Column: Thomas Earns PGA–And Rightful Place Among Golf’s Young Stars

The biggest storyline entering the 99th PGA Championship was Jordan Spieth, and whether he could become the youngest player in history to complete the career grand slam.

When the dust settled at dusk on Sunday Spieth was, in fact, celebrating a championship on the 18th green–in street clothes, as he hugged close friend and first-time major winner Justin Thomas.

Thomas earned the PGA title by emerging from a crowded pack of contenders over Quail Hollow’s back nine on Sunday, and in doing so earned his rightful place among the group of young stars dominating today’s golf landscape.

A Well-Earned Title

Thomas started Sunday’s final round two shots back of 54-hole leader Kevin Kisner, and while he certainly benefited from a couple of good breaks on his way to winning the Wanamaker Trophy, he also showed his skill in the clutch en route to victory.

After struggling through the brutal opening hole, Thomas made a clutch 15-footer to limit the damage and make bogey.  Thomas then birdied the second and seventh holes, before holing a 36-footer for birdie at the ninth to get within a shot of Hideki Matsuyama’s lead.

Riding the momentum at the turn, Thomas’s 10th hole turned a good round into a round of destiny.  His tee shot was way left on the 600-yard par-5, but bounced off a tree straight to the center of the fairway.  After his second missed the green long and his third rolled to within eight feet, his birdie putt rolled to the left lip of the hole and stopped, before falling in the hole after 12 suspenseful seconds, keeping him within one.


A par at the 11th pulled Thomas into a five-way tie for the lead (when Matsuyama made bogey), then a par at the 12th gave him the lead as his fellow co-leaders each fell off the 7-under mark, Thomas chipped in from left of the green on the par-3 13th, adding to his final round highlight reel and his lead, which was two.


As other players continued to struggle down the stretch, Thomas made pars on the 14th, 15th and 16th, then birdied the difficult par-3 17th after an aggressive tee shot to 14 feet on a green guarded on three sides by water, allowing him to conservatively play the dangerous 18th with a three-shot lead on his way to clinching the victory with a tap-in bogey.

A Young Star

By earning the PGA title with his steady play throughout the final round, Thomas has also earned his rightful place among golf’s young stars, especially alongside his friend Spieth.

Thomas and Spieth, both 24, grew up playing together as two of the best junior golfers in the world.  Both represented the U.S. in the Junior Ryder Cup (Spieth 2008, ’10; Thomas 2010) and Walker Cup (Spieth 2011, Thomas 2013), contributing to American victories in each event.  Both would eventually lead a college team to a national championship (Spieth at Texas in 2012; Thomas at Alabama in 2013).

Both Spieth and Thomas appeared in a PGA Tour event at age 16.  Spieth opened eyes with a 16th-place finish at the 2010 Valero Texas Open, but a few months earlier Thomas had shot an opening 65 in the Wyndham Championship and become the third-youngest player to make the cut in a PGA Tour event, proving his game’s strength to all in attendance that week in Greensboro–myself included.

Spieth has had more success since the two turned pro, but that’s at least partially because Spieth turned pro before Thomas, and had more PGA Tour opportunities through sponsor exemptions, while Thomas had to qualify for the Tour through the second-tier Web.com Tour.

But now, Thomas is catching up in the most-viewed category of success–major championships–by ironically winning the one major Spieth lacks.

The major title puts Thomas a leg up on others in the tight-knit group of young stars.  Other young guns still seeking their first major include Daniel Berger and Smylie Kaufman from the U.S. and international players including Jon Rahm, Emiliano Grillo and Matsuyama, who went on to tie for fifth Sunday and has finished second to Thomas in two other events this season.  Rickie Fowler, who was also waiting to congratulate Thomas at the 18th green, is older (28) than some of the other players, but is close with Thomas, Spieth and others of the young wave.

Thomas will also be the favorite for PGA Tour Player of the Year honors as the Tour enters the FedEx Cup Playoffs next week.  Thomas leads the Tour with four wins, all by two or more strokes, including one in a major and one in January’s SBS Tournament of Champions.  On January 12, Thomas became the youngest of eight players in PGA Tour history to break 60, shooting 59 on his way to a win at the Sony Open in Hawaii.  Thomas also tied a U.S. Open record with a 63 in the third round before finishing ninth.

The last time two players under 25 won back-to-back majors was in 1925, when Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen won the Open Championship and the PGA Championship.

The names Jones and Sarazen were commonly heard in major championship conversations over the next decade.

We know the name Spieth will similarly be a part of the conversation for the extended foreseeable future.

