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When we started this series on the top coaching tandems, we knew it would be tough, especially given our guiding principle that the football coach and the basketball coaches should be considered to be on equal footing
For most schools, they’re not. Especially in the SEC.
We set out to determine the coaching tandems able to keep fans happy from the start of football season to the end of basketball season.
Arguably, coaches like Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn do enough during football season to keep fans happy year round, no matter what happens on the basketball court. The same could be said of John Calipari and Kentucky, just in a different sport.
Still, we’re not going to stray from our plan. That’s why the top football coach in the league (Saban) and the top two basketball coaches (Calipari and Billy Donovan) are not in the top spot. Certainly, if Florida football returns to New Year’s Day bowl status or Kentucky starts to play in the football postseason, those two programs likely would move up.
For now, a different program gets the call for the top football-basketball coaching tandem in the SEC.
1. South Carolina
Football: Steve Spurrier | Basketball: Frank Martin
If anything, Spurrier could teach Martin how to mellow out. Away from game day, Spurrier knows how to relax, especially if there’s a golf course nearby. But the football coach is just as sharp as ever, leading South Carolina, once one of the league’s underachieving programs, to three consecutive top 10 finishes. After a successful run at Kansas State, Martin still has work to do to even get to an NIT, but there have been shades of improvement in his second season with the Gamecocks. He has one of the league’s top freshmen in Sindarius Thornwell.
Football: Les Miles | Basketball: Johnny Jones
Miles’ credentials are pretty clear: The 2007 national title and appearance in the 2011 title game and four consecutive 10-win seasons. Jones is in his second season at his alma mater after leading one of the most consistent Sun Belt programs at North Texas. Both coaches are standout recruiters in a region flush with prospects.
Football: Mark Richt | Basketball: Mark Fox
Richt has to wonder what might have been if his team had stayed healthy for all of 2013. Otherwise, Georgia has been the SEC’s most stable program since his tenure began in 2001. The Bulldogs haven’t reached a title game, but they’re consistently in the mix for the East title. Fox has had his own dose of bad luck with players like Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie leaving for the NBA Draft. The overall record isn’t pretty, but Georgia has been competitive in SEC play, including an 8-4 mark this season.
Football: Nick Saban | Basketball: Anthony Grant
Saban has few peers in football coaching with three national titles in the last five seasons. Another national No. 1 recruiting class ensures the Crimson Tide are still the team to beat in the SEC despite Auburn’s league title in December. Grant has recruited at a high level, though some of his top prospects have been washouts. This season has been the worst of his five-year tenure, which has included two NITs and one NCAA Tournament.
Football: Will Muschamp | Basketball: Billy Donovan
Normally, a coaching tandem with basketball national titles and a Sugar Bowl would be enough to be at or near the top. Indeed, if Florida overcame injuries last season to get to a second-tier bowl game, maybe the Gators would be No. 1. Alas, Muschamp will be under pressure in his fourth season after presiding over a loss to Georgia Southern and the program’s first losing season since 1979.
Football: Mark Stoops | Basketball: John Calipari
Again, the top two basketball coaches in the SEC are paired with football coaches we’re not quite sure about yet. The last two seasons probably haven’t gone the way most Big Blue Nation envisioned, but Calipari and Kentucky are a perfect match. If Kentucky football can get to regular bowl contention, then this might be the best tandem in the league. Stoops brought in a top 25 signing class in 2014, so it may happen in the near future.
Football: Gary Pinkel | Basketball: Frank Haith
The question if Missouri could stay afloat in the SEC has been answered with a resounding yes as the Tigers reached the SEC title game and had a shot at the national championship game. Missouri likely will make the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season under Haith, but some of the results — two early NCAA exits and a 17-13 record in lackluster league — make it tough to rank this tandem any higher.
8. Ole Miss
Football: Hugh Freeze | Basketball: Andy Kennedy
Ole Miss has a football coach who has gone to back-to-back bowl games and a basketball coach who went to an NCAA tournament. That hasn’t happened in the same season in more than a decade at Oxford.
Football: Gus Malzahn | Basketball: Tony Barbee
Few teams can figure out how to stop Malzahn’s offense. The problem, as far as this ranking is concerned, is that even fewer can figure out how to win basketball games at Auburn.
10. Texas A&M
Football: Kevin Sumlin | Basketball: Billy Kennedy
Sumlin gave Texas A&M instant credibility as an SEC program. Johnny Manziel is gone, but the Aggies have plenty of momentum. A&M basketball, though, is on the way to three losing conference seasons under Kennedy.
Football: Derek Mason | Basketball: Kevin Stallings
Both Vanderbilt positions are all about fit as the only private school in the league and the one with the highest academic standards. Mason knows the terrain coming from Stanford, but football fans have had a taste of the big time from the James Franklin era. Stallings is considered one of the league’s best tacticians.
Football: Butch Jones | Basketball: Cuonzo Martin
Any questions about Jones’ ability to recruit have been answered with a top 10 signing class in 2014. Now, he has to return the Volunteers to relevance. Tennessee has been just short of the NCAA Tournament in Martin’s three seasons, but the Volunteers have had a winning league record in the last two seasons.
Football: Bret Bielema | Basketball: Mike Anderson
Bielema and Anderson both have fine credentials with Bielema winning three conference titles at Wisconsin and Anderson reaching the Elite Eight while at Missouri. That said, never have proven they can approach that level at Arkansas.
14. Mississippi State
Football: Dan Mullen | Basketball: Rick Ray
Mullen’s four consecutive bowl games at Mississippi State shouldn’t be overlooked, especially as the SEC has been at the top of its powers. The Bulldogs’ basketball program has a long way to go in Ray’s second season.
This season will not be a repeat of J.J. Redick vs. Adam Morrison. Or Jimmer Fredette vs. Kemba Walker.
Creighton’s Doug McDermott is the clear frontrunner for national player of the year honors as one of the nation’s leading scorers for the leader in a major conference.
That’s a testament to McDermott’s season, but also a reflection of the rest of the field. This season has seen some great players, especially in the freshman ranks, but not all of them have been consistent enough to rival McDermott for postseason honors.
But let’s say McDermott was not in the race this season. Who would be the top contenders for the Naismith and Wooden awards? Our editoral staff answers.
Assuming Doug McDermott will win National Player of the Year honors, who would be No. 2 on your ballot?
Mitch Light: This was very difficult. I went with Jabari Parker because he does so much for Duke. The freshman from Chicago quickly emerged as the Blue Devils’ primary option, and he leads the team in scoring (19.5 ppg) and rebounding (8.5). Parker is Duke’s only consistent threat on the low block, and he is also a weapon on the perimeter due to his ability to handle the ball and shoot from 3-point range. Mike Krzyzewski’s team features some nice front-end talent but isn’t loaded with future NBA players and lacks depth. Parker’s presence makes Duke a threat to win the national title; without him, the Blue Devils would struggle to make the top 25.
David Fox: Good thing McDermott is a virtual lock for National Player of the Year because the rest of the race would be a jumble. I tend to favor players whose teams would be lost without them. That leads me to Sean Kilpatrick at Cincinnati. The Bearcats get perpetually overlooked because they play a soft non-conference schedule, and they’re generally a low-scoring, defensive-minded team. Without Kilpatrick, Cincinnati would be lucky to be in contention for the NIT.
Braden Gall: Obviously, there really isn’t a clear challenger to McDermott. Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim was my first thought but one could argue (although I wouldn’t) that he isn’t the most important player on his own team. Sean Kilpatrick and Shabazz Napier carry their teams offensively for Cincinnati and UConn, respectively, while Russ Smith plays a similar role for Louisville in the American Athletic Conference. That said, No. 2 on my ballot will come from the winner of the Syracuse-Duke game in Durham this weekend. If the Orange complete the sweep over Duke, my vote would go to C.J. Fair — aka, the best player on the best team in the nation. If Duke can continue to surge up the polls and beats Syracuse, my vote would go to Jabari Parker, a freshman who has been the team’s best player.
At Daytona International Speedway, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage is split into two sections. The plum positioning — garage stalls closer to restrooms and track entry and exit — are given out based on last year’s final point standings. A quick lap around what DIS dubs the “Sprint Fan Zone” will point out the obvious: It segregates the haves and the have-nots in NASCAR’s money-making division at a time in the sport where the delineation between the two has never been greater.
Contrary to past years, though, is the unusual pep in the steps of some of the back-marker race teams. Gone are the grizzled veterans, famous for showing up rather than showing out, to pilot cars that don’t have realistic chances of cracking the top 20 every Sunday. In are young, hungry combatants — “rookies,” which has become an underutilized word in recent seasons — eager to the grab the reins of machines that drivers on their last legs took for granted. That little extra zip emanating from the crew members working in the have-not section of the garage is a visible sign of renewed passion. Finally, they have something about which to hope.
The coterie of rookies from 2007 to 2012 was an underwhelming crop. Brad Keselowski emerged to become champion. Joey Logano is just now exhibiting the traits of an intuitive racer. Ricky Stenhouse locked down a high-profile ride and is still chipping away at earning the designation of “legitimate Cup Series driver.” But that’s it. Past “Rookies of the Year” include Kevin Conway, Andy Lally and Stephen Leicht, a hapless bunch when it comes to stock car driving, none of which retained rides past their rookie seasons.
The young driver landscape shifted in the fall of 2013. Kyle Larson (left) received a promotion to a Target-sponsored Chip Ganassi Racing car, a vehicle ubiquitous across all forms of auto racing. Austin Dillon takes the wheel of his grandfather’s primary team and — you might have heard — is sporting a number that invokes memories of the sport’s most polarizing driver ever. Smaller organizations such as BK Racing, Tommy Baldwin Racing, HScott Motorsports and Swan Racing elected to not plunk down six-figure salaries for career replacement-level drivers and instead have attempted to unearth their own stars. As a result, Parker Kligerman, Justin Allgaier, Cole Whitt, Alex Bowman, Ryan Truex and Michael Annett all have Cup rides.
Because the NASCAR season begins at Daytona, everyone’s rookie year starts with the sport’s most prestigious event. This eight-deep group of rookies take significant steps in their careers this Sunday. One rookie, Dillon, made headlines when he put a black No. 3 on the pole in the first Cup Series race for the car number since Dale Earnhardt perished in the No. 3 in Turn 4 of the 2001 Daytona 500. Unlike his seven colleagues in cars branded with yellow stripes that signify their rookie status, this isn’t Dillon’s (left) first 500. He finished 31st last year after scoring a third-place result in his Budweiser Duel qualifying race.
Rookies in the past have used the Daytona 500 as an announcement of their arrival to the big leagues of auto racing, something that each rookie this season would be tickled to emulate.
• Dale Earnhardt’s first Daytona 500, in 1979, was a foreshadowing of sorts. He led 10 laps in a car owned by engineer Will Cronkrite en route to an eighth-place finish. He finished fourth in his qualifying race, an event in which he would go on to win 12 times.
• In a car owned by Harry Ranier, rookie Davey Allison qualified on the front row for 1987’s Daytona 500 after failing to make the race twice in the two years prior. He went on to finish sixth in his qualifying race — he never finished lower than eighth in his six Duel races beyond that season — and finished 27th in the 500. He went on to finish second in the 500 (behind father Bobby Allison) in 1988 and win the whole shebang in 1992.
• In 1993, rookie Jeff Gordon scored a win in his qualifying race and went on to finish fifth in the 500. He is now a three-time winner of the 500 and a five-time Duel race winner.
• Gordon knocked Tony Stewart (right) off of the pole in Daytona 500 qualifying in 1999. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver would battle for the win (against Dale Earnhardt) in his Duel race (he finished sixth) and for the lead during the 500, but ultimately finish 28th. He rebounded well for the remainder of the season: The three wins he scored that year remains a rookie record.
• Scott Wimmer benefited from crew chief Frank Stoddard’s two-tire gambit at the end of the 2004 Daytona, finishing third behind Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart. Unfortunately for Wimmer, the result was the best finish of a Cup Series career than spanned 111 races.
• Trevor Bayne became the first rookie to win the Daytona 500, when, in 2011, he brought Wood Brothers Racing to victory lane. To date, his triumph in the two-car tandem draft show is his only top-5 finish in the Cup Series.
• Loy Allen (1994), Mike Skinner (1997) and Jimmie Johnson (2002) won the pole in their first Daytona 500 attempts. Of the three, Skinner’s 12th-place finish in a Lowe’s-sponsored Richard Childress Racing car was the best performance. Ironically, Johnson would go on to make the Lowe’s-sponsored car a site famous among fans and feared among competitors.
