Who’s got NASCAR’s Golden Horseshoe?


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As the belief goes, if you find a horseshoe pointing up, it will catch and hold good luck for you. A horseshoe pointing up never lets its good luck run out. That’s why you see ’em nailed up over doorways. (The word “opportunity” is derived from port or portus, “entrance,” and “passage through.”)

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Anyone who’s been around for a while that if the front door is locked, there’s usually a workaround, a rear entrance that’s been left unlocked for a lucky suitor who comes catting around in the middle of the night. Every lover who gambles that love is out there tonight somewhere believes there’s a golden horseshoe nailed to that back door. By such logic, Don Juan must have had a seen a golden horseshoe every time a maid bent over to retrieve a scented hankie from the stable floor.

Luck to the Romans was divine, the blessing or curse of the goddess Fortuna. Drier, more contemporary sages like the atheist Daniel Dennett believe that “luck is mere luck,” the chance opportunity of striking the only gold vein in Texas no different from the crossing of the Earth’s path by some random big meteor, extinguishing life as we know it except at the bottom of the ocean. “Shallow men believe in luck,” Emerson wrote, “believe in circumstances. Real men believe in cause and effect.”

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When cars race each other at speed of more than 200 miles per hour, when the difference between spinning out and squeezing through an opening no one else can see is no wider than a pit babe’s maidenhair, luck is something every Sprint Cup driver knows and fears and carries on a secret affair with.

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Ask Wynona, NASCAR’s goddess of luck, is a tireless turner of golden horseshoes into leaden ones with a flip of her invisible 38”-hips (or a graze of her 38DD nips).

For all the great driving, great teams and great cars out there this year, hardly anyone has run away to victory in any of the races so far this year. Luck is the x-factor in NASCAR which, at some time or other during a race, destines how a driver finishes (or doesn’t) a race. It’s all been lucky or lousy breaks.

Problem is, no amount of corporate money or field-leveling by NASCAR or superstitious preparations by drivers can properly woo Wynona in any reliable way. Luck is fickle and capricious and moody.

Luck is about as reliable as a ticking gift-wrapped package with a gold bow on it on April Fool’s Day.

It’s also what makes racin’ so damn exciting. Will she smile at that back door at 3 a.m. and invite me in to play? Or will she snarl and slam the door? Only Wynona knows fer sure.

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It was very lucky for Jamie McMurray that there was a second green-white-finish attempt in the Daytona 500. McMurray led for only 2 laps at the Daytona 500, but they were the last two, just edging by leader Kevin Harvick and holding off a charge by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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Sometimes Wynona’s furry Wheel spins all the way around in a single race for a driver. In that same race, Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet was apparently the only unlucky car to hit the pothole that tore open early in the race, causing him to go flat. But it was lucky for JJ that it happened just as before a yellow flag was thrown, so he got back into the field with decent position. Unlucky though that hitting the pothole may have contributed to an axle break some 100 laps later, causing JJ to retire from the race and end up with a 38th-place finish. Sometimes a ride with Wynona is like a roller coaster in complete darkness; she’s laughing and howling, is naked but the long curved fingernails she so carefully tends are sharp as nails.

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Lots of lucky winners at the Daytona 500 are doomed to later mediocrity. Ryan Newman won the Daytona 500 in 2008 and hasn’t won a race since. Matt Kenseth was the lucky guy out in front during the ’09 Daytona 500 when the leaders all went in to pit when Wynona’s heavenly skirts parted and heavy rain began to fall. Kenseth looked like he was on invincible roll when he won the next week at Fontana but it was just a two-night-stand with Wynona and he hasn’t won since, missing the Chase last year in 14th place. Kevin Harvick won the 2007 Daytona 500 and the best he’s been able to do since is wins at the Bud Shootout in ’09 and ’10. This year Harvick has been an especially hard-charger (fortis fortuna adiuvat, “Fortune favors the brave”) – unbeaten in every truck he’s raced and except for unlucky breaks at Martinsville (yes, the breaks which slow down a car, not roll snake eyes on the craps table) but despite his balls and smokin’-hot Chevrolet, Victory’s black-velvet panties have always sashayed away just outside his grasp.

