Fast Five: Memorable Sports Farewells

I’ve attended academic classes for five days a week, nine months a year from the time I was three years old, through two years of preschool, 13 years of K-thru-12, and four years of college.

But last week, I walked out of a college classroom for the last time, ahead of my graduation from Anderson University this Saturday.

As the sports aficionado I am, I couldn’t help but compare myself leaving school–retiring from school, in a sense, after what amounts to a 19 year academic “career”–to many of my athletic heroes in recent years walking away from the game.

Sure, the conclusion of my school years has come with much less fanfare than many of the highly-publicized retirements, such as Chipper Jones, David Ortiz, Tony Stewart, Alex Rodriguez, Paul Pierce, Landon Donavan, and even broadcaster Vin Scully, over the last several years in the sports world (in addition to some of the athletes listed below).  But, like many of these stars, I am also unsure of what is next.

But while the finish of my last final exam was as mundane as me handing it to the professor and quietly walking out the door, these athletes had more memorable farewells:

Honorable Mention:  Jeff Gordon

The four-time NASCAR champion’s final season came alive when he won at Martinsville in The Chase for his 93rd career win, clinching a spot in the Championship Round.  Gordon was one of four drivers to compete for the title at Homestead in the season finale, when he finished 6th behind champion Kyle Busch after leading nine laps.  The roar of the fans when Gordon took the lead could be heard over the roar of the engines in the race’s broadcast.  While Gordon has returned as an injury replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr., his final full season was a memorable and successful farewell in a sport where many stars’ careers have ended either in mediocrity or by injury/death.


Honorable Mention:  David Ross

Ross, a “role player,” was never a household name, playing mostly as a backup or platoon catcher during stints with the Dodgers, Pirates, Padres, Reds, Red Sox, Braves and Cubs.  In his final season with the Cubs, “Grandpa Ross” hit 10 home runs in 67 games in the regular season, most often getting playing time as Jon Lester’s personal catcher, and was a leader of the 103-win Cubs team.  But his farewell will be remembered for his playoff performance.  Ross hit .250 in the postseason with two home runs, with a .400 batting average in the World Series.  In his final at-bat, Ross became the oldest player (39) to homer in a World Series Game 7, helping the Cubs to their first championship since 1908.


5.  Kobe Bryant

The Black Mamba played his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, and by the final season was playing reduced minutes in most games as his body was less durable than in his prime.  But on his final night in the NBA, Bryant played 42 minutes and exploded for 60 points, the most by any player in a game in the 2015-16 NBA season.  Bryant made 22 of his 50 shots, including six threes, and was 10-for-12 on free throws.  Bryant outscored the opposing Utah Jazz 23-21 in the fourth quarter, helping the Lakers to a 101-96 win to eliminate the Jazz from playoff contention.

The only thing that could have made this farewell better was if it were in a game that counted for the Lakers.  But as Bryant ended a career that included five NBA championships, his Lakers struggled to a 17-65 record.


4.  Ted Williams

Teddy Ballgame was one of the greatest hitters in MLB history.  His .482 career on-base percentage is the best of all-time, and he is the last player to hit .400 or better in a season (.406) in 1941.  Williams hit .316 with 29 home runs and 72 RBI in his final season in 1960 with the Boston Red Sox, where he played his entire 19-year career.

The final home run, the 521st of his career, came dramatically, in his final at-bat at Fenway Park on September 28, 1960.  Williams never acknowledged the crowd during his career, but later said he almost tipped his cap while running around the bases after the home run as the fans roared.  The Red Sox’ final three games of the season were in New York, but Williams played in none of them, making the Fenway home run the final at-bat of his illustrious career.


3.  Peyton Manning, John Elway and Jerome Bettis

This group of two Hall of Famers and Manning, who will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when eligible, each culminated their careers with a Super Bowl title, with each overcoming the criticism of not being able to win “the big one” over the course of their careers.

Manning won Super Bowl XLI with the Colts, but also lost Super Bowls XLIV with the Colts and XLVIII with the Broncos.  He was able to finish with a second championship by winning Super Bowl 50 with a 24-10 win over the Panthers (although it should be noted the defense had more to do with the championship than Manning’s tired arm).  Manning didn’t announce his retirement until weeks later, although fans and the media alike could sense that Super Bowl 50 was very likely his final game.