• Sometimes a bad first Daytona 500 isn’t indicative of future success: Richard Petty and his Petty Enterprises race team finished 57th out of 59 cars in their initial 500 start. Petty went on to win the event a record seven times.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has spent much of his career failing to live up to expectations. At this point, fans are preconditioned to believe that NASCAR’s favorite son will never win a championship with Hendrick Motorsports. But a funny thing happened on the way to Earnhardt riding out his career as NASCAR’s Most Popular Disappointment: He ditched the plotline.
On the verge of age 40 (can you believe it?), Earnhardt has experienced a career renaissance. No, there was no Victory Lane for him in 2013 — the fourth season out of six with HMS he’s failed to cash in. But through the strength of a career high 22 top-10 finishes, Earnhardt wound up fifth in the point standings — the best he’s run since 2006. Snagging two poles for the first time in over a decade, he earned 10 top-5 results for a second straight year and seemed fully recovered from the post-concussion syndrome that thwarted his 2012 effort.
How good was Earnhardt? After a blown engine at Chicago, he sported an average finish of 5.5 in the remaining nine races, dropping outside the top 8 only once. A little perspective: In those same nine events, points runner-up Matt Kenseth averaged a finish of 8.1 and champion Jimmie Johnson averaged a 5.1. It’s clear Earnhardt could well have been a title contender if that engine had held up in the Windy City.
So while fans squabble over whether or not Earnhardt is a championship-caliber driver, the man is simply driving like he means it. To take the next step, though, Earnhardt needs to come out swinging in 2014. He needs to win races and then turn his attention to the title. If Earnhardt can nab a couple of trophies in the first 26 events and put together a run like he had last year — minus the blown engine, of course — he can go all the way. But he has to win races.
As always, he’s been afforded the best possible resources. Hendrick Motorsports provides arguably the best equipment in the sport. Earnhardt’s shopmate, Jimmie Johnson, won the 2013 title in the same cars Earnhardt is getting, so there are no foundational issues holding him back. Surprisingly, Earnhardt did suffer more mechanical woes than his teammates last year. HMS drivers suffered four engine failures in all of 2013, and the No. 88 accounted for three of them. Is that just bad luck, or is Earnhardt especially hard on his powerplants? That’s a question his team should be answering moving forward, because there are no mulligans in the Chase.
Oddly, there are a few questions surrounding sponsorship. PepsiCo returns for five races with the Diet Mountain Dew and AMP brands, while National Guard will be on board for 20 events and Kelley Blue Book for one. That leaves 10 points races unaccounted for, with Time Warner Cable’s commitment shifting to Hendrick’s No. 5 team and a new-to-the-sport sponsor being rumored. It’s a bit puzzling to see less than a full slate of backing for Earnhardt, who’s an 11-time Most Popular Driver award winner — that alone brings added value, as fans will buy souvenirs with sponsor brands on them.
The biggest weapon in Earnhardt’s arsenal is the team around him, in particular crew chief Steve Letarte. Unfortunately, that’s a weapon Earnhardt won’t have for long, as the crew chief announced in the offseason that this would be his last tour atop the pit box. Letarte has been largely responsible for a turnaround in his driver’s attitude; he’s the perfect mix of cheerleader and taskmaster. He requires Earnhardt to spend more time in the garage on race weekends, at the shop during the week, and he doesn’t allow him to lapse into complaints when things aren’t working on-track. Instead, Letarte makes Earnhardt communicate — which the driver is actually quite good at. Earnhardt and Letarte share shop space and an open-book policy on race cars with Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, which is a bonus as well. The teams can actually share quite a bit, because Earnhardt and Johnson have similar driving styles and like many of the same setups in a car.
Driver and chief, of course, have assured that the pending split will not effect their season, but only time will tell. Might Earnhardt be even more motivated, set on helping Letarte leave in a blaze of glory? Just maybe.
Regardless, the pieces are in place for this team to win races. If it does so, a championship battle could follow. Earnhardt is driving better than he has in years, his focus over the last two seasons is perhaps the best it’s ever been, and he has the best in the business in his corner. But, again, Earnhardt has to win, which makes his key stat “752.” That’s the number of laps he’s led over the last three seasons; by comparison, teammate Johnson led 1,985 in 2013 alone.
You can’t win races until you run up front consistently — not seventh, not eighth or ninth but on the point. Until Earnhardt shows he can do that, he’s likely to make the Chase but not to finish it on top.
What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
There’s no shortage of opinions when it comes to NASCAR’s most popular driver.
“He’s just a good all-around guy. He’s a good racer, very consistent,” a rival says. “The fan base that he has drives everything in NASCAR, and that is a good thing for the sport, regardless. I think this year he’s going to be in the same equipment that (Jimmie) Johnson won the title with in 2013. He didn’t get a race win, but he was in the top 5 or 10 every week and he’s going to keep sneaking up on it.”
“I don’t think much holds him back other than the pressure,” a crew chief says. “The media side of wanting him to live up to his last name is the only thing he has to deal with — and I don’t really think that is a problem for him.”
However, one media member isn’t sure how long Earnhardt can keep up the consistency: “The last two years were the most intensive his focus on a title has ever been. He came up way short, and I’m wondering if that will have an effect on future focus. He’s slated for a drop at some point, and assuming (Steve) Letarte is still as good of a crew chief as he has been the last three years, I think the driver will hold the team back a little bit.”
Looking at Checkers: Checkers? With two wins in the last seven seasons (both at Michigan) it’s hard to assume he’ll get his.
Pretty Solid Pick: That said, Junior and Stevie Letarte will point ’em to death, particularly on the plate tracks, where they had a pair of runner-up finishes in 2013.
Good Sleeper Pick: The Michigan success seems sleeper-ish to us — actually downright weird — but we’ve covered that. So give him a start at Martinsville, where he owns nine top 10s in the 14 CoT/Gen-6 era events.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: The one and only Cup track where he lacks a top 10 in the CoT/Gen-6 era is that dastardly road course in upstate New York.
Insider Tip: You know the drill by now: Earnhardt has four wins since the start of the ’05 season — that’s nine full years. If you’re serious about winning the fantasy league, bet with your head, not your heart.
No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Sponsors: National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew/AMP Energy/Kelley Blue Book
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Steve Letarte
Years with current team: 7
Under contract through: 2017
Best points finish: 3rd (2003)
Hometown: Kannapolis, N.C.
Born: Oct. 10, 1974
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
From Five-Time, to Six-Pack, to ... best ever? It might be a bit early for that, but there’s no question that Jimmie Johnson belongs in the conversation. His 2013 championship gives him six and places the California native just one short of the Cup Series record, held by two of the sport’s immortals, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Sixty-six career wins are good for eighth all-time, and at age 38, he’s left that total plenty of room to grow. Teammate and mentor Jeff Gordon, who is third on that list with 88, said recently that he has no doubt Johnson will eventually eclipse his total.
Johnson, despite a hard battle with Matt Kenseth, made 2013’s title quest look deceptively easy. He won six times last year, including the Daytona 500 and a record-setting eighth career victory at Dover. He failed to finish only one race — due to a blown engine at Michigan in August — and his average finish of 10.7 was the best of any full-time driver on the circuit. The 5.1 average during the Chase was his best since 2007.
So, while Johnson’s No. 1 ranking may seem a bit repetitive, he’s earned it. The professional ease with which he dominates, at times boring NASCAR’s fan base, is what also keeps him a perpetual favorite. On and off the track, Johnson doesn’t “intimidate.” He simply breezes by the competition in the same way a major corporation snuffs out rivals. It’s like Johnson clocks in at 8:00 a.m., makes innocuous small talk, puts his head down and cranks out paperwork in his cubicle and takes the Employee of the Week award home at 5:00 on Friday. Compelling television? Not always — but it’s working.
All kidding aside, Johnson’s skill behind the wheel truly separates him. Smooth and aggressive, he rarely panics or overdrives the car. Some weeks he makes it all look so effortless in the cockpit that viewers must wonder if the equipment is legal.
It is. But Hendrick Motorsports — NASCAR’s version of the New York Yankees — spares no expense in giving Johnson the best. Hendrick cars are fast, but perhaps what sets the team a notch above other elites such as Joe Gibbs Racing is durability. Among the four HMS teams, there were four engine failures in 2013, one for Johnson and three for teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. In fact, if you include the customers at Stewart-Haas and Chip Ganassi Racing (five teams), the number of Hendrick blown motors was only five. The postseason is even better; Johnson has had only one mechanical DNF in the Chase since 2005.
Crew chief Chad Knaus, in his 13th year atop the pit box for the No. 48, also deserves his share of credit. Knaus has a well-deserved reputation as one of the top innovators in the sport, hands down. While that’s gotten him in trouble in the past, he’s walked the straight and narrow in recent years, perfecting the art of pushing the boundaries. Knaus is also a master at handling those around him, motivating Johnson while making the car improve throughout a race. The Johnson-Knaus chemistry, with its marriage-like communication, is simply unmatched.
Financial stability comes with Lowe’s (and subsidiary Kobalt Tools), which has backed Johnson since Day 1 in the Cup Series. The one question Lowe’s execs asked Johnson, back in 2001, was whether he thought he could win. Johnson said yes, backed it up for a dozen years, and made sure that money was the least of his problems.
One more piece to Johnson’s puzzle comes from teammates. In the early years, it was Gordon who helped Johnson learn the ropes, but now it’s Earnhardt who may be the biggest influence. Johnson and Earnhardt have similar preferences, and Earnhardt has shown that he’s a serious competitor of late, which gives Johnson both information and motivation. Hendrick’s “coopetition” produces results: In 2013, it got all four drivers in the Chase.
The pieces remain in place for Johnson to make a seventh title bid in 2014. Of course, a wacky new Chase format threatens to transform the championship from strategy-based precision to fluky crapshoot. Still, if you had to put money on any one team, this would be the one. He has fast cars, a well-managed team and unquestionable talent. He’s not invincible; pit road personnel shuffles, along with trouble managing double-file restarts, can be Kryptonite. Other teams have caught up a bit with strategy, and Knaus occasionally will get burned. And don’t be concerned about the tweaks to NASCAR’s Gen-6 — changes keep Knaus drooling, working 24/7 to burn up the competition on setups and stay 10 steps ahead at the start.
If the team can do that, Johnson has a shot at joining Petty and Earnhardt in immortality — one step away from creating a level all his own.
What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
There’s not a lot competitors can say about Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team that hasn’t already been said.
“He’s a six-time champion,” says one rival crew chief. “He proved more than once last year that he could beat superior cars just because of his driving ability; Chad Knaus is the best in the business; and the Chase is made up of tracks where Johnson shines. Now he has the goal of tying history and has always done well when goals were within reach. And did I mention Chad Knaus? Also, being in the first garage stall gives his team a feeling of confidence that shows up on the track — there’s a mental edge there.”
“There’s nothing negative to say,” a competitor says, shaking his head. “Except that he didn’t win the title in 2010 or 2011. Going forward, there will be intense pressure from fans and media as he tries to tie (Richard) Petty and (Dale) Earnhardt with seven titles.”
One media member asks: “The best ever? It’s impossible to accurately compare drivers of different eras, but the case can certainly be made. I hope that after last year’s performance fans will realize that Johnson isn’t just some creation of Rick Hendrick’s money and Chad Knaus’ know-how. He is, without question, the best driver out there.”
Looking at Checkers: Honestly, would it surprise you if he were to win at any track on any given weekend?
Pretty Solid Pick: The Martinsville tallies — with six wins and 12 top 10s in 14 CoT/Gen-6 era races — are just astounding.
Good Sleeper Pick: Sleeper? Please. Well OK, maybe at Watkins Glen.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: J.J. is winless at only five Cup tracks: Chicagoland, Homestead, Kentucky, Michigan and the Glen — though that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s out to lunch.
Insider Tip: He’ll break the Michigan and Chicago jinxes soon enough, Kentucky’s sample size is still miniscule, and he’s points racing at Homestead. The roadies are an issue (relatively speaking), but the truth is that there are few, if any, chinks in the armor. This is hands-down the best team in the sport.
No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Sponsor: Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools
Owner: Rick Hendrick/Jeff Gordon
Crew Chief: Chad Knaus
Years with current team: 13
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 1st (2006, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10, ’13)
Hometown: El Cajon, Calif.
