Daytona Win Would Cure All Ills for Stewart

Everyone knows the Dale Earnhardt story, especially when it comes to the struggles to win the Daytona 500. Note, I did not say struggles at Daytona, but struggles to win the Daytona 500. Earnhardt was not alone. Many of the sport’s top drivers failed to win the Daytona 500, especially of the recent generations. Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, Kurt Busch, and Ricky Rudd headline the list of top tier drivers in the past 30 years who failed to ever win the Daytona 500. However, where Earnhardt separated himself from those other drivers however was his overwhelming career success.

In fact, the only drivers to join Earnhardt as multiple time series champions to make at least 16 starts in the Daytona 500 without a win are Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte, and Tony Stewart.

One of these was often compared to Earnhardt when it came to belaboring their Daytona nightmares.

Labonte, for all his successes at the Cup level, is what I would call the Tim Duncan of NASCAR. Almost nothing he did was noticed. While much was made of Earnhardt and Waltrip’s struggles to win the Daytona 500, it’s almost forgotten that Terry Labonte finished second in the Daytona 500 three different times. You can’t get much closer than that. Perhaps it was that Labonte only led a combined 12 laps in the three races. In fact, only once did Terry Labonte lead double digit laps (1996 when over heating issues relegated him to 24th place) in a single Daytona 500. So despite three runner-ups, and six top five finishes, Labonte, and his “mere” two championships never got quite the same attention when it came to striving for Daytona 500 glory, and as such, never received the sympathy for his failures.

Close, but not close enough for Labonte in 1997.

Close, but not close enough for Labonte in 1997.

Darrell Waltrip though was a different story. Before there was Earnhardt and his well documented struggles, there was D.W. Waltrip, like Earnhardt, was a multiple time champion (three) who had won everything there was to be won in the sport. Everything, of course, except Daytona. And much like Earnhardt, Waltrip had won just about everything at Daytona….except the Daytona 500. Well, with one exception. While he had won the qualifying race on Thursday five times, finishing second an additional three times, and also claimed victory in the Busch Clash, three of the Saturday Busch Series races (Now Xfinity Series), and an IROC race, Waltrip had never won a points paying Winston Cup race at Daytona. So even he didn’t compare similarly to Dale Earnhardt.

Waltrip's Daytona heartbreak stemmed more from hard accidents, including this one in 1983 that Waltrip says changed his career. "I want to win as many races as I can, going as slow as I can".

Waltrip’s Daytona heartbreak stemmed more from hard accidents, including this one in 1983 that Waltrip says changed his career. “I want to win as many races as I can, going as slow as I can”.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t someone who does.

Waltrip’s run of futility ended in his seventeenth start, which happens to be the number start Tony Stewart will make in the Daytona 500 when the green flag falls this Sunday.

And when it comes to comparing the Daytona nightmare to Earnhardt, nobody compares quite like Stewart.

Stewart, like Waltrip, is a three-time champion. But as good as Waltrip’s record was at Daytona, Stewart’s is vastly superior. The remarkable thing, is that as superior as Stewart’s is, Earnhardt’s is that much better. But I digress. Stewart has the overall career success, the Daytona success, and like Earnhardt, the supreme Daytona heartbreak riding with him in Sunday’s Daytona 500.

The resume speaks for itself for “Smoke”. He’s won the Sprint Unlimited three different times, finishing second on two other occasions. The Thursday Gatorade duels? Stewart has gone to victory lane three times in those as well, finishing second another five times. In fact, from 2002-2010 Stewart finished worse than second only twice. Stewart however did something Waltrip never did, win on Daytona’s road course, winning an IROC race there, while also adding a win on the traditional 2.5 mile layout in 2002. But where Stewart’s dominance at Daytona most resembled Earnhardt? The Saturday Nationwide Series (now Xfinity Series) race at Daytona. From 2005-2013 Tony Stewart won the race a remarkable seven times in nine years. But the Stewart Daytona 500 resume doesn’t end there. He also won the July Cup race four different times, and added a runner-up. If you’re doing the mat at home, that’s 19 wins at Daytona for Stewart and another eight runner-up finishes in events aside from the Daytona 500. To say he’s dominated this track is an understatement.

But…..

But he hasn’t won the Daytona 500.

And he’s been close. He’s been very close. He’s suffered heartbreak in every way imaginable, just like Earnhardt. He’s had the dominant car, he’s lost late leads, and he’s had the race end before it ever even got started.

Stewart qualified on the outside poll for his first Daytona 500 in 1999, but engine failure prevented him from contending for the win. Unfortunately for Stewart, it seemed the trend had been set.

Stewart has led in half of the Daytona 500s he has entered, and on multiple occasions established himself the class of the field.

The 2001 Daytona 500 is known for many things, but perhaps lost in that shuffle was the big accident that Earnhardt narrowly missed, the one that happened with 27 laps to go that resulted with Stewart flipping wildly down the back straightaway. 2001-02-18-daytona-crash2

In 2004 Stewart led almost half the race, for a total of 94 laps, but Dale Earnhardt Jr passed him with twenty laps to go en route to his first Daytona 500 victory.

In 2005 Stewart took it up a notch, leading over half the race, for a total of 107 laps, and held the lead with four laps to go, only to be shuffled back to seventh place by the event’s conclusion.

Two years later, Stewart had established himself, along with Kurt Busch, the clear class of the field. But after leading his 36th lap of the race on lap 152 of 200, Stewart and Busch tangled in turn four with Stewart leading, paving the way for the spectacular Mark Martin/Kevin Harvick finish.

What appeared a two man show, became a two man disaster.

What appeared a two man show, became a two man disaster.

The following season Stewart led the field to the white flag…only to watch Penske teammates Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch draft past him on the final lap.

The Trevor Bayne Cinderella story in 2011 almost wasn’t….. Stewart restarted second on the final green-white-checkered, but a poor restart cost Stewart and he wound up 13th.

But Stewart lady luck didn’t always wait until the final 20 laps to snatch victory from Stewart. In 2002, the first return to the 500 after the wild crash the previous year, Stewart only made it two laps before the engine failed in his Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiac.