Elway lost three Super Bowls early in his career (XXI, XXII, XXIV), but reached two more Super Bowls (XXXII, XXXIII) in his final two seasons and finished with back-to-back titles.  After beating the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII for his first championship, Elway led the Broncos to a convincing 34-19 win over the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, his final game, and finished his stellar career by winning Super Bowl MVP.  Like Manning, Elway didn’t officially announce his retirement until after the season.

Bettis, the lone player in this group who played running back instead of quarterback, played his final 10 seasons with the Steelers after playing for the Rams his first three years.  Super Bowl XL was the first Super Bowl appearance of his career, which included six Pro Bowl appearances and the 2001 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.  After Bettis’s Steelers won the Super Bowl with a 21-10 defeat of the Seahawks, Bettis announced during the post-game trophy presentation that “the last stop for ‘The Bus'” would be with the NFL title won in his hometown of Detroit.

2.  Derek Jeter

The Captain, whose jersey will be retired this Sunday night by the New York Yankees, was one of the most beloved players throughout his career as the Yankee shortstop.  The .310 career hitter, who hit .308 in the playoffs in his career while leading the Yankees to five World Series titles, announced before his 20th season in 2014 that he would retire at season’s end.

Through eight innings of Jeter’s final home game at Yankee Stadium on September 25, 2014, Jeter had a double, two RBI, and a run scored.  But after the Yankees blew a 5-2 lead in the top of the ninth, Jeter got an additional at-bat in the bottom half, with the game tied and pinch-runner Antoan Richardson at second.  Jeter delivered one of the great moments in recent MLB memory, collecting a walk-off single to right field in his final home at-bat for his third RBI of the game, giving the Yankees a 6-5 win.

But the season still had three games remaining, which were played in Boston.  Jeter played DH–he wanted his final game at Yankee Stadium to be his final game at shortstop–and on September 28 earned an RBI infield single in his final at-bat, before being pinch-run for by Brian McCann.  As dramatic as his final home at-bat had been, his final overall at-bat in Boston showed how respected Jeter is, as he left the field to a standing ovation from the fans of the Yankees’ archrivals.


1.  Lou Gehrig

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse,” a durable player who was twice American League MVP as the Yankees first baseman, was a part of six World Series titles, and is one of 12 modern-era players to win a Triple Crown.  But Gehrig’s performance began to diminish in late 1938, and by the beginning of the 1939 season, it was clear something was physically wrong.  On May 2nd, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup, ending a streak of 2,130 consecutive games over the previous 14 seasons, a record that would stand until 1995.

Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS (nicknamed Lou Gehrig’s Disease), on June 19, and officially retired on June 21.  On July 4, the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Day.  Between games of a doubleheader, after Gehrig’s #4 became the first number retired by a team in MLB history,  stirring tributes were given by Babe Ruth, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, among others.

Once Gehrig stepped to the mic he was, at first, too emotional to speak.  But once he did, he delivered a speech that has long been remembered beyond the realm of baseball:

“Fans, for the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break. 

“Today… I consider myself… the luckiest man… on the face of the earth.  I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today?  Sure, I’m lucky.  Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert?  Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow?  To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins?  Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?  Sure, I’m lucky.

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something.  When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something.  When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something.  When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing.  When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.

“So I close in saying that… I might have… been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.  Thank you.”

Gehrig’s remarks were followed by a two-minute standing ovation from the sellout Yankee Stadium crowd.

Gehrig was immediately elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as the writers who vote waived the typical five-year waiting period for eligibility due to Gehrig’s illness.  Gehrig died of ALS on June 2, 1941.

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

A Trip to the Beach

Each February, an entire industry makes a trip to the beach.  But this trip has no resemblance to vacation or leisure.

This is a business trip; a pilgrimage for NASCAR’s competitors and its fans that marks the rebirth of a sport in a new season, and a quest for the sport’s greatest triumph.

