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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
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-february-18-2014

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Feb. 18.

• We've learned that Kate Upton is in fact on the cover of this year's SI Swimsuit issue. It's the back cover, but it's still the cover.

• Those luxurious Sochi accommodations are still making headlines. Canadian bobsledder Heather Moyse had to take a hot bath in a trash can. And Lolo Jones did a little video expose on the horrible food they're feeding the athletes.

Five takeaways from Jimmy Fallon's first Tonight Show.

• Ah, capitalism. Ohio State's Marcus Hall is selling signed photos of his double-bird departure from the Big House last November.

In figure skating, a costume designer is as important as a coach.

Members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot were detained and then released in Sochi. I'm convinced that journalists keep their story alive just to say Pussy Riot.

Rick Pitino's views on social media are a little more complex than they're being portrayed.

• Anyway, without social media, we wouldn't have this hilarious assortment of Twitpics.

Being a pro athlete comes with its share of perks. Obviously.

• What's the deal this year with insane high school buzzer-beaters? Here's another one. Maybe it's just social media bringing them to our attention this year.

• This dude was prepared for the Kiss Cam. Well played.


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

Post date: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 10:29
Path: /college-football/top-10-sec-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.

The saying goes defense wins championships and the quarterback of that defense is likely the most important player on the field. Generally, that means middle linebackers. So in a league that has dominated college football during the BCS Era, it is to be expected that the SEC has a long list of historically great linebackers.

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

1. Patrick Willis, Ole Miss (2003-06)
The unheralded Tennessee native was overlooked by most of the SEC big boys and made them all pay by becoming the league’s best linebacker of the BCS Era. Rising from utter poverty to the best LB in the nation, Willis claimed the Butkus and Lambert Awards in 2006. He posted 265 tackles and 21.0 for loss over his final two seasons, earning SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors and All-American status as a senior. He was taken with the 11th overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft by San Francisco.

2. Al Wilson, Tennessee (1995-98)
Wilson isn’t as decorated as some of his BCS brethren but few players had as big an impact on their team as the Vols middle linebacker. He helped lead Tennessee to two SEC championships and the historic and unblemished 1998 national title. He was a consensus All-American, a consummate teammate on and off the field and was the 31st overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.

3. Rolando McClain, Alabama (2007-09)
His fall from grace aside, McClain was one of the BCS’s great defensive leaders. He started eight games and posted 75 tackles as a freshman before earning some All-American honors as a sophomore (95 tackles). As the unquestioned heartbeat of the Alabama defense, McClain led the Crimson Tide back to the BCS promised land with a perfect senior season. He posted 105 tackles, 14.5 for loss, four sacks and two interceptions. He earned SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors, was a unanimous All-American and won both the Butkus and Lambert Awards. He was the eighth overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.

4. C.J. Mosley, Alabama (2010-13)
Few players can boast both a Butkus Award and a national championship — let alone two national championships and freshman All-American honors. Mosley posted a career-high 108 tackles and 9.0 tackles for loss and came up one play shy of winning back-to-back SEC titles and possibly a third BCS title. He collected 318 career tackles and 23.0 tackles for loss in his decorated and illustrious career in Tuscaloosa. Alabama went 46-7 during Mosley’s time on campus and was ranked No. 1 in the nation in all four seasons.

5. DeMeco Ryans, Alabama (2002-05)
The former three-star recruit outperformed all expectations for the Crimson Tide. In 2005 as a senior, he was a unanimous All-American, won the Lott Trophy and was named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year. Ryans finished with 76 tackles and five sacks in his final season and just missed winning the Nagurski, Butkus and Draddy Awards as well. The Crimson Tide tackler was a second-round pick in 2006 by the Texans.

6. Jarvis Jones, Georgia (2011-12)
Jones was a Lambert Award winner, a two-time All-American, led the nation in sacks as a sophomore (14.5), forced more fumbles in 2012 (7) than any player in his conference during the BCS Era and was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year. He also led Georgia to consecutive SEC East titles and was the 17th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. He finished his career with 168 total tackles, 45.5 tackles for loss and 28.0 sacks in two years as a starter in Athens.

7. Brandon Spikes, Florida (2006-09)
Spikes' resume is virtually complete. He was a two-time, consensus All-American, a three-time, first-team All-SEC selection, won two BCS National Championships, was a second-round pick and dated Doc Rivers' daughter. He posted 307 total tackles and started 39 of his 47 career games as a Gator before a slow 40-time caused him to fall into the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft.

8. Jevon Kearse, Florida (1995-98)
Kearse originally showed up on campus as a 215-pound safety. He eventually worked his way onto the field with a rare combination of length and explosiveness. The Freak played just one year in the BCS Era but helped lead the Gators to a national title in 1996. He was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 1998, was a two-time All-SEC pick and a first-team All-American. The Titans selected The Freak with the 16th pick of the 1999 NFL Draft.

9. Mike Peterson, Florida (1995-98)
Much like Kearse, the Gators linebacker was an All-American and led the defense to the 1996 national championship and two SEC titles. He finished his career with 249 tackles, 13.0 for loss and 8.5 sacks in 42 career games before getting picked with the 36th overall selection of the 1999 NFL Draft.

10. Karlos Dansby, Auburn (2001-03)
Dansby had to grow into a linebacker after coming to Auburn as a defensive back but he was one of the league’s great defensive playmakers during his time in college. He was a two-time All-SEC selection and an All-American in his final season on The Plains. He finished his career with 219 tackles, 36.0 tackles for loss, 10.0 sacks and eight interceptions. Dansby was a second-round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.

Just missed the cut:

11. Bradie James, LSU (1999-02)
James was a tackling machine who helped rebuild the LSU program from SEC also-ran to national title winner the year after he departed. He is one of just two players in school history with 400 tackles (418) and set the school’s single-season record for stops with 154 as a senior in 2002. James was an All-American and an All-SEC player in some fashion all four years on campus (two first-team selections, one second as well as Freshman All-SEC).

12. Raynoch Thompson, Tennessee (1996-99)
Alongside Wilson in Knoxville, Thompson was an integral part of a national championship run for the Vols in 1998. He was a two-time Butkus finalist and an All-American performer for Tennessee. Thompson was the 41st overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals.

13. Courtney Upshaw, Alabama (2008-11)
The star linebacker won two national championships, two SEC titles, was the BCS title game MVP in 2012 and was an All-American on what many call the best defensive unit of the BCS Era. Bama was 48-6 during his time in college. Upshaw posted 104 tackles, 32.5 for loss and 16.5 sacks in his final two seasons.

14. Dont’a Hightower, Alabama (2008-11)
Lining up next to Upshaw the entire time was Hightower. Hailing from the middle Tennessee area, Hightower led Bama’s historic ’11 defense with 85 stops. He finished with 234 career tackles and 21.0 tackles for loss. He was the 25th overall pick in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

15. Boss Bailey, Georgia (1999-02)
The younger brother to Dawgs superstar Champ Bailey, Boss was a three-year starter for the Bulldogs during his time. He earned All-SEC honors and was a Butkus and Lombardi Award contender throughout his tenure in Athens. In his final season, he helped bring an SEC championship to Georgia for the first time since 1982.

Best of the Rest:

16. Rennie Curran, Georgia (2007-09)
17. Jerod Mayo, Tennessee (2005-07)
18. Jamie Winborn, Vanderbilt (1997-00)
19. Jasper Brinkley, South Carolina (2007-08)
20. Danny Trevathan, Kentucky (2008-11)
21. Channing Crowder, Florida (2002-05)
22. Odell Thurman, Georgia (2003-04)
23. Kelvin Sheppard, LSU (2007-10)
24. Kevin Burnett, Tennessee (2001-04)
25. Andrew Wilson, Missouri (2010-13)

Top 10 SEC Linebackers of the BCS Era
Post date: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-basketball/college-basketball-key-stats-week-feb-18

Syracuse and Wichita State remain undefeated. Doug McDermott scored a bunch. And Florida handled a couple of SEC teams.

On the surface, the last week was pretty typical as far as the 2013-14 season goes.

But behind all those things we’ve come to accept as automatic this season, there are a few interesting numbers to crunch.

Wichita State is the first to do something in a decade. Syracuse may hit a mark that coincides with the dawn of the Jim Boeheim era. And Florida did something it never has during the Billy Donovan era.

Those, of course, weren’t the only statistical notables. Nebraska and Memphis were on opposite sides of ending droughts this week among other numericals from the week in college basketball.

College Basketball Key Stats of the Week: Feb. 18

21. Teams to win their first 27 games
Wichita State’s seeding in the NCAA Tournament is going to be a hot debate if the Shockers get to Selection Sunday undefeated. After Saturday, they’re still in rarefied air by starting 27-0, the 21st team in NCAA history to do so. The last was a Jameer Nelson-led St. Joseph’s team in 2003-04. St. Joe’s streak ended at 27 games when the Red Hawks lost to Xavier in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Wichita State has four more regular-season games before it even gets to the Missouri Valley Tournament. That 2003-04 St. Joe’s team, by the way, was a No. 1 seed and lost to Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight.

70. Points per game for Syracuse
Scoring is up nation-wide, but the nation’s No. 1 has not contributed to that trend. Syracuse continued its 25-0 start despite never cracking 60 points in the last three games. Tempo-free and per possession statistics are the preferred measure these days, but it’s still jarring to see Syracuse averaging a mere 70 points per game. If the trend sticks, this will be the lowest-scoring Syracuse team since 1962-63. That team during Jim Boeheim's freshman season as a player averaged 62 points per game.

60. Creighton’s 3-point shooting rate against Villanova
Villanova did a better job of shutting down the 3-point line in the rematch against Creighton, but it still wasn't enough. The Bluejays still shot 9 of 15 from long range in Sunday’s 101-80 win to sweep Villanova. Led by Ethan Wragge nine 3s earlier this season, Creighton made 21 3-pointers in the first meeting on Jan. 20. In the two meetings, Creighton was 30 of 50 from long range against its only competition for the Big East crown.

33.1. Villanova’s 3-point percentage defense in its other 23 games
Creighton’s season sweep of Villanova has been so dominating, it has made the Wildcats’ defensive numbers look average. Teams not named Creighton are shooting 33.1 percent from 3 against the Wildcats. The same is true from the field at large: Creighton shot 60.4 percent in two games against Villanova. The Wildcats have held everyone else to 39.5 percent shooting.

2-0. Florida’s record in Knoxville and Lexington this season
Not a whole lot of teams win in Rupp Arena, especially since John Calipari took over. And for some reason, Tennessee had Florida’s number even when the Gators won back-to-back national championships. This week, Florida did something that the Gators hadn’t done during the Billy Donovan era or even the Lon Kruger era by winning road games at Kentucky and Tennessee in the same season. Florida hadn’t swept road games in Lexington and Knoxville since 1988, and in 2014, the Gators did it within four days.

29. Consecutive road games vs. top 10 teams Nebraska lost before Sunday
If Nebraska is going to make a late push for the NCAA Tournament, Sunday’s win over No. 9 Michigan State in East Lansing was a key development for the Cornhuskers. Nebraska defeated the Spartans 60-51 for only the Huskers’ fourth win over a top 10 team on the road in school history. Nebraska had lost 29 consecutive road games to top 10 opponents going back to a Feb. 22, 1997 win over No. 7 Iowa State.

42. Percentage of UConn’s field goals accounted for by Shabazz Napier
A case for the most indispensable player in the country may start with UConn’s Shabazz Napier. With 134 field goals and 137 assists this season, Napier played a direct role in 42 percent of the Huskies baskets this season. On Saturday, he even raised that average in an 86-81 overtime win over Memphis. Napier had 10 baskets and four assists to account for 58 percent of the Huskies’ field goals on Saturday.

0-2. Memphis’ record against UConn in the regular season
Memphis had no peer in the watered-down Conference USA lineup. That has changed in the American, even if the top teams in the league have a substantial edge over the bottom half. With UConn’s win in Memphis on Jan. 16 and in Storrs on Feb. 16, the Huskies are the first team to sweep Memphis during the regular season since Southern Miss did it in 2000-01. SMU and Cincinnati, the only other AAC teams to beat Memphis this season, could do the same in the last two games of the regular season.

296. Career blocks by Arizona State’s Jordan Bachynski
More than a week ago, Arizona State’s Jordan Bachynski quietly broke a 25-year-old Pac-12 record for blocks. Then came an eight-block night in the upset of Arizona on Friday. Bachynski will shatter the Pac-12 career block record set by Arizona’s Anthony Cook (278 blocks from 1985-89).

55. Minutes played by Canisius’ Billy Baron on Saturday
In this spot earlier this season, we noted that Providence’s Bryce Cotton averaged 46.2 minutes per game in conference play. Cotton has nothing on Billy Baron. The nation’s third-leading scorer played all 55 minutes in Saturday’s  92-88 win over Siena in triple overtime. Baron, naturally, filled the stat sheet with 40 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.

College Basketball Key Stats of the Week: Feb. 18
Post date: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /college-football/ranking-best-coaching-tandems-pac-12-2014

Not that this is going to assuage fans of our No. 12 team here, but the difference between the 12th coaching tandem in the Pac-12 and the fourth is razor thin.

Indeed, there’s a lot to like about the final Pac-12 coaching tandem on this list.

The Pac-12 coaching tandems for 2014 had a knack for balancing struggling basketball coaches (Ken Bone and Craig Robinson) with superb football coaches (Mike Leach and Mike Riley).

In other spots, there are known commodities as basketball coaches (Lorenzo Romar, Tad Boyle and Mike Montgomery) paired up with football coaches new to the Pac-12 level (Chris Petersen, Mike MacIntyre and Sonny Dykes).

The top two picks for coaching tandems were a little easier given our primary criteria in ranking the tandems: Balance.

To reiterate, we like a coaching tandem that keeps fans happy from the start of football season to the end of basketball season, from August to April. That made our top two picks clear in our eyes.

1. Arizona
Rich Rodriguez | Basketball: Sean Miller

Sean Miller’s last four NCAA Tournament appearances have resulted in either a Sweet 16 or an Elite Eight. It’s only a matter of time before he gets to the Final Four or better, especially as he’s returned Arizona to national powerhouse status. Rodriguez has made the most of his second chance in a major conference since his ill-fated tenure at Michigan. The Wildcats have back-to-back eight win seasons and back-to-back bowl wins in two seasons under RichRod.

Jim L. Mora | Basketball: Steve Alford

With 19 wins in two seasons, UCLA football is a factor again in the Pac-12 even if the Bruins haven’t broken through for a conference title. Alford’s hire was greeted with skepticism, but the Bruins are in NCAA Tournament contention in his first season in Westwood. Expectations soon will be higher.

3. Stanford
David Shaw | Basketball: Johnny Dawkins

Shaw has established himself as the top football coach in the Pac-12, leading the Cardinal to back-to-back conference titles. Stanford is 34-7 with three BCS bids under Shaw with plenty of potential to continue given his recruiting success. Dawkins hasn’t matched the success of his predecessors Mike Montgomery or Trent Johnson, but Stanford basketball is finally back in NCAA Tournament contention after a six-year absence.

4. Arizona State
Todd Graham | Basketball: Herb Sendek

Graham’s reputation as a job jumper will follow him around, but he can coach. The Sun Devils improved from 6-7 the year before he arrived to 8-5 his first season to 10-4 in his second. Sendek is a veteran coach who is probably earning himself more time after entering the season with his future in question. Arizona State is poised for its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2009.

