by Julian Spivey
Jimmie Johnson has never gotten any love from me. He’s the best driver in NASCAR. He drives for the best team in the sport in Hendrick Motorsports. He has the best crew chief in the sport in Chad Knauss. His No. 48 team is the New York Yankees of NASCAR in that he’s supposedly the favorite every season and backs it up more often than not. He’s also, in my opinion, boring.
But, Jimmie Johnson had the most apt sponsor I’ve ever seen in my 15 years of watching NASCAR when he went to Victory Lane at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. on Sunday afternoon (March 20) – Superman. It was part of the promotion for the upcoming movie blockbuster “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove the Batman car) and his car featured that iconic Superman ‘S’ on the hood of his car. It’s the most apt sponsor I’ve ever seen in the sport because Johnson is NASCAR’s Superman. And, you know he wanted to prove it on Sunday with that ‘S’ on his car more than he’s ever wanted to before.
Johnson didn’t have the most dominant car on Sunday afternoon – that was Kevin Harvick, who looked like he was going to be Superman’s kryptonite and run away with victory, but a late-race caution gave Johnson and others a chance at beating Harvick and like the superhero he is Johnson willed his way past Harvick and Denny Hamlin on the final restart and flew away to victory. Relishing in his win the almost always buttoned-down Johnson actually donned a Superman cape in Victory Lane and in postrace interviews. I for the first time in my life – maybe because my favorite driver Jeff Gordon just retired and I can completely respect the greatness in his best competitor and teammate – actually felt happy for Johnson.
Johnson’s win in the Superman car is really one of the most symbolic statements I’ve ever seen in the sport. The legendary Dale Earnhardt is considered the greatest driver in NASCAR history by many and Johnson’s win at Auto Club Speedway (the seventh of his career at the track) surpassed Earnhardt on the all-time wins list with 77. Johnson surpassed Earnhardt’s win total in 164 fewer races (that’s four and a half fewer seasons). It’s almost impossible for Johnson to one day become the winningest driver in NASCAR Sprint Cup history as Richard Petty amassed 200 wins in an era where there wasn’t as much competition. This is what truly makes Johnson a superhero. He’s won 77 races and six championships (and he likely isn’t done with that either) in the sport’s most competitive era where he’s raced against the likes of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Harvick, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and those are just his fellow champions. Johnson could retire at this very moment and you could make the claim he’s the greatest driver NASCAR has ever seen and yet he’s still arguably the biggest threat each and every week.
He might not be the most exciting driver in the garage, but there’s little doubt he’s the greatest – some might actually say the same thing about Superman when it comes to legendary comic book superheroes.
by Julian Spivey
Around this time every year there seems to be a raging debate, especially on social media sites like Twitter, over which form of basketball is greater – college basketball or NBA. Because this is the time of the year for the NCAA Men’s College Basketball tournament or March Madness, which this year’s installment truly has been, people often lean on the side of college ball being the best.
I’m not sure anybody really needs to choose up sides here – both forms of the game are exciting, interesting and well-worth our time as sports fans – but I will put my two cents in for the NBA being better. The NBA features the very best basketball players in the world making a lot of money because they are the best. College basketball, even in the NCAA Tournament, simply isn’t the best players performing – in fact, a small percentage of players in the tournament will ever make the professional ranks. The player favored as the number one draft pick in this summer’s upcoming NBA Draft – LSU’s Ben Simmons – didn’t make the tournament.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that March Madness or the NCAA Tournament as a singular sporting event isn’t more exciting than anything the NBA can offer, including the NBA Finals, but it is a good example of why the game of college basketball isn’t exactly better than the NBA.
The common quote seen or heard around this time of the year is that college basketball players seem to have more hustle, heart or simply try harder. This isn’t really the case – it’s just that the pros in the NBA are so damn good at what they do their games often come off as effortless. Just look at how easy Golden State Warriors superstar and reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry makes the game look. Are you going to tell me he isn’t giving his all? If he looks like he isn’t it’s because he’s that good at giving his all.
March Madness gives us the highlights we crave as sports fans, particularly in a social media world where we can all marvel at moments in GIFs and Vines. It gives us nail-biters, overtime thrillers and buzzer beaters (there have been multiple of these and some close-calls that were overturned on review too). The tournament also gives us Cinderella stories, though I’d argue no true Cinderella made it to the Sweet Sixteen this year, which gives the great narrative of the underdog defeating the Goliaths of the sport. The storylines are terrific, but at times they cover up some truly horrifically sloppy play, a ton of missed free throws and frequent sleeping on defense. Sure, there is the occasional sloppiness on the professional ranks, as well, but you don’t see it as often because the better teams, the ones televised, don’t have these moments occur often.
