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Masoud: Open road ahead (Sept. 8)

Chris Masoud | Thursday, September 8, 2011

This is the fourth of a new Observer feature. A series of 10 Observer sportswriters will have columns appear in this space on a bi-weekly rotation. Hopefully some of these writers will grab your attention, and you’ll know when and where to find more of their thoughts.

Despite lockouts, substance-abuse scandals and the occasional players’ strike (sorry 1994 Montreal Expos), the U.S. professional sports pecking order has remained relatively constant over the last two decades.

ESPN and the NFL have enjoyed football’s dominance as the most-watched and most-attended sports league in the world, as the league averages over 68,000 fans in attendance each game (almost double the attendance for an average English Premier League contest).

Baseball reigns supreme in the summer, although the loss of Jon Miller and Joe Morgan from Sunday Night Baseball has certainly taken away some of its magic (c’mon, you know you miss hearing about Morgan’s career batting average against the Cubs coming from the man himself).

The next two are a bit more difficult. The NBA and the NHL target audiences on different ends of the demographic spectrum, but the average attendance rates are basically the same (17,520 and 17,265, respectively). The two sports have basically the same stadium capacities and playoff structures, which often make the sports connoisseur’s life quite difficult in May.

I give the NHL the edge simply because, in my experience, no sport has even come close to the excitement of watching a hockey game live. That, and hockey fans are generally the most knowledgeable, territorial fans I have encountered.

Draped in my black and teal, I feared for my life in Detroit for Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals and loved every minute of it. Before that, I wore my Michael Jordan old-school 23 to a Blackhawks-Canucks game in the United Center and received more than a few dirty looks (go figure).

Rounding out the list are the MLS, professional tennis, and the occasional golf major, in no particular order.

But where’s NASCAR?

The National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing is the second-most watched sport by television viewers, only behind football, yet I’ve never actually watched a full race. I’m almost ashamed to call myself a cultured sports fan.

Until this week, I was generally in the “don’t want to see company-branded cars go around in a circle” camp. But after watching the finish to the Atlanta Motor Speedway on Tuesday, I’ve reconsidered.

With only four laps to go, veteran Jeff Gordon battled standings leader Jimmy Johnson to earn his third win of the season by 0.598 seconds. It was a dogfight till the end, with both cars side-by-side to the finish, à la Talladega Nights.

Consider the following 10-second excerpt from the telecast, minus the Southern drawl:

“Oh, Gordon really sideways right there.”

“Ah Jimmy fighting right up to his back bumper.”

“You can see Jimmy just walk the car up the track.”

“Now did we talk earlier about another fantastic finish here in Atlanta?”

“Yessir.”

So if you’re looking for someone to replace Tiger Woods or Roger Federer, what other sport has a dominant figure like five-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmy Johnson? The debut of Danica Patrick in 2012 only makes NASCAR that much more compelling to watch.

The next Sprint Cup Series event is the Richmond International Raceway Saturday at 7:30 p.m. on ABC, which gives you a full 30 minutes to give NASCAR a chance before you flip to ESPN. If you’re sold, the series comes to Chicago on Sunday, Sept. 18 for the Chicagoland Speedway at 2 p.m.

I have a cooler, two George Foremans, lawn chairs and a license to tailgate. Who’s driving?