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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.

32) 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.

31) 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.

30) 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.

29) 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.

28) 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.

27) 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.

26) 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.

25) 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.

24) 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.

23) 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.

22) 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.

21) 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.

20) 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.

19) 2015- Joey Logano- At this point I was still very anti team Logano, and that would only continue to grow as the year went on. The unfortunate part of this particular race was the great finish we got robbed of by a late caution. While not shown in the above video, before this particular yellow flew, they were three wide at the head of the field for the win in the final ten laps. It was going to be an incredible finish, and while the actual finish proved less dramatic, the anticipation of what seemed to be coming, and the show these guys put on keeps this from tumbling too far down the list for the simple sake of who won.

18) 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.

17) 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.

16) 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.

15) 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.

 

14) 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.

13) 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.

12) 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.

11) 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.

10) 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.

9) 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.

8) 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.

7) 2016 Denny Hamlin- The thoughts of this one are all over the map. From Chase Elliott being on the pole and leading those first laps making this a Daytona 500 I’ll never forget to Elliott wrecking within 20 laps turning it one I don’t want to recall, this race ran the gauntlet of emotions. The Gibbs Toyotas stunk up the show most of the day, which worked out okay as I hosted a party at my house that day and most of the crowd was not NASCAR fans. The goal was to win a few over of course, but I figured the dull race hurt that. Fortunately, the amount of people there kept everyone entertained until the end. And then the race took over. One lap does not a race make, but in trying to get new fans, having the sport’s biggest event end like that, it didn’t help get a few more eyeballs and create a little bit more bar talk.

6) 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.

5) 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.

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 knew 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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NASCAR Screws It Up Again

Nobody really wants to see a driver wreck a competitor on the final lap coming to the finish line to win a race, and nobody really wants to see cars flying up into grandstands from said last lap accidents. Well, apparently nobody but NASCAR.

At least that is the message conveyed with their incredulous ruling Saturday night at the Budweiser Shootout.

Denny Hamlin made a late, daring, and pretty doggone good move heading to the tri-oval to take the checkered flag Saturday night. Unfortunately, it was too good of a move. Not only did he manage to get underneath race leader Ryan Newman, he managed to do so without turning Newman sideways. If you recall, Brad Keselowski was not able to execute a similar pass at Talladega a couple of years ago.

 

You tell me where there is room underneath Ryan Newman (39) without being underneath the yellow line.

The only reason Hamlin did not turn Newman sideways is because Ryan Newman crowded Hamlin, moving down the race track, eventually eliminating all the “in bounds” asphalt from Hamlin’s disposal. Newman’s actions forced Hamlin to drop beneath the yellow line in the tri-oval as he pulled ahead of and up in front of Newman while barely beating Kurt Busch to the finish line.

Or, well, I guess “forced” isn’t the proper word here. At least that’s apparently how NASCAR unbelievably saw it. I suppose Hamlin could have held his line, kept his car “in bounds”, and when Newman made his move to crowd Hamlin down the track, simply let Ryan Newman wreck himself, and likely several other cars.

So, Newman gave Hamlin two choices. Wreck Newman, or go below the yellow line, avoid an accident, and ultimately see a victory turn into a 12th place finish thanks to the forthcoming penalty from NASCAR.

That there can be such a choice is appalling.

Supposedly, as a part of the yellow line rule, there is also a rule stipulating that while you are not allowed to go below the yellow line and advance your position, you are also not to force someone else down there.

Well, I don’t know about you, but when one car is beside another, as Hamlin was with Newman, and when said car got underneath the driver in bounds at the outset, to then see Newman’s left side tires hugging the yellow line, all the way on the bottom of the track, it seems pretty cut and dry what took place. Where was Hamlin supposed to go at this point? He physically could NOT move up the track back in bounds, Ryan Newman occupied the very bottom line, despite the fact that Hamlin had the right to that part of the racetrack thanks to his move off turn four to get under Newman.

Now, this is not to bash Ryan Newman, or call him a dirty driver, or anything of the sort. However, it is to say that if a rule was broken here, it was by Newman.

