Fast Five: I Was There

I have been to plenty of sporting events, but some stand out more than others in my memory bank as the best events I’ve ever seen.  Each has their own unique story from my individual perspective.

October 4th marked the release of the new book I Was There, in which 65 of the biggest names in sports media share the five greatest sporting events they have witnessed in person.  The book was compiled by self-described “sports industry lifer” Eric Mirlis.

The criteria for the book is intentionally vague, meaning each contributor to the book can have their own interpretation of what their “greatest events” are.  As a result, in addition to the obvious examples of classic Super Bowls and championship games or series, there are some very outside-the-box events listed by the book’s participants.  Some of the events listed are all-time classics, while others have a deeper personal meaning.

The five events listed by each contributor are listed in chronological order, allowing the writers and broadcasters participating to not have to rank any of their five events over another.

I have seen 14 NASCAR races (10 Cup Series, 3 XFinity Series, 1 Truck Series), 11 MLB games, six ACC men’s basketball games, five PGA Tour events (but nine rounds), 2 FBS college football games, one NBA game, and too many Division II college games, Minor League Baseball games, collegiate summer league baseball games, and high school games to count.

But like anyone else, some of mine stand out, for different reasons.  And while I have not seen a Super Bowl or a World Series game, I have still seen some amazing events.

Here are the five greatest events I have witnessed, plus the five best I have covered:

Five Best Events I’ve Witnessed

Wake Forest at Clemson, Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson, S.C., January 24, 2015

I attend school at Anderson University, about 30 minutes away from Clemson’s campus, but having grown up in the Triad of North Carolina, I am a Wake Forest fan.  For Christmas a month before, I was given two tickets to Wake Forest’s game at Clemson.  I took my friend Garrett, a Clemson fan, and our seats were in the very last row, near the location of the TV cameras.

Wake Forest was in their first year under coach Danny Manning, after a 2-32 ACC road record under previous coach Jeff Bzdelik, and came in at 9-10 and 1-5 in the ACC, while Clemson entered at 10-8 and 2-4, so this was still a game between two bottom-half teams, but it was still an ACC men’s basketball game.

The Demon Deacons led over 39 minutes of the game, before Clemson took the lead with 0:58 left, and Wake Forest tied the game with a Devin Thomas free throw with 0:35.  Thomas missed the second free throw, but the Deacs got the rebound and looked like they would have the ability to set up the last shot and try to win.  But after Codi Miller-McIntyre turned the ball over with 0:25 left, and after Rod Hall drove inside but missed his shot, little-used reserve Josh Smith, who had just 14 baskets his last 19 games, got an offensive rebound and putback to put Clemson up 59-57 with 0.5 seconds left.  The play was essentially a buzzer-beater, and gave Wake Forest (another) heartbreaking loss on the road in ACC play.

Garrett could not have been more grateful for the free ticket to the game, so when the shot fell in, this was his reaction:  “Yeaaah! Yeaaah! (turns to me) Sorry. (turns back to the court) Yeaaah!”

Wyndham Championship, First Round, Sedgefield Country Club, Greensboro, N.C., August 18, 2015

Growing up in the Piedmont Triad, I attended the Wyndham Championship each year from 2007-09.  I saw the first PGA Tour wins of Brandt Snedeker (2007) and Ryan Moore (2009), as well as hometown favorite Carl Petterson’s lights-out round of 61 on his way to victory (2008).  We moved to South Carolina in late 2009, so I had not been back to Sedgefield since.

The week before the 2015 edition, with the Wyndham marking the last event of the PGA Tour’s “regular season” before the FedEx Cup Playoffs, I wondered if Tiger Woods, who was 187th in points, well below the playoff cutoff, may come to Greensboro for the first time in his career.  It seemed like a long shot, as under similar circumstances in 2011 he did not play in Greensboro and accepted his fate of his season being over.

And yet, the Friday night before the Wyndham, Woods committed to the event.  With one of the greatest athletes of all time coming to the Wyndham, which I still considered my “home event” on the PGA Tour, I bought a ticket for Thursday’s opening round within minutes of the announcement he was coming.  My non-golfing aunt, Terri, also decided to go and take in history–I don’t think she knew who any of the other 155 players in the field were, but she wanted to see Tiger Woods too.

We arrived at Sedgefield early enough to see Tiger warm up, then began following his group when he teed off.  I had seen Tiger at Quail Hollow in Charlotte in 2009, but this day would be much better.  Tiger teed off at 7:50 am, meaning Tiger’s gallery was smaller that day than any other day of the tournament, and seeing him in the Wyndham for the first time was a dream come true.  It became even more amazing when he played very well.

Tiger holed an incredible pitch shot for birdie on the 10th hole (his first hole), then bogeyed 11, leading me to think he had shown a glimmer of his old self before fading back into his struggles.  I was wrong, as he would birdie the 13th, 15th, and 18th holes for a 3-under-par 32 on the back nine, before birdieing the first, fourth, and fifth in a bogey-free front nine to shoot a round of 64.

This was (and still is) Tiger’s lowest round in competition since 2013.  Playing with Tiger were Hideki Matsuyama, who shot 65, and Brooks Koepka (who would eventually be a big part of last week’s U.S. Ryder Cup victory), who shot 67, but this was Tiger’s day.

Tiger, who needed to finish at least second to make the FedEx Cup Playoffs, would shoot a 65 the following day, and entered the weekend tied for the lead, and played well again on Saturday, entering the final round in a tie for second, before a triple-bogey on the 11th on Sunday ended his shot at victory and advancement.

Two weeks later, Tiger announced he had undergone more back surgery, and was out indefinitely.  Throughout 2016 he hinted at a comeback, but the 2015 Wyndham Championship is still his last start on the PGA Tour to date.

*Editor’s note:  to read more on my day following Tiger Woods at the Wyndham Championship, click here.


Bojangles’ Southern 500, Darlington Raceway, Darlington, S.C., September 6, 2015

Early in the 2015 NASCAR season, my friend Kevin told me he would very likely be able to get pit passes to Darlington for Southern 500 weekend.  I made sure he got us a third pit pass so Terri, the reason I am a racing fan to begin with, could come along.  She had never been to Darlington, but now would now, through the pit passes, get the greatest access in all of sports.

Kevin came in on Friday night, and him and I spent Saturday at the track for Cup Series qualifying and the XFinity Series event.  Kevin is friends with Harrison Rhodes, an NC State student by week and racecar driver by weekend, who was driving in the event.  As a result, we sat on his pit box for the entire time that he was in the race (he parked after 80 laps for his team’s financial reasons).  Denny Hamlin, Kevin’s favorite driver, won that Saturday event.

My favorite driver is Jeff Gordon, who was in his last season and was making what was supposed to be his final start at one of his best tracks (he ended up running Darlington again in 2016, filling in for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr.).  The pit passes allowed me to get his autograph on Sunday, as well as many other drivers.  We watched cars go through technical inspection up close, then made our way to pit road for the race itself.

This was the first year Darlington hosted a “throwback weekend,” so many of the paint schemes were throwbacks to the legends of years past.  The track played 70’s music over the speakers in the hours leading up to the race, and Tanya Tucker sang the national anthem.

Multiple MRN Radio announcers called this the “race of the year,” as there were 24 lead changes among 11 drivers, and 18 caution flags over the 367 laps that make up 500 miles around the venerable egg-shaped oval.  As the race got late, Brad Keselowski appeared to have a strong grip on the race lead, as he led every lap from lap 304 to 356 (except during pit stops) before a late caution bunched up the field.

On the final restart, Carl Edwards took the lead away, and led the remaining laps to win his first Southern 500.  During the “cool-down lap,” as Edwards came back around to the frontstretch, Kevin and I took off running towards the center of pit road to get a view of Edwards’ famous backflip celebration, which was cool to see in person.

One takeaway from this race is how much I found it ironic that with pit passes, the best access a fan can get in any sport, you still ended up essentially watching the race on TV, as we watched the monitors on the back of each team’s pit box.


Racing Electronics 100, Bowman Gray Stadium, Winston-Salem, N.C., August 5, 2016

Bowman Gray Stadium is a bull-ring short track in eastern Winston-Salem, in a stadium that doubles as the home of Winston-Salem State University football.  The track is one of the longest-running short tracks in the country, and is known as “The Madhouse” after many of the wild events which have unfolded on the quarter-mile circuit.

I lived about 20 minutes from Bowman Gray Stadium growing up, but only went to a race there once before we moved to South Carolina.  This summer I lived in the area again, while interning for the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro, so one of the things I wanted to do during the summer was to go to a Bowman Gray race with Terri.  The schedule made it difficult, as the Asheboro Copperheads had a game nearly every Saturday night, but we looked at Bowman Gray’s schedule and saw a Friday night in early August when the Copperheads were away.

