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Recruiting rankings matter.

 

They are not a guarantee of future success but they are the foundation every national championship has been built upon. It takes great coaching, development and luck to win a title, but having better players is the only way to start.

 

In fact, the data backing up the value of recruiting rankings is impenetrable. For example, look at last year’s rosters. According to the rankings, three of the four best rosters in America belonged to Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State.

 

These rankings do not take into account attrition but that should be a constant for all teams and conferences equally. So strictly based on recruiting evaluations from 247Sports, here is how the rosters in the ACC rank.

 

Ranking College Football's Rosters in 2015:

 

 Team'15'14'13'12'11AvgW/LConf.
1.3410324.448-728-4
2.81815151013.242-1126-6
3.271214103319.228-2216-16
4.292721213626.833-2019-13
5.282928431929.428-2316-16
6.493229262331.819-3010-22
7.324736452937.839-1322-8
8.624433425847.825-2714-16
9.303459547249.826-2511-21
10.435476524453.833-2121-11
11.505870626360.628-2415-17
12.645073616161.822-2811-19
13.605287714162.220-3012-20
14.526267666963.218-3111-21

 

What did we learn?

 

Noles aren't going anywhere

Florida State is one of only two teams in major college football to have lost four or fewer conference games over the last four seasons. The other is Alabama. Heading into 2015, things don’t appear to be changing much as the Noles enter with far and away the best roster in the ACC and one of the top two units in college football. The 4.4 average rank for FSU is second only to Alabama's 1.0 average.

 

It's on you, Clemson

Clemson has long been No. 2 in the ACC in terms of talent, outrecruiting everyone in the league not named Florida State. The Tigers have landed two top-10 classes in the last five years, and other than FSU, no other team in the ACC even has one. If someone is going to end the Noles 24-game ACC winning streak, it might have to be Clemson. Only one other team has even averaged a top 25 class over the last five years.

 

Urgency in South Florida

And that team is Miami. Al Golden could watch as many as six players get drafted in the early rounds of the NFL Draft this spring. It’s no secret this program has underachieved, not all of which is Golden’s fault. But with a top-20 roster nationally — clearly the most gifted in the Coastal Division — Miami needs to start winning more games. A 16-16 record in league play over the last four years isn’t acceptable.

 

Time to win

Miami isn’t the only team that needs to take strides in 2015. Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Virginia have three of the better rosters in the league and have underachieved significantly over the last few seasons. The Hokies, Tar Heels and Cavaliers are fourth, fifth and sixth in the league in terms of talent and have lost 51 times in ACC play the last four years combined. This is also unacceptable.

 

More with less

Paul Johnson continues to work minor miracles in Atlanta. He doesn’t have one of the best 50 rosters in the nation but has won more ACC games (21) over the last four years than anyone else in the league expect Florida State (28) and Clemson (26). He enters 2015 trying to defend his Coastal Division crown with the 54th best roster in the nation — which is sixth in the division.

 

First full cycle

Bobby-P and the Cardinals are in that transitional phase after elevating from the AAC to the ACC. But that one letter is a big one. Ranked as the 39th best roster entering 2015 after landing the No. 32-ranked class, Louisville is smack in the middle of the league in terms of talent (7th) on their own tier. Should they continue to improve recruiting, the Cards should be the next recruiting challenger in the ACC.

 

Bottom of the barrel

The bottom of the league needs some help on the recruiting trail. The ACC has more teams ranked outside of the top 60 in terms of talent than any other league. In fact, the ACC has as many teams ranked 60th or worse than the Big Ten (1), Big 12 (2) and Pac-12 (1) combined. That said, Duke moved from 13th or 11th in the ACC after two of the better classes in school history.

Teaser:
Ranking the ACC's Football Rosters for 2015
Post date: Monday, February 23, 2015 - 10:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football, College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/ranking-nations-top-football-basketball-coaching-tandems
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Building a consistent winner in one college sport is tough enough. Building two in the most high-profile sports? That’s something special.

 

Only so many programs can contend for both college football and college basketball championships in the same calendar year. Only a handful can keep their fans cheering in bowl games and the NCAA Tournament every year.

 

This list celebrates the rare schools that have found the coaching pairs who can deliver such feats.

 

The goal of our coach tandem rankings is to look at each football and basketball duo as a pair. In general, we’re looking at the duos most likely to keep each school’s fans happy and entertained from the start of football season through the end of basketball season.

 

 

1. Ohio State

Football: Urban Meyer | Basketball: Thad Matta

Meyer and Alabama’s Nick Saban are the Nos. 1A and 1B of college football coaching with good reason. After Ohio State’s improbable run to the 2014 national championship, Meyer and Saban are the only coaches to win national titles at two different schools. Meyer is 38-3 with the Buckeyes and has six AP top five finishes at Utah, Florida and Ohio State. Matta has one of the most underrated careers in college basketball, partly because he’s never won a national title and partly because of his low-key personality. Remember, when Matta took over at Ohio State, the Buckeyes were emerging from NCAA sanctions. Since then, Ohio State has won 30 games three times and reached the Final Four twice. In 15 seasons as a head coach, he’s won at least a share of eight regular season conference titles.

 

2. Duke

Football: David Cutcliffe | Basketball: Mike Krzyzewski

Krzyzewski’s resume is self-explanatory: More than 1,000 career wins, 11 Final Fours and four national titles. Early NCAA Tournament exits (Mercer in 2014, Lehigh in '12) have vexed the Blue Devils, but that appears to be unlikely with the group Coach K has assembled this season. Cutcliffe has done the unthinkable with the football program by turning the perennial ACC bottom-feeder into a factor in the league race. Duke has won 19 games the last two seasons, reached three consecutive bowl games and won the ACC Coastal Division in 2013.

 

3. Arizona

Football: Rich Rodriguez | Basketball: Sean Miller

Less than a decade ago, Arizona’s basketball and football programs were searching for an identity. The end of the Lute Olson era was a protracted experience with two interim coaches, and football found only limited success with Mike Stoops. Miller and Rodriguez have transformed all that. Miller has led Arizona to two Elite Eights and two regular season conference titles. The football program isn’t going to be USC, but Rodriguez is the right fit for an underdog program. His 10 wins last season was the most for Arizona since the Desert Swarm days, and 26 wins in three seasons in the most for the Wildcats in a three-year period since the 1970s.

 

4. Auburn

Football: Gus Malzahn | Basketball: Bruce Pearl

During the course of two seasons, Auburn made two hires that changed the trajectory of its football and basketball program. Football had been relatively consistent back to the Pat Dye era, but it was clear Malzahn and his up-tempo, run-oriented offense brought something special to the Tigers. He was the offensive coordinator of the 2010 championship team and took Auburn back to the title game in the first season after his return in 2013. The ascent won’t be as rapid for the basketball program under Pearl, who has reached the Sweet 16 or better in four of his last seven seasons as head coach. Still, he’s brought in elite recruits and already has Auburn basketball fans following his cult of personality.

 

5. Michigan State

Football: Mark Dantonio | Basketball: Tom Izzo

This duo rarely makes a big splash with major recruits, but Dantonio and Izzo both excel at developing upperclassmen capable of winning in the Big Ten and the postseason. Dantonio has elevated Michigan State football to one of the powers in the Big Ten. He’s led Michigan State to four seasons of 11 wins or more in the last five and back-to-back top-five finishes, something that hasn’t happened in East Lansing since 1965-66. Izzo is in interesting territory. He is enduring his longest Final Four drought (five seasons, boo hoo) and his team is in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997. The track record, though, is elite: Izzo has six career Final Fours and a national title.

 

6. Michigan

Football: Jim Harbaugh | Basketball: John Beilein

Give credit to both of these coaches for not taking the easy route: Harbaugh’s first head coaching job was at San Diego of the non-scholarship Pioneer League; Beilein’s was at Erie Community College. All Michigan is asking of its new hire Harbaugh is to do what Beilein has done — return a program to national contention. In basketball, the Wolverines reached the Final Four in 2013 and the Elite Eight in 2014. Harbaugh would seem to be up to the task at his alma mater. He built Stanford into a Pac-12 contender and took the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl.

 

7. Louisville

Football: Bobby Petrino | Basketball: Rick Pitino

The Petrino/Pitino duo is back at Louisville for the first time since 2006. Having both coaches is still a boon for the Cardinals. Petrino went 9-4 and finished in the top 25 in his first season back with the Cardinals, a notable feat considering the revolving door at quarterback and that it was the football program’s indoctrination into the ACC. Petrino has finished in the top 25 in six of 10 seasons as a head coach, including four times in five total seasons at Louisville. Pitino has seven Final Fours and two national championships, including the 2013 title. 

 

8. Oklahoma

Football: Bob Stoops | Basketball: Lon Kruger

Even though Stoops is coming off an 8-5 campaign, the most disappointing since he’s been a head coach, Oklahoma has the most solid coaching duo in the league. Stoops has won at least 10 games in four of the last five seasons and made more BCS games than any other coach under the old system. Kruger, whose forte is rebuilding programs, has completed his reclamation of OU basketball with his best team this season. No program is more likely to be in a major bowl game and the NCAA Tournament in the same season as Oklahoma.

 

9. Notre Dame

Football: Brian Kelly | Basketball: Mike Brey

Is Notre Dame a year-in and year-out powerhouse in either sport? Not yet. Still, both coaches deserve credit for putting the Irish back into the mix. The Irish are two years removed from an undefeated regular season in football, and Kelly is the first Notre Dame coach to post five consecutive winning seasons since Lou Holtz. Mike Brey’s consistency — six NCAA appearances in eight years — gets overlooked because his team hasn’t made it to the Sweet 16 since 2003. Now if only both of them could go a season without losing a player to an academic-related suspension...

 

10. Baylor

Football: Art Briles | Basketball: Scott Drew

The year before Briles was hired, Baylor football was riding 12 consecutive losing seasons. When Drew was hired, Baylor was emerging from one of the biggest scandals in college basketball history. It’s tough to find a duo who improved their school’s situation more from the day they were hired until 2015. Briles had Baylor on the verge of the College Football Playoff and won the last two Big 12 titles. And Drew has twice taken Baylor basketball to the Elite Eight and once to the Sweet 16.

 

11. Florida State

Football: Jimbo Fisher | Basketball: Leonard Hamilton

Florida State’s football program is the healthiest it has been since Bobby Bowden was in his prime. In the last three seasons, Fisher has led the Seminoles to a national title, 29 consecutive wins, a College Football Playoff appearance and three ACC titles. The basketball program was on a nice hot streak from 2009-12 under Hamilton with four consecutive NCAA appearances, an ACC tournament title and a trip to the Sweet 16. In three seasons since, FSU has yet to post a winning ACC record.

 

12. Oregon State

Football: Gary Andersen | Basketball: Wayne Tinkle

Oregon State pulled off one of the biggest coups of the college football coaching carousel this season when it pulled Andersen from Wisconsin. The former Badgers coach was 19-7 overall and 13-3 in the Big Ten after winning 11 games and a WAC title at Utah State. Just as important, though, was the arrival of Tinkle with the basketball program. He took Montana to the NCAA Tournament and won two Big Sky regular season titles in his final three seasons. His first team at Oregon State is already competitive in the Pac-12. Both of the Oregon State coaching jobs are among the toughest in the Pac-12, but both coaches can win here. 

 

13. North Carolina

Football: Larry Fedora | Basketball: Roy Williams

North Carolina fans don’t like to hear this, but both coaches leave us wanting more these days. Williams is a Hall of Fame coach with seven career Final Fours and two national championships. Yet his team will have five or more ACC losses for the third consecutive season. If Carolina doesn’t reach the Sweet 16 this season, Williams will face his longest Sweet 16 drought since 1998-2000 at Kansas. Fedora’s win total has decreased every season at Carolina, and he’s never finished better than 5-3 in the league.

 

14. Virginia Tech

Football: Frank Beamer | Basketball: Buzz Williams

On career achievements, this duo should rank higher. Virginia Tech is a factor in football because of Beamer, who has been the coach since 1987. And despite 22 consecutive winning seasons, the Hokies are having a bit of identity crisis. The 10- and 11-win seasons have become seven- and eight-win seasons during the last three years. Williams’ credentials at Marquette were impeccable — two Sweet 16s, an Elite Eight and five consecutive NCAAs through 2013 — but he’s working through a major rebuilding project in his first season in Blacksburg.

 

15. Stanford

Football: David Shaw | Basketball: Johnny Dawkins

Stanford has a pair of coaches that — at least for now — appear to be trending in opposite directions. Shaw picked up where Jim Harbaugh left off and led Stanford to 34 wins, three major bowl games and two Pac-12 titles in his first three seasons. The 2014 season, though, ended with five losses and a trip to the Foster Farms Bowl. Dawkins seemed to be in trouble entering last season before taking Stanford to the Sweet 16. The Cardinal should head to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament this season.

 

16. Utah

Football: Kyle Whittingham | Basketball: Larry Krystkowiak

Times were better for Whittingham and Utah football in the Mountain West, when the Utes went 33-6, including an undefeated season in 2008, in their last three seasons in the league. Wittingham delivered Utah’s best season in the Pac-12 last year — 9-4 overall and 5-4 in the league — but coaching staff tumult has put the future in question. Basketball, on the other hand, is surging forward. Krystkowiak went 6-25 with a broken program in his first year, reached 21 wins in his third and has a top-10 team in his fourth. The Utes have arguably their best team since Rick Majerus was the coach.

 

17. Oregon

Football: Mark Helfrich | Basketball: Dana Altman

Helfrich picked up where Chip Kelly left off, reaching the national title game in his second season as head coach and winning 11 games and finishing in the top 10 in his first season. He’s laid-back demeanor is a change for the program, but the most pressing issue is winning without Marcus Mariota. Altman has survived an offseason of controversy to have Oregon in contention for its third consecutive NCAA Tournament bid. In his last 17 seasons at Creighton and Oregon, Altman has 16 20-win seasons.

 

18. UCLA

Football: Jim L. Mora | Basketball: Steve Alford

Mora has pulled UCLA out of its funk, leading the Bruins to back-to-back 10 win seasons and top-25 finishes for the first time since 1997-98. With the way he has recruited, more should be on the way. Alford got over his NCAA Tournament bugaboo by reaching the Sweet 16 in his first season at UCLA. If the Bruins even get into the field this season, it will be something of a victory. Alford has been around longer than you might think — he’s taken four teams to the Tournament and should get to 450 career wins next season. 

 

19. Wisconsin

Football: Paul Chryst | Basketball: Bo Ryan

Ryan was already one of the best coaches in the country when he led Wisconsin to top-four finishes in the Big Ten every year since 2002. Now, he’s looking to take the Badgers to back-to-back Final Fours. And he’s done all of that without a ton of major recruits on his roster. Wisconsin football has had an unbroken record of success under Barry Alvarez, Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen. Chryst, a former Badgers player and offensive coordinator, knows the territory. His record at Pittsburgh — 19-19 overall, 10-13 in the ACC — was nothing special, but he took over program with a tumultuous coaching situation.

 

20. Cincinnati

Football: Tommy Tuberville | Basketball: Mick Cronin

The well-traveled Tuberville has kept the momentum going at Cincinnati, going 9-4 in each of his first two seasons and winning a share of the American title last year. Cronin has missed most of this season while he deals with a health issue, but he’s returned the Bearcats to contender status after a difficult rebuild. Cincinnati has reached the NCAA Tournament in the last four seasons and reached the 2012 Sweet 16.

 

21. SMU

Football: Chad Morris | Basketball: Larry Brown

The Mustangs have spent recent years clawing for renewed relevance in both sports. The Hall of Famer Brown, despite NCAA troubles this season, has delivered. His team is on the way to its first NCAA bid since 1993 a year after winning 27 games and going to the NIT. Morris was one of the hottest names in the coaching carousel after taking his high-flying offense to Clemson. His Texas high school connections should serve him well as he tries to rebuild in Dallas.

 

22. Miami

Football: Al Golden | Basketball: Jim Larranaga

Golden left Temple with the reputation of a miracle worker and walked into the Nevin Shapiro mess at Miami. After a self-imposed bowl ban in his first two seasons, Miami went 9-4 in his third year before falling to 6-7 last season. With quarterback Brad Kaaya starting his second season, Golden is entering a critical fifth year. Larranaga has taken George Mason to a Final Four and won the ACC at Miami. That’s a pretty darn good career right there, never mind that he has 547 career wins otherwise.

 

23. San Diego State

Football: Rocky Long | Basketball: Steve Fisher

What Fisher has done at San Diego State was once unthinkable. A program that hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game before Fisher arrived is a perennial postseason team. The Aztecs have twice won 30 games and twice reached the Sweet 16 during the last five years. Football isn’t the same contender as the basketball program, but the longtime underachiever has reached a bowl game all four seasons under Long.

 

24. BYU

Football: Bronco Mendenhall | Basketball: Dave Rose

Five or six years ago, the stock for the BYU duo would have been higher than it is now. Back then, Jimmer Fredette was on the court for BYU, and the Cougars had won at least 10 games in four of five seasons. BYU is still trying to find its way as an independent and West Coast Conference member, but both are still regulars in the postseason.

 

25. Kansas State

Football: Bill Snyder | Basketball: Bruce Weber

Kansas State failed to sign a top 50 recruiting class in 2015, but that doesn’t matter. We’ll end up talking about the Wildcats as a top 10 team at some point anyway. That’s the deal for Snyder, whose teams have been the biggest overachievers in college football. Weber’s team has fallen below expectations this season, but he’s still two years removed from a 27-win season and a share of the Big 12 title.

Teaser:
Ranking the Nation's Top Football-Basketball Coaching Tandems
Post date: Monday, February 23, 2015 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/nebraska-basketball-wear-1950s-throwbacks-sunday-vs-iowa
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Nebraska basketball will wear throwbacks to the 1954-55 team for Sunday’s game against Iowa.

 

The replicas are designed to commemorate the 60th anniversary of coach Jerry Bush’s first Cornhuskers team during Legends Weekend. Stan Matzke, a captain in 1954-55, will speak to more than 50 former Nebraska players spanning eight decades.

 

The uniforms will look great, but the memories? Not so much. The 1954-55 team went 9-12 in the original unis.

