NASCAR’s playoffs – which I’m still stubbornly calling the Chase just because I think it’s a better name — are nearly finished, and I’m not feeling so great.
A friend once told me she is unable to enjoy the last day of a vacation because she worries about going back home. This feeling is totally understandable and not all that uncommon. In fact, I’m guilty of exactly the same thing, but it hits me earlier in the week.
Around Day 4 of a week-long trip, I start preparing for the return journey, which I affectionately refer to as “the ordeal.” First, I make sure my important documents, stashed in the hotel safe and locked with a combination that I check and recheck a half dozen times each day, really are safe. Then I do it again; you know, just to be on the “safe” side.
Midway through the week, with plenty of fun still left to be had, I inevitably open my mouth and chirp, “So, where do you want to go next year?” I realize this throws a wet blanket on even the sunniest of days, but I can’t help myself.
I review which items I have worn so far and regretfully pack them away. I know I will enjoy some of them again next year, in a different locale or with another style of shoe, but for now I have to set it all behind me and move on to the next day at the beach, the next night on the town … or the next race. This worry-wart syndrome is by no means exclusive to vacationing fashionistas. Among NASCAR fans, it is a veritable epidemic with no apparent cure.
We wait all season long for the Chase to begin. Endless discussion of points and paint schemes and potential performances of drivers with new teams begins long before the green flag drops on the season-opening Daytona 500 in February. The 10 races that comprise the championship battle manifest themselves as nothing more than a low-grade fever at this point, a slight tickle in the back of the throat. Still, we know we’re definitely coming down with something.
We don’t even try to make ourselves feel better; quite the contrary. Like taking off our shoes and walking barefoot in the rain while in the clutches of the common cold, we actively do anything we can to make it worse.
We watch the races, of course. We speculate about the driver standings from the very first week. If our favorite driver is in the top 12, for example, we know exactly how many points out of first place he is, and how many points separate him from the guy just ahead of him. If he is out, we know how many spots he needs to finish ahead of the guy in 13th in order to claim that position for himself.
In other words, we don’t fight our illness. We figure it’s chronic anyway, so why not just go ahead and embrace it?
Things hold pretty steady through the spring events, but when summer arrives, the symptoms really begin to escalate. Accelerated pulses are commonplace, often accompanied by some slight queasiness at times. Night races can induce night sweats. There have even been some reports of restless leg syndrome, as fans are simply unable to watch an entire race without leaping off the sofa at least twice.
At this point, our condition begins to deteriorate rapidly. Race No. 26 looms. We can see it gleaming in the distance like the Emerald City of Oz. The Chase is near.
We wait so long and experience so much, from feverish highs to sometimes chilling lows, before it finally arrives. Then, everything changes. Instead of looking forward, we begin counting backward, from 10 all the way down to one. There is a nagging sense of dread that accompanies the start of each race. Whether it turns out to be tame or Talladega, its conclusion just moves us inexorably closer to the end of the season. Those final 10 numbers seem to move so much more quickly than the first 26.
All those months of attention, anxiety and anticipation have come down to this: Be careful what you wish for. For months, all we wanted was for the Chase to begin, and now that it has, we never want it to end.
Difficult though it may be, it is critical to our various long-term prognoses that we enjoy each race we have left to the fullest, and try not to worry about what in the world we’re going to do when they’re gone.
How can anything so contagious make a body feel so good? Maybe the only cure for this type of NASCAR fever is another dose of the disease itself. The best interim treatment available is to pop a couple of patience pills after the season-ending race at Homestead, in just one more week, and start counting the days until February 2018.
The comedian Jackie Mason once observed: “It’s no longer a question of staying healthy. It’s a question of finding a sickness you like.”
Call the doctor, stat. I think we have a terminal case on our hands.
Cathy Elliott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.