Then again, I guess this comes back to “forced” not being the appropriate term. I suppose it’s the loophole NASCAR has in the rule to where they never actually have to penalize a driver for “forcing” someone below the yellow line, as they can always say, “well, he could have simply held his ground”. Technically, yes, Hamlin could have held his ground.

And we’d have wrecked racecars. I guess that’s what NASCAR wants.

I for one find the yellow line rule pointless and silly. However, I also understand why it’s in place. The problem is the enforcement of it is absolutely pathetic. In the very least, if it’s the white lap, I think the rule should be done away with entirely.

How many Daytona 500 wins would Jeff Gordon have with such a rule? Gordon’s daring 1999 three wide move on Rusty Wallace and Mike Skinner couldn’t happen under these rules, and that’s a shame too. It’s regarded as one of the finest Daytona 500s of all-time, and Gordon’s daring pass is considered one of the greatest moves the sport has ever seen.

Donnie and Cale in 1979? Couldn’t have happened, because they wouldn’t have ever gotten close to the grass.

This exciting race for the lead in the 1999 Daytona 500 would never have happened with todays rules.

Come next Sunday in the Daytona 500, what’s a driver going to do off of turn four? Are they going to be willing to risk being run down below the yellow line, and thus potentially losing 20 positions and all the points that go with it thanks to a penalty? Or will they just wreck whichever driver it is trying to crowd them out of room? Or will they just sit in line and take their 2nd place finish?

That one has to even question this is inexcusable, and falls completely at the all too often inept feet of NASCAR.

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Atlanta’s 10 Most Heartbreaking Sports Moments #8

2010 NLDS Game 3– The 2010 Atlanta Braves were actually a collection of three teams.

There was the team that began the season 18-20, falling into last place, 6.5 games out of first by mid-May.

Then came the squad that went 38-20 thru July 22, building up a lead of 7 full games in the division, a remarkable 13.5 game swing in little over two months.

And lastly, we have the team that took the field in game three of the National League divisional series playoffs against the San Francisco Giants. It was a team that consisted of just two of the eight everyday players remaining from the opening day lineup. Seven positions from opening day had a new name on the lineup card for what ultimately became one of the most heartbreaking games in Atlanta Braves annals.

At catcher All-Star game MVP Brian McCann was still there, and was beginning to take claim to a new roll as the unquestioned leader and face of the Braves.

The other player remaining in the lineup? Just that rookie Jason Heyward, who himself had battled through injury throughout the second half, hurting his production, but not enough to prevent him from finishing second in rookie of the year voting and being the best offensive player on the team.

First basemen Troy Glaus, he off the ridiculous hot streak through May and early June that carried the Braves out of the slump? Age, injury, and ineffectiveness had taken him out of the lineup. Insert Derek Lee, another injured first basemen, seemingly a shell of the player he once was, but still, an uprgade over what Glaus had become at the plate, and a massive upgrade in the field.

At shortstop, the club had seen enough of the enigmatic Yunel Escobar and traded the super talented, but temperamental youngster to Toronto for veteran Alex Gonzalez. Gonzalez provided a more stabling presence in the infield, and perhaps more sound overall defense (though he made some crucial errors down the stretch), though without the potential flair that Escobar was supposed to offer.

Future hall of famer, and Mr. Brave Chipper Jones may have started slowly, but his bat began coming around in the second half of the year. Then, making one of the finest defensive plays he’s made in years, Jones season ended with an ACL tear. Initially all-star second basemen Martin Prado had been penciled in to play third, but after his season ending injury Omar Infante took over. All Infante did was, after making the All-Star team has a reserve, go on to contend for the National League batting title.

In left field, Melky Cabrera proved to be one of the worst off-season acquisitions in recent memory for the Braves, and when the playoffs rolled around, it was Matt Diaz making the start in the most important Braves game in half a decade.

In center, Nate McClouth got off to a start that was so bad nobody would have believed it without actually seeing it first hand. While McClouth seemed to recover after a stint in the minors and at least be serviceable, it wasn’t McClouth starting in center field on this night, instead it was late season pick-up, and ironically enough game two hero, Rick Ankiel.

