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NASCAR stereotypes are dead

By Doug Gorman

There's an on-going debate as to whether drivers on the NASCAR circuit should be considered professional athletes.

NASCAR purist will say Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart are definitely athletes. I bet NASCAR owner Joe Gibbs would agree.

Gibbs has lived most of his adult life around grown men who are paid for playing games. Gibbs first became famous as a highly successful football coach, leading the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl titles before getting out of the coaching business to pursue a new gig-car owner of a highly success NASCAR team which employees Labonte and Stewart as its marquee stars.

Since leaving the sidelines for a spot on Pit Road, Gibbs continues to produce championship caliber results.

Both Labonte and Stewart have won the equivalent of stock car racing's Super Bowl, each bringing home a Winston Cup points title for Gibbs.

Gibbs' NASCAR biography is just one of the many interesting sidebars which have helped turn Winston Cup racing into the country's fastest growing sport.

There are so many other great stories such as Bill Elliott earning the Most Popular Driver Award 16 times. Elliott is a good driver with 43 victories, including a Winston Cup title, but that honor has come more from the way the Georgia native has responded off the track. Elliott, like so many members on the NASCAR circuit, especially those of his generation, helped put the sport on the map by being accessible to their fans.

Until the death of Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500 in 2001 I really didn't grasp how important these drivers are to the masses. Earnhardt was a racing icon and his death hit race fans hard.

Six years ago, I too was skeptical. I wouldn't condescend to call the Labontes and Stewarts of NASCAR athletes.

Michael Jordan was an athlete. Steve Young and Jerry Rice were athletes, Bill Elliott and his buddies were simply race car drivers who drove a round in circles very fast. Yes, I was caught up in the stereotype that suggested NASCAR was for southern blue-collar white men.

That stereotype is dead. NASCAR crosses many demographic lines, including economics. Doctors and lawyers sit side-by-side with bricklayers and carpenters at NASCAR events.

Even the image of drivers has changed. Where many of the old-time drivers barely finished high school, some of today's drivers and their crews have college educations. It goes along with the high-tech world that has become part of the Winston Cup scene.

Where many of the old time drivers loved country music, today's younger drivers are more into Creed and Nickelback than Hank Williams, Jr.

No, matter what eclectic group NASACAR fans fit into, they are a hardy bunch.

How else can you explain Sunday's events at Atlanta Motor Speedway? Just 39 laps into the Bass Pro Shops/MBNA 500 the rains came, forcing postponement until today at 11 a.m.

Of course it wouldn't be a race in Atlanta if it weren't for a little rain. One thing is for certain, however - those who can be back at AMS when the green flag drops will be in their seats cheering on their favorite drivers.

After all to the average NASCAR fan few things are more important than race no matter what day it is on.

(Doug Gorman is sports editor of the Daily. E-mail at dgorman@news-daily.com)