Born: Sept. 17, 1975
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Unpredictable. Unprecedented. Messy. Yet, at times, borderline miraculous. All of these words applied to four-time champion Jeff Gordon in perhaps the craziest season of his career. He almost won a few times. He got wrecked — a lot. He missed the Chase. Then he made the Chase. He was counted out as a contender. Then he made himself one. He won a race, putting himself in position for perhaps NASCAR’s biggest asterisk … only to run 38th and flop the very next week. He limped home sixth in points, his best showing since 2009. And somewhere in there, he was the owner of record on Jimmie Johnson’s championship car, leaving him a 10-time Cup titlist both inside and outside the cockpit.
Yes, that all really happened. Gordon’s 2013 season got off to a roller-coaster start. It seemed as though each week he was either running among the leaders or getting caught up in something in the pack. Sometimes, it was a little of both, leaving the team in desperation mode heading to Richmond in September. Gordon’s last hope for a Chase berth was a “wild card win,” a cause he furthered by winning the pole. But there was no miracle, not enough points; the postseason field was set, and Gordon was on the outside looking in for only the second time in Chase history.
And then all hell broke loose.
Michael Waltrip Racing was caught trying to manipulate the finish at Richmond, meaning that Martin Truex Jr. was out of the playoffs and Ryan Newman was in. But only when questions also arose about a possible deal between Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports — designed to give rival Joey Logano a postseason cushion — did NASCAR decide that there was enough doubt about who had really raced their way in. In an unprecedented move, Gordon was added to the field as a 13th entry, just hours before qualifying began for the first Chase race at Chicagoland.
It was then that Gordon finally came alive. He won only once, but he made it clear that he was there, rescuing a season that might otherwise have been the worst of his career. In the end, there wasn’t enough in the tank to win it all, but what he did do was make it clear that the 22-year vet was still hungry, and with a little good luck somewhere, could contend for a fifth title.
How much of that momentum will carry into 2014? It’s hard to say. Gordon will be paired with crew chief Alan Gustafson once again; the pair has six wins over three seasons and has never finished lower than 10th in points together. Both men have a deep respect for one another, yet at one point last season it looked like poor performance would do them in. A heart-to-heart behind the scenes, occurring last July at New Hampshire, was the saving grace that kept them glued together. Gustafson is a technical crew chief, a good mesh for NASCAR’s modern, engineering-focused technology. But where he’s so good on setups, the team often fails on strategy, losing track position in a time when traffic means the difference between fifth and 15th.
Gordon has a lifetime contract with Hendrick, although the clock is ticking. Longtime sponsor Axalta (formerly DuPont) is signed through 2016; AARP is in the final year of its deal, and with Hendrick protégé Chase Elliott rising quickly through the ranks, it’s unclear what the future holds for the relationship. With long-term deals in place for HMS teammates Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, it’s clear what road Elliott will travel to Cup.
Gordon can race as long as he wants, but with four DNFs for wrecks last year (and involvement in a few more), he’s aware of the sport’s physical toll. Add in two young children and the priorities that accompany a family, and it becomes obvious that times have changed for NASCAR’s driver of the ’90s. Expect the retirement question to pop up this season, a potential distraction for what’s been the slowest of Hendrick’s four-car operation. Gordon himself added fuel to that fire before the season even began, telling the media, “If that (fifth title) happened, that would be all the reasons I need to say, ‘This is it. I’m done.’ Go out on a high note.”
That leaves time on the wrong side for Gordon, whose former rival, Dale Earnhardt Sr., won his last title at age 43 — which is how old Gordon will be midseason. The key for Gordon will be the first 10 races, where he has slipped outside the top 10 in points the last two seasons. Struggling out of the box for a third year, against ever-increasing competition, will not be the charm for a legend who’s learned the hard way that there’s a fine line these days between “hanging in” and “hanging on.”
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“Gordon showed during the Chase that he can still wheel it,” a rival crew chief says. “And of course he’s in Hendrick equipment. He faced a lot of criticism in 2013, and the resolve inside of him stepped up and made him drive even harder. I think he’s really enjoying showing his kids what Daddy does for a living and sharing victories with them.”
“He’s getting older,” another says. “There aren’t many drivers who’ve won a title after 40 — and he’ll have to go through his teammate to do so. … Gordon hasn’t put together a multiple-win season in years, and honestly, Alan Gustafson hasn’t shown that he can put Gordon in contention for a title very much during his tenure on the box. Surprisingly, the Gen-6 car hasn’t made much of a difference in his performance.”
“It’s hard to imagine Jeff Gordon as an elder statesman, but that’s what he now is in this sport,” a veteran media member says. “We’ve seen other drivers in years gone by assume that role while struggling to continue to pile up wins and championships. At this point in his career, Gordon is more competitive than most of those guys were, but his days of 10-win seasons and titles are over.”
Looking at Checkers: Trophies are liable to come on any track for Gordon — just don’t expect for them to come in bundles anymore.
Pretty Solid Pick: Gordon has scored multiple victories at only one track since 2011: Pocono.
Good Sleeper Pick: In his last 10 starts at Darlington, Gordon has eight finishes of fifth or better with one victory (2007).
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Oddly, his worst track statistically since the advent of the CoT is Watkins Glen, where Gordon has averaged a 22.1-place finish with two top 10s in seven races.
Insider Tip: Eighty-eight career victories, but only 13 in the CoT/Gen-6 era. Assign blame as you will, but understand that he’s not going to net your fantasy team a ton of wins.
No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Sponsors: AARP “Drive to End Hunger”/Axalta/Pepsi
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson
Years with current team: 22
Under contract through: Lifetime
Best points finish: 1st (1995, ’97, ’98, 2001)
Hometown: Vallejo, Calif.
Born: Aug. 4, 1971
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
What Kasey Kahne needs most heading into the 2014 NASCAR season is a little luck. He couldn’t seem to find much of it in 2013 and, as a result, finished a distant 12th in the Chase standings. Entering the season among the title favorites, Kahne instead was caught in a tale of two extremes. When things were going right, he climbed as high as second in points, collecting trophies at both Bristol and Pocono along the way. But when they weren’t, the field blew by, including teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. That duo put together outstanding Chase runs to cap off the season while Kahne faltered down the stretch. Three finishes of 27th or lower in the final 10 races sealed the driver’s fate; he was out of the championship picture by early October.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that a lot of the problems weren’t Kahne’s fault. He actually led more laps in 2013 than in his first year with Hendrick, when Kahne finished a solid fourth — and closing — in the standings. But the normally even-keeled driver seemed off-kilter by the end of last season. A bizarre post-wreck interview at Loudon had some observers thinking concussion; three earlier wrecks at plate races, two at the hands of Kyle Busch, portrayed an image of a “nice guy” getting borderline bullied. Even a second-place run at Bristol in August, where he failed to “bump ’n’ run” for the win with Matt Kenseth — another driver who had wronged him, at Watkins Glen — fueled whispers that the driver wouldn’t ever fight back when it came to on-track contact.
No matter what side of that debate you fall on, there’s no arguing that Kahne’s average finish of 16.2 was his lowest since 2010. He finished outside the top 25 10 times in 2013 — more than a quarter of the season and double the number of “bad” races teammate Johnson had on his way to the title. Kahne also failed to win a pole for the first time in four years. But, for all that, he failed to finish only three races. That’s a testament to the determination of the No. 5 bunch.
Heading into 2014, Kahne’s team remains both stable and resilient. Kenny Francis returns as crew chief, an excellent leader who communicates well with his driver. Kahne and Francis have been together since 2006, transitioning through multiple teams and ownership crises to be the longest-tenured head wrench-driver combo behind Johnson and Chad Knaus. Francis handles Kahne well while bringing an assortment of knowledge and creativity that keeps this team on top of NASCAR’s Gen-6 chassis.
The other baseline pieces are in place. Hendrick equipment has won seven of the last eight Cup titles, and Kahne is coming to the track every week in the best stuff money can buy. Sponsorship is also never a problem. Farmers Insurance will foot most of the bill this year, along with Time Warner Cable, Great Clips and Pepsi. Kahne represents them well (he’s been a good sport in making some fairly outrageous commercials over the years) and is popular with fans. The result is solid backing that’s mutually beneficial.
Perhaps the biggest advantage Kahne has in driving for Hendrick, though, is the way the organization is run. All four teams have an “open-book” policy, pulling information from one another and working in tandem to achieve great success. Kahne shares shop space with four-time champion Jeff Gordon, a decent match as the veteran schools the youngster on improving. Team owner Rick Hendrick has long said that the secret to the team’s success is its people, putting Kahne in position for a breakthrough.
That leaves the key for 2014 as consistency — and courage. Staying out of trouble can be out of one’s control, but good racers also maximize their opportunities. Even with all his strength on intermediate ovals, which make up half the Chase, Kahne was the bridesmaid at 1.5-mile ovals four times in 2013. Second place, without the bonus points for winning, truly makes you the first loser under the Chase format. The Washington campaigner, overshadowed by his more successful teammates, has to find a way to get over the hump.
On paper, Kahne has the talent to win a Cup championship. He has the equipment and the team that can take him there. But until Lady Luck shines bright once again, what you’ll get is a lower-first-tier driver still trying to believe it.
What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“He drives for Hendrick Motorsports, and there isn’t a greater advantage in the sport than driving for the best team in the sport,” says a crew chief from across the garage. “When Kahne has it going on a mile-and-a-half track, he’s among the best in the sport. If he can become more consistent on the intermediate tracks, he could make a run at a title. … He’s also very versatile — running on dirt and asphalt in other vehicles. That versatility helps give him the ability to handle cars that are less than perfect, although he can’t seem to overcome all of his car’s ails.”
Another crew chief agrees that consistency on the intermediates can be an issue with Kahne: “While Kahne can be good on mile-and-a-half tracks, he can also stink. He needs to learn how to find a happier medium when his car isn’t win-worthy. When the other drivers at Hendrick are looking consistently strong, the pressure can mount if Kahne isn’t running as well. How he handles that pressure can determine his success.”
“This sounds strange, but he’s almost the forgotten man at Hendrick,” says a member of the media. “I’m not sure that even more wins or a title can fix that.”
Looking at Checkers: Don’t pigeonhole Kahne as simply an intermediate-track master, as his finishes of first and second at Bristol last season suggest otherwise.
Pretty Solid Pick: Charlotte, where he’s garnered four points-paying wins and a victory in the ’08 All-Star Race.
Good Sleeper Pick: He’s feast or famine at Pocono, with two wins offset by four showings of 27th or worse in the CoT/Gen-6 era.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Not the first driver you think of when the series hits the plate tracks. And with pretty good reason.
Insider Tip: Is he ready to make a play for the title? Entering the prime of his career, Kahne saw his numbers regress in 2013 from 2012. We wonder if that would have been the case were his team housed in the No. 48’s building.
No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Sponsors: Farmers Insurance/Great Clips/Time Warner/Pepsi
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Kenny Francis
Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 4th (2012)
Hometown: Enumclaw, Wash.
Born: April 10, 1980
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
The main event of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, ladies figure skating, is upon us. The sport’s top 30 diminutive divas will soon be toe-looping, lutzing, Salchow-ing and spinning at the Iceberg Skating Palace. Short programs will be performed Wednesday, Feb. 19, with the top 24 skaters advancing to the free skate on Thursday, Feb. 20. All eyes will be on these 10 world-renowned skaters, ranked here by their betting odds from gambling website Bovada.com.
1. Yuna Kim, 23, Korea (Odds: 1/1)
The “Queen” is the reigning Olympic champion, winning gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics with a world record score of 78.50. Kim’s signature jump combination is the triple lutz, triple toe loop as seen in the GIF above. But it is the vivid facial expressions and vibrant arm movements that make Korea’s top Olympian figure skating royalty. Another gold medal would make Kim the first repeat winner since East Germany’s Katarina Witt won at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics and 1988 Calgary Olympics.
2. Julia Lipnitskaia, 15, Russia (Odds: 6/5)
Young Yulia is poised to become Russia’s first-ever ladies singles figure skating gold medalist, which would also make the 15-year-old the youngest gold medal winner in the sport’s history, as she is six days younger than American golden girl Tara Lipinski was at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Lipnitskaia is a spinning top with her brilliant Biellmann position and gymnast-style contortions on the ice. The Sochi crowd — which will certainly include President Vladimir Putin — will be on Lipnitskaia’s side as she attempts to spin and bend her way into Olympic lore in front of her home nation.
