Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Sheriff and Smoke avoid ugly (but much-needed) NASCAR confrontation at Infineon Raceway

There were two races in the Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Infineon Raceway on Sunday.

The one that Kurt Busch won, nay, survived outrunning a field of drivers by outlasting 12 lead changes, five caution flags and, by the look of their battered cars afterward, several meteor showers.

The other one was Tony Stewart’s race against time to get back at Brian Vickers. It was tick, tock, damn the torpedoes. On Lap 37, Stewart purposely ran into the back of Vickers’ car and spun him out in Turn 11. On Lap 88, Vickers appeared to slow down and wait for Stewart to pass then intentionally spun the back end of Stewart’s car that wound up, embarrassingly, on top of tire barriers in Turn 11.

Both drivers drove their cars to the garage and almost two dozen members of the media, licking their notepads and microphones, huddled near Stewart’s car, anticipating a WEE battle royale once they both returned to the track to complete the 110-lap race.

This confrontation had cage match and YouTube written all over it. You had Stewart, nicknamed Smoke, sitting in his car, seemingly stewing to get back at the back of Vickers’ car. You had Vickers, sponsored by a high energy drink and nicknamed The Sheriff, getting revenge, though Vickers insists his nickname “involves a 50-caliber gun” and not seeing that justice prevails.

Nevertheless, it was a perfect Old West showdown setting for a fight to eventually break out and pump life into NASCAR’s sagging television ratings. There were expectations that a demolition derby duel would result. Vickers went back out on the track to get points. The assumption was Stewart was going back out to make a point at Sears Point.

Vickers had picked the wrong guy to wreck.

“I’ve gotten into a battle before with Tony Stewart and that’s not a guy I battle with anymore,” said three-time race winner Jeff Gordon, who finished second on Sunday. “He’s a great race car driver, he’s smart and he can get really mad.”

But Stewart didn’t have the guns – or the horsepower – to chase down Vickers. He was on the track for six minutes before slowly pulling back into the garage.

However, when Stewart climbed out of his car, he wasn’t livid. He tried to be logical about Vickers dumping him.

“It didn’t make sense to do it and I’m not going to tolerate it. I don’t race guys that way and I’m not going to let anybody race me that way,” Stewart said. “If they block, they get dumped every time. Plain and simple.”

Vickers response? Like Mike Singletary’s. Look at the film. Vickers said he had to slow down because of traffic in front of him in Turn 11 on Lap 37.

“He wrecked me and I wrecked him,” said Vickers, who had a big grin on his face when he climbed out of his car after smoking Smoke.

And that was the end of it. No harm. No foul language. No one threw any helmets, punches or insults. NASCAR officials were not called in to send them to the penalty box and the combatants went on their merry way to Daytona.

Vickers retaliated for being hit by Stewart and Stewart, as cool as the deodorant he endorses, understood.

“He made his bed at that moment and he had to sleep in it,” Vickers said.

“He did what he had to do. I don’t blame him,” Stewart said of Vickers’ retaliation.

Darn. Just when a possible Stewart/Vickers confrontation seemed to be spinning out of control and into SportsCenter and the Speed Channel lore, cooler heads prevailed. Media focused on a possible fight – and not Kurt Busch’s finish – missed out.

Media were hoping for a hate crime, er, crash.

“I don’t know what kind of great sound bite you guys are looking for,” Vickers said. “I think you are all in shock because (Stewart) and I are being honest about this.”

Stewart, who has been known to blow a gasket over such incidences, was running around fifth at the time he crash landed the ass of his car on the tire barrier. He took a 39th-place finish that knocked him from 11th to 12th in the point standings.

Vickers, who was in the top three, finished 36th and remained in 26th in the point standings. His Red Bull-sponsored nostrils weren’t flaring when he stopped talking .

“The way I see it,” Vickers said, “we’re all square.”

Until next time.

NASCAR's appeal is hard to explain

SONOMA -- I don’t remember not attending a NASCAR race at Sears Point. There is no other event like it that I have ever covered.

It’s part carnival. Part comedy. Part calamity.

For example, I walking through the tunnel to the infield at Infineon Raceway before Sunday’s 23rd Annual Toyota/SaveMart 350 when a father -- a Jeff Gordon fan -- and his young son pulled up to me carting worn out race tires they had obtained in the pits. They were carrying/rolling them to their truck a half mile away where they were camping out. It didn’t matter that the tires literally had “Junk” written on them. Used tires are like new souvenirs for nutty NASCAR fans.

No tread. No cost. All good.

At least the tires were free. Prices for everything else in the infield at a NASCAR race are ridiculous. The biggest line for souvenirs was in front of Dale Earnhardt, Junior’s merchandise trailer. There were four people working the registers there where you could buy a racing jacket for $120 yet it was too hot on Sunday to wear it or show it off. I imagined the amount of money Junior fans were spending for his merchandize on Sunday then wondered why no one would buy flowers to lay next to his dad’s memorial plaque above Turn 3.

