14 from ’14, Day 9: NASCAR track tour, Shining emoji, and dog with tortilla

Still life of dog with tortilla on staircaseWe roll on through the year touching on some odds and ends. First off, there’s that shot of my dog Hawkeye, caught red-pawed with a tortilla. Gotta be slicker than that, pup.

Next up, my first foray into supercut moviemaking, an extended NASCAR travelogue naming every single track, in order, in song:

Why did I do that? Hell if I know. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Also, there was this, from Twitter:

More actual writing coming tomorrow.

Previous 14 from ’14:
Day 1: In victory lane for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 win
Day 2: US Open: A father, a son, a wheelchair, and Phil Mickelson
Day 3: Which college boasts the three best cross-sport athletes?
Day 4: FSU-Miami: Why won’t you die, Florida State?
Day 5: NFL playoffs: The refs robbed the Panthers!
Day 6: Behind the scenes at the NASCAR championship
Day 7: At the Masters, the yin and yang of Bubba Watson
Day 8: Brad Keselowski, the driver NASCAR needs right now

14 from ’14, Day 8: Brad Keselowski, NASCAR’s most important driver

Talladega cupcakes!Running down a bunch of stories I wrote this year. Here’s one on the most polarizing driver of 2014. And that photo commemorates the Talladega cupcakes I received this year, the flavor of which I’ll leave to your imagination.

Brad Keselowski made a lot of people very mad in 2014. I wasn’t one of them. I’ve always enjoyed hearing what he has to say about the sport, about NASCAR history, about life, and even when I don’t agree with him I appreciate him breaking out of the usual routine and speaking his mind.

Of course, I don’t have to race against him, and that’s where he’s drawn the most heat. At the fall race at Talladega, the Chase was in full swing and Keselowski was coming off a fight with both Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth in Charlotte. Here’s a quick reminder:

Keselowski came into Talladega needing a win to advance to the next level of the Chase. Now, expecting to win at Talladega is like expecting to tweet at Jennifer Lawrence and get a date. And yet here was Keselowski, outrunning every other driver lap after lap, getting the win he needed to get. It was one of the most impressive all-or-nothing racing performances I’ve ever seen.

Great driving combined with an outsize personality and polarizing showmanship? That’s what NASCAR was built on, and after Keselowski’s win I wrote as much:

Depending on your perspective, he’s either aggravating or exhilarating, a savior or a sonofabitch. But no matter what, you can’t ignore him. He’s responsible for two of the greatest NASCAR TV moments of recent years: his exuberant Miller Lite-fueled championship interview at Homestead in 2012, and his WWE-style throwdown with Kenseth last week at Charlotte. For a sport teetering on relegation to niche status, that’s the kind of publicity a hundred sponsors can’t buy.

Here’s the rest of the article.  Keselowski would be at the epicenter of an even bigger fight two weeks later at Texas, cementing him as the sport’s great “villain.” And that’s very good news indeed for everyone involved, because Keselowski seems to run on fans’ rage. He fell out of the championship hunt before the season finale, but his performance in the Chase showed that he’ll be a thorn in the sides of the people who most need thorns for a long time to come.

Previous 14 from ’14:
Day 1: In victory lane for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 win
Day 2: US Open: A father, a son, a wheelchair, and Phil Mickelson
Day 3: Which college boasts the three best cross-sport athletes?
Day 4: FSU-Miami: Why won’t you die, Florida State?
Day 5: NFL playoffs: The refs robbed the Panthers!
Day 6: Behind the scenes at the NASCAR championship
Day 7: At the Masters, the yin and yang of Bubba Watson

14 from ’14, Day 7: The yin and yang of Bubba Watson

Yes, this is work.

Yes, this is work.

Continuing the look back at what I wrote this year. Today, we’re off to the towering pines and rolling hills of Augusta National.

One of the questions I get the most frequently is what sport I enjoy covering the most. The answer to that depends on the day; the power and storylines of NASCAR, the momentous pomp of the NFL, the batshit craziness of college football all have their allure. But if you’re asking which event I enjoy the most, the answer is always the same: The Masters.

Big surprise, right? One of the  most prestigious events in sports just happens to make for a quality story. But there’s more to it than that. There’s the creature-comfort aspect; that’s the media center up there, and it’s stocked with all the pimento cheese sandwiches and Coke (and, on Sunday evening, open bar) that a working journo could want. There’s the camaraderie aspect; I have half a dozen very good journalist friends who are at the event each year as well, so it’s a reunion of sorts.

