Race Day 7:49 a.m.

Elledge knocks back a breakfast of champions - two Goody's headache powders and a Mountain Dew - as soon as he enters the team hauler (an 18-wheeler that doubles as a lounge when it's not carrying a race car). "Wheels Out" (NASCAR-speak for morning departure times from the hotel) is a grueling six a.m. during race weekends, which on the NASCAR Nextel Cup circuit typically go from Thursday to Sunday, some 40 weekends a year (one of the longest seasons in professional sports). As you can imagine, nights involve endless bottles of Coors Light rather than endless hours of sleep, so hangovers - even on race day - are not uncommon.

Elledge is one of four crew chiefs for the Chip Ganassi Racing Team with Felix Sabates, a NASCAR family that includes Team Target driver Mears (car 41), Coors Light's Sterling Marlin (car 40), Texaco/Havoline's Jamie McMurray (car 42), and their bevy of mechanics, road and pit crews, and strategists. Then there's me, accepted as one of their own - fire suit and all - for one fascinating and insightful weekend look inside a NASCAR road crew.

Think for a moment about everything you assume about NASCAR (which, by the way, stands for National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing). Now toss it out the passenger-side window. We've all heard the jokes about rednecks driving around in circles, but the reality is much different. A typical race weekend might see the Ganassi boys do such seemingly out-of-character things as order French onion soup at Outback Steakhouse (who does that?), mull the death of Yasir Arafat, and discuss the merits of French-milled soap. Two of them have never even heard of the movie Six Pack.

On the other hand, if you think NASCAR life is glamorous, you'd be wrong there, too. Granted, stock cars are big business. Annual­ crew salaries can reach $60K for a mechanic to $800K for a crew chief. ­NASCAR ranks second only to football in TV ratings; its cash registers ring in at - cha-ching! - $2.1 billion in licensed sales last year; and it counts 75 million Americans as fans. That's more than a third of the U.S. population.

But consider this: Road crews spend an average of 160 days a year on the road, many of those in towns most people wouldn't consider driving through, and they don't see anything but the backside of a Holiday Inn Express and the inside of a racetrack. Their per diem is $25 per day on the road, whether­ they're in San Francisco or at Pocono. They have families, but they don't see them as much as they do each other, nor do they see much of the sun. It's a grueling life. "We go to lots of places, but all we see are the same old racetracks," says Mike "Mongo" Bodick (mechanic and gas man, car 42).