5. Oregon
Mark Helfrich | Basketball: Dana Altman

Helfrich went 11-2 overall and 7-2 in the Pac-12 in his first season as a head coach. The next question is if he can sustain Oregon as a national power. Altman wasn’t the first choice for the basketball program, but he’s led the Ducks to a Sweet 16 berth in his third season. Sustainability will be worth watching for Altman as well. His program has been a haven for high-profile transfers, for better or worse.

6. Washington
Chris Petersen | Basketball: Lorenzo Romar

Washington ended up being the school that could finally pry Petersen away from Boise State. Petersen’s predecessors Dan Hawkins and Dirk Koetter struggled once they left Boise though neither was as highly regarded as Petersen, who led Boise State to two undefeated seasons. Romar’s program has been up and down. He has three Sweet 16 appearances, three conference tournament championships and two regular season titles during his tenure.

7. Colorado
Mike MacIntyre | Basketball: Tad Boyle

Colorado has made two of the best coaching hires in recent seasons, and the Buffaloes needed them in a major way. Boyle has led Colorado to three consecutive postseason appearances for the first time in school history. A fourth and third consecutive NCAA appearance could be on the way despite a season-ending injury to Spencer Dinwiddie. The football program is counting on MacIntyre to replicate his reclamation project at San Jose State.

8. Cal
Sonny Dykes | Basketball: Mike Montgomery

Montgomery is one of the top coaches in the Pac-12 — going back to his time at Stanford. Cal is rarely one of the top teams in the league, but the Bears have been consistently above average under Montgomery. That’s not easy at Cal. Football is starting from scratch under Dykes, who had a good track record at Louisiana Tech, but the Bears were a dreadful 1-11 in his first season in Berkeley.

9. Oregon State
Mike Riley | Basketball: Craig Robinson

Riley generally has been an overachiever at Oregon State, leading the Beavers to 36 wins in four seasons from 2006-09. That said, Oregon State has had a losing conference record in three of the last four seasons. Basketball has made strides under Robinson, but the program hasn’t been able to get over the CBI hump. That’s not likely to change in his sixth season.

10. Washington State
Mike Leach | Basketball: Ken Bone

Wazzu is creeping back toward relevance in football as Leach has installed his pass-oriented offense in Pullman. The transition might have been slower than expected, but a bowl appearance in his second season is a major improvement from where Washington State was only three seasons ago. With an overall losing record in five seasons, Bone may be near the end of his tenure with the basketball program.

11. USC
Steve Sarkisian | Basketball: Andy Enfield

USC athletics director Pat Haden didn’t have much of a grace period, having to make a number of key hires early in his tenure. He twice went young an energetic with Sarkisian and Enfield. One is a known commodity who was a former assistant who already had success at a Pac-12 school (Sarkisian). The other was an obscure name until he won two games in March (Enfield).

12. Utah
Kyle Whittingham | Basketball: Larry Krystkowiak

In no other league would Utah be ranked last, but the Utes are still looking to be competitive in both sports. Whittingham has a Sugar Bowl victory on his resume, but the Utes are 9-18 in Pac-12 play in three seasons. Krystkowiak took over a mess of a program mired in player transfers. He’s laid the groundwork for a competitive team that could head to the NIT only two seasons after going 6-25.

Ranking the Best Coaching Tandems in the Pac-12 in 2014
Post date: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /nascar/nascar-media-roundtable-forcing-drivers-sit-after-concussion

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.

The long-term effects of head trauma in the NFL, along with other sports, are just now beginning to be realized. This year, NASCAR has mandated baseline cognitive testing for its drivers — a move applauded by some (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and questioned by others (Brad Keselowski). The question to you: Is NASCAR opening a Pandora’s box? How will the sport enforce sitting a driver not cleared by doctors when championship and future sponsorship considerations are on the line? Can this objectively be accomplished?

Pete Pistone (Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio and MRN Radio; @PPistone): Like it or not NASCAR has to be proactive in this area given the NFL situation and now a similar one in the NHL. Drivers aren’t going to like being told to sit out should they fail the baseline test, but the bottom line is the health and well being of all competitors and not putting anyone else at risk. Athletes get injured and are forced to the sidelines. It should be no different in NASCAR.

Nick Bromberg (Yahoo! Sports; @NickBromberg): What we know now is exponentially more than what we knew 10 years ago, and what we’ll know in 10 years will be exponentially more than what we know now.

If there was any question if NASCAR couldn’t enforce a concussion policy, the doubts should have been washed away when Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat out two races in 2012. If the sport’s most popular driver can sit out two races in NASCAR’s playoffs and the sport survives, we needn’t worry about the consequences of anyone else missing a race.

Outside of being extremely complicated, we all know our brains are the most important part of our lives. That life outside of NASCAR should always be considered. If NASCAR institutes an independent doctor or panel of doctors to be in charge of all concussion and head-related examinations and injuries both before and during the season — with approval from many of the sport’s most influential drivers — there should be minimal controversy.

Nate Ryan (USA Today@nateryan): Any professional sport potentially featuring violence must seem proactive in ensuring its athletes are of sound mind. Earnhardt’s concussion (in 2012) proved that the NASCAR industry is ready to accept its stars being sidelined for the greater good. It’s hard to envision sponsors raising vociferous objections to a driver benched because of a brain injury, but it is worth considering if championship dispensation should be given. Though Keselowski raises some valid points, it will be hard for drivers who lack college degrees making the case that they somehow are better suited to evaluate their well-being than board-certified physicians. Yes, there will be circumstances that make the process tricky, but it’s better for NASCAR to err on the side of caution instead of facing the PR nightmares endured by the NFL.

Bob Pockrass (The Sporting News@bobpockrass): NASCAR owes it to the 10-year-old boy sitting in Row 10 that its drivers’ minds are in the game. If they are not, they must err on the side of caution to prevent accidents that could impact fan safety and driver safety. Whatever the cost of possibly being wrong in sitting the driver is worth it when considering the cost of possibly being wrong and letting a driver race.

Mike Mulhern (; @mikemulhern): The issue of concussion in NASCAR is long overdue for more study. Maybe we could put Jerry Nadeau, Ernie Irvan and Bobby Allison on a committee to help. NASCAR has access to black boxes that record G-force impacts; that’s an easy-to-read number that a doctor could use. By the way, what was the G-force impact of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Kansas crash?

Mike Hembree (Athlon Sports; @mikehembree): It’s a good move. As is often the case in other sports, athletes sometimes have to be protected from themselves. In a tight point race late in the season, a driver probably would try to start a race with two broken arms and double pneumonia. It could result in some tough calls — do you block a popular driver from competition if his injury is borderline? — but NASCAR is in the tough-call business.

Ryan McGee ( The Magazine@ESPNMcGee): Listen, the days of taping one’s eyelids open and going racing are over. It’s easy to romanticize those moments now, but the reality is that they were stupid and we’re lucky no one got killed because we let them happen. This is a not privacy issue. This is a life-or-death issue. And the practice of establishing baseline medical stats so that on-site medical teams and local doctors have a better understanding of their sudden patients is nothing new. Other race series have done it for years. I have covered many an IndyCar race where a driver has had to sit-out a race because they suffered a concussion or blacked out the week before and doctors ordered them to sit. At the time, that’s not fun for the racer or their fans. But the motive isn’t a conspiracy. It’s to keep the racetrack as safe as possible. Oh, and help make sure your favorite lives longer.

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 delicate topic of how the sanctioning body could force drivers to sit out a race after suffering a concussion.
Post date: Monday, February 17, 2014 - 23:58
All taxonomy terms: Kyle Larson, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/kyle-larson-nascars-future-now

Kyle Larson, a boyish-looking 21-year-old who races far beyond his years, might be NASCAR’s Next Big Thing. Then again, he might run into the Next Big Wall.  Kyle Larson

Being cast as stock car racing’s newest wunderkind and can’t-miss star in the making is to stand on shaky ground. It took Joey Logano, considered a sure-fire star when he broke into the big leagues five years ago, all of those five years to reach a level of consistent strength. Others whose talent was considered beyond question now are beyond oblivion, languishing in backwater series or watching races from home.

Larson will open the 2014 Sprint Cup season in the No. 42 car owned by Chip Ganassi and formerly driven by Juan Pablo Montoya, whose seven years in NASCAR (all with Ganassi) didn’t set the world on fire (well, except for that ugly track-dryer incident at Daytona…).

Larson drives into the Cup series having raced stock cars only since 2012. He grew up in sprint cars, turning heads in USAC sprint, midget and Silver Crown racing and reminding long-time observers of the success in those series of current NASCAR kingpins Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne.

Larson’s rapid success in open-wheel cars attracted the attention of both Ganassi and NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program (Larson has Japanese-American and Native American heritage), and the Californian joined Chip Ganassi Racing as a developmental driver while continuing to run short tracks across the country.

Larson was tossed into the Nationwide Series full-time in 2013 with very little experience in full-bodied stock cars. He failed to win, but he finished second four times and was eighth in points at the end of the season. In late August, Ganassi named Larson as Montoya’s 2014 replacement.

Some say it’s too soon; Ganassi and Larson disagree.

“We do feel that we need to continue Kyle Larson’s growth, and putting him in a Cup car was the very next step,” Ganassi says. “We’re sure there will be some growing pains, but we’re sure he’s ready. Some of those growing pains will come whatever his first year in the series is.

“This kid is a special kid.”

Larson doesn’t back away from high expectations. “I’d like to prove the people that don’t think I’m ready for it wrong,” he says. “The guys that think I am ready — let them pump their chest out a little bit.”

Logano started Cup at 18, a kid who looked like he had driven in fresh from the junior prom. He knows about the potholes.

“He (Larson) has a little more experience than I did when I started, but when you jump in these Cup cars it’s such a different world out there,” Logano says. “There will be tracks that suit his driving style perfectly and tracks that will be just the opposite. What I came to a quick realization of is that I’m against the best race car drivers in the world, so it’s tough, and all these teams are tough.

“Obviously, learning how to drive these cars is difficult, but I have 100 percent confidence he’ll figure it out. Just like anybody coming into this series, you have to give them a couple of years to figure out. It’s tough. It’s tricky.”

ESPN analyst and former driver Ricky Craven says Larson’s potential will be tested at a “number of crossroads where he has adversity and has to choose whether to go left, right or straight. There are going to be plenty of those intersections. Handling that pressure is a really important piece of the pie.”  Kyle Larson

The testing began at Daytona in early January, where last year Larson was a focal point of a wild final-lap wreck in the Nationwide Series opener. His car sailed into the outside fence (right), shredded its front and rear clips and dropped its engine into the grandstand in a violent flight.

Larson wasn’t hurt, but he got a hint of how rough the road to the top can be.

by Mike Hembree
Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikehembree

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.

Kyle Larson embarks on his rookie campaign in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Post date: Monday, February 17, 2014 - 23:54
All taxonomy terms: Kyle Larson, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-kyle-larson

Kyle Larson: NASCAR Sprint Cup Series star of the future.  Kyle Larson

That’s an outlook that seemed rather predictable at the start of the 2013 season. The young Californian had shown impressive talent in his quick move through the racing ranks and garnered a Nationwide Series contract from Chip Ganassi.

But the version of Kyle Larson we’ll have this year — that of a full-time Cup competitor, effective immediately — seemed almost impossible just a year ago, when Larson headed to Daytona for the Nationwide season-opener with only four career NASCAR national series starts to his name. His first full season in that second-tier division was moderately successful, with four second-place finishes, although he never won, nor was he a title contender.

Yet here we are, starting the new season with Larson’s name emblazoned where Juan Pablo Montoya’s once was on the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42. Target returns as the primary sponsor for Larson’s promotion to NASCAR’s top series at age 21.

It was a move by Ganassi that looked and felt a lot like a non-secured down-payment on Larson’s racing future. Undoubtedly, Ganassi was making a play that he hoped would head off anything resembling the raw deal Bill Davis faced when Jeff Gordon bolted his team for Hendrick Motorsports in the early 1990s.

Is it a case of too much, too soon? The jury’s still out; as with any rookie Sprint Cup driver, expect a lot of good with a lot of bad. Fortunately, Larson got four races worth of seat time in Ganassi-prepared cars for Harry Scott Jr.’s Sprint Cup team to close 2013.

Larson failed to finish his first two starts — Charlotte and Martinsville in October — thanks to engine issues. But he rolled to finishes of 23rd and 15th in the other two, impressing along the way.

It’s that kind of natural talent that made it possible for Larson to replace an all-around wheelman like Montoya. And it’s that kind of natural talent that will let him enter 2014 with little pressure from Ganassi to perform instantly. Confidence in the young driver’s future far outweighs the expected learning curve in Sprint Cup competition.

“I think Kyle is the kind of driver, when he sees an opportunity in front of him, he takes it,” says Ganassi. “If that means it’s a win, hey, great. There’s no pressure for him to win his first year out.”

Based on how well Larson ran in his limited time to close the season, worries about not winning may be short-lived. It’s not a stretch to think that Larson’s Sprint Cup learning curve will be a quick trip thanks to his unquestionable raw talent.

But just as Montoya and current teammate Jamie McMurray have found, the cars from the CGR shop may prove the biggest hindrance. Reliability hasn’t been a strong suit. Remember, too, that Ganassi and Target have gambled in the past with young Reed Sorenson — only to make a mistake.

That will not be the case here, though. Expect Larson to beat out many veterans on a weekly basis this year and in the point standings come November. And if a few breaks fall his way, he could just crack the top 16 by Richmond in September.

What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
Kyle Larson is the most highly touted rookie the Sprint Cup Series has seen since Joey Logano, and those in the garage have nothing but praise for the youngster.

“Extremely versatile — can run anything and win,” one crew chief says. “He made it to where he is by winning and racing everywhere and in anything. He’s not a spoon-fed bitch.”

“His car control is about as good as anyone in the series,” another gushes. “And he’s striving to learn more about racing. He spends as much time as possible in cars to continue his development.”

The one potential hindrance, warns a rival, will be the equipment afforded him: “He’s in Ganassi equipment. The team he is on gets their engines from another organization. They also do not have the engineering depth of the larger teams. They are a tier-two team and will always be handicapped by the inability to control their own engine development. Plus, he’s a rookie and still learning how to race. He’ll have to learn how to pace himself on longer races.”

No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Owner: Chip Ganassi/Felix Sabates
Crew Chief: Chris Heroy
Years with current team: 1
Under contract through: 2017
Best points finish: N/A
Hometown: Elk Grove, Calif.
Born: July 31, 1992

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

Season preview for Kyle Larson and the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
Post date: Monday, February 17, 2014 - 23:52
All taxonomy terms: Jamie McMurray, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-jamie-mcmurray

Jamie McMurray probably feels pretty good about the possibilities that this year holds. Of course, McMurray, one of the sport’s most upbeat personalities, probably feels that way almost every year.  Jamie McMurray and Keith Rodden

With a new crew chief, a new teammate and the momentum of the personal upswing that 2013 brought, McMurray has his sights set on finally making a Chase for the Sprint Cup appearance. He’s in a contract year, too, so continued improvement could pay dividends in the form of more regular paychecks in his future.

Not so fast.

