A Writer's Room of Requirement

A home for the many random insights that cross my mind from time to time.

Archive for the month “August, 2013”

The Richmond Kickers – USL Pro Regular Season Champions

deli

The Richmond Kickers clenched the 2013 Regular Season Title and home field advantage throughout the playoffs Wednesday night with a 2-0 win over Orlando City.  Despite entering the match as the two-time defending regular season champions of USL Pro and sporting the league’s most prolific offense, Orlando City had no answer for Richmond’s league-leading defense in front of the boisterous crowd of City Stadium.  With another shutout, the Kickers have only allowed 23 goals in 25 matches.

Richmond played its most complete match of the season.  The offense appeared crisp in the first half, sending attempt after attempt into the box.  The Orlando City goalie managed to repulse a few early attacks, before succumbing to the pressure.  Kickers’ all-time leading scorer, Matthew Delicate poked in a loose ball in the 24th minute and added a rocket strike off a perfect cross in the 27th. The Kickers wouldn’t need more than that.

After signing late and recovering from a groin injury earlier in the season, Delicate has regained much of his old form.  He carries the confidence and momentum of four goals in the last two matches into the playoffs.

The wingers also impressed in the first half.  Brian Ownby and Nate Robinson made numerous runs down the flanks and placed a bevy of opportunities into the box.  Orlando City had no answer for the two men.  To keep Orlando further off balance, Head Coach Leigh Colishaw gave Ownby and Robinson the freedom to switch flanks often, providing new looks and chances in the process.

The defense stepped forward in the second half as Richmond tried to preserve its lead and Orlando furiously threw everything they had at goal.  Andrew Dykstra stoned any attempt on goal, seemingly possessed by a vengeful goalie spirit.  He made save after save and drew the continued admiration of the home crowd.  I can’t imagine a hotter goalie than the DC United loan as the playoffs approach.

Dykstra had help.  All league center back William Yomby shut down any number of Orlando City attacks into the box.  He remained unbeatable from start to finish.  He anchors a back line that has landed among the league elite for the last few years.  Team leader and defensive midfielder Michael Callahan also got in on the action.  He blocked a sure goal from point blank range to secure the clean sheet.

Orlando City did have one sure chance.  After a certain dive in the box – at least from the point of view of the nearby Red Army – the referee awarded Orlando City a penalty kick.  However, the taker skied his attempt over the bar drawing shouts of “Ball don’t lie” and chants of “You let the whole team down” from the Kickers’ supporters.

The Red Army made significant strides in the four days between the Orlando City match and the Dayton match.  Their numbers swelled and the fans looked particularly dapper in the free Red Army t-shirts provided by the Kickers’ organization.  The chants felt more cohesive and louder.  The Red Army has begun to find a few favorite chants that it can fall back on during the lulls.  The Kickers appear to have a real supporters group.  Coaches, fans, and players alike appreciate their contribution.  The most telling indicator of the Red Army’s growing popularity: fans moved to the section during the course of the match.  I noticed a father with his two sons, all sporting vuvuzelas, and a pair of twenty-something men drawn to raucous Section O.

Unfortunately, the Red Army has come under scrutiny following allegations of racial abuse.  Orlando City Reserve Kevin Ellis complained to Colishaw following halftime, accusing the Red Army of insulting his race and his mother.  The Red Army denies any such discrimination.

I sat about seven or eight rows back from the Red Army supporters in question during the altercation.  At City Stadium, the fans sit right on top of the players.  Ellis and a reserve goalie passed a ball back and forth on the field in hopes of inclusion into the match during the second half.  They stood maybe ten yards from the wall where the fans sat.

The Red Army fans began heckling the two players.  I could not hear what they said.  However, a short time later Ellis shouted at the fans, threatening a physical attack, potentially murder.  I found his retort classless and reprehensible.  Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, Ellis is not completely innocent.

Following Ellis’s outburst, the entire Red Army took up the task of heckling Ellis, but they only commented on his reserve status, indicating that he would start if he had any talent.  Not knowing the racial aspect to the story, I simply assumed the supporters group had managed to get under the skin of a hotheaded player.

