Can Kain Colter lead Northwestern to a Legends Division title?
With Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern each deserving of consideration for the No. 1 spot, the Big Ten Legends Division should be one of the most competitive conference title races in college football.
The 6-foot-1, 235-pound linebacker from Chicago (Ill.) St. Patrick graduated from Northwestern as the NCAA's all-time leading tackler with 545 stops. He started 40 games for the Wildcats, including the last 34 consecutively. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten recognition in 2003 before earning consensus All-Big Ten honors as a junior and senior. The relentless linebacker was a seventh-round pick by the Rams in the 2006 NFL Draft.
From Euclid, Ohio, Adamle was an All-American and the Big Ten MVP in 1970 for the Wildcats. Adamle was one of Northwestern’s career leaders in numerous rushing, touchdown and scoring categories when his career ended. He went on to be drafted in the fourth round of the 1971 draft by the Chiefs and eventually played six seasons in the NFL. His 316 yards against Wisconsin in 1969 remains a single-game school record. Many know the former running back for his work on "American Gladiators," ESPN, the XFL and WWE.
The defensive end from Covina, Calif., is arguably the most successful pass-rusher in Northwestern school history. He owns the single-season school record with 12.0 sacks in 1997 and the all-time sacks mark with 28.0. He also owns the all-time mark for tackles for loss for a career (53.0) and a season (26.0). He was a fifth-round pick by the Jets in the 1998 NFL Draft.
A four-year starter from Arlington Heights (Ill.) St. Viator, Basanez set every major passing and total offense record in school history during his time in Evanston. When he left school, the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder owned 32 school records and is second all-time in Big Ten history (behind Drew Brees mostly) in completions (913), attempts (1,584), yards (10,580) and total offense (11,576). He started 46 games, including the final 40 in a row. His career culminated in Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2005.
The talented wide receiver made the long trip north to Evanston from Aiken, South Carolina. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder lead the team in receiving as a freshman and helped propel the Wildcats to the Rose Bowl in 1995 — where he piled up 145 yards against USC. He backed that up with a huge sophomore season, in which he set NU receiving records for yards (1,196) and touchdowns (12). After missing all of 1997 with a broken leg, Bates came back to break his own records with 83 catches and 1,245 yards as a senior. His 210 catches, 3,370 yards and 26 touchdowns are all school records.
The Wilmington (Ill.) High finished his Northwestern career as the sixth all-time rusher in Big Ten history, leading the school in rushing yards, all-purpose yards (5,261), rushing touchdowns (38) and 200-yard games (4). He also set the school record with 2,063 yards and 23 touchdowns during his consensus All-American 2000 season. The 5-foot-11, 218-pound workhorse finished fifth in the Heisman voting that season and eventually went undrafted in the 2002 NFL Draft.
There are two names linked indelibly to the historic 1995 run at the Rose Bowl and Autry is one of them. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound prospect was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, before moving back to the states and attending Northwestern. He was a Heisman and Doak Walker finalist while helping the Wildcats to back-to-back Big Ten titles in 1995 and '96. He left the school as the all-time leading rusher (since broken) with 3,793 yards and the all-time leading scorer with 222 points. Autry was an All-American and two-time All-Big Ten selection before getting drafted by the Bears in the fourth round of the 1997 NFL Draft
The massive 6-foot-7, 335-pound blocker from Milford (Ohio) High was one of the most gifted players to ever suit up for Northwestern. He started 40 games and was the first Wildcats offensive lineman in 22 years to earn All-American honors. He earned All-Big Ten honors of some fashion three times during his four-year career. A seventh-round pick by New Orleans in 2006, this season will be his seventh with the Saints.
The four-year letterman from Chicago, Ill., was arguably the most talented offensive lineman in school history. His stellar career in Evanston was capped by first-team All-American honors in 1982. His excellent college career led to Hinton becoming the highest drafted player in school history. He was taken fourth overall by the Denver Broncos in the 1983 NFL Draft, playing 13 seasons and making six Pro Bowls.
One player stands above all others for the Northwestern Wildcats and he is the man currently standing on the sidelines in Evanston. His excellent coaching record aside, Fitzgerald is the most decorated player in school history. He led the Wildcats to the historic 10-1 season that culminated with the 1996 Rose Bowl. He was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year twice and won the Bednarik and Nagurski Awards twice each. He was a consensus All-American during both Big Ten championship seasons. He took over as the head coach in 2006 and has been arguably the most successful coach in program history as well.