Forty drivers and teams have not come to the beach to relax, but to race, trying to reach the sport’s pinnacle and earn its greatest reward, the title of Daytona 500 champion.

The beach has been a haven of speed for over a century.  Speed was sought on the smooth sand, practically from the invention of the automobile.  Organized races began eight decades ago, leading to Bill France sanctioning a sport in 1948.

When NASCAR outgrew the beach in just a decade, France built a new mecca five miles inland, establishing a venue that is The World Center of Racing, and the spectacle that is The Great American Race.

As NASCAR’s elite make this expedition for the 59th time, they will reminisce on the epic events of yesteryear that coax their return.

1976. 1979. 1990. 1998. 2007. Photo finishes in both the first and most recent installments.

The annals here are filled with speed, prestige, triumph, and even tragedy.  This annual occasion has seen it all, yet still gives us something new each February.

A race that has been won in fortuitous upsets by some has been notoriously hard to win for others.  Some call it a crapshoot, while others embrace the element of chance and luck the race presents.

This beach, this week, is not quiet with the peaceful rolling of waves, but features the roar of throngs of followers, exceeded only by the roar of 40 engines, racing door-to-door for the coveted checkered flag.

For all, it’s a memorable trip to the beach.  For one, it will be a monumental trip to victory lane.

 

 

Daytona 500 Champions
1959 Lee Petty
1960 Junior Johnson
1961 Marvin Panch
1962 Fireball Roberts
1963 Tiny Lund
1964 Richard Petty
1965 Fred Lorenzen
1966 Richard Petty (2)
1967 Mario Andretti
1968 Cale Yarborough
1969 Lee Roy Yarbrough
1970 Pete Hamilton
1971 Richard Petty (3)
1972 A.J. Foyt
1973 Richard Petty (4)
1974 Richard Petty (5)
1975 Benny Parsons
1976 David Pearson
1977 Cale Yarborough (2)
1978 Bobby Allison
1979 Richard Petty (6)
1980 Buddy Baker
1981 Richard Petty (7)
1982 Bobby Allison (2)
1983 Cale Yarborough (3)
1984 Cale Yarborough (4)
1985 Bill Elliott
1986 Geoffrey Bodine
1987 Bill Elliott (2)
1988 Bobby Allison (3)
1989 Darrell Waltrip
1990 Derrike Cope
1991 Ernie Irvan
1992 Davey Allison
1993 Dale Jarrett
1994 Sterling Marlin
1995 Sterling Marlin (2)
1996 Dale Jarrett (2)
1997 Jeff Gordon
1998 Dale Earnhardt
1999 Jeff Gordon (2)
2000 Dale Jarrett (3)
2001 Michael Waltrip
2002 Ward Burton
2003 Michael Waltrip (2)
2004 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2005 Jeff Gordon (3)
2006 Jimmie Johnson
2007 Kevin Harvick
2008 Ryan Newman
2009 Matt Kenseth
2010 Jamie McMurray
2011 Trevor Bayne
2012 Matt Kenseth (2)
2013 Jimmie Johnson (2)
2014 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2)
2015 Joey Logano
2016 Denny Hamlin

Elliott, Hamlin Notch Duel Victories

In Thursday night’s Can-Am Duels at Daytona, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin each earned historic wins in the events which set the field for Sunday’s 59th running of the Daytona 500.

Duel 1

Chase Elliott, who won the Daytona 500 pole on Sunday, won his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, albeit an unofficial one, in the first Duel, leading 25 of the race’s 60 laps.

Elliott joins some elite company with the win, as he became the first Daytona 500 pole sitter to win a Duel since Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 1996.  He is the first driver since Jeff Gordon in 1993 to make a Duel win his first win in a Cup Series car.

And while the win is unofficial, the Duels did award championship points for the first time since 1971, with the top 10 earning points (10 for first, nine for second, etc.).  The last drivers before Elliott (and Hamlin in Duel 2) to earn points for a Duel victory were David Pearson and Pete Hamilton.

As a result, Elliott and Hamlin will enter the Daytona 500 as co-points leaders.  The last time anyone led the standings before the Daytona 500 was in 1981, in the era when a race was run at Riverside, Calif. in January, was Bobby Allison.

