Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Do you know the feeling of exhaling?

Well, now that May is nearly complete, I am rediscovering that wonderful sensation. What a month.

Quail Hollow Championship kicked off April 30th, and took us through May 3rd. Remember who won?

A relatively normal week followed. Had some baseball between Durham and Charlotte, Cup series went to Darlington, and there was Mother's Day.

Then it began.

All Star Pit Crew Challenge. All Star Qualifying. Camping World Truck race. All Star Race.

Amazingly, we got through all that rain free. I think.

Then Cup qualifying on Thursday the 21st, Nationwide race on the 23rd, and what became the 24 Hours of Concord (otherwise known as the Coca Cola 600). Rains interrupted the Nationwide series rains, ending it 30 laps shy of the finish. Congrats to Mike Bliss for getting the win.

Then the marathon 600 began. Kinda. There was the securing of the front stretch by the military. Choppers flying over the track--actually inside the track. Franklin Graham giving the invocation. 4 military jets buzzed the track, after-burners at full glow. Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson smiling even brighter than the after-burners.

Just when you thought the race could get going, Mother Nature entered the track, and she decided to hang around. At the time, it was believed it was the first time the 600 was ever postponed (everyone, including yours truly reported that). Now that the excitement has worn off, it appears the 1963 was also a rain delayed 600. The race date listed in the NASCAR media guide for that year was June 2. Only one other 600 mile race was run in the month of June, and that was the first one in 1960 (June 19th). that 1963 race appears to have been pushed back an entire week, with the original date likely May 26th.

Now the Month of Speed draws to a close (we also had the Kentucky Derby and Preakness run, plus the Indy 500, too). The Carolina Panthers open their OTA's on Wendesday (practices in shirts and shorts, no pads or hitting). Those will happen for at least 3 weeks, but a 4th week is scheduled. Football season will be here before you know it (although some, like our own Aaron Mesmer say it never stops).

I am giving the blog the rest of the week off, but I am sure there will be other contributions between now and Monday. 38 hours at the race track waiting out the rain will give you brain-fry, especially if you aren't accustomed to that sort of thing.

See you back next week!

Mike Solarte

PS--Sean O'Hair won the 2009 Quail Hollow Championship. I brought that up, as I had to really think back to who was the winner during Race Weeks. As I said, brain-fry.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Raceweeks Part Deux

NASCAR gets back to points racing this weekend in the Coca Cola 600. the Sprint Cup series took the week off from the "regular" season to run for that big bag of dough in the All Star race last Saturday. Tony Stewart winning the cool million after a sweet pass with 2 laps to go.

There has been on recurring theme with the drivers over the past 2 weeks. They all love being at home for the All Star race and 600. It takes me back a couple of years, when there was talk about the series moving the All Star race to other tracks. I said it then, and I'll say it now: doing that would cause a mini-revolt from the drivers. The Sprint Cup season is long enough as it is. The drivers relish the chance to be home for 2 straight weeks, and race at the same time. Luckily, correct thinking took hold, and that sort of talk has been dissolved.

Qualifying for the 50th running of the Coca Cola 600 rolls off tonight, and we'll be live from the track for all the coverage. Pretty cool deal, being involved with the golden anniversary of this race. I can't see myself doing this in 50 years for the 100th running, so I will drink all of this in with you. You can find memories of 600 milers gone by, at our Carolina on Demand Channel, 1234 on your digital cable. It's free, and best of all, it's loaded with great racing memories and finishes from the track.

Gotta get a note in about the Carolina Hurricanes...Carolina could be in some trouble if Tuomo Ruutu and Erik Cole are out for an extended period of time. Both are officially gametime decisions, but it would be remarkable to see them in uniform tonight.

Have to call out Penguins forward Matt Cooke, though. Cooke is the guy that called for extended league punishments for knee-on-knee hits (as a result of Alexander Ovechkin's collision with Sergei Gonchar in round 2). Cooke then goes out, and intentionally submarine's Cole's leg in a knee-on-knee incident. Game 2 could be ugly as a result, and that's fine. It would be nice to see the Hurricanes come out physically, and carry the play to the Penguins. If Cole is out, they lose a bit of that jam. Should still be a fun game to watch.

See you at the track!

Mike Solarte

Monday, May 18, 2009

Monday quick thoughts

In keeping with my predictions in the NHL Playoffs, the conference finals:

East: Carolina v. Pittsburgh

Potentially a dynamite series. It gets underway Monday night, and loads of firepower.
Carolina: Eric Staal, Erik Cole, Jussi Jokinen, Matt Cullen, Sergei Samsonov, and so on.
Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Sergei Gonchar, and more.

