An Open Letter to Bubba Wallace

Bubba,

As relieved as I am that the noose hanging in your Talladega garage stall was not directed at you, I still want to express how sorry I am for what happened over the last few days.

I’m sorry that you had to experience the negative emotions you must have had. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like on Sunday night when you were informed of the noose, as NASCAR considered the possibility that it had been placed as a hate crime because of your race. You must have angry and disgusted — or even scared on some level — particularly as the assumption was made that because of restricted access during the COVID-19 pandemic it had to have been placed by someone within the NASCAR industry.

It is understandable that you and your team members may have been on high alert for this race, given your existence as the only Black driver in what has traditionally been a Southern and very-predominantly-white sport; your outspokenness from that position on broader issues of race and equality, particularly recently; the sport’s recent confederate flag ban, after you had requested for such a ban to be implemented; the race being the first with general-admission fans in attendance since that ban (the first since March 8); and the race being in the heart of the Deep South in Alabama.

I’m also sorry about how many people are being critical of you after the investigation was closed. The people on social media accusing you of somehow staging this for the attention, or comparing you to Jussie Smollett, are completely wrong. I’m afraid those unfair criticisms will, unfortunately, follow you for the foreseeable future, given the attention on this story and the fact that some taunts don’t seem to go away quickly in the social-media age.

You have every right to be, as you said in an interview Tuesday, “mad because people are trying to test my character; they are trying to test my integrity.” Just remember that these people that are questioning you are ignorant of what happened, and most fans understand that you did nothing wrong. You were simply told of the incident and reacted — and did so with grace and resolve.

That reaction is one of the positive things that has come from this. So is what happened before the race Monday.

Fellow competitors stand behind Bubba Wallace’s car after pushing it to the front of the grid before Monday’s NASCAR Cup Series race in Talladega, Ala. (Bubba Wallace photo/Twitter)

Even as the event that led to it turned out not to be what we thought it was, the NASCAR industry’s show of solidarity towards you may have been the most moving thing I’ve ever seen in 20 years of watching the sport. By pushing your car to the front of the grid and standing with you during the national anthem, your fellow competitors made it clear they see no place for racism in NASCAR, and that while they are competing against you on the track they also have your back.

I can’t imagine what your emotions must have been. Even as my eyes were misty, the tears flowing from yours spoke volumes to the meaningfulness of that moment.

In this era of racial tensions and calls for social justice, that image will endure far longer than the discussions over the presence of the noose. Your buddy Ryan Blaney was right when he said Monday he didn’t feel it was a bad day for the sport, but a good day because when something bad happened (or at least was thought to have) you all overcame it together.

The moment of “every man on every crew” congratulating Dale Earnhardt after the 1998 Daytona 500 is one of the great images in NASCAR history. In time I think Monday’s every-man-on-every-crew moment may come to be even more of a defining image, because this was something bigger than someone winning a race. This was about humanity.

So while, as I said, I’m sorry about what has happened, I’m also proud that this situation produced something positive that has transcended the sport. I hope it made you feel as welcome in NASCAR as you have ever felt.

Sincerely,

A lifelong NASCAR fan who will always support you

Fast Five: Courses the PGA Tour should play this year

After it stopped along with the rest of the sports world back on March 12, the PGA Tour is set to resume June 11 with the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas.

But even as play gets set to resume soon, the schedule for the rest of the season continues to evolve. The Tour announced Thursday that the John Deere Classic, a midsummer Tour staple since 1971 played in Silvis, Ill., will be canceled for 2020. The tournament was to be played July 9-12; it is expected virus-related restrictions that would prevent such an event will still be in place at that time in Illinois.

The Tour is reportedly considering creating a new event to replace the John Deere, with TPC Sawgrass as the potential site. That venue certainly makes sense, both because The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass was canceled after one round in March, and because it’s close to the PGA Tour’s Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. headquarters, easing the logistics.

But as the Tour plays events without fans, it has an opportunity it may not have thought of: play an event at a course that wouldn’t be able to host a Tour event under normal circumstances.

There are plenty of great courses that are good enough to host the PGA Tour but due to a variety of factors — be it the lack of space for fans and hospitality, a rural location that isn’t conducive to a major professional sporting event, or both — can’t.

While everyone is eagerly anticipating the return of fans to live sporting events, the Tour should take advantage of the fact that “no room for fans” wouldn’t be a problem right now at any potential tournament site, and get creative, either with the July date left vacant by the John Deere or by any other date that may become open due to cancellation.

With that in mind, here’s five courses the Tour should consider (with the acknowledgement that, even without fans on the course, the logistics of putting together a tournament in weeks is a tall task at best, and may be unrealistic in some of these spots). Plus, just for fun, I’ve included one that absolutely cannot happen but is fun to think about.

Honorable Mention: Prestwick (Prestwick, South Ayrshire, Scotland)

This could never happen in 2020 because of the logistics involved of playing a tournament on another continent during a pandemic, quarantining for two weeks upon arrival to a country, etc., and that’s why this is only an honorable mention. But professional golf returning to Prestwick for the first time in nearly a century would be really cool (hey, maybe the European Tour can try this).

The venue hosted the first Open Championship in 1860 and 25 of the first 60 Opens through 1925, before space became an issue as the event grew and drew bigger crowds. The course was the site of all four Open Championships won by Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, and three of Willie Park’s four titles. It currently plays 6,544 yards — very short by modern professional standards — but maintains a course rating of 75.0, a level of many major-championship venues.

