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 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

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.

If Sports Stars Became President

Today, the United States will elect its 45th president.

But after this dreadful campaign season, instead of imagining either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as the next president, let’s have some fun.  I’ve taken the liberty of looking at what might happen if some of the biggest sports stars in sports became president, using their sports careers as the framework for what might happen in their time in office (the real-life sports example is in parentheses).

Kevin Durant

After Durant has been president for one fairly successful term (nine seasons with the Thunder), he declines a second term (elects free agency) and announces he is moving to Russia (the Golden State Warriors) in an attempt to become the Russian president, claiming he thinks he has a better chance to be seen as a winner on the global stage (winning an NBA championship).

LeBron James

Similar to Durant, James left the country (elected free agency) after one term to try and become a legendary leader (NBA champion) elsewhere in the world (the Miami Heat).  After a successful term as the French president (two NBA titles in Miami), he decides to return home to the United States (the Cleveland Cavaliers) and try to become president again (win a title in Cleveland).  In a classic election (the 2016 NBA Finals), James comes from way behind (three games to one) to upset incumbent Stephen Curry in the election and become president again (win the NBA championship).

Tom Brady

After winning a fourth term as president (four Super Bowl titles), Brady is impeached for shredding the ballots of his opponent’s voters (deflating footballs) in the primary election (AFC Championship Game), and convicted by the Senate (suspended by the NFL).  Brady continuously appeals the impeachment ruling (appeals the suspension to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals) and proclaims his innocence, but after multiple appeals finally accepts his fate, and vice president Jimmy Garoppolo (backup quarterback) becomes president (starting quarterback).

Dabo Swinney

After president Tommy Bowden resigns (Bowden resigned as Clemson football coach in 2008), Swinney, the little-known Secretary of Commerce becomes president (Swinney was promoted from wide receivers coach to head coach).  He is initially thought of as nothing more than a temporary figurehead (interim coach), but after he does a good job finishing Bowden’s term (4-3 to finish the season), Swinney wins reelection (is named permanent coach), and goes on to be one of the best presidents in American history (one of the best coaches in Clemson history).

Steve Spurrier

Spurrier oversees a period of great prosperity in his first stint as president (an ACC title at Duke, then six SEC titles and a national championship at Florida), but declines another term to seek other challenges (goes to the NFL).  In the next election, Spurrier wins back the presidency (returns to the college game at South Carolina), and after a slow start to his second stint (five-plus losses his first six seasons at South Carolina), Spurrier oversees the greatest three-year economic stretch in American history (three consecutive 11-2 seasons were the greatest run in South Carolina school history).  However, the economy quickly receded into depression (South Carolina fell back into mediocrity), and Spurrier resigned mid-term (he resigned after a 2-4 start to 2015), citing vice president Shawn Elliott (interim coach) as the new leadership the nation needed.

Peyton Manning

Manning, the son of former president Archie Manning (NFL Hall f Famer), came into office with much anticipation and momentum (entered the NFL as the #1 overall draft pick).  After a lengthy presidential career with many personal accomplishments (five NFL MVP awards), but little tangible evidence to show the nation’s progress (only one Super Bowl entering 2015), the nation has the highest GDP (the Broncos win the Super Bowl) in his final year in office (final NFL season), although much of the public realizes that in his lame-duck status he actually had very little to do with it (Manning was a shell of his former self in the playoffs, and it was the defense who guided the team to the Super Bowl title).

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt is the son of a political legend who died in office (Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in an accident competing in the 2001 Daytona 500), and rides his father’s popularity to become president (Earnhardt Jr. has consistently been the sport’s most popular driver since his father’s death), with a high approval rating.  His presidency is decent, but not overwhelming (26 wins in 18 seasons, highest points finish of third), before he is unexpectedly forced to resign due to a brain injury (he has missed the second half of 2016 with a concussion), and is replaced by rising political star Alex Bowman (Bowman will run a total of 10 races in Earnhardt’s car this season), who becomes the youngest president, while legendary former president Jeff Gordon comes out of retirement to be Bowman’s vice president (Gordon came out of retirement to run eight races in Earnhardt’s car this season)

Tiger Woods

Woods is the most dominant political figure of his time (he won 14 major championships his first 12 years on the PGA Tour), winning every election he ever ran in by a landslide (many of his major championship wins were not close), before he is forced to resign in disgrace after a sex scandal (he took a break from the PGA Tour in 2010 after a sex scandal).  Woods keeps trying to make political comebacks (trying to win more major championships), but each time faces a setback (multiple injuries and a struggling golf game), including most recently withdrawing from a Senate race just three days before the election (withdrawing from the PGA Tour’s Safeway Open three days before), saying he felt he would be “vulnerable” on Capitol Hill (he said he felt his game would be “vulnerable” on the PGA Tour).