This series hinges on goaltending. Carolina has Cam Ward, who is unbeaten in playoff series. Yes, he is 6-0 lifetime in series wins. Marc Andre Fleury is not nearly as dependable, and that is Carolina's edge. Ward will be tested thoroughly in this series, though. If he is not his playoff best, Carolina will not advance.

I'm picking Pittsburgh in 7, but based on my prediction for the Hurricanes in the last round, Caniacs should be happy.

West: Chicago v. Detroit

As of this writing, the Red Wings own a 1-0 series lead, thanks to their 5-2 win in game on on Sunday. Game 1 was gift wrapped for the Wings, thanks to shaky goaltending from Nikolai Khabibulin, and Brent Seabrook being a bit lost defensively. The Blackhawks played a good game, but 2 bad goals (Dan Cleary's first, and Mikael Samuelsson's short side wrister), compounded by 2 goals Khabibulin had no chance on (the wrap stuff from Johan Franzen, and the deflection by Cleary in the 3rd period), allowed the Wings to win. The game was evenly played, no matter what Detroit fans will tell you.

Forget about the talk that Chicago is too young, and too inexperienced to win this series. Once upon a time, the Edmonton Oilers boasted a young, up and coming roster. They had to break through as well. This rematch of the 1995 Conference Finals will end differently. Prediction: Chicago in 6.

* Race week number 1 in the books, and what a win for Tony Stewart. Great to see the guy get the anvil off his shoulders, and collect his first checkered flag as an owner/driver. Of course, it didn't help his points standings, but the $1 million dollars will go a long way in off-setting costs. Can he pick up another win on Sunday in the Coca-Cola 600? Why not? Stewart should avoid trying to win the pole for Sunday's race, as it worked well for him last weekend. Loved how he played off his huge mistake in qualifying for the All Star race. He was supposed to get 4 tires in the mandatory pit stop, but drove off after his crew had changed only 2. It was his mistake alone, and in the past, he might have thrown a helmet, kicked a jackstand, or drank some gasoline (ok, not really). This time, he smiled, and said, "I don't know what I was thinking." Note to Tony: Go 3/4 speed on Thursday night, say "I don't know what I was thinking," smile, and go win the 600 on Sunday. Great stuff.

Be sure to check out Sports Night all week long, as we'll go one on one with all 4 Hendrick Motorsports drivers. Monday-Wednesday, and then again on Friday. Thursday night, we'll be live at Lowe's Motor Speedway for Coke 600 qualifying, and then again, over the weekend for all the activity at the track.

Mike Solarte

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Hurricanes-Bruins Game 7 thoughts

Part of me is hopeful. The underdog Carolina Hurricanes will find the magic needed to win game 7 against the Boston Bruins, win the series, and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The other part realistic. The Hurricanes had 2 chances to dust off the Bruins, lost both games, and now face an avalanche of momentum from Boston. The Hurricanes are done.

The team has been a Jekyll and Hyde routine as well. In their 3 losses, the Hurricanes have been dreadful. Sloppy coverages, missed assignments, shaky goaltending. In the 3 wins, the Hurricanes had jump, jam, shake-your-head amazing goaltending.

Which one shows up in game 7 tonight in Beantown?

In 2006, being realistic meant the Hurricanes had a shot against anyone they played. That year, they won the Stanley Cup. In 2009, being realistic means the Hurricanes need to play their absolute best to have a shot. They can beat this Boston club--they've done it 3 times in this series already. Problem is, they have also lost to this Boston team 7 times this season (combined with the regular season games). The Hurricanes have been outscored by Boston 15-13 in this playoff series, but in the regular season, Boston crushed Carolina. The 18-6 goal differential in the four regular season games makes one wonder how the Hurricanes dented the net 13 times in the past six.

OK, how does Carolina beat Boston with all the chips in the middle of the table? Here's how:

1-Cam Ward must be a wall. He has been brilliant at times, and average at others in this series. He must be brilliant in Game 7.

2-Pucks in deep. Carolina can generate so much with their speed, getting pucks deep into the Boston end will enable them to have a chance at creating offensive opportunities.

3-Keep your cool. The Hurricanes marched to the penalty box in game 5 like they were giving away free Bentley's in there. Stay out of the box, and let Boston make the mistakes.

4-Relax and have fun. Carolina is a relatively young hockey team. Notice the wins in games 2-4. They played like they were using the house's money, not their own. Find that balance between calm and playful, and you'll see a Hurricane team meeting Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference Final.

Prediction: Reality has just set in. Boston wins 3-2.

Sorry, Caniacs.

