciate Mark. His driving talent obviously speaks for itself -- what also impresses me increasingly is Mark the person. He can be very funny, and he answers any question anyone puts to him bluntly (no PR bullshit for him), and he doesn't brag, despite having more reason to than just about any driver still active.

``I'm not a yes man,'' Mark told me, ``but I'm not a crybaby or a blabbermouth either. I'll give my opinion whether people like it or not -- but I try not to give an emotional opinion and I try not do a lot of complaining. And I've never complained much about losing races or being untreated unfairly on the racetrack by somebody. I'm not much on all that. I'm a straight-up guy.''

Indeed he is. Facing the media, he dealt with the usual questions -- and then someone asked about his 9-year-old son Matt, an up-and-coming young Quarter Midget racer who will be featured soon (with his dad) on boxes of Cap'n' Crunch and Life cereals. Mark was pumped before -- but talking about his only son sends him into the stratosphere. He obviously loves this kid desperately, which is a marvelous thing to see in these times.

``Oh, man, it's so cool!'' Mark said of watching Matt race. ``I'm having more fun this year than I've had since I was a kid.''

Kurt Busch, on the other hand, is having no fun this weekend. NASCAR has suspended crew chief Matt Chambers for a safety belt violation, and so Kurt is here without his number-one man -- the guy who helped him scorch the Truck circuit last year. And Kurt's car isn't turning well. Mark took the pole in qualifying -- and Kurt, well, sucked, needing a provisional to make the race.

This morning, I sat with Kurt and Buddy Parrott and a crew member in Kurt's hauler as they discussed the race tomorrow. Kurt has tested here, although never raced -- but he knows how treacherous this speedway is.

``This is all foreign to me,'' Kurt said. ``I'm not used to this shit.'' ``This is where everybody wants to be, man,'' the crew member said. ``You wouldn't be here if you weren't the best. Keep your head up, dude!''

But those words did not soothe Kurt.

``When the green flag drops,'' he said, ``it will all be new to me. What's going to happen? Am I going to get run over? Are people going to leave me alone? Am I going to be able to pass?''

Kurt paused to put things in perspective.

``I remember I made a mistake when I was a kid,'' he said. ``I was learning how to swim -- I was four or five -- I had done my laps in the shallow end to prove that I could go in the deep end. I got the approval of the lifeguard that I was OK to go in the deep end. I jumped in -- and I expected my feet to hit the bottom, like they did in the shallow end. They didn't; I went straight down. And I had to figure out how to get back up. Usually I could use my feet to push myself up from the bottom of the pool to get back above the surface. It caught me by surprise. I can't remember how I got up, but I ended up getting up by myself.''

Busch smiled for the first time that morning. ``Soon we'll be springing off the high dive, though, right?''

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Part 9:
Sunday, April 22
Talladega Superspeedway
Talladega, Alabama

I have just passed part of the morning with Jeff Burton and some of his entourage in his hauler. The morning was like a trip to a comedy club. Jeff is often like that on race day -- crackling with energy and clowning around like a high school kid waiting backstage at talent night. He has a real talent for making people laugh, and a sarcastic edge sometimes that hits home. And it has either rubbed off on his crew, or they've come to it themselves, because that's often the tone around here -- caustic, funny, fast wit. If you can't spar, this ain't the place to be.

From my notebook:

Jeff is feisty and upbeat this morning -- like a comedy act. That is the karma of this team. It's about 8 a.m., and Jeff, having been up since 5:30 is in the trailer dressed in jeans, CITGO shirt, and track shoes. He sits in his lounge, being interviewed by a CITGO PR person.

First, he jokes with his Roush Racing PR person Becky Hanson, taking a new golf club (a gift for Frank Stoddard on his just-celebrated 33rd birthday) and waving it maniacally near Becky's head -- like Jack Nicholson in the ax-wielding scene in The Shining. Becky, who is working on the IROC release she was too tired to write last night on her laptop, laughs -- they banter constantly. Becky is good-natured about it all, and funny herself.

The CITGO PR person is asking about Jeff's health habits and diet -- for an article??? Jeff says he eats a good diet, a lot of protein, has a weakness for cake and carbos. Also says in a dead-pan voice that he takes ``steroids'' -- and the CITGO PR person, who is new, isn't sure at first if he is kidding. Of course he is. Jeff then says that he is in better shape now, at 33, than he was at 25 because he pays attention to the demands of his racing, gets sleep, works out, had a personal trainer help him on a schedule. He is not a big man, he says -- jokes that he therefore is ``genetically challenged.'' He doesn't hydrate for a race, he stays hydrated all the time.

Jeff is not talking about safety today -- has said in our last telephone talk that he won't at the track, throws him off-kilter.

But car chief Pierre Kuettel -- PK, everyone calls him -- tells me: ``I'm glad it's them driving, not me,'' PK would almost have to refuse to take that risk. He doesn't think fans want to see drivers die, but he believes they are attracted to wrecks. ``As gruesome as it sounds,'' PK says, ``I'll bet attendance is bigger this year than last'' because of Earnhardt. PK calls this race ``a 190-mph parking lot.''

