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I am Irish, a Pisces and a fan of college basketball. I guess you could say March is my month.
In the next several weeks, the attention of American sports fans will be captured by an event which is a primary contributor to making the month of March tolerable, if not downright enjoyable—the NCAA basketball tournament.
It starts with 65 teams and lasts only three weeks, but when you think about it, March Madness closely resembles a condensed version of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
“The Dance,” as it is fondly called, is college basketball’s finest hour. It kicks off with Selection Sunday and wraps up with the national championship contest following a period of intense competition, replete with heartbreak and triumph.
NASCAR’s version, however, is more than just a temporary case of March Madness. It begins in February and maintains a carefully controlled level of intensity—some might even call it a sort of insanity—through November. Dance cards don’t get much more crowded than that.
The tournament begins this week, and “The Dance” card is full. All of the major conference champions are invited, as well as any large or wealthy schools with a halfway decent win/loss record. In short, the popular kids are invited first.
This list includes top-tier programs, perennial powerhouses such as Georgetown, UCLA and North Carolina.
This is nothing more than Sprint Cup Series qualifying, albeit dressed a little differently, as Guccis are replaced with Goodyears and corsages with camber. Elite teams and drivers, those with names like Jimmie and Junior and Jeff (oh, my!), are guaranteed a date with NASCAR’s premier party each week by virtue of the qualifying system. They may not always be the top seed, but they will always have their dancing shoes on.
The next basketball invitees are the less prestigious schools, often state universities, who enjoyed better-than-average seasons—the smart kids who aren’t too bad-looking, such as Clemson, Gonzaga and George Mason.
With consistency riding shotgun, Sprint Cup Series teams which have secured a spot in the top 35 points ranking after the first five races of the season (effective following the Bristol race weekend in mid-March) will always be suited up and ready to rumba any time the band begins to play.
Any NCAA tournament slots left over go to the more obscure schools which posted stellar records—the big-boned kids with good personalities, including names such as Winthrop, Davidson and Portland State. Sometimes a Cinderella will emerge from this group, but it’s rare. Generally they enjoy their brief time in the spotlight before being sent home to watch the rest of the tournament from the comfort of their dorm rooms.
Forty-three cars begin each NASCAR event. Subtract 35 guaranteed starting spots from that number, which leaves eight, then make allowances for the preferential treatment rightfully given to former series champions, and you can see the time approaching to start reaching for the “No Vacancy” sign. There is a pool of drivers who are forced to literally race their way into each event based on their qualifying speeds.
There simply isn’t room at the party for everyone wishing to attend, so it isn’t hard to understand why all those potential Cinderellas may look more than a little nervous as they watch the clock. For some of them, midnight comes all too early.
People get serious about the NCAA tournament. The very worth and integrity of your alma mater or favorite school may be measured in the eyes of some according to whether or not the basketball team received an invitation to the dance.
Still, during the month of March, they are our heroes. Go ahead and admit that you’ve printed out the grid and made your tournament selections and contributed 20 bucks to whomever is serving as the office bookie this year, for March Madness is as much about bracketball as it is about basketball.
NASCAR stars are heroes all season long. Only five races into this fledgling 2008 season, we are already hotly contesting the relative merits and potential staying power of our favorites, just like basketball fans.
There are classic rivalries (Tony Stewart vs. Kurt Busch, Duke vs. UNC), some major upsets (Toyota gets a win in 2008 before Chevrolet does, two-time defending champion Florida wasn’t invited to the Dance), and yes, even a popular Cinderella story or two; how about those Baylor Bears, and Brian Vickers?
College for most of us is the time we remember most fondly and love the best. Folks who have reached a certain maturity level, or may even have retired by now, still proudly sport the colors of their alma mater, and the sponsor logos of their favorite drivers, and tell the stories of that one unforgettable game, or how about that road trip to Bristol back in ’68?
NASCAR and the NCAA tournament and all the emotion they generate, although they go about it a little differently, reawaken that enthusiasm and bring that college-age kid back to life, for make no mistake—he or she is still in there, just waiting for tipoff, and for those 43 gentlemen to start their engines and take to that dance floor.
NASCAR may be an unpredictable partner at times, but it is one that will never fail to leave you breathless and dizzy, anxious for the next song, the next race. A hit country music single by Shania Twain offers this advice: Dance with the one that brought you, and you can’t go wrong.
You can’t disagree with that. Strike up the band.
Cathy Elliott is the former director of public relations at Darlington Raceway. She currently lives in Florence, S.C. Contact her at email@example.com.