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All taxonomy terms: NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/nascar-media-roundtable-limiting-cup-driver-participation-nascars-lower-series

Each day from mid-February through late November, a small band of motorsports journalists work nearly around the clock — this being the digital age — to keep rabid NASCAR fans as up-to-the-second informed as possible. Many of these media members are ensconced in the sport’s “traveling circus,” working in garage areas, media centers and pressboxes nearly 40 weeks a year. So who better to go to for a “state of the sport” talk than them?

While drivers may toe the company line — keeping sponsors happy and staying in the sanctioning body’s good graces are important to their livelihood — it’s the job of these journos to provide news, insight and opinion in a sport that has no shortage of any.

In this nine-part feature, Athlon Sports sits down with seven media professionals from different outlets to get a healthy cross-section of ideas, opinions and feedback on the biggest issues alive and well in the sport of NASCAR, circa 2014.

Should some sort of cap be placed on how many Nationwide and Truck series races a Cup driver can participate in? How can a lower-series team explain to a company’s marketing director that a 10th-place finish in an NNS or CWTS race — in a field littered with Cup competitors — is often times a de facto win?

Bob Pockrass (The Sporting News@bobpockrass): Yes. Limit a Cup driver to 5-10 races. But with a caveat. Increase to 10-15 if the team the Cup driver competes for fields the car the remainder of the season for a non-Cup driver. That way, sponsors and teams are encouraged to support both a Cup driver and a development driver.

Ryan McGee ( The Magazine@ESPNMcGee): I like the idea of a 10-15 race cap for any driver who has declared that they are running for the championship in a higher series. The problem is that these marketing directors you speak of are the problem. Nationwide and Truck series team owners tell me that sponsors want names, not young up-and-comers. So it’s a heckuva Catch-22. Attendance and TV ratings are down because the big-name moonlighters keep stomping the young guys, but the big-name moonlighters are who owners have to put in the car. I think once we went through a growing-pains year of that entry cap, those marketers would come around. But then again, I don’t own a race team and don’t have to take that risk.

Nate Ryan (USA Today@nateryan): It seems like a great idea, but track owners would hate it. Much of the gate (such as it is) for a Nationwide or truck race depends on having established and marketable talent. As Brad Keselowski has noted, the problem isn’t allowing Sprint Cup drivers to race in lower-tier series, it’s allowing Sprint Cup organizations to field farm teams. The Nationwide Series lost its identity when erstwhile upstart teams such as ppc Racing and Brewco Motorsports were squeezed out of existence. Any serious discussions about reform must start there.

Mike Mulhern (; @mikemulhern): No, there doesn’t need to be a cap on drivers, but there needs to be more financial equity in NNS and Trucks. I would institute a financial cap on each team to keep mega-teams from milking the Friday and Saturday shows. The problem is not that Cup drivers are so much better than NNS or truckers, but that the Cup drivers can run for teams with a lot more money to spend. Solve that part of the problem. And a big part of that problem is right under the hood. This sport desperately needs more independent engine men, not huge engine factories in Los Angeles or wherever.

Nick Bromberg (Yahoo! Sports; @NickBromberg): A limit should absolutely be in place. I understand companies in a lower series wanting to sponsor a Cup driver, and those drivers should not be banned from competing. But if you declare for Cup points, you shouldn’t be allowed to drive in more than 15 total Nationwide or Truck series races per season.

It will open up more well-funded rides for young drivers who may be forced to take a start-and-park ride just to stay in NASCAR. Plus it will help establish careers for more drivers who may never make it to the Cup Series simply because there are only 43 spots.

And it’s also something that lower-series teams can’t explain easily, especially to a company who may be unfamiliar to NASCAR. If you were that company, wouldn’t you want to go with the driver who is in victory lane, especially if he’s more recognizable?

That’s why a limit makes sense. A company can have an instant brand with a Cup driver and also have the opportunity to simultaneously build one with a promising and less-recognizable one.

Pete Pistone (Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio and MRN Radio; @PPistone): The business of the sport trumps the logic of keeping Cup regulars out of the Nationwide and Truck series. Sponsors dictate the decision more often than not and NASCAR finds itself in a Catch-22 situation. I’d like to see a cap of 5-10 races to shine the spotlight on the regular drivers in both divisions but without the Cup stars in the mix a lot of sponsorship dollars will dry up.

Mike Hembree (Athlon Sports; @mikehembree): In a perfect world, each of the three series would be limited to drivers who choose to participate full-time on that tour, with maybe a handful of starts open to “guests”. That isn’t realistic, however, for numerous reasons, among them the fact that Sprint Cup drivers attract fans to second- and third-tier races. The competition isn’t exactly fair, but solutions beyond what NASCAR already has put in place are convoluted and messy.


Photo by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro


NASCAR writers discuss the whether a cap should be placed on how many starts Cup drivers can make in the Nationwide and Truck series.
Post date: Thursday, February 20, 2014 - 12:47
All taxonomy terms: NFL, NBA, MLB, NASCAR
Path: /top-10-most-exclusive-statistical-clubs-sports-history

When I was growing up there was only one record, one accomplishment, one historic statistical club that I cared about.

Home runs.

It was the most sacred of records held by a class act of a man who was ahead of his time and beloved by all. But then Barry Bonds happened. Now, there are three members of the 700-HR club, eight members of the 600-HR club and, unfortunately, many of them (Bonds, ARod, Sosa) have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs (a phrase I certainly didn’t know when I was 15 years old watching Mark McGwire chase history in 1998).

Before 1998, only two players in history had hit 60 homers in a season. Now that many have hit 70 and and eight times has someone hit 60.

It has lost its appeal for me and I believe that most fans of America’s pastime feel the same.

But not all records, streaks, historical accomplishments have been corrupted. Exclusivity is a huge part of measuring any elite athlete. Did he or she do something no one — or in this case, very few people — has ever accomplished? Some “sports clubs” are more obvious than others and can clearly define the game’s greatest players. Others are less obvious but no less intriguing.

Here are my favorite sports “clubs” and rarest accomplishments that indicate true greatness and success:

2,000-yard Club (7 members):
This one is pretty obvious and pretty exclusive. There are only seven players in the history of the NFL to have rushed for 2,000 yards in a season. Adrian Peterson became the latest when he rushed for 2,097 yards in 2012, all while returning from a torn-up knee. Eric Dickerson owns the all-time record with 2,105 while Jamal Lewis (2,066), Barry Sanders (2,053), Terrell Davis (2,008), Chris Johnson (2,006) and O.J. Simpson (2,003) are the only other members of the 2K Club. Interestingly enough, only one other player has ever topped 1,900 yards and that was Earl Campbell in 1980 (1,934). And with the proliferation of high-flying passing offenses, the 2,000-yard running back is that much more impressive.

30,000-point Club (6 members):
Scoring points is the only way to win basketball games and only six players in the history of either the NBA or ABA have ever topped 30,000 points in their career. And this club's membership might just also represent the six best players of all-time. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is basketball’s all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points and no one has ever really come close to catching him. Karl Malone (36,928), Michael Jordan (32,292), Kobe Bryant (31,700*) and Wilt Chamberlain (31,419) are the only other players to score at least 30,000 points in the NBA. Julius Erving reached the benchmark but needed 11,662 points in the ABA to reach the plateau. Next to join this exclusive club could be Dirk Nowitzki. He currently sits at 26,201* points, averaging 21.7 per game in his 16th season with the Dallas Mavericks. At that clip, Nowitzki needs 175 games, or a little more than two more seasons' worth of games to get to 30,000 points. 

* - as of Feb. 18, 2014

80-Goal Club (3 members):
Only eight players in the history of the NHL have ever scored 70 goals in a season much less 80. Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull and Mario Lemieux are arguably the three greatest goal scorers in the history of the sport and their membership in the 80-goal club only confirms this. Gretzky is the only member of the 90-goal club and is the only player to top 80 goals twice (he topped 70 four times). Hull is No. 2 with 86 goals in 1990-91 and he has topped 70 goals three times. Super Mario is fourth all-time with 85 goals in 1988-89 and he also has also topped 70 more than once (2).

Quarterbacks with four Super Bowl starts (6 members):
Names like Troy Aikman (3-0), Bart Starr (2-0) and Eli Manning (2-0) might take offense to this club, but leading your team to four Super Bowls is an extremely rare accomplishment. Tom Brady (3-2) and John Elway (2-3) are the only two NFL quarterbacks with five Super Bowl starts. Terry Bradshaw (4-0) and Joe Montana (4-0) are the only two with perfect records in four starts. And Roger Staubach (2-2) and Jim Kelly (0-4) are both in Canton after taking their teams to the big game four times. No one in the history of the sport other than Kelly has gone to four straight Super Bowls. Aikman, Montana, Bradshaw and Brady are the only four players to ever win three Super Bowl starts.

Reached base 5,000 times (7 members):
No Major League Baseball player has ever gotten on base 6,000 times in his career, but seven players reached first at least 5,000 times. And they are seven of the greatest names to ever step onto a diamond. Pete Rose (5,929), Barry Bonds (5,599), Ty Cobb (5,532), Rickey Henderson (5,343), Carl Yastrzemski (5,304), Stan Musial (5,282) and Hank Aaron (5,205) are the only such players in MLB history. All topped the 5,200 mark as well, setting themselves apart even further from Tris Speaker (8th) and Babe Ruth (9th). What makes this club so great is its simplicity. The first and foremost goal when one steps to the plate — certainly the sabermetrics guys would agree — is to not get out and no one reached base more than these seven men.

6,000 yards passing and 4,000 yards rushing (5 members):
The modern era of college football has watched electric athletes take control of the quarterback position. In fact, the pistol, zone read and option attacks are even starting to take hold of the NFL game as well. But the term "dual threat" is reserved for the only five quarterbacks in NCAA history to pass for at least 6,000 yards through the air while gobbling up at least 4,000 yards on the ground. Missouri’s Brad Smith (8,799 passing, 4,289 rushing) was the first to join the club in the early 2000s. He would soon be joined by West Virginia’s Pat White (6,049 passing, 4,480 rushing), Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick (10,098 passing, 4,112 rushing), Michigan’s Denard Robinson (6,250 passing, 4,495 rushing) and Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch (6,209 passing, 4,343 rushing). They are the only five college quarterbacks to rush for 4,000 yards in their career and one look at Kaepernick’s numbers and fans should understand how he led San Francisco to the Super Bowl two years ago.

Six-time NASCAR Champion (3 members):
No one really argues that Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty aren’t the best two stock car drivers of all-time. So it is appropriate that the duo is tied for the most NASCAR championships with seven each. But they could be joined by another steely-eyed wheelman in Jimmie Johnson. Johnson is the only other driver with six points titles after claiming the 2013 championship and he is the only driver to ever win five straight. Jeff Gordon is the only other driver with four championships, and should he win a couple more titles in the twilight of his career, he could join what many consider the three greatest drivers all-time with six trophies.

Golf’s Career Grand Slam (5 members):
Golf’s Mt. Rushmore has five names on it, not four. Only five players in the history of golf have won all four majors — aka the career Grand Slam — in their career. Jack Nicklaus leads the way with 18 major championships followed closely by Tiger Woods with 14, as each has won the career Grand Slam three times. Ben Hogan (9), Gary Player (8) and Gene Sarazen (7) are the only other pro golfers to accomplish the career foursome. In the pre-Masters Era which included The Amateur Open, Bobby Jones accomplished the career Grand Slam — and did it all in the same year (1930).

MLB’s Triple Crown (*5 members):
There are many lines of demarcation for one of America's oldest sports. Many begin counting at 1900 or consider the post-Black Sox (1919) era the “modern” era. Still others consider World War II or the expansion era (1962) as the best way to define baseball. However, the biggest and most influential time stamp came in 1947 when Jackie Robinson finally broke the color barrier. Since that time, only five men have won the Triple Crown of baseball — i.e., leading the league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in. Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera (.330, 44 HR, 139 RBI) broke a 45-year triple crown drought when he led the AL in all three categories in 2012. Prior to Cabrera's remarkable season, Carl Yastrzemski (.326, 44 HR, 121 RBI) in 1967 had been the last to capture the Triple Crown. Frank Robinson (.316, 49 HR, 122 RBI) did it in 1966, Mickey Mantle (.353, 52 HR, 130 RBI) in '56 and Ted Williams (.343, 32 HR, 114 RBI) pulled of the rare feat in '47.

* - since integration

2,000 points and 900 assists (3 members):
Oregon State’s Gary Payton and Syracuse’s Sherman Douglas were the only two players to score at least 2,000 points and dish out at least 900 assists in their college basketball careers until 2012-13. Douglas, nicknamed “The General,” left Syracuse with what was then the all-time NCAA lead in assists (960). When Payton, nicknamed “The Glove,” left school one year later, he was No. 2 all-time with 939 dimes. They are now sixth and 11th all-time. These two were joined, however, by Ohio Bobcats great D.J. Cooper. He finished his illustrious career with 2,075 points and 934 assists. Before Cooper got to Ohio, the Bobcats hadn't won a NCAA Tournament game since 1983 and he delivered two trips to the Big Dance and three wins in his four-year career. Cooper is the only player in NCAA history with 2,000 points, 900 assists, 600 rebounds and 300 steals and joins Payton as the only two players with 2,000 points, 900 assists and 300 steals in their collegiate careers.

The Top 10 Most Exclusive Statistical "Clubs" in Sports History
Post date: Thursday, February 20, 2014 - 11:00
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-february-20-2014

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Feb. 20.

• I'm sure you've seen this, but I'm going to link to it anyway: Kate Upton's zero-gravity photo shoot/video for SI.

The Swiss women's hockey team used an empty-netter to win bronze.

A statistical analysis of the best Olympians of the Sochi Games.

• Olympic luger Kate Hansen captured the essence of the Sochi experience: a wolf prowling the hall of her hotel. Some people say it's a dog, but I'm sticking with wolf.

The weirdest sports mascots of all time.

Dwight Howard got in the spirit of the Lakers fans' antipathy toward him.

• That whole Mayan end-of-the-world thing didn't work out, but don't fret: there's a Norse myth that the world will end this Saturday. Get ready for the Viking apocalypse.

• Speaking of Kate Upton, she joined Instagram yesterday. In 12 hours, despite posting very little, she had more than 420,000 followers.

• An errant shot from Rory McIlroy ended with a fan falling into some cactus, yielding this wince-inducing photo.

In the Richard Petty-Danica Patrick kerfuffle, Tony Stewart is all-in for Team Danica.

• We can all relax: Donkey basketball has been deemed NCAA-compliant.

• Enjoy Brian Williams "rapping" the Sugarhill Gang classic "Rapper's Delight."


-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]

Post date: Thursday, February 20, 2014 - 10:53
Path: /college-football/top-10-pac-12-linebackers-bcs-era

The Bowl Championship Series is dead. But even the harshest of BCS detractors must acknowledge that the 16-year run was arguably the best era of college football in the history of the sport.

The era was highlighted by the advent of the BCS Championship Game, conference realignment and mega-dollar contracts for conferences, programs and coaches. But the elite athletes had a huge, if not the biggest, hand in the unprecedented growth of college football over the last two decades.

So Athlon Sports is looking back on the players that made the BCS Era great — conference-by-conference, position-by-position.

One school has dominated this position during the BCS Era and it should come as no surprise as it's the same school that dominated the standings for the better part of a decade as well. That being said, Stanford has used some elite defenders to win back-to-back titles to end the BCS Era. Here are the league's top LBs from the last 16 years.

Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.

