‘Thrill of Victory…Agony of Defeat’ Defines Auto Racing’s Biggest Day

May 30, 2011

It was an unlucky day for National Guard sponsored cars, a day before honoring the men and women who have given their lives in the name of freedom.

It is appropriate to steal the line that Jim McKay would start each week on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” to describe the biggest day of the auto racing category.

Both the Indianapolis 500 at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Coca-Cola 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway had finishes that people will remember for a long time.  In both races, the leader of the final lap, was not the winner of the race.

First in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, fuel strategy got rookie J.R. Hildebrand the lead.  He was just a straight-a-way from winning the biggest race of his career.

However, a rookie mistake, going high around slower traffic, caused the #4 Panther Racing team’s National Guard car to slam the wall.  For a moment it looked like Hildebrand could still manage to win.  Dan Wheldon, who finished 2nd in the Indianapolis 500 with Panther Racing last year, passed Hildebrand to win the centennial running of the famed race.

Fast forward to Charlotte, where once again, the race would come down to fuel mileage.  A late race caution, when 5-time consecutive defending champion Jimmie Johnson’s engine expired (and yes, Chad Knaus did say what you think he said), would extend the race.

Greg Biffle was leading, but could not resist a splash of gas under the Coca-Cola 600’s final caution.  The final restart would have Kasey Kahne and fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. battling for the win.

After the green was displayed, Kahne ran out of fuel, and it appeared Earnhardt Jr. would end his winless streak.  Earnhardt Jr. took the white flag.

But once again, it was turn 4.  Earnhardt Jr. ran out of fuel.  Kevin Harvick passed him to take the victory at Charlotte.

Wheldon and Harvick combined to lead 3 laps in their victories today (Wheldon 1, Harvick 2).  Hildebrand and Earnhardt Jr. are left to wonder what could have been.

While Earnhardt Jr. has won races in the past and appears to be close to returning to victory lane, it is much different for Hildebrand.

It is the biggest race in auto racing, the Indianapolis 500.  Drivers, no matter what series they run, dream of winning at Indianapolis.  The final turn of that race will stick with and haunt Hildebrand for a long time.  How many times will anyone come that close to winning the sport’s biggest race.

At the end of the day, for Earnhardt Jr. and Hildebrand, they were given a chance to win on auto racing’s most exciting day.  That’s all any racecar driver can ever ask: a chance.


How To Handle a Pitching Staff

May 21, 2011

One of my pet-peeves in watching any level of baseball is over-use of the bullpen.  Mis-management of the bullpen sometimes makes games unbearable to watch, especially in the college game.

Here are a couple of rules I wish more coaches would take into account when making decisions about the pitchers.  I reiterate, as I have in past posts, that I don’t have experience managing a pitching staff, just merely someone who has figured out what he likes over-time.

#1 – You don’t replace on pitcher, with a pitcher who throws with the same arm.

This is a tell-tale sign of over-management.  There is never a reason to replace one pitcher, with another pitcher who throws on the same side.  For example, in the middle of an inning, it makes zero sense to waste one right-handed reliever, by bringing in a second right-handed reliever.

This is a sign of wasting pitchers, and it somewhat plays right into rule number two,

#2 – Look further down the lineup than just the next hitter.

Managers and pitching coaches fall in love with the righty-righty, lefty-lefty matchups.  St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is a prime example of this.  He can use four pitchers in an inning just to get the matchups he wants.

Look farther down the lineup than just the next hitter.  Sometimes you will have a situation where if you just let the pitcher stay in the game a little longer, you can work around the righty-lefty situation, and not waste pitchers for just one batter.

I know the percentages say to make those moves, but I don’t want to be going into extra innings, and have to rely on my closer for multiple innings.

Which leads to number three…

#3 – Closers are meant for one inning, to ‘close’ the game.

In covering the South Carolina Gamecocks baseball team for the last year, I believe their bullpen is completely mismanaged.  Gamecocks Head Coach Ray Tanner and Pitching Coach Jerry Meyers should never be bringing in Closer Matt Price, in the seventh inning.

This is a problem that plagues college baseball more than Major League Baseball.  However, it makes no sense to me as to why you bring your closer in the seventh inning?  At the point when you need him to get outs, he is tired.

But there are exceptions to every rule…

#4 – Everyone can pitch in championship deciding/elimination games.

There are exceptions, and in ‘Game 7,’ elimination games, or championship deciding games, any of these rules are disregarded.

The most important thing is to win, and anything necessary to secure that win must be done.  Everyone on the pitching staff must be ready to pitch, even the previous day’s starter.