5. Tobacco Road (Sanford, N.C.)

Tobacco Road Golf Club is unmistakably located in the North Carolina Sandhills. (tobaccoroadgolf.com photo)

I’ll admit there’s a bit of a local bias here, but I’d love to see Tour pros play at Tobacco Road in Sanford, N.C. The course is overshadowed by other venues like Pinehurst and Quail Hollow in its own state (Golf Digest ranks it No. 13 in North Carolina), but is strong enough in its own right to provide a test for the world’s best players. It’s located in rural Lee County outside Sanford, and that location has likely hurt its chances over the years at hosting any big event, even as it’s only about an hour from Raleigh, Greensboro and Fayetteville.

Mike Strantz, the creative course architect well-known throughout the Carolinas, considered the 1998 layout (6,554 yards, 73.2 rating) to be his masterpiece. He carved the holes out of the natural terrain in the rolling hills of the Sandhills region, using that sand and those hills to give the course its unique character.

4. Myopia Hunt (South Hamilton, Mass.)

From the same school of thought at Prestwick comes Myopia Hunt, located 40 minutes north of Boston, which hosted four of the first 14 U.S. Opens from 1898-1908. The first and last of Willie Anderson’s record-tying four U.S. Open titles came here, including the 1901 U.S. Open in which no player broke 80 in any round (and people think the U.S. Open has a high winning score now…).

The course would play easier than that now, as the 1898 H.C. Leeds design renovated by Gil Hanse in 2013 is another track where modern players’ length might be an issue; it’s 6,539 yards with a 73.2 course rating, and might would even play as a par 69 with no par fives when adjusted to today’s game (the longest hole is 525 yards). But considering the whole point here is thinking outside the box, I’d be fine with that. And its age and lack of length didn’t hurt its Golf Digest rating: it’s the No. 76 course in America, with small greens and the occasional blind shot providing the difficulty.

3. Gozzer Ranch (Harrison, Idaho)

Gozzer Ranch Golf & Lake Club features views of the Rockies while overlooking Lake Coeur d’Alene. (gozzerranchclub.com photo)

While brainstorming on this idea and researching different golf courses, I discovered Gozzer Ranch Golf & Lake Club, a hidden gem designed by Tom Fazio in 2007 in Harrison, Idaho, an hour east of Spokane, Wash. The No. 32 golf course in America, according to Golf Digest, overlooks both the Rocky Mountains and Lake Coeur d’Alene, measuring 7,317 yards.

Having played some mountain golf when I lived in northeast Georgia, it’s quite different, with elevation changes and sidehill lies presented frequently, adding an extra degree of difficulty to the game — yet we never see it on the PGA Tour. Coming here would provide that challenge, plus a state where professional sports is practically non-existent would get and event and a chance to showcase its beautiful countryside.

2. Wolf Creek (Mesquite, Nev.)

Wolf Creek Golf Club is routed through the valleys in the mountainous Nevada terrain. (golfwolfcreek.com photo)

Speaking of mountain golf, one of the most well-known mountain courses is Wolf Creek Golf Club in Mesquite, Nev., about an hour northeast of Las Vegas. Dennis Rider’s 2000 layout features tremendous elevation change navigating among the mountainous desert, as close as 1,000 feet from the Nevada-Arizona line.

The course measures 6,939 yards, with a rating of 75.4 (by comparison, 2020 U.S. Open site Winged Foot has a 75.7 rating), and walking the course’s fairways — steep in some cases — would add to the challenge. Golf Digest rates Wolf Creek as the No. 5 course in Nevada and the No. 53 public course in America, and gamers will recognize the course as it was featured eight times in the Tiger Woods video game series.

1. Pine Valley (Pine Valley, N.J.)

The par-3 10th hole at Pine Valley, featuring some of the abundant bunkering the course is known for. (WAMGolf.com/Flickr photo)

While any of these courses would present a unique tournament and would be great choices for the Tour to take advantage of in 2020, the best option by far would be Pine Valley. George Crump’s one and only course design is located 30 minutes east of Philadelphia in the borough of Pine Valley, N.J. (which basically solely encompasses the course and has a whopping population of 12).

Pine Valley is currently ranked as the No. 1 course in the U.S. by Golf Digest, and has routinely rated either first or second over the last several decades. The 2019-20 ranking said of Pine Valley: “Throughout the course, Pine Valley blends all three schools of golf design — penal, heroic and strategic — often times on a single hole.” No holes are parallel to each other and no more than two consecutive holes go in the same direction on the 7,181-yard layout with a 76.6 rating.

You may wonder why the No. 1 course in America hasn’t hosted the U.S. Open or other significant events, but that’s due to the limited space that would exist for potential galleries, with some holes close together and the treeline on many holes very close to the fairways and greens. Membership has shown no interest in changing the course’s tight layout to accommodate tournament crowds (the course has hosted two Walker Cups, most recently in 1985). But a 2020 event, with no crowd present, would be the perfect circumstance to put the best players in the world on America’s best course, and provide an event that would give a unique badge of honor to the winner.

