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

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Fast Five: Memorable Sports Farewells

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

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

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

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

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

Honorable Mention:  Jeff Gordon

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


Honorable Mention:  David Ross

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


5.  Kobe Bryant

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

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


4.  Ted Williams

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

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


3.  Peyton Manning, John Elway and Jerome Bettis

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

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

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

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

2.  Derek Jeter

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

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

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


1.  Lou Gehrig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Column: Why Earnhardt Jr.’s Retirement Isn’t Surprising

Many in the racing world were stunned on Tuesday morning when Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his retirement at the end of the 2017 season.

But while NASCAR’s biggest star walking away is certainly a big story for the sport, his retirement is not exactly a huge surprise, at least to me, considering the circumstances.

The 42-year old Earnhardt is in a contract year, coming off a 2016 season in which he missed 18 races with a concussion, the fourth concussion he had suffered in a racing accident.

As Earnhardt came back from his injury, he opted to wait to sign a contract extension, and see how he felt about racing and his future after his return to the track.  Now, eight races into the 2017 season, Earnhardt has decided this will be his final season.

The decision was actually made by Earnhardt in March, saying at Tuesday’s press conference he met with car owner Rick Hendrick on March 29 to inform Hendrick of his decision.

Given all he faced in 2016 and his desire to stay healthy, particularly after his recent marriage to wife Amy, Earnhardt’s decision to step away is understandable, and relatively unsurprising.

Earnhardt didn’t go into great detail about his decision on Tuesday, but said he wants to make his own decision to retire instead of potentially being told by doctors he couldn’t race again in the event of an additional concussion or other injuries.

“You’re wondering why I reached this decision–it’s really simple. I just wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms,” Earnhardt said.  “I’m at peace with the decision.  I’m very comfortable with it.”

Earnhardt, the son of the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr. and 14-time defending winner of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award, has faced more pressure in his career than any other driver in NASCAR–and arguably as much as any athlete–as he tried to live up to the Earnhardt name and give his colossal fanbase something to cheer about.

While Earnhardt has won 26 races over his career and finished as high as third in points, that pressure has continued through many ups and downs throughout his career, from winning two Daytona 500s to losing his father at Daytona to winning the first race at Daytona after his father’s death to leaving family-owned Dale Earnhardt Inc. and struggling in his early years at Hendrick Motorsports.

As for what’s next for Earnhardt, the immediate focus is his final season, which is not off to a good start.  Earnhardt has just one top 10 through eight races and sits 24th in the current standings, 50 points outside a playoff spot.

After this season, Earnhardt will remain active in the sport, continuing to work as an XFinity Series team owner with JR Motorsports, a Hendrick Motorsports satellite team which has helped Hendrick with driver development in recent years.  Earnhardt will also honor his prior commitment to run two XFinity Series races with JR Motorsports in 2018.

As for Hendrick Motorsports, the #88 seat will become vacant for the first time in 10 years, and the Hall of Fame owner has a variety of options to fill the vacancy.

Alex Bowman, who filled in for Earnhardt in 2016 with some moderate success, should be one of the frontrunners.  JR Motorsports has some strong young talent, particularly including William Byron, although a couple more seasons in the XFinity Series are probably the more likely option for him.

Outside the Hendrick organization, impending free agents at season’s end include Kyle Larson, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and others.  Hendrick could also get an XFinity Series or Truck Series driver from another organization, something they’ve done in the past to sign both Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

Looking at the big picture, NASCAR also has to figure out what’s next as it loses its most popular driver.  The sport will have lost Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to retirement in the span of three seasons, a void that would be difficult for any sport to fill.  It will be up to the sport’s young talent, including Kyle Larson, the current points leader, and Chase Elliott, who like Earnhardt is the son of a legend, to become the next generation of superstars in NASCAR, although being as genuine and classy as Earnhardt won’t be easy.

There are 28 races left in the career of NASCAR’s biggest star.  As the sun sets on Earnhardt’s career, and for all intents and purposes the era of Earnhardt family relevance in NASCAR dating back to the 1960s, the plot continues to thicken in an already intriguing NASCAR season.

 

 

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Career Statistics (Cup Series unless otherwise noted):
603 starts
26 wins
149 top fives
253 top 10’s
13 poles
1998 & 1999 XFinity Series champion
24 XFinity Series wins

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

It’s 6:16 p.m. on November 20, 2016.

