Column: NASCAR using All-Star Race as experiment once again

Over the years, NASCAR has used its All-Star Race as an outlet to experiment with potential changes in the sport. Not only will that be the case again in the 2020 edition on Wednesday night; it will be perhaps the most experimental of the 36 events in All-Star history.

Exploratory elements are being tried in many facets of the event, from the organization of restarts to the appearance of the cars to even those in the stands.

Even the race’s location is something new this year, as the race is held at Bristol Motor Speedway for the first time; it’s only the second time it’s been run anywhere other than the sport’s hub in Charlotte (the 1986 All-Star Race was at Atlanta). The race moved to Bristol in part due to the local government’s willingness to host some fans (more on that later), but could be a sign the event could rotate sites in the future, as some have called for.

The development with competitive impact, one which could potentially be implemented at some or all tracks in the future (albeit likely not the imminent future) is the “choose rule” on restarts. Each car, not just the leader, will choose which lane they will restart in.

This adds a strategic element to restarts, particularly at a track where the outside line typically takes off on restarts quite a bit more than the inside lane. The leader, who has always had lane choice, will likely continue to choose the outside of the front row at Bristol. But now the second place car has a choice: line up on the inside of the front row and take your chances in the less-optimal lane, or line up on the outside behind the leader with the thought that the outside of the second row is a better spot to be in. If the second-place car takes the outside, it would give the third-place car the opportunity to line up on the inside of the front row, or they could also choose the outside.

There is likely to be many opinions among the 20-driver field which lane they would prefer to be in from a given position, and that should make each restart that much more interesting throughout the event.

The choose rule is common at the local short-track level, as I’ve seen in action at Bowman Gray Stadium. Bristol’s banking makes it different than most of those short tracks, which are flat and result in a huge advantage for the inside lane — but the rule actually makes even more sense at a track with an outside advantage, because it avoids the advantage of fourth place over third (or sixth over fifth, etc.) that a traditional restart presents. The choose rule should prevent the practice we’ve seen at some tracks in recent years of cars letting up at the end of pit road to fall back a position but into a more desirable spot on the grid (i.e. fourth vs. third)

This is not the first time NASCAR has experimented with restarts in its All-Star Race. Double-file restarts were used for many years in the All-Star Race, and demand from both the fans and the competitors for them to be used in points-paying races grew over time, before NASCAR made the change mid-season in 2009.

As the cars line up for each restart, they’ll have a different appearance. The car number on the side of each car will be moved back closer to the rear tire than normal, leaving more room on the door panel for sponsor exposure.

Car numbers have been experimented with in regional NASCAR series and on the sport’s virtual platforms including iRacing, with the numbers anywhere from just behind the front tires to the rear quarter panels. While tonight the car number placement won’t be as radically different as some of those, it will nonetheless be noticeable.

Personally, after the car numbers have been at the center of the door panel for 72 years of NASCAR history, I don’t see why they should change now. That said, some teams have been creative with their paint schemes and their sponsor logos in the new format.

Another appearance change — one which is almost certainly not under permanent consideration but is being used to add an extra eye-catcher to the race’s under-the-lights aesthetic — is the use of underglow on the cars, similar to that of the cars in the “Fast & Furious” movie franchise. Each manufacturer will reportedly have a designated color (it would have been better if they matched the color to each car’s paint scheme, but I digress) as each car in the field will add a touch of neon to its display.

From a more broad perspective, perhaps the night’s biggest experiment will not be related to the competition, but instead those watching it. Wednesday’s race is expected to be the most-attended sporting event in the U.S. since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic; Bristol Motor Speedway offered 30,000 tickets — about 18.5% of the track’s seating capacity of 162,000 — and is believed to have sold about 25,000 of those tickets for the race.

The fans will be spread out through the venue, will be required to wear mask at congregated areas like restrooms and concessions, and had to sign a risk waiver to purchase their ticket.

Obviously this experiment is potentially less harmless than the others, given the global health situation, and there are sure to be many interested onlookers from around the sports and entertainment worlds watching to see how the event is carried out, from a crowd-control and logistical standpoint, and whether or not COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks will be traced back to the bleachers at Bristol.

There have been many new ideas tried in the All-Star Race over the years, in addition to double-file restarts. The 1992 event was the first superspeedway race held at night; in 2001, after a rain shower on the first lap caused half the field to crash, NASCAR allowed the teams to race their backup cars upon the race’s resumption. Even the idea of stage racing can be indirectly traced back to the All-Star Race, as it has been divided into segments since its inception in 1985.