Another thing that’s often missed in the high of March Madness’ opening weekend is most of the moments we truly love about the tournament come-and-go in its first four days. There was so much excitement over the last days that we’ve possibly fooled ourselves into forgetting that frequently the last two weekends of the tournament don’t have a quarter of the excitement as the first two – with Cinderellas mostly falling to the wayside and the usual suspects stepping forward (just look at the brackets they’ve already stepped forward: North Carolina, Kansas, Duke, Syracuse, Gonzaga, Villanova).
The best example of why college basketball isn’t a better game than the NBA, but March Madness might be more exciting than anything the NBA can offer, is the difference in 48 hours of Northern Iowa player Paul Jesperson. Jesperson hit the biggest shot of the tournament in the first round when his heave from beyond half court at the buzzer sent his No. 11 Panthers past the No. 5 Texas Longhorns. It’s a shot that made me jump to my feet and shout with glee, “He made it! He made it!” like I was a child. But, Jesperson would go from hero and best shot of the tourney to goat and taking the absolute worst shot of the tourney in just 48 hours. On Sunday night, his Panthers should’ve beaten an even better team from Texas – No. 3 Texas A&M, but collapsed in the final minute and the Aggies sent the game into overtime. The Panthers arguably still should’ve won the ballgame as they had the ball with six seconds remaining in a tie game. Jesperson had the ball and could’ve easily made it all the to the hoop or gotten a better, closer look in that time, but inexplicably with four seconds on the clock he heaved another shot from beyond half court that missed badly. I blame it on him being temporarily lobotomized and forgetting how much time was on the clock, but it’s completely possible that his heroics from two nights before had gone to his head and he felt as if he was the white, taller version of Steph Curry and could make anything at that point. His team lost in the second overtime. It was one of the most colossally worst decisions I’ve ever seen on a basketball court – and something I’ve never seen before in the professional ranks, and doubt I ever will. It perfectly encapsulated college basketball. It’s wild, it’s unpredictable and that makes it at times exciting and at times infuriating to watch and these moments can happen in the span of just a few seconds. What it doesn’t make college basketball is a better game than the NBA.
by Eric Fulton
Peyton Manning announced his retirement from the National Football League (NFL) on Monday (March 7) after 18 years. Manning owns just about every single passing record in NFL history including completions, touchdowns and passing yards. Manning was also one of the greatest clutch comeback quarterbacks ever with more game-winning drives than any other QB in NFL history. For those who have followed his career in college at Tennessee to becoming the first overall pick with the Indianapolis Colts in 1998 to spending his last four years with the Denver Broncos many of these fans think he is the greatest player in NFL history.
No doubt Peyton Manning is one of the greatest players in NFL history, but exactly the greatest player ever is a bit of a stretch. Though he had a great 18-year career and he is a first ballot Hall of Famer, Manning never really had the best career in NFL history. Take his rookie year for example. He threw more interceptions than any rookie quarterback in league history. That is a record that still holds today. Also, if you think Manning is still the greatest player ever, think about his playoff history. Throughout his last 16 years, his teams were usually Super Bowl contenders. They would have home-field advantage in most of the games, but his teams would lose those games and when you consider that they would lose to young quarterbacks such as Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Joe Flacco, a couple of them going on to win Super Bowls, you would think that something was wrong with Manning’s game.
It was not all Peyton’s fault losing all those playoff games, including the ones against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots (Manning only won 6 of 17 games all-time versus Brady), but considering he was the face of the franchise in both Indianapolis and Denver, just about all the blame would be pinned against him. Some of it was not fair, but the majority of it indeed was. He could have led his teams to more Super Bowl titles.
Yes, all Manning lovers can say John Elway won just two Super Bowls, Brett Favre only won one and Dan Marino didn’t win any. True, but remember Peyton owns all of their records so the hype and expectations are greater. Another interesting fact is that Manning finished his career tied for the most wins with Favre at 196 and his little brother, Eli with two Super Bowl champions. If I am considered one of the best ever, shouldn’t I pass people instead of finishing tied, especially in Super Bowls with a lesser QB. Eli will have at least one more good crack at forever passing Peyton at Super Bowl rings. Eli also beat Brady twice to get those rings. Another insult to injury.
Peyton Manning will forever be one of the all-time greats. There are a few cloudy issues he is dealing with off the field now that he is riding in the sunset. No doubt he achieved a lot in his great career and we will see in Canton, Ohio in the year 2021. But the greatest ever? Fans of Peyton would say yes (well, most of them), but everyone else who loves to see the whole picture, he is just not the greatest ever.
by Julian Spivey
For the entirety of my adult life I’ve had to defend my fandom of NASCAR from people believing the only fans of the sport to be rednecks, bigots and ignorant or simple-minded people. It’s not often easy being someone who’s more liberal minded and a fan of a sport with a large conservative fan-base, but I developed a liking to NASCAR when I was around 13 or 14 years old and it stuck. Literally every time someone finds out I’m a NASCAR fan I have to defend myself and explain how all of us fans aren’t ignorant rednecks. I often explain to them that NASCAR is just a sport and sports don’t have political affiliations or opinions.