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

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

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

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

Three Reasons Why

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Next

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class at Every Turn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

Fast Five: 2016 Year in Review

*Editor’s Note:  This post was originally scheduled to be published on December 31, but due to personal sickness was delayed until now. 

 

2016 was a crazy year in sports.  From exceptional and historic championship events, to the good and bad of the Olympic Games, to saying goodbye to several big names who retired or passed away.

From the best events of the year to the biggest stories, here is a look back at the year that was in 2016:

Best Events of 2016

5.  Jul. 14-17:  Henrik Stenson wins The Open Championship

The Open at Royal Troon began on Thursday with Phil Mickelson getting hot on the back nine, and eventually facing a putt for a 62, which would have been a record for any major championship.  The putt somehow stayed out of the hole, and Mickelson shot 63, becoming the 28th to do so in a major championship.


Swede Henrik Stenson shot 65 on Friday to pull within one of Mickelson, setting the stage for a fantastic weekend duel.  Stenson shot 68 Saturday to Mickelson’s 70, giving Stenson a one-shot lead entering the final round.

In the final round, Stenson and Mickelson went back and forth, and Mickelson ended the Open with a bogey-free 65, finishing 17-under par with the best 72 holes he had ever played in a major and 11 shots clear of third place J.B. Holmes.  There was only one problem for Lefty:  Stenson shot 63, joining Johnny Miller as the only players to shoot the mark in the final round to win a major.  Stenson took the lead for good on the 14th hole, birdieing four of the last five holes and 10 in the round to win his first major, beating Mickelson in an Open duel reminiscent of 1977’s “Duel in the Sun” between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus.

4.  Jan. 11:  Alabama 45, Clemson 40 (NCAA Football, National Championship Game)

As the clear two best teams in the country fought for the national title, they produced a game that many compared to the legendary USC-Texas Rose Bowl in 2006.  The two teams traded the lead throughout the first three quarters, with Alabama getting two rushing touchdowns from Heisman winner Derrick Henry, and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson finding former walk-on Hunter Renfrow for two touchdowns.

After Alabama tied the score at 24-24 with 10:34 to go, coach Nick Saban made one of the gutsiest calls of his career, calling for the onside kick, which the Crimson Tide recovered, leading to a touchdown.  After Clemson answered with a field goal, Kenyan Drake returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards to give Alabama a 38-27 lead.  A Watson-to-Artavis Scott touchdown with 4:40 left pulled Clemson to 38-33, before a long Alabama drive to milk the clock ended with the Tide putting the game away with Henry’s third touchdown.

3.  Apr. 4:  Villanova 77, North Carolina 74 (NCAA Tournament, National Championship Game)

After the Final Four in Houston saw two less than stellar semifinals, with Villanova beating Oklahoma 95-51 and North Carolina beating Syracuse 83-66 to advance to the championship game, the Wildcats and Tar Heels made up for it with one of the best championship games in NCAA Tournament history.

After North Carolina led 39-34 at halftime and by as many as seven points early in the second half, Villanova came back to tie the score at 44-44 and then take a 67-57 lead with 5:29 left.  Then the Tar Heels came back, led by threes from Joel Berry II and Marcus Paige.  After getting as close as 72-71, North Carolina trailed 74-71 in the closing seconds when Marcus Paige hit a contested, off-balance, game-tying three with 4.7 seconds left–given the circumstances, one of the greatest shots I’ve ever seen (honestly, because of the degree of difficulty, even more of a clutch shot than the one that happened next).

After a timeout, NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player Ryan Arcidiacono brought the ball up the floor, setting up Kris Jenkins for an open three that will forever live in basketball lore.  Jenkins’ buzzer-beater gave Villanova their second national title (1985) in thrilling fashion, culminating a game CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander called “a thrilling, undeniably heart-stopping, instant classic of a title game.”

2.  Jun. 19:  Cleveland 93, Golden State 89 (NBA Finals, Game 7)

Game 7 had some fantastic storylines beforehand.  The Cavaliers and Warriors were playing a rematch of the 2015 Finals, which had been won by Golden State.  The Warriors had reached The Finals by overcoming a 3-1 deficit to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals, then they led Cleveland 3-1 before the Cavaliers fought back to force a Game 7.  The Cavaliers were trying to become the first Cleveland pro sports team to win a championship since 1964, led by native son LeBron James, and doing so on the road in Oakland.