We got to the track early enough to see the famous modifieds make their qualifying runs, followed by preliminary races featuring cars called Bandoleros.  These were short races featuring pre-teen up-and-coming drivers in cars that were not very powerful, but could still put on a decent show.

The modifieds then came out for their 100-lapper, and were led to the green by local legend Burt Myers.  Tim Brown, another longtime Bowman Gray driver and multi-time track champion, started at the back after his engine misfired in qualifying.  While I watched the action at the front, I also kept an eye on Brown at the back, and early in the race he struggled to make headway trying to get through the field.

Cautions and restarts helped aide Brown, and eventually on a restart with about 25 to go he was second, on the outside of Myers, who had led from the outset.  On the restart, Brown passed Myers off of turn two on the outside, a hard feat in short-track racing, to take the lead for the first time.

Two laps later, while Myers was trying to chase Brown back down, the skies opened up and a heavy rainstorm hit Bowman Gray.  Brown was awarded the win in the rain-shortened race, a victory that was likely among his finest, considering how hard he had to work to get through the field.

Terri and I got back to my grandparents’ house, where I was spending the summer, in time to watch most of the parade of nations at the Rio Olympics.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the last race I attended with Terri before she unexpectedly passed away a month later.

 

Detroit Tigers at Atlanta Braves, Turner Field, Atlanta, Ga., October 2, 2016

Emotions are always higher when you are seeing something happen that will never happen again, and the same is true in sports.  Every MLB game I have ever attended was at Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves, and on this day I was fortunate enough to attend the final game in the venue’s history.  I got upper deck tickets for my dad and I for his birthday, knowing how much of an affection both of us have for the stadium.

Dad left home in Mullins before 5 a.m., and was in Anderson before 9, and we were on our way.  We took the MARTA train and bus to the stadium, and arrived shortly after the gates opened.

The Braves Museum and Hall of Fame was open to the public for free, so we walked through and explored the history of the Braves franchise through its years in Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta.  It was the first time since 2005 either of us had seen the museum.

We got to our seat about 45 minutes before the 3:10 p.m. first pitch, and took in the pregame ceremony, in which Braves legends including Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Javy Lopez all took the field as part of the All-Turner Field Team.  That team also included “The Big Three” of Hall of Fame pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, who threw out ceremonial first pitches after being delivered baseballs by Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox.

The opponent for the final game was the Detroit Tigers, who were still playing for the possibility of a postseason bid, and needed a win over the Braves and some help to stay alive.  Given those circumstances, the Tigers sent ace Justin Verlander, one of the game’s best pitchers, to the mound, a nice parallel to my first game at Turner Field in 2001 when I saw Maddux pitch.  Julio Teheran, a solid pitcher in his own right, pitched for the Braves.

After Teheran struck out the side in the top of the first, Ender Inciarte and Adonis Garcia led off the bottom half with singles, before Freddie Freeman got his 91st and final RBI of a career year with a sacrifice fly to center, giving the Braves a 1-0 lead.

After the first, it was the pitcher’s duel you would expect from Teheran and Verlander, as the two pitchers put up matching zeros, including many 1-2-3 innings.  Each starter went seven innings, before Jose Ramirez (ATL) and Bruce Rondon (DET) each pitched a scoreless eighth.

Jim Johnson, whose two-year contract extension with the Braves had been announced that morning, came in to close it in the ninth.  After a 1-out single by Miguel Cabrera, Johnson struck out J.D. Martinez and former Brave Justin Upton for the final two outs at Turner Field.

After the game, Hank Aaron threw a ceremonial final pitch to Cox, before Aaron and Braves chairman Terry McGuirk transferred home plate from Turner Field to SunTrust Park, the Braves home starting in 2017, via police escort.  The closing ceremony also featured a “parade of Braves Country states,” a nod to Turner Field’s history as Centennial Olympic Stadium and the 1996 Olympic opening ceremony, before remarks from broadcaster Don Sutton, Cox, Smoltz, and Braves vice-chairman John Schuerholz, who led the crowd in one final rendition of the famous “tomahawk chop” chant.

No, this wasn’t the closing of Yankee Stadium, but this was the final game at a place where we watched our favorite team play for 20 years, and for my entire span of memory (I’m 21).  So many memories were made at Turner Field, and the final game there is one I won’t forget.

Five Best Events I’ve Covered

Coastal Plain League West Division Championship Series, Gastonia Grizzlies vs. Florence RedWolves, August 10-12, 2014

I interned for the Florence RedWolves, a collegiate summer baseball team, in the summers of 2014-15, staying at home and commuting 30 minutes to Sparrow Stadium on the campus of Francis Marion University.  In 2014, the RedWolves won the Coastal Plain League’s West Division in both the first and second half of the season, and had a good shot at winning the franchise’s first Petitt Cup title in the playoffs.

After dispatching the High Point-Thomasville HiToms in an opening round sweep, the West Division Championship Series featured the two teams who had clearly been the division’s best all season, the RedWolves and the Gastonia Grizzlies.  The three games that ensued are collectively on this list, as the drama of playoff baseball and the budding rivalry of the two teams produced the best back-to-back-to-back games I have ever seen, which can be included as events I “covered” as I wrote the postgame press releases for the final two games.

Game 1 at Gastonia:
Several of us interns drove up to the suberb west of Charlotte and Sims Legion Park, the Grizzlies’ home.  Gastonia took a 1-0 lead in the first, but the RedWolves had a 3-1 lead by the seventh inning stretch.  The Grizzlies tied it in the 7th on a 2-RBI single by Weston Lawing, but after that both bullpens were absolutely phenomenal as an extra-inning game ensued late into the night.

RedWolves reliever Jacob Condra-Bogan allowed two runs in the seventh, but none for four innings after, and CPL Pitcher of the Year, closer Michael Morrison (a 2016 College World Series hero at Coastal Carolina), was scoreless in 5.1 innings.  Gastonia hurlers Robert Lawhon and Jared Cheek were just as impressive.

The RedWolves finally took the lead in the 16th on an RBI single by Joe Bialkowski and an RBI double by Brandon Rawe, and got three outs to win 5-3 and take a 1-0 series lead, winning the longest playoff game in CPL history.

Game 2 at Florence:
Back at home, the RedWolves were trying to clinch the best-of-three series in what would be a back-and-forth affair with a lot of “small ball” in the notoriously large Sparrow Stadium.  The RedWolves led 1-0 after the second, trailed 2-1 in the third, and led 3-2 after the third.  Each side scored in the fourth, making it 4-3, before Gastonia tied it 4-4 in the fifth, and Florence retook the lead at 5-4 in the sixth.

The RedWolves kept the one-run lead until the ninth, before Gastonia exploded (and Florence imploded) in the ninth:  double, sacrifice bunt, RBI single, error, RBI single, RBI fielder’s choice (no out recorded), RBI fielder’s choice (no out recorded), strikeout, RBI single, 2-RBI triple, walk, flyout.  This may be the worst inning I have ever sat through, as the RedWolves went from two outs from winning the series to down 11-5 in a matter of minutes.  I didn’t bore you by listing each Gastonia player’s role in the inning, but I will add that Victor Zecca had the leadoff double and the 2-RBI triple.

But there was still a bottom of the ninth.  The RedWolves got the bases loaded with one out, before a Brandon Rawe sacrifice fly made it 11-6, and a wild pitch made it 11-7.  After loading the bases again, team RBI leader Conor Sullivan came to the plate representing the potential tying run.  It seemed like the potential perfect scenario for Florence, but Sullivan flied out to the warning track in straightaway center, the deepest part of a big ballpark, for the final out.

Game 3 at Florence:
The winner-take-all finale was more low-scoring than the first two games, but was just as entertaining.  The RedWolves took a 1-0 lead in the first, after CPL Hitter of the Year Gene Cone walked, was bunted to second, and scored when he stole third and the catcher threw the ball away.

Travis Burnette (FLO) and Sam Theole (GAS) were fantastic for both sides, matching zeroes and enduring a nearly one-hour rain delay mid-game.  Gastonia never had more than one baserunner in an inning through the first eight, meaning the 1-0 Florence lead had been as comfortable as such a lead can be in an elimination game.

In the ninth, Lawing was hit with a pitch, and Chris Robinson doubled with one out.  Morrison, running on fumes after his outing two nights before, came in and intentionally walked Sammy Taormina to load the bases with one out.  I was having flashbacks to the night before, but Morrison struck out Tyler Farmer and got Joe Koehler to ground out to second base, ending the threat and the game, giving the RedWolves a 1-0 win and a 2-1 series victory.