But above all, the Masters makes for a hell of a story. If you win the Masters, you are an immortal in a sport where careers last decades. It’s an atmosphere of old money privilege, sure, but within that you can find some fascinating stories, like the guy who won it this year:

AUGUSTA, Ga. – A crowd of thousands had gathered around the practice green at Augusta, standing ten deep and leaning over the railing of the clubhouse’s famous veranda. Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National, was in the midst of introducing dozens of representatives of golf associations from around the world. Adam Scott, defending champion, looked every bit as smooth as he ever does. A sea of green jackets flanked them all.

And in the middle of it all, the man of the hour, the one for whom all this pomp and circumstance was necessary, sat up straight, fingers steepled on his knees, looking exactly like a fidgety kid waiting outside the principal’s office.

That would be Bubba Watson, who’s now won the Masters twice in three years. That’s the lead of my wrapup story on Watson, who’s one of the stranger birds ever to swing a golf club. Six hours after the moment noted above, Watson and friends were at a Waffle House. Of course they were. (Here’s the rest of that article above.)

Tiger Woods may or may not win another Masters, but until he does, virtually anyone who does instantly becomes a more fascinating character.

Previous 14 from ’14:
Day 1: In victory lane for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 win
Day 2: US Open: A father, a son, a wheelchair, and Phil Mickelson
Day 3: Which college boasts the three best cross-sport athletes?
Day 4: FSU-Miami: Why won’t you die, Florida State?
Day 5: NFL playoffs: The refs robbed the Panthers!
Day 6: Behind the scenes at the NASCAR championship

14 from ’14, Day 6: Kevin Harvick, the NASCAR championship, and what doesn’t get written

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 7.55.01 PMContinuing to run through my work from 2014. Back to Florida!

This year’s NASCAR championship was one of the most dramatic in the sport’s history, with four drivers all entering the race with an equal chance to win. Spoiler: it was Kevin Harvick.

Now, here’s a look at how the sausage gets made. Yahoo Sports, being an Internet site, and Internet, which is short for “Instant Terrific Netting” (or something like that, whatever), I have to have a big story ready to go right when the checkered flag waves, when the final putt drops, when the clock ticks down to 0:00, or whenever a damn baseball game ends. I’m then free to run about and see what kinds of stories I can dig up while readers are having their say about whether Harvick is a legit champion. Here’s that article, which is pretty straightforward stuff.

Now, at NASCAR tracks this involves running from one end of pit road to the other, trying to track down three drivers at once, all of whom are headed in opposite directions and none of whom have any interest in talking to anyone except the pilot on their engine-warming private plane. With most sports, you can station yourself in one tunnel or at one doorway and count on catching the relevant figures at one point. At a NASCAR track, there are literally dozens of possible ways to evade interviews. Combine that with the fact that drivers are, you know, DRIVING very large cars as they head in your direction, and it can be a wee bit tricky to get anything decent. (Don’t let Bill Belichick know about this; he’ll have a Humvee take him from every field and run over whatever media member gets in his way.)

Anyway, every so often this kind of lunatic pandemonium results in some great tidbits, and sometimes those great tidbits, all told, don’t quite make for a complete story. So here’s what I observed in the first minutes after the Homestead race ended.

Denny Hamlin was heartbroken. He pulled his FedEx #11 into pit road and clambered out, looking dazed. He had none other than Michael Jordan waiting there to greet him. MJ did a convincing impression of feigning sympathy — he doesn’t know what it’s like to lose a championship, after all — but of all the four championship contenders, Hamlin was the most lost.

Joey Logano walked almost alone through the garage. This was nothing short of astonishing, considering the fact that an hour earlier, he’d been one of the four most visible drivers in the sport. But here he was, victim of a poor pit stop, walking with determination. Only one fan spotted him and got an autograph, and then Logano walked right between two haulers and disappeared into his own, alone.

Logano had walked right past Ryan Newman, who was standing in the middle of the garage talking to his crew chief and a couple other colleagues, a weary smile on his face. Newman was the guy who wasn’t even supposed to be here, and although losing had to be a disappointment, he was playing with house money all Chase long. He, of the four finalists, was the one who was the most accommodating to fans, posing for pictures and signing autographs for a good 15 minutes.

Out on the track, Kevin Harvick and crew were enjoying the fruits of victory — said fruits including 50 cases of Budweiser, as my colleague Geoffrey Miller learned. They would be partying late into the evening and on into the morning, and they may not have stopped yet.

So there you go. Four drivers, four short stories, only one happy ending.

Previous 14 from ’14:
Day 1: In victory lane for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 win
Day 2: US Open: A father, a son, a wheelchair, and Phil Mickelson
Day 3: Which college boasts the three best cross-sport athletes?
Day 4: FSU-Miami: Why won’t you die, Florida State?
Day 5: NFL playoffs: The refs robbed the Panthers!

14 from ’14, Day 5: Carolina, San Francisco, and some dubious ref calls

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 8.43.07 PMLooking back at a bunch of stuff I wrote this year. Off to Charlotte!

