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Predicting where Matt Kenseth will end up at the end of this season isn’t easy after the results he’s turned in during the past two years. But there is good news buried inside that confusion: Even if Kenseth replicates the worst of his first two seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, he’ll be a top-10 driver.
Kenseth, of course, was simply golden during his first run with JGR in 2013. He won a series- and career-high seven times and pushed Jimmie Johnson harder than any other driver.
But last season proved to be far different. Kenseth was largely as consistent as ever, recording the same number of lead-lap finishes (30) as the previous year while increasing his top-5 and top-10 results. However, in the stat that counts — visits to Victory Lane — he put up a surprising goose egg. Kenseth qualified for the postseason through points, a product of his consistency, and actually remained eligible for the title through the third round.
For a time, it even looked like he could become the sport’s first winless champion. When it didn’t happen, Kenseth was realistic, recognizing the lack of speed that hampered him.
“In 2013, we were exceptionally fast at most race tracks,” Kenseth says. “Between the (2014) aero changes and getting the cars down and all that stuff, we just didn’t seem to have a handle on it the way we did the year before. Our balance was just way off, and we never really did get it fixed the way we wanted to.”
Interestingly, Kenseth wasn’t too surprised at how he and his JGR teammates performed. In testing before the 2014 season, the JGR Toyotas never had the same handling comfort — and thus the speed — as they had with the 2013 rules package. It’s a deficit from which they never recovered. That’s changed for this season, Kenseth said after test sessions revealed major improvement based on 2015 rules.
“I feel the best about the aero changes, getting the downforce off the cars,” Kenseth says. “Hopefully that will make it a little bit easier to pass in traffic and the cars a little more free. I’m hoping that will help.”
Among the tweaks this year are decreased rear spoiler heights, a reduced-horsepower engine and a new set of in-car suspension adjustment tools for the driver’s use. Should Kenseth adapt well, expect it to make a substantial difference in how well he and the rest of the JGR stable perform. Despite teammate Denny Hamlin earning a spot in the final race to determine the champion, JGR teams won only twice in Sprint Cup — and one of those wins came on the restrictor-plate track at Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR’s ultimate equalizer.
In Kenseth’s favor is the addition of Carl Edwards, Kenseth’s former Roush Fenway Racing teammate, to the JGR lineup as the multi-car operation expands from three to four teams. Kenseth and Edwards had a positive working relationship at RFR prior to Kenseth’s departure for JGR in 2013. Edwards also brings in substantial new sponsorship, allowing JGR to hire more engineers and shop staff while dedicating more resources to research and development. An influx of funding from Kenseth’s main backer, Dollar General, and the addition of old partner DeWalt give the team more funding even with the departure of longtime JGR supporter Home Depot.
The organization is also undergoing a hefty transition of several key staff members thanks to the addition of Edwards and the disappointment of 2014 — though Kenseth’s main point of contact, crew chief Jason Ratcliff, won’t change. This season, Edwards will work with Darian Grubb, who moved over from Denny Hamlin’s team. Grubb was replaced in that role over at the No. 11 Toyota by Kyle Busch’s former crew chief, Dave Rogers. That leaves Busch with Adam Stevens, promoted from the JGR XFINITY Series teams, on his pit box going forward. Expect the changes to boost performance.
Kenseth, 43, will start his 545th Sprint Cup race and 16th consecutive full-time season at NASCAR’s highest level when the green flag drops on the 2015 Daytona 500. Having made 10 of 11 Chases, a record topped only by Jimmie Johnson, there’s no reason to believe the consistency will stop.
“I really feel more confident about (2015) than I did last year at this time,” Kenseth says.
With changes made and plans for improvement over a moderately successful run a year ago, it’s not hard to understand why.
No wins? No problem Kenseth’s fall from seven wins in 2013 to zero in 2014 had more to do with speed than skill. His No. 20 car dropped from second to seventh in average green-flag speed rank. If JGR regains speed in 2015, look for Kenseth to take advantage.
Expect excellence The one- to 1.49-mile tracks, such as Phoenix, Dover and Darlington, are welcome sites for the veteran, who averaged a 7.4-place finish in seven races at tracks that fall in that mileage range last year.
Seal the deal Kenseth gained 37 positions in the final 10th of races last year. His closing acumen was amplified in the daylight, where he gained 46 positions across 25 races in daytime hours.
A top-10 fixture In what many felt was a down season after a career year, Kenseth scored two more top-10 finishes — 22 in all, up from 20 — in 2014.
No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Primary Sponsors: Dollar General, DeWalt
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Jason Ratcliff
Year With Current Team: 3rd
Under Contract Through: 2016
Best Points Finish: 1st (2003)
Hometown: Cambridge, Wis.
Born: March 10, 1972
|Years||Starts||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s||Poles||Titles||Earned|
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Opening Day is less than two months away.
Just keep repeating that, Boston Red Sox fans. Maybe it will help warm the soul. After one look at Fenway Park, though, maybe not.
Boston is enduring its snowiest month on record, and not even Fenway can escape.
The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore and his producer Steve Petyerak tweeted several images of Fenway buried in snow during the last few weeks. The white stuff is piled up to the right field wall but not quite to the Green Monster. Yet.
The images are pretty remarkable.
The Red Sox home opener is April 13 against the Nationals, assuming the snow can be cleared by then.
Sunset over the Green Monster pic.twitter.com/h1ll0pTbz7— Steve Petyerak (@StevePetyerak) February 12, 2015
Snow in the stands at Fenway pic.twitter.com/6TLZWYKt4P— Steve Petyerak (@StevePetyerak) February 12, 2015
Fenway Park covered w/ snow pic.twitter.com/NDO5ybS419— Steve Petyerak (@StevePetyerak) February 12, 2015
Kyle Busch demands perfection from the racecar and has no qualms about ratcheting up the pressure on his crew chief to make that happen. It’s understandable that Busch has a periodic revolving door of team leaders, a merry-go-round that resulted in the move of former crew chief Dave Rogers to Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 team for this year.
The two were at odds for much of the Chase, which is surprising, because that’s when Busch snapped it together after a summer slump that endangered his playoff bid. Outside of a Talladega wreck, you could argue that the 2014 Chase was Busch’s best in terms of consistency. Busch won once last year and finished 10th in points, impressive considering he was 17th — with four DNFs — heading into the Chase.
Busch, who’s been vocal about the changes for 2015, insists that his relationship with Rogers was just fine, thank you. Any public back-and-forths between the two were a case of two parties demanding nothing less than perfection.
Internal sources claim differently, although Rogers’ move in the offseason was part of a larger shift of employees at JGR, both across series and across teams. When the music stopped, it was Busch’s XFINITY (formerly Nationwide) Series crew chief Adam Stevens who landed on Busch’s Sprint Cup team for this year.
Stevens wasn’t necessarily Busch’s first pick. “There was definitely a wish list on my end, and there was definitely a ‘Hey, you’re getting Adam Stevens’ on their end,” Busch says. “I went and did some of my due diligence, talked to a few of the guys that I had on my list. I got a good response from that, but at the end of the day it just all came down to bringing Adam up.”
Busch sees Stevens’ transition from managing an XFINITY Series team to a Cup program as a challenge. “For Adam, just going from the (XFINITY) level to the Cup level, you’re working with probably 40 people in the (XFINITY) shop and with 400 in the Cup shop,” Busch says. “It’s a lot more people, a lot more things on your plate, and I’m sure you can get overwhelmed quite quickly.”
Should Stevens manage the transition, the organization has high hopes. Since pairing up at the start of the 2013 season, he and Busch have 19 XFINITY victories in 52 starts, winning at an unthinkable 36.5 percent clip. Even a sliver of that success puts Busch on better footing in Cup, where he’s struggled by comparison.
Stevens is making the transition to Cup just as JGR is undergoing an expansion to four teams with the addition of Carl Edwards. This move has Busch enthused, as he felt for much of 2014 that the lack of a satellite program, like Hendrick Motorsports has with Stewart-Haas Racing, left his organization with a big disadvantage in terms of resources.
“Having Carl on board is going to be great for the team. He’s obviously gotten results in years past,” Busch says. “Having a bunch of new people at JGR and getting the engineering department all ramped up with more people. … It’s just going to make us a stronger team.”
Busch says any jumps in performance won’t come from the new rules package that cut downforce and reduce horsepower. It’ll make the Cup cars handle more like their XFINITY series counterparts. “It’s just a baby step. I don’t think it’s markedly different,” he explains. “You’re going to see some speeds slow down from the track records maybe, but it’s just going to be about trying to see what balance is going to be like with the horsepower to drag and everything else.”
Differing from the majority, Busch claims that the JGR problems are in-house, related simply to getting the cars to turn better. But having the cars in Cup handle more like those in the second-tier series may be a step in favor of Busch’s on-track handling preference. He’s become a regular dominator of the XFINITY Series in recent seasons — which brings things back full-circle to the Stevens promotion.
“The relationship we’ve had over the last year has gone really well,” Busch says. “We’ve won lots of races and we’ve been competitive. That level at the (XFINITY) level is obviously a lot less than what it is at the Sprint Cup level, but I still think he’s got a good repertoire within the shop and his guys. When you can have all of that, then there’s no better thing than to try and move that guy up.”
It’s a mixed message coming from Busch, who seems torn on all the changes. But replicating any XFINITY success on the Sprint Cup level would mean very positive things for Busch come November.
The car didn’t fit him It’d be tough to find a driver who desires a car with a looser handling condition than Busch, who was stymied by the tight-skewing rules package of 2014. It affected his laps led; the 453 he led for the season was his lowest total since his rookie year in 2005.
Gotta love those quad-ovals Busch averaged an eighth-place finish on the quad-oval intermediates of Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte and Atlanta in 2014.
The spring Richmond race In the last eight spring races at Richmond, Busch won four times, led 613 laps and averaged a finish of 4.4. His last eight fall races at Richmond? Zero wins, 53 laps led and an average finish of 12.1. Perhaps he just prefers Virginia in the springtime?
Crew chief help Busch’s crew chief fed him 57 positions across green-flag pit cycles at all oval tracks, save for Daytona and Talladega.
No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Primary Sponsors: M&M’s, Interstate Batteries, Doublemint Gum, Snickers
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Adam Stevens
Year With Current Team: 8th
Under Contract Through: 2017
Best Points Finish: 4th (2013)
Hometown: Las Vegas, Nev.
Born: May 2, 1985
|Years||Starts||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s||Poles||Titles||Earned|
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
The 2015 MLB Draft isn't until June 8-10, but it's never too early to take a look at the next potential crop of impact players. When it comes to making the leap from high school to a top prospect in the minor leagues, look no further than the reigning MVPs in each league. Clayton Kershaw out of Highland Park (Texas) High School was the No. 7 overall pick in 2006, while Mike Trout from Millville Senior (N.J.) was taken with the 25th overall selection in 2009. Obviously, those two first-round picks have worked out well for the Dodgers and Angels, but what about this year's high school class? Are there any Kershaws or Trouts in this group? Only time will tell.
1. Brendan Rodgers, SS, Lake Mary (Fla.) HS
Rodgers, a Florida State commit, has an advanced bat with a chance to hit for average and power while sticking at shortstop.
2. Kolby Allard, LHP, San Clemente (Calif.) HS
Last year’s high school class featured countless players with plus fastballs. Allard fits right with that group, with an easy 91-94 mph fastball and a solid breaking ball.
3. Justin Hooper, LHP, De La Salle HS, Concord, Calif.
A massive (6'7") lefty with massive stuff, Hooper has one of the best fastballs in the class as he’ll touch 95-97 mph at his best.
4. Trenton Clark, OF, Richland HS, N. Richland Hills, Texas
Speedy outfielder who is among the fastest players in the class and shows an advanced understanding of how to put the bat on the ball and get on base.
5. Daz Cameron, OF, Eagles Landing Christian Academy, McDonough, Ga.
Son of long-time big league outfielder Mike Cameron, Daz is also a smooth center fielder with excellent bat speed and the speed to create havoc when he gets on base.
6. Nick Plummer, OF, Brother Rice HS, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
If you’re a hitter from a northern state, you better play well on the summer showcase circuit as you won’t face the same competition during the high school season. Plummer positioned himself well with an excellent summer.
7. Chris Betts, C, Woodrow Wilson HS, Long Beach, Calif.
One of the better power bats in the draft class, Betts has shown significant improvement behind the plate. He became more and more polished as a receiver throughout the summer.
8. Ashe Russell, RHP, Cathedral HS, Indianapolis
Russell, a Texas A&M signee, is one of the pitchers batters hate to face, especially with a wood bat, as his ability to make the ball run in on batters breaks bats.
9. Mike Nikorak, RHP, Stroudsburg (Pa.) HS
Nikorak has been one of the hardest throwers in this class, topping out at 96 mph at the Perfect Game National showcase.
