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

Column: Raiders Backstabbing Fans With Move to Vegas

Monday, the NFL owners approved for the Raiders to move from Oakland to Las Vegas.  The move will take effect once a stadium is built in Sin City, with an earliest realistic ETA of 2020.

By moving, the Raiders franchise is stabbing one of the most vocal and loyal fanbases in sports in the back.

Prior to last year’s AFC playoff appearance, the Raiders franchise had been in a prolonged slump.  After reaching Super Bowl XXXVII–which they lost to Tampa Bay 48-21–the team did not have another winning season until last year’s 12-4 campaign.  While that season ended in a disappointing playoff loss to Houston aided by several key late-season injuries, the future is very bright for coach Jack Del Rio’s team.

Now, as the franchise’s boisterous and devoted fans finally have a solid on-field product to watch, the Raiders executives are abandoning their supporters who have stayed with them through so many rough seasons.

Sure, the Raiders have actually consistently ranked in the bottom half in attendance over the last few years.  But every franchise would suffer at the box office if they were mired in a decade-plus of losing–and few other franchises have the culture and tradition of the Raiders, which they have enjoyed in good seasons and bad.  As the team’s fortunes improved in 2016, attendance did as well.

In addition to on-field struggles, the Raiders have one of the smaller stadiums in the NFL–the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum has a capacity of 63,132.  The Raiders share a market with the San Francisco 49ers, who play across the bay at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara; the Bay Area is by far the smallest two-team market in the NFL (behind New York and Los Angeles).

Combining all factors, the Raiders low statistical attendance makes sense.  However, the stats can’t show the atmosphere created in Oakland, especially in big games (even though there haven’t been many of them there in recent years).

Even as these fans are the ones hurt by the move, they are not actually the reason for it.

It’s no secret that for the team to stay in Oakland long-term, a stadium was necessary.  The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is shared with MLB’s Oakland Athletics and is, quite frankly, seen by many as a dump.

The City of Oakland has dragged its feet for years, but now has a stadium proposal which is realistic and feasible (but expensive).  A stadium plan approved by both the city of Oakland and Alameda County would cost the city $200 million, an investment group led by Raider legend Ronnie Lott $400 million, the Raiders franchise $500 million and the NFL $300 million (the league committed this money to a potential stadium proposal when it turned down the Raiders’ application to relocate to Los Angeles in favor of the Rams and Chargers moving there).

If a plan exists for the Raiders to remain in place, and especially in a place where all their fans and tradition are already established, then why are they so eager to move to Las Vegas and abandon their fans in northern California?

Sure, the NFL is a business, and there is a potential for tons of revenue in a previously untapped market that is also one of the top tourist destinations in the U.S.  But that being said, I’m not completely sold that the move will pay off in the long run.

Las Vegas is certainly a growing market.  Pro sports have stayed away in the past because of the connection the city has with sports gambling, but all four of the major North American pro sports leagues have softened their stance in recent years.  The city acquired an expansion franchise in the NHL that will begin play this fall, and now has convinced the Raiders to move from Oakland.

The city, theoretically, has a large enough population to support an NFL franchise, since it is as large or larger than several existing NFL cities.  But while cities like Green Bay and Buffalo both have well-supported franchises, other cities similar in size to Las Vegas have struggled with fan support; partially for this reason, St. Louis lost their franchise when the Rams moved to Los Angeles last year.

That said, Las Vegas is unlike any other city in America.  In the self-billed “Entertainment Capital of the World,” tourism is the biggest part of the economy.  Sure, the residents of the Las Vegas area would make some permanent fans, but the NFL is surely counting on tourism to provide additional filled seats in the Las Vegas stadium, which will be located just off The Strip.

This is an experiment, as no other NFL franchise will be so reliant on tourists being interested in its games, and one which may work–or may not.  Sure, fans will show up en masse at first, but once the novelty of a Las Vegas team wears off, it’s impossible to know if the visitors will keep heading to the stadium.

It’s telling that the NFL owners, who typically have little tolerance for unnecessary distractions, are moving a team to a city full of them.