The emotional release of the final out led to me, as public address announcer, borrowing Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling’s line of “Yankees win! Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Yankees wwwwwwin!” and exclaiming “RedWolves win! Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa RedWolves wwwwwwin!”

The RedWolves moved on to the Petitt Cup Finals, where they won the opener over the Peninsula Pilots in Florence, before losing two heartbreaking games at Peninsula’s home in Hampton, Va.

(Box score and play-by-play for:  Game 1    Game 2    Game 3)

 

Westside at T.L. Hanna, T.L. Hanna Gymnasium, Anderson, S.C., January 16, 2015

I began covering high school sports for the Anderson Independent-Mail on a freelance basis in the fall of 2014, under prep editor Adam Regan.  He left at the end of the year, taking another job in Florida, leaving me to cover the lead games in the area while the paper looked for a replacement, leading to my best assignment to that point when I got to cover a basketball game between crosstown rivals T.L. Hanna and Westside.

For someone covering high school sports in Anderson County, T.L. Hanna and Westside games might as well be the Super Bowl.  The entire town turns out for these games, and it is loud as everyone cheers boisterously for their chosen team.

After the Westside girls team defeated T.L. Hanna 49-33, attention turned to the boys game.  There was honestly more tension in the building as the boys warmed up then there had been at any time during the girls game.

After an even first quarter, T.L. Hanna led 18-14, and they stretched that lead to 30-21 at halftime.  Hanna led by as many as 11 in the third, at 48-37, before Westside started to come back, using seven points in the final 52 seconds of the period to cut it to 53-46.

Westside’s momentum continued in the fourth, as a 10-2 run gave them a 56-55 lead, their first since 3-1.  Hanna tied it again at 57-57, but did not score again, with Westside leading 59-57 in the final minute before an Austin Walker driving shot with 0:31 left make it 61-57 Westside, and two free throws further sealed the win, as the Rams stunned the Yellow Jackets, 63-57.

I have seen a football game and a basketball game between the two schools since as a spectator (and both went to overtime), but this remains the only game in either of the two big high school sports that I have covered between the two (although I have covered many games featuring one or the other, as well as two softball games between the two).  Sitting courtside, and being a part of the game (at least in the sense of covering it) was a treat.

(Independent-Mail:  Westside boys, girls defeat T.L. Hanna)

 

Clemson at Anderson, Abney Athletic Center, Anderson, S.C., November 8, 2015

As an Anderson University student, this game had been circled on my calendar for months.  The Trojan women had won the regular-season conference title the year before, and were, even as a Division II team, getting the chance to host Division I Clemson from the ACC in a preseason exhibition.  A week or so before the game, Scott Adamson, who was Independent-Mail sports editor at the time, approached me about covering the game.  The writers who normally covered Clemson were focusing on the undefeated football team, and Scott, who normally covered Anderson games, would be busy working a Clemson soccer game, giving me the opportunity to cover a game I could literally have walked to.

The Anderson men had played Clemson 52 weeks before at Littlejohn Coliseum, and I had attended that game as a fan, but this game was even cooler to me because I thought Anderson had a shot to win.  The Trojan women were preseason favorites in the South Atlantic Conference, while Clemson was picked to finished last in the ACC.

A record crowd of 1,027 packed the Abney Athletic Center on a Sunday afternoon, with the student section doing a “blackout” of the section of seats across from the two benches.

The first half was back-and-forth throughout, with Anderson leading 34-31 at the break.  A 22-9 Trojans run gave Anderson a 54-40 in the third, before Clemson fought back to make it 56-48 at the end of the third, but from that point it was all Trojans, closing the game on a 23-7 run to win 79-55.

The game was better than the final score would indicate, but beyond that, this was the first (and so far only) collegiate game I covered for Independent-Mail, and featured my school beating our ACC neighbors.  I was thrilled with the outcome, although I was there in a professional capacity, so I did no cheering and probably did not even smile during the game.  I was there covering the game, not as a fan or student.

I kept that poker face through postgame interviews, and through the 90-second car ride back to my room, until I walked through the door.  Once I was in the privacy of my room, I finally let out a huge fist pump in celebration of the Trojans’ big win.

Anderson would win the SAC regular season title for the second straight year, while Clemson went winless in conference play to finish last in the ACC, with the results for both teams reflecting what had been foreshadowed in November at the Abney Athletic Center.

(Independent-Mail:  AU women demolish Clemson)


Florence RedWolves at Asheboro Copperheads, McCrary Park, Asheboro, N.C., July 16, 2016

For the summer of 2016, I interned with the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro.  My role was originally to cover American Legion baseball games and the Asheboro Copperheads, a team in the same league as the RedWolves, for the paper.  However, once sports editor Dennis Garcia, who was also the play-by-play broadcaster for the Copperheads on CPL Webpass, found out I had called a few games on Webpass for the RedWolves two years before, he invited me to do some games with him on Webpass.  I would end up broadcasting every Copperheads home game except one on Webpass, even doing some games solo when Dennis was stuck at the office finishing the layout of the sports section of the paper, including this one.

It was weird when the RedWolves, who I had spent the previous two summers interning for, came to Asheboro for games.  Before the July 16 contest, the two teams had already played in Asheboro on June 13 and July 13, and five times in all, but this game stands out as not just the best these two teams played that season, but the best game overall that I covered that season.

It didn’t look that way at first, as Florence scored six runs in the top of the first, on just three hits with two Asheboro errors, and two more in the second to make it 8-0.  In the bottom of the second, Connor Lind showed a small sign of the offensive onslaught that was to come for Asheboro with a solo homer, although at the time it just made the score 8-1.

In the fourth, T.J. Nichting singled, and Lind homered again, making it 8-3.  Colin Rosenbaum then walked, and Vito Friscia homered, making it 8-5.  Later in the inning, Zach Duff joined the home run party with a solo shot to make it 8-6.

After a Ryan Kent sacrifice fly for Florence in the fifth made it 9-6, Nichting led off the bottom half with a homer, before Rosenbaum singled and Friscia homered again, tying the game at 9-9.  Asheboro would then take a 10-9 lead in the sixth when Rosenbaum doubled to score Lind, before holding that lead until the ninth.

Bryan Blanton, who had been a CPL All-Star but was beginning a set of struggles that would haunt both he and the Copperheads in the second half, came in in the ninth, and even after three walks in the inning was an out away from getting out of the jam, before CPL All-Star Zach Files singled, scoring two to give the RedWolves an 11-10 lead.  The Copperheads threatened in the ninth when RedWolves closer Tom Colletti walked a pair, but could not score, and the RedWolves had a wild 11-10 victory.

The Copperheads, who had won the CPL West first half title, continued to struggle through the rest of the second half after this game, and eventually lost at Savannah in the first round of the playoffs on a walkoff hit.  Florence, who had finished seventh out of eight in the first half, had a much better second half and missed the second half title, and therefore the playoffs, by one game.

(Box score and play-by-play)

 

Greenwood at T.L. Hanna, Jim Fraser Field, Anderson, S.C., September 23, 2016

This was my first trip to T.L. Hanna in the 2016 season, and it seemed like just a run-of-the-mill game at first.  It was homecoming for the Yellow Jackets, who had lost to Greenwood 18 straight seasons before ending the streak last year.  What seemed like an ordinary game would become the greatest football game I’ve ever covered.

After a scoreless first quarter, Greenwood and Hanna both scored on long touchdown passes, then both kicked field goals in the final 1:04 of the half, making it 10-10 at the break.

Greenwood started the second half with a 15-play scoring drive of 65 yards, before Hanna went 65 yards themselves in one play, an Alex Meredith-to-A.J. Bryant connection to tie the score at 17-17.  This remained the score into the early stages of the fourth, before Greenwood scored on another lengthy drive on a Dre Yarbough touchdown pass to highly touted receiver Sam Pinckney, but the Eagles missed the extra point, keeping it 23-17.

Braylon Peterson returned the ensuing kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown, as Hanna provided another answer and took a 24-23 lead.  Greenwood had their own answer, an 11-play scoring drive culminating in another Yarbough-to-Pinckney touchdown, and a two-point conversion to make it 31-24 with 2:03 to play.

Hanna calmly marched down the field in five plays, scoring to tie the game at 31-31 with 1:06 to go when Meredith found Reel Wise from 35 yards, sending the game to overtime.

In the extra session, Greenwood scored when Yarbough found Pinckney again from 10 yards on the first play of overtime (high school overtime in South Carolina gives each team a possession from the 10-yard line).  The Yellow Jackets answered again, when Meredith turned a broken play into a 9-yard touchdown run to tie the score at 38-38.