Winning the Daytona 500 pole and a Duel will give Elliott an opportunity to win the rare “Daytona triple crown” of the pole, a Duel, and the Daytona 500.  If he can win Sunday, Elliott would be the first to accomplish the feat since… his father, Bill Elliott, in 1985.  Fireball Roberts in 1962 and Cale Yarborough in 1984 are the only others to pull off the rare triple.

Elliott earned the win by outdueling a star-studded top seven–every driver in the top six (Jamie McMurray finished second, Kevin Harvick third, Brad Keselowski fourth, Matt Kenseth fifth, and Trevor Bayne sixth) has either won the Daytona 500 or the series championship, and seventh-place Martin Truex Jr. finished second in the Daytona 500 last year.

Duel 2

Denny Hamlin, the 2016 Daytona 500 champion, passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. with two laps to go en route to his third career Duel win.

Hamlin won the race with very little help, as his three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates were in the first Duel, and only three fellow Toyotas were in the field, with none finishing higher than 15th.

Hamlin also bested the Stewart-Haas Racing Fords of Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick, who finished second, third and sixth, as well as four cars in the top 10 from Richard Childress Racing and their allied teams, led by A.J. Allmendinger and Austin Dillon in fourth and fifth.

Earnhardt Jr., who had won Duels the last two years and led 53 of the 60 laps in his first competition since July, was unable to block Hamlin’s run entering turn three on the penultimate lap, and faded to a sixth place finish, though he will start second in the Daytona 500 after earning that spot in pole qualifying.

Hamlin becomes the 10th driver to win a Duel as the defending Daytona 500 champion, and seven of the previous nine have each won multiple Daytona 500s (and one of the other two is Dale Earnhardt):  Pete Hamilton (1971), Cale Yarborough (1984, 1985), Bill Elliott (1986), Sterling Marlin (1995), Dale Jarrett (1997), Dale Earnhardt Sr. (1999), Michael Waltrip (2002), Jeff Gordon (2006), and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2015).

News and Notes

Corey LaJoie (Duel 1) and D.J. Kennington (Duel 2) each raced their way into their first Daytona 500 in Thursday’s Duels.  LaJoie is the son of former NASCAR XFinity Series champion Randy LaJoie, while Kennington is the first Canadian to make the Daytona 500 field since Trevor Boys in 1988.  Kennington will start 28th and LaJoie will start 31st, while Timmy Hill and Reed Sorenson failed to qualify.

Another feel-good story from the Duels is Cole Whitt, who drove to a 10th-place finish in Duel 1, and will start 17th on Sunday.  Whitt, driving a #72 TriStar Motorsports Ford that resembles Benny Parsons’ cars from the 1970s, earned one championship point, and sits tied for 19th in the standings entering the Daytona 500 (he was briefly 10th in points before Duel 2).  The 25-year-old Whitt, who has run the Cup Series full-time since 2014, has never finished higher than 31st in the season standings, although he did finish 11th in the Coke Zero 400 last July at Daytona.

     UPDATE:  With Martin Truex Jr. and A.J. Allmendinger failing post-race inspection (see below), Whitt is tied for 17th in points.

Michael Waltrip finished 17th in the 21-car field of Duel 2, and will start 3oth on Sunday.  The FOX Sports analyst and two-time Daytona 500 winner (2001, 2003) has announced he will retire from NASCAR after Sunday’s race, when he will run an “Aaron’s Dream Machine” with the car number 15, the number he drove in his pair of 500 victories.

None of the strong rookie class of Daniel Suarez, Ty Dillon and Erik Jones will start the Daytona 500 near the front.  Suarez, the 2015 XFinity Series champion, finished 11th in Duel 1 and will start 19th.  Dillon finished 10th in Duel 2, and will start 18th, while Jones picked up damage in Duel 2 and finished 19th, and will start 34th on Sunday.

Martin Truex Jr., A.J. Allmendinger and Chris Buescher each failed post-race inspection after their respective duels.  All three will start at the rear in the Daytona 500, while Truex and Allmendinger will lose the points they earned in their Duels.

Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney and Paul Menard will race backup cars in the Daytona 500 after damage sustained in the Duels, and will start at the rear of the field.