And now we get to second base, yes, second base. It was manned at first by Prado, en route to selection to an all-star game. However, following the Chipper Jones injury, Prado was moved to third base, and Omar Infante took his spot at second. However, with just merely five games left in the season, Prado was lost for the year. Infante was moved from second to third, and in came Brooks Conrad at second. Conrad had become a folk hero of sort for the Braves, delivering some clutch hits off the bench in some huge wins for the club over the course of the year. However, his clutch at bats off the bench over shadowed his biggest weakness, he was a huge liability in the field. There’s a reason he was 30 years old and a rookie in the big leagues at such an age.

The team entered the season think Jair Jurrjens would be their ace, after his outstanding 2009 season, marred by poor run support. Jurrjens however couldn’t stay healthy throughout the year, and wasn’t even on the post-season roster.

Yet, here the Braves were, at home, playing game three against the National League West division champion San Francisco Giants, with the series knotted at one apiece.

The fact that the Braves were in such a spot was a testament to what the team had displayed all year, a fighting, never say die, it’s never over spirit. After dropping the first game in a nail biting 1-0 pitchers duel, the Braves faced a must win in game two.

Trailing 3-0 in the 8th, with for all intents and purposes the season seemingly pretty much over, Atlanta did what it had done all year. It picked itself up off the deck and scored three runs, the big blow coming from Alex Gonzalez’s two run double.

Into extra innings the games went, and there, another in season pick-up, Ankiel, would pick up the slack, turning a 2-2 pitch with one out in the top of the 11th into a moon shot that landed in McCovey Cove, well beyond the right field wall for a one run lead the Braves would not surrender.

However, to get into the 11th, the Braves had to pitch their way out of a jam in the bottom of the 10th. And while they accomplished that feat, closer extraordinaire Billy Wagner had to make a difficult defensive play on a ball out in front of the mound on a throw to second base. On the throw, Wagner injured an abdominal muscle and would no longer be available for the Braves in the playoffs.

So, yes, as the Braves entered game three of this division series, tied, with a chance to go up 2-1, wit Cy Young candidate Tim Hudson pitching, they were doing so with 6 of 8 regulars different from opening day, and their ace pitcher and their closer also both being someone different from who was expected from the opening pitch.

So as Braves fans, expecting a serious run to the World Series was just too much to expect, right? Well, no. Not with this team, not with the fight they’d shown all year. Not with the comeback against the Reds earlier in the year, not with they way they fought and clawed with an undermanned squad to get themselves into the playoffs, not with this being Bobby Cox’s last year and the team doing everything it could to send him out the best way they knew possible. No, it wasn’t too much to expect.

These are the dream seasons and magical story lines that seem to happen all the time, well, all the time in cities besides Atlanta.

Remember when I mentioned that Brooks Conrad had become the teams second baseman? He reminded us all with an error in the first inning.

In the second inning, he just reaffirmed it. Conrad, attempting to take a pop fly away from first basemen Derek Lee, misplayed the ball, allowing the Giants first run to score, giving the Giants a 1-0 lead.

It was a 1-0 lead that held all the way into the 8th inning. Then the Braves did what the Braves have done, again.

Alex Gonzalez singled to lead off the inning. Up next, Conrad, with a chance to atone for the damage done earlier in providing the Giants their only run. Asked to bunt, he couldn’t do it. He popped the bunt up, wasting an out.

One out, man still on first. Up to the plate stepped Eric Hinske. Sergio Romo’s 0-1 pitch didn’t go where he wanted it, and it landed exactly where he did not want it. The left handed Hinske turned on it, at once the crowd at Turner Field rose, fans in their living rooms all across Georgia rose to their feet. And then they all screamed and yelled and cheered in ways they’d not screamed and yelled and cheered in years.

Eric Hinske celebrates what should have been the game winning home run in game three of the NLDS

2-1, the Braves led. The stadium shook. It was good.

The Braves entered the 9th however without Wagner, who was going to close things out. Rookie Craig Kimbrel, the closer of the future, found out the future was now. At a time like this, you ask that the guys behind the pitcher help the youngster out.

And then here came that Conrad guy again. The Giants picked themselves up off the deck, rallying with two outs, with the Braves one out away from having two chances to close the Giants out, one of which would come at home, to score the tying run and put two more on base.

