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Finally, a happy ending

Posted: Wednesday, November 21, 2001

ATLANTA -- The racing community will be on the road during Thanksgiving. A convoy of trucks loaded with race cars and tools will push like a circus caravan headed to the Northeast for yet another show.

''So much for the holidays,'' Kevin Harvick said. ''I'll be home long enough to grab a quick sandwich, then it's off to New Hampshire. This has been a long year, and I'm tired. I'm burned out.''

So is everyone else.

Thanksgiving is a holiday where families huddle and count their blessings. For the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, it's another work day. Just like the Valentine's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day and Halloween. And while the sport will be traveling today to finish off the season with the New Hampshire 300, there still is one reason to give thanks: The season is finally finished.

Actually, the 38-race season that includes a pair of all-star events, was supposed to end last week at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The terrorist attacks Sept. 11 forced NASCAR to push the race at New Hampshire to the end of the season.

The sport spent the first two months in shock. Dale Earnhardt, a wildly popular and successful icon for the sport, died instantly when his car slammed into the fourth turn wall on the final lap of the season-opening Daytona 500.

As soon as the sting of his death turned to a dull ache, the sport was consumed with safety issues. The sanctioning body commissioned a panel of experts to look into Earnhardt's death and to make recommendations for the future.

The first step back toward normalcy was Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s emotional victory at the Pepsi 400 in July at the same track where his father died five months earlier. For the first time, fans talked of racing again, not of autopsies and crash investigations.

And while NASCAR battled issues on a variety of fronts, Jeff Gordon emerged from the cloud of confusion to win his fourth championship.

A season that forever will be marked by tragedy, investigations, reports and a less than compelling stretch drive still has its quality moment: the finish line.

And for that, we all give thanks.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.



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