The Rich Are Richer, and the Rest Are Along for the Ride

This was about as close as Dale Earnhardt Jr. could get to Jimmie Johnson in the closing stages at Dover. (HHP/Christa L. Thomas photo for Chevrolet)
This was about as close as Dale Earnhardt Jr. could get to Jimmie Johnson in the closing stages at Dover. (HHP/Christa L. Thomas photo for Chevrolet)

[cb_profit_poster Travel1]Clinton, S.C., Monday, September 30, 2013, 9:05 a.m.

The NASCAR season has fallen into a pattern. Matt Kenseth won the first two races in the Chase. Jimmie Johnson won at Dover. Next he’ll win in Kansas. Then maybe races five and six will go to Kyle Busch.

Kenseth, Johnson and Busch will likely duel it out to the end. Yes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. came close on Sunday, but he’s probably too far behind to contend for the title. Maybe he’ll win one down the stretch, and that will serve the yearly function of getting his fans excited about the season that comes next.

Wait till next year! Remember the Alamo! Roll, Tide!

The Chase was unpredictable right up until the time it started. Teams know all about trying to manipulate the format. Then most of them get there and don’t know what to do. Each week a couple fall by the wayside. Each week a few get behind, play their strategy right, take advantage of social welfare, and wander into the top 10 by race’s end.

The top 10 Dover finishers were all in the Chase, breaking the previous record of nine. Of course, by the miracle of seat-of-the-pants rule-making, the Chase has 13 drivers in Year the 13th. Ten out of 13 beats nine out of 12 by .19 in percentage (.769 to .750). This Chase is a half-game ahead in the win column. In this sport, though, it’s too late for a wild card. They’ve already been dealt.

That having been noted, this championship mix really works better with the variables whittled down. Imagine if the Chase came down to the Homestead, Fla., finale with a wide-open race. What if seven drivers had a shot at the championship?

You think you saw manipulation at Richmond? If determining the championship required constant use of calculators at Homestead, NASCAR would have to put Pinkerton agents in the pit box and on the spotters’ stands.

Bill Elliott (right) knows how it feels to fall just short. If he'd have led one more lap at Atlanta in 1992, he'd have won a second championship. (John Clark photo)
Bill Elliott (right) knows how it feels to fall just short. If he’d have led one more lap at Atlanta in 1992, he’d have won a second championship. (John Clark photo)

All things considered, the best Chase would be what happened before there was one in 1992. At the end, it came down to Alan Kulwicki leading one more lap than Bill Elliott, but that championship race also included Davey Allison and Kyle Petty. That one race was better than any Chase, but the two-way race in 2011 between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards was also unbelievable.

Three-way might be better than two-way, but after that, it gets too complicated.

What? Somebody threw a cantaloupe out the window? Ah, hell, put it out!

Kyle Busch says the darndest things. (John Clark photo)
Kyle Busch says the darndest things. (John Clark photo)

9:38 p.m.

If you listen closely – or, in my case, read the next morning — it’s almost impossible not to find some amusing tidbit from Kyle Busch’s comments.

I picked him to win the championship before the season started. If he wins it, maybe he’ll reach the level of celebrity that could get him lampooned on “Saturday Night Live.”

Here’s what made me chuckle from Dover:

“The inside lane just doesn’t get going here. I think it’s because you’re lower in the bowl than the outside lane is, and you’re coming up out of it, and you’re just having to come uphill, and, obviously, the more uphill you have to go that’s — it’s harder whether you’re a human being or mechanical horsepower.”

Mr. Human, meet Mr. Horsepower. Horsepower, human. Human, horsepower.

This must be National Cliché Day. If cheeseburgers can have a day, clichés ought to have one.

Mechanical Horsepower. Wasn’t he in the Cars movies?

This happens quite a lot. (HHP/Alan Marler photo for Chevrolet)
This happens quite a lot. (HHP/Alan Marler photo for Chevrolet)

10:01 a.m.

Johnson’s eighth Dover victory made him the concrete mile’s all-time leader, breaking a tie with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever done what Richard Petty hasn’t,” Johnson said.

Actually, Petty never won five straight championships, though he did win seven overall (along with Dale Earnhardt).

In terms of other sports, Johnson is shy of the Boston Celtics (eight straight 1959-66) and the UCLA Bruins (college basketball, seven straight 1967-73).

The Montreal Canadiens won five straight hockey titles in 1956-60.

Johnson, of course, would have to start all over, and he couldn’t possibly win five more in a row. Could he?

10:28 a.m.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. said it wasn’t any tougher to finish second to Johnson than anyone else.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he said, and it’s always nice when drivers don’t lie. “It sucks to lose, regardless of who wins. It’s probably harder to run second than it is fifth or 10th. When you have a car like we had today, you don’t get good cars every week, [and] you like to capitalize.

“It doesn’t bother me that it was Jimmie. I know Jimmie is going to be good here. Plus he’s my teammate. I want to see him do well. When he does well, it indirectly affects us and benefits us. I wasn’t hoping he was going to blow a tire or anything there at the end; I was just trying to catch him. If I could get to him, I thought I would be able to get by him. We just couldn’t do it.”

After Earnhardt’s remarks ended, several million people said, yes, “You and me both, Junior.”

Earnhardt magnanimously says he wishes the best for his teammate, but some of his fans probably wouldn’t mind a first-lap Talladega wreck collecting Kenseth, Johnson and Kyle Busch. Not that they’d wish any bad luck on anyone, but if it happened, and it got Earnhardt back within striking range, well, you know, it’s a long shot, but stranger things have happened, particularly on The Cartoon Network.