Hailing from Warren, Ore., Green played three seasons for the Sun Devils. He rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of those campaigns and finished with 40 total touchdowns. Green claimed consensus All-American honors in both 1972 and '73, finishing eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting in his final year. Green was drafted in the first round of the 1974 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Compton, Calif., native was one of only three players in school history to earn consensus All-American honors in two separate seasons. He left school third all-time in solo tackles (192) and is the school’s all-time leader with 18 career interceptions. He was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the second round of the 1983 NFL Draft. Richardson won a Super Bowl with the Bears and also played for the 49ers during his seven-year NFL career.
One of two elite tight ends (Todd Heap) in school history, Miller is the most decorated Sun Devil at this position . He was a consensus All-American and John Mackey Award finalist in 2006. The dangerous 6-foot-5, 255-pound weapon finished with 144 receptions, 1,512 yards and 14 touchdowns before being drafted in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders.
Known for his big hits, “Fo-Rock” was one of the three two-time consensus All-Americans to play at Arizona State. He earned AA honors as a sophomore and junior in 1984 and '85. He was drafted in the third round by the Bengals and earned three trips to the Pro Bowl.
A walk-on from in-state power Chandler High School, Archuleta played in every game of his redshirt freshman season and started for three full seasons. He earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors as both a junior and senior and capped his outstanding career with the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year award in 2000. Archuleta totaled 127 stops and 93 solo stops (second-best all-time in ASU history) that year. He finished sixth all-time in school history with 53.0 tackles for loss. He was drafted in the first round of the 2001 NFL Draft by the Rams and played in the Super Bowl as a rookie.
Hailing from Boise, Idaho, Jake “The Snake” made a quick name for himself in the college ranks at Arizona State by starting nine games as a freshman. He then threw for three straight 2,000-yard seasons en route to a magical senior season in 1996. He led the Sun Devils to an unbeaten regular season and the Pac-10 Championship with 2,575 yards and 23 TDs. Plummer was named the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year, was a consensus All-American and finished third in the Heisman voting. His ability to make something of nothing and lead his team to improbable victories will go down in ASU history. Plummer was taken with the 42nd overall pick in the second round of the 1997 NFL Draft by the home-state Arizona Cardinals.
Since Athlon Sports' inception in 1967, only two Sun Devils uniforms have been retired and White's is one of them. The Mesa, Ariz., prep star went 33-4 as a starter at Arizona State, winning three Fiesta Bowls in the process. He set numerous NCAA and school passing records during his time in Tempe and was named an All-American in 1973 when he threw for 2,609 yards and 23 TDs — which led to a ninth-place finish in the Heisman voting. White went to the Memphis Southmen before leading the Dallas Cowboys to victory in Super Bowl XII. He also was an excellent punter during his time on campus. White was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1998.
The massive blocker has the distinguished honor of being the only NFL Hall of Famer born in the state of Arizona. McDaniel helped lead the Sun Devils to the school’s first-ever Rose Bowl in 1987 as the Pac-10’s Morris Trophy winner. He was eventually inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008. One of the game’s greatest blockers, McDaniel went to 12 Pro Bowls while playing for the Vikings and Bucs during his 14-year NFL career. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
In just three years, this talented pass-rusher from famed Chandler (Ariz.) High rewrote the record books in Tempe. Suggs owns the school record for career sacks (44), forced fumbles (14) and tackles for loss (65.5). He also set an NCAA record with 24.0 sacks in 2002, earning the star defensive end the Morris, Nagurski and Bill Willis Trophies as well as the Hendricks and Lombardi Awards. The unanimous All-American finished his career with 163 tackles and was drafted with the 10th overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens. He helped lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl-winning season in 2012.