In double overtime, Hanna went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, as Jaydon McKinney scored for the 45-38 lead.  On the first play of Greenwood’s possession, they ran the same play they scored on in the first overtime, and Hanna LB Shai Thomas jumped the route and intercepted Yarbough to end the game and give Hanna a 45-38 win.

I finished postgame interviews about 10:55, and the Independent-Mail has an 11:00 deadline, but one which is stretchable.  Prep editor Lake Morris said it could be stretched to 11:40 at the latest, and I finished writing about 11:35; I was glad to make sure the story of this crazy game got in the next morning’s paper.

(Independent-Mail:  Thomas INT leads Hanna over Eagles)

 

Honorable Mention:
Pickens at Belton-Honea Path,  April 22, 2016
The game itself was nothing spectacular, as B.H.P. took an early lead before putting the game away with a 8-run sixth inning to win 10-0, but it was historic as, on Senior Night, Bears coach Steve Williams won his 500th game.  His postgame interview is the only time an interview subject of mine was moved to the point of tears, as Williams was humbled and grateful for his accomplishment, and how many former players came back to witness the milestone game.  I got lucky on this one–I was scheduled to cover a different game until late that afternoon when weather changed the Independent-Mail‘s plans.

(Independent-Mail:  Williams wins No. 500 as Bears top Pickens)
***Editor’s Note:  This game was one of the five in the original draft of this post, which was written before the Greenwood-T.L. Hanna game occurred, so I felt it appropriate to include it as an honorable mention.

Advertisements

Column: A Historic Sunday to Savor at The Brickyard

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the only racing facility in the U.S. designated a National Historic Site, and has already added to its history this year with the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, arguably the most renowned auto race in the world.

Today, while it was far less expected, the Speedway adds more history to its hallowed paddock as NASCAR runs one of its most story-filled races in recent memory at the track.

This date has been circled for months on many calendars in the NASCAR garage, as it has been known since Tony Stewart announced his impending retirement last offseason that this would be his final appearance in the Brickyard 400, one of NASCAR’s biggest events which happens to be at the “home track” of the Rushville, Ind. native and sure-fire future NASCAR Hall of Famer.

And that alone is reason to watch on Sunday.  While Kyle Busch is the assumed favorite, and is on the pole as he tries to become just the second back-to-back winner in the Brickyard 400’s 23-year history, Stewart has a realistic chance to add to his storied history at the World’s Most Famous Speedway.

Smoke, as some fans call him, starts third as he tries to become just the third driver to win three (or more) times in the event, although he has yet to win the race since becoming an owner-driver (although another Stewart-owned car, Ryan Newman, won in 2013).

Stewart’s Indianapolis ties extend beyond his NASCAR career.  Before coming to NASCAR Stewart raced in the IndyCar Series, winning the series championship in 1997, and Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year in 1996.  Stewart was the first driver to do “the double,” running both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the Sunday before Memorial Day, in 1999.

And yet, Stewart’s final start in the Brickyard 400 has been overshadowed, as four-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon comes out of retirement to fill the seat of the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Gordon’s final season was the main storyline of the 2015 NASCAR campaign, and his win at Martinsville, the 93rd of his career, allowed him to reach the “Championship Four” and run for the series title in the season finale at Homestead, which was believed to be his final start.

But with Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the car with concussion-like symptoms, who better for Hendrick Motorsports to turn to than Gordon?  The term “super-sub” has been used with several drivers who have often been substitutes in the event of injury (Regan Smith, Brian Vickers, etc.), but this is the ultimate “super-sub,” as Hendrick can put a driver of Gordon’s experience, talent, and knowledge in the car.

Gordon is expected to be in Earnhardt’s seat through at least next week’s race at Pocono.  Expectations for any race team often drop with a substitute driver, but there is no reason why they should here, especially considering Gordon’s record at this particular track.

Gordon, who is a Pittsboro, Ind. native and grew up dreaming of running at The Speedway, has won the Brickyard 400 five times.  To put that in perspective, no driver has won the Indianapolis 500 more than four times.

Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, and added wins in 1998, 2001, 2004, and as recently as 2014.  Gordon is the only driver who has been in the field for every Brickyard 400, a streak that continues today with the 23rd edition.

Gordon is driving a car not numbered 24 for the first time in his career, but joins an illustrious list of drivers to pilot #88 in the Sprint Cup Series (Buck Baker, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Dale Jarrett, Dale Earnhardt Jr.).

Gordon and Stewart are both synonymous with Indianapolis as much as any other driver and any other track on the NASCAR circuit, and today their paths cross once again as their cars cross the venerable Yard of Bricks 160 times on this hot Indiana Sunday.

As Gordon briefly returns, and Stewart bid farewell to his favorite venue, take time today to take it all in and savor this historic event, whether you are watching from the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis or your living room.

And wouldn’t it be even more special, unbelievable, and breathtaking if cars numbered 88 and 14 crossed that Yard of Bricks for the 160th time running side-by-side?  It would only be fitting if these two legends could produce a legendary battle to the checkered flag.

 

 

23rd Brickyard 400
Starting Lineup
Row 1:  Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards
Row 2:  Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin
Row 3:  Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman
Row 4:  Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr.
Row 5:  Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson
Row 6:  Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon
Row 7:  Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano
Row 8:  Chase Elliott, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 9:  Ryan Blaney, Matt Kenseth
Row 10:  Greg Biffle, Trevor Bayne
Row 11:  Jeff Gordon, Chris Buescher
Row 12:  Paul Menard, Danica Patrick
Row 13:  A.J. Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne
Row 14:  Michael McDowell, David Ragan
Row 15:  Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto
Row 16:  Clint Bowyer, Brian Scott
Row 17:  Landon Cassill, Casey Mears
Row 18:  Cole Whitt, Ryan Ellis
Row 19:  Regan Smith, Michael Annett
Row 20:  Reed Sorenson, Patrick Carpentier
Failed to qualify:  Josh Wise

NASCAR Championship Round Preview

After a choatic Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s version of the playoffs has reached its finale, the Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. are the four drivers competing for the title, and whoever finishes highest among them on Sunday will win the title.  All four have had exciting seasons, and they bring four excellent storylines to the event.

The biggest storyline is Jeff Gordon.  He is retiring after Sunday’s race, and will attempt to win the Cup championship for the fifth time in his storied career.  Gordon has won 93 races in his 23 year career, which started in the finale of the 1992 season, on a day with storylines similar to this year’s finale, with a frantic championship battle occurring alongside Richard Petty’s final start.  This time, however, the legend who is retiring is also one of the title contenders, and could become the first driver since Ned Jarrett to walk away from the sport as reigning champion (and the first to win a title in his final start).

While Gordon does have four titles, he has never won a championship since NASCAR established the Chase format in 2004, something he has said he would like to accomplish.  Gordon qualified for the Championship Round with a win at Martinsville, and Hendrick Motorsports has won each of the last three races.

The other three storylines are mildly overshadowed by Gordon, but are all still very compelling nonetheless.  Kevin Harvick won last year’s Sprint Cup title in the first year of the Chase Grid format (the Chase was previously the accumulation of points from the final 10 races), after finishing third in points on three previous occasions.  If Harvick could win the championship, he would be the first back-to-back titlist since  Jimmie Johnson’s five straight titles from 2006-10, and the first excluding Johnson’s historic run since Gordon in 1997-98.  Harvick won the title last year in his first year at Stewart-Haas, so if he wins another on Sunday, through two seasons Harvick will have not lost a title with the team.  He came to Stewart-Haas after 13 seasons at Richard Childress Racing, where his highest points finish was third, on three occasions.

Martin Truex Jr. has never finished higher than 10th in the final points standings, and yet he can win the championship on Sunday.  Truex is driving for Furniture Row Racing, a small, one-car team based in Denver, CO, far away from the metro Charlotte area where a majority of the teams are based.  While the team does have a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, they are still officially a one-car team, and would be the first such team to win a championship since, ironically, Childress in 1994 with Dale Earnhardt.  With three career wins, Truex would have the least career wins by any Cup champion in the modern era if he wins the title without winning the race, or would tie the mark if he wins the race (Terry Labonte had four in 1984).  Truex and the little team that could are certainly underdogs, although throughout his career Truex has performed well at Homestead (see below).  Truex and longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex are an inspirational story, as Pollex has been fighting a courageous public battle with ovarian cancer, giving Truex a unique perspective that, while this race is certainly important, it is, after all, just a race.

