Battle at Bristol deepens the connection for football, NASCAR

— -- Hard-core college football fans may not think they know anything about NASCAR. NASCAR fans can sometimes be a little sensitive when it comes to embracing "stick-and-ball" sports. But the reality is that no two big league sports are more interwoven than football and racing. And it is way more than just that they both wear helmets and have officials who throw yellow flags. So, leave it up to those of us who love both (and cover both) to use Saturday night's Battle at Bristol (Virginia Tech vs. Tennessee, 8 p.m. ET on ABC) as an opportunity to educate both sides sides of the connection.

Andy Papathanassiou: Known to most as Andy Papa, he played offensive guard at Stanford and shortly after graduation was introduced to NASCAR at the nearby Sonoma Raceway. In 1992 he was hired by Hendrick Motorsports (the Alabama Crimson Tide of racing) as the sport's first-ever team pit-crew coordinator. Employing football-based physical training regimens and drills, Papa oversaw Jeff Gordon's revolutionary "Rainbow Warriors" pit crew and dramatically shaved the time the car spent on pit road. As Gordon dominated the sport, rival teams who had initially laughed at Papa's gridiron methods for changing tires started copying his ideas.

Brian Piccolo: Bowman Gray Stadium, also known as "The Madhouse" is located in eastern Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It houses both a quarter-mile asphalt short track and a college football field, home of the Winston-Salem State Rams. The top floor of the fieldhouse is also home to WSSU's motorsports management school. The racetrack was co-opened by NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. in 1947 and has hosted NASCAR races since 1949, the longest run of any weekly track. That tally includes 29 Sprint Cup (then Grand National) Series races, won by legends such as Richard Petty, David Pearson and Bobby Allison. From 1956-67 it served as the home field for Wake Forest Demon Deacons football, including Brian Piccolo of "Brian's Song" fame. In fall 1964, Junior Johnson won on the racetrack while Piccolo rushed for a then-stadium-record 140 yards vs. South Carolina.

Cale Yarborough: Before he was a four-time Daytona 500 winner, the fire hydrant known as Cale Yarborough was a high school football star in Timmonsville, South Carolina, and earned a scholarship to play for Clemson. Upon arrival to his first training camp with the Tigers, Yarborough informed legendary coach Frank Howard that he needed to go back home in order to run one last race and secure his local short-track championship. (In a twist, that career began on Sumter, South Carolina's Gamecock Speedway.) Howard was having none of that. "He told me if I went home to run that race to go on and pack all my stuff because I wasn't coming back to Clemson," Yarborough recalled last week at the Darlington Raceway. "So I packed and left. He kept calling me after that. Finally, I said, 'I did what you told me to do, so now I'm going to be a race car driver.' He said, 'Son, you're gonna starve to death.'" Yarborough won 83 races, three Winston Cup championships and was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011.

Daytona: When NASCAR founder and chairman Bill France Sr. built the Daytona International Speedway in 1959, he also envisioned hosting other nonmotorsports events at his new show palace. There have been four college games played on the grass that separates the front stretch from pit road, the grass that Daytona 500 viewers are used to seeing painted with big corporate logos during the Great American Race. Those games, hosted by the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats, were played in 1974-75. Ever since the speedway maintenance crews have referred to that area as "the football field." Just this year Daytona unveiled a $400 million facilities makeover to become what track officials like to call the first NASCAR "stadium." Track president and uber-promoter Joie Chitwood III (yes, of the Chitwood Thrill Show Chitwoods) has floated the idea of hosting a college game, or even inviting the Jacksonville Jaguars to bring a game down I-95.

Everywhere: Daytona, Bowman-Gray and Bristol are certainly not alone when it comes to sharing college football and NASCAR. Buffalo's War Memorial Stadium was home to Canisius College football, early Buffalo Bills teams and a quarter-mile dirt track that hosted one NASCAR Grand National race, won by Jim Reed in 1958. Chicago's Soldier Field hosted the College All-Star Game for more than four decades and was also home to a half-mile asphalt oval. On July 21, 1956, Hall of Famer Fireball Roberts won the only NASCAR event held at Soldier Field. Just three weeks later the NFL champion Cleveland Browns defeated the college stars, including West Virginia linebacker Sam Huff 26-0. In one of my favorite explanations ever, a NASCAR historian Greg Fielden said the Soldier Field track was removed in 1970 "following protests by hippies."

