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Both the NBA and NHL championships were decided recently, with the Los Angeles Lakers and Detroit Red Wings taking home their respective trophies. But it all seemed somewhat anticlimactic, as both teams were favored to win -- some would say expected to win -- and neither final series provided much tension since both victors faced underdog opponents.

This year's NHRA and IHRA Top Fuel title chases are shaping up much the same, but with a distinctly different twist. While Larry Dixon and Clay Millican clearly have established themselves on top of their fields, both still act genuinely happy, excited, and grateful for winning. In fact, their individual race victory celebrations tend to be more heartfelt and enthusiastic -- more pure -- than the hoops and hockey team championship revelries.

On the home court of the vanquished New Jersey Nets, the Lakers accepted their third straight NBA title in cool, detached L.A. style. There were a few high fives, the obligatory "We're-number-one" finger salutes for the camera, and congratulatory hugs all around, but it seemed as though they were just going through the motions, epitomized by a bored-looking Kobe Bryant doing post-game interviews while casually cradling the playoffs' Most Valuable Player trophy.

Meanwhile, the Wings were a little more exuberant before a rabid home crowd in Detroit. When the final buzzer sounded, they tossed gloves and hockey sticks in the air, took turns hoisting Lord Stanley's hardware overhead, and collapsed in a mid-ice group hug for team photos, but I suspect there was as much relief as triumph in their hearts. To lose to the admittedly gritty, but clearly less-talented Carolina Hurricanes would've meant profound embarrassment for the Motor City's roster of at least nine likely Hall of Famers. They sounded like it afterwards, too, with more talk about retirement plans and performance bonuses than about what had just happened on the ice.

Contrast all that with Dixon's or Millican's response after winning any one of their single events this year. If anyone might be justified at feeling smug in victory, it could be these two, since Dixon has made seven trips to the winner's circle after 10 finals this year and Millican is yet to lose even one round of eliminations after five events. That's domination!

But these guys aren't bored or relieved to win; they're ecstatic! At the recent NHRA race at Columbus, OH, Dixon practically leaped out of his Miller Lite machine as soon as it stopped; shared an aggressive celebration with teammate Ron Capps (whose fish-tailin' wins in the semis and finals were awesome to witness, BTW); and set about sincerely thanking team owner Don Prudhomme, crew chief Dick LaHaie, and the rest of his crew.

You could tell Dixon is having the time of his life driving the most consistently fast racecar on the planet -- and the beautiful thing is, he knows it! There's no jaded attitude, no hint that he expects to win, and no arrogant putdowns of his competition. That mood extends beyond the driver's seat, too, as Prudhomme -- with 49 career wins as a driver and 36 as an owner -- seems genuinely marveled at his team's current chemistry and success. And back at the starting-line interview, there was LaHaie, as seasoned a veteran as drag racing has ever seen, choking up with emotion after the Father's Day win.

Millican, meanwhile, has become almost as famous for his ever-present smile and outgoing personality as he has for dominating IHRA Top Fuel for the past two seasons. Last year he broke Don Garlits' 26-year-old record for consecutive wins (6) and remarkably, he's just three round wins away from duplicating that feat in consecutive seasons. Still, he remains an enthusiastic winner and again, he's always careful to let team owner Peter Lehman and crew chief Mike Kloeber know how grateful he is for the badass hot rod they put under him.

I've interviewed Millican after many of his victories; sometimes at the top end while there's still adrenaline pumping through his veins, sometimes in victory lane with well-wishers and cameras intruding, and sometimes in the cloistered atmosphere of the press room, but every time he's been excited and talkative. He makes a reporter's job easy with colorful quotes. Millican's enthusiasm is infectious to the fans, too. You can see it in their eyes when he's signing autographs and just chatting at the ropes; this guy loves what he's doing and they love watching him win.

On the other hand, neither driver takes winning for granted. In Columbus, Dixon focused on appreciating the phenomenal season he's having in 2002, but stressed "a strong start means nothing if you don't finish the job. This thing's a long way from over." Up in Canada, the site of Millican's latest triumph, he realized, "we certainly have had a very good car; we don't have parts breakage. Knock on wood, it could change at any time."

Watching athletes experience and express pure joy is one of life's simple pleasures for the rest of us. Maybe it's because it happens so rarely in most people's personal lives. Think about it, when was the last time you felt that rush of excitement and lightness in your heart like when you finally got a date with your high school object of desire? Or when you saw your baby for the very first time? Or when you watched your kid graduate from college? Those moments don't come along all that often, but when they do, WOW!

Maybe that's why we invest so much time and emotion following the exploits of sports teams and race drivers; so we can at least witness those special moments in other's lives. But when they come across like the Lakers as a bunch of spoiled and vain rich guys with little or no connection to the fans in the stands, or like the Red Wings, who just seemed glad to get it over with, we feel cheated.

Maybe drivers like Dixon and Millican don't come across that way because they depend so much on team owners and sponsors to keep their dreams alive. Unlike the stick-and-ball stars, who are often coddled from a very young age, race drivers typically have to rise through the ranks, struggling at each successive level to secure enough money to be competitive. Or maybe they remain humble simply because they have to rely on the talents of crew chiefs and mechanics to make them go fast.

Or maybe it's because they know so many things can go wrong every time they put the pedal to the metal. And not just losing, but bad things, life-altering or even life-ending things. They can't afford to take success for granted. And neither should we.

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