New York Jets WR Jamison Crowder OUT for opener at Carolina

Jamison Crowder, New York Jets

The New York Jets will be missing their most consistent offensive weapon from the last two seasons when they visit Carolina on Sunday.

New York Jets receiver Jamison Crowder will not partake in Sunday’s 2021 season opener against the Carolina Panthers (1 p.m. ET, CBS). Crowder’s absence stems from a positive test for COVID-19 and he remains on the reserve list.

Head coach Robert Saleh confirmed Crowder’s departure during his Friday statements. Saleh also said that the status of another receiver, Keelan Cole (knee), would be “down to the wire”.

“From a COVID standpoint, he’ll be out,” Saleh said, per notes from the Jets. Asked about the backup plan if Cole is unable to play, Saleh referred to it as “something we’ll talk about” before the team departs for Charlotte.

Crowder has been the Jets’ most consistent offensive weapon over the last two seasons. He has earned a team-best 1,532 yards on 137 receptions, a dozen of which have gone for touchdowns. Each of those marks is good for the team lead over the last couple of seasons. Crowder is set to enter his third season with the Jets after inking a three-year deal in 2019. Formerly of Washington, Crowder restructured the final year of his contract to center on guaranteed money this offseason ($4.5 million).

Though the Jets could be without two of their slot targets on Sunday, Saleh had a more optimistic outlook for starting tackle Mekhi Becton. The sophomore blocker has dealt with a concussion issue over the past few weeks but is expected to be ready for the matchup with the Panthers.

“He’s had his ups and downs, obviously, dealing with Carl (Lawson) which I think a lot of people would,” Saleh said of Becton’s summer. “I thought it’s been productive for him, this is a new technique, running off the ball, the pass sets, the protections, it’s all different, where he’s not just running gap schemes and just trying to overpower people, there’s more space than he’s being put in.”

“There’s been a lot of production for him and not even worried about him, he’s going to be fine, pass setting is pass setting, so expecting him to be dominant like he has been. From a run game standpoint, he moves people, that’s what he does best. It’s going to be fun to watch him play.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets WR Jamison Crowder tests positive for COVID-19 (Report)

Crowder’s status for the New York Jets’ opener on Sept. 12 in Carolina likely comes down to his vaccination status.

Per Tom Pelissero and Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, New York Jets receiver Jamison Crowder has tested positive for COVID-19.

Crowder, set to enter his third season in green, had not appeared in any practices this week. Head coach Robert Saleh said he was dealing with a groin issue and was labeled day-to-day, per notes from the Jets. The Jets reportedly believed that Crowder’s diagnosis is an isolated incident.

With just over a week before the Jets’ season opener against the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 12 (1 p.m. ET, CBS), Crowder’s kickoff weekend status will come down to his vaccination status. NFL health policies introduced this season have incentivized vaccinations. If an unvaccinated player tests positive, they must sit out a minimum of 10 days before return to the team. Vaccinated players, on the other hand, can be welcomed back to team activities with two negative tests in a 24-hour span.

Crowder is the Jets’ top returning receiver and has likely been the team’s most consistent offensive weapon over the last two seasons (137 receptions, 1,512 yards, 12 touchdowns). Formerly of Washington, Crowder restructured the final season of a three-year deal inked in 2019 this summer. It’s an adjustment that sliced his $10 million base salary in half but now centers on guaranteed money ($4.5 million).

The Duke alum played sparingly in the preseason, earning only a single four-yard reception. He is nonetheless expected to reprise his role in the slot alongside a revamped New York receiving corps. The Jets welcomed in Corey Davis and Keelan Cole through free agency and drafted Elijah Moore in the second round of April’s draft. Crowder is joined by fellow active roster returnees Denzel Mims and Braxton Berrios.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Fans’ return to MetLife Stadium sets up a special NFL preseason game

It’s all too appropriate that fans return to MetLife Stadium coincides with the resumption of the game dubbed the “Snoopy Bowl”.

Those who venture out to MetLife Stadium on Saturday night will probably forget the final score of the game they paid to see once they get back on Route 3 or the New Jersey Turnpike. But the important part is…they’ll have ventured out to MetLife Stadium.

It’s been 532 days since Giants Stadium’s successor hosted a full-fledged professional football game in front of paying customers. That streak, begun shortly after an XFL contest between the New York Guardians and the Los Angeles Wildcats, finally snaps on Saturday, as the New York Jets and Giants resume their preseason series after a year off (7:30 p.m. ET, WNBC).