 

 

 

Teaser:
Nebraska Basketball to Wear 1950s Throwbacks Sunday vs. Iowa
Post date: Sunday, February 22, 2015 - 11:09
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/north-carolina-runs-four-corners-honor-dean-smith
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In North Carolina’s first home game since the passing of legendary coach Dean Smith, the Tar Heels ran a fitting tribute to the man whose name graces the arena.

 

The Tar Heels ran Smith’s famous Four Corners offense on their first offensive possession. Roy Williams, a Smith protege, signaled in the play, and Marcus Paige passed to a cutting Brice Johnson for North Carolina’s first points in an 89-60 win over Georgia Tech.

 

Here’s the play:

 

 

"That was one of the most nerve-racking moments of my life just because I feel like if I would've turned it over, if I would've messed it up or something that I was letting down the way we were going to pay homage to Coach Smith," Paige told reporters after the game. "I'm just glad Brice caught it and laid it up. He made me look good."

 

Here's what it looked like from above:

 

Teaser:
North Carolina Runs Four Corners to Honor Dean Smith
Post date: Saturday, February 21, 2015 - 18:36
All taxonomy terms: Funny, MLB
Path: /175-funny-fantasy-baseball-team-names-2015
Body:

Only one team will win your fantasy baseball league, but everyone can have a funny (or silly or crazy) fantasy baseball team name. These are 175 suggestions for the baseball nerds, Internet bird dogs, Sabermetric mathematician-magicians, jersey chasers and MLB Extra Innings subscribers who comprise fantasy baseball leagues around the world.

 

Technology and Stuff

50 Shade of Sonny Gray

50 Cents of First Pitches

Hakuna Moncada

Soler Flares

Yeah Jeets

Jeter Del Boca Vista

Jeter’s Gift Baskets

McCann Man Code

CC’s MPH Diet

Void A-Roid

A-Rod Centaur

Short Porch Party

Benedict Ellsbury

A-Rod Handwriting Experts

 

 

Biracial Angels

Ranger Danger

Jackie Robinson West

Volkswagen #Vanlife

Prince Bigger in Texas

Dead Ted’s Head

Tampa Bay Carly Raes

Cano Mode

Barehand-relton Simmons

Wild Thing

Willie Mays Hays

JUST a Bit Outside

Crash Davis

Nuke LaLoosh

 

 

Maybe This Year

108 Stitches

Snitches Get 108 Stitches

Man With 4 Balls Can’t Walk

99 Problems, Pitch Ain’t One

$325-Million Marlin

Sandlot Beasts

Kansas City Lordes

Blurred Foul Lines

Blurred Outfield Lines

Wrecking Ball Four

Bronx Zoo

Hackensack Bulls

 

 

Dano Grande

Light-Tower Power

Joey Bats

San Diego Rotisserie Chickens

Grand Theft Votto

Cubs Mascot Dong

I Piss Excellence

I’m CEO, You Shut Up

Kenny Powers Posse

Balco Black Sox

Moneyballers

Slump Busters

Joe Buck Yourself

Ain’t Over Til It’s Over

Déjà vu All Over Again

 

 

Springfield Isotopes

Griffey Jr.’s Tonic

Mattingly’s Sideburns

Talkin’ Baseball

New York Knights

Rockford Peaches

No Crying in Baseball

All the Way Mae

Tanaka-Knock Joke

Must Be the Mo’ne

Mo’ne-ball

Paleo Sandoval

Paleo Panda

Madison Budweiser

 

 

Miggy Azalea

Troutstanding

Arms of an Angel

WAR-time Consigliere

Bob LOB Law

Crack That WHIP

VORP Speed

Mr. Kate Upton

Yoenis Envy

Yu Da Man

Dick Pole’s Staff

Chief Noc-A Homa

Dread Pirates

Outfield Fly Rule

Rusty Trumbo

Smoak a Swisher

The Bourn Supremacy

The Price is Wrong

 

 

Heady Play by Beltre

Thome Don’t Play That

Murderer’s Row

Lovable Losers

Houston Lastros

Houston Colt .45s

Hot Pocket Corner

Joe Buck Nasty

Raking It In

Bay of Puigs

Flipping the Bat

Better Call Paul (Goldschmidt)

Kung Fu Pandas

Say It Aint’s Sosa

 

 

Seventh-Inning Yoga

Cleveland Steamers

Dollar Dogs

Thirsty Thursdays

Kangaroo Court

Designated Shitter

El Paso Chihuahuas

Atlanta Black Crackers

Akron RubberDucks

Bleacher Creatures

Phillie Phanatics

Rally Monkeys

Southside Southpaws

Dr. Strangeglove

Lamb Gyroballs

 

 

Prince Fielder Body Issues

Millville Meteors

Love It When They Call Me Big Papi

Notorious P.A.P.I.

Carlos Santana’s Greatest Hits

Say Hey, J-Hey

Ferguson IS the Cardinal Way

Wong Gone

Long Wong Silver

Evil Empire

Cuban Missiles

Cole Trains

Sack Up

Men of Steal

My Big Unit

 

 

Schwing! Batter Batter

Who’s Your Daddy?

Crafty Lefties

The The Angels Angels

California Penal League

Looking Illegal

1864 Rules

Three-Finger Mordecai

Old Hoss Radbourn

Cobb Co. Braves

Hall of Shamers

Hannibal Lester

Golden Sombreros

Big League Choo

 

 

ManBearPuig

Bryce Hyper

Citizen Cain

Butt Slide

PED-co Park

Come Sale Away

Green Monsters

Ballpark Franks

Grand Salami

Pete Rose’s Hall

Selig’s Pick

Bud Selig 401K

Clown Question Bros

Small Ballers

 

 

Stolen Hunter Pence Signs

Back Back Back

Chris Berman Sucks

Fire Joe Morgan

Spitball LOOGYs

Ken Burns Baseball

Hebrew Hammers

Wrigley Blue Ivy

Jay Bruce Jenner

Mookie Loves Pearl Jam

No Mas Tomas

Can the Grandy Man?

Hamilton High Dive

Fire Breathing Lamborghinis

Vin Scully’s Homeboys

 

Teaser:
These funny fantasy baseball team names will make your league laugh
Post date: Friday, February 20, 2015 - 17:45
All taxonomy terms: Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/dale-earnhardt-jr-climbing-way-back-top-after-resurgent-2014-season
Body:

To understand the immense popularity of Dale Earnhardt Jr., a history lesson is in order. And no one is more qualified to deliver it than Earnhardt Jr. himself. He did so shortly after striding into the media center at Martinsville Speedway last October. After years of trying and coming up short, he finally had won there to claim the coveted grandfather clock that comes with a victory at the tricky .526-mile short track that has been hosting NASCAR races since 1949.

 

Even before the champagne from Victory Lane had dried on his fire suit, Earnhardt Jr. already was mentally putting the accomplishment into big-picture perspective. Looking around, he said: “You know, I love the history of the sport and just can’t get enough of things like all these old pictures on the wall in here. I know this place has a special meaning and a special place in the series and the sport.

 

“I’ve been coming here so many years. I’ve been coming here since the early 1980s, watching races here. Dad won several races here, brought home several clocks. I remember one in particular that set at the front door, in the hall by the stairs. It had this little round rug right in that hallway that I’d run my Matchbox cars on, listening to the race on (the radio on) Motor Racing Network.”

 

The point was, he always wanted one of those clocks for his own. And now that he finally had one, he deeply appreciated it.

 

“The clock seems so hard to get,” he added. “I try not to get too caught up in the emotion of it because it’s a team deal, but this is very personal and very special for me to be able to win here.”

 

Heck, after the previous decade of mostly wandering in the winless wilderness in the Sprint Cup Series, any win for Earnhardt Jr. was special. But the 2014 season was different, lending hope to Earnhardt and his vast Junior Nation of fans that it was possibly setting the table for even greater accomplishments in 2015.

 

Yes, Earnhardt Jr. is the son of a legendary NASCAR Hall of Famer and seven-time Cup champion, the late Dale Earnhardt.

 

But he isn’t his father and never claimed to be. Plus, he’s always seemed to have a deep sense of appreciation for his special place in the sport. Whereas others might have come to loathe the constant comparisons to a legendary father, Earnhardt Jr. always has deftly deflected those comparisons while at the same time embracing his own growing legacy over the years.

 

And as the years have passed, Earnhardt Jr. has increasingly seemed more comfortable in his own skin. In 2014, he was able to translate that into more success on the track with crew chief Steve Letarte and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team.

 

Athlon Sports’ 2015 Racing magazine delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2015 NASCAR coverage. Click here to order your copy today!

The season began with a win in the Daytona 500 in February. It was Earnhardt Jr.’s second career victory in NASCAR’s biggest race, coming a decade after his first, and it set the tone for a season in which three more victories would follow — at both Pocono races and then at Martinsville.

 

The four wins represented the most for Earnhardt Jr. in a single season since he also began a season with winning the Daytona 500 in 2004, when he went on to capture a career-high six races.

 

While it was disappointing that Earnhardt Jr. was eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup when the field was trimmed from 12 drivers to eight after the Contender Round, he and Letarte still said they were proud of what they accomplished in their final season together. After four seasons leading Earnhardt Jr.’s team, Letarte is moving to the NBC broadcast booth as a NASCAR analyst in 2015 and will be replaced on the No. 88 pit box by Greg Ives.

 

“I definitely would put it as a successful year,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “Instead of running up the stairs to the top, we’ve had to take one step a year. Finally we’re getting to where we’re winning some races.”

 

Letarte adds: “Shame on us if we would have let getting eliminated from the Chase overshadow all that we accomplished on the season. … One of the things I was most proud of was the fact that at Martinsville, seven short days after we were eliminated, this team performed. They came to work. You wouldn’t have known whether we were the championship leader or eliminated from the Chase when you walked into the garage that Friday. And it showed on Sunday afternoon when we won.”

 

All eyes now are on Ives, a 35-year-old Michigan native who is very familiar with Earnhardt Jr. — and vice versa.

 

Ives served as the championship-winning crew chief for Chase Elliott in the Nationwide Series in 2014. Elliott drove the No. 9 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports, which Earnhardt Jr. owns along with his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, and Rick Hendrick, who of course supplied Earnhardt Jr. with the cars he drives in the Sprint Cup Series.

 

Ives also worked for Hendrick Motorsports as an engineer on driver Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 team for five of Johnson’s six Cup championships. He says he plans to take a practical approach to his new job, knowing lots of people will be keeping a close watch on every move he makes.

 

“We all have our jobs to do,” says Ives, who also gained experience as Regan Smith’s Nationwide Series crew chief for JR Motorsports in 2013. “I’m very focused and strict on what I do each week. But it always comes around to the people you put around you, too. I have great engineers … I have the people in place to make all this happen. “

 

Elliott has no doubt that Earnhardt Jr. is in good hands. After spending just one season with Ives on top of his pit box, Elliott came away mightily impressed, not only with the calls and adjustments to the race cars that Ives routinely made, but with the way he helped foster a great team chemistry.

 

“I think Greg is very deserving of this opportunity,” Elliott says. “And I think anybody who is wondering about the change, I think they’re going to be pleasantly surprised by the results and the effort and the teamwork and the way that Greg treats people. I’m talking not about just the guy driving his car, but the people who work on the cars and everybody. He treats people the way they should be treated. Nobody’s role means any more than anybody else’s role, and I think Greg has a great understanding of that. He obviously has the smarts and whatnot to do the job. But I think the biggest thing is his leadership.”

 

Letarte says his advice to Ives is simple: Be yourself. It wasn’t until after years of working under Ray Evernham and Robbie Loomis at Hendrick Motorsports that Letarte was given his first shot at being a crew chief. Then he worked alongside the great Chad Knaus, Johnson’s six-time championship-winning crew chief, in the same building at the HMS complex even after becoming crew chief first for Jeff Gordon and then for Earnhardt Jr.

 

“Greg Ives needs to be Greg Ives,” Letarte says. “That’s what I learned. I got to work with Ray Evernham, who was spectacular, and Robbie, who is great, but I learned to be me. I didn’t try to be Chad, Robbie or Ray. I just tried to be my own man, and I think Greg Ives should do the same thing.”

 

In their four years together, Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. developed a close friendship and a tight chemistry that eventually carried over to the race track. But none of that happened overnight.

 

They went winless their first season together in 2011 and a total of 50 races before earning their first win as a team at Michigan in June 2012. Then they went another 55 races without a win before visiting Victory Lane in the 2014 Daytona 500.

 

In other words, these things can take time. Earnhardt Jr. is well aware of that.

 

“I think me and Greg could get off to a great start. I think we could get off to a mediocre start. You never know when you get to working together,” Earnhardt Jr. says.

 

In addition to losing Letarte, car chief Jason Burdett also left the No. 88 team for a new job at JR Motorsports, and several pit-crew members are leaving to join the new No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team of driver Carl Edwards. That’s a whole lot of change to overcome, but Earnhardt Jr. says one of the keys is that the team’s lead engineer, Kevin Meendering, remains to help ease the transition for Ives.

 

As fellow engineers, Meendering and Ives should be able to speak the same language when it comes to figuring out how to consistently put fast race cars under NASCAR’s most popular driver. But again, Earnhardt Jr. cautions that it may take more time than the offseason had to offer. Plus, there is no substitute for the experience gained in actual race weekends over testing and crunching numbers back at the shop.

 

“Kevin is going to be a big key player in all this, helping Greg sort of really round the bases and get up to speed on what we’ve been working on in the past year and the tendencies that I have as a driver and things that I will and won’t like,“ Earnhardt Jr. says. “We’ve got to be open to Greg’s ideas and some new ideas and fresh ideas, also, so all that stuff has got to sort of counterbalance itself out. That’s a bit of a work in progress. I don’t think it happens immediately in the offseason.”

 

The man known simply as “Junior” to fans who have voted him recipient of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award 12 years running turned 40 years old last October. Time is running out for him to win his first Sprint Cup championship, but he says he’s OK with that as long as he can continue to win races.

 

Nonetheless, it is a potentially difficult and risky time for Earnhardt Jr. to be coping with all these changes. He says he remembers when he was much younger and winning seemed so routine that he somewhat took it for granted.

 

“I was so young back then,” he says. “I think the older you get, you definitely come to appreciate how challenging it is, how the competition is very difficult, how so many guys are capable of winning.

 

“But it’s not easy. You don’t have all these awesome years where you’re piling up wins, hitting homers every week. I mean, I can’t believe I’m 40 years old and still doing this, still successful at it, still with a great team. … It’s something that I hope I can sustain and hopefully be fortunate enough to be with this group for many years. We might have as good an opportunity (in 2015) and maybe the year after that to win a championship. But winning races is the priority. I don’t know that I’d be that damn happy about winning a championship had we not won any races (last) year. Winning these races definitely is still a whole lot of fun.”

 

— Written by Joe Menzer for Athlon Sports

Teaser:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Climbing Way Back to the Top After Resurgent 2014 Season
Post date: Friday, February 20, 2015 - 13:00
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-february-20-2015
Body:

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

 

Wisconsin hoops star Sam Dekker is winning the WAG sweepstakes.

 

Tom Crean's face said it all after Indiana's loss to Purdue.

 

Bobby Knight had a classic old man get-off-my-lawn moment last night.

 

• For some reason, Jack Nicklaus still thinks Tiger Woods will break his majors record.  Maybe because talking about it brings attention to Jack's amazing majors record.

 

Stupid but strangely mesmerizing GIF from the NFL Combine.

 

• Speaking of the Combine, for some reason Trenton Brown's attempt at a vertical leap reminds me of Costanza demonstrating the special training shoes to the guys at Foot Locker.

 

• In the process of responding (poorly) to Charles Barkley's dis, NBA writer Peter Vecsey called a woman an ignorant slut. Stop digging, Pete.

 

MLB, reading the writing on the wall, is trying to speed up the game.

 

Kung Fu Panda needs to back away from the plate. The dinner plate.

 

Oscar predictions, for those who care or are in a pool of some sort.

 

Jon Stewart and WWE star Seth Rollins are in a beef.

 

• Watch Bill Belichick use his finger to sop up gravy of some sort.

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, February 20, 2015 - 12:32
All taxonomy terms: NBA
Path: /nba/17-teams-made-deals-trade-deadline-day-defines-modern-nba
Body:

The modern NBA is a parity-driven affair, with commissioner Adam Silver a veritable Rich Uncle Pennybags, and the league’s respective front offices a bunch of gold-hungry kids crowded around the Monopoly board.

 

The frenetic, historically active trade deadline day we saw yesterday afternoon was as clear of a picture of this as there can be. Seventeen teams made trades as 39 players found new zip codes, which makes a total of 65 of them to find new homes since the season began in October.

 

The NBA’s pool of talent is a fluid, ever-changing mass in 2015, as geography and human continuity both take a distinct backseat to the vacuum in which salaries and skill sets are mixed and matched constantly, with each general manager striving for the ultimate illusory carrot of a perfect basketball amalgam.

 

Sam Hinkie of the Philadelphia 76ers typifies the potential folly of this approach more than anyone. He traded Michael Carter-Williams and K.J. McDaniels yesterday, two apparent building blocks in their youth culture, for the ultimate theoretical good: future draft picks. Hinkie has now grabbed 14 future draft picks via trade, with his collection stretching all the way until the 2020 draft.

 

Hinkie treats his roster more like a hedge fund than an assortment of human beings, and that’s not hyperbole — the team’s ownership group, led by Joshua Harris and David Blitzer, is a gang of elite investment bankers who fully back their GM’s asset-based strategy.

 

And while Hinkie’s singular dogma represents the extreme interpretation of the league’s market rules of today, the rest of the game’s fanbases are simply having a lot more fun with all this. There is, somehow, an excitement surrounding the trade-and-free-agency aspect of the league that transcends the cultural fervor of most of its actual competitive games. 

 

It’s as if we’re all rooting for the best baseball card collectors, instead of the athletes, at times. Front offices are taking an increasingly large share of the rock star attention away from the players, as men like Hinkie and his tutor — Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets — are far better known than most of the young men they shift around.

 

Recent NBA champions, of course, aren’t taking many newfangled shortcuts. The San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers all made firm, long investments not only in superstars like Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and LeBron James, but also in leaders of men like Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, Phil Jackson and Pat Riley. 