Safety has dominated this weekend, the first that racers have returned to a superspeedway since Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona. In press conferences, drivers like Bill Elliott -- who still holds the world stockcar speed record, set here at this track -- have confronted the issue straight-on.

``It is going to be packs and packs of cars on top of each other... a madhouse,'' said Elliott, after qualifying third.

``This is one place the good Lord didn't give us enough eyes,'' said Dale Jarrett, who is the current points leader.

``You hope and pray nothing happens during the race,'' said Elliott. ``You take 43 cars, put them together for 500 miles and somebody has a flat tire, a blown engine, whatever, it can cause a problem. You can't run that long for that many laps without somebody making a mistake. You just hope you're not part of that mistake.''

But one driver who is absent from the public discussions of safety this weekend is Jeff, who is the leading advocate in this area. He is no less an advocate than ever -- but for the moment, he finds it best for his own peace of mind to concentrate on his racing when he is at the track.

We talked by phone before heading to Alabama, and he said: ``I've kind of made a new rule to myself: I'm not going to talk about Earnhardt or safety issues or any of those things at the race track. It gets me off kilter.''

Privately, Jeff is worried about today.

``It's a nerve-wracking race,'' he told me by phone. ``I don't get nervous for very many races. I do get nervous before Talladega. I think all the drivers do... I'll tell you what bothers me most about Talladega and about the way we race at Daytona -- it's that the drivers know that its a major problem and they won't listen to us. We know what it is that we're doing out there. We know how many wrecks almost happen -- and they seem willing to ignore that.''

I ask why.

``Because it puts on a good show,'' Jeff says. ``It's a racetrack problem. But they will never, ever, ever change the racetrack because that costs them money instead of the teams money. And because NASCAR has been willing to walk the fine line to put on a race different than every other race in the world, they've been willing to walk that fine line of safety.''

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Part 10:
Sunday, May 27
Lowe's Motor Speedway
Outside Charlotte, N.C.

It turned out to be an omen: Jack Roush parked his car in the crowded infield today. Jack often parks outside the speedway, in order to leave quickly after the race, but he had a hunch that one of his drivers would win tonight -- and if one did, the celebration would continue longer than the traffic. No name came with Roush's hunch, but Lowe's Motor Speedway had smiled on all four of his men before. Mark won three Cup races here, and Matt and Jeff one apiece. And after starting 42nd at Lowe's the previous autumn in one of the seven Cup races before his full rookie year, Busch finished 13th.

And while Jack's hunch came with no name, the smart money would not have been on Jeff.

Coming into tonight's Coca Cola 600, Jeff was 25th in the point standings. He hadn't won a race this year, and he had just two Top Ten finishes. This was the driver that many had picked to be the 2001 Winston Cup champion. It almost seems as if he is cursed.

I now pass a good part of every race weekend that I attend watching or talking with Jeff, and in between, we've been talking regularly by phone.

Tires have been a thread in our conversations. Part of Jeff's trouble is adjusting to the new, harder compound that NASCAR has mandated this year, and in this, Jeff is not alone.

``The thing that makes a racecar driver good,'' Jeff said, ``is being able to understand what it is his car is doing wrong -- and what it is it's doing right. This tire, for whatever reason, doesn't speak to me. It doesn't give me a clearcut `here's what's wrong.' So I struggle with that. My team is every bit as strong and as good as they've ever been, but without me being able to provide the information, it's hard for them to help me.''

Another factor for Jeff, at least in the races immediately following the Daytona 500, may be related to Dale Earnhardt's death.

Among NASCAR's drivers, Jeff is NASCAR's leading most outspoken safety advocate -- and to see the supposedly indestructible Intimidator die, in a crash that seemed survivable, was shocking.

``It was almost disbelief,'' Jeff told me, ``I mean, it was real startling, it was like somebody had punched you and you were trying to get your stuff together.''

And there's a third factor that may be at work: the ordinary ebb and flow of sports, the cycle that can take an athlete from victory to defeat, almost overnight. ``I've watched Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt not be able to win,'' Jeff said. ``There is an element in my mind that says: It's just not my time right now, it's just not our time.''

If Jeff has been cheered by anything during this long dry spell, it's his crew and Jack. Jack demands excellence in all aspects of his teams, but he has not chewed Jeff out. In fact, just the opposite -- Jack has offered him anything within his means (more time testing on the new tires, for example) that might help him find his groove again. And the crew of the No. 99 CITGO Ford Taurus, headed by chief Frank Stoddard, who grew up in New Hampshire, has maintained their morale. Not to say that everyone wears a smile on his face every minute, but spirits are good and they keep working their tails off, confident that sooner or later they will return to Victory Lane.

Unlike Jack, Jeff had no hunch this afternoon. Jack joined him in the No. 99 hauler for part of the afternoon, and the TV was tuned to the Indianapolis 500, where Roush-built engines were powering some of the cars. There was special interest in Tony Stewart, who was planning to board a jet the moment the 500 ended and fly south to Charlotte -- to compete in the Coca Cola 600. Jack and Jeff respect what Tony is attempting.

