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"Hey, Trent, you're on TV ."
Trent Matheson didn't look up from his laptop computer. "Am I with a blonde?"
He didn't know how the media managed to get so many different shots of him with so many different blondes. At the very least, it seemed like discrimination against brunettes. Trent had dated a brunette a couple of months back, he was certain. Almost certain.
The regular sounds of Matheson Racing's race car prep- arationthe clang of metal on metal, the hiss of the air guns, the whine of the welding torchceased as everyone except Trent looked up at the TV. Then Rod Sutton, Trent's crew chief, said, "She's blond, for sure. But not your kind of blond ."
Trent hit the Send button that would transmit his e-mail newsletter to thousands of NASCAR fans all over America, then checked out the TV high on the wall at the far end of the workshop. The sound was off, but sure enough there he was, his face blown up large behind the woman. Like Rod said, she was blond. Pretty, but awkward-looking. The on-screen caption read Kelly Greenwood, Sport Psychology Consultant.
"Not another one," he muttered. Another expert with an opinion on what made Trent Matheson a winner. He shook his headhe'd rather spend his time answering the dozens of fan e-mails that had come in today than listen to what other people said about him. Then a picture of Danny Cruise flashed up on the screen alongside Trent's face. Cruise was his number-one rival for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series.
"Turn up the sound, will you?" Trent called to Rod. When the volume came up, the camera had panned back to show the TV network's traveling prerace studio. KellyGreenwood was one of four guests being interviewed by host Chris Spires. Trent recognized the other three: a regular race analyst, a former Cup champion who wasn't racing this year and a retired crew chief. All male.
"Okay, folks, let's have your picks," Chris Spires said.
"Trent Matheson won last week's NASCAR race here in Charlottecan he do it again this Sunday?"
The analyst spoke up first. "Cruise is good, but I'm picking Trent Matheson ."
"Matheson, without a doubt," the retired driver agreed.
A cheer went up around the Matheson Racing workshop. Trent flashed a grin to his team. "Smart guys, huh?"
The ex-crew chief took a little longer to make up his mind. He sounded reluctant when he said, "It'll go down to the wire, but Matheson will win it ."
A grumble ran around the workshop, but Trent waved it away with good humor. He knew the ex-chief's reluctance stemmed from the fact that Trent had dated his daughter, then ended it when she refused to accept what he'd told her all along, that he wasn't after a serious relationship. The old guy just plain didn't like him. But he couldn't deny Trent was the standout driver in this year's field.
"What about you, Kelly?" Chris Spires turned a smile on the blonde.
For a bare second, she froze. Then her tongue came out to moisten her lips, and she cleared her throat. She lifted a hand to push a stray strand of hair behind her ear, but her watch tangled in the cord of the microphone clipped to her shirt. There was a brief, inelegant tussle that had the guys in the to the TV and hit the off button before she could sentence. He turned to the assembled company. "What say we invite her to join me in Victory Lane after I win tomorrow?"
There was a chorus of support from every corner except the one that mattered. Chad Matheson, who sometimes forgot he'd been Trent's older brother for thirty-one years and his boss for just five, was rubbing his chin as if he actually lent some credence to the garbage that woman had spouted. Chad said, "She's right, you did crash out twice in a row ."
"Eight million Americans could have told you that," Trent snapped. Thanks for the vote of confidence, bro.
"You did that last season," Chad said. "You won two, lost two, won two, lost two ."
Deliberately, Trent stayed where he was, next to the life- size poster of himself pinned to the wall below the TV set. They'd sold thousands of those posters when Trent won the NASCAR Busch Series. he'd autographed so many, he'd practically gotten carpal tunnel syndrome. "I finished top- three the next five after that, and I won the Busch series. For the second time," he reminded his brother. He knew what Chad would say to that.
"The Cup is different ."
Chad continued, "There's more pressure, you don't have the same experience in the series ."
