Monday, May 30, 2016

The Monkey is Dead!

The first 500 miles of the Coca Cola 600 weren't exactly suspenseful. The night belonged to Martin Truex, Junior, start to finish....and it couldn't happen to a nicer guy. The last 100 miles were intense only because we all know the kind of misfortune Martin has experienced this year when Lady Luck always seemed to tauntingly snatch away a victory that looked almost certain. I was bouncing on my chair, hoping that this time, he would make it to the finish line without incident. Evidently, even the Lady has some mercy in her heart because that's what happened.

I've heard so many people say this season that the 78 just couldn't seem to pull off putting a whole race together but when they finally did, they did it an outstanding fashion. They broke their almost year-long losing streak by leading all but 12 of the entire 600 miles, the most ever led in a single race.  (Jimmie led the 2nd most - 5 laps - ha!ha!) It was the fastest Coca Cola 600 ever run. Martin earned a perfect driver rating, his first ever. He was passed exactly once by the 48 but that didn't last long. Truex was leading at the 100 mile mark, the 200 mile mark, the 300 mile mark, the 400 mile mark, the 500 miles mark and of course, the 600 mile mark.

The win was made even more special because it was Memorial Day weekend and Barney Visser, owner of Furniture Row Racing is a Vietnam veteran. All the cars carried the name of a soldier who died in the line of duty. For the 78, it was Gunnery Sergeant Jeffrey E Bohr, Jr, a member of the Marine Corp, who died on April 10, 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

I kept watching Martin's girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, near the end of the race. You could tell her stress-level was sky-high, hoping but almost afraid to hope, lest those hopes be dashed once again. It was an emotional scene in Victory Lane. Sherry crying opening. Martin crying but trying not to be obvious about it. Drivers and crews coming up to congratulate him.

Now he's virtually assured a spot in the Chase. What a relief that must be. I think we'll see more wins now that he not only shrugged the monkey off his back, he stomped that sucker into the pavement!

In another note, I was glad to see Rick Hendrick and Richard Childress make it into the Hall of Fame. Owners aren't like drivers. They don't retire but usually die in their traces so they have to be honored while they're still alive and active. The other three, Benny Parsons, Raymond Parks and Mark Martin, were also great choices.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Young'uns Are Coming!

Image result for nascar kyle larson         Image result for nascar chase elliott

Image result for nascar ryan blaney                           Watch out, Veterans, the kids are gaining on you!

I didn't have time to write a blog last week because of my job but what sticks out in my mind about the last two weekends has been how exciting the youngsters have made them. Kyle Larson has been one of my favorites since he first came on the scene. He was the star of the first Eldora Mudsummer Classic, the way he drove practically touching the wall and slung that car around on the dirt, the way he pulled off the most thrilling slide jobs.

Everyone kept saying he would win soon but he fell into a kind of sophomore slump that extended into his junior year. I don't think it was his slump though so much as it was Ganassi's slump. Now he's driving cars his crew chief, Chad Johnson, built and their new-found performance and confidence is beginning to pay off.

I was rooting for him last week at Dover. He put on one hell of a show there but years of experience gave Matt Kenseth just edge enough to out-maneuver him.

Then this weekend, he and Chase Elliott fought door to door to try to get themselves into the All-Star Race. Again, I was cheering Kyle, not because I like Kyle better than Chase, but like Kyle himself, I was sure Chase would get in via the Fan Vote so Kyle needed the win more than Chase did.

I figured it would be a better race with both of them in it and it surely was. They were the ones who added all the pizazz to what was a kind of a confusing mess of a race. Chase made some absolutely stunning passes. Kyle fought Joey down to the wire but again, experience (and I do consider Joey an old hand by now) won out.

Seemingly, just a tick behind Kyle and Chase Elliott is Ryan Blaney, another young driver who seems able to balance the risk of youth with wisdom beyond his years.

I don't think that experience thing is going to work for much longer. These young'uns are coming and they're coming fast. We've lost Jeff and this is Tony's last year. We have a whole group of drivers who are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning - Jimmie, Junior, Matt, Biffle, Kevin - all are in their early 40's. All are still at the top of their game but inevitably age will come into play sooner rather than later.

We miss our favorites, of course, but thankfully, it seems that NASCAR is in good hands with the Sprint Cup kids as well as those coming up through the Truck and Xfinity ranks.

And the All-Star race. I heard lots of people complaining about it. My Grandma used to that anything was was totally screwed up was just a big "mixa-moxa" and I'd have to call this race a big mixa-moxa for sure.

On the other hand, in previous years, I've heard people bitch that it had gotten stale. It is for fun and money, not points, so who cares if NASCAR tries some things, even if some of them work and some don't?  Jimmie, for instance, had put himself in perfect position.....if, that is, there hadn't been so few cars on the lead lap that there were only two without fresh tires and they got eaten alive. And who could have predicted just 11 lead lap cars. It is still an interesting concept and might prove interesting in another year.

So, let's just go with the flow and not get worked up about the small stuff.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Extra Step to Greatness

Image result for nyquist wins Kentucky derby           Image result for nascar kyle bush wins kansas

I watched the Kentucky Derby on Saturday evening as Nyquist, who is unbeaten so far in his young career, forged to the lead and won by 1 1/2 lengths. Nyquist has started 8 times and won eight times. He's the eighth unbeaten horse to win the Derby in its 142 year history. Nyquist, the horse, is named for Gustave Nyquist, a forward for the Detroit Red Wings. (His owner is a rabid Red Wings fan). Nyquist, the horse, received congratulatory tweets from his Red Wings fans.