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Oh, the Poor Little Rich Kid Got His Feelings Hurt

[cb_profit_poster Guitar1]Clinton, S.C., Sunday, September 29, 2013, 11:29 a.m.

When a team, or an athlete, gets criticized, or does something wrong, the response is often a retaliatory attack on the messenger.

How can Driver X possibly drive his race car at 200 mph for three hours with the media yapping at him? Or her?

Competitors are so frail, so sensitive, so helpless.

"In my defense, it was heartfelt."
“In my defense, it was heartfelt.”

This notion really makes me laugh. Competitors aren’t supposed to be delicate. They’re not supposed to get all touchy-feely.

There’s no crying in baseball!

Now, obviously, age does make a difference. It’s inappropriate to write an account of, say, a Little League baseball game that is as brutally honest as a story of the seventh game of the World Series. Discretion is in order. How old and mature an athlete is makes a difference. So does whether or not he plays for money, or even how much. All such considerations are part of the story.

The bottom line, though, is what happens. A reporter is supposed to write what happens. A columnist is supposed to add perspective, opinion and/or analysis. Regardless of age, money, whatever, though, it’s supposed to be accurate. Opinions should be supported by more than “I’ll fix his ass.”

Obviously, the truth can hurt.

Let’s suppose an error by a 10th-grade shortstop costs his team a game. There’s no need to be cruel, but one shouldn’t write “Little Johnny tried valiantly but could not corral a bullet off the bat of Little Jimmy” when the ball was a dribbler that went through Little Johnny’s legs. Don’t make the kid a goat, but just write the winning run scored on an error. Have a heart, but don’t conjure up a whopper.

Fans tend to be apologists where favorites are concerned.

What drives me crazy is the notion that something that someone, anyone, writes can have a crucial effect on the performance of a skilled athlete. It’s impossible, on one hand, to claim that the star linebacker is the toughest, meanest SOB ever to lace up his cleats, and then to claim that he dropped a sure interception because the damned media put too much pressure on him.

Good grief. What kind of excuse from hell is that?

Let the record note that I have been a persistent critic of some of my former colleagues. I think the news, the sports and, quite possibly, the weather have been wracked by the pervasive infestation of a plague of gossip. People hate to hear me say it, but I think one of the reasons is that, within the dried-up, dying carcass of what used to be called journalism, one of the culprits of change is the simple fact that one person is asked to do what at least two and often three people used to do, and gossipy rumors are easy. No one has time for the in-depth, comprehensive reporting that used to be the state of the art.

So, who’s the left fielder dating? No one? Okay, then who’s his best friend on the team? What’s he think about whom his best friend is dating? Has he been to any cool parties lately? Was he at the Arcade Fire concert? Did he tweet about it?

I don’t miss that stuff because, no matter how independent a journalist is, he (or her) can never set his own agenda. Part of it is set by what others write, and what the sports editor wants him to write, and what the latest focus group concluded, and what team the publisher’s grandson is on. Every job, even legendary folk hero, has its annoying tasks.

Part of the job is what the people want, and part is what the people need. They may love the point guard, but if she’s missed her last 11 three-pointers, even her fans need to know about it.

This stock car racing stuff isn't for people who tend to get their feelings hurt. (HHP/Brian Lawdermilk photo for Chevrolet)
This stock car racing stuff isn’t for people who tend to get their feelings hurt. (HHP/Brian Lawdermilk photo for Chevrolet)

A champion isn’t going to be devastated by some pundit trying to make a name for himself. A champion is only going to be motivated by proving all his detractors wrong. If a story criticizes a team, does the coach hide it from the players? Does he tell them not to read the paper or surf the Internet? No! He posts it on the bulletin board. He leaves clippings in every locker. The champion thinks, well, I’ll prove that jackass wrong. He doesn’t cower and weep quietly because his feelings are hurt. He doesn’t go into a blue funk. He’s supposed to be a champion. He’s supposed to be a master of the universe. Is he making a million bucks? If so, it’s not because he just can’t take it when that mean, old writer claims he can’t hit the breaking ball.

Take your best shot, scribe. Anything you can dish out, I can hit in the alleys for extra bases.

That’s the attitude of a champion. A champion figures I’ve got my job, and he’s got his. He can write or say what he wants, and I can prove him wrong.

For what it’s worth, the amount of criticism fired directly at any journalist worth his salt is at least comparable to the ricochets that occasionally wing the “defenseless” competitor. I always told race-car drivers, “You think I’m tough? You ought to read my email. I’m Fans Light.”

What’s more, most of what I write has my name attached to it.

My favorite response to criticism was to stand in front of my detractor, look him in the face, and wait patiently for his rant to conclude, at which point I would say, “In my defense, it was heartfelt.”

I was sometimes wrong, but I was never insincere.

Now I can write what I want. It’s liberating, but I was never devastated when readers, or, for that matter, subjects said horrible things about me. The last time I got really mad at someone who lashed out at me, a minor-league pitching coach and I had to be separated in a clubhouse, but that was a long, long time ago. I’m tougher now.

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Alas, Poor Football, I Knew It Well


This is about the best alignment Clinton High School showed all night.
This is about the best alignment Clinton High School showed all night.

[cb_profit_poster Travel1]Clinton, S.C., Saturday, September 28, 2013, 4:55 p.m.