So what if Trent had been the highest-performing rookie in the history of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series on his debut two years ago? So what if last year he'd set the fastest lap time more often than any other driver and had finished fifth in the series, leaving everyone to predict another quantum leap in his performance this season? Chad wouldn't be confident of victory until he was standing next to Trent in Victory Lane, helping hold up that coveted sterling silver trophy.
"I'm ready for this," Trent told his brother. The two men locked glares for several long seconds. Chad looked away first, and it was as if a spell had been broken, freeing the crew to return to their work of setting up the Number 186 car for Sunday's race.
Trent let a confident swagger into his walk as he did the rounds of the workshop, checking on the cars, cracking jokes and giving the guys the encouragement that helped bond them into an unbeatable team.
He planned to win on Sunday. No sport psychologist was going to tell him otherwise.
KELLY GREENWOOD popped the top of her soda and set the can down on the coffee table. She sank into the comfort of her leather couch. What more could a girl want than a Sunday spent watching the most exciting motor racing in the world? Even better, it counted as work.
She switched on the TV just as the NASCAR theme music played. Along with the 170,000-odd people at the track, she closed her eyes for the invocation, then sang along to the national anthem.And when the grand marshal said those time- honored words, "Gentlemen, start your engines," she felt the familiar lurch in the pit of her stomach. Who needed to go to the race, when watching it at home was as good as being there?
Who am I kidding? She'd have loved to be at the race track, rather than sitting here in the condo she'd rented for the duration of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series. But insulting Char- lotte's favorite homegrown race driver had made her Public Enemy Number One. Who knew Trent Matheson had so many fans?And who knew one little TV interview would make Kelly instantly recognizable to the complete strangers who'd up- braided her this morning at the mall, at the park, even in church?
Turning up at today's race might start a riot. She should never have been so rash as to predict Trent Matheson wouldn't go more than half of today's four hundred laps.
I'm a psychologist, not a psychic.
Kelly huffed out an anxious breath that lifted the bangs off her forehead. Maybe she'd gone too far. But Suze, her friend who was a production assistant on the network's NASCAR show, had warned her to make the most of this opportunity to stand in for Don Carson, motor racing's foremost sport psy- chologist, after he had a minor car accident.
"Don't say 'uh." Don't fiddle with your hair. Smile. Talk in sound bites." Suze had fired instructions at Kelly as an as- sistant applied makeup that felt heavier than normal, but would apparently come out okay on TV. "Whatever you do, don't go along with everyone elsesay something different ."
Which sounded fine, until Kelly heard who the other guests were.
"Those guys have a combined experience of about a thousand years in NASCAR," she said, horrified. How could she, a longtime fan but with zero professional involvement, contradict them?
When they all picked Trent Matheson to win, that's exactly what she had to do. If a snappy sound bite would help estab- lish her as a sport psychology consultant in NASCARwell, she wasn't about to blow it. She'd been knocking on the doors of the top racing teams for months, getting only dumb jokes about shrinks and offers of driver autographs for her trouble. No use at all to a woman who had to resurrect her career before her family discovered just how badly she'd failed.
She'd done what she had to.
Trent Matheson is a casualty of my ambition. Kelly chewed on the thought then spat it out. Matheson was the poster boy of this year's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series. Never without a pretty blond girl, always with a charming smile on his lips maybe he'd spent a fortune on dentistry and didn't want to waste the resultsMatheson had the ego of a champion.
And the brain of awell, put it this way: Trent Matheson wasn't the sharpest tool in the box.
She could tell from the way he gave long consideration to the most inane of the journalists' questions, always delivering his eventual answer in a drawl punctuated by "uh's" and "huh's ."
Kelly's comment would have slid off him like a race car off a wet track.
She watched as the cars circled the track in their starting order. In any case, she was probably about to be proved com- pletely wrong. Matheson was starting this race in pole position, thanks to an outstanding performance in Friday's qualifying, and he had a record of being hard to catch off the pole.
Kelly winced as they showed once more that clip of her saying "not a chance" and predicting Trent wouldn't last two hundred laps. Couldn't they just start the darned race?
