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I Can Get You to Like... NASCAR

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Kelly_l_2

Kelly_l_2Wow, you’re still reading? I like you! Let’s leave politics and, okay, the environment out of this discussion, and get straight to the reasons why you’ll be highly entertained if you tune into Sunday’s Daytona 500 (Fox, 2 p.m.), the start of the 2007 NASCAR Nextel Cup season.

1. Kelly Clarkson will be there. Kelly (pictured) claims to be a serious race fan, and we hope she is since she’s signed up to be the sport’s unofficial spokeswoman this year. She’ll perform a pre-race concert at Daytona, appear in commercials promoting May 18’s charity-driven “NASCAR Day 2007,” and try to liven up their year-end awards ceremony traditionally held at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria every December. Clarkson, by the way, isn’t the first celeb to take an interest in the sport. Folks like Adam Sandler, Matthew McConaughey, Ashton Kutcher, and of course, Will Ferrell, have been Grand Marshals at races to promote projects. And she won’t be the last: Kevin Costner and his band are set to perform a pre-race concert Feb. 25 at California Speedway. 

2. You won’t just be watching cars going in circles. You’ll actually be watching 43 men drive at about 200 mph — feet or inches apart from one another — for hours. If their concentration slips for a second, you’ll also see “The Big One,” which is what they call the huge, multi-car pile-up that often occurs at this superspeedway. And no, NASCAR fans don’t just watch for the wrecks. We’re waiting to see whose pit crew — the guys trying to change four tires, refuel the car, and make handling adjustments all under 14 seconds — will screw up and cost them the race. Whose crew chief will make a call that ends his driver’s dream of winning the “Great American Race.” And who’s going to work with whom on the track— think back to Days of Thunder, when Tom Cruise used packets of Sweet ‘n’ Low on Nicole Kidman’s leg to explain why two cars running bumper-to-nose go faster than one running by itself. A driver will have to make friends to get to the front of the pack, and then in the final laps, hang his buddy out to dry to take the checkered flag himself. How badly do they want to win this race? Just look at how many teams were caught cheating qualifying for it.

3. Finally, you never know what kind of promotional stunt this sport will pull. As I sit at my computer now, I’m staring at two pictures taped to the screen: one is of two drivers racing full-size Oscar Meyer Wienermobiles at a speedway in Concord, N.C.; the other is of Tony Danza crashing a go-kart while racing then-active NASCAR star Rusty Wallace on his talk show. I don’t even need images of the following, because they’re imprinted on my mind: in 2004, the Top 10 drivers suffered through a fashion show on Regis & Kelly; last year, driver Matt Kenseth set a new Guinness World Record by throwing a large number of pies in Kelly Ripa’s face in under 60 seconds. (Then a few days later, Kelly broke his record by throwing a larger number of pies at Wilmer Valderrama’s mug, but whatever.) I can’t promise you anything as genius as that, but I can tell you that sponsors will be plugged. Wacky commercials will be aired. And Ricky Bobby will be proud.

addCredit(“Kelly Clarkson: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images”)

One tip: If you are considering watching a NASCAR race for the first time, pick a driverto cheer for now. That way, even if you don’t understand what he meanswhen he says his car is tight (it won’t turn) or loose (the rear-endwants to spin out on him), your own competitive streak will keep youinvested. The sport’s most popular driver is Dale Earnhardt Jr., andhe’s always a threat at Daytona, so he’s a safe bet. Also, in a recentinterview with Sports Illustrated, he speaks your language. Or, at least tries to:

SI: The movie character I most identify with is…

Earnhardt: Somebody from [the television series] The Office. The guy who went to work for the other firm… I forget his name. O.K., go with the third Wyatt Earp brother in Tombstone. The young one, the goofy one. That’s me. You know, the guy who gets shot on the pool table.

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