I love football. Until this year, it liked me.

Last night I watched Clinton lose again, 34-12 in Abbeville. The highlight of that excursion was supper at Yoder’s Dutch Kitchen. The Red Devils (0-5) have what can only be described as a penchant for disaster. If you watch them play, you’d never guess how bad they are. On the first play, Abbeville (2-3) intercepted a pass and ran it back inside the five. Then, when the Panthers kicked off, Clinton had two kids deep to receive, and each apparently thought the other was going to catch it. Thus did Clinton’s offense take the field on its own one. Thus did the Red Devils trail almost immediately by two touchdowns.

The other enjoyable aspect of Friday night was listening to a Spartanburg post-game show on the hour drive home. An excitable analyst said that, in today’s Wake Forest-Clemson game, the Deacons’ talent is closer to Spartanburg High than it is to the Tigers.’ I know Wake’s having a rough year, but that remark was still ridiculous. I have no affiliation with Wake Forest University, but if I did, I would have been furious. I would have wanted to ring that commentator’s neck. That’s the type of ingratiating remark a man makes when he’s trying to kiss up to his audience and assuming no one he is taking a cheap shot at is listening. I hope someone was.

This is how the Presbyterian Blue Hose entered Bailey Memorial Stadium. I doubt the walk back was so hot.
This is how the Presbyterian Blue Hose entered Bailey Memorial Stadium. I doubt the walk back was so hot.

Today it was the Presbyterian College home game against Charlotte, which is what big-city folks insist we must call their athletic teams even though their actual school is known as the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. You can go to school at UNCC, but you can only ball for Charlotte.

That’s so stupid I’m amazed NASCAR didn’t invent it.

Everything about the day was perfect except the game. The Blue Hose once led 14-7. The last I heard, the 49ers were ahead 45-21. I was interested in the game. Charlotte is just starting its football team but has wads of money. Presbyterian is trying to build a competitive FCS program but is playing its 101st season of football. (It has apparently not been accepted at PC that the 100th anniversary marks the 101st year.)

So, September is almost over, and there isn’t a single football team I care about that doesn’t suck.

Furman is at The Citadel tonight. As a Furman grad, I feel almost exactly the same about El Cid as I do about the New York Yankees as a Red Sox fan, but since this is a football game, and it’s Year the 13th, the one when my job was eliminated, the Paladins have no shot. (Update: I’m overjoyed to have been wrong. The Paladins conquered the Bulldogs, 24-17. At last! Relief!)

When everything goes wrong, it promotes superstition. Reason breaks down. What do all my favorite teams have in common? They suck. What else do they have in common? I love them. Hence I am the common denominator. They have nothing to do with it. It’s my fault.

On the other hand, of course, it seems as if the whole sport of football is taking a dive so that the Boston Red Sox can win. Football’s behavior is Christ-like. It is dying so that, within this fan’s delusional mind, the Red Sox might win.

It could all turn around. What September was to football, October may be to baseball. The Red Sox may be eliminated. Conversely, Clinton, Furman, Presbyterian, the Washington Redskins and the Carolina Panthers may start winning.

The truth is that, if the Red Sox can win the World Series, I can handle all the football disasters.

The ultimate lunacy, of course, is that I don’t get to choose. It could be all a mere coincidence. It could be that the Clinton Red Devils are actually just a bad football team, and the Boston Red Sox are a great baseball team.

It is, in fact, a coincidence.

In order for sports to be popular, fans have to be crazy as Glenn Beck. It’s the only way it works.

Thanks for reading, as always. Let me know what you think.

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Greater than the Sum of their Parts

The biggest surprises in a team of surprise are Koji Uehara and Daniel Nava.
The biggest surprises in a team of surprise are Koji Uehara and Daniel Nava.

[cb_profit_poster Beer1]Clinton, S.C., Friday, September 27, 2013, 9:48 a.m.

This edition of the Boston Red Sox is more like the 2004 World Series winner than 2007. Maybe it’s because that first world championship (okay, in 86 years) wasn’t expected.

This year, when the Sports Illustrated baseball preview arrived, I quickly learned that the magazine had picked the Red Sox to finish last in the American League East. When I read the forecast, I could see why. It looked as if the Red Sox had mainly filled their holes with quick fixes.

I was so wrong. So was SI. As of this moment, Boston has won 96 games and lost 63. The regular season ends in Baltimore. The playoffs won’t begin for the Red Sox until next Friday.

At the start of the season, the Red Sox closer was Joel Hanrahan, who got hurt, and then there was Andrew Bailey, who got hurt. While rumors of emergency trades circulated, Koji Uehara, a 38-year-old veteran, emerged. Not to lump Japanese pitchers together, but Uehara is sort of the anti-Daisuke Matsuzaka. Uehara throws almost nothing but strikes. Dice-K, who, by the way, has pitched well for the Mets lately, did almost nothing but nibble.

He’s been sublime. He retired 37 consecutive batters at one point. He went from early June to halfway through September without giving up a run.

Then there’s Daniel Nava, who was one of those ballplayers originally signed to fill out minor-league rosters. He’d been up and down several times over the previous few years, showing a flair for the dramatic, but this was the first time he ever came out of spring training with a secure spot on the team. He’s a switch-hitter who used to have a really hard time batting right. He once was a barely passable fielder. Now he hits from both sides of the plate and is a really sound outfielder. Who can play first base. Who would probably try to catch if asked. He has blossomed, against all expectations, into the ultimate practical ballplayer.