Of course, if you’re standing in line, you work up an appetite and a thirst. On Sunday you could buy one BBQ oyster for $3, a soda for $4, a side of fries for $5, hot dog for $7, caramel corn for $8, a turkey leg for $9 and, if you were hungover from sticker shock, there was a bloody mary for $9, too.

I saw an 24-ounce beer advertised for $12, which may explain why I saw one NASCAR fan walking around with a T-shirt that read: “Will Sell Wife For Beers.”

By the look of his wife and the price of beer that seemed like a good trade to me.

But a better T-shirt might have been “Will Sell Sheet Metal For Wife.” A large piece of sheet metal off Jimmie Johnson’s car was put up for auction in Victory Circle before Sunday’s race. The winning bid was $525.

That’s right $525 for a piece of junk. It’s enough to make you want to drink a large margarita … for $13

So what’s the draw of NASCAR that brings rednecks to the Wine Country? I’ll let know-it-all Cliff Claven tell you:

“One of the appeals, whether it’s consciously or subconsciously, is it’s purely an American sport,” said former “Cheers” co-star John Ratzenberger, Sunday’s Grand Marshal. “They want to gravitate to it.”

Like NASCAR fans to junk tires. It’s just hard to explain. You have to here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Bruins' Stanley Cup title takes me back in time

The last time the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup I was a senior in high school in Maine.

Now I am closer to be a senior citizen I feel like I’ve waited a lifetime for their win another one.

Thank you.

The big, bad Bruins have always held a fond place in my next. They helped get me through a dark time in my life. My parents had divorced and my mother re-married and moved me and my youngest sister to a new house way out in the country, away from my best friends in town. It was a painfully lonely time and I didn’t have much fun or excitement to embrace.

Yet I remember one Sunday night in particular when I went to bed and couldn’t fall asleep. I turned on my tiny transistor radio by my pillow and happened upon a Bruins’ hockey game. I didn’t know one name from another but one name stood out. It was a catchy name. Just liked the sound of it.


My radio dial thereafter was tuned to Espo. Soon I started to differentiate one name from the other. Bobby Orr I knew. Phil Esposito I came to love. The others I learned. Wayne Cashman and Ken Hodge, his linemates. Captain Johnny Bucyk and Pie McKenzie. Gerry Cheevers and Fred Stanfield. Ted Green, whose career ended when a Toronto Maple Leaf player smashed his stick on Green’s head. “Ace” Bailey, whose life ended, tragically, as a passenger on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center towers.

And Derek Sanderson? I wanted to name my first-born son after him.

Their games got me though a tough patch in my life.

One thing led to another. My dad bought me a table top hockey game one Christmas and a hockey stick the next. I bought a “Jesus Saves, Esposito Scores On The Rebound” bumper sticker. The Bruins started winning and I started following them with the same passion I reserved for the Red Sox. I’ll never forget the call on CBS by the late, great hockey announcer, Dan Kelly, when Orr, on a give-and-go from Sanderson, scored the Stanley Cup winning goal in Game 4 in the old Boston Garden. It remains a sports classic to this day … Orr, parallel to the ice, arms extended, celebrating the goal that gave the Bruins their first Stanley Cup in 29 years.

The Bruins were beloved again in a city that deep down has always been a hockey town, even when the Celtics were hoisting all those championship banners.

The Bruins captured my heart and imagination when I needed a distraction. Their Stanley Cup championship in 1970 filled an empty void in my life.

Eventually I moved from Maine to other states and other jobs and I lost touch with the Bruins. Checked the standings to see how they were doing, but never had the same enthusiasm for them. Tim Thomas, out of the University of Vermont, I knew. The others I didn’t really learn well enough until these Stanley Cup playoffs.

They didn’t have a Bobby Orr – who does? – but they had the same grit and determination that the Bruins of the late 60s and early 70s possessed. They were a blue-collar team. They were the Dallas Mavericks to the Vancouver Canucks’ Miami Heat, if you get my drift.

The best team, not the most talented, won. The Canucks, who had the most goals scored and the fewest goals allowed in the regular season, were outscored 21-4 in the final five games of the Stanley Cup Finals. Their players took cheap shots at Bruins’ players and their fans vented their frustration by booing American-born NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman when he handed the Conn Smythe Award (for playoff MVP) to American-born Tim Thomas, denying the 40-year-old Canucks their first-ever NHL championship and Canada of its first Stanley Cup in 18 years. That anger spilled out into the streets into rioting.

Way to go, Vancouver. Great city. Poor sportsmanship.

As for the Bruins, they left the ice with class and the Cup, their first championship in 39 years. It was an extraordinary effort by one of the Original Six.