 

 

 

Daytona 500 Starting Lineup
Row 1:  Chase Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Row 2:  Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin
Row 3:  Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer
Row 4:  Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch
Row 5:  Matt Kenseth, Austin Dillon
Row 6:  Trevor Bayne, Danica Patrick
Row 7:  Aric Almirola, Ryan Newman
Row 8:  Joey Logano, Kyle Larson
Row 9:  Cole Whitt, Ty Dillon
Row 10:  Daniel Suarez, David Ragan
Row 11:  Kyle Busch, Michael McDowell
Row 12:  Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jimmie Johnson
Row 13:  Matt DiBenedetto, Kasey Kahne
Row 14:  Landon Cassill, D.J. Kennington
Row 15:  Joey Gase, Michael Waltrip
Row 16:  Corey LaJoie, Jeffrey Earnhardt
Row 17:  Paul Menard, Erik Jones
Row 18:  Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney
Row 19:  Chris Buescher, A.J. Allmendinger
Row 20:  Brendan Gaughan, Elliott Sadler
Failed to qualify:  Timmy Hill, Reed Sorenson

Fast Five: Biggest Storylines Entering 2017 NASCAR Season

The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season starts tonight, with the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona, a non-points event with an all-star field.

As always, there are a plethora of storylines entering the new season and Daytona Speedweeks.  Here are the biggest subplots entering the new year:

5. Johnson Goes For Championship Eight

After winning his record-tying seventh Cup Series championship in November, the 2017 season is Jimmie Johnson’s first chance to win an unprecedented eighth title and break the record of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

Johnson has won his seven titles over the last 11 seasons, while Earnhardt won his seven over 15 seasons and Petty won seven over 16 seasons.  Even if Johnson, 41, does not win his eighth title in 2017, he is expected to have several competitive years left to try to break the record.

4. Daniel Suarez enters Cup, replacing Carl Edwards 

Carl Edwards’ retirement at 37 came as a surprise to everyone in the NASCAR garage.  His replacement, however, was not as surprising to insiders, although it is a name casual fans may not recognize.

Daniel Suarez, 25, replaces Edwards in the #19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota after winning the XFinity Series championship in 2016, becoming the first minority champion in any NASCAR national series, and the first born outside the U.S. (Mexico).

The very talented Suarez will immediately be a threat to win races and qualify for the playoffs, and joins a rookie class that also includes Erik Jones (#77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota) and Ty Dillon (brother of Austin, #13 Germain Racing Chevrolet).

3. Changes at Stewart-Haas Racing

Tony Stewart also retired after the 2016 season, and is replaced in the #14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford by Clint Bowyer.

SHR, which consists of Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick, is changing to Ford for the 2017 season after the last 14 seasons (eight with Stewart as co-owner) with Chevrolet.  The move allows SHR to become one of the two co-leading teams with Ford (alongside Penske Racing), after spending their tenure with Chevy in the shadow of Hendrick Motorsports.  With the move, SHR also had to change engine providers; after using Hendrick engines for their entire history, the company now moves to Roush-Yates Engines.

The team is also is fighting a developing legal battle with ex-sponsor Nature’s Bakery.  The company ceased its sponsorship of Patrick after the first year of a three-year contract, as the small company was struggling to pay for their sponsorship.  As a result, SHR has sued Nature’s Bakery for a breach of contract, and the company has countersued.  Patrick will still be sponsored for 2017 by TaxAct and Aspen Dental, the latter of which extended their sponsorship to fill some of the void left by Nature’s Bakery.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Returns

Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed the last 18 races of the 2016 season after suffering a concussion, one which he says is at least his fourth such injury in racing.

The son of Dale Earnhardt, who was killed 16 years ago today in the Daytona 500, has been voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for 14 straight seasons, capitalizing on both his father’s popularity and his moderate Cup Series success.

