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Published: Monday, 8/19/2002

Watching fast, noisy cars has huge fan appeal

BROOKLYN, Mich. - You don't have to understand aerodynamics or know how to change a tire to enjoy a NASCAR race.

It's simple enough so that even I can relate.

You just have to know how to drive a car. Everyone can relate to that.

Mash your foot on the accelerator and keep turning left as fast as you can while displaying nerves of steel. That's the life of a NASCAR driver.

There's something about cars going more than twice the normal turnpike speed limit on a two-mile oval track and making lots of noise that makes watching them pretty darn exciting.

We can identify with stock cars - souped-up Chevys, Fords, Dodges and Pontiacs just like the ones sitting in our own garages and driveways. That's one thing that makes the popularity of NASCAR what it is.

It's why thousands of motor homes camped in the Michigan International Speedway for yesterday's Pepsi 400 and thousands more fans tailgated hours before the race and hours afterward.

A crowd estimated at 160,000 squeezed into MIS, a massive structure which isn't large enough to accommodate the many thousands of NASCAR fans in Michigan, Ohio and adjoining states who would have attended the race if there had been more room.

NASCAR fans are looking to have a good time. Most of them are friendly and polite and, yes, some of them have beer bellies and drink heavily. I don't have a problem with that as long as they don't annoy other fans.

Some people drink too much at NASCAR races, baseball games, football games, basketball games, hockey games and golf tournaments. And some people drink too much at weddings, picnics and family reunions.

Maybe NASCAR fans can handle their alcohol better. If you're not looking for a fight, you won't find a fight at a NASCAR race.

You also won't find a more exciting finish to a race than yesterday's Pepsi 400. Veteran Dale Jarrett couldn't have put on a better show.

Jarrett rallied from 15th-place with 30 laps to go following a pit stop, shot past Tony Stewart and tracked down Jeff Burton, whose car overheated, on lap 196 to win on the 11th anniversary to the day of Jarrett's first Winston Cup victory (also at MIS).

It was the fourth career Winston Cup win at MIS and the 30th Winston Cup career victory for Jarrett, who was fourth following a re-start with 10 laps to go and second with six laps remaining.

“I knew I had plenty of time to get there if I was just patient and made the right moves,” said Jarrett, who made an adroit recovery after a spin-out on lap 11 yielded a caution flag and dropped him to 39th place.

Jarrett tossed bouquets to crew chief Todd Parrott, whose strategy called for Jarrett to change all four tires late in the race.

Aesthetically, it wasn't a great race. There were seven caution flags and the pace dragged for long stretches. But it was a great race when it counted.

NASCAR fans sat mesmerized watching a race Jarrett nearly lost but miraculously won at the end. After yesterday's fantastic finish, I'm beginning to understand why they keep coming back.

John Harris is The Blade's sports columnist. Contact him by e-mail at jharris@theblade.com

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