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Last time Harvick won a Sprint Cup race was the ’07 Daytona 500 – by a hair.

Many credit the demise of track attendance around the country to all of the shitty treatment by Wynona of NASCAR’s favorite son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2009 was an especially dismal year for Junior as he fought with crew chief and cousin Tony Eury Jr. over the unmanageability of his car (Eury was replaced after the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May) and then a string of slamming barn doors astonishing in both consistency and awfulness – engine failures, tire troubles, wrecks, a lost lug nut on a pit stop. All of it combined to a 25-place finish on the season, the worst of Dale Jr’s career. As much a folks want to see Dale Jr. win, he seems the most star-crossed (that’s with snake-eyes) of the drivers out there. (When I was at the Bud Shootout in February, the No. 88 met with as many boos as faltering cheers as he roared past, truly a sea-change in the fickle attitudes of fans.) Is he paying for the Intimidator’s sins, fate become the son’s Eliminator? And are fans staying away from races because no one wants to see the hero become Wynona’s fool?

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Lots of debate on just how lucky Jimmie Johnson is. After JJ managed to edge out Kevin Harvick to take the win in Las Vegas (Harvick unluckily bumped the wall just as he was about to pass JJ in the final laps), Harvick famously said, “They’re really good, but they’re really, really lucky, too … They have a golden horseshoe stuck up their ass.” “You don’t get lucky in winning four championships and 48 races,” Johnson later replied. “I’ve had plenty of races go the other way. This stuff happens [winning on a fortunate moment] because we have a good race team. And I drove my butt off today.”

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Kurt Busch led most of the Bristol race and looked to have it sewed up — but he managed to get behind Matt Kenseth on a late restart and Kenseth unluckily spun his tires, allowing Tony Stewart and then Jimmie Johnson space to squeeze into the lead. Johnson, who fortunately got four tires on the last pit, easily outran Stewart for the wind.

People point beyond Johnson to his crew chief Chad Knaus, the reputed Darth Vader of crew chiefs, as the man responsible for all of Johnson’s wins. Or they point to the overwhelming money and muscle of Hendrick Motorsports. If Johnson gets any credit, people say he’s a great closer, the best around; Johnson rarely wins by any great margin but always manages to find an opening at a crucial moment and finds a way to win – 50 times now, for four straight Sprint Cup championships.

Some say Johnson’s just the luckiest damn driver around. But as every gambler knows, the house always wins; there is no way to marry good luck; that ain’t Wynona’s game. She’s the bad girl on the other side of the tracks who promises golden nights in singular spurts. She don’t settle down, not with so many eager young men knocking at her back door for a go.

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In Johnson’s case, the saying “luck favors the prepared” may be truest. The best-equipped, most conscious, most attentive and communicative driver will race the middle, away from the hellbent edges where you find the Kyles and Keselowskis, talking all the while with Knaus, preparing for the next pit adjustments, tuning a car that is readiest at race’s end to find that golden door of opportunity and storm it before anyone else can.

The Greek term for “opportunity” is kairos, a “penetrable opening.” According to Onians, “To get past fortifications, armour, bones, the early Greek archer practiced by aiming at an opening or series of openings.” Also the idea of “opening” comes from the usage of the word kairos in weaving; there is a moment when the pattern is either drawn tighter or broken through. The weaver shoots his spool or shuttle through the opening in the warp-threads at a critical time, that singular moment when opportunity exists.” (See James Hillman, “Notes on Opportunism”).

If Harvick is a berserker, Johnson is a patient archer, spending most of the race making sure his bowsting is waxed and tighter ‘n’ a virgin preacher’s daughter’s brastraps, all the arrows in his quiver ready to leap into his hands as he makes his move. Of all the Sprint Cup drivers active today, Jimmie Johnson seems to be most able to see Wynona’s panties in the wild billowing skirts of late-race action: and when he does, he makes his move.