10. Garrett Whitley, OF, Niskayuna (N.Y.) HS
A speedy outfielder with excellent range and instincts in center field, Whitley impressed throughout the summer, showing more advanced instincts than expected for a prospect from the Northeast.
11. Demi Orimoliye, OF, St. Matthew HS, Orleans, Ont.
Orimoliye intrigues scouts now, but they are even more excited about what he could be with further polish. The big (6'4", 225) outfielder has power and speed.
12. Beau Burrows, RHP, Weatherford (Texas) HS
Burrows has the makings of three quality pitches with a 90-95 mph fastball, a quality changeup that has late movement and a 12-to-6 curveball.
13. Kyle Tucker, OF, Plant HS, Tampa, Fla.
The younger brother of Astros outfield prospect Preston Tucker, Kyle is one of the more well-rounded prospects in this year’s class. Has good speed and strength.
14. Austin Smith, RHP, Park Vista Community HS, Lake Worth, Fla.
Another potential power pitcher with size, Smith throws a heavy 88-93 mph fastball that he works down in the zone to generate ground balls.
15. Cornelius Randolph, SS, Griffin (Ga.) HS
Randolph may end up moving to second or third base because of his thick lower half, but he is a left-handed hitting infielder with a chance to hit for average and power.
16. Juan Hillman, LHP, Olympia HS, Orlando, Fla.
The school that has produced first-rounders Jesse Winker and Nick Gordon in recent years could get another first-rounder in 2015.
17. Donny Everett, RHP, Clarksville (Tenn.) HS
Clarksville doesn’t produce a whole lot of baseball players — the last player from Clarksville High School to be drafted was back in 1967. Everett, a Vanderbilt commitment, should change that, as he throws strikes with a 90-94 mph fastball.
18. Triston McKenzie, RHP, Royal Palm Beach (Fla.) HS
A long and lean (6'5", 160) Vanderbilt commitment, McKenzie gets swinging strikes thanks to his lively low-90s fastball.
19. Chandler Day, RHP, Watkins HS, Pataskala, Ohio
The 6'4", 167-pound Day is a skinny righthander with lots of projection ahead of him, but he has present stuff with an easy 91-93 mph fastball. Also committed to Vanderbilt.
20. Cole McKay, RHP, Smithson Valley HS, Spring Branch, Texas
McKay has shown a 92-94 mph fastball with good riding life to run in on right-handed hitters. The LSU commit has mixed in a curveball and changeup with impressive potential.
21. Alonzo Jones, 2B/OF, Columbus (Ga.) HS
Jones is one of the fastest players among this year’s high school class, but he’s not just a speedster —he’s thickly built with some strength to go with that blazing speed. Jones is also committed to play at Vanderbilt.
22. Kyler Murray, SS/OF, Allen (Texas) HS
Murray is one of the best athletes and best prospects in this year’s draft class, but scouts aren’t even sure he’ll keep playing baseball after high school. He’s also one of the top quarterback prospects in the country and has signed to play at Texas A&M.
23. Kyle Molnar, RHP, Aliso Niguel HS, Aliso Viejo, Calif.
An athletic pitcher who works to both sides of the plate with a 91-93 mph fastball and a quality breaking ball and changeup, Molnar is one of the more polished pitchers in the class.
24. Dakota Chalmers, RHP, Lakeview Academy, Gainesville, Ga.
Chalmers, a University of Georgia signee, has stuff that got better as the summer heated up. By October, Chalmers was sitting at 91-93 mph while showing excellent control.
25. Luken Baker, 1b/RHP, Oak Ridge HS, Conroe, Texas
Better known as a pitcher despite his plus power at first, the big and thick Baker gets lots of ground balls with a 90-95 mph fastball with plenty of sink. He’s committed to TCU.
The 2015 MLB Draft isn't until June 8-10, but it's never too early to take a look at the next potential crop of impact players. Among the college prospects, defending College World Series champion Vanderbilt leads the way with three Commodores in the top 10. At the top of the list is lefthander Brady Aiken, last year's No. 1 overall pick who didn't sign with Houston. Will Arizona take Aiken first again this June?
1. Brady Aiken, LHP, TBD
We don’t know where Aiken will play this year after last year’s overall No. 1 pick’s deal with the Astros fell through because of elbow concerns. But his arm looks healthy, and he’s got the best pure stuff in the class.
2. Michael Matuella, RHP, Duke
Matuella carries plenty of concerns because he’s taken summers off, and he has a back injury that forced him to sit out fall ball, but he has shown top-five stuff for Duke.
3. Kyle Funkhouser, RHP, Louisville
The ace of Louisville’s College World Series team last year, Funkhouser has big stuff. But befitting someone with his name, his nasty stuff isn’t always easy to control and throw for strikes.
4. Walker Buehler, RHP, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt was so deep that Buehler was the fourth starter on its national championship club last year and now is one of the top pitching prospects in the country.
5. Dansby Swanson, 2B/SS, Vanderbilt
Swanson was arguably the best player in the College World Series last year. Now he gets a chance to move from second to shortstop to quarterback the Commodores’ title defense.
6. Nathan Kirby, LHP, Virginia
Virginia’s aces don’t have a great pro track record yet (Danny Hultzen is the most prominent example), but Kirby is a lefthander with polish and athleticism.
7. Alex Bregman, SS, LSU
The 2013 SEC Freshman of the Year struggled as a sophomore — he hit .316 after a .369 freshman campaign — but has lots of swagger and a track record of hitting.
8. Riley Ferrell, RHP, TCU
Ferrell was a closer who came in to finish off Brandon Finnegan’s starts last year with a 95-100 mph fastball. Now, he will get a chance to start on Friday nights for the Frogs.
9. Kyle Cody, RHP, Kentucky
Cody is a big-bodied (6'7") righthander with a big fastball (93-96 mph). He battled injuries as a sophomore, but a strong summer in the Cape Cod League has scouts very interested.
10. Carson Fulmer, RHP, Vanderbilt
Fulmer served as a moment-of-truth pitcher for the Commodores last year, switching from the pen to the rotation and pitching well as the starter in Vanderbilt’s national championship win. He’s an emotional leader with the results to back it up.
11. Jake Lemoine, RHP, Houston
Unlike most of the pitchers on this list, Lemoine doesn’t really have above-average stuff yet. But thanks to a good body and a very clean delivery, scouts believe he will continue to develop.
12. Ian Happ, OF, Cincinnati
Happ might be able to stick at second base in pro ball, but most scouts believe he’ll move to the outfield. That will hurt his draft value, but his track record of hitting makes him hard to ignore.
13. James Kaprielian, RHP, UCLA
Kaprielian has one of the best breaking balls in the draft class, as he showed repeatedly with Team USA last summer. But he’s got to prove his fastball is good enough to set up his breaking ball.
14. Phil Bickford, RHP, College of Southern Nevada
A first-round pick in 2013 who was erratic as a freshman at Cal State Fullerton, Bickford was better this summer as a reliever in the Cape Cod League. He transferred to a junior college to become draft eligible this summer.
15. Kevin Newman, SS, Arizona
Newman is a typical college shortstop prospect. He may not be able to stick at short in pro ball, but his quality bat and defensive versatility will make him a potential first-round pick.
16. D.J. Stewart, OF, Florida State
Stewart has always hit, and he looks like he could hit for power. But so far he’s been a corner outfielder who doesn’t provide the home run numbers one would expect. He’s got one more year to prove to scouts there’s more thump.
17. Cody Ponce, RHP, Cal Poly Pomona
A Division II righthander, Ponce used the Cape Cod League to rocket onto the national scene by showing a 93-96 mph fastball and a very useful cutter.
18. Gio Brusa, OF, Pacific
Brusa hit for average and power in the Cape Cod League last summer, but he did it with a swing-at-everything approach that scares scouts.
19. Jacob Nix, RHP, TBD
Nix signed with the Astros last summer as a fifth-round pick, but ended up having the contract voided when Brady Aiken didn’t sign. He may have to go to a junior college because of eligibility issues.
20. Richie Martin, SS, Florida
Another well-rounded college shortstop who won’t wow scouts with exceptional tools, but he impresses with his baseball aptitude, athleticism and understanding of the game.
21. Tyler Jay, LHP, Illinois
Jay is an electric, small-bodied, left-handed reliever who had a great summer with Team USA. He’s going to try to start, but can he hold up in that role?
22. Dillon Tate, RHP, UCSB
Tate is an athletic, high-energy reliever who was hitting 97-99 mph for Team USA last summer in short stints.
23. Jon Harris, RHP, Missouri State
Harris showed some versatility for Missouri State, serving as both a weekend starter and a closer during his sophomore season. He should be the club’s ace this spring.
24. Mac Marshall, LHP, Chipola (Fla.) JC
Another of the Astros’ 2014 draft refugees, Marshall ended up not signing when the Astros didn’t sign Aiken and Nix. He’s a lefty with plus stuff and some feel for pitching.
25. Marc Brakeman, RHP, Stanford
Brakeman has largely worked as a reliever at Stanford but will start this spring after striking out 47 batters in 33 innings in the Cape Cod League. He mixes a quality 90-95 mph fastball and an above-average changeup.
The television ratings for the NFL Network's broadcast of the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine were up 60 percent compared to 2010.
In fact, the 2015 rendition will start a day earlier — Friday through Monday — in an effort to continue ratings growth.
People love the underwear Olympics, but for the life of me, I can't figure out why.
Maybe it's football withdrawal, maybe it's fantasy uber-nerds trying to get a leg up on drafts that are six months away or maybe it's simply being able to see a favorite player's face sans gladiator helmet.
But I still can't comprehend what value is gleaned this made-for-TV event. In particular, for NFL decision-makers.
Unless Amari Cooper runs a six-second 40-yard dash or Leonard Williams benches 225 pounds three times or Marcus Mariota can't complete a single pass against air, there won't be any redeeming value to the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine.
Not on the field, at least. In fact, more times than not, the on-field evaluations at Lucas Oil Stadium actually muddy the scouting waters rather than clarify them. Scouts too often value what a prospect does in spandex running in a straight line over three or four seasons' worth of actual football games.
There is tremendous value for head coaches, general managers and scouts who get to sit down and get to know future employees face-to-face. These job interviews are the only aspect of the NFL Combine with any substantial meaning, and, of course, this is the only part of the circus that isn't televised.
Every year the draft is littered with guys who weren't good players in college but impressed at the Combine only to go on to fail miserably in the NFL.
J.J. Watt is a huge dude who is really strong and can run fast, jump high and works really hard. Julio Jones has a massive wing span, tremendous ball skills and elite explosiveness. Aaron Donald has superhuman strength, hands and quickness for a guy of his size.
It doesn't take an expert of NFL scouting to know those guys were elite players and belonged at the top of the draft. No, all you need is two eyeballs and a TV set on Saturdays.
The funny thing about great football players is that they are, well, great. But that doesn't stop NFL franchises — ones that spend a considerable amount of money scouting and drafting players — from making bone-headed decisions in the draft based on how guys perform in their skivvies.
Someone is going to draft Oregon's Arik Armstead in the first round this year.
The former five-star recruit is a 6-foot-7, 290-pound defensive end who projects as a high first-round pick because he's going to look really pretty in shorts and a t-shirt in Indianapolis. Otherwise, there is no reason he should be considered a first-rounder.
The Ducks D-lineman played in 39 games in his three-year career in Eugene and never finished higher than sixth on the team in sacks or 10th in tackles. His career production for one of the best teams in college football: 87 tackles, 10.5 for a loss, 4.0 sacks, two passes broken up and one forced fumble.
Watt posted 61 tackles, 20.5 for a loss, 7.0 sacks, seven passes broken up, three forced fumbles and three blocked kicks in his final season alone at Wisconsin. Armstead is projected to be a top-10 pick — which is higher than Watt was taken in 2011 when Houston made him the 11th overall selection. That's insane.
Armstead is just the next in a long line of combine-induced, head-scratching first-round draft selections.
USC's R. Jay Soward was a first-round pick of the Jaguars in 2000 after glistening with potential at the Combine despite a mediocre college career. He lasted 13 games and caught 14 career passes in the NFL. The Jags also drafted quarterback-turned-wide receiver Matt Jones a few years later only to have that blow up in their face as well. How about John McCargo of the Bills in 2006? He was the third-best member of his own defensive line at NC State and Buffalo traded up to draft a player who would go on to start one NFL game. Darrius Heyward-Bey and Troy Williamson were top-10 picks in 2009 and '05 after speedy 40 times only to prove unworthy of their lofty draft status.
Quickly, who was the sixth overall pick in the 2003 draft that the Saints traded two first-round picks to acquire? Yup, Johnathan Sullivan. He had 1.5 sacks in three NFL seasons.