So to say Stewart has had it with the Daytona 500 might be an understatement. Considering what Stewart has gone through over the past 18 months, between the broken leg, the poor on track performance, the Kevin Ward tragedy, and now dealing with the Kurt Busch saga, what could be sweeter for Smoke than to finally exorcise those Daytona demons? Waltrip did it in his 17th try, maybe that’s the trick for Stewart too.

 

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Ranking Three Decades of Daytona 500s In My Life

There's really nothing quite like the Daytona 500.

There’s really nothing quite like the Daytona 500.

So as we embark on the 57th Daytona 500 this Sunday, I decided to take a look at all the ones run in my lifetime. Fascinating enough, I actually have vivid memories of all but three of them. And that’s rather unfortunate, since one of those probably is going to rank pretty high on this list. 2015 will mark the 31st Daytona 500 of my lifetime, so how would I rank the three decades worth of Daytona 500s I have seen? Keep in mind, this isn’t based strictly on entertainment value, or the competitiveness of the race, it ranks on my level of enjoyment and the memories I personally have of the race, along with where it ranks in my personal lore. So while one race that’s vastly less competitive and enjoyable to watch from a neutral fan’s perspective might rank at the bottom for some, it might rank near the top for me dependent upon the characters at play.

30) 1992 Davey Allison- What could have been one of the more exciting 500s of my lifetime, on lap 92 became the worst. A massive crash on the backstretch eliminated essentially all but one or two contenders, and left nobody to challenge Davey Allison. Among the contenders, Bill Elliott, who, if you don’t understand why that’s important, I wonder if you know me at all. Making it worse was that Elliott had spent the week establishing himself as pretty much the favorite, represented by the fact that he was the leader when the shenanigans took place. Also taken out in the crash were guys like Waltrip, Petty (making his final start in the Daytona 500), and Earnhardt. Ernie Irvan became the first thing in sports I ever felt anything close to actual hatred for. And this is where it was born, as my dislike from previous wrecks he’d caused turned to hate with this one.

29) 2003 Michael Waltrip- Rain shortened? Check. My favorite driver in contention then having problems and finishing well back in the pack? Check. Lack of drama and excitement late? Check. No thank you.

28) 2009 Matt Kenseth- Despite the fact that I was in attendance, seeing Matt Kenseth (who I don’t particularly dislike, he just doesn’t move the needle for me) win a rain shortened race that was constantly threatened by inclement weather just didn’t provide much for me. The only redeeming part was that Kyle Busch, who dominated the race, was swept up in a massive wreck triggered by Dale Earnhardt Jr, who was not on the same lap as the leaders.

27) 1995 Sterling Marlin- Despite Bill Elliott beginning a new chapter by returning home to Dawsonville, this race lacked appeal for me, personally. Perhaps his cut tire that took a contending car out of contention had a lot to do with that. Then again, I say contending, I mean contending for second. Elliott himself told me at an autograph session later that week that, “we had enough for Earnhardt, but I don’t know about Marlin”. In other words, Sterling Marlin had them covered. For Earnhardt, it was just more of the same, coming up just short.

26) 1986 Geoff Bodine- The fuel mileage game is one may NASCAR fans turn their nose up, and with good reason. While the drama aspect is certainly there, there just seems to be something anti-climactic about watching a race get won on the basis of getting better gas mileage. However, when it comes to the Daytona 500, you’re there to win, any way possible. And that’s what Bodine did in handing Rick Hendrick his first of many Daytona 500 trophies. That the fuel game bit Dale Earnhardt, beginning what was an incredible streak of poor luck in the race, is about all the keeps this from being at the very bottom of the list.

25) 2006 Jimmie Johnson- My record for attending Daytona 500s is not so sterling, as yet another one was impacted by rain. While the race did see its conclusion, I suffered through a cold mist all afternoon and early evening long. Jimmie Johnson took the victory with Chad Knaus suspended, thanks in part to Casey Mears who went with his fellow Californian as opposed to his fellow Dodge driver late in the race, content to finish second rather than charge for the win. This has never sat well with me.

24) 2013 Jimmie Johnson- The Danica mania was pretty much the only enjoyable aspect of this parade fest that was won by five time champion Jimmie Johnson.

23) 2010- Jamie McMurray- Delays for track issues pushed the finish of this one well into the night. A late charge by Dale Earnhardt Jr in an effort to steal the win from McMurray was pretty much it for excitement, aside from a lap one wreck that eliminated Jimmie Johnson and Danica Patrick, who was making her first start. Jamie McMurray being a likable guy, and a guy in major need of a career revival helped add a feel good aspect to an otherwise un-entertaining day and evening.

22) 1994- Sterling Marlin- Though it wasn’t quite the story of Michael Waltrip, Marlin’s victory in the 1994 Daytona 500 was an extremely long time coming. A career full of close calls and second place finishes, Marlin finally broke through, and I can’t think of anyone who wasn’t happy for him.

21) 2012 Matt Kenseth- NASCAR’s first foray into “Monday Night NASCAR”. The delay from Sunday afternoon to Monday night both took away from the event, and added to it. The Juan Pablo Montoya jet dryer incident and the thought that Dave Blaney might win the thing were the only things that made watching the Roush Fenway Show bearable.

20) 1996 Dale Jarrett- It was the Dale and Dale Show Part II. Unfortunately, this one carried much less excitement, much less drama, and was just a more boring version of the original, though it did mark the third time in four years that Earnhardt came across the finish line in second place.

19) 1989 Darrell Waltrip- Before there was Dale Earnhardt, when it came to legendary drivers being able to win everything under the sun in the sport except the Daytona 500, there was Darrell Waltrip. But in his 17th try, in car 17, starting in 17th place……. But aside from that, Ken Schrader absolutely owned the event. Aside from Earnhardt in 1990, no driver dominated the 500 and came up empty in a way like Schrader did in 1989. It could’ve been a win that would’ve completely altered his career.