As for the immediate future, while the Raiders wait for their Las Vegas home to be built, the Raiders will continue playing at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.  Their lease there runs through the 2017 season, with an option for 2018.

The earliest the Las Vegas stadium can be finished is likely 2020, meaning the Raiders would have to find a temporary home for that season, either in the Bay Area (more likely) or the Las Vegas area.  Conventional wisdom would say to play as few lame duck seasons in the Bay Area as possible, but there is not currently an attractive stadium option in Las Vegas to even use temporarily:  UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium has a maximum capacity of 40,000.

The Bay Area has three more likely options for a temporary home in 2019:  Levi’s Stadium (capacity 68,500), which they would share with the 49ers, Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto (cap. 50,000) or California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley (cap. 63,000).  Levi’s Stadium just opened in 2014, while California Memorial Stadium was renovated from 2010-12.

The move to Las Vegas is not the first time the Raiders have forsaken their long-standing fans in Oakland for a move to one of America’s centers of entertainment.  After playing in Oakland from 1960-81, the Raiders moved to Los Angeles in 1982, playing in the City of Angels for 13 seasons before moving back to Oakland after 1994.

Now, history is repeating itself as the Raiders move to Las Vegas.  But this time, even if they return to Oakland in another decade as they did before, the forsaken fans may not.

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.

 

 

 

Column: Parsons Gets Long Overdue Honor, Enters NASCAR Hall

Tonight in Charlotte, Benny Parsons will finally be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, a long overdue honor for one of the sport’s true legends.

The enshrinement comes after the NASCAR community marked the tenth anniversary of Parsons’ January 2007 death on Monday.

Parsons, a humble everyman from the rolling hills of northwest North Carolina, goes into the Hall for contributions to the sport as both a driver, from 1964-1988, and a broadcaster, from 1989-2006.

He competed drivers from Fireball Roberts to Dale Jarrett, and covered from Richard Petty to Kyle Busch, and now joins all of them (except future Hall of Famer Busch) in the elite membership of the uptown Charlotte facility.

Benjamin Stewart Parsons was born July 12, 1941 in his native Wilkes County, N.C.  “B.P.” drove taxis for his father’s company in Detroit before driving racecars, beginning his Cup Series career with a single start in 1964.  After two ARCA championships (1968-69), Parsons went full-time Cup racing in 1970, and won one of the most memorable championships in the sport’s history in 1973.

Parsons entered the season’s final race in Rockingham, N.C. leading the standings, but a lap 13 crash made his championship hopes seem grim.

Parsons’ crew, along with crewmen from other teams who wanted to see the underdog win, repaired his #72 DeWitt Racing Chevrolet enough for Parsons to return to the track and run enough laps to finish 25th and win the title, with just one victory, on the strength of 15 top-5’s and 21 top-10’s in 28 events.

Parsons went on to win the 1975 Daytona 500 and the 1980 World 600 (now the Coca-Cola 600), the latter coming after a fantastic duel in the closing laps against Darrell Waltrip, preventing Waltrip from his third straight 600 win.

In 526 starts over 26 seasons, Parsons won 21 races and 20 poles in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, finishing in the top 10 in over half his starts (283) and finishing in the top 10 in the season standings nine times (1972-80).

After retiring at the end of 1988, Parsons moved to the broadcast booth, joining Bob Jenkins and Ned Jarrett at ESPN from 1989-2000, in an era when the sport’s viewership was rising exponentially.  Parsons was also the original host of PRN Radio’s weekly show Fast Talk, serving in that role from 1993 until his death, and co-hosted a groundbreaking qualifying broadcast with Mark Garrow on WFMX radio in the 1980s.

In 2001, when FOX and NBC/TNT acquired NASCAR broadcasting rights, Parsons moved to the NBC/TNT booth to join Wally Dallenbach and Allen Bestwick (and later Bill Weber).  In this role, Parsons broadcasted three Daytona 500s (2002, 2004, 2006), and the first three editions of NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup (2004-06).