1. Rey Maualuga, USC (2005-08)
The hard-hitting tackler was a freshman All-American on the 2005 USC team that barely lost to Texas in the national title game. He then started the next three seasons for the Trojans, earning consensus All-American honors, the Chuck Bednarik Award and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2008. The Men of Troy went 46-6 during his time on campus and few players were as feared nationally as Maualuga. He posted 272 career tackles, 22.5 for loss, 9.0 sacks and five interceptions before being taken in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft.

2. Chris Claiborne, USC (1995-98)
The three-year star for the Trojans was the first and only Butkus Award winner in USC history when he was named the nation’s top linebacker in 1998 — the same year both Al Wilson and Andy Katzenmoyer were seniors. He also is the only Pac-12 player to win the Butkus in the three-decade history of the award. He was a consensus All-American and the No. 9 overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.

3. Adam Archuleta, Arizona State (1997-00)
The West Coast’s favorite walk-on became a three-year starter for the Sun Devils. He earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors twice and was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2000. He was a finalist for the Butkus Award and finished with 330 tackles, 54.0 tackles for loss and 14.0 sacks. The star tackler was a first-round pick of the Rams in the 2001 NFL Draft.

4. Shayne Skov, Stanford (2009-13)
The heart and soul of two Pac-12 championship teams and three teams that played in BCS bowls, few players have meant more to their team than Skov. He finished his career with 355 career tackles, 40.5 tackles for loss, 16.0 sacks and played his biggest games against the best competition (See: Oregon). During his last four years, Stanford was one of the best defensive units in the nation and his teams went a combined 46-8 during that span. He earned all-conference honors in 2010, '12 and '13.

5. Nick Barnett, Oregon State (1999-02)
One of the most consistent and dependable playmakers in league history, Barnett started three full seasons for the Beavers. He was a multi-year all-conference selection and led the league as a senior with 121 tackles in 2001. He was an integral part of the rebuilding of Oregon State football that included an 11-1 Fiesta Bowl championship season in 2001. Barnett was a first-round pick of the Packers in 2003.

6. Lofa Tatupu, USC (2003-04)
After transferring from Maine, Tatupu started all 25 games during his USC career. He won two Pac-10 championships and was a part of back-to-back national championships in 2003 and ’04. He posted 202 career tackles, nine sacks, seven interceptions and was a second-round pick of the Seahawks in 2005.

7. Robert Thomas, UCLA (1998-01)
Thomas played in every game as a true freshman on the Bruins' last conference championship and Rose Bowl team. By his senior year, he was a Butkus Finalist, a consensus All-American and won Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year honors. In his final and award-winning year, he posted 111 tackles, 26.0 for loss (fourth all-time in league history) and registered 6.5 sacks. He was a first-round pick of the Rams in 2002.

8. Keith Rivers, USC (2004-05)
He was an All-Pac-10 freshman teamer in his first year on a team that won the BCS national title and never lost. He then posted 52 tackles for a team that came up one play short of winning its second BCS national title in ’05. Rivers capped his career with back-to-back, first-team All-Pac-10 honors and was an All-American as a senior. He finished with 240 tackles, 18.5 for loss and was a first-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft.

9. Lance Briggs, Arizona (1999-02)
The Beardown star played 33 games in his career in Tucson, earning first-team All-Pac-10 honors twice during his time there. He finished with 308 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 36.0 tackles for loss in three seasons as a starter. He was a third-round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft and has been invited to seven Pro Bowls.

10. Matt Grootegoed, USC (2001-04)
A rare four-year starter for the beginning of the epic USC championship run, Grootegoed helped USC to three straight Pac-12 championships and two national titles. He was a consensus All-American and Butkus Finalist as a senior, during which he also earned his second straight All-Pac-10 selection. He finished his career with 124 tackles, 41.5 for loss and seven interceptions.

Just missed the cut:

11. Anthony Barr, UCLA (2010-13)
He only played two years at linebacker but he was a dominant force while on the field. In those two seasons, he registered 149 tackles, 41.5 for loss and 23.5 sacks to go with 10 forced fumbles. He was a consensus All-American, two-time South Division champ and two-time, first-team All-Pac-12 pick. He won the Lott Award in 2013.

12. Chase Thomas, Stanford (2009-12)
Another stalwart on those vaunted Cardinal defenses at the end of the BCS Era, Thomas capped his career with a Pac-12 and Rose Bowl championship as a senior. He finished with 229 total tackles, 50.5 tackles for loss and 27.5 sacks from his hybrid outside linebacker position. He was an All-American selection as a senior and led the Cardinal to a 43-10 record during his time in Palo Alto.

13. Mychal Kendricks, Cal (2008-11)
Kendricks was an elite player on three bowl teams — the last three to represent the Golden Bears in the postseason. He finished his career with 259 tackles, 36.5 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks and four interceptions. His final season — 106 tackles, 14.5 for loss — earned him Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. Kendricks was a second-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.

14. Trent Murphy, Stanford (2010-13)
When it comes to wreaking havoc, few were as productive as Murphy. He led Stanford to three BCS bowls, including back-to-back Pac-12 championships and Rose Bowls. He finished his career with 160 tackles, 52.5 tackles for loss, and 32.5 sacks (ninth all-time in league history). Stanford went 46-8 during his time on The Farm.

15. Dale Robinson, Arizona State (2004-05)
He only played two seasons but he made a huge impact for the Devils. He posted 208 tackles, 28.0 for loss and 8.5 sacks in 23 of 24 possible career starts. He was an All-Pac-10 selection both years and was named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 2005.

16. Brian Cushing, USC (2005-08)
Cushing played in 44 career games, making 178 stops, 27.0 for loss and 8.5 sacks. He earned 2007 Rose Bowl MVP honors and eventually was an All-American in 2008. Cushing was a consistent performer who was the 15th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. USC was 46-6 during his time in Los Angeles.

17. Zack Follett, Cal (2005-08)
The two-time all-league selection was a terror behind the line of scrimmage for the Bears. He had 244 career tackles, 51.0 tackles for loss, 22.5 sacks and a Pac-12-record 13 forced fumbles during his time in Berkeley. He also won the Emerald Bowl MVP honors in 2008.

18. Casey Matthews, Oregon (2007-10)
As a leader of the only Ducks team to make it to the BCS National Championship Game, Matthews was a two-time All-Pac-10 selection and an All-American during his stay in Eugene. He posted 245 tackles, 30.5 for loss, nine sacks and went 41-11 during his career. The Ducks won three straight conference championships.

19. Spencer Havner, UCLA (2002-05)
The Bruins' tackling machine was a four-year starter and registered 402 tackles during his time in Los Angeles. This total is good for second among all players during the BCS Era in the Pac-12 (Marcus Bell). He was a three-time all-conference selection in some way and a Defensive Freshman of the Year according to the Sporting News in 2002.

20. Mason Foster, Washington (2007-10)
Few players were as productive as Foster was for the Huskies — and his NFL success proves that out. Foster posted 378 tackles, including a 163-tackle senior season, 38.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, four interceptions and eight forced fumbles. He played in 50 career games and helped Washington go from 0-12 (2008) to its first bowl game since 2002 to close out his senior season.

Best of the rest:

21. Desmond Bishop, Cal (2005-06)
22. Peter Sirmon, Oregon (1996-99)
23. Eric Kendricks, UCLA (2011-pres.)
24. Marcus Bell, Arizona (1996-99)
25. Clay Matthews, USC (2005-08)

Top 10 Pac-12 Linebackers of the BCS Era
Post date: Thursday, February 20, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/ranking-best-coaching-tandems-big-ten-2014

The SEC has football dominance. The ACC has the defending football national champion and three Basketball Hall of Fame coaches. The American has the defending basketball national champion.

However, one of the strongest leagues in terms of football and basketball coaching tandems is the Big Ten.

Names like Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan, John Beilein and Thad Matta would end up on anyone’s list of top 20 coaches in college basketball right now. Tim Miles and Richard Pitino are among the league’s rising stars. Meanwhile, the football side has seen marked improvement. Adding Urban Meyer and James Franklin from the SEC has added an edge to the Big Ten football coaching ranks. Kevin Wilson and Jerry Kill have at least made their programs more competitive.

Where the SEC and Pac-12 had few schools with balance between their basketball and football coaches, the Big Ten is flush with them.

1. Michigan State
Mark Dantonio | Basketball: Tom Izzo

The Spartans have a good chance of sweeping Big Ten coach of the year honors with Dantonio already receiving both the coaches’ and media awards with a Rose Bowl-winning season. Izzo will have some tough competition with the coaches at Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota for basketball honors, but the Spartans could still win a conference title despite a rash of injuries to key players. A healthy basketball squad this season would be in contention for Izzo’s second national title and seventh Final Four.

2. Ohio State
Urban Meyer | Basketball: Thad Matta

Meyer is well on his way to replicating his Florida tenure at Ohio State. The Buckeyes won his first 24 games before losses to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and Clemson in the Orange Bowl. This is not Matta’s most complete team on the basketball side, but he’s led Ohio State to at least a share of the conference regular season title five times, the conference tournament title four times and a Final Four appearance twice.

3. Wisconsin
Gary Andersen | Basketball: Bo Ryan

Ryan’s consistency at Wisconsin has been astounding with NCAA Tournament bids and top four finishes in the Big Ten for every year of his tenure since 2001-02. Moreover, Ryan is 12-3 against Izzo and 13-1 against Michigan’s John Beilein. The only thing missing from his resume is a deep NCAA Tournament run. Andersen also kept the football program a consistent program in the Big Ten. In his first season, the Badgers went 9-4, with three of those losses coming by one score.

4. Michigan
Brady Hoke | Basketball: John Beilein

One thing we’ve learned over the years: Never count out a Beilein-coached team. A season after losing the national player of the year in Trey Burke and playing most of the season without rising star Mitch McGary, the Wolverines remain in contention for the Big Ten title. On the football side, Hoke appeared to have Michigan on the path to Rose Bowl contention, but the Wolverines’ win total has decreased in each of the last three seasons.

5. Iowa
Kirk Ferentz | Basketball: Fran McCaffery

Ferentz has had only one 10-win season and top-10 finish since the Hawkeyes did so three seasons in a row from 2002-04. Still, Iowa enjoyed rebound season in 2013, finishing with its first winning record in the Big Ten since 2009. In four seasons, McCaffery has rebuilt an Iowa program that hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2006 and hasn’t won a Tournament game since 2001.

6. Indiana
Kevin Wilson | Basketball: Tom Crean

If Wilson can find a defense to match the offense in Bloomington, this tandem will rise near the top. The Hoosiers have improved from 0-8 to 2-6 to 3-5 in the Big Ten in his three seasons. Though Indiana’s disappointing 2013-14 season began with a Sweet 16 exit from the NCAA Tournament last year, Indiana emerged from NCAA sanctions to spend much of last season ranked No. 1.

7. Minnesota
Jerry Kill | Basketball: Richard Pitino

Kill’s program has enjoyed incremental improvement in each of his three seasons, remarkable given that Minnesota finished 8-5 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten even as Kill was limited for seven games while he dealt with epilepsy. Pitino, the youngest basketball coach in the Big Ten, has the Gophers in contention for an NCAA Tournament berth in his first season.

8. Nebraska
Bo Pelini | Basketball: Tim Miles

Pelini will need to use the Gator Bowl victory over Georgia to turn the momentum for his program. Nebraska is consistent, but a little too consistent for fans’ tastes. The Huskers have lost four games each season under Pelini, including a few head-scratchers. The charismatic Miles has Nebraska in postseason contention in 2013-14 after going 5-13 in his first season.

9. Northwestern
Pat Fitzgerald | Basketball: Chris Collins

Fitzgerald generally gets the most out of his team, making last year’s 0-7 finish that much more befuddling. The losing season ended Northwestern’s streak of five consecutive bowl games, but five postseason appearances in six years outpaces any other coach in Northwestern’s history. Collins, a former Duke assistant, is early in his tenure with the basketball program, but the Wildcats already earned road wins over Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota during his tenure.

10. Penn State
James Franklin | Basketball: Pat Chambers

If Franklin can weather the next few years of NCAA sanctions, the Pennsylvania native who led Vanderbilt to three consecutive bowl games could return the Nittany Lions into a Big Ten title contender in short order. Penn State is one of the toughest basketball jobs in the league, but the Nittany Lions have already topped their win total from each of Chambers’ first two seasons.

11. Maryland
Randy Edsall | Basketball: Mark Turgeon

After a transfer-filled first season and injury-plagued second season, Edsall’s program showed signs of momentum in Year 3 as the Terrapins went 7-6. With a 3-5 record in conference play, Edsall will be hard-pressed to show more progress in the first season in the Big Ten. Maryland still has a way to go before it is a power in basketball again. Turgeon is seeking his first winning ACC season in three years with the Terps.

12. Purdue
Darrell Hazell | Basketball: Matt Painter

Hazell built from the ground up at Kent State, experience he’ll need to pull Purdue out of the 1-11 hole from his first season. Painter’s program was in Big Ten title contention when Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore were on campus, though they couldn’t all stay healthy at the same time. Since then, Purdue has struggled to stay above .500 in the league.

13. Illinois
Tim Beckman | Basketball: John Groce

Groce had a veteran team in his first season, leading the Illini to 23 wins, the Maui Invitational title and the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. This year’s squad has been a team in transition hovering around the .500 mark. Beckman doubled his win total in his second season, but going from two wins to four probably isn’t what Illinois expected when they hired the successful Toledo coach.

14. Rutgers
Kyle Flood | Basketball: Eddie Jordan

Not great news for a Rutgers program taking a step up in both sports in the Big Ten. Jordan has NBA credentials, but his first season has been a rough ride in the American. After a starting 7-0, Flood is 8-11 in his last 19 games.

Ranking the Best Coaching Tandems in the Big Ten in 2014
Post date: Thursday, February 20, 2014 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: Denny Hamlin, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/denny-hamlins-back-back

Is Denny Hamlin’s back back? That is Question One in the Joe Gibbs Racing camp as the 2014 Sprint Cup season begins. The potent Toyota team, with one of the sport’s strongest lineups (Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Hamlin), remains in search of its first Cup championship carrying Toyota colors, and a healthy Hamlin can be a big player in that quest.

After a convincing win in Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited exhibition race it looks like all systems go.  Denny Hamlin

The 2013 season was more or less a lost year for Hamlin. After he suffered a compression fracture in his back in a brutal crash with Joey Logano as they raced for the win in the season’s fifth race, at Fontana, Calif., Hamlin sat out four weeks, essentially losing hope of running for his elusive first championship and falling into a sort of test-driver status for his teammates as they pursued the title.

Hamlin wrestled with back issues much of the year, climbing out of the car in pain after practice at Richmond and enduring painkiller injections in his spine in search of relief. He chose rehabilitation over surgery in hopes of making his return easier and faster.

As 2014 rolls out, the good news is that Hamlin capped 2013 by winning the season’s final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway and is one-for-one in Daytona. Although the former victory was overshadowed by Jimmie Johnson’s rush to yet another championship, the win reinforced Hamlin’s status as a top driver and, importantly, kept alive his streak of winning at least one Cup race per season since his full-time debut in 2006.

It was an exclamation point on a tough year.

“You just look at the small victories,” Hamlin says. “That’s all I could do — take pride in the small victories that we had here and there.

“Now everyone is starting over clean again in 2014. For me, when you come back after missing four or five races (and have) one or two bad finishes — my Chase hopes are over. You’re kind of racing for nothing, really. It’s hard to find the motivation to perform at 100 percent when you’re trying to find yourself, trying to figure out what feel you need, really when you feel like you’re not racing for anything.”

Hamlin says his back began responding more positively in early September, just as the schedule was moving into its Chase segment.