 

Perhaps equally important: They stuck to marginal draft talent as it progressed slowly through the years. For every surefire King and Mamba, there’s a glut of Manu Ginobilis and J.J. Bareas surrounding him — players whose talent and utility could only be unlocked by proper culture, time, and care.

 

This is not to denigrate the recent, rapid change in NBA culture: just to say that the phase shift is nascent, and has not yet produced a dependable proof of its tenets. A whiz kid of modern machinations has yet to take his team to the Finals, but we could be approaching the day when Hinkie, Morey, or any other number of in-vogue market operators pulls a fast one impactful enough to seize the Larry O’Brien trophy in short order.

 

The wild action we saw yesterday was a direct result of movement-friendly rules born with the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, forged during the last lockout. That CBA expires in 2021, but both sides have an opt-out clause as soon as 2017, and a new-look players’ union led by a hard-charging Michele Roberts, president Chris Paul and vice president LeBron seems likely to take issue with much of what’s changed in the lifestyle of the contemporary NBA player. 

 

Maybe that’s when we’ll see some change that allows us to take a deep, calm breath about player mobility, and see our ballers as people — not eminently tradable playing cards — again. But until then, you better sit back and enjoy the frenzy.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, February 20, 2015 - 11:40
All taxonomy terms: Brad Keselowski, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/brad-keselowski-2015-season-driver-preview
Body:

Rabble-rouser. Rebel. Public pest. That’s just a taste of what critics labeled Brad Keselowski in 2014, peers and media alike, as the driver made national news throughout the Chase. When it was over, he ascended the throne — not as champion, but as the sport’s most controversial figure. On the track, a terrific season turned tumultuous, as a unique opportunity for two titles in three years drowned amid fights and mechanical mayhem.

 

It’s a complex description for a driver perpetually on the brink, a man who on paper is one of the sport’s best. There is no doubt, as the dust settled on 2014, that Keselowski had a brilliant season. His six wins led all Sprint Cup drivers, and he had a sizzling average start of 7.4. He led 27 races at some point and earned an average finish of 12.6; his 1,540 laps led trailed only Cup champion Kevin Harvick. A risk-reward strategy of getting aggressive for wins paid off under NASCAR’s new format. Twice, it advanced him to the Chase’s next round, and it almost won him the title outright. Keselowski enjoys bucking trends, and in an era that rewards points racing, his “go for broke” strategy was refreshing.

 

But what people will remember about the 2014 version of Keselowski going forward is a costly pair of post-race scuffles. One was a result of an overaggressive move at Charlotte, where Matt Kenseth took exception to a block Keselowski threw. After the race, the normally reserved Kenseth tackled Keselowski from behind in the garage area. The second came one month later, after an incident at Texas in which Keselowski and Jeff Gordon banged fenders while battling for the lead. The contact left Gordon’s tire shredded, along with his hopes for a fifth title, and fired up tempers everywhere. Gordon confronted Keselowski, crewmen got involved, and both drivers were left with bloodied lips. In the end, Keselowski fell short of the win that night as well, virtually ending his shot at winning a championship.

 

It was a rocky road, a roller coaster season that left everyone forming an opinion. Keselowski is a polarizing figure in NASCAR and a bit of a throwback to the days when drivers didn’t have to watch what they said in front of their sponsors and never backed down on the track. In the process, like him or not, everyone knows he’s been there.

 

“I try to do things my own way,” he said at the Las Vegas banquet in December. “The best way I know how. I do not feel the need to apologize for someone else’s mistake. A baby seal does not want to get eaten by a whale, but a whale’s got to eat, you know?”

 

Athlon Sports’ 2015 Racing magazine delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2015 NASCAR coverage. Click here to order your copy today!

That brazen desire to be the best at all costs draws comparisons to the late Dale Earnhardt, and it requires a strong support system. To the driver’s credit, owner Roger Penske has a high level of trust in him; their ability to maintain a strong relationship keeps the right people in place. Longtime primary sponsor Miller Lite, signed through 2017, gives Keselowski free rein to be himself. The company has been with Team Penske for more than two decades, much of that with Rusty Wallace, a driver who had a similar temperament and drive. Wurth is also returning for a handful of races, as is Alliance Truck Parts. Keselowski isn’t the conventional sponsor’s dream, but his desire to win is obvious — something his sponsors can appreciate.

 

Crew chief Paul Wolfe also returns to the top of the pit box, continuing a pairing that’s won 15 races together in four seasons. Their communication is outstanding, and the two are on par with the top driver-crew chief combinations in the sport. Penske chassis and Roush-Yates power proved to be a formidable combination, and as long as Keselowski and Wolfe can get comfortable with the 2015 rules package — which includes reduced downforce and horsepower — they will enter the season as a clear title favorite.

 

To win it, Keselowski will have to play the Chase perfectly while also navigating through his enemies, many of whom are title contenders. It’s a tough task for a driver who finds it hard to play nice, giving no quarter and putting people into the wall. Some might say that’s a strategy ripe for failure. The others? They’ll point to Earnhardt’s seven trophies, as well as the title Keselowski earned in 2012 after ruffling feathers with this generation’s championship maven, Jimmie Johnson.

 

The bottom line is that Keselowski, the perpetual bad-boy underdog, is counting on you to bet against him, letting his antics distract you despite the fact that  he is arguably the most talented driver in the sport.

 

We know better. Expect Year 2 of NASCAR’s new Chase format, for better or for worse, to revolve around the polarizing No. 2 car.

 

Fantasy Stall

On the surface  Keselowski is adept on intermediate tracks, especially at facilities with worn surfaces. His three intermediate wins of 2014 came at Las Vegas, Kentucky and Chicagoland.

Pay attention to Fridays and Saturdays  At tracks like New Hampshire, Kentucky and Richmond, Keselowski practiced well (his lap times topped the scoring pylon), claimed the pole for each of those races and went on to dominate.

A consistent leader  Keselowski led at least one lap in 27 out of 36 Cup Series races in 2014. He has led more than 1,000 laps each year for the last five years.

Yes to Watkins Glen, no to Sonoma  While Keselowski has come agonizingly close to winning on the road course at Watkins Glen, the other road course on the circuit, Sonoma, has never seen him earn a single-digit finishing position.

 

No. 2 Penske Racing Ford

Primary Sponsors: Miller Lite, Alliance Truck Parts, Wurth, Detroit Genuine Parts

Owner: Roger Penske

Crew Chief: Paul Wolfe

Year With Current Team: 6th

Under Contract Through: 2017
Best Points Finish: 1st (2012)

Hometown: Rochester Hills, Mich.

Born: Feb. 12, 1984

 

Career Stats

YearsStartsWinsTop 5sTop 10sPolesTitlesEarned
719716507981$39,385,400

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Brad Keselowski 2015 Season Driver Preview
Post date: Friday, February 20, 2015 - 11:30
All taxonomy terms: Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/jimmie-johnson-2015-season-driver-preview
Body:

A year ago, Jimmie Johnson was coming off his sixth Sprint Cup championship, looking down the barrel of NASCAR history and the seven-title record held by Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. It seemed inevitable that Johnson, already a future Hall of Fame driver himself, would join the party, perhaps as soon as 2014.

 

Now, the future is murky after Johnson, who turned 39 in September, suffered through the worst season of his career in 2014. His 11 top 5s were his fewest since 2002, his rookie season. His top-10 total (20) was his lowest since 2003. His 15.3 average finish was his career worst by two positions. Johnson struggled with the 2014 rules package, never finding a foothold with a winning formula. Changes to NASCAR’s playoff format, which critics claimed were designed to stop Johnson’s run, left him struggling to catch on.

 

He still won four races and made the Chase, making him the only driver to qualify for every edition of NASCAR’s playoff since its inception. It’s an indication of how strong he’s been, but for Johnson, his numbers were lackluster. Three of his wins came in a four-week stretch in May and June, with the fourth coming after his elimination from championship contention.

 

For the first time in 13 seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, Johnson showed serious signs of weakness, along with friction involving crew chief Chad Knaus. Tire management was possibly the largest bone of contention, as Johnson suffered several tire failures during the season, problems that Goodyear blamed on low air pressure settings by the team. There were a few bad strategy calls, and a few cases of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But overall, it wasn’t a case of any one thing going terribly wrong so much as it was that, for the first time, Johnson’s No. 48 team lost its edge on the competition. Knaus struggled during races to improve the car’s handling, and Johnson became repeatedly frustrated with an inability to gain track position.

 

Heading into 2015, equipment is the least of this team’s problems; the New York Yankees of NASCAR know how to rebuild. Hendrick chassis are fast and built with care, and their powerplants are powerful and durable. Among four in-house teams, there were zero engine failures in the Hendrick camp last season. Johnson and shopmate Dale Earnhardt Jr. like a similar feel in their cars, and as a result, they work well together. All four Hendrick teams share information openly, along with their half-dozen satellite cars, and that strength in numbers is the key to their sustained success. 

 

Athlon Sports’ 2015 Racing magazine delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2015 NASCAR coverage. Click here to order your copy today!

Primary sponsor Lowe’s, signed through 2015, is a question mark. Lowe’s has been with Johnson for his entire Cup career and has certainly gotten a return on its investment with Johnson’s six titles and 70 wins. The driver is personable off the track and stellar on it, so the company gets the best of both worlds. However, with main competitor Home Depot having left the sport, and with many companies scaling back from full 36-race deals, expect Hendrick’s marketing team to be busy this summer. In the long run, money shouldn’t be an issue, but we once said the same about Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s most popular driver, and he’s still in need of financial support. It’s a story that will bear watching.

 

Should the No. 48 team survive that distraction, the key to recovery lies at the feet of Johnson and Knaus, the longest-lasting driver-crew chief combo in the garage. While Knaus has a reputation for pushing the envelope on the rules, he’s also brilliant at finding Johnson every ounce of speed while keeping his driver focused and positive. Johnson has an encyclopedic memory for past races and what worked, while Knaus has an arsenal of strategies. The duo claimed that a late fall test just before their Texas victory in November got them going on the 2015 rules package. “It’s not that difficult to fall behind,” says Knaus. “I think we just got blinded by our own misguidance. It’s a challenge to stay ahead of the curve in this industry.”

 

Johnson, on the verge of a long-term contract extension, feels up to the challenge in 2015. But the clock is also ticking; Earnhardt Sr. won his last title at age 43, and Petty was just 42. For Johnson — who has been realistic about the challenge involved with a round-robin, NCAA Tournament-style Chase format — the time to bounce back is now. The 2015 rules changes should play to his advantage, along with a brilliant crew chief and the best equipment money can buy. Johnson, like he’s done throughout his career, needs to meld all the pieces, peak in the postseason and make everything work.

 

Fantasy Stall

He plays the hits  Despite the relatively poor 2014 season, Johnson scored wins at Charlotte, Dover and Texas, facilities that have played host to some of his most memorable and dominant wins.

A new outlook  Johnson finished worse than 20th in 12 races last season and suffered four DNFs. It seems that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are no longer interested in making dramatic comebacks from adversity, formerly a staple of the No. 48 team, once they’re locked into the Chase.

He keeps leading  Even in a down season, Johnson extended his streak of leading more than 1,000 laps in a season to eight.

Making gains at Bristol  He hasn’t won there since 2010, but in 2014, Johnson finished 4.8 and 4.1 positions better, respectively, than his average running position in the two races at Bristol, his best collective gain on average of any track.

 

No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Primary Sponsors: Lowe’s, Kobalt Tools

Owner: Rick Hendrick/Jeff Gordon

Crew Chief: Chad Knaus

Year With Current Team: 14th

Under Contract Through: 2015

Best Points Finish: 1st (6 Times)

Hometown: El Cajon, Calif.

Born: Sept. 17, 1975

 

Career Stats

YearsStartsWinsTop 5sTop 10sPolesTitlesEarned
1447170193292336$141,991,052

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Jimmie Johnson 2015 Season Driver Preview
Post date: Friday, February 20, 2015 - 10:30
All taxonomy terms: MLB
Path: /mlb/weirdest-things-happened-baseball-last-season-2014
Body:

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

 

APRIL

April 2 Six pitchers blow saves in the ninth inning or later.

April 4 Billy Hamilton is thrown out stealing for the second straight time by a Mets backup catcher (Juan Centeno and Anthony Recker) after starting his career 13-for-13.

April 8 Toronto tops Houston, 5–2, as the teams combine to go 0-for-20 with runners in scoring position.

April 9  Ervin Santana’s first 20 pitches as a Brave are strikes. Phil Hughes needs 40 pitches to get his first out against the A’s.

April 12  Alfonso Soriano, staffing right field for the first time in his 16-year career, drops a soft fly on the first ball hit to him.

April 12 The Yankees fall to Boston, 7–4, despite each of their 4 through 7 hitters going 2-for-4 with a home run.

April 16 Three Baltimore pitchers combine for a 153-pitch shutout of the Rays.

April 18 The Giants play their eighth straight one-run game, winning half of them.

April 22 Alex Wood is the first pitcher in 34 years to allow one run in eight or more innings of back-to-back starts yet lose both.

April 21-23  The Braves and Marlins set an NL record for a three-game series by combining for 78 strikeouts.

April 24Brett Gardner goes 0-for-3 against the Red Sox but scores four runs.

April 25 The Angels hang 13 runs on the Yankees despite the top two spots in the order going 0-for-10.

April 26 Jose Bautista takes Koji Uehara deep with the first regular-season homer the Red Sox closer had allowed since June 30, 2013 — to Jose Bautista.

 

MAY

May 2 With the Rays playing a five-man infield, Brett Gardner records a 3-9 ground out — first baseman Sean Rodriguez to right fielder Wil Myers.

May 4 Called up from the minors, where’d been 2-for-25, George Kottaras becomes the first player to a hit a home run in each of his first two at-bats for the Indians.  

May 4 The Giants sweep a three-game series from the Braves without managing a hit with runners in scoring position.

May 9 All 16 of Kansas City’s hits are singles (14 of them off Brandon Maurer) in a 6–1 defeat of the Mariners.

May 16 Pitchers for six road teams spin shutouts for just the second time ever.

May 18 The Rockies turn a “retroactive” triple play when a runner is called out for interference.

May 24  Astros prospect Conrad Gregor hits his initial home run of the season in his 42nd game for Quad Cities, and it’s caught by his father.

May 26 Jeff Samardzija and Kyle Kendrick snap their streaks of 16 consecutive winless starts on the same day.

May 31  For the fifth time in his 12 outings, a Michael Wacha start is rain-delayed.

May 31  Four days after the game’s longest active streak of homerless at-bats ends at 1,465 (Ben Revere), its successor (Ruben Tejada, 552) goes deep, as well.

 

JUNE

June 3 The Jays beat the Tigers, 5–3, tying a record for most runs scored in the ninth inning of a game that was scoreless after eight.

June 3 37-year-old Jason Lane, who once hit 26 home runs in a season for the Astros, returns to the majors after a seven-year absence to throw 3.1 perfect innings of relief for San Diego.

June 4 The Padres’ sole hit is a bunt single and they get just two balls out of the infield, but they edge the Pirates, 3–2.

June 6 Jose Bautista blasts a home run, throws out a runner at the plate, gets a putout on a fan interference call and lines into a triple play.

June 8 David Freese, who’d never walked more than twice in a game in his six seasons, draws four on full counts.

June 11 Kansas City scores all its runs via sacrifice flies in a 4–1 defeat of Cleveland.

June 11  Padres starters Everth Cabrera, Jace Peterson and Carlos Quentin complete the night in a combined slump of 1-for-72.

June 13 Two Angel Sanchezes sign minor league deals and are assigned to Double-A — the pitcher with the Rays, the infielder with the Dodgers.

June 15 Baltimore’s Chris Tillman, after losing to Toronto, stands 0–4 with a 2.78 ERA at home and 5–0 with a 6.33 ERA on the road.

June 16  On the day Tony Gwynn passes away, Dee Gordon becomes the first Dodgers leadoff hitter to reach base five times since it was done three years earlier by Tony Gwynn Jr.

June 17 Oakland — the team with the lowest ERA in the American League — purchases minor league veteran Brad Mills from the Brewers for $1 and inserts him into its rotation.

June 30 The Indians are the first team since the 1918 Boston Braves to be shut out on one hit in back-to-back games.

 

Athlon Sports' 2015 MLB Preview magazine 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 today!

JULY

July 1  Rick Porcello is the first pitcher in 25 years to throw a shutout without walking or striking out a batter. It is his second straight whitewash since beginning his career with one complete game in 163 starts. 

July 1  For the second time in seven days, a pitcher (Tim Lincecum, following Clayton Kershaw) throws eight scoreless innings in a start following a no-hitter — something that hadn’t been done by anyone since 1991.

July 3 Hitless after five innings, the Diamondbacks rap out 13 in a 10–2 thumping of the Pirates.

July 4 Jason Hammel (7–5, 2.98 ERA) meets Tanner Roark (7–5, 2.98 ERA), with Hammel being yanked in the seventh inning because he had been traded — with his ERA still at 2.98.

July 5 The four-game trial of Astros rookie Domingo Santana is aborted after his 11th strikeout in 13 plate appearances.

July 6 The Orioles knock off the Red Sox for the 11th consecutive time those clubs have gone to extra innings.

July 8 To blow a 5–0 lead, all six Cubs pitchers allow exactly one run in a loss to the Reds.

July 9 As per Elias, Robbie Grossman is the first player since Mike Schmidt in 1988 to end a slump of 0-for-28 or worse with a four-hit game.

July 10 Colby Lewis allows 13 runs to Mike Trout and the Angels while throwing only 61 pitches — the fewest-ever offerings in a debacle of that magnitude.

July 18 Jonny Gomes homers in the first game after the All-Star break for the third consecutive campaign.

July 24 The Padres score nine runs in the sixth inning against the Cubs without the benefit of an extra-base hit.

July 28 Arizona wins for the 13th consecutive time in games that last at least 15 innings.

 

AUGUST

Aug. 1 The 12 hitters moved at the July 31 trade deadline go an aggregate 3-for-35 (all doubles) in their debuts with their new teams.

Aug. 1  For the second time this season and the seventh time in his career, Derek Jeter is the first strikeout victim of a pitcher making his major league debut.

Aug. 10 The Angels fail to record an assist, something that’s happened only four other times in a nine-inning game in the modern era.