Tillman may not be the most talented or productive player in the history of Arizona State football, but there is little doubt that he isn’t the greatest player to ever wear the Sun Devils uniform. The undersized tackler from San Jose (Calif.) Leland worked his way into the starting lineup and helped lead the Sun Devils to an unbeaten conference crown as a junior. The following year, Tillman earned Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year honors and collected his second Academic All-American honor. After being drafted in the seventh round of the 1998 NFL Draft, Tillman earned a multimillion dollar extension following the 2001 season. Yet, Tillman, motivated by the attack on the World Trade Center, turned down the money to enlist in the U.S. Army. He would lose his life fighting for his country at age 27 in Afghanistan. His jersey is one of only two to be retired by Arizona State since the 1950s. The the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award was renamed the Pat Tillman Award in 2004 and he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
The defensive end from Salem (Ore.) Sprague had three elite seasons in Corvallis. He capped his Oregon State career off in 2004 when he became the first Beavers player to be named conference (then Pac-10) Offensive or Defensive Player of the Year, dating back to the award’s inception in 1975. He also claimed the Morris Trophy, given to the league’s top defensive lineman as voted on by the Pac-10’s offensive linemen. Swancutt is Oregon State’s all-time sack master by a wide margin with 37.0 career QB sacks, including three consecutive seasons with 11.5 sacks. He also leads OSU with 59.5 tackles for a loss. He was selected by the Detroit Lions in the sixth round of the 2005 NFL Draft.
The Woodland (Calif.) High product had one of the best three-year careers in Corvallis. As a star center, Didion led the Beavers to three AP Top 20 finishes in all three years and was a leading member of the famed “Giant Killers.” He was a two-time All-American, garnering unanimous first-team honors in 1968. The seventh-round pick played linebacker in the NFL for six seasons in Washington and New Orleans. He is on the ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame voting in 2013.
Hailing from Richmond (Texas) Lamar, Rodgers was one of the most dynamic and productive players in school history. He owns the OSU school record for career all-purpose yards with 6,377 — his 2,578 receiving yards are fifth all-time. He added 1,410 yards rushing and 2,385 return yards and scored 30 total touchdowns. His 222 career receptions were first all-time in school history when he departed (since broken) and his 91 catches in 2009 is still tied for the single-season school record. Rodgers is considered by many to be one of the most influential Beavers of all-time both on and off the field.
If there is a tackle record in the Oregon State books then Brown’s name is there leading the way. He owns the single-game record with 22 tackles (tied) against Stanford in 1972. He owns the single-season record with 186 stops in 1972. And he is the school’s all-time leading tackler with 415 stops — in just three seasons. He never played in the NFL.
The star tailback from Pittsburg (Calif.) High made his mark immediately at Oregon State. He rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons, culminating in the Fiesta Bowl win over Notre Dame during the historic 11-1 2000 campaign. His 1,559 yards that year were tops in school history at the time and his 1,486-yard sophomore season was No. 2. He is still the school’s career leading rusher with 5,044 yards and his 366 points (59 TDs) are still No. 1 all-time for a non-kicker (Alexis Serna). Simonton deserves credit for not only leading Oregon State to a share of the conference title in 2000, but beginning the elite running back tradition in Corvallis.
The younger brother of OSU great James Rodgers (No. 8 on this list), “Quizz” exploded onto the scene as a 5-foot-6 freshman. He rushed for 1,253 yards as a freshman, 1,440 as a sophomore and 1,184 as a junior while scoring 51 total touchdowns. The Richmond (Texas) Lamar product was a three-time all-conference selection and earned Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2008. His 3,877 rushing yards are second all-time, and, had he stuck around for his senior year, he could have broken the all-time record. He was taken by the Atlanta Falcons in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
The Portland (Ore.) Jesuit High School walk-on receiver might be the most decorated Beavers player in history. After one season on special teams, Hass became the first Pac-10 player to produce three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, which are three of the 10 such seasons in school history. His 1,532 yards in 2005 set an Oregon State record, breaking his own mark set the previous season (1,379), and led the nation by a wide margin. Hass also was honored with the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver that season. In 2004, he set OSU single-game records for receptions (14) and yards (293) in separate games.
The Dallas (Ore.) native was a three-sport athlete at Astoria High School and is one of the greatest players to set foot in Corvallis. He stared in baseball, basketball and football at Astoria and was talented enough to be drafted by the Florida Marlins. He instead went to Oregon State and played in all 13 games as a freshman. Three seasons and 153 tackles, 13 interceptions, 36 passes deflected, 3.0 sacks, 2,032 return yards and four total touchdowns later, the consensus All-American departed OSU as one of the most versatile and talented players in school history.