Revised 2019-20 PGA Tour Schedule
June 11-14Charles Schwab ChallengeFort Worth, Tex.rescheduled from May 21-24
June 18-21RBC HeritageHilton Head, S.C.rescheduled from Apr. 16-19
June 25-28Travelers ChampionshipCromwell, Conn.originally-scheduled date
July 2-5Rocket Mortgage ClassicDetroit, Mich.rescheduled from May 28-31
July 9-12TBD
July 16-19the Memorial TournamentDublin, Ohiorescheduled from June 4-7
July 23-263M OpenBlaine, Minn.originally-scheduled date
July 30-Aug. 2WGC-FedEx St. Jude InvitationalMemphis, Tenn.rescheduled from July 2-5
July 30-Aug. 2Barracuda Championship (alternate event)Truckee, Calif.rescheduled from July 2-5
Aug. 6-9PGA ChampionshipSan Francisco, Calif.rescheduled from May 14-17
Aug. 13-16Wyndham ChampionshipGreensboro, N.C.rescheduled from Aug. 6-9
Aug. 20-23The Northern Trust (PGA Tour Playoffs)Norton, Mass.rescheduled from Aug. 13-16
Aug. 27-30BMW Championship (PGA Tour Playoffs)Olympia Fields, Ill.rescheduled from Aug. 20-23
Sept. 4-7Tour Championship (PGA Tour Playoffs finale)Atlanta, Ga.rescheduled from Aug. 27-30
The Masters Tournament, U.S. Open and Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship are postponed will each be played in the fall as part of the 2020-21 season. The Olympic Men’s Golf Competition will now be held in Aug. 2021. The Players Championship, Valspar Championship, WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship, Valero Texas Open, Zurich Classic of New Orleans, Wells Fargo Championship and AT&T Byron Nelson, RBC Canadian Open, John Deere Classic, Barbasol Championship and The Open Championship are all canceled for 2020.

Column: Sports’ best qualities on display in NASCAR’s return

After a 66-day period with no major sports that for many of us has felt like 66 years, the process of resuming the sports calendar began this week as NASCAR staged two Cup Series events, plus one for the second-tier Xfinity Series, in Darlington, S.C.

The events were a welcome sight for competition-starved fans, including some who haven’t ever watched NASCAR before. And while NASCAR is vastly different from stick-and-ball sports, the events those fans have watched this week still featured many of the things that people love about sports.

Sure, one of the biggest elements is missing — fans in the grandstands. That will come back in due time, once the COVID-19 pandemic slows and it’s safe for thousands of people to congregate shoulder-to-shoulder. But as the sports world watched from their homes, what they saw served as a reminder of the qualities that make sports so fun to watch in the first place.

Competition

At the center of this is the competition. All three events this week were competitive throughout, with various drivers taking turns in the lead and battles for position persisting throughout the field.

Drivers race on the opening lap of Wednesday’s Toyota 500 in Darlington, S.C. (NASCAR Photo)

In the two Cup Series events, no organization or manufacturer has stood out as the one having the most speed, with Stewart-Haas Racing (Ford), Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota) and Hendrick Motorsports (Chevrolet) all showing strength in the two events.

Stewart-Haas’ Kevin Harvick won Sunday’s race for his 50th career victory and Clint Bowyer won two stages in Wednesday’s sequel, while Chase Briscoe won for the team in the Xfinity Series. Gibbs’ Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch finished first and second Wednesday. And while Hendrick didn’t have as strong of results, three of its cars held the first three spots at one point Sunday, and the other team car was in position for a strong finish before a late incident Wednesday (more on that in a moment).

Unpredictability

That parity helped to create another great sports element — unpredictability. Things happened in all three races no one could have anticipated; the unscripted nature of sports has always been one of its biggest appeals to me.

Who could have ever guessed seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson would spin out from the lead on the final lap of a stage (or, for that matter, that he’d be dominating the stage after a 99-race winless streak)? Bowyer had never won multiple stages in a race before Wednesday, and Thursday’s Xfinity race had it’s own set of wild circumstances (more on that below).

Even the weather followed along with that unpredictability — Wednesday’s Cup Series race was delayed by rain; the Xfinity Series race was postponed Tuesday and started four hours late on Thursday. The abundance of rain delays was just about the only unwelcome thing about NASCAR’s return.

Strategy

The weather, though, helped to emphasize the strategic elements of the races. In both Wednesday’s Cup race and the Xfinity event, teams had to tailor their strategy not just to the advertised distance of the race, but also to the current moment, as the possibility of rain persisted through both events. In NASCAR, an event can be rain-shortened if over half the laps are completed — and Wednesday’s race ultimately was ended 20 laps early when the rains returned.

But weather-related plans were not the only strategy employed by the teams. Tire management was a consideration throughout each event, particularly on a track like Darlington where tire wear is so conspicuous. Cars on different strategies created comers and goers in the pack, only adding to the competitiveness of each race.

There are strategic elements to every race, but particularly at a place like Darlington. The unique track is an egg-shaped, 1.366-mile circuit with the turns banked most heavily on the outside, meaning that the fastest way around the track is also the trickiest — inches from the wall.

Tradition

The difficulty of “the track too tough to tame” is simply part of the track’s rich tradition. The venue opened during NASCAR’s second season in 1950, and the Southern 500 (set to run as scheduled Sept. 6) was the series’ first speedway race. This week, some 70 years after helping to launch the sport, Darlington was host to its rebirth.

Auto racing is among the most tradition-rich sports, and while few tracks can match Darlington there, one that can is Charlotte, where the sport heads next. Sunday will mark the 61st Coca-Cola 600 — the 59th run on Memorial Day Weekend. NASCAR’s longest race is typically one of three major motorsports events on the holiday weekend, but COVID-19 caused the Indianapolis 500 to be moved to Aug. 23, and Formula 1’s Monaco Grand Prix to be canceled for the first time since 1954.

While it will be different from previous years, NASCAR will still continue it’s annual observance of Memorial Day surrounding the 600. In addition to special pre-race ceremonies — done virtually — each car will feature the name of a fallen U.S. service member across the top of its windshield.

NASCAR will continue to showcase some of its traditional venues after the Charlotte events, with Bristol, Martinsville, Atlanta and Talladega among the tracks scheduled for the coming weeks on NASCAR’s reworked schedule.