They tied the game at two, but there were still two outs, the Braves would be batting again, all was good. Then Giants catcher Buster Posey did the very best thing he could do. He hit the ball right at Brooks Conrad. Through the wicket it went, in came the go-ahead run, and with it went the Braves playoff hopes.

Nobody hurt more than Brooks Conrad after committing three errors in one playoff game, two leading to Giants runs.

Three errors in one game. Most players can’t try to do that. Brooks Conrad did it in the biggest game of his life. Conrad was the target of critics all over the country, but particularly so in the state of Georgia.

Forgotten was that without Conrad’s contributions during the year, the Braves wouldn’t even be in the playoffs. Forgotten was that Conrad was the teams THIRD choice at second base, only playing because guys like Martin Prado and Chipper Jones weren’t available. Forgotten was the decision by Bobby Cox to take out the hard throwing strike out machine Kimbrel for fellow rookie Mike Dunn, who’d offered very little value during the regular season. Forgotten was that the Braves team, really, wasn’t at this point good enough to be a playoff team, let alone one actually contending to win a series.

None of  that really mattered. What was remembered was that the Braves lost 3-2 in a game where two of the Giants runs came directly off of errors by Conrad. What was remembered was that a routine ground ball was hit to a major league baseball player, and he couldn’t make the play, again.

Even the “Nutty Nutcracker” at the Fox Theater took the liberty to get their shot in at Conrad.

Who is to say the Braves would have gone on to win that game, and if they had, who is to say they would have finished off the series? Who’s to say they advance past the Phillies and capture that World Series? We can’t know, but we never will, and it’s because Brooks Conrad couldn’t field one lousy ground ball.

The Giants, as we know, went on to win the World Series. Their toughest playoff series en route to doing so? You got it, the one where Brooks Conrad gave them game three. The Braves may not have gone on to equal the Giants run in the playoffs. But with the pitching the Braves had, and the way the team kept fighting back, one would have liked a chance.

Alas, as happens so often in Atlanta, that chance slipped between our legs, in excruciating fashion, again.

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Are You Serious Hawks?

The Atlanta Hawks had won 9 of 11 games following a disappointing loss to New Orleans on the day after Christmas, including wins on the road against Utah and Miami. Joe Johnson had gotten his shooting legs back under him, and Jamal Crawford had seemed to have put the distraction of his contract status behind him. The Hawks had edged ahead of Orlando, and appeared to be nearing the level of the Heat, Bulls and maybe even Celtics in the eastern conference pecking order.

Oops.

It’s funny, or, actually, it really isn’t; today Mark Bradly wrote in the AJC about the ridiculous futility of which Atlanta sports teams are known. I myself wrote the first installment of a ten part series looking at the ten most heartbreaking moments in Atlanta sports history.

Fittingly, the Hawks gave us a performance that was too dreadful to even be heartbreaking, but it was a beautifully crafted microcosm of the Atlanta sports scene. Seriously, it absolutely could not be written any better, or more accurately.

As mentioned, the Hawks had beaten some quality teams. A team long accused of lacking effort on the defensive end had become one of the more stingy defensive teams in the league.

Guys were hustling, guys were communicating. On offense the ball was moving. You almost had to a double take, this looked like a legit basketball team. An NBA championship winning squad? Of course not, what do you think this is, the NFL, or Major League Baseball? You can count on one hand teams with legit title chances in the NBA.

However, this was indeed a team capable of perhaps spoiling a playoff run for one of those teams, and a team capable of doing itself, and its city proud, in the NBA playoffs.

Having already defeated Orlando twice, they of the historically bad playoff beat down delivered to the Hawks last spring, the Hawks appeared no longer to be that team. This Hawks squad might actually be a threat to win a game in the 2nd round this year (never mind the fact the Atlanta Hawks have never once won a 2nd round series, and only in two different season have ever played a potential clinching game in the 2nd round), and not embarrass themselves.

Uh, yeah, sorry about that.

Tonight was one of the worst performances by an NBA basketball team, ever. Yes, it was one of the worst by an Atlanta Hawks team ever, but also any other team that has called itself professional.

It was the sort of night that makes you wonder how they  look in the mirror and can actually use the word professional to describe themselves.