After halftime, following Ellis’s accusation, Richmond Kickers intern and Red Army liaison RP Kirtland came down to the section and passionately declared that the Kickers would not tolerate any form of racism, sexism, homophobia, or discrimination of any kind.  I fully support this stance from the Kickers front office.  We want to import the passion of the European football fan, but we can leave their ignorant phobias on the other side of the pond.

In the nature of full disclosure, I did hear one obviously drunk fan in the Red Army try to start a “Monkey” chant during the Dayton game the Saturday prior to the Orlando match.  European fans have used the chant as an insult towards players of African descent.  This is unacceptable.  However, his chant quickly died out when no one else in the red army would support it.   Strangely enough, this same fan tried to start a “F*** Chick-Fil-A for hatin’ on the gays” chant during halftime of the Dayton match in response to the mascot soccer game.

Despite the actions of this one fan, I heard zero instances of discrimination, racial or otherwise, at any time during the Orlando match in question.

The actions of a few fans do not represent the Red Army as a whole.  While discussing the situation with another Kickers season pass holder, she suggested that the personalities most likely attracted to shouting and chanting at football matches, those outgoing early adopters of a more energetic fan culture, likely also have a tendency towards obnoxiousness, a lack of filter between brain and mouth.  As the supporters group grows these fans get drowned out by the more respectful, but no less energetic, desires of the whole.  A larger, more structured Red Army will pull these wayward soldiers into line.

Following the match, Kevin Ellis tweeted about the incident, but deleted the tweets soon after.  One tweet was saved on a Red Army message board:

@Kev_Ellis4: Richmond your fans are trash sayin racial comments and talkin about my mom who died 2 years ago is as low as you can get #congrats @USLPRO

Kickers fans responded to what they perceived as false allegations.

@rvagooner: @Kev_Ellis4 @USLPRO I didn’t hear anything racist. I saw you come over to a fan, point your finger in his face and say “I’ll f**ck you up!”

@britinva: @Kev_Ellis4 @USLPRO 1) Don’t assume we know your personal history. We don’t. Mom jokes are an easy (if unoriginal) way to get at players.

@britinva: @Kev_Ellis4 @USLPRO 2) What was racist? We did speak down to you because you were a sub rather than a starter, but nothing was about race.

@britinva: @Kev_Ellis4 @USLPRO That said, sorry the Mom comments caused you pain. And whatever you heard as racist certainly wasn’t intended that way.

I imagine the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  The Red Army likely poked a nerve, innocently and without any intent to discriminate, that made Ellis feel particularly uncomfortable given his race and family history.  He lashed out in response.  I hope that Ellis, the Red Army, and the USL can reach a peaceful resolution without soiling the reputation of any and avoid any such repeats of this incident in the future.

Last saturday, Richmond drew 1-1 at Pittsburgh to conclude the regular season.  The Richmond Kickers host the Dayton Dutch Lions this Saturday, August 24th, at 7 PM in City Stadium to begin their journey in the 2013 USL Pro Playoffs.

 

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The Growing Pains of a Changing Fan Culture

red army dayton

I have followed sports since boyhood, but I became a true fan while attending Virginia Tech.  I grew up in the North End Zone of Lane Stadium, encouraging our offense to “Stick it In”, painting myself in maroon and orange on November night games, and yelling at the top of my lungs on every defensive play.  I loved the excitement, passion, and camaraderie of every home game.  Through that place and spirit, I experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.  I felt truly alive when throwing myself unabashedly into Hokie football.

I fell in love with soccer shortly after graduation because I saw the similarities between the two fan bases.  No other fan group throws itself so wholeheartedly into their sport.  No other group has such a devotion for their team that it borders on religion.  Southeast college football and world football are two brothers separated by an ocean.

My best friend Eric, another Hokie grad, and I attended the Richmond Kickers thrilling 5-2 win over the Dayton Dutch Lions on Saturday night.  Brian Ownby and Matthew Delicate both recorded braces and Richmond came one step closer to securing the regular season title for the first time since 2007.

For the first time, Eric and I sat with Richmond’s official fan group, the Red Army.  We stood for entire halves, we cheered at the top of our lungs, and we sang along with many of the chants the Red Army suggested.  At moments it almost felt like a return to those salad days at Tech.

