Franchitti wins second Indy 500

June 1, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS — Nothing could stop Dario Franchitti Sunday.

Not even a low fuel tank.

Dario Franchitti wins again.

Pit strategy came into play late in the 94th running of the Indianapolis 500 when the leaders were running dry, but a violent last-lap crash involving Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway – who went airborne – sucked all the drama out of the finish.

Franchitti led 155 of 200 laps and held off former teammate Dan Wheldon under yellow to win the race for the second time in his career.

Franchitti had just 1.6 gallons of fuel left.

“This tastes just as good the second time,” said Franchitti, the 2007 winner. “Up until 10 laps to go, I was pretty relaxed. Then all hell broke loose with fuel savings and all.”

Starting from the pole, defending champion Helio Castroneves attempted to become just the fourth four-time winner in the history of the race.

He nearly pulled it off, leading Franchitti by more than five seconds with eight laps to go.

But Castroneves was forced to pit to replenish fuel, and Franchitti grabbed the lead for good on Lap 192. Castroneves – who finished ninth – made his previous pit stop on Lap 150, while Franchitti waited until Lap 163. After the race, winning owner Chip Ganassi stressed the importance of smart pit strategy.

“A lot of guys are kicking themselves because they ended up with more fuel after the race,” Ganassi said. “The worst thing you can do is come in second or third and have fuel left in your tank that you didn’t use.”

The 2005 champion Wheldon finished runner-up for the second consecutive year after starting 18th. Third-place finisher Marco Andretti also emerged from the middle of the pack, as he started the day 16th.

“Second two years in a row is not good,” Wheldon said. “I’ve got to make sure I improve that one more spot next year. We came up a little short but it was still a fantastic result.”

Alex Lloyd and Franchitti’s teammate Scott Dixon rounded out the top five. Tony Kanaan, who slided into the 33rd starting spot after a dramatic day of qualifying, ran as high as second and finished 11th. Fuel was also major factor for Kanaan, who trailed Franchitti by just .3858 of a second with five laps to go but had to stop to refill on the next lap.

Kanaan was attempting to become the race’s first driver to start last and finish first.

“We took a gamble,” Kanaan said. “It could have gone the other way. We could have gotten the lead and won the race, and we could brag about it for the rest of my life. I hope I made it exciting out there.”

Franchitti’s win was the 14th of his seven years in the IndyCar Series. The victory also made Ganassi the first owner ever to win both the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Daytona 500 in the same year.

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Bird, Pacers entering important offseason

April 16, 2010

The NBA Playoffs are like a summer movie that drags on too long.

Bird's rebuilding process continues.

You’re genuinely entertained for the first hour, maybe two. But once it starts pushing the three-hour mark, you can’t help but check the time every couple of minutes hoping the thing will mercifully end.

The NBA’s two-month version of the drawn-out summer blockbuster starts tonight. And for the fourth straight year, the Indiana Pacers don’t have a ticket to the show.

Indiana (32-50) finished with its worst record since 1988-89. The lottery-bound Pacers appeared headed toward a top-five draft pick, but won 10 of their final 14 games to finish 10th in the Eastern Conference. 

There goes that impact player.

They now have just a 1.1 percent chance of getting the first overall choice. The draft is just one important decision Larry Bird faces in his third offseason, as he continues to put his stamp on the franchise — for better, or worse. Here’s what Bird should have on his mind this summer:

Cut payroll

Always easier said than done. The Pacers hand out multi-million dollar contracts like Halloween candy. Mike Dunleavy’s brittle knees made $10 million in 2009-10. T.J. Ford banked $8.5 mil to sit on the bench. Jamaal Tinsley absorbed $5.2 million from the Pacers, and he’s not on the team.

There may be trade opportunities this offseason, but the Pacers will more likely have to wait until next summer to rid themselves of the bloated contracts. Only Danny Granger, Dahntay Jones, and A.J. Price are signed through the 2011-12 season. The team has the option to pick up the deals of Brandon Rush, Roy Hibbert, and Tyler Hansbrough that year. Everyone else is off the books. With that kind of flexibility, the Pacers should be a major player in free agency in the summer of 2011, when guys like Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Pau Gasol, and Al Horford hit the market. That is, assuming they can convince a big name to sign.