3. Mao Asada, 23, Japan (Odds: 9/2)
The silver medalist at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics is the only skater with a triple axle (followed by double toe loop in the frame-by-frame breakdown above) in her arsenal. Asada has cut down the difficulty in her routine in favor of a more free-flowing program — with only one triple axle rather than two. Asada will be the 30th and final skater in the short program but will likely be near the top of the standings heading into the free skate.
4. Carolina Kostner, 27, Italy (Odds: 14/1)
Making her third Olympic appearance, Kostner hopes to improve upon her seventh-place finish at the 2010 Vancouver Games and her 11th-place finish at the 2006 Turin Games. Known more for her stylish ice dancing than her technical skill, Kostner has the unenviable task of following Russian ice princess Julia Lipnitskaia in the short program, which is arguably the worst draw of the 30 slots.
5. Gracie Gold, 18, USA (Odds: 16/1)
With a Grace Kelly smile and Gold medal first place last name, Gold has become the unofficial face of the red, white and blue in Sochi. The Chicago native is the USA's Cover Girl, stopping by The Tonight Show and doing People Magazine profiles. She’s the 2014 U.S. Championships gold medal winner and aiming to join Sarah Hughes (2002 Salt Lake), Tara Lipinski (1998 Nagano), Kristi Yamaguchi (1992 Albertville), Dorothy Hamill (1976 Innsbruck), Peggy Fleming (1968 Grenoble), Carol Heiss (1960 Squaw Valley) and Tenley Albright (1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo) as the eighth American gold medalist in Olympic figure skating history.
6. Adelina Sotnikova, 17, Russia (Odds: 28/1)
Although countrywoman Julia Lipnitskaia is spinning her way to the headlines and highlights, Sotnikova is the reigning Russian Championships gold medalist, European Championships silver medalist and a legitimate medal contender in her own right.
7. Kanako Murakami, 19, Japan (Odds: 28/1)
If you believe Japan’s second-best medal hopeful, the island nation’s “very scary” moms are the reason for their success. “It’s not just the coaches who crack the whip but those mothers,” she says.
8. Ashley Wagner, 22, USA (Odds: 33/1)
It’s been a long fall for the 2013 U.S. Championships gold medalist turned skating meme. The thrill of victory and agony of “bull$#!*” scoring from stingy skating judges have become a popular internet juxtaposition joke.
9. Akiko Suzuki, 28, Japan (Odds: 33/1)
The elder stateswoman of Japanese skating, Suzuki finished 11th at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. She teams with Mao Asada and Kanako Murakami to give Japan arguably the top trio of skaters in the competition.
10. Polina Edmunds, 15, USA (Odds: 50/1)
The San Jose, Calif., native follows in the Olympic footsteps of former Archbishop Mitty High School alums Brandi Chastain (soccer) and Kerri Walsh Jennings (beach volleyball) — who have a combined five gold medals between them.
Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons was dismissed from the team on Tuesday due to a violation of team rules.
Harvey-Clemons was already slated to miss the first three games of 2014 due to a suspension, but coach Mark Richt decided to dismiss the safety permanently this week.
Harvey-Clemons was regarded as a five-star prospect by Scout.com in the 2012 signing class. He played in 14 games as a freshman, recording 14 tackles and one pass breakup.
As a sophomore, Harvey-Clemons was expected to emerge as one of the key players on Georgia’s defense. He missed two games but recorded 66 tackles and one interception.
Harvey-Clemons has two years of eligibility remaining and could transfer to another FBS school.
Major news: Josh Harvey-Clemons has been dismissed from the Georgia football team for a violation of team rules, UGA announces.— Seth Emerson (@SethEmerson) February 18, 2014
8-11:30 p.m. Eastern
The fog-induced delays are over, and Sochi's back in business, with a number of entertaining and action-packed events on tonight's ledger.
1. Alpine Skiing — Women's Giant Slalom
Tina Maze of Slovenia is the headliner in this event and will go for her second gold of these Games. Mikaela Shiffrin represents America's best medal hope.
Read more here: http://www.adn.com/2014/02/17/3330841/american-bohonnon-qualifies-for.html#storylink=cpy
2. Freestyle Skiing — Men's Halfpipe
You would expect the U.S. to dominate the X-Games events in Sochi, and the Americans are on their way to doing just that. David Wise of the U.S. skis for gold in the halfpipe.
3. Short Track Speed Skating — Women's Relay
Elbows and bodies are likely to fly in this delightfully chaotic event, as South Korea and Canada battle for gold.
4. Women's Bobsled
Lolo Jones makes her highly anticipated Winter Olympics debut, but she's far from the only story on the bobsled track. In fact, the American duo of pilot Elana Meyers and brakeman Lauryn Williams are the headliners and their nation's best hope for gold.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Feb. 18.
• We've learned that Kate Upton is in fact on the cover of this year's SI Swimsuit issue. It's the back cover, but it's still the cover.
• Those luxurious Sochi accommodations are still making headlines. Canadian bobsledder Heather Moyse had to take a hot bath in a trash can. And Lolo Jones did a little video expose on the horrible food they're feeding the athletes.
• Members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot were detained and then released in Sochi. I'm convinced that journalists keep their story alive just to say Pussy Riot.
• Anyway, without social media, we wouldn't have this hilarious assortment of Twitpics.
• Being a pro athlete comes with its share of perks. Obviously.
• What's the deal this year with insane high school buzzer-beaters? Here's another one. Maybe it's just social media bringing them to our attention this year.
• This dude was prepared for the Kiss Cam. Well played.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The Bowl Championship Series is dead. But even the harshest of BCS detractors must acknowledge that the 16-year run was arguably the best era of college football in the history of the sport.
The era was highlighted by the advent of the BCS Championship Game, conference realignment and mega-dollar contracts for conferences, programs and coaches. But the elite athletes had a huge, if not the biggest, hand in the unprecedented growth of college football over the last two decades.
So Athlon Sports is looking back on the players that made the BCS Era great — conference-by-conference, position-by-position.
The saying goes defense wins championships and the quarterback of that defense is likely the most important player on the field. Generally, that means middle linebackers. So in a league that has dominated college football during the BCS Era, it is to be expected that the SEC has a long list of historically great linebackers.
Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.
1. Patrick Willis, Ole Miss (2003-06)
The unheralded Tennessee native was overlooked by most of the SEC big boys and made them all pay by becoming the league’s best linebacker of the BCS Era. Rising from utter poverty to the best LB in the nation, Willis claimed the Butkus and Lambert Awards in 2006. He posted 265 tackles and 21.0 for loss over his final two seasons, earning SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors and All-American status as a senior. He was taken with the 11th overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft by San Francisco.
2. Al Wilson, Tennessee (1995-98)
Wilson isn’t as decorated as some of his BCS brethren but few players had as big an impact on their team as the Vols middle linebacker. He helped lead Tennessee to two SEC championships and the historic and unblemished 1998 national title. He was a consensus All-American, a consummate teammate on and off the field and was the 31st overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.
3. Rolando McClain, Alabama (2007-09)
His fall from grace aside, McClain was one of the BCS’s great defensive leaders. He started eight games and posted 75 tackles as a freshman before earning some All-American honors as a sophomore (95 tackles). As the unquestioned heartbeat of the Alabama defense, McClain led the Crimson Tide back to the BCS promised land with a perfect senior season. He posted 105 tackles, 14.5 for loss, four sacks and two interceptions. He earned SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors, was a unanimous All-American and won both the Butkus and Lambert Awards. He was the eighth overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.
4. C.J. Mosley, Alabama (2010-13)
Few players can boast both a Butkus Award and a national championship — let alone two national championships and freshman All-American honors. Mosley posted a career-high 108 tackles and 9.0 tackles for loss and came up one play shy of winning back-to-back SEC titles and possibly a third BCS title. He collected 318 career tackles and 23.0 tackles for loss in his decorated and illustrious career in Tuscaloosa. Alabama went 46-7 during Mosley’s time on campus and was ranked No. 1 in the nation in all four seasons.
5. DeMeco Ryans, Alabama (2002-05)
The former three-star recruit outperformed all expectations for the Crimson Tide. In 2005 as a senior, he was a unanimous All-American, won the Lott Trophy and was named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year. Ryans finished with 76 tackles and five sacks in his final season and just missed winning the Nagurski, Butkus and Draddy Awards as well. The Crimson Tide tackler was a second-round pick in 2006 by the Texans.
6. Jarvis Jones, Georgia (2011-12)
Jones was a Lambert Award winner, a two-time All-American, led the nation in sacks as a sophomore (14.5), forced more fumbles in 2012 (7) than any player in his conference during the BCS Era and was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year. He also led Georgia to consecutive SEC East titles and was the 17th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. He finished his career with 168 total tackles, 45.5 tackles for loss and 28.0 sacks in two years as a starter in Athens.
7. Brandon Spikes, Florida (2006-09)
Spikes' resume is virtually complete. He was a two-time, consensus All-American, a three-time, first-team All-SEC selection, won two BCS National Championships, was a second-round pick and dated Doc Rivers' daughter. He posted 307 total tackles and started 39 of his 47 career games as a Gator before a slow 40-time caused him to fall into the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
8. Jevon Kearse, Florida (1995-98)
Kearse originally showed up on campus as a 215-pound safety. He eventually worked his way onto the field with a rare combination of length and explosiveness. The Freak played just one year in the BCS Era but helped lead the Gators to a national title in 1996. He was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 1998, was a two-time All-SEC pick and a first-team All-American. The Titans selected The Freak with the 16th pick of the 1999 NFL Draft.
9. Mike Peterson, Florida (1995-98)
Much like Kearse, the Gators linebacker was an All-American and led the defense to the 1996 national championship and two SEC titles. He finished his career with 249 tackles, 13.0 for loss and 8.5 sacks in 42 career games before getting picked with the 36th overall selection of the 1999 NFL Draft.
10. Karlos Dansby, Auburn (2001-03)
Dansby had to grow into a linebacker after coming to Auburn as a defensive back but he was one of the league’s great defensive playmakers during his time in college. He was a two-time All-SEC selection and an All-American in his final season on The Plains. He finished his career with 219 tackles, 36.0 tackles for loss, 10.0 sacks and eight interceptions. Dansby was a second-round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.
Just missed the cut:
11. Bradie James, LSU (1999-02)
James was a tackling machine who helped rebuild the LSU program from SEC also-ran to national title winner the year after he departed. He is one of just two players in school history with 400 tackles (418) and set the school’s single-season record for stops with 154 as a senior in 2002. James was an All-American and an All-SEC player in some fashion all four years on campus (two first-team selections, one second as well as Freshman All-SEC).
12. Raynoch Thompson, Tennessee (1996-99)
Alongside Wilson in Knoxville, Thompson was an integral part of a national championship run for the Vols in 1998. He was a two-time Butkus finalist and an All-American performer for Tennessee. Thompson was the 41st overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals.
13. Courtney Upshaw, Alabama (2008-11)
The star linebacker won two national championships, two SEC titles, was the BCS title game MVP in 2012 and was an All-American on what many call the best defensive unit of the BCS Era. Bama was 48-6 during his time in college. Upshaw posted 104 tackles, 32.5 for loss and 16.5 sacks in his final two seasons.
14. Dont’a Hightower, Alabama (2008-11)
Lining up next to Upshaw the entire time was Hightower. Hailing from the middle Tennessee area, Hightower led Bama’s historic ’11 defense with 85 stops. He finished with 234 career tackles and 21.0 tackles for loss. He was the 25th overall pick in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
15. Boss Bailey, Georgia (1999-02)
The younger brother to Dawgs superstar Champ Bailey, Boss was a three-year starter for the Bulldogs during his time. He earned All-SEC honors and was a Butkus and Lombardi Award contender throughout his tenure in Athens. In his final season, he helped bring an SEC championship to Georgia for the first time since 1982.
Best of the Rest:
16. Rennie Curran, Georgia (2007-09)
17. Jerod Mayo, Tennessee (2005-07)
18. Jamie Winborn, Vanderbilt (1997-00)
19. Jasper Brinkley, South Carolina (2007-08)
20. Danny Trevathan, Kentucky (2008-11)
21. Channing Crowder, Florida (2002-05)
22. Odell Thurman, Georgia (2003-04)
23. Kelvin Sheppard, LSU (2007-10)
24. Kevin Burnett, Tennessee (2001-04)
25. Andrew Wilson, Missouri (2010-13)
Syracuse and Wichita State remain undefeated. Doug McDermott scored a bunch. And Florida handled a couple of SEC teams.