Alex Rodriguez

Rodriguez is on track to become one of the greatest presidents in American history (one of the great players in MLB history), when evidence appears that he has been taking specially-designed and illegal drugs to help his performance as president (performance enhancing drugs/steroids), with the help of aide Tony Bosch (Rodriguez’s friend who ran the Biogenesis clinic and provided PED’s).  A-Rod denies the allegations (he denied using PED’s for many years), famously proclaiming “I did not have performance-enhancing drugs with that man.”

Bruce Bochy

A younger Bochy won the presidential nomination with the Padres party but lost to Joe Torre and the Yankees (Bochy’s Padres won the 1998 NL Pennant but lost the World Series to New York), and after moving to the Giants party, Bochy becomes president in 2010 (the Giants won the World Series).  In ensuing elections, Bochy always looks down and out, but he and his political team are gritty competitors and always find a way to win the elections in the even-numbered years (the Giants won the World Series in 2012 and 2014).

Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz

After the United States returns to the Articles of Confederation system, in which a three-person executive panel leads the nation instead of one president, the trio of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz from the Braves party comes into power (the three pitchers were Braves teammates from 1993-2002).  They become known as “the Big Three,” and while they are all from the same party, Maddux and Smoltz lean to the right, but Glavine leans to the left (Maddux/Smoltz were right-handed pitchers, and Glavine left-handed).  While all three are most remembered with the Braves party, all of them switched parties before the end of their political careers (all three left the Braves before the end of their careers).

 

Bonus:  The Chicago Cubs 

The Cubs political party won the White House in 1908 (won the 1908 World Series), but lost each election for the following 108 years (did not win the World Series for 108 years), despite a passionate nationwide base who optimistically proclaims “Wait ’til next year” each time the party loses, while opponents call them the “lovable losers.”  Close calls include losing to a third-party bid by the Billy Goats in 1945 (the “curse of the billy goat” began in 1945), and to another bid by the Black Cats in 1969 (the Cubs blew a large division to the Mets lead after a black cat ran in front of their dugout at Shea Stadium in New York in 1969).  In 2003, the Cubs lost to the Marlins Party (lost the NLCS to the Marlins) after write-in candidate Steve Bartman, a private citizen with no intentions of the fame of public office, stole enough votes to cost the Cubs the election (Bartman, a fan, infamously prevented outfielder Moises Alou from catching a foul ball when the Cubs were five outs away from the pennant, and the Marlins came back and won).  The 2016 Cubs, with the ticket of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo (NL MVP candidates), and under the direction of party chairman Joe Maddon (manager), came from behind with a late surge to beat the Indians party and win the election (came from 3-1 down to win the World Series), ending the party’s drought.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wins His 2nd Daytona 500

For the second time, and the first since 2004, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the Daytona 500.  The 56th annual race, at Daytona International Speedway was marred by an over six-hour rain delay after just 38 laps of racing, but once action resumed under the lights, it made for one of the most competitive 500s in recent memory.  Junior led a race-high 54 laps after starting in the 9th position, running his 15th 500, and recorded his 20th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win.  Junior didn’t take the lead for the first time until lap 131, so he led 54 of the last 70 laps.

The final 162 laps, under the lights, were much more exciting for the fans than the first 38.  The race, as a whole, featured 42 lead changes among 19 drivers, and the stat of lead changes is only measured at the start-finish line.  According to NASCAR.com, there were 177 passes for the lead in all, and 11,977 green flag passes, both track records.

Earnhardt Jr. had finished 2nd in 3 of the previous 4 Daytona 500s, and the victory was his first win in his last 56 starts, since Michigan in June 2012.  Junior had to hold off Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Brad Keselowski over the final laps, including a two-lap dash after the final restart, to claim the victory.  The win was Earnhardt’s 3rd (in a points-paying event) since moving to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, after previously winning the 500 driving the #8 Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., the team started by his father before his death.

