Column: A historic Sunday to savor at the Brickyard

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the only racing facility in the U.S. designated a National Historic Site, and has already added to its history this year with the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, arguably the most renowned auto race in the world.

Today, while it was far less expected, the Speedway adds more history to its hallowed paddock as NASCAR runs one of its most story-filled races in recent memory at the track.

This date has been circled for months on many calendars in the NASCAR garage, as it has been known since Tony Stewart announced his impending retirement last offseason that this would be his final appearance in the Brickyard 400, one of NASCAR’s biggest events which happens to be at the “home track” of the Rushville, Ind. native and sure-fire future NASCAR Hall of Famer.

And that alone is reason to watch on Sunday.  While Kyle Busch is the assumed favorite, and is on the pole as he tries to become just the second back-to-back winner in the Brickyard 400’s 23-year history, Stewart has a realistic chance to add to his storied history at the World’s Most Famous Speedway.

Smoke, as some fans call him, starts third as he tries to become just the third driver to win three (or more) times in the event, although he has yet to win the race since becoming an owner-driver (although another Stewart-owned car, Ryan Newman, won in 2013).

Stewart’s Indianapolis ties extend beyond his NASCAR career.  Before coming to NASCAR Stewart raced in the IndyCar Series, winning the series championship in 1997, and Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year in 1996.  Stewart was the first driver to do “the double,” running both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the Sunday before Memorial Day, in 1999.

And yet, Stewart’s final start in the Brickyard 400 has been overshadowed, as four-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon comes out of retirement to fill the seat of the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Gordon’s final season was the main storyline of the 2015 NASCAR campaign, and his win at Martinsville, the 93rd of his career, allowed him to reach the “Championship Four” and run for the series title in the season finale at Homestead, which was believed to be his final start.

But with Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the car with concussion-like symptoms, who better for Hendrick Motorsports to turn to than Gordon?  The term “super-sub” has been used with several drivers who have often been substitutes in the event of injury (Regan Smith, Brian Vickers, etc.), but this is the ultimate “super-sub,” as Hendrick can put a driver of Gordon’s experience, talent, and knowledge in the car.

Gordon is expected to be in Earnhardt’s seat through at least next week’s race at Pocono.  Expectations for any race team often drop with a substitute driver, but there is no reason why they should here, especially considering Gordon’s record at this particular track.

Gordon, who is a Pittsboro, Ind. native and grew up dreaming of running at The Speedway, has won the Brickyard 400 five times.  To put that in perspective, no driver has won the Indianapolis 500 more than four times.

Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, and added wins in 1998, 2001, 2004, and as recently as 2014.  Gordon is the only driver who has been in the field for every Brickyard 400, a streak that continues today with the 23rd edition.

Gordon is driving a car not numbered 24 for the first time in his career, but joins an illustrious list of drivers to pilot #88 in the Sprint Cup Series (Buck Baker, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Dale Jarrett, Dale Earnhardt Jr.).

Gordon and Stewart are both synonymous with Indianapolis as much as any other driver and any other track on the NASCAR circuit, and today their paths cross once again as their cars cross the venerable Yard of Bricks 160 times on this hot Indiana Sunday.

As Gordon briefly returns, and Stewart bid farewell to his favorite venue, take time today to take it all in and savor this historic event, whether you are watching from the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis or your living room.

And wouldn’t it be even more special, unbelievable, and breathtaking if cars numbered 88 and 14 crossed that Yard of Bricks for the 160th time running side-by-side?  It would only be fitting if these two legends could produce a legendary battle to the checkered flag.



23rd Brickyard 400
Starting Lineup
Row 1:  Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards
Row 2:  Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin
Row 3:  Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman
Row 4:  Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr.
Row 5:  Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson
Row 6:  Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon
Row 7:  Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano
Row 8:  Chase Elliott, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 9:  Ryan Blaney, Matt Kenseth
Row 10:  Greg Biffle, Trevor Bayne
Row 11:  Jeff Gordon, Chris Buescher
Row 12:  Paul Menard, Danica Patrick
Row 13:  A.J. Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne
Row 14:  Michael McDowell, David Ragan
Row 15:  Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto
Row 16:  Clint Bowyer, Brian Scott
Row 17:  Landon Cassill, Casey Mears
Row 18:  Cole Whitt, Ryan Ellis
Row 19:  Regan Smith, Michael Annett
Row 20:  Reed Sorenson, Patrick Carpentier
Failed to qualify:  Josh Wise

Fast Five: World Series Favorites After the All-Star Break

Play resumes tonight in MLB after a four day break for the league’s All-Star Game in San Diego.  Roughly 21 of the 30 teams still have a realistic chance at making the playoffs (exactly how many depends on your definition of realistic), but a few stand out at the most likely teams to make a deep run come October.  Here are my five biggest favorites to win the World Series:

5. Cleveland Indians (52-36)
Over the last few years, my biggest point of skepticism with the Indians has been whether they could score runs, because they’ve had the pitching to contend for a while.  This year, while the pitching continues to be strong (the staff leads the AL with a 3.63 ERA), the offense is beyond just a complement to the pitching, as the Indians have become a force on both sides of the ball.  The Tribe scored 5.4 runs per game during a recent 14-game winning streak, and are led by SS Francisco Lindor (.306 BA, 10 HR, 45 RBI).  While Lindor leads the club in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), however, the next five are still pitchers (Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin), showing that the pitching staff is still the foundation as the club tries to make its first World Series trip since 1997, and tries to win it for the first time.  The Indians currently have a comfortable 6.5 game lead in the AL Central over the Tigers.

