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"C'MON, HUGO. I FINISHED fifth not thirty-fifth. A top-five finish at Daytona. The Great American Race." Justin Murphy gave his uncle a feigned clip on the shoulder. "Lighten up. You're acting like I went out there and screwed up the car." The first race of the season had ended two hours earlier but the celebrating inside the Turn-Rite Tools corporate suite was still going strong. Twenty-five or thirty people filled the smallish space, eating, drinking and crowding around Justin and his uncleand crew chiefHugo Murphy. "Everyone here's fine with my finish."
"Yeah, well, Dixon Rogers isn't and he still calls the shots at Fulcrum Racing, don't forget. Do you think these suits from Turn-Rite won't ditch you in a heartbeat if Dixon lets it be known he's 'looking to go in a new direction' for next season? Or the other way around. The sponsor didn't drop fifteen million dollars in the kitty not to get their chance at the championship."
Of course he'd thought of that. What driver didn't worry about what his team owner was thinkingor his sponsors, big and small. But hell, he'd run a good race, except for that one blown call, and who could blame him for taking off after Kent Grosso that way? Wasn't he put on this earth to outdrive the Grossos, father and son, and avenge his family's honor? "Justin, we need another shot of you with our employee of the year." Diane Meeks, his publicity rep from Motor-sports Media GroupMMGelbowed her way through the well-fed and tipsy gaggle of Turn-Rite executives, towing a slightly bewildered-looking man and his young family in her wake.
"Sure," he said, raising his hand to the bill of his orange-and-brown Turn-Rite Tools ballcap to make sure the logo was properly positioned. He smiled and held out his hand to Nick Harris, a guy who appeared to be not much older than he was, a couple years past thirty, maybe, with a pretty wife, two cute kids and another on the way. But inside, Justin wasn't smiling. He'd blown it. He'd been running good the whole race. The car's setup was excellent. The pit crew had been smokingand he'd let it slip through his fingers just to beat Kent Grosso off pit road.
"Thanks, Justin," the plump, fortysomething PR rep said as the photographer positioned the award winner and his family next to him.
"Glad to oblige," he responded, shifting into sponsor-stroking mode as quickly as he shifted gears on his race car. He flashed Diane his trademark killer smile and she flushed slightly. Not so much because of his unequaled sex appeal; she seemed immune to his charm. But because he knew she was lined up right behind Hugo to rip him a new one for letting himself get carried away chasing down Kent Grosso, when he should have been protecting his chances of a second-place finish.
Now he'd gone and done the right thing in the PR department, so she'd have to hold her tongue for the time being. Diane was a good rep and she never strayed far from her objective, which was marketing one Justin Troy Murphy as a driver with the potential to be one of NASCAR's greatest. Her biggest problem was that Justin usually failed, if just by a car length, to live up to the hype.
He gave her a two-fingered salute and a wink that told her he knew exactly what she was thinking, then bent to autograph the back of Nick Swan's oldest kid's T-shirt. He was a good driver. But good wasn't enough any more; sponsors didn't pay millions of dollars to back a driver who never made it to Victory Lane. A top-five finish at Daytona was cause for celebration certainlywitness the crowd around himbut it wasn't the same as being in Victory Lane. That's what Turn-Rite Tools was paying the big bucks to see happen.
"You managed to finish fifth," Hugo growled under his breath when they were momentarily left alone in front of the decimated buffet table, not letting Justin off the hook as easily as Diane had. "Because you coasted over the finish line just ahead of the pack.You ran out of gas because you pulled out early just to beat Kent Grosso out of the pits."
"I wasn't going to let the SOB get out ahead of meHey, what's up, buddy?" Justin interrupted himself as the Harris kid came running up once more.
"Can I have your autograph, too?" the boy asked giving Justin a grin but holding out his fine-tipped permanent marker to Hugo. "Right there on the back beside Justin's." He spun around, presenting his back to Hugo, looking over his shoulder. "Please? My dad said you're the best crew chief in NASCAR. That's why we're sponsoring your team."
"I'm mighty proud to hear that," Hugo said, no trace of the anger that Justin sensed simmering below the surface evident on his uncle's weathered countenance. He signed the back of the boy's T-shirt, then shook hands with the father who had come hurrying up to make sure his son wasn't out of bounds.
"Good racing," Harris said as he shook hands with Justin one more time, then put his arm around his son's shoulder and wandered away. Justin watched them go. He had never walked arm and arm with his father. Troy Murphy had died before Justin was old enough to remember him, and even though he was a grown man now, a small part of him still felt the loss.
The marketing V.P. who was hosting the celebration announced last call. He wanted everyone out bright and early for the filming of Justin's kick-off spot for the Turn-Rite spring advertising blitz. Everyone headed for the bar, except Justin and his uncle. "Good racing, my butt," Hugo muttered under his breath. "You're just lucky you didn't drag the catch-can guy halfway down pit road on national TV when you took off early."