I now rejoice with Bruins fans but my appreciation of the Bruins goes deeper and is much more personal. Through a transistor radio 43 years ago, the Bruins brought joy to me at a time when there was little to look forward to in my life. The big, bad Bruins were good for me.

Then and now.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Heat will win vs. The World

Look, I hate LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Miami Heat as much as the next guy, but after 48 hours of LeBron bashing am I the only one who honestly believes the Heat will win Games 6 and 7 and the NBA championship?

The Heat have been criticized and doubted from Day One and they eventually have responded by winning. They got off to such a tenuous start that Lakers coach Phil Jackson – whose ego is on par with the King and DWade – suggested that Miami ought to fire its coach Erik Spoelstra. Last I looked Jackson’s team got swept out of these playoffs and he disappeared.

Each time the Heat and its Big Three have had their backs to the wall this season, they have met the challenge. They got over on the Boston Celtics, their playoff nemesis. They beat down a Chicago Bulls team that dominated them during the regular season. Then why don’t more people think the more athletic and now more motivated Heat will be energized by their home crowd in Miami and run past the Mavericks?

The sense, however, is that the coughing James, Wade and the Heat will choke in the end.

I hope they do. I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Aloha means not seeing bigtime sports in primetime

Most people who travel to Hawaii have jet lag.

I have sports lag.

It always takes me time to adjust to the time zone change – which is usually six hours behind the prime time sporting events we watch when the sun is in prime time on Kauai. You’ve heard of “Breakfast at Wimbledon?” In Hawaii, it would be dubbed “Last Call in Kauai.”

Consider this: ESPN stands for the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. In Hawaii, ESPN stands for Eventually Sports in Primetime are Neglected.

People in Hawaii are either working or recreating when the big games are on television. There isn’t time to go channel surfing when there’s real surfing at hand. They are more interested in water breaks than breaking news. In other words, they ride waves like Terrelle Pryor rides cars.
I just returned from the Garden Island and it wasn’t a paradise for TV sports fans. For example, on the first full day of vacation, we went snorkeling. By the time we returned to our rented condo at Lae Nani in Kapaa, I had missed most of the Game 1 of the National Hockey League Stanley Cup Final between Vancouver and Boston. Someone spotted my Boston Bruins “Old Time Hockey” T-shirt and remarked about the last-second game-winning goal. I missed it. All I could say was wait ‘til the series gets back to Boston.

Game 2 of the NBA Finals was the next day and I did manage to see some of that. It rained in the afternoon, forcing us inside. Still, all I remember about Game 2 between the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks was seeing Dirk Nowitzki’s game-winning shot live as I headed out to the pool when the skies cleared.

I was wishing as hard for the sun to appear as I am for the Heat to be eliminated. I don’t think the eyes of Garden Island are focused on the NBA Final. LeBron James may be the King of sports media world but he’s not the King in Kauai. That honor still belongs to Elvis Presley. He got married to Priscella in the Fern Grotto just up the street from where we were staying. He did more for Kauai’s image than LeBron ever did for Cleveland’s.

We completely missed Game 2 of the NHL Final on Saturday. We spent the day on the west end of Kauai taking the Na Pali Coast tour in a Zodiac boat. We were more interested in dolphins and turtles than Bruins and Canucks and there was no cell phone service where we were on our adventure. Boston lost and we got lost in the splendor of the Garden Island.

Sunday was a day of rest for us, allowing us to keep tabs on Game 3 of the Heat/Mavs series. But I missed the fourth quarter grilling chicken at poolside. Sunsets in Kauai get more attention than upsets on ESPN.

Monday was day the Bruins turned the NHL Stanley Cup Final around. It was a turnaround day for us, too. We paddled up and down the Wailua River in kayaks. We hiked though mud and streams to reach some secret waterfall. The Bruins’ rousing 8-1 win was a secret to us until we got back in time to see the highlights on SportsCenter.

ESPN offers countless, relentless SportsCenter programming each day, but it was the only way we could keep track of the day’s sporting events. ESPN was our GPS for catching up with sports highlights. In Kauai, we are the last to know and that’s the price you pay in paradise as a sports fan.

We plumb forgot about Game 4 of the NBA Finals. We were checking out the Queen’s Bath in Princeville about the time LeBron James was checking out in the fourth quarter in Dallas. Unfortunately, I had a worse day than LeBron as I needed to make an emergency room visit to a local hospital. It seems my heart wasn’t into a strenuous hike as LeBron’s heart wasn’t into Game 4.

We missed Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday, but with good reason. On our last day of vacation at the Marriott Resort Kauai, we managed to go to our room and catch the final three innings of the Yankees-Red Sox game before dinner. It was hotter in New York at night than in Lihue in mid-afternoon but a Red Sox win over the Yankees is always refreshing.

That was the night LeBron tweeted to world at 1:30 a.m. Bristol time that it was now or never for Game 5 of the NBA Final. We missed that. We were having dinner. It was now or never for us, too.