Aug. 15 The Tigers give away Miguel Cabrera bobbleheads that read “Most Valuable Player, National League.”

Aug. 21 Five of eight games end in shutouts — the most in 48 years in that skimpy of a schedule.

Aug. 21 The Nats walk off their foe for the fifth time in their last six games.

Aug. 26 Reds catchers go hitless for a 13th contest in a row.

Aug. 27 The Yankees swing and miss at none of David Price’s 25 pitches in the third inning as he becomes the first pitcher since 1982 to allow a hit to nine consecutive batters.

Aug. 27  After 24 consecutive starts without doing so, Clayton Kershaw faces a batter with the bases loaded.

Aug. 27 Scott Van Slyke swats his 10th home run of the year — and fifth off Wade Miley.

Aug. 28 Yusmeiro Petit’s MLB record streak of retiring 46 consecutive batters is terminated on a double by pitcher Jordan Lyles, a career .154 hitter.

 

SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER

Sept. 1 Adam Dunn homers in his first game with a new team for the third time (Nationals, White Sox and A’s).

Sept. 3  Boston’s 3-4-5 hitters (David Ortiz, Yoenis Cespedes, Daniel Nava) all begin the evening with a .263 batting average.

Sept. 7  Adrian Beltre drives in the only run of the game in the first managerial victory for Tim Bogar — his teammate of 13 years ago.

Sept. 11 For the third straight time, the Angels win in injured starter Garrett Richards’ rotation slot by using a succession of relievers — 23 in all.

Sept. 16 The two longest scoreless relief streaks in Royals history end on one swing, as Conor Gillaspie triples home runners put on base by Wade Davis (31.2 innings) and Kelvin Herrera (30.2).

Sept. 23 Felix Hernandez is the fourth former Cy Young Award winner of the season to allow at least seven runs in an inning, joining David Price, Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw.

Sept. 24  Jon Lester finishes his year having faced 346 batters with at least one runner on base, yet without having attempted a pickoff throw.

Sept. 25 During the Mets game, Anthony DiComo of MLB.com tweets that they “can become the first NL team in 15 years to go an entire season without balking.” Two minutes later, a Mets pitcher balks.

Sept. 27 Cincinnati’s bullpen ends its 18-game losing streak two games shy of the 2012 Astros’ major league record.

Sept. 28 Henderson Alvarez, who in 2013 threw the first no-hitter in a season finale in 29 years, is the victim of Jordan Zimmerman’s no-hitter in this season’s finale — both 1–0 contests.

Sept. 30 Kansas City wins its seventh straight postseason game when facing elimination by defeating Oakland, which loses its seventh consecutive winner-take-all contest.

Oct. 1  Former Pirates reliever Kent Tekulve throws out the first pitch of their Wild Card game 26 days after undergoing a heart transplant.

Oct. 15 The Royals are the first team to clinch a postseason series while going at least 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position since the Yankees rode Babe Ruth’s three home runs to a win in Game 4 of the 1928 World Series.

 

— Compiled by Bruce Herman for Athlon Sports

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The 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is set to begin with Sunday’s running of the Daytona 500. With the race to the Chase and the Sprint Cup Championship about to get re-started, Athlon asked crew chiefs and drivers to talk anonymously about the guys behind the wheel. Here are their takes on Athlon’s top 25 drivers entering the 2015 Sprint Cup season.

 

Note: These scouting reports come directly from NASCAR drivers and crew chiefs and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.

 

(Number indicates ranking among Athlon's Top 25 drivers for 2015 season)

 

No. 1 – Brad Keselowski

Toward the end of the 2014 season, Keselowski was the subject of scrutiny and a common denominator in post-race scuffles. A driver who has competed regularly against him the last three years thinks that some other competitors feel unnerved and, possibly, intimidated. “This is a guy who wants to not just beat you, but also outsmart you. Brad ruffles feathers, he stands up for what he believes in and isn’t afraid to put his reputation and career on the line to be successful. In a lot of ways, you have to respect that. I’m not saying I cheer for him, but there’s certainly a reason he’s successful. He’s willing to do his job at a level where most drivers aren’t (willing to go). I happen to like that. He’s making his competition increase their workload, and I sense a lot of discomfort in that.” … The same driver went on to compare him to a popular NASCAR Hall of Famer. “He’s similar to Dale Earnhardt in a lot of ways, who toward the end of his career had universal respect from fans, drivers, everybody. If Brad were from the South, he’d be a hit right now with fans. Brad isn’t from the South — he’s from Michigan — but he’s had to work as hard as anyone to get where he is and isn’t afraid to let people know that he’s willing to put up a fight or do whatever it takes to stay there.”

 

No. 2 – Jimmie Johnson

A rival crew chief was shocked by the No. 48 team’s lack of innovation last season. “It’s interesting that they got hot at one point in the season and then we didn’t see anything from them until the third-to-last race (at Texas). Even then, we’re hearing that their skew was illegal. If you take out that race, then they really didn’t do anything in the second half of the year. It’s surprising that they didn’t show up in the Chase, especially since they have the notes from everybody else within Hendrick. There are rumors that Chad (Knaus) was distracted with his new girlfriend and wasn’t as focused as he once was. And that might just be a rumor — it’s what you hear — but you’ve got to wonder because up until this year, they seemed like the guys that were coming out with the forward-thinking stuff, pushing the boundaries on body stuff, pushing the boundaries on setup stuff. Last year, we never saw them jump out with anything that made us say, ‘We’ve got to chase that, because they’re dominant with it.’ They didn’t have the car advantage that they had in the past.” … “It wasn’t the year for them,” says a competing driver. “I think if you asked Jimmie or Chad they’d tell you they were disappointed. This massive rules change that we had didn’t suit them, and as the season wore on, you saw other teams catch up and surpass them. I thought that they’d get things together and turn it around come Chase time, but we never saw it.”

 

No. 3 – Kevin Harvick

“Everything that I’ve heard is that there are eight drivers between Hendrick and Stewart-Haas with access to all the same setups, and he’s the only one that can drive them,” says a rival crew chief. “What he does with the pedals and how he drives a tight racecar and makes speed is something no one else there can do. I heard that Jeff Gordon went to several tests with the intent of ‘Give me (Harvick’s) setup and I’ll try to drive it.’ It’s impressive that he is able to do something that the caliber of guys like Jimmie (Johnson) and Jeff (Gordon) can’t.” … That crew chief also suggests that Harvick’s crew chief and the 2015 rules package should keep Harvick formidable. “Everyone thought he was carrying the cars at RCR. Before last year, when it was announced he was paired with Rodney (Childers), we all figured he would contend. With Rodney, it always seemed like the cars he built were faster than the drivers he had. 2015’s rule package should be similar to the Nationwide package of 2014, and we know how good Harvick is in those cars. He’ll be really tough again.” … A fellow driver gushes about Harvick’s unique driving style. “He charges the corners really, really hard, which isn’t supposed to work in Stock Cars. He makes it work. We look at data that says he uses the brake as a tool more than any other driver. Combine the way he drives with that equipment and Rodney Childers, and it’s no wonder they had the season that they had.”

 

No. 4 – Joey Logano

A fellow young driver cites confidence as a big reason for Logano’s breakout season last year in the Cup Series. “To me, he didn’t fit the system at Joe Gibbs Racing, and it seemed like his confidence was down when he was over there. And from the outside looking in, they were invested in him, but they weren’t supporting him, if that makes sense. His crew chief (Greg Zipadelli) stunk, they didn’t build around him, and nothing ever seemed to work when he was over there. Now at Penske, it seems like he’s found a fit with Todd Gordon. It’s given him confidence, and now that he has that confidence, the talent has come out.” … One crew chief disagrees with the notion that Gordon is a factor in Logano’s success. “Joey is awesome, and you get the sense that he’s carrying that 22 team because everything Gordon does can easily be second-guessed. They had a lot of speed this year, which always helps, but I think if you took some of that away, you’d see a real difference in how Gordon calls a race and how someone like Paul Wolfe calls a race. I think Joey is succeeding despite his team, which does sound crazy considering how fast they were last year. What Joey was able to do at Richmond and Bristol, how well he conserved his stuff throughout the race, should tell you that he’s a legitimate driver in this sport now.”

 

No. 5 – Jeff Gordon

“I wouldn’t quite say the old Jeff Gordon was back, because we’ve never seen him like this before,” says a driver who competed against Gordon in 2014. “He was aggressive, like really aggressive, but at the same time, it seemed like other guys could rattle him pretty easily. I think he went into that Texas race frustrated about losing to Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. the week prior (at Martinsville), and he had just lost to Jimmie Johnson (at Texas). Getting beat by two Hendrick cars that were out of the Chase at that point probably didn’t sit well with him. The (Brad) Keselowski thing was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. You could tell he got himself wound up and stressed out at the end of the season. That was easy to see. He was rattled.” … A rival crew chief points to Hendrick equipment as a key factor in Gordon’s strong year. “Like the 88 team, they benefited from having strong motors very early in the year. I don’t feel (Alan Gustafson) had strong mechanical setups, but they were very strong with aero. As for Gordon, he showed the ability to go and dominate a race. Without the issues he had in the Chase, he probably would’ve been (Kevin) Harvick’s biggest competition at Homestead. If he made it there, I could easily see him being the champion instead of Harvick.”

 

No. 6 – Carl Edwards

A Cup Series regular believes Edwards’s talent stood out in 2014, and could lead to big things with his new team. “Carl did a lot with a little last year. His wins the last few seasons came out of thin air. He took the 99 car far into the Chase, certainly further than I thought they’d go. Ultimately, the lack of speed affected him. But hey, he won at a road course and he won at Bristol, which speaks to his ability to elevate his situation. It’s going to be a big blow to Roush, now that they’ve lost him. He could end up having a Matt Kenseth-type season with JGR. That change in pace, in scenery, in equipment … I could see him being a challenger for the championship.” … A crew chief echoes that sentiment. “It’s going to be really interesting to see what he does in Gibbs equipment, because even though the Gibbs cars struggled a little bit in 2014, they’re light years ahead of where the Roush camp is. It’s funny — when you look at guys like Kenseth or (Kevin) Harvick that go to a new company that’s perceived to be a better company than where they were at, it’s almost like magic for a year. The honeymoon lasts for almost a whole season. Different ideas and different concepts with a very talented driver can lead to good results. I wouldn’t be surprised if Edwards is really good this year.”

 

No. 7 – Matt Kenseth

“It was the right call to keep him and Jason Ratcliff together,” says a current crew chief who previously worked with Kenseth. “They didn’t win last year, but they were still really consistent. They did a lot of the same things they did the year before, but the results were dialed down just because their engine program was down. But there was a good team underneath all that. If Joe Gibbs Racing or Toyota regains their speed, and I’m sure they will at some point, they’ll be winning again. (Kenseth and Ratcliff) are as smart and as in synch as any driver-crew chief team in the series right now. Matt has always been real good about his feedback. With good equipment, they’re tough to beat.” … “It was a disappointing year for him and everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing, really, in 2014. That 20 team just kind of sputtered after such a good first season together (in 2013). I guess it’s unfair to say that they were ‘off,’ since they ran in the top 5 a lot, but they just didn’t have the closing speed they did the year prior,” says a driver who has competed against Kenseth in the Cup Series and the Nationwide Series. “But there’s no doubt that he’s one of the top drivers in the sport, year-in and year-out, even with him getting older. He’s fit. He’s smart. He’s calm. And he’ll bounce back next year.”

 

No. 8 – Kyle Busch

“Kyle Busch has continued to show us that he’s not mentally mature enough to challenge for a championship,” says a rival driver. “We’ve seen the blowups and the unhinging in the racecar. He’ll continue to win races. He’s an amazingly talented driver. No one doubts that at all. But until they find a way to get him mature, keep his emotions in check and focus on the task at hand, I doubt he’ll win a championship, no matter what crew chief he’s with.” … A crew chief from a championship-contending team believes that a change atop the pit box and in the car’s setup could do wonders for a raw talent such as Busch. “He has so much talent that you have to figure if they get their setups on par with everyone else, that he would rise to the top. The rules changes could certainly play into his hands. It was surprising to me that he was just average this past year. Take away that one win they had, and it wasn’t much of a season for them at all.” … Another crew chief suggests that Adam Stevens is a downgrade from Dave Rogers. “I watched those Nationwide races last year and laughed whenever the TV crew complimented Stevens. Strategy-wise, he just doesn’t get it, and it’s not like he didn’t have Kyle Busch driving his car. Kyle Busch in a Joe Gibbs car in the Nationwide Series will make just about any crew chief look really good.”

 

No. 9 – Kyle Larson

“To me, this is the next real-deal superstar,” says a crew chief for what will likely be a title-contending team in 2015. “You hear the observations on what their setups are and where their cars are at and the comparisons to him and (Jamie) McMurray … the kid’s been awesome. Just in the garage, I’ve never seen somebody come in and get everyone on every team — across the board — excited about watching him. He’s made fans of other teams’ members. There are guys on our team that get pumped up about what the kid does. I haven’t seen that. Ever.” … “I was impressed,” says a competing driver. “That first strong run he had in Fontana was all him. The number of top-5 and top-10 runs he had … and he had more consistency in the Cup Series than he did the year prior (in the Nationwide Series). It seems like when he wasn’t able to find ways to win or finish near the front, he’d find ways to finish seventh, sometimes with a car that wasn’t exactly seventh-place material. He’d finish in the top 10 when he didn’t have a top-10 car. Heck, he almost made the Chase by doing that. And it seems like Ganassi did give him some good racecars, especially in the second half of the season. Because of him, there has been an infusion of funding into the team. They’ll be really good for the foreseeable future.”

 

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No. 10 – Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NASCAR’s most popular driver invokes differing opinions. A crew chief for a competing team believes that Earnhardt’s 2014 success had more to do with the team than the driver. “Looking at the places he won (last) year, they came at the places where Hendrick had a clear advantage in horsepower, and I think that played into his hands to some degree. I think that’s true about a lot of Hendrick cars. Jeff Gordon won at Kansas and Michigan … the motor advantage helped them a ton. Their aero department has been very strong, but I don’t know that I feel like their mechanical setups have been that great. Compared to what Jeff did and what (Kevin) Harvick did with similar equipment, I wasn’t overly impressed with what (Earnhardt) did this year, even though it was a great year for him personally. That might have been his peak.” … One of Earnhardt’s closest competitors believes that we’re witnessing rejuvenation. “I was happy for him and that team this year, although I thought they would be more serious title contenders than they were. Steve Letarte did a remarkable job with him. In the last three years, he took a driver who had lost his confidence, lost his belief in his ability, and turned him into a guy that could sweep a place like Pocono, contend for wins week in and week out, qualify better … we haven’t seen those things from Dale Jr. in a while.”

 

No. 11 – Tony Stewart

A crew chief from outside the Chevrolet camp is convinced that a leg injury suffered in 2013 played a pivotal role in Stewart’s ineffective 2014 season. “I’m not convinced that his leg was fully healed last season. I’ve seen similar injuries, maybe not that bad, but still broken legs, and it took a full year just to heal. At his age and his fitness level, I don’t think he was fully healthy. He tried to make that comeback in a span of a few months. Also, this isn’t a typical sport in which he can make his left leg better to compensate for his injured right leg. He needs that right leg (for throttle and braking), and I’m concerned whether that right leg will ever have the same fine motor skills it once did. Having said that, before the injury, he was as talented as anyone in the series, so a 90 percent Tony Stewart is probably better than most other drivers and good enough to win a lot of races.” … “There’s still something left in the tank,” says a rival driver. “He might be getting up there in age and that showed even before the injury, but he’s still damn good. When he’s back to full health, I won’t be surprised to see him again contending for wins. An aging Smoke is still a top-15 driver, easy, and it’s obvious that Stewart-Haas has some things in the competition department figured out.”

 

No. 12 – Denny Hamlin

A fellow driver says Hamlin is talented, but questions his commitment. “It’s obvious to me that he’s fast. He has his tracks that he’s very good at, but for whatever reason, he zones out some weeks and isn’t a factor. I don’t think we’ve seen him plugged in for a full season yet. It’s almost as if he only gets up for the races he feels he’ll be competitive, which I sort of understand. But to become a guy that’s capable of seriously competing for a title, he has to make a more concerted effort at the tracks that aren’t so good for him. Dave Rogers seems like a bright guy, but his results in Cup aren’t all that impressive. But maybe that’s the combination that clicks? I don’t think Denny has had an elite crew chief yet. It’ll be interesting to see how he does if he ever gets one, or if Rogers is that guy.” … “Denny’s tough to judge,” says a competing crew chief. “He ranks right up there with the other drivers they’ve got. None of them were very successful last year. It’s interesting that he was the one that rose up. I expected the 20 car to be the one to step up in the Chase. And in terms of raw talent, I’d rank Kyle Busch ahead of him, but (Denny) was the one that carried the car deep into the Chase. Obviously with the crew chief change and the rule change, it’ll be interesting to see how quickly they pick up on everything.”

 

No. 13 – Kasey Kahne

“I struggle to understand what’s been going on the last couple of years with him,” says a crew chief who competed against Kahne’s No. 5 team in the 2014 Chase. “He was an elite-level driver for such a long time. Now, compared to the other drivers that are over there (at Hendrick), they look like they’re in a completely different ballpark, speed-wise. Kasey looks slow and out of place. Now, it was interesting what Keith Rodden did with the 1 car. They took a step forward in just about every facet of competition. Him going back to the 5 could be a game-changer.” … One fellow driver points to the crew chief change as a sign of desperation. “You only have to look at the fact that they changed their crew chief to know how last season went for them. Kasey and Kenny Francis had been together for a long time. Kasey took him from RPM to Red Bull to Hendrick, and I think they thought it was another Chad (Knaus)-and-Jimmie (Johnson) situation. They got along; I know they were really close. But they had one really bad season and that was it. They moved on. You hope for his sake Rodden works out.  We’ve all seen how one of Hendrick’s four cars usually is down from all the others. This was that team in 2014. To me, there’s no excuse not to have all four cars seriously contend for a championship.”