The Jets and Giants have staged an annual late summer showdown since 1969, when the former began its Super Bowl defense with a 37-14 triumph at the Yale Bowl. Since the teams began sharing the swamps of the Meadowlands (when the Jets moved in from Shea Stadium in 1984), the game has become a North Jersey tradition, a different kind of fireworks as days slowly get shorter. It’s a night of playful bragging rights, a union of metropolitan football. Upon the naming rights takeover of MetLife, known for featuring the Charlie Brown gang in its advertising, the contest became known as the “Snoopy Bowl”, complete with a beagle-branded winner’s trophy. Fans have kept the name alive in an unofficial capacity despite MetLife severing its ties with the Peanuts franchise.

(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

For a few precious hours, it’s a metropolitan Super Bowl decided by those more likely destined for the practice squad than for The Big Game itself.

“Since the game doesn’t count, the parking lot always had kind of a party atmosphere,” Kenny Watkins III of Woodland Park, NJ and a season-ticket holder at Giants Stadium said of the game. “People in blue and green are tailgating, having fun, playing music, usually there’s a band set up somewhere. It’s more like a concert atmosphere than a football game.”

By now, no one needs to elaborate as to why the series was interrupted. The COVID-19 health crisis shut down many summer traditions across the tri-state area and the nation as a whole, including the NFL preseason and the plethora of regional matchups that come with it. Few mourned the loss of the exhibition slate…preseason football is often seen as a chore in even the best of times…but regular season games played in empty stadiums took on an eerie feeling, even if they were done in the interest of public health. The Jets and Giants were a couple of the 14 teams that played their entire 2020 home slate in an empty stadium.

But welcome normalcy has finally started to emerge from the pandemic, primarily thanks to vaccination efforts. Caution is still in place due to COVID’s Delta variant but football fans have eagerly made their way back into stadiums as the first official week of preseason action continues. 

In some ways, the true value of Saturday’s game is found not on the field, but rather the stands, which is set to host a de facto family reunition of thousands.

“Saturday is going to be special even though it’s just a preseason game,” Peter Schwartz of Long Island told ESM. “It’s appropriate that both sets of fans get to be at the first game with fans because this area has been through so much over the last 18 months.”

“It’s been awesome to have fans back,” Arizona defender J.J. Watt said during an in-game interview with KPNX during the Cardinals’ preseason opener against Dallas on Friday night. “It’s been awesome to have fans back in the building. After last season, everybody playing in empty stadiums, it’s an incredible feeling to have these fans back, to have the energy, to have the excitement.”

A few necessary adjustments might still have to be made. To reduce touchpoints, for example, MetLife Stadium has transitioned to cash-free transactions at all concession and retail outlets. But it’s well worth it to get back in the New York football groove.

“I think you should just be courteous to those around you, making sure that you’re not doing anything too obnoxious or breaking any of the COVID precautions in place,” Joe Gucciardo of Howard Beach said of the precautions. “I think having the Snoopy Bowl be the first game back is somewhat bittersweet. It’s fun, you can go with a buddy who likes the other tri-State team and jaw at each other all night.”

Both teams have offered sneak previews of their respective returns to fan-filled stadiums as their respective training camp proceedings continued. The Jets first hosted the Green & White Scrimmage last Saturday night while the Giants capped off their Fan Fest with a public practice on Wednesday night.

(Photo by Alan Schaefer/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Intrasquad scrimmages, however, don’t replace the feeling of showcasing your gridiron stuff against another opponent, especially one you’re forced to share the country’s largest media market with. Staten Island native and Jets fan John Maleka is looking forward to seeing his team showcase their young talent in a MetLife Stadium adorned in blue, as Saturday’s tilt is a designated Giants home game. Fellow attendee and Montville resident Dave Strum anticipates a “sea of green and blue”, which he labels a welcome change from his last East Rutherford excursion.

Strum, after all, was at the Jets’ last contest held in front of fans, a 16-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in December 2019. Alas, many attendees went home unhappy: black and yellow outranked green on that temperate afternoon, which was completely understandable with the Steelers’ playoff implications and the nine-loss Jets’ lack thereof entering what was each

Jets head coach Robert Saleh isn’t so much interested in New York bragging rights, but can’t wait to see his group go up against another…it just so happens it’ll come against Joe Judge’s gang.