The 42-year old Earnhardt Jr., who married on Dec. 31 and enters a “contract year” in 2017, returns at arguably his most successful track, as he will make his first start of any kind since July in next week’s Daytona 500.  He will not race in the Advance Auto Parts Clash tonight; Alex Bowman, who earned a spot in tonight’s field by winning a pole at Phoenix last year, will drive the #88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

Earnhardt Jr. is a 26-time Cup Series race winner, and has finished in the top five in points four times, including a third-place points finish in 2003.  He is one of 11 drivers with multiple Daytona 500 wins, and can become just the sixth with three or more with a win next Sunday.

1. NASCAR’s Changes for 2017

NASCAR in 2017 will look different from any NASCAR season in the past, for multiple reasons.

First, the Cup Series has a new title sponsor.  What was the Sprint Cup Series in now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, as the energy drink company signed a “multiyear deal” with NASCAR back in December.

A new identity for the Cup Series made this offseason natural timing for other changes, and NASCAR has made several.

The biggest change is the new race format:  races will be divided into three segments, called “stages,” with points being awarded to the top 10 after each stage in addition to the full field at the race’s completion.  Stage winners will also recieve bonus points for the newly-named playoffs (formerly “The Chase”), as will the top 10 in regular season points, and those bonuses will carry through all the way until the Round of 8 (previously, bonus points only applied to the initial round, the Round of 16).

Many say the result will be better racing throughout the entirety of the event, although there are many skeptics, myself included.  Tonight’s 75-lap exhibition has no stages, so we won’t see the new format in action until next week’s Daytona 500.

In addition, NASCAR announced a new damaged vehicle policy for 2017.  Teams will no longer be allowed to replace major parts on damaged cars, and while they will be allowed to fix damage on original parts, they will only be allowed five minutes on pit road to perform such repairs.  Any car that has to go behind the wall or to the garage will be out of the race.

This rule is a safety initiative by NASCAR, as often times in the past when teams have sent patched-up cars back on the track they have caused accidents.  How much it affects the racing–and how much attrition goes up–are a big unknown right now; this change will potentially be seen in tonight’s Advance Auto Parts Clash (i.e. a hypothetical “big one” takes out 14 of the 17-car field).

How all these changes affect the competition, including driving styles and strategy, will be a big storyline throughout the entire 2017 season.

Column: The Greatest 64 Days in Sports

It’s Super Bowl Sunday.  You’re reading a sports blog, so I don’t have to tell you how big a deal the Super Bowl is American sports, and American culture at-large.

But Super Bowl Sunday, to me, is more than just one big game on one Sunday in February, but is instead the start of the best nine-week period on the sports calendar.

Over the next 64 days, from today until April 9, all five of the sports I closely follow have a major event that fans anticipate for months, in a stretch of the sports calendar that puts the other 301 days of the year to shame.

Football, of course, crowns its professional champion tonight in Super Bowl LI.  Pro football isn’t necessarily my very favorite sport to watch (in fact, I prefer college football over the NFL), but I do still enjoy it, especially during the playoffs and “The Big Game.”

While I do find the Super Bowl to be somewhat overrated, I appreciate the cultural event it has become beyond just a football game.  Everyone is watching, whether for the commercials, the halftime show, or (like me) to see if the Patriots or Falcons hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy at the game’s conclusion.  The sheer magnitude of the Super Bowl is unlike anything else in sports; on a cultural level in America, no other sporting event even comes close.

Three weeks from today, NASCAR celebrates its own “Super Bowl Sunday” of sorts with the 59th Daytona 500.  Unlike football (and many other “stick and ball sports”), NASCAR’s biggest event doesn’t end its season, but kicks it off, as the Daytona 500 begins the 36-race marathon that is the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule.

An event that rose to prominence in 1979 with Richard Petty’s dramatic win continues to produce thrilling racing, including last year’s photo finish won by Denny Hamlin.  Some (myself included) are more than skeptical about NASCAR’s new race format, but there is still excitement building for the 500, and it will only continue to build during Daytona Speedweeks, the 10 days of events at the World Center of Racing leading up to the race on February 26.

After Daytona, the calendar will turn to March, a word that is synonymous among sports fans with college basketball.  After the 32 conference tournaments over the first two weekends of March, the field of 68 will be set for the NCAA Tournament on March 12, Selection Sunday, and the tournament begins on March 14.