And now, in the midst of a season that the sport has been forced to do a lot of things differently, its All-Star event will be a testing ground for new ideas once again.

2020 NASCAR All-Star Race
Starting Lineup

(Position, Driver, Car No., Owner, Manufacturer)
1. Martin Truex Jr., 19, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
2. Alex Bowman, 88, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
3. Ryan Blaney, 12, Team Penske, Ford
4. Justin Haley, 77, Spire Motorsports, Toyota
5. Kevin Harvick, 4, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford
6. Matt Kenseth, 42, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet
7. Kurt Busch, 1, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet
8. Cole Custer, 41, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford
9. Brad Keselowski, 2, Team Penske, Ford
10. Kyle Busch, 18, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
11. Ryan Newman, 6, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford
12. Joey Logano, 22, Team Penske, Ford
13. Chase Elliott, 9, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
14. Jimmie Johnson, 48, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
15. Denny Hamlin, 11, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
16. Erik Jones, 20, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
17. All-Star Open Stage 1 winner
18. All-Star Open Stage 2 winner
19. All-Star Open Stage 3 winner
20. Fan Vote winner

Winners since 2000
(Year, Driver, Owner, Manufacturer)
2019 — Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet
2018 — Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford
2017 — Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
2016 — Joey Logano, Team Penske, Ford
2015 — Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
2014 — Jamie McMurray, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet
2013 — Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
2012 — Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
2011 — Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford
2010 — Kurt Busch, Penske Racing, Dodge
2009 — Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet
2008 — Kasey Kahne, Gillett Evernham Motorsports, Dodge
2007 — Kevin Harvick, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet
2006 — Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
2005 — Mark Martin, Roush Racing, Ford
2004 — Matt Kenseth, Roush Racing, Ford
2003 — Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
2002 — Ryan Newman, Penske Racing, Ford
2001 — Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
2000 — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dale Earnhardt Inc., Chevrolet

An Open Letter to Bubba Wallace

Bubba,

As relieved as I am that the noose hanging in your Talladega garage stall was not directed at you, I still want to express how sorry I am for what happened over the last few days.

I’m sorry that you had to experience the negative emotions you must have had. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like on Sunday night when you were informed of the noose, as NASCAR considered the possibility that it had been placed as a hate crime because of your race. You must have angry and disgusted — or even scared on some level — particularly as the assumption was made that because of restricted access during the COVID-19 pandemic it had to have been placed by someone within the NASCAR industry.

It is understandable that you and your team members may have been on high alert for this race, given your existence as the only Black driver in what has traditionally been a Southern and very-predominantly-white sport; your outspokenness from that position on broader issues of race and equality, particularly recently; the sport’s recent confederate flag ban, after you had requested for such a ban to be implemented; the race being the first with general-admission fans in attendance since that ban (the first since March 8); and the race being in the heart of the Deep South in Alabama.

I’m also sorry about how many people are being critical of you after the investigation was closed. The people on social media accusing you of somehow staging this for the attention, or comparing you to Jussie Smollett, are completely wrong. I’m afraid those unfair criticisms will, unfortunately, follow you for the foreseeable future, given the attention on this story and the fact that some taunts don’t seem to go away quickly in the social-media age.

You have every right to be, as you said in an interview Tuesday, “mad because people are trying to test my character; they are trying to test my integrity.” Just remember that these people that are questioning you are ignorant of what happened, and most fans understand that you did nothing wrong. You were simply told of the incident and reacted — and did so with grace and resolve.

That reaction is one of the positive things that has come from this. So is what happened before the race Monday.

Fellow competitors stand behind Bubba Wallace’s car after pushing it to the front of the grid before Monday’s NASCAR Cup Series race in Talladega, Ala. (Bubba Wallace photo/Twitter)

Even as the event that led to it turned out not to be what we thought it was, the NASCAR industry’s show of solidarity towards you may have been the most moving thing I’ve ever seen in 20 years of watching the sport. By pushing your car to the front of the grid and standing with you during the national anthem, your fellow competitors made it clear they see no place for racism in NASCAR, and that while they are competing against you on the track they also have your back.

I can’t imagine what your emotions must have been. Even as my eyes were misty, the tears flowing from yours spoke volumes to the meaningfulness of that moment.

In this era of racial tensions and calls for social justice, that image will endure far longer than the discussions over the presence of the noose. Your buddy Ryan Blaney was right when he said Monday he didn’t feel it was a bad day for the sport, but a good day because when something bad happened (or at least was thought to have) you all overcame it together.

The moment of “every man on every crew” congratulating Dale Earnhardt after the 1998 Daytona 500 is one of the great images in NASCAR history. In time I think Monday’s every-man-on-every-crew moment may come to be even more of a defining image, because this was something bigger than someone winning a race. This was about humanity.