We have been down this road before with the driver from Joplin, Mo., as recently as his unforgettable 2010 season. That year, McMurray scored his emotional Daytona 500 victory after holding off Dale Earnhardt Jr., accomplished what former teammate Juan Pablo Montoya never could with a notable Brickyard 400 win and otherwise earned a career-high nine top-5 finishes. He didn’t make the Chase that year — the all-too-familiar inconsistency of a Ganassi NASCAR operation caught up with him — but surely he had built his No. 1 team into ... something.

Two seasons, 72 races and two top-5 finishes later, McMurray remained stuck in rebuild mode. He was 27th in points after the 2011 season and 21st after 2012.

Why, then, should we see the moderate improvement from him last year any differently?

With McMurray, we have reached the point in his career where what you see is what you get. He’s a more than capable driver, but this year marks McMurray’s 11th full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series. In that period, he has seven wins and averages a little more than one top-10 finish per every four races. He has never finished higher than 11th in the season point standings, the only full-time, funded driver to run every year since 2004 and not make the Chase. Frankly, those simply aren’t top-tier numbers.

Positive thinkers will see McMurray’s 15th-place finish in last year’s point standings as reason to believe things can finally be different. At the very least, his Chip Ganassi Racing team is trying.

In a move that likely should have been made sooner — it bears repeating that McMurray had a grand total of two top-5 finishes in 2011 and ’12 — Kevin “Bono” Manion, McMurray’s crew chief since his arrival at CGR in 2010, was reassigned by the team following the 2013 season finale. Replacing him is Keith Rodden, formerly the lead engineer on Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports. Rodden had previously followed Kahne and longtime crew chief Kenny Francis through stops at Evernham Motorsports, Richard Petty Motorsports and Red Bull Racing.

The move is an interesting one for CGR overall as it comes just a season after the team made a company-wide change in its sourcing of Chevrolet engines. Out were the powerplants produced by sister company Earnhardt-Childress Racing; in were the V8s supplied by Hendrick Motorsports. They seemed to make a difference in the team’s performance, so don’t be shocked if CGR follows the sport’s trend among many other mid-level teams and forges what many term a “technical alliance” with Hendrick.

As for Rodden, it’s too early to tell if he’ll make a bona fide difference. What makes the hire fascinating is that he is a mechanical engineer by trade. Ganassi didn’t shop for a crew chief known for race strategy, instead maximizing the intricacies of car setup. That’s a smart move, as fast cars win races over wild, in-race gamblers these days (just ask Jimmie Johnson).

McMurray’s restrictor plate prowess may give his No. 1 team a large boost in the Daytona season opener, just as it did with his win at Talladega last fall. His four total victories at Daytona and Talladega since 2007 are the most of any current driver.

But as the series settles into the normal grind of racetracks, McMurray’s new working relationship with Rodden will likely take some time to find its legs. It’s a two-fold process that will require Rodden to learn what McMurray wants from the car while simultaneously learning how to handle the day-to-day management of a Sprint Cup team.

Throw in an inexperienced young hotshoe in Kyle Larson, who’s joining the team as Montoya’s replacement, and there will be plenty of new challenges to overcome in the entire CGR camp early this season.

Undoubtedly, McMurray will stay positive about it all. We’ll just have to wait and see if he can surprise us.

What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“McMurray has proven he can win in the Cup Series,” says a garage-area rival. “And suddenly, he’s the elder statesman at Ganassi. His role as a mentor for Kyle Larson could very well invigorate his driving. McMurray continues to race go-karts, which keeps his passion for the sport alive, but he’s going to have to step up his game to keep from being outshined by Larson.”

“McMurray can be a Jekyll and Hyde driver,” a rival crew chief says. “Depending on the side of the bed he wakes up on can determine if you’re going to get the driver on the wheel or the driver just stroking. He’s working with a new crew chief in 2014, which means the dreaded chemistry-building year; and he’s driving Ganassi equipment ...”

One media member wonders if the likable Missourian is “too likable,” saying, “It’s impossible to not like McMurray — he’s a good guy, always smiling. But I wonder if that serves as a disadvantage. Sometimes you have to be mean, and McMurray doesn’t have that mean streak in him like Tony Stewart or the do-anything drive that we’ve seen out of Jeff Gordon.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
Four of his seven career Cup wins have come on the plate tracks. Not quite Mikey-esque, but close.
Pretty Solid Pick: Martinsville must remind him of his karting days, as McMurray has seven top 10s in 14 starts there in the CoT/Gen-6 era. A note, though: He’s never parlayed any of those showings into a top-5 performance.
Good Sleeper Pick: McMurray has averaged an 11.25-place finish at Bristol since 2010. That’s about as sleeper-ish as we could find.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: He’s one of those drivers who has never adapted to the road courses. Jamie Mac has three career top 10s in 22 starts.
Insider Tip: An addendum to the plate track stat above: He’s feast or famine on the big tri-ovals. Also, wait a few weeks to see if CGR has some kinks worked out before using him in the fantasy lineup.

No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Sponsors: McDonald’s/Cessna/Banana Boat/LiftMaster
Owners: Chip Ganassi/Felix Sabates
Crew Chief: Keith Rodden
Years with current team: 5
Under contract through: 2014
Best points finish: 11th (2004)
Hometown: Joplin, Mo.
Born: June 3, 1976

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

Season preview for Jamie McMurray and the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
Post date: Monday, February 17, 2014 - 23:50
All taxonomy terms: Olympics
Path: /craziest-moments-sochi-olympics-so-far

Prior to the Sochi Winter Olympics there were plenty of concerns swirling around the Games of the XXII Olympiad. Whether it was melting snow, stray dogs, dirty water, government spying or a shirtless president on horseback, paranoia ran rampant. Would Vladimir Putin and Co. be able to competently host 2,850 Olympians from 88 countries, plus fans and media?

The games are now midair. And while there hasn’t been a major international incident, there have been some odd moments in Sochi so far. Here are a few highlights and lowlights from the 2014 Winter Olympics at just past the halfway point.

Olympic ring fail
Sochi staggered right out of the gates at the Opening Ceremonies. Although Russian police did sing Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” — which was not quite the Grammy Award-winning Pharrell version, but still — the unveiling of the Olympic rings went all wrong. Luckily, that part of the broadcast was able to be censored out of the Russian telecast.

Bob Costas’ pink eye
Since the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Costas has been anchoring the NBC coverage of the Summer and Winter Games, either late night or in prime time. But this time around, the Peacock Network’s most visible plumage turned pink. Costas came down with a nasty case of pink eye, which spread from his left eye to his right, forcing Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira to step up in place of the spectacled eight-time National Sportscaster of the Year.

Julia Lipnitskaia’s spinning
Russia’s 15-year-old ice princess and its 31-year-old rock star Evgeni Plushenko led a gold medal charge in the Olympics’ first-ever team figure skating competition. Lipnitskaia — who met the age qualification of the Olympics by just 25 days — stole the show with her mesmerizing spins.

Ashley Wagner’s meme
While Lipnitskaia was busy winning over even the most hardened of hearts, America’s own gold medal figure skating hopeful made a meme to remember. Call Wagner the McKayla Maroney of the Winter Olympics. She was certainly “not impressed” by her scores in the team competition.

Bode Miller’s raw emotion
After Miller earned bronze in the super-G, NBC reporter Christin Cooper relentlessly asked the alpine skier about his recently deceased brother, Chelone, who was found dead in a van following an apparent seizure last April. There was immediate backlash from fans who thought Cooper’s line of questioning went too far.

Under Armour speedskating suits
Speed skater Shani Davis entered Sochi with back-to-back gold medals in the 1000 meters and a pair of silvers in the 1500 meters. After failing to medal in either event, there was rampant speculation that Davis was slowed by Under Armour’s new Mach 39 speedskating body suits. Apparently, vents on the back of the suit that were designed to allow heat to escape actually allowed air to enter and create a drag on the skaters.

Shiva Keshavan luge recovery
India’s premier luger wiped out, fell off his sled, stayed calm and got right back on to finish an unbelievable run like nothing ever happened. The five-time Olympian is the face of the new Indian Olympic presence, following a 14-month ban by the International Olympic Committee for corruption.

Johnny Quinn’s problems
“…With no phone to call for help, I used my bobsled push training to break out. #SochiJailBreak,” Quinn tweeted on Feb. 8. Two days later, “No one is going to believe this but we just got stuck in an elevator,” he tweeted. Quinn’s bobsled training — and door apparently made of cardboard — was enough to free him the first time. But no amount of Olympic training can prepare a man for a Russian steel cage death trap a.k.a. an elevator in Sochi.

Russia’s disallowed goal
Not quite an Al Michaels miracle on ice but Team USA will take it. During a 3–2 win over Russia in a preliminary round match, a third-period Russia goal was disallowed by American official Brad Meier. The goal would have given the home nation a 3–2 lead. Instead, the game went to a scoreless overtime and subsequent shootout, which launched the star of Team USA’s T.J. Oshie — and his girlfriend, Lauren Cosgrove.

“Even if the judge was wrong, we mustn’t stick labels on anybody,” said President Putin. “We can’t forget that sport takes courage, but also luck.”

The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics have been as wild as expected
Post date: Monday, February 17, 2014 - 17:00
Path: /nascar/nascar-speedweeks-feature-dillon-hamlin-and-wild-racing-daytona

On Sunday, a black No. 3 car sat shining in the Daytona Beach sun, cameras focused on a number not seen in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition since the 2001 Daytona 500. It’s been 13 years since that tragic end, but closure has finally come — not in the form of an Earnhardt, but in 23-year-old Austin Dillon.  Austin Dillon

The grandson of car owner Richard Childress raised expectations with a flawless performance in Daytona 500 qualifying, launching the ghost of “The Intimidator” straight to the forefront of NASCAR’s Super Bowl.

Today, it also has 56,000 conspiracy theorists out in full force.

Dillon is the second straight rookie to win the pole for “The Great American Race,” setting a NASCAR record, as he joins 2013 “surprise” Danica Patrick. Both are high-profile stories, raising national attention for NASCAR’s biggest race at a time when rating and attendance numbers were reaching critical lows. (See: sparse crowd at Daytona for both Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited and Sunday’s Pole Day.)

The sport enjoyed a quick boost in popularity once Patrick rose to contention last February; like it or not, that’s the truth. So why not put a little extra horsepower in the No. 3, the naysayers go, so Dillon and the Earnhardt legacy make it happen all over again? The pole is little more than ceremonial, anyway, for a race where one can jump from 40th to first in just a handful of laps.

It’s sad that inconsistent penalties, last fall’s Richmond debacle and confusing rule changes have driven fans towards the brink, crazy enough to think this pole might have been scripted. They’d have a far better argument for Patrick last year than tearing this latest “shocker” to shreds. Dillon, while without a plate race win in NASCAR’s lower series, has still been impressive at the sport’s big superspeedways. He was top-5 material on the white flag lap of last fall’s Cup race at Talladega before the typical melee ensued; his No. 3 sat on the pole for Daytona’s Nationwide Series race last July, and finished fifth. The RCR outfit he runs for was lightning quick in January testing at Daytona, posting top times that carried over straight to the beginning of Speedweeks.

If Dillon were some random guy at age 23 driving top-tier equipment, fans would be celebrating his accomplishment, not questioning it. Unlike Patrick, there are results on paper (he’s the defending Nationwide Series champion) and there’s arguably more pressure on his shoulders. Dillon carries the weight of the family business with big-time sponsorship while driving for a team that finished third in last season’s championship Chase. He may show charisma, but there aren’t tens of millions of marketing dollars and funny GoDaddy commercials to fuel income here in case of failure. Instead, should things backfire there comes a lifetime moniker of “that guy who couldn’t make it in the 3 car.”

If anything, Dillon’s in a lose-lose situation, with a top 10, run-up-front-all-day performance now considered a Daytona must. But when a great accomplishment gets drowned out with fans crying foul, disbelieving the sport millions follow is unfair to everyone. And the season hasn’t even begun yet.

So take a deep breath, relax, and as we go Through The Gears, give me this much: every once in a while, an accomplishment that seems too good to be true is simply nothing more than a great, feel-good story. And after all, shouldn’t those following NASCAR be smiling mere days before the sport's biggest race?

FIRST GEAR: Denny Hamlin makes a statement  Denny Hamlin
Last November, in the midst of a nightmare 2013 season, Denny Hamlin salvaged something with a last-ditch win in the Homestead season finale. He’s had over two months to sit on those laurels.

He also hasn’t lost. Winning all three segments of Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, NASCAR’s exhibition race for 2013 pole sitters, it was clear Hamlin had the fastest car. Running up front or in traffic, it didn’t really matter, as the FedEx Toyota was slicing through opponents at will.

So much for having a bad back. Last fall, it seemed surgery was the only option for Hamlin to return to full health but some large-scale rehabilitation efforts leave him looking 100 percent.

“Physically, I feel like I can be better than I was before,” he said Saturday night. “I feel as good physically in the car over the course of long runs, better than I have for I can't even remember, probably rookie season maybe.”

That’s also the last time Hamlin won the Unlimited, in 2006 — a win that sparked an unlikely journey to third in series points. It’s a good omen for the future, especially with confidence high; this driver runs up front when fueled by emotion. I’d be shocked if he wasn’t in the mix for his first Daytona 500 trophy, along with Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth this Sunday.

SECOND GEAR: More passing … but more wrecking?
The Unlimited got dicey after a slow start with wild, three-abreast, white-knuckle racing down the stretch. But at times, the best drivers in the world also played a very expensive game of Demolition Derby. Just eight cars finished the race, the fewest since 1987, as big names turned into bigger victims. Dale Earnhardt Jr. got hit from behind. Matt Kenseth got turned by Joey Logano. Jimmie Johnson, well, he spun out by himself. What gives? Heck, even the pace car caught on fire!

Turns out the answer is the “side draft,” where drivers get a boost of speed under the current restrictor plate rules. While similar to 2013, there’s better handling and better understanding of the air which has made it far easier to pass. But, according to drivers like Earnhardt, slower momentum combined with some “stalling out” during the sidedrafting process leads to cars unexpectedly backing up in the pack, more susceptible to bad bumpdrafts from behind or simply spinning out on their own.

Does that mean Sunday’s Daytona 500 will be a wreckfest? Well, I don’t think we’ll be down to eight cars. But avoiding the “Big One” for 200 laps would be a major surprise, I think.

THIRD GEAR: Growing pains for Stewart-Haas Racing
Stewart-Haas Racing, while running in the top 5 Saturday with Kevin Harvick, is showing early growing pains with its new, four-car operation. None posted qualifying speeds inside the top 20, including Kurt Busch who stands a small (but conceivable) chance of missing the 500 altogether with a wreck in Thursday’s Duel qualifying race. Both co-owner Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick have had engine problems, sending them to the rear of Sunday’s 500. To add insult to injury, the two of them along with Busch wrecked through the course of the Sprint Unlimited. Patrick had the most awkward result, spinning wildly to the point boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. couldn’t avoid hitting her square in the driver’s door.

It’s a long way to go between now and Sunday, with Stewart looking especially motivated to show he’s healthy. (He last raced in August before breaking his leg in an ugly sprint car accident.) It’s hard to ever count him out, or Harvick, who’s come out of nowhere to win this 500 before. But a win on Sunday seems like a tall order right now, let alone get all four cars inside the top 10.