“Right around when the Chase started, I went in for some treatment (and) got an injection that numbed the pain,” he says. “That really allowed me to get back in the gym, get back to doing rehab again. That was the point for me where I started to get better inside the car.

“Richmond was probably the worst that I felt of any weekend. When you can’t go through a corner, you can’t feel the race car because you’re getting lightning bolts of pain through your back.”

Hamlin’s car was a lightning bolt in the Unlimited, a race in which he led the most laps and won all three segments.

“I realized after the win in Homestead, how I was feeling, that we run as good as I feel,” Hamlin said. “When I feel comfortable in the car, especially in long runs and everything, I can do just about anything I need to do to be a race winner.”

If Speedweeks will tell the tale of his recovery, the story so far is shaping up to be a healthy one.

By Mike Hembree
Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikehembree
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Denny Hamlin returns from an injury-plagued season to make a statement in NASCAR's Speedweeks in Daytona.
Post date: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 - 19:33
All taxonomy terms: Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/jimmie-johnson-six-questions-six-time-champ

Jimmie Johnson won his sixth Sprint Cup championship last season, putting him closer to NASCAR icons Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, who totaled seven apiece — a number Johnson will pursue as the 2014 season unfolds.

Barring catastrophe, there seems to be little doubt that Johnson will get to seven — and beyond. He appears to be in the prime of his career and in a good spot emotionally to push forward.  Jimmie Johnson

“I think you see some guys win in football or basketball and they get a big head,” says team owner Rick Hendrick. “They become bigger than life. But with Jimmie, it’s like it’s the record book for him. That’s what he wants. But he’s not letting it get to him. He’s the most unique guy I’ve ever met. He doesn’t have any ego. I don’t ever see it. He’s driven to be the best. That’s enough for him. He wants to write the record book. He’s nowhere near satisfied. He doesn’t care about talking about himself. He doesn’t care about the fanfare. He’s after the stats. At the end of the day, he wants things on the mantel.

“I’ve always said I’ve seen so many guys work their ass off to get to a level, and then they get all twisted up in the head and they kill it and blow it by getting off track from what got them there. He’s not like that. He just gets better and better.”

As Johnson prepares his quest to continue re-writing the record book, we pose six questions to the six-time champion.

How does the 2013 championship differ from the other five?
Jimmie Johnson:
Granted, the question now is can you get seven and all that. But we had that “Can you keep the streak alive?” thing on our shoulders forever and ever. It maybe didn’t let us enjoy the moment. We maybe were looking ahead and to what the next year might be like. This one feels better. I think I’m more comfortable in my own skin in my sport within my team. Maybe that’s the best way to describe it. I’m comfortable and enjoying this much more than I ever have.

You failed to win championships in 2011 and 2012 after winning five in a row. Did you feel like you had to sort of re-establish yourself?
No, because I felt like it’s been a short period of time. In 2011, we didn’t have a good second half of the Chase. But then we came back in 2012 and really had a shot to win it. So, I don’t feel like this was me trying to re-certify myself. I do feel like, though, that we started over with a clean sheet of paper in a lot of respects. We’re enjoying it a lot like our first championship. It has a little bit more significance and weight. For me, it has more meaning due to the time we have together, the impact it’s made for Rick with his 11 championships and the opportunity to share this with my family. To watch (daughter) Genevieve kind of grasp what’s going on — the parenthood side of life has changed me a lot. To go through all of this now as a parent, that has a pretty good effect for me.

What are the challenges in keeping this level of success?
I think keeping the 48 team in its sweet spot. The bond that we have … it’s a big part of our success. Where our sport’s heading is the other piece. There’s change coming. Don’t know exactly what it looks like yet, but from the competition side, we know the rules package is going to change. You hear rumbling about the format changing. Our sport is ever-changing, trying to adjust to an ever-changing world. The target is moving on us. I feel like we can chase the target pretty darn well, especially if we stay connected and united as we have. I don’t see why that would change any.

You’ve had the same core group of key people with you through the championships, but a lot of other people have revolved in and out of the team. How involved have you been in keeping the team rolling along through the changes?
It’s really in Chad’s (crew chief Chad Knaus) department. But there have been years where he thought my influence might help a potential crew member leave a team and come to Hendrick. I’ve made phone calls and talked to guys I only knew in passing and tried my best driver technique to get them to come on board. There were years that I didn’t really know the new guys. Chad said, “You need to get to know them.” I’d come in on Tuesday and train with them. I just follow his lead on all that.

Some people think you just drive the car, but your input goes far beyond that, right?
Yes, I’ve got to be careful now when I say things because people are really listening. If I just make a casual comment, it could lead us down a road — a bad road if I don’t know what I’m talking about. So I’m much more strategic when I say things among the Hendrick management. Chad and I can banter back and forth. A casual comment (and) I can get the management group looking in the wrong direction.

You’ve accomplished so much in recent years. What continues to drive you?
I’m usually never comfortable from a work standpoint or trying to learn and advance and compete. I guess I was born with a lot of that. It’s a joking thing to say, but I’m serious about it — I’ve not been good at anything my entire life. And I’m finally good at something. I’ve worked my whole life. I’ve raced for 33 years now, and I’m finally confident in what I do in a car and how I can help lead my team. I know the tracks. I know my equipment. I’m finally “there.”

By Mike Hembree
Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikehembree

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson sits down for a one-on-one interview with Athlon Sports.
Post date: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 - 18:15
All taxonomy terms: MLB
Path: /mlb/weirdest-things-happen-baseball-last-season-2013

Baseball is filled with bizarre coincidences, amazing statistics, and lots of oddball occurrences. Last season was no exception. As 2014 spring training gets underway, we decided to look back at the kookiest from 2013 in our annual Calendar of MLB Weirdness. 


April 5 Emilio Bonifacio is the second player of the live-ball era to strike out four times and commit three errors in the same game.

April 5 The Diamondbacks score two runs on a single passed ball.

April 5 Xavier Cedeno is the fifth pitcher in history to allow six runs without recording an out, yet surrender fewer than two hits.

April 6 The Rangers issue three intentional walks to Albert Pujols, but he homers the two times they don’t.

April 7 Reigning Cy Young Award winners R.A. Dickey and David Price each lose their starts by a score of 13–0.

April 7 Braves batters strike out 16 times for the second time in five days, but Atlanta wins both games by scoring a combined 14 runs.

April 9 In 10.1 innings, Brett Myers has allowed more home runs (seven) than 12 entire teams have hit.

April 10 With his fifth home run in his ninth game, John Buck equals the tater total of all Mets catchers in the 2012 season.

April 10 Including his previous start against them in 2012, the Mets’ Jeremy Hefner puts 13 consecutive Phillies batters on base.

April 16 KC’s Kelvin Herrera’s MLB-high 82.1 innings without a home run allowed evaporates when he serves up three in the span of four Braves hitters.

April 20 Two of the day’s starters, Rick Porcello and Philip Humber, combine to allow 17 earned runs while retiring a total of three batters.

April 24 Baltimore’s Josh Stinson allows five hits in his season debut — four homers and a double.

April 24 Eric Hinske of the D-Backs is awarded second base when the Giants’ Santiago Casilla, warming up in the bullpen, gloves his base hit.

April 29 Milwaukee is the first team in 55 years to hit at least four home runs and three triples in a game.

April 29 Between the 11th and 15th innings of Oakland’s 19-inning win over the Angels, three different center fielders sustain leg injuries while running to first base and must be removed from the game.

April 30 The month ends with the highest home run total by catchers (117) and highest strikeout total by pitchers (5,992) of any April in baseball history.



May 3 Braves third baseman Chris Johnson appeals an official scorer’s decision by insisting he should be charged with an error.

May 7 Thirteen-year veteran Nick Punto’s home run is the first he’s ever hit prior to June 2.

May 8 The Cardinals and Cubs, playing each other, rap into four double plays apiece.

May 10-11 Cardinals pitchers hold the Rockies hitless for 49 consecutive at-bats.

May 11Nelson Cruz cranks his third game-tying homer of the week, all setting up close Rangers victories and each in the sixth inning.

May 11 All three Marlins outfielders record an assist.

May 14 The Phillies poke their 16th straight solo home run.

May 17 Gerardo Parra’s homer on the game’s first pitch provides the sole run in Arizona’s defeat of Miami — the first time that’s happened since 1993, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

May 18 On the same day the Orioles’ streak of 109 victories when leading after seven innings is terminated, the Astros win for just the fifth time in their last 139 after trailing in the seventh or later.

May 19 Buck Showalter’s dash from the dugout to argue that a Rays double should have been called a foul ball backfires when the umps decide to check the replay and change their ruling to a home run.

May 21 Mike Trout’s cycle is the first in 81 years also to include at least five RBIs and a stolen base.

May 24 The umpire, thinking the first baseman caught the ball on the bag, calls out Jesus Sucre even though the pitcher takes the throw six feet in front of it.

May 25 All nine A’s starters drive in a run by the fifth inning. 



June 4 The Red Sox score in every inning against the Rangers except the one pitched by outfielder David Murphy.

June 4Miguel Cabrera ends a streak of 2,457 plate appearances in which he did not strike out after reaching a 3–0 count.

June 6 Bud Selig, announcing first-round picks, repeatedly calls it the “2000” draft.

June 8 Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey are the first starting hurlers since 1884 to match up against each other in two games that lasted 15 or more innings during the same season.

June 12 Brandon Moss gets just his fifth hit over 40 at-bats in 19 games, but all are home runs.

June 13 For the second time in franchise history, the Phillies win a game in which they score three or fewer runs despite accumulating at least 16 hits. (They first did it in 1954.)

June 14 Freddy Galvis (following Carlos Gomez and Carlos Gonzalez) is the third player in eight days to hit a triple in successive innings.

June 15 Exactly one month after Raul Ibanez was the first 40-year-old in Mariners history to hit a grand slam, Henry Blanco becomes the second.

June 18 For the second time in a week, Alfredo Aceves is demoted to Triple-A immediately after beating Tampa Bay with a one-run start.

June 25 Alexi Casilla homers for the second time in 498 at-bats — both off Justin Masterson. (He failed to hit another in 2013.)

June 28 A position player for two different teams (the White Sox’ Casper Wells and L.A.’s Skip Schumaker) throws a scoreless inning after his pitching teammates allow a combined 35 runs.



July 2 The Mets, who had set an NL record by failing to score more than five runs in 30 consecutive home games, tally seven times in the seventh inning at Citi Field.

July 5 The fireworks of victory are ignited at Busch Stadium with no outs in the ninth inning.

July 9 Al Alburquerque, who hadn’t allowed a home run in his first 71 major-league games, serves up one in a second straight appearance.

July 11 The Giants win for only the third time in 17 tries, with Madison Bumgarner notching the “W” in all three.

July 14 Brandon Workman (joining Jarred Cosart and Danny Salazar) is the third pitcher in four days to take a no-hitter into the sixth inning of his first big-league start, equaling the total number who had done that in the previous 15 seasons.

July 22 Joe Blanton becomes the second pitcher (with Bert Blyleven) to allow a home run in 10 consecutive outings two years in a row.

July 28 One day after a record-tying four games end in a 1–0 score among seven shutouts in all, there are four more whitewashes, including another pair of 1–0 battles.

July 28 For the first time in 50 years, the only players with multiple hits in a game are the starting pitchers (Travis Wood and Tim Lincecum).

July 31 Texas sweeps a three-game series from the Angels with each win via a walk-off home run — just the second time a team has ever done that.



Aug. 2 The Braves become the fourth team of the modern era to hang up a five (or more)-run inning in five consecutive games.

Aug. 4 Mike Scioscia is the first manager in 30 years to give the ball to seven pitchers during the eighth and ninth innings of a game.

Aug. 4 The Cardinals get an RBI from the first eight starters in their batting order for the second time in four days.

Aug. 7 The Rangers run their total to 13 stolen bases over two nights against the Angels.

Aug. 9 Although their first four batters of the game get a hit, the Pirates fail to score in the first inning.

Aug. 9-10 After hitting five home runs in his previous 85 games, Josh Reddick doubles that total in two days.

Aug. 10 Breaking his own Mets season-opening record of 2012 by needing 233 at-bats to raise his batting average to .200, Ike Davis finally reaches the Mendoza Line in his 264th of 2013.

Aug. 13 The Twins score their 23rd consecutive run on homers.

Aug. 13 Both teams’ leadoff hitters (the Mariners’ Brad Miller, the Rays’ Ben Zobrist) homer twice — just the third time that’s ever happened.

Aug. 13-14 After driving in 13 runs in his first 153 appearances of the season, Alfonso Soriano matches that total in a span of seven trips to the plate.

Aug. 16 The Braves limit the Nats to three or fewer runs for the 13th consecutive time.

Aug. 17 The Cubs are shut out for the fifth game in their last seven at Wrigley Field, tying a major league record for home games.

Aug. 19 Jake Elmore of the Astros catches and pitches in the same game — both the first appearances of his career at those positions.

Aug. 21 Max Stassi’s first career RBI sends him to the hospital, as he is hit by a pitch with the bases loaded that ricochets off his shoulder into his face.

Aug. 24 Cliff Pennington becomes the first Diamondback ever to draw five walks in a game, doing so in the 16th inning. Two innings later, teammate Tony Campana ties his record. 

Aug. 27 Alfonso Soriano socks his 400th home run and Aramis Ramirez his 350th on the same day.

Aug. 27 For the first time in 28 games, the Brewers score a first-inning run.

Aug. 30 A 38th consecutive Marlin who drew a walk fails to score.

Aug. 30 21-year-old Taijuan Walker debuts by throwing to a batterymate (Henry Blanco) who was catching for Class A Bakersfield when he was born.



Sept. 6 Yusmeiro Petit, preceded by Yu Darvish, makes this the first season in which two pitchers lose a perfect game with two outs in the ninth.

Sept. 13 Princeton product David Hale strikes out Princeton product Will Venable as the first batter he faces in his major-league career.

Sept. 19Matt Moore allows Texas to steal four bases in the first four innings — one more than he’d permitted in 136 innings entering the game.

Sept. 26-28 After the Brewers beat the Mets by the same score (4–2) for the third straight day, the Elias Sports Bureau reports that this is the fourth time in the past 20 years this has happened — all involving one of those two teams.

Sept. 29 The Astros, needing 14 strikeouts in their season finale to set a major-league team record for a season, stage a clutch performance and whiff 19 times.

Sept. 29 Mike Trout sets a record for most games played in the outfield (148) without recording an assist.

Sept. 30 For just the third time in the 162-game era, no player records 200 hits, although Adrian Beltre and Matt Carpenter finish with 199.



Oct. 3 Carlos Beltran goes deep, concluding the NLCS game with 15 home runs in 129 postseason at-bats — precisely the same stats that Babe Ruth had in his postseason career.

Oct. 15 Matt Holliday finally leaves the yard after the first 242 hitters of the NLCS come up empty.

Oct. 27 One night after Game 3 of the World Series ends on an obstruction call, Game 4 ends on a pickoff — neither of which had ever happened before.

The Weirdest Things to Happen in Baseball Last Season 2013
Post date: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 - 15:00
All taxonomy terms: Olympics
Path: /olympics/2014-sochi-olympics-what-watch-feb-19

Today's Highlights


8-11:30 p.m. Eastern

There's a good chance you watched the hockey live, as productivity across the nation plummeted around lunchtime. But here are some other events you'll enjoy tonight on tape delay.


1. Alpine Skiing — Men's Giant Slalom
American Ted Ligety first won a gold medal eight years ago as a 21-year-old unknown. Now, he's the overwhelming favorite to erase his Vancouver disappointment of 2010 and win gold again.