The largest lead of the game for either side was seven, which Golden State enjoyed at halftime, and the game saw 11 ties and 20 lead changes.  After a Warriors layup by Klay Thompson tied the score at 89 with 4:39 to play, the teams combined to miss 12 consecutive shots, including a phenomenal James block from behind on an Andre Iguodala attempted layup.  Kyrie Irving broke the scoring drought with a clutch three, over league MVP Stephen Curry, with 0:53 remaining, and after Curry missed a three, James was fouled hard on a fast break with 0:10 left, staying on the floor for a few moments before hitting one of the two free throws to give Cleveland a 4-point lead, before Curry missed again and time expired, and James fell to the floor in tears as a champion.

The story of LeBron James returning home to Cleveland and winning the city the championship it so desperately wanted was a great story to watch unfold, even as someone who was (mildly) pulling for the Warriors.  As the city won its first title in 52 years, ESPN broadcaster Mike Breen proclaimed, “Cleveland is a city of champions again!”

1.  Nov. 2:  Chi. Cubs 8, Cleveland 7, 10 inn. (World Series, Game 7)

“Game of the Century” is an overused term in the sports world, but leading into just the fifth Game 7 of a World Series since 2001, I said this was legitimately the biggest baseball game in the 21st century thus far.  But even with the Cubs coming from down 3-1 to force a Game 7 in a series between teams with 68- and 108-year title droughts and the matchups of Kluber-Hendricks and Francona-Maddon, I wondered if it could possibly live up to the hype.  And yet, somehow, it surpassed it.

So many moments from Game 7 were memorable on their own, and together they combined to truly make the greatest baseball game of this century to date, and one of the greatest ever.  Dexter Fowler led off the game with a homer for the Cubs, and Javy Baez added one of his own, giving the Cubs a 5-1 lead.  The Indians pulled to within 5-3 after two scored on a wild pitch, the first such play in a World Series since 1911.  David Ross, in his final career at-bat, homering to make it 6-3.  A furious Indians rally against Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman in the 8th, culminating with a game-tying homer by Rajai Davis, the latest in any World Series Game 7.

Nine innings weren’t enough for this classic, and with the game tied 6-6 and going to extra innings, the whole world got to catch its breath with a short rain delay.  After a Ben Zobrist go-ahead double, the Cubs took an 8-6 lead to the bottom of the tenth, but the Indians didn’t go down without a fight, scoring off of Cubs rookie Carl Edwards.  Mike Montgomery, who had never recorded a save in pro baseball, relieved Edwards with two outs, and got Michael Martinez to hit a soft grounder to third that will become one of the most replayed baseball highlights in history:  the final out of the Cubs’ first championship since 1908.

In my post on the game the next day, I summed up Game 7 this way:  “The Cubs and their fans have literally waited a lifetime to celebrate winning the World Series.  It’s only appropriate that the game of a lifetime put them over the top.”


Honorable Mention

Jan. 16:  Arizona 26, Green Bay 20, OT (NFL Playoffs, Divisional Round)

Jan. 23:  Denver 20, New England 18 (NFL Playoffs, AFC Championship)

Feb. 21:  Denny Hamlin wins Daytona 500 photo finish

Mar. 18:  Northern Iowa 75, Texas 72 (NCAA Tournament, First Round)

Mar. 20:  Wisconsin 66, Xavier 63 (NCAA Tournament, Second Round)

Mar. 20:  Texas A&M 92, Northern Iowa 88, 2OT (NCAA Tournament, Second Round)

Apr. 7-10:  Danny Willett wins The Masters

Jun. 30:  Coastal Carolina 4, Arizona 3 (College World Series Championship, Game 3)

Aug. 11-14:  Olympic Men’s Golf Competition (G: Justin Rose, S: Henrik Stenson, B: Matt Kuchar)

Sept. 30-Oct. 2:  United States wins Ryder Cup

Oct. 1:  Tennessee 34, Georgia 31 (NCAA Football)

Oct. 1:  Clemson 42, Louisville 36 (NCAA Football)

Oct. 4:  Toronto 6, Baltimore 3, 11 inn. (AL Wild Card Game)