18) 2008 Ryan Newman- Newman, like Kenseth, isn’t much of a needle mover in my book. In fact, if anything, I have a dislike for him. That said, the racing itself was quality and the finish was exciting. Watching teammates work together, even though I disliked them both, was fun. Tony Stewart further cemented his Dale Earnhardt type legacy (more on this later this week) at Daytona by contending, and even leading late, and yet again, failing to win.

17) 2000 Dale Jarrett- This was quite possibly one of the least competitive Daytona 500s I’ve ever seen. So why in the world is it this high? Because having not won a race since 1994, Bill Elliott had won the Gatorade 125 the previous Thursday, the first time he’d won anything in 5 1/2 years. So my anticipation entering Sunday was the highest it had been in a long while. While Elliott failed to win, he finished 3rd, in what would be the last great run and finish by Elliott in his homegrown team from Dawsonville. Had Elliott, or even Johnny Benson, which would’ve gone down as an upset on the levels of Derrike Cope in 1990, been able to win, this snooze fest suddenly becomes one of the most memorable Daytona 500s I’ve ever seen. Of coruse, it ended with Jarrett snatching his third Harley J. Earl trophy.

16) 2002 Ward Burton- The Sterling Marlin tire tug will go down in infamy, though I’m not really sure why. Marlin knew he was going to have to pit to fix it regardless, so he didn’t really lose all that much. But the drama in the final few laps, and Ward Burton breaking through with a career making victory were also key elements to the first Daytona 500 ever held that didn’t include Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt.

15) 1991 Ernie Irvan- As mentioned, my disdain for Ernie Irvan didn’t begin in 1992, it began in 1990, so by the time the 1991 Daytona 500 rolled around, I didn’t care for the guy. So while many ate up the underdog, rags to riches, just a year ago was wondering if his career was over, story, I didn’t. That said, the race had compelling story lines. Wallace and Waltrip involved in a late crash, setting the stage where Dale Earnhardt (shocker) had a chance to win the Daytona 500, and for what wouldn’t be the last time in his career, crashed in the final laps off of turn two while battling for 2nd place with guys named Allison and Petty.

14) 1990 Derrike Cope- Quite possibly, as it pertains to the on track racing and entertainment value, this one ranks at the absolute bottom. To say Dale Earnhardt had them absolutely covered is one of the biggest understatements I’ve ever made. And I’m not using hyperbole. He spent the entire weekend proving time and time again that his car was the baddest around, and nobody was in his zip code. But a late caution and ensuing pit stop by Earnhardt gave the field a chance, and while the first 199 miles were absolutely dreadful, what happened in the final mile facilitated one of the greatest upsets that we’ve ever seen…in any sport.

13) 1997 Jeff Gordon- If I ever wish to be reminded why I didn’t like Jeff Gordon during his prime, I simply watch this race. This race was a simple incident in turn two away from probably being the easy choice for number one on this list. Instead it falls. I still claim that without that wreck giving Gordon his teammates, Elliott wins his third Daytona 500. The hurt from this one getting away will never go away. But neither will the memory of watching Elliott mix it up again with the big dogs after the worst year of his career in 1996. Elliott leading that race, in control, with ten laps left….. was something I hadn’t experienced in years. For Earnhardt, winding up wrecked while battling for second place in the closing laps? Well, it was the second time in six he had experienced that.

12) 2004 Dale Earnhardt Jr- So I’m one for three on the weather when it comes to attending the Daytona 500, and even this one started out cold and rainy. But the skies cleared, just enough so Dale Earnhardt could smile down on his son as he scored his first career Daytona 500 victory. I wonder if part of Earnhardt also smiled at the man who his son passed for the win, Tony Stewart, as Stewart saw the first of what has become multiple late race opportunities for victory slip away. The race itself however saw the field incredibly spread out with limited action. But the Earnhardt/Stewart story line playing out helped atone for that. So did being there for my very first Daytona 500.

11) 1987 Bill Elliott- While not as dominant as he was in 1985, in 1987 Elliott set the qualifying record at Daytona, traveling around at over 210 mph and led over half the race en route to his second Daytona triumph in three years. The show itself was nothing special, Elliott just outran everyone, as he was apt to do in those days. But to hear Elliott tell it later, the excitement was completely inside the car. At the speeds they were traveling, Elliott would later tell people that he was out of control all race long. That sounds fun, between 200 and 210 mph and completely out of control. But you’d never know it watching him run.

10) 2014 Dale Earnhardt Jr- The race itself was delayed it seemed, forever, but once it got going, racing against the threat of rain, the drivers put on a whale of a show. The pure elation in Junior following his victory was alone enough to make anyone smile.

9) 1988 Bobby Allison- Perhaps this was what Dale Earnhardt envisioned would one day happen with him and Dale Jr…father against son for the Daytona 500, and the father still showing that even over the age of 50, he’s still got it. Had we known then, what we know now, about the absolute tragedy this family would go on to endure (Bobby suffering a life threatening, brain damaging accident just months later at Pocono, Davey’s younger brother Clifford dying in a crash at Michigan 4 years after that, and Davey dying in a helicopter crash just a year later) this moment would have been treasured even more. As it stands, it’s one of the greatest stories in Daytona 500 history, and the lore was only enhanced with the tragedies that befell the famed “Alabama Gang”. This race is actually the first racing memory I have, but not for the father/son finish, but the horrific accident that Richard Petty endured that had many fearing the sport had lost its greatest driver ever in its greatest race. Unfortunately, that fear would of course come true 13 years later.

8) 2007 Kevin Harvick- Had Mark Martin held on, this would move up the list. It’s not that I’m bothered that Harvick won, I love it, but this was one Mark wanted, needed even. The disappointment at losing by a few feet couldn’t have been more evident for a guy who was such the sentimental pick in seeking his first Daytona 500 victory. After watching Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch stink up the show before the two tangled and changed the outcome of the race, this was a snoozer. But once those two tangled, business picked up, in a big way. It was a mixed emotions kinda household, my cousin was a die-hard Harvick fan, so we were happy for Harvick, and for him. But we wanted the old guy to finally win one. But there was no denying how spectacular the finish was.