Oh, we were missing Al Horford and Marvin Williams. Boo-hoo. We have been missing Marvin Williams for the last few weeks, we’ve seemed to be able to get over it.

We lost Al Horford in the 4th quarter, while in Miami, against that Heat squad (you may have heard of them), and still managed to find a way to win.

So you can save the excuses. This Hawks squad still trots out a perennial all-star in Joe Johnson, the league’s best sixth man in Jamal Crawford, and an all-star candidate and one of the best stat sheet fillers in the league in Josh Smith.

That’s enough to be competitive. Well, it should be.

Someone forgot to tell them that.

Down 49-34 at half-time, at home, to a New Orleans Hornets team that, while a good basketball team, and blessed with one of the game’s great players in Chris Paul, isn’t exactly the Miami Heat, is bad enough.

At this point, you have to think, well, we surely can’t put up 34 points in the 2nd half too. This is an NBA team, with NBA players, and some good ones, guys who can shoot, and score.

If you thought that, you were right.

They couldn’t put up 34 points. They could only come up with 25. Yes, that’s right, a professional basketball team, a playoff caliber basketball team, in the NBA, could only score 25 points in 24 minutes. And sometimes people wonder why the U.S. National team struggles. If, in the premier basketball league in the world, with supposedly among the greatest players in the world, you can have a team score a lousy 25 points, in their own building, in a full half of play, you have issues.

This is not about what New Orleans did tonight, it is strictly about what Atlanta didn’t do. No NBA team is good enough to go on the road, to a team with the talent of Atlanta, and beat them by 41 points without a lot of help from the hosts. Nobody is good enough defensively to limit a team to just 25 points in their own building, again, not without help from the hosts.

That the Hawks allowed this to happen speaks volumes about this team. They aren’t ready to take another next step. They might not even be able to replicate what they did last season.

Yes, this team with Horford and Williams is much better. But this isn’t about how much talent is on this team. Talent hasn’t been an issue for the Hawks in a couple of years now. Few teams can match the Hawks in terms of raw talent and athleticism.

However, you could argue that there are 29 with a substantial surplus of heart, desire, care, and effort.

It wasn’t until 4:43 was left in the game tonight that the Hawks even had enough points to outscore the Green Bay Packers last Saturday night.

 

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Atlanta’s 10 Most Heartbreaking Sports Moments # 10

With another knife delivered through the heart of Atlanta sports fans last Saturday night, I thought it time to examine the ten most heartbreaking sports moments endured by Atlanta sports fans. So, here we are with number ten.

1992 Hooters 500– Local favorite Bill Elliott entered the final race of the 1992 season at his home track of Atlanta International Raceway a mere 40 points out of the points lead, trailing Davey Allison. Just ten points ahead of Elliott was underdog supreme Alan Kulwicki, who despite his positioning seemed over matched in this championship battle with two stars like Elliott and Allison.

Elliott, the 1988 champion, was one of NASCAR’s biggest stars during the 80s and the early 90s. At a time when he professional sports scene in Atlanta was more of a joke than a Jerry Seinfeld one liner, Elliott was the only thing going for Georgia sports. And it was a torch he carried well.

The local folks were hoping to see a repeat of 1988 when Elliott came to his home track and left his sports champion. To do so, Elliott had some ground to make up, but for a driver that already had four victories on his home track, and had finished no worse than 3rd in his previous three starts, it seemed doable.

Elliott though should never have been in a situation where he found himself trailing. He had a  154 point lead with six races to go in the season before proceeding to fish 26th or worse in four of the next five races, including a 31st at Phoenix just a week before the season finale at Atlanta.

A seemingly safe, and insurmountable lead had dissipated and what seemed to be a second championship for one of Georgia’s favorite sons had become a long shot.

On Sunday, points leader Davey Allison was swept up in an accident with about 75 laps remaining in the race. At the time, Allison was in a position to wrap up the championship. But a bout with Ernie Irvan and the retaining walls on Atlanta International Raceway’s put a halt to Allison’s title dreams.