Conflict

The sport’s heritage includes some of the great Richard Petty-David Pearson duels and Dale Earnhardt-Darrell Waltrip feuds — and Wednesday’s race featured some hostility as well.

Chase Elliott spun after he was hooked by Kyle Busch while the two battled for second late in the race, as Busch tried to move into the space between Elliott and fourth-place Kevin Harvick and misjudged that gap, hitting Elliott’s left-rear and sending him into the inside wall.

Elliott pointed his middle finger at Busch as the latter drove by on the next lap, and his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, had an animated discussion with Busch, the 2019 Cup Series champion, after the race.

Quotes from both in the two days since suggest that they’re ready to move on — and Elliott has stated he now understands Busch’s move was simply a mistake and had no malicious intent — but that hasn’t prevented the conversations among fans and the media to continue, as they likely will until the next event Sunday.

Redemption

Busch’s admitted mistake in Wednesday’s race presented an opportunity to redeem himself in Thursday’s Xfinity Series race, where he was the heavy favorite, and after starting 26th he led the race by lap 48. Then, after winning the second stage, Busch was issued a pit road speeding penalty and was mid-pack once again — presenting an even bigger redemption opportunity.

Busch battled to fifth, then after a late caution picked off the leaders one-by-one up to second, and battled head-to-head with Briscoe in the closing laps.

Busch got all the way back to the top spot, leading the penultimate lap by a few inches, and battled door-to-door with Briscoe all the way back around to the checkers. But the opportunity for redemption for Busch was upstaged when fate had other plans for his competitor.

Emotion

Among the best qualities of sports is the raw human emotion on public display by competitors. The events Sunday and Wednesday included some amount of that from Harvick and Hamlin in victory — including Hamlin’s odd mask featuring his his own smile — while others showed their disappointment, including Elliott’s one-finger salute.

But the most clear display of emotion came from Briscoe. The 25-year-old and wife Marissa learned Tuesday they’d lost their expected baby, as Chase watched in Darlington through FaceTime when Marissa attended a routine 12-week checkup and it was discovered the baby had no heartbeat. Returning to the track Thursday after the postponement gave Briscoe an escape, though he said there were still times during the race he had tears in his eyes.

Briscoe, in his second Xfinity Series season, earned his fourth career win by beating the sport’s best driver, saying later he felt God was driving his racecar in the closing laps because he was an emotional mess. He keyed the radio moments after beating Busch by .086 seconds, but couldn’t speak and instead sobbed audibly; his crew chief told the driver the win was for him and his wife and baby. Briscoe remained overcome when he got out of the car.

“This is more than a race win,” he said. “This is the greatest day of my life, after the toughest day of my life.”

The emotions of victory — and often of defeat, too — are among the most magnetic qualities sports presents. Celebrating a win is one of the best parts of any competition, and sometime’s the participant’s life circumstances make it even more meaningful.

Any human, not just racing fans or more general sports fans, can relate on some level to the emotions shown, and Briscoe’s win was the perfect way to end the week of racing and put a bow on NASCAR’s return.

Column: Foltynewicz and Duvall, in minors this summer, save Braves postseason in October

During the dog days of summer, Mike Foltynewicz woke up 43 mornings as a minor leaguer, as recently as Aug. 5. Adam Duvall spent 136 days in the minors, as recently as Sept. 5.

But come October, on a hot Georgia night that felt like those same dog days of summer, Mike Foltynewicz and Adam Duvall may have saved the Atlanta Braves’ postseason.

The pair of former All-Stars played to their full capability Friday night, leading the Braves to a crucial 3-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals to even the NL Division Series at one game each.

Foltynewicz pitched seven shutout innings, allowing three hits. When Duvall pinch-hit for Foltynewicz in the bottom of the seventh, he hit a two-run home run to stretch a 1-0 lead to 3-0, giving the Braves some huge insurance runs.

With the win, the Braves avoided the ominous fate of a 2-0 series deficit in the best-of-5 series ahead of the next two games in St. Louis.

Foltynewicz entered the season as the Braves’ top starting pitcher, but his season was delayed by injury, then plagued by ineffectiveness. On June 22, with a 6.37 ERA after 11 starts, he was optioned to AAA Gwinnett less than a year removed from his 2018 All-Star appearance.

The right-hander worked on both the execution of his pitches and the harnessing of his emotions, both of which were part of the early-season problems, and on Aug. 5 he was recalled to the major leagues after a successful run of starts.

In the 10 starts since his recall, Foltynewicz regained his 2018 form, pitching to a 2.65 ERA; the Braves won each of the first nine of those starts.

In Friday’s game, he made arguably the best start of his career, becoming the first Braves starter to throw seven or more shutout innings in a playoff game since Tom Glavine in the 2001 NLDS. In doing so, he outdueled the Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty, the NL Pitcher of the Month in both August and September, all on the heels of a poor performance in last year’s playoff-series loss to the Dodgers.

“(It’s) pretty special,” Foltynewicz said. “(I) keep talking about it, the kind of year I had, just for the Braves to have trust in me. And I kind of proved what I went down to work on that I’m still the pitcher that I was last year.”

Foltynewicz was so strong that some fans at SunTrust Park booed when Duvall pinch-hit for Foltynewicz in the seventh inning. With two out in the inning, Braves manager Brian Snitker was trying to give his team the best chance to add on some runs, especially considering that Foltynewicz is a light hitter even by a pitcher’s standards. The trade-off was that Foltynewicz was out of the game at 81 pitches.

But Snitker had pushed the right button — Duvall’s home run gave the Braves some much-needed breathing room as the game was turned over to a bullpen which had struggled the night before in Game 1.