My philosophy is that when you have to win, I’ll worry about what to do next when it comes.  In championship scenarios, there is no next game, so why are you conserving pitchers?

Of course there are situations that come up all the time that would make me a hypocrite over these rules.  But in my 15 years of watching baseball, it is how I think a pitching staff should be handled.

Posada’s Denial Next of Reasons Baseball’s Greats Retire

May 15, 2011

New York Yankees’ DH Jorge Posada asked out of the lineup in Saturday’s game against the Boston Red Sox after Manager Joe Girardi put him ninth in the batting lineup.

The Yankees are currently exploring their options as to what to do with Posada, after GM Brian Cashman says Posada did not want to bat that low in the lineup.  Posada, 39, is currently hitting .165, and is making over $13 million this season.

For the career-Yankee, this might be the moment people remember as he retires.  Posada has battled injuries the last few seasons and is clearly at the end of the career.  The Yankees are forced to make a decision to a loyal member of the organization.

However, ‘the refusal,’ could be seen as joining a recent list of other baseball stars who have had big off-field events lead to retirement.

I hate to put him in this category, but former Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds OF Ken Griffey Jr.’s abruptly retired in the middle of 2010, after the slugger was no longer producing.

Griffey was on his victory lap, back with the Mariners, after spending several seasons with the Reds.  Griffey had become somewhat of a distraction, no longer producing enough to be in the lineup, and according to some, was found taking a nap during a Mariners’ game.

After the leaking of ‘the nap,’ Griffey soon announced his retirement, and has since accepted a role in the Mariners’ front office.

From earlier this season, Manny Ramirez was hoping to show he had something left with fellow free-agent Johnny Damon when both signed with the Tampa Bay Rays.  Ramirez and Damon were both members of the 2004 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox.

Both were on the back end of their careers.  Ramirez played 5 games for the Rays this year before retiring, starting the season 1-for-17.

Everyone quickly found out why Ramirez retired:  the slugger was facing an one-hundred game suspension for a second violation of MLB’s drug policy.  One of the best hitters in the last 20 years, was busted for using steroids and ultimately retired because of it.

There are more examples.  Unfortunately for Posada, the odds that he’ll rebound from this, don’t look good.  But in a weird twist of fate, is this when I bring up that the Red Sox might be looking for a catcher?

NASCAR Notes 5/8: Smith’s Win Overshadowed

May 9, 2011

The first (and maybe only) installment of NASCAR notes.  First, I should start by saying I am no official NASCAR writer or analyst.  Just a citizen journalist (or blogger) pointing out some interesting things in the world of NASCAR.  The information here is merely stuff I noticed either this week at Darlington or over the course of the season.  With no regular airing of the show right now, I have to talk somewhere.

The Ryan Newman-Juan Pablo Montoya Feud:  They had a feud?  It is a little bit of sarcasm, but after Darlington, this quickly became back-page news.

The only thing that anyone knows, these two have not liked each other since Montoya entered NASCAR.  This feud wasn’t settled, and it will likely rear its ugly head again.

But for now, no one remembers what happened at Richmond.

The NEW Feud:  Kyle Busch vs. Kevin Harvick – Both of these once hot-headed drivers drew all of the attention on Saturday night.  Both drivers had seemed to mellow over the past year or so, realizing they couldn’t be successful by not having any equipment at the end of races.

They’re back.

Busch, the younger of the famed-Busch brothers, is known for his smart aleck attitude, knowing he has all the talent in the world.  This guy hates losing (but what driver doesn’t?) and doesn’t let any driver get in his way.

Harvick has never shied away from confrontation with other drivers.  Whether it was Ricky Rudd or Juan Pablo Montoya, Harvick has ruffled the feathers of several drivers, and not being afraid of getting in someone’s face.

After a wreck late in the race, Busch appeared to have spun out Harvick intentionally.  Neither car suffered major damage, but it was a battle that began on the backstretch prior to the lap 363 accident.

After the race, the two began a cat and mouse game, each shadowing the others move.  Once on pit road, with Harvick in front, Harvick gets out of his car to confront Busch.  Busch remained in his car, and as Harvick approached, Busch rammed Harvick’s car into the pit wall, and drove off.  Harvick appeared to ‘punch’ Busch as he drove past him.

Regardless of who is right and who is wrong, Busch’s actions are unacceptable.  It is bad enough to use racecars as a weapon with drivers in their cars.  However, to hit an uncontrolled car could have seriously injured someone.