FOURTH GEAR: Expect the unexpected
A look through early power players at Daytona brings us back to the same common theme: drivers with something to prove. There’s Brad Keselowski, second in the Sprint Unlimited and sixth in Daytona 500 qualifying. After missing the Chase last season, the 2012 champ is acting like a man on a mission. There’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., racy in the Unlimited and seventh in qualifying. He’s looking for that early win to quiet whispers about both sponsorship and the Chase. And locked in on the front row is Martin Truex Jr. of Furniture Row Racing. Now driving the No. 78, a single-car operation. Last year’s Richmond victim hopes to be 2014’s miracle success story.

In all, none of the top four drivers in qualifying (Dillon, Truex, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards) have tasted victory in the Daytona 500. Add Hamlin, Keselowski, and even a Joey Logano-type to the mix and chances are we could see a first-time winner of that coveted Harley J. Earl trophy come Sunday.

Check in each Monday for Tom Bowles’ Through the Gears column, which will highlight all the events from the previous NASCAR weekend.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @NASCARBowles

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.


Austin Dillon on the Pole for the Daytona 500; Denny Hamlin wins the NASCR Sprint Unlimited. All the things you need to know from Daytona.
Post date: Monday, February 17, 2014 - 14:05
All taxonomy terms: Olympics
Path: /olympics/2014-sochi-olympics-what-watch-feb-17

Today's Highlights


8-11:30 p.m. Eastern

Bob's back. The eye infection that sidelined Bob Costas has been brought under control, allowing the longstanding, short-statured Olympic host to resume his duties. Here's what Bob will be bringing us tonight. Note that the blanket of fog covering Sochi has disrupted the schedule, leading to the postponement of the men's snowboarding.


1. Freestyle Skiing — Men's Aerials
American freestyler Mac Bohonnon will attempt to medal, while defending Olympic champion Alexei Grishin of Belarus will be absent from the finals after failing to qualify.

Read more here:


2. Figure Skating — Ice Dancing Free Skate

Meryl Davis and Charlie White are attempting to become the first American duo to win the gold medal in this elegant event that emphasizes grace over athleticism. Davis and White will try to hold off Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.


3. Ski Jumping — Men's Team Large Hill

The RusSki Gorki Jumping Center will be the scene as Poland and Austria battle for gold.


Post date: Monday, February 17, 2014 - 13:32
Path: /nascar/dillon-no-3-car-pole-daytona-500

The stylized No. 3, made famous by the late Dale Earnhardt, has made its way back to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. And it has done so in a big way.  Austin Dillon

Austin Dillon, grandson of team owner Richard Childress, who fielded Chevrolets for Earnhardt until his death in the 2001 Daytona 500, drove the No. 3 livery to the top of pylon in Sunday’s Daytona 500 pole qualifying.

Dillon’s team has shown intimidating speed at Daytona International Speedway since the series tested in early January. That speed has carried into Speedweeks.

“You want to perform with the No. 3; everyone wants to see it perform,” said Dillon, who won the pole with a lap of 196.019 mph (45.914 seconds). “It’s a long season and this is one of the top points. You want to carry that momentum going forward.”

Teams with Childress-powered engines have been near the top of the speed charts since the sport made its return to the beach late last week.

Martin Truex Jr., whose Furniture Row Racing Chevy runs Earnhardt-Childress Racing powerplants, qualified second, just .039 seconds behind Dillon.

Ryan Newman (fifth) and Paul Menard (10th) helped ECR horsepower secure four of the 10 fastest speeds on Pole Day.

Dillon’s run marks the first time the No. 3 car has sat on the pole in Daytona since Earnhardt posted the fastest speed for the 1996 Daytona 500. Earnhardt finished second that season but won “The Great American Race” two years later.

“You know, the 3 is special to all of us,” Childress said. “The (Childress) family, the Earnhardt family — to every one of us. But I think it’s special because Austin, our family, is in the car. You know, the emotion will fly if the 3 rolls in there (to victory lane) on Sunday. I won’t hold it back, I promise.”

The 23-year-old Dillon will run for the Rookie of the Year award in the Cup Series this season. He has already campaigned the No. 3 to two NASCAR national touring series championships: the Nationwide Series (2013) and Camping World Truck Series (2011).

Being the man to bring the vaunted No. 3 back to NASCAR’s premier level, though, presents a new set of tasks. To his credit, Dillon grew up with the number and is all too familiar with the gravitas that comes with being the first driver to don the stylized No. 3 in 13 years.

That sentiment was echoed by none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr.:

“I look forward to seeing it out on the racetrack,” Earnhardt said. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders. I would be worried if I didn’t think he’d respect it or not understand the legacy, but he does. I know he does. He appreciates it.”

Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Austin Dillon in the No. 3 car wins the pole for NASCAR's Daytona 500.
Post date: Monday, February 17, 2014 - 13:22
Path: /college-basketball/creightons-doug-mcdermott-earns-athlon-player-week-honors

Doug McDermott bobblehead day left Jay Wright’s head spinning again.

If there’s one thing we know about the Big East this season, it’s that Creighton has Villanova’s number. The first time around, the Bluejays launched 21 3-pointers against Villanova. The Wildcats shut down some of Creighton’s outside shooting, but they couldn’t contain McDermott, the Athlon Sports National Player of the Week.

The Creighton senior scored 39 points against Villanova to put the Bluejays up by a game in the win column in the Big East standings. McDermott scored Creighton’s first 11 points in the first four minutes as Creighton never trailed the traditional Big East power.

Related: 10 Things You Need to Know from the Basketball Weekend

National Player of the Week: Doug McDermott, Creighton
Dougie McBuckets continued to move up the all-time scoring list last week, passing Larry Bird on Sunday. McDermott matched a season high with 39 points against Villanova, completing a regular-season sweep against the Big East leaders. McDermott also scored 26 points in a 68-63 close call with Butler on Thursday. The senior shot 24 of 36 from the field for the week.

Related: 11 Doug McDermott Facts

National Freshman of the Week: Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina
The Gamecocks are one of the worst teams in a lackluster SEC, but Thornwell is one of the key pieces as Frank Martin tries to turn things around in Columbia. Thornwell scored 22 points in a win over Alabama on Saturday and 19 in a win over Vanderbilt on Thursday afternoon. The guard also had 10 total rebounds and 10 total assists in South Carolina’s first back-to-back SEC wins since 2011.

Under-the-Radar Player of the Week: Kerry Hammonds II, Middle Tennessee
Middle Tennessee has snuck into the mix for the Conference USA regular season title after dismantling league leader Southern Miss 81-64. Hammonds scored 26 points in the win over the Golden Eagles on Saturday, including six shots from 3-point range. Hammonds had 18 points in a win over Tulane earlier in the week.

Other top performers last week:

Scottie Wilbekin, Florida
The Gators may have cleared the path to a perfect SEC season by conquering their toughest week of the season so far. Florida defeated Tennessee and Kentucky on the road for the first time in the same season since 1988. The Gators point guard led the way with 23 points in a 69-59 win at Kentucky and 21 points in a 67-58 win at Tennessee. The senior was 21 of 24 from the free throw line for the week with no turnovers.

Shabazz Napier, UConn
Napier continued his case for American Athletic Conference Player of the Year honors with a gargantuan effort against Memphis. Napier scored 34 points and added five rebounds, four assists and four steals in the 86-81 win over the Tigers in overtime Saturday.

Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis
The Billikens took a major step toward a second consecutive Atlantic 10 title thanks to Evans’ play in a key 64-62 win over VCU. Evans had 21 points and 10 rebounds against the Rams as the Billikens moved to 10-0 in the A-10. A year ago, Evans was one of the hottest players in the country late in the season as Saint Louis won the A-10 regular season and tournament titles.

James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina
The long-awaited breakout for McAdoo is here as the junior had 24 points and 12 rebounds in a 75-71 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday. McAdoo has been leading the way as North Carolina — a team noted for its bizarre losses early in the year — has discovered consistency. The Tar Heels have won six games in a row heading into busy week with the first meeting with Duke postponed to Feb. 20.

Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
The Badgers’ big man gave Wisconsin its fourth victory in a row in a 75-62 win at Michigan on Sunday. Kaminsky scored 25 points on 11 of 16 shooting against the Wolverines while adding 11 rebounds. On Thursday, Kaminsky added 17 points in a 78-70 win over Minnesota.

Jordan Bachynski, Arizona State
Arizona finally ran into a defensive force that could match the Wildcats. The center Bachynski had eight blocks in a 69-66 double overtime upset of the No. 2 Wildcats on Friday night. Bachynski helped Arizona State in the offensive end with 13 points, led by 7 of 11 free throw shooting.

Jabari Brown, Missouri
The Tigers guard kept Missouri in NCAA contention this week with two key wins over Arkansas and Tennessee. Brown had 24 points in a 75-70 win over Tennessee on Saturday and 25 points in Thursday’s 86-85 win over Arkansas. Brown’s basket with 12.2 seconds left against the Razorbacks clinched the win.

Rakeem Christmas, Syracuse
Christmas had the steal to set up C.J. Fair’s game-winning layup as Syracuse defeated NC State 56-55 to remain unbeaten. Christmas finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks in the win. In another close call with Pitt on Wednesday, Christmas had seven points, five rebounds and three blocks.

Javan Felix, Texas
With leading scorer Jonathan Holmes out for one game last week, Felix helped pick up the slack with 27 points in 30 minutes in a 87-68 win over Oklahoma State on Tuesday. When Holmes returned, Felix remained the go-to player with 18 points in a 88-71 win over West Virginia on Saturday. Felix shot 16 of 30 from the field for the week.

Kenny Chery, Baylor
The junior college transfer point guard kept Baylor in contention for an NCAA Tournament spot with a triple-double in the 87-73 double overtime win over Kansas State. Chery finished with 20 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds as Baylor fought back from a 10-point deficit with nine minutes to go. The triple-double was the sixth in Baylor history.

Creighton's Doug McDermott earns Athlon Player of the Week honors
Post date: Monday, February 17, 2014 - 13:10
All taxonomy terms: MLB, News
Path: /mlb/14-things-watch-baseball-2014

Spring training has commenced in Florida and Arizona, which means Opening Day is right around the corner. While there is never any lack of players, teams or topics to follow regarding America's pastime, here are 14 storylines to keep an eye on in MLB this season.

1. Cano in Seattle
The Mariners quantified desperation in December when they plowed $240 million into one player in an effort to escape irrelevancy. That player was the best on the free-agent market, Robinson Cano, who turned 31 in October and is now signed through 2023. Critics panned the deal, citing the recent folly of 10-year contracts to players over 30. “It’ll be another club that in five years from now, maybe less, will be looking to move an enormous contract and eat a bunch of it,” ESPN’s Curt Schilling said at the winter meetings. “It never fails. It’s three, four, five years. Six is a stretch. Because it’s impossible to stay healthy in this sport.” History supports Schilling, the former pitcher, with Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols standing as powerful warning signs the Mariners did not heed. But Cano has been remarkably durable, playing in at least 159 games in each of the last seven seasons, and he is the majors’ most productive second baseman. After losing half their fans since 2002, the Mariners felt that the contract was a risk they had to take. “Anytime you can make your club better — and especially if you can upgrade with a star anywhere — it helps everything,” says Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik. “It helps your club currently, it helps you going forward.” The Mariners, with just two winning seasons in their last 10, hope the Cano decade is a lot better.

2. A’s Held Hostage
How many times must raw sewage seep into the locker rooms at the Coliseum before Major League Baseball lets the Athletics move to San Jose? It happened twice last season, yet MLB continues to let the A’s twist in an ill wind. Commissioner Bud Selig’s indecisiveness on the future of one of the game’s most innovative franchises is baffling. Selig formed a committee to study the situation in 2009 yet has not authorized the A’s to move. The San Francisco Giants claim San Jose as their territory, and Selig seems unwilling to reverse that, even though the Giants got the territory as a favor from the A’s in 1992. The city of San Jose, which is ready to break ground on a baseball-only ballpark, is tired of waiting and filed a lawsuit last year accusing MLB of conspiring to stop the team’s proposed move, which it denied last June 17. As a business, the A’s need clarity on this, if only Selig would act. The whole ordeal stinks, you might say, except for the team’s performance on the field. Despite notoriously low payrolls, the A’s will attempt to win their third AL West title in a row.

3. Instant Replay
When Major League Baseball announced plans to begin using widespread instant replay for the 2014 season, the league warned fans to expect some kinks in the system, which will be reviewed after the year for possible improvements. The evolving process (which began with reviewable home run calls in August 2008) will seek to correct blown calls on the field through a new challenge system, in which managers will get three challenges per game, one in the first six innings and two thereafter. The manager will keep his challenges if he is correct (that is, if the call is overturned), and an unused challenge in the first six innings does not carry over to the rest of the game. A league official monitoring video feeds in New York will make the final call on each challenge, which MLB believes will solve the problem of protracted manager arguments. But will managers really abide by the new rule that prevents them from arguing an overturned call? And if the system works well, will baseball push to expand it even further, to cover checked swings or even balls and strikes? That seems doubtful, but for years it seemed unlikely that MLB would even take this step. But this is a legacy item for Bud Selig, who insists that this will be his final season after more than two decades as commissioner. It should make for a fascinating subplot, where the umpires on the field will finally have access to conclusive footage that fans have had on their televisions for years.

4. Cardinals Pitchers
Year after year, it seems, the St. Louis Cardinals just keep finding them. Young impact pitchers continue to flow from the minor leagues to Busch Stadium. The Cardinal Way got a lot of attention in October as the rest of the league marveled at the instant success of pitchers who did not even start the season in the majors, like Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist and Michael Wacha, who won his first four postseason starts before losing the final game of the World Series. Remarkably, the Cardinals’ postseason roster included only one pitcher — Lance Lynn — who was also on the active roster in their 2011 championship run, and had such depth that a 15-win rookie, Shelby Miller, pitched only once in October. “You’ve got to give the organization their props for what they’ve done in drafting to get these young kids up here,” says the former ace Chris Carpenter, who retired in November. “Not only their stuff but their personalities, because that goes along with it too. These guys want it.” With Jaime Garcia returning from shoulder surgery, the Cardinals could have a logjam in the rotation, with Adam Wainwright, Joe Kelly, Wacha, Lynn, Miller and Martinez, whom the team would like to try as a starter. However it shakes out, expect some little-known rookie to make a major impact, in the rotation or relief, to help the Cardinals continue their reign as the premier team in the National League.

5. Top Twins
The Minnesota Twins probably know they will not contend this season. They have lost at least 96 games in each of the last three seasons, the longest such streak in Minnesota history. But the Twins are inching toward respectability, spending $73 million on free-agent starters Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, and they could soon take a major leap forward. Twins fans will keep a close and hopeful eye on the jewels of the farm system, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, who finished the season ranked first and third, respectively, on’s list of the top prospects in the game. Buxton, a 20-year-old, five-tool center fielder, dominated two levels of Class A ball last season, hitting .334 with 12 homers and 55 steals. Sano, a third baseman who turns 21 in May, hit 35 homers at two levels while batting .280. He reached Double-A last year and could debut in Minnesota this season. Either way, figure on both to be at Target Field for the Futures Game, part of the All-Star festivities this July as the Twins host the Midsummer Classic for the first time since 1985.