Duvall, a 2016 All-Star while with the Cincinnati Reds, had seasons of 33 and 31 home runs in 2016 and 2017, but struggled mightily at the plate after being traded to Atlanta in mid-2018. He hit .132 with no home runs in 53 at-bats, and was left off last year’s playoff roster.

Entering 2019, the Braves were hopeful that Duvall could regain his own form, but simply didn’t have a roster spot for him out of spring training. So he began his age-30 season at Gwinnett, waiting for an opportunity, and all he did was hit: 32 home runs and 93 RBIs in 101 games.

That opportunity did eventually open when the Braves experienced some injuries, and Duvall hit five home runs in the first six games after he was promoted back to the big leagues. He totaled 15 extra-base hits in 41 games, and this time around earned a playoff-roster spot as a right-handed-hitting reserve.

“This guy’s a former All-Star, he’s getting Gold Glove votes … last year didn’t go the way he wanted it to,” Snitker said. “Out of Spring Training, we optioned him down and he went down and hit I don’t know how many homers, and stayed the course and worked. I have so much respect for a guy like that.”

Duvall earned a hit and a walk in Game 1, then Friday did what he does best: hit a Flaherty fastball 423 feet to center field, landing in a raucous red-draped crowd.

After Foltynewicz went deep on the mound and Duvall went deep at the plate, the last six outs were earned by pitchers with noteworthy routes to Game 2 in their own right — Max Fried won 17 games as a starter, second most in the NL, but is being utilized as a reliever in the postseason; Mark Melancon was 12-for-12 in saves in the regular season but blew the save in Game 1, only to find redemption in Game 2 — and the Braves had evened the series.

Who could’ve known, in the 100-degree heat of Lawrenceville, Ga. during some mundane Gwinnett Stripers game in July, that the two most integral players in the Braves’ first 2019 playoff win would come from that team and not the more acclaimed one 30 miles away in Atlanta?

As disappointing as Game 1 was for the Braves — and as much as they could be leading the series 2-0 — Friday’s must-win was won and the team’s postseason aspirations were, at least for now, saved.

All because a couple of guys who were playing in front of a couple thousand people in July got the job done in October on the postseason’s grand stage.

Column: The checkered flag at the end of the rainbow

Chase Elliott’s win in Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was incredible for anyone watching, as the 23-year-old from Georgia overcame a mid-race accident, came back through the field to take the lead with six laps to go and claimed his sixth career NASCAR Cup Series victory, then did a burnout at the very spot he had hit the wall an hour earlier.

But for me, this win had even more meaning. It was a checkered flag at the end of a rainbow.

But to understand what made Sunday afternoon special for me, you must first understand the road to get there.

From an early age, my aunt Terri taught me that if someone asked “who’s the best driver?” I was to answer with the name Jeff Gordon. That sparked an interest in NASCAR, and by Gordon’s championship season of 2001 I had joined her as a diehard fan.

She and I attended a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway eight times between 2002-12, witnessing 2,219 laps of racing, with everything from Mark Martin winning a million-dollar bonus at our first race, to Dale Earnhardt Jr. running out of gas leading on the final lap, to the time we thought we were on Noah’s ark through a day and a half of rain ending in David Reutimann’s first career win.

After Jeff Gordon retired (we watched the final race of his last full-time season together at a race-viewing party at the NASCAR Hall of Fame), we both became Chase Elliott fans the following year when the son of Hall of Famer Bill Elliott took over the drivers seat of the No. 24 Chevrolet.

In September 2016, two-thirds of the way through Elliott’s rookie season, Terri died unexpectedly.

In the three years since, I had not been to Charlotte Motor Speedway until Sunday. I wasn’t avoiding the track, but simply never made it to a race there, between being busier than ever and, for a time, further away from Charlotte than ever, and attending races at other tracks.

She was on my mind Sunday — when we got to our seats, which weren’t too far away from where we sat during that rainy Coca-Cola 600; during the invocation and national anthem; when Gordon made a cameo on the track’s massive video screen.

As the race unfolded, by the middle of Stage 2 it was clear Elliott had the best car on the racetrack, and he led 28 laps over the middle portion of the race and won the stage. At some point I gave a thought to how personally meaningful an Elliott win could be.

But on a restart on lap 65 of the 109-lap event, Elliott locked up the brakes and his car wouldn’t turn, resulting in him hitting the tire barrier where the drivers turn off from the traditional oval into the infield portion of the “roval” track.

Since he drove the car back to pit road, I figured he would be able to continue and would not be out of the race, but I also assumed his chance to win was gone. The car’s hood appeared to be damaged, and I questioned if there could be damage inside the hood as well.

But the damage was minimal, and Elliott drove his way from around 30th back towards the front, even briefly leading again at lap 78 during a cycle of green-flag pit stops. With his driving through the field and the help of some timely cautions, Elliott was up to third by the final restart.

Within one lap after the final restart, Elliott had taken the lead again — clearing Kevin Harvick right in front of me in the frontstretch chicane.

Over the final laps, as Elliott pulled away from second-place Alex Bowman, I began to reflect, all while nervously hoping the race would stay green.

I thought about the times spent with Terri at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I thought about the fact that the driver I was pulling for, be it Gordon or Elliott, had never won a race I attended.

I thought about the fact that she would have been 60 two days later — today.

And then, in the midst of all of these thoughts, just as Elliott was coming to the white flag to signify the final lap, a rainbow appeared over the racetrack.

Rainbows are often used in a symbolic way, and in this case felt like further confirmation that what was happening on the track simply felt meant to be.

Furthermore, the symbolism of a rainbow specifically connects back to Terri and racing: Jeff Gordon’s Dupont-sponsored car was, for many years, painted with a rainbow, a scheme that was so iconic his pit crew became known as the Rainbow Warriors.

