Last fall, in September of 2014 Fox Sports NASCAR broadcaster Steve Byrnes was diagnosed with a recurrence of his head and neck cancer which had progressed to a stage 4 cancer. He immediately took a leave of absence from broadcasting but through social media fans and friends alike were given updates from Byrnes throughout his battle with the disease.
As his battle progressed more and more of NASCAR’s stars and the media contingent that covers the sport expressed their concern and support for the affable broadcaster. Headed into the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway it was decided that the race would be named in honor of Byrnes who had been in intensive care due to blood clots and other complications. The entire NASCAR community showed its support for Byrnes all weekend long.
Although he was too ill to attend the race activities at Bristol Motor Speedway, his wife of 22 years, Karen, and their son, Bryson, was able to attend. Byrnes was clearly following the events of the weekend, even tweeting a congratulatory message to Joey Logano after he dominated the XFINITY Series race on Saturday.
Sunday’s Sprint Cup race was one of endurance as there were numerous stoppages due to rains in the area but eventually the race got back underway. It was one for the ages as multiple incidents took out many drivers that had the potential to win. Brad Keselowski’s loose race car collected his teammate Logano less than 25 laps into the race. During the clean up, out came the red flag due to rain. Matt Kenseth won the race 10 hours after the advertised start that included an extra 11 laps to complete. NASCAR clearly went the extra distance to finish the race under green, including a short period in the waning laps of the scheduled 500 lap event. There were two laps left and NASCAR seemed hell-bent on getting it all in. I applaud them for their efforts.
At the conclusion of the race Byrnes tweeted to his followers, “I went the distance,” a fitting response to a long, at times ugly, race at the high-banked half-mile track.
One driver that I followed all night long was Jimmie Johnson. Johnson started 28th and worked his way up front with teammate Jeff Gordon throughout the race. He survived two wrecks, including one with Kurt Busch who led 98 laps during the race.
Afterward, in the media center, Johnson said, “Chad (Knaus the 48 crew chief) called for two (tires) late in the race. That picked us up a few more spots, and then I think the last two restarts I was in the outside lane, and that helped me out quite a bit. Wild night, but glad to get it in.”
Johnson was asked how the racing surface changes over the years were now compared to in the past and how difficult it seemed to pass there. He responded, “I think it’s potentially heading towards the old Bristol. Just thinking it through a bit, when we had to race the bottom, everybody gets so mad at one another and punts each other out of the way. We’re getting pretty pissed off at one another riding around the top and there’s a lot more contact.”
“Now when you get into somebody there’s really nowhere for them to go,” Johnson continued, “but I think as we continue to race here and continue to run around the top, we’re going to see it turn into the ‑‑ it’ll never be the old Bristol but something very similar. Frustration is so high. I mean it doesn’t matter if you’re catching a guy that’s four laps down with crash damage. You can’t pass them if they run the top. It’s just so tough. So it was whacky. But I think there’s more potential yet.”
About NASCAR getting the entire race in, Johnson echoed the other drivers, supporting their efforts to do so. Johnson said of the delays and the calls NASCAR made early not to start at the scheduled 1 p.m. time, “I feel like it was a little easier today because there was a big band of rain. I went back and ate and took a nap. I just kind of got ready for the long night. The one thing that does make a difference here is how fast the track can dry, and I think it caught people off guard. I think Tony (Stewart) might have been a little tardy getting to his race car to get started. But it was nice, though, having that big band so that we could prepare from a driver’s standpoint. Now, for the crew guys, I think it was far worse for them to sit there and wait it out all day.”
Sadly, just a couple days after the race, social media informed us of the passing of Steve Byrnes. At the time, I was in a hospital room in Melbourne, Florida with my stepfather who had suffered a brain aneurysm the previous Thursday afternoon. He had beaten all odds by surviving initially and at one point was responding to commands, but he was gravely ill. The loss of Byrnes, who I had met a few times, hit me hard. It hit me hard because I thought of both Byrnes and my stepfather with their battles while the cars on the track were doing the same. It seemed appropriate at the time.
My stepfather’s favorite driver was Jimmie Johnson and his Herculean effort on Sunday was one of a champion. I thought of my stepfather a lot as Johnson made it through the field and how he would tell anybody that would listen (always with a hint of pride because he had an insider, me) that he liked Johnson because, “my stepson (me) told me years ago that Jeff Gordon said, ‘Jimmie Johnson is one to watch, he is special,’ and Gordon wasn’t wrong.”
I had a flight to catch back home in about an hour and I knew I was saying goodbye to my stepdad. The loss of Byrnes compounded my sense of loss. By late that evening, a few hours after I stepped into the cold upstate New York air, I received word that my stepdad had passed. The day truly put things into perspective for me. Live life to the fullest; enjoy your time here, with those you love. We get just a sliver of time. Godspeed Steve Byrnes and George Greiner, you’ll both be missed.