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Michigan International Speedway---Brooklyn, Michigan JUNE, ONE YEAR AGO Chance Reynolds tugged the racing harness tight, dipping his shoulders left, then right, pressing himself more deeply into the seat until no further movement was possible. He ducked his head forward to clear the roll cage and pulled the full-faced helmet on.
The helmet smelled new, which it was; his sponsorship agreement with the maker called for a fresh one, custom-fitted and finished in his team's colors, every race.
Four hundred miles from now, that helmet would stink of sweat, spit, burned oil, and greasy rubber---the grim, primal smell of the work he did. But he liked the feel of it now, the tricot lining clean and smooth against his face.
It would warm up soon enough because the helmet was padded with better than an inch of high-density foam. But right now it was comfortable, cool against his head. Chance set his driving gloves on top of the dash, routed the flexible tube from a sports bottle up and over the polymer chin of the helmet, and took a sip of Gatorade.
A roar swept the air over the Michigan infield; 200,000 spectators leaped to their feet in a single, spontaneous cheer. Chance peered up through the open window just in time to see a diamond formation of F-16s streaking overhead, hurtling south over the infield on afterburners, the leader peeling off and bolting straight up into the clear blue, latespring sky.
The jet shrank to a pinpoint, nearly imperceptible even to Chance, with his exceptional racecar driver's vision. He followed it as far as his helmet would allow.
A photographer aimed a long lens at the open window, and Chance smiled as the strobe flashed, knowing that his eyes would convey the warmth even though the helmet covered his mouth. Then the photographer turned away, and a familiar face moved into view.
Andy Hofert, crew chief for Robert Vintner Racing, leaned in through the window, smelling of mint toothpaste and Aqua Velva, not a hair out of place under his headset. His E-World Broadband team uniform, like Chance's, red, white, blue, and spotless. Pressed and dressed; that was Andy at the beginning of a race. But by lap 200, he'd be ready for someone to turn a hose on him.
'How you doin', Hoss?' Chance asked as Andy double-checked the closures---helmet and harness both---plugged in the leads to both radios, and put the steering wheel in place on its hub, pulling the release out twice to make certain it was locked on and that the safety cable was out of the way. He snapped the lanyards to the head restraint onto Chance's helmet, and secured the radio wires to the chin bar with a little piece of duct tape so they wouldn't pull loose during the race.
'I'm doin' good, Boomer.'
For what seemed like the thousandth time, Chance wondered why it was that everybody on a race team had a nickname. He'd always assumed that it was some county fairgrounds thing until he got to Cup and discovered that nobody there got called by the right name either--- at least, not in the garage area. Even the owners and drivers, many of them millionaires several times over, got referred to as 'The Captain,' or 'Smoke,' or 'Happy.' There was one driver who was just called 'Herman,' but his real name was Kenny.
'Radio check,' Andy said. This time, his voice came not through the muffling foam of the helmet, but through Chance's custom-molded earpieces, a slight burst of static sounding as the microphone cut out.
'Ten by ten,' Chance said.
'Gotcha, guys,' came the call from his spotter, high atop the center grandstand.
'Got you, Pooch,' Chance replied.
'You need anything?' Andy accepted the squeeze bottle and handed Chance his gloves.
'Thanks, Hoss. No. I'm good to go.'
Chance made every effort to sound casual, and he did this for Andy's sake every bit as much as he did it for his own. Medical studies showed that a crew chief's pulse rate just before the start of a race was actually about 20 percent higher than the typical driver's. You had to respect that; it wouldn't do to have a thirty-two-year-old guy dropping over on pit road from a heart attack just before the start of a race.
'Only seventy-two points out,'Andy said.
'Just for now.We'll close that up today.'
'There you go.'
There were volumes of implications in that brief exchange. Chance was in second place in the Nextel Cup championship points race. And for the first time this season, the margin between Chance and first place had shrunk to double digits.
Chance looked up, through the windshield.
'Give us a second, will you, Hoss? Brett's coming.'
Brett Winslow, chief Nextel Cup chaplain with Speedway Christian Ministries, straightened up from the window of the car ahead and came walking back, shaking hands as he moved. In his sunglasses, red SCM polo shirt, khaki slacks, and Topsiders, dark brown hair ruffled by a light breeze out of Turn Four, Brett looked more like a golf pro than the ordained doctor of theology that he was. He got to Chance's Taurus, smiled, and leaned in over the broad blue sill-plate.
'Chance, can I have a word of prayer with you?'
The two men closed their eyes as Brett spoke.
'Oh, gracious heavenly Father, we ask that you guard your child, Chance, as he does his job here today.We ask you to calm and comfort Cindy with the knowledge that Chance is under your constant care, and we beg a heavenly hedge of protection around this racecar and every car on the track here today, on the drivers, the crews, the officials, and the fans. Please allow the work done today to be excellent and worthy, and we ask that the outcome glorify your name. And all this we ask in the name of your precious Son, Jesus Christ.'
'Amen,' they said together.
'What'd Cindy give you?' Brett asked.
'Psalm 37, verses five and six,' Chance read from the handwritten label stuck above his oil pressure gauge.
Brett nodded. ''Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.' She does know how to pick 'em, doesn't she?'