7) 1998 Dale Earnhardt- The 1998 Daytona 500 itself was not a good race. I know NASCAR fans will hate me for this, but it wasn’t. Dale Earnhardt flat dominated it. Which, also made it similar to many previous 500s, though, Earnhardt dominated this one even more than most before. He equaled his 1993 laps led total for the second most laps led in a Daytona 500 in his career. What keeps this race from the bottom is the obvious. Unlike those others he dominated, this time, in his 20th try, having led in 17 of his previous 19, he actually won the thing. That’s what keeps this otherwise relatively boring show from bringing up the rear. The receiving-line on pit road is still one of the greatest moments in sports history.

6) 2011 Trevor Bayne- The tandem racing was a polarizing aspect of the racing on the track, but there was no question the entertainment value it provided with the intensity in the final twenty laps. Unfortunately it created a lot of accidents. It also created one of the more memorable Daytona 500 losses by anyone in history, with David Ragan’s untimely error (that ultimately completely rerouted his career) paving the way for the most unlikely of winners in Trevor Bayne, making just his second career start. Seeing the famous Wood Brothers back in victory lane was pretty cool too. And oh yeah, Tony Stewart, another opportunity just missed.

5) 1993 Dale Jarrett- Here you had it again, Dale Earnhardt in position to win the Daytona 500, a handful of laps to go, and then….. oh, you’ve heard this story before? The 1993 tale though added a little something extra with second generation driver Dale Jarrett marking his arrival on the scene, while his legendary father memorably called him home from the CBS booth.

4) 2001 Michael Waltrip- This was easily the hardest to rank, because in light of the tragic events in turn four, it’s hard to call this entertaining. But it’s easily the most memorable ever, and we can’t forget, the racing throughout was top notch. Michael Waltrip, he of over 400 starts without a win, breaking through to the delight of his brother and proving Dale Earnhardt right while watching Earnhardt choose not to be the aggressor for the first time in his career was something else. Personally, watching Bill Elliott begin his career revival by leading the field to the green from the pole in and of itself catapulted this event into the upper half. Throw in everything else surrounding this race, and it’s place among the top tier is understandable.

3) 2005 Jeff Gordon- You want to see the biggest stars in the sport do battle for the biggest prize? Just watch the final few laps of this Daytona 500, and watch as the man who was the best of the bunch at the time found a way to get it done. As mentioned earlier, Tony Stewart had begun to cement a Dale Earnhardt type legacy at Daytona, and the 2005 version helped contribute to that. Stewart again found himself in position to win, and again, failed to do so. It really doesn’t get much better than this.

2) 1999 Jeff Gordon- The only way to top 2005 was to do the same thing, with the biggest names in the business, but this time, add some sort of mythological symbolism to the story. I give you 1999. Earnhardt vs Gordon. Just like Magic to Michael in the 1991 NBA Finals, this was Gordon seizing the throne. While the on track show was perhaps better in 2005, this transcending moment elevates this a wee bit higher.

1) 1985 Bill Elliott- Remember when I mentioned this was about my personal enjoyment and memory of the race, and personal feelings about its significance? Well this is where it gets personal. The whipping Elliott put on the field in 1985 is only joined in its own special zip code outside of this world by what Earnhardt did in 1990, though the superiority of Elliott’s car was greater than that of Earnhardt’s. The difference of course, was Elliott held on to win. A restart with a lap to go seemed to give hope to the other drivers, though I think they all know better. The quickness with which Elliott raced away to the lead was evidence of how dominant this car was in 1985. Truth be told, when it came to superspeedways, the Elliotts dominated them in a way few teams have ever dominated American sports.

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Time to Debunk Another Myth About why the Hawks Can’t Make a Playoff Run

For one, today started with E!PN again proving they don’t require their employees to do any homework before talking as on Outside the Lines today both “contributors” referenced how no team had ever made the NBA finals after having never won a playoff series before. That’s probably true, and that’s good and fine. I just don’t know what relevance it has to the Atlanta Hawks though.

But enough of the ESPN nonsense, let’s just get straight to the meat and potatoes of this topic that both the mainstream media and the ignorant basketball fan alike point to. I think it goes without saying, there’s a correlation between the two.

So, the Hawks aren’t a viable contender to win the eastern conference because they’ve never been to the eastern conference finals before (I’m going to disregard the silliness spoken earlier on E!PN today) and thus, aren’t ready to make that jump. Okay, I might be willing to buy that. Despite having the second longest active playoff streak in the NBA, there’s been a sense of lack of accomplishment in the playoffs, and it’s warranted. Seven straight playoff trips have netted three playoff series victories and a 24-36 playoff mark. No, that’s nothing to write home about, so I can understand some of the playoff skeptics.

Of course, I’m assuming that means all the other eastern conference contenders though in fact boast a healthy playoff resume that indicates they’re clearly right there, ready to make the next step, right? Let’s go in order and take a look.

The number two team in the east is the Toronto Raptors, and I don’t hear much about how they can’t advance in the playoffs due to their lack of success, so I presume we’re going to find plenty of it.

Looking…..

Still looking………….

This is the 20th year of Toronto Raptor basketball. In their entire existence they have won a grand total of ONE playoff series. ONE. And that was fourteen years ago. In the subsequent thirteen seasons since then, they’ve won a total of EIGHT playoff games. Yes, GAMES. Eight playoff games in thirteen season. The Hawks have won three times as many in roughly half the time since then.

Again, nineteen completed NBA seasons. One playoff series victory. I’ll just leave it at that with Toronto.

So moving down the list we get to Chicago. One of the two media darlings. I’m sure they’ve got to have bevy of playoff success to prove how battle tested and ready they are.

Wait, you mean to tell me that since Jordan nailed a jumper over Byron Russell, the Chicago Bulls in the 16 years since have managed to win a grand total of FOUR playoff series. They win one playoff series every four years. See, I thought the Hawks weren’t a legit contender because they’ve haven’t proven themselves in the playoffs. I’m sorry, what exactly have the Bulls done?