But now, after earning his first major, Justin Thomas has earned his place in that conversation too.

Column: Not the Next Tiger, But the First Spieth

After Jordan Spieth won his third career major championship on Sunday, four days before his 24th birthday, pundits and fans alike inevitably compared the talented Texan to Tiger Woods.

While Spieth’s career is off to an outstanding start, much like Woods two decades ago, he is not “the next Tiger Woods.”

He’s the first Jordan Spieth.

I not trying to be a smart-aleck, because the fact is that Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods have fewer similarities than some may think.

There are certainly comparisons between the two.  Both won their first three majors at a very young age—Spieth is actually about six months younger than Woods was at the time of his third major.

Both have shown mental strength to be a major key to their success, and both have an innate ability to make big putts from anywhere when needed down the stretch.

Woods used countless Houdini-like shots to escape trouble in many of his major triumphs, and Spieth used a similar shot Sunday on his 3-wood recovery from the practice area 50 yards right of the 13th fairway, turning a near-certain “big number” into a bogey that kept him in contention, which he followed with a 5-under stretch over the next four holes.

But on and off the course, there are major differences between Woods and Spieth.

On the course, Tiger’s first three major wins were more dominant than Spieth’s.  Woods’ first three major wins came by a combined 28 shots, including victories by 12 at the 1997 Masters and 15 at the 2000 U.S. Open.

The combined eight-shot margin of Spieth’s first three majors is still quite impressive, yet is nothing compared to the utter dominance of Woods.  And while Spieth’s 2015 Masters win at 18-under 270 matched Woods’ record for low score in the event, his 18-under came on an Augusta track softened by rain, where 11 players finished 7-under or better; in 1997, Woods was the only player 7-under or better.

After Woods’ third major, he promptly won the next three majors, the 2000 Open and PGA and 2001 Masters, a feat that will be difficult for Spieth to duplicate.  That said, Spieth will have one chance to win the career grand slam at a younger age than Tiger, when he competes in the PGA Championship next month in Charlotte.

Off the course, Woods can be cocky while holding things close to the vest, bluntly answering questions about his golf career and life.  Spieth is one of the humblest professional athletes in recent memory, and is very candid, honest and open.

Woods, the Buddhist son of a middle-class Green Beret, grew up playing the municipal courses of southern California.  Spieth, a Catholic son of a web CEO, grew up on country clubs of suburban Dallas.

Woods, who has a fascination with the Navy SEALs, worked out obsessively in his prime and built a massive muscular physique, using his strength to pull off some of his incredible shots on the course.

While Spieth has shown some strength at times, he is less of a “bomber” of the golf ball, and physically looks more like someone I might have competed against in collegiate intramurals than one of the best athletes in the world.

From a cultural impact level, Spieth has no chance to equal the magnitude of Woods’ career.  The emergence of a black star who also has Asian heritage in a sport historically dominated by white men brought golf to an entire new audience.

While Spieth has throngs of fans he has, more or less, excited existing golf fans with the emergence of a new star more than he has taken the game to new audiences.

These two stars are quite different, so instead of pinning the weight of the “the next Tiger Woods” label on a player—which is quite unfair to anyone, considering there will likely never be another player to match the talent, domination and impact of Woods—let’s simply sit back and watch what someone with the talent of Jordan Spieth can do next.

No, Jordan Spieth is not “the next Tiger Woods.”

He’s the first Jordan Spieth, and that alone is exciting for the game of golf.

 

 

The 146th Open Championship
Leaders:
1. Jordan Spieth, U.S., -12 (65-69-65-69–268), becomes second youngest player to win three legs of the career grand slam (behind Jack Nicklaus)
2. Matt Kuchar, U.S., -9 (65-71-66-69–271)
3. Haotong Li, China, -6 (69-73-69-63–274)
t4. Rory McIlroy, N. Ireland, -5 (71-68-69-67–275)
t4. Rafa Cabrera Bello, Spain, -5 (67-73-67-68–275)
t6. Matthew Southgate, England, -4 (72-72-67-65–276)
t6. Marc Leishman, New Zealand, -4 (69-76-66-65–276)
t6. Alex Noren, Sweden, -4 (68-72-69-67–276)
t6. Branden Grace, S. Africa, -4 (70-74-62-70–276), in third round became the first player in major championship history to shoot 62
t6. Brooks Koepka, U.S., -4 (65-72-68-71–276)
Notables:
t11. Henrik Stenson, Sweden, -3 (69-73-65-70–277), defending champion
t14. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan, -2 (68-72-66-72–278)
t22. Rickie Fowler, U.S., E (71-71-67-71–280)
t27. Jason Day, Australia, +1 (69-76-65-71–281)
t37. Sergio Garcia, Spain, +2 (73-69-68-72–282)
t54. Justin Rose, England, +4 (71-74-69-70–284)
t54. Dustin Johnson, U.S., +4 (71-72-64-77–284)
t62. Alfie Plant, England, +6 (71-73-69-73–286), low amateur
Phil Mickelson (+10) missed the cut; Tiger Woods did not play.