Justin locked his jaw and kept his mouth shut. His impatience and momentary lack of focus had put a team member at risk and he wasn't proud of it. "It was the only way to beat Grosso out of the pits." The excuse sounded as lame to his own ears as it did to his crew chief.
His uncle snorted in disgust. Hugo was a tall man, thick across the neck and shoulders. He had twenty years and twenty pounds on Justin, but his nephew harbored no illusion that the older man couldn't knock him flat on his butt if he put his mind to it.
"I apologized to Eddie. He's okay with what happened." Justin ground out the words between clenched teeth. He'd been wrong and they both knew it. No use wasting breath defending the indefensible. He slid on the mirror-finish wraparound sunglasses that he endorsed and that his cousin, Hugo's adopted daughter, Kim, declared made him look like some warrior angelbut she was always grinning like a fool when she said itand headed out of the suite to avoid escalating the argument with his uncle.
"Justin," Diane called after him. She didn't add "get your scrawny butt back here," but she might as well have. Justin kept on walking. He knew he should stick around for another round of hand-pumpinghell, he was more than likely contractually obliged tobut he'd had enough.
Hugo was the only father Justin had ever known. Being at odds with the man who'd raised him from a baby wasn't where Justin liked to be, but it seemed it was where he ended up more and more often lately. It wasn't as if he'd just started driving like his dad. Brawn over brains, muscle over finesse, that kind of thing. Hugo shouldn't have been surprised that he'd taken out after Kent Grosso today. It was his style. Besides the fans liked to see flat-out racing, and that's what he'd given them. Even above the roar of all that combined horsepower he could hear the whoops and hollers of approval as he'd crowded onto the race track just a nose ahead of Grosso's car.
Hugo caught up with him at the elevators. "Don't go ditching the sponsors like that again, you hear?" he growled.
"Diane will cover for me."
"They don't pay that woman enough for pulling your chestnuts out of the fire after every damned race," Hugo muttered.
"Look. I'm tired and I want something to eat beside chips and dip," Justin grumbled, knowing he sounded like a petulant child. Pleasing the major sponsor of your car was second only to driving the car in a driver's litany of duties; often it seemed to Justin that it actually was number one. "You weren't going to starve to death if you took five minutes to say goodbye." Hugo had raced some in his younger days, but he hadn't been a natural at the sport like his Uncle Connor or his older brother, Troy, Justin's father. He'd found early on he'd rather run the behind-the-scenes race strategy and leave the driving to others. And he was damned good at what he did. But so was Justin, if they would just let him race like he wanted to.
"We'll thrash this out back home," Hugo said, his tone just shy of making it a command, not a request. Home was Mooresville, North Carolina, where the Murphys had lived for seven generations. For the past two seasons, Justin had driven the No. 448 Turn-Rite Tools Chevrolet for owner Dixon Rogers's Fulcrum Racing team. He'd finished out of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup both years. But this season was going to be different. This year he was determined to make it. "What time are you and Dennis pulling out?" Dennis was a distant cousin on his father's side. He was Justin's spotter and he drove Justin's motor home from track to track.
"I'm not leaving tonight," he reminded his uncle. "I'm doing a shoot for a TV spot for Turn-Rite here at the track tomorrow, remember?"
"You're right. I forgot." Hugo took off his own Turn-Rite hat and ran his hand through his hair. "I've got a car to get ready for California next week. I can't always remember your schedule."
"That's my job." Diane broke in, coming up behind them. "I made your excuses in there, Justin," she said, jerking her thumb back over her shoulder. "Now I have to go back and do some more to settle the ruffled feathers."
"I appreciate that, Diane," Justin forced himself to say.
The photographer caught up with them, panting with the effort of shadowing the fast-moving Diane while carrying his heavy equipment. "Seven o'clock sharp. Pit road. The film crew will be set up by then. Makeup shouldn't take too long since they're going to shoot you in full track gear." Ordinarily the No. 448 car would have already been loaded on the hauler on its way back to the shop in Mooresville while a show car, used for public appearances and identical to the one he drove today, would have been its stand-in. But a different setup was required for the Fontana track, so Justin's car was still in the garage and a second Fulcrum Motors hauler would soon be on the road for the grueling twenty-five hundred mile drive from North Carolina to California.
"Seven!" Justin frowned but didn't say what he thought about wearing makeup or getting up that early in the morning.
"Seven," she repeated deadpan. "Sharp."
"Yes, ma'am," he said in his best good ol' boy drawl.
"I'll be there with bells on."