That said, the Red Army still has plenty or room to grow.  Most obviously, we just need numbers.  We need more than thirty or so fans scattered throughout Section O if we hope to excite the rest of the fans at City Stadium.  To do that we must dispense with the elitism that has become the calling card of the American soccer fan.  The hardcore fan in this country grows the sport with their enthusiasm and chants from behind the goalie at US home games, but then they turn around and scoff at any new fans that join as a result of their demonstration.  I have hardly played a game of organized soccer outside of gym class.  I mocked the varsity team at my high school until my conversion during the 2002 World Cup.  I have only followed Richmond and Liverpool since 2009.  I still have much to learn about the sport and its history, but this does not make my passion for the Kickers any less powerful and real.

On the more local level, we have to quit attacking the “soccer moms” and their families.  During our extended discussions, my wife has made me aware of the vitriol the Red Army showed at Monday’s meeting toward the bread and butter of Richmond’s fan base, the soccer family.  She has a more reserved variety of fandom and she wants to make sure that City Stadium remains a family friendly place.  To accomplish our mission as the Red Army, we must heed her advice.  We must encourage and coax the families to stand chant and cheer, we cannot accuse and berate.  I believe these families and children would enjoy chanting and waving flags, but perhaps we can compromise on less family friendly tools such as smoke and flares.  Above all, we must create chants that are clean, simple, and fun.

We also need a better way to translate those cheers and traditions to the masses.  At Tech, the upperclassmen and Alumni already knew the chants by heart.  A few freshmen stumbling though them in the early part of the season didn’t detract from the overall effect.  We had time to learn on the job.  In this situation, the Red Army must try to teach the rest of City Stadium when we do not fully know ourselves.  Though seemingly antiquated now, it quickly becomes obvious why schools found cheerleaders necessary in the early years of college football.  Now I certainly don’t believe the Kickers need cheerleaders, skirts and all, but we need a way to dispense information.  A few ideas come to mind.  Someone could create songs during the week and post the lyrics or videos of their performance on the Kickers website and Facebook prior to matches.  We could have Kickeroo (not my favorite part of Kickers’ games) or the Red Army lead the crowd in cheering practice in the half hour prior to the match or during halftime.  The Kickers could even devote a small corner of the roster sheet handed out at the gate to a “Chant of the Week.”

Even with that, for the Red Army to work cohesively with the rest of the Richmond fan base, we need the true Kickers fans to stand up.  We owe many thanks to the DC United and US Soccer fans that have taken the lead in organizing and inspiring the Red Army, but I seek people that, like myself, are Kickers fans first.  Honestly, I hate DC United.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Dykstra and the other loans, but I want nothing more than to defeat United.  I am sick of losing to them in extra time or PKs in the Open Cup.  I am sick of the big brother attitude they take towards us.  I am from Richmond.  That makes me a Kickers fan first.

But more than just removing divided loyalties, a sense of true fandom brings about a degree of accountability.  In any fan group you have a few miscreants, but Eric noted how we felt a certain responsibility as Virginia Tech fans.  Even with copious amounts of alcohol, we kept our bearing because we represented our university and the town of Blacksburg.  True Richmond fans can drink until they’re feisty, cheer loudly, and create a great atmosphere for everyone without venturing into obnoxiousness.

I do not seek to over-criticize the small steps that the Red Army has taken.  I witnessed one of my coolest moments as a Kickers fan Saturday night.  After the final whistle blew, the entire team came over to our small section and offered applause and an extended hand.  They cheered us for a job well done as we continued to serenade them to the last.  That moment defines fan interaction, the brief second when the team and the fans become truly one.

The Greatest Dynasties of NASCAR

I love dynasties.  They have such great power in story telling.  As a child I would always run to the sports books in the South Charleston Public Library.  They had a collection of team histories set at a youth reading level.  Each of the four major American sports was well represented.  That was the only time in my life that I considered myself a hockey fan.  Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain”, Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine,” and the perfect ’72 Dolphins captured my young attention.

Above all, I loved the drama of the San Francisco 49ers of the ‘80s.  That team still reads like a movie script.  The 1978 49ers finished 2-14.  They had the worst offense in the league.  The following offseason, they hired Bill Walsh, the old guru, as head coach and drafted Notre Dame QB Joe Montana in the third round.  In 1981 they won their first Super Bowl, inspired by the “The Catch”of the game prior, but a great story doesn’t end just because the hero wins his first battle.  In 1984, Montana stared down Dan Marino, the best pure-passer of the ‘80s, for his second title.  San Francisco rebuilt on the fly, our hero found his legendary sidekick in Jerry Rice, and rose from certain defeat with a come-behind victory over Cincinnati for a third title.  In the last act, the team transcended the football paradigm and put together one of the most flawless seasons in NFL history for that fourth title.  Our hero ascends into the clouds.