Davey Allison tangles with Ernie Irvan, ending his championship run

This turned things into a two man show, between Elliott and Kulwicki. The two had established themselves as not only the two remaining title contenders, but also as easily the two best cars on the racetrack.

The two battled lap after lap, embarking on a furious struggle to lead the most laps and capture the bonus points that would come with it. Late in the race, crew chief Paul Andrews kept Kulwicki out one extra lap, to lead just enough to ensure he would lead the most laps.

Elliott would go on to win the race, and in doing so, gain 5 points on Kulwicki, meaning if he only could have wrapped up the most laps led, Elliott would gain 5 more, and would tie Kulwicki in the standings. On the merits of Elliott’s five victories to Kulwicki’s two, the championship would’ve been his.

But alas, this was not the case. The laps led totals? Kulwicki 103. Elliott 102.

Alan Kulwicki prepares for his famous Polish Victory Lap after securing a surprising championship by the smallest of margins

One lap, at times across the line the two were wheel to wheel, so in retrospect, one foot, was the difference in Elliott winning his second title and coming up the bridesmaid for the third time in his career.

Unfortunately for all three championship combatants, neither would ever again contend for a title. Elliott, while he would win more races in his career, never again found a consistent enough of season to compete again for a championship. Kulwicki and Allison were of course tragically killed the next year in separate aviation accidents.

For Elliott though, it was the championship that got away, twice.

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How the Falcons Can Take Next Step

I’ll break this into two categories, personnel and system.

1. Interior offensive line help. We didn’t run up the middle much, and for good reason. Our running game is exactly why you don’t look at raw yardage to gauge how effective a team is at something. Michael Turner really wasn’t that good this year, but he was the “leading rusher”. He had some big days against weak opponents. Way too many of our runs weren’t what you’d call successful runs, too often our running plays got us behind. We faced way too many 3rd down and longs, and against good defenses it killed us.

2. We’ve got to find another pass rusher. I was hoping Kroy Biermann could provide a spark on one end, but no, not enough. He made some nice plays, but overall, his impact on the game was minimal. You’d think with all the attention John Abraham commanded, someone else could take advantage of it, nobody did. The fact that Lawrence Sidbury rarely saw the field down the stretch has me worried he’s not going to work out like we’d hoped. This is year two of his experiment, next year is make or break for him. I would love him to step up, but I don’t want to enter 2011 with Biermann and Sidbury still the other pass rusher. Not to mention, Abraham is up there in years.

3. We need more speed at our skill positions. I think the loss of Jerius Norwood is underestimated. I think partially it’s underestimated because he’s always hurt so we never really saw just what he could fully do on the football field, but he’s the only real big play threat we’ve got on offense. Michael Jenkins is a solid receiver, but he’s a solid number two if you’ve got a slot receiver who can help stretch the field. Jenkins doesn’t stretch the field, doesn’t require any safety help, and teams can in turn use their safeties either to crowd the line of scrimmage, or help over the top with Roddy and Tony Gonzalez. Harry Douglass was a huge disappointment this year, his impact was also pretty minimal. We absolutely need a guy who can go down the field and stretch things out. I think getting Kerry Meier back next year is a good thing, but he doesn’t solve our problem of a dearth of big plays.

4. We might need a nickel back. Chris Owens was just abused on Saturday night, and I just haven’t seen enough from him to make me want to rely on him for anything. I understand Brent Grimes had a lot of interceptions, and defended a ton of passes. However, this is also a product of being targeted a lot. This is not to say we need to replace Grimes, not in the least, he’s a heckuva football player who I want out there. However, if we can improve ourselves at the nickel corner position, I’d like to see us move Grimes around more to keep him from getting matched up against some of the league’s bigger receivers. Have him play in the slot at times, he doesn’t need to always be a boundary corner. Brian Williams was solid, and his size is a plus, but age and injury are creeping up. I know people are throwing out names like Champ Bailey and Nnamdi Asomugha, but people need to get in touch with reality, that ain’t happening. With the deal we gave Dunta Robinson last year, we aren’t spending that much money on the secondary. Thomas Dmitrof needs to be shrewd in finding a little help for the secondary.