 

No. 14 – Ryan Newman

A fellow driver suggests that Newman’s career was rejuvenated with his move to Richard Childress Racing. “I felt Ryan was on the down slope of his career over the last few years. He was complacent in a lot of ways. He was at Stewart-Haas the year Tony Stewart went on to win a championship and he was barely even a factor in the Chase. They tried stuff, like bringing (Matt) Borland back to rekindle the success they had at Penske. It didn’t work. Now at RCR, he’s the number-one guy. You know (Paul) Menard is never going to be that driver and even though Austin (Dillon) is the grandson (of owner Richard Childress), he isn’t the guy that’s going to fight for a championship. So that confidence from being the top guy and having Luke Lambert, who is probably the best up-and-coming crew chief in the series, allowed him to end up where he did, fighting for a championship.” … One crew chief admires the way Lambert has brought an engineering approach to an old-school team. “You have to hand it to them, they did a lot of things we didn’t expect. The whole year they weren’t flaring the side skirts, and come Homestead they flared it on the first stop, and Newman ran fast that whole race. It was their best race. That team and that car looked like it belonged. I know some of the things they are doing now with aero and setups, they didn’t used to do. Lambert is making that whole organization better.”

 

No. 15 – Clint Bowyer

A crew chief who has competed against Bowyer and his MWR team in the Chase points to a communications problem that might have hampered their 2014 season. “I’ve listened to them on the radio. From what I can tell, the feedback he gives when things aren’t going well isn’t strong enough to make the car better. I think when he’s on, and everything is going good with the team and the car, he’s good and they can compete for championships, as we’ve seen in the past. It seems like the whole team struggled this year, and at times this year, especially during the Chase, they would stand out — their end-of-Happy Hour sticker runs would stand out and you’d be like, ‘Man, they’ve got a really good car today.’ But then you wonder whether there’s something about their setups that are only good in clean air, or are they making bad changes overnight? Or is it a thing where during the race he leads them in the wrong direction, setup-wise or change-wise? Is the feedback not strong enough in the race to keep a good car from practice a good car in the race? They showed speed at the end of the year.” … “Bowyer and Brian Pattie seemed like a really good pairing three years ago, but they’ve just gotten further off with each passing season,” says another crew chief. “Individually, that’s still a good driver and a good crew chief, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they right the ship.”

 

No. 16 – Kurt Busch

“Kurt Busch is immensely talented, but the off-track stuff has affected his ability to perform, probably more than he’d like to admit,” says a fellow driver. “But he has the best opportunity of his entire career right now (with Stewart-Haas), in my opinion, even more so than when he was with Penske. He’s with an organization that just won a championship. They have talented drivers and are growing their engineering staff. They have an affiliation with Hendrick. They have the means to produce really fast racecars. You have to imagine that (new crew chief) Tony Gibson will provide a calming influence for him. You’d love to see what he could do if the distractions go away, with him just focused on the driving. I think this is a guy that could have won more championships by now, had he not had some of the off-track issues.” … A crew chief from outside the Chevrolet family suggests that Busch will benefit from the crew chief change: “You could tell Daniel Knost was a deer in the headlights when it came to strategy and finding speed. And Busch probably didn’t help that, because he’s harsh on crew guys. But Tony (Gibson) will be so good for him. Busch works well with old-school guys. He won the championship with Jimmy Fennig and won races with Steve Addington. Tony is in line with those guys. This was a good move for them.”

 

No. 17 – Jamie McMurray

A rival driver asks, “We have to be watching the last few years of his career, right? He’s filling a void, I guess, at Ganassi — he’s an okay driver that doesn’t cost them too much. To me, he’s not ever going to be a championship driver. He’s like Brian Hoyer on the Cleveland Browns. Just filling a void until a younger guy comes up and eventually takes the job, like Johnny Manziel.” … “I think he’s a safe driver for them,” says another driver. “Once they get the team around him sorted out, they’ll probably go after somebody better, but right now they aren’t in position to win a lot.” … A competing crew chief cites Keith Rodden’s departure. “I felt like with Rodden, there was a plan and they were going somewhere. The way they ended last season … they looked like a Chase team for this upcoming year. (New crew chief) Matt McCall is a really smart guy, and he’ll end up being a good crew chief in time, but he’s never been the main guy before.”

 

No. 18 – Greg Biffle

“I guess he’s good,” says a crew chief. “I mean he still has a job, doesn’t he? In all seriousness, I do think he has the talent to compete at a high level, but I don’t know that Roush does. From just watching him over the course of a season, it seems like he runs really solid, really smart races. But the team he’s with just can’t do anything with that. The 16 was in the same boat as the 99 (driven by Carl Edwards) last year, where at the beginning of the race they’re nowhere and then all of a sudden, at the end of the race, they’re in the top 10. They’ll go from struggling to stay on the lead lap to getting a good finish out of it. I think where Roush is at right now is what’s holding him back.” … A rival driver believes that time may have passed Biffle by. “It seems like five years ago, six years ago he had more potential. Biffle is a fine driver, but I think he missed his window to do something really special in the sport.”

 

No. 19 – Austin Dillon

A crew chief saw improvement in Dillon during 2014. “At the beginning of last year, I didn’t want our car racing around him. Toward the end of the year, he started running smart races and made a step forward to where instead of a 20th-place guy I hated to pass when we were lapping him, he’s a top-15 guy where if we got back in traffic, we’re going to have to legitimately race with him. The question now is whether he can make enough gains to where he can carry RCR equipment, or is ‘Pop-Pop’ (Richard Childress) going to put enough money into it to make it good equipment?” … “I wouldn’t be surprised if Dillon requested a crew chief change (from Gil Martin), to get someone in that’s an engineer,” says another crew chief. “It’s probably tough to swallow seeing what Luke Lambert is able to do with the 31 and seeing that (Paul) Menard just got an engineer as a crew chief. I’ll bet Dillon is next. And I’m sure he’ll get one if he wants one. He’s the future of the company, after all.”

 

No. 20 – AJ Allmendinger

“I thought (2014) was the breakout season that we’d all seen coming,” says a fellow driver. “Obviously that’s outside of the road course win, which was inevitable. What I saw from him that I hadn’t seen before was that he showed a lot of promise on mile-and-a-halfs. In the past, and maybe this is because he has a road course background, he tended to want to overdrive the car into the corner and use a lot of brakes while in the corner. This year, though, he showed promise. He ran really well at Charlotte. He was good at Kansas. … This is a team that’s kind of allowing him to develop his style because he’s the only guy there, they believe in him and that’s giving him confidence to change the way he is used to driving these cars.” … “He’s a really likable guy,” says a crew chief who has worked for a team that employed Allmendinger. “It’s good to see him embraced by a team. He’s the No. 1 guy at that team, because he’s the only guy, but that’s what he needs.”

 

No. 21 – Martin Truex Jr.

“On a per-team basis, this might be the richest team in the sport,” says a competing crew chief. “They put so much — I’ve heard something as crazy as $20 to $25 million — into the RCR alliance. I don’t think you could say that they’re taking advantage of it. They didn’t win a single race when they had Kurt Busch, and they got worse last year with Truex. I know Truex had a lot of personal things going on, but even in the beginning of the season they were just off. I don’t know if that’s a team thing or what.” … “(Truex) and that team were hard to watch in the first six months of the year, just really pretty lousy,” says a fellow driver. “Those inside the garage know that the Furniture Row team puts in a tremendous amount of money and resources into that one car. Todd Berrier was a smart crew chief. I think everyone expected so much more. Truex is pretty much a stopgap at this point, until they can find someone else that can take advantage of everything they offer.”

 

No. 22 – Paul Menard

“A lot of people look at Paul Menard and say, ‘Oh, his dad’s paying for him to race — he doesn’t care about being there and it’s just a hobby.’ But you don’t improve as much as he has improved over the last few years without putting something into the sport on the mental aspect,” says a crew chief. “I’ve listened to him talk in team meetings, and he’s actually a bright guy with some pretty decent feedback. I don’t know what all happened between him and Slugger (Labbe), but before the relationship got rocky, that was a halfway decent race team.” … Another crew chief believes that Menard lacks the fortitude to carry a team. “They made that crew chief change (to Justin Alexander) with what, five weeks to go? Since then they showed a little bit better speed, but there just isn’t that next level or killer instinct in him to say, ‘Okay, we’ve got a top-5 car, I’m going to turn it into a winning car.’ And I don’t see where RCR has the equipment or the resources to get their cars to that point.”

 

No. 23 – Aric Almirola

How Almirola pieces together a race, says one crew chief, is cause for praise: “I hadn’t paid much attention to him, until my driver said, ‘You know, he runs some really smart races.’ And sure enough, I’ve never really seen him do anything dumb. He’s just racing. Whatever the car’s got, he’s racing to that level. I do think he runs smart races. I’ve never seen him showcase lights-out speed, although I’m not sure if those RPM cars have the capability of doing that. But he certainly does run smart races. Put him in better equipment, I could see him being a top-10 guy most weeks. … “All I have to do is look in my mirror or look to the side on a restart to know where he is,” says a fellow driver. “He’s always running toward the front. I don’t know what more you can say about him or ask from him. The last two years, he’s running toward the front with that car. That’s exactly what he’s supposed to be doing. If he ever got a better ride, he’d be winning races.”

 

No. 24 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

A fellow Cup Series driver has been unimpressed. “He’s been very underwhelming. I know he won championships in Nationwide, but he’s sort of lost out there in the Cup car. I don’t believe there is anyone that can say they’ve been impressed. It might be the crew chief. It might be the team. He might need to move away from Roush in a year or two to see if he can contend for a better team.” … One crew chief blames the knee-jerk change atop the pit box. “He and Scott Graves were fast in the last 10 races of 2013, and for some reason, Roush split them up. I think that was a mistake. Mike Kelley doesn’t strike me as a Cup Series crew chief. I don’t know, maybe Ricky isn’t the guy, but I don’t know that Roush is doing all that much to help him either. I can’t really think of one positive thing that happened last season. They finished outside the top 25 in points, right? Yeah, I’d imagine that for a Roush car that’s unacceptable.”

 

No. 25 – Brian Vickers

“So overrated,” says a fellow Cup driver. “And such a disappointment last year for MWR. They needed him to be good after everything that went down with Richmond and losing their sponsor (in 2013). I do feel like the organization took a step back, as you saw with Clint Bowyer’s performance. But Brian is in a place where, if they can hit a good year equipment-wise, he can make the Chase.” … “There have been times where they stood out in practice, but I can’t remember a time in a race where I thought they looked good,” says a rival crew chief. “In my mind, Bowyer has more talent and can bring a good finish to a bad car. I’m not sure Vickers is capable of that. But that being said, how often has Vickers been in position at the end of the race to where he can see the front?” … “The departure of Rodney (Childers, his former crew chief) was a major blow,” says another crew chief. “They might not ever recover from that.”

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
NASCAR Drivers and Crew Chiefs Talk Anonymously About 2015 Sprint Cup Competitors
Post date: Friday, February 20, 2015 - 09:30
Path: /college-basketball/ranking-pac-12s-football-basketball-coaching-tandems
Body:

Recent years have brought an influx of impact football coaches into the Pac-12 — Rich Rodriguez, Todd Graham and Jim L. Mora have all taken their schools to new heights. Mark Helfrich and David Shaw picked up where their predecessors left off.

 

Now, the league hopes basketball will hold up its end of the bargain. Sean Miller, for example, has returned Arizona to national powerhouse status, giving the Wildcats the best duo in the league. Utah's Larry Krystkowiak and Colorado's Tad Boyle have remade their respective programs, and Wayne Tinkle may be on the way to doing the same at Oregon State.

 

The moves have given the Pac-12 an impressive lineup of coaching duos at the top while the rest of the league is starting to catch up.

 

The goal of our coach tandem rankings is to look at each football and basketball duo as a pair. In general, we’re looking at the duos most likely to keep each school’s fans happy and entertained from the start of football season through the end of basketball season.

 

1. Arizona

Football: Rich Rodriguez | Basketball: Sean Miller

Less than a decade ago, Arizona’s basketball and football programs were searching for an identity. The end of the Lute Olson era was a protracted experience with two interim coaches, and football found only limited success with Mike Stoops. Miller and Rodriguez have transformed all that. Miller has led Arizona to two Elite Eights and two regular season conference titles. The football program isn’t going to be USC, but Rodriguez is the right fit for an underdog program. His 10 wins last season was the most for Arizona since the Desert Swarm days, and 26 wins in three seasons in the most for the Wildcats in a three-year period since the 1970s.

 

2. Oregon State

Football: Gary Andersen | Basketball: Wayne Tinkle

Oregon State pulled off one of the biggest coups of the college football coaching carousel this season when it pulled Andersen from Wisconsin. The former Badgers coach was 19-7 overall and 13-3 in the Big Ten after winning 11 games and a WAC title at Utah State. Just as important, though, was the arrival of Tinkle with the basketball program. He took Montana to the NCAA Tournament and won two Big Sky regular season titles in his final three seasons. His first team at Oregon State is already competitive in the Pac-12. Both of the Oregon State coaching jobs are among the toughest in the Pac-12, but both coaches can win here. 

 

3. Stanford

Football: David Shaw | Basketball: Johnny Dawkins

Stanford has a pair of coaches that — at least for now — appear to be trending in opposite directions. Shaw picked up where Jim Harbaugh left off and led Stanford to 34 wins, three major bowl games and two Pac-12 titles in his first three seasons. The 2014 season, though, ended with five losses and a trip to the Foster Farms Bowl. Dawkins seemed to be in trouble entering last season before taking Stanford to the Sweet 16. The Cardinal should head to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament this season.

 

4. Utah

Football: Kyle Whittingham | Basketball: Larry Krystkowiak

Times were better for Whittingham and Utah football in the Mountain West, when the Utes went 33-6, including an undefeated season in 2008, in their last three seasons in the league. Wittingham delivered Utah’s best season in the Pac-12 last year — 9-4 overall and 5-4 in the league — but coaching staff tumult has put the future in question. Basketball, on the other hand, is surging forward. Krystkowiak went 6-25 with a broken program in his first year, reached 21 wins in his third and has a top-10 team in his fourth. The Utes have arguably their best team since Rick Majerus was the coach.

 

5. Oregon

Football: Mark Helfrich | Basketball: Dana Altman

Helfrich picked up where Chip Kelly left off, reaching the national title game in his second season as head coach and winning 11 games and finishing in the top 10 in his first season. He’s laid-back demeanor is a change for the program, but the most pressing issue is winning without Marcus Mariota. Altman has survived an offseason of controversy to have Oregon in contention for its third consecutive NCAA Tournament bid. In his last 17 seasons at Creighton and Oregon, Altman has 16 20-win seasons.

 

6. UCLA

Football: Jim L. Mora | Basketball: Steve Alford

Mora has pulled UCLA out of its funk, leading the Bruins to back-to-back 10 win seasons and top-25 finishes for the first time since 1997-98. With the way he has recruited, more should be on the way. Alford got over his NCAA Tournament bugaboo by reaching the Sweet 16 in his first season at UCLA. If the Bruins even get into the field this season, it will be something of a victory. Alford has been around longer than you might think — he’s taken four teams to the Tournament and should get to 450 career wins next season. 

 

7. Arizona State

Football: Todd Graham | Basketball: Herb Sendek

Will Graham be the coach to fully tap into Arizona State’s potential? Graham is already the first Sun Devils coach to finish in the top-25 in back-to-back years since 1996-97 and the first to win 10 games in back-to-back years since Frank Kush. Next up is a Pac-12 title. Sendek has two NCAA appearances in nine seasons and he’s fresh out of James Hardens.

 

8. Colorado

Football: Mike MacIntyre | Basketball: Tad Boyle

Colorado stepped back from 4-8 to 2-10 in MacIntyre’s second season, but the Buffaloes lost four Pac-12 games by a touchdown or less. Despite a lackluster season this year, Boyle has turned Colorado into a relevant basketball program. He’s the only coach in school history to lead the Buffaloes to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments and four consecutive postseasons.

 

9. Washington

Football: Chris Petersen | Basketball: Lorenzo Romar

Petersen’s first season in a power conference was forgettable as the Huskies went 8-6 and lost to Oklahoma State in the Cactus Bowl. Petersen is 16-11 in his last two seasons, an unthinkable mark after his first seven years. Romar’s Washington tenure has seen its share of peaks and valleys, and right now is a valley. The Huskies are about to miss the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive season and fail to win 20 games for the third year in a row.

 

10. USC

Football: Steven Sarkisian | Basketball: Andy Enfield

Sarkisian went 9-4 in his first season at USC, but with NCAA sanctions finally gone and an elite recruiting class arriving, expectations are about to be sky high. The rebuild of USC hoops is going to take time, but Enfield is still two years removed from taking Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet 16.

 

11. Washington State

Football: Mike Leach | Basketball: Ernie Kent

Reaching the postseason is tough for the coach in either sport. Leach has sandwiched a 6-7 season with two 3-9 years. Kent, the former Oregon coach, has already eclipsed last year’s win total but there’s a long way to go.

 

12. Cal

Football: Sonny Dykes | Basketball: Cuonzo Martin

Dykes oversaw one of the most improved teams in the Pac-12, going from 1-11 to 5-7 in his second season. He led a similar turnaround at Louisiana Tech. Martin will hope to approach 20 wins in his first season at Cal, a place where it’s not easy to win big immediately.

Teaser:
Ranking the Pac-12's Football-Basketball Coaching Tandems
Post date: Friday, February 20, 2015 - 08:30
All taxonomy terms: NBA
Path: /nba/garnett-afflalo-jackson-dragic-knight-thomas-move-crazy-nba-trade-deadline
Body:

On an insane Thursday, NBA front offices sprinted to the finish line as the trade deadline approached. Here’s the rundown of the biggest deals that went down, courtesy of ESPN’s Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst, TNT’s David Aldridge, and Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:

 

• The Minnesota Timberwolves traveled through time to bring Kevin Garnett back in a trade with the Brooklyn Nets. Brooklyn receives power forward Thaddeus Young in return, who will be a free agent this summer. (h/t Aldridge)

 

• The Phoenix Suns shipped off beleaguered point guard Goran Dragic, who will join Pat Riley’s Miami Heat. The Heat gave Miami two future first-round picks, Danny Granger, Norris Cole, Shawne Williams and Jordan Hamilton for Dragic. (h/t Stein, Wojnarowski)

 

• The Oklahoma City Thunder sent off a dispirited point guard of their own, parting ways with Reggie Jackson. He’ll end up with the Detroit Pistons in a three-team deal; the Thunder net Utah Jazz big man Enes Kanter, Pistons reserve guard D.J. Augustin, and Pistons guard Kyle Singler. The Jazz receive Kendrick Perkins, and they are expected to waive the veteran and allow him to join a contending team, with the Los Angeles Clippers as a looming possibility.