Want to look more recently? Okay, sure. Let’s go back to when Noah and Horford were each drafted. They’re the longest tenured players on these two teams, and both entered the league together. Surely since then the Bulls have accomplished far more in the playoffs than the Hawks have. Hmmmmm, this is also puzzling….. seems since then the Bulls have won those four aforementioned playoff series. That would be one more than the Hawks have won in the same time frame, for those of you counting at home. Yes, the Bulls have a trip to the Eastern Conference finals, but they’ve also had the same number of seasons where they failed to reach the eastern conference quarterfinals. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I’m confused about where people are seeing this vast increase in playoff success from Chicago.

So, next one on the list is the Washington Wizards.

Oh, this one is fun.

Remember, the Hawks have made the playoffs for seven consecutive seasons. The Wizards have appeared in the playoffs six times……. Over the past twenty-six season. Yes, you read that correctly. Six playoff trips in 26 years. I’m guessing then certainly they must have recent success, perhaps some deep playoff runs that enables people to overlook their lack of playoff success and consider them a contender, right?

While the Hawks have been on their seven-year streak of making the playoffs, Washington has qualified for the postseason twice. And won one playoff series. So much for that.

In fact, over the past 35 years of NBA playoffs, the Washington Wizards have won three playoff series. You know, the same number Atlanta has won in the past six years.

Since 1988, Washington has won all of fourteen postseason basketball games. Clearly, far more successful postseason team than Atlanta.

So now we get to Cleveland, the team everyone thinks is the pick to win the conference, and on talent alone, they’re probably right. However, since people want to use the playoff argument so fast to dismiss the Hawks, we can’t pick and choose where to apply it.

So we’re talking about a team who has spent four consecutive years without even being IN the playoffs. Two of their three biggest stars on the team have NEVER been in the NBA playoffs, and one, hasn’t played a postseason game since he was in high school. And just to throw a little more gas on the fire, in the past six seasons, they’ve won as many playoff series as the Atlanta Hawks have. So, yeah, Cleveland is playoff tested alright.

And finally, due to their proximity to others listed as contenders in the standings, there’s an obligation to include the Bucks. Then you see that they haven’t won a single playoff series since 2001….

I take no issue with questioning the Hawks playoff credentials, and wondering if they have the mettle to take the next step in the post season. I have no qualms with that whatsoever. But it seems the Hawks are the only ones being questioned about that. Despite the fact that of the contenders in the eastern conference, no team has a playoff resume that reads much better than theirs, and a couple read significantly worse.

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Enough About “Bandwagon” Hawks Fans, Hypocrites

If you’re a Hawks fan I’m sure you’ve heard it enough to make you want to scream, you’ve probably been accused of being one, and you may very well be one, but enough is enough. I’ve had it with these fans of opposing teams chastising the city of Atlanta, the Hawks, and their fans, for being such “bandwagon” fans. I’m not saying this team doesn’t have plenty. News flash, EVERY winning team has bandwagon fans. It’s how it works. But to see these people sit up on their high horse as though they’re some sort of superior fan base has finally grasped at the last straw.

It’s time to set the record straight with some of these people. Granted, the truth may cause some to go into deep depression as it’s become very clear in my dealings with NBA fans that many, MANY, draw all of their sense of self worth from who their favorite basketball team is. It seems to be who defines them, as though being a fan of a select group of teams makes them a valuable person, even a superior person, especially to those who root for lesser peons on the NBA totem poll. Another news flash, you’re no better than us. At all.

We’re just going to forget that in the 1982-1983 & 1983-1984 seasons the almighty Chicago Bulls drew a grand total of 562,000 fans. TOTAL. For 82 home games. That’s an average of 6,854 a game. The year before His Airness arrived in the Windy City, the Bulls got a staggering 6,300 people a game in to watch them play. Right, only the Hawks have ever had attendance issues. From the Bulls 1966 entry into the league, until the final year B.MJ. they averaged 11,000 or more fans a game only twice in their history. In fact they averaged under 8,000 fans on six occasions. One third of their years of existence they couldn’t draw 8,000 fans a night. But yes, tell me more about how horrible Atlanta fans are.

Cleveland fans are even worse. The year before Lebron James was drafted the Cavaliers drew 11,496 fans a night. Do you know the last time the Atlanta Hawks drew that few? The 1985-1986 season. But the embarrassment doesn’t end their for Cleveland, oh no, it gets better. The 1982-1983 Cavaliers drew under 4,000 people a game. Yes, under 4,000. For a professional sports team. In the 80s. But I love hearing Cavs fans (who half were Heat fans a year ago) talk to me about poor fan support from Hawks fans, and about how they suddenly appeared out of nowhere. From the beginning of the 1980 season thru the conclusion of the 1984 regular season, Cleveland TOTALED 829,644 fans. For FOUR full seasons. Perspective? They drew more than that just in Lebron’s final season during his first tour of duty in Cleveland. But of course, all those Cavs fans showing up then were such life long fans who’d been supporting the team for decades, right?

Three times in a six year stretch in the early to mid 90s the Dallas Mavericks failed to draw 600,000 fans. More perspective? The Hawks haven’t missed that mark in a decade, the exception being the lockout season where they only played 33 home games, and the math indicating they would have surpassed 600,000 in that season as well.

Even a basketball hotbed like Detroit isn’t immune. Remember what they were before Isaiah Thomas showed up? They were so bad Isaiah adamantly didn’t want to be there, and for good reason. To that point the Pistons had only drawn 330,000 fans over a season once in their entire Detroit existence, and in 1980-1981 averaged a paltry 5,569 a night.

As recently as 2001-2002 the Houston Rockets were getting under 11,800 fans a game. Again, a number lower than anything the Hawks have drawn in almost 30 years, since the 1985-1986 season.

The 2007-2008 Pacers only averaged 12,221 a game. Again, since 1986, the Hawks have only had two seasons with poorer turnout than that.

And the Clippers? Don’t even get me started. They actually had an NBA franchise in the city of Los Angeles that couldn’t draw even 10k a night in the late 90s….. But they want to talk about Phillips Arena and how empty it has been in the past? Okay.