So while, as I said, I’m sorry about what has happened, I’m also proud that this situation produced something positive that has transcended the sport. I hope it made you feel as welcome in NASCAR as you have ever felt.

Sincerely,

A lifelong NASCAR fan who will always support you

Column: Sports’ best qualities on display in NASCAR’s return

After a 66-day period with no major sports that for many of us has felt like 66 years, the process of resuming the sports calendar began this week as NASCAR staged two Cup Series events, plus one for the second-tier Xfinity Series, in Darlington, S.C.

The events were a welcome sight for competition-starved fans, including some who haven’t ever watched NASCAR before. And while NASCAR is vastly different from stick-and-ball sports, the events those fans have watched this week still featured many of the things that people love about sports.

Sure, one of the biggest elements is missing — fans in the grandstands. That will come back in due time, once the COVID-19 pandemic slows and it’s safe for thousands of people to congregate shoulder-to-shoulder. But as the sports world watched from their homes, what they saw served as a reminder of the qualities that make sports so fun to watch in the first place.

Competition

At the center of this is the competition. All three events this week were competitive throughout, with various drivers taking turns in the lead and battles for position persisting throughout the field.

Drivers race on the opening lap of Wednesday’s Toyota 500 in Darlington, S.C. (NASCAR Photo)

In the two Cup Series events, no organization or manufacturer has stood out as the one having the most speed, with Stewart-Haas Racing (Ford), Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota) and Hendrick Motorsports (Chevrolet) all showing strength in the two events.

Stewart-Haas’ Kevin Harvick won Sunday’s race for his 50th career victory and Clint Bowyer won two stages in Wednesday’s sequel, while Chase Briscoe won for the team in the Xfinity Series. Gibbs’ Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch finished first and second Wednesday. And while Hendrick didn’t have as strong of results, three of its cars held the first three spots at one point Sunday, and the other team car was in position for a strong finish before a late incident Wednesday (more on that in a moment).

Unpredictability

That parity helped to create another great sports element — unpredictability. Things happened in all three races no one could have anticipated; the unscripted nature of sports has always been one of its biggest appeals to me.

Who could have ever guessed seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson would spin out from the lead on the final lap of a stage (or, for that matter, that he’d be dominating the stage after a 99-race winless streak)? Bowyer had never won multiple stages in a race before Wednesday, and Thursday’s Xfinity race had it’s own set of wild circumstances (more on that below).

Even the weather followed along with that unpredictability — Wednesday’s Cup Series race was delayed by rain; the Xfinity Series race was postponed Tuesday and started four hours late on Thursday. The abundance of rain delays was just about the only unwelcome thing about NASCAR’s return.

Strategy

The weather, though, helped to emphasize the strategic elements of the races. In both Wednesday’s Cup race and the Xfinity event, teams had to tailor their strategy not just to the advertised distance of the race, but also to the current moment, as the possibility of rain persisted through both events. In NASCAR, an event can be rain-shortened if over half the laps are completed — and Wednesday’s race ultimately was ended 20 laps early when the rains returned.

But weather-related plans were not the only strategy employed by the teams. Tire management was a consideration throughout each event, particularly on a track like Darlington where tire wear is so conspicuous. Cars on different strategies created comers and goers in the pack, only adding to the competitiveness of each race.

There are strategic elements to every race, but particularly at a place like Darlington. The unique track is an egg-shaped, 1.366-mile circuit with the turns banked most heavily on the outside, meaning that the fastest way around the track is also the trickiest — inches from the wall.

Tradition

The difficulty of “the track too tough to tame” is simply part of the track’s rich tradition. The venue opened during NASCAR’s second season in 1950, and the Southern 500 (set to run as scheduled Sept. 6) was the series’ first speedway race. This week, some 70 years after helping to launch the sport, Darlington was host to its rebirth.

Auto racing is among the most tradition-rich sports, and while few tracks can match Darlington there, one that can is Charlotte, where the sport heads next. Sunday will mark the 61st Coca-Cola 600 — the 59th run on Memorial Day Weekend. NASCAR’s longest race is typically one of three major motorsports events on the holiday weekend, but COVID-19 caused the Indianapolis 500 to be moved to Aug. 23, and Formula 1’s Monaco Grand Prix to be canceled for the first time since 1954.

While it will be different from previous years, NASCAR will still continue it’s annual observance of Memorial Day surrounding the 600. In addition to special pre-race ceremonies — done virtually — each car will feature the name of a fallen U.S. service member across the top of its windshield.