As for the respect paid to him, Jeff knows that many of his colleagues still hold him in high esteem -- and they believe that sooner or later, he will win again. Jeff told me: ``Dale Jarrett came to see me at Texas and said, `Man, you know, you guys are really good -- don't flip out, don't freak out.' John Andretti has talked to me a bunch, Rusty Wallace. Of course Mark and those gusy are always trying to help us.''

But Jeff suspects that other drivers are delighting in his woes.

While no one has directly said anything to him, ``you feel like they're snickering behind your back. You feel like that (some of the) other teams are watching and getting enjoyment out of this.''

The year so far has proved to be reminder of racing's dark side, the heartache that always lurks behind the money and the fame. ``At California, I looked in my mirror one time and there were only two cars behind me. I used to think that could never happen unless we had something broke,'' Jeff said. ``Even though I believe I've always had a lot of respect for how hard it is and never took for granted that we were going to run well -- I have way more respect now for how quickly you can run really badly.''

Well, as folks here at the speedway or watching on TV already know, Jeff won the Coca Cola 600, with a dominating performance that makes the statement that he and the 99 are back.

After the checkered flag, Jack invited me onto the Victory Lane stage to join him, Jeff, Frank and Miss Winston for a photograph. That's definitely a first for me. And quite cool! After almost an hour more of shooting Jeff with other people and a succession of sponsors' hats, we headed up to the press, and from there we went to the roof for a live TV interview of Jeff. On our way down, we stopped at several of the speedway clubs, where Jeff spoke a few words -- and had some crackers and water, his ``dinner.''

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Part 11:
Tuesday, June 18
West Main Street
Lexington, Kentucky

This has been a defining few days. My goal starting this project more than a year and a half ago was to find out what makes NASCAR so popular -- and why drivers take the risks they do. Starting Friday, I think I have moved closer to the answers than in the many months before.

Friday saw me driving to Pocono Raceway with my wife, Alexis, who I had convinced to finally attend a race. We arrived at the speedway just as qualifying was winding down and Matt Kenseth was leaning into it at 200 mph. Standing at the catchfence as Matt roared around, Alexis was obviously impressed. Practice impressed her more, and by Sunday, she was definitely into it -- headphones on, watching the race from the Roush pits. She also enjoyed meeting Mark, Jeff and Matt -- and Kim Burton and Katie Kenseth (Arlene was not in town). She already knew Kurt and Melissa, the four of us having had lunch together in December in New York during the long annual banquet weekend.

Alexis is about as far from a gearhead as you can get (does the name Ann Taylor ring a bell?) -- and seeing a one-time skeptic like her enjoy a race speaks to NASCAR's growing popularity. What happened after gives further insight into the risk-takers who drive the cars and field the teams.

Three of the Roush drivers finished the Pocono 500 in the top ten, and the fourth, Kurt Busch, came in 13th, making for one of the best days of the 2001 season. Jack Roush congratulated his men, but he did not hang around to celebrate -- he wanted to beat the traffic. As the grandstands started to empty, he ran to his rented Ford Explorer, took a short cut onto the track itself, and then sped to the Turn 2 tunnel, where he took back roads to a small airport, where his jet awaited him. He was letting a friend fly, and we stowed our backs and off we went. We were bound for South Carolina, where Jack has several vehicles entered in The History Channel's Great Race, a two-week cross-country competition involving antique and classic cars.

The flight was a smooth trip through clouds and late-afternoon sun, and we landed without incident at a small airport near Spartanburg, South Carolina. One of Jack's Great Race employees met us in a van and brought us to a hotel in Greenville. More than 100 vehicles -- speedsters, roadsters, coupes, firetrucks, convertibles, taxi cabs, pickups, Jeeps, cabriolets, racers, touring cars, sedans -- were parked in the lot. We had dinner under a tent (great race = great food), and then we all turned in.

Jack was navigating for one of his cars on Monday, each vehicle having a driver and a navigator. I traveled in a (non-competing) van with official Roush Great Race photographer Tom Donoghue and several others. We headed out of the city, bound on country roads for the small town of Hendersonville, North Carolina, where the Great racers stopped for coffee. A big crowd and a Dixieland band greeted us -- and Jack stepped onto the bandstand to jam with them on the trumpet.

Jack played a pretty mean horn. From Hendersonville we wound through increasingly picturesque panoramas to Asheville, where we had lunch in the shadow of the county courthouse. Then it was up through tunnels and across bridges deep into the Smoky Mountains, which are breathtakingly beautiful. After an afternoon stop in Newport, Tennessee, where the chamber of commerce had a small still and a jar of actual moonshine on display (wanted to, but didn't sample it!), we drove on through to Knoxville. ``Mr. NASCAR himself, Mr. Jack Roush!'' the announcer declared as a crowd of several thousand cheered. This was down-home stuff, folks.

The next day, Jack let me drive one of his Stage 3 Mustangs -- a ride unlike any I've ever experienced that I will recount in the book.

This single ride, on which I got a taste of the thrill of extreme speed, gave me an understanding of why NASCAR racers take the risks they do -- an understanding I could not have (or so far hadn't) gained by just watching and interviewing.