6. Kershaw Goes for Four
The race for an ERA title does not capture the imagination the way, say, a home run race does. Earned run average is a rate statistic, not a counting statistic, and the need for a calculator removes some of the romance. But Clayton Kershaw’s pursuit of a fourth consecutive National League ERA crown is worth following. This run by Kershaw, the Dodgers’ dominant lefty, evokes the hallowed name of Sandy Koufax, another Dodgers lefty who was the last pitcher to accomplish the feat. Koufax did it five times in a row, from 1962 through 1966, when he retired at 30 with arthritis in his left elbow. Kershaw, who turns 26 in March, is the first pitcher to win three ERA titles before turning 28. He shared a clubhouse embrace with Koufax at Dodger Stadium after helping the Dodgers advance in the playoffs last October. “He’s the first Clayton Kershaw,” Koufax said. “He doesn’t deserve to be compared to anybody. He is who he is and he’s great.”

7. Ryno Gets His Chance
It’s been 46 years since a Hall of Famer managed in the majors after managing in the minors. Most baseball immortals lack the patience for the climb, or let their ego get in the way. But this is the route Ryne Sandberg took as he worked his way back to the stage he dominated as the National League’s premier second baseman in the 1980s. The Phillies, who sent Sandberg on his way to Cooperstown in a disastrous trade with the Cubs in 1982, are giving him his chance. After managing in their farm system and coaching in Philadelphia, Sandberg replaced Charlie Manuel late last season. Manuel set a club record for wins by a manager and guided the team to the 2008 championship. The problem for Sandberg — a no-nonsense leader who demands attention to detail — is that many of those same players remain on the team, resulting in an aging, injury-prone roster that does not seem ready to win. The Phillies’ front office seems to expect the core of Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz and Chase Utley to perform as it did several years ago, with three expensive pitchers — Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon — leading an otherwise threadbare staff. It’s a lot to ask of Sandberg, who is signed through 2016, but nobody expected much from him as a player, either — and we all saw how that career turned out.

8. Chicago Hopeless
The Cubs lost 96 games last season. The White Sox lost 99. The 195 combined defeats were the most ever for the city’s teams in a single season, and this isn’t exactly a town known for winning, with just one championship since 1917. Neither team looks poised to compete for one this season, with both on roughly parallel rebuilding tracks. The Cubs have spent their first two years under Theo Epstein’s leadership trying to flood a lean farm system, and the team appears to have several high-ceiling hitters on the way, like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler. The White Sox started their teardown last season, and their system is not as deep, but they do have some young, impact major leaguers to excite the South Side. Outfielder Avisail Garcia, 22, enters his first full season in Chicago after parts of two seasons with Detroit. The Sox also splurged for the slugging Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu, spending $68 million on a player who hit .360 with three homers in the World Baseball Classic. Neither team has much pitching depth, but the White Sox have a genuine ace in Chris Sale, and the Cubs unearthed an All-Star last season in Travis Wood. Their turnarounds could take a while, but the teams recognize the task ahead of them. The race to respectability is on.

9. End of the Suffering
In the early 2000s, baseball was remarkably democratic. Nine different teams won a championship in the decade from 2001 through 2010, with six of those teams doing so for the first time in decades and two others, the Diamondbacks and the Angels, winning the first World Series in franchise history. The Red Sox erased 86 years of misery, the White Sox 88. The Cardinals won after 24 years without a title, the Phillies after 28, the Giants after 56. The last three seasons, though, we’ve seen some of the same old teams lifting the trophy: the Cardinals again in 2011, the Giants again in 2012 and the Red Sox again in 2013. Across the baseball landscape, eight teams have still never won a championship, and 11 others have gone at least two decades since their last. In other words, a full two-thirds of MLB fan bases are ripe for a catharsis. The outpouring of emotion and affection from proud, long-suffering fans is baseball at its best, and we can’t wait to see who experiences the feeling this fall.

10. Albert, April and the Angels
Last spring training, Angels ace Jered Weaver said that one thing was absolutely, positively essential for the team to succeed. “I’ve been here long enough now to know that it’s not fun playing catch-up,” Weaver said. “Every game’s important no matter whether it’s April or August.” A slow start in 2012 had cost the Angels a playoff spot despite a winning season. Last season, the Angels sputtered to a 9–17 April and wound up with their worst record since 2003. Josh Hamilton had his worst season, the pitching mostly fell apart and
Albert Pujols did not play after July 26 because of plantar fasciitis. Even when healthy, Pujols was rarely the force he had been with the Cardinals, hitting .258 with 17 homers and a career-low .767 OPS. The Angels might have expected such a decline late in his 10-year contract, but not in Year 2. With eight years remaining on his contract, the Angels need some reassurance that Pujols, at 33, can resume his Hall of Fame pace. With the Dodgers rediscovering their mojo in Los Angeles, the Angels cannot afford another bad start. Ideally, they need production from Pujols and Hamilton to fuel a strong April, change the vibe around Angel Stadium and give the game’s best all-around talent, Mike Trout, a chance to shine in October.

11. Just Who Is Stephen Strasburg?
In 2010, the Washington Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg was the most electrifying player in baseball, crackling radar guns with 100 mph fastballs, devastating breaking balls and changeups at 90 mph. Then came reconstructive elbow surgery that wiped out almost all of 2011 and impacted the Nats again in 2012, when they shut him down in early September because of an innings limit and lost in the first round of the playoffs. The Nationals had admirable intentions, but their sluggish follow-up to a division title showed that postseason berths are never assured and served as a model for how not to handle a high-impact young pitcher. Freed from innings restrictions last year, Strasburg still threw only 183, with just one complete game. He was better than his 8–9 record, but he needed offseason surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. That was an ominous sign for a pitcher whose red-flag mechanics didn’t change much after Tommy John surgery, and raises the issue of whether or not he can ever be the durable, dominant ace fans envisioned. As he turns 26 this summer, Strasburg is under pressure to prove he can lead a staff into October, and then endure high-stress innings when he gets there.

12. The Prince of Texas
The Detroit Tigers wasted little time dumping Prince Fielder last offseason, shipping him to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler despite owing him a staggering $168 million for the next seven years. Only one player (Alex Rodriguez in 2004) had ever been traded with so much remaining on his contract. But the Tigers, who included $30 million in the deal, saw an escape hatch and took it, despite winning the AL Central in Fielder’s first two seasons, once advancing to the World Series. Fielder helped the Tigers, providing protection in the lineup for the incomparable Miguel Cabrera, who won the MVP award both seasons. But he hit just 55 homers overall (he once bashed 50 in a single season for Milwaukee), and his .457 slugging percentage last season ranked 12th among qualifying major-league first basemen. In Texas, Fielder moves to a hitter’s ballpark with a jet stream in right center field, and at 29, he has a chance to reestablish himself as one of the game’s elite sluggers. The Rangers, who never adequately replaced Josh Hamilton’s left-handed power last season, need a jolt of power after posting a .412 team slugging percentage, the lowest for the franchise since 1995. Fielder heralded the change by taking a new uniform number: 84, making him only the second player in MLB history to wear that number, after J.T. Snow of the 2006 Red Sox. He chose 84 for the year he was born; the Rangers would be pleased if that represented his home run total for the next two seasons.

13. Hall Managers
Together they won more than 7,500 games in the major leagues, with 17 pennants and eight championships across 91 seasons of writing out lineup cards. This July 27, Tony La Russa, Joe Torre  and Bobby Cox will share a stage in Cooperstown, N.Y. All three were elected unanimously by the veterans committee for induction to the Hall of Fame. All three are master storytellers, with Cox’s avuncular charm, La Russa’s professorial wisdom and Torre’s colorful anecdotes sure to be on display at the podium. With their induction, the Hall of Fame more than doubled its roster of living managers, with Torre, La Russa and Cox joining Whitey Herzog and Tommy Lasorda as candidates elected on the basis of their managing careers. The trio ranks 3-4-5 on the all-time victory list for managers — La Russa, then Cox, then Torre — in careers that stretch back to the late 1970s. “I certainly am honored to go to the Hall with these two guys,” Torre says, “because it just would have felt somewhat empty if one of us was left out.”

14. The Biogenesis Bunch
Before last season, the Toronto Blue Jays signed Melky Cabrera to a two-year, $16 million contract, betting that he could repeat his breakout seasons with the Royals and the Giants despite his bust for performance-enhancing drugs. As it turned out, when Cabrera was healthy, he was ordinary, making his performance spike seem even more suspicious. Then again, the Oakland A’s brought back Bartolo Colon after his suspension, and Colon made the All-Star team. Cabrera and Colon were part of the Biogenesis scandal, which ensnared 13 more players last summer, plus Alex Rodriguez. All served their suspensions (except for Rodriguez, who appealed his) and will be back for 2014, including the 2013 All-Stars Everth Cabrera, Nelson Cruz and Jhonny Peralta, who signed for $53 million with the St. Louis Cardinals. How long will fans maintain their hostility toward the Brewers’ Ryan Braun, a former National League MVP, and will Braun be booed in Milwaukee? He has always seemed sensitive to his image, so how will he react? More important, will Braun return to his usual productivity, or will he decline, calling into question just how good he really is? As Brewers owner Mark Attanasio told the New York Times last summer: “We’re going to find that out.”

—Written by Tyler Kepner for Athlon Sports. This is just one of the features that can be found in Athlon Sports' 2014 MLB Preview magazine, which is available on newsstands and online now. Starting with 21 unique covers to choose from, Athlon covers the diamond and circles the bases with enough in-depth preseason analysis, predictions and other information to satisfy fans of the national pastime from the Bronx to the Bay and everywhere in between. Order your copy now!

14 Things to Watch in Baseball in 2014
Post date: Monday, February 17, 2014 - 11:30
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-february-17-2014

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Feb. 16.

• It's SI Swimsuit week. Here are some choice images of this year's cover models.

An eerie fog has enveloped Sochi. I think Bond villain Vladimir Putin must be behind it.

NBC's frontal assault on an emotional Bode Miller has drawn some criticism.

Bob Costas is finally back in his Olympic booster seat, sans glasses.

Johnny Weir is determined to pummel Sochi into submission with his flamboyance.

A poll suggests that most NFL players would be okay with a gay teammate.

• LeBron came down from Mt. Rushmore to participate in the highest-scoring NBA All-Star Game in history.

• This is an interesting idea: moving ice hockey to the Summer Olympics.

• Today's get-off-my-lawn moment: Mike Ditka criticized Matt Stafford for wearing his cap backwards. Mike Ditka is old and cranky.

• It's Presidents Day. Here's a gallery of presidents playing sports.

According to Vernon Davis, curling requires more strategy than football. Vernon Davis' friends will abuse him for this observation.

• In case you missed last night's All-Star Game, here's a slo-mo recap.


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

Post date: Monday, February 17, 2014 - 11:18
All taxonomy terms: Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Golf
Path: /golf/5-key-stats-northern-trust-open

For a weekend, anyway, Bubba Golf wasn't a roller coaster of missed fairways and impossibly curved and creative wedge shots. Instead, it was a stunning bogey-free display of fairways, greens and a white-hot putter that would have been the envy of Tiger in his prime. Bubba Watson dismantled the legendary Riviera layout with a weekend 64-64 that featured 14 birdies and no bogeys and ended with his first win since the 2012 Masters. Watson's two-shot win over Dustin Johnson at the Northern Trust Open was the fifth of his career and could get golf's folk hero back onto the short list of Masters favorites.

Over two flawless rounds, Watson showed a well-rounded, consistent game that no one knew he had. In addition to his accustomed position atop the driving distance stats, he was tied for eighth in the field in driving accuracy, second in greens in regulation and tied for eighth in putts per green in regulation. It was enough to hold off a charging Dustin Johnson, who put himself in position for his second win of the season but couldn't apply enough pressure with a par-par-par finish.

"You never know when your last win is going to be," said Watson. "My last win could have been The Masters, which would have been a great way to go out. But winning here at Northern Trust is nice. ... I never looked down, I never felt down that I haven't won yet but just keep plugging along and somehow it fell in my lap today."

Here are the key numbers from a beautiful LA weekend.

39 Watson played the final 39 holes of the Northern Trust Open without a single bogey. He was 14-under par for those 39 holes.

28 Watson's final round 64 was the lowest by a winner of the Northern Trust in 28 years.

318.5 Watson's field-leading driving distance, which allowed him to overpower the par 5s at Riviera and left him with short approaches on the par 4s. He was 8-under on the par 5s for the tournament and 7-under on the par 4s for the final two rounds.

4 Dustin Johnson is 4-for-4 in top-six finishes thus far in the 2013-14 season. He won the WGC-HSBC in November, finished tied for sixth at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions and has had back-to-back runner-up finishes at Pebble Beach and Riviera.

3 There were three former Georgia Bulldogs in the top 10 at Riviera — Watson, Brian Harman (T3) and Harris English (T10).

The shots of the week included Watson's bunker blast for birdie on the par-3 sixth hole on Sunday, part of a front-nine 30 that allowed him to erase a four-shot deficit.



Sadly, the iconic Eisenhower Pine on the 17th hole at Augusta National fell victim to an ice storm and had to be removed. "The loss of the Eisenhower Tree is difficult news to accept," club chairman Billy Payne said. "We obtained opinions from the best arborists available and, unfortunately, were advised that no recovery was possible."

Post date: Monday, February 17, 2014 - 10:23
Path: /college-football/top-10-big-ten-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.

The Big Ten has had some serious tradition and talent when it comes to the linebacker position. This conference has always favored the run and therefore has created some seriously decorated tacklers in the process. Penn State is Linebacker U but Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa each have their own long track record of producing top flight linebackers. Here are the 10 best to play in the Big Ten during the BCS Era:

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

1. LaVar Arrington, Penn State (1997-99)
Few college players were as intimidating as the rabid Nittany Lions linebacker. Arrington was an elite leader who helped Penn State to a 28-9 record during his three-year tenure in Happy Valley. He was named as the Butkus and Lambert Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker and was the recipient of the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defensive player after 72 tackles, 20 for a loss, nine sacks and two blocked kicks in 1999. He was a consensus All-American and is credited with arguably the signature defensive play of the BCS Era when he leapt over the Illinois offensive line on 4th-and-1 to secure the win. Arrington consistently delivered crushing blows and wound up as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft by the Redskins.

2. James Laurinaitis, Ohio State (2005-08)
Few players in the nation were as decorated, productive, talented and successful as the Minneapolis native. Laurinaitis won the Butkus, Nagurski, two Lambert Awards and two Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year awards while being a three-time All-American. He posted three straight seasons of at least 115 tackles and helped Ohio State win a share of four Big Ten titles, including two trips to the BCS National Championship Game. The Buckeyes' tackler was taken in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft.

3. Paul Posluszny, Penn State (2003-06)
As a junior, the Nittany Lions tackler was recognized as the nation’s top LB when he posted 116 tackles (11.0 TFL) en route to a Big Ten championship, consensus All-American honors and both the Butkus and Bednarik Awards. He followed that up as a senior with a second Bednarik Award and second consensus All-American nod. The in-state Aliquippa (Pa.) Hopewell product was a second-round pick by the Bills in 2007. He left school as Penn State's all-time leading tackler with 372 total stops.

4. Andy Katzenmoyer, Ohio State (1996-98)
His pro career notwithstanding, this Buckeye was one of college football’s greatest tacklers during his time in Columbus. He was the first true freshman to ever start at linebacker for the Buckeyes, won the Butkus and Lambert Awards as just a sophomore and nearly led OSU to the inaugural BCS title game in 1998. He started all 37 games of his college career and finished with 18 sacks and 50.0 tackles for a loss. He was a first-round pick by the Patriots in 1999.