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Sometimes Wynona is alternately swallowing and spitting her favors so fast that a race takes on the face of something moulded in gold and lead. (Cupid’s arrows were tipped that way, either igniting the loins of some poor citizen with the flames of waywarding lust or causing them to fleeing from the perfect suitor in disgust.) Jeff Burton should have won Martinsville last weekend – he lead for most of the latter stages of the race with a Chevrolet no one could get around — but suffered a flat tire at the race’s end. Jeff Gordon got the lead position after what looked like very dumb pit strategy by new leader Denny Hamlin and surging teammate Kyle Busch, who both went in for two tires while everyone stayed out. On the restart Gordon lead Ryan Newman and looked to have the win, making it to the white flag, but another caution came out some hundred yards short of the flag. Another restart and Matt Kenseth’s Ford tangled a bit with Gordon’s Chevrolet (Kenseth spun out) and Denny Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Toyota squeezed through like Lucky Sperm Cell #2,302,021 and raced for the win. Gordon got a lucky break it seemed from the Hamlin/Busch pit only to watch his chances squandered by Kenseth’s failed opportunity, Gordon’s fate snarled up in the No. 17 Ford. Hamlin, who had been suffering from a fluke knee injury playing a pickup game of basketball last January, had suffered middling races until last Monday; then he suffered a day’s delay in his knee surgery to become the luckiest dog of all at Martinsville. Wynona, you’re something else.

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The Martinsville race was a Wynona shoot-em-up, with fortune tumbling every which way for Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin, who overcame bum luck on the basketball field and early races to find his opening and gun for the checkered flag.

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So far this year, driver who should be doing better than they have performed seem to be under the ill favor of Wynona. Among these I include Kurt Busch (a former champ who’s ended up chump change for current and perhaps future champ Jimmie Johnson); also-champ / also-rans Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart; and uncrowned shoulda-been-contendahs Juan Carlos Montoya, Kyle Busch (remember just two years ago when Wynona was riding high on Kyle’s gearshift?), Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards (remember him?) Kasey Kahne and Mark Martin. So far.

Of course, what someone calls luck – especially bad luck – is frequently something far different. I used to think I was a nice guy with lousy luck and a drinking problem; turns out I was just a selfish drunk. It’s easy to blame bad luck for one’s troubles, but usually trouble starts from within – resentments, itches, too many switchins at too young an age, who knows – but if you’re gonna sit on the sidelines mooning about your bad luck, you will certainly be doomed to exist under its baleful aura.

Alternately, the surprising lucky dog of this fledgling season is Paul Menard, currently 11th in the points standings. Driver of that fluorescent-piss No. 98 George Gillett Ford, Menard has previously been a cellar-dweller in the ranks finishing 31st in ’09, 26th in ’08, 34th in 07 and 45th in ’06. What did this boy do to to come so far? Fit a French tickler over his pickle? Something. But the season’s early, and there are always streaks which end up looking like skidmarks in Wynona’s BVDs. We’ll see.

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As I said before, there’s a tension in NASCAR racing between what is within human control (driver / crew / crew chief skills, quality of car, etc.) and what is not (Wynona). To give too much credit to either is almost automatically invoke the worst of consequences. It makes me think of James Bond, the dude who last Fortuna’s happiest stud, managing, in one night, to beat the house, get the girl, win the race and save the world from destruction in a weave of sleights and feints and leaps which would put any real person with ordinary human talents to shame. Bond’s as mythic as Hercules in the House of Hades, taking on every comer, smart as Theseus in the Labyrinth or Odysseus conniving against Circe.

All of these figures, mythic heroes all, have mojo they got from elsewhere. Brawn and smarts of their caliber came from the gods. So too their shields and weapons, forged in the smithy of a misshapen dweeb. Q is James Bond’s armorer, ever supplying our hero with devices – pens which blow darts, attaché cases armed with knives and gold coins, an Astin Martin which has fires missiles and machine guns and goes real fast, too. Yet while all those technological innovations give Bond an upper hand in his eventual assault on the castle of his next archenemy, Wynona fends off bullets and harpoons and fire-breathing tanks where technology usually fails. Between Q and Wynona, Bond is unbeatable.

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Q instructs Bond on how to operate a portable assault helicopter in “You Only LIve Twice.”