The big defensive tackle came to Oregon State from Auckland, New Zealand by way of Snow College in Ephraim, Utah. In three years in Corvallis, Paea posted 129 tackles, 29.5 tackles for loss, 14.0 sacks and nine forced fumbles from his nose tackle position. One of the strongest Beavers to ever play, Paea was a consensus All-American, Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and Morris Trophy winner — given to the league’s top defensive lineman as voted on by the offensive lineman — in 2010 and was drafted in the second round by the Chicago Bears in April 2011.
Many in Corvallis believe that Jackson is the most physically dominating athlete to ever suit up for the Beavers. And at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, they are right. After a promising freshman season behind Ken Simonton (390 yards, 5 TD), Jackson took over as the starter in 2001 and set the single-season rushing record in his first year (1,690 yards). He carried the ball 669 times for 3,235 yards and 34 touchdowns while catching 61 passes for 635 yards and five more touchdowns in just two seasons as the starter. His 2,015 all-purpose yards in 2003 were No. 2 all-time in school history and his 132 points set a school record as well. His 4,545 all-purpose yards — in just three seasons — was No. 2 all-time when he left (No. 5 now). The No. 24 overall pick by St. Louis in the 2004 NFL Draft, Jackson has already added his name to the record books with eight consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons for the Rams (2005-12).
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound quarterback from Bakersfield (Calif.) Christian followed in his brother’s, David, footsteps by excelling as one of Fresno State’s greatest players. With one year left to go, the younger Carr should easily rewrite the FSU passing record book. Carr earned Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year honors after posting a conference-record 4,104 yards and 37 touchdowns a year ago. He is the highest-rated passer in school history (150.6) and is a modest 2,863 yards and 21 touchdowns from claiming the school’s all-time marks in those categories.
Hailing from Long Beach (Calif.) Poly, Pope was a hard-hitting safety for the Bulldogs. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder was a three-time All-Big West first-team selection and two-time conference defensive co-MVP. He was drafted with the 33rd overall pick in the 1992 NFL Draft by San Diego, and put together a 10-year pro career.
From a statistical standpoint, few Bulldogs have been as productive as the San Diego (Calif.) Madison running back. The diminutive 5-foot-7 tailback consistently overachieved, rushing for a school-record 4,647 yards and finishing No. 2 all-time with 37 touchdowns. His 110 catches were 13th all-time in school history as well. The talented runner posted three straight 1,100-yard seasons and posted 1,008 career offensive touches during his illustrious Bulldogs career.
After a stellar senior season in 2012, the Bakersfield (Calif.) High safety became the first player in Fresno State history to be a unanimous All-American. He led the nation and set a new Mountain West record with eight interceptions in 2012 — three of which he returned for touchdowns. He finished with 178 total tackles, 17.0 tackles for loss, 13 interceptions, six forced fumbles and 4.0 sacks during his four-year, 39-game Bulldog career.
Yet another star prospect from Bakersfield, Calif., to play at Fresno State, Mathews was one of the most talented players to ever suit up for the Bulldogs. The 5-foot-11, 220-pounder is third all-time with 3,280 yards rushing and has the school record for rushing touchdowns with 37. His 1,808 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2009 were single-season school records and, had he stayed around for his senior season, Mathews likely would have been the school's all-time leading rusher despite Robbie Rouse’s prestigious career. He was the 12th overall pick by the San Diego Chargers in the 2010 NFL Draft.
A big-time prospect from Aptos, Calif., Dilfer became a starter for the Bulldogs as a redshrit freshman. He went on to win at least a share of three conference championships and started in two bowl games. As a junior, Dilfer earned WAC Offensive Player of the Year honors and set an NCAA record for consecutive passes without an interception (271) that lasted until 2007. He left school with single-season record for yards and touchdowns (later broken). He set a record for most yards in a bowl game (523) and led Fresno to a historic win over USC in the Freedom Bowl. Dilfer was a first-round pick by the Bucs, won a Super Bowl with the Ravens and has already had his number retired at Fresno.