NASCAR will continue to showcase some of its traditional venues after the Charlotte events, with Bristol, Martinsville, Atlanta and Talladega among the tracks scheduled for the coming weeks on NASCAR’s reworked schedule.

Conflict

The sport’s heritage includes some of the great Richard Petty-David Pearson duels and Dale Earnhardt-Darrell Waltrip feuds — and Wednesday’s race featured some hostility as well.

Chase Elliott spun after he was hooked by Kyle Busch while the two battled for second late in the race, as Busch tried to move into the space between Elliott and fourth-place Kevin Harvick and misjudged that gap, hitting Elliott’s left-rear and sending him into the inside wall.

Elliott pointed his middle finger at Busch as the latter drove by on the next lap, and his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, had an animated discussion with Busch, the 2019 Cup Series champion, after the race.

Quotes from both in the two days since suggest that they’re ready to move on — and Elliott has stated he now understands Busch’s move was simply a mistake and had no malicious intent — but that hasn’t prevented the conversations among fans and the media to continue, as they likely will until the next event Sunday.

Redemption

Busch’s admitted mistake in Wednesday’s race presented an opportunity to redeem himself in Thursday’s Xfinity Series race, where he was the heavy favorite, and after starting 26th he led the race by lap 48. Then, after winning the second stage, Busch was issued a pit road speeding penalty and was mid-pack once again — presenting an even bigger redemption opportunity.

Busch battled to fifth, then after a late caution picked off the leaders one-by-one up to second, and battled head-to-head with Briscoe in the closing laps.

Busch got all the way back to the top spot, leading the penultimate lap by a few inches, and battled door-to-door with Briscoe all the way back around to the checkers. But the opportunity for redemption for Busch was upstaged when fate had other plans for his competitor.

Emotion

Among the best qualities of sports is the raw human emotion on public display by competitors. The events Sunday and Wednesday included some amount of that from Harvick and Hamlin in victory — including Hamlin’s odd mask featuring his his own smile — while others showed their disappointment, including Elliott’s one-finger salute.

But the most clear display of emotion came from Briscoe. The 25-year-old and wife Marissa learned Tuesday they’d lost their expected baby, as Chase watched in Darlington through FaceTime when Marissa attended a routine 12-week checkup and it was discovered the baby had no heartbeat. Returning to the track Thursday after the postponement gave Briscoe an escape, though he said there were still times during the race he had tears in his eyes.

Briscoe, in his second Xfinity Series season, earned his fourth career win by beating the sport’s best driver, saying later he felt God was driving his racecar in the closing laps because he was an emotional mess. He keyed the radio moments after beating Busch by .086 seconds, but couldn’t speak and instead sobbed audibly; his crew chief told the driver the win was for him and his wife and baby. Briscoe remained overcome when he got out of the car.

“This is more than a race win,” he said. “This is the greatest day of my life, after the toughest day of my life.”

The emotions of victory — and often of defeat, too — are among the most magnetic qualities sports presents. Celebrating a win is one of the best parts of any competition, and sometime’s the participant’s life circumstances make it even more meaningful.

Any human, not just racing fans or more general sports fans, can relate on some level to the emotions shown, and Briscoe’s win was the perfect way to end the week of racing and put a bow on NASCAR’s return.

Column: The checkered flag at the end of the rainbow

Chase Elliott’s win in Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was incredible for anyone watching, as the 23-year-old from Georgia overcame a mid-race accident, came back through the field to take the lead with six laps to go and claimed his sixth career NASCAR Cup Series victory, then did a burnout at the very spot he had hit the wall an hour earlier.

But for me, this win had even more meaning. It was a checkered flag at the end of a rainbow.

But to understand what made Sunday afternoon special for me, you must first understand the road to get there.

From an early age, my aunt Terri taught me that if someone asked “who’s the best driver?” I was to answer with the name Jeff Gordon. That sparked an interest in NASCAR, and by Gordon’s championship season of 2001 I had joined her as a diehard fan.

She and I attended a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway eight times between 2002-12, witnessing 2,219 laps of racing, with everything from Mark Martin winning a million-dollar bonus at our first race, to Dale Earnhardt Jr. running out of gas leading on the final lap, to the time we thought we were on Noah’s ark through a day and a half of rain ending in David Reutimann’s first career win.

After Jeff Gordon retired (we watched the final race of his last full-time season together at a race-viewing party at the NASCAR Hall of Fame), we both became Chase Elliott fans the following year when the son of Hall of Famer Bill Elliott took over the drivers seat of the No. 24 Chevrolet.