The Red Sox and Atlanta Braves remind me of each other because depth plays such a large role in their success. Both teams have slogged through injuries by getting great performances from fill-in players.

For the Sox, it seems as if Jonny Gomes and Mike Napoli only hit when it counts. Mike Carp is sort of the lefthanded-only version of Nava. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has turned into a legitimate everyday catcher. David Ortiz and Shane Victorino seem ageless.

Dustin Pedroia is just the best player, pound for pound, since Pete Rose. Who else is there to consider? David Eckstein? Wes Gardner?

Growing up, I loved the way Carl Yastrzemski’s stance evolved as he grew older. What I love about watching Pedroia is the way he crouches in his swing to hit low pitches and rises up to hit high ones. I don’t recall noticing that so vividly in any other player.

On the other hand, Jacoby Ellsbury is elegant in center and fearless on the basepaths. He just returned from a foot injury and looked fine in his first game back.

Two infielders who began the season struggling, Will Middlebrooks at third and Stephen Drew at short, have found their grooves down the stretch.

In the bullpen, Craig Breslow has been lights-out from the left side. Junichi Tazawa isn’t as effective as Uehara – hence, he’s not the closer – but he’s been reliable most of the time. I never thought I’d see John Lackey as good in a Red Sox uniform as he once was for the Angels, but he’s back. Boston figures to line up a strong four-man rotation – Lackey, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Jake Peavy – for the post-season, with Ryan Dempster and perhaps Felix Dubront moving to the pen. Some tough decisions have to be made regarding the post-season pitching roster.

Yet, somehow, as in 2004, I wouldn’t be surprised if they fall short. I’m so pleased at this unbelievable season that I’m trying not to get my hopes up. The teams the Red Sox might play have plenty of incentive. Terry Francona, gone but still beloved in Boston, manages the Indians. The Athletics and Dodgers are littered with former Red Sox.

John Farrell, once successful in Boston as pitching coach, moved back after two mediocre, at best, years with the Blue Jays. He moved from the team picked to finish first, the Blue Jays, to the team picked to finish last, the Red Sox, and reversed that curse, anyway. In a few years, most fans won’t even remember the medieval season of Bobby Valentine. This team may go down, but it’ll go down swinging.

If the team’s players weren’t so difficult to rhyme – Napoli, Tazawa, Uehara, Saltalamacchia, Buchholz, Ellsbury, Pedroia, Lavarnway – maybe I’d write a song. Nah. Too far-fetched.

Sadly, I probably will remember Bobby V, who, in his one season with the Red Sox, wore the uniform number, 25, of Tony C, not to mention Mike Lowell. It’s not as bad as Ted Williams’ preserved head, but it was still pretty scary. By the way, Tony C was Conigliaro.

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Third and Long

When I last covered a game at Williams-Brice Stadium, the press box was on the middle level, and the large structure on top of the upper deck hadn't been constructed.
When I last covered a game at Williams-Brice Stadium, the press box was on the middle level, and the large structure on top of the upper deck hadn’t been constructed.

[cb_profit_poster Storytelling]

Monte Dutton
Monte Dutton

Clinton, S.C., Thursday, September 26, 2013, 10:30 a.m.

I find myself a little glum, creatively. The completion Monday of the first draft of Crazy by Natural Causes left a bit of a void. I haven’t enjoyed anything recently more than navigating Chance Benford along on his bumpy voyage. Now it’s countdown to the release of The Intangibles, so I’ll put Crazy aside before I remove some of the bumps. Or add a few.

This unrest is kind of obvious, of course. Why else would I decide to start drawing sketches?

I’ve got to start making arrangements for The Intangibles. I’m going to design a little pamphlet to mail out. I’ve got some online networking to arrange, even though, at this moment, I’m not quite sure yet what that entails. I’ve got the paperwork and instructions. I just haven’t read them yet.

Thanks to the diligent work of my concierge, Rowe Copeland, I should have some “events” to announce soon. There may be “appearances.” Some people might have “an evening” with me. Or, perhaps, “a brunch.” What’s a combination lunch/dinner? A dunch? I doubt I’ll have any of them.

I’ve written a new song. Oh, wait. I’ve just learned the new song. A quick check of the archives reveals that I wrote “Hell to Pay” on August 29 and, in fact, wrote a blog about it. I guess time flies like the wind, just as fruit flies like a banana.

10:51 a.m.

Guess what I’m doing Friday night for the first time in more than 15 years?

Wrong. I don’t have a date. And it hasn’t been … 15 years. It’s been … well, what do you consider a date?

See? That’s the problem. As noted in a fairly recent blog, why should I worry about the government stealing my privacy? I give it away every day when I write. Facebook. Twitter. A blog. I might as well let the NSA use the guest bedroom.

The correct answer is that I’m covering a high-school football game. I wouldn’t even mention this now, but my cover’s been blown. (Notice the spy imagery.) It was mentioned in The Clinton Chronicle. The story’s been broken.

When I worked at the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, and mainly covered NASCAR, I sometimes covered games in places like Blacksburg, Rock Hill, Union and Gaffney. Those towns were near the border, and Union was between my apartment in Mt. Holly, N.C., and my house here in Clinton.