Now, it is on to the Preakness and then the Belmont. American Pharoah won the Triple Crown last year. It was 37 years between Triple Crown winners. Now we have a chance to see it happen in back to back years if Nyquist can maintain his winning ways and I hope he does.

Directly from the Derby, I tuned into the NASCAR race in Kansas. That was won by Kyle Busch, his first win in Kansas, the first driver to win three races in 2016, probably not his last.

After the Derby, my friend, Jan, said she was disappointed because she always roots for the underdog but I was cheering for Nyquist because I am thrilled by people and animals who transcend simply being excellent to join the ranks of the outstanding

Jan also turns up her nose because I like Tom Brady but I appreciate winners. I love Jimmie Johnson. He's always my number one driver to root for but I like Kyle Busch and I like Jeff Gordon......

I don't think I like winners because I'm a bandwagon person but because I'm fascinated by the qualities they have that less talented or driven athletes lack. I'm not sure I can define those qualities but they involve heart and passion and hard work and extraordinary skill. I like to watch them exhibit the drive that means they are giving us all those things every minute of every game or every race. They aren't discouraged by adversity but fight back (as Kyle did against extraordinary odds to win the championship last year).

There are only a few exceptional performers in any sport in any generation. In NASCAR, even I, who have only been a fan for a relatively short time, can name them - Richard Petty and David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch (I'm not necessarily trying to name them all so don't get upset if I left someone off who you think should be on the list.) In other sports, we have Larry Byrd, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Muhammed Ali, Tiger Woods - and on and on.

They stand an extra step above the crowd of even superior competitors.

You can't define them by character. Nyquist, for instance, reminds me of Jimmie. His trainer says he is a consummate professional - even-tempered and confident and competent. Animals or people, some are cool, calm and collected while other show their butts. Some are wild ones, like Tim Richmond, while others are stable family people. So you can't go by personality or lifestyle to predict them.

Of course, neither horses nor drivers nor any other athlete does it alone. They always have a team behind them, whether it consists of trainers and jockeys or crew chiefs and pit crews. But trainers and jockeys and crew chiefs and pit crews can generally be replaced. Not so the star of the show.

Many racers/players will be good but they simply won't make it into the ranks of greatness. Being good is fine. All NASCAR drivers are good or they wouldn't even be there. The good, for instance, can win a championship in a year when the stars align for them. The great can repeat over and over.

Most of us are content to lift  ourselves from mediocre to good. It is a much as we aspire to. The great ones shoot for the stars every single time. Good enough is never good enough.

Yes, I enjoy seeing an underdog pull off a win. I love seeing how happy and excited it makes them but mostly you know going in who among them is most likely to end up in Victory Lane....over and over.

And, yes, jockeys count and crew chiefs count and trainers count and pit crews count and equipment counts but beyond all that, making it up to that final step to greatness comes from within the athlete's own heart. And that's why I like to watch winners.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Mashed, Smashed and Trashed at Talladega

Image result for talladega 2016            Image result for talladega 2016

I'm glad that's over for another few months. I know some people love super-speedway racing but it's my least favorite of all the different types of tracks on the NASCAR circuit. I don't care to see a gazillion dollars worth of wadded up race cars or cars flying through the air or cars barrel-rolling down the track (though the manufacturer's of BearBond were probably grinning ear to ear as 33 of 40 cars suffered some kind of damage).  It was a wilder even than usual Talladega, probably because of the urgency of the possibility of rain coming.

I don't enjoy sitting with my heart in my mouth until we see the window net come down and know that the driver that smacked the wall hard or tumbled end over end is all right.

I get antsy when I see my favored drivers twiddling their thumbs, not because their car may not be fast enough to get to the front, but because they are stuck in a giant, three-rows-wide, 200 mile-an-hour traffic jam.

I'm not saying other people shouldn't love restrictor plate racing, just expressing my own personal point of view.

Kyle Busch echoed my opinion. He said, since he already had a win and was in the Chase, he'd rather have skipped Talladega altogether and watched the race from his living room sofa. He, and the others drivers who have a win, can afford to feel that way now - but next time NASCAR is in Alabama, the race will be part of the Chase and teams will dread the potentially negative impact it might have on their seasons.

Having said all that, congratulations to Brad for driving a flawless race, being a master at playing the dodge'em game of keeping the field behind him. We now have another two-time winner, which is four of them now. Up to a point, these guys can kick back and relax knowing they are in the Chase.

Poor Amelia, Junior's favorite car, looked like she was ready to retire to his famous wreck-filled woods by the time it was over. It was a strange day altogether for Junior but driving his car without a steering wheel was a pretty neat trick.

I say this every week but it is true again, two of our rookies, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, continue to impress. Chase lead 27 laps, en route to a top five finish, the highest by far of the Hendricks drivers. (Elliott is 10th on the Chase grid right now). Ryan pulled off a top ten. They looked like old hands slicing and dicing around the speedway.

Old Lady Luck must have it in for Matt Kenseth and Danica Patrick. Whenever either of them look like they are in for a really good run, she knocks them for a loop and that continued at Talladega. I wonder what they did to piss her off so bad?

Speaking of impressive young drivers, Ty Dillon did Tony Stewart proud, bringing the 14 in at sixth. Their driver exchange was pretty slick too, getting done in approximately one minute. You could tell Tony absolutely hated getting out of that car though.

And so we're off to Kansas, where the racing is more normal and, in my humble opinion, more fun.