In September 2016, two-thirds of the way through Elliott’s rookie season, Terri died unexpectedly.

In the three years since, I had not been to Charlotte Motor Speedway until Sunday. I wasn’t avoiding the track, but simply never made it to a race there, between being busier than ever and, for a time, further away from Charlotte than ever, and attending races at other tracks.

She was on my mind Sunday — when we got to our seats, which weren’t too far away from where we sat during that rainy Coca-Cola 600; during the invocation and national anthem; when Gordon made a cameo on the track’s massive video screen.

As the race unfolded, by the middle of Stage 2 it was clear Elliott had the best car on the racetrack, and he led 28 laps over the middle portion of the race and won the stage. At some point I gave a thought to how personally meaningful an Elliott win could be.

But on a restart on lap 65 of the 109-lap event, Elliott locked up the brakes and his car wouldn’t turn, resulting in him hitting the tire barrier where the drivers turn off from the traditional oval into the infield portion of the “roval” track.

Since he drove the car back to pit road, I figured he would be able to continue and would not be out of the race, but I also assumed his chance to win was gone. The car’s hood appeared to be damaged, and I questioned if there could be damage inside the hood as well.

But the damage was minimal, and Elliott drove his way from around 30th back towards the front, even briefly leading again at lap 78 during a cycle of green-flag pit stops. With his driving through the field and the help of some timely cautions, Elliott was up to third by the final restart.

Within one lap after the final restart, Elliott had taken the lead again — clearing Kevin Harvick right in front of me in the frontstretch chicane.

Over the final laps, as Elliott pulled away from second-place Alex Bowman, I began to reflect, all while nervously hoping the race would stay green.

I thought about the times spent with Terri at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I thought about the fact that the driver I was pulling for, be it Gordon or Elliott, had never won a race I attended.

I thought about the fact that she would have been 60 two days later — today.

And then, in the midst of all of these thoughts, just as Elliott was coming to the white flag to signify the final lap, a rainbow appeared over the racetrack.

Rainbows are often used in a symbolic way, and in this case felt like further confirmation that what was happening on the track simply felt meant to be.

Furthermore, the symbolism of a rainbow specifically connects back to Terri and racing: Jeff Gordon’s Dupont-sponsored car was, for many years, painted with a rainbow, a scheme that was so iconic his pit crew became known as the Rainbow Warriors.

Chase Elliott navigated the 17 turns of the final lap under that rainbow, and at the end of that 109th lap of the afternoon found his pot of gold in the form of a checkered flag.

Chase Elliott on the final lap of Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Take note of the rainbow in the upper left, which the photo does not do justice. (Photo: Chris Stiles)

And as Elliott crossed that finish line, I lifted my hands up in celebration but also briefly glanced to the heavens in reflection. My friend Jackson, who I was attending the race with, gave me a high-five. After standing for the closing laps, I sat down to take a deep breath, and simply took in the moment.

I don’t mean to elevate my circumstances over those of anyone else — during the race I even had the thought that if another driver won it would be just as meaningful to one of their fans — but some things just feel meant to be.

I know it was just a race, and not one that I was a participant in. But sometimes sports outcomes can be more meaningful because of the underlying circumstances.

Now, a couple of days later, I’m grateful. Grateful for the experience, for the chance to reflect and to remember a special person in my life.

I went to a NASCAR race Sunday. I never expected to find a personal pot of gold.

Column: Ring the siren

Around 5:20 p.m. on Sunday, a siren blazed from the center of Dawsonville, Georgia.

There was no fire truck responding to a call, and it wasn’t a weather siren. In fact, there was no emergency of any kind — actually, the exact opposite: Chase Elliott had won a race.

The Dawsonville native and son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott won Sunday’s GoBowling at the Glen race, taking his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory.

When “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” was in his prime, the Dawsonville Pool Room began ringing a siren to let the townspeople know their favorite son had won.

The siren rang often in the 1980’s and 1990’s, as Elliott notched 44 wins and the 1988 Cup Series championship.

Bill earned his final win in Nov. 2003, and while the siren did sound for Chase’s wins in NASCAR’s lower-tier series — including a championship in 2014 in the XFinity Series, NASCAR’s equivalent of AAA baseball — it did not for a win on racing’s grandest stage, the Cup Series, until Chase conquered Watkins Glen, a road course track in upstate New York, on Sunday.

Chase Elliott finished second in eight races before Sunday’s win, which came in his 99th career start. The 22-year-old driver has already become one of the sport’s most popular figures, but some questioned how long it would take before his breakthrough win.

That triumph came Sunday, more loud and clear than the siren blow it initiated.

Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet had to duel for the lead with 2015 series champion Kyle Busch, who has won six races this year, for much of the race. Then, with Busch out of the way due to a fueling issue, Elliott had to fend off Martin Truex Jr. over the closing laps. Truex is not only the defending series champion, but had won the circuit’s previous two road course races.

Overcoming eight runner-up finishes before earning a win is nothing new to the Elliotts — Bill did the same leading up to his first win in 1983.

If history is any indicator, more wins could be on the way for Chase, and soon. After Bill’s inaugural win in the 1983 season finale, he won three races in 1984, then 11 in 1985. Jeff Gordon, whose seat at Hendrick Motorsports Chase Elliott filled, had a similar surge after his first win.

Such a surge by Chase Elliott would be exactly what NASCAR needs. The sport has been mired in a TV ratings and attendance slump over the last several years, and the positive publicity of Elliott’s win Sunday was quickly overshadowed when news broke Monday morning of the arrest of NASCAR CEO Brian France, who was charged with DUI and possession of a controlled substance.

But if Elliott can return to the winner’s circle soon, and if he can do so often, it may inject some much-needed energy back into the sport.

That energy was there Sunday in Watkins Glen, as the partisan crowd cheered boisterously when he completed his maiden victory.

That energy was also in Dawsonville, when the siren sounded and when Elliott returned Sunday night to the applause of several dozen friends and family.

If Elliott can win more often moving forward, perhaps that energy will spread.

But one thing’s for sure: if he wins more often moving forward, as many think he will, the residents of Dawsonville may need to buy some earplugs.

Because the siren’s about to ring some more.

Fast Five: What I’m looking forward to in the 2018 NASCAR season

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season gets underway today, with the star-laden Advance Auto Parts Clash, a week ahead of the sport’s biggest event, the Daytona 500.

Every season has storylines, and this one is no different. As NASCAR makes its annual trip to the beach, here are the five things I’m most looking forward to for the 2018 season.

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the broadcast booth

The 2017 season marked Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s farewell as a driver in the Cup Series, but he is not leaving the sport by any means.

Junior continues to own an XFinity Series team, and plans to run at least one one-off event in that series this year. He will also be in a very visible role for the second half of the 2018 season as an analyst for NBC Sports for their portion of the schedule, beginning at Daytona in July.

It’s great that the driver who has been voted Most Popular Driver for the last 15 consecutive years is staying involved in the sport, and in a way that he will be seen and heard by the fans. It’s also always a great idea for a broadcast network to add a just-retired driver to their coverage, as he will have excellent insight into the drivers and teams, since he just competed against them; Earnhardt also has a phenomenal knowledge of the sport’s past, given his family history and his own passion for it.

4. Who can match Truex’s stage-racing success?

Last year, in the first season of stage racing, Martin Truex Jr. mastered the new concept almost instantly and his 19 stage victories and eight race wins propelled him to his first Cup Series title.

Now, as the sport has had a year to adjust to stage racing, who will step up to match Truex’s mastery in 2018?

Kyle Busch won 14 stages in 2017, and Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson each won eight. And it was Larson, not Truex, who had the most stage top 10s, earning 56 of them. In addition, several young stars seem primed to rise to the next level in 2018 (see below).

It will also be interesting to see if more drivers win stages in 2018. Last year, there were more race winners (15) than stage winners (13), due in part to Truex and Busch’s stage dominance.

3. The Charlotte “roval”

NASCAR has made significant changes to the schedule for the early rounds of the Playoffs, with Las Vegas and Richmond hosting the first two races of the first round, and Dover moved to the opening race of the second round. Another notable change is that the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis will now be the regular-season finale on Sept. 9.

But perhaps the biggest change is that the Playoff race at Charlotte on Sept. 30, now the last race of the first round, will now be run on the track’s “roval” — racing jargon for a road course-oval combo, as the circuit will include parts of the 1.5-mile oval and the infield road course.

This will be the first race since 1987 that NASCAR has had three road-course races in a season, something which I find as a great change for the sport. Adding one to the Playoffs is also a welcome change.

The new layout will be a unique challenge for the drivers and teams, especially with the event’s timing as a cut-off race in the Playoffs. Who will conquer the sport’s newest challenge?

2. The emergence of young stars

Two rookies enter the Cup Series full-time in 2018, as both take over a storied ride: defending XFinity Series champion William Byron takes over the No. 24 Hendrick seat, while Darrell Wallace Jr. will be in the Petty No. 43 full-time after subbing four races last year for the injured Aric Almirola. Both have the talent and the personality to be big stars in the very near future.