But not every minute of my day behind the wheel of the Stage 3 was thrilling. We had many periods when the pace was leisurely, the sun shone, and Jack regaled me and passenger Victor Vojcek with stories about racing and flying. We arrived in Lexington at dinnertime, and I talked with Jack's mother and father, who I had met in Daytona. I also got to meet Jack's wife, Pauline, who grew up near here. She is a lovely woman, although she is not into racing and is rarely glimpsed at the track. The spell that speed has cast on her husband for so long had no hold over her.

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Part 12:
Sunday, August 5
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indianapolis, Indiana

The summer has flown. I attended the July race at New Hampshire -- it was a weekend of mixed emotions, as every race there will be for some time. Kyle Petty raced, but in a written statement, he asked not to be approached for comment when he arrived in Loudon. But he had a statement for reporters. It read, in part: ``Adam would want me and the 45 team to come here and race,'' Kyle said. ``I love Adam, we all love Adam, and miss him terribly.''

And then it was on to Indianapolis, for the Brickyard 400, which has just wound up. This was Kurt Busch's day -- he placed fifth. Jeff was 16th, and Mark Martin was 22nd. Not great days, but at least not as bad as the Brickyard was for Matt. He was 42d, after being wrecked by a rookie driver on the second lap of the race. Matt didn't cause the wreck, which is bad enough -- but worse, he was driving a brand-new car. And it wasn't just new: it was lightning fast, better even than the car in which Matt won the 2000 Coca Cola 600. It had a new paint scheme, and Matt had been very optimistic at the start. To lose all of that in one split second, not his fault, has to hurt.

But Matt is one of the most even-keeled people I have ever met. And that's not because he is a professional racecar driver -- plenty of racers, notably Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick, run hot and cold. Matt must have been born that way. Another driver might have taken the guy who wrecked him to task. Matt's comment after the race? ``I don't know what happened out there,'' he said. ``Somebody was spinning in front of me. I slowed down for that guy, got hit from behind and spun out. This is the first new car we've built in a long time, and is probably the best car we have had so far this year. I thought we had a shot at running up front today.''

In many regards, Matt has been the toughest of the Roush drivers to get to know. He is outwardly reserved, especially with strangers, but spend time with him, and you get more and more glimpses of his humor. He loves to kid his wife, Katie, who is one of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet -- and he and Robbie Reiser, his crew chief, often trade jokes. And of course whenever he's around Jeff Burton, the No. 1 funny man of the Roush bunch, Matt is usually laughing.

Before the race, I joined Matt on a visit to the Ford Motor Co. suite.

He was relaxed in front of the crowd -- maybe he was warming up for this coming Thursday, when he will travel to New York to appear with one of his cars on NBC's Today Show. Before the Brickyard, Matt held 12th in the point standings (his 42d place dropped him to 14th), which is respectable for any driver -- but below Matt's own expectations for his sophomore season. Asked at the Ford suite about his performance, this year, he said: ``Sounds dumb, but if I knew what it was, I'd fix it.'' That drew some laughs -- but not as many as when Matt was asked to name his biggest race. Matt's response: the race to the airport after the checkered flag has flown.

In our interviews, Matt has talked to me of the road he took to the top of the NASCAR world. It's a compelling story, because Matt does not come from a racing dynasty. He started at the bottom of the hill. The older of two children, he was raised in Cambridge, Wisconsin, a small town whose main street featured a bank, a barber shop, a feed mill, a dime store, and two automobile dealerships. Matt's father, Roy, worked in a furniture factory and later opened a furniture store, which he subsequently sold to build a motel, a laundromat and a video-rental store. Roy drove him around in his Corvette, and Matt loved it.

``He used to stand on the gas quite a bit,'' says Matt. ``He liked to burn out, show out a little bit, stuff like that when he was younger so that's probably where I got a lot of it.''

Matt also got into engines early.

``I loved anything with engines on it -- I loved mowing the lawn,'' he has told me. ``I'd go to my Grampa's and get the lawnmower and drive it down and mow our lawn and stuff. One day, me and my dad went out and he bought me an old riding lawnmower with no mower deck or anything on it. I had that thing painted up and I'd drive that riding lawnmower around town -- I'd drive everywhere. As I became more familiar with it, I figured out different things about speeding it up: fixing the governor, changing gears on it to get it to go faster, stuff like that. It was pretty cool -- I had the only riding lawnmower you could do wheelies with! I don't think the neighbors liked it -- but I liked it!''

Once he started racing, at the age of 16, Matt advanced quickly through the stockcar ranks. He was compared early on to Mark Martin, who also raced on the American Speed Association circuit when he was a young man. And everyone knows the story of Matt beating his friend Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the 2000 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year title. Junior was favored -- but Matt prevailed. His singlemindedness, I think, was the key. Also, Matt isn't quite the party animal that Junior, who drives the Budweiser car, is. Matt's idea of a great night is staying home with Katie.

NASCAR has been caught up in a safety controversy since Earnhardt died, and Junior has been drawn into it to an extent. Not Matt, who prefers to keep a low profile -- he lets his racing do most of his talking, at least publicly. In our talks, I have discovered that Matt has never been injured, which is amazing. ``The last four or five years I obviously have a lot more respect for things than I used to,'' he said. ``I used to pretty much not have any fear of anything as far as going fast or being crazy or whatever. I am pretty lucky to have never really been hurt because I used to be pretty crazy with dirt bikes, snowmobiles and all that kind of stuff. Even when I was young, when I started riding a bike and stuff, I was never too scared.''

