Monthly Archives: February 2015

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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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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