Kyle Busch entered 2015 as one of the title favorites, but his season came to an abrupt halt at Daytona.  In the XFinity Series event the day before the Daytona 500, Busch broke his right leg and his left foot in a vicious accident, and missed the first 11 races of the Sprint Cup Series season.  He received a waiver from NASCAR to allow him to be eligible for the Chase, and won four out of five races during a superb summer stretch.  Some have questioned why the one-time prodigy should be eligible for the championship after missing nearly a third of the season, but NASCAR’s current rules are written to allow such a scenario, which makes sense in such a dangerous sport.  Busch has never finished higher than fourth in points, and this is easily his best shot so far in his career to win the Sprint Cup title.

So, who is the favorite in this heavyweight fight?  To figure that out, let’s look at how these drivers have fared throughout their careers at Homestead, as well as on the intermediate-length tracks this season.

Looking back through each Homestead race since 2006 (Truex’s first full season in the Sprint Cup Series), if each Homestead race were hypothetically for the championship amongst these four, Harvick would have won the title four times, Truex three times, and Gordon twice, while Busch would not have won the title once.  Over that span, Harvick and Gordon have each won once, but the hypothetical title would have been won with a top four finish each year.  I will provide the disclaimer that the race may have been run differently if these four had been competing for the title, so this isn’t exactly the most scientific formula to pick the winner.

Since 2006, Harvick has an excellent average finish of 6.6 at Homestead, with a career average finish of 7.6 at the track, and has six top fives and 12 top 10s his 14 starts there, winning last year’s race to clinch the title.

Gordon’s numbers at the track are similar, although the average is a little lower at 10.6, and is 11.3 since 2006, with a win (in 2012), seven top fives, and 12 top 10s in 16 starts (NASCAR started racing at Homestead in 1999; otherwise Gordon might have 23 starts).

Homestead is one of Truex’s best tracks on the circuit, with an average of 7.6 since his first full-time season (and 10.0 when including his start there during a part-time 2004 season), and although he has never won at the speedway, he has a second, a third, and a fourth, and seven top 10s in 10 starts.  His only finish outside the top 11 was a 17th last season, during a horrible season in which his Furniture Row team led one lap all year, a stat which makes his run to Homestead that much more remarkable.

For Busch, Homestead is not one of his better tracks, as he has struggled to an average finish of 23.1 in 10 starts, with nearly as many DNF’s (2) as top 10 finished (3), and only three lead lap finishes in 10 starts.  The three top 10s for Busch at Homestead are fourth, seventh, and eighth, meaning he will likely need to have the best Homestead race of his career on Sunday to have a shot at the title.  However, all three of Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have all had success at the track, and with Busch being the only Gibbs driver in the championship fight, he can use the organization’s full resources (although each of the four can say the same thing).

At intermediate tracks this season, Harvick was the highest finisher in seven of the 11 races, with Busch the highest in three, Truex in one, and Gordon in none.  While that sounds one-sided favoring Harvick, remember that Busch missed nearly a third of the season with injury, during which time Harvick was the highest finisher at all four intermediate races.  After Busch came back at Charlotte, however, the two drivers were even with three such races as the highest finisher.

In these 11 races, Harvick and Busch each won one, although Harvick finished in second on four occasions, and third once.  Besides his win, Busch’s highest finish is fourth.  Truex has a second and a third, and eight total top 10s.  Gordon’s highest intermediate finish is a fourth, and his next highest is a seventh, with only five top 10s, showing this type of track isn’t Gordon’s strongest.  On the other hand, however, Gordon has improved throughout the year, both on intermediate tracks and overall, so these numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story.

Other than Gordon’s 13.5 average finish at intermediate tracks this year, the other three contenders have nearly identical averages, with Busch at 8.1, Harvick at 8.4, and Truex at 8.7.

It would not be surprising for any of these four to win the championship on Sunday, as all have earned the right to compete for the title in the finale.  As for making a pick, it’s nearly impossible to narrow even the small field of these four down to one favorite.

While Busch may be at a slight disadvantage with his less than stellar Homestead record, he has shown through his career he can be a threat anywhere, and that he can be successful at an intermediate track.

Truex is the definite underdog, but he’s a threat for a strong finish any time he cranks his engine at Homestead.

Harvick is, to many the clear favorite, and has earned that distinction with his strong season, particularly at similar circuits, as well as his Homestead record, and his experience in winning the title in this format a year ago.

The numbers don’t favor Gordon as much as the others, but he is the sentimental favorite, as he is trying to finish off the Hollywood ending to one of the greatest careers the sport has ever seen, and ride into the sunset as a five-time champion.  He also has the most recent race win of the four, three weeks ago at Martinsville, and posted the fastest 10-lap average in Saturday’s final practice.

While Sunday’s race will be unpredictable, one thing is for sure:  this crazy NASCAR season is going to have an incredible finish.

NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup Preview

While it may be overshadowed in the sports world by football season, and the approaching baseball postseason, it is an exciting time in NASCAR, as they prepare for their version of the playoffs, the Chase for the Sprint Cup.  Last year, NASCAR changed the format from the previous 10-week cumulative Chase to a four-round system among 16 drivers, with four drivers eliminated every three weeks for the first nine races, all leading up to a “final four”, one race, winner-take-all finale in Homestead.  The elimination format is known as the “Chase Grid”.  Chase participants who win a race in a round automatically advance to the next round, while remaining spots are determined on points.

Kevin Harvick won last year’s title, winning the Homestead race to do so.  This year, there are several storylines entering the Chase, including the recent dominance of Joe Gibbs Racing, the recent struggles of Hendrick Motorsports (at least, relative to their normal level of success), maiden appearances in the Chase for Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard, and Jeff Gordon trying to win a championship in his final season.

Here’s how I see the Chase playing out:

Challenger Round

Races:  Chicagoland (9/20), New Hampshire (9/27), Dover (10/4)
Advancing to next round:  Kevin Harvick (Chicagoland winner), Denny Hamlin (New Hampshire winner), Jimmie Johnson (Dover winner), Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer
Eliminated:  Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard

Harvick is on the pole for Sunday’s race at Chicagoland, where he’s won twice before and finished in the top five over half the time.  Recent form, and his form all year, for that matter, suggest he is ready to win in the Chase, even despite having not won since March 15 at Phoenix.  Much of the same can be said about Hamlin at New Hampshire.  The driver who is racing with a torn ACL last won March 29 at Martinsville, although he did win the Sprint All-Star Race (a non-points event) in May, ranks second among Chase drivers with a 10.7 average finish in Loudon, with two wins at the track.  Johnson recent finishes don’t necessarily suggest him threatening for a record-tying seventh title, but in 27 Dover starts he has 10 wins, 15 top fives, and 20 top 10s, making him the clear favorite for that race.  The #48 team also have rough stretches like their recent one at some point most years, but always seem to practically flip a switch come Chase time.  He has, after all, won six of the 11 championships awarded in the Chase era.

Kurt Busch won the inaugural Chase in 2004, and while he does have three wins at New Hampshire, he has a poor average finish of 18.6 at Dover, and his overall recent form has been decent, but not champion-like.  My elimination of Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t be a popular prediction, as he is the sport’s most popular driver, but the three tracks in this round are all tracks he struggles at, particularly at Kansas and Dover.  He only has 31 top 10s in 77 career races at the three tracks combined.  However, should Junior get past this round, with his record at Talladega, and last year’s win at Martinsville, he could be a threat for a deep run.  McMurray could potentially be a sleeper, but he has to get out of this round first.  His best average finish at these three tracks is 17.8 at Dover, with the other two worse than 20th.  Menard has the least career credentials of any driver in the Chase, and his numbers at these three tracks are similar to McMurray, although he is having his most consistent season this year.

Contender Round

Races:  Charlotte (10/10), Kansas (10/18), Talladega (10/25)
Advancing to next round:  Carl Edwards (Charlotte winner), Jimmie Johnson (Kansas winner), Brad Keselowski (Talladega winner), Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin
Eliminated:  Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman

Edwards doesn’t necessarily have the most wins at Charlotte–he only has one, and it came this May in the Coca-Cola 600–but he has been consistent there.  His 10.8 average finish there is second among Chase drivers, and after struggling during the summer, he has been steadily improving coming into the Chase, including a win at the Southern 500 two weeks ago.  Johnson has three Kansas wins, and has 15 top 10s in 18 starts at the track.  His 9.1 average finish there is the best among Chase participants, and he won at Kansas in April.  The Talladega race is as unpredictable as any in the Chase, but Keselowski won the fall race there last year, and has 3 wins in 13 starts there.  An average finish of 12.5 doesn’t necessarily scream “race winner” at other tracks, but because of the craziness that happens in restrictor plate racing, that average is very respectable.  Kenseth, Harvick, Gordon, Logano, and Hamlin all have solid enough records at the tracks to be expected to run well, resulting in their advancement on points.