Oct. 5:  San Francisco 3, N.Y. Mets 0 (NL Wild Card Game)

Oct. 9:  Toronto 7, Texas 6, 10 inn. (AL Division Series, Game 3)

Oct. 10:  San Francisco 6, Chi. Cubs 5, 13 inn. (NL Division Series, Game 3)

Oct. 13:  L.A. Dodgers 4, Washington 3 (NL Division Series, Game 5)

Nov. 12:  Pittsburgh 43, Clemson 42 (NCAA Football)

Nov. 20:  Jimmie Johnson wins Ford 400 and NASCAR Sprint Cup championship

Nov. 26:  Ohio State 30, Michigan 27, 2OT (NCAA Football)

 

Biggest Stories of 2016

5.  Retirements

Every year has its fair share of retirements, but it seemed 2016 had more big names saying goodbye than most years.  Peyton Manning retired as a Super Bowl champion.  David Ortiz was an MVP candidate at age 40 in his farewell.  Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in his final game.  David Ross homered in Game 7 of the World Series in his final career at-bat.  Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira walked away from the New York Yankees.  Vin Scully said goodbye after an unfathomable 67-year run as a Dodgers broadcaster.  Fellow broadcaster Dick Enberg said “Oh my!” one final time.  Tony Stewart won one of the year’s best races at Sonoma as part of his final season.  Family man Adam LaRoche walked away from millions after his son was unwelcome in the White Sox clubhouse.  The accolades for this list seem endless, and they have given us many moments we’ll never forget.


4.  Rio Olympics

Entering the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the host city was a major story, with concerns about the water quality in Rio, trash in the streets, and risk of Zika virus.

Once the games began, there were some excellent performances by the best athletes in the world, including a successful games for the United States team.  Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all-time, while fellow swimmer Katie Ledecky was utterly dominant in setting multiple world records.  Simone Manuel stunned everyone, becoming the first African-American woman to ever medal in swimming when she won gold in the 100m freestyle.  Simone Biles won five gymnastics medals, with four gold, as the “Final Five” obliterated the competition to win gold going away.

Outside the American delegation, Jamaican Usain Bolt finished his career with a third gold in the 100 meter dash.  Fiji’s rugby team won gold to score the nation’s first Olympic medal ever.  Brit Mo Farah fell down and recovered to defend his gold medal in the 10,000m run.  Golf returned to the Olympics for the first time since 1904, with Great Britain’s Justin Rose and South Korea’s Inbee Park winning gold.

There were still some controversies, both within and outside of competition.  Shaunae Miller dove across the finish line, and while I wrote I had no problem with it, many did.  The water in the diving pool mysteriously turned green.  12-time medalist Ryan Lochte claimed he and three teammates were robbed at gunpoint, before it turned out a drunk Lochte had vandalized a gas station bathroom and fabricated parts of his story.

While the 2016 Summer Olympics were not perfect, but fascinated with these storylines and many more.

3.  Cavaliers end Cleveland title drought

The career of LeBron James has created some of the top stories in years past, as the Akron native left his hometown Cavaliers to play for the Miami Heat in 2010, and after two titles in Miami, signed back with Cleveland in 2014.  After an NBA Finals loss to the Warriors in 2015, the Cavaliers looked destined for another loss to the Warriors in 2016, trailing 3-1, but came from behind to win three straight games, including two on the road, and the title, clinching in a legendary Game 7.

But while this championship was the first for the Cavaliers franchise, this story was about more than just one sport in Cleveland, but all of them, as the city won its first championship in any sport since 1964, ending a drought that led The New York Times to once call Cleveland “the capital of sports heartbreak.”

The Cavaliers fell victim to Michael Jordan playoff buzzer-beaters twice, then lost James in the controversial announcement program “The Decision.”  The Browns lost playoff games on a late interception (“Red Right 88”), an infamous fumble (Earnest Byner), and John Elway’s “The Drive,” before leaving town entirely in 1995 (becoming the Baltimore Ravens), only to be reborn as an expansion franchise in 1999.  The Indians were two outs away from the 1997 World Series title, before a costly Jose Mesa error led to an extra-innings loss to the Marlins.