The nasty blocker from Catheys Valley (Calif.) Mariposa started all 14 games as a redshirt freshman, blocking for David Carr and allowing just two sacks. He was a freshman All-American and started all 14 games as a sophomore before tearing his ACL as a junior. He returned as a senior and started all 14 games in 2004 and didn’t allow a sack. He was first-team All-WAC and was the first offensive lineman in school history to win the team MVP honors. The five-time Pro Bowler has played in two Super Bowls with the New England Patriots after being selected in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft.
One of the greatest blocking fullbacks in NFL history began his football career as a running back for Fresno State. His 2,405 yards were second all-time when he left (sixth now). The Hanford, Calif., native was a two-time All-Big West selection and actually placed seventh nationally as a heavyweight NCAA wrestler. The 5-foot-11, 250-pounder was a fourth-round pick by the Saints in 1993. Neal went to four Pro Bowls and played 16 seasons at one of the toughest positions for seven different NFL teams. He is one of the most underrated players of his generation.
A track star from Fresno, Calif., Ellard starred at his hometown school for four seasons. The undersized wideout — 5-foot-11, 170 pounds — set an NCAA record with 1,510 yards as a senior and left school as the all-time leading receiver in every major category. His 2,947 yards are now third all-time while his 25 touchdowns are still tied for the school record. He averaged an absurd 21.4 yards per catch during his time at FSU. The three-time Pro Bowler was drafted in the second round of the 1983 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Rams. He played 16 seasons in the NFL, finishing with 814 receptions for nearly 14,000 yards and 65 touchdowns.
A Bakersfield (Calif.) Stockdale prospect, the older Carr brother started for just two seasons at Fresno State (2000-01). He led the team to an 18-8 mark, a top-10 AP ranking and consistently defeated bigger, more powerful programs. He threw for a ridiculous and nation-leading 4,299 yards and 42 touchdowns in 2001, earning the Johnny Unitas and Sammy Baugh Awards as well as WAC Offensive Player of the Year honors. He finished fifth in the Heisman voting and was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft by the Houston Texans. While he has developed into a pro star, he is still active and has thrown for 14,452 yards and 65 touchdowns in the pros.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Talladega
Front Row Motorsports teammates David Gilliland (left) and David Ragan. (ASP, Inc.)
Since it opened in 1969, Talladega has been NASCAR’s racetrack of extremes. When right, the sport’s decision to slap restrictor plates on brings out maximum excitement, the best opportunity for 43 teams to compete on a level playing field. Feel-good stories emerge, like the case of Bob Jenkins, a restaurant owner who has filtered more money into his three-car team just to run 25th, than most will make in a lifetime. Since 2005, he has toiled — once suffering through a season with more than 30 DNQs — and posting only two top-5 finishes in 403 starts prior to Sunday. The dream was to pursue a Sprint Cup victory, but a look at the stat sheet would point one towards financial self-destruction … or a man in need of mental help.
Now, Jenkins can point right back at his critics and towards a trophy that is rightfully his. Jenkins’ Front Row Motorsports drivers Ragan and David Gilliland produced the first 1-2 finish in team history in the Aaron’s 499, outclassing the Goliaths they race against through smarts and speed. At no other track — even Daytona, with NASCAR’s handling package — would such a victory be remotely possible. (Previous best finish for this team in 2013: Ragan’s 20th at Richmond.) It’s the type of victory that brings attention to the sport, giving executives something to sell, potential new car owners justification to compete and the backside of the NASCAR garage a reason for hope. No one will change the way these men feel about plate racing now; heck, you could strap a parachute to the car at Daytona and they’d be happy based on the parity that gives them a chance.
On the other side of the fence sits Ryan Newman whose season, if not more, was mere feet from being cut tragically short on Sunday when an entire car landed on the windshield of his No. 39 Chevrolet. As chaos unfolded in front of him, Kurt Busch’s Chevy entry landed, then rolled over Newman’s car in the midst of a 12-car melee that’s become all too common at Talladega. It’s not the first time the driver has been in physical danger; four years ago, this nasty flip (LINK: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxE1_VZkQKI) left the roll cage bent mere inches from his head.
“We had a race here in the spring, complaining about cars getting airborne,” Newman said then. “I wish NASCAR would do something. That’s not what anyone wants to see.”