Going fast is one thing -- but it takes more than loving speed and a desire to take risks to succeed at Matt's level. Like his peers, Matt thrived on competition from an early age.

``We lived on this block, it was like a normal city block, but no cars would go by -- and we'd set up a racetrack in a corner, we'd race our pedal bikes all around. We had a little checkered flag, and had a little Victory Lane, and all that kind of stuff. I've always really liked competition.''

But even as he lit up the ASA tracks, Matt never imagined he would get to where he is today. His uncles and dad raced -- but it was strictly part-time. ``I would never have dreamed this, even ten years ago or twelve years ago,'' he said. ``When I was little, I always loved going to the races and I was obsessed with cars. I could go sit in my uncle's race car and that was like the coolest thing ever. It's always been in my head that I knew I wanted to (race as a career), but I never thought I would ever be able to do it fulltime. I thought I'd have to work all week and then maybe race Saturday night at the local tracks.''

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Part 13:
Sunday, Sept. 23
Dover Downs International Speedway
Dover, Delaware

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon prompted rescheduling of the New Hampshire 300, which was supposed to have been staged last weekend, and so this is the first Cup race since that terrible Tuesday, Sept. 11.

This is a very unsettling time. My drive down from Providence on Thursday took me near New York City, and the radio was full of fear and anxiety. Security here at the track has been very strict -- and still no one feels safe, not even the drivers. Folks seem to agree that if ever there were a good target for people who knew how to take down the World Trade Center, surely it is a crowd of 140,000, largest in America since the attacks -- for an event that will be broadcast live on national TV.

At the media center, press briefings and written statements concern safety as officials all weekend have been trying to calm fears. But one of the first conferences was yet another grim chapter in this strange season: Ty Norris, of Dale Earnhardt Inc., provided an update on the well-liked Steve Park, who suffered a head injury a few weeks ago. Norris reports that Park's spirits are good, and that he has been progressing in daily therapy. No one knows when Park will return, however, says Norris -- it could be three weeks, six weeks, could be more. Park walks slowly, and still has double vision. ``The big problem is getting both eyes to operate together,'' Norris said. This is a dangerous sport -- and, suddenly, a dangerous country.

Now it's only a couple of hours until the start of the MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400, which honors the retiring Baltimore Orioles great. I arrived early at the track, as usual, and at about 8:15 a.m. I wandered out to the fronstretch. Fans were already filing into the stands, and the PA system was playing Steve Miller's ``Living In The USA.'' The message on the scoring tower read: GOD BLESS AMERICA. Patriotism has been all over the speedway this weekend, with every car sporting some variation of the theme and many drivers speaking to it as well. And still, the feeling of unease everywhere. I can't look at a gasoline tanker without wondering: would that be a tempting target?

As I often do on a race morning, I hung around with Jeff Burton and his crew in the No. 99 hauler.

From my notebook:

In Burton's trailer, talk again turns to terrorism. Chris Farrell the spotter seems dazed by it all, and he doesn't laugh when Jeff jokes about the possibility of a plane spraying anthrax -- or chemicals. ``If you see a crop duster coming in over Turn Three, you might want to let us know,'' says Jeff. This is the dark side of his humor, of course, and he turns serious when I ask if beneath the joking he is worried about the possibility of an attack. ``You'd be crazy not to,'' he says, adding that these folks are into killing large numbers of people, where could you find more in one place than at a NASCAR race? Jeff finds some solace in the proximity of Dover Air Force base, however -- although I do not. I see only another reminder of how unsettling things have become: Dover is processing remains from the Pentagon attack.

A few days ago, I spoke to Jeff by phone to get his immediate reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks, and he recounted how he heard learned them: on his car radio after he had left his shop. He turned around and went straight home, and, like many of us, spent the next two days by the TV (although he and Kim tried to keep their young daughter and son from the images there).

``You're watching it wanting to learn something,'' he told me, ``wanting to know whose ass you wanted to kick, wanting to know that someone was going to be found alive. You were wanting information -- you weren't watching it to see the gruesome scenes, you were wanting to pull something out of it, to try to understand it. You go through this range of emotions: Let's go kick somebody's ass, you're not going to mess with us like that, we've got to make a stand. Then you go through: God, think about the parents, and the children -- you just go through every range of emotion.''

Jeff thinks that America will never be the same.

``I think our country has lost -- I hate to use the word innocence, because we're damn sure not innocent -- but we're no longer isolated from problems that other countries have been having a long time. That's not a good thing. I can remember watching the news and stuff happening in other countries and just thinking: `Man I am so glad I live where I live.' And now some of that's come here. And that makes me mad.''

And also, angry. Jeff said: ``We've got to go and make the people that did this -- every part of 'em, not just one guy -- we got to make 'em hurt and we got to make 'em understand that what they did to us is miniscule compared to what we'll do to them. Because that, I assume, is the only way you can communicate with people like that.''

Well, it's almost time for drivers' introductions. Deciding not to give in to fear, I will join the crew at the frontstretch stage, same as usual. Should be some great photos -- but like Jeff, I am nervous.