I covered a few North Carolina games during the first couple years I was at the Gaston Gazette, but then they stopped asking. Probably it was because there were no free NASCAR weekends in the fall. I certainly didn’t demand that I be assigned games, but there were a few times on the road, when I wasn’t doing anything else on a Friday night, when I just went to a nearby high-school game on a whim. I watched a game once in Magna Vista, Va., and another one several years later at Cesar Chavez High School near Phoenix. The latter time I was just driving back to town from the race track and pulled off on the spur of the moment.

Once, when I was working on a book (True to the Roots: Americana Music Revealed) in Texas, I watched a Tivy Antlers home game. That’s the high school where Johnny Manziel would later play.

Thus is there some evidence that I enjoy high-school football.

This is either the ultimate regression of my career or a nostalgic return to my roots. I prefer to think the latter.

11:13 a.m.

Here’s the most fun I ever had covering a high-school football game. In the mid-1990s, with NASCAR over, I drove to Columbia for the state championship games. Spartanburg High, led by future NFL star Stephen Davis, won the title.

I think there were two games involving Spartanburg-area teams. I remember nothing about the other game, even though I wrote the lead story for it. In the Spartanburg game – I don’t even remember whom the Vikings were playing, either – I had been assigned the sidebar.

My backpack was still loaded with NASCAR stuff. (Come to think of it, another backpack may still be equipped for NASCAR right now.) Just for fun, I got out my scanner and discovered to my amusement that Spartanburg High School was calling its plays on the same frequency that I normally heard Phil Parsons getting instructions from his crew chief.

It’s not very hard to figure out terminology. Almost every team uses even numbers to the right and odd to the left. In general, a low odd number means a play to the outside on the left, and a high even number means outside on the right. If a team uses numbers going outward and upward on both sides, it’s easy to adjust. Types of plays are easy, too: bootleg, trap, option, etc.

So I sort of studied all this for a quarter. I was watching the game in a tight line of writers, all keeping their own notes and figuring stats. It was a night game, so deadline pressure made it a little frantic.

Just for fun, I started prognosticating to a group that didn’t know the fix was in.

“You know, Clyde (not his real name), I think this might be a good time to drag the tight end across the middle and hit him underneath, know what I mean?”

“C’mon it’s second and two. They’ll run it up the middle.”

Spartanburg runs the play I suggested.

“I’ll be damned,” Clyde says.

A few plays later, I strike again. Option to the short side of the field. You can’t just pick it every time. Just the big plays.

Not only did I leave that press box with several colleagues grudgingly suggesting that I might be fit to be offensive coordinator for the Gamecocks, but I wrote an incisive account of the Spartanburg Vikings’ clever play-calling.

To paraphrase the great Charley Pride, every time I [write this blog], I’m like a bucking horse waiting to get out of his stall. ‘Cause you’re good to me. I appreciate it.

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Some Fine Cards Wound Up in the ‘Discard’ Pile

Toon092613[cb_profit_poster Beer1]

Clinton, S.C., Wednesday, September 25, 2013, 10:38 a.m.

Funny, but what watching Carl Edwards appear on “The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson” prompted in me was a bit of remorse at the drivers who aren’t in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Edwards was worth staying up. His appearance was a mix of the spontaneous and rehearsed, probably an ideal mix. Another ideal mix was that between two men who are inexplicably overlooked.

I hardly ever hear anyone mention Ferguson’s show. Each morning I watch replays of what Jimmy Fallon said, or what Conan O’Brien said, or Jimmy Kimmel, or Jay Leno, or David Letterman – this morning I heard excerpts of Arsenio Hall, who has a new show somewhere – with nary a replay of Ferguson, whom I really like. I like Fallon, but not as a talk-show host. Then again, if Fallon went by my directives, he would’ve made several sequels to “Fever Pitch” by now. Someone besides me much watch Ferguson because he’s still on TV.

Tomorrow’s just a future yesterday!

Carl Edwards patiently awaits some sign of weakness in Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch. (John Clark photo)

Edwards has won two races. Two years ago, he lost the championship to Tony Stewart by a tie-breaker, which is to say they ended the season with the same number of points. At the moment, he ranks fourth, trailing Matt Kenseth by 36 points, which is understandable since Kenseth has won seven races this year and the first two in the Chase.

Edwards is great on TV, and I’m not just talking about talk shows. He cuts back flips. He is about the only NASCAR driver who can reliably be counted upon to extol the virtues of the automobiles produced by the manufacturer who provides his. He obviously works at presenting a good image, and it’s not much of a stretch because he has an appealing personality.

The most magnetic personality in the Chase is being overlooked, in part because of Kenseth’s virtuosity and in part because of the lingering effects of scandal, while three other familiar faces are sitting on the sidelines.

Jeff (right) Gordon got in the Chase. Martin Truex Jr. was in until he was out. (John Clark photo)
Jeff (right) Gordon got in the Chase. Martin Truex Jr. was in until he was out. (John Clark photo)

Stewart is literally on the sidelines, as in, laid up, confined to a scooter and making himself scarce. The sideline for Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin is still the cockpit of a race car. They are in the race but not the Chase. It’s almost as if a race-off – and why, in NASCAR, would one call it a “playoff”? – has 12 real cars and 31 ghosts. Unless a ghost wins, he (and, in one case, she) just evaporates into thin air – okay, he hustles to the private plate that flies through it – and reappears at the next stop.

NASCAR in sci/fi!

