All posts by Ryan Isley

Cardale Jones Needs To Step Out Of The Spotlight

Cardale Jones spent December and early January leading the Ohio State Buckeyes to a football national championship. He has spent the months since then trying to become the Mayor of Cleveland.

Since Jones and his Buckeyes teammates raised that national championship trophy, it seems like Jones has spent as much time out in the public eye in Cleveland as he has anywhere else. And of course, being a Cleveland kid, he is afforded the right to go back home during a break from school and training.

But sometimes, enough is enough.

It all started with the press conference on January 15th at the Ginn Academy gym, where Jones stunned most by announcing that he would return to Ohio State instead of putting his name into the NFL Draft. An admirable decision it was, as the quarterback said he wanted to return to school to finish his degree. Ever since then, Jones has been parading around as if he declared for the draft and was the number one overall pick.

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, Jones and other Cleveland area Buckeyes were honored at the Cleveland Cavaliers game just a couple of days after Jones made the announcement. Meyer and Jones addressed the crowd, where Jones again professed his love for the city of Cleveland.

Jones then took to Twitter and gave Ohio State fans heart failure on May 1st when he tweeted that he was going to be transferring from Ohio State and then tweeted #ZipNation a few seconds later, insinuating that he would be attending the University of Akron. A few minutes later, Jones said it was all just a “May Fool’s Day” prank.

Because you know, Jones has always made his best decisions when he opens his Twitter feed.

This week, Jones was back at Quicken Loans Arena to watch the Cavaliers and addressed the crowd once again. As Jones addressed the crowd this time, it was reported by Anthony Lima of 92.3 the Fan that Bulls center Joakim Noah – a University of Florida product – made a comment about Jones and the Buckeyes not being in the SEC.

When word got back to Jones, he immediately took to Twitter to address the situation. Again, he used Twitter without really thinking.

Cleveland fans LOVED it, because Cleveland fans HATE Noah. And because Cleveland fans love Cardale since he is a Cleveland kid. But was it really the best thing for a college football player to do? Of course it wasn’t.

Oh, that wasn’t all for Jones this week.

The St. Louis Cardinals had Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott throw out the first pitch at Tuesday’s game against the Chicago Cubs. The St. Louis native was a major factor in Ohio State claiming the national championship, as he ran for 696 yards and eight touchdown in the three games that Jones was the quarterback – the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin, the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama and the College Football Playoff National Championship Game victory over Oregon.

Seeing this, Jones felt like he had to get in on the action as well.

And of course this worked, because well, it is Cleveland and the Indians are playing so poorly that they could use any excuse to get fans interested while the Cavaliers are in the midst of the NBA Playoffs. The Indians responded to Jones’ request and will have him throw out the first pitch at an upcoming game.

After Jones throws out the first pitch and no doubt does something to fire up the fans (the few in attendance anyway), it is time for him to lay low for a while. I know this isn’t a popular opinion because Jones is from Cleveland and the fans have fallen in love with him due to the “he gets us” factor that no city uses to judge its players more than Cleveland. But that’s what needs to happen.

With the recent history of Ohio State and the NCAA, do you really want the NCAA to start looking into seeing if the athletic department and/or Jones have committed any violations this offseason?

Remember – Ohio State self-reported 22 violations in the first half of the 2014 calendar year, with six of those stemming from the football program. And then just this past March, it was quarterback Braxton Miller who came under fire (and investigation) after Miller uploaded a photo onto his Instagram account of himself along with a trainer next to a table full of products from AdvoCare – a nutritional supplement company. While nothing has come from the incident (yet), it was just another case of an Ohio State player putting himself into the limelight that just wasn’t necessary and was completely unavoidable.

The NCAA has an eye on Ohio State – and everything that happens within the athletic department – like possibly no other program in the country. And I am not saying that the NCAA doesn’t have a reason, because they absolutely do. So when Jones is out at Cavs games and Indians games and starting beefs with NBA players, you better believe the antennas are up at the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, which is ironically the site of Jones’ first career college start.

I am not saying that Jones shouldn’t be enjoying his time after helping the Buckeyes win the first College Football Playoff, but it might be time for him to just concentrate on the upcoming football season.

[Eleven Warriors/Ramzy Nasrallah: Unwasted Youth: An Investigation]

After all, there isn’t even a guarantee that Jones will be the guy taking the snaps once the season begins. Jones began last season as third on the depth chart behind Braxton Miller and JT Barrett and was given his chance only because both of those players were injured. With both looking to be healthy entering the season, the competition at quarterback is still up in the air.

And maybe that fact is the reason Jones is soaking in every single minute of the spotlight he can, because he doesn’t know when it is going to end. But Jones has spent his fifteen minutes (and then some) already and the clock has struck midnight.