“I think every NFL team is ready to see somebody else,” Saleh said this week, per notes from the Jets. “We’re sick of each other, we’re sick of seeing the same defense, we’re sick of seeing the same offense. They’re ready to see a different color and they’re ready to go against different schemes and be challenged in different ways. It’s going to be fun, I’m excited for the group.”

Lately, bragging rights amongst each other in a meaningless summer exhibition have the only thing Jets and Giants fans have had to celebrate. Neither team has made a playoff appearance since the end of the 2016 season. The 10th anniversary celebration of the Giants’ Super Bowl XLVI triumph comes with the bittersweet reminder that the upset win over New England is the metropolitan area’s most recent NFL postseason win.

But the redemptive naivety of the NFL preseason is that everyone goes in undefeated and undeterred. Win the game, and happy times are ahead. Losses can be blamed and excused on the idea that it’s “only preseason”.

While the Giants are holding most of their premier talents out of Saturday’s game, the Jets are set to put on a youthful showcase. Even the most stubborn Gang Green hater can admit that there is legitimate potential behind this team, headlined by the arrival of new franchise quarterback Zach Wilson.

The Jets spent this offseason doing what they could to make sure his NFL transition was as seamless as possible, bringing in receivers Corey Davis and Keelan Cole, who will likely see some time on Saturday. Draft choices Alijah Vera-Tucker and Elijah Moore aren’t expected to partake, but have nonetheless offered optimism. The hire of Saleh has also received universal acclaim.

“There’s a whole new vibe to this team from the front office to the new quarterback and the new ‘toys’ sprinkled throughout the offense and defense,” Meleka said. “It feels like the Jets fans have more to look forward to in this game, especially since Wilson is slated for the first quarter while (Giants quarterback Daniel Jones) is out. More specifically, the new coaching staff and the new schemes on both sides of the ball finally give these Jets players an opportunity to make a name for themselves and begin their journey to solidifying a spot on the 53-man roster.”

“So far, the atmosphere around the Jets has been nothing but excitement for the future of the franchise with Coach Saleh and all their young studs: Moore, Wilson, and (linebacker Hamsah) Nasirildeen,” Strum added. “Jets Nation will definitely be fired up for some preseason action against the local rival team.”

Time will tell if more restrictions lay on the road ahead as the Delta variant remains stubborn. But for the time being, provided that fans remain vigilant and use their best judgment, it’s fine to view Saturday’s game at its surface: a welcome back to a frivolous, if not cherished, Garden State tradition, a landmark in the battle against the hated pandemic.

“It is definitely fitting that football returns to New Jersey in Jets vs. Giants fashion. Although a meaningless game to some, this game, gives me a little bit of hope that the end of the pandemic is in sight and will be a milestone for how far we have come from the beginning of the pandemic until now.” Strum said. “Although I’m a little nervous with the new Delta variant going around, I am definitely excited to feel the atmosphere of thousands of screaming fans cheering on their team, the smell of food cooking on the grill before the game, some J-E-T-S chants with fellow Jets fans in the parking lot.”

True to football form, however, he’s not letting a joint celebration get in the way of a little good, old-fashion metropolitan smack talk.

“I might have to thank some of them for letting Elijah Moore fall to us in the second round.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Full capacity MetLife Stadium releases health protocols for 2021 season

New York Giants and New York Jets fans will be welcomed back to MetLife Stadium on a full-time basis next season.

This summer’s Snoopy Bowl is going to mean just a little more this time around.

MetLife Stadium, the East Rutherford home of the New York Giants and New York Jets, will welcome back fans on a full-time basis, as the venue announced gameday health protocols for the upcoming NFL season. Of note, masks, proof of vaccination, or a negative COVID-19 test will not be required for entry. Tailgaiting will be permitted.

The biggest change to gameday operations will be the transition to full-on cash-free transactions, an effort to reduce touchpoints. Reverse ATM machines will allow fans to put cash on debit cards.

East Rutherford has not hosted fans since February 2020, when just over 12,000 spectators witness the New York Guardians triumph over the Los Angeles Wildcats in an XFL showdown. The Giants and Jets are set to resume their annual preseason series on August 14 after last year’s exhibition was canceled along with the rest of the NFL summer slate.

Giants fans will flock back with an interconference showdown against the Denver Broncos on September 12, while the Jets open their home portion a week later against their divisional rivals from New England. MetLife Stadium was one of a dozen NFL venues that played the entire regular season without fans last season The Jets will also get to play nine regular season home games for the first time in regular season history, as it will come against the Philadelphia Eagles on December 5.