Why can’t that same story arc work for NASCAR?  Auto racing has the most clearly defined and identifiable hero. In team sports a great player’s accomplishments blur into the successes and failures of a multitude of teammates.  We find the NASCAR hero behind the wheel every Sunday.  However, that clear visibility weighs down our story.  The historical record shows a driver in his early years, toiling in obscurity.  The reader doesn’t care what happened to the hero before he left for his life of adventure.  Drivers also have a knack for hanging on long after their best years have ended.  We see former champions running laps from the back of the pack and we forget their former glory.

Drivers, like teams, have their forgettable moments.  With teams, we focus on their glory years and declare that a “dynasty.”  Why can’t we do that for drivers?  I want to focus only on the prime years, that unique run that makes a driver special and unforgettable.  More than anything, we remember dynasties for championships, longevity, and the way they overcame insurmountable obstacles.  The formula I created does just that.  Others can argue over the greatest driver of all time; I seek the greatest NASCAR dynasty of all-time.

If you must know the secret ingredients read on.  Otherwise, skip the next two paragraphs and start the list.  I won’t take offense.  For a driver to have a prime, he must maintain at least three consecutive Top Five finishes in the season-ending point standings.  With one notable exception, every prime must also contain at least one championship.  From that base of three years, a prime can be extended indefinitely as a long as a driver continues to finish in the Top Five of the season point standings.  A prime may continue even after a driver fails to finish in the top five as long as the driver resumes a streak of two consecutive Top Five seasons following a one season break or three consecutive Top Five seasons following a two season break.  I hold the final judgement on all such continuations.

Once I determined the primes for all drivers who achieved dynasty status, I calculated their dynasty ranking.  They get points for every dynasty driver in their prime in the same year as one of their prime seasons and double points in their championship seasons.  Take Rusty Wallace for example.  He had the shortest possible dynasty run from 1987 to 1989 and he won the 1989 championship.  He received 5 points for 1987 because Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, Dale Earnhardt, and himself were all at the top of their racing careers.  In 1988, Waltrip fell from the Top Five and ended his prime, so Wallace only receives 4 points.  In 1989, only Wallace, Earnhardt, and Mark Martin raced at a prime level.  However, Wallace gets double for winning the championship for 6 points.  When you add every year of Wallace’s dynasty, he receives a total score of 15 points.

With apologies to Rex White, David Pearson, Rusty Wallace, Ned Jarrett, and Herb Thomas, here are the Top Fifteen dynasties in NASCAR history.

Jimmie-Johnson

15.  Jimmie Johnson – 23 points

Prime: 2002-Present       Champion: 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010

 What!?  He won five straight championships!  How is he only the fifteenth greatest dynasty?

 Before you break the pitchforks out of storage and gather the mob, allow me to make two points.

Bad news first: Johnson dominated the weakest stretch of competition in NASCAR history.  He did not win his first championship until Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart fell off from their stratospheric heights.  Not a single one of Johnson’s five championships featured a significant opponent.  Perhaps multi-car teams, greater overall talent, and car balance have leveled the field for everyone else, but it has prevented Johnson from finding that great rival that would truly elevate his story.

Furthermore, Johnson has really benefitted from the chase format.  He had a lower average finish than the second or third place driver in every one of his championship seasons.  Most significantly, he typically placed three full spots behind second-place Jeff Gordon in 2007 and almost four spots behind third-place Kevin Harvick in 2010.