Now, it is time for him to jump back into the carriage and return to Columbus. Or, at least cut his public exposure down to a minimum. I don’t know – maybe take some time to visit sick kids in the hospital and play them in video games.  Wait, that didn’t turn out so well either.

No matter what, the public tour of Cleveland needs to end. And soon.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.

Carl Edwards Heads To Kansas Looking To Improve His 2015 Season

Carl Edwards may not live in a pineapple under the sea, but he was born in Columbia, Missouri, which might be just as good this weekend.

The 35-year-old driver heads to Kansas Speedway Saturday night (weather permitting) for the SpongeBob SquarePants 400 still looking for his first win for Joe Gibbs Racing. He is also looking to win at his home track for the first time in his career. This weekend just might be the perfect storm for Edwards, who considers a win at Kansas Speedway as one of the most important ones he could get.

Edwards will be looking to turn around what hasn’t exactly been a banner season to this point. It has been a rough initial season for Edwards at Gibbs, one in which he has just a single top-10 finish in the first 10 races and is coming off a finish of 32nd at Talladega last week following a late wreck. In fact, Edwards has six finishes of 17th or worse this season, while finishing the other four races between 10th and 13th.

But now, Edwards gets to head home. Or close to it, anyway. And with that trip just might be the elixir this season has needed.

Edwards has somehow failed to win at Kansas Speedway in 15 career starts, despite having 11 top-10s and six top-5s at the track. Among active drivers with more than five starts at Kansas, only Jimmie Johnson’s average finish of 9.5 beats out Edwards and his 10.1 average finish. That 10.1 average finish is the fifth-best at any track for Edwards in his career. In his last three races at Kansas, Edwards has finished 5-6-5 and has four top-5 finishes in his last eight races at the track.

The last time Joe Gibbs Racing went to victory lane at Kansas was when Matt Kenseth won the 2013 spring race. It was the second win of the season for Kenseth, who was in his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing after he had left Roush Fenway Racing – the same situation that Edwards faces this season. Kenseth’s engine failed post-race inspection and led to many penalties for the driver and the team, most of which were reversed upon appeal.

Joe Gibbs Racing had some struggles at Kansas in the next race, with Kenseth finishing 11th, but neither of the other two drivers finishing in the top-20.   They started to get back on track in the spring race last season, with Kenseth finishing 10th, Kyle Busch 15th and Denny Hamlin 18th. Then it seemed as if they put it together even more at the fall race, as Busch finished 3rd, Hamlin 7th and Kenseth 13th.

For Edwards, the frustration has to be mounting. In each of the last two seasons, he already had a win by this point in the year. And last year, that also meant that he was also almost assuredly locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Now this season, Edwards sits 18th in points and is 13 points behind the 16th spot, which would be the final spot in the Chase if the season ended today. Edwards has made the Chase in seven of the last eight seasons, with 2012 being the only exception.

When the 400 miles at Kansas are finished, it just well might be Edwards who is doing a backflip out of his car. And I am sure there will be some pineapples awaiting him in victory lane.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.

 

GoDaddy Leaves Danica Patrick Just As She Shows Improvement

Timing is everything. And it always seems like timing is never just right for Danica Patrick.

Just when it looked like things were starting to go well for Patrick, it was announced this week that GoDaddy would be leaving as the primary sponsor for Patrick and her No.10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet following the 2015 season.

On one hand, it makes sense for GoDaddy if they want to move away from NASCAR and take their business in a different direction. It isn’t like they are leaving Patrick and going to another driver. But on the other hand, the timing of it comes as a bit of a surprise. To me, anyway.

Patrick is nine races into what could possibly be her best season yet in her third year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. After finishing 27th and 28th in points in her first two seasons, the 33-year-old driver is now 16th in the standings and would be just two points out of a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup should the Chase start this week.

She has been able to vault herself into Chase conversation because of two top-10 finishes in her last four races, one of the best stretches of her three-year NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career. It isn’t just about finishing in the top-10 either. Patrick has also run in the top-20 in five of the nine races, which would put her on pace for 20 top-20 finishes this season, six more than last year.

In the nine races this season, Patrick has finished on the lead lap in six of them, a clip of 66.7%. In her initial two seasons, the best percentage of lead lap finishes came last year when she came to the finish line on the same lap as the winner in 19 of 36 races (52.7). In her first full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series, Patrick finished on the lead lap in just 12 of the 36 races.

One of the reasons I have noticed that seems to contribute to her higher finishes and more lead lap finishes is that she has been less aggressive than in the first year and a half of her Sprint Cup Series career. By that, I don’t mean that she isn’t racing hard or isn’t trying to pass cars and race for position. What it means is that she has learned when to drive defensively and when to go on the offensive.