“I think it’s going to be great to get back and to go to the full stadium,” Jets Chairman Woody Johnson said in a statement to team reporter Eric Allen. “(To) go out in the parking lot and talk to fans and see what they’re cooking and do all that stuff.”

“We walked out of the tunnel and they blared it on the speakers, the J-E-T-S chant,” new Jets head coach Robert Saleh added in Allen’s report, having stepped into the stadium for the first time. “I’m not going to lie to you, I got a little bit of goosebumps. I’m really excited to get it going and get that stadium to where it becomes live again, like it’s been in the past.”

Will you be returning to MetLife Stadium next season? Continue to the conversation on Twitter @GeoffJMags

There’s a “pretty good” chance that MetLife Stadium is fully open in 2021

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy was optimistic about capacity crowds returning to MetLife Stadium for New York Jets and Giants games.

New Jersey’s woebegone NFL squads have made some improvements this offseason and spectators may be able to witness the transformation in person.

In video provided by NJ.com, Garden State Gov. Phil Murphy announced on Tuesday that the “prospects are pretty good” when it comes to fans filling MetLife Stadium for the 2021 NFL season. The East Rutherford home of the New York Giants and Jets was one of 11 NFL stadiums that did not admit fans at any point last season.

“I’d say the prospects are pretty good,” Murphy said about the possibility in a briefing in Trenton, declaring that filling all 82,500 seats will be dependent on the promising declining numbers in regards to the ongoing health crisis. COVID-19 hospitalizations in New Jersey are at their lowest point since October. Social distancing at such games would by recommendations from the Center for Disease Control.

MetLife Stadium has not hosted a sporting event with fans since February 2020, when just over 12,000 attendees watched the XFL tilt between the New York Guardians and Los Angeles Wildcats. Its next scheduled event is a Guns N’ Roses concert on August 5. New Jersey’s outdoor venues can open to 50 percent capacity on Friday.

“If we blow through our objectives, there’s a lot higher likelihood the Jets and Giants can sell more tickets,” Murphy said.

The 2021 NFL schedule will be released on Wednesday night, with the season expected to begin on Thursday, September 9 with a game presumably hosted by the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Tom Brady and Bucs will make a stop at MetLife to play the Jets later this season, as will the Jacksonville Jaguars, the latter game presumably setting up a matchup between Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, the first players chosen in the 2021 NFL Draft. Among the Giants’ most anticipated home matchups is their yearly divisional tilt with the Philadelphia Eagles, who visit MetLife Stadium twice this year (taking on the Jets as part of the NFL’s addition of a new game to the schedule).

As vaccines continue to be distributed across the country, fans are returning to outdoor venues in larger numbers. MLB’s Atlanta Braves opened to full capacity on May 7 in Georgia, while NASCAR events at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Darlington Raceway, Daytona International Speedway, and Kansas Speedway will likewise be run in front of full crowds.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

BREAKING: New York Jets opt out of in-person voluntary workouts

New York Jets

The New York Jets are the latest team to opt-out of in-person voluntary workouts, becoming the 13th NFL team to do so.

The New York Jets became the 13th NFL team to opt-out of voluntary offseason workouts, submitting a statement through the Players Association’s social media accounts. Teams have begun opting out of in-person activities in the wake of the ongoing health crisis. The Denver Broncos were the first team to do so, making their announcement on Tuesday.

“Football is a labor of love for our men, who work year-round to stay in shape on prepare ourselves to perform at the highest level,” the statement read. “Given that we are still in a pandemic and based on the facts provided to our membership by our union about the health and safety benefits of a virtual offseason, many of us will exercise our CBA right and not attend in-person voluntary workouts.”

“We respect that every player has a right to make a decision about what is best for him and his family, and we stand in solidarity with other players across the NFL who are making informed choices about this offseason.”

Despite ongoing vaccinations across the country, COVID-19 continues to make an impact on the sports world. Two NHL teams (the Colorado Avalanche and Vancouver Canucks) are currently on pause in the wake of positive tests while the New York Mets’ opening series with the Washington Nationals was delayed due to issues in the latter’s organization.

In their notes distributed by the NFLPA, some teams have stated a preference for virtual workouts, especially with COVID-19 still prevalent in some areas. Others have noted that they emerged from last season with fewer injuries when virtual workouts were conducted last season in the height of the pandemic.