5. A.J. Hawk, Ohio State (2002-05)
Yet another Buckeyes great, Hawk started 38 of his 51 career college games for Ohio State. He contributed to the 2002 BCS National Championship squad as a freshman before earning two-time consensus All-American honors in 2004-05. As a senior, Hawk earned the Lombardi and Lambert Trophies for his play and was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He finished his career with 394 tackles, 41.0 for a loss, 15.5 sacks and seven interceptions. He was the fifth overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft by the Packers.

6. Greg Jones, Michigan State (2007-10)
The stabilizing force for four years in East Lansing, Jones was a three-time, first-team All-Big Ten selection and a two-time consensus All-American. In both of those seasons, Jones led the Big Ten in tackles and no one since 2005 has made more stops than Jones. He was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2009. The star playmaker finished third in school history in tackles (465), second in tackles for a loss (46.5) and sixth in sacks (16.5). He started 46 of 52 career games for the Spartans. 

7. Dan Connor, Penn State (2004-07)
The Nittany Lions know something about playing linebacker and Connor is yet another elite tackler. He was a two-time All-American and won the Bednarik Award in 2007 as the nation's top defensive player. He was a leader and was huge part of the '05 Big Ten/Orange Bowl championship team before posting back-to-back 100-tackle seasons. He broke Posluszny's all-time school record with 419 career stops when he graduated in '07. 

8. Chris Borland, Wisconsin (2009-13)
Few players have been as productive and as successful as the Original Honey Badger. He finished his career with 420 tackles, second most in the Big Ten since 2005, 17.0 sacks, 50.0 tackles for a loss and an NCAA-record 14 forced fumbles. He helped lead his team to three consecutive Big Ten championships and did just about everything for the Badgers, including fake punts, blocked kicks and returning kicks. He was a consummate hard worker and leader for Wisconsin and it earned him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and the Butkus-Fitzgerald Big Ten Linebacker of the Year award in 2013.

9. Julian Peterson, Michigan State (1998-99)
He only played for two seasons but he was a force for both of them. He was honorable mention All-Big Ten in his first year in East Lansing and an All-American and first-team All-Big Ten as a senior when he posted 15 sacks. In two years, Peterson posted 140 tackles and 25 sacks in just 23 career games. He was the 16th overall pick in the first round of the 2000 NFL Draft.

10. Chad Greenway, Iowa (2002-05)
At 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, Greenway is as gifted as any of the elite names on this list. He finished his illustrious Iowa career with 416 tackles, 31.0 tackles for a loss, 7.0 sacks and four interceptions. He was a two-time All-Big Ten selection and had three straight seasons with at least 113 tackles. His 156 total stops in 2005 rank No. 2 in the Big Ten since 2005. Greenway also played on the 2002 Orange Bowl team as a true freshman and was the 17th overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.

Just missed the cut:

11. Ryan Shazier, Ohio State (2011-13)
The Butkus Finalist this past season was one of the hardest hitting, most explosive linebackers to ever play the game. And he helped OSU to back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons (24-0). He posted 56 tackles as a freshman, 114 stops as a sophomore and 144 in his junior season. He finished with 44.0 tackles for a loss and nine forced fumbles to go with 15.0 sacks in just three years.

12. J Leman, Illinois (2004-07)
A consensus All-American on the first Rose Bowl team for Illinois in over two decades, Leman was one of the most consistent performers in Big Ten history. The two-time All-Big Ten pick finished his career with 407 tackles, 38.0 for a loss, eight sacks and six forced fumbles. He is sixth all-time in Illinois history in tackles.

13. Larry Foote, Michigan (1998-01)
Foote started 28 of the 48 games he played during his career in Ann Arbor. He won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and was an All-American in 2001. Foote was a two-time All-Big Ten pick and finished his career with 212 tackles, 44 for a loss and 11 sacks. He played in the NFL for more than a decade and was part of two Super Bowl-winning defenses in Pittsburgh.

14. Brandon Short, Penn State (1996-99)
Short was a four-year starter at linebacker alongside LaVar Arrington. He and Arrington were the first teammates to both be Butkus finalists in 1999 and Short earned consensus All-American recognition that season as well. He was a two-time All-Big Ten pick, led the team in tackles with 103 (’99) and was the 1998 Citrus Bowl MVP. He was a fourth-round pick in 2000.

15. Tim McGarigle, Northwestern (2002-05)
The tackling machine started 40 games in his career including the last 34 in a row. He is the NCAA’s all-time leading tackler with 545 total stops in his career and he was an All-Big Ten pick twice as an upperclassman. He also added 20 tackles for a loss, three interceptions and four sacks in his career. His leadership and toughness is unmatched by most players of his generation.

Best of the rest:

16. Lavonte David, Nebraska (2010-11)
A Two-time all-league pick and Butkus-Fitzgerald Big Ten LB of the Year winner in 2011, David started all 27 career games and owns the Nebraska single-season tackles record (152).

17. Max Bullough, Michigan State (2010-13)
Two-time All-Big Ten pick with 299 tackles and 30.5 for a loss while leading MSU to its first Rose Bowl in 20 years.

18. Matt Wilhelm, Ohio State (1999-02)
Three-year starter who earned consensus All-American honors on an undefeated national title team in ’02.

19. Michael Mauti, Penn State (2009-12)
Won Butkus-Fitzgerald Big Ten LB of the Year in 2012 after leading PSU to a winning record in Year One after Paterno.

20. Mike Taylor, Wisconsin (2009-2012)
Tackling machine with 377 career stops and 38 tackles for a loss on two Big Ten title teams.

21. NaVorro Bowman, Penn State (2007-09)
Posted 218 tackles, 36 TFL and 8.0 sacks in three years. Bowman also was an All-Big Ten selection in 2008.

22. Ian Gold, Michigan (1996-99)
A two-time All-Big Ten selection as an upperclassman and was a second-round pick.

23. Abdul Hodge, Iowa (2002-05)
Has the highest single-season tackle total in the Big Ten since 2005 with 158 stops as a senior.

24. David Harris, Michigan (2003-06)
Posted 191 tackles and earned All-Big Ten honors in his final two seasons on three Rose Bowl teams.

25. Sean Lee, Penn State (2006-09)
Missed all of 2008 but posted 313 career tackles and 30 for a loss as a team captain. A second-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.

ORV: Pat Angerer, Shawn Crable, James Morris, Na’il Diggs, Roosevelt Colvin, Denicos Allen

Top 10 Big Ten Linebackers of the BCS Era
Post date: Monday, February 17, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/ranking-best-coaching-tandems-acc-2014

No league has changed its identity more in recent decades than the ACC.

What was once a regional league dominated by basketball powers, the ACC has looked to the outside to build a league that can match in football. Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech added to football prestige, and now Syracuse represents the ACC atop the basketball rankings.

In the last season, the program that has been able to succeed in both at a high level may be the most unlikely.

Duke’s success on the basketball court is expected under Mike Krzyzewski. Football, on the other hand, has been irrelevant for two decades. That’s changed under David Cutcliffe, who became the first Blue Devils coach to win 10 games in a season.

For the second consecutive season, Duke tops our coaching tandem ranking in the ACC.

In this ranking, we aimed to reward balance. In short, which school’s fanbase is most likely to be satisfied from September to March? A handful of schools may have an accomplished football coach while the basketball coach is looking to keep his job, or vice versa.

In evaluating coaches, we examined past performance, with more focus on current and recent results and future expectations. We also considered how good a fit a particular coach is for a particular school.

For the ACC, we are ranking the post-expansion lineup with Louisville taking the spot left by Maryland. We’ve also ranked Notre Dame, a full basketball member, in the ACC tandem rankings.

1. Duke
David Cutcliffe | Basketball: Mike Krzyzewski

On the basketball side, Duke has a Hall of Fame coach with four national championships, two Olympic gold medals and more than 900 wins. On the other side, the Blue Devils have a coach who has reached bowl games in back-to-back seasons with the ACC’s worst program. Krzyzewski is four years removed from his most recent national title, but as usual, he’s in contention for another one this season. Meanwhile, Cutcliffe led Duke to 10 wins and the ACC title game last season. One interesting parallel for these coaches: Both had health scares that sidelined them for a year (Krzyzewski’s back in 1995 and Cutcliffe’s heart in 2005), but both coaches are at the top of their games.

2. Louisville
Bobby Petrino | Basketball: Rick Pitino

The Petrino/Pitino sound-alike duo is back in the Derby City. The first time around wasn’t so bad for Louisville. Petrino successfully guided the Cardinals into the Big East era with an Orange Bowl victory in his final season in 2006. Louisville is counting on Petrino to do the same as the Cards move into the ACC in 2014. Since 2009 alone, Pitino has led the basketball program to the 2013 national title, two Final Fours and three 30-win seasons. Certainly, it’s risky bringing Petrino — a career-long flight risk whose Arkansas tenure was bought down by ethical failings — back into the fold.

3. Florida State
Jimbo Fisher | Basketball: Leonard Hamilton

Not long ago, Florida State’s basketball program arguably was more successful that its football program, especially given the expectation level for both. In four seasons, Jimbo Fisher has returned FSU football to national prominence after a 14-0 season, the national championship and a Heisman Trophy. Hamilton’s basketball program may land in the NIT for the second consecutive season, but that shouldn’t overshadow his tenure. Hamilton is the first FSU basketball coach to lead the Seminoles to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, four consecutive 20-win seasons and an ACC Tournament title.

4. Notre Dame
Brian Kelly | Basketball: Mike Brey

Notre Dame still has work to do in order to be among the national elite. Alabama exposed as much in the BCS championship game after the 2012 season. Still, a title game appearance is more than Kelly’s predecessors in South Bend. Dealt a curve ball with Everett Golson’s academic issues, Notre Dame still went 9-4 in 2013, Kelly’s eighth consecutive season with eight or more wins. Brey hasn’t been as fortunate this season with a key player, Jerian Grant, lost due to academics. Brey’s streak of seven consecutive 20-win seasons and four NCAA Tournament bids likely ends this season, but the track record suggests Brey’s program won’t be down for long.

5. North Carolina
Larry Fedora | Basketball: Roy Williams

The coaches have more in common than a Chapel Hill zip code. Both would like their teams to operate at a fast pace, and neither has ever had a losing season as a head coach. Of course, Williams track record is more impressive with two national titles at North Carolina and a basketball Hall of Fame induction. Fedora’s 8-4 season in 2012 despite a bowl ban was impressive, but last season’s 7-6 performance, the third of Fedora’s career, was a let down.

6. Syracuse
Scott Shafer | Basketball: Jim Boeheim

Few coaching tandems are more lopsided than the one that shares the Carrier Dome. After last season’s trip to the Final Four, Boeheim joked his program was due for one trip to the national semifinals each decade (he wasn’t wrong), but the Hall of Famer has a team capable of doing it again. In his first season in the ACC, Boeheim is building upon his win total with 25 consecutive wins to start 2013-14. The football coach, however, is why Syracuse’s tandem is ranked this low in the ACC. Shafer proved himself a perfectly capable coach in his first season, going 7-6 with a Texas Bowl victory.

7. Miami
Al Golden | Basketball: Jim Larranaga

With the NCAA investigation related to the Nevin Shapiro scandal finished an another Penn State coaching search completed, Miami will look to continue its progress under Golden. The Hurricanes have increased their win total every season under Golden, but they remain a middling ACC program (10-6 the last two seasons).

8. Clemson
Dabo Swinney | Basketball: Brad Brownell

Swinney’s homespun rah-rah personality and his offensive coordinator seem to have made the Clemson football coach underrated — as if motivation and assistant hires aren’t part of the job. Clemson under Swinney is one of eight programs to win 10 games in each of the last three seasons. Meanwhile, he’s led the Tigers to their first top-10 finish since 1990 and first ACC title since 1991. After two lackluster seasons, Brownell has Clemson basketball in contention for its second NCAA Tournament bid in his four-year tenure.

9. Pittsburgh
Paul Chryst | Basketball: Jamie Dixon

Dixon’s consistency — in results and his approach — remain impressive. He’s never won fewer than 22 games and has missed the NCAA Tournament only once in 11 seasons, all without a ton of McDonald’s All-Americans. After two bowl games and a 13-13 record in two seasons, Chryst’s greatest contribution to Pitt has been putting program on stable footing after a revolving door of three head coaches in two seasons.

10. Virginia Tech
Frank Beamer | Basketball: James Johnson

Beamer has built his alma mater into a national power even if the Hokies have gone 15-11 overall and 9-7 in the ACC the last two seasons. The good feelings, though, end after football season as Johnson has struggled to get the Hokies out of the ACC cellar.

11. Boston College
Steve Addazio | Basketball: Steve Donahue

Addazio supervised one of college football’s surprise teams last season as Boston College went 7-6 and produced a Heisman finalist. Donahue supervised one of basketball season’s disappointing teams as the veteran Eagles were out of postseason contention by the end of June.

12. NC State
Dave Doeren | Basketball: Mark Gottfried

Gottfried’s results have been a little better than those of Herb Sendek at the end of his tenure and far better than those from the Sidney Lowe era. Doeren went winless in the ACC in his first season, but he did lead Northern Illinois to an Orange Bowl appearance two years ago.

13. Georgia Tech
Paul Johnson | Basketball: Brian Gregory

Since the 2009 ACC title, Johnson is 28-25 overall and 19-13 in the ACC. Gregory has seen improvement in the basketball program, but the Yellow Jackets are still merely NIT-worthy at best.

14. Virginia
Mike London | Basketball: Tony Bennett

Bennett this season has Virginia doing things they haven’t done since Ralph Sampson played in Charlottesville. Meanwhile, London is 8-24 in ACC games in four seasons at Virginia.

15. Wake Forest
Dave Clawson | Basketball: Jeff Bzdelik

Bzdelik has overcome a disastrous first season at Wake Forest in 2010-11 to build a more competitive program. An NCAA bid, however, remains a long way off. Clawson, who has head coaching stops at Fordham, Richmond and Bowling Green, steps into some big shoes left by the affable Jim Grobe.

Ranking the Best Coaching Tandems in the ACC in 2014
Post date: Monday, February 17, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /college-basketball/10-things-you-need-know-college-basketball-weekend-feb-17

With all the talk of the NCAA Tournament, the bubble watch and which freshmen will be selected first in the NBA Draft, it’s too easy to forget that conference championships are important.

This weekend seemed to be a good time to reinforce that coaches and teams do put an emphasis on winning the league.

Florida moved a step closer to running the table in the SEC. Thanks to a signature win Sunday, the Big East may be won by a team in Omaha. And the Big Ten, by virtue of two home losses by conference leaders, is wide open again.

10 Things You Need to Know from the College Basketball Weekend

1. Florida looks title-worthy
Whether Kentucky or Tennessee is up or down, Florida doesn’t win at either on the road very often. Since 1999, the only Florida teams to win in Lexington ended up winning the national title. At the same time, the Gators have only won in Knoxville once since 2005. The trend changed this week. Florida hadn’t won in Lexington and Knoxville in the same season since 1988. The Gators this year did it within four days. The popular storyline Saturday night was that the Gators, who start four seniors, used their experience to wear down a freshman-laden Kentucky team. That much is true as Florida adjusted to Kentucky’s defense to shoot 60 percent in the second half of a 69-59 win. The Gators feasted on 13 Kentucky turnovers to outscore the Wildcats 14-7 on takeaways. But Florida is more than experience: Scottie Wilbekin picked apart Kentucky for 23 points, and Casey Prather owned the frontcourt, scoring 24 points on 8-of-9 shooting.