That said, Johnson, unlike the fourteen drivers ahead of him, could still improve his position.  At age 37, the Lowes Chevrolet driver potentially has three or four good years left in his prime.  He could crack the top ten on longevity alone.  We also haven’t seen the last of Johnson’s competition.  Drivers like Carl Edwards and reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski may have already begun great runs of their own; we just don’t have a full understanding of their careers yet.  With a championship or two at Joe Gibbs Racing, Matt Kenseth could validate a prime that stretches back to 2006.  While Johnson doesn’t have as strong a case for greatness at this moment, I also can’t write him off.

dale_jarrett_portrait_close_up_with_arms_crossed

14. Dale Jarrett – 25 Points

Prime: 1996-2001                        Champion: 1999

As the son of Ned Jarrett, a racer dynasty in his own right, NASCAR ran through Dale Jarrett’s blood.  However, those good genetics didn’t produce a fast start in the sport.  Jarrett languished in his early thirties, a time when most drivers hit their prime.  From age 30 to 33, Jarrett finished in the mid-twenties in the point standings every year while driving for underfunded and inexperienced race teams.

Jarrett finally took off after joining Robert Yates Racing for the 1995 season.  He hit his prime the following year.  At 39-years-old, Jarrett started his golden age later than any other driver in dynasty history by a full four years.  He won the championship in 1999 at 42.  Only the all-time greats remained so competitive at such an advanced NASCAR age.  Dale Jarrett: the ageless champion.

Buck-Baker

13. Buck Baker – 26 Points

Prime: 1953-1960                        Champion: 1956, 1957

 Buck Baker emerged as one of the first great champions of NASCAR.  He became the first driver to ever win consecutive championships, capturing twenty-four checkered flags over a two-year period.  He enclosed his two championship seasons with second-place finishes in 1955 and 1958.

Baker also stood out as NASCAR’s first “Intimidator.”  Driver’s new that if they rubbed the volatile Baker on the track, he would confront them in the pits with his strong fists.

tony stewart

12. Tony Stewart – 27 Points

Prime: 1999-2005                        Champion: 2002, 2005, 2011

I have supported Tony Stewart for a long time.  I love his insatiable desire to win and his snarky attitude towards reporters and competitors.  He has never played the public relation game of some of NASCAR’s more polished celebrities.  He just wants to race.

And win.  Going toe-to-toe with Jeff Gordon, Stewart won two championships for Joe Gibbs Racing in his prime.  Not content to stop there, Stewart started his own race team and captured his third championship in 2011.  In doing so, he ended Jimmie Johnson’s consecutive championships streak, he became the first owner/driver to capture a title in nearly two decades, and he also became one of only two drivers to capture a twilight championship after their prime ended.

bill ell

11. Bill Elliott – 28 Points

Prime: 1983-1988                        Champion: 1988

“Awesome Bill” Elliott reigns as the fastest driver in NASCAR history.  He set track records of over 210 mph while qualifying at Daytona and Talladega in his prime.  The 212.809 mark at Talladega stands as the fastest Cup speed ever.

With such speed and youth, Elliott dominated the circuit in the mid-‘80s and instantly obtained the admiration of the fans.  He won the fan voting for NASCAR’s most popular driver sixteen times, including a stretch from 1984-1988.

mark martin

10. Mark Martin – 31 Points

Prime: 1989-1999                        Champion:

Mark Martin made this list without winning a championship, the only dynastic driver to ever accomplish that ignominious feat.  For many, this remains the unavoidable blight on an otherwise pristine career.  Martin often came so close.  He finished second five different times (1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2009).  He came the closest in 1990 when he lost the championship to Dale Earnhardt by a scant 26 points.  Early that season, NASCAR penalized Martin 46 points after his winning car at Richmond failed post-race inspection due to an illegal carburetor.  Without that penalty, Martin wins his first championship.

Earnhardt stoned Martin again in 1994, though by a much larger margin of victory.  Honestly, Martin could very well sit higher on this list if he hadn’t had the misfortune of emerging in a NASCAR dominated by Dale Earnhardt, arguably the greatest stock car racer of all-time.  Martin didn’t fair any better when Earnhardt lost a step though.  He always had the bad luck of timing his best runs during the best years of someone else on this list: Jeff Gordon in ’98, Stewart in ’02, Johnson in ’09.  Martin never got a turn.

Then again, Mark Martin made this list without ever winning a championship.  This shows a remarkable amount of consistency, excellence spread out over eleven great years.  Only the top three drivers on this list had longer primes.  Martin never finished outside of the top six during that run.  He added four more top four finishes after his prime ended.  Mark Martin did not win a NASCAR championship, but we will always remember him as a champion.