Chase Elliott navigated the 17 turns of the final lap under that rainbow, and at the end of that 109th lap of the afternoon found his pot of gold in the form of a checkered flag.

Chase Elliott on the final lap of Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Take note of the rainbow in the upper left, which the photo does not do justice. (Photo: Chris Stiles)

And as Elliott crossed that finish line, I lifted my hands up in celebration but also briefly glanced to the heavens in reflection. My friend Jackson, who I was attending the race with, gave me a high-five. After standing for the closing laps, I sat down to take a deep breath, and simply took in the moment.

I don’t mean to elevate my circumstances over those of anyone else — during the race I even had the thought that if another driver won it would be just as meaningful to one of their fans — but some things just feel meant to be.

I know it was just a race, and not one that I was a participant in. But sometimes sports outcomes can be more meaningful because of the underlying circumstances.

Now, a couple of days later, I’m grateful. Grateful for the experience, for the chance to reflect and to remember a special person in my life.

I went to a NASCAR race Sunday. I never expected to find a personal pot of gold.

Column: The Dodgers can make a run at the Braves’ record division streak

From 1991-2005, the Atlanta Braves achieved an unprecedented level of regular-season success, winning division titles in 14 consecutive seasons — a record across all of professional sports.

It’s one of those sports records that many people say will never be broken.

But after clinching the National League West title on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Dodgers are halfway to the Braves’ mark with seven straight division championships, and have a chance to make a run at matching or even surpassing the record.

The sheer thought of winning 14 straight division titles is incredible — imagine the Minnesota Twins, a potential division winner this year for the first time since 2010, winning the AL Central every year until 2032. That’s what makes the Braves run so remarkable, and what makes the Dodgers’ chance at a parallel run impressive.

When the Dodgers won the NL West in 2013, they did not have a club with the appearance of a long-term run of success, but instead a very veteran-laden club. Six of the team’s eight position-player regulars that year were 31 or older, including Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford (and Hanley Ramirez was 29), with Yasiel Puig serving as the one young gun in the daily lineup.

The pitching staff wasn’t quite as old, led by Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Kenley Jansen, but among the contributors were Ricky Nolasco, Chris Capuano, J.P. Howell and Brian Wilson, all at or near the end of their respective careers.

In the years since, there’s been plenty of turnover — Kershaw, Ryu and Jansen are the only three players to play on all seven division-winning teams — but they’ve continued to win, and in almost every year of the streak have won comfortably.

That’s because the franchise has been able to replenish the roster without ever having to rebuild — and remarkably, turning over nearly the entire roster without ever finishing out of first. A big reason that’s been done is the players they’ve drafted and developed to become major-league stars.

Current Dodgers Walker Buehler, Corey Seager, Joc Pederson and potential NL MVP Cody Bellinger have become key pieces after coming up through the Dodgers farm system. Others, like Puig and Dee Gordon, were key contributors to multiple division titles before being dealt away.

Some of the Dodger players who weren’t drafted by the team have also been a key to the team’s success, including several players who they found as diamonds in the rough: Justin Turner, Max Muncy and Andrew Toles were each released by their previous organizations, while Chris Taylor was part of a trade that seemed inconsequential at the time.

The result today is a well-rounded team who is built to continue winning in the coming years. Nearly all of the team’s offensive contributors are 29 and younger, and despite age starting to become a factor for the pitching staff the rotation is as strong as ever, including Ryu, in the midst of a career year at age 32. The bullpen is far from the team’s strength, but between the organization’s deep pockets and its depth of minor-league prospects, that problem may fix itself moving into next year as they go for division title No. 8.

The Dodgers are halfway to the Braves’ thought-to-be-unattainable record, and they’re better built for the future than they were at the beginning of the streak. And this is all while each of the other NL West teams appears to lack the strength to make a run at them, at least in the immediate future.

So, seven years from now, it’s quite feasible that Bobby Cox’s Braves could have some company.

Column: From one home to another

Nine months ago, I packed up and left Clayton, Ga. to move back home.

This week, I packed up as I prepare to leave Asheboro, N.C. to move back home.

Before I explain, let me avoid what we in the business call “burying the lead” – I’m excited to announce that I will be starting a sportswriting job at The Robesonian in Lumberton, N.C. on Monday.

Now, about the whole “move back home” thing…

Two areas have always been home to me, as I’ve spent large portions of my life living in both of them: the Piedmont Triad of North Carolina and the Pee Dee region of South Carolina.

I lived in Kernersville, N.C. from birth until I was 14, and lived in Mullins, S.C. from then until I got my first job out of college. Granted, for four of those years I was in Anderson, S.C. eight months a year (and it’s a home to me as well), but Mullins was still my home base.

So it was truthful when, in November of last year, I said I was moving close to home when I left my job at The Clayton Tribune for another at The Courier-Tribune in Asheboro N.C.

Now, after a roller-coaster nine months in Asheboro, I’m moving back close to home – my other home – as I join the excellent staff at The Robesonian and relocate to Lumberton, just across the state line from Mullins.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect in November I would be changing jobs and locations again so soon, but circumstances more or less made that decision for me.

In May I was laid off from The Courier-Tribune as part of a wave of company-wide layoffs within parent company GateHouse Media. I was one of the approximately 200 journalists affected nationwide. I woke up one day with a position in the company and by the end of the day that position had simply vanished.

The move from Clayton to Asheboro had felt perfect. I was close to my original Triad home and, more importantly, to my grandmother and other extended family. I had the opportunity to cover some big events with The Courier-Tribune, including the ACC Tournament in Charlotte and several University of North Carolina events in Chapel Hill.