The Cavaliers title ended the heartbreak, but may also have started a sustained run of athletic success for the city.  While the Browns did go 1-15 in the 2016 season, the Indians reached the World Series, and will have an even better roster in 2017, while the Cavaliers currently have the best record in the NBA’s Eastern Conference as they try to defend their title.

2.  Deaths

Many people of influence in all facets of American and global culture passed away in 2016, but the year seemed to especially hit the sports world hard.  Muhammad Ali, the boxer who was named Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Century in 1999, died after a long battle with Parkinson’s, while Pat Summitt, the longtime Tennessee women’s basketball coach who is the winningest coach in NCAA history, succumbed to dementia.  Arnold Palmer, “the king” of golf, and Jose Fernandez, a young star pitcher for the Miami Marlins, died just hours apart on September 25.

The list also includes broadcasting legends Craig Sager, Joe Garagiola and John Saunders, football coaches LaVell Edwards, Dennis Green and Buddy Ryan, former Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam, basketball legends Nate Thurmond and Pearl Washington, NHL Hall of Famer Gordie Howe, baseball trail blazer Monte Irvin, and dirt racing champion Bryan Clauson.  71 people, including 19 players from Brazilian soccer team Chapecoense and numerous other team staff and media, were killed when a plane carrying the team to a championship match in Medellin, Colombia crashed, while only three players survived.



1.  Cubs win first World Series since 1908

Entering 2016, it was no secret that the Cubs had a great chance to break their curse of 108 years and finally win the World Series, and before the season I picked them to win.  Even still, the way it played out makes this one of the biggest and best sports stories of my lifetime, and one that many veteran baseball writers called the best story they have ever covered.

Coming back from a 3-1 deficit and capturing a thrilling Game 7 to win it all, the Cubs finally rewarded the waiting of their long-suffering fans, some of the most loyal anywhere, with their first championship since 39,466 days before, when Theodore Roosevelt was president.  The resulting reactions from jubilant Cubs fans, nearly all of whom were experiencing their first championship, were expectedly emotional, with many brought to joyous, relieved tears.

The North Side rode the monumental triumph–and, in many cases, disbelief–for days after Game 7, including the Cubs’ victory parade and rally two days after the victory, which saw 5 million people–the seventh largest crowd in human history–pay tribute to their baseball heroes, the unit of Cubs who finally ended sports’ most famous championship drought.

After seeing the Cubs end a historic period of futility in such dramatic fashion, and the depth of the celebration that followed in Chicago and throughout the country, I named the Chicago Cubs my 2016 Stiles on Sports Sportsmen of the Year.


Honorable Mention (in generically chronological order, with yearlong stories listed first)

Athletes get politically involved (Colin Kaepernick, Curt Schilling, ESPYs cold open, etc)

Player conduct (Draymond Green, Grayson Allen, Vontaze Burfict, etc)

Performance-enhancing drugs (Dee Gordon suspension, al-Jazeera report)

Louisville basketball escort scandal

The Rams relocate to Los Angeles

Baylor football sexual assualt scandal

The end of Deflategate

John Scott voted to NHL All-Star Game, wins MVP

Golden State Warriors set NBA regular-season wins record

Leicester City beats 5000-1 odds to win English Premier League

Kevin Durant signs with Golden State Warriors

Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits out with concussion, Jeff Gordon returns

The resurgence of the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders

Tim Tebow plays baseball, signs with New York Mets

Jimmie Johnson wins 7th title, ties Petty and Earnhardt

New collective bargaining agreements in MLB and NBA

The rebirth of Penn State football

Major college football coaching changes (LSU, Texas)

Tiger Woods’ injury and return

Wake Forest game plans leaked to opponents (WakeyLeaks)

 

 

Gordon Takes The White Flag

Jeff Gordon announced today that the 2015 season will be his final full-time season driving in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, stepping away after his 23rd full season.

Gordon announced the decision with this statement:

“As a race car driver, much of what I’ve done throughout my life has been based on following my instincts and trying to make good decisions,” Gordon said. “I thought long and hard about my future this past year and during the offseason, and I’ve decided 2015 will be the last time I compete for a championship. I won’t use the ‘R-word’ because I plan to stay extremely busy in the years ahead, and there’s always the possibility I’ll compete in selected events, although I currently have no plans to do that.

