Bodine back on radar after bobsled gold

The phone at Geoff Bodine's North Carolina home won't stop ringing. People he hasn't heard from in years, many he thought forgot he existed, are calling to congratulate him on the U.S. four-man bobsled team capturing Olympic gold for the first time in 62 years.

He is overwhelmed.

"I haven't really wrapped my arms around what it means just yet," Bodine said Monday.

Let me help. It means your fan base just topped Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s. Not even NASCAR's most popular driver can claim he's had an entire country, more than 307 million in the case of the United States, cheering for him at an event.

It means you have helped accomplish something four-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson hasn't and probably never will.

It means you likely will go down as the only person to win the Daytona 500 and help win an Olympic gold medal.

It means today's column is about you instead of Johnson winning the past two Sprint Cup races or Kevin Harvick leading the points as the series heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"It's similar to winning the Daytona 500, but different," the 1986 500 winner said.

And bigger, at least in terms of worldwide interest.

For those who haven't been following, Bodine and his Bo-Dyn Bobsled company (Dyn for chassis dynamic) developed the sleek black machine nicknamed "Night Train" that on Saturday carried the U.S. to victory in Whistler, British Columbia.

Without the technology Bodine, 60, brought from NASCAR to bobsledding -- as well as the more than $1 million he has raised to help the USA Bobsled & Skeleton Federation build sleds -- the American four-man gold-medal drought might have continued.

"Four-man bobsledding in the Olympics is like the Daytona 500," Bodine said, his voice jumping a few octaves as the thrill of both was relived. "It's the biggest and the baddest ever."

Being a part of Olympic history wasn't on Bodine's mind when he became interested in bobsleds in 1992. He simply thought it was important that the struggling Americans rode in a homegrown product, not an imported one, just like he did in racing.

So in the prime of his Cup career, two years removed from finishing third in the point standings while driving for the legendary Junior Johnson, Bodine and friend Bob Cuneo of Chassis Dynamics got involved in bobsled design.

Two years later, the U.S. team used its sleds for the first time. Ten years later, U.S. teams won three medals with them at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

On Saturday, piloted by a driver built like Tony Stewart, the U.S. men struck gold in a sled as intimidating on ice as the black No. 3 was on concrete.

And then Bodine's phone started ringing.

"It's not like people don't know you anymore, but when you don't race much, there's new people that move in," said Bodine, who in 1998 was named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers to commemorate the sport's 50-year anniversary. "You kind of get forgotten.

"It's nothing mean. It's just the way it works. This has rekindled a lot of those relationships out there we thought were forgotten. You realize quickly people have been watching and they do care and they do appreciate what I started in 1992 and where it's been going."

Joey Logano, one of those who has moved in, said the garage at Las Vegas this past weekend was abuzz about Bodine's accomplishment.

"I'm just bummed I didn't get to see it," said Logano, who was competing in the Nationwide Series race when the tape-delayed U.S. victory was broadcast.

Although only 19, Logano appreciates what Bodine has accomplished as a driver and bobsled innovator. He won the Bodine Bobsled Challenge at Lake Placid, N.Y., earlier this year to help raise funds and awareness for the sport, and can't wait to go back and race them again.

"It's the closest thing in the Olympics to driving and racing," Logano said. "He deserves a lot of credit. There's a lot of work poured into that bobsled thing ... engineering, time. It's incredible to see."

The ingenuity Bodine brought to bobsled design is incredible. He's changed the shape and technology to the point that other companies are copying him. Some things he doesn't mind sharing.

But as he was taught so well in NASCAR, some things are best kept secret.

"There probably are more secrets in bobsledding than NASCAR," Bodine said with a laugh. "NASCAR inspects the cars so much they know where to look. In bobsleds, I've stuck a few things in there they haven't found yet."

Those things worked to perfection Saturday, and Bodine was front and center to witness it. After standing at the top of the course for the first three runs, he moved to the bottom just in case that something special happened.

When it did, he was one of the first to meet driver Steven Holcomb and sled mates Steve Mesler, Justin Olsen and Curt Tomasevicz with a bear hug and kiss. Later, he found himself holding one of the medals for a moment.

"It was pretty darn heavy," said Bodine, who has hoisted trophies after 18 Cup victories.

Now Bodine is back at his Cornelius home, where life is somewhat back to normal. He's in the process of moving his bobsled business to the area, where he hopes to take advantage of NASCAR fabricators and engineers laid off because of the economy.

His first step is to find a 15,000- to 20,000-square-foot space, perhaps an old race shop, to house and build the sleds.

"We'd like one with all the equipment and tools left in it," Bodine said half jokingly. "We're not for profit, which means we don't have much money."

Bodine also remains in the racing business, where sponsorship is almost as tough to come by as it is in bobsledding. He'll attempt to qualify a truck for Saturday's Camping World Series race at Atlanta with, naturally, a bobsled theme. He'll even bring one of his first bobsleds from the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics in Norway for fans to see.

That year, by the way, Bodine became the last Cup driver to win a race and lap the field.

Many of those who have called since Saturday might have forgotten that. They also might have forgotten that Bodine set the track qualifying record at Atlanta in 1997 after it was repaved.

Many, judging by the phone calls, were reminded on Saturday when the U.S. took gold.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.