That perfection was over quickly – the NBA season that started before I moved to Asheboro was still in progress when I was laid off – and I wondered what was next.

Fortunately, an opportunity at The Robesonian opened, things moved quickly – in part due to a connection to sports editor Jonathan Bym through us meeting at UNC games – and here I am announcing my latest career move.

This job will be very similar to the one in Asheboro, as I’ll be covering high school and college sports at a newspaper that publishes five days a week (the only difference in that sentence would be that Asheboro publishes six days a week).

The Triad will always be a home to me. But now I’m excited to be close to family and friends as I start the next chapter and “move home” yet again.

Column: Westwood’s last good chance?

For much of his career, Lee Westwood was known as the current “best player to never win a major,” and the Englishman is, quite frankly, one of the best golfers of all-time to never win a major championship.

This week, Westwood is squarely in contention at the 148th Open Championship, sitting a shot back of co-leaders Shane Lowry and J.B. Holmes at the event’s halfway mark.

Westwood is no stranger to the position he’s in, but him and those watching alike have to be wondering if this Open is the last good chance that he will have to shred the dreaded “never won a major” label.

When the championship ends Sunday, Westwood will be 46 years, 2 months and 27 days old. A victory would make him the third-oldest player to win a major, four days older than Jack Nicklaus in the 1986 Masters and 11 days younger than the second-oldest, Old Tom Morris in the 1867 Open Championship.

Context would make a win even more historic. No player has ever reached Westwood’s age before winning their first major championship. Jerry Barber, who won the 1961 PGA Championship at age 44, is the oldest first-time major champion.

But what Westwood lacks in youth, he makes up for in experience. He has 24 European Tour wins (eighth-most all-time) and has been a part of seven victorious Ryder Cup teams in his 10 appearances. And while he hasn’t won a major, it isn’t because of a lack of chances over his career.

Westwood has finished in the top five in The Open four times, in addition to three times each at the Masters and U.S. Open and once in the PGA Championship. He has 18 top 10 finishes in majors spanning from 1997-2016, including two in each year from 2009-13.

But Westwood’s form over the last few years hasn’t matched that of his prime. Since a tie for second at the 2016 Masters, Westwood hasn’t finished better than 18th in a major.

After spending most of his career ranked in the top 10 in the Official World Golf Rankings, he’s now ranked 78th and has only qualified for three of the last eight majors — in addition to this week, he had a 61st-place finish in last year’s Open and a missed cut at May’s PGA Championship.

Missed cuts this week by contemporaries such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington also serve as a reminder that the golfers of Westwood’s generation are no longer able to contend week in and week out.

But one of those peers, Woods, has won a major this year, proving that it can still be done by someone in their mid-40s (and to say Tiger had also been through a slump before his win would be a huge understatement).

Westwood enters the weekend with more major-championship experience than anyone else in contention, although he’ll have to beat some big names if he wants to lift the Claret Jug on Sunday. Behind Lowry and Holmes, Tommy Fleetwood is tied with Westwood one shot back, ahead of a list of contenders that also includes Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth, all within three strokes or less. Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson are among those further back that could still have a chance with a good weekend.

Surely he feels pressure — he has to know this could potentially be his last good chance at the one thing in professional golf that’s eluded him — but perhaps he can continue his solid play and earn a storybook triumph in his nation’s championship.

Local favorite?

Another storybook ending could take place if Lowry can turn the 36-hole co-lead into his first major championship.

This Open at Royal Portrush is the first contested in Northern Ireland since 1961. But while Northern Ireland had three players in the field, only one made the cut, and Portrush native Graeme McDowell is likely out of contention nine shots back.

The other Northern Irishman each had a memorable first two days — Darren Clarke hit the tournament’s opening shot, birdied the first hole and led early Thursday morning, while Rory McIlroy made a stirring run at the cut line late Friday, coming back from a first-round 79 only to fall one shot short — but will not be around for the weekend.

Who will the locals root for with no one from Northern Ireland in contention? Enter Lowry.

The 32-year-old Irishman, from about 120 miles south of Portrush, not only joins McDowell as the only two players from the island of Ireland to make the cut, but will be the local favorite for the fans at Royal Portrush this weekend.

While Ireland and Northern Ireland have had a tumultuous relationship over the course of history, fans fully supported Lowry over the first two days around the Royal Portrush links. Relations have softened between the two nations in recent decades, and many Irish fans may have crossed the border (about 55 miles away) to attend The Open at Royal Portrush this week.

Other fan-favorites this weekend will be Brits Westwood, Fleetwood and Rose and the always-popular Spieth and Kuchar. But Lowry is in better position than any of those names entering the third round, and may have equal or better support too.

Column: Insult or not, Foltynewicz’s demotion is the right move

Saturday night, as Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Mike Foltynewicz was enduring his latest struggle on the mound, I was chatting with a friend via text message about whether or not the Braves should consider moving the right-hander down to AAA Gwinnett for a couple of starts.

“Hmm, wouldn’t that be kinda a middle finger to an All-Star?” the friend replied.

I agreed that sending a player who was an All-Star and the team’s No. 1 starter just last year down to the minor leagues might not be the most popular move, but said that a team in a division race like the Braves has more urgency to not let a struggling player continue hurting the team’s results.

It would turn out that in Saturday’s game Foltynewicz’s performance did not cost the Braves the game, as the team scored nine runs over the last three innings to earn a thrilling, come-from-behind 13-9 win over the Washington Nationals.

Mike Foltynewicz. (Flickr Photo)

But a couple of hours after the game, news broke that Foltynewicz reportedly will, in fact, be optioned to the Gwinnett Stripers, the team’s AAA affiliate.