Oh, pity the loss of Keselowski, who brought such flair, such charisma, such boldness, to NASCAR in 2012. People with such attributes must weather the criticisms of those who find them a bit too big for their britches – Edwards knows that feeling, too – but those attributes come in handy in the pursuit of championships, and eventually the detractors get used to them and even kind of … like them. Old critics never die. They just fade away. (Sorry, Gen. MacArthur, RIP.)

And Stewart! Oh, how this Chase needs Stewart with all his blustering humanity and dramatic verve. I used to say I’d hate to cover NASCAR without Stewart in it. Now I’m gone, and he is, too, but thank God, in his case, it’s just for a while.

Ah still lacks to watchit on the TV!

It seemed inevitable that Hamlin would win a championship one fine year. When and if it happens, it’s going to be fun. Hamlin speaks his mind, regardless of whether or not it clears NASCAR inspection. I hope he’s
back next year, and by back, I mean in the Chase and taking checkered flags.

At least there’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., eliminated from likely contention though he may be. Junior gets bonus coverage. Even if he has nothing to do with what happens, everyone wants to know what he thinks. Partly that’s because of his frustrated multitude of fans, and partly it’s because he is one interesting, thoughtful dude.

On the flip side, there’s a pair of Busch brothers, and in NASCAR, that might just trump four Hendricks of a kind.

There’s a Kenseth, proving that sometimes nothing in the rest of the deck matters.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for writing. Thanks, on occasion, for buying. Pretty soon, there’s going to be a new novel for you to read. Take a look at the whole site when you get a chance.

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Another Fine Mess


[cb_profit_poster Storytelling]Clinton, S.C., Tuesday, September 24, 2013, 10:27 a.m.

I really can’t explain it. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. It makes no sense, historically or technologically. Not even artistically.

I’m laughing about it now. What the hell. Why not?

The book I’m reading, A Curious Man, is about Robert L. Ripley. Who? “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” Now you get it. If you’re as old as I, you remember daily cartoons in the newspapers. If you’re not, you’ve probably visited one of those museums in Myrtle Beach or somewhere.

I decided I’d try my hand at drawings.

Believe it or not!

This really didn’t start with Neal Thompson’s book, which, by the way is excellent, so excellent that it has, in at least one instance, led an almost complete novice to laughably try to use cartoons – get this, cartoons! – on his website. It started several weeks ago when my grand-nephew, Alex Howard, brought a sketch pad with him when he visited for the weekend. On a lark, I borrowed the pad and drew a reasonable facsimile of one of the football drawings I made when I was a teen, daydreaming in class. They were wooden-looking, almost always centered on a quarterback about to let fly with a pass. The drawings were more notable for their faithfulness to colors, stripes and logos than to human action.

It was good enough to impress Alex, though. He’s 10.

Ripley, who was born LeRoy Robert Ripley in Santa Rosa, Calif., began as a sports cartoonist, not to mention a writer, but his main task in the writing was to add relevance to his drawings. In the 1920s, newspapers often used cartoons instead of photos to enliven their messages.

When’s the last time you read the comics in a newspaper?

The example above is really a drawing, not a cartoon. Maybe I can get better at it. This was a first try. After going to the trash dump and the meat market, it was still shy of 5 p.m. when I turned up North Broad Street and stopped, on a whim and because there was a parking space, at L&L Office Supply. There I purchased a drawing pad and a can of spray that prevents smudging. I already had most of a box of pencils that has been on a shelf in my office for about 25 years. I also have an aggravating sharpener with a rubber bottom that allegedly sticks to a table when a lever is pressed. It works pretty well right up to the point where the pencil is almost sharpened.

My first drawing was of my favorite guitar, and the decision was made based on the fact that I was sitting in a chair and the guitar was leaning against the couch within reach, which is where I try to keep a guitar at all times.

Another reason I decided to plunge into a new pastime was that I was in a bit of a celebratory mood owing to the completion of the first draft of Crazy by Natural Causes, which is to be my third novel.

Yes, I am going to teach myself to draw cartoons the same way I learned how to play guitar, which is completely from scratch. I’m keeping it simple. I look at something and try to draw it as closely as I can to what it would look like if I were color-blind. The first subject was an object at which I look quite often.

You know what? I bet people would like it if I illustrated my blogs! Kind of old school. Yeah. That’s the ticket.

Now, of course, at some point in the flickering distance, I’ll need to get modestly proficient. I’ll have to learn how to make statements with my drawings.

I’ll need to learn how to use a pencil again.

I’m not a complete novice. I took art lessons for a year when I was 11 or 12, somewhere in there. I don’t remember the nice teacher’s name, but there’s a pastel painting of a desert scene that was my project, and I’m so proud of it that it’s been hanging on a wall in my house, behind a bookcase, for about 20 years. I’d like to take a look at it, but hundreds of books, and quite a few DVDs, might fall on top of me.

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Kenseth Leads the Chase and Father Time


There's more than one race going on. Jimmie Johnson is 38. Kyle Busch is 28. Greg Biffle is 43. (HHP/Brian Lawdermilk photo for Chevrolet)
There’s more than one race going on. Jimmie Johnson is 38. Kyle Busch is 28. Greg Biffle is 43. (HHP/Brian Lawdermilk photo for Chevrolet)

[cb_profit_poster sponsor1]Clinton, S.C., Monday, September 23, 2013, 10:01 a.m.

Know what I realized while watching Matt Kenseth win the Sylvania 300 in New Hampshire?