Bowyer is trying to win a title in the final season for his team, Michael Waltrip Racing, and has won at two of these three tracks, but he was the last driver in the Chase, and his luck will run out here.  A writer who covers NASCAR wrote this week that if Kyle Busch can get past Kansas, he can win the championship.  I agree, but I don’t think he will get past Kansas, or Talladega either.  While his Charlotte record isn’t bad, Kansas is his worst track on the circuit, with a 21.3 average finish, and only 3 top 10s and a single top five in 15 career starts there.  His Talladega record isn’t great either, although he has won there, with a 22.4 average finish.  Truex is good at Kansas, but won’t be able to get past struggles at Charlotte and Talladega.  Newman doesn’t have an awful record at any of the three tracks, but his best average finish is 17.6, and he always seems to be part of the “Big One” at Talladega.

Eliminator Round

Races:  Martinsville (11/1), Texas (11/8), Phoenix (11/15)
Advancing to next round:  Denny Hamlin (Martinsville winner), Matt Kenseth (Texas winner), Kevin Harvick (Phoenix winner), Jimmie Johnson
Eliminated:  Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano

Hamlin, a native Virginian, is very solid in his home state at Martinsville, with five wins and 15 top 10s in 19 starts there.  Kenseth has two wins at Texas, and an average finish of 9.5, second among all drivers to Johnson.  He has finished in the top 10 in each race at a 1.5-mile track this year, despite not winning at one.  Harvick has seven wins at Phoenix, including the last four Phoenix races, and five of the last six.  Last year’s win in the Phoenix Chase race vaulted him into the Championship Round at Homestead, when he won his first career title.  Johnson advances on points after winning a race in the first two rounds.

By this point in the Chase, with the field being cut down to the final four drivers, there is no margin for error.  Carl Edwards only has one top five in 22 Martinsville starts, and although he is always a threat to win at Texas and Phoenix, he may have to win to advance if he digs himself too deep a hole at Martinsville.  Gordon’s best chance to avoid a winless season in his swan song will likely come at Martinsville, where he has eight wins and a 6.9 average finish, but it may also be his best shot to advance to the Championship Round in his final race at Homestead given that Texas is arguably his worst track with a 17.3 average finish and only one win in his lengthy career.  Keselowski’s average finish is no better than 13.9 at any of the three tracks, and 17.3 at Texas, and he has never won at any of the three.  Logano, who is a common championship pick, has similar numbers to Keselowski at these three tracks, and although he does have one Texas win, he has a 16.9 average finish there.

Championship Round

Race:  Homestead (11/22)
Champion:  Denny Hamlin
Eliminated:  Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson

It all comes down to one race at Homestead to determine who has had a great year, and who is the champion, and it is determined in the “Game Seven” atmosphere NASCAR had in mind when they created this format.  Any of these four drivers are more than capable of winning the title, so here’s why I picked Hamlin.  While Johnson and Kenseth have both made their careers to some extent by running well on 1.5-mile tracks, Kenseth has a 15.8 average finish, although he does have one win, and would tie a record for the most years between championships (12 since his 2003 title in the last season before the Chase).  Johnson has never won and has only four top fives at Homestead, with an average finish of 14.4.  While some will use the argument that he hasn’t had to win, but just finish, most years at Homestead while clinching the title, in other years the #48 hasn’t necessarily been a race-winning car.

Harvick and Hamlin are both good at Homestead, with Harvick winning last year’s finale to win the title, and holding a 7.6 average finish.  However, it is historically difficult to win back-to-back titles, as only nine drivers have ever done it (although four have done it more than once), and that is true in every sport.  Harvick has also finished second an astounding 10 times this year, with “only” two wins.

Hamlin has two wins at Homestead, and a 10.8 average finish, and has been poised to win a championship his entire career, since his rookie year in 2006 (he would’ve won the title that year in the current format).  One of the best stretches of his career came after he tore his left ACL in 2010, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him win a championship after tearing his left ACL just before the last “regular season” race at Richmond.  Hamlin does have a 27.1 average start at Homestead, which is by far the worst of the four Championship Round drivers, but his qualifying numbers have steadily improved since his career low average start of 21.0 in 2013.

Two interesting notes should Hamlin win the title: it would be the first title for Joe Gibbs Racing since 2002, and it would be the ninth championship for car number 11 in NASCAR history, which would extend a record, as Hamlin would join NASCAR Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett, Cale Yarborough, and Darrell Waltrip as champions driving #11.

As the Chase unfolds, fans may think that who advances from one round to the next early in the Chase is inconsequential, as they think the drivers who end up competing for the title at Homestead will be near the top of the standings throughout.  However, as I made my projections (ranking drivers first to last at each track then giving points accordingly), Hamlin nearly didn’t get out of the Contender Round at Talladega, as he was tied with Clint Bowyer, and won the tiebreaker based on having more wins.

Now, the drivers I have picked in fantasy NASCAR competition all season have done horribly, always seeming to have an accident or mechanical failure, causing them to finish much more poorly than they would have run without issues during the race.  That being said, I want to apologize in advance to Denny Hamlin’s fans, because in picking your driver to win the title, I have probably actually doomed him into a poor Chase finish.  These rankings, obviously, are as unofficial as they come.

It should be an excellent Chase for the Sprint Cup.  The storylines I already mentioned will make it memorable, as well as those that we can’t even imagine right now which will present themselves.  For instance, who would have thought this time last year that Brad Keselowski would be involved in brawls with Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon after Chase races, and who would have thought Ryan Newman, one of three drivers to reach the Chase without a win, would make it all the way to Homestead, and would finish second, having a shot at the title all the way until the final lap.  Stories like these are what the Chase format intended to create, making it among the most unpredictable of “playoffs” in all of sports.

Top 10 Underrated Daytona 500s

The Daytona 500 is today, marking the sport’s biggest event as a new season gets underway from the World Center of Racing.  NASCAR is unique in that it starts its season with its Super Bowl, meaning that the driver holding the Harley J. Earl trophy Sunday night will be a winner all season long, no matter how well they run the rest of the 2015 Sprint Cup campaign.

Many people can recognize video of the great finishes at the 500, such as when Richard Petty and David Pearson crashed on the final lap and Pearson limped across the line in 1976, or when Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison’s crash led to a post-race fist fight, and Petty came from half a lap behind to win in 1979, or when Kevin Harvick beat Mark Martin by a fender while the “Big One” happened behind them in 2007, or the photo finish between Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp in the very first 500 in 1959.

Other images are filed in the most memorable category, from veteran drivers finally winning the 500 after years of trying, like Darrell Waltrip in 1989 and Dale Earnhardt in 1998, to Ned Jarrett doing impromptu play-by-play while simultaneously cheering son Dale Jarrett across the line in 1993 and 1996, and Darrell Waltrip doing the same with brother Michael Waltrip in 2001, although the final lap of that 500 became more remembered for a legend lost in the final corner when Earnhardt was killed.

The 500 has also produced some major upsets, like Trevor Bayne winning his second Cup Series start in 2013, or Derrike Cope slipping past Earnhardt after The Intimidator cut a tire in the final turn in 1990, or little-known Pete Hamilton won his first race at the Speedway in 1970.

Others aren’t necessarily memorable for their winners, but other circumstances, like the jet dryer explosion in 2012 in the only Monday 500 due to rain, or Danica Patrick becoming the first female pole sitter in any NASCAR race in 2013, or the aforementioned 1979 race, also known as the first live flag-to-flag broadcast of a race.

But some 500s aren’t remembered as much as they might should be.  Whether it’s because the principles involved didn’t have names like Petty and Earnhardt, or because they have simply been slowly forgotten over time, some 500s had outstanding storylines or finishes, but are never mentioned among the greatest moments in the history of the Great American Race.

Here are the top 10 underrated Daytona 500s:

Honorable Mention:  1967: Mario Andretti
While there wasn’t anything particularly special about the racing in this 500, the mere fact that one of the Indianapolis 500’s greatest champions came to Daytona and won, albeit early in his storied career, may very well have added to the prestige of what was still at that time a very young event.  This was comparable to A.J. Foyt’s win five years later, but Mario’s came first.