LSU has featured more than a few first-round Combine busts. JaMarcus Russell is a poster child for why Combine or Pro Day workouts should be taken with a grain of salt. He's literally the biggest bust in NFL history after only one quality season at LSU. That same year, Craig Davis landed in the first round because of his overall speed and quickness. Yet, Davis didn't even start at LSU until his senior year and caught seven career touchdowns in college. He hauled in two career NFL touchdowns in two career NFL starts. Tyson Jackson and Barkevious Mingo largely underachieved in college, dominated the Combine and haven't even proven they can be NFL starters.
Despite not being a first-round pick, my favorite Combine workout warrior is Chris Henry. The Arizona Wildcats running back started three games in college, rushing for 892 yards in four years at a clip of just 3.3 yards per carry. Yet, his freakish combine led the Tennessee Titans to draft Henry 50th overall early in the second round in 2007.
He rushed for 122 yards on 32 career carries in his four-year NFL career.
The lesson should be don't overvalue what takes place this week in Indianapolis. How a player looks in tight shorts or how fast he runs in a straight line or how high/far he can jump standing still in a t-shirt should not supersede how a prospect plays the game.
Again, the funny thing about great players is they are great. You know, on the field, between the lines when the ball is snapped.
Each year, the NFL drafts players in the first round based entirely on the NFL Scouting Combine or Pro Day workouts. To be considered a combine bust a player must fit three criteria:
1. They were average college players
2. They performed well at the combine/Pro Day
3. They are not good NFL players
Here are the top first-round NFL Combine busts of the modern era (1999):
1999: Lamar King, DE, SEA
The pride of Saginaw Valley State posted 12 sacks against the likes of Michigan Tech and Ferris State. But his freakish 6-foot-4, 300-pound frame played extremely well at the Combine. He posted 12 sacks in 37 career NFL starts and was out of the league after just five seasons.
2000: R. Jay Soward, WR JAC
The USC wide receiver was always dripping with potential but was never a star in college. He never improved on a modest sophomore season and busted out of the NFL after just 14 catches in 13 games.
2003: Johnathan Sullivan, DL, NO
The Saints traded not one, but two first-round picks to move up to take this problematic lineman. He was never a star at Georgia but scouts salivated over his 6-foot-3, 315-pound frame at the Combine. Sullivan registered 1.5 sacks in three NFL seasons.
2003: Andre Woolfolk, CB, TEN
The former Sooner was a below-average wide receiver for Oklahoma for three years before moving to corner for his final year. The Titans made the big mistake of taking the bust in the first round just a few picks ahead of Nnamdi Asomugha, Charles Tillman, Rashean Mathis and Drayton Florence. Woolfolk started 12 games in his NFL career.
2005: Troy Williamson, WR, MIN
The Vikings mysteriously drafted this unproductive pass catcher after he ran well at the Combine. He caught 13 total touchdowns in college and never caught more than 43 passes in any season at South Carolina. But Minnesota took him seventh overall anyway. He caught four touchdowns in his five-year career.
2005: Travis Johnson, DT, HOU
He wildly underachieved in three years at Florida State before a solid final campaign. But an impressive showing at the Combine made him the No. 1 DT taken in the 2005 draft. He lasted four years in Houston and two in San Diego, posting six career sacks.
2005: Matt Jones, ATH, JAC
Jones was 30-20 as a starter at quarterback for Arkansas who never topped 2,600 yards of offense in any season. Yet, his freakish upside overshadowed his off-the-field issues and got him drafted in the first round. Jones lasted four years and never caught more than five touchdowns or recorded more than 761 yards receiving in a season.
2006: John McCargo, DL, BUF
He had a huge frame and appealing measurables at the Combine but the Bills made a huge mistake trading up to get this NC Stater. Maybe they thought he was like first-round teammates Mario Williams or Kamerion Wimbley despite lacking any recognition or statistical production. He started one game in his NFL career.
2007: Jamarcus Russell, QB, OAK
He had one solid season at LSU but largely underachieved even in Baton Rouge. Matt Mauck and Matt Flynn led LSU to BCS national titles the year before and after Russell's three-year stint as a starter. Rehashing his NFL career isn't even worth the time. He's arguably (and literally) the biggest bust in NFL history after what experts called the best Pro Day workout in draft history.
2007: Craig Davis, WR, SD
The burner from LSU wasn't even considered a starter for the Tigers until his final season. He caught seven total touchdowns in college before an impressive Combine got him into the first round. He caught two career NFL touchdowns in two career NFL starts.
2007: Chris Henry, RB, TEN
Okay, he wasn't a first-rounder but he is the inspiration for this list. He was a terrible college player, starting three career games in four years and averaging 3.3 yards per carry. He was a Combine beast, posting huge numbers in most events. And he was a garbage NFL player, rushing for 122 yards on 32 career NFL carries.
2008: Kentwan Balmer, DE, SF
Balmer posted just 3.5 sacks in his final year at North Carolina but his Combine numbers got him into the end of the first round in '08. He lasted two seasons with the 49ers and started just 11 times in 46 career NFL games.
2009: Tyson Jackson, DL, KC
He was inconsistent at LSU and never a first-team, all-conference performer but his freakish athletic ability made him the third overall pick. In five years in KC, Jackson posted nine sacks in 55 career starts. He's stuck around but has been anything but a top-five pick.
2009: Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, OAK
Like Jackson, DHB has been a contributor on the NFL level. But nothing about his college career — three seasons between 600 and 800 yards receiving and 13 total touchdowns — should have made him a top-10 pick. But his Combine performance convinced the Raiders to take him seventh overall. He played on his third team in three years in 2014.
2010: Dan Williams, DT, ARI
Williams had a solid senior year at Tennessee but was never a star for the Vols. He's never started more than 11 games in any season and has just two career starts for the Cardinals. In 2014, he played in all 16 games for the first time in his NFL career.
2011: Danny Watkins, OL, PHI
The 23rd overall pick from Baylor started for two modest years in Waco. His bullish frame and quick feet got him drafted in the first round but the Eagles quickly found out how big a mistake that was, cutting him after just two seasons. He played one more year in Miami before retiring from football.
2013: Barkevious Mingo, DE, CLE
Mingo was dripping with potential his entire career at LSU but never delivered. He averaged less than 40 tackles per season with 5.0 sacks per year in three campaigns in Baton Rouge. His potential once again tricked the scouts at the Combine, as he ended up being the sixth overall pick in the '13 draft. He's started 14 games in two years and has 7.0 sacks. There is still plenty of time for him to develop.
2013: D.J. Hayden, CB, OAK
Hayden was a solid player for Houston in a much-less-competitive Conference USA. But the reason he was drafted unreasonably high (12th) was his pro day performance. Hayden has started 10 games in two seasons and has fewer tackles than 18 other defensive backs and fewer interceptions than 13 taken after him in the '13 draft.
The SEC in general is regarded as the nation’s most football-mad conference. That much is true, but no longer is that coming at the expense of basketball.
Football coaches in the league generally will have among the highest salaries in the country and the most tools at their disposal to contend for national championships.
Outside of Kentucky, basketball hasn’t been as much of a consistent priority.
All it takes to see that this is changing is a quick peek at Auburn. The Tigers have one of the top football coaches in the league in Gus Malzahn, arguably the best offensive mind in the SEC. Now, they have one of the top basketball coaches.
After rolling the dice on Jeff Lebo and Tony Barbee, Auburn went with a proven winner in the SEC and a big-time personality in Bruce Pearl. That move gives Auburn the best one-two coaching punch in the SEC.
The goal of our coach tandem rankings is to look at each football and basketball duo as a pair. In general, we’re looking at the duos most likely to keep each school’s fans happy and entertained from the start of football season through the end of basketball season.
So even though Alabama has a great football coach and Kentucky has a great basketball coach, their counterparts on the other side of the athletic department are working to pick up the slack — with varying degrees of success.
Football: Gus Malzahn | Basketball: Bruce Pearl
During the course of two seasons, Auburn made two hires that changed the trajectory of its football and basketball program. Football had been relatively consistent back to the Pat Dye era, but it was clear Malzahn and his up-tempo, run-oriented offense brought something special to the Tigers. He was the offensive coordinator of the 2010 championship team and took Auburn back to the title game in the first season after his return in 2013. The ascent won’t be as rapid for the basketball program under Pearl, who has reached the Sweet 16 or better in four of his last seven seasons as head coach. Still, he’s brought in elite recruits and already has Auburn basketball fans following his cult of personality.
Football: Mark Stoops | Basketball: John Calipari
Calipari has simply led the Kentucky basketball program to an undefeated start this season — and that’s on the heels of an appearance in the national championship game. Simply put, no one in the game is better at recruiting top talent, and he may never get the credit he deserves in managing the egos of players who are one step away from the NBA Draft lottery. The football program is a tougher sell, but Stoops is doing good work. Stoops signed a top-25 class in 2014 and kept the 2015 class respectable. Kentucky improved from 2-10 to 5-7 in Stoops’ second season and could have been bowl eligible if not for close calls with Florida and Louisville.
Football: Bret Bielema | Basketball: Mike Anderson
Say this about Arkansas’ coaching duo: They create a clear identity. Bielema knows exactly what he wants to do with his program — build a punishing run game behind an imposing offensive line. That led to a surprising turnaround in his second season with the Hogs, going from 3-9 to 7-6 in 2014. Anderson has a similar identity with the 40 Minutes of Hell inspired by his mentor Nolan Richardson. The turnaround has been a little slower for Anderson, though this will be his best season — and first NCAA appearance — in four years at Arkansas.
4. South Carolina
Football: Steve Spurrier | Basketball: Frank Martin
We liked this duo a little more a year ago. At that point, Spurrier had South Carolina on a streak of three consecutive 11-win seasons and top-10 finishes. On the basketball side, Martin deserved the benefit of the doubt as he tried to revive South Carolina’s moribund basketball program. History still says these guys will figure it out, but this has not been a great year for South Carolina’s football and men’s basketball programs. Six combined conference wins makes this a year to forget.
Football: Nick Saban | Basketball: Anthony Grant
Saban has few peers in college football coaching. In a ranking of football coaches alone, Saban would be at or near the top, depending on where Ohio State’s Urban Meyer fits. Basketball is another story. Grant arrived at Alabama as one of the hot young coaches in the sport after his tenure at VCU. The Crimson Tide, though, have been inconsistent on the court despite talented rosters. One NCAA Tournament appearance in six seasons might not be enough for Grant to stay in Tuscaloosa.
Football: Jim McElwain | Basketball: Billy Donovan
The Spurrier-Donovan and Meyer-Donovan duos were among the best tandems in the country. The constant has been Donovan, who is having an uncharacteristically subpar season after three Elite Eights and a Final Four. That said, he should win 500 career games by the time he’s 50. McElwain’s track record as a head coach is only three years long, but he took Colorado State from four wins to eight to 10.
7. Ole Miss
Football: Hugh Freeze | Basketball: Andy Kennedy
Freeze has led Ole Miss on a steady rise on the football field from seven wins to eight to nine. The latest season was not a hollow nine wins by any means as the Rebels were ranked as high as No. 3 and reached one of the coveted Playoff contract bowl slots in the Peach Bowl. Meanwhile, Kennedy has been Ole Miss for nine years, hard to believe as it is. He finally got over the NIT hump in 2013 with a trip to the NCAA round of 32. He should lead Ole Miss to the second NCAA berth of his tenure this season.
8. Texas A&M
Football: Kevin Sumlin | Basketball: Billy Kennedy
Sumlin has proven that Texas A&M will be a factor in the SEC and in recruiting. He’s delivered upsets of No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Auburn, a Heisman trophy and a top-10 finish — yet overall his teams are 13-11 in the SEC. Kennedy has yet to deliver a 20-win season to the Aggies in four seasons in basketball. If that doesn’t change this year, it probably will next season when the Aggies add a highly touted signing class.
Football: Les Miles | Basketball: Johnny Jones
Perhaps no coaching duo in the country causes more high blood pressure among its fans. Miles’ teams have won 10 more games in four of the last five seasons, but end-of-game situations have been — shall we say — dramatic. Jones’ teams have had the talent to go toe-to-toe with teams like Kentucky, but they’ve been susceptible to puzzling losses during the last two seasons. LSU’s conference record in football has declined every year since 2011, and the basketball program has yet to reach the NCAA Tournament under Jones.
Football: Mark Richt | Basketball: Mark Fox
The Marks make up the longest-tenured football/basketball tandem in the SEC with 19 seasons combined. They’ve also been the victim of a little bad luck in recent years. Richt has watched key injuries claim some of his top players on offense (though his team won 18 games the last two seasons anyway), and Fox watched players unexpectedly leave early for the NBA Draft (though his team should reach the NCAA Tournament this season). Georgia football hasn’t won an SEC title since 2005, and Georgia basketball hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2002.