On the surface, the last week was pretty typical as far as the 2013-14 season goes.
But behind all those things we’ve come to accept as automatic this season, there are a few interesting numbers to crunch.
Wichita State is the first to do something in a decade. Syracuse may hit a mark that coincides with the dawn of the Jim Boeheim era. And Florida did something it never has during the Billy Donovan era.
Those, of course, weren’t the only statistical notables. Nebraska and Memphis were on opposite sides of ending droughts this week among other numericals from the week in college basketball.
College Basketball Key Stats of the Week: Feb. 18
21. Teams to win their first 27 games
Wichita State’s seeding in the NCAA Tournament is going to be a hot debate if the Shockers get to Selection Sunday undefeated. After Saturday, they’re still in rarefied air by starting 27-0, the 21st team in NCAA history to do so. The last was a Jameer Nelson-led St. Joseph’s team in 2003-04. St. Joe’s streak ended at 27 games when the Red Hawks lost to Xavier in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Wichita State has four more regular-season games before it even gets to the Missouri Valley Tournament. That 2003-04 St. Joe’s team, by the way, was a No. 1 seed and lost to Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight.
70. Points per game for Syracuse
Scoring is up nation-wide, but the nation’s No. 1 has not contributed to that trend. Syracuse continued its 25-0 start despite never cracking 60 points in the last three games. Tempo-free and per possession statistics are the preferred measure these days, but it’s still jarring to see Syracuse averaging a mere 70 points per game. If the trend sticks, this will be the lowest-scoring Syracuse team since 1962-63. That team during Jim Boeheim's freshman season as a player averaged 62 points per game.
60. Creighton’s 3-point shooting rate against Villanova
Villanova did a better job of shutting down the 3-point line in the rematch against Creighton, but it still wasn't enough. The Bluejays still shot 9 of 15 from long range in Sunday’s 101-80 win to sweep Villanova. Led by Ethan Wragge nine 3s earlier this season, Creighton made 21 3-pointers in the first meeting on Jan. 20. In the two meetings, Creighton was 30 of 50 from long range against its only competition for the Big East crown.
33.1. Villanova’s 3-point percentage defense in its other 23 games
Creighton’s season sweep of Villanova has been so dominating, it has made the Wildcats’ defensive numbers look average. Teams not named Creighton are shooting 33.1 percent from 3 against the Wildcats. The same is true from the field at large: Creighton shot 60.4 percent in two games against Villanova. The Wildcats have held everyone else to 39.5 percent shooting.
2-0. Florida’s record in Knoxville and Lexington this season
Not a whole lot of teams win in Rupp Arena, especially since John Calipari took over. And for some reason, Tennessee had Florida’s number even when the Gators won back-to-back national championships. This week, Florida did something that the Gators hadn’t done during the Billy Donovan era or even the Lon Kruger era by winning road games at Kentucky and Tennessee in the same season. Florida hadn’t swept road games in Lexington and Knoxville since 1988, and in 2014, the Gators did it within four days.
29. Consecutive road games vs. top 10 teams Nebraska lost before Sunday
If Nebraska is going to make a late push for the NCAA Tournament, Sunday’s win over No. 9 Michigan State in East Lansing was a key development for the Cornhuskers. Nebraska defeated the Spartans 60-51 for only the Huskers’ fourth win over a top 10 team on the road in school history. Nebraska had lost 29 consecutive road games to top 10 opponents going back to a Feb. 22, 1997 win over No. 7 Iowa State.
42. Percentage of UConn’s field goals accounted for by Shabazz Napier
A case for the most indispensable player in the country may start with UConn’s Shabazz Napier. With 134 field goals and 137 assists this season, Napier played a direct role in 42 percent of the Huskies baskets this season. On Saturday, he even raised that average in an 86-81 overtime win over Memphis. Napier had 10 baskets and four assists to account for 58 percent of the Huskies’ field goals on Saturday.
0-2. Memphis’ record against UConn in the regular season
Memphis had no peer in the watered-down Conference USA lineup. That has changed in the American, even if the top teams in the league have a substantial edge over the bottom half. With UConn’s win in Memphis on Jan. 16 and in Storrs on Feb. 16, the Huskies are the first team to sweep Memphis during the regular season since Southern Miss did it in 2000-01. SMU and Cincinnati, the only other AAC teams to beat Memphis this season, could do the same in the last two games of the regular season.
296. Career blocks by Arizona State’s Jordan Bachynski
More than a week ago, Arizona State’s Jordan Bachynski quietly broke a 25-year-old Pac-12 record for blocks. Then came an eight-block night in the upset of Arizona on Friday. Bachynski will shatter the Pac-12 career block record set by Arizona’s Anthony Cook (278 blocks from 1985-89).
55. Minutes played by Canisius’ Billy Baron on Saturday
In this spot earlier this season, we noted that Providence’s Bryce Cotton averaged 46.2 minutes per game in conference play. Cotton has nothing on Billy Baron. The nation’s third-leading scorer played all 55 minutes in Saturday’s 92-88 win over Siena in triple overtime. Baron, naturally, filled the stat sheet with 40 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
Not that this is going to assuage fans of our No. 12 team here, but the difference between the 12th coaching tandem in the Pac-12 and the fourth is razor thin.
Indeed, there’s a lot to like about the final Pac-12 coaching tandem on this list.
The Pac-12 coaching tandems for 2014 had a knack for balancing struggling basketball coaches (Ken Bone and Craig Robinson) with superb football coaches (Mike Leach and Mike Riley).
In other spots, there are known commodities as basketball coaches (Lorenzo Romar, Tad Boyle and Mike Montgomery) paired up with football coaches new to the Pac-12 level (Chris Petersen, Mike MacIntyre and Sonny Dykes).
The top two picks for coaching tandems were a little easier given our primary criteria in ranking the tandems: Balance.
To reiterate, we like a coaching tandem that keeps fans happy from the start of football season to the end of basketball season, from August to April. That made our top two picks clear in our eyes.
Football: Rich Rodriguez | Basketball: Sean Miller
Sean Miller’s last four NCAA Tournament appearances have resulted in either a Sweet 16 or an Elite Eight. It’s only a matter of time before he gets to the Final Four or better, especially as he’s returned Arizona to national powerhouse status. Rodriguez has made the most of his second chance in a major conference since his ill-fated tenure at Michigan. The Wildcats have back-to-back eight win seasons and back-to-back bowl wins in two seasons under RichRod.
Football: Jim L. Mora | Basketball: Steve Alford
With 19 wins in two seasons, UCLA football is a factor again in the Pac-12 even if the Bruins haven’t broken through for a conference title. Alford’s hire was greeted with skepticism, but the Bruins are in NCAA Tournament contention in his first season in Westwood. Expectations soon will be higher.
Football: David Shaw | Basketball: Johnny Dawkins
Shaw has established himself as the top football coach in the Pac-12, leading the Cardinal to back-to-back conference titles. Stanford is 34-7 with three BCS bids under Shaw with plenty of potential to continue given his recruiting success. Dawkins hasn’t matched the success of his predecessors Mike Montgomery or Trent Johnson, but Stanford basketball is finally back in NCAA Tournament contention after a six-year absence.
4. Arizona State
Football: Todd Graham | Basketball: Herb Sendek
Graham’s reputation as a job jumper will follow him around, but he can coach. The Sun Devils improved from 6-7 the year before he arrived to 8-5 his first season to 10-4 in his second. Sendek is a veteran coach who is probably earning himself more time after entering the season with his future in question. Arizona State is poised for its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2009.
Football: Mark Helfrich | Basketball: Dana Altman
Helfrich went 11-2 overall and 7-2 in the Pac-12 in his first season as a head coach. The next question is if he can sustain Oregon as a national power. Altman wasn’t the first choice for the basketball program, but he’s led the Ducks to a Sweet 16 berth in his third season. Sustainability will be worth watching for Altman as well. His program has been a haven for high-profile transfers, for better or worse.
Football: Chris Petersen | Basketball: Lorenzo Romar
Washington ended up being the school that could finally pry Petersen away from Boise State. Petersen’s predecessors Dan Hawkins and Dirk Koetter struggled once they left Boise though neither was as highly regarded as Petersen, who led Boise State to two undefeated seasons. Romar’s program has been up and down. He has three Sweet 16 appearances, three conference tournament championships and two regular season titles during his tenure.
Football: Mike MacIntyre | Basketball: Tad Boyle
Colorado has made two of the best coaching hires in recent seasons, and the Buffaloes needed them in a major way. Boyle has led Colorado to three consecutive postseason appearances for the first time in school history. A fourth and third consecutive NCAA appearance could be on the way despite a season-ending injury to Spencer Dinwiddie. The football program is counting on MacIntyre to replicate his reclamation project at San Jose State.
Football: Sonny Dykes | Basketball: Mike Montgomery
Montgomery is one of the top coaches in the Pac-12 — going back to his time at Stanford. Cal is rarely one of the top teams in the league, but the Bears have been consistently above average under Montgomery. That’s not easy at Cal. Football is starting from scratch under Dykes, who had a good track record at Louisiana Tech, but the Bears were a dreadful 1-11 in his first season in Berkeley.
9. Oregon State
Football: Mike Riley | Basketball: Craig Robinson
Riley generally has been an overachiever at Oregon State, leading the Beavers to 36 wins in four seasons from 2006-09. That said, Oregon State has had a losing conference record in three of the last four seasons. Basketball has made strides under Robinson, but the program hasn’t been able to get over the CBI hump. That’s not likely to change in his sixth season.
10. Washington State
Football: Mike Leach | Basketball: Ken Bone
Wazzu is creeping back toward relevance in football as Leach has installed his pass-oriented offense in Pullman. The transition might have been slower than expected, but a bowl appearance in his second season is a major improvement from where Washington State was only three seasons ago. With an overall losing record in five seasons, Bone may be near the end of his tenure with the basketball program.
Football: Steve Sarkisian | Basketball: Andy Enfield
USC athletics director Pat Haden didn’t have much of a grace period, having to make a number of key hires early in his tenure. He twice went young an energetic with Sarkisian and Enfield. One is a known commodity who was a former assistant who already had success at a Pac-12 school (Sarkisian). The other was an obscure name until he won two games in March (Enfield).
Football: Kyle Whittingham | Basketball: Larry Krystkowiak
In no other league would Utah be ranked last, but the Utes are still looking to be competitive in both sports. Whittingham has a Sugar Bowl victory on his resume, but the Utes are 9-18 in Pac-12 play in three seasons. Krystkowiak took over a mess of a program mired in player transfers. He’s laid the groundwork for a competitive team that could head to the NIT only two seasons after going 6-25.
Each day from mid-February through late November, a small band of motorsports journalists work nearly around the clock — this being the digital age — to keep rabid NASCAR fans as up-to-the-second informed as possible. Many of these media members are ensconced in the sport’s “traveling circus,” working in garage areas, media centers and pressboxes nearly 40 weeks a year. So who better to go to for a “state of the sport” talk than them?
While drivers may toe the company line — keeping sponsors happy and staying in the sanctioning body’s good graces are important to their livelihood — it’s the job of these journos to provide news, insight and opinion in a sport that has no shortage of any.
In this nine-part feature, Athlon Sports sits down with seven media professionals from different outlets to get a healthy cross-section of ideas, opinions and feedback on the biggest issues alive and well in the sport of NASCAR, circa 2014.
The long-term effects of head trauma in the NFL, along with other sports, are just now beginning to be realized. This year, NASCAR has mandated baseline cognitive testing for its drivers — a move applauded by some (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and questioned by others (Brad Keselowski). The question to you: Is NASCAR opening a Pandora’s box? How will the sport enforce sitting a driver not cleared by doctors when championship and future sponsorship considerations are on the line? Can this objectively be accomplished?
Pete Pistone (Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio and MRN Radio; @PPistone): Like it or not NASCAR has to be proactive in this area given the NFL situation and now a similar one in the NHL. Drivers aren’t going to like being told to sit out should they fail the baseline test, but the bottom line is the health and well being of all competitors and not putting anyone else at risk. Athletes get injured and are forced to the sidelines. It should be no different in NASCAR.