There have been numerous times this season when a wreck happened in front of her and she was able to navigate her way through without any damage. In the past, she would have put her nose down in and tried to push her way through, which would normally lead to her being involved in the wreck.

This improvement for Patrick actually began in the last part of 2014, as she finished in the top-20 in seven of the final 12 races and also finished on the lead lap in eight of those races. Included in that stretch was one of her two top-10 finishes when she came in a career-best 6th at Atlanta. So over her last 21 races, Patrick has 14 lead lap finishes and has finished in the top-20 12 times, with three top-10s.

Those are the kind of numbers that should give fans hope that Patrick can become a true contender to at least make the Chase. And also why it makes it curious that GoDaddy would pick now to announce they will not be returning after this season as her primary sponsor. One positive is that if she continues on a positive trajectory, it might be easier for her to obtain another full-time sponsor for 2016.

After all, I have said before that if Danica Patrick can add on-track success to the off-track notoriety she brings, she could be an unstoppable force in NASCAR.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.

No Matter the Final Score, Steve Byrnes Defeated Cancer

Sports give us an escape from everyday trials and tribulations. Or least they should.

They are supposed to be a distraction. They are supposed to entertain us and allow us to get away from all of life’s worries for a few hours. They aren’t supposed to make your heart feel heavy or your tear ducts swell up (unless it is happy tears because who you were rooting for wins a championship).

But cancer doesn’t care about all of that.

Cancer doesn’t care who you are rooting for. It doesn’t distinguish between good guys and bad guys, favorites and underdogs. And unfortunately, that reality hit the NASCAR community (actually, the entire racing community) hard this past week as Steve Byrnes passed away after his battle with cancer.

I, like many others who have expressed their condolences, never actually met Steve Byrnes. But it still felt like he was someone I knew. After all, he came into my living room on a regular basis bringing me the latest NASCAR news or interviews with drivers. He was one of the best there was and according to those who actually knew the man, he was better than that.

On Sunday, Bristol Motor Speedway and NASCAR came together and renamed the Food City 500 to the Food City 500 In Support of Steve Byrnes and Stand up to Cancer. While Byrnes was unable to attend, his family was there as Byrnes watched and tweeted out his gratitude. NASCAR on FOX put together an amazing pre-race video in honor of Byrnes, with his son Bryson being the final one to talk.

And then Monday night came word that the family was in need of thoughts and prayers and it made you start to wonder how much time Byrnes had left. That didn’t stop him from posing for picture (and of course smiling) when his nephew visited him in the hospital. It was a picture that instantly made its way around Twitter and brought with it a battle of emotions. You could see that he wasn’t doing well but you could also see that smile.

Again, cancer didn’t care. It didn’t take mercy on one of the good guys. Cancer knew it was in for a fight because not only was Byrnes strong, but he had a hell of a support system around him. And Byrnes fought right down to the end.

When Byrnes passed away on Tuesday, the racing community basically took over Twitter and relayed their memories of Byrnes, one after another after another. Like I said, I never had the pleasure of meeting Steve Byrnes. And while I shouldn’t feel the need to cry when someone I have never met passes away, I couldn’t help but shed a few tears for the man.

I have read (and watched) numerous tributes to Byrnes in the past few days. Each and every one is just as gut-wrenching and tear-jerking as the next, while also being heartwarming. Hearing and reading drivers and colleagues eulogize a man that they all loved and all respected has been a silver lining to a terrible week. To see the racing community come together as a whole to honor him would probably put a smile on Byrnes’ face, but would also make him uncomfortable from the attention.

No matter the context, the final tweet that Byrnes sent out was perfect:

While thinking about the journey Byrnes took and the fight that he showed over the past few months while battling cancer, I couldn’t help but think about a passage in the speech that Stuart Scott delivered at the ESPYs last summer.

“When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner in which you live. So live. Live. Fight like Hell. And when you get too tired to fight, lay down and rest and let somebody else fight for you.”

That passage fits Byrnes perfectly. He lived. He fought. And he let others fight for him when he felt like he couldn’t. Like Scott, Byrnes didn’t lose the fight to cancer. Byrnes went the distance in his fight with cancer and has been declared a winner on every scorecard.

Byrnes also exemplified what Jim Valvano said in closing in his 1993 ESPYs speech:

Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.”

At no point did it seem that Byrnes had allowed cancer to touch his mind, his heart or his soul.

Maybe cancer thinks it won this round because Byrnes ultimately passed away. But that’s not accurate. Byrnes won. And we won. Because we got to see a man fight for his life and become an inspiration even in his darkest hours. We saw a man smile when he should frown, laugh when he should cry and send out positive message when it would have been easier to give up.