“Injury data and game performance from last year show that a virtual offseason is beneficial to health and safety,” the Atlanta Falcons’ statement reads. The Cleveland Browns noted in theirs that “missed time injuries” decreased by 23 percent.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets LB C.J. Mosley speaks after vaccination

New York Jets, C.J. Mosley

The New York Jets linebacker, who sat out last season due to health concerns, shared a message on Instagram after receiving his vaccination.

New York Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley announced through Instagram that he has been administered the first of two COVID-19 vaccinations. According to his post, Mosley has received the Janssen vaccine and is due for a second shot at a date to be determined.

In his message announcing the news, he encouraged others, including his critics to seek out their own shots.

“Let’s get back to normal, let’s be happy, let’s feel the love from our family and friends…LETS GET VACCINATED! [sic]” Mosley wrote in his caption. “ps if you got time throw in a football joke, you have enough time to type in your info to register to get vaccinated.”

The former Baltimore Raven opted out of his second season in green citing concerns about the NFL season proceeding in the midst of the ongoing health crisis. A four-time All-Pro nominee, Mosley signed a five-year, $85 million contract with the Jets in March 2019, but injuries and last season’s opt-out have limited him to two games in a New York uniform.

Upset fans inevitably filled Mosley’s post, facetiously hoping that Mosley’s vaccination means he’ll be able to partake in the upcoming season. Mosley responded to his detractors in stride.

“I’ve never said check my stats…. but check my stats!” Mosley said told one. “I’ve missed two years and my stats still up there with the best. This post is about the health and well being of myself and others. If you disagree, then all good brotha. BUT pleaseeeeeee spare me talking about some career games. [sic]”

Because I’m part of the 1% in this profession, not you. So just 🤫 until them gates open up at METLIFE! Then it’s go time.” [sic]

Mosley won’t be the only vaccinated one returning to MetLife Stadium this season. With vaccinations well underway across the nation, it’s highly anticipated that fans will be welcomed back to Jets and Giants games. The pair were two of 19 teams whose home games remained closed to fans.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Knicks’ Derrick Rose clears NBA protocols, shares COVID-19 battle

The New York Knicks announced on Monday that Derrick Rose has already been cleared from the league’s health and safety protocols after three weeks and eight-game absence.

Rose then proceeded to address the elephant in the room.

“Oh man, I was away because I actually had [COVID-19] it. I felt all the symptoms, sick and everything, but I’m happy to be back, and that’s in the past,” Rose told reporters in his first public interview since contracting the virus.

Rose and his whole family, along with the mother of his girlfriend, got infected. He quarantined with them in their home until getting the clearance to rejoin the team in their last two games, watching from the sidelines in street clothes.

“You know it sucked, but I was just with my family. My girl, my kids, her mom, all of us had it, so we were in the house for 10-14 days taking the test and, of course, taking all the meds and everything. I was with my family, and that’s the best thing about it, but like I said, it’s in the past. Thank God, I don’t have to worry about that anymore,” Rose said of the ordeal.

Rose revealed he tested positive for the virus the day after getting inconclusive results before the Knicks game in San Antonio last March. He was thankful his kids didn’t feel worse than he did.

“It just sucks, man! You feel every pain— the body is sore, headaches and all that. The kids weren’t too bad. They had fevers and running noses, and that was pretty much it and a bad cough. But it’s real, the COVID thing. I know a lot of people overlook it, but it’s very serious. It’s real,” Rose said.

He described COVID-19 as 10 times the regular flu.

“It’s completely different. I mean, they say everybody is different, but for me, I’ve never felt anything like that before. I’ve had the flu. It wasn’t any like the flu. My sense, the flu, your stomach or like your joints and everything gives you bad [feeling] times 10. Like I said, slowly, I’m getting back. I’m progressing every day and just trying to get back in the swing of things,” Rose said.

While he was already cleared by the league, New York coach Tom Thibodeau was non-committal on the former MVP’s exact return on the court. The Knicks will play the Washington Wizards at home on Tuesday and Thursday.

“He has to go through conditioning, and once he’s ready to go, we’ll move forward with it. But he’s been out for a while now, and we’re just starting to ramp it up again, and we’ll see how it goes,” Thibodeau said.

Acquired from Detroit this season, Rose immediately made an impact on the Knicks teaming up with rookie spitfire Immanuel Quickley off the bench and later on started when Elfrid Payton went down with an injury. The Knicks have struggled without him, losing five of the eight games he missed. The Knicks were 7-3 with Rose in the lineup. He is averaging 12.5 points, 4.9 assists, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.1 steals with shooting splits of 43/46/83 for the Knicks this season.