Part 14:
Saturday, Oct. 13
Martinsville Speedway
Martinsville, Virginia

Rode with Mark today on a golf cart from the infield to the new press box high above the track. Someday, I would like to watch a race from this vantagepoint: You can catch every inch of the action, and of course there are TV monitors on which to see the broadcasts and the replays (and the food in the press box ain't too shabby, either!) But not this year -- for my purposes, it's better to be down in the pits, where I can see Jack and the crews. And frankly, the thrill at pit-level beats that inside a glass-enclosed room, regardless of the view.

Although he is interviewed constantly, Mark only occasionally seeks out the press himself. But he has been bothered by a spate of stories this fall implying that he has lost the will to win. The stories followed an incident during practice for the Bristol night race in which a man held up a QUITTER sign directed at Mark. The one story that caught Mark's eye ran in The Sporting News, under the headline, Martin Says Racing Is No Longer His Top Priority. The journalist imagined herself inside the driver's head at the moment he spotted the sign. ``Feelings of disbelief and anguish rushed through Martin's diminutive body, once solid but showing signs of wear from 25 years behind the wheel,'' she wrote. Quoting Martin, the journalist described the fulfillment Martin found in his son Matt's racing this year -- and his frustration at his own. Starting in 1998, the year Mark's father died, wrote the columnist, ``slowly, Martin's will to win seemed to evaporate.''

Nothing could be further from the truth, Mark insists. And journalists shouldn't make such sweeping assumptions, he believes.

``I don't think that writers have the right to do editorials and then insert one sentence of quotes,'' Martin has told me. ``That's not right -- not if they're not going to include the whole conversation where that quote comes from so that it's put into context. That's tabloid writing.''

But Mark was more wounded than irate, and he wanted to set the record straight. That's why he came before the press corps today.

For almost an hour, Martin bared his soul.

He expressed his gratitude toward his sport, which had brought him the kinds of rewards a young kid from rural Arkansas could only dream of, and he talked of being ``blessed'' with an exceptional sponsor, owner, and crew chief. ``A lot of drivers would quickly trade places with me for my performance this year -- and, more than that, for the organization that I have behind me, the relationship that I have with Jack Roush and Jimmy Fennig and the people that we have,'' said Martin. He acknowledged his long winless streak and the 2001 season's failed expectations -- and said that if he knew how to improve his performance, he of course already would have done so.

``The thing I'm saying is that there have been some things written this year that have hurt my feelings,'' Martin said. ``I'm telling you right now, do not question my commitment or my will because it's the same as it always has been and it will continue to be because that's me.''

Martin talked about his son Matt. ``We were at the race track a few months ago,'' said Martin, ``and between his heat race and the features, he got kicked in the eye. It was almost swelled shut: there was a slit there, just barely open, and he was almost in tears and everything. His mother and I tried to get him to go home, but he said he wanted to race because he wanted to get the points. He drove the race car and then we took him home. Of course, he had a lesser result than his expectation, so it was a very tough night. Racing deals you all kinds of blows. You have to race when you're physically in pain, mentally in pain, and emotionally in pain. The real winners race through all that -- and it will also bring you the greatest high and the most joy of anything.''

Martin said he considered it most likely that he would win again someday, bringing him redemption -- but come what may, he said he wouldn't quit Cup racing before his contract with Roush expired at the end of 2005. And it was conceivable, he had previously said, that even after he left Cup competition he would race in some less time-consuming venue. Driving would never excite Martin again, but he would long crave the thrill of a win.

``Driving a car fast is not where the thrill is for me,'' he said. ``Beating the competition is.''

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Part 15:
Friday, November 23
New Hampshire International Speedway
Loudon, New Hampshire

Surely this is the Twilight Zone. After four hours of sleep, I awoke at 3 a.m. and was on the road at 3:30 for the hour-and-a-half drive to Loudon. Entered the garage before 5 a.m., and it was still dark, still cold, still very strange in every way. This is the race rescheduled after the terrorist attacks, and NASCAR has decided to cram everything into this one day: practice (just one 45-minute session) and then the command to start engines, at noon. No qualifying, no Truck or Busch race, just the Cup finale to an extraordinary season that many in NASCAR -- maybe most -- are glad is ending.

Most of the racers and their crews flew in yesterday, Thanksgiving Day -- but the drivers of the haulers had to be on the road all day from North Carolina, so my complaints seems silly by comparison. Wandering the garage, which is designed for daylight use, I found the crews at work with the help of electric lanterns. Breath fogged in the frigid air and the puddles were frozen. I got a coffee at the media center -- and even there, nothing seemed right. Lots of reporters, southerners especially, had wool hats and ear muffs and gloves. Plenty of jokes about snow, although none is forecast. No regular media guide was published, and the official program is the one printed months before: New Hampshire 300, September 13 - 16, 2001, the cover reads. Nothing about Sept. 11, of course, the event that changed America, not to mention NASCAR.