“I don’t foresee a day when I’ll ever step away from racing. I’m a fan of all forms of motor sports, but particularly NASCAR. We have a tremendous product, and I’m passionate about the business and its future success. As an equity owner in Hendrick Motorsports, I’m a partner with Rick (Hendrick) and will remain heavily involved with the company for many years to come. It means so much to have the chance to continue working with the owner who took a chance on me and the incredible team that’s stood behind me every step of the way.

“Racing has provided a tremendous amount of opportunity that’s been extraordinarily rewarding and fulfilling in my life. The work we’re doing with the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation will continue to be extremely important to me. Outside the race car, my passion is pediatric cancer research, and my efforts will remain focused there when I’m no longer driving.

“I’ll explore opportunities for the next phase of my career, but my primary focus now and throughout 2015 will be my performance in the No. 24 Chevrolet. I’m going to pour everything I have into this season and look forward to the challenge of competing for one last championship.

“To everyone at NASCAR, my teammates, sponsors, competitors, friends, family, members of the media and especially our incredible fans, all I can say is thank you.”

The 43-year old ranks third all-time in the series with 92 wins, behind only Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105), although he has the most during the “modern era” (post-1972).  Gordon ranks fourth all-time with four series championships, behind Petty and Dale Earnhardt (7) and Jimmie Johnson (6).

After growing up in California and Indiana, his career began in quarter midgets and sprint cars before moving to stock cars in 1990, and driving in what was then the Busch Series (now the Xfinity Series) for owner Bill Davis in 1991-92.  Rick Hendrick noticed the young Gordon, and gave him a ride for the Winston Cup Series (now the Sprint Cup Series) for 1993, running his first Cup race in Richard Petty’s last at Atlanta in 1992.  Gordon has run the #24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports ever since, and is even an equity owner of the Hendrick team, owning a share of Jimmie Johnson’s #48 car.

Following a Rookie of the Year campaign in 1993, Gordon won his first event in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in ’94.  His second win came at Indianapolis, known as the Mecca of motorsports, in the first ever stock car race there, the 1994 Brickyard 400.  To many it is still considered Gordon’s greatest victory, as it impacted more that just Gordon’s career, but an entire sport.

Following an eighth place points finish in his sophomore season, Gordon won his first Cup title in 1995, and after finishing second to teammate Terry Labonte in ’96, won back-to-back titles in ’97-’98, becoming the fourth driver at the time to win three titles in a four-year stretch.  Gordon won 40 races in that four-year stretch, one of the best stretches in NASCAR history.  Over one stretch in 1998, Gordon won six out of seven races, including the Brickyard 400 and Southern 500, two of the sport’s biggest races.

In 1999-2000, Gordon finished sixth and ninth in points, although after the run of the four years before, it seemed like a letdown.  But Gordon responded in 2001, winning his fourth title, at the time becoming the third driver to do so (Jimmie Johnson has since joined him).

While Gordon has not won a title since, he has remained extremely competitive during the “Chase Era” in the Sprint Cup Series.  In 2004, Gordon finished third in the inaugural Chase, only losing by 16 points (in the points system used at the time, that was the rough equivalent of 4 points today).  Three years later, in 2007, Gordon set a modern era record with 30 top 10s in the 36 race schedule, but finished second in points to Johnson.  In 2009, he finished third behind Johnson and fellow teammate Mark Martin, joining together for the only 1-2-3 points finish in history by a set of three teammates.

After being added to the Chase in 2013 after initially missing by one point under cloudy circumstances, Gordon was very competitive in 2014, winning four times including a special win at Indianapolis (more on that later), and came within a point of advancing to the final round of the new Chase format featuring elimination rounds, finishing sixth in points.  A late race incident with Brad Keselowski is what likely cost Gordon the chance to compete for his fifth title in the finale, and he ended up sixth in the standings.

In the 11 seasons of the Chase era to date, Gordon has only missed the Chase once (remember, it used to be harder to get in than it is now with 16 spots), falling short in 2005 despite four wins.

In addition to series championships, Gordon has had success in the biggest individual races each year.  He has won three Daytona 500s, in 1997, ’99, and 2005.  In each instance, Gordon pulled off and aggressive move to take the lead, then held off the likes of Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett in the ’90s and Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, and Johnson in ’05.  Gordon is one of only five drivers to win at Daytona three or more times, and only Petty and Cale Yarborough can claim more wins in the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing” than Gordon.  He has also won the July race at Daytona three times.