Read more here:


2. Women's Bobsled

The American duo of Elana Meyers and Lauryn Williams are the overnight leaders after a strong pair of runs, while Lolo Jones' driving partner Jazmine Fenlator piloted a couple of sloppy runs for an 11th-place showing after Day 1.


3. Women's Figure Skating — Short Program

The marquee event of any Winter Games is the women's figure skating individual competition, and Sochi is no different. Americans Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds and Ashley Wagner will try to position themselves for medal contention, but the favorites are South Korea's Kim Yu-na and Russian sweetheart Julia Lipnitskaia, who will be feeling the pressure of her home country's hopes after Russia's shocking hockey loss.


4. Snowboarding — Men's Parallel Giant Slalom

Russian Vic Wild, who was born in the U.S., earned Russian citizenship by marrying Alena Zavarzina, and he also earned a spot on the Russian Olympic team. Now he tries to overcome a sloppy course to earn gold for his adopted homeland.

Post date: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 - 13:12
Path: /college-basketball/weekly-tipoff-which-team-fastest-riser-last-few-weeks

It happens every basketball season around this time.

Just when you think you’ve got the NCAA Tournament bubble figured out, a few teams make a run late in the season to be considered.

Some of those teams will prove to be on a hot streak, returning to earth in the coming weeks. Others will go into the conference tournaments ready needing only a game or two to fill the final slots on the bracket.

Our staff wonders who that team could be this season.

Name a team that wasn’t on the bubble two weeks ago that can make the NCAA Tournament.

Mitch Light: West Virginia still has some work to do, but it’s quite remarkable that we are talking about this team possibly earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Mountaineers have won four of their last six to improve their record to 15–11 overall and 7–6 in the very tough Big 12. They have four wins against top-50 RPI teams, highlighted by a 102–77 beatdown vs. Iowa State on Feb. 10. Nine of WVU’s 11 losses have come against top-50 RPI teams, and the two that did not occurred in November (Virginia Tech) and December (Purdue). Bob Huggins’ team plays three of its final five regular-season games at home, including a huge home game against Kansas on March 8. The opportunity is there for this team to make the NCAAs.  

David Fox: If Nebraska can continue its hot streak in the final month of the season, the Cornhuskers could make a late push for an NCAA Tournament bid. There’s little room for error, though. This team lost to Creighton and UMass early in the season and then endured a six-game losing streak. But Tim Miles’ team is one of the most improved in the country since then, defeating Ohio State and Indiana at home and then shocking Michigan State on the road. Terran Petteway has proven himself to be a 30-point player when called upon. He and the Huskers are capable of stringing together a winning streak against the lower tier of the Big Ten to set up a huge regular-season finale in Lincoln against Wisconsin.

Braden Gall: St. John’s is the easy answer here because other surging teams like Nebraska and Georgia just don’t have enough on their résumé to be in the conversation. The Red Storm have won five straight games and eight of their last nine since a double-overtime loss to Providence in early January capped a five-game losing streak. Steve Lavin’s team lost to Creighton in Omaha but played extremely well and then avenged the loss at home last weekend. Toss in road wins at Butler, Providence and Seton Hall as well as Georgetown and Marquette at home and St. John’s is right in the NCAA Tournament mix after starting the season 9–8 overall and 0–5 in conference play.

Weekly Tipoff: Which team is the fastest riser in the last few weeks?
Post date: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 - 11:00
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-february-19-2014

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Feb. 19.

Presenting the 12 rookies of this year's SI Swimsuit issue, including Valerie van der Graaf (pictured). Wonder if there was any rookie hazing involved?

• Screen grab of the day so far: Putin reacts to Russia's elimination from the Olympic hockey tournament.

A U.S. bobsledder who didn't make the Olympic cut couldn't resist taking shots at Lolo Jones from the safety of Twitter.

John Calipari's perplexed face is tremendous in slow motion.

How about some slo-mo footage of NFL cheerleaders running the 40 in their work clothes? Oh, and Rich Eisen, too.

Texas A&M is putting in the nation's largest scoreboard — 7,661 square feet. That's three times the square footage of my house.

I had never heard of Meng, the scariest man in wrestling. Now I'm a little sorry I have. Dude's terrifying.

• Sorry to be a hump-day buzzkill, but there's disturbing footage of Ray Rice dragging his unconscious fiancee out of an elevator. Methinks it's time to cop a plea.

• Ho-hum. Just another insane high school basketball buzzer-beater.

Melo consoled himself after a loss by checking out some fan's backside.

So does it matter if Robinson Cano doesn't run out grounders?

• They're a little more serious about their base-brawls in Cuba. This one features a guy swinging a bat at another guy's head.


-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]

Post date: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 - 10:58
All taxonomy terms: MLB, Fantasy
Path: /fantasy/2014-fantasy-baseball-consensus-big-board-rankings

Pitchers and catches have finally reported and it means fantasy baseball drafts are soon approaching. And let's be honest, Draft Day is a glorious holiday that puts Valentine's Day to shame.

Fantasy baseball leagues can be won from every location in the draft — early in the round or late — and can be won with any variety of strategies. Is pitching moving up draft rankings? In what round should the first closer be selected? Speed versus power? Rookies, sleepers and reaches abound.

There are a ton of decisions to be made on draft day when constructing a fake baseball team. And while a fantasy league cannot be won in the first few rounds, it most certainly can be lost. Screwing up an early pick can decimate a roster in no time flat.

Enter Athlon Sports' consensus fantasy baseball Big Board. CBS Sports (Scott White), ESPN, Fox Sports, Athlon Sports magazine*,,  RotoChamp (RC) and Yahoo! (in order) have been combined and averaged to offer the best possible fantasy baseball rankings on the web.

* - Athlon’s (AS) rankings come from the official preview magazine, which is on newsstands now.

So without further ado, here is the 2014 Athlon consensus fantasy baseball Big Board:

2014 Fantasy Baseball Big Board:

1Mike TroutLAAOF1111111
2Miguel CaberaDET3B2222222
3Andrew McCutchenPITOF5344434
4Paul GoldschmidtARI1B3435383
5Carlos GonzalezCOLOF7556566
6Clayton KershawLADSP910636115
7Robinson CanoNYY2B4971571412
8Ryan BraunMILOF15151181259
9Chris DavisBAL1B11692011138
10Joey VottoCIN1B8201213161915
11Prince FielderDET1B13141518151217
12Hanley RamirezLADSS141382813217
13Adam JonesBALOF1712103514711
14Bryce HarperWASOF2122162919410
15Yu DarvishTEXSP18212010172316
16Adrian BeltreTEX3B1911174781013
17Troy TulowitzkiCOLSS12161314184314
18David WrightNYM3B16192112232419
19Edwin EncarnacionTOR3B108146710920
20Jacoby EllsburyNYYOF67185294218
21Carlos GomezMILOF28171944211721
22Jason KipnisCLE2B23182722252627
23Adam WainwrightSTLSP30272623222522
24Felix HernandezSEASP34292916202029
25Yaisel PuigLADOF29282533301524
26Max ScherzerDETSP22342417333233
27Cliff LeePHISP35263234261832
28Freddie FreemanATL1B4533289283031
29Dustin PedroiaBOS2B20233139244628
30Stephen StrasburgWASSP36363311512826
31Evan LongoriaTB3B24252248464025
32Jose FernandezMIASP31543924353134
33Giancarlo StantonMIAOF26352371294723
34Chris SaleCHWSP42394525343942
35Ian DesmondWASSS38244040315843
36Jay BruceCINOF53453643411640
37Madison BumgarnerSFSP41484731434536
38Justin UptonATLOF39413569393435
39Jose BautistaTOROF33473490402230
40Alex RiosCHWOF73303853322744
41Jose ReyesTORSS323130423810037
42David PriceTBSP52384926475148
43Eric HosmerKC1B55434336274864
44Justin VerlanderDETSP3761527497737
45Buster PoseySFC/1B47403745536947
46Craig KimbrelATLRP78495321425649
47Shin-Soo ChooTEXOF27374188448241
48Cole HamelsPHISP48445038845346
49Albert PujolsLAA1B44524419629750
50Jean SeguraMILSS25734285575539
51David OrtizBOS1B59466527615467
52Hunter PenceHOUOF58695851483562
53Zack GreinkeMILSP56555630717045
54Matt KempLADOF40754649456861
55Ryan ZimmermanWAS3B50585437766756
56Starling MartePITOF66675770563751
57Ian KinslerDET2B49324866795972
58Matt CarpenterSTL2B/3B43686182722952
59Anibal SanchezDETSP61657246633665
60Matt HollidaySTLOF54805194373859
61Allen CraigSTL1B/OF57636373584954
62Elvis AndrusTEXSS60426755607890
63Aroldis ChapmanCINSP90566265557455
64Jason HeywardATLOF62827189366266
65Wil MyersTBOF648166100663360
66Yoenis CespedesOAKOF846068101506453
67Adrian GonzalezLAD1B69575974935774
68Carlos SantanaCLEC/1B70786441866594
69Joe MauerMINC/1B4662551027710957
70Kenley JansenLADRP995969755410558
71Josh DonaldsonOAK3B51516096898196
72Gio GonzalezWASSP94907332788970
73Greg HollandKCRP91668364529973
74Mat LatosCINSP88887497687963
75Matt CainSFSP877776585912677
76Alex GordonKCOF113898487654482
77Jose AltuveHOU2B748375638510687
78Jordan ZimmermannWASSP929277508810471
79Homer BaileyCINSP93769581678881
80Hisashi IwakumaSEASP727479861158479
81Mike MinorATLSP897188577512592
82Yadier MolinaSTLC7150709110912086
83Mark TrumboARI1B/OF858685103908080
84Shane VictorinoBOSOF82105871048141111
85Domonic BrownPHIOF6311086105986199
86James ShieldsKCSP1018493619911493
87Josh HamiltonLAAOF11510992721047183
88Wilin RosarioCOLC761028256107110121
89Pedro AlvarezPIT3B79101881067413076
90Koji UeharaBOSRP105125106591009175
91Carlos BeltranNYYOF1148590107829095
92Jayson WerthWASOF81877879105127109
93Billy ButlerKC1B95107103801138591
94Ben ZobristTB2B/SS686491108120 85
95Gerrit ColePITSP10899981091337369
96Brandon PhillipsCIN2B96539411013894107
97Desmond JenningsTBOF1189310011110152124
98Anthony RizzoCHC1B8310680112106112102
99Masahiro TanakaNYYSP117951016892103127
100Trevor RosenthalSTLRP121118991136411378
101Kyle SeagerSEA3B80701137696 129
102Billy HamiltonCINOF8611411411470 68
103Everth CabreraSDSS651128111591 108
104Curtis GrandersonNYMOF130 1041166950112
105Aaron HillARI2B1061041119380123119
106Alex CobbTBSP102121961171229589
107Kris MedlenATLSP1459712160112102118
108Martin PradoARI2B/3B671151099514996131
109Manny MachadoBAL3B7511311084147 84
110Brian McCannNYYC10011710711883116126
111Joe NathanDETRP104124123998713598
112Jonathan LucroyMILC779197119 92 
113Shelby MillerSTLSP11696102120123124105
114Michael CuddyerCOL1B/OF124103117121 66110
115Austin JacksonDETOF  1261227363123
116Jered WeaverLAASP10394116123114129143
117Starlin CastroCHCSS1477210598150 106
118Michael WachaSTLSP10914312412413683115
119Hyun-Jin RyuLADSP149126118125103119103
120Doug FisterWASSP 9812912694122134
121Julio TeheranATLSP112128112127 133101
122Salvador PerezKCC13113610854  144
123Aramis RamirezMIL3B 79132128143107140
124Matt MooreTBRP110129115129  97
125Daniel MurphyNYM2B14112213378108  
126Jose AbreuCHW1B125 12013013176 
127Glen PerkinsMINRP 13412213195142113
128Coco CrispOAKOF119142128132 111117
129Chase UtleyPHI2B97100119133   
130Brett LawrieTOR2B/3B 108138134 121100
131Leonys MartinTEXOF13615013713510298149
132Sergio RomoSFRP 132130136116143104
133Tony CingraniCINSP120  13713787141
134Chase HeadleySD3B15012713983127  
135Matt AdamsSTL1B98116140138  135
136Jon LesterBOSSP13214614362146  
137Brandon BeltSF1B142130135139111139136
138David RobertsonNYYRP 13814714097141120
139Brandon MossOAK1B/OF 123149141 75 
140Brett GardnerNYYOF   142 49148
141Johnny CuetoCINSP146 14577139 136
142Jedd GyorkoSD2B/3B107 127143 115 
143Sonny GrayOAKSP129  144 72 
144Alejandro De AzaCHWOF   145 60 
145Francisco LirianoPITSP111 125146134 147
146Pablo SandovalSF3B 137144147  87
147Alfonso SorianoNYYOF128144 148128145128
148Jim JohnsonOAKRP   92141 139
149Danny SalazarCLESP   149117132125
150Nelson Cruz--OF135 148150110134 
2014 Fantasy Baseball Consensus Big Board Rankings
Post date: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 - 08:30
Path: /college-football/top-10-big-12-linebackers-bcs-era

The Bowl Championship Series is dead. But even the harshest of BCS detractors must acknowledge that the 16-year run was arguably the best era of college football in the history of the sport.

The era was highlighted by the advent of the BCS Championship Game, conference realignment and mega-dollar contracts for conferences, programs and coaches. But the elite athletes had a huge, if not the biggest, hand in the unprecedented growth of college football over the last two decades.

So Athlon Sports is looking back on the players that made the BCS Era great — conference-by-conference, position-by-position.

In the Big 12, maybe more so than anywhere else, having great linebackers has appeared to correlate directly to big time success. The Sooners had a run with names like Calmus, Lehman and Marshall and it led to a national title. This league’s linebackers have won four Butkus Awards — more than any other major conference — to go with a pair of Bednariks, a Nagurski, Lambert and Lombardi award as well. Texas, Kansas State, Texas A&M, Nebraska and even Kansas were at their best when they had a star linebacker to lean on. Additionally, fans will find a host of players from teams no longer in the Big 12. Colorado, Nebraska, Texas A&M and Missouri all had stars at the linebacker position during the BCS Era.

Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.

1. Derrick Johnson, Texas (2002-04)
The big-play machine from Waco, Texas, was one of the greatest linebackers in Longhorns program history. He finished his career with 458 tackles, 65.0 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, nine interceptions and 11 forced fumbles. Johnson was a three-time All-Big 12 selection and a two-time All-American. He capped his career with the Butkus, Lambert and Nagurski national awards as well as Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors before being taken 15th overall by the Chiefs in the 2005 NFL Draft. He helped build a team that went on to win the national title the year after he departed and was a part of a Cotton and Rose Bowl championship teams.

2. Rocky Calmus, Oklahoma (1998-01)
A three-time, first-team All-Big 12 selection and a two-time All-American, Calmus is one of the most important Sooners of all-time. As a senior in 2001 he won the Butkus and Lambert Awards for the nation's top linebacker, but his play in '00 will go down in Oklahoma history. He led the vaunted Sooners defense to a perfect record and spearheaded arguably the greatest defensive performance of the BCS Era by holding Florida State to zero offensive points in the BCS National Championship Game. Calmus was a third-round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.

3. Dat Nguyen, Texas A&M (1995-98)
Arguably the most decorated Texas A&M defender, Nguyen was a three-time, first-team All-Big 12 selection and his 517 career tackles are an Aggies record. His career in College Station culminated in 1998 with a historic and adorned senior season. Nguyen was named the Bednarik, Lombardi and Lambert trophy winner and earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors as well. He led Texas A&M to the only Big 12 championship it would ever win that year as well — its last conference crown of any kind. The unanimous All-American was a third-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 2004.