11. Mississippi State
Football: Dan Mullen | Basketball: Rick Ray
Mullen enjoyed a breakout last season, taking a consistent bowl team to College Football Playoff contention. Mullen was already the first Mississippi State coach to go to four consecutive bowl games before going 10-3 and reaching the Orange Bowl last season. Ray has a major rebuild on his hands with the basketball program, but the Bulldogs have already eclipsed last year’s SEC win total (from three to five) and could pass their overall win total (14) from his first season.
Football: Gary Pinkel | Basketball: Kim Anderson
Since 2007, Pinkel has led Missouri to two Big 12 championship games and two SEC championship games. The Tigers are 0-4 in title games, but Mizzou’s status as an overachiever in both conferences under Pinkel is ironclad. Missouri isn’t a recruiting powerhouse by any means, but the Tigers have been competitive with the powers in two conferences at the top of their games. In basketball, Anderson gets an incomplete grade at best. Coming from Division II, Anderson was a questionable hire to begin with, and his first roster at Mizzou is hardly SEC-ready.
Football: Butch Jones | Basketball: Donnie Tyndall
For the first time since Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee may have a football coach who will stick. Jones delivered the Volunteers’ first winning season since 2009 and picked up major momentum in recruiting during the last two cycles. Optimism is at a high point, but the Volunteers are still seeking their first winning conference season since 2007. Tyndall, a standout coach at the mid-major level, has done fine work with a rebuilding basketball team in his first season, but NCAA issues from Southern Miss are following him in Knoxville.
Football: Derek Mason | Basketball: Kevin Stallings
Mason has the unfortunate task of following up James Franklin at a place that just started to get used to competing in the SEC. Mason went 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the SEC in his debut season and immediately shuffled his coaching staff. Stallings is the second-longest tenured basketball coach in the league after Donovan and is generally regarded as one of the league’s best minds. Yet since the Jeffery Taylor/John Jenkins/Festus Ezeli class left, Vanderbilt is 19-29 in the SEC in three seasons.
Michigan freshman basketball player Austin Hatch will receive the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Most Courageous Award for 2015 for his perseverance in the face of unthinkable adversity.
If you haven’t heard about Hatch’s background, you should. It’s been one of the most inspiring stories of the basketball season.
Hatch survived two separate plane crashes over the course of eight years, but lost members of his immediate family in both. Four years ago, after the second plane crash, Hatch spent two months in a coma with a traumatic brain injury.
After intensive rehab, Hatch eventually enrolled at Michigan where John Beilein honored his scholarship. He’s played in four games this season.
When Hatch was 8, he and his father survived a plane crash that claimed the life of his mother, older sister and younger brother. In 2011, after Hatch’s commitment to Michigan, Hatch was involved in another plane crash that claimed the life of his father and stepmother.
Hatch has shared his story several times this season. It’s worth your time to check it out:
Here’s a clip from Hatch’s first appearance in an exhibition game against Wayne State:
Projecting how high school athletes might perform on the college and pro level is difficult enough.
Now, Rivals.com will monitor at least two sixth graders for the first time in the history of the site.
In a post last week about a camp in Boston for middle school athletes, Rivals mentioned Tyson Thornton of Springfield, Mass., and Daron Bryden of Enfield, Conn., will be the first sixth grade prospects the site will “actively monitor.”
Monitoring eighth graders isn’t new for Rivals. The site is tracking as many as 15 eighth graders, but no seventh graders, according to SI.com. Even colleges have been known to take commitments from prospects as young as 13 or 14, even though they can’t by rule hand out written scholarship offers until the start of their senior years.
Sixth graders — that’s the class of 2021, by the way — is new and questionable ground.
Just as a point of clarity, let’s point out that the two sixth graders were moved up at the camp to compete with the eighth graders, so at least in the eyes of the NextGen Boston organizers, these kids are ahead of the curve. And Thornton is a 5-foot-11, 167-pound sixth grader.
But Bryden is a 5-foot-2 quarterback. By “actively monitor,” does Rivals intend on charting the kids’ growth spurts in real time? How often will Rivals recruiting analysts be in touch with middle school kids (or parents)?
Bryden actually has a pretty interesting story. Both his mother and father are deaf, though he and his siblings are not. Bryden also appeared on “Kids Do the Darndest Things” when he beat NFL quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in an accuracy competition.
But this is all pretty weird, right? Covering 11-year-olds as recruiting athletes or college or pro prospects is a little overboard isn’t helpful to anybody, is it?
The perennial All-Star and reigning NBA MVP blasted All-Star reporters in New York City. After hearing a question he didn’t like about Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks’ job security — a favorite topic of NBA analysts — Durant scolded the media. From Darnell Mayberry of NewsOK.com:
“You guys really don’t know (expletive)… To be honest, man, I’m only here talking to y’all because I have to. So I really don’t care. Y’all not my friends. You’re going to write what you want to write. You’re going to love us one day and hate us the next. That’s a part of it. So I just learn how to deal with y’all.”
Durant went on to reveal much of his humanity:
“I'm 26 years old so I'm in my mid-20s, almost to 30. My first few years in the league I was just finding myself. I think most of the time I reacted based off of what everybody else wanted and how they viewed me as a person. And I'm just learning to be myself and not worry about what anybody says. I'm going to make mistakes. I just want to show kids out here that athletes, entertainers, whoever, so-called celebrities, we aren't robots. We go through emotions. We go through feelings. And I'm just trying to express mine and trying to help people along the way. But I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I'm just this guy that got programmed to say the right stuff all the time and politically correct answers. I'm done with that. I'm just trying to be me and continue to grow as a man.”
Transparency has been a big buzz word of all things Internet Era, and athletes like Durant and Lynch are using an increasingly informed, increasingly accessible audience to break down the athlete archetype of the strong, docile, well-meaning and silent type. It’ll be interesting to keep watching K.D.’s celebrity evolution.
— John Wilmes
A year ago, there were a lot of questions about Kyle Larson’s readiness and ability. Was he too young, at age 21, to drive in Sprint Cup? Did his track record — he was winless in the Nationwide Series — warrant a promotion? Was owner Chip Ganassi being too aggressive bumping veteran Juan Pablo Montoya, especially considering that his top prospect didn’t even sit in a stock car until 2012?
It took just five races for the rookie to change the narrative entirely. At Fontana, Larson nearly swept both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup events, falling one position short of his first Cup win. From there, it was like a gun went off; Larson sped through the field like a bullet train while positioning himself as NASCAR’s next big superstar. It seems silly, in hindsight, to have ever possessed any doubt about his capability.
Related: Q&A with Kyle Larson
Simply earning top freshman honors, for which Larson bested a crowded field of eight, was the main goal for 2014. Now, he looks like a shoo-in for the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup and the driver who can transform Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR operation.
Answering those doubts seemed to motivate Larson. “There was a lot of room on the Kyle Larson bandwagon to start (last season),” he said in November. “I think a lot of people chose Austin Dillon to win (Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year), and I was pretty confident in myself and in my team that we could do it.”
Larson won the award on the strength of eight top-5 finishes and 17 top 10s, besting Dillon by 88 points in the final standings. He finished second three times in 2014 and was oh-so-close to winning a race.
“I kind of set out as a goal to be a top-15 car all season, and I noticed right from the start of the season we’d be a top-10 car most races,” he says. “I changed the goals a little bit to run top 10 every race, and now, the way things are going, you want to be top 5.”
Larson shined the most once the Chase got underway. He missed qualifying for the title fight by just a few points but clicked off three top-5 finishes and six top 10s in the 10-race span to close the year. How impressive was the postseason? Had Larson qualified, he would have advanced all the way to NASCAR’s Round of 8.
All told, it was a sterling rookie debut, filled with momentum that should carry into 2015. Larson played a huge role in the success of the No. 42 and placed as the highest-achieving non-Chase driver in the season-ending point standings.
Perhaps most important, Larson’s racing style rarely brought criticism from the sport’s veteran driving corps, a group known for repudiating the ways of successful rookies.
Larson’s most successful tracks in 2014 were the 1.5- and 2-mile speedways that make up the majority of the schedule. His first win will come soon, possibly by the tour’s return to Auto Club Speedway on March 22. A Chase bid will follow, making him an intriguing postseason player. In just a year, he’s gone from question mark to unquestioned contender.
Reliable passer Larson ranked fourth in the series in adjusted pass efficiency in 2014 (53.13 percent) and first in efficiency at the quad-oval tracks, encompassing Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte and Atlanta, with a 54.22 percent mark.
Big gainer He averaged a finish better than his average running position on all track types except short tracks. At tracks 1.0-1.49 miles in length, he averaged a finish 3.6 positions better than where he typically ran.
Martinsville is the worst The sweeping high banks Larson enjoys at bigger tracks don’t exist at Martinsville, where he struggled in 2014, finishing 27th and 30th.
Not a leader Larson’s 53 laps led were paltry and reflected his output in smaller divisions. He led only 64 laps during a title-winning 2012 season in the NASCAR K&N East and just 102 laps in the Nationwide Series in 2013.
No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Primary Sponsor: Target
Owner: Chip Ganassi
Crew Chief: Chris Heroy
Year With Current Team: 2nd
Under Contract Through: 2017
Best Points Finish: 17th (2014)
Hometown: Elk Grove, Calif.
Born: July 31, 1992
|Years||Starts||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s||Poles||Titles||Earned|
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Kyle Larson won the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year, wheeling his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet SS to a higher top-10 finish rate (47.2 percent) than what Richard Petty (42.9) and Jeff Gordon (36.7) did during their freshman seasons in the sport’s most grueling division. In advance of his highly anticipated sophomore campaign, the 22-year-old racer sat down with Athlon Sports for an exclusive interview, discussing his dirt racing background, his strengths and weaknesses and the critics who questioned his rapid rise to the Cup Series.
Who was your biggest racing influence?
Probably my dad. He was the one that got me into this. He built me my first go-kart. He didn’t race at all; he was just a huge fan growing up. He grew up a couple of doors down from (two-time Knoxville, Iowa, Raceway Sprint Car champion) Tim Green. He’d go to West Capital Raceway (Calif.) when he was a kid. He met my mom when they were teenagers and got her into liking racing too.
In your first full season of stock car racing, you won the championship in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, widely considered NASCAR’s top developmental division. We’ve heard stories that you constantly picked everyone’s brain about this type of car while you were there. It seems like you worked awfully hard for someone perceived to be an overnight success.
Well in my eyes, I don’t know that I did, but I guess if that’s what is being said, then I probably was. I worry about the way cars drive more than the parts and pieces that go onto them. That first year, I hardly even led laps. I just tried to take everything in. I watched other young guys like Corey LaJoie, Brett Moffitt, Chase Elliott and Darrell Wallace Jr. and learned from them, because they all grew up racing stock cars. I learned a lot just driving behind them. I was just trying to adapt quickly.
Across your three years in stock cars, you haven’t led much despite having strong average finish records. Do you prefer playing from behind?
Oh, trust me, I wish I could lead all the laps and have the most dominant car. I think a big reason for not leading is because I’m a better long-run driver than short-run driver. Even though I’m not exactly trying to, I feel I take care of my tires early in runs, and then I’m able to pick spots off toward the end of them. Last year I felt like every time I was close to the lead it was time for green-flag stops or a caution came out. I think short-run speed takes experience. In Nationwide, I felt I was better on short runs in my second year than I was in my first.
As a rookie, you ranked fourth in adjusted pass efficiency (53.13 percent) in the Cup Series in 2014 while ranking first specifically on the fast intermediates (54.22 percent). Becoming that efficient usually takes drivers years. What has allowed you to become such a nuanced passer?
Understanding how the air works when you’re behind people, and trying to find clean air helps to pass, especially on the intermediates. I think that’s why it comes so easy there. Intermediates relate to 3/8- or half-mile dirt tracks. Winged sprint cars really helped me understand how dirty air works. You have that big wing on top that’s sticking up and punching a huge pocket into the air, and you have to find ways to keep good air on your wing so your car handles right. I’m glad I grew up racing the kind of cars I did, because it taught me to not waste time when you’re behind someone on the track.
There was a lot of interest in your driving services prior to 2011. What made Ganassi the most appealing option?
To me, I thought Chip (Ganassi) was the most excited about me coming into the organization. He didn’t have any development drivers at the time, and the other teams did. He had a plan for me. And even though their cars weren’t the greatest when I signed, you could see that they were getting better. I signed in 2011 and thought that if I got to Cup in 2015, I’d be in a great spot. I got to Cup earlier than I expected it, but now I feel like it was the perfect time.