It’s pretty incomprehensible now, but earlier this year the San Francisco 49ers played the Carolina Panthers in a playoff game. It’s true, I was there. This wasn’t a particularly spectacular game, except to establish the 49ers as legit Super Bowl contenders (again, this was this year), but the Panthers got bounced from the game and the postseason thanks to some dubious referee calls. As Carolina safety Mike Mitchell put it, from the article:

“Terrible call,” Mitchell said after the game. “Terrible call. Terrible call. Terrible call.” He paused, stared directly into one of the cameras ringing him, and continued. “Did you get that? Terrible. Call.”

Read the rest of the article here. What I remember most about this one was how quickly the air went out of the stadium after the loss. You have weeks of build to the postseason, you have an extra week of hype until the game, and then boom … it’s over in three hours. The stadium cleared out early, the streets were empty shortly after the game, and it was all over for Carolina.

The Panthers might sneak their way into the postseason again this year, but they’re nothing like a true playoff contender. The 49ers look more lost than they have in years. So clip and save this article, kids. Could be a collector’s item.

Previous 14 from ’14:
Day 1: In victory lane for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 win
Day 2: US Open: A father, a son, a wheelchair, and Phil Mickelson
Day 3: Which college boasts the three best cross-sport athletes?
Day 4: FSU-Miami: Why won’t you die, Florida State?

14 from ’14, Day 4: Florida State at Miami

Screen Shot 2014-12-13 at 8.57.10 AMRunning down a bunch of what I wrote this year. Today: off to Miami.

I love writing about college football, mainly because of photos like that one above. That was a couch amid the wreckage in the aftermath of the Florida State-Miami game, a game which the Seminoles rightfully should have lost but somehow managed a win I still can’t figure out. As I wrote:

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – You keep sticking your head into the lion’s mouth, one day the lion’s going to decide it likes the taste. For Florida State, today was not that day.

For the fifth time this season, Florida State made what should have been an easy steamroll into an adventure. And for the fifth time, the Seminoles escaped, this time with a 30-26 victory over hated rival Miami.

The Seminoles needed overtime to beat Clemson, trailed both NC State and Louisville by more than two touchdowns, and were one fortuitous penalty away from losing to Notre Dame. This game, Florida State needed 56 minutes and 55 seconds to take the lead. While other teams’ fans would have passed out from holding their breath, Seminole Nation knew better.

After the game, FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher had a perfectly sculpted smirk, and Jameis Winston smiled like a who-me? choirboy. There are more fascinating backstories in a single quarter of college football than in an entire weekend of the NFL. Every time I get to dip into that, it rocks.

Here’s the full column, which Florida State fans took as some kind of insult. Heads up, y’all. Two lions still remaining.

Previous 14 from ’14:
Day 1: In victory lane for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 win
Day 2: US Open: A father, a son, a wheelchair, and Phil Mickelson
Day 3: Which college boasts the three best cross-sport athletes?

14 from ’14, Day 3: The #YahooBig3

Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 1.25.38 PMRunning down some of my better stories from 2014. Today, a monster research project that stemmed from a simple idea: which college boasts the three best athletes across multiple sports?

This article, which we dubbed #YahooBig3 (the hashtag is essential!), stemmed from a conversation my colleague Kevin Kaduk and I had about Auburn’s Big Three: Bo Jackson, Charles Barkley, and Frank Thomas. So we got to work sussing out which schools had standout athletes in the three big sports, and oh, did we hit roadblocks.

First, by excluding golf, hockey, et cetera, we lopped off some solid competitors. Then we decided to keep it to men’s sports only. (Sorry, ladies.) We came up with a list that was pretty impressive in its breadth, both across and within schools (Texas, for instance, produced both the hardass Roger Clemens and the sentimental softie Kevin Durant.)

We got blowback, of course, but it’s all in good fun. Check the full list here and see what you think. And no, Auburn wasn’t No. 1.

Previous 14 from ’14:
Day 1: In victory lane for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 win
Day 2: US Open: A father, a son, a wheelchair, and Phil Mickelson

14 from ’14, Day 2: Phil Mickelson’s wheelchair-bound US Open friend

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 9.44.46 AM

 As 2014 wraps up, I’m running down some of the best/weirdest stories I wrote this year. Today, we travel back to North Carolina, where I spent five veeeery loooong days in June covering the U.S. Open.

Look, I’ll never complain about my job, because that’s the province of cranks who’ve forgotten how damn lucky they are to be getting paid to do something most people would do for free. But let’s be honest: it’s a hell of a lot easier when I’ve got either a. a compelling story or b. a compelling central figure to work with. The U.S. Open, alas, had neither. Martin Kaymer is a perfectly pleasant but highly restrained German who happened to throttle the rest of the field for the entire week. I was looking at an entire week of rote, unspectacular stories right up until late Sunday afternoon, when I spotted a father pushing his son in a wheelchair along the 18th fairway, running parallel to Phil Mickelson.

