Category Archives: NASCAR

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 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 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.

A few stories I wrote in 2013 that I don’t totally hate

I wrote a lot in 2013, when I wasn’t getting caught on camera scowling at people. And I was lucky enough to cover some of the year’s best events, including the NFL playoffs, NCAA Final Four, Indy 500, Masters, Daytona 500, and MLB playoffs. Here are a few of the stories that I can look back on and not want to kick my laptop. Enjoy!

Terminal NASCAR fan fulfills dream of going to Daytona 500, dies in infield: Mitch Zannette was a Pennsylvania volunteer firefighter with just a few days to live. He spent them in the infield at the Daytona 500, passing away just hours before the race began. I spoke to his family and friends for this one in the hours after his death.

The resurrection of Jake The Snake Roberts: Got the true pleasure of hanging with wrestling icons Diamond Dallas Page and Jake the Snake Roberts for a few hours. Roberts is in an ongoing battle for sobriety, and I caught him shortly after he’d fallen off the wagon and was consumed with regret and self-loathing.

Joy of moment shattered by Boston Marathon blast: Right after the bomb went off at the Boston Marathon, I didn’t know what the hell else to do, so I wrote this story in about 20 minutes. It inspired an entire town in Utah to create a fun run to raise money for victims, which might be the coolest thing my writing has ever done.

Tuscaloosa celebrates Alabama’s championship like it’s been here before: I hit Tuscaloosa during the national championship game against Notre Dame to see how the locals celebrated. Spoiler: they were happy.

No joy in Landover: At long last, Redskins fans refuse to cheer: I traveled to the dysfunctional mess that is FedEx Field in December for a Redskins game. This is what I saw. Steel your heart.

So there you have it. Thank you, friends, for reading. Much more to come in 2014!

Some people stand and watch, and some people fly

This is pretty badass … my brother-in-law:

No, my brother-in-law is not Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Not yet, and since my sister went and got herself married, apparently not EVER. But that’s a story for another day.) No, my bro-in-law is one of those pilots in the FA-18Cs flying over the track at this past Saturday’s Nationwide race. Big article on it all coming soon, but for now … yeah, that’s pretty cool.

Behold Dale Earnhardt, the avenging angel!

This is so many different kinds of awesome I can’t believe it. On Monday, I wrote, “The good ol’ days weren’t all gumdrops and happiness and five-wide racing with Dale Earnhardt standing on the hood of his moving car, a mighty golden angel roaring for vengeance from the depths of Turn 4 at Talladega, even though that seems to be how some people remember it.” Well, check out the Photoshop that Mike DiPasquale did based on that:
busbee_earnhardt_challenge

That’s exactly how it was back in the olden days, right?

Why I didn’t cheer at the end of the Daytona 500

krustyThe finish of this year’s Daytona 500 on Sunday was one of the greatest upsets in the history of NASCAR, a stunning story that brought an entire sport to its feet in appreciation of a 20-year-old kid seizing the sport’s grandest trophy. I was not only at the track, I was close enough to feel the thrum of Trevor Bayne’s engine in my chest as he whipped out of Turn 4 and down that final straightaway. All around me, nearly 200,000 people cheered in unison. And you know what I did?

Not a damn thing.

Okay, that’s not quite true. I smiled to myself at the kid’s good fortune and good driving (and the thought of getting to write a great story)…and then I turned around and tried to cadge a decent quote out of the wrecked-and-out-of-the-race Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Worked well enough, as you can see here.)

It wasn’t until later that I found out the race’s finish had caused a mini-controversy in the media center. (I was in the garage area and watched the end of the race on one of the Jumbotrons.) Apparently, much of the press corps in attendance broke out in applause.

If you don’t understand why that’s a problem and you’re not in the media, I can understand that. If you don’t understand why that’s a problem and you ARE in the media … well, that’s a bigger problem.