Nick Bromberg (Yahoo! Sports; @NickBromberg): What we know now is exponentially more than what we knew 10 years ago, and what we’ll know in 10 years will be exponentially more than what we know now.
If there was any question if NASCAR couldn’t enforce a concussion policy, the doubts should have been washed away when Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat out two races in 2012. If the sport’s most popular driver can sit out two races in NASCAR’s playoffs and the sport survives, we needn’t worry about the consequences of anyone else missing a race.
Outside of being extremely complicated, we all know our brains are the most important part of our lives. That life outside of NASCAR should always be considered. If NASCAR institutes an independent doctor or panel of doctors to be in charge of all concussion and head-related examinations and injuries both before and during the season — with approval from many of the sport’s most influential drivers — there should be minimal controversy.
Nate Ryan (USA Today; @nateryan): Any professional sport potentially featuring violence must seem proactive in ensuring its athletes are of sound mind. Earnhardt’s concussion (in 2012) proved that the NASCAR industry is ready to accept its stars being sidelined for the greater good. It’s hard to envision sponsors raising vociferous objections to a driver benched because of a brain injury, but it is worth considering if championship dispensation should be given. Though Keselowski raises some valid points, it will be hard for drivers who lack college degrees making the case that they somehow are better suited to evaluate their well-being than board-certified physicians. Yes, there will be circumstances that make the process tricky, but it’s better for NASCAR to err on the side of caution instead of facing the PR nightmares endured by the NFL.
Bob Pockrass (The Sporting News; @bobpockrass): NASCAR owes it to the 10-year-old boy sitting in Row 10 that its drivers’ minds are in the game. If they are not, they must err on the side of caution to prevent accidents that could impact fan safety and driver safety. Whatever the cost of possibly being wrong in sitting the driver is worth it when considering the cost of possibly being wrong and letting a driver race.
Mike Mulhern (MikeMulhern.net; @mikemulhern): The issue of concussion in NASCAR is long overdue for more study. Maybe we could put Jerry Nadeau, Ernie Irvan and Bobby Allison on a committee to help. NASCAR has access to black boxes that record G-force impacts; that’s an easy-to-read number that a doctor could use. By the way, what was the G-force impact of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Kansas crash?
Mike Hembree (Athlon Sports; @mikehembree): It’s a good move. As is often the case in other sports, athletes sometimes have to be protected from themselves. In a tight point race late in the season, a driver probably would try to start a race with two broken arms and double pneumonia. It could result in some tough calls — do you block a popular driver from competition if his injury is borderline? — but NASCAR is in the tough-call business.
Ryan McGee (ESPN.com/ESPN The Magazine; @ESPNMcGee): Listen, the days of taping one’s eyelids open and going racing are over. It’s easy to romanticize those moments now, but the reality is that they were stupid and we’re lucky no one got killed because we let them happen. This is a not privacy issue. This is a life-or-death issue. And the practice of establishing baseline medical stats so that on-site medical teams and local doctors have a better understanding of their sudden patients is nothing new. Other race series have done it for years. I have covered many an IndyCar race where a driver has had to sit-out a race because they suffered a concussion or blacked out the week before and doctors ordered them to sit. At the time, that’s not fun for the racer or their fans. But the motive isn’t a conspiracy. It’s to keep the racetrack as safe as possible. Oh, and help make sure your favorite lives longer.
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
Kyle Larson, a boyish-looking 21-year-old who races far beyond his years, might be NASCAR’s Next Big Thing. Then again, he might run into the Next Big Wall.
Being cast as stock car racing’s newest wunderkind and can’t-miss star in the making is to stand on shaky ground. It took Joey Logano, considered a sure-fire star when he broke into the big leagues five years ago, all of those five years to reach a level of consistent strength. Others whose talent was considered beyond question now are beyond oblivion, languishing in backwater series or watching races from home.
Larson will open the 2014 Sprint Cup season in the No. 42 car owned by Chip Ganassi and formerly driven by Juan Pablo Montoya, whose seven years in NASCAR (all with Ganassi) didn’t set the world on fire (well, except for that ugly track-dryer incident at Daytona…).
Larson drives into the Cup series having raced stock cars only since 2012. He grew up in sprint cars, turning heads in USAC sprint, midget and Silver Crown racing and reminding long-time observers of the success in those series of current NASCAR kingpins Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne.
Larson’s rapid success in open-wheel cars attracted the attention of both Ganassi and NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program (Larson has Japanese-American and Native American heritage), and the Californian joined Chip Ganassi Racing as a developmental driver while continuing to run short tracks across the country.
Larson was tossed into the Nationwide Series full-time in 2013 with very little experience in full-bodied stock cars. He failed to win, but he finished second four times and was eighth in points at the end of the season. In late August, Ganassi named Larson as Montoya’s 2014 replacement.
Some say it’s too soon; Ganassi and Larson disagree.
“We do feel that we need to continue Kyle Larson’s growth, and putting him in a Cup car was the very next step,” Ganassi says. “We’re sure there will be some growing pains, but we’re sure he’s ready. Some of those growing pains will come whatever his first year in the series is.
“This kid is a special kid.”
Larson doesn’t back away from high expectations. “I’d like to prove the people that don’t think I’m ready for it wrong,” he says. “The guys that think I am ready — let them pump their chest out a little bit.”
Logano started Cup at 18, a kid who looked like he had driven in fresh from the junior prom. He knows about the potholes.
“He (Larson) has a little more experience than I did when I started, but when you jump in these Cup cars it’s such a different world out there,” Logano says. “There will be tracks that suit his driving style perfectly and tracks that will be just the opposite. What I came to a quick realization of is that I’m against the best race car drivers in the world, so it’s tough, and all these teams are tough.
“Obviously, learning how to drive these cars is difficult, but I have 100 percent confidence he’ll figure it out. Just like anybody coming into this series, you have to give them a couple of years to figure out. It’s tough. It’s tricky.”
ESPN analyst and former driver Ricky Craven says Larson’s potential will be tested at a “number of crossroads where he has adversity and has to choose whether to go left, right or straight. There are going to be plenty of those intersections. Handling that pressure is a really important piece of the pie.”
The testing began at Daytona in early January, where last year Larson was a focal point of a wild final-lap wreck in the Nationwide Series opener. His car sailed into the outside fence (right), shredded its front and rear clips and dropped its engine into the grandstand in a violent flight.
Larson wasn’t hurt, but he got a hint of how rough the road to the top can be.
by Mike Hembree
Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikehembree
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Kyle Larson: NASCAR Sprint Cup Series star of the future.
That’s an outlook that seemed rather predictable at the start of the 2013 season. The young Californian had shown impressive talent in his quick move through the racing ranks and garnered a Nationwide Series contract from Chip Ganassi.
But the version of Kyle Larson we’ll have this year — that of a full-time Cup competitor, effective immediately — seemed almost impossible just a year ago, when Larson headed to Daytona for the Nationwide season-opener with only four career NASCAR national series starts to his name. His first full season in that second-tier division was moderately successful, with four second-place finishes, although he never won, nor was he a title contender.
Yet here we are, starting the new season with Larson’s name emblazoned where Juan Pablo Montoya’s once was on the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42. Target returns as the primary sponsor for Larson’s promotion to NASCAR’s top series at age 21.
It was a move by Ganassi that looked and felt a lot like a non-secured down-payment on Larson’s racing future. Undoubtedly, Ganassi was making a play that he hoped would head off anything resembling the raw deal Bill Davis faced when Jeff Gordon bolted his team for Hendrick Motorsports in the early 1990s.
Is it a case of too much, too soon? The jury’s still out; as with any rookie Sprint Cup driver, expect a lot of good with a lot of bad. Fortunately, Larson got four races worth of seat time in Ganassi-prepared cars for Harry Scott Jr.’s Sprint Cup team to close 2013.
Larson failed to finish his first two starts — Charlotte and Martinsville in October — thanks to engine issues. But he rolled to finishes of 23rd and 15th in the other two, impressing along the way.
It’s that kind of natural talent that made it possible for Larson to replace an all-around wheelman like Montoya. And it’s that kind of natural talent that will let him enter 2014 with little pressure from Ganassi to perform instantly. Confidence in the young driver’s future far outweighs the expected learning curve in Sprint Cup competition.
“I think Kyle is the kind of driver, when he sees an opportunity in front of him, he takes it,” says Ganassi. “If that means it’s a win, hey, great. There’s no pressure for him to win his first year out.”
Based on how well Larson ran in his limited time to close the season, worries about not winning may be short-lived. It’s not a stretch to think that Larson’s Sprint Cup learning curve will be a quick trip thanks to his unquestionable raw talent.
But just as Montoya and current teammate Jamie McMurray have found, the cars from the CGR shop may prove the biggest hindrance. Reliability hasn’t been a strong suit. Remember, too, that Ganassi and Target have gambled in the past with young Reed Sorenson — only to make a mistake.
That will not be the case here, though. Expect Larson to beat out many veterans on a weekly basis this year and in the point standings come November. And if a few breaks fall his way, he could just crack the top 16 by Richmond in September.
What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
Kyle Larson is the most highly touted rookie the Sprint Cup Series has seen since Joey Logano, and those in the garage have nothing but praise for the youngster.
“Extremely versatile — can run anything and win,” one crew chief says. “He made it to where he is by winning and racing everywhere and in anything. He’s not a spoon-fed bitch.”
“His car control is about as good as anyone in the series,” another gushes. “And he’s striving to learn more about racing. He spends as much time as possible in cars to continue his development.”
The one potential hindrance, warns a rival, will be the equipment afforded him: “He’s in Ganassi equipment. The team he is on gets their engines from another organization. They also do not have the engineering depth of the larger teams. They are a tier-two team and will always be handicapped by the inability to control their own engine development. Plus, he’s a rookie and still learning how to race. He’ll have to learn how to pace himself on longer races.”
No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Owner: Chip Ganassi/Felix Sabates
Crew Chief: Chris Heroy
Years with current team: 1
Under contract through: 2017
Best points finish: N/A
Hometown: Elk Grove, Calif.
Born: July 31, 1992
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Jamie McMurray probably feels pretty good about the possibilities that this year holds. Of course, McMurray, one of the sport’s most upbeat personalities, probably feels that way almost every year.
With a new crew chief, a new teammate and the momentum of the personal upswing that 2013 brought, McMurray has his sights set on finally making a Chase for the Sprint Cup appearance. He’s in a contract year, too, so continued improvement could pay dividends in the form of more regular paychecks in his future.
Not so fast.
We have been down this road before with the driver from Joplin, Mo., as recently as his unforgettable 2010 season. That year, McMurray scored his emotional Daytona 500 victory after holding off Dale Earnhardt Jr., accomplished what former teammate Juan Pablo Montoya never could with a notable Brickyard 400 win and otherwise earned a career-high nine top-5 finishes. He didn’t make the Chase that year — the all-too-familiar inconsistency of a Ganassi NASCAR operation caught up with him — but surely he had built his No. 1 team into ... something.
Two seasons, 72 races and two top-5 finishes later, McMurray remained stuck in rebuild mode. He was 27th in points after the 2011 season and 21st after 2012.
Why, then, should we see the moderate improvement from him last year any differently?
With McMurray, we have reached the point in his career where what you see is what you get. He’s a more than capable driver, but this year marks McMurray’s 11th full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series. In that period, he has seven wins and averages a little more than one top-10 finish per every four races. He has never finished higher than 11th in the season point standings, the only full-time, funded driver to run every year since 2004 and not make the Chase. Frankly, those simply aren’t top-tier numbers.
Positive thinkers will see McMurray’s 15th-place finish in last year’s point standings as reason to believe things can finally be different. At the very least, his Chip Ganassi Racing team is trying.
In a move that likely should have been made sooner — it bears repeating that McMurray had a grand total of two top-5 finishes in 2011 and ’12 — Kevin “Bono” Manion, McMurray’s crew chief since his arrival at CGR in 2010, was reassigned by the team following the 2013 season finale. Replacing him is Keith Rodden, formerly the lead engineer on Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports. Rodden had previously followed Kahne and longtime crew chief Kenny Francis through stops at Evernham Motorsports, Richard Petty Motorsports and Red Bull Racing.
The move is an interesting one for CGR overall as it comes just a season after the team made a company-wide change in its sourcing of Chevrolet engines. Out were the powerplants produced by sister company Earnhardt-Childress Racing; in were the V8s supplied by Hendrick Motorsports. They seemed to make a difference in the team’s performance, so don’t be shocked if CGR follows the sport’s trend among many other mid-level teams and forges what many term a “technical alliance” with Hendrick.