Mike Solarte

Monday, May 11, 2009

Walker fined, not suspended

Normally, I am not a fan of the NHL's Justice System, but they are getting it right more often than they are wrong in these playoffs.

Scott Walker was fined $2,500 dollars by the league, but not suspended, as a result of his punch on Aaron Ward in game 5 between the Carolina Hurricanes and Boston Bruins.

It's almost the right call. The right call would have been nothing more than what he received from the on-ice officials, but I understand why they are hitting him in the wallet.

The NHL is trying to market their game to become relevant in the sports landscape in the USA. Those that have never played the game are the ones calling for Walker to be suspended, banished, etc. Those that know the game are saying what I am saying.

For the record, when one player (Ward), squares off with an opponent (Walker) and the duo decides they are going to do more than stare at each other (read, gonna fight), then it's on. If Ward was trying to goad Walker into a penalty, then Ward is just dumb. The Bruins were well in control of the game, it was late in the 3rd, and Carolina was simply not coming back from that deficit, based on how well the Bruins played. And they did play well.

Ward (a former Hurricane, which makes this especially tough to write), should simply know better. He's a veteran guy. He knew his team had a big lead at the time, and giving Walker the hairy eyeball wasn't going to accomplish anything short of a glove-dropper. The fact that Ward stood there, chirping at Walker and not getting ready to go is his own fault.

Yeah, I know I sound like a barbarian here, but it's the true essence of playoff hockey. I would rather see two players drop the mitts and duke it out, rather than see someone take a stick to someone's head. That's the reason fighting has endured in the game of hockey, in spite of some efforts to have it removed. In this case, Ward likely didn't think Walker would come after him, and wasn't ready for the right hand that knocked him down.

Watch the replay of the instance again (available on youtube), and you will see Ward actually engaged another Hurricanes player (I want to say Matt Cullen, but I can't really tell), while the puck was moving along the side boards. Walker came to his teammates defense, and Ward squared off with him, while keeping his gloves on. This sort of thing happens in hockey all the time.

The NHL's fine of Walker is a PR move, and a PR move only. Had it truly been a sucker punch, this would have been worse for Walker. As it is, his teammates will have to pick up the tab for a dinner this week. They'll have time, considering they should eliminate the Bruins in game 6.

Mike Solarte

In the Wake of Manny

I've waited a few days to let the dust settle on the Manny Ramirez suspension. Manny either is telling the truth about taking a banned substance for medical condition not related to steriods, or he's been using performance enhancers for part if not most of his career. The fact of the matter is we will never know the truth. Not about Ramirez, not about Alex Rodgriguez, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa or Rafael Palmiero. And that's what makes it difficult for the baseball writers and the fans as they try to determine who truly belongs in the baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. I have yet to hear the a ball player confess, "I did it. I'm sorry. It was wrong, and I realize I've tainted my career." Because that's what journalists who cover the sport and true fans who follow it want to hear. Come clean and show remorse about everything you've done.

Yet sometimes I feel like a lone wolf in the woods when it comes to athletes using performance enhancers. Take for instance last Friday when A-Rod made is debut. Plenty of Yankees fans packed Baltimore's Camden Yards and cheered his return... before and after he smacked the first pitch he saw for a home run. Apparently his apology and his version of the truth is enough to make fans forgive. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact the Yankees are 15-16 and in third place in the American League East.

Well forgive me but I won't cheer A-Rod, Manny or anyone else under the suspicion of using performance enhancers. At least not until I know the whole truth. I'm not holding my breath.

Jason Brown

Friday, May 8, 2009

Football: Pack may be 2009's UNC

I read an interesting blog recently by espn.com’s Heather Dinich about N.C. State’s chances at winning the ACC Atlantic in 2009. She concluded that the Pack would be a “legitimate contender to win the Atlantic Division” because of improvement on defense, not just because of QB Russell Wilson, “the best quarterback in the league,” she wrote.

So I started thinking: could the Wolfpack surprise the ACC this year the way UNC did last year? (The Tar Heels went from 4-8 in 2007 to 8-5 last season). If the last five games of 2008 are any indication, then there’s a pretty good chance.

After starting out 2-6, State knocked off three straight in-state opponents en route to a 4-1 finish. In the late season run, the Pack outscored opponents 30-20, after being outscored 30-19 through the first eight games.

The turning point of the season may have been the 41-10 road blowout of UNC. The Pack entered the contest on a two-game winning streak, but had been outgained by both Duke and Wake Forest in those victories. But in Chapel Hill, the Pack defense forced six Tar Heel turnovers, Wilson racked up 329 total yards, and State outgained the Heels 466-203.