2. Creighton owns Villanova
Villanova is a good team. The Wildcats have defeated Kansas and Iowa in the non-conference. And they’re 10-0 against all but one team in the Big East. The outlier, though, is Creighton. The Bluejays have dominated Villanova this season, and the series sweep may lead to a team from Omaha winning the Big East. Creighton defeated Villanova 101-80 on Sunday to join a 96-68 win over the Wildcats in Philadelphia in Jan. 20. Doug McDermott has been outstanding in both games, scoring 39 on Sunday and 23 in the first meeting, but this isn’t a one-man show. Creighton averaged 1.42 points per possession against Villanova, a team that allows 0.925 otherwise this season. Creighton is 30 of 50 from 3-point range against Villanova. The Wildcats allow opponents to shoot 35.2 percent from 3 for the season.

3a. Syracuse has a pact with the devil ... or something
The Orange are 25-0, but the close calls of the last three weeks has to wear on Jim Boeheim. If anything, it’s provided for great drama. Saturday was the latest in the series of unlikely finishes for Syracuse. Freshman Tyler Ennis was uncharacteristically sloppy in the final seconds against NC State, but the Wolfpack was even more uneven in the 56-55 Syracuse win. NC State turned the ball over on its last two possessions, including a steal by the Orange’s Rakeem Christmas that set up C.J. Fair’s game-winning layup. This has been a trend for Syracuse: The month started with the 91-89 overtime win over Duke and continued with Ennis’ deep 3 to beat Pitt on Wednesday.

3b. Tyler Ennis is mortal
Though he’s only a freshman, Ennis has been the best player in the country with the ball in his hands in the final seconds. Though Syracuse won, Saturday night was the only time when Ennis showed any weakness late. The rookie fouled on a 3-pointer with 1:02 to go (NC State made all three free throws) and committed an offensive foul to turn the ball over as Syracuse attempted to take the lead with 15 seconds left. Ennis made up for it with the outlet pass to C.J. Fair off the Rakeem Christmas steal to seal the win.

4a. James Michael McAdoo is reaching his potential
While no one was looking, North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo became the player everyone thought he’d be. McAdoo led the way in a 75-71 win over Pittsburgh with 24 points and 12 rebounds — and remember, this is a Pitt team that twice gave Syracuse all kinds of trouble on the glass. North Carolina has found consistency, and McAdoo’s play is a major reason why. During North Carolina’s six-game winning streak, McAdoo is averaging 18.2 points and 8.8 rebounds.

4b. Pittsburgh is awfully ordinary
The Panthers really needed this week to prove themselves. After narrow losses to Syracuse and North Carolina, Pittsburgh will go to the ACC Tournament with a nice record and no great wins. The Panthers are 0-6 against the RPI top 40, and thanks to a lackluster non-conference schedule, Pitt’s best win might be Stanford or NC State. Pittsburgh doesn’t have any NCAA resume-killing losses, but the Panthers aren’t going to have great seed.

5. Wisconsin is back to its early season form
The Badgers continued a four-game winning streak Saturday with arguably its most impressive win of the Big Ten season with a 75-62 win over Michigan in Ann Arbor. Frank Kaminsky feasted on the Michigan frontcourt, scoring 25 points on 11 of 16 shooting while grabbing 11 rebounds. On Thursday, Ben Brust was the star of the show with outside shooting, hitting four 3-pointers and scoring 20 points in a win over Minnesota. More important, Wisconsin appears to have solved the defensive issues that contributed to the 1-5 slide from Jan. 14-Feb. 1.

6a. Michigan State dropped a dud
This was not a good weekend for the state of Michigan with the Wolverines and Spartans losing at home. It might not be fair to be too critical of a team in a first-place tie for the Big Ten lead, but Michigan State has reason to be in panic mode after a 60-51 loss at home to Nebraska. The Cornhuskers are improved, and Michigan State remains the walking wounded. Keith Appling played only 19 minutes. Brendan Dawson is still out. But these aren’t the kinds of games aspiring Big Ten champions lose at home in mid-February. Michigan State was a mess on offense, shooting 12 of 26 from 2-point range and 5 of 24 from 3. The Spartans also got outworked by the upstart Huskers, something that’s becoming a trend. Not a good look for Tom Izzo’s team.

6b. Nebraska is inching toward the NCAA Tournament bubble
The Cornhuskers won’t make mock brackets this week, but they’re worth watching down the stretch. With a win at Michigan State, Nebraska has three RPI top 50 wins, the other two against Ohio State and Minnesota. The Huskers have three not-so-great losses (Penn State, Purdue and UAB) they need to overcome.

7. Indiana is doing something special and not in a good way
The Hoosiers lost 82-64 to Purdue on Saturday to move to 4-8 in the Big Ten, only a year after being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Barring a major turnaround, Indiana won’t return to the field in 2013. It’s not out of the ordinary for a former No. 1 seed, or even a defending national champion, to miss the Tournament the following year. Nine No. 1 seeds in the last 10 seasons missed the Tournament the next year, but Indiana is a non-factor in the Big Ten. Of the 16 No. 1 seeds since 1985 that missed Tournament the following year, Indiana will push 2012 Pittsburgh for the worst conference record. The Panthers went 5-13 in the Big East a year after after earning a No. 1 seed in 2011.

8. Arizona State’s not-so-secret weapon is Jordan Bachynski
No player out West is on a better hot streak that Arizona State’s 7-foot-2 center Jordan Bachynski. Maybe we should have seen Friday night coming, when Bachynski had eight blocks in a 69-66 double overtime win over rival Arizona. Bachynski came a block and a rebound short of a triple-double with 26 points on Feb. 8 against Oregon. And before that, Bachynski had seven blocks in an overtime win over Oregon State. Bachynski has effectively overshadowed the high-scoring backcourt of Jahii Carson and Jermaine Marshall in the last two weeks as Arizona State has moved into strong NCAA Tournament contention.

9. Baylor has some fight left
Trailing by as much as 10 with nine minutes to go, Baylor fought back to beat Kansas State 87-73 in double overtime. The knock on the Bears has been losing games they should win, but they finally won a game they probably should have lost against the Wildcats. Kenny Chery led the way down the stretch in regulation and finished with a triple-double (20 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds), and Brady Heslip hit the game-winning 3 — his only make in eight tries — to send the game to overtime.

10a. The best team no one is talking about is Saint Louis
The Billikens continue to be one of the best stories in the country as they took a major step to a second Atlantic 10 regular season title with a 64-62 win over VCU. Saint Louis is 10-0 in the league and its only losses are by single digits to Wisconsin and Wichita State. The Billikens did what they’ve been doing all season by shutting down the 3-point line, holding VCU to 2 of 16 from long range. Opponents are converting 26.7 percent of 3-point attempts against Saint Louis this season.

10b. VCU may not be busting brackets this season
Keep this one in your back pocket for your office pools: This version’s of VCU may not stack up with previous Shaka Smart teams. Even though this is a strong A-10 team, the Rams might not be a threat to advance in the NCAA Tournament. The havoc defense is there (17 forced turnovers vs. Saint Louis), but they’re not capitalizing in the offensive end this season.

Short Stuff

• Missouri can relax a bit. Two games and two close calls probably saved Missouri’s NCAA Tournament hopes at least for a week. The Tigers defeated Arkansas 86-85 on Thursday when Jabari Brown scored on a drive to the basket with 12.2 seconds left. Two days later, Missouri defeated Tennessee 75-70.

• UConn’s Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright combined for 55 points, 10 assists and six steals against Memphis. Although the Tigers shot nearly 55 percent from the floor, they had 18 turnovers and repeatedly sent UConn’s guards to the free throw line. Napier and Boatright each had more trips to the line (12) than Memphis did as a team (nine.)

• Maybe no player had a bigger swing than Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield last week: From 1 of 13 and 3 points in a loss to Texas Tech on Wednesday to 8 of 18 and 22 points in a win at Oklahoma State on Saturday.

• LSU continued to play its way into the NIT. With Saturday’s 81-70 loss at Arkansas, LSU has lost three of the last four, all to teams that aren’t going to the NCAA Tournament (Texas A&M and Georgia were the others).

• No bubble team wants a part of Georgia. The Bulldogs deal another blow to the SEC’s hopes of sending teams to the NCAA Tournament with a 61-60 win over Ole Miss. The Bulldogs have defeated Missouri, Arkansas, LSU and now the Rebels this season. Despite an 8-4 SEC record, Georgia lacks the non-conference resume to be an NCAA team itself.

• SMU’s stay in the polls will be short-lived. The Mustangs lost to a dreadful Temple team 71-64.

• UMass picked up a nice win by defeating George Washington 67-61 on Saturday. The Minutemen had lost four of their previous seven games.

• Middle Tennessee clobbered Southern Miss 81-64 to set up a three-team race atop Conference USA with MTSU, Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech. The win, though, may end C-USA’s hopes of being a multi-bid league. Southern Miss was the only team in the league that had a chance at an at-large bid.

• Green Bay may be worth watching in the postseason. The Phoenix defeated the No. 2 team in the Horizon, Cleveland State, on the road 68-52. Green Bay is 20-5 and hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1996.

10 Things You Need to Know from the College Basketball Weekend Feb. 17
Post date: Monday, February 17, 2014 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: Martin Truex Jr., NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-martin-truex-jr

Martin Truex Jr. has finally broken away from the nightmare that was the last 11 races of the 2013 season.  Martin Truex Jr.

“It was like getting punched in the face. You didn’t see it coming,” Truex says of the ordeal last year. “It came out of nowhere.”

That punch was the self-poisoning of Michael Waltrip Racing in the name of earning Truex a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup during the Richmond regular-season finale last fall. Late in the race, the team orchestrated a plot that featured an intentional Clint Bowyer spin to cause a yellow and a slowed Brian Vickers to help earn him points. The scheming worked originally — Truex qualified for the Chase that night — but then fell apart in a heap of smoldering debris when further investigation from NASCAR resulted in scorching penalties.

The team lost $300,000 in fines immediately. Truex, seemingly unaware of the events, was booted from the Chase. And just a few weeks later, primary backer NAPA — one of the last remaining full-season sponsors in the sport — let its displeasure be known as it dropped support of the team after 2013.

Talk about a roller coaster of emotions. Truex was a free agent for 2014 just weeks after he was seemingly on his way to being a Chase entrant for the second straight year. With the news coming late in Silly Season, options were few and far between.

Truex, though, has landed on his feet thanks in large part to Kurt Busch and Gene Haas (co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing) striking an unexpected deal last fall. Busch bolted to the multi-car team after a one-and-done year in the Furniture Row Racing No. 78. It was a somewhat unexpected opening of a Sprint Cup seat and one that came later in the season than the sport has seen in recent years.

Just like that, a Cup career was saved. But to hear Truex tell it, the opportunity has some unexpected benefits that Michael Waltrip’s team couldn’t provide. First and foremost: Fast race cars are the priority for team owner Barney Visser.

“Barney says if it makes the car go faster, we get it. Those are the types of things as a race car driver that you look for,” Truex said in November before taking a subtle swipe at MWR. “As much as it sounds crazy, but fan experiences, shop tours and all those kinds of things don’t make cars faster. These guys are 100 percent focused on making race cars faster.”

Truex took the job essentially sight unseen — he never even traveled to the team’s unusual race shop location near Denver before signing the two-year contract — but he’s spot-on in his assessment of what FRR cares about. Visser, the owner, is also the sponsor and uses the race team as a marketing vehicle for his chain of Furniture Row stores. The best marketing? Well, that happens when you’re up front. Busch drove the team to higher levels than ever before last season with his unexpected berth in the Chase, and you can bet Visser will be expecting similar results from Truex.

Can he do it? The move results in a major test, considering how Busch was able to take the car from previous driver Regan Smith and show substantially improved results right away. How quickly Truex adjusts may be one of the more interesting sub-topics throughout the season.

Fortunately, FRR is maintaining a critical piece of its success from last season: its technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing. The agreement basically allowed FRR to operate as a fourth RCR team at the track — Busch and FRR officials meet with RCR drivers and officials each weekend to share data.

In September, Mark McArdle — FRR’s Executive Director of Competition — was named RCR’s Director of Racing Operations, further cementing the relationship between the two operations.

The agreement works surprisingly well for FRR because, as Truex says, the team doesn’t have the red tape that a traditional multi-car operation might have.

“When they want to build a part and put it on the race car, they do it,” Truex says. “There is no five, six weeks of going through a system to get it on the race car. I think that, from a technology standpoint, it’s a great thing.”

Still, the challenge remains steep. Truex must beat more competition — Busch figures to be a Chase contender, Denny Hamlin shouldn’t miss more time, Tony Stewart will return and Brad Keselowski figures to improve — while establishing himself with a new team. Expect him to be competitive, but that’s a lot of talent to beat that wasn’t around in 2013.

What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
It’s a new year with new surroundings for New Jersey native Martin Truex Jr.

“Truex is jumping into a Chase car, and he no longer has to deal with Michael Waltrip,” one crew chief says. “Furniture Row’s alliance with Richard Childress gives him better engineering and technical support than he had at MWR, and the relationship still gives him teammates to lean on. Plus, he doesn’t have to appear in any stupid commercials. Now he’s out to prove that he really deserved to have made the Chase last season.”

“Funny, he’s already becoming an elder statesman in the sport and only has two wins,” another crew chief says. “Truthfully, he’s just not as good as other drivers. He’ll battle expectations after what Kurt Busch did in the car, too. And while the relationship with Childress is a plus, FRR doesn’t get the brand new technology simply because they’re a satellite team.”

“Furniture Row is paying RCR handsomely for the assistance, and they proved last year that with the right driver, that can be money well spent,” a media member observes. “Still, Kurt Busch didn’t win with it, so it’s hard to imagine Truex jumping in and raising the level of performance.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
There’s a chance, sure, but Kurt Busch wasn’t able to secure the victory many were predicting, and he’s the better wheelman.
Pretty Solid Pick: Five top 10s in six CoT/Gen-6 era races at Homestead-Miami Speedway is an encouraging stat.
Good Sleeper Pick: Most places, notably Texas, Phoenix and the road courses.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Despite his DEI pedigree, Truex has never been a masterful plate racer.
Insider Tip: The Furniture Row-Truex match is a comfortable one, but it may resemble the Regan Smith years more than the Busch year. Don’t misinterpret: There is potential for some wins over the next few seasons; just don’t expect those wins to come in bundles.

No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet
Furniture Row
Owner: Barney Visser
Crew Chief: Todd Berrier
Years with current team: 1
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 11th (2007, ’12)
Hometown: Mayetta, N.J.
Born: June 29, 1980

Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.; Truex courtesy of Furniture Row Racing.