Ironically enough, one of the big storylines leading up to the 500 was the return of the #3 car to the Sprint Cup Series for the first time since the death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr., as it was driven to the pole by rookie Austin Dillon.  So, the 3 led the field to green, while an Earnhardt led it to the checkers.

Steve Letarte won his first 500 as a crew chief, although he had won the race previously as a crew member for Jeff Gordon, and did so in his final career attempt.  Starting in 2015, Letarte will move to the NBC broadcast booth, so this will be his final season on the #88 pit box.  Many believe there is, therefore, a greater sense of urgency for both Letarte and Earnhardt Jr., because both realize if they want to win together, they have to do it now.  Perhaps that sense of urgency helped contribute to a flawless Speedweeks, leading to a Daytona 500 victory.  While Junior didn’t win everything (in fact, he didn’t win anything until the 500), he ran well in every event and kept his equipment clean (with the exception of a Sprint Unlimited crash that he didn’t cause; that was not in the car the 88 team planned to run in the Daytona 500).

With the win, Earnhardt now leads the series standings, and with the new Sprint Cup points format, he has almost guaranteed a spot in the Chase Grid.  The only way he would not qualify would be in the event of the series having 17 or more race winners in the first 26 races, and Junior being 17th in points out of those drivers, or the event of Junior not attempting all the races without a valid medical excuse for his absence, or falling out of the top 30 in points (those last two scenarios won’t happen).

 

2014 Daytona 500 Results

(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Led, Points)
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 9, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 54, 48
2. Denny Hamlin, 4, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 16, 43
3. Brad Keselowski, 33, Penske Racing, Ford, 13, 42
4. Jeff Gordon, 6, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 40
5. Jimmie Johnson, 32, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 15, 40
6. Matt Kenseth, 3, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 0, 38
7. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 34, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 0, 37
8. Greg Biffle, 25, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 8, 37
9. Austin Dillon, 1, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 1, 36
10. Casey Mears, 28, Germain Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 34
Notables:
11. Joey Logano, 35, Penske Racing, Ford, 2, 34
13. Kevin Harvick, 38, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 31
17. Carl Edwards, 30, Roush Fenway Racing, 8, 28
19. Kyle Busch, 37, Joe Gibbs Racing, 19, 26
35. Tony Stewart, 21, Stewart-Haas Racing, 0, 9

Chase for the Sprint Cup Power Rankings

My overall rankings for the 10-race Chase.

1. Matt Kenseth.  He has 5 wins this year, with 4 coming on 1.5-mile tracks.  Half the chase races are at 1.5-mile tracks, with additional races at Talladega and Dover, good tracks for Matt.  He starts the Chase as the points leader based on those wins.  Much of the media has him as the favorite, and so do I, with Johnson’s recent struggles.

2, Carl Edwards.  Winner at Richmond, “Cousin Carl” has some momentum.  Like Kenseth, he is good at 1.5-mile tracks, Talladega, and Dover, as well as Pheonix.  If he is decent at Martinsville, expect the 99 to be in contention to win it all at Homestead.  Unlike Kenseth, and many others in this Chase, he has experienced racing at Homestead with the prospect of winning the title, finishing 2nd  twice.  That experience could put him over the top.

3. Jimmie Johnson.  A month ago it was unthinkable the 5-time champion would be this low in these rankings.  Since then, he has posted finishes of 40th, 36th, 28th, and 40th.  It should be difficult for anyone to suddenly flip a switch and be championship material again, but if anyone can do it, it’s Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.  They are very good in the Chase format, winning 5 of the 9 Chases run, with finishes of 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th in the other 4.

4. Kyle Busch.  Here’s the elephant in the room.  There are questions surrounding Kyle, as usual.  Can he be consistent enough to contend for a championship?  Is he mature enough?  Can he keep his composure in big-pressure spots if he’s in contention late in the Chase?  I have a feeling we’ll get some answers in the next 10 weeks.  Like Edwards, Busch is riding some momentum, and he’s good at Chicago, New Hampshire, and Dover, the first three tracks the Chase will visit.  After those races, we’ll know if he’s in it or not.