He’s 41! Matt Kenseth is 41! How did that happen? OK, so, well, I’m 55, which is older than Mark Martin. I was born the same year as Madonna, Mark Cuban, Ellen DeGeneres and Rick Santorum. On the down side was Michael Jackson, but enough of my problems. I’ve come to grips with age. What other choice is there? But Kenseth?

Matt Kenseth drove a Ford when this photo was snapped. At the moment, he drives the sport. (John Clark photo)
Matt Kenseth drove a Ford when this photo was snapped. At the moment, he drives the sport. (John Clark photo)

The good news is that he appears to be at his very best. The bad news is that the clock is ticking. If Kenseth hangs on and wins a second championship (the first was Winston; this is Sprint), it will be 10 years after his first. The record is the 12 separating Terry Labonte’s titles in 1984 and 1996.

To understand the significance of this championship to Kenseth, bear in mind that Dale Earnhardt won his seventh and final championship at age 43. Richard Petty was 42. Bobby Allison was 46, but he only won one. Lee Petty’s third was at 45. Terry Labonte was 40 when he won his latter. Joe Weatherly was 41. Weatherly’s life ended the following year.

The chief difference between the drivers of yesteryear and those of today isn’t the speed of the cars or the quality of the competition. The difference is that most drivers today survive, and that wasn’t always true. The deaths of two of the sport’s very best, Weatherly and Fireball Roberts, in 1964 led many other drivers to figure if they’d made it to 35 and were still kicking, it was time to hang up the helmet. Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson quit for good, Jarrett moving to the broadcast booth and Johnson into a career as an owner that was every bit as successful as what he had done as a driver. Fred Lorenzen retired at age 32 and, though he tried a comeback at 35, never won another race.

Once it was impossible for a driver, however young and promising, to secure a quality ride at 18, as Kyle Busch and Joey Logano did. Now it’s unthinkable for a driver to retire at 35.

I have eerie memories of Dale Earnhardt’s final season, 2000. His final victory, at Talladega, was a miracle. The most unforgettable interview I ever had was shared with three or four others at Richmond, and then there was the Labor Day Weekend scene at Darlington, where David Pearson came to a local country club to play golf and Earnhardt stopped by to hobnob, which is not something he would have done anywhere except Darlington or that almost any top driver would do now. If they show up for golf tournaments, it’s not to eat cold cuts with the media and pose with local dignitaries.

Pearson, who is nothing if not direct, told Earnhardt he ought to quit. Earnhardt said he needed the money. Pearson said he already had more money than anyone would ever need. Earnhardt tried to change the subject.

“You better get out of that car,” Pearson said. I never saw Earnhardt with an expression like he had sitting at that table. Less than six months later, he was dead.

Wow. I started out stressing what a potential championship means to Matt Kenseth and wound up writing about mortality.

I’m really glad that drivers today generally get to race as long as their skills and ability to please sponsors allow. To borrow one of those terms habitually said by people who don’t know what it means, the “paradigm” has shifted.

My paradigm has shifted, too, so I’ve got to get to things that have little to do with racing. The release of my second novel, The Intangibles, is under five weeks away, and my plans today involve working on another one. I appreciate your patronage of and comments about what I write.

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Green Acres Is the Place to Be!


That's my mother on the left, shortly after arrival of Josh, who is being held by Alex, with his mother, Ella, and brother, Anthony.
That’s my mother on the left, shortly after the arrival of Josh, who is being held by Alex, with his mother, Ella, and brother, Anthony.

[cb_profit_poster Storytelling]Clinton, S.C., Sunday, September 22, 2013, 12:51 p.m.

I don’t get out much these days. Lately, I’ve been sort of like a monk, holed up in some cold, remote room of the seminary, copying manuscripts. Okay, writing a novel is quite a bit more fascinating than that, but then again, I’m not actually a monk – far from it – and those dudes had some serious handwriting skills.

I mean, walk a mile in his shoes.

Monte Dutton
Monte Dutton

Still, I manage to keep abreast of the burning issues in my modest hometown. It isn’t hard to keep up with Clinton. I can’t wait until the Chronicle arrives in the mailbox at about 2 p.m. every Wednesday, and then I get the gossipy back stories somehow by an odd combination of sitting in waiting rooms, eating supper out, visiting the trash dump, passing in the grocery store, talking on the phone, monitoring Facebook or patrolling one of those hangouts every small town has where occasionally there are acts of commerce but mostly people just sit around and shoot the breeze.

Perhaps the reason that small-town folks would do anything for you is that they know everything about you. It’s a bit like the Harper Valley PTA of country-music fame, only not quite so toxic. Small towns are nosy, but it’s okay because it’s so darned amusing.

Even when things aren't so great, folks in Clinton still find plenty to occupy their time.
Even when things aren’t so great, folks in Clinton still find plenty to occupy their time.

For instance, a woman at the ballgame the other night told me she heard I had a girlfriend, which, unfortunately, was the first I knew. When I said something like “I wish,” the lady seemed genuinely disappointed, and then her expression turned confused because she was probably thinking she was confusing me with some other fat person, and then her expression shifted to the internationally accepted symbol for “never mind.” She resumed her climbing of the stadium steps at a heightened pace, leaving me with the internationally accepted expression of amusement.

Small-town people are amateur sleuths, and I’m one, so, naturally, as I sat there and watched Clinton High get soundly thrashed, I was trying to figure out how in the world a rumor spread that I was seeing someone.

I figured it out. I’ve studied at the foot of master, Guy Noir, on “A Prairie Home Companion.”