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

Season preview for Martin Truex Jr. in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Post date: Sunday, February 16, 2014 - 23:56
All taxonomy terms: Clint Bowyer, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-clint-bowyer

There are fresh starts in sports, and then there is Clint Bowyer’s fresh start this season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

No, it’s not a clean break for the favorite son of Emporia, Kan. And no, his actions in last year’s regular-season finale — he played a key role amid a web of finishing-order fiddling by his Michael Waltrip Racing team that ignited the sport’s biggest controversy in years — haven’t been completely forgotten.  Clint Bowyer

But when Bowyer fires his Toyota engine and rolls away from pit road to start the 2014 season at Daytona International Speedway, he will at least have broken the calendar connection to the events that left him so defensive and his MWR team in such shambles. This is a new year, and every day is a little farther from a night of itchy arms and questionable pit stops that left him — and NASCAR — with quite the black eye.

Bowyer, of course, has tried to get past it since the night it happened. The public relations part worked pretty well — he basically went silent for much of last year’s final 10 weeks — but the competition side didn’t do much. Of course, that might have been helpful, too. Bowyer led just 69 laps in the Chase and finished in the top 5 only twice. He wasn’t exactly a front and center target for miffed fans.

In fact, Bowyer enters 2014 coming off a winless season for the first time since his 2009 campaign with Richard Childress Racing. For a driver who came so close to the title in 2012 — with three wins and a second-place points finish — the shutout was a bit of a surprise.

Winning is something Bowyer will likely fix early this year. He’s become something of a short track ace, with four top-5 finishes in six races at Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond last season, and could very easily end his winless streak on NASCAR’s smallest venues. But title contention? That’s a tougher go, as Bowyer will drive without a critical teammate who had worked alongside him in his first two seasons at MWR.

Thanks to the Richmond scandal, Martin Truex Jr. departed after major sponsor NAPA decided the negative publicity of the event was too much, dropping support at the close of last season. Truex was forced to scramble for a full-time ride this year and wound up in the No. 78 Chevrolet fielded by Furniture Row Racing.

It’s hard to say if Truex and Bowyer were incredibly close — there was no real public emotion from either about the unplanned separation — but there is little doubt that they had built common ground on how to work together for setups as teammates. Relationships like that naturally take time to build. Now, Bowyer must adjust to Brian Vickers, the part-timer with the team who earned a full-time ride after winning at Loudon in July. Meanwhile, team co-owners Michael Waltrip and Rob Kauffman have put smiley faces on the situation, saying two streamlined teams can still be successful in NASCAR (see: Team Penske).

There’s truth to that. It’s not a drastic setback, but it’s a new and unexpected layer of complexity. Plus, don’t underestimate the cost to MWR of losing such a significant moneymaker like NAPA. The team had to lay off employees as a result, which could mean fewer resources devoted to finding speed. Even Vickers, returning from blood clots, is a bit of a question mark; one health problem leaves Bowyer the lone ranger (Jeff Burton, hired part-time, will run only a handful of races).

Despite it all, MWR’s top driver should fully expect to be a Chaser for the fourth time in the last five seasons thanks to continued consistency and a sport-mandated easier road to qualification. Bowyer pulled off a fairly remarkable feat from late 2006 to early 2010, when he failed to finish only one of 113 races. After six DNFs in his final year at RCR in 2011, Bowyer has steadily been improving in that department again with four DNFs in 2012 and two last year.

There’s little doubt that Bowyer used that foundation to shape himself into a pretty secure Chase spot last season, as he averaged a modest regular-season finish of 12.4. He did match his career best in top-5 finishes last season (10) and had the most lead-lap finishes of his career (32).

While Bowyer still hasn’t completely emerged from the dark cloud last season brought, NASCAR’s continued tinkering with the Chase format in the offseason has significantly shifted fans’ focus. If the on-track trends continue, Bowyer will be just fine by the time the series returns to the scene of the crime, in Richmond, for a second time.

What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“Clint is very easy to talk to, and that makes him a sponsor’s dream,” a competing crew chief says. “He’s on the verge of being a championship driver. He’s proven he can win on several types (of track) — most likely due to his dirt track background, which gives him excellent car control. Bowyer overcame the runner-up jinx and had a strong run in the points again last season.”

“His team is in turmoil,” another counters. “If he does anything remotely suspicious this season, he’s going to get examined worse than a TSA strip search. MWR has cut back on employees, and the reduced resources are going to make it more difficult to win. … Also, he is now engaged. There are many people who think having a woman that involved in your life can be detrimental.”

“I bet he’s glad that’s all over,” a media member says, referring to last year’s Richmond controversy. “I really don’t know what to think about MWR right now, though I believe Bowyer can rise above any deficiencies. He should be entering his peak from a career abilities perspective, but I don’t think too much of (Brian) Vickers as a teammate — but honestly, he’s not much different than (Martin) Truex.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
All jokes about Richmond aside, his two wins and eight top 10s in 14 CoT/Gen-6 era races ain’t bad. In fact, they’re pretty darn good.
Pretty Solid Pick: And his CoT/Gen-6 era results at Talladega — two wins, eight top 10s — are eerily similar to the Richmond numbers.
Good Sleeper Pick: We’re thinking that witty quips about under-the-radar road course winners have expired since the likes of our boy here, along with Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne, have loosened the stranglehold formerly held by the Stewarts, Gordons and Ambroses.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Darlington. It’s always been Darlington.
Insider Tip: The career numbers may not yet reflect it, but give Bowyer the horses and he’ll drive anything to the front. A classic “jack of all tracks, master of none.”

No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota
5-Hour Energy/Peak Motor Oil/AAA Mid-Atlantic
Owners: Michael Waltrip/Rob Kauffman/Johnny Harris
Crew Chief: Brian Pattie
Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: 2014
Best points finish: 2nd (2012)
Hometown: Emporia, Kan.
Born: May 30, 1979

Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.; Bowyer courtesy of Michael Waltrip Racing

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

Season preview for Clint Bowyer in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Post date: Sunday, February 16, 2014 - 23:54
All taxonomy terms: Brian Vickers, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-brian-vickers

Brian Vickers is a talented race car driver. We’ve known that since he won the then-Busch Series championship with Hendrick Motorsports in 2003. We were reminded of it again last July when he stunned the Sprint Cup Series with a win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It was the first for a part-time driver in the sport’s top division since Trevor Bayne pulled off his upset win in the 2011 Daytona 500, and just the third since 2009. It was the first on a non-restrictor plate track since Jamie McMurray won in Charlotte in the fall of 2002.  Brian Vickers

That left Vickers back in the position to rebuild his career. Following the win, Michael Waltrip Racing solidified a deal with longtime sponsor Aaron’s that brought Vickers back to full-time participation in the Cup Series this season. It was a sunshine and rainbows moment, closing the road to redemption after prior illness and the closure of Red Bull Racing, which left Vickers without a full-time gig.

If only the fairy tale could have wrapped up so nicely. Last fall, the medical issue Vickers faced once before — blood clots — returned, forcing him out of the final four races of 2013.

The move, combined with the real-life health scare, disrupted the rhythm of this Cup Series transition. With Mark Martin off to Stewart-Haas Racing filling in for an injured Tony Stewart, Vickers was set to finish the season in MWR’s No. 55. It was a beautiful symphony of opportunity for him to get as comfortable as possible before the pressure of points and Chase qualification in 2014 kicked in.

Instead, Vickers sat on the sidelines.

“If there’s anything to be positive about with (this) news it’s that this is only a temporary setback,” he said in October. “The timing for this is never good, but I’m glad we’ll get it out of the way now and be ready to run for a championship with the Aaron’s Dream Machine in 2014.”

Undoubtedly, Vickers had decent timing on the matter, because he’ll be eligible to compete when the season begins. But there is little doubt that this second instance of blood clots is raising more and more red flags about long-term commitments to his racing activities — from potential sponsors to potential new teams, including his current one.

Fortunately, the blood clots aren’t explicitly dangerous to Vickers when he’s in the car. It’s the medication to break them apart that creates a danger of internal bleeding should he be involved in a serious incident. Vickers’ time away allowed him to take the medication as prescribed and returning only when treatment was complete.

Vickers also lost more than just seat time last season. The original plan when MWR signed him to the full-time deal was that longtime MWR crew chief Rodney Childers would be on board. But Childers’ profile was rising in the sport — he was on the pit box for Vickers’ New Hampshire win — and when Stewart-Haas Racing came calling in need of a crew chief for Kevin Harvick, Childers took the deal. He was let go by MWR just days later. Competition director Scott Miller stepped in to run the No. 55 in Childers’ absence, but in December the team’s lead engineer, Billy Scott, was promoted to the role. This season will mark his first as a crew chief in the Cup Series.

Vickers, who played a small role as a pawn in that Chase scandal last fall at Richmond, also lost a teammate and second source of on-track information when sponsor NAPA Auto Parts officially cut ties with the organization. Martin Truex Jr. was forced to find a new ride, leaving Jeff Burton as a part-timer in the newly christened No. 66 at MWR. Only Vickers and Clint Bowyer will run full-time for the title.

After years of growth, MWR is again left scrambling to ensure it remains a competitive, well-funded entity. Will that lead to more pressure on Vickers to perform? Likely.

Adding to the concern is Vickers’ propensity for tearing up equipment. In his 17 starts in 2013, Vickers finished only 12 of them. Four of the DNFs were due to crashes — a rate that, if extrapolated over the course of a 36-race season, would be obnoxiously high.

Vickers has shown improvement and increased on-track maturity through most of the stops in his career. He’ll need to double down on commitments to those ideals, stay healthy and keep away from mid-race trips to the garage if he wants his full-time gig to stick.

What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“Vickers has proven to be very fast in spurts and has been able to run near the front in equipment that other people could not perform in,” a competitor says. “He is a very humble person and will do whatever the team needs to get better. He won’t take crap from other drivers as we saw with (Tony) Stewart at Sonoma a couple of years ago. Vickers also fits in well from a fan base perspective. He’s big in the extreme sports hobbies that attract fans.”

“The blood clot problem is a big concern,” a rival crew chief says. “Whether they can claim that they were explainable and there was an obvious reason, it still doesn’t eliminate the fact that they happen. Try as you might, another clot could show up again and then a team would need to find a replacement driver. That’s hard for a team, especially at the Cup level, to make that kind of commitment when the driver could be out of the game at any point in time.”

“He’ll show flashes, but he tears up a lot of equipment,” one media member says. “And I worry about this blood clot issue. I mean, if it keeps happening — once I can understand, but a second time? How does a team convince a sponsor to invest in a driver who’s health is iffy?”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
Since the inception of the CoT, Vickers’ six Michigan starts have been fruitful, to the tune of one win, two top 5s and five top 10s.
Pretty Solid Pick: Atlanta has been kind as well, with a 10th-place average finish in his last seven starts.
Good Sleeper Pick: His last four starts at Bristol line up like this: fifth, fourth, eighth and fourth. Betcha didn’t realize that.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Phoenix, where he’s recorded only one top-10 finish (fifth) in his 14 Cup starts.
Insider Tip: Vickers stepped up and delivered in his “something to prove” period. Now that he’s got the job, will the results hang steady, or will he revert back to his wrecking ways?

No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota
Owners: Michael Waltrip/Rob Kauffman/Johnny Harris
Crew Chief: Billy Scott
Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 12th (2009)
Hometown: Thomasville, N.C.
Born: Oct. 24, 1983

Photos courtesy of Michael Waltrip Racing

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 season preview for Brian Vickers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Post date: Sunday, February 16, 2014 - 23:52
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/nascar-media-roundtable-nascar-reaching-unattainable-goal

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.

NASCAR continues to search for a more exciting form of racing. On this topic, Jack Roush stated that, “It's an impossible thing (NASCAR is) looking for, to make the (racing) increasingly exciting. Because there is only so much you can do with four tires and a 3,400-pound car.” Aside from simply trying to improve its “on-track product,” is NASCAR reaching for an intangible goal that’s simply not attainable? Or should this be the sanctioning body’s priority?

Nick Bromberg (Yahoo! Sports; @NickBromberg): Fascinating question. NASCAR is never going to be able to have every race finish with two cars mere inches from each other, nor will it be able to eliminate fuel mileage races and other things that a vocal bunch doesn’t care for. And that’s fine. Every other sport has blowouts and unentertaining games, and it’s those events that make the close and exciting ones so special and breathtaking.

Ryan McGee ( The Magazine@ESPNMcGee): Mr. Roush isn’t wrong. There are a lot of folks out there who think that every finish — heck, every lap — should be like the final lap of the 1979 Daytona 500. But here’s the thing about that race … it was awful until the last few laps. If they ran that race today, Twitter would collapse under the weight of all the complaints. You can’t blame the sanctioning body for wanting to make everything awesome all the time, but no matter whether you are at your local short track or the Bristol night race, “riding around” until you get the car right or the checkers are in sight is just part of a real race experience.

Pete Pistone (Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio and MRN Radio; @PPistone): NASCAR has to bring in new customers to an aging fan base, and if it means changing some long-standing practices or procedures, so be it. The 3-point shot, designated hitter and shootouts in hockey were born out of the same goal, and big-league stock car racing simply has to change with the times in order to entertain and remain relevant.

Nate Ryan (USA Today@nateryan): Roush makes a hugely incisive point. Jimmie Johnson has made it more subtly in noting that NASCAR should consider fixing racetracks after putting so much of the onus on teams and Goodyear to ‘fix’ the cars with the aim of improved racing. Rather than expend so much effort on chasing an unattainable goal, it might be wiser to launch a clever marketing campaign that would redefine competitiveness and help manage the unrealistic expectations of incessant excitement in a sport that can be inherently boring.

Bob Pockrass (The Sporting News@bobpockrass): Yes and yes. Much like safety, there is only so much one can do. But NASCAR must continue to find ways to improve the product. There’s no harm in trying.

Mike Hembree (Athlon Sports; @mikehembree): This is a difficult issue for NASCAR because its “playing field” changes so much from week to week — from very short tracks to gigantic ones, from fresh asphalt to aging surfaces, from 200 miles per hour to half that. Developing the perfect car for such a wildly varied schedule is virtually impossible. The best approach would be to fit the car to the 1.5-mile tracks — because there are so many — and let teams work out the resulting issues at other tracks.

Mike Mulhern (; @mikemulhern): Jack is wrong, and considering the problems Team Ford had last season, it’s understandable why he’s is aggravated.

One easy way to make the racing more exciting is to eliminate the rules that give such an advantage to the race leader — drop the wave-around, for one, and leave pit road open the entire race, for another. There is no good reason for closing pit road; that is a rule that dates back to the early 1990s when scoring miscues at North Wilkesboro, Pocono and elsewhere, led NASCAR to just “stop pit stops” until the scoring tower could sort out the running order. That is no longer an issue. Keep pit road open and let the teams take their chances when the caution comes out. There’s nothing wrong with “chance” playing a role in this sport, the way it did for so many years.

Another way to make racing more exciting is to slow the durn cars. The slower a car, the “wider” the track, thus the more opportunities to pass, and the less the effects of aerodynamics. Simple physics.

Yet another way to make racing more exciting: Cut into the Chevrolet advantage. Check out how many races Chevrolet has won the past 10 years, compared to Ford and Toyota and Dodge. And maybe ask Dodge execs why they really decided they didn't need NASCAR marketing any more. When a performance car company drops NASCAR, there’s something wrong somewhere.

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

In an offseason full of drastic changes, is NASCAR trying too hard to improve its on-track product?
Post date: Sunday, February 16, 2014 - 23:50