The outburst helped the Pack outgain their last five opponents by an average of 389-356 – a stark contrast from the first eight, when opponents blew past them 413-292.

But can last season’s late success translate into an entire year of success in 2009? Tom O’Brien and company certainly hope so. Experience should pay off - after two years in his system the players should be adapted to his physical, disciplined style of play. Also, 14 starters return from the squad that started the Papajohns.com Bowl.

A schedule featuring eight home games should prove beneficial, but they’re not all easy. South Carolina and Pittsburgh form the end caps of a four-game, non-conference homestand to start the season, and all four road opponents went bowling last year. But a healthy Wilson and an improved defense should keep the Wolfpack in most games. If only they can start 2009 well, then they may surprise the ACC after all.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Crosby vs Ovechkin a Sight to See

It's rare that something lives up to the hype, but so far the marquee match-up between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins has done just that through two games of their second round playoff series. The show put on last night (Monday) between Capitals star Alex Ovechkin and the Penguins Sidney Crosby was one for the ages.

Each netted a hat trick (3 goals for the hockey impaired) in Washington's 4-3 win. That's right, they accounted for six of the seven goals scored. If one would score, the other answered right back.

It's the type of scenerio I'm sure the NHL wished would have happened when Wayne Gretzky faced off with Mario Lemieux. The difference here is both Crosby and Ovechkin are entering the prime of their careers.

Perhaps adding to the drama heading into this series was the verbal jousting the two stars engaged in during the regular season. Crosby openly criticised Ovechin's goal celebrations, something the "Great 8" hasn't toned down. I thought this series would get nasty between the two teams and even the two stars. Thankfully, for NHL and all the fans, it's been nothing but a spectacular display of skill and shot making. I know the Capitals lead the series 2-0, but something tells me when it resumes in Pittsburgh, the Penguins will make a series out of it. Otherwise "Sid the Kid" will have been upstaged.

Jason Brown

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Story That Won't Go Away

After a weekend full of golf at the Quail Hollow Championship, I came upon a TV interview Bob Costas did with Sports Illustrated reporter Selena Roberts. The topic, Alex Rodriguez and the new performance enhancing drug allegations Roberts uncovers in her new book on the infamous Yankees third baseman.

Many will see this book as piling on an individual that has already admitted a mistake. Others will see it as a money grab by member of the media. But for members of my profession as well as die-hard baseball fans, the new information brought to light is important for shaping our beliefs as to whether A-Rod is truly a Hall of Fame player.

In the interview, Roberts admits that there's no hardcore evidence, but she researched and claims she scrutinized her sources thoroughly. Now I don't know Roberts, but from everything I've read or heard, her credentials as an accurate reporter are among the best in the business. Let's recap, she broke the story that Rodriguez had tested positive for steroids in 2003. A-Rod has admitted as much, although the whole truth behind how and why leaves something to be desired. So now when Roberts writes in her book that Rodriguez has been using steroids since high school, and that he continued to use performance enhancers when with the Yankees (something Rodriguez had already denied), one can't just dismiss it.

So why delve into this man's life? Well, if it's true that A-Rod has been on performance enhancers since the beginning, his ENTIRE CAREER is tainted. And for someone who has been labeled one of the greatest players ever and who could potentially break the all-time home run record, he's cheated the fans and disrespected the game. I don't have time to go into the other new revelations of tipping pitches to opposing players so they would return the favor to him; other than to say that, if true, it wouldn't be the first time A-Rod has broken baseball protocol.

As fans and as journalists, we are fascinated by sports figures and how they were able to succeed at such a high level. So, researching and writing a book on Alex Rodriguez makes perfect sense. Sadly, we don't always like what we find. Roberts admits she began this project under the assumption that A-Rod was clean. Unless Rodriguez ever explains the whole truth, just how clean a player he is might be a debate that will never end.

Fans deserve the truth. Not just from A-Rod, but from all players who are lucky enough to play professional sports. No matter what the sport. Because if you think baseball is the only one dealing with artificially enhanced players, you are gravely mistaken.

Jason Brown

Home Ice Advantage

While covering Game 6 between the Hurricanes and Devils last week, a fan bragged to me that the RBC Center was known as the loudest arena in the NHL. Now, it's difficult to believe that a team in the Southeast cranks up more decibels than a franchise in Canada. Of course, I don't have the sound equipment or travel time to test it out, but based on what I've seen around Raleigh since the Canes playoff run began, it's easy to see how the proud fan's claim could possibly be true.