“It sucks, especially when you get traded and I had the chance to play again,” Rose said. “The game has just been taken away from me for something like that. Getting back and playing in rhythm and trying to get myself back to where I was, it’s gonna take some time, but every day I am getting the most out of my days, so that’s all I can do.”

Rose is just happy to be out of quarantine and be back on the court practicing with the team. Besides dealing with the COVID-19, Rose also grieved the death of a close friend Langston Hampton– the younger brother of his best friend and personal assistant Randall Hampton, Empire Sports Media has learned from a source with knowledge of the situation.

“My appreciation for the game and while I was going through quarantine, I tried to take all the information and try to better myself,” Rose said. “I couldn’t exercise. I couldn’t do anything but just be around my family and read. Just leaving the house, it’s something we take for granted. Just breathing. Just everything. I went through a lot in quarantine. I’m just thankful, very thankful.”

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

NASCAR: Kevin Harvick reflects on the past, present, and future

As the NASCAR Cup Series rolls in the Phoenix, Kevin Harvick took some time to reflect on his lauded racing career.

Kevin Harvick has spent his NASCAR Cup Series career partaking, even creating, a different brand of March Madness. Thursday, for example, will mark the 20th anniversary of his first Cup victory, earned in just his third start. Harvick had taken over the Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet left behind by the late Dale Earnhardt and held off Jeff Gordon in a photo finish to win the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 by a .006-second margin.

“It feels like a lifetime ago,” Harvick said of that emotion afternoon in reflection on Tuesday morning. Brought into the Cup Series through the most tragic of circumstances, Harvick looked back at the safety innovations made over the last 20 years.

“I think as you look at the sport the one thing that sticks out to me is just the massive amount of effort that NASCAR has put into putting our sport where it is today from a safety standpoint, and I think from Dale’s death and to where we are today and the things that accident taught us about our race cars and safety equipment and seats and walls and chassis,” he said. “The way that our sport operates and the way that sports operate in general is much different than it was in 2001, but the safety side is the side from a driving standpoint that sticks out the most to me.”

More recent history weighed on Harvick’s mind as well. The NASCAR circuit returns to Phoenix Raceway this weekend, with the Cup Series race coming on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox). Phoenix is the current site of NASCAR’s championship weekend, supplanting Homestead-Miami Speedway last season. But, at least this weekend, Phoenix might better known for hosting the last “normal” race weekend, one rife with the typical trappings of a NASCAR race weekend: practice, qualifying, the seating and garage areas packed to the gills. That afternoon, fans watched Joey Logano hold off Harvick to win the Phoenix spring event now known as the Instacart 500.

Days later, the ongoing health crisis served as the ultimate red flag pushing back the circuit’s return to Atlanta. NASCAR held out as long as it could, but it eventually joined its fellow professional leagues in hiatus before returning two months later.

Harvick would become one of the most prominent faces of NASCAR’s triumphant return. Adhering to social distancing mandates limited on-site personnel and often had drivers go right from their streetcars to their racecars. Qualifying and practice were eliminated to confine race weekends into a single day of action. Already bound for the Hall of Fame in Charlotte prior to the pause, Harvick, the 2014 Cup Series champion, made his case to be included amongst the immortals.

The No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford won the first race back at Darlington in May, the first of a series-best nine wins. It allowed him to move into seventh place on the premier circuit’s all-time wins list. Bad luck in the postseason prevented Harvick from competing for a title in the regularly scheduled return to Phoenix in November. But it allowed a national audience, some of whom were enjoying their first racing experience, to witness his greatness and seal his spot amongst the essential names in NASCAR history through dominant efforts unaided by practice or qualifying runs.

Harvick, however, was more pleased with the changes NASCAR was able to make as a whole, reasoning that a hidden benefit of the forced changes was that the sport took full advantage of a chance to try new things.

“As a sport, we’ve done a really good job of navigating and adapting to our environment and doing the things that we need to do to put on a race and a show and obviously you’re seeing fans back in the stands,” Harvick noted. “I think our sport has been a leader on a lot of those types of things. I think, from a team standpoint and a sport, we’ve definitely been able to try a lot of things we probably wouldn’t have tried if it wasn’t for COVID.