System

1. Throw the ball deep more. I don’t know if it’s because we can’t throw it deep, or don’t, but we need tot try it more often, just a few shots here and there. Part of me thinks it’s we aren’t sure we can protect Ryan enough to throw the ball down the field, at least not against good defenses. I understand where we ranked in sacks allowed, but that comes in large part to running the ball so often, and the fact that Ryan gets rid of the ball quickly, but unfortunately, his getting rid of the ball quickly coincides with getting very few big plays with the passing game.

2. We need to use the screen game more. I am a huge fan of screens, and we need to use them more. If we aren’t going to throw the ball down the field, screen plays at least give you a better chance at making a big play than a lot of what we run. Granted, not having Norwood, or a true speed back may have impacted that, but what about slot screens to Douglass? Or even to White?

3. Our defenders need work on taking better angles after quarterbacks. Getting pressure, really, wasn’t the huge problem. The problem came when we got there. You’ve got to get these guys on the ground. We whiffed against Drew Brees all day, and then against Aaron Rodgers. If we make half the sacks we had chances to in either game, we might still be playing. I think some of this might be the youth with guys like Weatherspoon and Moore blitzing has an impact on that, and I hope they can improve. I like it when we blitz, and we should do it more often. Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson aren’t bad in the secondary. However, if we have to count on Chris Owens for anything, we are in trouble.

4. Don’t make major, major changes, clearly. We are on the right track. I still liken this team to the Patriots of the early 2000s. The 2001 Patriots received some very fortunate bounces to reach, and win, the Super Bowl that year. They took a step back the following year, and then proceeded to go on their run. The 2003-2004 bunch were the really good teams. While in our 3rd year, we obviously won’t reach the heights the Patriots did, 13-3 is 13-3, we’re a good team that needs a few tweaks. We can still get where we want to go, we’re on the way, and considering the steps we’ve been making, you have to think we’re going to keep moving in the proper direction.

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Colts Don’t Match Up Well With Jets

This game, to me, might be the easiest to predict, and by predict I don’t mean who will win. I do think though, the ways in which this game could play out are relatively few and far between.

The only death sentence in this game I can see for the New York Jets is if they fall behind early. While there are several quarterbacks in this post season clearly capable of rallying their team from double digit deficits, even in the 4th quarter, I do not believe in this particular game Mark Sanchez is one of those.

Yes, Sanchez has five game winning drives this season, three of the fourth quarter comeback variety. However, keep in mind that these rallies came against the likes of Denver, Detroit, Cleveland, and Houston. Not exactly defenses that strike fear into the hearts of anyone, save their own fans.

Yes, I’m aware that the Colts defense hasn’t exactly been scaring anyone this year either, however there are two points that remember when discussing this Colts defense. One, they have been playing much, much better in the last few weeks of the season. Two, and this is part of a reason for number one, they have been afforded the luxury of playing with leads more often in the last few weeks of the season as opposed to the seasons first third.

The difference in the Colts defense when ahead, or trailing, is like night and day. Their run defense doesn’t have the ability to consistently stop people. In fact, teams gain positive yardage running on the Colts defense 84% of the time. That’s the 6th highest total in the league. With numbers like that, if a team has a lead, or is in a close game and can commit to running the ball, the Colts defense can be in trouble, big trouble.

The problem is right in the middle. Teams have punished Indianapolis right between the guards, as the Colts defense has been the 5th worst in the NFL at defending runs right up the middle. Why is this such a big problem? Only five teams have been better at running up the middle this year than the Jets.

Against the passing game he Colts have been pretty solid at slowing down the other teams wide receivers. The chink in their pass defense has been covering backs out of the backfield and tight ends. Fortunately for Indianapolis, the Jets attempts to incorporate LaDanian Tomlinson, Shonn Greene and Dustin Keller into the passing game have been rather futile. Neither of the three have been very dangerous in the passing game, despite the fact that Dustin Keller has been targeted over 100 times.

This could prove critical late in the game as teams with late leads on the Colts, and using the ground game to control the clock and keep Peyton Manning off the field will use play action extensively, and often these play action plays will consist of tight ends or backs in the flat. The Jets inability to take advantage of this weakness with the Colts could ultimately be the difference in their ability to put this game away if they are fortunate to be playing with a lead in the second half.