Someone who doesn’t know my family well noticed that I often hung out in the Days Inn, sipping coffee and chatting amiably with a woman who works there.

Uhm, hmm.

That woman is my mother, who works at the Days Inn on weekends. She is as attractive, comparatively, at age 73 as she has been in every other stage of her life. I, on the other hand, am just as oafish. As embarrassing as this is to admit, I can see how people would talk because, as you know as well as the late Charlie Rich, “People love to talk, lawd, how they love to talk.”

I’m sure I’m well on my way to becoming another of Clinton’s delightful eccentrics. I’m a bachelor. I’m often seen around town doing weird things like reading a book. It’s rumored that I’ve been known to write.

Let me tell you a story about my grandmother on my mother’s side. Clara Davis, whom my grandfather called “Doll Baby,” died nearly 30 years ago. She was a simple woman, which is to say she was hardworking but not as sharp as the knives in her drawer. She was stooped over as a result of working too hard for too long when she was too young to work in a cotton mill.

Very late in her life, when Mama Davis was starting to slip even more, she asked me one time what I did for a living. By then, she called everyone “Hon.”

“I’m a writer,” I said.


“I go to ballgames, and I take notes on what happens, and then I write a story about it, and they put it in the newspaper, and they pay me,” I said, trying to explain as simply and patiently as possible.

If I had told her I was the secret mastermind behind an international spy ring, her expression would have been no different.

I’m down near the end of a long line, and I was the first, to my knowledge, ever to go to college. I have strayed from my roots.

It’s not that I love Clinton. I just know it. Gradually I have concluded it is probably the only place I’m fit to live.

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Praise the Lord and Pass the Red Sox

This is sort of the football panoramic photo's evil twin.
This is sort of the football panoramic photo’s evil twin.

[cb_profit_poster Acting]Clinton, S.C., Saturday, September 21, 2013, 11:59 a.m.

All is not lost. The Boston Red Sox clinched the American League East last night, and I got to see most of it, which is another story born of dismay.

They are understandably grumbling a bit, but a good many still turn out to see the boys trying to turn it around.
They are understandably grumbling a bit, but a good many still turn out to see the boys trying to turn it around.

Surprising no one outside the local environs, Byrnes blanked Clinton, 62-0, last night. That was the same margin by which the Red Devils bested Mauldin when I was a sophomore. That was 1973.

The only redeeming virtue was that Byrnes would have scored 100 if they could’ve. It was 42-0 at the half. The Rebels ran a hook and ladder for a touchdown, leading 22-0 after a quarter. Byrnes ran back the opening kickoff, went for two, and then Clinton marched down the field for more than six minutes before running out of downs, which it later did again on its own 28, and that didn’t help.

I feel apologetic because I left before half. I’m supportive. I’m going to Abbeville next week. I just couldn’t bear to watch anymore.

I’ve seen this from the other side. I’m sure Byrnes fans will be quick to contend that they probably could’ve scored 100 points, and the bottom line is that if you don’t like it, do something about it, and at the moment, that is unlikely.

While all about me collapses, sports-wise, the Red Sox remain a beacon of hope, thus sustaining modest hope for Red Devils.

12:06 p.m.

This is sort of a dreary day in Clinton, and it’s a dreary day for college football.

I’ve got some interest in Georgia Tech-UNC, and Kansas State-Texas, and, oh, Arizona State-Stanford. I may cherry-pick a few budding upsets, thanks to the ridiculous abundance of games.

I’m watching the Modified race from New Hampshire right now, but I could be watching, uh, North Texas-Georgia, or Louisiana-Monroe at Baylor, if I so desired.

I’m looking forward to the Charlotte-Presbyterian game next week. Honest. I am. Furman is playing at The Citadel, and I’d love to go to Charleston if I wasn’t on “save mode.”

Ooh. Vanderbilt-Massachusetts is on. Sounds like the name of a town, doesn’t it? Vanderbilt, Mass.

12:24 p.m.

I can’t wait until tomorrow when the Chase for the Halfway Point continues. It’s “A Long Day’s Journey Through the Wet,” which, I think, was written by Eugene O’Neill.

Will the Junior mints be refreshing in New Hampshire? (John Clark photo)
Will the Junior mints be refreshing in New Hampshire? (John Clark photo)

This just in. Based on practice speeds, this could be the week for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Of course, predicting a race solely based on practice speeds is a bit akin to, oh, judging the championship based on lap 37 of the second race.

The latest in the Michael Waltrip Racing saga reminds me of the BP oil spill. For what it’s worth, I haven’t bought gas from BP since it happened, and several people took me to task, saying, “If people boycott, all it’s going to hurt are the small business owners who use their products,” to which I replied, “Sorry. When something this awful happens, and the big shots who caused it act so arrogantly, this is the only recourse that I have. It doesn’t matter what it does. What matters is that it is both right and my right.”

Similar boycotts by yours truly have brought Walmart and Subway to their knees, you may recall. As Otter said in “Animal House,” “I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part!”

And to paraphrase Bluto, I’m just the guy to do it.

Chicanery cost MWR the sponsorship of NAPA, though, to hear some NASCAR drivers tell, the Internet and the social media were the culprits.

Shoot the messenger. Change the subject. It’s as old as the Bible and as young as Fox News.

I’m only kidding. I watch Fox News religiously. And Honey Boo Boo. The stuff about the Red Sox and Red Devils? All a ruse. But, seriously, folks …

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