“I think when you step back from it COVID will have forever changed our sport in many different areas,” he continued. “I think we’ve realized a lot of inefficiencies we’ve had as a sport from how many people we take to the track to how we function, how many days we need to be at the track. There are just so many little things that will make us more efficient, whether it’s how we bring guests to the racetrack, how we sign in, the sheer number of people, the days we’re at the racetrack.  I think there are just a lot of things that happened that probably wouldn’t have happened as rapidly if we weren’t in this environment, so in a really, really bad scenario, I think we’re gonna come out of this with a lot of ideas and tried a lot of things we might have not necessarily tried if it was a normal year.”

On a personal level in dealing with the pandemic, Harvick was far more pleased to speak about his off-track exploits. He has spent extended time with his family, noting he has sat down to more homecooked meals and doesn’t even leave to go grocery shopping. He and his wife DeLana continue to homeschool their children Keelan and Piper, even with schools open in the local area.

“There’s a lot of things that have changed personally in the way that our household functions in a very good way,” the patriarch Harvick said. “I think that’s probably something that I would tell you is how racing used to be.”

Looking back at some of the more emotional, yet triumphant, moments of his Cup career allowed Harvick to step away from his 2021 endeavors hitting a bit of a wall last week in Las Vegas. The No. 4 Ford started on the pole, earned through strong finishes over the first three events. Harvick and reigning Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell were the only drivers to earn top ten finishes in each leg of the opening trio.

Alas for Harvick, he struggled with an ill-handling racecar all day and eventually finished a lap down in 20th. Somehow, that was the best part of the afternoon for SHR, as Harvick’s No. 4 was their best-finish vehicle. Rookie Chase Briscoe finished immediately behind him while last season’s Rookie of the Year and Harvick’s fellow 2020 playoff contender Cole Custer rounded out the top 25. Aric Almirola, another playoff man in the No. 10 Ford, continued a brutal start to the season through a wreck that pushed him back to dead last in 38th.

Asked to describe his No. 4 Ford last weekend, Harvick merely replied “not fun”. But Harvick insists he’s not angry, and that the affair has already been forgotten. He says he would have the same mindset had he reached victory lane on Sunday.

“(Being) angry takes too much time and it’s hard to carry that all the way through the week,” he said. “I think when you look back at the first race last year and you have a chance to win the race and have the best car and then you go back to the second race and things don’t go your way just because it’s not what you expected, that’s just part of what we do.  You guys sometimes see the results and look at it and say, ‘He’s gonna be this or that,’ and, really, it’s just the same.  It’s really no different as you get into the meetings on Monday.  The conversations may be different, but it’s the same routine week after week for me.”

Phoenix would be a perfect place for Harvick to get his 2021 campaign back on the right track. He is by far the winningest driver in the history of the mile-long oval in the desert with nine visits to the winner’s circle. No other driver has earned more than four wins at the track.

The closest Harvick came to displaying any form of vanity was when he addressed an inquiry over whether he was a threat at Phoenix as a “silly question” in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

“I think you should go back and look at the first race from last year that we led the most laps and had the fastest car. We wound up finishing second,” Harvick said of last spring’s visit. “I would consider us a challenger at just about any racetrack that you go to, but you’re not gonna be that way all the time, so, I think as we go to Phoenix you expect to go there and perform well.”

As Harvick hits up Phoenix, his past and present will take center stage. But his future is slowly taking shape as well.

With the road ahead reserved for his extracurricular time, Harvick’s focus lies not on the interesting Cup schedule ahead…he did leave the door open to running a similar race or even the Camping World Truck Series event prior to the Cup cars dirt excursion at Bristol later this month…but on the piloting antics of Keelan, who embarked on a racing journey of his own. The junior Harvick is often seen hitching rides with his dad on NASCAR race days, but the eight-year-old picked up his first go-kart victory last July…less than a week after Kevin won at Indianapolis.

Showcasing talents through four wheels has never been a hidden talent in the Harvick family. After all, DeLana has dabbled in racing herself and served as the co-owner of Kevin’s eponymous race team that won 53 races at the NASCAR Truck and Xfinity levels during a decade of competition (2002-11) before merging with his former cohorts at Richard Childress Racing. The elder Harvick hinted that Microsoft Excel might be one of his best teammates in this day and age, especially when it comes to helping Keelan fulfill his racing dreams.

“It just takes a lot of planning because in order to properly teach somebody how to race they have to race a lot,” he said. “I think this is kind of the first time that we’ve jumped into trying to plan two racing schedules and where everybody is going to be and keeping mom happy with where we’re at with school and her having to load up and take everybody to the go-kart track is new for her, so it’s a lot of spreadsheets.”