Four years later, he’s saying the same words again, this time more viciously after not feeling that NASCAR has lifted a finger on the rules. No one will change the way Newman feels about plate racing now, he just doesn’t want himself or a competitor to end up dead.
Talladega. The land of extremes, where guilt, grief, miracles, merriment, disaster, disgust, rage and redemption come together as one. It’s why everyone is pushing for change, but as they do human nature makes it impossible to look away – keeping us in the same cycle forevermore.
FIRST GEAR: Two Davids snookered the field
Make no mistake, Ragan’s slice ‘n’ dice to the front of the pack would not have been possible without two things. One: Teammate David Gilliland, sitting on his back bumper and not letting go until the two cars were sitting out front. Those feeling like the “push” of tandem drafting was completely dead need to take a second look on how these cars were stuck together like superglue down the stretch.
“I know he wishes that he was sitting in my shoes right now,” said Ragan of his teammate, now winless in 232 Cup Series starts. “I kind of wish that he would have had a chance to win the race, too.”
I’m not sure Gilliland cared much, though. His whole family was in attendance to watch Ragan’s post-race presser, a sign of the teamwork atmosphere this underdog organization has pushed since the beginning. Fact: Ragan now has as many wins with this team (one) in just 15 months as he did in five full seasons driving for Roush Fenway Racing. Turns out all the money in the world can’t buy that all-important chemistry needed for those moments when people need to bring out the best in each other.
“He was driving for a top-tier team, had UPS as a sponsor and when he left, he bought into what we were trying to do at Front Row,” said Jenkins. “His expectations of himself and his team never changed. He didn't look at it as if, ‘Hey, I'm taking a step down here, I realize I'm going to be a back marker.’ He continues to expect a lot out of himself and a lot out of his team, and I think what happened is people bought into that and they followed behind him and we've seen results.”
That belief system brings me to point No. 2: it wasn’t shared by his Sprint Cup competitors. Go ahead, you have my permission to review that final lap. Notice how Matt Kenseth drifts up on the backstretch to draft with Carl Edwards as if he needs to stick with the No. 99 to have a shot. Had he stayed in the middle, the FRM duo would have been blocked and we’d be talking about a different winner today. As for Edwards, he just didn’t see the freight train until it was too late, taking a prime opportunity to win a plate race away from a man who’s been victimized far too often there.
“David just got us,” Edwards said. “He did his job. As long as I’m not upside down, in the fence, it was pretty clean.”
SECOND GEAR: Is it all getting to Brad Keselowski?
One driver, though, was crying foul over Ragan’s miracle moment. Brad Keselowski, in several tweets after the race, felt his rival lined up in the wrong lane for the final restart. Several photos showed the cars trying to pass each other for position on the backstretch under yellow before NASCAR made the final call as to where Keselowski, Scott Speed and Ragan would line up. The verdict was Speed eighth, Keselowski ninth and Ragan 10th based on where they were at the last scoring loop when the caution came out. Were they right? Judge for yourself at the 2:42 mark of this clip. My take is that’s it’s far too close to call.
Either way, Keselowski was presumptuous to predict one change in lane would have earned him a victory – or cost Ragan one. Plate races are so unpredictable that you’ll get 1,000 different endings per 1,000 green-white-checker finishes. I just wonder, after a disappointing 15th-place finish, whether pressure is starting to get to the reigning champ. The final appeal for his Penske team is Tuesday, where 25 points and suspensions of his top four crew members appear imminent. Winless this season, he’s also posted back-to-back finishes outside the top 10 for the first time since Michigan and Sonoma last June. Every superstar, no matter his or her mental strength, goes through adversity; now might be Keselowski’s time, sitting fifth in points with just a single lap led over the last six events.
He just didn’t have to drag David Ragan into his own psychological hell.
THIRD GEAR: The racing was … what it was
I know. It sounds like a copout. Well, if you ask Newman, who joined Busch in the ranks of “Big One” Demolition Derbys, NASCAR racing here needs to be thrown in the trash bin:
"I am doing this interview to let everybody know I'm alright,” said Newman, who if NASCAR has any consistency (Denny Hamlin, anyone?) will be fined for the comments that follow. “They can build safer race cars, they can build safer walls. But they can't get their heads out of their asses far enough to keep them on the race track, and that's pretty disappointing. I wanted to make sure I get that point across. Y'all can figure out who 'they' is. That's no way to end a race ... I mean, you got what you wanted, but poor judgment and running in the dark and running in the rain.”