Open Champions, since 2000
2000 Tiger Woods
2001 David Duval
2002 Ernie Els
2003 Ben Curtis
2004 Todd Hamilton
2005 Tiger Woods
2006 Tiger Woods
2007 Padraig Harrington
2008 Padraig Harrington
2009 Stewart Cink
2010 Louis Oosthuizen
2011 Darren Clarke
2012 Ernie Els
2013 Phil Mickelson
2014 Rory McIlroy
2015 Zach Johnson
2016 Henrik Stenson
2017 Jordan Spieth

Column: Hootie Johnson Leaves Behind a Complicated Legacy

William “Hootie” Johnson, the former chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, has died at age 86.

Johnson is one of only six men to serve as chairman of Augusta National, and while The Masters reached new heights during Johnson’s tenure, he leaves behind a complicated legacy.

Under his tenure as chairman from 1998-2006, Johnson oversaw the lengthening of Augusta National as new technology allowed golfers to hit the ball further, ensuring the course remained a tough test for the world’s best players each year on the second weekend in April.  Johnson also helped to keep the field truly elite, making changes to the tournament’s qualifying procedure.

Johnson helped bring the Masters to a wider audience, as he expanded television coverage of the tournament to the entire 18-hole course for the first time–it was previously contained to only the final 10 holes–and reopened the waiting list for tournament badges for fans for the first time since the 1980s.

But Johnson was also in charge of Augusta National during its biggest controversy:  the highly publicized disagreement with Martha Burk over the club’s policy not to allow female members.

In 2002, Martha Burk, who was chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, wrote a letter to Johnson suggesting Augusta National’s male-only membership policy was sexist.

In Johnson’s response, which played out publicly, he claimed the club had the same rights as any private club, citing the Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts and sororities/fraternities as examples of organizations which allowed membership to only one gender.

However, Johnson’s tone in his response was less than subtle, calling Burk’s letter “offensive and coercive,” and saying the club would not change their policy “at the point of a bayonet,” and they would not be “bullied, threatened or intimidated.”  The response sparking a national controversy over the issue, with Burk leading protests against the club, including one near the course property in Augusta during the 2003 Masters.

Johnson, speaking as the public face of the Augusta National membership, certainly came across as stubborn, and many saw the response as misogynist and discriminatory.  This characterization of Johnson is ironic, because his personal history shows a much more progressive man than the one portrayed in 2002.

Johnson, a former running back at the University of South Carolina, worked as a banker in Greenwood, South Carolina before rising to prominence in the business world as an executive at Bank of America before becoming chairman at Augusta National.

As a businessman, Johnson served as co-chairman of a committee that developed a plan to desegregate state colleges and universities in South Carolina, and was a trustee at historically black Benedict College.  As a banker, Johnson often appointed both women and African-Americans to his corporate boards in an era before such appointments were common, and loaned money to minorities when others would not.  He was also the first prominent businessman to suggest removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House.

U.S. Representative Jim Clyburn (D-SC) defended Johnson to USA Today in 2002:  “His whole life has been just the opposite of what he’s being portrayed.  He’s always come down on the side of access and equality. He’s not a prejudiced person in any way. He is not deserving of this controversy.”

Johnson, who was a member of Augusta National since 1968 after joining at the invitation of club co-founder Bobby Jones, eventually resigned as chairman in 2006 at age 75, becoming chairman emeritus; the club admitted two female members, Condeleeza Rice and Darla Moore, in August 2012.

Augusta National and The Masters certainly grew during Johnson’s term as chairman, but after serving in a role where most haven’t been a household name–current chairman Billy Payne is still probably better known among non-golf fans as the CEO of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics–he’ll likely be most remembered for the standoff on Augusta’s membership policy, making his legacy complicated as he is remembered in the coming days.

 

 

Chairmen of Augusta National Golf Club:
Clifford Roberts, 1931-76
William Lane, 1976-80

Hord Hardin, 1980-91
Jackson Stephens, 1991-98
Hootie Johnson, 1998-2006
Billy Payne, 2006-present

Column: Earnhardt’s Daytona Experiences Are a Microcosm of His Career

Tonight, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will lead the field to green in the Coke Zero 400, starting a race at Daytona for (maybe) the final time.