The next three weeks are a flood of the buzzer-beaters, the upsets, and simply the insane basketball that makes us all adore the NCAA Tournament.  Instead of a one-day event, the tournament spans over three weekends, with the teams that play for the championship playing six games by the time the tournament is over.

The championship game is on April 3, the same day as MLB’s Opening Day.  Fans in every sport have season openers, during which they always possess hope for the upcoming season, but this is especially pronounced at the beginning of baseball season.

Teams and fans alike will be set to go after six weeks of Spring Training, as each team begins the demanding schedule of 162 games in six months.

This season, Opening Day will be prefaced by the World Baseball Classic, the quadrennial World Cup-style competition held during Spring Training, established in 2006 and most recently won by the Dominican Republic in 2013.  The United States has, surprisingly, never medaled in the event, but has quite possibly their best roster ever entering this year’s edition.

April 3, the Monday that marks the end of the NCAA Tournament and the beginning of baseball season, is also the beginning of Masters week, with the tournament rounds at The Masters beginning on Thursday, April 6.  The creation of Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts is the biggest and most dramatic golf tournament of the year, set in the beautiful backdrop of Augusta National Golf Club, full of Georgia pines and perfectly-groomed azaleas, blossoming as spring sets in.

Golf, the ultimate individual’s game, is the only sport I played in high school, and therefore the one which I most identify with the players.  I’ve dreamed of playing in the Masters–and did so in the backyard many times–and now that I realize that’s probably unrealistic, I dream of driving down Magnolia Lane to cover the “tradition unlike any other” (then again, I’d like to cover all of these events some day).  Golf has four major championships, but among them The Masters stands tall.

The Super Bowl may be tonight, but even once the game is over, the fun will just be getting started.  It kicks off this great 64-day period, the most wonderful time of the sports year.

Column: NASCAR May Be Digging Its Own Grave

Just weeks ahead of the 2017 season, NASCAR is, yet again, changing its race format, continuing to move further away from the simple rules the sport was built on.

As NASCAR continuously makes their product more complicated, their popularity continues to statistically decline, begging the question of how strong a correlation may exist between NASCAR’s format changes and its falling ratings and attendance.

The Changes

The “enhancements,” as NASCAR has branded them, concern dividing races up into segments, something NASCAR hopes will create more exciting racing throughout the entire distance, alleviating the so-called “mid-race lull.”  The enhancements are the end result of a lengthy collaboration between NASCAR executives, teams, drivers, and racetracks in an effort to fix some of the complaints that have been heard within the industry.

Each race will now be divided into three “stages.”  After the first two stages, the top 10 are awarded points (10 for 1st, nine for 2nd, and so on).  Points will continue to be awarded to the full field (1st through 40th) at race’s end.  Points will no longer be awarded for leading a lap, or for leading the most laps.

Stage wins will earn a driver one bonus point for the “playoffs”–no longer called “The Chase”–and race winners will earn five bonus points.

The playoff format is mostly the same (four rounds of 16, 12, eight, and four drivers), with one exception:  the bonus points acquired through the season will be added to each driver’s total at the beginning of each round of the playoffs (previously, bonus points only applied to the first round).  The playoffs remain a “win and you’re in” format, and the finale at Homestead remains a four-man battle with the highest finisher winning the series championship.

Bonus points will also be awarded in the playoffs for each driver’s placement in the final regular season standings:  15 for 1st place, 10 for 2nd, eight for 3rd, seven for 4th, and so on down to one for 10th.

Pros and Cons

The cons of this system are obvious:  fans are going to be confused trying to figure out what in the world is going on.

But like anything else, this system has multiple pros and cons.

Positives include an intermission-like caution period after each stage that will allow competitors and fans alike to catch their breath, while broadcast networks can air more commercials during the break instead of during green-flag racing.

Also, there is now more incentive for drivers who know they are in the playoffs to win more races or stages, since those bonus points now carry over all the way until the Round of Eight in the playoffs.  Consistency will be better rewarded, even while a strong emphasis is still on winning races.

Besides the confusing nature of the changes, another major con is that a race winner could hypothetically only earn 40 points (finishing 11th or worse in the first two stages then winning the race), while a driver who wins the first two stages and then finishes second would earn 55 (10 points for Stages 1-2, 35 for second place).