4. Teddy Lehman, Oklahoma (2000-03)
The Tulsa, Okla., native played in all 12 games for the 2000 BCS National Champions as a freshman. He was a three-year starter for the Sooners after that, posting 117 tackles and 19.0 TFL and earning the Butkus and Bednarik Awards while leading Oklahoma back to the BCS national title game in 2003. He was a two-time All-American and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and was a second-round pick of the Lions in the 2004 NFL Draft. Oklahoma was 48-6 during Lehman’s four years and won two Big 12 titles.

5. Von Miller, Texas A&M (2007-10)
After an up and down but promising first two seasons, Miller exploded onto the scene as a junior in 2009. He led the nation in sacks with 17.0 and posted 21.0 tackles for loss for a team that lost seven games. As a senior, despite being slowed by an ankle injury, Miller posted 10.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss en route to the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker for a team that won nine games. Miller was a two-time, first-team All-American and All-Big 12 pick and was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos.

6. Mark Simoneau, Kansas State (1996-99)
His long career in Manhattan gives him the edge over another Kansas State Defensive Player of the Year. He posted 400 career tackles and 52.0 tackles for loss, becoming the first Bill Snyder-coached player to be inducted into the NCAA Hall of Fame. Simoneau was named the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and an All-American on his second 11-1 team as a senior. In all, Kansas State went 42-7 during Simoneau’s four seasons.

7. Arthur Brown, Kansas State (2011-12)
Brown originally signed with and played for Miami for his first two seasons but transferred back home to Kansas in the spring of 2010. After landing at middle linebacker, Brown was a workhorse for Bill Snyder. He topped 100 tackles in both seasons, posted 16.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and three picks for a Wildcats team that lost only once and won the ’12 Big 12 championship. He was first-team All-Big 12 in both seasons, was an All-American as a senior, won Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors and was a second-round pick of the Ravens in 2013.

8. Sean Weatherspoon, Missouri (2006-09)
The elite tackler from Mizzou posted three straight 100-tackle seasons, finishing with 406 total stops, 44.0 tackles for loss and 12.0 career sacks. His 155-tackle season in 2008 led the nation and was a leader on what many consider the best two-year run in school history between 2006-07. Mizzou went 38-16 and he was a three-time All-Big 12 pick and was a part of the Tigers' only two Big 12 title game appearances.

9. Rufus Alexander, Oklahoma (2003-06)
The star Sooners tackler was a three-time All-Big 12 pick, twice landing on the first team as a junior and senior. He posted 118 tackles, 12.0 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks en route to co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors in ’06. Oklahoma played in three BCS bowls, including the ’03 BCS title game, during his four-year career and Alexander was an All-American in his final season.

10. Jordon Dizon, Colorado (2004-07)
Dizon was the first true freshman in school history to start in the season opener at inside linebacker. He set school records for tackles by a freshman (82), tackles in a game (22) and led the nation in tackling as a senior (2007). He was a first-team All-Big 12 pick twice, a consensus All-American and won Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year (’07). The Buffs went to three bowl games in Dizon’s four years — the last three bowls Colorado has been to.

Just missed the cut:

11. Curtis Lofton, Oklahoma (2005-07)
From a talent standpoint, few were as gifted as Lofton. He was a consensus All-American in his final season with 157 tackles, 10.5 for loss and three interceptions as a junior. He led Oklahoma to two Big 12 titles and two Fiesta Bowl berths but the Sooners lost 10 games in the three years Lofton was in Norman.

12. Travis Lewis, Oklahoma (2008-11)
Few players can claim that they led their team in tackling four consecutive years but that is what Lewis did in Norman. He started all 54 games of his career, posting 451 tackles, 32.5 for loss, 8.0 sacks and nine interceptions. He was Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year and then a three-time All-Big 12 pick following that. He led the Sooners to the BCS title game, two Big 12 titles and a 42-12 record during his career.

13. Barrett Ruud, Nebraska (2001-04)
The star tackler started 37 of his 50 career games and finished his career with 432 tackles, 50.0 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks and six forced fumbles. He earned All-Big 12 honors in each of his last three seasons and was an All-American in 2004 as a senior. He was a second-round pick of the Bucs in the 2005 NFL Draft.

14. Lavonte David, Nebraska (2010-11)
He played just two seasons in Lincoln and only one in the Big 12 but he was simply a stud. David was a two-time all-league pick in both the Big 12 and Big Ten and won Butkus-Fitzgerald Big Ten LB of the Year honors in 2011, David started all 27 career games and set the Nebraska single-season tackles record (152) in 2010.

15. Torrance Marshall, Oklahoma (1999-00)
Known for his Orange Bowl MVP award in the national title win over Florida State, Marshall continued Bob Stoops' early run of elite linebackers. Marshall had a knack for making huge plays in key situations and helped Oklahoma win its first national title since 1985.

Best of the rest:

16. A.J. Klein, Iowa State (2009-12)
Posted three straight seasons with at least 100 tackles and won Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2011.

17. Nick Reid, Kansas (2002-05)
He posted 416 tackles and 41.0 for loss and scored the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award in 2005.

18. Sergio Kindle, Texas (2006-09)
Was an All-American for unbeaten team that lost to Alabama in the BCS national title game.

19. Jeff Kelly, Kansas State (1995-98)
Was a consensus All-American in his final season after back-to-back 11-win seasons.

20. Jake Knott, Iowa State (2009-12)
He posted 346 tackles and was a two-time All-Big 12 honoree.

Top 10 Big 12 Linebackers of the BCS Era
Post date: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/college-footballs-top-10-quarterbacks-rise-2014

With spring practice already underway for some college football teams, the countdown to the 2014 season has officially started. There’s still a long way to go before August and the season opener, but it’s never too early to start thinking about which players are ready for a big jump in production.

There’s no question quarterback is the most important position on the field. And the scrutiny on signal-callers is at an all-time high with college football’s playoff set to start in 2014. While some teams like Florida State or Oregon have zero concerns about their starting quarterbacks, other programs are searching for an answer in spring practice.

But there’s also another category for teams to fall into. Teams like Georgia, Missouri and Pittsburgh are technically breaking in a new starter, but there’s not much concern over the quarterback position.

Although names like Missouri’s Maty Mauk, Georgia’s Hutson Mason and Pittsburgh’s Chad Voytik are far from household names, these players could play a key role in determining a division or conference title.

In addition to Mauk, Mason and Voytik, here are a few other quarterbacks that could be breakout stars in 2014.

College Football's Top 10 Quarterbacks on the Rise for 2014

Jacob Coker, Alabama
With Jameis Winston entrenched for at least one more year in Tallahassee, Coker took advantage of the graduate transfer rule and left Florida State for Alabama for a chance to win a starting job in the SEC. Although Coker has to compete with a host of options this spring (Blake Sims, David Cornwell, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman), he is considered to be the favorite to start Alabama’s season opener against West Virginia. The junior doesn’t have a ton of experience from his two years in Tallahassee, but there’s also a lot to like about the Alabama native. Coker completed 21 of 41 throws for 295 yards and one touchdown in two seasons with the Seminoles. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds – along with a strong arm – Coker has all of the intangibles coaches want in a quarterback. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher is one of the best in the nation at developing quarterbacks, and Coker gave Winston a run for the starting job in the fall. Although Coker doesn’t have a start on the collegiate level, there’s no shortage of talent or potential as he looks to win Alabama’s starting job this preseason.

Matt Johnson, Bowling Green
Bowling Green made one of the offseason’s top hires in Dino Babers, and the Falcons should be the frontrunner to win the MAC in 2014. The former Baylor assistant built one of the top offenses in the FCS ranks last year, as Eastern Illinois averaged 48.2 points per game and averaged 372.4 passing yards per contest. Johnson appears to be the perfect triggerman for Babers’ offense after throwing for 3,467 yards and 25 touchdowns in his first season as a starter in 2013. The Pennsylvania native also tossed only seven picks in 369 attempts and added 230 yards and five scores on the ground. As long as Johnson quickly adapts to the new offense, he should have a monster season under Babers’ direction.

Trevor Knight, Oklahoma
It’s hard to put too much stock in what happens in bowl games, but it’s also hard to ignore Knight’s performance against Alabama. After throwing just 90 passes during the regular season, Knight hoisted 44 attempts against the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl, completing 32 of those for 348 yards and four scores. The performance against Alabama was easily the best of Knight’s 2013 season. However, there were other bright spots for the Texas native throughout the regular season. Knight threw for 171 yards and added 82 on the ground against Kansas State, while he rushed for 123 yards in a 48-10 win against Iowa State. If Knight can build off his bowl performance, he could elevate Oklahoma into contention for a spot in college football’s new four-team playoff. The Sooners need to reload in the receiving corps, but there’s still talent on the offensive line, and with Blake Bell moving to tight end there’s no question which quarterback will be taking snaps in Norman this fall.

Hutson Mason, Georgia
Aaron Murray’s late-season knee injury was a huge blow for Georgia’s offense, but it also created an opportunity for Mason to secure the No. 1 spot heading into spring practice. In relief of Murray against Kentucky, Mason completed 13 of 19 passes for 189 yards and one score. In his first career start, Mason rallied Georgia to a 41-34 overtime win against Georgia Tech by throwing for 299 yards and two touchdowns. Considering the sloppy conditions, the Gator Bowl isn’t the best judge of Mason’s ability, but he did manage to throw for 320 yards in that game. Mason is still largely unproven despite his performances at the end of 2013. However, Georgia’s supporting cast is strong, and Mason has spent the last four years waiting for this chance. With a strong grasp of the offense, Mason should take full advantage of his opportunity to be the Bulldogs’ starter.

Maty Mauk, Missouri
Mauk appears to be the next in a line of successful quarterbacks produced by Missouri. After James Franklin suffered a shoulder injury against Georgia, Mauk’s production helped to keep the Tigers in contention for the SEC East title. In his first start against Florida, the Ohio native threw for 295 yards and one touchdown on 18 completions. Mauk threw for five touchdowns against Kentucky and passed for 163 yards and three scores against Tennessee. Even though his 1,071 yards and 11 passing scores from last year were impressive, the most important number from Mauk’s final stat line was just two interceptions in 133 attempts. Mauk’s completion percentage could use a little work (51.1 percent), but he averaged nearly 16 yards per completion (15.7). He will have a few ups and downs in his first full season as the starter, but all signs point to a breakout year for Mauk.

Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
After finishing last season on a three-game winning streak, along with the return of 16 starters, Dan Mullen could have the best team of his tenure coming back to Starkville. Prescott is one of the driving forces behind Mississippi State’s hope for a breakout 2014, as the Louisiana native finished the season by throwing for 283 yards and three touchdowns in the 44-7 blowout win over Rice in the Liberty Bowl. Prescott showed flashes of promise in SEC play by recording 303 total yards against Texas A&M and led Mississippi State to a comeback win over Ole Miss in the regular-season finale. Prescott still has room to improve, but with Tyler Russell expiring his eligibility, he will spend all preseason working with the No. 1 offense. The junior is a perfect fit for Mullen’s offense and could approach 1,000 rushing yards after leading the Bulldogs with 829 yards on the ground last year.

Chad Voytik, Pittsburgh
Paul Chryst got a glimpse of the future when Tom Savage suffered an injury in the bowl win over Bowling Green. Pittsburgh’s offense didn’t miss a beat with Voytik at the controls, as the Panthers posted 13 points in the second half and punted only once on five drives. Voytik completed 5 of 9 passes for 108 yards against the Falcons and rushed for 24 yards on two attempts. The Tennessee native threw only 11 passes last season, but there’s no question about his talent, ranking as the No. 16 quarterback recruit in the 2012 signing class. As evidenced by his work at Wisconsin, Chryst knows how to develop quarterbacks and make the most out of his talent. Voytik has the talent and intangibles and should flourish under Chryst’s tutelage this season. And it certainly doesn’t hurt Voytik’s development that he will be throwing to standout receiver Tyler Boyd and protected by a line that returns four starters.

P.J. Walker, Temple
Temple started 0-6 last year but rallied to win two out of their final six games, including a 41-21 road contest at Memphis in the season finale. A key reason for the turnaround was Walker’s emergence as the team’s starting quarterback. The New Jersey native started the final seven contests and finished the season with 2,084 yards and 20 touchdowns, while tossing only eight picks on 250 attempts. Walker also added 332 yards and three scores on the ground. Another positive sign for Temple was Walker’s completion percentage (60.8), as well as a solid 13.7 yards per completion. Even though top receiver Robby Anderson won’t return, Walker is poised to emerge as one of the top quarterbacks in the American Athletic Conference in 2014.

Davis Webb, Texas Tech
With Michael Brewer and Baker Mayfield transferring, Webb enters spring practice entrenched as Texas Tech’s No. 1 quarterback. With a clear path to the starting job, along with a standout performance in the Holiday Bowl, Webb appears to be on his way to emerging as Texas Tech’s next star quarterback. As a true freshman last year, the Texas native threw for 2,718 yards and 20 touchdowns on 361 attempts, while tossing only nine picks. Webb completed 62.6 percent of his throws and threw for at least 385 yards in five out of his last six games. The Red Raiders need to replace standout receiver Eric Ward and tight end Jace Amaro, but Kliff Kingsbury should have this offense performing at a high level once again.

Marquise Williams, North Carolina
The Tar Heels were one of the hottest teams in the ACC by the end of 2013, and Larry Fedora’s team should be a factor in the Coastal Division title picture this fall. Williams was one of the top factors behind the late-season turnaround, taking over starting quarterback duties after Bryn Renner was lost for the year with a shoulder injury. The North Carolina native’s first career start came against Virginia Tech in early October, passing for 277 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-17 road loss. The Tar Heels fared better in Williams’ next start, winning a 45-14 matchup against Virginia, followed by a 34-27 road win at Pittsburgh. Williams was sharp in an easy win over Old Dominion, gashing the Monarchs defense for 469 total yards and four touchdowns. Fedora has assembled one of the ACC’s top running back corps, along with a handful of talented weapons at receiver. Williams will face competition from redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky, but all signs point to the junior building off a successful finish to the 2013 season.

Other Names to Watch

Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska
Armstrong will have to compete with Johnny Stanton and Zack Darlington for the starting spot, but he showed flashes of promise in his redshirt freshman season, throwing for 966 yards in nine games, including 163 in the bowl win over Georgia.

Drew Barker, Kentucky
True freshman passer is a key piece for Mark Stoops’ rebuilding effort in Lexington. Barker ranked as the No. 119 prospect in the 247Sports Composite this season and will have an opportunity to win the starting job this spring.

Jacoby Brissett, NC State
The Wolfpack struggled on offense last season, but improvement should be noticeable in 2014. With former starters Pete Thomas and Brandon Mitchell no longer in the picture following a disappointing 2013 campaign under center, Brissett is a welcomed upgrade. He was a top-100 recruit coming out of high school and threw for 455 yards in two seasons at Florida.

Will Gardner, Louisville
There’s no doubt Louisville will miss Teddy Bridgewater. But Gardner is an intriguing option for new coach Bobby Petrino. The Georgia native completed 8 of 12 passes for 112 yards in mop-up duty last year and has upside to develop in the Cardinals’ new offense.

Jared Goff, California
Goff had his share of freshman mistakes last year, but he finished 2013 with a respectable stat line – 3,508 yards and 18 touchdowns. Under the direction of Sonny Dykes and Tony Franklin, Goff should be in for a significant jump in production in 2014.