Find a point guard

Like Jarrett Jack last year, late-season starter Earl Watson is as good as gone. Unless a move is made, that leaves T.J. Ford in the starting spot — again. Ford has had some bad breaks during his career (spinal and head injuries) but has never been able to solidify himself as a starter when given several chances. In Milwaukee, Mo Williams outplayed him for the job. It was Jose Calderon in Toronto. Ford was supplanted by both Jack and Watson with the Pacers. The Pacers are probably kicking themselves for passing on Ty Lawson, Darren Collison, and Jrue Holiday in last year’s draft. A.J. Price returns as a back-up, but point guard has to be a draft priority.

Find frontcourt depth

Roy Hibbert (11.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.6 bpg)  has given the Pacers a post presence, something they’ve severely lacked since Jermaine O’Neal’s prime. The front line behind him is more than a little thin. Jeff Foster’s back may force him to retire. Solomon Jones was solid, if unspectacular, off the bench. Tyler Hansbrough missed most of the season with an ear injury and will essentially be a rookie again. The Pacers don’t want another O’Neal situation. Outside of Brad Miller for a season and a half, they never found a solid frontcourt player to pair with O’Neal. The beating he took in the low post led to career-shortening injuries. Hibbert needs to be paired with a traditional power forward. Not current starter Troy Murphy, who can’t guard anybody and hangs out on the perimeter.

Resolve the situation with the city

It’s no secret the Pacers are bleeding money. Owner Herb Simon recently made it public that the team wants the city of Indianapolis to cough up the $15 million in annual operating costs for Conseco Fieldhouse. Has it occurred to the Pacers that in tough economic times, some businesses might have to — gasp — cut payroll to help stay afloat? It’s hard to be sympathetic to the Pacers’ cause when one person (Troy Murphy, $11 million) gets paid nearly as much as it costs to operate the building just to play a game. Maybe the Pacers will wake up and cut costs internally. More likely, the city will cave. Maybe the team will eventually pack up and move. Either way, it’s going to add up to an interesting summer for the blue and gold.


Hayward should become Butler’s first pro in decades

April 1, 2010

Gordon Hayward should eventuallly become Butler's first NBA player since Ralph "Buckshot" O'Brien in 1953.

Yo, yo, the name’s G-Time
Big frame, big game, call me big time
Ball hard every night and day
From the ‘Burg I rep it in a big way

Come too close I’ll hit you with the blow-by
Straight to the rim I’m just too high
Stay back and I’ll hit the J
Try to stop me there’s just no waaaay

But it’s not about me, it’s about the team
Going to the tourney with a full head of steam
‘Chip’s real close, it’s at our back door
Get a few dubs we’ll be in the Final Four
Not stopping there, that’s not in store
Push it to the limit we want more

The lyrics may be cheesy, but Gordon Hayward called it. The Butler sophomore — and artist known as “G-Time” — rapped about postseason success with former Brownsburg teammates in a video shot before the NCAA Tournament. Butler delivered.

Now in their first-ever Final Four, the Bulldogs find themselves with the biggest bandwagon in college sports. The national media loves them. Hundreds of “Butler fans” are coming out of the woodwork, mobbing the Hinkle Fieldhouse bookstore for anything with a Bulldog plastered on it. After their Elite Eight victory, they had more fans at the airport at 3 a.m. than a typical Pacer game.

Despite holding the nation’s longest winning streak of 24 games, Butler is still viewed as the biggest surprise to potentially win it all since Villanova in 1985. Third-year coach Brad Stevens has heard enough “Hoosiers” references to make any other coach vomit, but seems to embrace his team’s obvious, yet inaccurate, underdog role.

At the center of the massive amount of hype is Hayward, who’s averaging 16 points and 6.3 rebounds per game during the tournament. He may not be a Bulldog for long.

Hayward hasn’t yet completed his sophomore season but has already generated plenty of NBA Draft buzz. MyNBAdraft.com’s mock draft has him going as high as No. 16 overall to the Minnesota Timberwolves. NBAdraft.net tabbed him as No. 29 to the Memphis Grizzlies. Countless others have him off the board in the first round.