On the flip side of the coin though, when a team is playing from behind, play action becomes relatively useless and ineffective, and that is t area of pass defense that the Jets can hope best to exploit. This is why it’s vital for the Colts to be playing with a lead in this game.

Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney are as good a pass rushing duo as you will find in the league. Unfortunately for the Colts, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to rush the passer when the other team has the lead, or is having lots of success running the ball and can still incorporate that into their game plan.

Throw in the factors of playing at home in front of a raucous crowd, indoors, on a fast track, with the struggling Mark Sanchez at quarterback, Freeney and Mathis are foaming at the mouth to be unleashed on Sanchez. If the Jets fall behind and are forced to abandon the running game, and consequentially play action passing, Sanchez could be in for a long, long night, and things could snow ball quickly.

On the other side of the ball, does much more need to be said than simply, Peyton Manning? Perhaps.

The year began with lavish praised being heaped all over this Jets defense. Near the middle of the season however some questions had begun to arise as a couple of different squads had put up some big numbers on the unit. I think those questions should be put on the shelf.

The Jets haven’t been the league’s best unit this year, but they’ve been an elite one. After Pittsburgh, you could throw a blanket over the next 5 or 6 teams, so there’s no place for questioning the validity of the Jets defense.

The pass defense was expected to be a major strength, and for the most part, it has been. Darrell Revis hasn’t exactly been a complete shut down corner, but he’s been more than adequate, to say the least. Missing games, and the hamstring injury limiting him when he first returned all factor into the numbers not being perhaps as impressive as one would expect. Not to mention, having Revis out for such durations forced some shuffling in the secondary that ultimately resulted in teams being able to take advantage of what was the number two corner spot quite a bit.

All told though, the Jets secondary, while not able to really take away one particular target from the offense, also wasn’t particularly hurt by any one particular target. They covered number ones, they covered slot receivers, and they covered backs and tight ends all equally. In other words, there aren’t many holes in this secondary. Without Dallas Clark and Austin Collie, do the Colts have the pass catchers to find what few holes are there?

So can the Colts find some success on the ground? It’s highly unlikely. The Jets run defense was a top five group, and the Colts running game, well, we know what it was. Yes, injuries galore decimated it, and Colts fans have to hope the return of Joseph Addai at the close of the season means good things for the playoffs.

Addai hasn’t been anywhere close to the back he’s proven capable of, but he’s been clearly better than any other option the Colts of trotted out with Manning in the backfield. The Jets defense however is too good for just adequate to make much of a dent. Addai absolutely must suddenly revert back to his normal self, and now, for the Colts running game to have a chance.

The one weakness the Jets have has been stopping teams in short yardage situations. Luck would have it for the Colts that they’ve been pretty futile in such situations, so any hopes of trying to take advantage of this doesn’t seem like a plan that will work for the Colts. Furthermore, the Jets are high among the elite teams in terms of not allowing big plays via the ground game. The Colts, as you can probably guess, rank near the bottom in big plays from the rushing attack.

When it comes to special teams, there’s hardly anything worth discussing here. Only the Chargers had worse special teams play this year than the Colts. The only edge the Colts have is if it comes down to a late field goal they have Adam Vinatieri. No team in the league is worse at covering kicks than the Colts, and nobody has been more proficient returning them than the Jets. So even if the Colts score, the Jets are more than likely going to start with good field position. Similar things can be said of the punting game.

So what happens?

Simple. The Colts need to turn Mark Sanchez over, and do it early. They need to get a lead, and then let the dogs loose on Mark Sanchez. Then they need to keep forcing turnovers, get up, and get up big.

If this game stays close, it’s hard to like the Colts chances. Yes, one would say, “close game, 4th quarter, I’m taking Peyton Manning over Mark Sanchez, all day”. And I would too. However, I’ll take the other 44 guys suited up in Jets uniforms over the 44 in Colts uniforms, and that’s what is going to win this game.

Perhaps, perhaps, thanks to all the talk that has been going on all year, if the game is close late, the Jets crumble, succumbing to the pressure they’ve placed on themselves all year as they see their season potentially ending in the first round of the playoffs.

But I doubt it.

I say the Jets win.

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