To be fair, most didn’t share the driver’s sentiment about the conditions of the track itself down the stretch. Only sprinkles could be felt in the final minutes and, while dark, the race ended earlier than the Nationwide Series event the day before. It’s the other part of Newman’s diatribe — the plate package — that would be under greater scrutiny if not for Ragan’s headline-saving win. I felt like Dale Earnhardt Jr. put it best:
“I don’t really know,” he said. “I don’t know – I thought it was alright, I guess.”
A classic “C, C+” type of response, and clearly not what NASCAR wants out of one of its fan-favorite facilities, especially after Earnhardt raved about the racing in Daytona. But that’s the truth. 30 lead changes were the least since 2002, when Earnhardt laid waste to the field. The draft, while handling multiple grooves unlike its sister track, had a tendency to “stop ‘n’ start.” There would be times when drivers would get stir crazy, and others — like for 30 laps after the rain delay — where they fell in line and passed the time.
It still seemed like, apart from the final lap, the line that had the most cars could make a difference, with the outside groove still holding a substantial edge. There’s work to be done here, although different rules can only do so much. Drivers are smarter. They know nothing matters at these races until less than 20 laps to go. Trying to force them to stay aggressive in the wake of what happened to Newman and Busch is like throwing them in the lion’s den and asking them to play.
Matt Kenseth led 142 of 192 laps on Sunday. (ASP, Inc.)
FOURTH GEAR: Gibbs’ plate race problems continue
Plate races place even the best drivers on Lady Luck’s roulette wheel. Take Jimmie Johnson, for example: four plate races last year, three wrecks and one blown engine. In 2013? He’s two-for-two in the top-5 finish category with a win. This year, the bad karma has made its way over to Joe Gibbs Racing. Matt Kenseth’s dominating performance at Talladega, in which he led 142 laps, went for naught with one bad choice on the final lap. He wound up eighth, still a far cry from teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Busch, lost in the shuffle of the afternoon rain delay, started the race’s first “Big One” that collected a dozen cars, including himself. And Hamlin? A return to the seat, which ended quickly and safely under the first caution on Lap 23 netted him just 10 points. Sub Brian Vickers was caught up in that wreck, leaving the driver 34th and actually increasing his deficit on the top 20 in points by five, (76 points behind Kurt Busch).
Kudos to other underdogs with solid performances Sunday. Phoenix Racing, which has pulled a “Front Row” in the past here (Keselowski, April 2009) was sixth with Regan Smith, but Leavine Family Racing was perhaps more impressive. Scott Speed (ninth) scored the first top-10 result for the organization and just the fourth of his journeyman career. … Bobby Labonte, in his 700th start ran 20th for JTG Daugherty Racing. It’s a tale of two careers for the veteran; he earned 20 wins and a title in his first 350 starts behind the wheel, but just one victory since. … NASCAR’s “Air Titan” was credited for saving the day, as its track drying efforts allowed for time to finish Sunday’s race. So why did it still take two-plus hours to dry the track? I thought it was advertised as a 30-minute fix. It’s still a work in progress, in my opinion.
Regan Smith wins a wreck-marred Aaron's 312 at Talladega Superspeedway
A wild finish to Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Talladega Superspeedway once again led to confusion concerning how the sanctioning body scores finishes on the sport’s two restrictor plate tracks.
10. 1984: Putting the “super speed” in “Superspeedway”
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200 mph laps in Monte Carlos, Thunderbirds and Regals — cars that actually look stock. If there's a reason we don't use these camera angles anymore, it would be nice to know why. Look how friggin' fast these things are going! The in-car shots are awesome, cars buffeting about, half a turn into the steering wheel without any appreciable change in direction of the cars. And another great Ken Squier last lap Talladega quip: “Dale Earnhardt, winds it up, fires it in there…”
by Vito Pugliese
9. 2009: A Georgia Bulldog Representing in Bama
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Not all the best finishes come in Cup races. David Ragan's first NASCAR win would occur at Talladega in 2009, making the type of last-lap, last-second slingshot move that would have been impressive in any era, in any division and under any circumstances. With one lap to go, tell me if Ragan even looked like he had a shot at anything other than a good points day.
by Vito Puglise
8. 2011: Four Rows of Two
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After conceding that the CoT was a PoS, NASCAR removed the “Fast & The Furious” surfboard spoiler and Erector Set splitter in favor or traditional aerodynamic accouterments. This brought about the unintended consequence of tandem drafting between teammates. Here, one guy would push and another would steer while each remained in radio contact — kind of like a 200 mph rail cart. It's always hard to beat Hendrick Motorsports on a big track, and the HMS guys make quite a charge at the 3:00 minute mark with two to go … and Junior wouldn’t have any of the flag afterward.