 

• Arron Afflalo was sent from the Denver Nuggets to the Portland Trail Blazers. Alonzo Gee will join him with the Blazers, who send a future first-round pick, Thomas Robinson, Will Barton and Victor Claver to the Rockies. (h/t Windhorst)

 

• The Boston Celtics, Suns, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers did a four-team deal. Isaiah Thomas goes from Phoenix to Boston, the Bucks pick up Michael Carter-Williams from Philly and Tyler Ennis from the Suns; Phoenix gets Brandon Knight from Milwaukee and Marcus Thornton from Boston, and the 76ers end up with their favorite thing: more draft picks. (h/t Stein, Wojnarowski)

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, February 19, 2015 - 15:52
All taxonomy terms: Dustin Johnson, Golf
Path: /golf/dustin-johnson-opens-up
Body:

 

Dustin Johnson is, in the eyes of most observers, one of the most naturally talented players in golf. Few can boast his consistency; heading into 2015, he has claimed wins in every season he’s been on the PGA Tour.

 

But the 30-year-old South Carolina native is in a different place than he’s been in many years. It’s almost as if his career is just getting started.

 

He’s a first-time father to Tatum, his son with Paulina Gretzky. His recent six-month sabbatical from competitive golf — although bittersweet, as he missed the PGA Championship, FedExCup Playoffs, and Ryder Cup — has produced a renewed vigor and passion for the game he loves.

 

Johnson says he’s in as good a place emotionally as he’s ever been. That news should be a caution to the rest of the Tour. This long-hitting machine is rested and ready for what he hopes is the best stretch of his career. Athlon contributor Garrett Johnston recently sat down with Johnson to get his thoughts.

 

We have high expectations for you this year. What are your expectations for yourself? Do you have specific goals for 2015?

I expect to play very well this year. I feel like my game is really good. I definitely think I’m going to have a really great year. I’ve been working hard on my game, on my fitness, so I expect to play very well this year. I think I will. Obviously last week (at the Farmers Insurance Open) was my first week back. I’ve got to get back in the swing of things.

 

I’d like to think I can contend every week. I was expecting to (at Torrey Pines) and I felt, obviously, if I could have made some putts I’m right in it.

 

You have an active streak of having won in each of your seasons on Tour. How important is it to you to keep that streak going?

I don’t really look at it as a streak. I kind of expect to win, and so I have. I like to win, and I’ve only had one year where I’ve won twice. So I’d like to get multiple victories in a year. And it’ll come. I think the way things are going now, I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened (this year) with everything re-prioritized.

 

With the baby, I’m a lot more organized, and I have a bit more of a routine with my life. It’s been good. A lot more discipline, even for myself. You’ve actually got to plan a little bit ahead now.

 

What did you learn about yourself in your time away from the Tour?

I learned a lot. Most of all, learning more about myself, kind of how I work. So I did a lot of that, a lot of soul-searching, and then obviously most of what I did was getting my priorities straight. With Paulina being pregnant, I was just trying to get my life in order and get ready to be a father so that when it came time I was. And I am. That was most important. Just being prepared for a child — that was my main goal. It wasn’t golf-oriented; it was more personal, wanting to be there and be a role model for my son. So it was just getting those things in order.

 

What’s changed for you as far as your approach to the game? Have you changed the way you practice and prepare?

I’m just more disciplined at it. I feel like the game is there. I haven’t really changed anything. I’m just working more on the fitness. As far as with golf, I haven’t really changed anything.

 

Doing my routines everyday. Keeping up the routine week in and week out. I ride the bike a lot, I work out the whole body. Last year it was more get in the gym and do warm-ups every day, stretch after my round, but I wasn’t really religious about doing it all the time and working out after the rounds and stuff, especially in my off weeks. I wasn’t very good at it. So now I’m to where I’m doing it all the time whether I’m playing or not. I work out after every round usually for an hour.

 

Do you consider yourself a contender at the 2015 Masters?

Oh yeah, I think so. I really like Augusta National. Obviously, I haven’t played great there, but I feel like my game is getting to where — you know, I finished good two years ago. But I love the golf course. It fits my eye great. To me, over there it’s all about putting and chipping. You’ve got to putt and chip it well. Learning those greens is pretty hard. But it’s getting there — I’m starting to learn them. I feel like I play well there; I just haven’t put it all together that week. Hopefully this year I will.

 

How is your mental/physical health?

Everything is probably the best it’s ever been, so I mean as far as health, physically I feel great, mentally great. I’m just in a really good place right now on both levels.

 

Were you nervous when you stepped onto a tee for the first time at Torrey Pines? Did the competitive juices start flowing again immediately?

Oh yeah, I was definitely nervous for sure. I was nervous most of the day. It was just getting back in there, I was rusty. So it was just getting back into the swing of things. I’m always nervous when I go to the first tee — every time.

 

Do you feel like you could have made a difference on the 2014 Ryder Cup team?

Yeah, I would have loved to have been there. I love playing golf over there in Britain and I enjoy the creativity of it. We all want to be a part of a winning team. It’s not just me, the whole team. We desperately want to win. We’ve lost the last few. It’s unacceptable.

 

I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I’m on that team (in 2016).

 

How helpful was Paulina during your time off?

She was great. She’s been awesome the whole time. Just being there for me, giving me a lot of support — she’s been great. She’s awesome, a lot of fun to be around, a good person. So it’s been great being with her. I got to spend a lot of time with her, especially through her pregnancy, and to be there with her and be there for her. It’s been great.

 

Congratulations on the birth of your son. When the time comes as he grows up, might you nudge him toward playing sports, specifically golf?

Obviously I’ll try to get him into golf, but he can play whatever he wants. Or he doesn’t have to play anything. I don’t care, it’s up to him. Hopefully yes, hopefully he’ll play sports. I hope he’ll be a golfer. I would imagine he’ll pay sports, but if he doesn’t it’s alright.

With Paulina being pregnant, I was just trying to get my life in order and get ready to be a father so that when it came time I was (ready). And I am.

 

Are you satisfied with how the Tour handled everything regarding your sabbatical?

Yeah, I think it went great. I’m satisfied with everything. Everything is great, I’m happy.

 

Nothing bothered you about it?

Absolutely not.

 

— Garrett Johnston

 

This interview appears in the 2015 edition of Athlon Sports Golf Annual. Order your copy here.

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, February 19, 2015 - 15:14
All taxonomy terms: Tony Stewart, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/what%E2%80%99s-next-tony-stewart-2015
Body:

For weeks he didn’t want to leave his house. Merely rising out of bed was a challenge. He didn’t want to see friends, family or any familiar faces. Mostly, he just wanted to be left alone — alone to deal with his despair, his nightmares, his ghosts.

 

The racecar driver felt a darkness closing in last summer. In silence he pondered if he’d ever have the will — or desire — to slide behind the wheel again, let alone venture outside the doors of his home in Charlotte. Hundreds of friends, filled with worry, called and texted and called again; no one heard back.

 

They all wondered: Will Tony Stewart ever race again? Will he ever be the same again? Will he ever leave that damn house again?

 

At age 43, Tony Stewart is already a motor sports legend. He’s  a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and a one-man racing empire. As the majority owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, Stewart oversees some 250 employees. He’s assembled a virtual driver dream team, featuring himself, Danica Patrick (the most marketable driver in the United States), Kurt Busch (a past champion) and Kevin Harvick (the reigning Sprint Cup champion). He also owns a dirt track (Eldora Speedway in Ohio), a World of Outlaws team, a USAC team and his own PR firm. The guy who lives in $10 T-shirts and old blue jeans — Stewart’s workingman demeanor has made him a folk hero to blue-collar NASCAR fans from coast to coast — has a net worth reported to be $70 million. He is this generation’s Dale Earnhardt Sr. — a master businessman off the track, and an intimidating, get-the-hell-out-of-my-way force on the track.  

 

But late last summer, Stewart was ready to turn in his keys and walk away from racing. The lowest moment of his life, as he would later describe it, occurred on Aug. 9 at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York. That evening, at the dirt track, the winged Sprint Car driven by Stewart struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward, who under the yellow flag had exited his car and walked into the racing groove to yell at Stewart. After a two-month investigation, the district attorney in Ontario County elected not to file criminal charges against Stewart.

 

But the questions linger: Did Stewart drive aggressively toward Ward that night on the dirt track? Could he even see Ward, who was on a dimly lit track in a black driver’s suit? Ward had tangled with Stewart early in the 14th lap of the 25-lap race on the oval dirt track. When Ward tried to pass Stewart, the veteran squeezed him into the wall. Ward’s right rear tire blew. Irate, he unbuckled his belts and stormed onto the track, snorting fire and looking for Stewart. What happened next, in the dark of that sad summer night, is a matter of interpretation.

 

Stewart has steadfastly maintained that he did nothing wrong, that his conscience is clear. “I know what happened, and I know it was an accident,” he said a few weeks after Ward’s death. What’s indisputable is that he has been deeply affected by the tragedy, that it has shaken him to the core. “I don’t know that it will ever be normal again.”

 

“The first three days (after the accident) that I was home I really didn’t do anything,” Stewart continued. “I didn’t get out of bed. I didn’t care if I took a shower. … The first three or four days I didn’t want to talk to anybody. Didn’t want to see anybody — I just wanted to be by myself. You finally get up and you finally start moving around a little bit and every day got a little bit easier, but it was a big, drastic change from what I was used to, for sure, not having the desire to do anything. All you thought about is what happened and asking yourself why. Why did this happen?”

 

So what’s next for Tony Stewart? Will he ever be the same racer? Not even he knows.

 

Smoke, as Stewart is called in the garage, is the most successful driver-owner in 21st-century NASCAR. In his 16 years on the Cup circuit he’s taken 48 checkered flags, had 182 top-5 finishes in his 554 starts, and earned more than $117 million in winnings alone. He captured his first title as an owner last November when Kevin Harvick out-dueled Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

 

Stewart, still grieving, played a vital role in Harvick’s surge last fall. He was in Harvick’s ear during the Chase, talking to his driver about everything from setups to preferred lines around the track to the importance of getting away from racing for a few days before Homestead. And when intensity was redlining for the other contenders in the days before the final race of 2014, Stewart was the voice of calm reassurance — a voice of experience. Then, once the green flag dropped at Homestead, you’d have thought it was Stewart driving Harvick’s Chevy, the way Harvick aggressively pushed cars aside and outwitted other drivers on re-starts to win the race and the title. 

 

“Tony was a big part of just kind of giving me the heads up and saying, ‘All right, Bud, this is not going to be like last week. You might be able to go and be prepared to run for a race win, but now you’re going to race for a championship, and it’s all on the line in one spot,’” Harvick says. “And he was a big help to helping (my wife) DeLana and I just kind of get through the week and keeping it low key, and he was right.”

 

Athlon Sports’ 2015 Racing magazine delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2015 NASCAR coverage. Click here to order your copy today!

Stewart sat out three Cup races after Ward’s death. Yet even before that harrowing night in upstate New York, Stewart had only two top-5 finishes in 21 starts in 2014 and was 19th in points — the lowest he’d been in the standings at that point in the season in his Cup career. He often appeared tentative behind the wheel and hesitant to stick the nose of his No. 14 Chevy in precarious positions. In other words, he didn’t look like the hard-charging Tony Stewart — the huffing, puffing Stewart who would blow a rival’s race hopes down with a few daring and deft maneuvers — of seasons past.

 

Many in the garage pointed to the fact that Stewart had been in a scary crash in a winged Sprint Car in August 2013 — an accident on the dirt of Southern Iowa Speedway in which he broke his right tibia and fibula, forcing him to miss the final 15 races of the season. Stewart had vowed to come back as strong and aggressive as ever, but nothing will siphon a driver’s willingness to go full-throttle into a turn at 190 mph three-wide quite like a violent wreck. 

 

So Stewart was already dealing with aftereffects of a dirt track crash when Ward stepped into the racing groove at Canandaigua Motorsports Park last August. When Stewart returned to NASCAR on Aug. 31 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, fans and fellow drivers greeted him warmly, but Stewart himself clearly wasn’t the same. In the world of motorsports, a distracted driver is typically a slow driver, and Stewart certainly was distracted. Less than halfway through his first race back at Atlanta, he crashed to finish 41st.

 

Stewart never looked like the Tony of old last fall — the tempestuous guy who was so full of fire in the cockpit that a rival driver said: “There’s a fine line between being in control and being out of control, and Tony occasionally crosses it. I wouldn’t say he’s a time bomb, but he’s something close.” 

 

After Ward’s death, Stewart had only one top-10 run in 12 starts. He finished the year with an early wreck at Homestead and last-place finish of 43rd, ending a 15-season streak with at least one win — the fourth longest in NASCAR history.

 

“I’ve had a terrible year,” Stewart said shortly after climbing out of his car for the final time in 2014. 

 

“There is sort of a sickness or something in the pit of your stomach for what Tony is going through,” says Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of Stewart’s closest friends in racing. “But at the same time, you never really forget that somebody was killed. … It will have huge effect on both sides for so many years.”

 

More than any other forty-something driver in NASCAR, Tony Stewart lives racing. It’s the air he breathes, the one true love in his life.

 

In the last decade, Stewart hasn’t dated much. He doesn’t have children. What he has is racing.

 

“Tony loves this sport more than anyone I’ve ever met,” says Jimmie Johnson, a longtime friend of Stewart’s. “And he’s so talented. He does things on the track that you just don’t see other drivers pull off. He’s one of a kind.”

 

“Tony still has as much talent as anyone in the series,” Earnhardt Jr. said last season. “It takes drive and passion to succeed in this sport, and Tony still has that.”

 

Indeed, there isn’t one person in the garage who believes Stewart suddenly forgot how to drive. But a few factors could diminish Stewart’s speed next season. In August, he turns 44, an age when a driver’s hand-eye-foot coordination normally begins to deteriorate. (Only one driver in Cup history, 45-year-old Bobby Allison in 1983, has won a championship after celebrating a 43rd birthday.) Combine that with the injury he sustained in 2013 and the lingering trauma he says he’s still experiencing from the incident over the summer, and it’s easy to make a case that Stewart’s best days are in his rearview mirror.

 

But even if Stewart isn’t a weekly threat to take the checkered flag like he was in 2011 when he blazed to his third championship, he still could be a factor in the Chase. Given that he’s still one of the top road course racers on the circuit, he should be a favorite to reach Victory Lane at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway in June and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International in August. Stewart also flourishes on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway (in his last five starts on the 2.5-mile tri-oval he has a win and second-place finish) as well as at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where in his last 11 starts he has six top-five runs.

 

And in NASCAR, never underestimate the value of having an elite pit crew and a car that will have as many resources poured into it as any in the sport. In the Sprint Cup Series, the quality of the car is far more important than the quality of the driver — most longtime garage observers say the formula for winning is now 80 percent car and 20 percent driver.

 

So on paper, Stewart, the reigning championship team owner in NASCAR, should have all the physical tools necessary to succeed in 2015. The bigger question, perhaps, is whether the emotional scars from last August will have healed enough for him to rebound and challenge for a fourth Cup title next fall. 

 

“I’ll know when it’s time to step away from the sport,” Stewart said two years ago. “I’ve seen too many guys hang on for too long, just a big name cruising around in the back collecting checks. That won’t be me. I love this too much and I can always just go and put on my owner’s hat full-time.

 

“You need to walk away when you’re still near the top. That will be me, I promise. The stopwatch never lies in our sport. Never. That’s a beautiful thing, and that’s also how I’ll know my time is up.”

 

Has that time come? The guess here: The stopwatch in 2015 will say no.

 

— Written by Lars Anderson for Athlon Sports.

Teaser:
What’s Next For Tony Stewart in 2015?
Post date: Thursday, February 19, 2015 - 13:00
Path: /nfl/nfl-draft-nfc-team-needs
Body:

NFL DraftThe NFL Combine is under way, so it’s a good time to take a look at what each team might be looking for in Indianapolis.  Keep in mind these could change once teams start adding free agents on March 10, so we’ll revisit this just before the Draft in late April.

Here are the top needs for each NFC team:

 

NFC EAST

 

Washington Redskins

First-Round Pick: No. 5

What They Need: The Redskins are in a really nice spot at No. 5 overall.  Their biggest need is a pass-rushing defensive end, and there are plenty of those at the top of this draft. It is possible (but unlikely) the three best DEs will be gone; but that will mean one of the top two quarterbacks is still out there, and Washington’s phone will be ringing.

 

New York Giants

First-Round Pick: No. 9

What They Need: The Giants did not run the ball well (23rd in the NFL) or stop the run (30th in the NFL), which can’t make Tom Coughlin happy. Look for them to address both areas by drafting some big bodies. They may have their choice of the top offensive linemen on the board in Round 1.

 

Philadelphia Eagles

First-Round Pick: No. 20

What They Need: All eyes will be on Chip Kelly to see if he will try to trade up and get his old Oregon QB, Marcus Mariota. Unless Mariota starts sliding fast, it would seem too big of a jump to make. Assuming the Eagles stay put, they should be able to get some much-needed secondary help in the first round.

 

Dallas Cowboys

First-Round Pick: No. 27

What They Need: Running back DeMarco Murray and WR Dez Bryant are both free agents, and most are betting on Bryant staying and Murray going. But while a running back will likely be needed, the Cowboys would be wise to look to the defensive side of the ball early on in the draft.

 

NFC NORTH

 

Chicago Bears

First-Round Pick: No. 7

What They Need: With John Fox taking over as head coach, it’s a safe bet the Bears will look to start filling holes on defense early in the draft. Chicago may be in more dire need of safeties and linebackers, but the value in the top 10 will likely be along the defensive line.

 

Minnesota Vikings

First-Round Pick: No. 11

What They Need: Even if Adrian Peterson does not return, serviceable running backs can be found. The Vikings need help protecting QB Teddy Bridgewater and also need to get him another weapon on the outside. Minnesota seems likely to be looking at offensive tackles and wide receivers early.