Suze had assured her after the interview that it didn't matter if she was wrong. Viewers had been phoning and e-mailing the station, some to agree with her, more to disagree. "We love that," Suze said. "I'm certain you'll be invited back ."
"Which means," Kelly told herself aloud now, "it's fine by me if Trent Matheson runs all four hundred laps without a problem." But if something goes wrongnothing that might hurt him, just a moment's inattention that lets fifteen cars get past himthen they'll see I know my stuff. The stray thought shocked her, and she turned up the volume on her TV to drown its seductive clamor.
TRENT GOT AHEAD of his front-row rival within a quarter lap of the fall of the green flag. He didn't for one second relax the grip of his gloved hands on the steering wheel, but he was aware of an easing in his gut, and the message being transmit- ted to his brain that now he could move into race modethe space in his head where he was focused on nothing but the win.
Today, he had trouble finding that space. Thanks to that TV shrink and her dire predictions. Also, Chad had been wound up before the startTrent wasn't the only one with something to prove to Dadand that had translated to Trent. He blew out a breath and relaxed the jaw he'd clenched. Tense didn't win races. He won by going into his zone. A zone where the comments of people like Kelly Greenwood were no more than a meaningless buzz.
Damn, he still couldn't get there. By predicting he'd fall out by lap two hundred she'd made him too aware of every- thing going on around him.
"Number 53 behind." Trent's spotter conveyed the infor- mation through his radio that NASCAR ace Tony Stevens had worked his way up from fifth on the starting grid to run second behind Trent. And it was only lap six.
"Got it." You didn't beat a guy like Stevens when you were distracted by some woman and her kooky crystal ball. Trent tried again to get into the zone, and this time, he found it. His breathing evened out as everything else disappeared, leaving nothing but the car, two straightaways, four turns and six hundred miles of pavement to conquer.
TONY STEVENS passed him on lap 143, two laps out of Trent's third pit stop. Trent didn't let it faze him, he kept in the zone, and on lap 150 he stole the pass on Stevens. Once again, he was out in front.
"Clear," the spotter told him.
"So there, Kelly Greenwood." A chuckle over the radio told him he'd said that out loud.
On 180, Stevens got past him again, and a lap later so did Danny Cruise.
"you're too slow," Chad said over the radio.
Chad would hit the roof if Trent told him that was delib- erate. But with the Greenwood woman predicting his downfall about now, it didn't hurt to get through these midrace laps without taking too many risksmuch as that went against Trent's instincts. "I'll catch them," Trent said. "And we're faster in the pits ." He reckoned Stevens was maybe three seconds ahead of him, Cruise about one point two.
Lap two hundred. he'd done it!
Right away, a burden heavier than Trent knew he'd been carrying lifted. He began to close on Cruise, aiming at the narrow gap between the other driver and the wall that ran around the top of the track.
"Hold fire." Chad warned him to wait for a bigger gap. Trent's brother was conservative like that. he'd raced the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series for a few years, but he'd never had the instinct for taking those risks that made the dif- ference between winning big and being an also-ran.
"I could drive a semitrailer through that gap," Trent told Chad. He squeezed through, catching a rude gesture from the other driver out of the corner of his eye. "So long, sucker ."
But before the spotter could tell him he was clear, the back of Trent's car clipped the wall. He shot across the pavement, mercifully in front of the car he'd just passed rather than over the top of it. Trent fought to get his car under control at 180 miles an hour.
He almost made it.
Then the rookie in the Number 63 car, running around the bottom in lapped traffic, saw Trent's semicontrolled slide across the track and panicked. He spun with a squeal of tires that Trent could hear over the noise of his own engine. Trent managed to steer away from him, but the car he'd just passed crunched into his back bumper, pushed him back into the rookie and the two cars spun onto the infield.
KELLY SPURTED her soda halfway across the room. Trent Matheson had clipped the wall, gotten tangled up with a rookie and was out of the race.
On lap 201.
She was still coughing and blowing soda out of her nose when the phone rang. It was Suze, ecstatic with the news that the network's NASCAR commentator, Mick Jay, wanted to interview Kelly right now, live on the phone.