So once again, cancer loses.

Because F*** cancer.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.

 

 

NASCAR Should Waive Chase Requirements for Kyle Busch

NASCAR might just be in a position to which it has grown accustomed – changing the rules on the fly. Only this time, it would be warranted as long as it is done right.

When Kyle Busch crashed with just 10 laps to go in the first NASCAR Xfinity Series race of the season at Daytona, it looked as if his season might be over. After all, he suffered a compound fracture in his lower right leg and a fracture in his left foot and underwent operations on each injury. But it looks like the season may not be over for Busch. When meeting with the media on Wednesday, Busch said that he is eyeing a possible return to the track in July. That would be less than five months after the wreck.

And his return would put the pressure on NASCAR to make a decision on whether Busch would be able to gain eligibility for the Chase for the Sprint Cup if he can pull off a win before the beginning of the Chase.

If Busch can indeed return at Daytona for the race on Fourth of July weekend, it would give him 10 races to try to earn a win before the Chase begins. At the 10 tracks where he would be racing before the Chase, Busch has won at eight of them, with five wins at Bristol, four wins at Richmond and two wins at Watkins Glen. Altogether, he has 16 wins combined at the 10 tracks. So the possibility of him picking up a win seems like it would be pretty good.

A win in one of those 10 races would normally qualify him for the Chase. However, there are more stipulations than just finding victory lane.

To qualify for the Chase, a driver has to be one of the 16 drivers with the most wins (or basically at least win one race in the season’s first 26) and be inside the top-30 in the points standings. The other way to qualify is if there are not 16 different winners in the first 26 races, the Chase field is filled out by the drivers with the most points and zero wins. The driver must also at least attempt to qualify for each race in the Sprint Cup Series season.

Since Busch will miss significant time, he would not be able to make up enough points to put himself inside the top-30 in points, nor will he have enough points to qualify without a win. But because NASCAR is NASCAR and it has a history of bending the rules at a moment’s notice, it stands to reason that NASCAR could waive the top-30 requirement for Busch should he find his way into victory lane.

And while I am usually against the constant changing of the rules, I think NASCAR should give Busch a special exemption from having to finish inside the top-30 to make the Chase. With one stipulation – should he make the Chase, he would be an additional Chase member along with the original 16 drivers who earned their spots. Then instead of four drivers eliminated after the “Challenger Round,” NASCAR could eliminate five drivers and still have just 12 advance.

NASCAR added a spot for Jeff Gordon at the last minute in 2013, so why not do so in advance for Busch here just in case?

The main reason I believe NASCAR should grant the waiver to Busch is that the driver was injured in an event in one of the top three series in NASCAR as he was injured while racing for a win in the Xfinity Series. It isn’t like he was out messing around during some down time and got injured outside of the track.

While I have made it clear how much I hate that NASCAR allows (and probably encourages) the regulars from the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to participate in Xfinity Series races, this is a situation where I have to back the driver. NASCAR allows the drivers to participate in the Xfinity Series and the Camping World Truck Series, so they should also take that into consideration if the driver is injured in one of the races and not able to run the entire Sprint Cup Series schedule.

While this would be the biggest adjustment NASCAR has made for a single driver in the new concept of the Chase, it is one that should be done. Kyle Busch should be Chase eligible if he comes back from that wreck and somehow finds his way to a win before the Chase.

NASCAR should just do what it does – make up the rules on the fly. At least this time it would make sense.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.

 

NASCAR Relationship With Phil Robertson Speaks to Inconsistency on Acceptance

As with just about everything else, it seems that NASCAR just can’t come to a consistent stance on the issue of gay rights and acceptance.

When the new “religious freedom” law in Indiana was announced, people were outraged that a state could pass a law that was so discriminatory against the gay and lesbian community. As the law gained attention, people and companies came out in support of LGBT rights and tolerance, including NASCAR.

NASCAR Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Brett Jewkes said in a statement that NASCAR was disappointed by the decision in Indiana and that the sport would not embrace intolerance or exclusion.

“NASCAR is disappointed by the recent legislation passed in Indiana. We will not embrace nor participate in exclusion or intolerance. We are committed to diversity and inclusion within our sport and therefore will continue to welcome all competitors and fans at our events in the state of Indiana and anywhere else we race.”

For NASCAR, it was important to put out a statement in a timely fashion since it will be in Indiana in July for the Crown Royal 400 at the Brickyard. In theory, it was a great statement by NASCAR and one that could be taken as a big step.

Only one problem – the statement isn’t completely accurate.