Parsons related to fans with his conversational and down-to-earth style.  Even while distributing his wealth of racing knowledge on the air, he came across as the kindly uncle watching the race beside you on the couch.

Parsons’ deep, booming voice became one of the most recognizable in all of motorsports, and the popularity he enjoyed in his driving career carried over to his broadcasting career.

After battling lung cancer, Parsons died from complications of the disease on January 16, 2007 at age 65.  Since his death, Parsons’ widow has, as part of his last wishes, invested in the attempted revitalization of North Wilkesboro Speedway and opened Rendezvous Ridge winery in Wilkes County.

Parsons’ induction into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame is well-earned, as his accomplishments in both his driving and broadcasting careers are individually worthy of enshrinement.  In fact, given the breadth of his career and his broad impact on the sport in multiple roles, I have been voting for Parsons in the Hall’s fan voting (which represents one ballot of the 48 during the selection process) every year since 2012.

Tonight, Parsons will be joined in the 2017 Hall of Fame class by former driver Mark Martin and car owners Rick Hendrick (who Parsons drove for in 1987), Richard Childress and Raymond Parks.

It will be a special night for many in the NASCAR garage, as one of the great men in racing will finally get a posthumous honor he has long deserved.

NASCAR Hall of Fame Inductees:
Class of 2017:  Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, Mark Martin, Raymond Parks, Benny Parsons
Class of 2016:  Jerry Cook, Bobby Isaac, Terry Labonte, Bruton Smith, Curtis Turner
Class of 2015:  Bill Elliott, Fred Lorenzen, Wendell Scott, Joe Weatherly, Rex White
Class of 2014:  Tim Flock, Jack Ingram, Dale Jarrett, Maurice Petty, Fireball Roberts
Class of 2013:  Buck Baker, Cotton Owens, Herb Thomas, Rusty Wallace, Leonard Wood
Class of 2012:  Richie Evans, Dale Inman, Darrell Waltrip, Glen Wood, Cale Yarborough
Class of 2011:  Bobby Allison, Ned Jarrett, Bud Moore, David Pearson, Lee Petty
Class of 2010:  Dale Earnhardt Sr., Bill France Sr., Bill France Jr., Junior Johnson, Richard Petty

Benny Parsons Career Statistics (Cup Series):
526 starts
21 wins
20 poles
199 top 5’s
283 top 10’s
134,870 laps run
6,866 laps led
14.5 average finish
9.3 average start
$4,426,278 career earnings

Column: Carl Edwards Leaves Just As He Competed–With Class

It’s 6:16 p.m. on November 20, 2016.

On a restart with 10 laps to go in the Ford EcoBoost 400 and the season, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano approach Homestead-Miami Speedway’s first turn, fighting for the race and championship leads.  Logano dives to the inside, Edwards blocks.  Edwards’ left-rear hits Logano’s right-front, hooking Edwards to the left, and he hits the wall head-on.

Edwards has every right to be frustrated, as the accident prevents him from potentially winning his first Cup Series title.  And yet, while his disappointment is apparent in post-race interviews, he shows no ill will towards Logano, even stopping at Logano’s pit to shake crew chief Todd Gordon’s hand and wish the team good luck in the remaining laps.

No one (including Edwards himself) knew at the time that Edwards’ incredible class, even in the face of heartbreak, would be the final image of his stellar career.

But Wednesday, the 37-year old Edwards announced he is stepping away from NASCAR, effective immediately.  Edwards said he came to the decision after the season, giving three well-thought-out reasons.

Three Reasons Why

First, Edwards is legitimately satisfied with his career accomplishments, even without a Cup Series title on his resume.  Edwards said that, to him, the competition in NASCAR was about more than winning, but the journey.

“Going through that whole process and becoming a better person, a stronger person, a better competitor, a better teammate, a better friend to people, that’s a big deal to me, and I feel accomplished,” Edwards said.

Secondly, Edwards said that while racing has been all-encompassing, physically and mentally, for the last 20 years of his life (13 in the Cup Series), it is necessary to devote his time and energy to other interests.