Lee Petty

9. Lee Petty – 31 Points

Prime: 1949-1959                        Champion: 1954, 1958, 1959

Some might only know him as the father of “The King,” but Lee Petty exuded royalty in his own right.  Petty became NASCAR’s first great champion, the greatest driver of his generation.  He became the first driver to win three championships.  Petty showcased the endurance to finish in the top five in eleven straight seasons.  At that time, many great careers didn’t even last that long.

As good as those statistics sound, I cannot truly rate Petty’s greatness.  NASCAR did not run its first race until 1949.  By then Petty had already turned 35-years-old.  Like Curly Lambeau’s Packers, Petty’s best years must remain shrouded in history.

terry labonte

8. Terry Labonte – 39 Points

Prime: 1981-1988                        Champion: 1984, 1996

When Labonte entered his prime at the fresh, young age of 24, he became the youngest driver in NASCAR dynasty history to do so, a record that only one driver has eclipsed in the thirty years since.  He excelled in one of of the most competitive eras in NASCAR history.  On average, he faced three other dynasty drivers every season.  He went toe to toe with Earnhardt and Waltrip.  One could easily expect a long and productive prime from such a young driver.  However, Labonte struggled in his mid-thirties with a series of car model and team changes.

Labonte would strike gold one last time at the twilight age of 39.  Finally, in a stable ride with Hendrick Motorsports, Labonte won the 1996 championship a full eight years after his last Top 5 finish in the point standings.  Only three dynasty drivers have won a championship outside of their prime and no driver has ever had such a wide gap between championships in their prime.  I wonder what Labonte could have accomplished in a more stable situation throughout his thirties.

benny parson

7. Benny Parsons – 43 Points

Prime: 1972-1980                        Champion: 1973

Benny Parsons displayed unparalleled consistency in the most competitive era of NASCAR history.  He finished in the Top 5 of the final point standings every year from 1972 to 1980 while facing an average of 3.4 other dynasty drivers every year.  This level of competition ties him for second all-time.  He won the 1973 championship while only winning one race that year.  However, he finished in the Top 10 in 21 of his 28 races.  Parsons placed in the Top 3 four straight years at Daytona (1975-1978) and won the 1975 running.

All of this came from a driver who ended up on the track by sheer coincidence.  Parsons worked at a gas station in Detroit when a couple of customers stopped by towing a stock car.  They invited Parsons to that night’s race.  When the driver didn’t show, Parsons got behind the wheel of a race car for the first time and never looked back.

jeff gordon

6. Jeff Gordon – 46 Points

Prime: 1995-2004                     Champion: 1995, 1997, 1998, 2001

A driver should not have this much success at such a young age.  Jeff Gordon burst into his prime at the tender age of 23, besting Labonte’s record by a year.  Not content to just place in the Top 5, Gordon also won his first championship that year at an age when most of his peers would find happiness to just have a regular ride at the top level.  Gordon drew immediate comparisons to Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, widely regarded as the sport’s two greatest drivers, and he fought to the last race with the latter to catch that first title.  Gordon won two more championships in the next three years and captured his fourth the year he turned 30.  For comparison, Petty didn’t capture his fourth championship until he turned 35 and Earnhardt didn’t win his fourth title until the advanced age of 39.

Gordon seemed particularly god-like in 1998.  That year he decimated the competition as he scored an average finish of 5.7.  No driver has had a more consistently excellent season since Cale Yarborough in 1977.  Gordon took the checkered flag thirteen times that year during one of the greatest individual seasons in NASCAR history.  Mark Martin finished second that year, 364 points behind Gordon.  Martin’s 8.6 average finish bested the champion in two of the three previous seasons.

Just when Gordon seemed poised to make a run at Earnhardt and Petty’s championship record, his prime ended at the relatively young age of 32.  Gordon’s off-track life likely effected his performance.  In 2003, Gordon suffered a messy, public divorce.  In 2004, a plane carrying family and employees of Hendrick Motorsports, the only team Gordon has ever worked for, crashed with no survivors.  That same year, Gordon began dating his second wife.  The more recent Tiger Woods saga shows just how much relationship turmoil can break the focus of a champion as he enters the second half of his career.

