As a passionate NASCAR fan for almost ten years now, I have always watched the Duel races on the Thursday before the 500 with the same interest that I watch every race. They were always a good show, but up until a couple years ago they weren’t anything other than a means of lining up the drivers for the 500 and weren’t all that critical in my eyes.
In 2008 however, the significance of the Duel races changed for me. You see I wasn’t an AJ Allmendinger fan until April or May of 2007, so his attempt to make the Daytona 500 in 2007 wasn’t even a blip on the radar screen in my eyes. After following his struggles in 2007 – through a long summer stretch of missed races, a string of starts, then another batch of misses at the end of the year – the Duel took on a whole new dimension: a nerve wracking, gut wrenching, and in 2008 a heart breaking dimension.
I suffered through him missing the race in 2008, watching on TV as they interviewed his then teammate Brian Vickers who had made it in, followed by AJ – who had not. Yes, I cried. I couldn’t help it. One of the things that make me a fan of AJ’s is that he shows his emotion. It’s written all over his face, which makes it so easy to laugh along with him and enjoy his good natured disposition. But when he is frustrated or dejected, that translates over as well.
There is no doubt that 2008 was a season of highs and lows for Dinger fans, and we went clear until February not really knowing if AJ was even going to be on the track in 2009. Then came word that he would be in the car that was once the #10 GEM entry and was now branded as the #44 for Richard Petty Motorsports. Not only that, but with the merger of DEI and Ganassi, it appeared that he would be locked into the first 5 races of the season. Joy of joys, it was a miracle. But last minute points swapping put the team on the outside looking in even as the haulers were already en route to Daytona.
So the Thursday of the 2009 Duel races loomed again, and my stomach was tied in knots. I was up before dawn that morning, and had so much nervous energy that I cleaned my entire house while waiting for the races to start. Now keep in mind that I have no connection to AJ or the Allmendingers, other than as a fan. I simply can’t imagine what it must have been like for the family. For Lynne, who had to stand by her husband and do whatever she could to help him through it. And for Greg and Karen, who had to helplessly watch their son go through the emotion of trying to make the Daytona 500.
As race time came, I paced in front of the TV and watched the pre-race activities. The only thing that managed to wrench a smile from me was seeing Greg give his son a hug before AJ climbed in the car. Then it was go time, and I alternated between hyperventilating and being nauseous for the entire 150 miles. Then when AJ raced his way into the Daytona 500 with the help of two of his RPM teammates, I was ecstatic. When he climbed out of the car, I cried again.
Now fast forward through another tumultuous year and here we are again – the day of the Duel races that will set the field for the Daytona 500. Only this time I know my driver is in the show. My only concern is how I’m going to celebrate when he wins the damn thing. I can not even express the difference between the last two years and this year. There is no comparison that can come close. I’m not a nervous wreck, I’m not pacing in front of my TV, and my house is definitely not being cleaned. I am at peace.