 

Detroit Lions

First-Round Pick: No. 23

What They Need: Four of the Lions’ top five defensive tackles, including All-Pro DT Ndamukong Suh, are free agents. Bringing Suh back is a priority, but either way the position will be addressed at the draft. Look for the Lions to also grab some offensive line help and possibly a cornerback.

 

Green Bay Packers

First-Round Pick: No. 30

What They Need: The Packers ranked 23rd against the run in terms of yards allowed and were graded 31st by ProFootballFocus.com, so help at defensive tackle or inside linebacker would be a good place to start. Offensively, Green Bay may look for an upgrade at tight end.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

First-Round Pick: No. 1

What They Need: Everyone has the Bucs pegged to take the quarterback of their choice at the top of the draft; and it sure seems like that is the plan as they cut Josh McCown and are also reportedly shopping Mike Glennon. But if they decide they don’t like the top QBs or someone blows them away with an offer for the top pick, they could use a top pass rusher as well.

 

Atlanta Falcons

First-Round Pick: No. 8

What They Need: The Falcons are desperate for help defending the pass, as they ranked 29th in both pass rush and pass coverage according to ProFootballFocus.com. The best of the best pass rushers will likely be gone before they pick eighth, but a defensive lineman will still be the likely choice.

 

New Orleans Saints

First-Round Pick: No. 13

What They Need: Many early mock drafts have the Saints targeting a pass rusher early, and that certainly would not hurt. But at some point in the draft, secondary help is needed as well. New Orleans ranked second to last in the NFL in pass coverage according to ProFootballFocus.com.

 

Carolina Panthers

First-Round Pick: No. 25

What They Need: Cam Newton spent much of the season running for his life thanks to pass protection that was ranked dead last in the NFL by ProFootballFocus.com. Look for Carolina to get some offensive line help early and then possibly try to bolster a pass rush that was middle-of-the-pack in 2014.

 

NFC WEST

 

St. Louis Rams

First-Round Pick: No. 10

What They Need: The Rams are a candidate to try to move up in Round 1 to get one of the top two quarterbacks, but they have plenty of other holes to fill on offense. Assuming they don’t jump up to get a QB, help along the offensive line is most likely in Round 1.

 

San Francisco 49ers

First-Round Pick: No. 15

What They Need: Michael Crabtree and Brandon Lloyd are slated to become free agents, and neither Anquan Boldin nor Stevie Johnson is a real threat to stretch the field. So wide receiver could be an early target, as could offensive line, especially if guard Mike Iupati leaves in free agency.

 

Arizona Cardinals

First-Round Pick: No. 24

What They Need: Linebacker might be the first place the Cardinals look, as Larry Foote and John Abraham are both free agents. James Bettcher takes over as defensive coordinator, but the blitz-heavy scheme will remain, so Arizona can always use corners who can cover without help.

 

Seattle Seahawks

First-Round Pick: No. 31

What They Need: If Marshawn Lynch retires or signs elsewhere, running back could be addressed at the draft, but the bigger need would seem to be on the outside. The lack of a true No. 1 wide receiver leaves Russell Wilson running around looking for someone to break open late far too often.

Teaser:
NFL Draft: NFC Team Needs
Post date: Thursday, February 19, 2015 - 12:57
Path: /nfl/nfl-draft-afc-team-needs
Body:

NFL Draft NFL Combine is under way, so it’s a good time to take a look at what each team might be looking for in Indianapolis.  Keep in mind these could change once teams start adding free agents on March 10, so we’ll revisit this just before the Draft in late April.

 

Here are the top needs for each AFC team:

 

AFC EAST

 

New York Jets

First-Round Pick: No. 6

What They Need: Everyone knows the Jets need a quarterback. It is possible that Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston slips to them at No. 6, or they make a move up to make sure they get one of them. There are plenty of other needs, though, including cornerback and offensive tackle.

 

Miami Dolphins

First-Round Pick: No. 14

What They Need: Miami’s offensive line graded out among the worst in the league according to ProFootballFocus.com, so that would be a good place to start. But if the top offensive tackles are gone before the Dolphins pick, cornerback or linebacker could be in play in the first round.

 

Buffalo Bills

First-Round Pick: None (traded to Cleveland in Sammy Watkins deal)

What They Need: If DE Jerry Hughes walks in free agency, Rex Ryan will surely be tempted to look for another pass rusher. Offensive line help is still needed even after the signing of OG Richie Incognito, and of course there is still that little matter of a quarterback unless EJ Manuel makes huge strides.

 

New England Patriots

First-Round Pick: No. 32

What They Need: With Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich both on the wrong side of 30, another defensive lineman would not hurt. But if the right guy is available at the end of Round 1, New England may want to take another shot at drafting a speed receiver to help Tom Brady stretch the field. 

 

AFC NORTH

 

Cleveland Browns

First-Round Picks: No. 12, 19

What They Need: With Josh Gordon suspended again, this time possibly for good, the Browns definitely need a wide receiver. They also need help stopping the run (they were dead last in the NFL last season), so that second first-round pick they have thanks to the Sammy Watkins trade with Buffalo will come in handy.

 

Cincinnati Bengals

First-Round Pick: No. 21

What They Need: The Bengals had just 20 sacks in 2014, and ProFootballFocus.com rated their pass rush dead last in the NFL by a wide margin. So it’s safe to say Cincinnati will be looking for some guys who know how to get after the quarterback. Free agency could also create some holes in the secondary.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

First-Round Pick: No. 22

What They Need: The Steelers have a new defensive coordinator and holes to fill all over the defense. Both outside linebackers are free agents, as is corner Ike Taylor. And safety Troy Polomalu will turn 34 in April. Look for some new faces to join the Steel Curtain at the draft.

 

Baltimore Ravens

First-Round Pick: No. 26

What They Need: Baltimore could look to get Joe Flacco more weapons early in the draft. Wide receiver Torrey Smith and running back Justin Forsett are both free agents, and WR Steve Smith Sr. has to slow down at some point, right? Defensive back is also a possibility as the Ravens gave up a lot of yards through the air for a team with such a strong pass rush.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

Tennessee Titans

First-Round Pick: No. 2

What They Need: The good news is that the Titans need a quarterback and a pass rusher, and there are plenty of both at the top of the draft. If the Titans like both top QBs, they are OK even if Tampa takes one with the first pick. If Tennessee doesn’t like its QB options, the team will get its choice of the top pass rushers. The Titans also could trade the pick to someone who likes the No. 2 QB and still get a top pass rusher.

Jacksonville Jaguars

First-Round Pick: No. 3

What They Need: The Jags’ biggest need is probably right tackle, but third overall is not the place to look to fill that need. They could get some offers for the No. 3 pick if one of the top quarterbacks is still on the board. But if they don’t deal the pick, look for them to take a top pass rusher and address the RT need later.

 

Houston Texans

First-Round Pick: No. 16

What They Need: The Texans need a quarterback but are not in position to take one early. The most likely route will be to look for an offensive tackle to help protect whoever is throwing the passes, but don’t rule out a receiver as Andre Johnson will be 34 years old when training camp begins.

Indianapolis Colts

First-Round Pick: No. 29

What They Need: While the Colts allowed just 29 sacks, it would be overstating it to say that Andrew Luck had plenty of time to throw; Indianapolis was ranked 26th in pass protection by ProFootballFocus.com. Their run defense was also exposed by New England in both late-season meetings, so help there could not hurt.

 

AFC WEST

Oakland Raiders

First-Round Pick: No. 4

What They Need: The Raiders appear to have found their quarterback in Derek Carr, leaving them with options for the No. 4 overall pick. Carr needs weapons, and they will almost certainly have their choice of wide receivers (Amari Cooper, anyone?). Oakland could also use a pass rusher to help Khalil Mack.

 

San Diego Chargers

First-Round Pick: No. 17

What They Need: Both starting corners are slated to become free agents, but early on the Chargers may look to upgrade along the lines. They ranked 30th running the ball and 26th stopping the run, so an interior defensive lineman or offensive lineman would not be a big surprise.

 

Kansas City Chiefs

First-Round Pick: No. 18

What They Need: It became somewhat of a punchline last season that the Chiefs did not have a single touchdown pass to a wide receiver. Donnie Avery and A.J. Jenkins have both already been released, so it’s no surprise that just about every mock draft out there has K.C. grabbing a new weapon for Alex Smith in the first round. Offensive line help is needed as well.

 

Denver Broncos

First-Round Pick: No. 28

What They Need: If the Broncos lose WR Demaryius Thomas and/or TE Julius Thomas to free agency, targeting a weapon for Peyton Manning (assuming he returns) becomes a priority. If the Thomas’ return, look for Denver to get some help up front on offense and defense early in the draft.

Teaser:
NFL Draft: AFC Team Needs
Post date: Thursday, February 19, 2015 - 12:46
All taxonomy terms: Kevin Harvick, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/kevin-harvick-2015-season-driver-preview
Body:

Up until 2014, Kevin Harvick’s place in NASCAR lore was simple: “The man who replaced Dale Earnhardt.” Called into service a year ahead of schedule following the sport’s most horrific tragedy, Harvick was owner Richard Childress’ life raft, forever measured against a driver whose skill hooked fans for a generation. Earning a victory in just his third Sprint Cup start at Atlanta in 2001, Harvick helped spur the healing of a NASCAR Nation grieving Earnhardt’s untimely death.  

 

Thirteen years and 27 wins later, Harvick etched his name in the history books again, becoming a worthy Sprint Cup champion in the first year of the new Chase format. In between came controversy and change, as the oft-volatile Harvick moved from Richard Childress Racing, the only home he had ever known, to “restart” with Stewart-Haas Racing. With an opportunity to build from scratch at age 38, Harvick could put the expectations and the burden of being Earnhardt’s successor behind him.

 

Harvick clearly had fast cars, and from Day 1 at SHR, he found the team’s system to his liking. His No. 4 group won five times, and if not for bad luck could have won twice that much. Harvick was often dominant, leading more than 2,000 laps, and put together a Chase average finish of 8.0. His series-leading eight poles were further proof of the speed that his team was able to coax from its racecars.

 

Can Harvick go back-to-back in 2015? Yes, absolutely. All the pieces remain in place, and Harvick and his team now have the confidence that they can complete a championship run. Most important of all, a driver who once felt lost once again controls his own destiny.

 

“My Cup career really started backwards,” he said after capturing the title. “It’s taken a long time to navigate through exactly what was a good mix. I think for me personally, (2014) was huge just in the fact that I’ve been excited to go to work and be a part of building something — getting my life where it had a great balance, whether it be personally, financially, or professionally.”

 

That sounds like a man with the mental focus to start collecting multiple championships. The irony is that Harvick’s success with the new Chase format showed other teams how it’s done, making a repeat that much harder in Year 2. The No. 4 team wasn’t flawless in the Chase — although it was close — and it’s likely that this year’s champ will have to up his game considerably.

 

Athlon Sports’ 2015 Racing magazine delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2015 NASCAR coverage. Click here to order your copy today!

Perhaps the biggest weapon in Harvick’s arsenal is crew chief Rodney Childers. Childers, who came to SHR from Michael Waltrip Racing last year, had an immediate impact. Need proof of Childers’ value to a team? Look at the performance of MWR and the overall dropoff of that organization in 2014. He and Harvick will be a formidable pair with a year’s worth of notes to work from.

 

Harvick’s value to his sponsors was evident from the moment he moved to the SHR camp. Budweiser and Jimmy John’s left an established, iconic team to stick with Harvick rather than stay on with rookie Austin Dillon. Harvick has solid backing entering the season from companies who have thrived in the sport, understanding what it takes to win.

 

The equipment, a strong step up from RCR, should be excellent for 2015. Harvick’s cars are Hendrick chassis, prepared by SHR’s own engineering group, paired with library books of information and support. Hendrick also provides the engines, some of the best in the business in terms of both horsepower and durability.

 

That partnership extends to teammates. In Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch, Harvick also has a pair of former champions in-house who can help him shake down setups. The three worked well together in 2014 despite their reputations for being difficult, and these relationships are only going to improve with time. Harvick also credited Jimmie Johnson out of the Hendrick shop for helping him calm nerves and ascend to the title in crunch time.

 

Harvick proved he could put together speed and strategy with his championship, but now comes the hard part — defending it. A title run requires a team’s entire focus, avoiding distraction while sustaining the type of effort used for title No. 1.

 

Fortunately, focus is no longer a problem for Harvick, who is settled and successful in his new digs as he readies to keep his NASCAR reboot in high gear.

 

Fantasy Stall

Beware of the outlier season  Harvick led a total of 2,137 laps in 2014, which represents 32.6 percent of his career total, and ranked first in NASCAR’s average green-flag speed rank. The laws of regression indicate that it’s a safe bet he won’t lead as many laps or be as fast in 2015.

Make him your pick at Phoenix  There have been seven races on Phoenix’s current configuration — Harvick has won four of them and finished second in another. It’s tough to argue with that kind of efficiency.

A closer in daylight hours  In the 25 races that took place during daytime, Harvick gained 26 positions in the final tenth of races. Conversely, he lost 47 positions in the final tenth of races that took place under nighttime skies. Seems as if Harvick is more often “happy” when he gets to bed on time.

 

No. 4 Stewart-Hass Racing Chevrolet

Primary Sponsors: Budweiser, Jimmy John’s, Ditech, Outback Steakhouse 

Owner: Tony Stewart/Gene Haas

Crew Chief: Rodney Childers

Year With Current Team: 2nd

Under Contract Through: 2016

Best Points Finish: 1st (2014)

Hometown: Bakersfield, Calif.

Born: Dec. 8, 1975

 

Career Stats

YearsStartsWinsTop 5sTop 10sPolesTitlesEarned
1450228114229141$95,972,089

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Kevin Harvick 2015 Season Driver Preview
Post date: Thursday, February 19, 2015 - 12:00
All taxonomy terms: Joey Logano, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/joey-logano-2015-season-driver-preview
Body:

Joey Logano’s been termed the “best thing since sliced bread” for a decade now, but 2014 was the year he finally earned that label. Logano, who had three career wins entering the season, won five times and went all the way to Homestead in the title hunt before fading to fourth after the season’s final race.

 

The man who was anointed by Mark Martin as the “best driver” of his generation took a big step forward at age 24, the same age at which Jeff Gordon won his first title. Logano, who would have captured the championship under the old Chase format, gained valuable postseason experience while scoring victories in nearly every type of race. He won on short tracks (Richmond, Bristol), on intermediates (Texas, Kansas) and the flat mile at Loudon last year, leading in a career-high 22 of 36 races. He led 993 laps, more than tripling his previous top mark of 323 for a season, and failed to finish on the lead lap just six times. By season’s end, owner Roger Penske had Logano signed to a long-term extension, as the once-disappointing superstar completed his transition from bust to boom.

 

“It’s been a spectacular year,” Logano said at Homestead. “We had fun with it. Learned a lot, how I can maybe do a few things differently next time I compete for a championship.”

 

He won’t have to wait long to do that. Logano enters his third year with Team Penske facing higher expectations; he’s set to be one of Sprint Cup’s top title contenders for years to come. Driving the No. 22 Ford with sponsorship from Shell-Pennzoil, AAA and AutoTrader.com, Logano has financial support that extends through 2018. A perfect mix of professionalism and potential, Logano was a good pickup for the team after the departure of Kurt Busch, a driver whose off-track controversies affected his on-track performance. Logano keeps his cool and rarely makes waves, although he’s learned over the years to stand up for himself. While rivals still exist, like Denny Hamlin, Logano has gained respect from most of his competition.

 

That balance of aggression and hard driving is the hallmark of Logano’s teammate, 2012 champion Brad Keselowski. Keselowski handpicked Logano as his teammate at Team Penske, and his guidance has no doubt led to improved performance. The two are well matched, using similar driving styles, and are committed to an “open book” policy with information. Keselowski’s a bit more controversial than Logano, and that’s part of why it works well; Logano is content to be more mild-mannered, but he’s no lackey, a role he sometimes played at Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s this duo’s chemistry, setting an example from the top down, that keeps Team Penske competitive with rivals twice its size.

 

Team Penske has become the flagship team for Ford, supplanting Roush Fenway Racing as the manufacturer’s prime championship threat. Penske chassis had great speed in 2014, and the Roush-Yates power under the hood represents some of the best engines in the business. A smaller, streamlined Penske team saw both drivers getting only the best equipment and support. Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, is often overlooked but is a key cog in the team’s engineering and overall success.

 

Athlon Sports’ 2015 Racing magazine delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2015 NASCAR coverage. Click here to order your copy today!

So what will it take for Logano to take home his first Cup title in 2015? Perhaps first and foremost, he’ll have to stay one step ahead of his older, more experienced teammate. The new rules package, with reduced horsepower and downforce, will play a role as well; teams that figure it out quickly will earn early victories and a pre-Chase edge. Logano also struggled a bit on the restrictor plate tracks, not scoring a top 10 in four combined starts at Daytona and Talladega. Logano’s career plate race average is 19.8, and while the superspeedways don’t represent a large percentage of tracks, Talladega looms large inside the postseason.

 

The biggest obstacle Logano faces is the level of competition in the series. With a field of 16, the new Chase format demands near perfection; a single mistake at the wrong time can destroy an entire season in a matter of seconds. It’s a lesson Logano learned last year, when a faulty pit stop at Homestead dropped him to the back of the lead lap and destroyed any chance at the title.

 

The good news is that every other team in the hunt faces the same formidable competition, and Logano gave them all a run for their money last year. Team Penske was the best organization as a whole last season, and with limited changes, it’s likely it will be so once again in 2015.

 

The “best thing since sliced bread” is ready to keep slicing through the field.

 

Fantasy Stall

Short track sweet spot  Logano’s 6.2-place average finish at tracks smaller than a mile was his best average by track type in a career season that saw him net five trips to Victory Lane. It makes sense. Logano turned heads while racing as a teenager in lower divisions with his dominance at some of America’s most heralded short tracks.

Dropped positions  Logano had a tough time holding onto his stellar running positions last season, considering his team gave up a ton of spots during green-flag pit cycles (a loss of 63 positions) and in the final tenth of races (a 19-position loss).