Your crew chief, Chris Heroy, went from Juan Pablo Montoya, a driver with a seemingly rigid handling tolerance, to you, someone who can conceivably thrive regardless of a car’s setup. How do you feel the dynamic between you and Chris has improved?
It improved a lot. Even though we tested together in 2013, I came from a way different background than he did, and especially what Juan did. It took about six races … the terms I used to describe how the car was handling were different. At Phoenix (in March), I was really loose to start the race and he asked me to give him a 1 to 10 number on how loose I was. I told him I don’t like numbers, because my 7 might be different than his 7. I just want to get the car close (to my liking), and I’ll drive it. I feel like there are veteran drivers that worry too much about how well their car is handling and it gets in their head. I just feel like once you start the race, that’s what you’ve got. In stock cars, lines change during the race. I choose to focus more on moving around to find extra grip and a line that works for my car.
The short tracks were the only track type where you did not average a finish better than where you ran. Why do you feel a track like Martinsville presented such a challenge?
Martinsville is my worst racetrack, by far. I think it’s because in Sprint Cars, you might go race at a quarter-mile racetrack, but you’re still going to carry a ton of momentum into the corner. Martinsville is totally backwards from what I grew up learning. There, I almost come to a stop and try to get the car pointed before driving to the other end of the track. At mile-and-a-halfs, you try to carry a lot of momentum into the corner. That’s why I’m better there. Tracks like Martinsville and Richmond don’t really suit me that well because I have to use a lot of braking and slow down a lot. I’m sure I’ll get better over the years, but I’m definitely struggling at those places right now.
If you could have one race from 2014 to do over, which one would it be and what would you do differently?
The first Michigan race. We were really strong, and at the end we played fuel strategy right to where when we had to make a stop, we wouldn’t have to put a full fuel load in, making our pit stop quicker. Well, the stop before that, I sped on pit road and got penalized — I had to go to the back (of the field). Had I not sped, I would’ve had that track position, and we would’ve had a quicker stop than Jimmie Johnson’s team did. I don’t know if I would have won, but it would have been a really good chance to get a win.
There were many in the industry who felt you weren’t ready for the Cup Series when your promotion was announced in the fall of 2013. Do you feel now that you were ready back then?
Definitely. I’ve been “too young” everywhere I’ve raced. I knew there would be doubters. I was confident in myself that I could come out here and compete. I did it in go-karts when I was eight and did it in sprint cars when I was 14 and racing against 50-year-olds. I felt like I showed them that I belonged. I’m glad I did. I did an interview early last year with Darrell Waltrip, and he asked whether I thought I’d picked a bad year to come out as a rookie because I was going up against Austin Dillon. I laughed to myself because I was pretty confident that I would beat him.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Incoming freshmen usually steal the spotlight on college football’s signing day, but there’s no shortage of intrigue and potential surrounding the junior college recruits that may have inked signed in December.
While the transition from junior college to the FBS level is challenging, prospects already have at least one year of playing experience and are usually recruited to fill a specific void for the upcoming season.
The 2015 recruiting haul of junior college prospects is no exception, as several key transfers are headed to the SEC, with Auburn’s Jovon Robinson expected to be an impact performer. Outside of the SEC, Penn State tackle Paris Palmer, Florida State’s Lorenzo Phillips and USC receiver De’Quan Hampton are other names to watch.
Here’s a quick look at some of the key impact junior college recruits for 2015:
15 Impact Junior College Transfers for 2015
Tony Bridges, CB, Ole Miss
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 7 Overall, No. 1 CB
The Rebels had one of the stingiest pass defenses in the SEC last season, limiting opponents to just 12 touchdown passes and 192.1 yards per game. This unit has some offseason work ahead, as standout cornerback Senquez Golson and safety Cody Prewitt have expired their eligibility. Golson’s ball skills will be missed after he recorded 10 interceptions and eight pass breakups last year. Bridges was a late flip to Ole Miss from Auburn, and the 6-foot-2 defensive back arrives in Oxford after earning NJCAA first-team All-America honors in 2014.
Chris Carson, RB, Oklahoma State
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 23 Overall, No. 4 RB
Carson was a late flip from Georgia to Oklahoma State, and the Georgia native should be an instant-impact performer for the Cowboys. With three quarterbacks receiving snaps under center and a revamped offensive line, 2014 was a transition year for Oklahoma State’s offense. The Cowboys averaged only 121.7 rushing yards per game in Big 12 action. With Desmond Roland (770 yards) out of eligibility, combined with the dismissal of Tyreek Hill (534 yards), Rennie Childs (294 yards) is the team’s top option at running back. Expect Carson to at least earn a split of the carries in 2015, as his 6-foot-2 frame should add some punch to the rushing attack.
Davon Durant, LB, Arizona State
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 6 Overall, No. 1 ILB
Arizona State’s defense returns largely intact next season, but Durant is expected to carve out meaningful playing time in coach Todd Graham’s aggressive scheme. Durant is expected to push for time at the Devilbacker position (defensive end/linebacker hybrid) in 2015, but even if he doesn’t start there, the South Carolina native will carve out snaps somewhere in the linebacking corps and add depth to a unit that already features Viliami Moeakiola, Salamo Fiso and Antonio Longino. Durant played in five games at Butler Community College in 2014 and recorded 45 tackles and three sacks.
Justin Evans, S, Texas A&M
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 29 Overall, No. 3 S
It’s no secret Texas A&M needs to upgrade its defense in order to win the SEC West. The Aggies took a big step towards that goal by hiring John Chavis away from LSU to coordinate the defense, and coach Kevin Sumlin also reeled in another elite class to upgrade the talent. Evans will have an opportunity to earn immediate playing time this season after the Aggies allowed 15 passing scores in SEC play. The Mississippi native intercepted six passes over the last two years at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and earned first-team All-MACJC honors in 2014.
Devonte Fields, DE, Louisville
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 5 Overall, No. 1 WDE
Fields is easily the most accomplished player on this list. The Texas native had a standout freshman campaign at TCU in 2012, earning AP Big 12 Defensive Player of the year honors after recording 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for a loss. After an off-field incident prior to 2014, Fields was dismissed from TCU and landed at Trinity Valley Community College. Last season, Fields appeared in 12 games and recorded 6.5 sacks. With Lorenzo Mauldin and B.J. Dubose out of eligibility, Louisville is counting on Fields to help keep the pass rush near the top of the ACC. Fields has potential to earn All-ACC honors in 2015.
De’Quan Hampton, WR, USC
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 13 Overall, No. 2 WR
High expectations surround USC in 2015, and the Trojans could be a national title contender if all of the pieces fall into place. One area coach Steve Sarkisian will be watching this spring is the receiving corps. Top target Nelson Agholor left for the NFL after grabbing 104 receptions in 2014. JuJu Smith is back after a standout freshman campaign (54 catches), but quarterback Cody Kessler needs a No. 2 and No. 3 target to emerge. Could Hampton – a 6-foot-4 physical target – be one of the answers? Kessler and Sarkisian certainly hope Hampton can help ease the departure of Agholor, while teaming with Smith, fellow junior college recruit Isaac Whitney and Darreus Rogers to keep USC’s passing offense performing at a high level.
D.J. Jones, DT, Ole Miss
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 4 Overall, No. 1 DT
The Rebels have upgraded their talent and overall depth up front in recent years, and coach Hugh Freeze and line coach Chris Kiffin appear to have another standout coming to Oxford in Jones. The South Carolina native spent two years at East Mississippi Community College and recorded 12 sacks in that span. At 310 pounds, Jones has the size to push for snaps on the interior, which should help to spell Robert Nkemdiche and Issac Gross. Look for Jones to be a disruptive force for Ole Miss in 2015.
Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 2 Overall, No. 2 RB
Coach Butch Jones continues to elevate the talent level in Knoxville, and the 2015 signing class could feature a handful of impact newcomers. One of the top names to watch is Kamara, as the former Alabama running back should team with sophomore Jalen Hurd to form one of the top one-two backfield combinations in the SEC next year. Kamara redshirted at Alabama in 2013 and spent 2014 at Hutchinson Community College. In his only year in the junior college ranks, Kamara rushed for 1,211 yards and 18 scores.
Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 37 Overall, No. 1 QB
If the Rebels can find an answer at quarterback, coach Hugh Freeze’s team certainly has the talent to win the SEC West next year. Kelly redshirted at Clemson in 2012 and played in five games with the Tigers in 2013. The New York native was dismissed in the spring of 2014 and landed at East Mississippi Community College. Kelly threw for 3,906 yards and 47 scores last season in the junior college ranks. The 6-foot-3 quarterback had an off-field incident in December, but assuming he stays out of trouble, Kelly has a good chance to start the opener against UT Martin.
Jeremiah Ledbetter, DT, Arkansas
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 18 Overall, No. 2 DT
Coach Bret Bielema has Arkansas headed in the right direction, and the Razorbacks should take a step forward in the win column in 2015. Coordinator Robb Smith was one of the SEC’s top assistant hires last season, as Arkansas’ defense made steady gains throughout the year. Smith will have his work cut out for him in the spring, especially up front where end Trey Flowers and defensive tackle Darius Philon are off to the NFL. Ledbetter was an active defensive lineman at Hutchinson Community College the last two seasons, recording 22.5 career sacks and second-team NJCAA All-American honors in 2014. He should help soften the blow of Philon’s early departure to the NFL.
Marquavius Lewis/Dante Sawyer, DE, South Carolina
247Sports Composite Rank: Lewis: No. 3 Overall, No. 1 DE, Sawyer: No. 16 Overall, No. 2 WDE
South Carolina’s defense is looking for answers after allowing 6.2 yards per play and giving up 36.8 points per game (SEC-only contests) in 2014. Coach Steve Spurrier adjusted the coaching staff to provide help, hiring Jon Hoke to team with Lorenzo Ward as co-defensive coordinators. The Gamecocks also dipped into the junior college ranks by bringing in Sawyer and Lewis. Both players are expected to help jumpstart an anemic pass rush that registered only eight sacks in SEC play last season. Lewis recorded 18.5 sacks in two years at Hutchinson Community College.
Paris Palmer, OT, Penn State
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 12 Overall, No. 2 OT
Improving the offensive line is expected to be the biggest area of focus for coach James Franklin and line coach Herb Hand this spring. The Nittany Lions allowed 44 sacks last season and had their scoring average drop from 28.7 in 2013 to 20.6 in 2014. Adding to the preseason concerns for this unit was the departure of left tackle Donovan Smith to the NFL. Palmer is expected to help ease the loss of Smith and strengthen the line at one of the tackle spots after playing two years at Lackawanna College.
Lorenzo Phillips, LB, Florida State
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 17 Overall, No. 1 OLB
Florida State’s defense has to room to improve after allowing 5.5 yards per play last season. The Seminoles enter spring with a few question marks, starting up front with the departure of tackle Eddie Goldman and end Mario Edwards Jr., while the linebacking corps dealt with numerous injuries last season. Linebacker Reggie Northrup’s availability for the 2015 season is also in question due to a torn ACL. Playing time in the front seven is certainly available for Phillips, as the Louisiana native is an instant-impact recruit for the Seminoles. In 2014, Phillips recorded 14 sacks and 18.5 tackles for a loss at East Mississippi Community College. Phillips won’t arrive until the summer, but he has potential to help in the front seven as an edge rusher.
Martinas Rankin, OT, Mississippi State
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 9 Overall, No. 1 OT
Mississippi State returns one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in senior Dak Prescott, but the line loses three starters, including left tackle Blaine Clausell. However, the Bulldogs may not see a drop in performance by the offensive line if Rankin is able to secure a starting spot this offseason. The Mississippi native enrolled in time to compete in the spring after earning All MACJC honors in 2014. At 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, Rankin already has the size needed to compete right away in the brutal SEC West.
Jovon Robinson, RB, Auburn
247Sports Composite Rank: No. 1 Overall, No. 1 RB
Robinson originally committed out of high school to Auburn but was ruled ineligible after a guidance counselor at his high school (Wooddale) changed one his grades to help the running back qualify in 2012. Robinson was the NJCAA player of the year in 2013 after rushing for 2,387 yards and 34 scores. With Cameron Artis-Payne, Nick Marshall and Corey Grant departing, the Roc Thomas (214 yards) and Peyton Barber (54) are the top returning options at running back. Robinson is expected to win the starting job and push for 1,000 yards for coach Gus Malzahn’s high-powered offense in 2015.