As long as you have money to spend with NASCAR, the sport will look past your beliefs and even the things you say publicly on just about any subject, including this one. Don’t believe me? Look at the very next race on the NASCAR schedule after that statement was made – that’s right, it is the The Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday, April 12.

Not familiar with Duck Commander? Well, it is the company that was started by Phil Robertson and has morphed into the hit television show “Duck Dynasty.” Members of the Robertson family (and popular characters on the show) are scheduled to take part in some of the pre-race festivities at the track. That includes Phil Robertson waving the green flag to begin The Duck Commander 500.

Why is this problematic for NASCAR? Well, let’s just say that Robertson hasn’t exactly been a pillar of acceptance. In fact, he has been quite the opposite.

In an interview in the January 2014 issue of GQ Magazine, Robertson spoke his mind on all subjects, including his opinion on gay marriage. The statement originally got Robertson suspended by A&E, the network who airs “Duck Dynasty.”

“It seems like, to me, a vagina — as a man — would be more desirable than a man’s anus.  That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical. Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong. Sin becomes fine. Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers — they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

That raises a huge issue – a red flag, if you will – for NASCAR. How can the sport preach acceptance one minute and then allow Robertson – who has been very outspoken on the opposite side of the aisle on the issue – to stand on the flag stand and begin the race?

The answer seems pretty simple – it can’t. At the end of the day, NASCAR needs to step in and decide that it is in its best interest to not have Robertson waving the green flag and representing the sport. Of course, the part making that more difficult is that Robertson and his company are lining the pockets of NASCAR and Texas Motor Speedway by sponsoring the race. The three-year deal between Duck Commander and Texas Motor Speedway is estimated at around $5 million – and that just includes the naming rights. Imagine the other money being brought in with ticket and merchandise sales.

If NASCAR wants to save any shred of respect and credibility it has remaining, there needs to be a serious decision on this – does NASCAR stand on the side of acceptance or on the side of money? That’s an interesting conundrum, especially considering the parties involved here. Robertson – a preacher and devout Christian – could easily point to a verse in the Bible that would give NASCAR the answer they need but would also work against him.

“For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil…” 1 Timothy 6:10

For the sake of the sport, let’s hope NASCAR values their integrity over the almighty dollar. But if I had to bet my money on it, I would wager that NASCAR sticks with Phil Robertson. After all, the flag he will be waving isn’t the only green between the patriarch of Duck Commander and NASCAR.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.

NASCAR Hoping Kurt Busch Doesn't Make The Chase

Sometimes a gesture of good faith that you really don’t want to take blows up in your face. This could very well be the case with NASCAR when it comes to the decision to allow Kurt Busch to be eligible for the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup should he meet the requirements necessary.

The 36-year-old Busch was suspended indefinitely on the Friday prior to the Daytona 500 (February 20) after the Kent County (Delaware) Family Court commissioner released a finding that shows he believed that Busch did indeed commit an act of domestic abuse against former girlfriend Patricia Driscoll. The court also had earlier in the week issued of a protective order against Busch.

When the Delaware Attorney General decided not to pursue criminal charges against Busch on Thursday, March 5, NASCAR took some time and then reinstated Busch the following Wednesday, ending what effectively was a three-race suspension. When NASCAR announced the end of Busch’s suspension, it did so by also saying that if Busch qualified for a spot in the Chase, he would be permitted into the field.

To qualify for the Chase, a driver has to be one of the 16 drivers with the most wins (or basically at least win one race in the season’s first 26) and be inside the top-30 in the points standings. The other way to qualify is if there are not 16 different winners in the first 26 races, the Chase field is filled out by the drivers with the most points and zero wins. In 2014, that meant finishing in the top-10 in points.

One caveat to qualifying for the Chase has been that the driver must not only fall in one of the above categories, but must also attempt to qualify for each race unless NASCAR gives them a waiver. Last season, NASCAR gave a waiver to Tony Stewart after he missed three races following the incident that led to the death of Kevin Ward, Jr. Stewart ultimately missed the Chase. This season, NASCAR decided to waive that rule for Brian Vickers after the driver was forced to miss the first two races of the season due to health issues. Vickers has since experienced more health issues that have again forced him out of the car.

And then NASCAR granted that same waiver to Busch.

After missing three races, Busch was 42 points out of 30th-place and was 85 points out of 10th-place if we use 2014 as a measuring stick. To be in the top 16, Busch would need to make up 77 points. That would not be an easy task. And this is something that had to be going through the minds of those in charge at NASCAR.

For NASCAR, it looked like a good gesture. And one that was worth taking.