“I need to take that time right now and devote it to people and things that are important to me, things I’m really passionate about,” Edwards said.

Lastly, Edwards is 100 percent healthy, and wants to keep it that way in the short- and long-term.  Edwards does not appear scared, but is instead simply acknowledging that continuing to drive at the highest level could potentially be a risk to his health.

“Like anybody in a contact sport, I realize that there might be long-term consequences to that stuff, and that’s a piece of the puzzle,” Edwards said.

What’s Next

Edwards came to his decision after this season, and said that after considering his reasoning, he couldn’t think of a good reason why not to walk away now, and said that, in following his gut, he has no regrets.

“This is a pure, simple, personal decision, and for that I’m grateful,” Edwards said.

In his post-race interview at Homestead, Edwards clearly had not yet made this decision, as he pointed to the future after the tough break that cost him the 2016 title.

“This team is going to be on fire next year,” Edwards said.  “You watch out.  It’s going to be awesome.”

Perhaps he’s right–2016 XFinity Series champion Daniel Suarez will take his place in the #19 Toyota, and is an immediate threat to qualify for the Chase for the Cup.

Edwards would not use “the R word” to describe his decision to walk away, because he is open to the possibility of potentially driving part-time in the future, saying his first call in such a situation would be Joe Gibbs, the car owner he drove for in 2015-16.

“If it comes up and the right opportunity is there and at that moment, it’s the right thing, then for sure I’d entertain it.”

Outside of racing, Edwards has no specific plans, although the uncertainty doesn’t bother him.

“That’s one of the beauties about this decision,” Edwards said.  “I don’t have a there’s no life raft I’m jumping onto. I’m just jumping. And in a way, it makes it easier, because I’m not being swayed by some carrot out here, something going on.”

“I don’t really have that all figured out yet, and to me that’s okay.  I’m at peace with that. I know if I lay out those three reasons that I listed, if you put those together, you add them up, it adds up to this. This is the right thing.”

Class at Every Turn

Edwards entered the Cup Series in 2004 with Roush Racing and drove #99 Ford for the team until the end of the 2014 season, before moving to Gibbs for his final two seasons.

The Columbia, Missouri native won 28 races in 445 starts, finishing second in points in 2008 and 2011, and leading the championship with 10 to go in 2016 before the crash with Logano.  Edwards also won 38 races and the 2007 championship in the XFinity Series, running both XFinity and Cup full-time for seven seasons.

But the lasting impression of Edwards career is the class and dignity with which he competed, something not lost on Edwards himself at Wednesday’s press conference.  After a reporter remarked that Edwards had seemed to compete with a Midwestern mentality of work hard, be kind to others, and your reputation will follow, Edwards got choked up at the compliments given to his character.

“It’s important to me… to do the right thing,” Edwards said.  “I do not always do the right thing, and just like anyone, there are things I wish I could do over, and that’s that.”

Edwards said he was “a jerk” at times in his career, yet I can’t recall a time in his career when Edwards didn’t handle himself in the usual professional, classy way that became the trademark of his career, a refreshing departure from an age of several star drivers with an arrogant and self-centered streak.

When he was upset over on-track events–and I can’t remember a time in his career when such frustration wasn’t justified–he didn’t lash out publicly at his rivals but typically dealt with the situation professionally, behind closed doors.

When he won, Edwards visibly had a blast, performing his unique backflip celebration, but applauded the competition on a good race and humbly accepted the congratulations of his peers.  When he had heartbreaking losses, he tipped his cap to those who beat him, often personally congratulating the victor.

It was one of those heartbreaking losses at Homestead that will now go down as (at least for now) his final Cup Series start.

While the result of a 34th-place finish is not indicative of Edwards’ ability on the track throughout his career, the grace and sportsmanship Edwards showed in defeat is an appropriate end to his career.

I was watching the Ford EcoBoost 400 at the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s race-viewing party, and after Edwards’ interview with NBC’s Kelli Stavast, the assembled crowd appluaded the class Edwards showed in possibly the toughest defeat of his life.