At Darlington, Gordon has won the Southern 500 more than any driver in the history of that race, which dates back to NASCAR’s second season in 1950, with six wins (1995-98, 2002, ’07).  He is one of eight drivers to win the Coca-Cola 600 three times or more (1994, ’97-’98), with only Darrell Waltrip and Johnson having more wins than Gordon.

In 1997, he won all three in the same year, becoming the second driver to win the “Winston Million”, a promotion sponsored by then-series sponsor RJ Reynolds to reward any driver that won three of the four “crown jewels” (along with the spring race at Talladega), joining Bill Elliott, who accomplished the feat in the promotion’s first year in 1985.

As mentioned, Gordon won the Brickyard 400 in 2014 for a very special victory.  The win was Gordon’s fifth in the event (1994, ’98, 2001, ’04, ’14), making him the first driver in any series, in any form of racecar, to win five races at the Speedway, including in the Indianapolis 500, where the record of four wins is shared by legends AJ Foyt, Rick Mears, and Al Unser Sr.

Gordon’s competitiveness in 2014 and the energy he has shown today throughout the media engagements surrounding his announcement show he will be competitive in his final season.  This is something the sport hasn’t ever seen from a retiring driver (although several driver’s careers have been ended by injury or death during their prime).  Gordon will try to join Ned Jarrett as the only driver to retire a Cup Series champion, but Jarrett walked away after winning the title, so no one knew they were watching his final season as it happened.  With Petty’s final season in 1992, dubbed by The King as a “Fan Appreciation Tour”, he wasn’t at all competitive, particularly considering the merits of his career, with a high finish of 15th eight years after his final win.

Gordon said in a teleconference this afternoon he doesn’t want there to be ceremonies at every track commemorating his final season throughout the year, but instead said the time for that is in 2016, when he will still be at the track but will not have any competitive obligation, and can be more proactive with the fans.

That all goes with Gordon’s choice not to use the word “retirement” in discussing his decision.  Gordon said he perceives retirement as someone moving to the beach or sitting on the porch in a rocking chair.  He says he’ll still be very active in the sport, and other business interests, but will do so without competing.

To fans who don’t understand the magnitude of Gordon to his sport, think of this as equivalent to Derek Jeter’s final season, which we all just witnessed last year.  When Gordon came into the sport in the early ’90s, NASCAR had come a long way with ESPN’s coverage throughout most of the ’80s, but was still viewed as a Southern sport.  There was good reason for that, as only five of the top 15 finishers in Gordon’s first Cup race in 1992 were from outside the South.  (By the way, Gordon finished 31st that day.)

In the last race of 2014 at Homestead, only two of the top 15 were from the South, showing the national explosion the sport has taken in terms of its participants.  Furthermore, Gordon’s career has seen tracks built in California, Texas, Kansas, Illinois, Kentucky, and Nevada which host Cup Series races, as there are now NASCAR fans everywhere.

The first driver from outside the South to win a Cup Series title was Alan Kulwicki, who did it the day Gordon’s career began in the 1992 season finale.  His success would be short-lived, as he died in a plane crash the following April, during Gordon’s rookie campaign.  Gordon went on to become the first superstar who wasn’t Southern by origin, and in many ways led the way for the likes of Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, and Kevin Harvick, all of whom have won championships in the Chase era.

Gordon has never missed a start since his debut in 1992, running in 761 consecutive races since.  Barring the unforeseen, Gordon will pass Ricky Rudd (known as “The Iron Man”) on September 27 for the consecutive starts record, after Rudd ran 288 races in a row from 1981-2005 (Note: I was a Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2002 when Rudd broke Terry Labonte’s consecutive starts record.)

It won’t be the only record owned by Gordon, even if you somehow overlook his wins and championships.  Gordon currently holds the all-time record of 22 consecutive seasons with at least one pole, and has won the third most poles all-time, once again behind Petty and Pearson (exactly the way they stand in wins).