Unkind Atlanta  Save for his second-place finish there in 2013, Logano finished 14th or worse in his seven other starts at Atlanta, averaging a 24.3-place finish. His 14th-place finish there  in 2014 was an 8.2-position drop from his 5.8-place average running position.

 

No. 22 Penske Racing Ford

Primary Sponsors: Shell/Pennzoil, AAA Insurance, Autotrader.com

Owner: Roger Penske 

Crew Chief: Todd Gordon

Year With Current Team: 3rd

Under Contract Through: 2018 

Best Points Finish: 4th (2014)

Hometown: Middletown, Conn.

Born: May 24, 1990

 

Career Stats

YearsStartsWinsTop 5sTop 10sPolesTitlesEarned
72198438280$33,949,928

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Joey Logano 2015 Season Driver Preview
Post date: Thursday, February 19, 2015 - 11:00
All taxonomy terms: Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks, NBA
Path: /nba/carmelo-anthony-having-knee-surgery-shutting-it-down-season
Body:
The inevitable his finally been announced: New York Knicks small forward Carmelo Anthony is foregoing the rest of the 2014-15 season, to have surgery on his long-battered left knee. ESPN’s Marc Stein broke the story.

 

It appears more clear than ever that Melo played through pain for 40 games this year so he could play in the All-Star game, which was held in his own Madison Square Garden. Anthony wanted to be a gracious host — but now that the duty is over, there’s clearly no reason to keep jeopardizing his health for a 10-43 team that’s bound for the top of the draft lottery.

 

Playing with a breaking body part and making sure he’s around to represent his city may seem honorable to some, but most doctors would probably choose a different word for it: stupid. While Anthony’s likely to fully heal and come back ready for action on a (hopefully) improved Knicks squad in 2015-16, putting all that unnecessary stress on a compromised knee could have gone very wrong for him.

 

Enlightened New York fans should be encouraged by this development. With Melo resting, Amar’e Stoudemire’s buyout complete and Andrea Bargnani going off the books this summer, one of the worst epochs in Knicks history seems to be coming to a merciful end. There’ll be a lost more losing this season, but the way has been cleared for Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher to do their work of drafting, developing, and pursuing fresh talent on the market this summer.

 

If NYK’s new brain trust actually has the know-how and patience to do the long, lurching work of culture-building from the bottom up, now’s the time for that process to begin in earnest. For once, it seems like Melo and the Knicks aren’t selling a dollar of their future for an extra quarter in the present. But we’ll see how long that feeling lasts.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, February 19, 2015 - 10:49
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-february-19-2015
Body:

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

 

• Marginally safe for work: the girls of Mardi Gras on Instagram.

 

An artist made a dress entirely of game-used Mets baseballs. If it was the Mets, they weren't all that used.

 

Here's A-Rod's pre-written apology letter for his horrible steroid-free 2015 season. And here's Frank Caliendo recycling a bit by reading A-Rod's first apology letter in Morgan Freeman's voice.

 

Jay-Z thought Boomer Wells was Curt Schilling and asked him about the bloody sock game.

 

• Cool tribute: The Las Vegas Strip dimmed its lights in honor of Jerry Tarkanian.

 

So there was a controversial non-call at the end of an otherwise great UNC-Duke game.

 

Danny Almonte, the Little League lightning rod of yesteryear, weighed in on the Jackie Robinson West scandal.

 

Golden Tate to Russell Wilson: Bro, squash those rumors that I did your wife.

 

Charles Barkley sprayed a firehose of hate toward the media.

 

Retired Ram Jeff Zgonina is trying his hand at the dog show thing. The best part: Picturing him prancing around in front of the judges.

 

• Watch the Ginger Hammer run the 40-yard dash in the NFL office.

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, February 19, 2015 - 10:43
All taxonomy terms: NFL Scouting Combine, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/10-most-athletic-freaks-nfl-combine-history-2015
Body:

The 2015 NFL Scouting Combine is underway in Indianapolis, as this year’s crop of prospects takes the first step in the job interview process leading up to the draft (April 30-May 2). While opinions on the value of the “Underwear Olympics” are mixed, this year’s participants know fully well what’s at stake at Lucas Oil Stadium.  Millions of dollars are on the line for these NFL hopefuls as they go through different drills and tests, including the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical leap, broad jump, cone drills, Wonderlic and BOD Pod tests.

 

As it relates to the classroom that is the Combine, here are 10 workout warriors who aced their tests:

 

 

1. Bo Jackson, RB, Auburn – 1986

The two-sport tall tale weighed in at a chiseled 6’1”, 230 pounds before running an unofficial hand-timed 4.12 in the 40-yard dash — a jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring effort that is still a part of Combine folklore.

 

2. Tony Mandarich, OT, Michigan State – 1989

In hindsight, the most impressive thing the “Incredible Bulk” did was pass his steroid drug screening during the Combine. At 304 pounds, Mandarich ran a 4.65 in the 40, exploded for a 30” vertical and 10’3” broad jump, and ripped off 39 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.

 

3. Vernon Davis, TE, Maryland – 2006

Davis looked like a body builder or, at the very least, an actor from an Under Armour commercial en route to running a 4.38 in the 40, skying for a 42” vertical, 10’8” broad, and slamming 33 reps on the bench press.

 

4. Mike Mamula, LB, Boston College – 1995

After all these years, Mamula remains the go-to cautionary tale of the Combine. The BC beast vaulted up draft boards after a 4.58 in the 40, 28 reps of 225 pounds on the bench, a 38” vertical and a 49-of-50 on the Wonderlic Test. Mamula never looked as good in pads as he did in shorts.

 

5. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor – 2012

The fastest quarterback in Combine history, RG3 was a track star on the fast track to NFL and commercial superstardom — with a blistering 4.41 in the 40-yard dash to go along with a dunk contest-worthy 39” vertical.

 

6. Chris Johnson, RB, East Carolina – 2008

Before he became CJ2K, the gold-grilled CJ4.24 was the gold standard official record-holder in laser-timed 40-yard sprints, posting a 4.24 and hitting the first-round finish line in-stride. CJ has not, however, been able to set up a race against Usain Bolt.

 

7. Deion Sanders, CB, Florida State – 1989

The ultimate showman (and show-boater), Deion showed up fashionably late (and probably fashionably loud) to the Combine, then ran his 40-yard dash only once — in a time between 4.19 and 4.29, depending on whose hand-timed stop watch you trust. But Prime Time didn’t stop running once he hit the finish line; Sanders ran out of the building to a limousine waiting to take him to the airport.

 

8. Calvin Johnson, WR, Georgia Tech – 2007

With his draft stock holding strong near the top of the class, Johnson planned on kicking back and watching the festivities. But once the fireworks started, Megatron’s competitive juices started flowing and he decided he wanted to run after all. The only problem? He didn’t bring any track shoes. So Johnson borrowed a pair of spikes from East Carolina’s James Pinkney — then proceeded to run a blistering 4.32 in the 40.

 

9. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin – 2011

In hindsight, the numbers that Watt put up at the Combine were a window into his dominant Defensive Player of the Year future. At 6’5”, 290 pounds with 11 1/8” hands and 34” arms, Watt ran a 4.84 in the 40, soared for a 37” vertical and 10’ broad jump, and threw up a long-armed 34 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.

 

10. Vernon Gholston, DE, Ohio State – 2008

One of the main reasons teams remain skeptical of off-the-charts Combine stats, Gholston was the classic “look like Tarzan, play like Jane.” In shorts and a muscle shirt, Gholston ran a 4.67 in the 40, had 37 reps on the bench and lifted off for a 35.5” vertical and 10.5” broad jump.

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For several years, the Big Ten has had a roster of basketball coaches that could rival only the ACC.

 

Now, the league is working to make sure its roster of football coaches rivals only the SEC.

 

Names like Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan, John Beilein and Thad Matta are on the top of anyone’s list of college basketball coaches. Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh would be the same among college football coaches.

 

Those additions on the football side — plus Penn State’s James Franklin — give the Big Ten one of the most interesting rosters of coaching tandems in the country.

 

The goal of our coach tandem rankings is to look at each football and basketball duo as a pair. In general, we’re looking at the duos most likely to keep each school’s fans happy and entertained from the start of football season through the end of basketball season.

 

1. Ohio State

Football: Urban Meyer | Basketball: Thad Matta

Meyer and Alabama’s Nick Saban are the Nos. 1A and 1B of college football coaching with good reason. After Ohio State’s improbable run to the 2014 national championship, Meyer and Saban are the only coaches to win national titles at two different schools. Meyer is 38-3 with the Buckeyes and has six AP top five finishes at Utah, Florida and Ohio State. Matta has one of the most underrated careers in college basketball, partly because he’s never won a national title and partly because of his low-key personality. Remember, when Matta took over at Ohio State, the Buckeyes were emerging from NCAA sanctions. Since then, Ohio State has won 30 games three times and reached the Final Four twice. In 15 seasons as a head coach, he’s won at least a share of eight regular season conference titles.

 

2. Michigan State

Football: Mark Dantonio | Basketball: Tom Izzo

This duo rarely makes a big splash with major recruits, but Dantonio and Izzo both excel at developing upperclassmen capable of winning in the Big Ten and the postseason. Dantonio has elevated Michigan State football to one of the powers in the Big Ten. He’s led Michigan State to four seasons of 11 wins or more in the last five and back-to-back top-five finishes, something that hasn’t happened in East Lansing since 1965-66. Izzo is in interesting territory. He is enduring his longest Final Four drought (five seasons, boo hoo) and his team is in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997. The track record, though, is elite: Izzo has six career Final Fours and a national title.

 

3. Michigan

Football: Jim Harbaugh | Basketball: John Beilein

Give credit to both of these coaches for not taking the easy route: Harbaugh’s first head coaching job was at San Diego of the non-scholarship Pioneer League; Beilein’s was at Erie Community College. All Michigan is asking of its new hire Harbaugh is to do what Beilein has done — return a program to national contention. In basketball, the Wolverines reached the Final Four in 2013 and the Elite Eight in 2014. Harbaugh would seem to be up to the task at his alma mater. He built Stanford into a Pac-12 contender and took the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl.

 

4. Wisconsin

Football: Paul Chryst | Basketball: Bo Ryan

Ryan was already one of the best coaches in the country when he led Wisconsin to top-four finishes in the Big Ten every year since 2002. Now, he’s looking to take the Badgers to back-to-back Final Fours. And he’s done all of that without a ton of major recruits on his roster. Wisconsin football has had an unbroken record of success under Barry Alvarez, Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen. Chryst, a former Badgers player and offensive coordinator, knows the territory. His record at Pittsburgh — 19-19 overall, 10-13 in the ACC — was nothing special, but he took over program with a tumultuous coaching situation.

 

5. Penn State

Football: James Franklin | Basketball: Patrick Chambers

Penn State is nearing full strength after severe NCAA sanctions, and it has the right coach to lead the program back to national prominence. Franklin is the only coach in Vanderbilt history with back-to-back nine-win seasons and three bowl appearances. In his first season at Penn State, he capitalized on the Nittany Lions’ first post-Paterno bowl bid with a win over Boston College. There’s only so much Chambers can do with Penn State basketball, so flirting with a winning record in consecutive seasons has to be taken in context.

 

6. Nebraska

Football: Mike Riley | Basketball: Tim Miles

Riley’s move to Nebraska was one of the most puzzling of the offseason on two fronts — first that Riley would leave Oregon State after 12 years of resisting overtures to go elsewhere and second because Nebraska would hire a coach who averaged fewer than six wins in his last five seasons. But he can unearth and develop recruits, which is what Nebraska might need. In basketball, the momentum has stalled in Miles’ third season in Lincoln, but two NCAA appearances in four years at places like Colorado State and Nebraska is no small feat.

 

7. Minnesota

Football: Jerry Kill | Basketball: Richard Pitino

Opposing coaches will tell you how good a coach Kill is — his teams are routinely one of the toughest to play in the Big Ten. Top 25 finishes and major bowl games aren’t plentiful at Minnesota no matter the coach, but Kill has led the Gophers to back-to-back eight-win seasons for the first time since 2002-03. The 32-year-old Pitino is one of the names to watch in the sport, and not just because of his bloodlines. He his first season at Minnesota, he led the Gophers to an NIT championship, and in his only season at FIU, he led the Golden Panthers to their best season in 17 years.

 

8. Maryland

Football: Randy Edsall | Basketball: Mark Turgeon

Maybe Big Ten affiliation will be good for Maryland in ways beyond finances. Turgeon should get to double-digit conference wins for the first time during his tenure at Maryland, and Edsall presided over wins over (weakened) Iowa, Penn State and Michigan squads in his Big Ten debut. Progress is good, but there’s still a lot of work for both coaches. Football hasn’t won eight games or won a bowl game since 2010 and basketball hasn’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2003. Edsall and Turgeon are on the clock.

 

9. Northwestern

Football: Pat Fitzgerald | Basketball: Chris Collins

Two years ago, it would be tough to find a hotter name in coaching that Fitzgerald. In 2012, he had led the Wildcats to a 10-win season and five consecutive bowl appearances. He’s 5-7 in each of his two seasons since. Some hard-luck injuries have been a factor, but either way, the momentum in Evanston has stalled. Hopes are high that Collins, a former Duke assistant, will be the one who turns things around for Northwestern hoops, but it’s a long climb.

 

10. Iowa

Football: Kirk Ferentz | Basketball: Fran McCaffery

Neither coach will win a popularity contest. Ferentz is 34-30 in his last five seasons and struggling to live up to the standard he set with three top-10 finishes from 2002-04. McCaffery is prickly with the media and combustable on the bench, but his team ended an eight-year NCAA Tournament drought last season.

 

11. Purdue

Football: Darrell Hazell | Basketball: Matt Painter

After two losing seasons, Painter is leading Purdue to its best season since Robbie Hummel left. During one stretch, Painter led the Boilermakers to six consecutive NCAA appearances, including two Sweet 16s. Hazell is 4-20 in two seasons with the football program.

 

12. Indiana

Football: Kevin Wilson | Basketball: Tom Crean

Give Indiana credit for featuring two coaches who put up a ton of points but can’t seem to stop anyone from scoring. Crean pulled Indiana out of the depths of NCAA sanctions stemming from the Kelvin Sampson era, but what has it done for the Hoosiers in terms of sustainability? Indiana won 29 games and spent much of the season ranked No. 1 in 2012-13 — yet it yielded a Sweet 16 at the end of that season and a 17-win campaign the next. Indiana football is as good as any Big Ten team on offense — yet hasn’t reached a bowl game in four seasons under Wilson.

 

13. Illinois 

Football: Tim Beckman | Basketball: John Groce

Give Groce credit for making the most of this season despite some bad luck. He missed on some key recruits and had players miss stretches due to injury. But Illinois could reach the NCAA Tournament this year or should at least win 20 games for the third time under Groce. Beckman has led a two-game improvement at Illinois every season as head coach.

 

14. Rutgers

Football: Kyle Flood | Basketball: Eddie Jordan

Three consecutive bowl games at Rutgers is still a notable feat, and Flood has done it in his first three seasons. Rutgers basketball is destined for 10 or more conference losses, no matter the conference or the coach.

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6. Gordon Hayward

The Charlotte Hornets almost stole Hayward away in restricted free agency this past summer. If they had, they’d be a much better team. But the Utah Jazz smartly matched Michael Jordan’s four-year offer, worth over $60 million, and now Gordon’s the centerpiece of a budding new NBA culture in Salt Lake City. Averaging 19.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists as his team’s go-to option, Hayward does more than a little bit of everything. When the Jazz mature around the 24-year-old, they’ll be a scary, climbing force in the future of the Western Conference.

 

5. Andre Iguodala

Also known as arguably the best NBA player who doesn’t start, Iguodala is the most versatile defender and floor-runner on basketball’s best team, the Golden State Warriors. His selfless attitude doesn’t hurt, either; Andre’s given up a starting spot under head coach Steve Kerr so that Harrison Barnes could get his swagger back, and his acceptance of the move has made the Warriors a far more fearsome team overall. More important than anything, though, is that Andre will be the man who’s called upon to try to contain Kevin Durant in the seemingly inevitable playoff matchup between GSW and the Oklahoma City Thunder. There could hardly be a better man for the job.

 

4. Carmelo Anthony

Melo’s busted knee on a busted New York Knicks team shouldn’t take away from what we know to be reality: Anthony is one of the greatest scorers the game has ever seen. A creative, confident, efficient shooter who’s an offense unto himself, Carmelo has made Eastern Conference defenses sweat since he came to Manhattan. It’s a sad sight seeing his talent wasted through NYK’s sorry rebuilding years, but we’ll always have plenty of memories of his transcendent moments. And with any luck, his healed knee and and a hopefully refurbished Knicks roster can bring Anthony’s brilliance back to the limelight next season.

 

3. Kawhi Leonard

Last year’s NBA Finals MVP is as great as he is quiet, and he’s very quiet. A lengthy, relentless two-way player who was forged in early fires—he was already fighting for championship appearances with the San Antonio Spurs as a 20-year-old—Leonard is the purest product of the league’s best franchise since they got Tim Duncan into their hands in 1997. Kawhi is the future of the most impressive culture the league has likely ever seen, and his scary, mean intensity seems like an appropriate spearhead for years and years of more Spurs dominance; last June, he even ran LeBron James ragged. Leonard’s future is even brighter than his present, which is a big, blinding light.

 

2. Kevin Durant

Durant’s in the news, these days, for a somewhat shocking new turn in personality. But in the weeks to come, we’ll probably shut up about that talk, as KD’s play comes to be the main event yet again. The leader of a Thunder team who have some work to do, a pissed-off version of last year’s MVP is a frightening prospect for the rest of the sport. No player creates more problems for defenses — the word “unguardable” is not hyperbole when we’re discussing this man. Whatever you may think of his testy behavior of late, anyone who doubts Durant is doing so at their own peril; the rest of us will sit back and enjoy the show.

 

1. LeBron James

The NBA’s best small forward is also its best player. And, to be sure, his positional designation is merely something of a formality — close followers of the sport know that James plays his own, singular role for his Cleveland Cavaliers. “The LeBron position” is something like a point forward. In other words: The King does it all. He runs the offense, makes big shots, finds open men as well as anyone in the league, and guards the other team’s best player in crunch time. And if he keeps up his scintillating play of the last month down the stretch, he’ll be looking at his fifth MVP trophy.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

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