5. Kasey Kahne.  I was hesitant to put him this high, because he was 14th in points, reaching the Chase on a wild card berth.  Kahne, though, is another driver very good on those key 1.5-mile tracks, particularly Charlotte and Texas.  He’s also had moderate success at Phoenix, Dover, and New Hampshire.  Like Edwards, Martinsville is Kahne’s weakness among the Chase tracks.  Kahne may be the wild card in another way, as he will likely be consistent enough to contend for a title, like early in the season, or he will lack consistency and struggle down the stretch.

6. Ryan Newman.  The 39 team left Richmond thinking a late caution and a bad pit stop had cost them a wild card spot in the Chase.  Sunday, of course, they found out with the rest of us that there was more to it.  Newman could use his surprise Chase berth as a springboard to a title shot.  However, the “Achilles heel” of Stewart-Haas Racing this year has been 1.5-mile tracks, which make up half of the Chase races.  The full resources of SHR will be needed to give Newman a shot, and he will have them due to Tony Stewart’s season-ending leg injury.  Another negative, though, is that this is a “lame duck” season, as Newman announced Monday he will drive for Richard Childress Racing in 2014.

7. Joey Logano.  Like Newman, Logano just barely got in.  In fact, there is now speculation that Penske Racing may have asked David Gilliland to intentionally let Logano around to help his points situation at Richmond.  (Great, this week’s been crazy enough.)  He has some momentum, if you ignore his finish at Richmond, he had a win, 3 top fives, and 5 top sevens in the previous 5 races.  Penske Racing won the Chase last year with Brad Keselowski.  The 2 car isn’t in the Chase, so all the resources of Penske will be with Logano, not a bad thing to have.

8. Kurt Busch.  The 2004 Champion may be a dark horse in this Chase.  No one gives the single car team out of Denver a chance.  They are the first single car team and the first team based outside of NC to qualify for the Chase.  This team, however, has some help.  They have a competitive alliance with Richard Childress Racing, and after winning at Darlington in 2011 with Regan Smith, they have been poised to win all year with Kurt Busch, with a 2nd at Richmond, three 3rds, and four additional top fives.  He is a “lame duck,” but his team has probably assumed that all year.  Expect him to win a race or races in the Chase; we shall see if the underdog team can contend at Homestead.

9. Kevin Harvick.  Some writers have him among their top 3, and a couple even have him winning the title.  I’ll be different, and coin a new term, as he may be the “lamest duck.”  Harvick has been at Richard Childress Racing since 2001 (2000 if you count Nationwide), and is leaving for Stewart-Haas Racing at season’s end.  In six previous Chase apperances, he has finishes of 3rd (twice), 4th (twice), 8th, and 10th.  He has shown some consistency, but he only has 6 top fives on the year.  I don’t see that as strong enough to contend for the title.

10. Clint Bowyer.  I just can’t see someone with as crazy a week as Bowyer has had going to Chicago and doing well.  There also must be some negative momentum, not just from the Richmond incident but also from a couple of poor finishes.  Also, after Jeff Gordon got the short end of the stick in the MWR penalties (he’s still not in the Chase), and considering the two have a history, there could be some fireworks (who knows).  On the bright side, Bowyer is good at the first three tracks In the Chase:  Chicago, New Hampshire, and Dover.

11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Junior has had a pretty good year, other than the fact he hasn’t found the winner’s circle.  He was, of course, leading big at Michigan when he blew an engine.  Consistency has been an issue this year, not just for Junior, but for all of Hendrick (never thought I’d say that).  In five previous Chase apperances, his best finish is 5th, but not since 2004 and 2006.  His best Chase finish in three appearances while at Hendrick is 7th.  I don’t see anything here to suggest he will be a contender for the title.

12. Greg Biffle.  Biffle struggled for much of the regular season, as did all of the Fords, but put together enough good finishes to make the Chase.  “The Biff” did finish 2nd in 2005 and 3rd in 2008, but has never really been close enough to taste the champagne.   He won at Michigan in June, but his best finish since the win was 8th, and at a road course.  Out of the 8 races at tracks that are featured in the Chase, he had only one top ten finish, and that was a Martinsville, a track he traditionally struggles at.  The signs don’t look promising for the veteran to contend late into the Chase.

Chase Schedule: 9/15 Chicago, 9/22 New Hampshire, 9/29 Dover, 10/6 Kansas, 10/12 Charlotte, 10/20 Talladega, 10/27 Martinsville, 11/3 Texas, 11/10 Phoenix, 11/17 Homestead