4. Washington Nationals (54-36)
Last year the Nats were a team of dysfunction, but under new manager Dusty Baker they have, at least thus far, realized their potential in 2016.  Bryce Harper, the defending NL MVP, is having somewhat of a down year, at least by his lofty standards (.256 BA, 19 HR, 52 RBI), and is seventh on the team in WAR.  Like the Indians, the Nationals are built with pitching; four of the top five in WAR are pitchers (Steven Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Tanner Roark, and Joe Ross, with 2B Daniel Murphy being the exception), and the team leads all of baseball with a 3.29 ERA.  Offensively, it is Murphy who is putting up MVP numbers (.348 BA, 17 HR, 66 RBI), as part of an offense that is sixth in the NL in runs and first in homers.  This team, who leads the Mets and Marlins by six games in the NL East, has the talent to win it all in October, although they have never even won a playoff series, something they would have to do twice to reach the Fall Classic.

3. Texas Rangers (54-36)
Last year, the Rangers made a surprise run in the second half to reach the postseason after many pundits thought they were best positioned for a run in 2016.  Well, they have an excellent chance at another playoff opportunity this year, as they sport the best record in the AL and have a 5.5 game lead on the resurgent Houston Astros.  The scary thing for the rest of baseball is that this team, as good as they have been, has not been completely healthy at any point yet this season.  Ian Desmond (.322 BA, 15 HR, 55 RBI) is a candidate for the MLB Comeback Player of the Year Award after a very poor 2015 campaign with Washington, although Matt Bush (3-1, 2.49 ERA) also has an exceptional comeback story as a key contributor on the AL favorites just months after his release from a 39-month prison term.  This particular year, the AL field in the playoffs will likely not be as strong as the NL field, something that could play right into the Rangers’ hands as they try to win their first World Series title.

2. San Francisco Giants (57-33)
Yes, it is an even-numbered year, but that is not the main reason the Giants are on this list.  The team has a remarkable stretch of winning the World Series the last three even years (2010, ’12, ’14), and they are contenders to do it again in 2016, currently leading the Dodgers by 6.5 games in the NL West.  The Giants are fourth in the NL in runs, despite ranking next to last in homers, and are still doing well at the plate despite three offensive starters on the DL.  But like most of the teams on this list, the Giants’ strength is their pitching, with a 3.55 team ERA that is fifth in MLB, and two bona fide aces leading the staff in All-Star starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (13-1, 2.47 ERA) and Madison Bumgarner (10-4, 1.94 ERA).  10 teams do not yet have a complete game, yet Cueto has four and Bumgarner three.  The team is 40-15 (albeit against a weak schedule) since May 10, and has the best record in baseball at the All-Star break for the first time since 1993, although just six of the last 30 teams to lead baseball at the break have followed in the fall with a title (and the ’93 edition is the last team to miss the playoffs with 100+ wins).  Only time will tell if this even year plays out like the last three.

1. Chicago Cubs (53-35)
In April I picked the Cubs to end their infamous 108-year championship drought, and I am sticking with it despite their recent 6-15 midseason swoon.  This team is simply too good for this slump to continue, and while I am not explicitly saying they will definitely win the World Series, I do still believe they have the best chance of anyone in baseball.  The Cubs are built differently than the other teams on this list, as five of their top six in WAR are position players, including their leaders in 3B/OF Kris Bryant (.286 BA, 25 HR, 65 RBI) and 1B Anthony Rizzo (.299 BA, 21 HR, 63 RBI).  That being said, their pitching has (for the most part) been outstanding as well, led by defending NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta (12-4, 2.68 ERA) and Jon Lester (9-4, 3.01 ERA).  This team is much better than recent form would indicate, and this rough patch is not likely to be anything more than a blip on the radar screen and is something every team goes through at some point.  The Cubs still lead the NL Central by 6.5 games over the Cardinals, and to me are still the World Series favorites just as they have been all along in 2016, as they try to do something that very few living souls have ever seen and win their first title since 1908.