You don’t cheer in the press box. You just don’t. No matter how fascinating or astonishing or holy-crap-did-you-see-that, you keep your mind on why you’re there, and you keep your mouth shut. I won’t go into the ethical reasons behind not cheering; USA Today’s Nate Ryan did a fine job of that right here, and Chris Jones laid down some immutable rules about press-box cheering right here. An excerpt:

Cheering in a press box is the moral equivalent of shitting on the floor beside a delicious Chinese buffet that’s hosting a children’s birthday party and then going outside and killing a kindly, mystical hobo and using his stiffened corpse to derail a speeding locomotive, spilling a tanker filled with toxic chemicals into the world’s last pristine river and killing all the fish, including the aged and orphans among them.

Still, the applause at the end of the race, I can almost excuse as spontaneous, the equivalent of an “OHHHHH!” which often happens during a wreck. What really galled me was the cheering after Bayne finished his press conference. The kid did a fine job; I said as much on Twitter. But to cheer him as he left the stage? To rush up and high-five him, as some did? Come on, what the hell are you thinking?

Look, it’s very simple. When you’re paid to do a job, or (in the case of some of NASCAR’s “citizen journalist” unpaid bloggers) when you’re invited into the media center, your loyalties are to that job first and foremost. Can you be a fan and still do the job? Of course. It’s helpful, in fact, to give you insight into the mind and heart of the fans, the people who expect you to bring them the news and accounts of the day.

But there’s passion and there’s professionalism, and if you have your priorities as a journalist in order, never the twain shall mix. Nate, NASCAR.com’s David Caraviello, my Yahoo! colleague Jenna Fryer and I tried to make this point after the 500 on Twitter, and we got absolutely hammered by some. I can understand why people like the many Twitter followers who tweet-yelled at us (twelled? whatever.) would do so–what are we, heartless bastards?

More annoying was this column by Bryan Davis Keith, in which he figuratively waved the bloody firesuit of Dale Earnhardt in our faces in an oversimplified straw-man argument. To that, I’d respond with this: when Ed Hinton, perhaps the finest NASCAR journalist still working, learned that Dale Earnhardt had died, he turned out this classic in 40 minutes. Forty minutes. He may have been crying, his heart may have been broken, but he was enough of a professional to put emotion aside and do the damn work.

Hey, let’s be honest: it’s a great gig we have here. I’ve gotten to ride around Daytona Speedway, walk fairways next to Tiger Woods, sit in the Braves dugout and talk baseball with Bobby Cox, goad Shaquille O’Neal into ripping on Kobe Bryant, stand on an NFL sideline as holycrapMarshallFaulkiscomingrightatmeandhe’snotslowingdown…amazing moments, times I wouldn’t have had if I had done what I’d initially planned out of college and gone to law school. And everyone who’s ever had a media pass to cover even a high-school football game gets that kind of access and insight. It’s okay to enjoy that. It’s almost okay to name-drop like a fiend, like I just did there.

And I’ve had my own ethical slip-ups; I related my asking-Penny-Hardaway-for-an-autograph incident here a few months back.  And at one of the first Braves games I attended as a member of the working press, Chipper Jones fouled a ball up that nearly smashed my laptop. I picked up the ball, looked it over, and tucked it into my laptop bag … for about two seconds, until at least three writers virtually yelled at me to throw it out. (I tossed it to a kid below, and nearly hit him in the face with it. Sorry, kid.)

But all the benefits come with a price: you put on the credential, you leave fandom behind. No excuses, no rationalizations, no ethical just-this-once’s. There’s a line, and it’s not hard to see.

One other note on why I didn’t cheer: I carry a stigma/burden/scarlet letter that Nate, Jenna and David don’t: I’m a “blogger.” And while we all know that now encompasses (or at least, I MAKE it encompass) actual visits to actual sporting events where I have actual conversations with the actual people I write about, the “mother’s basement” stereotype still persists. I go whooping and cheering, it makes me look like a total amateur and cements the perception of bloggers as the text equivalent of sports talk callers. It’s hard enough for us to be taken seriously — my travails with some in the golf media are a whole other issue — but why make it harder on myself and my colleagues by cheering?

Reporters: enjoy the moment, appreciate it, but don’t get caught up in it. That’s what the after-filing bar blowouts are for.

[Photo courtesy Hammer_Hands]