I've been a follower of the Carolina Hurricanes since I was in college at the University of South Carolina. Even before I moved to the Tar Heel State in 2007, I had visited the RBC Center several times to see the Canes in action, and I was always impressed with the atmosphere. But I never imagined it could be the NHL's loudest. That is, until I recently started working in Raleigh on a regular basis. It seems I can't drive around town a few minutes without seeing that red-and-black logo on a flag flying from a car window or home, or on a license plate, bumper sticker or car magnet. Everywhere I turn, there are Canes jerseys, t-shirts, and hats. It's amazing to see the pride Raleigh has in this franchise. Back in the early 1990's, hockey seemed like an almost foreign sport in the Southeast. Now, two Southeastern teams have won Stanley Cups in the past five years. I'm sure college basketball will always be the favorite sport of most North Carolinians, but the Caniacs have a proud presence in this town. They're the reason the RBC Center is such an intimidating environment for opposing teams. And with the top-seeded Boston Bruins coming to town Wednesday night for Game 3 of the second-round series, the Caniacs will be in action once again. They've helped Carolina to a 12-game home winning streak this season, a first round upset over the New Jersey Devils, and now they're taking aim at the Bruins. Are the Caniacs actually the loudest in the NHL? Who knows. But one thing is for sure: the RBC Center will be rockin' with lots of red-and-black pride every time the Canes are home.

The "Q" gets a big "O"

Sean O'Hair claimed the champions blazer at the Quail Hollow Championship on Sunday. It's hard to put into words what this young man has done in his 26 years on earth, but suffice to say, the kid is a fighter. Turned pro at 17, married young, has two kids, a third on the way, and as recently as 5 years ago, was gutting it out on the mini-tours with about $2,000 to his (family's) name. Not to mention a falling out with his father, whom he no longer speaks to. He was playing week to week, and basically, check to check. Now, he's just 1 of 3 players under 30 years of age with 3 PGA Tour wins. The others: Sergio Garcia and Adam Scott. Solid.

A big thanks to the membership at the Quail Hollow Club for their hospitality during the week, as well as the shuttle drivers, the assistants in the Media Center, the folks that helped out behind the scenes that were instrumental in helping us bring you the best coverage possible.

Lee Patterson, Media Director, was, once again, the MVP of the tournament. Great job, Lee.

A big thanks to Mark Stevens and his staff with the PGA Tour. One of his staffers went so far as to ask me if I had implants in my calves, and later in the week, took a phone picture comparing mine to his. Funny stuff, the kind of things you'll remember for a long time.

Next up for us, 2 weeks of racing at Lowe's Motor Speedway--but that's in 2 weeks. The calm before the storm is where we sit today, and I have to tell you, it's quite comfy here.

I promised a Stanley Cup round 2 primer, but the 2nd round series began during golf week, so in a nutshell:

Chicago v. Vancouver - Blackhawks have their hands full, but they got a split on the road. Advantage Chicago. Pick: Blackhawks in 6

Anaheim v. Detroit - Wings dropped game 2 in 3 overtimes on Sunday. Not to worry. Pick: Wings in 6

Carolina v. Boston - Hurricanes blanked Boston in game 2 to even the series at 1-1. Bruins are the best in the East and it will take a huge effort to knock them off. Pick: Bruins in 6

Pittsburgh v. Washington - The Capitals won the opener, with game 2 tonight. Caps seem to have found lightning in a bottle with their new goaltender, and that might be enough. Then again....Pick: Pens in 7

Mike Solarte

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Things to do before Quail Hollow wraps up

If you haven’t made your way out to Quail Hollow yet, but still have a trip planned for this weekend, there are a few things you need to make sure you do:

1) As much of a hassle as it is to be part of the stampede of Tiger followers, it is well worth the trouble for the chance to see the man who will go down as the greatest to ever play the game. Following a man as he absolutely dominates a sport that many of us end up slamming our clubs down in frustration when we play is a pleasure. If Woods has another good day on Saturday, he’ll be teeing off Sunday sometime around 12:30 p.m.

2) Enjoy the beauty of the course. Take a few minutes and sit around the green at 17, walk along the 7th fairway and hang out around the 18th green to see the golfers as they finish their day.

3) Join the throng at the autograph area. The biggest players will gather near the putting area(also a good place to check out because of the mass of golfers) to do interviews with the press after their round. It is there that they often give autographs.

4) Eat a crepe

5) Hang out at the driving range. You’ll get a look at a number of the golfers if you head out early. The driving range is located back behind the putting area.

6) Get there early and follow the tailing group. Though those teeing off at 8 a.m. may already be out of contention, following them around a few holes will allow you to get much closer to the golfers than you will get if you follow only Tiger and Phil. It’s relaxing and interesting to just slowly move through the course without 1,000 people running into you.