10. 1986: Geoff Bodine
The race was dominated by the tandem of Dale Earnhardt and Geoff Bodine, and turned into a fuel mileage race late.  Earnhardt had to pit with three to go for a splash-and-go, but there should have still been some drama to see if Bodine could make it on fuel.  Instead, Earnhardt overshot his pit stall, then blew his engine leaving pit road.  With Earnhardt out of the picture, Bodine was able to cruise to an 11-second victory, which was owner Rick Hendrick’s first in the 500.  It was also the first of many near misses for Earnhardt before he finally won in his 20th try in 1998.  The clip of Earnhardt overshooting his pit is sometimes shown, particularly when talking about Daytona heartbreakers, by Earnhardt or overall, and is accompanied by pit reporter Chris Economaki’s line of “it looks like Mr. Bodine is gonna be the beneficiary.”

 

9. 2010: Jamie McMurray
The 2010 finish didn’t necessarily include too many big names, although Dale Earnhardt Jr. came from nowhere to take second on the final lap, but the late race battle between McMurray, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, and Kevin Harvick saw three lead changes in the last ten laps, a period which included two cautions.  McMurray’s win was in his first appearance for what was then known as Earnhardt Ganassi Racing (now Chip Ganassi Racing), and was a popular win in the garage as McMurray is well liked by everyone.  Earnhardt Jr. came from in the teens with a few laps to go to second on the final lap with a massive run up the middle, and caught McMurray, but couldn’t pass him, part of a stretch of three runner-up finishes in four years from 2010-13 before Junior won his second 500 last year.  This race is more remembered by some for the pothole which developed in turn one which red flagged the race twice than it is for the winner.

 

8. 2008: Ryan Newman
The 50th Daytona 500 had a special pre-race ceremony honoring all 31 former winners of the 500, but Ryan Newman joined that group later that evening by passing Tony Stewart on the final lap to win the race.  Newman had a push from teammate Kurt Busch, and Stewart blocked them at first, before jumping to the bottom with teammate Kyle Busch.  At the time the win was Newman’s first since 2005, although he has since had a career renaissance, including a second place points finish in 2014.  This race is the biggest near miss for Stewart in the 500, which he still has not won, going into his 17th career try on Sunday.  Kurt Busch has also not won the 500 in 14 tries, although he will not be in Sunday’s race due to his recent indefinite suspension for domestic violence.

 

7. 1980: Buddy Baker
Before Darrell Waltrip won his first 500 in his 17th try, and before Earnhardt won his first 500 in his 20th try, there was Buddy Baker.  He went into the 1980 race attempting to win it for the 18th time, after often having one of the fastest cars during Speedweeks, driving for Petty Enterprises, Ray Fox, Bud Moore, and Cotton Owens, among others.  He came to Speedweeks in 1979 with Ranier-Lundy, and had the fastest car, which won the pole, but blew its engine in the early going of (in my opinion) the greatest Sprint Cup race in history.  A year later he had an equally fast car, winning the pole again, but this time leading 143 of the 200 laps on his way to the victory.  The race was, and still is, the fastest 500 in history, averaging 177.602 mph.  Baker held the record for most attempts before winning the race until Earnhardt won his only 500 in 1998.

 

6. 1960: Junior Johnson
This race isn’t necessarily known as the most exciting race ever run, but it has much more historical significance than most other 500s that have been run.  This was just the second running of the race, and the Daytona track, as well as the concept of running on a 2.5-mile superspeedway, was still in its infancy.  Johnson ran the race in a car owned by John Masoni, and although he wasn’t one of the fastest cars, he discovered that if he got directly behind another car he would run faster in their air, an idea which became the concept of drafting, a staple of Daytona racing ever since.  Johnson used his new strategy to win the race, taking the lead with nine to go when Bobby Johns spun, while Masoni went on to win six races as an owner the next two years before leaving the sport.  Johnson, of course, would go on to become an icon, being inducted into the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame after winning 50 races, and is the winningest driver to have never won a championship, only because he never ran all of the races in an attempt to.  One other note about this race is the third place finisher was a very young Richard Petty, for the first of his 11 top fives in the 500, which he won seven times.

 

5. 1995: Sterling Marlin
In this 500, Sterling Marlin joined Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough as the only drivers to win back-to-back 500s, after winning it in 1994.  That win had been his first Cup Series win, as he became the first driver to win the first both of the first two races of his career in the 500.  But that’s not entirely why this race is on this list.  After Marlin passed Earnhardt for the lead with 20 to go and a caution five laps later, Earnhardt, who probably had the best car, pitted for tires, taking the gamble of fresh tires over track position.  Following the pit stop, Earnhardt was outside the top 10 with 11 to go, but stormed back to the front, looking for his first 500 win.  He reached second position with four laps to go, and tried as hard as he could to pass Marlin, but the Tennessean took the checkered flag, once again denying Earnhardt a 500 win.

 

4. 1963: Tiny Lund
This 500 is on the list because of its storyline.  Tiny Lund went to Daytona in 1963 to see if he could find a ride for the 500.  Marvin Panch went to Daytona to drive the Wood Brothers #21 Ford in the 500, but first ran a sports car race (what would eventually become today’s Rolex 24).  In that race, Panch was involved in a crash, and Lund, who was a friend of Panch and was watching as a spectator, ran to Panch’s burning car and pulled him out, saving his life.  Panch was injured though, and Panch asked the Woods if Lund could drive his car in the 500.  Lund did, and when Ned Jarrett ran out of gas with three laps to go, Lund took the lead, and went on to win the 500.  Lund would go on to win five career Cup Series races, before he was killed in a 1975 crash at Talladega.  The Wood Brothers would become one of NASCAR’s most legendary teams, but this was just the sixth win of their then-brief history.  They have gone on to win 98 races, including five wins in the 500, including David Pearson’s legendary win in 1976, and Trevor Bayne’s upset in 2011.

 

3. 2005: Jeff Gordon
Ten years ago a future Hall of Famer, Jeff Gordon, became just the fifth driver to win three or more Daytona 500s, by winning this thriller.  The drivers at the front included Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, defending race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., and defending series champion Kurt Busch.  Earnhardt Jr., Stewart, and Gordon changed the lead four times in the final nine laps.  This was at the height of the excellent period of restrictor plate racing in the mid-2000s, and many of the best at it were in the running for the win in this race.  One underdog at the front was Scott Riggs, who is winless in his Sprint Cup career, but finished fourth in this race.  This was the fifth of Hendrick Motorsports’ eight 500 wins, and is the most recent win for Gordon, who will today try to match Earnhardt Jr. for the longest time in between 500 wins with a win ten years later.

 

2. 1984: Cale Yarborough
This 500 should be considered one of the all-time best.  Yarborough had become the first pole sitter for the 500 to break the 200 mph barrier, and he also won his qualifying race, so when he won the 500 he joined Fireball Roberts in 1962 as the second driver to win all three in one speedweeks (the only to do all three since is Bill Elliott in 1985).  There were 34 lead changes in this 500, with the best coming on the final lap.  Yarborough passed Darrell Waltrip, who was at the time still looking for his first 500 win, on the backstretch with his “slingshot” maneuver after Waltrip had led the previous 38 laps.  The move had won him multiple races at Daytona, including the previous year’s 500 with a pass of Buddy Baker.  Hall of Famers took the top three in this race, as Dale Earnhardt got around Waltrip for the second spot, and Waltrip finished third.  Yarborough became the second back-to-back winner of the 500, and gave Ranier-Lundy (which later became Robert Yates Racing and won two more 500s) their third win in five years at Daytona.

 

1. 2002: Ward Burton
Although this race isn’t talked about very much today, the entire final hour of this 500 was extremely dramatic, and had multiple key moments, making this the most underrated 500 ever.  After pre-race favorites Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had early problems, “the big one” on lap 149 took out 18 more cars.  Jeff Gordon took the lead from Kurt Busch with 24 to go, and led until a restart with six to go.  A chain reaction of cars not getting up to speed quickly caused a crash in the middle of the pack, and when the caution came out, Sterling Marlin went underneath Gordon to try to take the lead while racing back to the caution flag (they did this back then).  Gordon tried to block, and was spun across the front of Marlin’s car.  Marlin and Ward Burton raced back around, with Marlin beating Burton by a nose.  While driving around, Marlin clearly had a fender rub from the contact with Gordon, and after the race was red-flagged to ensure a green-flag finish.  Marlin got out of his car and pulled the fender off the tire, illegally working on his car under the red flag, later joking in his Tennessee drawl, “I saw Earnhardt do that one time, so I thought it was alright.” (The instance he is referring to happened under the yellow, not the red flag.)  What then played out on the broadcast during the red flag was a long discussion over the penalty for working on the car under the red flag, as well as the potential of a yellow line violation when Marlin went below Gordon (drivers can’t advance their position below the yellow line that separates the track and the apron).  Marlin was sent to the rear for the red flag violation, giving Burton the lead for the first time all day.  He led the final five laps, his only five laps led, to win the 500, one of five career Cup Series wins for Burton, whose son Jeb fell just short of qualifying for this year’s 500 this week.  It was also one of five race victories for owner Bill Davis, and the first 500 win for Dodge since 1974 (although they were out of the sport for many years).  Marlin finished eighth, and Gordon finished ninth, after both had lost an excellent shot to win the 500.  This race had it all, and Michael Waltrip, who was involved in the crash with six to go, said afterward “I’ll just tell people I spun out at Daytona with five to go, and ran fifth, and that’s all the description it needs,” and broadcaster Allen Bestwick said “We have seen our share of twists and turns over the years in the Daytona 500 but this one may top them all.”  While, other than Gordon, the drivers involved didn’t necessarily have the most success, and weren’t the most popular, the drama which unfolded in this 500 was, in some ways, unmatched, and the winner was a well liked driver like Burton, so I don’t know why this isn’t remembered among the greatest of all Daytona 500s.