That applause can now be extended to cover Edwards’ entire career.  Even as Edwards is walking away at a surprisingly young age, he has nothing to regret as he looks back over his career.

After doing things the right way from start to finish, Edwards walks away just as he drove, showing class and dignity at every turn.

 

 

 

Carl Edwards Career Statistics (Cup Series unless otherwise noted):
445 starts
28 wins
124 top fives
223 top 10s
22 poles
14.2 average start
13.6 average finish
127,758 laps
6,136 laps led
$80,473,708
2008 & 2011 Cup Series runner-up
38 XFinity Series wins
2007 XFinity Series champion

Column: The Last Time the Cubs Were In the World Series

Saturday night, the Chicago Cubs advanced to the World Series for the first time since 1945, defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0 to win the National League Championship Series in six games to meet the Cleveland Indians in the Fall Classic, starting Tuesday.

In that 1945 World Series, the Cubs met the Detroit Tigers.  It was the Cubs 10th World Series appearance in the first 42 editions of the World Series, although the North-Siders had only won in two of their previous appearances (1907-08), and would end up losing to the Tigers in seven games.

When that World Series was contested, Harry S. Truman had just become president six months earlier after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Between then and the World Series that October, Truman had already overseen the end of World War II, winning in Europe 25 days after Roosevelt’s death, and in Japan in August.

(Outspoken Cub fan Steve Goodman, known for writing “Go Cubs Go,” pointed out that parallel history in a lyric in his song “The Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request,” saying “You know the law of averages says anything will happen that can, but the last time the Cubs won a National League pennant was the year we dropped the bomb on Japan.”)

In the month before the 1945 World Series, Ho Chi Minh established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and American military occupation of Korea began, with both events setting the stage for major conflicts over the coming years.

The average house cost $4,600 in 1945, and a gallon of gas costs 15 cents.  The Bells of St. Mary’s starring Bing Crosby was the top-grossing film of the year, and Crosby won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in Going My Way, which won the Oscar for Best Picture.  Animal Farm and Stuart Little were among the novels published in 1945.

Microwave ovens and cruise control were invented in 1945, and less than 10,000 homes had television sets, while the credit card, defibrillator, and hair spray were all invented over the next three years.

Don McLean was born the day before the World Series, while fellow entertainers Tom Selleck, Bob Marley, Eric Clapton, Bob Seger, John Fogerty, Steve Martin, Neil Young, and Bette Midler and journalists Chris Matthews and Diane Sawyer were all also born in 1945.  Sports figures Pat Riley, Walt Frazier, Gary Williams, Hale Irwin, Phil Jackson, Jim Palmer, and Larry Bowa were also born in 1945, and Hall of Famer Rod Carew was born two days before the World Series.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would not be born for another year and two years, respectively.  My grandparents were between 9 and 18 years old.

World War II resulted in the deaths of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Anne Frank in 1945, while general George Patton died shortly after the war’s conclusion.

As the 1945 World Series was played, no black players were on either team, as Jackie Robinson would not break baseball’s color barrier for another two years.  The first Cubs player to appear in the 2016 World Series opener on Tuesday in Cleveland will likely be African-American outfielder Dexter Fowler, the Cubs usual leadoff hitter.

The years 1945 and 2016 are quite different, as society, culture, and even the timeless game of baseball have all seen big changes.  But in 1945 and 2016, one thing is the same:  The Chicago Cubs are National League champions.

The curse of the billy-goat, the black cat, and the Bartman game have blocked potential World Series appearances for the Cubs, but now, finally, 71 years later, the Cubs are back in the World Series.

It’s been a long time coming.

 

 

World Series Schedule (all games on FOX, at 8:08 pm ET unless otherwise noted)
Game 1:  Tuesday, October 25

Game 2:  Wednesday, October 26
Game 3:  Friday, October 28
Game 4:  Saturday, October 29
Game 5:  Sunday, October 30, 8:15 pm ET (if necessary)
Game 6:  Tuesday, November 1 (if necessary)
Game 7:  Wednesday, November 2 (if necessary)