If you have a few minutes, just watch the whole thing. If not, pick it up from the 20:00 mark. Hall of Fame broadcaster Ken Squier touches on why fans cheer for the cars – not just their favorite drivers. Dig the mid 70s music score, sucka – and the last lap battle between two legends of superspeedway competition: Buddy Baker and Richard Petty. Plenty of bowl cuts and Brady Bunch music for all.
by Vito Pugliese
6. 1981: Where’d Bouchard Come From?
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Back before the days of Danica, not all rookies were subject to intense scrutiny with regards to their appearance or personal life. Such was the case of Fitchburg, Mass.’ Ron Bouchard. The first year of the downsized car gave hope to those who may have been skeptical about a field full of Buick's. Jump ahead to the 1:17:40 mark to watch the “impossible finish” between Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte and Ron Bouchard. This finish remains one of Waltrip's most memorable races and non-wins. Also, check out Brent Musberger, before he started creeping on QB's girlfriends in BCS games.
by Vito Pugliese
5. 2001: Little E and the Big One
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The EA Sports 500 at Talladega was a typical plate race affair with the roof wicker rules package. Business picks up around the 7:00 minute mark when some Bobby-on-Bobby violence ensues — Labonte goes for a roll and Hamilton gets turned into the wall — while Dale Earnhardt Jr. cruises through for the win and a million dollar bonus. Ricky Craven gets out of his car and calls it a day, while Sterling Marlin offered his summation of what the response would be to fix plate racing: “I guess we'll do what we done agee-an.”
by Vito Pugliese
4. 2008: A Block by any Other Name …
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Thought I'd throw this one in since Tony Stewart is so averse to blocking. I'd include last fall's Talladega melee as well, but the finish wasn't really that close because of it. Regan Smith would have to wait another three years before he'd score his first “official” victory.
by Vito Pugliese
3. 1993: Irvan vs. Earnhardt
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What is it with David Hobbs calling a NASCAR race that gives it a little extra sense of legitimacy? Kyle Petty is leading late in the going in his Mello Yello Pontiac, with Dale Earnhardt, Ernie Irvan, Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin in tow. Pontiac vs. Chevy vs. Ford – how's that for parity? These, uh, “Generation 4” cars look every bit the equal of the Gen 6 to me. Check out Earnahardt's Lay-Z-Boy seating position and truck door mirror laid sideways. Gotta love Ken Squire's late race call — “five seconds to pay-dirt,” and his nonchalant call for a .005-second margin of victory.
by Vito Pugliese
2. 1993: Rusty Goes for a Ride
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If there is ever a book written about NASCAR's golden era of racing (OK, fine, I'll write it), the 1993 Winston 500 will go down as the definitive superspeedway race. NASCAR rolled the field off early under the threat of thunderstorms, while Mark Martin's crew had to hot wire his car on pit road. The first few laps of the race got so wild and chaotic that Benny Parsons and the broadcast crew gave up trying to call it and just implored fans to sit back, watch and listen for themselves. With one lap to go all hell breaks lose with Martin sandblasting the outside frontstrech wall, guys running out of gas and Rusty Wallace going Orville and Wilbur after contact from Dale Earnhardt. Earnhardt was visibly shaken afterwards, as the interview shows.
by Vito Pugliese
1. 2000: "3" Forever
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The final win of Dale Earnahardt Sr.'s illustrious career would happen, predictably, at Talladega — a track he was known for his mastery of. Earnhardt charged from 17th to the lead in just four laps to complete a most unlikely comeback. If NASCAR is looking to improve superspeedway racing, this package may have been the best. Not much more needs to be said — just sit back and watch the master at work.