The Grizzlies have twice in the past 8 years drawn under 13,000. That’s something the Hawks have not done since 2002-2003.

The year the New Jersey Nets made their first of back to back NBA Finals appearances they drew under 14,000 a night. They had a winning product and still couldn’t put butts in seats. But only the Hawks have this problem, I know.

Keep in mind that the Atlanta Hawks have not been under 15,000 a game since the 2004-2005 season. Now consider that Philadelphia has been under that mark in five of the last eight seasons.

From 1982 thru 1988 the San Antonio Spurs never drew over 9,800 fans a night. In fact, the Spurs franchise didn’t crack the 12,000 a game mark until the 1989-1990 season. But I’m sure all the Spurs fans today were diehards through the 80s, right?

The point of this piece wasn’t to try and defend Hawks fans, or to make them seem like the greatest fans the world has ever known. Not at all. The point was simply to point out the hypocrisy coming out of the mouths of fans from other teams who are so quick to lambaste and ridicule the Hawks based on a lack of recent fan support. I’ve already touched on the reasons for such a lack of support, and the consistently filled arena currently speaks to a forgiveness from the city that was two decades coming. But the point still remains, these other fans should probably refrain from throwing stones from glass houses.

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Two Decades Later, Hawks Have Won Fans Back

Not just the logo feels like old times in Atlanta, the excitement, the fun, and the crowd support is back where it once was in Atlanta.

Not just the logo feels like old times in Atlanta, the excitement, the fun, and the crowd support is back where it once was in Atlanta.

A lot has been made about the attendance in Atlanta in recent years, and the lack of fan support. So without trolling, without looking for an argument, let me try to explain to those of you who don’t know any better (not saying that in a bad way, just that you simply don’t know) what the Hawks are up against and why in this regard.

In the 80s sports in Atlanta were absolutely God-awful. Except for the Hawks. The Braves and Falcons sucked, and the Flames left and went on to immediate success in Calgary. What we had, was the Hawks. And Dominique. Unfortunately, we were good in an era in the East that included the dominance of Bird’s Celtics, Jordan’s rise, and the Bad Boys. That’s a really hard trio to break through against, though we were damn close in 1988.

In any event, the Hawks were the primary attraction in Atlanta from a pro sports standpoint, no question. But as the 80s turned into the 90s a couple of things happened. One, Georgia Tech basketball became a consistent winner, making the Final Four. The Georgia Tech football team won a national championship. Deion Sanders kinda surpassed Dominique as the star athlete in the city, though, probably still not as loved and embraced, and the Atlanta Braves suddenly became a very relevant, world championship contending baseball team.

These things alone took some shine off the Hawks but it was the 1991-1992 season in particular where things began unraveling. Georgia Tech spent the spring in Denver in the Final Four. The Braves were fresh off their trip to the World Series, the Falcons had gone 10-6 and beaten the Saints on the road in a playoff game and had M.C. Hammer on the sidelines and Deion on the team grabbing headlines. The Hawks were losing their grip on the Atlanta sports scene.

It was January, 28th, 1992 and the Hawks were playing the Philadelphia 76ers. They won that game by a point to move to 22-20.  But more important than the single win, in the very big picture, they lost. They lost Dominique Wilkins to a torn achilles tendon and he was out for the year. It turns out, in addition to what this did to the 1992 season, it set the stage for something far worse just two years later. In 1992, they went just 16-24 the rest of the way and suffered their first losing season since 1985. Really, the Hawks haven’t recovered from that until now.

That’s because in February of 1994 they made a decision that forever tainted them to many Atlanta fans and natives. They made a decision that to this day, some still deem unforgivable.

On February 23, the Hawks beat the then 37-13 (tied for the best record in basketball with eventual champion Houston) Seattle Supersonics 99-92, to move to 36-16, which tied them with New York (eventual loser in 7 games to Houston in the NBA Finals) for the best record in the eastern conference.

Dominque Wilkins scored 24 points that day, right at his season average. He never scored another point in a Hawk uniform. The next day he was traded to the Clippers. For Danny friggin Manning. The greatest Atlanta Hawk, and the leader of perhaps the greatest Atlanta Hawk team in history, a guy who had played in college just up the road in Athens and had been THE only bright spot in Atlanta sports for so long, was traded. No, he didn’t sign elsewhere, he didn’t get in legal trouble, he was TRADED.

It took a long time for fans to forgive the organization from robbing us of a chance at an NBA title and shipping off Atlanta's biggest sports star.

It took a long time for fans to forgive the organization for robbing us of a chance at an NBA title and shipping off Atlanta’s biggest sports star.

The Hawks went on to win 57 games and win the division and capture the number one overall seed. But the team wasn’t the same. The fans weren’t the same. The city wasn’t the same.

Keep in mind, at this point, the city of Atlanta was still without a championship, and was still starving for one. The 1994 Atlanta Hawks had a legitimate chance to bring that championship to Atlanta, and management destroyed it. To many, they stole our chance at a championship, and that’s not something that is easily forgiven.

Wilkins had averaged 24.4 pts and 6.2 reb per game during the 93-94 season. His replacement, Manning only put up 15.7 and 6.5 rebounds. Predictably, the Hawks were a shell of themselves on offense against the 5th seeded Pacers in the 2nd round. A team who had averaged over 101 a game in the regular season was held to 88 or fewer in 5 of their six games, as they bowed out in six.

The Hawks haven’t won a division title since. Nor have they been any closer to reaching the eastern conference finals.

Within six years of this boneheaded front office decision the Hawks were losing 54 games. Meanwhile, the Braves had won a World Series by then and the Falcons had played in a Super Bowl. The Hawks had lost the city. Not only had they lost it, they’d made the city their enemy. There was distrust, on top of a lack of entertainment value due to ineptitude that seeped in as the 21st century began. And of course, there was betrayal.

So even when the team got back to mediocre, and ascended even above that to again above average, the fans weren’t flocking back. Would they show up for the playoffs? Of course, ask KG about the 2008 series against the Celtics. But they weren’t going to buy in emotionally, or financially.