But while it’s easy to foresee a future one-off run in a Daytona race at some point–his pole for tonight’s race does qualify him for next year’s Clash after all–tonight marks the final time that the 14-time defending Most Popular Driver will for sure fasten his belts in a Cup Series race at the World Center of Racing.

If this is, in fact, Dale’s Daytona denouement, what a roller-coaster ride it’s been.

The ride at the two-and-a-half mile superspeedway has been mostly good, and on some occasions it’s been great.

Earnhardt Jr. grew up coming to Daytona with his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., who himself had plenty of success on Daytona’s high banks, but took 20 years to win the Daytona 500 after numerous heartbreaks.

Once he himself could drive, Earnhardt Jr. quickly became as proficient as his father at restrictor-plate racing at Daytona.  Earnhardt Jr. won the 2004 Daytona 500 driving for family-owned Dale Earnhardt Inc., then after a move to Hendrick Motorsports and a mid-career slump, won the Great American Race again in 2014.

But Daytona has also been the site of the darkest moment for Earnhardt Jr., not just his career but his life.  It was here in 2001 when Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500, battling to protect third while Earnhardt Jr. and teammate Michael Waltrip fought for the victory, which Waltrip won.

Coming back to Daytona that July wasn’t easy.  A week before the 2001 Coke Zero 400, Earnhardt Jr. drove to the fourth turn to meditate, to “make peace,” as he later put it, and to bring closure before returning to drive the track that claimed his father’s life.

Yet that Saturday night when the checkered flag fell, it was Earnhardt Jr. who claimed the victory, with Waltrip second, a reverse of their 1-2 finish in February that was never celebrated due to Earnhardt Sr.’s death.

The defining image of Earnhardt Jr.’s career has to be the celebration, on top of his white and red #8 Chevrolet in the Daytona infield, giving a bear hug to Waltrip who joined him for the liberating moment.

I can count on one hand the number of times I could hear the roar of the crowd over the roar of the engines in a race I watched on television.  The moment Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Coke Zero 400 in 2001 is not only one of these moments, but is the most pronounced–in other instances the roar of the engines was still obviously discernible, but here the crowd was so loud the engines were, unfathomably, drowned out to little more than a faint hum.

If he can win tonight in possibly his final Daytona start, the reaction of the over 100,000 fans in attendance may be just as remarkable.

Earnhardt Jr. also won the 2015 Coke Zero 400, making him one of 11 drivers to win the event twice.  He is also one of 11 drivers to win the Daytona 500 twice, and one of only six to win both the Daytona 500 and the Coke Zero 400 twice (Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott).  In total, he has 17 wins at Daytona, including two wins in the Clash, five in Duels (Daytona 500 qualifying races), and six in the Xfinity Series.

Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona career is a microcosm of his life–he’s had big shoes to fill in the shadow of his father, and while he hasn’t statistically had as much success as his father, he’s certainly become something that Dale Earnhardt Sr. would be proud of, both on and off the racetrack.

 

Go Time for Several Star Drivers

Earnhardt Jr. is in a must-win situation over the next 10 races, as he tries to qualify for NASCAR’s playoffs, but he’s not the only star who finds themselves in a tight spot entering the regular season’s stretch run.

There are 16 spots in the playoffs, with race winners getting first priority.  10 drivers have earned a playoff spot through a race win so far this season, leaving just six spots for everyone else with 10 races left before the regular-season finale Sept. 9 at Richmond.  With a strong chance of additional drivers winning over the next 10 races, that bubble could get even tighter.

Established stars searching for their first win of 2017 include Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth, and all have been knocking on the door of victory lane in recent weeks.

Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez have also been close, as they each seek their first career win.  Joey Logano won at Richmond on April 30, but the win doesn’t count for playoff qualification due to his car failing post-race inspection (illegal rear suspension).

While race winners are in the playoffs (provided that they stay in the top 30 in points, which shouldn’t be a problem for any current winner), everyone else is fighting for wins to lock themselves in and not have to worry about squeezing themselves inside the increasingly tight points bubble.

 

The King Turns 80

Richard Petty, “The King” of stock-car racing, turns 80 on Sunday.

Petty won 200 races and seven championships over his 35-year Cup Series career, but that’s not even the biggest reason he’s arguably the most popular NASCAR driver of all-time.

If there was ever a competitor who wanted Petty’s advice, or a fan who wanted a handshake or Petty’s iconic autograph, they have never left the track disappointed.