By waiving the rule about attempting to qualify for all 26 races leading to the Chase and allowing him to take a spot in the Chase should he overcome a huge hole to qualify, NASCAR admitted to an extent that maybe it screwed up and acted too soon in suspending Busch. Even if they didn’t really want to see Busch in the Chase because of the offseason issues, it seemed like a stretch that Busch would be able to make up enough ground to make the Chase, especially within the first few weeks. After all, he hadn’t even been in a car since before the first race of the season.

Making itself look good by offering an olive branch while also figuring that Busch wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the opportunity? Sounded like a win-win for NASCAR.

What the executives at NASCAR didn’t expect was for Busch to go out and finish fifth in his first race back at Phoenix. And they sure didn’t expect Busch to go out the next week and take the pole and finish third at Fontana. All of a sudden, Busch was in 28th-place in the standings after just two races. That would make him Chase eligible if he could just pick up a win.

Oh, that win? Yeah, Busch almost grabbed that in the race at Fontana.

Busch led down the stretch and was headed for victory when a caution flag flew for debris. And then with Busch leading on the green-white-checkered attempt, NASCAR decided not to throw a caution flag when Greg Biffle wrecked behind the lead pack. That was in direct contradiction to what happened in the Daytona 500, when NASCAR threw the caution flag on the green-white-checkered attempt, allowing Joey Logano to find victory lane. After the caution didn’t fly in Fontana, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick passed Busch, who finished third.

While I don’t believe there was a conspiracy in place from NASCAR to keep Busch from winning, I do believe that there were some happy campers in the NASCAR offices. They were able to keep Kurt Busch out of the Chase for at least another week. You have to think that some of the higher ups who make all of the decisions within NASCAR have to fear the thought that Kurt Busch might make the Chase, which would bring his offseason back into the spotlight. And there is no way they wanted to see Busch win in just his second race back with the scab still fresh.

In his third race of the season last week, Busch finished 14th and pushed himself into 24th in the points standings. He sits 21 points clear of the 31st position, giving him enough of a cushion for now to go after the win that would make him Chase eligible.

Busch has to be making the NASCAR executives uneasy by showing that he still has the equipment and the ability to compete at a high level and just possibly enough to pull off a win and crash the Chase party, something NASCAR can’t possibly want to have happen. NASCAR would prefer not to have any distractions during its “playoffs” and would like to avoid a situation where the non-race stories overshadow the actual Chase, unlike what happened in this past season’s NFL playoffs.

If you remember, Ray Rice was a topic of conversation each time the Baltimore Ravens played. And then who could forget the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, which was loaded with stories about deflated footballs and Marshawn Lynch’s treatment of the media. People didn’t bother to talk about the actual game between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots, just the stories and the drama that was happening around the two teams.

If Kurt Busch is able to make the Chase, there is no doubt that the focus of the stories surrounding him would be the suspension and the off-track stuff that has happened. There would be more talk about whether NASCAR was wrong or right in its original suspension and then discussion on if NASCAR was right to reinstate him and allow him to become Chase eligible.

The last thing NASCAR wants is negative attention taking away from their precious Chase format that it feels is finally done correctly (for now). NASCAR would rather stand on a pedestal and tell you everything that is right about the sport and try to sweep the stories that leave a black eye on the sport under the rug. But if Busch makes the Chase, there won’t be a housekeeping crew that is good enough to sweep away the stories that will arise.

As much as NASCAR may not want to admit it, they don’t want Kurt Busch in the Chase. But by giving him the opportunity to be eligible, there may not be anything they can do to stop him.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.

 

Chase Elliott Better Equipped Than Others As He Makes Sprint Cup Series Debut

The future is now for Hendrick Motorsports and Chase Elliott. Ok, maybe not right now. But it is really close.

This weekend, Elliott will make his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut for Hendrick, where he will take over the No.24 Chevrolet being vacated by Jeff Gordon starting next season. First things first, though, as Elliott will drive in five races this season in the Sprint Cup Series to get himself accustomed to the series.

This just might be the most anticipated Sprint Cup Series debut since Danica Patrick climbed into a Sprint Cup Series ride for the first time at the 2012 Daytona 500. Patrick finished that race 38th and had a best finish of 17th in her 10 races that season, which included six finishes of 29th or worse.

While there is a buzz of confidence and anticipation surrounding the Sprint Cup debut of Elliott, it is important to remember that it is still his debut and he is going to make that debut at a tough track. It is also important to note that the last two Xfinity Series champions have not exactly had success in their first races at the sport’s premier level.

When Austin Dillon made his Sprint Cup Series debut in 2011, he finished 26th at Kansas and then came back in 2012 with a 24th-place finish at Michigan. In 2013, he saw action 11 times in the Sprint Cup Series with a best finish of 11th and an average finish of 23.1.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. fared a little better in his Sprint Cup Series debut in 2011, finishing 11th at Charlotte. In 2012, he ran four races in the Sprint Cup Series and had a best finish of 12th but also had finishes of 35th and 39th.