As for Rodden, it’s too early to tell if he’ll make a bona fide difference. What makes the hire fascinating is that he is a mechanical engineer by trade. Ganassi didn’t shop for a crew chief known for race strategy, instead maximizing the intricacies of car setup. That’s a smart move, as fast cars win races over wild, in-race gamblers these days (just ask Jimmie Johnson).
McMurray’s restrictor plate prowess may give his No. 1 team a large boost in the Daytona season opener, just as it did with his win at Talladega last fall. His four total victories at Daytona and Talladega since 2007 are the most of any current driver.
But as the series settles into the normal grind of racetracks, McMurray’s new working relationship with Rodden will likely take some time to find its legs. It’s a two-fold process that will require Rodden to learn what McMurray wants from the car while simultaneously learning how to handle the day-to-day management of a Sprint Cup team.
Throw in an inexperienced young hotshoe in Kyle Larson, who’s joining the team as Montoya’s replacement, and there will be plenty of new challenges to overcome in the entire CGR camp early this season.
Undoubtedly, McMurray will stay positive about it all. We’ll just have to wait and see if he can surprise us.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“McMurray has proven he can win in the Cup Series,” says a garage-area rival. “And suddenly, he’s the elder statesman at Ganassi. His role as a mentor for Kyle Larson could very well invigorate his driving. McMurray continues to race go-karts, which keeps his passion for the sport alive, but he’s going to have to step up his game to keep from being outshined by Larson.”
“McMurray can be a Jekyll and Hyde driver,” a rival crew chief says. “Depending on the side of the bed he wakes up on can determine if you’re going to get the driver on the wheel or the driver just stroking. He’s working with a new crew chief in 2014, which means the dreaded chemistry-building year; and he’s driving Ganassi equipment ...”
One media member wonders if the likable Missourian is “too likable,” saying, “It’s impossible to not like McMurray — he’s a good guy, always smiling. But I wonder if that serves as a disadvantage. Sometimes you have to be mean, and McMurray doesn’t have that mean streak in him like Tony Stewart or the do-anything drive that we’ve seen out of Jeff Gordon.”
Looking at Checkers: Four of his seven career Cup wins have come on the plate tracks. Not quite Mikey-esque, but close.
Pretty Solid Pick: Martinsville must remind him of his karting days, as McMurray has seven top 10s in 14 starts there in the CoT/Gen-6 era. A note, though: He’s never parlayed any of those showings into a top-5 performance.
Good Sleeper Pick: McMurray has averaged an 11.25-place finish at Bristol since 2010. That’s about as sleeper-ish as we could find.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: He’s one of those drivers who has never adapted to the road courses. Jamie Mac has three career top 10s in 22 starts.
Insider Tip: An addendum to the plate track stat above: He’s feast or famine on the big tri-ovals. Also, wait a few weeks to see if CGR has some kinks worked out before using him in the fantasy lineup.
No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Sponsors: McDonald’s/Cessna/Banana Boat/LiftMaster
Owners: Chip Ganassi/Felix Sabates
Crew Chief: Keith Rodden
Years with current team: 5
Under contract through: 2014
Best points finish: 11th (2004)
Hometown: Joplin, Mo.
Born: June 3, 1976
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Prior to the Sochi Winter Olympics there were plenty of concerns swirling around the Games of the XXII Olympiad. Whether it was melting snow, stray dogs, dirty water, government spying or a shirtless president on horseback, paranoia ran rampant. Would Vladimir Putin and Co. be able to competently host 2,850 Olympians from 88 countries, plus fans and media?
The games are now midair. And while there hasn’t been a major international incident, there have been some odd moments in Sochi so far. Here are a few highlights and lowlights from the 2014 Winter Olympics at just past the halfway point.
Olympic ring fail
Sochi staggered right out of the gates at the Opening Ceremonies. Although Russian police did sing Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” — which was not quite the Grammy Award-winning Pharrell version, but still — the unveiling of the Olympic rings went all wrong. Luckily, that part of the broadcast was able to be censored out of the Russian telecast.
Bob Costas’ pink eye
Since the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Costas has been anchoring the NBC coverage of the Summer and Winter Games, either late night or in prime time. But this time around, the Peacock Network’s most visible plumage turned pink. Costas came down with a nasty case of pink eye, which spread from his left eye to his right, forcing Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira to step up in place of the spectacled eight-time National Sportscaster of the Year.
Julia Lipnitskaia’s spinning
Russia’s 15-year-old ice princess and its 31-year-old rock star Evgeni Plushenko led a gold medal charge in the Olympics’ first-ever team figure skating competition. Lipnitskaia — who met the age qualification of the Olympics by just 25 days — stole the show with her mesmerizing spins.
Ashley Wagner’s meme
While Lipnitskaia was busy winning over even the most hardened of hearts, America’s own gold medal figure skating hopeful made a meme to remember. Call Wagner the McKayla Maroney of the Winter Olympics. She was certainly “not impressed” by her scores in the team competition.
Bode Miller’s raw emotion
After Miller earned bronze in the super-G, NBC reporter Christin Cooper relentlessly asked the alpine skier about his recently deceased brother, Chelone, who was found dead in a van following an apparent seizure last April. There was immediate backlash from fans who thought Cooper’s line of questioning went too far.
Under Armour speedskating suits
Speed skater Shani Davis entered Sochi with back-to-back gold medals in the 1000 meters and a pair of silvers in the 1500 meters. After failing to medal in either event, there was rampant speculation that Davis was slowed by Under Armour’s new Mach 39 speedskating body suits. Apparently, vents on the back of the suit that were designed to allow heat to escape actually allowed air to enter and create a drag on the skaters.
Shiva Keshavan luge recovery
India’s premier luger wiped out, fell off his sled, stayed calm and got right back on to finish an unbelievable run like nothing ever happened. The five-time Olympian is the face of the new Indian Olympic presence, following a 14-month ban by the International Olympic Committee for corruption.
Johnny Quinn’s problems
“…With no phone to call for help, I used my bobsled push training to break out. #SochiJailBreak,” Quinn tweeted on Feb. 8. Two days later, “No one is going to believe this but we just got stuck in an elevator,” he tweeted. Quinn’s bobsled training — and door apparently made of cardboard — was enough to free him the first time. But no amount of Olympic training can prepare a man for a Russian steel cage death trap a.k.a. an elevator in Sochi.
Russia’s disallowed goal
Not quite an Al Michaels miracle on ice but Team USA will take it. During a 3–2 win over Russia in a preliminary round match, a third-period Russia goal was disallowed by American official Brad Meier. The goal would have given the home nation a 3–2 lead. Instead, the game went to a scoreless overtime and subsequent shootout, which launched the star of Team USA’s T.J. Oshie — and his girlfriend, Lauren Cosgrove.
“Even if the judge was wrong, we mustn’t stick labels on anybody,” said President Putin. “We can’t forget that sport takes courage, but also luck.”
On Sunday, a black No. 3 car sat shining in the Daytona Beach sun, cameras focused on a number not seen in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition since the 2001 Daytona 500. It’s been 13 years since that tragic end, but closure has finally come — not in the form of an Earnhardt, but in 23-year-old Austin Dillon.
The grandson of car owner Richard Childress raised expectations with a flawless performance in Daytona 500 qualifying, launching the ghost of “The Intimidator” straight to the forefront of NASCAR’s Super Bowl.
Today, it also has 56,000 conspiracy theorists out in full force.
Dillon is the second straight rookie to win the pole for “The Great American Race,” setting a NASCAR record, as he joins 2013 “surprise” Danica Patrick. Both are high-profile stories, raising national attention for NASCAR’s biggest race at a time when rating and attendance numbers were reaching critical lows. (See: sparse crowd at Daytona for both Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited and Sunday’s Pole Day.)
The sport enjoyed a quick boost in popularity once Patrick rose to contention last February; like it or not, that’s the truth. So why not put a little extra horsepower in the No. 3, the naysayers go, so Dillon and the Earnhardt legacy make it happen all over again? The pole is little more than ceremonial, anyway, for a race where one can jump from 40th to first in just a handful of laps.
It’s sad that inconsistent penalties, last fall’s Richmond debacle and confusing rule changes have driven fans towards the brink, crazy enough to think this pole might have been scripted. They’d have a far better argument for Patrick last year than tearing this latest “shocker” to shreds. Dillon, while without a plate race win in NASCAR’s lower series, has still been impressive at the sport’s big superspeedways. He was top-5 material on the white flag lap of last fall’s Cup race at Talladega before the typical melee ensued; his No. 3 sat on the pole for Daytona’s Nationwide Series race last July, and finished fifth. The RCR outfit he runs for was lightning quick in January testing at Daytona, posting top times that carried over straight to the beginning of Speedweeks.
If Dillon were some random guy at age 23 driving top-tier equipment, fans would be celebrating his accomplishment, not questioning it. Unlike Patrick, there are results on paper (he’s the defending Nationwide Series champion) and there’s arguably more pressure on his shoulders. Dillon carries the weight of the family business with big-time sponsorship while driving for a team that finished third in last season’s championship Chase. He may show charisma, but there aren’t tens of millions of marketing dollars and funny GoDaddy commercials to fuel income here in case of failure. Instead, should things backfire there comes a lifetime moniker of “that guy who couldn’t make it in the 3 car.”
If anything, Dillon’s in a lose-lose situation, with a top 10, run-up-front-all-day performance now considered a Daytona must. But when a great accomplishment gets drowned out with fans crying foul, disbelieving the sport millions follow is unfair to everyone. And the season hasn’t even begun yet.
So take a deep breath, relax, and as we go Through The Gears, give me this much: every once in a while, an accomplishment that seems too good to be true is simply nothing more than a great, feel-good story. And after all, shouldn’t those following NASCAR be smiling mere days before the sport's biggest race?
FIRST GEAR: Denny Hamlin makes a statement
Last November, in the midst of a nightmare 2013 season, Denny Hamlin salvaged something with a last-ditch win in the Homestead season finale. He’s had over two months to sit on those laurels.
He also hasn’t lost. Winning all three segments of Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, NASCAR’s exhibition race for 2013 pole sitters, it was clear Hamlin had the fastest car. Running up front or in traffic, it didn’t really matter, as the FedEx Toyota was slicing through opponents at will.
So much for having a bad back. Last fall, it seemed surgery was the only option for Hamlin to return to full health but some large-scale rehabilitation efforts leave him looking 100 percent.
“Physically, I feel like I can be better than I was before,” he said Saturday night. “I feel as good physically in the car over the course of long runs, better than I have for I can't even remember, probably rookie season maybe.”
That’s also the last time Hamlin won the Unlimited, in 2006 — a win that sparked an unlikely journey to third in series points. It’s a good omen for the future, especially with confidence high; this driver runs up front when fueled by emotion. I’d be shocked if he wasn’t in the mix for his first Daytona 500 trophy, along with Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth this Sunday.
SECOND GEAR: More passing … but more wrecking?
The Unlimited got dicey after a slow start with wild, three-abreast, white-knuckle racing down the stretch. But at times, the best drivers in the world also played a very expensive game of Demolition Derby. Just eight cars finished the race, the fewest since 1987, as big names turned into bigger victims. Dale Earnhardt Jr. got hit from behind. Matt Kenseth got turned by Joey Logano. Jimmie Johnson, well, he spun out by himself. What gives? Heck, even the pace car caught on fire!
Turns out the answer is the “side draft,” where drivers get a boost of speed under the current restrictor plate rules. While similar to 2013, there’s better handling and better understanding of the air which has made it far easier to pass. But, according to drivers like Earnhardt, slower momentum combined with some “stalling out” during the sidedrafting process leads to cars unexpectedly backing up in the pack, more susceptible to bad bumpdrafts from behind or simply spinning out on their own.
Does that mean Sunday’s Daytona 500 will be a wreckfest? Well, I don’t think we’ll be down to eight cars. But avoiding the “Big One” for 200 laps would be a major surprise, I think.
THIRD GEAR: Growing pains for Stewart-Haas Racing
Stewart-Haas Racing, while running in the top 5 Saturday with Kevin Harvick, is showing early growing pains with its new, four-car operation. None posted qualifying speeds inside the top 20, including Kurt Busch who stands a small (but conceivable) chance of missing the 500 altogether with a wreck in Thursday’s Duel qualifying race. Both co-owner Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick have had engine problems, sending them to the rear of Sunday’s 500. To add insult to injury, the two of them along with Busch wrecked through the course of the Sprint Unlimited. Patrick had the most awkward result, spinning wildly to the point boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. couldn’t avoid hitting her square in the driver’s door.