With one endorsement on Monday night (Feb. 29) all of that fighting for the sport and defending it and trying to get people to realize it isn’t just for simple-minded people has likely gone out the window. At a Donald Trump for President rally at Valdosta State University in Georgia on Monday NASCAR CEO Brian France along with current drivers Ryan Newman, David Ragan, Chase Elliott and NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott endorsed Trump for President of the United States.
France, who has known Trump for more than two decades, said: “He wins with his family. Any of his children, you’d be proud to have them as part of your family. That’s how I judge a winner, how somebody manages their family and raises their family.”
NASCAR legend Bill Elliott said: “We need a change, guys. That’s all there is to it. And I think this is the man for the job.”
Never have I been more ashamed to be a fan of NASCAR. France has done a lot of harm to the actual racing or on-track product of the sport in his more than a decade tenure in charge of it, but on Monday night he also did likely irreparable damage to its image and integrity. And, the dumbest thing of it all is this comes less than a year after NASCAR both tried to cut ties with the Confederate flag imagery at its races and cut ties with Trump himself over comments he made about Mexican immigrants being murderers and rapists by removing their championship banquets for the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series from a Trump-owned hotel.
I guess a lot has changed in the seven months since then. Trump has gotten even more bigoted and controversial and now all of a sudden a sport that’s been trying to diversify itself over the last few years has fallen head over heels for him.
How is this supposed to make minority fans of the sport, albeit a small fraction of the fan-base, feel? Hell, how does it make Mexican-born driver Daniel Suarez feel?
A lot has been made lately about how Trump is the favorite candidate of white supremacist groups and the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke has endorsed him and Trump has refused to disavow that endorsement or call out his white supremacist supporters. How does NASCAR feel about jumping on board with a candidate who also has the support of racist hate groups?
NASCAR Vice President David Higdon told Yahoo Sports on Monday night that France’s endorsement of Trump was a “private personal decision by Brian.” However, when France decided to endorse Trump at a public event that was carried on national television it was no longer private and him being the face of NASCAR and having current and former NASCAR drivers at the event also endorsing Trump with him makes it look to the public like it’s the sport endorsing Trump. Not just that, but Trump essentially told the world that the sport was, in fact, endorsing him by saying in a press release: “I am proud to receive the endorsement of such an iconic brand and a quality person such as Brian.” And, nobody from the sport refuted his statement. Trump said at the rally, “If the people that like and watch NASCAR vote for Donald Trump, they can cancel the election right now. Nobody else can win. Nobody.”
France’s decision to endorse Trump could prove to be a remarkably bad business move and he’s already pissed off one of the sports major sponsors. Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis tweeted on Monday night: “There is no place for politics/any political endorsements in any business. Your customers and employees should have their own mind. #period” Camping World is the series sponsor for the NASCAR Truck Series. It’s sponsorship of the series isn’t up until 2022.
It’s a remarkably bad look for a major American sport to publicly endorse any Presidential candidate, but it’s especially bad when it happens to be the most controversial Presidential candidate there’s likely ever been – and that includes George Wallace.
France has been a cancer to the sport of NASCAR ever since he took over for his father Bill France Jr. in the early ‘00s and on Monday night he likely set the sport back many years with his endorsement of Trump.
As for the drivers who also endorsed Trump, all I can say is I’m highly disappointed in them, despite not typically caring who an athlete likes or dislikes politically. These are all drivers who I’ve enjoyed watch race and root for on a weekly basis and now I have to question certain things about them that before Monday night I wouldn’t have had to question – like whether or not they might be bigots themselves. That might seem crazy to some, but if you’re supporting a bigot or at least a faux-bigot, you might actually be one yourself. Have Newman, Elliott and Ragan even considered how bad it looks to endorse a candidate that’s also endorsed by a former Klansman? Have their sponsors Caterpillar, NAPA Auto Parts or Dr. Pepper wondered how this might hurt their brands, as well?
I briefly met and even joked around with Ryan Newman at the NASCAR race weekend at Kansas Speedway last October and he was an incredibly friendly person and has always seemed like one of the more sensible drivers in the NASCAR garage. Friendly and sensible are the furthest things away from Trump – so how does a Newman endorsement for this man even make sense? It makes you wonder.
All I really know right now is I’m furious at the sport of NASCAR because whether or not France truly meant for his endorsement to seem like it’s coming from the entirety of the sport that’s exactly what it looks like in the public eye. As someone who’s always defended the sport against its many negative stereotypes – both of itself and its fan-base – I now feel like NASCAR has turned its back on me. As a loyal fan of 15 years that isn’t just disappointing and infuriating, but it also frankly hurts emotionally. I guess Donald Trump would think that makes me a “loser.”