Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Choke or Not?

In the last 48 hours, there has been some debate over whether JR Hildebrand's last-lap crash was a choke or not. Here are the two sides to the argument.

JR Hildebrand did what rookies rarely do at Indy: have a chance to win. He ran up front all day, and put himself in a terrific position to chug the milk. With just one turn, and five more clean seconds necessary to claim the checkered flag, Hildebrand messed up.

He's handled it extremely well, refusing to throw his team (read: spotters) or Charlie Kimball (who he was attempting to pass) under the bus.

Plenty of great athletes have "choked" before. Bill Buckner had over 2,700 hits in his career. Hall-of-Famer Patrick Ewing missed a finger roll that would've won New York's Eastern Conference Semifinals series with the Pacers in 1995. 14-time Major champion Tiger Woods lost a Sunday lead in the 2009 PGA Championship to someone called Y.E. Yang. Alex Rodriguez, LeBron James, and Peyton Manning have all at one time or another been labeled as a "choker". If an inexplicable mistake comes at a crucial time, it's a choke regardless of who makes the error.

In order to complete the Indianapolis 500, you have to make 800 correct turns. JR Hildebrand was perfect for the first 799, and then crashed after Turn 800 about two football fields away from the finish line. Blame it on his spotters if you want, but even JR said that it was his split-section decision to go high and make the aggressive pass on Kimball. It's perfectly reasonable for a 23-year old rookie to make a mistake at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway - it happens multiple times annually. The only problem is that it rarely happens after the final turn, on the final lap, while the rookie is leading the race.

It's a choke. Hildebrand is a great kid, with a ton of talent, who has handled the heartbreaking situation with the class of a long-tenured veteran. That being said, it doesn't matter how nice or how classy JR is. It would've been highly unlikely that he a) would've run out of gas, or b) been passed by Wheldon had he let off the gas a little bit and played it safe heading to the line.

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