Even 25 years after his career ended, the model of what a NASCAR driver should be on and off the track is still very much what Petty was:  drive fast, and after you’ve won thank and sponsors the fans any way you can, whether it’s through autographs or promotional appearances.

I’ve never met Richard Petty face-to-face, but I am one of the thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of fans who has his signature.  After I wrote a set of interview questions for Petty in a third grade class assignment, a family friend who volunteered at Victory Junction Gang, a camp for chronically ill children in Randleman, N.C. founded by Richard’s son Kyle in memory of Kyle’s late son Adam, passed along the questions to The King.

A few weeks later, I got a package from Richard Petty Motorsports, with Petty’s autograph and the typed answers to my interview questions.

To this day, Petty is by far the most famous person I’ve ever “interviewed.”

Petty will celebrate his 80th birthday as he’s celebrated many of the previous 79:  at the racetrack.

Petty has been present for every Daytona 500, driving the first 34 of them before attending the most recent 25 as a car owner, and was even present at the first Cup Series race in 1949.  He worked on his father’s pit crew before driving, started 1,184 Cup Series races, and has hung around the racetrack in the years since his 1992 “Fan Appreciation Tour.”

Tonight is the 2,515th race in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series history; I’d be willing to bet The King has missed less than 100 of them.

The company colors (still Petty blue) will be carried by Darrell Wallace Jr. in the #43 Smithfield Ford, starting 28th in tonight’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.  While Dale Earnhardt Jr. is certainly the sentimental favorite, wouldn’t it be fitting for The King’s milestone to be celebrated with a trip to victory lane?

Happy birthday, King Richard.  And thank you.

 

 

 

2017 Coke Zero 400
Lineup

Row 1:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chase Elliott
Row 2:  Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne
Row 3:  Kevin Harvick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 4:  Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray
Row 5:  Ryan Blaney, Danica Patrick
Row 6:  Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson
Row 7:  Matt Kenseth, Trevor Bayne
Row 8:  Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch
Row 9:  Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin
Row 10:  Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez
Row 11:  Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman
Row 12:  Michael McDowell, Paul Menard
Row 13:  Martin Truex Jr., Landon Cassill
Row 14:  A.J. Allmendinger, Matt DiBenedetto
Row 15:  Chris Buescher, David Ragan
Row 16:  Darrell Wallace Jr., Brendan Gaughan
Row 17:  Elliott Sadler, Ty Dillon
Row 18:  Cole Whitt, Corey Lajoie
Row 19:  Reed Sorenson, Ryan Sieg
Row 20:  Jeffrey Earnhardt, D.J. Kennington

Coke Zero 400 Winners
1959 Fireball Roberts
1960 Jack Smith
1961 David Pearson
1962 Fireball Roberts
1963 Fireball Roberts
1964 A.J. Foyt
1965 A.J. Foyt
1966 Sam McQuagg
1967 Cale Yarborough
1968 Cale Yarborough
1969 LeeRoy Yarbrough
1970 Donnie Allison
1971 Bobby Isaac
1972 David Pearson
1973 David Pearson
1974 David Pearson
1975 Richard Petty
1976 Cale Yarborough
1977 Richard Petty
1978 David Pearson
1979 Neil Bonnett
1980 Bobby Allison
1981 Cale Yarborough
1982 Bobby Allison
1983 Buddy Baker
1984 Richard Petty
1985 Greg Sacks
1986 Tim Richmond
1987 Bobby Allison
1988 Bill Elliott
1989 Davey Allison
1990 Dale Earnhardt 
1991 Bill Elliott
1992 Ernie Irvan
1993 Dale Earnhardt
1994 Jimmy Spencer
1995 Jeff Gordon
1996 Sterling Marlin
1997 John Andretti
1998 Jeff Gordon
1999 Dale Jarrett
2000 Jeff Burton
2001 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2002 Michael Waltrip
2003 Greg Biffle
2004 Jeff Gordon
2005 Tony Stewart
2006 Tony Stewart
2007 Jamie McMurray
2008 Kyle Busch
2009 Tony Stewart
2010 Kevin Harvick
2011 David Ragan
2012 Tony Stewart
2013 Jimmie Johnson
2014 Aric Almirola
2015 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2016 Brad Keselowski

Column: Why Road Course Racing Is Good for NASCAR

Sunday marks the first road course race of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, as the series takes on the 1.99-mile Sonoma Raceway in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 today at 3 p.m. eastern.

While some fans like road course races and others can’t stand them, the novelty of racing on a non-oval makes road course racing good for NASCAR.