As for what’s next for the #24 car, a number which Gordon is identified with in the sport as much as Earnhardt and #3 or Petty and #43, it seems likely that Chase Elliott, the son of former Cup Series champion and 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Bill Elliott, will move to the seat in 2016, although there is no official word from Hendrick.  Elliott won the championship in the Xfinity Series last year, in the same year he graduated from high school, driving for JR Motorsports, a team competitively allied with Hendrick which has, at times, served as a bit of a satellite operation for Hendrick.  Elliott also ran races at lower levels for Hendrick before moving to the Xfinity Series at the age of 18.

Someone on Twitter today suggested Elliott make his Cup Series debut at Homestead, to parallel Gordon’s career, making his first start in the season finale before running the following season full-time, and running the last race of a legend, just as Gordon did in Petty’s final race.  Elliott is expected to run a handful of Sprint Cup races in 2015, but I doubt Hendrick would want to wait until the finale to break in the youngster.  Instead, I’ll suggest that, for the same reason of parallels to Gordon’s career, Elliott could make his debut March 1 at Atlanta, the very track where Gordon made his 23 years ago.

On a personal level, Gordon was one of my first two sports heroes, as my very young self was endeared to both Gordon and Chipper Jones at a very young age.  I was taught by my aunt to respond to the question “Who’s the best driver?” with the answer “Jeff Gordon” before I could read that question.  That being said, today was obviously bittersweet, and although I knew the day would one day come, I was very surprised by the timing of it, with Gordon coming off his most competitive season in years.

Brian France, the Chairman and CEO of NASCAR, commented on Gordon’s announcement, saying:

“Jeff Gordon transcends NASCAR and will be celebrated as one of the greatest drivers to ever race. We have all enjoyed watching his legend grow for more than two decades, and will continue to do so during his final full-time season. His prolonged excellence and unmatched class continue to earn him the admiration of fans across the globe. Today’s announcement is a bittersweet one. I’ll miss his competitive fire on a weekly basis, but I am also happy for Jeff and his family as they start a new chapter. On behalf of the entire NASCAR family, I thank Jeff for his years of dedication and genuine love for this sport, and wish him the very best in his final season.”

I’ll agree with France that Gordon is one of the greatest in the history of the sport.  Coming from a member of the France family, the family that started it all in 1949, and has overseen the sport throughout the entirety of its existence, I think that’s a pretty accurate measure of what the 92 wins for Gordon have meant to the sport.

So, fans, savor this season, as Gordon runs 36 more Cup Series races.  Because you are truly watching one of the greatest ever turn his final lap.

Derek Jeter to Retire After 2014 Season

Yankees SS Derek Jeter announced today he will retire at the conclusion of the upcoming season.  Jeter will turn 40 in June and is entering his 19th MLB season, and 23rd overall professional season, all with the Yankees organization.  The Yankee captain is one of the most iconic figures in the game today, having won 5 World Series titles (1996, 1998-2000, 2009) and winning the 2000 World Series MVP award.  He will surely be most remembered for his play in the postseason play, as a lifetime .308 hitter in postseason play, including a .321 clip in 38 World Series games.  Jeter also has 20 homers and 61 RBI in his 158 career postseason games.  During Jeter’s career, the Yankees were 10-6 in the AL Division Series, 7-3 in the AL Championship Series, and 5-2 in the World Series.

As for the regular season, Jeter hit for a .312 career average, collecting 3,316 hits, good for 9th all-time.  Also, despite not being known for his power, he hit 256 career homers, which is over 13 per season.  He is the all-time Yankees leader in games played, at bats, hits, and stolen bases, and will only add to his records this year.  Any time you are the all-time Yankees leader in any category, much less 4 categories, you’ve had a pretty good career.

Jeter will surely be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and will be eligible with the 2020 balloting.  As of right now, there are not any members of the late-1990s Yankee dynasty in the Hall of Fame except for Wade Boggs (Yankee from 1993-97, but in the Hall of Fame with a Red Sox cap on his plaque), although manager Joe Torre will be inducted this summer and closer Mariano Rivera, who retired last year and is also very likely a first-ballot Hall of Famer.  Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte will also have a good shot at Hall of Fame election, and Roger Clemens is on the ballot but, so far, hasn’t gotten the required 75% of the vote.  I also fully expect Jeter’s #2 will be retired by the Yankees at the end of the year.

Jeter announced his retirement on Facebook, and you can read his statement on his Facebook page here:  https://www.facebook.com/derekjeter (this link will even work for those without a Facebook account)