The hurt ran too deep, and hurt too much. The dysfunction of the Atlanta Spirit group on top of the betrayal and hurt from 1994 made the Atlanta Hawks, arguably, the most difficult sell in American sports.

But they’ve finally found a way to do it. They put a good team on the floor, one with likable players, and a style that’s fun to watch. In fact, the on court product is so good, it has even been enough to overshadow to a good extent the issues behind closed doors with management and the team being for sale.

The Hawks were worse than a dumpster fire in the 2000s. They were a dumpster fire that NOBODY was paying any attention to, and as a result, nobody was attempting to put it out, and nobody cared if it did get put out.

That’s not to say there weren’t fans. There were countless fans like myself who watched constantly on TV, and if they didn’t watch every game, they knew every night whether they’d won or lost. They wouldn’t spend money on tickets, but they’d take up the offer of a free one. They loved their team, but they weren’t lining the pockets of backstabbing and bickering owners who excelled far more in dysfunction than putting a good basketball team on the floor.

Not only that, there just wasn’t anything to cheer about, or talk about. So it should be no surprise Hawks fans have been silent for 20 plus years. So sure, there are absolutely some new ones who have jumped on board, but they’re also a lot who are returning back to the franchise that they feel let them down and deserted them. There are also those who have been here from the days of the Pac-Man logo…. all the way through to its re-integration.

21 years later, maybe it’s come full circle. The old logo is back, and once again Dominique is part of the story as he serves on the television booth with Bob Rathbun, and nowhere will you find a more passionate duo covering their teams games. Not only that, the Braves and Falcons seem bent on returning to the basement of anonymity and irrelevance. The city is there for the taking, and the Hawks are doing just that.

So call the Hawks fans you see a bandwagoner if you must, but do so knowing the real story of fan apathy in Atlanta. Don’t do so just because ESPN tells you so, or because you saw a lot of empty seats in the building.

You can call me a bandwagoner all you want, in no way is that going to detract from the pure joy I get in watching this team excel, after years of being a joke, of being the laughing-stock of your jokes. The fact that now, the worst thing you can say about the Hawks is that they have too many bandwagon fans means we’re doing something right, FINALLY. And nothing you say is going to take away the enjoyment we Hawks fans are going to feel experiencing that.

Will this carry over into May and June? Who knows. We’ll find out in May and June. But we’re not going to not enjoy what’s happening now thinking about what may or may not happen in the future. We’ve waited too long for this, and been put through too much for this.

Who knows, maybe this is our time.

This organization owes us that much, and they’re finally giving it to us.

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The NBA Elite Are Afraid (At least their fans are)

NBA basketball fans are as bad as some college football fans when it comes to using who they pull for as a means of defining who they are as a person, and a means of using it to make themselves feel superior to others and better than them.

Fans of the NBA “elite” franchises, i.e. Lakers, Celtics, Knicks, Bulls, any team Lebron is on or has been on, cannot stand to acknowledge that some teams outside that fraternity (which includes OKC, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, to an extent, you just don’t hear the annoying chirping and get the sense of superiority and arrogance that exudes like a horrific odor from so many members of the previously mentioned fan bases) might actually be good basketball teams, and might actually contend to win something.

Whenever you mention a team like the Trailblazers, or Raptors, or Warriors, or Hawks, they’re immediately dismissed. And why? Oh, it’s got nothing to do with what actually takes place on the basketball court. Based purely on the merits of what these teams have done thus far this season, they have every reason to be considered contenders, if not favorites. No, people who are afraid of the unknown, afraid of these inferior franchises, cities, fans, and people who are beneath them, suddenly ascending to their level and challenging them, start reaching for anything to dismiss their existence and dismiss their threat. Their own self esteem, their own since of value is too wrapped up in feeling superior over someone because of who their basketball team is. So what do they do? They turn to one simple, lazy, pathetic argument, broken down into two parts.

 

They talk bad about you because they fear you.

They convince themselves to dismiss you because they fear you.

 

“What have you done recently in the playoffs?” This is usually followed up, or preceded by, it depends, “The playoffs are a different game”.

What?

I’m sorry, I fail to recognize what 2012 has to do with 2015? In fact, I fail to recognize what 2014 has to do with to 2015. Why aren’t the Spurs and Heat the odds on favorites to win the title this year? Oh, right, it’s a different season. Things change. What has happened in the past has no bearing on this season. People who turn to that are simply lazy, and ignorant. It’s easier to throw out a tired, old cliche than go out and actually inform themselves. In the past 25 years we’ve seen over a half dozen teams go from accomplishing nothing in the playoffs, being early round exits on an annual basis, to playing in conference finals, winning conference finals, or winning an NBA championship.

The 2000 Lakers had advanced beyond the second round in the Western Conference once in the past eight years. That didn’t seem to stop them from winning an NBA title. The 1999 Spurs had won four division titles the previous 14 seasons, yet had SIX times as many first round exits as trips beyond the second round. They managed to get it together and win a championship.

While there are many more examples of this, the best is a team whose fan base is incredibly cocky and arrogant but has done something similar in recent memory. As the 2011 playoffs began the Chicago Bulls were looking at a stretch of 12 years where they advanced beyond the first round all of, hold on, wait for this one….. ONE time. One time in twelve years. The Atlanta Hawks have done more than that in the past six years. But all you hear is, “The Hawks can’t do anything, when’s the last time they got out of the second round?” And what’s hilarious, is you often hear this from Bulls fans. I guess the Chicago Bulls are the only team who can actually ascend and take the next step, sorry Warriors fans. Sorry Raptors fans. Sorry Wizard fans. Sorry Blazers fans. Sorry Hawks fans. You have no chance, don’t you know? You didn’t make the conference finals last year, so you definitely can’t do it this year.

But if that one doesn’t work, we get the, “well the playoffs are a different game”. Really? Do they raise the rims? Move the three point line? Play 11 minute quarters? Weird.