On the track, the Chase for the Cup has not helped Gordon.  He would have won a fifth title in 2004 and sixth title in 2007 under the old points system.  That late title would not extend Gordon’s prime, but it would make him the third driver on this list with a twilight title and would advance him past driver #5 on this list…

cale-yarborough-1

5. Cale Yarborough – 50 Points

Prime: 1973-1980                        Champion: 1976, 1977, 1978

Cale Yarborough drove full time in NASCAR for only eight years.  He excelled in every single one.  During those eight years, he won three championships… in a row, the first to ever do that.  He placed second three more times.  The only season he placed outside the Top 5, he missed three races and still finished ninth.  His average finish of 4.5 in 1977 remains the record of NASCAR’s modern era and bests all but one season in the pre-modern era.  His average finish of 6.0 the following season is the fourth best of the modern era.

Yarborough’s impressive stats alone get him on this list, but he accomplished these amazing feats during the most competitive era in NASCAR history.  Yarborough had to face an average of 3.5 all-time great drivers every single raceday.  Benny Parsons, Richard Petty, and Bobby Allison gave Yarborough hell from start to finish and Darrell Waltrip emerged during the second half of Cale’s prime.  For those scoring at home, all four of those drivers make the Top 7 of this list.

Yarborough also helped popularize NASCAR nationally.  During the first televised Daytona 500 in 1979, Donnie Allison and Yarborough spun out while racing for victory on the final lap.  After the race, Yarborough fought with Donnie and his brother Bobby on the backstretch.  The exciting finish and ensuing fireworks spurred the massive growth of the sport in the 1980s and ’90s.

darrell-waltrip-1

4. Darrell Waltrip – 59 Points

Prime: 1977-1987                        Champion: 1981, 1982, 1985

Darrell Waltrip had already established his prime when he began driving Cale Yarborough’s old ride for owner Junior Johnson in 1981.  Two years prior Waltrip had finished second to Richard Petty in the final standings by a scant eleven points while driving for DiGard Racing.  However, with Johnson’s championship caliber equipment, Waltrip emerged as NASCAR’s best driver in the 1980s, winning three championships in six years with the team.

Waltrip bridged the gap between NASCAR’s golden age in the ’70s and the emergence of a number of fast young guns in the mid- to late-80s.  He initially drew the ire of fans by having the gall to challenge greats like Petty, Allison, and Yarborough, but became something of a fan favorite as he persisted in the face of the new generation of Earnhardt, Labonte, and Elliott.  Many fans outright love Waltrip now as the happy-go-lucky color commentator for FOX broadcasts.

Facing such an incredible lineup of drivers, Waltrip naturally ranks with Yarborough and Parsons for the toughest competition.  He faced an average of 3.4 other dynasty drivers every time he drove onto the track during his prime.

dale earnhardt

3. Dale Earnhardt – 59 Points

Prime: 1986-1997               Champ: ’80, ’86, ’87, ’90, ’91, ’93, ‘94

Dale Earnhardt brought me into NASCAR.  In elementary school, my best friend and his family loved the man right down to buying a red Chevy Lumina of their own.  Knowing nothing of the sport, I followed their passion and soon admired Earnhardt’s cool and skill for myself.  Fans and competitors alike called Earnhardt the “Intimidator.”  You do not earn a nickname like that without displaying a certain level of dominance and a willingness to bump, rub, and push the boundaries of both your race car and your fellow competition.

For many, this list ranks Earnhardt far too low.  Only Earnhardt and Petty have captured seven championships, two more than modern great Jimmy Johnson and as many as any other two greats combined.  The two hold a monopoly on the discussion of NASCAR’s all-time greatest drivers.

However, this ranking strives to approach NASCAR’s greatest dynasties objectively.  In a fair race, Earnhardt could beat anyone, but his career likely left a little on the table.  He got a relatively late start, not beginning his prime until he turned 35.  Earnhardt showed flashes of brilliance, winning his first championship in 1980 at the age of 29.  Despite the title, he did not find a stable team situation until he joined Richard Childress Racing in 1984.  With RCR, he finished fourth that year, backslid to seventh in 1985, and then began a string of nine top-three finishes in the next decade, including six more championships.  Had Earnhardt began his career with RCR, he might have set a championship mark that no driver could ever equal.