Fast cars and superstars: In June 2007 ABC aired a reality show where NASCAR stars coached celebrities to race in a time-trial competition at Charlotte Motor Speedway. John Elway, coached by 2004 Cup champ Kurt Busch, defeated a field that included Serena Williams and John Cena. On set, the real drama came when former NC State player/Steelers coach Bill Cowher wrecked not once, but twice.

Gibbs: While he was still in the midst of his first stint as Washington Redskins head coach, lifelong gearhead Joe Gibbs became a NASCAR team owner in 1991. The following year he won the Daytona 500 with driver Dale Jarrett (who turned down a football scholarship to Gardner-Webb to be a racer), and in the quarter-century since, he has built a NASCAR empire, winning 138 Cup Series races and four Cup titles. His right-hand men at Joe Gibbs Racing have been his sons. J.D. Gibbs was a defensive back and quarterback at William & Mary from 1987-90 and also made 29 starts as a driver across three different NASCAR series. Coy Gibbs was an outstanding linebacker at Stanford, leading the team in tackles in 1994. Both sons have been longtime executives at JGR.

Harbaugh: Back when he was still Captain Comeback, the then-Indianapolis Colts QB became co-owner of the Panther Racing IndyCar team, winners of two series championships and near-winners of the Indianapolis 500. In June he attended the Sprint Cup race at the Michigan International Speedway as a guest of Joe Gibbs and is a fan of 2012 Cup champ and Michigan native Brad Keselowski. "The whole drivers aren't athletes debate is a joke," the head Wolverine said earlier this year. "Anyone who says that has never been to a race."

Instant replay: Reviewable calls aren't just a football thing. Over the last decade NASCAR has been very aggressive about integrating video cameras and replay capabilities to help Race Control keep an eye on all 40 cars, 300-plus crew members and every inch of their miles-plus-sized playing surfaces. The multicamera NASCAR replay system is so advanced it has largely replaced the former army of on-the-ground human officials. That system has attracted calls of interest from college officiating coordinators with tech questions as they push toward centralized officiating HQs to oversee game weekends.

Josh Jones: Known to NASCAR fans on Twitter as "Mother Function" and for his epic practical joke duels with his boss, Jones is director of business development for KHI Management, the celebrity marketing agency owned by 2014 Sprint Cup camp Kevin Harvick. Before he started helping boost the careers of people like country star Jake Owen and Miesha Tate of the UFC, Jones was an All-American kicker at Western Carolina. He was a career 28-for-35 on field goal attempts and in 1999 set the Southern Conference record with 20 kicking points in one game.

King Richard Petty: Before his Royal Fastness became the all-time winningest NASCAR driver, he was a star right guard at Randleman (North Carolina) High School (and he had to be the skinniest guard in football history). After graduation he came back for a Tigers game and spotted head cheerleader Lynda Owens. They were married shortly thereafter. Their son Kyle later became the star quarterback for Randleman and was offered scholarships to East Carolina and Georgia Tech. Instead, he chose to follow his father into racing, even as that father tried to talk him out of it. Recalls The King: "Kyle said, is it that hard being a race car driver, daddy? I said, no, I gotta go tell your mother you're turning down college. That'll be the hardest part." Kyle went on to win eight races and is currently an analyst for NBC Sports. Grandson Kyle Barlow [Kyle's nephew] just finished four years as a reserve QB at Hampden-Sydney.

