Friday, October 02, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Bailey's not just another race

MARTINSVILLE -- He was driving back from Charlotte to his Christiansburg home about a month ago when it happened.

Chest pains. Bad ones.

Derrick Lancaster had the air conditioner running "wide open," but still he sweated profusely. So he pulled out his cell phone and called his wife, Beth, who is a nurse.

He told her his symptoms.

"Sounds like you're having a heart attack," she warned. "You need to pull over."

Naturally, being a guy, Derrick took the appropriate measures.

"I just kept driving," he said.

And that's how Roanoke's Tony McGuire found himself back in a race car for Sunday's Bailey's 300 at Martinsville Speedway, the nation's premier event for Late Model Stock Car drivers.

The best news is that Lancaster will be driving in it, too. His wife had been right, of course -- the 36-year-old Christiansburg resident had indeed suffered a mild heart attack that day -- but he has since been cleared by his doctor to race. In between the diagnosis and the medical green flag, though, Lancaster created a contingency plan: Put McGuire, one of the top drivers in this event's history, into his car.

Now that Lancaster is clear, he's pulled out an extra car for McGuire.

"I had no plans of participating this year," said McGuire, 42, a two-time winner of the richest Late Model race in the country. "It would be pretty hard to talk me into going somewhere else, but not here. I love this track."

This week, there's a lot to love. Martinsville holds a slew of events that tempt the racing fan's soul: two Sprint Cup races a year, two truck races a year, Modifieds, Limiteds, you name it. But there's always something extra appealing about the Bailey's 300, which gives the everyman, Saturday-night leadfoot a shot at big money.

Sunday's winner will take home $25,000. The race's total purse approaches 100 grand. That's chump change for Kyle Busch or Jeff Gordon, but it means everything to this group.

For these guys, the regular season is important, but success in this race is the ultimate goal.

"Everybody talks about the Bailey's 300 all year round," Lancaster said. "Everybody wants to know who's going to Martinsville."

At last week's testing session, crew chiefs crunched numbers in overalls and jeans -- many while smoking a cigarette. FOX Sprint Cup analyst Larry McReynolds' 18-year-old son, Brandon, was just a few garage stalls down from Philip Morris, who's won three national titles in Late Models. Some guys had multiple sets of tires for testing. Others ran on the same four all day long.

You think the Cup guys are too sterilized? You want old-school racing?

Well, here it is.

McGuire knows. He's been racing Late Models since the days before he had a driver's license, peaking with victories in this event in 1994 and 2004. But it's been more than a year since he's been behind the wheel. He spent last season helping his 13-year-old nephew, Michael, with his racing efforts in North Carolina and Virginia.

After Lancaster's EKG revealed he'd had a heart attack, he made two phone calls: One to schedule a cardiac catheterization at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, the other to invite McGuire to drive in his stable

"He's really, really impressed us," said Lancaster, reeling off the quick times of some of McGuire's practice laps. "We feel like maybe he's a good shoo-in for the pole."

The heart cath also yielded positive results.

"The doctor said everything looks good, all my arteries look good," said Lancaster, a business owner and father of two daughters, with a third child due in March. "He said I just need to slow down on my stress, not let things get to me too much."

Saturday will be a stressful day for all these Late Model drivers. Roughly 100 cars are set to qualify, and only 22 will lock up spots by time. The rest must fight their way in through Sunday's heat races run before the main event.

"My whole goal is just to get in the race," McGuire said. "We don't want to be involved in those [heat races], because you've got about a 15 percent chance of making it out of those 'derbies,' as I call 'em. The whole goal has to be to get your car in the top 20 on time."

This will be Lancaster's fourth attempt at making the Bailey's 300 field. He finished eighth in the points this summer at Motor Mile Speedway despite missing the final race with his health issues.

"We know we've got good equipment," he said. "I just haven't had any luck this year, and we're going to do something to change that."

Step 1? Listen to the wife next time.

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