Other Key JUCO Transfers to Watch in 2015
Chase Abbington, RB, Missouri
Cory Butler, DB, Utah
Johnathan Calvin, DL, Mississippi State
Malik Cuellar, OL, Missouri
Jeremy Cutrer, S, LSU
Jamal Danley, OL, Oklahoma
Allen Edwards, DL, Pittsburgh
Anthony Fotu, DL, Arizona
Marcell Frazier, DL, Missouri
Donald Gray, WR, Mississippi State
Paul Harris, WR, Louisville
Brandon Hodges, OT, Texas
Tyler Howell, OL, Missouri
Khalil Hunter, OL, Louisville
William Johnson, CB, Oklahoma
Traver Jung, LB, Mississippi State
Shalom Luani, S, Washington State
Justin Martin, CB, Tennessee
Kameron Miles, S, Boise State
Nehemiah Mitchell, DE/LB, Vanderbilt
Camion Patrick, WR, Indiana
Aaron Porter, LB, Washington State
Maurice Porter, OT, Baylor
Dominique Reed, WR, Arkansas
DeVondre Seymour, OT, Georgia
Jason Smith, QB/ATH, Auburn
Jeremy Smith, RB, Louisville
Maurice Swain, DT, Auburn
Jonathan Taylor, DT, Alabama
Demond Tucker, DT, Iowa State
Quincy Vasser, DL, Texas
Isaac Whitney, WR, USC
The Big 12 academic year has been an experiment in contrasts in recent years.
In football, new powers have taken over with Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State claiming championships since 2011.
Yet in basketball, the old guard — the only true blue blood in the league — continues to rule as Kansas appears headed to its 11th consecutive Big 12 title.
It makes sense, then, that of the top football-basketball coaching tandems on our list, one comes from a traditional power and the other comes from a new-age contender.
Oklahoma tops our list even after a lackluster football season by Bob Stoops’ standards. The Sooners, in general, are contenders in both football and men’s basketball under Stoops and Lon Kruger, respectively.
That said, Baylor is quickly gaining. Art Briles has claimed the last two Big 12 football titles, and basketball coach Scott Drew looks to have one of the better teams of his tenure, only a year after reaching the Sweet 16.
Indeed, these are strange times in the Big 12 when Baylor — a non-factor in both sports a decade ago — is pressing to have the most competitive program in an academic year.
The goal of our coach tandem rankings is to look at each football and basketball duo as a pair. In general, we’re looking at the duos most likely to keep each school’s fans happy and entertained from the start of football season through the end of basketball season.
That means it may look at little strange to see a top football coach or top basketball coach near the bottom of the rankings. That’s nothing against, say, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self. Rather, the football side is the one that has to kick it up a notch to at least give Jayhawks fans something to cheer in September and October before basketball season rolls around.
Football: Bob Stoops | Basketball: Lon Kruger
Even though Stoops is coming off an 8-5 campaign, the most disappointing since he’s been a head coach, Oklahoma has the most solid coaching duo in the league. Stoops has won at least 10 games in four of the last five seasons and made more BCS games than any other coach under the old system. Kruger, whose forte is rebuilding programs, has completed his reclamation of OU basketball with his best team this season. No program is more likely to be in a major bowl game and the NCAA Tournament in the same season as Oklahoma.
Football: Art Briles | Basketball: Scott Drew
The year before Briles was hired, Baylor football was riding 12 consecutive losing seasons. When Drew was hired, Baylor was emerging from one of the biggest scandals in college basketball history. It’s tough to find a duo who improved their school’s situation more from the day they were hired until 2015. Briles had Baylor on the verge of the College Football Playoff and won the last two Big 12 titles. And Drew has twice taken Baylor basketball to the Elite Eight and once to the Sweet 16.
3. Kansas State
Football: Bill Snyder | Basketball: Bruce Weber
Kansas State failed to sign a top 50 recruiting class in 2015, but that doesn’t matter. We’ll end up talking about the Wildcats as a top 10 team at some point anyway. That’s the deal for Snyder, whose teams have been the biggest overachievers in college football. Weber’s team has fallen below expectations this season, but he’s still two years removed from a 27-win season and a share of the Big 12 title.
Football: Gary Patterson | Basketball: Trent Johnson
In only TCU’s third season in the Big 12, the Horned Frogs won a share of the league and were in playoff contention until the final week of the season. Most of all, Patterson deserves credit for altering his offensive philosophy for a 12-1 season in 2014, not an easy ask for any coach who had already been wildly successful earlier in his career with two BCS bowls out of the Mountain West. Johnson, who took both Nevada and Stanford to the Sweet 16, has an uphill battle with TCU’s neglected basketball program, but the Frogs’ 14 wins this season is the most of his tenure.
Football: Charlie Strong | Basketball: Rick Barnes
Is there any reason why Texas shouldn’t have the best coaching tandem in the league? Not long ago, Texas indeed had one of the top duos. From 2003-05, the Longhorns reached a Final Four and won a football title under Mack Brown and Barnes. Now, both programs are in a state of flux. Strong is entering Year Two of his project to return the Longhorns to national contention. Barnes has reached the NCAA Tournament in 15 of 16 seasons at Texas, but this season is shaping up to be another disappointing campaign. Barnes’ preseason top 10 team is flirting with a losing record in the Big 12.
6. Oklahoma State
Football: Mike Gundy | Basketball: Travis Ford
Are either Gundy or Ford the most accomplished coaches at their individual sports in the Big 12? No. But remember, this is a ranking of tandems, and it’s tough to argue Oklahoma State keeps things interesting from the start of football season until the end of basketball season. Gundy has led Oklahoma State to four of Oklahoma State’s 10 top 20 finishes all time, including No. 3 and a Big 12 title in 2011. Ford has made up for last season’s disappointing 21-13 campaign with a surprising top-25 team this year.
Football: David Beaty | Basketball: Bill Self
Remember: This is a ranking of coaching tandems as a duo. Self is is on his way to his 11th consecutive Big 12 title, but football is on its third football coach since its last bowl game. The football side made a bold move in hiring the 44-year-old ace recruiter Beaty. The former Texas A&M position coach is an unknown commodity, but being an unknown is a step up from his predecessor, who was known to not be very good.
8. Iowa State
Football: Paul Rhoads | Basketball: Fred Hoiberg
Iowa State needs to be creative to be competitive. The Cyclones have creativity at both spots. Hoiberg as turned Iowa State into Transfer U and one of the few places that plays an up-tempo — and successful — offensive system. Rhoads has been notable for his impassioned speeches, but he has one winning season and a career 14-48 Big 12 record in six years.
9. West Virginia
Football: Dana Holgorsen | Basketball: Bob Huggins
No doubt, this is one of the more interesting college pairings in terms of personality. And as a Big East tandem, it was one of the best. Holgorsen won the Big East in his first season, but he’s 18-20 in three seasons in the Big 12. Huggins has 758 career wins and reached the Final Four with WVU in 2010, but he’s yet to reach the NCAA Tournament as a Big 12 member.
10. Texas Tech
Football: Kliff Kingsbury | Basketball: Tubby Smith
This would make an interesting buddy cop show. The two are separated in age by 28 years. Kingsbury is Coach Cool. Tubby Smith is ... not as cool. What would make both coaches more cool, though, would be more wins. Since starting his career with seven consecutive wins, Kingsbury is 5-13. Meanwhile, Smith led Kentucky to the 1998 national title but hasn’t had a winning conference record in the Big Ten or Big 12 since leaving Kentucky.
Toomer’s Corner at Auburn looks more familiar these days. Alabama fan Harvey Updyke Jr. poisoned oak trees at Toomer’s Corner in 2010, leaving the memorable location looking quite different after the trees were removed in 2013.
However, Toomer’s Corner is on its way back after two new oak trees were planted over the weekend.
Check out some photos from the tree planting and the revival of Toomer’s Corner:
A truck carrying the second oak has just pulled into Toomer's Corner pic.twitter.com/jf3ZLNkdvx— The Auburn Plainsman (@TheAUPlainsman) February 14, 2015
Separating facts from fiction during the run-up to the NFL Draft is tough enough.
Now, we’ve got to contend with bad Photoshops, or at least optical illusions.
Someone posted a photo of a tubby-looking Jameis Winston on Twitter on Saturday. Folks with a good eye drew attention to Winston’s shadow not matching up with his gut plus that absurdly skinny waist.
The image didn’t stand up to close scrutiny, but it was just enough to fool the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen.
George Whtifield, the QB coach preparing Winston for the draft, told The Big Lead the photo was taken in mid-January, and, no, Winston does not have a gut. Maybe it was a bad angle. Maybe it was that leash around his waist. Winston will be at the NFL Combine this week.
Sander Philipse of SBNation’s Bucs Nation traced the fakery back to Barstool Sports, a site that probably doesn’t adhere to the most strict journalistic standards.
Jameis Winston looking slim pic.twitter.com/IvQd5y2iU9— Barstool Sports (@barstoolsports) February 14, 2015
While the NBA All-Star festivities are underway in New York this weekend, some more weighty affairs may occur in league front offices. The trade deadline is February 19, or just six days away, and there are still some major pieces potentially in play.
The New York Knicks’ beleaguered big man is taking baths in red wine and seeking a buyout from Phil Jackson’s disastrous club. The Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers and Stoudemire’s former Phoenix Suns team are all said to be in the mix for his services, with Phoenix in the lead.
The writing’s been on the wall for Jackson and the Oklahoma City Thunder, even since before OKC traded for ostensible Jackson replacement Dion Waiters. Jackson’s list of suitors is a little small, since he’ll be available in free agency this summer, so he could be viewed as a costly rental. But the Thunder seem to know they’ll lose him now or then, as it’s no secret that he’s unhappy coming off their bench. So they’d be wise to get a return on Reggie.
Arron Afflalo and Wilson Chandler
When the Denver Nuggets traded Timogey Mozgov — now thriving with LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers — it was seen as a potential white flag and ensuing fire sale from the Rockies franchise. Afflalo is a very useful two-way guard, while Chandler is dangerous at perhaps the NBA’s least deep position — small forward. The Portland Trail Blazers, Chicago Bulls, Sacramento Kings, Miami Heat and Clippers are all said to be interested in these two.
After putzing about in semi-retirement for the season, Jesus Shuttlesworth is now making his decision about which team deserves his shooting services. He’s said to have whittled his list down to the Golden State Warriors, Cavs, and Atlanta Hawks. We may see him making gigantic playoff shots in crunch time, once again.
Ray Allen free agency update: pic.twitter.com/rLdR55uI0x— Triangle Offense (@Tri_Offense) February 10, 2015
— John Wilmes
With MLB training camps set to open in Florida and Arizona, no doubt there are a few WAGs missing their sweethearts today. In honor of the Day of Love, we present the all-time Valentine’s Day lineup including Flowers, a Rose, Candy, a Cookie, a Jewel and an appearance by Cupid himself.
The former 33rd-round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves posted career highs across the board while catching 124 games for the White Sox in 2014. Flowers hit 15 home runs and doubled his RBI total (from 24 in 2013 to 50), but could use a little more discernment (159 SO , 25 BB) at the plate.
Every lady loves a little gold for Valentine’s Day, and the Diamondbacks certainly struck the mother lode with their first baseman, a future National League MVP.
The pudgy second baseman was one of the best players of his era, but has received only modest support for the Hall of Fame over the years. He amassed 1,721 hits over a 13-year career. All but 189 of those hits came in the 1800s while playing for the Quakers, Stars, Spiders, Perfectos and Orphans. He was a part of multiple trades, once for Gid Garner, another time for Cub Striker. Also known as Fats and Fatty, according to Baseball-Reference.com, the Grand Rapids Democrat called him “the most curiously built man in the baseball business ... he is as wide as he is long, yet there are few men who can get over the ground faster than the ‘dumpling.’”
Cookie was an all-star for Brooklyn from 1938-41, and then spent the next four years serving his country. Thank you for your service, sir.
Once a budding prospect in the Dodgers’ system, this Valentine was on his way to stardom in the city of Angels when a gruesome collision with an outfield wall derailed his career. With nearly 1,200 wins and one National League pennant in his 16 seasons as manager of the Rangers, Mets and Red Sox, Valentine also fits the bill as the ideal skipper for this unique team.
Jim Ray Hart
The sweet-swinging Hart averaged .290-29-92 with an OPS+ of 136 over his first four seasons in the bigs. Unfortunately, he was overshadowed by guys named Mays, McCovey and Cepeda in the same lineup.
No player ever got to first base more than the all-time hits leader. He wasn’t bad at scoring either.
No prudent base runner dared to sneak an extra base when this Valentine was throwing darts from right field.
Cain pitched in an offensive era in the 1930s for the Philadelphia A’s, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox, so he didn’t win many games. Evidently, he wasn’t afraid to issue free passes. He led the league in walks once, logged more than 100 in three successive seasons and ended his career with 5.6 BB/9IP.
Abraham Lincoln “Sweetbread” Bailey
The righthander fashioned a non-descript career with only six starts and 46 relief appearances, but this name must be on any list compiled in February.