Les Richter: Known in the motorsports community simply as "Coach", Richter was an ironman offensive lineman, linebacker and kicker at Cal, earning All-American honors over his final two seasons. The No. 2 overall pick of the 1952 NFL draft, he played 11 seasons for the L.A. Rams and made the Pro Bowl eight times. After football he became a giant in NASCAR, running the Riverside Raceway, guiding the opening of the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, and serving as a vice president of both NASCAR and its track ownership arm. In 2011 he was elected posthumously to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He has been a multiple nominee for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and Sprint Cup Series race winners at Auto Club Speedway receive the Les Richter Trophy.

Moss Motorsports: From 2008-11 Randy Moss co-owned a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series team (think Triple-A baseball). The former Marshall All-American receiver had moderate success before the team folded, but he did grant one of my all-time interviews.

Nebraska: In 1996 the University of Nebraska announced that it was going to take on full sponsorship of veteran Lake Speed's No. 9 Ford. There was even a much-ballyhooed unveiling of the all-red car, driven onto the field at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln to thunderous applause. Unfortunately, the deal was yanked over the winter, and the car never raced. On the upside, a Huskers die-cast car has become a bit of a white whale for NASCAR memorabilia collectors.

Ole Miss: Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze is an admitted "NASCAR junkie" and still has his collection of races he recorded on VHS in the 1990s as a big Jeff Gordon fan. Now he's buds with driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., an Olive Branch, Mississippi, native who is a staple on the Oxford sideline with longtime girlfriend Danica Patrick.

Punch: As in Dr. Jerry Punch. The former NC State backup QB is one of ESPN's longest tenured announcers, coming onboard as a pit reporter for NASCAR races in 1984 and adding college football sidelines in 1989. In 1988 he was working a race weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway when future ESPN coworker Rusty Wallace suffered a horrible crash in practice. Punch jumped the wall, shed his TV gear, climbed into the wrecked car and quite literally saved the NASCAR legend's life.

Quarterbacks: Former Dallas Cowboys signal callers Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach were co-investors in a NASCAR Cup Series team titled Hall of Fame Racing. The No. 96 car only earned four top-10 finishes over four seasons. Other former college stars who took a turn at NASCAR ownership included Joe Washington, Brett Favre and Dan Marino, who somehow convinced the notoriously superstitious racers to use his No. 13.

Recruiting: No, NASCAR teams haven't reached the borderline insanity level of college recruiting or NFL scouting, but they do a follow a similar model, scouting for college athletes who they think have what it takes to go over the wall on race day. Again, the leaders in this field has been Hendrick Motorsports. Chris Burkey, HMS head pit-crew coach, is a former Wingate University wide receiver and spent several seasons as NFL scout, including a stint with the Miami Dolphins under Nick Saban. Burkey travels the country to watch athletes and holds combines at the race shop in Concord, North Carolina. Last year, the team even held their own signing day to announce a new crop of candidates. There are currently 14 former FBS & FCS college football players at Hendrick Motorsports alone, some working on the four Sprint Cup teams, others pitting lower-level cars until they're ready for the varsity squad. Among them is Rowdy Harrell, who owns three national championship rings from his time as a walk-on linebacker at Alabama. He also owns a Daytona 500 ring, working as a tire carrier for Dale Earnhardt Jr. When Burkey called Tuscaloosa looking for talent, Saban called Harrell. "He said, 'Hey, we've found a job for you. I think it would be a great fit, so take it or leave it." He took it.

Safety: ?Unfortunately, football and racing share the commonality of gruesome injuries. Fortunately for racers, their sport has worked faster in the prevention department than the football powers-that-be. That's especially true when it comes to energy absorption and head injuries, thanks to development of safer "soft-wall" barriers, better helmets and head-and-neck restraints. Just ask Jim Brown, who visited with Richard Petty at Pocono Raceway in 2013. "Football has a ways to go, because this is the first time that we've really ever taken the safety situation seriously, because of the lawsuits. And when we come out of this, I think we will have a much safer game, and we won't take away from the impact of the game. So we're a little behind NASCAR, and if we pay attention to the fact that someone realized that something had to be done that would make it safer, the same thing has to happen in football. Two different sports, but if you're conscientious about it, and you want to make sure it's as safe as you can make it, then you can do that."