The Cup Series schedule has featured just two road course races since 1988, and never more than three in the modern era (since 1972).  Watkins Glen has hosted the Cup Series since 1986, and Sonoma, the site of today’s event, has since 1989.  This year’s XFinity Series schedule features road course races at Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio and Road America, while the Camping World Truck Series will run one road course, at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park.

Road course racing offers a change of pace from typical NASCAR events which are often criticized as cars going in circles and making hundreds of consecutive left turns.

The road course events get new competitors involved in NASCAR, as road course specialists known as “road ringers” often run at Sonoma and Watkins Glen.  While no road ringer has won a Cup Series race since Dan Gurney in 1973 and none have even contended for a win in the last decade, any time new drivers get involved, it can’t be a bad thing for the sport, especially when most of these ringers are regulars in other racing series and can provide cross-promotional benefits to both NASCAR and the other series.

The lack of success of the road ringers in recent years is because many NASCAR stars have put more effort into road course preparation in recent years, taking lessons from road racing experts or logging hundreds of laps in simulators in the days and weeks leading up to each road course event.  Road course races have also been won on several occasions by full-time Cup Series drivers with road racing in their background:  Juan Pablo Montoya, A.J. Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose and Robby Gordon.

Another reason road course racing is good for the sports is because the best drivers, and not just the fastest cars, are the ones who tend to run up front.  More skill is involved in turning both right and left for over ten unique turns per lap than at the typical NASCAR event on a wide, sweeping track with identical turns on each end.

Beyond the driving skill needed to be successful in road course racing, these races have multiple layers of added strategy, which will be even more pronounced in NASCAR’s new “stage racing” format.  Cars can pit without losing a lap, so each team will try to pick the most optimal times for them to pit to give them the best track position at the end of the race.  Oval-track races often see everyone on the same pit cycle and strategy, but the 38 cars in today’s race could easily use at least a half-dozen different strategies during the race.

The Cup Series schedule will add a third road course race in 2018, as the fall race at Charlotte Motor Speedway will be run on a “roval” combination of the oval and the infield road course.  This will add a road course race to NASCAR’s playoffs (formerly “The Chase”), adding a new element to the 10-race sequence that determines the season champion as a potential “wild card” in the third and final race of the playoffs’ first round.

But we don’t have to wait until 2018 for a thrilling road course event–that will come today, as every time NASCAR turns left and right, the skill and strategy it takes to win and the uniqueness of the venue creates excitement for the fans.

 

 

Toyota/Save Mart 350
Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1
Lineup:
Row 1:  Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray
Row 2:  Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch

Row 3:  A.J. Allmendinger, Danica Patrick
Row 4:  Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott
Row 5:  Chris Buescher, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Row 6:  Daniel Suarez, Kevin Harvick
Row 7:  Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin
Row 8:  Paul Menard, Michael McDowell
Row 9:  Kurt Busch, Joey Logano
Row 10:  Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman
Row 11:  Kasey Kahne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 12:  Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson
Row 13:  Trevor Bayne, Billy Johnson
Row 14:  Matt DiBenedetto, David Ragan
Row 15:  Cole Whitt, Erik Jones
Row 16:  Landon Cassill, Alon Day
Row 17:  Josh Bilicki, Boris Said
Row 18:  Ty Dillon, Kevin O’Connell
Row 19:  Tommy Regan, Matt Kenseth

 

Toyota/Save Mart 350 Winners
1989 Ricky Rudd

1990 Rusty Wallace
1991 Davey Allison
1992 Ernie Irvan
1993 Geoffrey Bodine
1994 Ernie Irvan
1995 Dale Earnhardt
1996 Rusty Wallace
1997 Mark Martin
1998 Jeff Gordon
1999 Jeff Gordon
2000 Jeff Gordon
2001 Tony Stewart
2002 Ricky Rudd
2003 Robby Gordon
2004 Jeff Gordon
2005 Tony Stewart
2006 Jeff Gordon
2007 Juan Pablo Montoya
2008 Kyle Busch
2009 Kasey Kahne
2010 Jimmie Johnson
2011 Kurt Busch
2012 Clint Bowyer
2013 Martin Truex Jr.
2014 Carl Edwards
2015 Kyle Busch
2016 Tony Stewart

Column: Fowler Shadowing Mickelson In More Ways Than One

Since Rickie Fowler joined the PGA Tour in 2010, he and Phil Mickelson have become friends, despite their age difference.

Fowler, 28, and Mickelson, 47, often play practice rounds together at Tour events, and have played together as partners in the 2010 and 2016 Ryder Cups.

Rickie Fowler (Chris Breikss/Flickr)

But as Fowler has shadowed Mickelson personally through his young career, he’s also done it professionally, as his career on the course is on a similar path to Mickelson’s.