“Wait Until You See It On The Racetrack”

Everyone on stage at Monday’s announcement, naturally, praised the changes as something that would make NASCAR exponentially better.

“Wait until you see it on the racetrack,” said 2012 Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski. “If you are watching right now, please trust us. When you see this on the racetrack, this is going to be the best racing you’ve ever seen.”

And, yes, the media member in me is moderately eager to see the changes in action, as they should theoretically create more exciting moments within each race (i.e. there are now three “finishes” instead of one).  But as a lifelong fan, I’m not sold.

Keselowski is probably right about more excitement throughout the entirety of the race, but the complex nature of the format will likely be a problem for a sport that is already in decline.

NASCAR’s Struggles

NASCAR’s popularity, as judged by television ratings and attendance figures, has been in decline since its peak in the mid-2000s.  Television ratings, which consistently rose from the 1980’s until the mid-2000s, have consistently dropped gradually since.  In 2016, the majority of the races on the schedule either hit all-time ratings lows or their lowest marks in 15-plus years.

Attendance has also plummeted over the last decade, with the International Speedway Corporation (which runs 12 NASCAR tracks) reporting a 49 percent drop from in attendance revenue from its peak in 2007, and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (which runs eight tracks) dropping 46 percent from its 2008 peak.

While both marks were at their peak just before the economic recession of 2008 and dropped like numbers in most other industries when the recession hit, they have continued to fall ever since.

This Won’t Fix NASCAR’s Problems

While the country slowly recovered from the recession, NASCAR has tried to appeal to a younger demographic with continuous rules and format changes.  The changes have resulted in many old-school fans giving up on the sport, and have not drawn enough young fans to the sport to offset the departures.

It’s no secret that NASCAR’s existing fanbase leans conservative, and as a result often resists change.

I’ve met fans over time that aren’t particularly keen on changes like The Chase, green-white-checkered finishes, eliminating the “race back to the caution” (although that one was wholly necessary for safety reasons), and even restrictor-plate racing (though most find it exciting).  Some of these have tolerated the changes and continued to watch, while others have left the sport.

Before now, these changes haven’t been overly complicated.  The “Chase Grid” format, which eliminates four drivers each round until a four-man winner-take-all finale, was the most complex change before yesterday’s announcement.

But this edition of rules changes is taking complicated to another level.  And remember, while I do know some very intelligent people who are diehard NASCAR fans, this isn’t exactly a fanbase known for an abundance of doctors and lawyers.

When fans turn on the Daytona 500 in just one month, many will likely not understand the new format.  Some will be patient and try to understand the changes.  But others will get frustrated, not recognizing the sport in which they used to watch their heroes like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. compete, and turn the race off.

And while these changes are aimed at the casual fan (with the thinking generic sports fans would better understand an event divided into periods, like football/basketball/hockey, and the term “playoffs” instead of “Chase”), I wouldn’t think they would have any more patience than the diehard fans when they turn on a race and get confused.  In fact, they may have less patience and change the channel even faster.

If people stop watching the races, it doesn’t matter how exciting the races are, because the sport will fizzle out.  NASCAR’s thinking is that more exciting racing is the answer, as it would potentially attract new fans and start to grow the sport once again.

But, at least from my perspective, the racing has always been exciting.  Some at Monday’s announcement talked about creating more “moments,” spread out over the three-plus hours of a race, but that has never been necessary in other sports, and isn’t in NASCAR either.  The main draw is to see who wins the race, at the end of 500 miles, not who makes it to the one-third mark first.

Furthermore, whether the Falcons or Patriots lead the Super Bowl after a quarter, they will have no advantage (besides the lead with 45 minutes of football left) as far as winning the game.

NASCAR was at its most popular when it was without all the bells and whistles that they will now execute in the running of each race.

Now, with the gimmicks continuing to add up, I’m afraid the number of fans who bid farewell will add up too.

While the “NASCAR as we know it” from the past ceased to exist yesterday, I fear it will result in “NASCAR as we know it” for the future ceasing to exist as well.