LOUDON, N.H. – The last time I sat in the grandstands to watch a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Tony Stewart was a rookie, the Red Sox still hadn't won a World Series since 1918 and the average price for a gallon of gasoline was $1.14.
And though I didn't sit out in my favorite spot down in Turns 3 and 4 for Sunday's Sylvania 300, I did decide to do something drastically different.
Walking up souvenir alley behind the main grandstands first thing in the morning, something was happening around me. Fans were lined up by the dozens at the merchandise trailers for drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski – standing in long lines ready to fork over hard-earned cash for hats, shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with the names and numbers of their favorite drivers.
Presumably, they still find a way to identify with drivers – either through personalities, performances or manufacturers – enough so that they form an allegiance. Then they go sit in the sprawling grandstands to watch that car, listen in on a radio scanner and live with the ups and downs of everything that can happen in a 300-lap race on a mile track.
Hamlin may have stripped most of the drama out of the battle for Sylvania 330 victory with his dominating performance Sunday, but as I found out – there is plenty of drama taking place when you look in the right place.
My mission: Pick one driver, listen in on his team's radio frequency and root like heck for him to win.
(Note: I did set some ground rules for myself. I needed to pick a driver in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, one that had a better than average chance to win at New Hampshire and one whose personality I was kosher with.)
So, I settled on Five-Time himself, Jimmie Johnson and started my day of fandom as soon as the command was given to fire engines on pit road.
2:10 p.m. – I'm not going to lie to you here. With Hamlin qualifying in the 32nd spot, I was confident that Johnson's chances were better than average. It's Chase time, of course, and that's when Five-Time shines. As the cars hit the track for the pre-race pace laps, listening to crew chief Chad Knaus remind Johnson that it was a long race ahead and there was plenty of time to move forward one car at a time only made me feel better.
That guy's a head coach by any other name.
2:20 p.m. – This is easy. A bunch of cars dropped to the rear of the field for assorted driver and engine changes, and Johnson's already 16th before even hitting the first corner of the race.
I'm already so invested in this mission of mine, I'm convinced that Five-Time is going to want me in Victory Lane right alongside him to share some champagne and 22-pound lobster.
2:45 p.m. – Lap 40. The caution is out for the first time, and Johnson is already inside the Top-10. Man, this is going to be easy.
2:55 p.m. – Yeah, umm.... Not so much. Jimmie radios Chad to tell him that the water temperature has spiked. Spotter reports debris on the grille.
Heavy nail-biting commences.
2:56 p.m. – Situation dire. Knaus tells his spotter to go tell Tony Stewart's spotter that we plan to ride his bumper for a bit to help free the grille of the debris.
The response isn't a good one. “No chance,” the spotter says. “Wrong spotter's stand.”
At this point, I smash things. Me no happy.
3:05 p.m. – That debris thing is all taken care of, but now the freaking lapped cars are messing with us. Just as Jimmie gets into the Top-5, he comes up on the lapped car of David Stremme – WHO DECIDES TO RACE THE NO. 48 DOOR-TO-DOOR.
I'm about to create my own debris by throwing a Coke bottle at Stremme's windshield. I'm reminded in the press box that such behavior will not be tolerated.
Tony Stewart swoops by to regain the position Johnson had already taken from him – and I'm ready to pack up my stuff and hit the road.
3:40 p.m. – Halfway home already, and pit strategy has Jimmie in fourth with fresher tires than the leader Hamlin. This is good, I'm thinking.
We're off sequence with the race's dominant car, and I know Chad is going to be right on top of this situation.
4:15 p.m. – I'm not so sure anyone's catching Hamlin now. He's good on old tires and new tires, and it doesn't matter if there's traffic or not. Nobody can gain ground.
Have to start with the “What Would Five-Time Would Do” – or WW5TD for the cool kids in the group – way of thinking. We're Chasers, not spoilers. Brad Keselowski is struggling to stay in the Top-10, and we've got a points lead to take.
4:45 p.m. – A miracle! God is obviously wearing his 48 hoodie today. Caution for debris, and Johnson will start on the outside of the front row. First time he's been alongside Hamlin all day.
Time to roll up the sleeves and do work. Real work. Championship-driver work. Time to shock the world.
4:46 p.m. – Deflation. Utter deflation.
Before the cars are even off Turn 2 on the restart with 23 laps remaining, it seems Hamlin has a half-straightaway lead.
“I had a little bit of hope for a quarter of a lap there, and then I was like, 'Uh-oh.' Don't lose second,” Johnson says in his post-race press conference.
5 p.m. – Checkered flag. Good points day for my guys. Finished second, already talking about going to Dover and dominating.
I'm on board. First, I just have to drop Five-Time a text and get a seat on the private plane to the track next weekend.
6:15 p.m. – As pit road is cleared and the 48 hauler loads up to hit the road, I'm reminded why we all love this sport. Even when the race isn't the most dramatic of the season, there's lots to keep a fan on the edge of their seat.
I certainly was.