Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 15, 2021

The More Things Change….

A NOTE TO READERS: This post was delayed by the late finish of the Daytona 500. Thanks for reading, and for your patience.

In the long ago, ancient times of 2010, one of the very first posts at On Sports and Life was entitled “Crashes on Both Coasts.” It recounted how on a Sunday afternoon in deep winter, when millions of homebound sports fans eagerly turned on their flatscreens to escape February’s doldrums, what they saw were two very different sports turned upside down.

At that year’s Daytona 500, the normally fast-moving spectacle of NASCAR was brought to a dead stop for two extended periods by a pothole. Decades of deferring the repaving of stock car racing’s most famous track led to one of the sport’s most embarrassing moments, the spectacle of the entire field of brightly painted race cars sitting on pit road while workmen labored to patch the pavement between Turns 1 and 2. Meanwhile the PGA Tour, which markets a game typically played at a deliberate pace, was on the other side of the continent at picturesque Pebble Beach, one of golf’s most instantly and widely recognized venues. There the tournament turned in less time that it takes a NASCAR driver to complete a couple circuits around a superspeedway, when journeyman Paul Goydos coughed up the lead by playing the 14th hole with all the skill and finesse of a rank amateur, recording a 9 on the par-5 after being in perfect position in the middle of the fairway following his second shot.

Eleven years and more than a million words later, that early contribution to this space came to mind Sunday. Once again, the scheduling of NASCAR’s season kickoff event and the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am promised heavy use of the television remote control, but now, as then, the potential for a riveting afternoon of action went a-glimmering.

As is the case every year, the runup to the Daytona 500 was filled with news of offseason changes and speculation about the coming campaign. Some of those changes meant casual fans were more familiar with members of the Fox Sports announcing team than many of the new generation of drivers in the sport’s premier Cup Series. This year recently retired Clint Bowyer joined fan favorite Jeff Gordon, who climbed out of the #24 Chevy for the last time in 2015, in the Fox booth. Daytona’s starting lineup was also without seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and 2003 Cup winner Matt Kenseth, both of whom ended their NASCAR driving careers last fall. In time, of course, their replacements will develop fan bases of their own, as 25-year-old Chase Elliott, who took over Gordon’s ride for Hendrick Motorsports in 2016 and won his first championship last year, has done. But as the second generation of a renowned racing family Elliott had some built-in advantages. For now, more than a third of the starting field were little more than names to a casual fan.

The reality of NASCAR’s ongoing generational transition only increased the importance of making a positive impression on the sport’s big day. Instead, the race had barely gotten started when the crunch of metal on metal brought it to an abrupt halt. On the back stretch midway through lap 14, with the field chasing Kevin Harvick, who had supplanted pole-sitter Alex Byron in front a dozen laps earlier, Aric Almirola got turned by a rough bump draft from Christopher Bell to his rear. Almirola’s car slid up a lane into Byron’s, and since they were running almost at the front of the pack, the carnage was on. Running close to 200 miles per hour, drivers just behind had no chance to react, and ultimately sixteen cars in the forty-car field were involved in a massive pileup, suffering damage that ranged from moderate to severe.

Then, just as the cleanup got underway, a line of thunderheads looking like something in an especially scary scene of a Stephen King novel could be seen moving in from behind the front stretch grandstands. Within minutes the skies opened, and the 2021 Daytona 500 went under a red flag, meaning there would be no racing until conditions improved and the track was dried, a lengthy process on the two- and one-half mile tri-oval.

There was no golf ball sized hail at Pebble Beach, just the real things being struck by the field in the final round of the AT&T Pro-Am, which proceeded this year under its usual name even though the amateur portion of the event was cancelled because of the pandemic. While no doubt unfortunate for the scions of entertainment and industry who usually populate that portion of the field, it was welcome news to viewers, who did not have to put up with coverage of the duck hooks and skulled shots by a celebrity who just happens to have a show soon debuting on CBS. Instead, fans could tune in for what most hoped would finally be Jordan Spieth’s return to the winner’s circle.

As was just recounted in this space, Spieth has spent an extended time in golf purgatory, yet here he was again, leading going into the final round, this time by two shots. The most recent update on Spieth’s journey ended with the one word “maybe,” and surely fans tuned in believing that at long last that statement of potential would be converted into fact.

But no. Although in fairness to Spieth, his demise on Sunday was unlike that of Goydos eleven years ago. A 2-under par round of 70, while not setting the course on fire, was one better than his Saturday score and decent playing on a chilly day. But if he did not crash out like Goydos, neither did Spieth put his foot on the gas like a driver coming out of Daytona’s Turn 2. And that in turn meant the 54-hole two-shot lead was frittered away, with three-time PGA Tour winner Daniel Berger taking the greatest advantage. An eagle at the par-5 2nd and a birdie at the 3rd quickly erased Spieth’s overnight lead, and by the time Berger rolled in another long putt for an eagle 3 at the last, he was the AT&T champion by two strokes over Maverick McNealy and three over Patrick Cantlay and Spieth.

Once more NASCAR’s big opening act was slowed to a crawl. When little-known journeyman Michael McDowell slipped past another crash up front to make the 500 his first ever victory in a Cup race well after midnight, most fans had long since switched off their televisions, and even many of those in attendance had headed for the exits. And once more beside the Pacific surf at Pebble Beach, an outcome that fans felt was preordained was upended in the few seconds it took to sink a couple of eagle putts. As Yogi would say after watching Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle hit back-to-back homers in really long ago, ancient times, Sunday was déjà vu all over again.

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