Two historic crashes in NASCAR make the distinction clear. When Dale Earnhardt crashed the No. 3 Chevrolet on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the wreck seemed insignificant; yet the No. 3 Chevrolet hit the wall at 160 mph at the singular precise angle which killed Earnhardt instantly, who was not wearing seat restraints at the time. Unlucky driver, unlucky machine.

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A tale of two crashes: Dale Earnhardt (2001) and Carl Edwards (2009). Good luck — and a safer car — enabled Edwards alone to walk away.

Fast forward to the spring 2009 Talladega race, where Carl Edwards, racing for the win on the final lap, tried to block charging Brad Keselowski and hit the right front corner panel of Keselowski’s car. It caused the No. 99 Ford to spin and then go airborne, flying into the catchfence and shattering at the impact, careening back down to the track and coming to rest in a pile of parts. Much had changed in the cars being driven by Sprint Cup drivers since Earnhardt’s death, and all of the safety measures implemented allowed Edwards to miraculously emerge unhurt—and run to the finish line.

Lucky driver, lucky machine. Edwards could have cleared the catchfence, and then who knows what kind of carnage could have resulted. But Wynona deigned to spin Edwards’ car only so high and then send him back to earth, where Q took care of the rest.

When you think of the trio of Wynona, Bond and Q, which driver comes best into mind: Someone like Kurt Busch, who ripped crew chief Steve Addington at Martinsville for failing to bring him into the pits at a crucial juncture? Or the guy who keeps winning all of the championships?

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Wynona, the NASCAR Goddess of Fortune, is one hot and fickle lady; she deals it out how she sees ’em — a view which is inscrutable to ordinary mortals like me as well as $30-million-dollar-a-year franchise racers. (Monte Dutton usually picks a winner in his Pre-Race rails over at NASCAR This Week, yet despite the fact that he’s one of the most experienced motorsports reporter around, I can’t remember the last time he was right.)

Drivers are a superstitious lot; they know how much Wynona plays in their eventual fortunes (or lack of them) to hedge all of their bets. Why do you think that so many of them trot out such jaw-droppingly beautiful wives and girlfriends to the races? Why else? They’re good luck charms, rubbed every which way both the night before and just prior to getting into their cars on race day as an appeal to Wynona.

Superstitions are attempts to steer luck one’s way, as well as ward off bad luck. One such superstition among drivers is the ban on all talk of trophies – you never mention it until it’s in your hands. Lest you invoke the wrath of Wynona.

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Wynona, pissed.

Individual drivers have unique superstitions, separate deals with Wynona. If Davey Allison watched a movie on Friday night and then won the race on Sunday, he’d watch the same movie every Friday night until he didn’t win. A sick 6-year-old girl gave Dale Earnhart a penny, which he glued to his dashboard as he went on to win first Daytona 500. David Reutimann always puts his gloves on the same way — left hand first, and hi 6-year-old daughter tapes his heat shields if she’s at the track. David Ragan picks up pennies off the ground and puts them in his left shoe because his dad does that.

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Other drivers have superstitions to ward off bad luck. J.J. Yeley made sure black cats never cross his path; when he saw one, he drove the other way. $50-dollar bills for some reason are synonymous with bad luck. Humpy Wheeler signed and gave one to Dale Earnhardt Jr. before qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600; Earnhardt rejected the bill and went on to qualify sixth. Kyle Busch didn’t take the bill and made sure nobody on his crew did, either, and won the pole in the race.

Perhaps this hearkens back to the whiskey-running nights of NASCAR’s roots, where runners in jacked-up ’39 Fords rubbed a rabbit’s paw swinging from their rear-view mirror as they raced up and down and round moony Appalachian roads, chased by stern black cruisers. Hot car and consummate skill were less than half of the equation back then, and drivers knew it. They got through because Wynona (or Tammie back then) sang them through on their car radios.

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If Wynona loves a racer, he can do no wrong. She hovers over the fortunate as they race like a Faith Hill, angelically opening ways through the press of roaring metal, turning the wheel just right or left to avoid catastrophe. And for the unlucky she reveals her other side, standing in their way Gretchen Wilson all jacked up for a butt-kickin’, legs wide, hands on her hips, her eyes glowering through the darkness out back of trashiest redneck roadhouse beyond the last lights of town.