Turns out this was David and John Finn, and not only did they know Phil, they were personal guests of his. They’ve traveled the entire country watching golf, David nearly immobilized from muscular dystrophy, John his ever-optimistic father. From the story:

The Finns got to North Carolina on Saturday and made their way to Pinehurst No. 2 early Sunday morning. They made their way to the putting green and driving range adjacent to the clubhouse, and that’s where Phil and Bones spotted them.

“When they saw us, they said, ‘why don’t you come with us?’” John recalls. “And when we got over there [to the first tee], they said, ‘Why don’t you come inside the ropes, and stay as long as you want?’ So we went all 18!”

And when Phil Mickelson wants something done, the USGA snaps into action. Tournament volunteers provided the Finns with inside-the-ropes access and water throughout the round. Mickelson didn’t play particularly well, posting a two-over-par 72 to finish the tournament 16 strokes back of winner Martin Kaymer. But for the Finns, the score was an afterthought. The experience was the joy.

Here’s the rest of the story. This was the most spiritually uplifting one I wrote this year, by a long shot. And if Kaymer had played just a little bit worse, I never would’ve gotten it. Thanks, Marty.

Previous 14 from ’14:
Day 1: In victory lane for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 win

14 from ’14, Day 1: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s greatest win

2014 Daytona 500Running down my favorite stories/photos/assorted strangeness from 2014. Today: the best race I’d ever seen in person…up to that point.

We’re not supposed to root for individuals or teams when we’re writing; we’re supposed to root for a good story. NASCAR’s best story — hell, one of sports’ best stories — is that of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the son of a seven-time champion who can’t seem to measure up to his father in some ways, but has far superseded him in others. It’s Shakespearean drama at 200 mph, and it hit a high point in February of this year at the Daytona 500, when Junior outran everyone else on the track to win the biggest race of his career.

I was there, a bit bleary from a six-hour rain delay and too much media center steam table food, and snapped that photo above in the middle of victory lane as champagne and beer sprayed in every direction. Here’s the first part of the story I wrote:

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – “WOOOOO!!!!!!”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., fresh off his victory in the Daytona 500, strode into the Daytona media center, normally a staid workplace where open displays of emotion are frowned upon, and bellowed in celebration.

“I bet nobody’s yelled like that in here in 30 years,” Earnhardt said as he sat down, grinning through his red beard. “People used to yell like that all the time when they won.”

It was a slick, if perhaps unintentional, bridge to NASCAR’s past, a past that has dogged Earnhardt like an extra passenger in his car … or, more accurately, like a cinder block tied to his rear bumper. Earnhardt, because of his surname, can’t ever escape the past, but with this triumphant victory, at long last he appears to have wrestled it at least to a draw.

—-

Check out the rest here. I think I’ve still got some confetti from that victory lane jammed in my ears.

After the cheering’s done

Screen Shot 2014-10-19 at 9.34.19 PMOXFORD, Ala. – I’m writing this from a late-night dinner after covering the October Talladega race. I just left the track, and it looked a lot like that photo above — hazy and slightly out of focus.

Of all the parts of the sportswriting gig that I enjoy, one of the best is the time after the game/race/tournament is over, after the players have flown off and the fans have driven away. There’s a stillness to the arena that lends itself to a moment of contemplation.

Every time I cover an event, I take a bit of time to walk around the empty arena. Talladega and Daytona, where the campfire smoke hangs in the air as the team haulers are pulling out. Turner Field, where the only sounds are the echoes of the cleaning crew … and the honks from the ever-present traffic outside. Bryant-Denny Stadium, where the bass thumps from the fraternities and downtown Tuscaloosa bars duel in stereo. Augusta National, where the last of the sun silhouettes the pines alongside the silent first fairway. These places lend themselves well to thinking, whether it’s about how to wrestle that intransigent damn article into something resembling coherence … or how to deal with our impending mortality.

Because make no mistake: you don’t need to be a damn poet to understand what’s going on here. Sound and fury, and then the rest is silence, to do a little Shakespeare mashup. I can hope, good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ve got thousands more summer and fall afternoons remaining. But I don’t know how many times I’ll come back to, say, Talladega or Augusta. Five? Ten? Twenty? No matter. It’s a measurable number, and it’s a painfully small one.

I consider myself tremendously lucky to have covered so many sporting events where the noise of hundreds of thousands of people hits you with physical force. It never gets old. But I feel even luckier that I get the chance to stick around after the cheering’s done and enjoy the solitude.

See you down the road.

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