In 135 combined races in the Sprint Cup Series, Dillon and Stenhouse Jr. have yet to find victory lane and have just three top-5s and 12 top-10s. Stenhouse Jr. is in his third full-time season in the series, while Dillon is in his sophomore season.

There are a couple of differences between Elliott and his predecessors, however.

For one, Elliott won his Xfinity Series championship before making his debut in the Sprint Cup Series. Stenhouse Jr. won his Xfinity Series title in the same season he made his Sprint Cup Series debut, while Dillon made his Sprint Cup Series debut two seasons before hoisting the championship trophy in the Xfinity Series. For Elliott, he was able to concentrate on winning his Xfinity Seires championship last season while not having to worry about making the jump to the Sprint Cup Series even for one or a handful of races.

Another advantage that Elliott will have is that he is driving for Hendrick Motorsports. The first race of Elliott’s Sprint Cup Series career probably could not have been chosen more perfectly by the team, as Hendrick Motorsports has won four of the last five races at Martinsville Speedway, including the most recent race at the track won by Dale Earnhardt Jr. last October.

If Elliott needs any advice, he won’t have to look far for someone to ask. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon each have eight wins at Martinsville, while Earnhardt Jr. is the defending champion of the fall race. Gordon (28), Johnson (18), Earnhardt Jr. (12) and Kasey Kahne (3) have a combined 61 top-5s at Martinsville as well.  Not to mention that between Gordon and Johnson, the Hendrick Motorsports stable holds 10 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships.

Elliott will also be getting a veteran crew chief for his five races in the Sprint Cup Series this season, as Kenny Francis will be on top of the box for the No. 25 Chevrolet. Francis has a history with Hendrick Motorsports, as he was the crew chief for Kasey Kahne the last three seasons. In those three seasons for Hendrick, Kahne recorded five wins and made the Chase for the Sprint Cup all three seasons, including a career-best finish of 4th in the standings in 2012.  All total, Francis and Kahne combined for 16 wins with three teams from 2006-2014. It also can’t hurt that Francis has worked with Chase’s father Bill Elliott in the past.

Oh yes – Bill Elliott. Let’s not forget about the genes when it comes to Chase Elliott.

Elliott can always look to his father Bill – better known as Awesome Bill from Dawsonville – the 1988 Sprint Cup Series champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner. The elder Elliott found victory lane 44 times in his Sprint Cup Series career. While Bill Elliott never won at Martinsville, he has 45 races under his belt at the track with three top-5s and 14 top-10s. That is plenty of experience that he can pass along to Chase should the younger Elliott come calling to his father.

While expectations should be tempered a bit this season as Elliott drives the No. 25 Chevrolet for the first time this weekend, it is easy to see that the path to success has been paved about as well as it can be for the 19-year-old.

So maybe the future really is now for Hendrick Motorsports and Chase Elliott. And the future is bright.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.

 

Akron Zips Rightfully Turn Down Postseason Bid

And just like that, the season has come to an end for the Akron Zips men’s basketball team.

There will be no postseason berth for the Akron Zips this season, ending a streak of seven straight seasons in which Akron has been in one tournament or another following the Mid-American Conference Tournament. The decision was not made by the tournaments themselves, however, as it ultimately came down to Akron head coach Keith Dambrot deciding that at this time it was better for his team to turn down any postseason offer.

“After evaluating our current position, I feel it is in the best interest of our players and our program not to play in the postseason this year,” Dambrot said in a release on the team’s website. “We have several players nursing injuries and have missed a lot of class time over the past few weeks. We would like to thank the postseason tournament committees for their interest in having us continue our season.”

Akron finished the season 21-14 after losing to Buffalo on Friday night in the MAC semifinals. Including Friday night’s loss, Akron had played four games in five nights and players were physically and mentally fatigued. Add in the injuries to guys like Pat Forsythe, who played in the tournament but was nursing turf toe, and Noah Robotham, who missed the final few games of the season with a torn ACL, and Dambrot made the right decision.

“At this point with group that is pretty beat up, we just played 35 games, I would have to think about that one,” Dambrot said Friday night. “Forsythe is not really healthy and the little guy (Antino Jackson) is beat up.”

Under Dambrot, the Zips are 2-8 in the postseason, with two wins coming in the National Invitational Tournament – one each in 2006 and 2008. The win in 2006 over Temple was the first postseason win for Akron as a Division I program. In the last six postseason appearances, the Zips have been eliminated in the first round. That includes three NCAA Tournaments, one NIT, one CBI and one CIT.