As for if Busch wanted payback, wouldn’t it pain Harvick more to wreck him in the Nationwide Series, where Harvick actually owns the car he runs.  While never suggesting it is proper to take feuds onto the track, just an opinion on if you wanted it to bother Harvick just a little more.

Like the Montoya-Newman feud, this one is far from over, and could easily be re-visited next week at Dover.

Regan Smith Wins 1st Career Race – Unfortunately for the driver from Cato, New York, he might be the only one that remembers the win next week.

The actions of Busch and Harvick overshadowed the Smith’s first career win, in 105 races, in the Southern 500 at Darlington.  Smith stayed out when many of the leaders pitted for right-side tires.

Smith, you might remember, did take the checkered flag in first place a couple of years ago at Talladega.  However, he passed below the yellow line, prohibited at Daytona and Talladega.  Tony Stewart officially won the race.

Smith’s team, is Furniture Row Racing, an independent team, who gets its engines and cars from Richard Childress Racing, and borrows a pit crew from Stewart-Haas Racing.  For the team from Colorado, they reached the top of NASCAR.

However, look a little closer, and you can see how this team has worked to get to this point.  The team first appeared around 2006 with Kenny Wallace as its driver.  Later the ride was occupied by Joe Nemechek.

In 2009, the team chose to scale back and brought in Regan Smith as its driver.  Just off winning Rookie of the Year, it was only a part-time ride for Smith.

He stuck with the team as they returned to full-time status in 2010.  This was one of the first season, they consistently ran well.  Good qualifying efforts by Smith and strong runs at Daytona and Talladega helped this team gain confidence.

Smith had his worst qualifying effort of the season at Darlington, starting 23rd.  His mother wasn’t at the race like she always was (she was helping with disaster relief efforts in Alabama).

He stayed on the lead lap throughout the race, and in its final stages, he was running inside the top ten.  The easiest way to win races:  put yourself in a position to be successful.  Sixth place before staying out to win the race was key.

Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch…championship contenders – No, I’m not stating the obvious, I’m stating the facts.

While their finishes from Darlington don’t show it, both overcame mid-race adversity to return to the top ten.

Johnson spun twice in the race and was running in the top ten before the final pit stops.  However, a pit road penalty left Johnson with only a 15th place finish.

Kyle Busch dominated a portion of the race, before having to pit for a loose wheel under green flag conditions.  He got his lap back and made it back into the race before the whole incident on lap 363.  Busch finished 11th.

Coming back from adversity throughout a race and throughout a season are crucial to fighting for a championship.

Could There Be Short Fields? – One of NASCAR’s biggest fears is not having a full, 43-car field for Sprint Cup Races.  However, it could be a reality.

Until this week, NASCAR typically had 43 or 44 cars show up for a race.  Darlington had 46 cars.

The Wood Brothers, #21, usually driven by Trevor Bayne has not entered the last two events.  With Bayne still questionable for appearing in upcoming races with his illness, they might not enter until he is able to race again.

Robby Gordon’s car, #7, won’t enter the race at Dover this week after being a start-and-park at Darlington.  Gordon will continue to run the ‘fun’ races throughout the rest of the year, after running every race until this point.

In these situations, there are usually teams that end up forming and showing up, since there is the opportunity of making a Sprint Cup Series race.  However, I won’t be surprised if a short field scare occurs.

There you have it, some notes and opinions on the week that was in NASCAR.  Like I said in the opening, some of this is speculation (i.e. short fields) and opinions.  With “Section 26 Sports” being on  hiatus during the Summer, be looking for more columns similar to this to bring you up-to-date on the happenings in sports.  Be looking for us to return in the Fall.

Sports Take a Back Seat: Osama bin Laden Killed

May 2, 2011

Even for pure sports blogs, there are sometimes national news stories trump everything, this is one of those.

President Barack Obama announced just before midnight on May 1, 2011 that U.S. Forces had killed Osama bin Laden, almost ten years since the attacks of September 11th.

This is one of those moments in history you will remember where you were, getting ready for bed, playing video games, or cramming for that Monday exam, you will remember.

We often use that phrase to describe moments in sports, a Super Bowl winning kick or a walk-off hit to win the World Series.  This is one of those times, that sports takes the back seat.

It showed, at Sunday night’s New York Mets-Philadelphia Phillies when the announcement was made that the Citizens Bank Park crowd began chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

There are major moments in society that people will remember where they are the moment they heard or saw groundbreaking news.  This is one of them.  And sports take a back seat tonight and tomorrow.