Signed as an amateur free agent by the Braves in 2007, this lefthander was a bona fide Diamond in the rough, going 18-22 from 2012-13 as a member of the Twins’ rotation. He showed considerable more polish in 2012 (12-9, 3.54 ERA, 31 BB in 173 IP) than '13 (6-13, 5.43 ERA, 36 BB in 131 IP).
At 6-7 and 195 pounds, we’re guessing his frame is the origin of the name. He won 13 games for the Yankees in 1918 and gave up only eight home runs in his career, but some who victimized him are memorable names: Swede Risberg and Hap Felsh of Black Sox fame, Smoky Joe Wood, George Burns and, of course, the Babe.
The journeyman won 193 games in the minors for eight different organizations, but pitched a scant 27 innings for the Phillies and Cardinals in the 1950s. Evidently, Lynn wasn’t exactly the loving sort. He was reportedly kicked out of the dugout by his own manager, Cot Deal, in the minors for complaining about a lack of defensive support.
Jewel Winklemeyer Ens
The first baseman didn’t see much action in the majors, but he played with Hall of Famers Max Carey, Pie Traynor and Kiki Cuyler with the Pirates. Yet there was only one authentic jewel on that team.
Diamond Jim Gentile
With a nickname like Diamond Jim and a surname pronounced “jen-TEEL” the slugging first baseman must be in the Valentine’s Day lineup. He was third in AL MVP voting in 1961, the year Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, Mickey Mantle slugged 54 and Norm Cash batted .361.
Averaging 29 home runs for the Brewers from 2010-12, Hart was broken during the 2013 season in what ended up being his final go-round with Milwaukee. He wound up in Seattle, but was no Hartbreaker for Mariners fans, hitting just .203 with six home runs in 68 games.
Rudolph Valentino Regalado
Yep, that’s his name. Whether or not the backup infielder made women in Cleveland swoon or not is unknown. But in 91 games for the Indians he had no effect on pitchers whatsoever.
A personal favorite of mine ever since his pennant-clinching pinch-hit for my Strat-O-Matic team in 1989.
Athlon Sports’ 2015 Racing magazine delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2015 NASCAR coverage. Click here to order your copy today!
1. Hendrick Motorsports
Team owner Rick Hendrick admitted that it was painful to arrive at the 2014 season finale in Homestead-Miami Speedway without a single driver remaining in the Championship 4 vying for the title, even though he began the Chase for the Sprint Cup with all four of his Chevrolet drivers in the hunt.
“I can’t remember coming down here when we weren’t in it,” Hendrick said at the time. “But hey, it’s racing, and we’ve still had a good year.”
Indeed, they did. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. won four races apiece, and Kasey Kahne won one to give HMS a total of 13 on the season. No other organization registered more.
But let’s face it. Hendrick is in this to win championships. You can bet his teams will do a better job of making sure they get to the final race with a shot to do so next season — and it likely will start with Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, who again will attempt to make history by winning what would be a record-tying seventh championship (the same as NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt). They were embarrassed by their performance in the Chase in 2014.
Two teams will have new crew chiefs in 2015, with Keith Rodden replacing Kenny Francis atop Kahne’s pit box and Greg Ives taking over for Steve Letarte on Earnhardt Jr.’s team, as Letarte heads to his new job as a NASCAR analyst for NBC.
2. Team Penske
Team Penske fell short of winning a championship in 2014. But for a two-team operation with drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski leading the way, it was a mighty impressive season.
Keselowski failed to make the Championship 4 and didn’t make many friends during the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but he won a series-high six races in his No. 2 Ford and led a total of 1,540 laps — second only to champion Kevin Harvick. Logano won five races in his No. 22 Ford, led 993 laps and was in position to contend for the title at Homestead until a late pit-stop snafu cost him that chance.
There is every reason to believe that these two young drivers and their teams, with capable crew chiefs in Paul Wolfe for Keselowski and Todd Gordon for Logano, will be able to build on their success in 2015. They will, in fact, be among the early favorites to contend for the title next season along with the Hendrick group.
3. Joe Gibbs Racing
New driver Carl Edwards could be the key to a rebound season for Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s happened before, and recently. But after Matt Kenseth won a career-high seven races in his first season with JGR and finished second to Jimmie Johnson in the 2013 championship battle, another big year was expected of both Kenseth in particular and the organization in general in 2014.
It never happened. Despite making the Chase again, Kenseth didn’t win a single race all season. Driver Kyle Busch, who won four in 2013, won one. The same was true for Denny Hamlin, although he did heat up enough down the stretch to make the Championship 4, and he was seemingly in position to steal it until a late-race gamble by crew chief Darian Grubb failed to pay off. The bottom line is that Toyota Racing Development needs to be giving JGR’s drivers engines that pack more punch without sacrificing durability. It seemed to be moving in the right direction toward the end of the season, and it’s hard to imagine the team will suffer through another disappointing season in 2015 — especially with Edwards, who left Roush Fenway Racing to come to JGR, added to the fold in a fourth car.
There also has been a major shakeup in JGR’s crew-chief lineup, with Dave Rogers, who had been with Busch, moving to Hamlin’s team; Darian Grubb, who had been with Hamlin, moving to Edwards’ team; and Adam Stevens moving up from JGR’s highly successful Nationwide (now XFINITY) Series program to replace Rogers as Busch’s crew chief. Jason Ratcliff will remain Kenseth’s crew chief.
4. Stewart-Haas Racing
Kevin Harvick won his first Sprint Cup championship in his first season with his new team and new crew chief Rodney Childers, leading a series-high 2,137 laps along the way. Harvick and Childers are the new hot duo in the Sprint Cup garage and would have won three or four more races than the five they did win if not for miscues by the No. 4 pit crew. Assuming those will be fixed — Harvick switched pit crews with Tony Stewart for the Chase — they should contend for another title.
Harvick’s championship gave SHR two titles in the last four seasons, with co-owner/driver Stewart winning it in 2011. And while Stewart had a difficult year as he attempted to return from a badly broken leg and then missed three races after his Sprint car struck and killed a fellow driver in a non-NASCAR-sanctioned event, he’s a good bet to bounce back strong next season without all the distractions. He failed to win a race in 2014 for the first time in 15 seasons.
Kurt Busch, whose future was thrown into a gray area when a former girlfriend accused him of domestic abuse toward the end of last season, was also disappointing overall last season but still won the spring race at Martinsville Speedway to qualify for the Chase. Busch remains a considerable talent behind the wheel if he can get his off-the-track issues in order.
The fourth SHR driver is Danica Patrick, who needs to show improvement after finishing 27th and 28th in points, respectively, in her first two Cup seasons.
5. Richard Childress Racing
Richard Childress Racing started and ended the 2014 season with a bang. It was what happened in between — or failed to happen — that was the problem.
Rookie Austin Dillon, the grandson of team owner Richard Childress, began the season winning the pole for the Daytona 500 in the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet made famous by Dale Earnhardt Sr., which was making its return to the Sprint Cup Series after a 12-year absence following Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Then Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 31 RCR Chevy, nearly pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport in the Championship 4 season finale at Homestead. Newman ended up finishing second in the race to Kevin Harvick and thus ended up second in the final points standings despite failing to win a race all season and finishing in the top 5 only five times in 36 races.
In between those two big moments, however, RCR’s three teams were actually pretty mediocre, with Paul Menard (21st in points) wheeling the third car. They need to find more speed and consistency in 2015 to keep up with Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing.
6. Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates
The Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates operation always is a difficult one to figure out.
Since the inception of the Chase in 2004, only one Ganassi driver has qualified to participate (Juan Pablo Montoya in 2009). They failed to do so again in a 2014 season that seems highly disappointing at first glance. Yet a closer look reveals that not only was it exciting on some levels, but it also seems to have laid the groundwork for a promising 2015.
Kyle Larson did not win a race in what was his rookie season, but he finished second three times and third twice to serve notice that he wasn’t your average rookie. He also narrowly missed qualifying for the Chase and is generally recognized in the Sprint Cup garage as having the talent and potential to become one of the next great drivers in the sport.
Larson’s teammate in the two-car operation, Jamie McMurray, won $1 million by capturing the non-points Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. McMurray also led a respectable 368 laps in points events over the entire season. Both drivers could take off and win multiple races in 2015, although again, it’s hard to say for certain. There have been times in the past when the Ganassi organization just hasn’t been able to transfer positive momentum from one season to the next.
7. Roush Fenway Racing
Roush Fenway Racing had a season to forget in 2014, and then it lost its top driver, Carl Edwards, to a rival organization.
That doesn’t bode well for 2015, when Edwards will be replaced by Trevor Bayne — who hasn’t done much since shocking the racing world by coming out of nowhere to win the 2011 Daytona 500 at age 20.
The two other RFR teams are led by Greg Biffle, who will be 45 years old by the time the green flag drops for the Daytona 500 and has won one race in the last two years, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a two-time Nationwide Series champion who is more known these days for being Danica Patrick’s boyfriend than he is for doing anything notable in the Sprint Cup Series.
At the heart of the matter is that the organization has been leaking top talent in terms of engineers and other employees to rival teams that offer better deals, and it shows. Sadly, the situation seems likely to get worse before it gets better — especially with a driver lineup that frightens no one (except maybe Jack Roush himself, if he’s really honest about it).
8. Michael Waltrip Racing
As recently as late in the 2013 season, Michael Waltrip Racing appeared to be an organization on the rise.
That no longer appears to be the case after a 2014 season in which MWR scaled back from three full-time Sprint Cup teams to two and failed to win a single race with either of its drivers. Furthermore, neither Clint Bowyer nor Brian Vickers managed to qualify for the 16-driver Chase.
It’s possible that losing top-notch crew chief Rodney Childers to Stewart-Haas Racing, where Childers teamed with driver Kevin Harvick to win the 2014 championship, hurt the organization more than anyone realized it would. Remaining crew chiefs Brian Pattie (Bowyer) and Billy Scott (Vickers) no doubt could have benefited from bouncing data and ideas off a third team headed up by the talented, innovative Childers.
But the real blow can be traced to all the sponsorship money that fled the company in the wake of the 2013 SpinGate scandal triggered by Bowyer’s alleged intentional spin in the final regular-season race at Richmond, which is why MWR had to scale back from three teams to two and lay off 15 percent of its workers prior to 2014. The organization is still reeling from the cutbacks more than a year later.
9. Richard Petty Motorsports
After having driver Aric Almirola make the 2014 Chase and running well for stretches of the season, there is a sense on one hand that RPM has something positive to build on heading into 2015. But Almirola made the Chase by virtue of gambling to win the rain-shortened July race at Daytona International Speedway, so on the other hand there is a sense that luck played a huge role in his locking up a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs.
Then there is the loss of RPM’s other driver, Marcos Ambrose. He decided to return to his native Australia at the end of the 2014 season, and he will be missed, especially on the circuit’s two road-course races where he always was a legitimate threat to win.
The organization’s prospects in 2015 will rest on Ambrose’s replacement, Sam Hornish Jr., and how quickly and how well RPM is able to build a capable team around him. Hornish, a former IndyCar star, struggled while driving full-time in the Cup Series for owner Roger Penske from 2008 through 2010, with only two top-5 and eight top-10 finishes in a total of 106 starts.
10. JTG/Daugherty Racing
Driver AJ Allmendinger’s gritty victory on the road course at Watkins Glen International last August put the single-car JTG/Daugherty team into the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Allmendinger is back with the team for 2015, and as long as he’s behind the wheel, the No. 47 team is a threat to win on the two road courses at Sonoma and WGI. In fact, with Marcos Ambrose heading back to Australia and Juan Pablo Montoya already out of NASCAR and back in the IndyCar series, Allmendinger might even now be the favorite to win at both places.
That’s big for this small operation and bears close watching, as one win at either road course means another berth in the Chase.
The team seemed to benefit last season from a switch in manufacturers from Toyota to Chevrolet and by forming a new technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing that included getting its engines from Earnhardt-Childress Racing Technologies and engineering help. Crew chief Brian Burns also will return as crew chief for the No. 47 car, so he and Allmendinger will have a chance to build on what worked and work on what didn’t in 2014.
If they can find a way to improve performance on the oval tracks, they might surprise some people.
Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.
Sometimes athletes have to make their own luck. Or at least that’s what these guys think they’re doing.
On this Friday the 13th — a day when we’re all on the lookout for black cats in our paths or broken mirrors — let’s celebrate the athletes who think a bit, um, differently.