Dambrot knew Friday night that the Zips would have a chance to play in the postseason, but he wasn’t sure at that point what the decision would be on their end as to if they wanted to take the invitation or not.

“The competitor in me says yes and then the rational thinker says no in some regards,” Dambrot said. “The reason I say that is the purpose of playing is to improve for next year and also the competitiveness of it. It’s a tough question to answer right now because really all I care about is the NCAA Tournament.”

While the decision ultimately was up to Dambrot and he athletic administration, the head coach did say Friday night that he would consult his players before making any final decision on the matter.

“I am not a monarch or a dictator, I kind of view myself as the manager of their team. It’s their team,” Dambrot said. “I want them to understand what the big prize is but I also want them to understand the importance of wanting to play and how quickly it can be gone.”

The decision could not have been any easy one for Dambrot, who is a competitor. But at the end of the day, there were more factors than just playing and having a chance to continue the season that had to be weighed.

“It’s a dilemma. It’s a moral dilemma,” Dambrot said Friday night. “It’s not one of the more important moral dilemmas in our country but it’s a moral dilemma.”

While fans may want to see this team keep playing – and I am sure some of the players would like to play as well – Dambrot and Akron made the right call on this one.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.

Akron Zips Can’t Avoid Potholes in MAC Tournament Format

The road to win the Mid-American Conference Tournament for the Akron Zips was full of as may potholes as most of the roads around Northeast Ohio. On Friday night, one of those potholes was too big for the Zips to avoid, as they lost 68-59 to the Buffalo Bulls in the semifinals.

The road that began at home on Monday with a win over Northern Illinois and then continued to Cleveland where the Zips defeated Western Michigan and Kent State was a long and winding one that took its toll on the Zips.

“All these games wear and tear on your body,” Akron junior wing Jake Kretzer said. “We were ice batching after every game up in our hotel rooms, doing whatever we could do to get the win.”

Akron has always prided itself on being a program that doesn’t make excuses, but you simply couldn’t watch the game on Friday night and not notice how exhausted the players in the blue uniforms looked by the time it was all over. And who could blame them? As if playing three games in four nights coming in wasn’t enough, the Zips had played a knock-down, drag-out affair with Kent State the night before.

“If you watched that game last night, it hard to figure out who you would want to play. Those two teams slugged it out,” Buffalo coach Bobby Hurley said when asked if he would have rather played Akron or Kent State. “Maybe just knowing that Akron played three straight days and down the stretch we were able to get to the glass a lot, I think that benefitted us having some fresh legs.”

And then the part that isn’t as obvious to onlookers during the game would be that Akron had to be worn out in the mental phase of the game as well. After all, this was their fourth straight game this week in a win-or-go-home scenario.

“Mentally, it’s crazy,” Kretzer said. “We’ve been away from school all week. We’ve been thinking about winning this MAC tournament.”

Despite how tired Akron may have been, they knew that the man roaming their sideline wasn’t going to let them give up or give in, even when Buffalo started the second half on a 6-0 run to take a 39-32 lead after Akron had worked to get the deficit to just one at halftime. Head Coach Keith Dambrot expects more of his team and he demands such from the players.

“Coach kept our heads in it and kept saying ‘show toughness, I don’t want to see any tiredness out there’”, Kretzer said. “So we kept showing toughness and kept playing as hard as we can.”

What the night showed was how difficult it is for a team who doesn’t at least grab one of the top four seeds in the MAC’s tournament format that is now in its fourth season. By getting the No. 7 seed, Akron played Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and would had to play Saturday to win the tournament had it won on Friday. Meanwhile, Buffalo getting the No. 2 seed meant that the Bulls earned a bye straight into the semifinals along with No. 1 seed Central Michigan, whom they will face in Saturday’s championship game.

“We had played three games, they had played no games so they had a little more juice than we had,” Dambrot said. “Simple as that. You can sit there and analyze it all you want, they more energy than we had.”

Just how difficult is it for teams who play on Monday to get to the championship game? In the four years of the current format, only Eastern Michigan last season had made it as far as the semifinals before Akron did it this season. In fact, this year marks the third year in a row that the top two seeds will meet for the championship and the league’s automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament. The only exception to the rule was Ohio in 2012, who ironically won the tournament as the No. 3 seed and then went on to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. That Bobcats team is also the last MAC team to win a game in the NCAA Tournament.

By winning three games, Akron became the lowest seed to make the tournament semifinals in the current format and reached the semifinals for the 10th straight season. Akron had played in seven consecutive tournament championship games before having that streak snapped last season.

Unfortunately for this year’s Zips, the potholes were just too large to miss on their way to championship game.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.