Terrel Hunt, Syracuse
Hunt averaged only 9.8 yards per attempt last year, but the New York native played his best in Syracuse’s final two games. In the win against Boston College, Hunt threw for 270 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 90 yards and one score. In the 21-17 victory over Minnesota in the Texas Bowl, Hunt completed 19 of 29 passes for 188 yards and added 74 yards and two scores on the ground. Both games should serve as a sign of progress for the Orange's offense under coordinator George McDonald heading into 2014.

Jaquez Johnson, FAU
Finished first season at FAU with six passing touchdowns over final two games and led the team with 772 rushing yards. Johnson was named as Conference USA’s Newcomer of the Year last season and accounted for 2,648 of FAU’s 4,615 yards in 2013.

Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati
Kiel ranked as the No. 2 quarterback in the 2012 signing class but never played a snap at Notre Dame. The Indiana native threw for 4,831 yards and 61 touchdowns in two seasons at Columbus East High School and was the Gatorade Indiana Player of the Year in 2011. Kiel has all of the physical tools necessary to succeed at Cincinnati, and with Munchie Legaux likely sidelined until this summer, he should have a clear path to the starting job.

Sefo Liufau, Colorado
Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre and coordinator Brian Lindgren were instrumental in developing San Jose State passer David Fales. Liufau showed promise in limited action last season, finishing the year with 1,779 yards and 12 touchdowns on 149 completions. Liufau closed the year by throwing for seven touchdowns and just three interceptions over his final three games.

Wes Lunt, Illinois
Lunt threw for 1,108 yards and six scores for Oklahoma State in 2012, and the Illinois native should be a good fit in Bill Cubit’s offense. However, the receiving corps for the Fighting Illini is a concern.

Cyler Miles, Washington
Miles was suspended indefinitely in early February due to an off-the-field incident. If he returns to the team, the sophomore should be a breakout player in the Pac-12. Miles completed 37 of 61 passes for 418 yards and four touchdowns last year. He made one start (Oregon State) and led the Huskies to a 69-27 victory over Oregon State.

Nick Mullens, Southern Mississippi
Mullens was thrown into the fire as a true freshman last season and seemed to get better with every snap. He finished 2013 with 1,776 yards and 13 touchdowns but arguably had his best performances in the final two games (MTSU and UAB). In the Golden Eagles’ 62-27 dismantling of UAB, Mullens threw for 370 yards and five scores. The Alabama native will have some extra guidance in 2014, as his high school coach (Chip Lindsey) was hired by Todd Monken as the team’s offensive coordinator.

Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Watson ranked as the No. 41 prospect in the 247Sports Composite ranking for the 2014 signing class. He will have to compete with Cole Stoudt and Chad Kelly for the starting job, but Watson has upside and talent to emerge as Clemson’s starting quarterback. And enrolling early to get a jumpstart on learning Chad Morris’ offense certainly doesn’t hurt.

Mike White, South Florida
White did not play at all in the first six games but finished 2013 as South Florida’s No. 1 quarterback. The final stat line wasn’t too kind for White (3 TDs, 9 INTs), but the true freshman threw for 311 yards against Houston and nearly led South Florida to a win over UCF. White needs more help from his supporting cast, and the sophomore should benefit from a full offseason to work as the No. 1 passer.

College Football's Top 10 Quarterbacks on the Rise for 2014
Post date: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/ranking-best-coaching-tandems-sec-2014

When we started this series on the top coaching tandems, we knew it would be tough, especially given our guiding principle that the football coach and the basketball coaches should be considered to be on equal footing

For most schools, they’re not. Especially in the SEC.

We set out to determine the coaching tandems able to keep fans happy from the start of football season to the end of basketball season.

Arguably, coaches like Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn do enough during football season to keep fans happy year round, no matter what happens on the basketball court. The same could be said of John Calipari and Kentucky, just in a different sport.

Still, we’re not going to stray from our plan. That’s why the top football coach in the league (Saban) and the top two basketball coaches (Calipari and Billy Donovan) are not in the top spot. Certainly, if Florida football returns to New Year’s Day bowl status or Kentucky starts to play in the football postseason, those two programs likely would move up.

For now, a different program gets the call for the top football-basketball coaching tandem in the SEC.

1. South Carolina
Steve Spurrier | Basketball: Frank Martin

If anything, Spurrier could teach Martin how to mellow out. Away from game day, Spurrier knows how to relax, especially if there’s a golf course nearby. But the football coach is just as sharp as ever, leading South Carolina, once one of the league’s underachieving programs, to three consecutive top 10 finishes. After a successful run at Kansas State, Martin still has work to do to even get to an NIT, but there have been shades of improvement in his second season with the Gamecocks. He has one of the league’s top freshmen in Sindarius Thornwell.

2. LSU
Les Miles | Basketball: Johnny Jones

Miles’ credentials are pretty clear: The 2007 national title and appearance in the 2011 title game and four consecutive 10-win seasons. Jones is in his second season at his alma mater after leading one of the most consistent Sun Belt programs at North Texas. Both coaches are standout recruiters in a region flush with prospects.

3. Georgia
Mark Richt | Basketball: Mark Fox

Richt has to wonder what might have been if his team had stayed healthy for all of 2013. Otherwise, Georgia has been the SEC’s most stable program since his tenure began in 2001. The Bulldogs haven’t reached a title game, but they’re consistently in the mix for the East title. Fox has had his own dose of bad luck with players like Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie leaving for the NBA Draft. The overall record isn’t pretty, but Georgia has been competitive in SEC play, including an 8-4 mark this season.

4. Alabama
Nick Saban | Basketball: Anthony Grant

Saban has few peers in football coaching with three national titles in the last five seasons. Another national No. 1 recruiting class ensures the Crimson Tide are still the team to beat in the SEC despite Auburn’s league title in December. Grant has recruited at a high level, though some of his top prospects have been washouts. This season has been the worst of his five-year tenure, which has included two NITs and one NCAA Tournament.

5. Florida
Will Muschamp | Basketball: Billy Donovan

Normally, a coaching tandem with basketball national titles and a Sugar Bowl would be enough to be at or near the top. Indeed, if Florida overcame injuries last season to get to a second-tier bowl game, maybe the Gators would be No. 1. Alas, Muschamp will be under pressure in his fourth season after presiding over a loss to Georgia Southern and the program’s first losing season since 1979.

6. Kentucky
Mark Stoops | Basketball: John Calipari

Again, the top two basketball coaches in the SEC are paired with football coaches we’re not quite sure about yet. The last two seasons probably haven’t gone the way most Big Blue Nation envisioned, but Calipari and Kentucky are a perfect match. If Kentucky football can get to regular bowl contention, then this might be the best tandem in the league. Stoops brought in a top 25 signing class in 2014, so it may happen in the near future.

7. Missouri
Gary Pinkel | Basketball: Frank Haith

The question if Missouri could stay afloat in the SEC has been answered with a resounding yes as the Tigers reached the SEC title game and had a shot at the national championship game. Missouri likely will make the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season under Haith, but some of the results — two early NCAA exits and a 17-13 record in lackluster league — make it tough to rank this tandem any higher.

8. Ole Miss
Hugh Freeze | Basketball: Andy Kennedy

Ole Miss has a football coach who has gone to back-to-back bowl games and a basketball coach who went to an NCAA tournament. That hasn’t happened in the same season in more than a decade at Oxford.

9. Auburn
Gus Malzahn | Basketball: Tony Barbee

Few teams can figure out how to stop Malzahn’s offense. The problem, as far as this ranking is concerned, is that even fewer can figure out how to win basketball games at Auburn.

10. Texas A&M
Kevin Sumlin | Basketball: Billy Kennedy

Sumlin gave Texas A&M instant credibility as an SEC program. Johnny Manziel is gone, but the Aggies have plenty of momentum. A&M basketball, though, is on the way to three losing conference seasons under Kennedy.

11. Vanderbilt
Derek Mason | Basketball: Kevin Stallings

Both Vanderbilt positions are all about fit as the only private school in the league and the one with the highest academic standards. Mason knows the terrain coming from Stanford, but football fans have had a taste of the big time from the James Franklin era. Stallings is considered one of the league’s best tacticians.

12. Tennessee
Butch Jones | Basketball: Cuonzo Martin

Any questions about Jones’ ability to recruit have been answered with a top 10 signing class in 2014. Now, he has to return the Volunteers to relevance. Tennessee has been just short of the NCAA Tournament in Martin’s three seasons, but the Volunteers have had a winning league record in the last two seasons.

13. Arkansas
Bret Bielema | Basketball: Mike Anderson

Bielema and Anderson both have fine credentials with Bielema winning three conference titles at Wisconsin and Anderson reaching the Elite Eight while at Missouri. That said, never have proven they can approach that level at Arkansas.

14. Mississippi State
Dan Mullen | Basketball: Rick Ray

Mullen’s four consecutive bowl games at Mississippi State shouldn’t be overlooked, especially as the SEC has been at the top of its powers. The Bulldogs’ basketball program has a long way to go in Ray’s second season.

Ranking the Best Coaching Tandems in the SEC for 2014
Post date: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /college-basketball/weekly-tipoff-who-no-2-candidate-player-year

This season will not be a repeat of J.J. Redick vs. Adam Morrison. Or Jimmer Fredette vs. Kemba Walker.

Creighton’s Doug McDermott is the clear frontrunner for national player of the year honors as one of the nation’s leading scorers for the leader in a major conference.

That’s a testament to McDermott’s season, but also a reflection of the rest of the field. This season has seen some great players, especially in the freshman ranks, but not all of them have been consistent enough to rival McDermott for postseason honors.

But let’s say McDermott was not in the race this season. Who would be the top contenders for the Naismith and Wooden awards? Our editoral staff answers.

Assuming Doug McDermott will win National Player of the Year honors, who would be No. 2 on your ballot?

Mitch Light: This was very difficult. I went with Jabari Parker because he does so much for Duke. The freshman from Chicago quickly emerged as the Blue Devils’ primary option, and he leads the team in scoring (19.5 ppg) and rebounding (8.5). Parker is Duke’s only consistent threat on the low block, and he is also a weapon on the perimeter due to his ability to handle the ball and shoot from 3-point range. Mike Krzyzewski’s team features some nice front-end talent but isn’t loaded with future NBA players and lacks depth. Parker’s presence makes Duke a threat to win the national title; without him, the Blue Devils would struggle to make the top 25.

David Fox: Good thing McDermott is a virtual lock for National Player of the Year because the rest of the race would be a jumble. I tend to favor players whose teams would be lost without them. That leads me to Sean Kilpatrick at Cincinnati. The Bearcats get perpetually overlooked because they play a soft non-conference schedule, and they’re generally a low-scoring, defensive-minded team. Without Kilpatrick, Cincinnati would be lucky to be in contention for the NIT.

Braden Gall: Obviously, there really isn’t a clear challenger to McDermott. Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim was my first thought but one could argue (although I wouldn’t) that he isn’t the most important player on his own team. Sean Kilpatrick and Shabazz Napier carry their teams offensively for Cincinnati and UConn, respectively, while Russ Smith plays a similar role for Louisville in the American Athletic Conference. That said, No. 2 on my ballot will come from the winner of the Syracuse-Duke game in Durham this weekend. If the Orange complete the sweep over Duke, my vote would go to C.J. Fair — aka, the best player on the best team in the nation. If Duke can continue to surge up the polls and beats Syracuse, my vote would go to Jabari Parker, a freshman who has been the team’s best player.

Weekly Tipoff: Who is the No. 2 candidate for player of the year?
Post date: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /nascar/test

At Daytona International Speedway, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage is split into two sections. The plum positioning — garage stalls closer to restrooms and track entry and exit — are given out based on last year’s final point standings. A quick lap around what DIS dubs the “Sprint Fan Zone” will point out the obvious: It segregates the haves and the have-nots in NASCAR’s money-making division at a time in the sport where the delineation between the two has never been greater.

Contrary to past years, though, is the unusual pep in the steps of some of the back-marker race teams. Gone are the grizzled veterans, famous for showing up rather than showing out, to pilot cars that don’t have realistic chances of cracking the top 20 every Sunday. In are young, hungry combatants — “rookies,” which has become an underutilized word in recent seasons — eager to the grab the reins of machines that drivers on their last legs took for granted. That little extra zip emanating from the crew members working in the have-not section of the garage is a visible sign of renewed passion. Finally, they have something about which to hope.

The coterie of rookies from 2007 to 2012 was an underwhelming crop. Brad Keselowski emerged to become champion. Joey Logano is just now exhibiting the traits of an intuitive racer. Ricky Stenhouse locked down a high-profile ride and is still chipping away at earning the designation of “legitimate Cup Series driver.” But that’s it. Past “Rookies of the Year” include Kevin Conway, Andy Lally and Stephen Leicht, a hapless bunch when it comes to stock car driving, none of which retained rides past their rookie seasons.

Kyle LarsonThe young driver landscape shifted in the fall of 2013. Kyle Larson (left) received a promotion to a Target-sponsored Chip Ganassi Racing car, a vehicle ubiquitous across all forms of auto racing. Austin Dillon takes the wheel of his grandfather’s primary team and — you might have heard — is sporting a number that invokes memories of the sport’s most polarizing driver ever. Smaller organizations such as BK Racing, Tommy Baldwin Racing, HScott Motorsports and Swan Racing elected to not plunk down six-figure salaries for career replacement-level drivers and instead have attempted to unearth their own stars. As a result, Parker Kligerman, Justin Allgaier, Cole Whitt, Alex Bowman, Ryan Truex and Michael Annett all have Cup rides.

Because the NASCAR season begins at Daytona, everyone’s rookie year starts with the sport’s most prestigious event. This eight-deep group of rookies take significant steps in their careers this Sunday. One rookie, Dillon, made headlines when he put a black No. 3 on the pole in the first Cup Series race for the car number since Dale Earnhardt perished in the No. 3 in Turn 4 of the 2001 Daytona 500. Unlike his seven colleagues in cars branded with yellow stripes that signify their rookie status, this isn’t Dillon’s (left) first 500. He finished 31st last year after scoring a third-place result in his Budweiser Duel qualifying race.  Austin Dillon

Rookies in the past have used the Daytona 500 as an announcement of their arrival to the big leagues of auto racing, something that each rookie this season would be tickled to emulate.

• Dale Earnhardt’s first Daytona 500, in 1979, was a foreshadowing of sorts. He led 10 laps in a car owned by engineer Will Cronkrite en route to an eighth-place finish. He finished fourth in his qualifying race, an event in which he would go on to win 12 times.

• In a car owned by Harry Ranier, rookie Davey Allison qualified on the front row for 1987’s Daytona 500 after failing to make the race twice in the two years prior. He went on to finish sixth in his qualifying race — he never finished lower than eighth in his six Duel races beyond that season — and finished 27th in the 500. He went on to finish second in the 500 (behind father Bobby Allison) in 1988 and win the whole shebang in 1992.

• In 1993, rookie Jeff Gordon scored a win in his qualifying race and went on to finish fifth in the 500. He is now a three-time winner of the 500 and a five-time Duel race winner.

• Gordon knocked Tony Stewart (right) off of the pole in Daytona 500 qualifying in 1999. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver would battle for the win (against Dale Earnhardt) in his Duel race (he finished sixth) and for the lead during the 500, but ultimately finish 28th. He rebounded well for the remainder of the season: The three wins he scored that year remains a rookie record.  Tony Stewart

• Scott Wimmer benefited from crew chief Frank Stoddard’s two-tire gambit at the end of the 2004 Daytona, finishing third behind Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart. Unfortunately for Wimmer, the result was the best finish of a Cup Series career than spanned 111 races.

• Trevor Bayne became the first rookie to win the Daytona 500, when, in 2011, he brought Wood Brothers Racing to victory lane. To date, his triumph in the two-car tandem draft show is his only top-5 finish in the Cup Series.

