At the end of January, I relinquished my role as managing sports editor of the Daily. This added something to my schedule that they tell me is called “free time.”

Angela Cesere
Jack Herman

Unfamiliar with this concept of a wide-open Sunday, I quickly set about filling it up. Wake up, read the newspaper, shower, Daily, eat lunch and then what? In the fall, football would make this decision easy. Now, I needed help. Feb. 18, I got it.

The Daytona 500 was on, and I couldn’t let the chance to watch America’s biggest race (and to stop studying business statistics) pass me by.

In one of the closest finishes ever at the Daytona 500, Kevin Harvick passed Mark Martin on the final lap and beat him to the finish line by .02 seconds. The ending prevented Martin, one of the sport’s most respected racers, from winning his first Daytona 500 and capped off a crazy day of racing that amazed even the veterans.

“I’ve seen a lot of these Daytona 500s, and this has to be the wildest Daytona 500 I’ve ever watched,” said Richard Childress, Harvick’s team owner.

I’m willing to defer to the man who drove in the race from 1970 to 1981 and has owned one of the sport’s most successful teams ever since.

Suddenly intrigued by America’s second-most popular sport, I started researching like any Northeasterner with no knowledge of it might do; I read Tom Wolfe’s famous piece about the whisky-runnin’-bootleg-turnin’ rebel turned Nascar-drivin’-hard-chargin’ rebel Junior Johnson, followed coverage in the New York Times, and joined a fantasy league. I could not, however, find a sponsor (Just imagine the SportsMonday Column brought to you by your company here).

I then listened to the complaints.

My 14-year-old brother, for instance, devised the oh-so-clever argument that the sport is essentially cars making left turn after left turn after left turn for four hours. But I also like watching middle-aged men use metal sticks to smack a tiny white ball around a field, so the idea of roaring engines and blazing speeds is actually quite exciting. And exclamations like, “Tires are smoking, sheet metal is dragging and they’re still racing with six laps left,” as one announcer proclaimed during the Daytona 500, sure help spice things up.

Others told me to disregard the sport because of its lack of sophistication (“Talladega Nights” certainly didn’t help this perception). But if you’ve ever looked inside one of the cars you’d find they’re more complex than Dr. Brown’s Delorean, as the sport has evolved since its days of un-modified cars racing around dirt tracks.

One charge I did accept was about the drivers’ rebel mentality. In baseball, cheating prompts Congressional hearings. In Nascar, it’s said that “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t trying.” I certainly don’t condone those actions (and neither do racing officials, as they penalized a number of drivers before Daytona), but the attitude is somewhat refreshing in a time when people take sports a little too seriously.

It’s also the attitude that helps endear the sport to its millions of fans. It’s fun watching these guys speed around Daytona International knowing they’d be just as comfortable – and competitive – driving around the figure-8 track at Bob’s Go-Kart World.

Some might be in it for the money, but salaries are more protected than the names of undercover CIA agents (um, on second thought, so is the money hidden beneath my mattress). This lack of any quantifiable numbers – stats like Kobe Bryant making $3121.94 per minute played – allows the stars to maintain their status as beer-guzzling, blue-collar, local diner-eating kind of guys.

This is not to say Nascar is all fun and gear-shifting. There are some serious problems with the sport. Allowing the best drivers to participate in Busch Series events on Saturday would be the equivalent of letting major league baseball players moonlight in the minors, and Al Gore likely won’t be handing out any environmental awards to the sport anytime soon. But if you can overlook these quirks, you’ll have a sport worth watching.

I’ll update you during the season, through our blog on Michigandaily.com or in columns, at least until my editor yells at me for writing too much about NASCAR (That might be after he reads the first line of this one).

But until then, I won’t worry about that little thing called free time.

– Herman can be reached at jaherman@umich.edu.

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