 

 

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 Daytona 500 Starting Lineup
Row 1:  Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson
Row 2:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Crafton*
Row 3:  Joey Logano, Carl Edwards
Row 4:  Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle
Row 5:  Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr.
Row 6:  Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney
Row 7:  Kasey Kahne, Reed Sorenson
Row 8:  Jamie McMurray, Mike Wallace
Row 9:  Landon Cassill, Justin Allgaier
Row 10:  Cole Whitt, Danica Patrick
Row 11:  Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
Row 12:  Michael McDowell, Regan Smith^
Row 13:  J.J. Yeley, David Gilliland
Row 14:  Michael Annett, David Ragan
Row 15:  Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon
Row 16:  Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 17:  Aric Almirola, Michael Waltrip
Row 18:  Matt Kenseth, Johnny Sauter
Row 19:  Trevor Bayne, Sam Hornish Jr.
Row 20:  Brad Keselowski, A.J. Allmendinger
Row 21:  Casey Mears, Denny Hamlin
Row 22:  Bobby Labonte
Failed to qualify:  Alex Bowman, Brian Scott, Jeb Burton, Justin Marks, Josh Wise, Ron Hornaday Jr., Joe Nemechek
*substituting for Kyle Busch

^substituting for Kurt Busch

A Bad Weekend for the Buschs

Kyle and Kurt Busch will both miss the 57th Daytona 500 on Sunday, but due to two very different sets of circumstances.

Kurt, the older of the brothers, has been suspended indefinitely by NASCAR for conduct detrimental to the sport after a family court in Delaware found that he abused his then-girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, in his motor home in a race last September at Dover.  A family court commissioner handed down that ruling of domestic abuse on Friday afternoon, before the driver of the number 41 Haas Chevrolet was punished by the sanctioning body early Friday evening.

Kurt Busch is the 2004 Sprint Cup Series champion, and has won 25 Cup races in 14 full seasons for Roush Racing, Penske Racing, Phoenix Racing, Furniture Row Racing, and Stewart-Haas Racing.  In missing Sunday’s race, he misses another opportunity to win the 500, something he hasn’t done in 14 previous tries, although he has finished 2nd on three occasions, most recently in 2008.

After NASCAR suspended Kurt Busch on Friday, Chevrolet also “suspended their relationship” with the driver, in essence saying that even if he was allowed to drive in NASCAR, the manufacturer would not allow him to drive one of their cars.  Kurt’s current team, Stewart-Haas Racing, runs Chevrolets, meaning that even if he is allowed back on the track by NASCAR, he might not be able to return to his Stewart-Haas ride.

Regan Smith, a 31-year old XFinity series regular, will replace Kurt Busch in the 41 car for the 500 on Sunday.  Smith has one career Cup Series win, in the 2011 Southern 500 at Darlington, but has proven himself to be a competent superspeedway racer.  It is the fourth time since 2012 that Smith has filled in for a Cup Series driver, filling in for Tony Stewart the day after the Kevin Ward fatal accident last year, and filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in two races in 2012 after Junior got a concussion.

Kurt appealed his suspension, and due to the circumstances and timing, NASCAR expedited the appeal process so that if it was overturned, Kurt could still run the Daytona 500, which he had been scheduled to start 24th in.  Both his initial appeal to the National Motorsports Appeals Panel was denied, as was his final appeal to NASCAR Chief Appellate Officer Bryan Moss.

Considering that both the sanctioning body and his car manufacturer have indefinitely suspended Kurt Busch, and considering what has happened elsewhere in professional sports in the past year regarding domestic violence, particularly in the very high-profile cases of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, there is a real possibility Kurt’s career in NASCAR may be over.  Only time will tell.

This is not the first time Kurt has been in trouble with NASCAR, either.  Kurt, known by some as an aggressive and temperamental driver, was fined $50,000 by NASCAR and later fired by Penske Racing for insulting team officials on the radio and twice having incidents with reporters.  He was suspended one race in 2012, also for an incident with a reporter.  And now he’s in more trouble than he’s ever been.

On Saturday, in the NASCAR XFinity Series race at Daytona, Kyle Busch, the younger of the brothers, crashed head-on into a concrete wall on the extreme inside of the track between the tri-oval and turn one.  The crash resulted in a broken left leg and a broken left foot for Kyle, who naturally will miss the Daytona 500 due to the injuries.

Kyle initially got most of the way out of his car under his own power after the crash, but couldn’t get his left leg out of the car without the help of emergency personnel, who then laid him on the ground and stabilized his leg.  He was placed on a stretcher and taken directly to Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, bypassing the on-site hospital, and within a couple of hours was in surgery, according to media reports.

The crash resulted in the worst injuries suffered at Daytona since Dale Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500.  Kyle Busch will miss the 500, and a few subsequent events, as he is currently described by his Joe Gibbs Racing team as “out indefinitely”.

Matt Crafton, the 38-year old two-time defending champion in the Camping World Truck Series and has plenty of NASCAR experience, will drive Kyle’s number 18 M&Ms Toyota in the 500 on Sunday.  Crafton has filled in for drivers before, but only in qualifying, so he will make his Sprint Cup Series debut in his first 500 start on Sunday.

As for both Smith and Crafton, no word has been given as to whether or not they will continue driving for Stewart-Haas or Gibbs on an interim basis next week at Atlanta.

After the crash, which was into a concrete wall and not a SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier, which was a point of contention among many after the crash.  SAFER barriers were first used at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002, as part of the safety movement across all forms of motorsports after, among other events, Earnhardt’s death, but are expensive, so many tracks began by placing them in the places where hard impacts occurred most frequently.

A majority of the walls at Daytona are SAFER barriers but, as mentioned, Kyle Busch hit a concrete wall, making the impact much more violent.  Within two hours of the accident, Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III announced that tires would be used as an impromptu softer wall for Sunday’s race, before the installing SAFER barriers on “every inch of this property”, saying the planning process for that would start on Monday.  Chitwood’s message was, in essence, that this will not happen again at Daytona on his watch.

Due to the Busch brothers both being out of the Daytona 500, making this the first running of the 500 since 2000 without one of the Buschs in the field.  Additionally, at least one Busch has been in the field for every Sprint Cup Series race since Kurt failed to qualify for a race at Atlanta on November 18, 2001 (before Kyle’s Cup career began).

For two very different reasons, it has been a bad weekend for both racing members of the Busch family.

 

 

 

2015 Daytona 500 Starting Lineup
Row 1:  Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson
Row 2:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Crafton*
Row 3:  Joey Logano, Carl Edwards
Row 4:  Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle
Row 5:  Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr.
Row 6:  Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney
Row 7:  Kasey Kahne, Reed Sorenson
Row 8:  Jamie McMurray, Mike Wallace
Row 9:  Landon Cassill, Justin Allgaier
Row 10:  Cole Whitt, Danica Patrick
Row 11:  Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
Row 12:  Michael McDowell, Regan Smith^
Row 13:  J.J. Yeley, David Gilliland
Row 14:  Michael Annett, David Ragan
Row 15:  Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon
Row 16:  Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 17:  Aric Almirola, Michael Waltrip
Row 18:  Matt Kenseth, Johnny Sauter
Row 19:  Trevor Bayne, Sam Hornish Jr.
Row 20:  Brad Keselowski, A.J. Allmendinger
Row 21:  Casey Mears, Denny Hamlin
Row 22:  Bobby Labonte
Failed to qualify:  Alex Bowman, Brian Scott, Jeb Burton, Justin Marks, Josh Wise, Ron Hornaday Jr., Joe Nemechek
*substituting for Kyle Busch

^substituting for Kurt Busch