When I found him in Mark's hauler, Jack was feeling pretty good about the day. Mark had been second fastest in the abbreviated practice -- and Jeff, ``the man who has owned New Hampshire International Speedway,'' according to the announcer was third fastest. Kurt, who missed the Sunday race at Atlanta, was 14th fastest in practice. And Matt, who has come on very strong as the season has wound down, was 20th. Jack told me: ``I'm just filled with anticipation that something really good is going to happen today -- as I was at Daytona before we started the first race'' of the 2001 year.

The drivers seem in good spirits. Nothing ever rattles Matt, and Jeff has repeatedly said that the small sacrifice of racing the day after Thanksgiving is nothing compared to the event that forced postponement. Mark is upbeat, too: he knows that Jack early next week will make some personnel changes, as yet unannounced, that should improve his team chemistry. And Kurt, while hardly ecstatic after the humiliation of going home without racing at Atlanta, is relieved that the year is finally ending. He told me: ``Because of the lessons learned from day one 'til now, I think I'm much stronger, much wiser. Winston Cup for sure is a lot tougher than I imagined it to be. But we've got a great opportunity for a Roush car to win today.'' Kurt is racing the car he had at the fall race at Martinsville, when he was so strong.

The stands opened at 6 a.m., and within a couple of hours, they were nearly full. The sun rose and it brought temperatures climbing into the fifties. Before coming to Loudon, some had nicknamed this The Arctic 300 -- but Mother Nature has smiled. It is warm enough, in fact, that Goodyear is worried. The company manufactured tires expecting freezing weather, and no one knows how the compound will do in this much warmer weather. Could lead to blistering. But is there anything left to surprise in this season?

A week from today, many Cup racers and others in NASCAR will be in New York for the annual banquet. Of the Roush guys, only Jeff Burton will have a speaking role -- he is the only one in the Top Ten, and Kurt's race to Kevin Harvick for Rookie of the Year is over. Already, Jack is planning many changes for the 2002 season. He hopes never to have another season like this Twilight Zone deal that is just about over. Off now to Pit Road for driver introductions...

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Part 16:
Sunday, February 17, 2002
Daytona International Speedway
Daytona Beach, Florida

Must be a variation on the old saying about what a difference a day makes. Back at Daytona one year after Dale Earnhardt died, and the news is good. The dreaded big wreck occurred -- but no one was injured, thankfully. And with the exception of Matt Kenseth, who ran strong before getting caught up in the wreck, the Roush racers come out of this Daytona 500 in good shape.

Kurt Busch finished fourth with his new crew, Mark Martin was seventh with his new bunch, and Jeff Burton was 11th (he also has some new crew members, although not as many as Kurt and Mark). And Roush's four engines (five, if you count Elliott Sadler's, which Roush Racing supplies) all performed flawlessly. This is another sign that Jack Roush has succeeded in addressing the problems that characterized periods of last year, affecting Kurt especially.

Kurt's excellent showing today will be widely reported, but what may slip through the cracks is a race that in key regards was even more critical than the 500. I refer to Thursday's Gatorade Twin 125s. Having used up all of his provisionals in the 2001 year, Kurt had none to carry over into 2002. He had to race his way into the Daytona 500.

I imagined that the second-to-last race of the 2001 season, the NAPA 500 on Atlanta, might still be weighing on Kurt's mind. Kurt failed to make the race -- and to say he was an unhappy camper as he left Atlanta on qualifying day would be an understatement. But the winter restored Kurt's spirits, and on the morning of the Twin 125s he was relaxed. He seemed quietly confident.

``Poised,'' is the word that Jack Roush used to describe his attitude.

In fact, Kurt's biggest concern as we sat in his hauler was his brother Kyle. Kyle lit up the Craftsman Truck Series last year -- until the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company decided that a driver who was not yet 18 (Kyle is still only 16) could not race in a series with which it is associated. NASCAR and Jack Roush fought for Kyle but lost, and now Kyle is going to race in ASA. Tom Busch, the boys' dad, is in Ohio trying to get the program off the ground. His brother's future is important to Kurt. Someday, he envisions the two of them racing together at Roush.

Still, as Kurt climbed into his car for his Twin 125, the pressure was on him -- not Kyle.

``Please let us do good!'' Melissa Schaper said out on pit road.

Over the radio, Kurt remained calm. ``This is the start of a new season,'' he said. Unspoken was the fact that if he didn't finish 14th or better in the 50-lap race, he would be going home again.

But I had a good feeling. Before the race started, I found a lucky penny on the ground in Kurt's pit stall. I am not the superstitious type, but I figured what the heck. So I pocketed the coin -- deciding to keep its discovery to myself for the moment, lest I jinx Kurt.

Jack's description of Kurt turned out to be right-on: Kurt drove smartly and with poise during the race's early going, and by lap 12, he had reached tenth. Melissa was on top of the pit cart, watching the race on the wide screen behind her. I got a nice photo of her, nervously framed against a shot of her boyfriend's racecar on Turn Two.

Once he reached tenth, Kurt did not let go. He found and kept the draft, and his laps were as fast as the leader's.

And his engine was running perfectly -- what a relief that was.

``Eight laps to go,'' said Jimmy Fennig, his new crew chief. ``You're the same as the leader.''

The race was in its most intense phase now -- stragglers at this point would be punished. ``Every one of these positions could mean the difference between a spot in the Daytona 500 or an airline ticket home,'' said the MRN broadcaster, whose play-by-play was being sent out over the PA system.