Fowler opened this weekend’s U.S. Open as the first round leader with a 7-under 65 and was never out of contention until very late Sunday, but after tying for fifth behind winner Brooks Koepka remains the “best player without a major,” a title once held by Mickelson for a significant portion of his career.

The similarities between the career arcs of Fowler and Mickelson started early:  Both qualified for multiple major championships as amateurs, with Mickelson winning low amateur honors at two U.S. Opens and the 1991 Masters, and Fowler making the cut at the 2008 U.S. Open.

While Fowler did not win a PGA Tour event as an amateur like Mickelson did (Mickelson’s win at the 1991 Northern Telecom Open is the last PGA Tour win by an amateur), Fowler won both the prestigious Ben Hogan Award as the nation’s top collegiate golfer in 2008 and PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 2010, both of which Mickelson never accomplished.

Fowler and Mickelson are both perennial members of the U.S. team in Ryder/President’s Cups:  Mickelson has been on every U.S. team since the 1994 President’s Cup, while Fowler has appeared in three Ryder Cups and one President’s Cup, and in 2010 became the youngest player in U.S. Ryder Cup history at the time (21 years, 9 months; the record has since been broken by Jordan Spieth)

Phil Mickelson (center left) and Rickie Fowler (center right) play a practice round with Brandt Snedeker (left) and Dustin Johnson (right) at the 2015 Masters. (Shannon McGee/Flickr)

Mickelson’s began his career with 22 PGA Tour wins before his first major, the 2004 Masters, which he won at age 33 after playing several years with the dreaded “best player without a major” label that Fowler, with four PGA Tour wins and three more worldwide, currently bears.

Fowler is currently five years younger than Mickelson was when he broke through at Augusta, and actually has more top fives in majors–Sunday was his sixth–than Mickelson did at the same age of 28, when he had four.  Fowler also has two major runner-ups (the 2014 U.S. Open and Open Championship), while Mickelson’s best finish at the same age was a pair of thirds (1994 PGA Championship and 1996 Masters), before his first runner-up in the 1999 U.S. Open, four days after his 29th birthday.

Like Mickelson, who has suffered from the fate of being born within five years of Tiger Woods as well as losing majors to multiple major winners like Nick Price, Nick Faldo and Payne Stewart, Fowler’s near-misses have come at the hands of many of today’s best, notably falling to Martin Kaymer’s dominant U.S. Open performance in 2014 and to Rory McIlroy in back-to-back majors later that summer.

This comparison is good news for Fowler–Mickelson has gone on to win five major championships between 2004-13, and is only a U.S. Open title away from completing the career grand slam, something only five players have accomplished.

Many players, including Mickelson, have endured several near-misses in majors before finally breaking through for their first major title.  Just in this century, in addition to Mickelson, David Duval, Jim Furyk, Padraig Harrington, Stewart Cink, Darren Clarke, Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia all had multiple close calls in majors before hoisting a major championship trophy.

All of these players were among the best in the world at various points of the pre-major-champion stage of their careers, and all except Duval, who was 29, had to wait until their 30s to taste major glory.

Even Brooks Koepka, who is 27, has had two top five finishes in majors before Sunday’s impressive stretch run earned him his first major.

It took a while–two and a half seasons–for Fowler to get his first PGA Tour win (the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship), and another three years to get his second, which came at the 2015 Players Championship, the unofficial “fifth major” (which Mickelson never won until 2007), so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Fowler, who is still young, hasn’t won a major just yet.

As Fowler and his throngs of fans patiently await his first major, the assertion of some that he doesn’t have what it takes or that he won’t win a major because he hasn’t by age 28 is simply unreasonable.

Fowler failing to win a major to this point isn’t grim.  It’s normal.

And he’s just following in the footsteps of a friend.

117th U.S. Open

Leaders:
1. Brooks Koepka, U.S., -16 (67-70-68-67–272), ties Rory McIlroy (2011) for lowest score in relation to par in U.S. Open history
T2. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan, -12 (74-65-71-66–276)
T2. Brian Harman, U.S., -12 (67-60-67-72–276)
4. Tommy Fleetwood, England, -11 (67-70-68-72–277)
T5. Xander Schauffele, U.S., -10 (66-73-70-69–278)
T5. Bill Haas, U.S., 10 (72-68-69-69–278)
T5. Rickie Fowler, U.S., -10 (65-73-68-72–278)
8. Charley Hoffman, U.S., -9 (70-70-68-71–279)
T9. Trey Mullinax, U.S., -8 (71-72-69-68–280)
T9. Brandt Snedeker, U.S., -8 (70-69-70-71–280)
T9. Justin Thomas, U.S., -8 (73-69-63-75–280), became fifth player in U.S. Open history to shoot 63 (third round)

Notables:
T21. Sergio Garcia, Spain, -4 (70-71-71-72–284), highest-finishing former major champion
T27. Scottie Scheffler, U.S., -1 (69-74-71-73–287), low amateur
T35. Jordan Spieth, U.S.,  +1 (73-71-76-69–289)
Justin Rose (+2), Dustin Johnson (+4), Rory McIlroy (+5) and Jason Day (+10) missed the cut.
Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods did not play.