• Loy Allen (1994), Mike Skinner (1997) and Jimmie Johnson (2002) won the pole in their first Daytona 500 attempts. Of the three, Skinner’s 12th-place finish in a Lowe’s-sponsored Richard Childress Racing car was the best performance. Ironically, Johnson would go on to make the Lowe’s-sponsored car a site famous among fans and feared among competitors.

• Sometimes a bad first Daytona 500 isn’t indicative of future success: Richard Petty and his Petty Enterprises race team finished 57th out of 59 cars in their initial 500 start. Petty went on to win the event a record seven times.

Follow David Smith on Twitter: @DavidSmithMA
Photo by Actions Sports, Inc.

How this season's pack of talented NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookies will shape up against others who have come before them in the Daytona 500.
Post date: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 23:58
All taxonomy terms: Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-dale-earnhardt-jr

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has spent much of his career failing to live up to expectations. At this point, fans are preconditioned to believe that NASCAR’s favorite son will never win a championship with Hendrick Motorsports. But a funny thing happened on the way to Earnhardt riding out his career as NASCAR’s Most Popular Disappointment: He ditched the plotline.  Dale Earnhardt Jr.

On the verge of age 40 (can you believe it?), Earnhardt has experienced a career renaissance. No, there was no Victory Lane for him in 2013 — the fourth season out of six with HMS he’s failed to cash in. But through the strength of a career high 22 top-10 finishes, Earnhardt wound up fifth in the point standings — the best he’s run since 2006. Snagging two poles for the first time in over a decade, he earned 10 top-5 results for a second straight year and seemed fully recovered from the post-concussion syndrome that thwarted his 2012 effort.

How good was Earnhardt? After a blown engine at Chicago, he sported an average finish of 5.5 in the remaining nine races, dropping outside the top 8 only once. A little perspective: In those same nine events, points runner-up Matt Kenseth averaged a finish of 8.1 and champion Jimmie Johnson averaged a 5.1. It’s clear Earnhardt could well have been a title contender if that engine had held up in the Windy City.

So while fans squabble over whether or not Earnhardt is a championship-caliber driver, the man is simply driving like he means it. To take the next step, though, Earnhardt needs to come out swinging in 2014. He needs to win races and then turn his attention to the title. If Earnhardt can nab a couple of trophies in the first 26 events and put together a run like he had last year — minus the blown engine, of course — he can go all the way. But he has to win races.

As always, he’s been afforded the best possible resources. Hendrick Motorsports provides arguably the best equipment in the sport. Earnhardt’s shopmate, Jimmie Johnson, won the 2013 title in the same cars Earnhardt is getting, so there are no foundational issues holding him back. Surprisingly, Earnhardt did suffer more mechanical woes than his teammates last year. HMS drivers suffered four engine failures in all of 2013, and the No. 88 accounted for three of them. Is that just bad luck, or is Earnhardt especially hard on his powerplants? That’s a question his team should be answering moving forward, because there are no mulligans in the Chase.

Oddly, there are a few questions surrounding sponsorship. PepsiCo returns for five races with the Diet Mountain Dew and AMP brands, while National Guard will be on board for 20 events and Kelley Blue Book for one. That leaves 10 points races unaccounted for, with Time Warner Cable’s commitment shifting to Hendrick’s No. 5 team and a new-to-the-sport sponsor being rumored. It’s a bit puzzling to see less than a full slate of backing for Earnhardt, who’s an 11-time Most Popular Driver award winner — that alone brings added value, as fans will buy souvenirs with sponsor brands on them.

The biggest weapon in Earnhardt’s arsenal is the team around him, in particular crew chief Steve Letarte. Unfortunately, that’s a weapon Earnhardt won’t have for long, as the crew chief announced in the offseason that this would be his last tour atop the pit box. Letarte has been largely responsible for a turnaround in his driver’s attitude; he’s the perfect mix of cheerleader and taskmaster. He requires Earnhardt to spend more time in the garage on race weekends, at the shop during the week, and he doesn’t allow him to lapse into complaints when things aren’t working on-track. Instead, Letarte makes Earnhardt communicate — which the driver is actually quite good at. Earnhardt and Letarte share shop space and an open-book policy on race cars with Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, which is a bonus as well. The teams can actually share quite a bit, because Earnhardt and Johnson have similar driving styles and like many of the same setups in a car.

Driver and chief, of course, have assured that the pending split will not effect their season, but only time will tell. Might Earnhardt be even more motivated, set on helping Letarte leave in a blaze of glory? Just maybe.

Regardless, the pieces are in place for this team to win races. If it does so, a championship battle could follow. Earnhardt is driving better than he has in years, his focus over the last two seasons is perhaps the best it’s ever been, and he has the best in the business in his corner. But, again, Earnhardt has to win, which makes his key stat “752.” That’s the number of laps he’s led over the last three seasons; by comparison, teammate Johnson led 1,985 in 2013 alone.

You can’t win races until you run up front consistently — not seventh, not eighth or ninth but on the point. Until Earnhardt shows he can do that, he’s likely to make the Chase but not to finish it on top.

What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
There’s no shortage of opinions when it comes to NASCAR’s most popular driver.

“He’s just a good all-around guy. He’s a good racer, very consistent,” a rival says. “The fan base that he has drives everything in NASCAR, and that is a good thing for the sport, regardless. I think this year he’s going to be in the same equipment that (Jimmie) Johnson won the title with in 2013. He didn’t get a race win, but he was in the top 5 or 10 every week and he’s going to keep sneaking up on it.”

“I don’t think much holds him back other than the pressure,” a crew chief says. “The media side of wanting him to live up to his last name is the only thing he has to deal with — and I don’t really think that is a problem for him.”

However, one media member isn’t sure how long Earnhardt can keep up the consistency: “The last two years were the most intensive his focus on a title has ever been. He came up way short, and I’m wondering if that will have an effect on future focus. He’s slated for a drop at some point, and assuming (Steve) Letarte is still as good of a crew chief as he has been the last three years, I think the driver will hold the team back a little bit.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
Checkers? With two wins in the last seven seasons (both at Michigan) it’s hard to assume he’ll get his.
Pretty Solid Pick: That said, Junior and Stevie Letarte will point ’em to death, particularly on the plate tracks, where they had a pair of runner-up finishes in 2013.
Good Sleeper Pick: The Michigan success seems sleeper-ish to us — actually downright weird — but we’ve covered that. So give him a start at Martinsville, where he owns nine top 10s in the 14 CoT/Gen-6 era events.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: The one and only Cup track where he lacks a top 10 in the CoT/Gen-6 era is that dastardly road course in upstate New York.
Insider Tip: You know the drill by now: Earnhardt has four wins since the start of the ’05 season — that’s nine full years. If you’re serious about winning the fantasy league, bet with your head, not your heart.

No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew/AMP Energy/Kelley Blue Book
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Steve Letarte
Years with current team: 7
Under contract through: 2017
Best points finish: 3rd (2003)
Hometown: Kannapolis, N.C.
Born: Oct. 10, 1974

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

2014 driver profile for Dale Earnhardt Jr.on the NASCR Sprint Cup circuit.
Post date: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 23:56
All taxonomy terms: Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-jimmie-johnson

From Five-Time, to Six-Pack, to ... best ever? It might be a bit early for that, but there’s no question that Jimmie Johnson belongs in the conversation. His 2013 championship gives him six and places the California native just one short of the Cup Series record, held by two of the sport’s immortals, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Sixty-six career wins are good for eighth all-time, and at age 38, he’s left that total plenty of room to grow. Teammate and mentor Jeff Gordon, who is third on that list with 88, said recently that he has no doubt Johnson will eventually eclipse his total.  Jimmie Johnson

Johnson, despite a hard battle with Matt Kenseth, made 2013’s title quest look deceptively easy. He won six times last year, including the Daytona 500 and a record-setting eighth career victory at Dover. He failed to finish only one race — due to a blown engine at Michigan in August — and his average finish of 10.7 was the best of any full-time driver on the circuit. The 5.1 average during the Chase was his best since 2007.

So, while Johnson’s No. 1 ranking may seem a bit repetitive, he’s earned it. The professional ease with which he dominates, at times boring NASCAR’s fan base, is what also keeps him a perpetual favorite. On and off the track, Johnson doesn’t “intimidate.” He simply breezes by the competition in the same way a major corporation snuffs out rivals. It’s like Johnson clocks in at 8:00 a.m., makes innocuous small talk, puts his head down and cranks out paperwork in his cubicle and takes the Employee of the Week award home at 5:00 on Friday. Compelling television? Not always — but it’s working.

All kidding aside, Johnson’s skill behind the wheel truly separates him. Smooth and aggressive, he rarely panics or overdrives the car. Some weeks he makes it all look so effortless in the cockpit that viewers must wonder if the equipment is legal.

It is. But Hendrick Motorsports — NASCAR’s version of the New York Yankees — spares no expense in giving Johnson the best. Hendrick cars are fast, but perhaps what sets the team a notch above other elites such as Joe Gibbs Racing is durability. Among the four HMS teams, there were four engine failures in 2013, one for Johnson and three for teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. In fact, if you include the customers at Stewart-Haas and Chip Ganassi Racing (five teams), the number of Hendrick blown motors was only five. The postseason is even better; Johnson has had only one mechanical DNF in the Chase since 2005.

Crew chief Chad Knaus, in his 13th year atop the pit box for the No. 48, also deserves his share of credit. Knaus has a well-deserved reputation as one of the top innovators in the sport, hands down. While that’s gotten him in trouble in the past, he’s walked the straight and narrow in recent years, perfecting the art of pushing the boundaries. Knaus is also a master at handling those around him, motivating Johnson while making the car improve throughout a race. The Johnson-Knaus chemistry, with its marriage-like communication, is simply unmatched.

Financial stability comes with Lowe’s (and subsidiary Kobalt Tools), which has backed Johnson since Day 1 in the Cup Series. The one question Lowe’s execs asked Johnson, back in 2001, was whether he thought he could win. Johnson said yes, backed it up for a dozen years, and made sure that money was the least of his problems.

One more piece to Johnson’s puzzle comes from teammates. In the early years, it was Gordon who helped Johnson learn the ropes, but now it’s Earnhardt who may be the biggest influence. Johnson and Earnhardt have similar preferences, and Earnhardt has shown that he’s a serious competitor of late, which gives Johnson both information and motivation. Hendrick’s “coopetition” produces results: In 2013, it got all four drivers in the Chase.

The pieces remain in place for Johnson to make a seventh title bid in 2014. Of course, a wacky new Chase format threatens to transform the championship from strategy-based precision to fluky crapshoot. Still, if you had to put money on any one team, this would be the one. He has fast cars, a well-managed team and unquestionable talent. He’s not invincible; pit road personnel shuffles, along with trouble managing double-file restarts, can be Kryptonite. Other teams have caught up a bit with strategy, and Knaus occasionally will get burned. And don’t be concerned about the tweaks to NASCAR’s Gen-6 — changes keep Knaus drooling, working 24/7 to burn up the competition on setups and stay 10 steps ahead at the start.

If the team can do that, Johnson has a shot at joining Petty and Earnhardt in immortality — one step away from creating a level all his own.

What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
There’s not a lot competitors can say about Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team that hasn’t already been said.

“He’s a six-time champion,” says one rival crew chief. “He proved more than once last year that he could beat superior cars just because of his driving ability; Chad Knaus is the best in the business; and the Chase is made up of tracks where Johnson shines. Now he has the goal of tying history and has always done well when goals were within reach. And did I mention Chad Knaus? Also, being in the first garage stall gives his team a feeling of confidence that shows up on the track — there’s a mental edge there.”

“There’s nothing negative to say,” a competitor says, shaking his head. “Except that he didn’t win the title in 2010 or 2011. Going forward, there will be intense pressure from fans and media as he tries to tie (Richard) Petty and (Dale) Earnhardt with seven titles.”

One media member asks: “The best ever? It’s impossible to accurately compare drivers of different eras, but the case can certainly be made. I hope that after last year’s performance fans will realize that Johnson isn’t just some creation of Rick Hendrick’s money and Chad Knaus’ know-how. He is, without question, the best driver out there.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
Honestly, would it surprise you if he were to win at any track on any given weekend?
Pretty Solid Pick: The Martinsville tallies — with six wins and 12 top 10s in 14 CoT/Gen-6 era races — are just astounding.
Good Sleeper Pick: Sleeper? Please. Well OK, maybe at Watkins Glen.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: J.J. is winless at only five Cup tracks: Chicagoland, Homestead, Kentucky, Michigan and the Glen — though that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s out to lunch.
Insider Tip: He’ll break the Michigan and Chicago jinxes soon enough, Kentucky’s sample size is still miniscule, and he’s points racing at Homestead. The roadies are an issue (relatively speaking), but the truth is that there are few, if any, chinks in the armor. This is hands-down the best team in the sport.

No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools
Owner: Rick Hendrick/Jeff Gordon
Crew Chief: Chad Knaus
Years with current team: 13
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 1st (2006, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10, ’13)
Hometown: El Cajon, Calif.
Born: Sept. 17, 1975

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

2014 driver profile for Jimmie Johnson on the NASCR Sprint Cup circuit.
Post date: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 23:54
All taxonomy terms: Jeff Gordon, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-jeff-gordon

Unpredictable. Unprecedented. Messy. Yet, at times, borderline miraculous. All of these words applied to four-time champion Jeff Gordon in perhaps the craziest season of his career. He almost won a few times. He got wrecked — a lot. He missed the Chase. Then he made the Chase. He was counted out as a contender. Then he made himself one. He won a race, putting himself in position for perhaps NASCAR’s biggest asterisk … only to run 38th and flop the very next week. He limped home sixth in points, his best showing since 2009. And somewhere in there, he was the owner of record on Jimmie Johnson’s championship car, leaving him a 10-time Cup titlist both inside and outside the cockpit.  Jeff Gordon and Alan Gustafson

Yes, that all really happened. Gordon’s 2013 season got off to a roller-coaster start. It seemed as though each week he was either running among the leaders or getting caught up in something in the pack. Sometimes, it was a little of both, leaving the team in desperation mode heading to Richmond in September. Gordon’s last hope for a Chase berth was a “wild card win,” a cause he furthered by winning the pole. But there was no miracle, not enough points; the postseason field was set, and Gordon was on the outside looking in for only the second time in Chase history.

And then all hell broke loose.

Michael Waltrip Racing was caught trying to manipulate the finish at Richmond, meaning that Martin Truex Jr. was out of the playoffs and Ryan Newman was in. But only when questions also arose about a possible deal between Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports — designed to give rival Joey Logano a postseason cushion — did NASCAR decide that there was enough doubt about who had really raced their way in. In an unprecedented move, Gordon was added to the field as a 13th entry, just hours before qualifying began for the first Chase race at Chicagoland.

It was then that Gordon finally came alive. He won only once, but he made it clear that he was there, rescuing a season that might otherwise have been the worst of his career. In the end, there wasn’t enough in the tank to win it all, but what he did do was make it clear that the 22-year vet was still hungry, and with a little good luck somewhere, could contend for a fifth title.

How much of that momentum will carry into 2014? It’s hard to say. Gordon will be paired with crew chief Alan Gustafson once again; the pair has six wins over three seasons and has never finished lower than 10th in points together. Both men have a deep respect for one another, yet at one point last season it looked like poor performance would do them in. A heart-to-heart behind the scenes, occurring last July at New Hampshire, was the saving grace that kept them glued together. Gustafson is a technical crew chief, a good mesh for NASCAR’s modern, engineering-focused technology. But where he’s so good on setups, the team often fails on strategy, losing track position in a time when traffic means the difference between fifth and 15th.