Like Johnson, Earnhardt also suffered from a lack of competition during the height of his championship prowess.  When Earnhardt captured his last four titles in a span of five years during the early nineties, only Mark Martin offered a significant challenge.  Earnhardt had reached his mid-40s by the time Jeff Gordon and the new crop of greats came out to play in the late-’90s.

bobby allison

2. Bobby Allison – 61 Points

Prime: 1970-1983                        Champion: 1983

 Longevity.  It defines Bobby Allison.  Only Richard Petty had a prime lasting longer than Bobby Allison’s 14 years.  Only Earnhardt and the Pettys remained as competitive into their mid-40s.  He won his only NASCAR championship at the age of 45, the oldest driver to ever accomplish that feat.  Allison’s momentum seemed to defy the laws of nature.  For most, the dream of a NASCAR Cup title would have long passed, but Allison kept steadily moving towards his goal, age be damned.

Allison’s prime may lack the consistency of some of the others on this list, but he raced during NASCAR’s golden age, bumping fenders with the greats every week.  For over a decade he ran laps with an average of three greats every week.  You cannot  fault him for the occasional off year.  When he finally captured that elusive championship, he did so with Elliott, Labonte, Richard Petty, and Waltrip all at their best.

The best indicator of Allison’s greatness: he finished second in the final point standings five times, a feat only equaled by Mark Martin and only excelled by our #1 driver…

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1. Richard Petty – 73 Points

Prime: 1962-1973              Champ: ’64, ’67, ’71, ’72, ’74, ’75, ‘79

“The King” tops this list by any statistical measurement.  He set the mark for most Cup championships, dominating both before and after NASCAR’s move into the modern era.  He also holds the record for most second place finishes in the point standings with six.

Petty did it all during a  22-year prime that lasted eight years longer than the next closest driver.  At 25-years-old he started his prime at an earlier year than any of his contemporaries, a feat since surpassed by only two other drivers on this list.  At 46, he established the record for the oldest driver still in his prime.

Petty maintained his excellence during the entirety of NASCAR’s golden age from 1973 to 1983, always facing the toughest competition.  He won his final championship against dynasties from Waltrip, Yarborough, Parsons, and Allison, one of the five toughest seasons in NASCAR history.

His average finish of 4.2 and 4.7 in 1971 and 1972 represent the greatest average and the fourth greatest average of all-time.

Long live “The King.”

The River City Red Army

red army

I first became a serious soccer fan in the spring of 2009.  Almost immediately afterward, I moved to Richmond and fell in love with the local USL team (think Double A or Triple A of American soccer), the Richmond Kickers.  Over the course of their 21-year existence, the Kickers have taken five league titles and they won the US Open Cup in 1995.  I watched them win their fifth championship my first September in Richmond.  Despite my own personal elation, the meaning of the victory did not seem to translate to the rest of the crowd.  No cheers in the stands for hours, no dancing in the streets: they simply smiled and went home.  It felt a little deflating.

Hopefully, that fan culture will soon receive the shot in the arm it so desperately needs.  Tonight, I attended a meeting of the River City Red Army, the official supporters group of the Richmond Kickers.  We met at Gus’ Bar and Grill on Broad Street to discuss how we might improve the atmosphere at City Stadium.  The Kickers sent representatives (interns, but still) to show that we have their full support.  Earlier this year, the club began selling beer at games for the first time in an attempt to draw the twenty-something crowd that makes up the lifeblood of the new, emerging Richmond.  Now they want the help of the diehard Kickers fans to create an attractive stadium spirit.

The Kickers have given us the keys to the kingdom.  They have given section O entirely to the River City Red Army.  They also promised to give the Red Army free tickets to all of the remaining home games including the first home playoff game and the others that will hopefully follow.  They have printed up shirts with that beautiful logo you see at the top of the post – a combination of the Kickers Crest and the city flag of Richmond.  The Kickers representative also seemed “99% sure” that the Red Army could establish a tailgating presence before the match in a designated area as soon as this Saturday.

In return, we the Richmond Kickers fans must show our support and do our duty to inspire the rest of the crowd.  We must cheer for our boys and maybe even heckle the refs and the opponents a little.  We must create, learn, and recite chants and songs that can filter through the whole crowd.  We must inspire the Kickers to greater heights, so that the product on the field and the morale in the stands draw as much excitement and attention as any bouncy castle, food truck, or special promotion.

The first place Kickers return to Richmond this Saturday, August 10th.  They face the Dayton Dutch Lions in City Stadium at 7 PM.  The Red Army wants You!

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