But in addition to these two, other young guns are ready to establish themselves more firmly among the sport’s upper echelon. Erik Jones moves to the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 from Furniture Row Racing, taking over Matt Kenseth’s seat, while Ryan Blaney joins Penske Racing, who is expanding to three cars with the new No. 12 team. Both should be threats to win often, and have legitimate shots at contending for the championship this fall.

Alex Bowman takes over Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride in the No. 88 car at Hendrick Motorsports; many forget that he has 81 Cup Series starts between a stint in the No. 88 filling in for the concussed Earnhardt in 2016, as well as stints at the smaller teams of Tommy Baldwin Racing and BK Racing. Former XFinity Series champion Daniel Suarez also shows promise as he moves into his second season.

Oh, and there’s one other rising star primed for a huge 2018… some guy named Elliott.

1. The next level for Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott enters his third Cup Series season, and this year changes over to the No. 9 car at Hendrick Motorsports, driving for the same team but changing numbers after the opportunity arose to bring back to the Elliott family the number made legendary by Bill Elliott, Chase’s father.

Chase has not won a Cup Series race yet, though he has come painstakingly close on numerous occasions, including five runner-up finishes in 2017. Yet he seems primed for a breakout year in 2018, especially given a strong Playoff performance last year, finishing fifth in the final standings. Many feel one win may open the floodgates and lead to many victories.

With Earnhardt Jr. now retired, Elliott is set to take over as the sport’s most popular driver (I wasn’t sure about this, until at Darlington last year I noticed the number of Elliott shirts nearly equaled that of Earnhardt). But to validate that title in 2018, he needs to have the success to match — and he is more than capable of doing just that.

Elliott is already a star, but this year — with the timing of Earnhardt’s retirement and Elliott’s potential on-track success– may be the perfect storm for the humble, relatable Georgian to hit the fast track to superstardom, as in Junior’s absence he may be exactly what the sport is looking for.

 

 

Daytona Speedweeks Schedule

Sunday, Feb. 11
12:15 p.m. — Daytona 500 Pole Qualifying
3 p.m. — Advance Auto Parts Clash (75-lap exhibition race for 2017 pole winners, Playoff drivers and past Clash winners)

Thursday, Feb. 15
7 p.m. — CanAm Duels (Sets the starting lineup for the Daytona 500)

Friday, Feb. 16
7:30 p.m. — NextEra Energy Resources 250 (Camping World Truck Series race)

Saturday, Feb. 17
2:30 p.m. — Powershares QQQ 300 (XFinity Series race)

Sunday, Feb. 18
2:30 p.m. — 60th Daytona 500

Fast Five: Best throwback paint schemes at Darlington

The Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington is NASCAR’s oldest crown jewel, dating back to 1950 when Johnny Mantz won with a whopping average speed of 75.25 miles per hour.

This weekend, as the speeds will approach 200, the competitors will honor the past for the third straight year during NASCAR’s throwback weekend.

Darlington Raceway began the throwback theme for their race weekends in 2015, and the event instantly became a favorite in the sport, getting bigger and better every year.

In addition to some throwback apparel and haircuts making their way through the garage area each year, the majority of the cars are sporting throwback paint schemes to the drivers of yesteryear.

Here are the best among the paint schemes for this year’s throwback weekend:

Honorable Mention:  XFinity Series Drivers Honor Legends

The cars in Saturday’s XFinity Series race, the Sports Clips Haircuts VFW 200, will not race in the Southern 500, but are still honoring some of the sports’ greatest legends.

Dylan Lupton is throwing back to six-time Southern 500 winner and four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, and his classic rainbow paint scheme from the 1990s.  In the rainbow DuPont car, Gordon won four straight Southern 500s from 1995-98, including the 1997 win to clinch the Winston Million bonus.

Erik Jones pays tribute to the late Davey Allison, who drove a #28 Texaco-Havoline paint scheme in the late 1980s, including his 1987 Rookie of the Year season and a runner-up finish to his father Bobby in the 1988 Daytona 500 in a car that is also being thrown back to this weekend (see below).

Ryan Reed is honoring the late Alan Kulwicki on the 25th anniversary of his remarkable 1992 Cup Series title.  This paint scheme is from 1989, when Kulwicki drove his #7 Zerex Ford to his first career Cup win at Phoenix.

Cole Custer’s car honors two-time XFinity Series champion Sam Ard (1983-84), who died earlier this year.  Ard, who is Pamplico, S.C., near Darlington, won 22 XFinity races in just three seasons before retiring after the 1984 season due to injuries.