"Fine," Diane replied, ignoring his sarcasm. "I'll meet you at the garage in the morning." She said her goodbyes and walked back in the direction they'd come, signaling for the photographer to follow her. He had to jog to keep up once she hit her stride. The woman might be a dozen pounds overweight but she sure could move.
"You'd better be there on time," Hugo warned, letting Justin know he was still angry. "I don't want the Turn-Rite people to have anything else to complain about. Despite the handshakes and back-slapping up there in the suite, they've been hinting that a car that doesn't make the Chase three years running isn't what they had in mind for their fall advertising campaign."
The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup started in September. It was still February. But NASCAR wasn't like other sports, with seasons leading up to the playoffs and championships. The first race of the season was the biggest one of all. Daytona. The Superbowl of stock car racingand Justin had messed up big time.
"Three times a charm," he said under his breath before Hugo's warning came back to him. Or three strikes, you're out?
"I'll see you Tuesday at the shop. We can go over last year's tapes of Fontana before we fly out to California," Hugo said, his mouth still set in a tight, straight, line.
"I'll be there."
He probably wouldn't be in his house in Mooresville long enough to unpack. His plane left for California Tuesday afternoon. Fulcrum Racing owned a corporate jet, as most race teams did, and of course Dixon had his own private Gulfstream, but the retired Hall of Fame baseball manager was also rumored to have the first dollar he ever made. If Justin's schedule differed from the rest of the team, he flew commercial. One day he was going to have to get a plane of his own like that jerk, Kent Grosso. Right now, he wasn't quite that high on the NASCAR food chain. Yet. But one day, in the not too distant future, he intended to be.
When the elevator doors slid open, uncle and nephew parted ways, Hugo heading toward the garage to make sure nothing had been left behind in the hurry to load the hauler, and Justin to his motor home. His backside hurt from sitting for hours in the hard seat of his race car. There was a blister on his heel where the heat of the exhaust pipe running under his feet had seeped through to his skin despite the fire-retardant boots and protective shields he wore over them. He wished he had the nerve to use the bottom of a plain old foam coffee cup to protect his feet like some other drivers did. But that image was not one that either Turn-Rite Tools or MMG approved of, so he never tried it, and now he was suffering the consequences.
Maybe he'd just take a long hot shower, grab a sandwich and call it a nightget his beauty sleep so he'd look good for his close-ups tomorrow. That way if he couldn't cut it as a NASCAR driver, he could make his fortune in the movies. He snorted at the thought and picked up the pace. The security guard at the gate to the private motor-home lot waved him through with a "good race."
The lot was emptying fast. Motor homes, some of them rolling palaces costing over a million dollars, were being buttoned up and moved out, heading for home, or starting on the long cross-country trip to California for the second race of the season. The corners of his mouth turned up in a smile as he regarded his vintage 1947 Spartan Manor travel trailer, dwarfed as it was by the two fifty-footers parked on either side. He couldn't afford one of the big rigs, but even if he could, he didn't want one. For all their topend furnishings and electronics, they still came off an assembly line. His manor was one of a kind. They didn't make them like this baby any more.
And if the powers-that-be had their way, this one wouldn't be sitting here among the homes-away-from-home of his fellow drivers much longer. More than one track had been less than happy to allow the Manor into the Owners'and Drivers'lot last season. Diane had come to the rescue hinting around that negative publicity, the weeding out of any individuality in the sport, was not a good thing. The suggestion that a rig that a fan might be proud to own wasn't good enough for a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver sent them grumbling away. But he had the feeling the Manor's days were numbered. New rules would be written and codified and his trailer would be banned from the tracks for "the good of the sport" and retired to the same hillside overlooking Lake Norman where he'd originally found it.
The glow of the interior lighting reflecting off the mirror-finish of the aluminum shell reminded him he wasn't going to be alone when he shut himself inside. And the person in the motor coach wasn't his cousin Dennis who had "other" plans for the night. "Damn," he muttered under his breath yanking open the high, tight collar of his uniform and dragging down the zipper. Lucy. He'd forgotten all about her. What did that say about their relationship? he wondered, as he punched in the code for the state-of-the-art security system he'd installed when he'd done the trailer restoration.
Lucy Gunter, his on-again, off-again girlfriend, was sitting on the built-in sofa to the left of the door, her long legs stretched out in front of her, her head propped up on one of the red and gray-patterned throw pillows that matched the forties-style brick-red upholstery on the cushions and complimented the blond finish on the birch cabinetry. Her laptop was open on the fold-down table of the dinette opposite her, but she'd stopped using it long enough ago for the screen saver to kick in. She was watching the plasma-screen TV he'd had mounted into one of the overhead cupboards, but he suspected by the sleepy look in her eyes that he'd caught her napping.
Good, maybe that meant she was as tired as he was and she wouldn't remember he'd promised to take her dancing at a new club she'd heard about from one of her friends.