It’s not yet known whether Hayward will leave school early, but whenever he does, you’ve got to believe some NBA GM will take a chance on him for a variety of reasons.

He’s versatile. The 6-foot-9 Hayward has the quickness of a point guard, but is also big enough to guard moderately-sized post players. Hayward leads the team in blocks (27) and is third in steals (35). 

He has a knack for making big plays. Call it being in the right place at the right time if you want, but Hayward thrives in the clutch. He made the buzzer-beater every kid dreams of in high school to win a state championship. He made a similar shot this year to beat nationally-ranked Xavier. He prevented the Bulldogs’ tourney run from going up in flames in the second round, deflecting a pass and diving for a steal in the final seconds to help Butler survive Murray State.

He’s durable. Hayward has played — and started — 65 of his career 66 games at Butler, opting to take the floor on several occasions when obviously not 100 percent.

Whether those factors add up to a successful NBA career for Hayward is arguable. Critics may point to his wiry frame or streaky three-point shot. But guys who may or may not translate well into the NBA but lead their college teams to postseason glory simply find their way into the professional ranks, just ask Larry Bird.

In the last two years alone, the Pacers GM drafted role players who advanced to the Final Four or further — Brandon Rush (Kansas), Tyler Hansbrough (North Carolina), and A.J. Price (Connecticut).

With the way Bird has drafted in recent years, it’s not hard to see Hayward in blue and gold.

In the meantime, here’s a link to audio from Hayward’s rap, “Too Big, Yo” in all it’s glory.


NCAA field is wide-open

March 15, 2010

To me, March Madness is more of a slight distraction than a month-long obsession.

Should be plenty of upsets in this year's tourney.

As an IUPUI grad, I never really have a dog in the fight, and it’s hard to care too much about college basketball when its best players bolt to the NBA after one year. I usually fill out a couple brackets, watch them go up in flames, then head into April with a lighter wallet and NBA playoffs on the mind.

That’s it. See you next spring, college hoops.

But this year, I tuned in to yesterday’s Selection Sunday broadcast out of curiousity. I can’t tell you which teams were snubbed, or whether East Tennessee State deserved a higher seed than North Texas. My only real problem was Butler being forced to play another mid-major in the first round. (It’s like TCU having to play Boise State in football. Come on NCAA, let the small schools take a shot at the big ones). But one thing I know is this — we’re in for an entertaining month of basketball.

There’s no clear-cut favorite.

Last year, North Carolina took all the drama out of the tournament. Even if you throw out the Tar Heels’ 43-point beat down of Radford in the first round, they still cruised by an average of nearly 16 points per victory on their way to a national championship.

There’s no chance of a repeat.

For the first time in years, the Tar Heels and Connecticut are NIT (Not in the Tournament). Other traditional powers Arizona and UCLA didn’t even make the National Invitational Tournament field, they were shut out of the postseason entirely. For Arizona, that hasn’t happened in 25 years.

This March, all four No. 1 seeds — Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, and Syracuse — at least appear mortal.

Kansas spent an impressive 14 weeks atop the AP regular season poll and went 15-1 in the Big 12 — arguably the best conference in college basketball. But the Jayhawks are vulnerable on the road, having lost at unranked Oklahoma State and Tennessee. Kansas could meet either team again, as both join the Jayhawks in the Midwest bracket.

Kentucky is littered with NBA lottery picks and has the country’s best player in John Wall. But the Wildcats are inexperienced in the postseason, and John Calipari-coached teams are notorious for falling short of expectations. From 2006-09, his Memphis squads received either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers fell in the Elite Eight each year except ’08 when they lost in the national title game.

Duke benefitted from a weakened ACC. If the Blue Devils can beat North Carolina by 32 points — which they did on March 6 — all is not right in ACC-land. 

The last top seed, Syracuse, is dealing with an injury to its starting power forward. Whether or not Arinze Onuaku (10.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg) can get back to full strength should be a major question mark during the Orange’s run.