We thought that it was appropriate to find the 13 most superstitious people in sports, with their seriously strange quirks, habits and talismans, and present them here:
Men's Fitness magazine once named pitcher Turk Wendell, whose 11-year major league career (1993-2004) included stops with the Cubs, Mets, Phillies and Rockies, the most superstitious athlete of all time. Wendell wore a necklace made from teeth and bones of animals he had hunted. He would leap over the chalk lines and draw crosses in the dirt on the pitcher's mound. He insisted that his contract figures end with his jersey number of 99. Wendell would eat four pieces of licorice during games he pitched, but don't worry about his dental health — he would also brush his teeth in the dugout between innings.
Hall of Fame third baseman Wade Boggs didn't compile a .328 career batting average and accumulate 3,010 hits by accident. The superstitious athlete ate chicken every day before a game; took batting practice at 5:17; ran sprints at 7:17; and wrote the word "Chai" (Hebrew for "life") in the dirt before his plate appearances. Speaking of his love of chicken, Boggs' Twitter account is @ChickenMan3010.
They take their curses seriously in the U.K. The Birmingham City football club labored under a gypsy curse that came about due to the stadium's location atop the site of a Romany cemetery. Football club manager Barry Fry, who led the Birmingham City team from 1993 to 1996, took the advice of a clairvoyant to break the curse: He peed in all four corners of the St. Andrew's pitch. So did it work? "Well, we started to win and I thought it had," Fry said in an interview. "Then they sacked me, so probably not."
Slugger Jason Giambi (A's, Yankees, Rockies, Indians) addressed a hitting slump with his choice of undergarments. His personal slump-buster was a fancy piece of butt floss — a gold thong. If that’s not disturbing enough, try this: Teammates would ask to borrow it when they encountered slumps of their own.
How obsessed was power-hitting outfielder Larry Walker (Expos, Rockies, Cardinals) with the number 3? He set his alarm clock for 33 minutes past the hour, took batting practice in groups of three swings and was married on November 3 at 3:33 P.M. He bought 33 tickets in section 333 of Olympic Stadium to give to under-privileged kids during his time in Montreal. On one of his contracts, he asked for $3,333,333.33. Appropriately enough, Walker's career stats include plenty of threes: His career batting average was .313, and he hit 383 career homers.
Michael Jordan's superstition inspired an NBA fashion trend. Jordan insisted on wearing his North Carolina Tar Heels shorts under his Bulls uniform, and to cover up his old college basketball trunks, he started wearing longer shorts. Naturally, the rest of the NBA followed suit.
Mercurial NBA guard Jason Terry (Hawks, Mavs, Celtics, Nets) has the habit of sleeping in the shorts of the team he is playing the next day.
Beloved Phillies legend and Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn, who played in Philadelphia from 1948 to 1959 before ending his career with the Mets, slept with a lot of old bats in his day. Literally. In order to keep track of a bat that was treating him particularly well, Ashburn would take the bat to bed with him.
Chicago Black Hawks legend Stan Mikita, who led the NHL in scoring four times during a remarkable career that spanned four different decades (1958-80), also led the league in Most Unusual Superstition: Mikita would flick a lit cigarette over his left shoulder before taking the ice for a game.
Goalie Pelle Lindbergh, who played for the Philadelphia Flyers from 1981 to 1986, would drink a Swedish beer called Pripps during each intermission, with two ice cubes — no more, no fewer.
There must be something about goalies. Patrick Roy, whose career included stints with Montreal (1984-95) and Colorado (1996-2003), is considered by many the greatest goaltender in NHL history. He might also be the strangest, since he befriended the posts. That's right — Roy would touch and talk to the net posts, thanking them if a shot went awry or clanged off of one of them. Roy would also step over the red and blue lines on the ice, and he would avoid reporters on game day.
For the Celtics of the 1960s, Bill Russell's puke became a good-luck totem. According to Sports Illustrated: "If he threw up before a big game, the Celtics were sure everything would be all right. If he didn't, then Boston's coach, Red Auerbach, would tell Russell to go back to the toilet and order him to throw up." Russ must've done an awful lot of puking, considering that he led the Celtics to 11 championships in his 13-year career.
Rafael Nadal, who has won 13 Grand Slam singles titles, is a candidate for Greatest Tennis Player of All Time. He's also the GOAT when it comes to superstitious eccentricities, which he refers to as his "routines." His assortment of quirks is a category unto itself.
• Nadal has rituals involving his water bottles. He brings two bottles to each match, with one slightly warmer than the other, and sips from both during the match. The label of both has to be facing the court.
• During his recent run to the U.S. Open crown, Nadal ate the same meal at the same restaurant every night. The New York Post reported that Nadal consumed Chilean sea bass, fried rice and noodles at a Manhattan Chinese restaurant every evening when he wasn't playing a night match.
• Before every point, Nadal makes sure that his socks are pulled up at the same height. Prior to a match, he'll spend 30 seconds or more pulling his socks up and down.
• Nadal never steps on the lines before or after any point. He also crosses the lines right foot first.
Watch out, @TheOregonDuck, you’re about to have company as the best college mascot on Twitter.
@GoldyTheGopher is finding a fond place in our hearts — appropriately — this Valentine’s Day weekend with Valentines for the other Big Ten mascots.
Just like in elementary school, everyone in the class gets a Valentine.
If you like the Big Ten, Valentines and bad puns, this should be a delight:
Will the real Tony Stewart please stand up? In one corner, there’s the three-time Cup champion and certain Hall of Fame driver. In the other, there’s the guy who went winless for the first time in his career, en route to a nightmare no one could have ever imagined.
Which one will emerge in 2015?
Stewart’s 2014 season will forever be defined by a sprint car race that took place outside the insular world of NASCAR, a race where Stewart struck and killed a fellow competitor, Kevin Ward Jr., who got out of his car to confront him after a spin. Stewart was later cleared of any charges by a grand jury, but the damage wasn’t merely legal, as the events surrounding the accident clearly took an emotional toll on the driver.
Long before that fateful night, though, Stewart was struggling. He missed the last 15 races in 2013 after breaking his leg in a sprint car race and didn’t return until Daytona. That injury and subsequent surgeries presented a difficult obstacle for Stewart as he missed two offseason tests. He also had a new crew chief in Chad Johnston, new teammates in Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch and a new NASCAR rules package to handle. The team had fast cars, but the deck was stacked against him, and poor preparation left him three steps behind out of the gate.
So why should 2015 be any different? Stewart, recovering through his focus on racing, will come into the season as prepared as anyone. Teams won’t have the opportunity to test a new rules package in the offseason, putting them all on an even playing field. His equipment is excellent; the cars are prepared for the Stewart-Haas Racing drivers in-house, so they’re tailor-made to suit their driver/owner. Yes, there’s the question mark of offseason surgery on the leg he injured in 2013, but a spokesman called it “routine maintenance,” and the procedure was performed in early December, plenty early for Stewart to recover.
Johnston is still a bit of a wild card on top of the pit box. He had one win in three seasons with Michael Waltrip Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. and came to SHR with fellow MWR crew chief Rodney Childers, giving the two a leg up on working together. On the other hand, Stewart didn’t perform well with Johnston last year. This season will be the real test.
Stewart’s sponsorship situation is solid, with backers Bass Pro Shops, Mobil 1, Rush Truck Centers and Code 3 Associates set to return. His equipment will be the best available, and it’s equipment that’s taken eight of the last nine titles, including two of those by SHR.
But perhaps the most compelling reason to expect a rebound is Stewart himself. Despite that career-worst 2014 season, he’s still a three-time champion with 48 wins to his name, a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame and one of the best drivers of his era. Despite the setbacks, Stewart still has the talent and drive to win races and put his name in the hat for the title.
Falling star Stewart’s No. 14 team finished 29th and 25th in points in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Though injury and incident were responsible for some of that, the 43-year-old Stewart has showed signs of decline. The biggest is his inability to pass at the quad-ovals on which he has earned seven of his 48 career victories. He scored a below-par adjusted pass efficiency of 45.68 percent at the fast intermediates in 2014.
Not the leader Stewart hasn’t led more than 1,000 laps in a season since 2006. In 2013 and 2014 he led 114 and 125, respectively.
Chasing his unicorn One of the sport’s most talented drivers has yet to win at Darlington, one of its most unique tracks, but he’s been solid there in recent outings. Stewart finished in the top 10 in five of his last eight Darlington attempts.
No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Primary Sponsors: Bass Pro Shops, Mobil 1, Rush Truck Centers, Code 3 Associates
Owner: Tony Stewart/Gene Haas
Crew Chief: Chad Johnston
Year With Current Team: 7th
Under Contract Through: Lifetime
Best Points Finish: 1st (2002, ’05, ’11)
Hometown: Columbus, Ind.
Born: May 20, 1971
|Years||Starts||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s||Poles||Titles||Earned|
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Feb. 13:
• The SI Swimsuit megasite includes shots of Caroline Wozniacki. What were you thinking, Rory?
• Drake is everywhere, and it's getting on people's nerves. Including Paul Pierce.
• Is Charles Barkley's shtick tired? This writer uses a lot of words to say so.
• Meet the Michael Jordans of other disciplines, from yodeling to jousting.
• Is it possible that Marshawn Lynch has played his last snap of football? Let's hope not.
• In honor of All-Star Weekend, here's Larry Bird's winning 3-point contest three-peat from 1988. He actually did a lot of clanging, but everybody remembers the raised finger at the end.
• The end of regulation between North Dakota State and Denver was crazy.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Denny Hamlin walked into the Joe Gibbs Racing shop in December and noticed a change. As he was meeting with new crew chief Dave Rogers, Hamlin saw that yellow had largely replaced black on the cars and equipment for his No. 11 team. Even the hauler was different.
“I looked at him and said, ‘I guess I’m pretty much driving the No. 18 car,’” Hamlin says. “He said ‘Yeah, pretty much, other than we get to bring your pretty fast pit crew over here.’”
Hamlin won’t actually drive the No. 18 this season — he’s still in the familiar No. 11 Toyota with FedEx as the primary sponsor — but he will be part of a reshuffled program. Hamlin’s former crew chief Darian Grubb has been assigned to lead Carl Edwards’ No. 19 team as JGR expands to four Sprint Cup cars.
“I think it’s a great deal for me, and really Carl is stepping in to a great situation with Darian,” Hamlin says. “I know what he’s capable of doing. (Carl)’s really getting all of my A-team mechanics and everything, so no one got slighted on this deal whatsoever.”
Rogers moves to direct Hamlin after more than five years leading the charge for fellow JGR driver Kyle Busch. This season marks the first time that Hamlin and Rogers will have worked together at the Sprint Cup level — but not the first otherwise. They have previous experience as crew chief and driver for the JGR Nationwide (now XFINITY) Series program.
Rogers worked as Hamlin’s crew chief in NASCAR’s second-tier series during the 2006-07 seasons. Together, they collected five wins, 23 top 5s, 39 top 10 and 12 poles in just 57 combined races. Those were extraordinary numbers for a JGR program that, in 395 starts from 1997-2005, scored just three wins.
For this duo to dominate once again, JGR will need to improve. The organization won twice last season but only once on an intermediate track. Hamlin, despite making two serious championship bids since 2010, believes JGR is still trying to level up to its peers. “We’ve always kind of been that next-tier team, realistically,” Hamlin says. “We can compete for race wins week-in and week-out, but the championships have escaped us through mechanical stuff.”
Hamlin says the team sacrificed speed to fix that last year so now they can race without the worry of a DNF. Now, the focus will be on sharing information, a weak point for Toyota compared to other manufacturers but one JGR hopes to fix with an additional car and more personnel.
It’s been two full seasons since Hamlin, a 24-time winner in the top series, visited Victory Lane more than once in a single season (in a points-paying event). The pairing with new crew chief Rogers and the additional resources brought to the JGR team by Edwards — an elite driver in his own regard — may be the answer needed to change that. If not, the No. 11 team will become an interesting story to watch early. Hamlin’s contract is up following the 2015 season, and he’s arguably the strongest potential free agent. Stay tuned.
Dynamic drafter Hamlin proved to be last season’s most prolific driver at the restrictor plate tracks. At Daytona, he scored wins in the Sprint Unlimited and his Budweiser Duel race, and he finished second and sixth, respectively, in the two points-paying races. He scored his lone points-paying win of 2014 at Talladega.
He takes his talent to South Beach Since 2006, Hamlin has won twice, finished third twice and led 213 laps in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He led 50 laps and averaged a third-place running position in 2014.
Martinsville strength Fans of Hamlin are quick to discuss his ability at Martinsville, but the four-time Martinsville winner hasn’t scored a finish better than fifth since the fall 2010 race. Still, he has managed to lead 272 laps during his seven-race drought.
No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Primary Sponsors: FedEx, Sport Clips
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Dave Rogers
Year With Current Team: 11th
Under Contract Through: 2015
Best Points Finish: 2nd (2010)
Hometown: Chesterfield, Va.
Born: Nov. 18, 1980
|Years||Starts||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s||Poles||Titles||Earned|
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.