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Who can woo Wynona? I doubt anyone can, never enough to any racer’s satisfaction. Because no matter what anyone says, it’s her race. She picks her winners. Maybe she’s do the nasty with Jimmie in Phoenix, or maybe she’ll jump in someone else’s car. Luck’s bound to change for Kyle Busch, for Carl Edwards, for Mark Martin.

The rest of the boys are right now performing their ablutions to her, stroking these soft curved rabbit’s feet, whether it hangs from their rear view mirror or is tucked inside the panties of their fantastically beautiful loves.

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We have no way of knowing which way Wynona will turn her wheel at Phoenix. I suspect Jimmie will make good run for the championship, combining better-than-average favoritism from Wynona with Hendricks Motorsports class. But she’s a moody dame. Someone else just may find a miraculous opening on the final restart and squirt into the lead like a watermelon seed spat from Wynona’s eternally pouty mouth. I mean, she is what makes racin’ such a thrill.

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I consider myself to be a lucky guy, even though my life has not turned out in any distinguished way. I didn’t become a rock star or a scholar or a famous writer or get rich selling all the soaps I’ve been handed. My happiness derives, I believe, not from getting what I wanted (and o how I’ve wanted the depth and breadth of Wynona’s musky wiles), but in wanting what I have. Maybe age burnishes away enough of the rough spots. I’m 52 and healthy enough where I lost a brother to a heart attack at age 44 and several colleagues my age who have died of cancer in the past year. My wife and I both have nephews in coffins six feet under, permanently 23 and 19; both made unlucky moves on the road trying to chase Wynona down. I feel really lucky when I think of all the nights I drove dead drunk all those nights all those years ago, looking for Wynona’s moon-drenched Airstream trailer in the middle of the dead-of-night woods. I’ve been married for 14 years to a woman who seems to accept me wholeheartedly (at last), despite all of my faults. She married a man who was half-grown and overextended on credit; both caused us a lot of misery early on – and they still can – but we endure.

Enduring seems lucky these days, don’t you think? When you consider. Our mortgage is underwater and my job is shadowed with extinction, but today it’s truly Spring in Florida, bright and clear and warm and scented with orange blossoms. Who needs Viagra when you have a day like this? I’ve enjoyed this writing – back when I wrote poetry, I called a good effort my daily vowel movement – and though I cdon’t claim to understand Wynona an inch deeper than how far I penetrated her mysteries in this assay, I sure appreciate her more. Wynona is like the full moon over the garden early this morning, beautiful and troublesome, her blue lights something I hope science will learn to magnify rather than repeal.

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All that said, I know, too, that everything can change with a snap of Wynona’s fingers (or was that her black garter?) – hell, after the next word I write here. The phone can ring and it’s the boss, needing to talk. Or it’s my wife, sighing how she’s had enough and is leaving me for the man she’s been seeing for years now. Or the phone will strike in the middle of the night and it’s one of our parents, or, please no God, one of the nieces. A bus could careen through the window next to my desk which overlooks Virginia Avenue. I’ll could have a sudden stroke and be silenced forever hence.

Yes, right now I’m a lucky, lucky guy. Age and humility may allow me to make these statements most stridently. Is that why Jimmie Johnson, the most average kind of guy you’ll ever meet in premier-league sports, so damn consistently lucky? All ya have to do is take on that Alfred E. Newman, “What, me worry?” visage and golden showers shoot from heaven. (Yikes.)

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What, me worry? Here in Florida?

Of course, I’m not driving 200 miles per hour in a pack of 30 cars. My vantage may make my take completely moot.

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Today is 2010 National Census Day; when we fill out the current census form (and I hope you have), we declare just who is living at our address on April 1, 2010. Odd, don’t you think, that it’s also April Fool’s Day? Just who is there at the door when we, the Census Taker, knocks at the front door of that battered silver Airstream trailer just outside the last streets of town? If there’s no answer, do we dare go round the back door to knock again?

And what is that golden horseshoe doing above Wynona’s back door?

Is it a gift? Or a trick?

Or both?

Who cares? I’m in! Let me in!

Please!

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