MLB Standings

AL East
1. Baltimore 51-36
2. Boston 49-38, 2 GB
2. Toronto 51-40, 2 GB
4. N.Y. Yankees 44-44, 7.5 GB
5. Tampa Bay 34-54, 17.5 GB

AL Central
1. Cleveland 52-36
2. Detroit 46-43, 6.5 GB
3. Chi. White Sox 45-43, 7 GB
3. Kansas City 45-43, 7 GB
5. Minnesota 32-56, 20 GB

AL West
1. Texas 54-36
2. Houston 48-41, 5.5 GB
3. Seattle 45-44, 8.5 GB
4. Oakland 38-51, 15.5 GB
5. L.A. Angels 37-52, 16.5 GB

NL East
1. Washington 54-36
2. N.Y. Mets 47-41, 6 GB
2. Miami 47-41, 6 GB
4. Philadelphia 42-48, 12 GB
5. Atlanta 31-58, 22.5 GB

NL Central
1. Chi. Cubs 53-35
2. St. Louis 46-42, 7 GB
3. Pittsburgh 46-43, 7.5 GB
4. Milwaukee 38-49, 14.5 GB
5. Cincinnati 32-57, 21.5 GB

NL West
1. San Francisco 57-33
2. L.A. Dodgers 51-40, 6.5 GB
3. Colorado 40-48, 16 GB
4. San Diego 38-51, 18.5 GB
5. Arizona 38-52, 19 GB

Fast Five: Reasons I’m Still Watching the Atlanta Braves

It’s a depressing time to be a fan of the Atlanta Braves.  The team is currently 28-57, has the worst record in the major leagues, and has not had even a miniscule chance at contending since a 4-17 start.  The franchise is rebuilding, but I’ll be honest:  I’m not the patient type, so waiting for the future stars who are currently developing in the minor leagues isn’t easy for me.

There are not many fans left attending games, and while I am not privy to the Braves’ regional TV ratings, I would imagine they are not good.  However, I have still been watching the Braves every night that I am not working, despite how disheartening it can sometimes be.  There are, believe it or not, still some reasons to watch; here are the five best:

5. To watch good opposing players and teams.
There are currently only a handful of Braves players who I look forward to watching every day, but often times the opponent is worth watching.

The Braves play 19 games per year against the Nationals, who lead the NL East and feature defending MVP Bryce Harper; the Mets, the defending NL champions with excellent young pitching; and the Marlins, with slugger Giancarlo Stanton.

Outside the division, there are games like tonight’s contest against the Cubs, who are the best team in baseball and feature seven All-Stars, as well as potential playoff teams like the Giants, Cardinals, and others.

I appreciate good baseball, and while I don’t see much of it from the Braves side, I can acknowledge it from the opponents, even if it means the Braves losing.

4. There are occasional bright spots.
That being said, in these series against very strong teams, the Braves have won their share of games.  For instance, the Braves are 2-3 against the Cubs, and can split the season series if they can find a way to win tonight at Wrigley Field.

In a three-game series against the Royals, the Braves won just once, but it was a 5-0 domination of the world champs.  The Braves are 6-7 thus far against the NL champion Mets, and are even 8-4 against the contending Marlins.

There have also been some individual accomplishments, such as Julio Teheran’s 2.72 ERA, Freddie Freeman’s cycle, Dario Alvarez’s 19 strikeouts in 8.2 innings, and walk-off hits by Chase d’Arnaud and Freeman.  The bright spots have been few and far between, but they have kept me watching.

3. To see the future in action.
For a team like the Braves, with a bright future ahead, the names who will be a part of future success are slowly starting to make it to the major leagues, especially on the pitching side.

I’m a sucker for getting to see players make their major league debut, and seven players, including Mallex Smith, Aaron Blair and Hunter Cervenka, have done so for this team.  19 players debuted with the Braves in 2015, including Mike Foltynewicz, Matt Wisler and Jace Peterson, who are all likely to be future pieces for the Braves and are continuing to develop this year before our eyes.

Of course, established major leaguers like Freeman and Teheran, who are still just 26 and 25, respectively, are also a big part of the team’s future.  There’s a lot of the Braves’ future core still in the minors, but some already have a “cup of coffee” in The Show.

2. I’m loyal.
I was brought up to be loyal, whether in sports fandom or something more serious, even when the going gets tough.

I’m not very fond of so-called “fair-weather fans,” so it would be hypocritical for me to become one during this rebuilding project.  I completely understand where those people are coming from, as it is not easy to endure the “storm,”–I am well aware of this, as every team I consider myself a serious fan of is currently in rebuilding mode.

Sure, I could find another hobby while these teams are down in the doldrums, but I’m too loyal, and it will also make the good times that will eventually come even more special.

1. It’s usually the only baseball-watching option.
Even with all of these reasons, I still might not watch the Braves as often as I do if there were other baseball viewing options.

It’s the summer, and when I have spare time I want to watch baseball, period.  Yet most nights, the only option for someone like me who can’t afford the MLB.TV online streaming service is the Braves’ local broadcast.

Baseball on TV is not like other pro sports, or college sports, when there are typically multiple viewing options besides just the local teams on any given gameday.  Typically, since I live in the southeast, the Braves are the only baseball on.  Through most of my life, as the Braves have been competitive, that was enough, but now, I’d like to occasionally watch some games that mean something.

Yes, some nights ESPN or MLB Network will broadcast a game, but their schedules aren’t overwhelmingly consistent other than the Sunday night primetime game on ESPN (which I have watched for years), and hard for me to follow.

I enjoy the game of baseball, and particularly enjoy watching really good teams (i.e. the Cubs) and how they execute in a game.  But until MLB televises more games, I’m stuck watching the worst team in baseball find new and innovative ways to lose nearly every night.