Maybe in the playoffs the ability to defend and execute in the halfcourt suddenly becomes less important. Yeah, that must be it. Maybe in the playoffs a coaching advantage to take advantage of matchups is no longer helpful, it becomes useless. Yep, that’s gotta be what makes the playoffs different. That’s why teams like Atlanta, and Golden State, and Portland, who play so cohesively as a team, and/or are well coached and play good defense don’t stand a chance to win in the playoffs.

The exact same reasons the San Antonio Spurs stood no chance to win in the playoffs.

That’s okay, just remember, fear is the path to the dark side.

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I Was Flat Wrong

You all know how much I love being wrong. Oh, wait, that must be someone else. I hate being wrong. I hate it more than just about anything. I hate being wrong so much I’ve become very good at not being wrong. No, that’s not me being arrogant, it’s just that in most cases, I try not to open my mouth and say anything unless I know for certain that I am right, or feel very, very strongly about my opinion and have something factual to put behind it. It’s also because even if I am wrong, often I can still convince the other party that I’m not. This I deem both a phenomenal gift, but an even deadlier curse. Anyway, I digress.

When it comes to Paul Johnson…..

Yes, Paul, it's all gravy now. You got me. I was wrong. Way wrong.

Yes, Paul, it’s all gravy now. You got me. I was wrong. Way wrong.

I was flat wrong.

No two ways about it. Shove this crow down my face, I have earned it. Boil it, fry it, stew it, whatever you want to do it, I’ll take it. And I’ll take it with a smile on my face. See, I do HATE being wrong. But I like winning a little bit more than I like being right. This is a trade-off I’m okay with.

I’ve been calling for Johnson’s job for over two years now. I think the Labor Day game against Virginia Tech and the atrocious in game strategy is when I decided I didn’t want him around anymore. And once I came to that conclusion I went looking for other reasons to validate such a stance. And I found them. Oh, boy did I find them. I found plenty. From his gruff personality, to the way he sometimes treats his players, and even the media, to his in game decisions on 4th down, to his recruiting, I found plenty of reasons he should not be the head football coach at Georgia Tech. The horrible quarterback play at an offense so dependent on a good quarterback, and the only one that he ever had that could run the offense beautifully was a guy he didn’t even recruit. The defense, it could never excel under Paul Johnson (which I’ve explained my theory on this). And then there was the record. The record that reeked of mediocrity. The same mediocrity that got Chan Gailey fired. Oh, sure, we were still the second best program in the Coastal, which, if you had told me would be the case when he was hired, I’d been on board. But today, being a superior program to Miami just doesn’t have the same pizzazz it once did.

After getting beat by Ole Miss in the bowl game last year, and subsequently seeing the starting quarterback transfer to James Madison, I thought, there’s no way he comes back after 2014. Absolutely no way. And that’s perfectly fine by me.

Then we struggled to beat Wofford.

After that we needed a late game comeback to survive Georgia Southern.

Yep, Paul Johnson has to go. The Virginia Tech win was a nice surprise, and the record was pretty, but I was still skeptical. And Virginia Tech and their inability to score a touchdown against Wake Forest later on this year proved such skepticism was alright.

But then came Miami, where we physically dominated the Miami Hurricanes, a team with supposedly far more talent, and far more athletes. I started drinking the kool-aid. I started thinking, hey, we might be on to something here.

Then the Paul Johnson led Yellow Jackets that I expected when the year began returned. In August, I honestly thought we’d struggle to win five games and make a bowl, and I thought our only shot at avoiding last place in our division was to beat Virginia. My expectations were low.

I was at Bobby Dodd Stadium for the debacle against Duke where the body of Justin Thomas was replaced by Reggie Ball. I watched against North Carolina as the 1999 Georgia Tech defense re-emerged and watched as they sat helplessly by as our ACC championship hopes that I had been tricked into believing were a real thing, seemed to vanish.

Something happened after that North Carolina game though. Paul Johnson proved his worth as a coach.

Four weeks. Four wins. None by fewer than 22 points. In back to back ACC road games the Jackets hung 56 on an opponent, doubling up Pittsburgh, and doing even more than that against North Carolina State. In between, a thoroughly dominating 35-10 victory against Virginia. Still though, even at 8-2, the season felt empty. The loss to the two squads in blue from the state of North Carolina stung. We still had Clemson and Georgia left, 8-4 was still very possible. In fact, needing Duke to lose twice to win the division, 8-4 seemed far, far more likely than going to Charlotte to play Florida State.

And Paul Johnson kept coaching. Did the injury to Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson help? Well, it didn’t hurt. Regardless, any time you whip Clemson 28-6, you feel good about yourself. Add to that, a 9th win, when I wondered if we would even get to six, no complaints here.

That afternoon Virginia Tech rose from the ashes, took advantage of a shocking miss by a reliable Duke field goal kicker and suddenly, suddenly there was a chance.

A week before Thanksgiving North Carolina went out and endeared themselves to Tech fans everywhere, absolutely steam rolling Duke, sending the Jackets to Charlotte for the third time in the past seven years. Not exactly bad for a guy I wanted fired.

There was still the matter of the Georgia game though before that. And in the second half, much like against Miami, Georgia Tech took a bigger, more talented, more gifted physically football team, and whipped them. Yes, the game went into overtime, yes it was a thrilling contest. But in the second half of that football game, the Yellow Jackets physically dominated. They did what well coached teams who play hard, play physical, an execute did. They whipped a physically superior bunch.

So this Saturday night, in about 33 hours, Georgia Tech will take on another physically superior football team. Will the results be the same? Who knows.

But whatever the results are, if you’d told me in August we’d be playing unbeaten, and defending national champion Florida State for an ACC championship, with an Orange Bowl pretty much already ensured at 10-2 (and I’ll just ignore that somehow, that it would require an act of God, we actually still have a fleeting chance at playing for the national championship), having beat Virginia Tech, Miami, Clemson, AND Georgia, I’d have called that beyond a dream season. In fact, that goes so far beyond anything I could have dreamed up, I probably would have suggested you admit yourself into a mental institution.

But beyond that, regardless the results Saturday night, Paul Johnson proved me wrong.

I think I want you stay. I’m sorry. Forgive me, please?

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