Kurt crossed the finish line in seventh -- good enough to start the 500 in 15th, best of the Roush racers.

``You showed great poise,'' said Jack over the No. 97 team radio.

``I appreciate it,'' said Kurt. ``I've got some more of it bottled up. Let's rock 'n' roll!''

Today, after his fourth-place showing in the Daytona 500, I finally told Kurt about the lucky penny I had found: I figured with the big race over, it would be safe to mention it. Kurt accepted it with a laugh -- and he plans to bring it with him next week to Rockingham.

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Part 17:
Friday, May 3, 2002
A writer's study
Pascoag, Rhode Island

Well, here it is nearly a third of the way through the 2002 season, and already enough has happened to fill another book. The most dramatic news, of course, has been Jack Roush's crash on his 60th birthday -- and the miraculous rescue and recovery that followed. The early worry was that Jack would die, and then the concern became lasting brain damage, but now the biggest question is when will he return to the racetrack. Amazing, truly amazing.

Not as amazing, but nearly as exciting and uplifting for Roush Racing fans, has been the dominance of the Cup team this year. Kurt Busch with his first win, and holding second in the point standings -- what a tear he is on! And yet he's matched by Matt Kenseth, who has two wins and holds third in the standings. And also by Mark Martin, who is in sixth, and so close to his first win since 2000 that he (and his fans) can all but taste it. True, Jeff is still struggling some -- but twelfth in the standings is hardly shabby, and it sure beats where he was a year ago at this time: lost in the cellar somewhere. One way or another, Jeff will turn it around. You can count on it.

The Roush Revival, as some are calling it, is so remarkable that we already are planning a second edition of MEN AND SPEED -- an edition that will include all or some of the 2002 season. Won't Jack's deal make for a great chapter, too.

And so, I have been keeping in touch with the drivers and jack, and will be attending several races, the next being the Coca Cola 600, which is the week the book will be officially be ``launched'' -- with TV and radio appearances, and signings, notably at Books A Million in Concord, N.C., right near Lowe's, the evening of Wednesday, May 22. Kurt and Matt will be there, and so will Jack, his health permitting.

I have recently talked by phone with everyone -- Jack right before his accident, the drivers over the past few weeks. Here's what they're saying about the 2002 season as it continues to unfold:

-- Jack.

Is delighted at the season so far.

``Through all of last year, I had to be thinking in the dark corners of my mind: Is my process OK? Is our model OK? Is four teams too many? Can we really organize the efforts of this many people and get more out of it from a collective synergistic point of view than people who work more enthusiastically together in smaller groups?

``If I had another year that felt like last year, I'd have been for breaking this thing up and putting it under somebody else's leadership other than mine that could be able to fix things that I was not able to fix. I'm relieved that we're on track.''

-- Mark.

Is excited with his new crew chief and crew.

``They're young, enthusiastic and really charged-up and excited. It's like plugging into an electrical socket or something!''

Mark reports that his cars are superior to less year, and the Roush engines have more power. ``I'm pleased. I think we have potential to still grow and get better. We have a really good team. Ben has been a lot of fun to work with. Feels real good!''

-- Matt.

Is of course pleased to be in the thick of a championship hunt.

``I feel really good about it -- a big improvement from where we were last year for all of us,'' Matt said. So what's changed?

``Winston Cup racing is so hard that when you're off a little bit everybody is like, well what's wrong with them guys? It's so easy to run bad and it's so difficult to run good. It's just a bunch of little things.''

Among those Matt cited were superior engines and also the one-engine rule. Matt said that last year, qualifying engines under the two-engine rule made less horsepower than race engines, and that put the Roush drivers at a disadvantage when making a race.

But the difference is not engines alone.

``Some of it is just also getting our cars better: figuring out the setups we need and just making the bodies and everything else on our cars a little bit better.''

-- Kurt.

Was still high from his win when we spoke.

``There's no drug that'll get you there. It's more than adrenaline -- it's more than just pure emotion. It's the most gratifying moment there ever can be!''

And part of the thrill for Kurt was the chance to celebrate with his mentor, Jack Roush. ``He was starting to give me heavy emotions when he was speaking at the press conference. The thick words that he was laying on were, I mean, just compliment after compliment. It really starts to hit you hard on the amount of risk he took... I knew that I could do it all along, but it was a matter of proving it -- and he said that he never had a doubt. He knew from Day One when we raced that Truck that he needed me in the Winston Cup position and it was just a matter of time before the people got developed around me, so to speak.''

-- Jeff.

Is not happy with 12th, and thinks despite the progress in the second half of last year, they were lulled into complacency.

``We never really showed the kick-ass kind of speed that you gotta have. We probably should have been a little more critical of ourselves and understood that we had some gains to make... Frank and I just aren't doing a good job. The direction we're headed in hasn't gotten us the results.''

And thus, Jeff has undertaken a complete review of the 99 program, looking at the wind tunnels results, scrutinizing the operations of the 6, 17 and 97. ``It's a pretty exhaustive process.''

Bottom line for Jeff: ``We've never been the worst Roush team. It's never happened to us before and it's not going over very well with me.''

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