This is one of those moves that people say “if you told me in Spring Training that this would happen, I wouldn’t have believed it,” but the Braves have made the right decision in demoting the 27-year-old known as “Folty.”

This move will allow Foltynewicz to work through his struggles without the pressure or urgency to win that each and every major-league game entails. Instead of feeling like he has to be his 2018 self every time out, he can be more patient in trying to solve his problems.

After a very solid 2018 season — 13-10 with a 2.85 ERA in 183 innings, with 202 strikeouts and a league-leading two complete games, leading to an eighth-place finish in National League Cy Young Award voting — the 2019 season has been a struggle for Foltynewicz, from the beginning. His Spring Training was compromised by an elbow injury and he didn’t make his season debut until April 27.

He is currently 2-5 with a 6.37 ERA, and has allowed 16 home runs in 59 1/3 innings for a rate of 2.4 home runs per nine innings, by far the worst of his career. By comparison, he allowed 17 home runs in three times as many innings last year.

Saturday’s start was his 11th of the season; only four of the 11 have been quality starts, and Foltynewicz only reached 100 pitches once. He hasn’t recorded an out in the seventh inning yet this season.

The struggles particularly reached a flash point Saturday in Washington as he allowed eight earned runs over four-plus innings and showed negative body language throughout the outing.

“I’ve got a 7-ERA on a first-place team,” Foltynewicz said. “It’s just tough. I’m battling every night. It’s just tough. It’s just the person I am. I’m going to wear that stuff on my sleeve, especially when things aren’t going my way. It’s just tough. It’s all my fault, too.”

Foltynewicz often struggled with his in-game emotions over his first four major-league seasons, but seemed to mostly harness them in 2018, leading to his successful campaign. Many around the Braves organization thought he had turned that corner for good, but even Braves manager Brian Snitker — who almost never makes negative public comments about his players — wondered aloud after Saturday’s game what effect Foltynewicz’s emotions were having on his performance.

“I thought he had turned the corner, but I’m seeing signs this year of him going right back to where he was two or three years ago,” Snitker said. “Nobody can take care of that other than him. He has to be the one who controls that.”

Now, as Foltynewicz in back-to-back starts goes from facing Anthony Rendon to facing Danny Mendick*, he can breath easier as he steps back from the burden of a pennant race and can work on whatever in his game needs working on without the risk of costing his team ground in the National League East standings.

*Yeah, I don’t know who that is either, but he leads Foltynewicz’s likely next opponent, the Charlotte Knights, in at bats.

Foltynewicz is surely frustrated that it’s come to this — and it’s rare for a player to go from an All-Star to the minor leagues in less than a year — but hopefully once his flight back to Georgia lands he’ll be able to see that this move can benefit him in the long run. If he can iron out the struggles in his performance and once again control his emotions as he competes, I don’t see any reason why he can’t return to the form he showed in 2018 and help the Braves as a productive starter — maybe even down the stretch this season.

As the Braves hope that’s what comes from this move, they’re not exactly “giving him a middle finger” but instead doing their best to reach out a helping hand.

SportsShorts: Rain delays, retractable roofs and Stranger Things

Pop-up summer showers often present a dilemma for baseball’s umpires and groundskeepers. If you tarp the field and the rain ends quickly, it will still take 20 or 30 minutes to get the field ready despite the small amount of rain, but if you decide to wait out the rain and it intensifies, the field may be lost for the night.

Monday’s game between the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets found itself in such a quandary.

After a beautiful day in Georgia, a pop-up shower hit SunTrust Park as the game was in the middle of the sixth inning — and the situation produced a rather bizarre rain delay.

The umpiring crew, led by crew chief Sam Holbrook, directed the Braves’ grounds crew to tarp the field. Head groundskeeper Ed Mangan discussed the situation with the umpires, showing them radar and weather forecasts that projected the storm would quickly pass.

As Mangan and the umpires held their discussion on the field, the grounds crew stopped and stared, waiting for further direction as the tarp was around 1/3 of the way pulled; this holding pattern continued for around 10 minutes, a period that also included a fan running onto the field.

Finally, after much discussion and the rain continuing off and on, the decision was made to take the tarp off the field. The grounds crew moved quickly, putting the tarp back at its post along the third-base-side wall and touching up the mound and infield. Play resumed after a delay totaling 15 minutes, although the teams had to wait a few extra seconds after Braves coaches Eric Young and Ron Washington were late getting in place at first and third base; the Braves went on to win 12-3.

In the midst of the delay, Braves broadcaster Chip Caray humorously noted the peculiarity of what was happening: “I can’t think of a more apropos promo to read during this delay: Stranger Things Night at SunTrust Park is Wednesday, July 3…”

This was not the first unusual rain delay involving the Braves in recent years. On Opening Day of the 2015 season, the Braves were playing the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park, which has a retractable roof.

But after the game began with the roof open on what had been a clear spring day, one of those patented South Florida showers popped up in the second inning and caused a 16-minute rain delay as the teams waited for the roof to be closed. Yes, an indoor stadium had a rain delay.

You may think that Monday’s 15-minute delay must be one of the shortest ever seen, but I’ve witnessed three shorter — all in the same game. In a 2016 Coastal Plain League game at Asheboro, N.C.’s McCrary Park — which has an artificial turf infield that doesn’t need to be tarped — three passing showers hit the park during the game.

In each instance, the teams waited for the rain to stop and then resumed playing almost immediately when the skies cleared. The three rain delays totaled around 30 minutes, with the shortest lasting just seven minutes.

Rain delays can be stranger things indeed.