But while Harvick might be making plans to conquer some of his own racing challenges, one challenge that isn’t coming anytime soon is the construction of a trophy case for his son.

“I have to remind him periodically that he’s still just a go-kart racer and until he gets a real job that he’s still under control of mom and dad,” Harvick said with a laugh. “So he can have a little bit of space in his little room downstairs with his iRacing simulator and all the things that he has down there, but he’s gonna have to go find his own place if he wants to be in charge of where they all go.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Knicks fall to Spurs as Rose enters COVID-19 protocols

A last-minute shelving of Derrick Rose and a last-second three by Patty Mills in the first half doomed the New York Knicks in San Antonio.

The Knicks went back to .500 after a lethargic 119-93 loss at the hands of the Spurs Tuesday night in their penultimate game before the All-Star break.

Late scratch

Already without their starting point guard Elfrid Payton (sore hamstring), Mitchell Robinson (broken hand), and Taj Gibson (ankle injury), the Knicks were hit with another setback.

Rose entered the league’s health and safety protocols just an hour before tip-off that threw the Knicks off their rhythm.

With Rose and Payton out, fourth-stringer Frank Ntilikina, who has only played seven games before facing the Spurs, made his first start of the season.

Ntilikina did an admirable job finishing with 13 points in 25 minutes but failed to register a single assist.

Out of rhythm

The Knicks’ starting unit got buried at the start of the first and third quarters, which hastened their downfall.

Reggie Bullock only had three attempts after averaging eight in their last three wins with Rose at the helm. Nerlens Noel was brilliant on defense but could not handle the ball on offense.

Julius Randle and RJ Barrett had an additional burden of playmaking on top of shotmaking. It didn’t work as they failed to keep up with the Spurs’ more cohesive lineup.

Immanuel Quickley, Kevin Knox, and Obi Toppin knocked down a three-pointer each that brought the Knicks within two, 25-23, in the opening period.

‘You get what you deserve’

It was a tight game from there until the Spurs caught the Knicks’ defense napping right before the halftime buzzer. Mills drilled a well-executed corner three-pointer that gave San Antonio a four-point halftime lead and the momentum.

The Spurs got it going in the third quarter, with Mills hitting three of the Spurs’ seven triples that broke the game wide open. San Antonio outscored New York, 37-21, in that pivotal quarter. The Knicks never knew what hit them.

“Obviously, we didn’t play our best. When you’re on the road, you have to play well for 48 minutes. We didn’t do that. [We] didn’t close out the second quarter well. We didn’t start the third (quarter) well,” Tom Thibodeau said after the rout. “You get what you deserve.”

The Knicks deserved to lose the game as they let the Spurs shot 48.3 percent from the field and 18-of-32 from the outside. They were thoroughly outplayed, with the Spurs issuing 31 assists against the Knicks’ 18.

Reality check

Their top-two defense was nowhere to be found as they looked more tired than the Spurs, who were coming off an overtime loss to Brooklyn last Monday night.

The loss should serve as a reality check for the Knicks, who will face more tough teams like the Spurs after the All-Star break. They will play 26 of their 35 games against playoff-caliber teams in the second half of the season.

The Knicks didn’t specify if Rose tested positive for COVID-19 or he was only under contact tracing. But either way, the Knicks will have to play out their last game in the first half without him.

Ntilikina over Quickley

Ntilikina will likely remain as the starter in their rematch against the Detroit Pistons on Thursday.

“I was just trying to keep the second unit together as much as I could. And the size of their point guard also factored in as they have a very good offensive rebounding guard,” said Thibodeau explaining his decision to start Ntilikina.

The 6-foot-4 Dejounte Murray scattered 17 points, six rebounds, six assists, and three steals, while Kentucky product Trey Lyles, who started for LaMarcus Aldridge (stomach ailment), had a season-high 18 points with four triples for the Spurs.

Immanuel Quickley paced the Knicks with 26 points, his fifth 25-plus scoring in the season, which leads all rookies. He hit six three-pointers and added four rebounds and four assists off the bench.

Both Randle and Barrett sat out the entire fourth quarter. Randle wound up with 14 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists, while Barrett scored 15 on another efficient night, going 5-for-9 from the field.

The loss snapped the Knicks’ three-game winning streak and shoved them down to the sixth spot in the East, just half-game ahead of the Miami Heat.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo