Thursday, May 31, 2012

Indy 500 filled with excitement, lots of leaders

It's time for a few highlights from this year's Indianapolis 500. Penske driver Ryan Briscoe had the pole, and the top two drivers for Chip Ganassi - Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti - started in the middle of the pack. That didn't stop them from charging to a one-two finish, however, with Franchitti taking the win.

With the new car designs this year, it's still a little hard to get used to watching these cars that look significantly different than in the past few years. I got over it though when the cars started turning laps and trading for the lead right away.

Leaders of the pack
The 96th Indy 500 had a lot of lead changes. In fact, it was record setting. Thirty lead changes set the new record at Indy, and there were 35 of them between 10 of the 33 drivers before the 500 miles were up on Sunday. (I know, too many numbers.) That in itself is pretty exciting.

A small victory was the field getting through turn one on the first lap. That can always be a problem. I was also a little concerned because Marco Andretti was starting near the front, and in 2009 he got a little impatient and collided with Mario Moraes to take them both out before their races really began.

Right away Briscoe and James Hinchcliffe (who does a much better job in the GoDaddy car than Danica Patrick ever did, in my opinion) traded the lead early. On the restart after the first caution of the day, cars were scattered three and four wide. It was Andretti that grabbed the lead - and he stayed there for quite awhile during those first 100 laps.

Andretti Curse is alive and well
Before the race, I picked Tony Kanaan, and then Andretti, to win the race. I knew Andretti had a strong car, but one can never count out the Andretti curse that has plagued the entire family ever since grandfather Mario won his only 500 in 1969. I was feeling good about Marco's chances early on, but I also knew the key word: early.

Pit strategy was part of the equation for him, along with a vibration in the car. What finally did him in was a crash with 13 laps to go. He had fallen back from the leaders at this point, but at least he was still running. It's always something with the Andretti cars, unfortunately.

A nail biter
The final few laps had me on the edge of my seat. Despite starting so far back, and even getting punted in the pits by E.J. Viso, Franchitti was running comfortably up front. Takuma Sato was there, too. He was even the first Japanese driver to lead laps at Indy since that joke of a racer Tora Takagi ticked off a couple in 2003.

Kanaan is always the mover as well. He got in position and took the lead from his pal Franchitti near the end - to the very audible cheers of the crowd, and me at home. But then Marco had his crash, bringing out the yellow flag. I just had a bad feeling that it was bad luck for Kanaan.

As predicted, he was a sitting duck on the restart, and the Target teamsters got by. On the final lap, Sato was in position to be part of a podium finish. Keep in mind, he was already antsy during the race. The broadcast cut in to a radio conversation his team owner and 1986 Indy 500 champ Bobby Rahal had with him, telling him to basically cool his jets.

It comes down to the final lap
Going into turn one with the white flag flying, Sato tried one more time to make a pass on Franchitti. I held my breath and could tell this wasn't going to end well. My hope was that Sato would take out both of them, so that at least Franchitti wouldn't get the win. (Team Target Chip Ganassi is starting to get like the New York Yankees for me in terms of hatred. They always seem to get the breaks.)

The racing gods smiled on Franchitti, and somehow he was spared as he touched wheels with Sato who went flying into the wall. Franchitti finished the race first for the third time in his career, and for the third time under caution.

It was a good race. Despite my bitterness for the team that just can seem to do no wrong. I'll continue to watch what I can of the IndyCar season, and I'll look forward to another great Indy 500 in 2013.

Tributes and tradition at Indy 500

The greatest race in the world is over and done with for another year. The 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 was Sunday, and Dario Franchitti became a three-time winner of the greatest spectacle in racing. One piece was sorely missed this year though: Defending race champion Dan Wheldon was absent from the race field, though he was on the minds of the racing teams and thousands of fans.

It's hard to believe that a year ago, Wheldon drove to the checkered flags and past JR Hildebrand who hit the wall in turn four on the last lap of the 2011 race. It was the second Indy 500 win for Wheldon, and sadly, it also became his final career win. He died in the IndyCar season finale in Las Vegas last October.

This race day was filled with tributes to Wheldon. Franchitti also invited Dan's wife Susie to ride in the convertible for the parade lap after his victory. Credit where credit is due, Mr. Franchitti.

Tributes aside, this was still the Indianapolis 500. It has so much history and so much tradition that any race fan can't help but get a little excited in anticipation. I was pretty curious to see what the day would hold, being that it's 2012 and that the races 10, 20 and 30 years ago all were pretty memorable.

10 years ago
In 2002, veteran driver and a CART/Champ Car favorite Paul Tracy was robbed. Yes, Helio Castroneves won the race, one of the three he has under his belt at Indy. But the win didn't come without controversy. Tracy passed Castroneves around the same time as a crash which caused a caution flag to fly with just a few laps to go.

Tracy thought the pass stuck, which would make him the winner since the race would finish under caution. That didn't end up being the case, however. The powers that be declared the pass came after the caution. I was really pulling for Tracy on this one.

20 years ago
Twenty years ago was the closest finish in Indy 500 history, though others have come close. I was just a little kid at this point, but the story of this epic finish isn't lost on a race fan. My dad attended this race and was there to witness the history. Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear battled until the end. Goodyear tried to make a move near the line, but he didn't have enough.

30 years ago
Another memorable race was in 1982. It started and ended with a bang. A crash before the race even started brought out the red flag to stop the race. Kevin Cogan's car suddenly went sideways in the middle of row one, causing a chain reaction. It got IndyCar legends Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt pretty upset, that's for sure.

The race ended with a great battle during the last few laps between Rick Mears and Gordon Johncock. Mears tried a pass at the line, but it was Johncock who won. You can't feel too bad for Mears though; he's in the elite class of four-time Indy 500 winners.

So, with all the great racing Indy has seen, I was expecting another gem for 2012. I wasn't wrong, even if the result wasn't my first choice for the winner.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Stanley Cup Finals brings on Wild nostalgia

It's nearly June, but that doesn't mean winter sports are over and done with. Sports fans know that the NHL and NBA drag out their postseasons for a couple of months in the spring and early summer. I'd like to see it shortened a bit, though that's a topic for another time.

Wednesday marked game one of the Stanley Cup Finals where the No. 8 Los Angeles Kings representing the Western Conference faced off against the New Jersey Devils on the East coast. I must admit I've been out of the loop to some extent the past couple of NHL postseasons, largely due to the fact that I don't get the channel that carries most of the games. But since NBC has most of the finals, I tuned in for the first game.

I don't really have a team that I'm favoring either way in this series. I guess I'll root for the Kings. My reasons? Because they're from the West (where the Minnesota Wild play) and New Jersey has already had lots of Cup success. Lame reasons, I know. I told you I'm not that invested.

As I was lounging around my apartment watching the game, while multi-tasking by going through my endless stack of newspapers, I couldn't help but be a little sad that it's been too long since the Wild were in the playoffs. They've also never been in a Cup Final in their relatively short history as a team.

What a great run for the Wild
I started to get nostalgic and remember the great run the Wild had in 2003. Man, that was a magical ride. They overcame the odds to come back from 3-1 series deficits against division rivals Colorado and Vancouver before hitting the wall against the hot goalie - Jean Sebastien Giguere - of the Anaheim Ducks.

I'll never forget watching all those games on television as a sophomore in high school. With some overtime and late start times, I remember putting aside the thought of getting to bed at a decent time just so I could watch the game until the end on a school night. My memory of walking like a tired zombie into my first-hour choir class on a morning after a game is also something that sticks in my mind.

The Wild made the playoffs again since then, and even won a division championship, but they failed to move on or come close to creating some great memories like they did in 2003. They've fallen on some pretty tough times. Gone through a couple of coaches and seen the affects of some bad moves made by a general manager who's no longer with the organization.