Gordon has a lifetime contract with Hendrick, although the clock is ticking. Longtime sponsor Axalta (formerly DuPont) is signed through 2016; AARP is in the final year of its deal, and with Hendrick protégé Chase Elliott rising quickly through the ranks, it’s unclear what the future holds for the relationship. With long-term deals in place for HMS teammates Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, it’s clear what road Elliott will travel to Cup.

Gordon can race as long as he wants, but with four DNFs for wrecks last year (and involvement in a few more), he’s aware of the sport’s physical toll. Add in two young children and the priorities that accompany a family, and it becomes obvious that times have changed for NASCAR’s driver of the ’90s. Expect the retirement question to pop up this season, a potential distraction for what’s been the slowest of Hendrick’s four-car operation. Gordon himself added fuel to that fire before the season even began, telling the media, “If that (fifth title) happened, that would be all the reasons I need to say, ‘This is it. I’m done.’ Go out on a high note.”

That leaves time on the wrong side for Gordon, whose former rival, Dale Earnhardt Sr., won his last title at age 43 — which is how old Gordon will be midseason. The key for Gordon will be the first 10 races, where he has slipped outside the top 10 in points the last two seasons. Struggling out of the box for a third year, against ever-increasing competition, will not be the charm for a legend who’s learned the hard way that there’s a fine line these days between “hanging in” and “hanging on.”

What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“Gordon showed during the Chase that he can still wheel it,” a rival crew chief says. “And of course he’s in Hendrick equipment. He faced a lot of criticism in 2013, and the resolve inside of him stepped up and made him drive even harder. I think he’s really enjoying showing his kids what Daddy does for a living and sharing victories with them.”

“He’s getting older,” another says. “There aren’t many drivers who’ve won a title after 40 — and he’ll have to go through his teammate to do so. … Gordon hasn’t put together a multiple-win season in years, and honestly, Alan Gustafson hasn’t shown that he can put Gordon in contention for a title very much during his tenure on the box. Surprisingly, the Gen-6 car hasn’t made much of a difference in his performance.”

“It’s hard to imagine Jeff Gordon as an elder statesman, but that’s what he now is in this sport,” a veteran media member says. “We’ve seen other drivers in years gone by assume that role while struggling to continue to pile up wins and championships. At this point in his career, Gordon is more competitive than most of those guys were, but his days of 10-win seasons and titles are over.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
Trophies are liable to come on any track for Gordon — just don’t expect for them to come in bundles anymore.
Pretty Solid Pick: Gordon has scored multiple victories at only one track since 2011: Pocono.
Good Sleeper Pick: In his last 10 starts at Darlington, Gordon has eight finishes of fifth or better with one victory (2007).
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Oddly, his worst track statistically since the advent of the CoT is Watkins Glen, where Gordon has averaged a 22.1-place finish with two top 10s in seven races.
Insider Tip: Eighty-eight career victories, but only 13 in the CoT/Gen-6 era. Assign blame as you will, but understand that he’s not going to net your fantasy team a ton of wins.

No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
AARP “Drive to End Hunger”/Axalta/Pepsi
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson
Years with current team: 22
Under contract through: Lifetime
Best points finish: 1st (1995, ’97, ’98, 2001)
Hometown: Vallejo, Calif.
Born: Aug. 4, 1971

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

2014 driver profile for Jeff Gordon on the NASCR Sprint Cup circuit.
Post date: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 23:52
All taxonomy terms: Kasey Kahne, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-kasey-kahne

What Kasey Kahne needs most heading into the 2014 NASCAR season is a little luck. He couldn’t seem to find much of it in 2013 and, as a result, finished a distant 12th in the Chase standings. Entering the season among the title favorites, Kahne instead was caught in a tale of two extremes. When things were going right, he climbed as high as second in points, collecting trophies at both Bristol and Pocono along the way. But when they weren’t, the field blew by, including teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. That duo put together outstanding Chase runs to cap off the season while Kahne faltered down the stretch. Three finishes of 27th or lower in the final 10 races sealed the driver’s fate; he was out of the championship picture by early October.  Kasey Kahne

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that a lot of the problems weren’t Kahne’s fault. He actually led more laps in 2013 than in his first year with Hendrick, when Kahne finished a solid fourth — and closing — in the standings. But the normally even-keeled driver seemed off-kilter by the end of last season. A bizarre post-wreck interview at Loudon had some observers thinking concussion; three earlier wrecks at plate races, two at the hands of Kyle Busch, portrayed an image of a “nice guy” getting borderline bullied. Even a second-place run at Bristol in August, where he failed to “bump ’n’ run” for the win with Matt Kenseth — another driver who had wronged him, at Watkins Glen — fueled whispers that the driver wouldn’t ever fight back when it came to on-track contact.

No matter what side of that debate you fall on, there’s no arguing that Kahne’s average finish of 16.2 was his lowest since 2010. He finished outside the top 25 10 times in 2013 — more than a quarter of the season and double the number of “bad” races teammate Johnson had on his way to the title. Kahne also failed to win a pole for the first time in four years. But, for all that, he failed to finish only three races. That’s a testament to the determination of the No. 5 bunch.

Heading into 2014, Kahne’s team remains both stable and resilient. Kenny Francis returns as crew chief, an excellent leader who communicates well with his driver. Kahne and Francis have been together since 2006, transitioning through multiple teams and ownership crises to be the longest-tenured head wrench-driver combo behind Johnson and Chad Knaus. Francis handles Kahne well while bringing an assortment of knowledge and creativity that keeps this team on top of NASCAR’s Gen-6 chassis.

The other baseline pieces are in place. Hendrick equipment has won seven of the last eight Cup titles, and Kahne is coming to the track every week in the best stuff money can buy. Sponsorship is also never a problem. Farmers Insurance will foot most of the bill this year, along with Time Warner Cable, Great Clips and Pepsi. Kahne represents them well (he’s been a good sport in making some fairly outrageous commercials over the years) and is popular with fans. The result is solid backing that’s mutually beneficial.

Perhaps the biggest advantage Kahne has in driving for Hendrick, though, is the way the organization is run. All four teams have an “open-book” policy, pulling information from one another and working in tandem to achieve great success. Kahne shares shop space with four-time champion Jeff Gordon, a decent match as the veteran schools the youngster on improving. Team owner Rick Hendrick has long said that the secret to the team’s success is its people, putting Kahne in position for a breakthrough.

That leaves the key for 2014 as consistency — and courage. Staying out of trouble can be out of one’s control, but good racers also maximize their opportunities. Even with all his strength on intermediate ovals, which make up half the Chase, Kahne was the bridesmaid at 1.5-mile ovals four times in 2013. Second place, without the bonus points for winning, truly makes you the first loser under the Chase format. The Washington campaigner, overshadowed by his more successful teammates, has to find a way to get over the hump.

On paper, Kahne has the talent to win a Cup championship. He has the equipment and the team that can take him there. But until Lady Luck shines bright once again, what you’ll get is a lower-first-tier driver still trying to believe it.

What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“He drives for Hendrick Motorsports, and there isn’t a greater advantage in the sport than driving for the best team in the sport,” says a crew chief from across the garage. “When Kahne has it going on a mile-and-a-half track, he’s among the best in the sport. If he can become more consistent on the intermediate tracks, he could make a run at a title. … He’s also very versatile — running on dirt and asphalt in other vehicles. That versatility helps give him the ability to handle cars that are less than perfect, although he can’t seem to overcome all of his car’s ails.”

Another crew chief agrees that consistency on the intermediates can be an issue with Kahne: “While Kahne can be good on mile-and-a-half tracks, he can also stink. He needs to learn how to find a happier medium when his car isn’t win-worthy. When the other drivers at Hendrick are looking consistently strong, the pressure can mount if Kahne isn’t running as well. How he handles that pressure can determine his success.”

“This sounds strange, but he’s almost the forgotten man at Hendrick,” says a member of the media. “I’m not sure that even more wins or a title can fix that.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
Don’t pigeonhole Kahne as simply an intermediate-track master, as his finishes of first and second at Bristol last season suggest otherwise.
Pretty Solid Pick: Charlotte, where he’s garnered four points-paying wins and a victory in the ’08 All-Star Race.
Good Sleeper Pick: He’s feast or famine at Pocono, with two wins offset by four showings of 27th or worse in the CoT/Gen-6 era.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Not the first driver you think of when the series hits the plate tracks. And with pretty good reason.
Insider Tip: Is he ready to make a play for the title? Entering the prime of his career, Kahne saw his numbers regress in 2013 from 2012. We wonder if that would have been the case were his team housed in the No. 48’s building.

No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Farmers Insurance/Great Clips/Time Warner/Pepsi
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Kenny Francis
Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 4th (2012)
Hometown: Enumclaw, Wash.
Born: April 10, 1980

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

2014 driver profile for Kasey Kahne on the NASCR Sprint Cup circuit.
Post date: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 23:50
All taxonomy terms: Olympics
Path: /top-10-ladies-figure-skating-gold-medal-contenders

The main event of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, ladies figure skating, is upon us. The sport’s top 30 diminutive divas will soon be toe-looping, lutzing, Salchow-ing and spinning at the Iceberg Skating Palace. Short programs will be performed Wednesday, Feb. 19, with the top 24 skaters advancing to the free skate on Thursday, Feb. 20. All eyes will be on these 10 world-renowned skaters, ranked here by their betting odds from gambling website

1. Yuna Kim, 23, Korea (Odds: 1/1)
The “Queen” is the reigning Olympic champion, winning gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics with a world record score of 78.50. Kim’s signature jump combination is the triple lutz, triple toe loop as seen in the GIF above. But it is the vivid facial expressions and vibrant arm movements that make Korea’s top Olympian figure skating royalty. Another gold medal would make Kim the first repeat winner since East Germany’s Katarina Witt won at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics and 1988 Calgary Olympics.

2. Julia Lipnitskaia, 15, Russia (Odds: 6/5)
Young Yulia is poised to become Russia’s first-ever ladies singles figure skating gold medalist, which would also make the 15-year-old the youngest gold medal winner in the sport’s history, as she is six days younger than American golden girl Tara Lipinski was at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Lipnitskaia is a spinning top with her brilliant Biellmann position and gymnast-style contortions on the ice. The Sochi crowd — which will certainly include President Vladimir Putin — will be on Lipnitskaia’s side as she attempts to spin and bend her way into Olympic lore in front of her home nation.

3. Mao Asada, 23, Japan (Odds: 9/2)
The silver medalist at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics is the only skater with a triple axle (followed by double toe loop in the frame-by-frame breakdown above) in her arsenal. Asada has cut down the difficulty in her routine in favor of a more free-flowing program — with only one triple axle rather than two. Asada will be the 30th and final skater in the short program but will likely be near the top of the standings heading into the free skate.

4. Carolina Kostner, 27, Italy (Odds: 14/1)
Making her third Olympic appearance, Kostner hopes to improve upon her seventh-place finish at the 2010 Vancouver Games and her 11th-place finish at the 2006 Turin Games. Known more for her stylish ice dancing than her technical skill, Kostner has the unenviable task of following Russian ice princess Julia Lipnitskaia in the short program, which is arguably the worst draw of the 30 slots.

5. Gracie Gold, 18, USA (Odds: 16/1)
With a Grace Kelly smile and Gold medal first place last name, Gold has become the unofficial face of the red, white and blue in Sochi. The Chicago native is the USA's Cover Girl, stopping by The Tonight Show and doing People Magazine profiles. She’s the 2014 U.S. Championships gold medal winner and aiming to join Sarah Hughes (2002 Salt Lake), Tara Lipinski (1998 Nagano), Kristi Yamaguchi (1992 Albertville), Dorothy Hamill (1976 Innsbruck), Peggy Fleming (1968 Grenoble), Carol Heiss (1960 Squaw Valley) and Tenley Albright (1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo) as the eighth American gold medalist in Olympic figure skating history.

6. Adelina Sotnikova, 17, Russia (Odds: 28/1)
Although countrywoman Julia Lipnitskaia is spinning her way to the headlines and highlights, Sotnikova is the reigning Russian Championships gold medalist, European Championships silver medalist and a legitimate medal contender in her own right.

7. Kanako Murakami, 19, Japan (Odds: 28/1)
If you believe Japan’s second-best medal hopeful, the island nation’s “very scary” moms are the reason for their success. “It’s not just the coaches who crack the whip but those mothers,” she says.

8. Ashley Wagner, 22, USA (Odds: 33/1)
It’s been a long fall for the 2013 U.S. Championships gold medalist turned skating meme. The thrill of victory and agony of “bull$#!*” scoring from stingy skating judges have become a popular internet juxtaposition joke.

9. Akiko Suzuki, 28, Japan (Odds: 33/1)
The elder stateswoman of Japanese skating, Suzuki finished 11th at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. She teams with Mao Asada and Kanako Murakami to give Japan arguably the top trio of skaters in the competition.

10. Polina Edmunds, 15, USA (Odds: 50/1)
The San Jose, Calif., native follows in the Olympic footsteps of former Archbishop Mitty High School alums Brandi Chastain (soccer) and Kerri Walsh Jennings (beach volleyball) — who have a combined five gold medals between them.

The top 10 ladies figure skaters at the Sochi Olympics.
Post date: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 17:38
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Georgia Bulldogs, SEC, News
Path: /college-football/georgia-dismisses-safety-josh-harvey-clemons

Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons was dismissed from the team on Tuesday due to a violation of team rules.

Harvey-Clemons was already slated to miss the first three games of 2014 due to a suspension, but coach Mark Richt decided to dismiss the safety permanently this week.

Harvey-Clemons was regarded as a five-star prospect by in the 2012 signing class. He played in 14 games as a freshman, recording 14 tackles and one pass breakup.

As a sophomore, Harvey-Clemons was expected to emerge as one of the key players on Georgia’s defense. He missed two games but recorded 66 tackles and one interception.

Harvey-Clemons has two years of eligibility remaining and could transfer to another FBS school.

Georgia Dismisses Safety Josh Harvey-Clemons
Post date: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 15:45
All taxonomy terms: Olympics
Path: /olympics/2014-sochi-olympics-what-watch-feb-18

Today's Highlights


8-11:30 p.m. Eastern

The fog-induced delays are over, and Sochi's back in business, with a number of entertaining and action-packed events on tonight's ledger.


1. Alpine Skiing — Women's Giant Slalom
Tina Maze of Slovenia is the headliner in this event and will go for her second gold of these Games. Mikaela Shiffrin represents America's best medal hope.

Read more here:


2. Freestyle Skiing — Men's Halfpipe

You would expect the U.S. to dominate the X-Games events in Sochi, and the Americans are on their way to doing just that. David Wise of the U.S. skis for gold in the halfpipe.


3. Short Track Speed Skating — Women's Relay

Elbows and bodies are likely to fly in this delightfully chaotic event, as South Korea and Canada battle for gold.


4. Women's Bobsled

Lolo Jones makes her highly anticipated Winter Olympics debut, but she's far from the only story on the bobsled track. In fact, the American duo of pilot Elana Meyers and brakeman Lauryn Williams are the headliners and their nation's best hope for gold.

Post date: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 13:55
All taxonomy terms: girls, videos, Overtime
Path: /overtime/kate-uptons-zero-gravity-si-photo-shoot-video
For her Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue shoot, which hits newsstands today, the brilliant minds at SI put a bikinied Kate Upton in a zero gravity situation and took photos. Why are you still reading this? Watch the video. Check out Upton's zero gravity photos on SI

For her Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue shoot, they put a bikinied Kate Upton in a zero gravity situation and took photos.
Post date: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 11:04