Tim Brown: Speaking of Browns, if this one had had his way, he would have followed Staubach as a Heisman Trophy winner who also tried to win NASCAR races. A decade ago he formed an alliance with longtime NASCAR owner Jack Roush to start a new race team. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. "I would still like to get it going because I love NASCAR," Brown said during a visit to Pocono Raceway in 2012 to give Jeff Gordon the Heisman Humanitarian Award. "But so many things have to happen just right to make it happen."

Underwater: That's where former Louisiana Tech QB Terry Bradshaw drove a Hoss Ellington-owned No.1 Hawaiian Tropic Chevy in the 1981 cinematic masterpiece "The Cannonball Run," along with copilot Mel Tillis. That's the same car made famous by Donnie Allison during the legendary finish of the 1979 Daytona 500, when Allison crashed with and then fought with Yarborough. The same year as the film's release its director, stuntman-turned-Oscar winner Hal Needham, became a NASCAR team owner, teaming up with the Bandit himself, former Florida State QB Burt Reynolds. Hal and Burt's Skoal Bandit cars won nine races, 13 poles and barely missed winning the 1984 Winston Cup title with driver Harry Gant. Also one of ? my favorite assignments ever.

Video study: Just like college football coaches and players, racers have become film-room junkies. Drivers watch race recordings, studying the lines they run on the track like a wide receiver watches his routes. Pit crews have team meetings to watch film from isolated overhead cameras of each pit stop. Then they do the same during live pit practices, correcting missteps during their painstakingly choreographed mechanics. Crew chiefs, like head coaches, watch all of the above, creating very literal playbooks for every race day, tailored to individual racetracks, trends based on previous races at those tracks, and even weather conditions.

Whoa Nellie! Jerry Punch isn't the only crossover commentator to call NASCAR and college football. Jack Arute was a staple of sidelines and garages with ABC and ESPN. Jim McKay called races from Daytona to Darlington, including the first-ever live flag-to-flag televised NASCAR event at the Greenville-Pickens Speedway in 1971. In the 1960s Howard Cosell voiced newsreel-style highlight films of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Jim Lampley was the play-by-play man for Richard Petty's historic 200th career win on July 4, 1984. Eli Gold, the longtime voice of the Alabama Crimson Tide, was also a longtime anchor for the Motor Racing Network, NASCAR's radio division. And Keith Jackson, the Voice of College Football, called dozens of races for ABC's Wide World of Sports, including Dale Earnhardt's most infamous Intimidator moment, "The Pass in the Grass" in the 1987 All-Star Race.

Exhibition games: The Battle at Bristol will not be the first football game played at Bristol Motor Speedway. On Sept. 2, 1961, the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Washington Redskins 17-10, icing the preseason victory with an interception at the goal line. Sonny Jurgensen started for the Eagles and posted a 9-for-15/145-yard passing day. The temporary grass field wasn't ideal, but as Philly running back and former Wake Forest star Billy Ray Barnes recalls, "Hey, we got $50 each."

Your team logo here: These days race teams change their cars' paint schemes as often as college teams change their uniform combinations. A countless number of times those schemes have been college-sports driven. In the 1990s Starter athletic apparel would cover the hood of driver Elton Sawyer's car with the logo of their biggest clients nearest the tracks he visited each weekend, from Georgia and Wisconsin to UConn and The U. Over the years NASCAR has seen checkerboard Vols cars to houndstooth Tide rides to, most recently, a maize and blue Michigan Wolverines machine. On Oct. 19, 2013, Jamie McMurray won at the Talladega Superspeedway in an Auburn ride. That same fall the Tigers made their Cinderella run to the BCS title game. "I still take credit for that," McMurray jokes now. Then the Joplin, Missouri, native adds, "But don't tell them I'm really a Mizzou fan."

Zooming: Isn't this the most basic, primal connection between college football and NASCAR? Whether you're a tailback or wide receiver, a race car driver or tire changer, or merely just a fan of all of the above, everyone has the same goal. To quote Ricky Bobby, star of the only DVD that Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield keeps in his home theater, "I wanna go fast."