I really hope they can turn things around within the next couple of years.

Back to the Devils and Kings, it was tied at 1 at the end of regulation. The Kings won it in overtime with a nice backhand pass and breakaway to beat veteran goalie Martin Brodeur. Playoff hockey at its best.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

My first 2012 game at Target Field

Check it off. I've now been to a Twins game at Target Field during the 2012 season. Not that this season has been much to write home about, as they say, but I was fortunate enough to go see one of the good games. It was a 5-0 victory May 8 against the Angels.

My friend Ashley sent me a text last weekend, asking if I wanted to go to a game with her because her parents scored some free tickets behind the Twins dugout. I thought about what I might have to do work-wise on a Tuesday evening. But I figured I could make it work for a Twins game with pretty good seats.

Come prepared to Target Field
The night was a bit chilly, but I came prepared. A sweatshirt was under my pinstriped Twins jersey, I opted for my boots instead of tennis shoes in case my feet got cold (I think I made a wise choice.) and I had a poncho in my pack in case it rained (which it did not).

We had some great seats 19 rows up behind the Twins dugout. I looked around Target Field, taking in the atmosphere of the outdoor ballpark. One thing I noticed right away was how empty the place looked. Empty, compared to the sell-out crowds that have graced the ballpark for the first two seasons. It wasn't surprising because the Twins had hardly won any games at home this season, but it was still a little sad to see that the honeymoon was definitely over.

I grabbed a hot dog (dad would be proud) and sat back to enjoy some baseball, hoping the Twins wouldn't disappoint too much. Turns out, I witnessed a great game.

Call-up is player of the game
Twins pitcher Scott Diamond was definitely the story that night. Since the rotation hadn't exactly been lighting it up, the team shifted some lineup pieces around, calling up Diamond for his first start of the year. I hope the rest of the hurlers in the Twins dugout were watching him.

The final line for Diamond was downright amazing compared to his teammates. First of all, he managed a quality start. He tossed seven shutout innings, gave up four hits and one walk on 101 pitches. Oh, and let's not forget the six strikeouts, two of which were former Twin Torii Hunter (who also struck out to end the game). I believe it was the first time all season that a Twins pitcher has pitched six (or seven, as it turned out) shutout innings.

Strong offensive showing for Twins
Diamond also got some run support, and he got it early. Josh Willingham smacked an RBI-double right away in the bottom of the first to get the boys on the board. In the same inning, Ryan Doumit hit a two-run shot to right-center to give the Twins a nice 3-0 after the first. It was good to see some power, and it prompted me to Tweet: Who are these guys?

The Twins had some more chances as well. Angels pitcher Dan Haren struggled and walked the bases loaded. But poor Danny Valencia hit a weak one back to the pitcher for an out-at-home, out-at-first double play to end the inning. That got him some boos and mock cheers. He's since been demoted to the minors for a plummeting average. I'm rooting for him to get back to form soon.

Another couple runs were knocked in during the bottom of the fourth. After Jamey Carroll dropped a sacrifice bunt to advance the runners (doing the little things), Erik Komatsu came through with a sac-fly and Brian Dozier hit an RBI-single to make it 5-0. That's when Haren got the hook for the Angels.

Way to finish it off
The bullpen for the Twins got the job done for the last couple innings, not allowing a hit. The Twins won 5-0 in a great ball game. However, I was pretty disappointed with all the fans that did the usual mass exit before the top of the ninth. Really? You don't want to stay and see a Twins victory when they've been so rare this year? That's OK, I'll stay and watch them.

Amid a season that is quickly going further down the toilet for the Twins, it seems, Ashley and I got to see one of the better games this young 2012 had to offer. So much of good baseball hinges on good pitching, which was evident with Diamond. We were also treated to a homer and some decent offense.

Good seats. Good baseball. Good night.