I don’t see more than two No. 1’s making it through. Here’s my Final Four:

Midwest: Ohio State

West: Kansas State

East: Kentucky

South: Duke


This AFC title is better

January 26, 2010

Peyton Manning’s half-interested smile said it all.

Peyton contained his excitement, but Sunday's win was better than '06.

The Colts quarterback hoisted his second Lamar Hunt Trophy amid a flurry of confetti after Sunday’s 30-17 AFC Championship victory over the New York Jets. But his unenthusiastic lift of the hardware made it immediately obvious that to him, simply booking a return trip to Miami for Super Bowl XLIV isn’t enough.

He wants a different trophy.

Flash back three years. The Colts had just shocked the New England Patriots 38-34 for the AFC title in the whirlwind of noise that was the RCA Dome. The team’s postgame reaction was anything but subdued. That victory at the time was a career-defining win for Manning, who until that point had been widely labeled as a quarterback who chokes when the stakes are highest. It was such an improbable comeback — against the hated Patriots, no less — that it made the Colts’ victory over the Bears in Super Bowl XLI seem almost anticlimactic.

Sunday’s win over the Jets was more impressive.

Say what you want about New York being a No. 5 seed, but any team with the No. 1 ranked rushing attack and defense is tough to beat. For nearly two quarters, that Jets defense shut down Manning. For nearly two quarters, rookie QB Mark Sanchez showed Brady-like calmness under pressure, tossing a perfect 80-yard TD strike to Braylon Edwards and staying in the pocket long enough — getting obliterated by Raheem Brock in the process — to hit Dustin Keller for 9-yard touchdown to put the Jets up 14-3.  But in the second half it was like Manning had just solved a Rubik’s Cube. The Colts out-rushed the NFL’s No. 1 ground attack, Manning was interception-free against the dangerous Darrelle Revis, and young recievers Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon went off for more than 100 yards apiece. The Jets did not score again. 

The Jets had a more dangerous team than the ’06 Pats. With Edwards, Keller, Jerricho Cotchery, and the one-two backfield punch of Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene, Sanchez had more weapons than Brady. The Patriots had a washed up Corey Dillon and perhaps the two worst wide receivers ever to start an AFC Championship game — Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney.  

There’s also the pressure factor. The Colts definitely faced more Sunday. Lose to the Pats in ’06? Manning’s reputation is re-affirmed — he can’t win the big one. Lose to the Jets? Fans storm Lucas Oil Stadium with torches and pitchforks, furious over the momentum-killing decision to rest the starters in Week 16.

So why did Sunday’s win over the Jets get a business-like reaction while the 2006 AFC Championship seemed like Mardi Gras?

Simply put, the Colts had been there before. Believe it or not, Indianapolis was the Super Bowl veteran of this year’s final four, having reached the game much more recently than Minnesota (1977), New York (1969), or New Orleans (never). After their best performance in a conference championship game of the Indianapolis-era, they’re one win away from the trophy Manning really wants.


A lump of coal for Colts fans

December 28, 2009

Former NFL coach Herman Edwards’ infamous “you play to win the game” tirade never seemed more relevant than it does now.

Rex got one more Christmas present Sunday.

The Indianapolis Colts should have followed Edwards’ advice Sunday against his former team, the New York Jets. Instead, they sabotaged their own perfect season by essentially waving the white flag of surrender in the second half.

It was enough to make any Colts fan sick.

When coach Jim Caldwell pulled Peyton Manning and threw Curtis Painter into the fire late in the third quarter, fans at Lucas Oil Stadium voiced their displeasure — and rightfully so.

Their team had just transformed from arguably the league’s most potent offense led by a three-time MVP, to a practice squad, led by the likes of Painter, Tom Santi, Jacob Tamme, and Kendra Baskett’s husband. Against a hungry, top-ranked Jets defense still scrapping for a playoff spot, those guys had no chance.

Though many fans would now disagree, I’m not suggesting Caldwell has gone from genius to Isaiah Thomas overnight. Giving the starters rest is not a bad thing. Everyone knows that if the Colts want another Lombardi Trophy, they’re going to need a healthy Manning.