Jeremy Clements, who drove a family-owned car to win last week’s XFinity Series race at Road America in a huge upset, is honoring A.J. Foyt, who drove this paint scheme to victory in the 1964 Firecracker 400 at Daytona.  This car has personal meaning for Clements; his grandfather Crawford was the crew chief on Foyt’s car.

Dakoda Armstrong honors legend and local native Cale Yarborough, from Timmonsville, S.C., who won five Southern 500s and three consecutive NASCAR Cup Series titles (1976-78).  Yarborough drove this paint scheme, sponsored by Hardee’s, from 1983-87, mostly in number 28, the number of Armstrong’s car this weekend.

 

5.  Denny Hamlin

While all the throwbacks honor racing’s legends, Hamlin’s is unique as it honors modified racing legend Ray Hendrick.  Hendrick, from Hamlin’s home state of Virginia, is nicknamed Mr. Modified, won over 700 races, and is the all-time winner at Martinsville Speedway with 20.

4.  Aric Almirola

Richard Petty Motorsports’ #43 will honor The King with a car replicating the paint scheme he drove to his 200th and final victory on July 4, 1984 in the Firecracker 400.  Almirola has honored Petty with his throwback the last two years, but you can’t go wrong honoring the undisputed greatest living driver in the sport’s history.  This car even has the original sponsor, STP, on the throwback scheme.

3.  Three Classics from 1985-1989

The official theme for this year’s throwback weekend is the 1985-89 era, and these cars are running paint schemes from that era:

Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman are both throwing back to Dale Earnhardt’s Wrangler Chevrolet from the late 1980s, but Dillon’s is the more notable throwback as he does so in car number 3.  This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the first of three Southern 500 wins by The Intimidator, who won seven NASCAR Cup titles.

Kasey Kahne will recreate the Levi Garrett #5 Chevrolet, driven by Geoff Bodine from 1985-89 in the early years of Hendrick Motorsports, including his 1986 Daytona 500 win.  The number has since been driven by drivers including Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte, Kyle Busch and Mark Martin, all at Hendrick, but will not return in 2018 as Hendrick re-aligns its car numbers to allow Chase Elliott to drive #9, his Hall of Fame father’s old number.

Matt DiBenedetto’s #32 Ford depicts the #12 Miller High Life Buick that Bobby Allison drove to victory in the aforementioned 1988 Daytona 500.  Allison’s career also ended in this paint scheme when he was seriously injured in a 1988 crash at Pocono.

2.  Drivers Throwing Back to Themselves

Two drivers are throwing back to cars they drove in the 1990s.  (You know you’re old when…)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be making his final Southern 500 start in his #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, in the paint scheme he drove in the XFinity Series as a #3 AC Delco Chevrolet in 1998-99.  Earnhardt Jr. won two XFinity Series titles in the car, and finished 2nd in the 1998 XFinity Series race at Darlington.  He has never won the Southern 500 but finished second in 2014 and eighth in 2015 (he did not start last year due to injury).

Talk about throwbacks, how about a throwback driver!  1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope, who made his Cup debut in 1982, will make his 11th Cup start of the season in a paint scheme he drove in 1994 for owner Bobby Allison, as Mane ‘n’ Tail returns as sponsor.  This is not the first time Cope has thrown back to himself, as he drove the paint scheme from his Daytona win in the 2015 Darlington XFinity Series race.  Cope has not finished higher than 31st in a race this season.

1.  Brad Keselowski 

Brad Keselowski will drive a Miller Genuine Draft Ford identical to the car Rusty Wallace drove from 1991-95, a period when he won 23 races.  Miller has sponsored the Penske Racing #2 car ever since, so the sponsor is even the same on this throwback.  Even as simple as it is, this is one of the great paint schemes in the sport’s history, and I naturally like black and gold things, so this is easily the top paint scheme of this year’s throwback weekend.

Column: Earnhardt’s Daytona experiences are a microcosm of his career

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Go Time for Several Star Drivers

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

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

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

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

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

 

The King Turns 80

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy birthday, King Richard.  And thank you.

 

 

 

2017 Coke Zero 400
Lineup

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

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

Column: Why road course racing is good for NASCAR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

Toyota/Save Mart 350 Winners
1989 Ricky Rudd

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

Fast Five: Memorable Sports Farewells

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

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

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

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

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

Honorable Mention:  Jeff Gordon

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


Honorable Mention:  David Ross

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


5.  Kobe Bryant

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

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


4.  Ted Williams

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

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


3.  Peyton Manning, John Elway and Jerome Bettis

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

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

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

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

2.  Derek Jeter

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

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

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


1.  Lou Gehrig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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