Column: Why Earnhardt Jr.’s Retirement Isn’t Surprising

Many in the racing world were stunned on Tuesday morning when Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his retirement at the end of the 2017 season.

But while NASCAR’s biggest star walking away is certainly a big story for the sport, his retirement is not exactly a huge surprise, at least to me, considering the circumstances.

The 42-year old Earnhardt is in a contract year, coming off a 2016 season in which he missed 18 races with a concussion, the fourth concussion he had suffered in a racing accident.

As Earnhardt came back from his injury, he opted to wait to sign a contract extension, and see how he felt about racing and his future after his return to the track.  Now, eight races into the 2017 season, Earnhardt has decided this will be his final season.

The decision was actually made by Earnhardt in March, saying at Tuesday’s press conference he met with car owner Rick Hendrick on March 29 to inform Hendrick of his decision.

Given all he faced in 2016 and his desire to stay healthy, particularly after his recent marriage to wife Amy, Earnhardt’s decision to step away is understandable, and relatively unsurprising.

Earnhardt didn’t go into great detail about his decision on Tuesday, but said he wants to make his own decision to retire instead of potentially being told by doctors he couldn’t race again in the event of an additional concussion or other injuries.

“You’re wondering why I reached this decision–it’s really simple. I just wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms,” Earnhardt said.  “I’m at peace with the decision.  I’m very comfortable with it.”

Earnhardt, the son of the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr. and 14-time defending winner of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award, has faced more pressure in his career than any other driver in NASCAR–and arguably as much as any athlete–as he tried to live up to the Earnhardt name and give his colossal fanbase something to cheer about.

While Earnhardt has won 26 races over his career and finished as high as third in points, that pressure has continued through many ups and downs throughout his career, from winning two Daytona 500s to losing his father at Daytona to winning the first race at Daytona after his father’s death to leaving family-owned Dale Earnhardt Inc. and struggling in his early years at Hendrick Motorsports.

As for what’s next for Earnhardt, the immediate focus is his final season, which is not off to a good start.  Earnhardt has just one top 10 through eight races and sits 24th in the current standings, 50 points outside a playoff spot.

After this season, Earnhardt will remain active in the sport, continuing to work as an XFinity Series team owner with JR Motorsports, a Hendrick Motorsports satellite team which has helped Hendrick with driver development in recent years.  Earnhardt will also honor his prior commitment to run two XFinity Series races with JR Motorsports in 2018.

As for Hendrick Motorsports, the #88 seat will become vacant for the first time in 10 years, and the Hall of Fame owner has a variety of options to fill the vacancy.

Alex Bowman, who filled in for Earnhardt in 2016 with some moderate success, should be one of the frontrunners.  JR Motorsports has some strong young talent, particularly including William Byron, although a couple more seasons in the XFinity Series are probably the more likely option for him.

Outside the Hendrick organization, impending free agents at season’s end include Kyle Larson, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and others.  Hendrick could also get an XFinity Series or Truck Series driver from another organization, something they’ve done in the past to sign both Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

Looking at the big picture, NASCAR also has to figure out what’s next as it loses its most popular driver.  The sport will have lost Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to retirement in the span of three seasons, a void that would be difficult for any sport to fill.  It will be up to the sport’s young talent, including Kyle Larson, the current points leader, and Chase Elliott, who like Earnhardt is the son of a legend, to become the next generation of superstars in NASCAR, although being as genuine and classy as Earnhardt won’t be easy.

There are 28 races left in the career of NASCAR’s biggest star.  As the sun sets on Earnhardt’s career, and for all intents and purposes the era of Earnhardt family relevance in NASCAR dating back to the 1960s, the plot continues to thicken in an already intriguing NASCAR season.

 

 

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Career Statistics (Cup Series unless otherwise noted):
603 starts
26 wins
149 top fives
253 top 10’s
13 poles
1998 & 1999 XFinity Series champion
24 XFinity Series wins