But why shut it down at that point of the game?

The Colts led 15-10 with 5:36 left in the third quarter when Manning and the starters were pulled. Why not go for a few more points to at least give Painter a realistic chance to protect the lead? Were the Colts really that scared of Manning going down? The Jets never sacked him, and he was virtually untouched in the pocket. 

If the Colts were that concerned about injuries, why not spare the home fans and sit the starters during last Thursday’s meaningless game at Jacksonville?

Caldwell’s decision was unfair to Painter, unfair to the team’s starters who’d worked so hard to get to 14-0, and most of all, unfair to the loyal Colts fans. Many of them are lucky to have jobs, but continue to drop hard-earned cash on high-priced seats at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Sunday’s preview of the post-Manning era was a slap in the face.

Tanking a very winnable game, arrogantly tossing aside a very attainable perfect season, and handing a very beatable Jets team a late Christmas present is an unforgivable offense to every Colts fan who wasted a Sunday at Lucas Oil. 

This one will sting for a while, no matter how the rest of the season plays out. If the Colts go one-and-done in the playoffs, the Jets game will be remembered as the turning point, when things started to go south. I’m sure no fan will care should the Colts win the Super Bowl, but you can’t help but wonder what might have been.

If you’re going to go down, go down swinging. In 2005, the 13-0 Colts tried to beat the San Diego Chargers, but suffered their first loss in Week 14. Those Colts at least played to win the game. If winning wasn’t the objective Sunday, then why play?


Colts must pursue perfection

December 14, 2009

AFC South title? Check.

First-round bye? Check.

Home field advantage throughout the playoffs? Check.

The Colts have a shot to do what the 18-1 Pats couldn't.

Welcome to the bench Peyton, Jim Sorgi saved a seat for you.

With a 28-16 win over Denver on Sunday, the Indianapolis Colts’ regular season once again ended three weeks early. They moved to 13-0, posted an NFL-record 22nd straight victory, and ensured the road to the Super Bowl will run through Lucas Oil Stadium.

That means the annual debate of whether or not to rest the team’s starters down the stretch has officially begun. While no one outside of the organization knows for sure what the Colts will do, it’s easy to see them returning to the rest-the-starters philosophy of the Tony Dungy years.

That would be a big mistake.

Everyone knows shutting down early didn’t work out so well for the 14-2 Colts in 2005, or the 13-3 team in 2007.

But that’s not the reason the starters should play.

The Colts could have easily beaten the Steelers in that 2005 divisional playoff game, were it not for Ben Roethlisberger’s fingertip tackle of Nick Harper on a potentially game-winning fumble return. Oh, and I think Mike Vanderjagt missed a field goal in that game.

The ’07 divisional loss to San Diego was also winnable, but the Colts simply couldn’t put together a drive in the final minutes.

The Colts should go for a perfect season simply because it’s a rare opportunity.

How often does a team find itself in a situation where perfection is within its grasp? The Colts must pursue it. If they drop a couple regular season games, finish 14-2, and end up winning the Super Bowl, I’m sure no one will care about those two marks in the loss column.

But don’t forget about the bigger picture. If the Colts take their second Super Bowl of the 2000’s or zero-zero’s or whatever we call this decade, they’ve simply matched the Pittsburgh Steelers and pulled within one Lombardi Trophy of New England. 

It’s one thing to be the best after one particular season, but this team — and the still unbeaten New Orleans Saints — has a chance to be the NFL’s best ever. To be the first team to go 19-0 and ensure the corks are never popped on the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ champagne would make a Colts — or Saints — victory in Super Bowl XLIV infinitely more meaningful. As if any extra motivation is needed, how sweet would it be for the Colts to achieve a feat that their archrivals, the 18-1 Patriots, failed to do in 2007?

The remaining schedule isn’t too intimidating. Indianapolis has already beaten far tougher teams than the Jaguars (7-6), Jets (7-6), and Bills (5-8). Anything can happen in the playoffs, but with no trips to frigid Foxboro or Pittsburgh this year, the AFC postseason is more favorable than its ever been for the Colts.

They just need Manning on the field.