It’s a long way to go between now and Sunday, with Stewart looking especially motivated to show he’s healthy. (He last raced in August before breaking his leg in an ugly sprint car accident.) It’s hard to ever count him out, or Harvick, who’s come out of nowhere to win this 500 before. But a win on Sunday seems like a tall order right now, let alone get all four cars inside the top 10.
FOURTH GEAR: Expect the unexpected
A look through early power players at Daytona brings us back to the same common theme: drivers with something to prove. There’s Brad Keselowski, second in the Sprint Unlimited and sixth in Daytona 500 qualifying. After missing the Chase last season, the 2012 champ is acting like a man on a mission. There’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., racy in the Unlimited and seventh in qualifying. He’s looking for that early win to quiet whispers about both sponsorship and the Chase. And locked in on the front row is Martin Truex Jr. of Furniture Row Racing. Now driving the No. 78, a single-car operation. Last year’s Richmond victim hopes to be 2014’s miracle success story.
In all, none of the top four drivers in qualifying (Dillon, Truex, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards) have tasted victory in the Daytona 500. Add Hamlin, Keselowski, and even a Joey Logano-type to the mix and chances are we could see a first-time winner of that coveted Harley J. Earl trophy come Sunday.
Check in each Monday for Tom Bowles’ Through the Gears column, which will highlight all the events from the previous NASCAR weekend.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
8-11:30 p.m. Eastern
Bob's back. The eye infection that sidelined Bob Costas has been brought under control, allowing the longstanding, short-statured Olympic host to resume his duties. Here's what Bob will be bringing us tonight. Note that the blanket of fog covering Sochi has disrupted the schedule, leading to the postponement of the men's snowboarding.
1. Freestyle Skiing — Men's Aerials
American freestyler Mac Bohonnon will attempt to medal, while defending Olympic champion Alexei Grishin of Belarus will be absent from the finals after failing to qualify.
Read more here: http://www.adn.com/2014/02/17/3330841/american-bohonnon-qualifies-for.html#storylink=cpy
2. Figure Skating — Ice Dancing Free Skate
Meryl Davis and Charlie White are attempting to become the first American duo to win the gold medal in this elegant event that emphasizes grace over athleticism. Davis and White will try to hold off Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.
3. Ski Jumping — Men's Team Large Hill
The RusSki Gorki Jumping Center will be the scene as Poland and Austria battle for gold.
The stylized No. 3, made famous by the late Dale Earnhardt, has made its way back to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. And it has done so in a big way.
Austin Dillon, grandson of team owner Richard Childress, who fielded Chevrolets for Earnhardt until his death in the 2001 Daytona 500, drove the No. 3 livery to the top of pylon in Sunday’s Daytona 500 pole qualifying.
Dillon’s team has shown intimidating speed at Daytona International Speedway since the series tested in early January. That speed has carried into Speedweeks.
“You want to perform with the No. 3; everyone wants to see it perform,” said Dillon, who won the pole with a lap of 196.019 mph (45.914 seconds). “It’s a long season and this is one of the top points. You want to carry that momentum going forward.”
Teams with Childress-powered engines have been near the top of the speed charts since the sport made its return to the beach late last week.
Martin Truex Jr., whose Furniture Row Racing Chevy runs Earnhardt-Childress Racing powerplants, qualified second, just .039 seconds behind Dillon.
Ryan Newman (fifth) and Paul Menard (10th) helped ECR horsepower secure four of the 10 fastest speeds on Pole Day.
Dillon’s run marks the first time the No. 3 car has sat on the pole in Daytona since Earnhardt posted the fastest speed for the 1996 Daytona 500. Earnhardt finished second that season but won “The Great American Race” two years later.
“You know, the 3 is special to all of us,” Childress said. “The (Childress) family, the Earnhardt family — to every one of us. But I think it’s special because Austin, our family, is in the car. You know, the emotion will fly if the 3 rolls in there (to victory lane) on Sunday. I won’t hold it back, I promise.”
The 23-year-old Dillon will run for the Rookie of the Year award in the Cup Series this season. He has already campaigned the No. 3 to two NASCAR national touring series championships: the Nationwide Series (2013) and Camping World Truck Series (2011).
Being the man to bring the vaunted No. 3 back to NASCAR’s premier level, though, presents a new set of tasks. To his credit, Dillon grew up with the number and is all too familiar with the gravitas that comes with being the first driver to don the stylized No. 3 in 13 years.
That sentiment was echoed by none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr.:
“I look forward to seeing it out on the racetrack,” Earnhardt said. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders. I would be worried if I didn’t think he’d respect it or not understand the legacy, but he does. I know he does. He appreciates it.”
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Doug McDermott bobblehead day left Jay Wright’s head spinning again.
If there’s one thing we know about the Big East this season, it’s that Creighton has Villanova’s number. The first time around, the Bluejays launched 21 3-pointers against Villanova. The Wildcats shut down some of Creighton’s outside shooting, but they couldn’t contain McDermott, the Athlon Sports National Player of the Week.
The Creighton senior scored 39 points against Villanova to put the Bluejays up by a game in the win column in the Big East standings. McDermott scored Creighton’s first 11 points in the first four minutes as Creighton never trailed the traditional Big East power.
Related: 10 Things You Need to Know from the Basketball Weekend
National Player of the Week: Doug McDermott, Creighton
Dougie McBuckets continued to move up the all-time scoring list last week, passing Larry Bird on Sunday. McDermott matched a season high with 39 points against Villanova, completing a regular-season sweep against the Big East leaders. McDermott also scored 26 points in a 68-63 close call with Butler on Thursday. The senior shot 24 of 36 from the field for the week.
Related: 11 Doug McDermott Facts
National Freshman of the Week: Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina
The Gamecocks are one of the worst teams in a lackluster SEC, but Thornwell is one of the key pieces as Frank Martin tries to turn things around in Columbia. Thornwell scored 22 points in a win over Alabama on Saturday and 19 in a win over Vanderbilt on Thursday afternoon. The guard also had 10 total rebounds and 10 total assists in South Carolina’s first back-to-back SEC wins since 2011.
Under-the-Radar Player of the Week: Kerry Hammonds II, Middle Tennessee
Middle Tennessee has snuck into the mix for the Conference USA regular season title after dismantling league leader Southern Miss 81-64. Hammonds scored 26 points in the win over the Golden Eagles on Saturday, including six shots from 3-point range. Hammonds had 18 points in a win over Tulane earlier in the week.
Other top performers last week:
Scottie Wilbekin, Florida
The Gators may have cleared the path to a perfect SEC season by conquering their toughest week of the season so far. Florida defeated Tennessee and Kentucky on the road for the first time in the same season since 1988. The Gators point guard led the way with 23 points in a 69-59 win at Kentucky and 21 points in a 67-58 win at Tennessee. The senior was 21 of 24 from the free throw line for the week with no turnovers.
Shabazz Napier, UConn
Napier continued his case for American Athletic Conference Player of the Year honors with a gargantuan effort against Memphis. Napier scored 34 points and added five rebounds, four assists and four steals in the 86-81 win over the Tigers in overtime Saturday.
Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis
The Billikens took a major step toward a second consecutive Atlantic 10 title thanks to Evans’ play in a key 64-62 win over VCU. Evans had 21 points and 10 rebounds against the Rams as the Billikens moved to 10-0 in the A-10. A year ago, Evans was one of the hottest players in the country late in the season as Saint Louis won the A-10 regular season and tournament titles.
James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina
The long-awaited breakout for McAdoo is here as the junior had 24 points and 12 rebounds in a 75-71 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday. McAdoo has been leading the way as North Carolina — a team noted for its bizarre losses early in the year — has discovered consistency. The Tar Heels have won six games in a row heading into busy week with the first meeting with Duke postponed to Feb. 20.
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
The Badgers’ big man gave Wisconsin its fourth victory in a row in a 75-62 win at Michigan on Sunday. Kaminsky scored 25 points on 11 of 16 shooting against the Wolverines while adding 11 rebounds. On Thursday, Kaminsky added 17 points in a 78-70 win over Minnesota.
Jordan Bachynski, Arizona State
Arizona finally ran into a defensive force that could match the Wildcats. The center Bachynski had eight blocks in a 69-66 double overtime upset of the No. 2 Wildcats on Friday night. Bachynski helped Arizona State in the offensive end with 13 points, led by 7 of 11 free throw shooting.
Jabari Brown, Missouri
The Tigers guard kept Missouri in NCAA contention this week with two key wins over Arkansas and Tennessee. Brown had 24 points in a 75-70 win over Tennessee on Saturday and 25 points in Thursday’s 86-85 win over Arkansas. Brown’s basket with 12.2 seconds left against the Razorbacks clinched the win.
Rakeem Christmas, Syracuse
Christmas had the steal to set up C.J. Fair’s game-winning layup as Syracuse defeated NC State 56-55 to remain unbeaten. Christmas finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks in the win. In another close call with Pitt on Wednesday, Christmas had seven points, five rebounds and three blocks.
Javan Felix, Texas
With leading scorer Jonathan Holmes out for one game last week, Felix helped pick up the slack with 27 points in 30 minutes in a 87-68 win over Oklahoma State on Tuesday. When Holmes returned, Felix remained the go-to player with 18 points in a 88-71 win over West Virginia on Saturday. Felix shot 16 of 30 from the field for the week.
Kenny Chery, Baylor
The junior college transfer point guard kept Baylor in contention for an NCAA Tournament spot with a triple-double in the 87-73 double overtime win over Kansas State. Chery finished with 20 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds as Baylor fought back from a 10-point deficit with nine minutes to go. The triple-double was the sixth in Baylor history.
Spring training has commenced in Florida and Arizona, which means Opening Day is right around the corner. While there is never any lack of players, teams or topics to follow regarding America's pastime, here are 14 storylines to keep an eye on in MLB this season.
1. Cano in Seattle
The Mariners quantified desperation in December when they plowed $240 million into one player in an effort to escape irrelevancy. That player was the best on the free-agent market, Robinson Cano, who turned 31 in October and is now signed through 2023. Critics panned the deal, citing the recent folly of 10-year contracts to players over 30. “It’ll be another club that in five years from now, maybe less, will be looking to move an enormous contract and eat a bunch of it,” ESPN’s Curt Schilling said at the winter meetings. “It never fails. It’s three, four, five years. Six is a stretch. Because it’s impossible to stay healthy in this sport.” History supports Schilling, the former pitcher, with Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols standing as powerful warning signs the Mariners did not heed. But Cano has been remarkably durable, playing in at least 159 games in each of the last seven seasons, and he is the majors’ most productive second baseman. After losing half their fans since 2002, the Mariners felt that the contract was a risk they had to take. “Anytime you can make your club better — and especially if you can upgrade with a star anywhere — it helps everything,” says Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik. “It helps your club currently, it helps you going forward.” The Mariners, with just two winning seasons in their last 10, hope the Cano decade is a lot better.
2. A’s Held Hostage
How many times must raw sewage seep into the locker rooms at the O.co Coliseum before Major League Baseball lets the Athletics move to San Jose? It happened twice last season, yet MLB continues to let the A’s twist in an ill wind. Commissioner Bud Selig’s indecisiveness on the future of one of the game’s most innovative franchises is baffling. Selig formed a committee to study the situation in 2009 yet has not authorized the A’s to move. The San Francisco Giants claim San Jose as their territory, and Selig seems unwilling to reverse that, even though the Giants got the territory as a favor from the A’s in 1992. The city of San Jose, which is ready to break ground on a baseball-only ballpark, is tired of waiting and filed a lawsuit last year accusing MLB of conspiring to stop the team’s proposed move, which it denied last June 17. As a business, the A’s need clarity on this, if only Selig would act. The whole ordeal stinks, you might say, except for the team’s performance on the field. Despite notoriously low payrolls, the A’s will attempt to win their third AL West title in a row.
3. Instant Replay
When Major League Baseball announced plans to begin using widespread instant replay for the 2014 season, the league warned fans to expect some kinks in the system, which will be reviewed after the year for possible improvements. The evolving process (which began with reviewable home run calls in August 2008) will seek to correct blown calls on the field through a new challenge system, in which managers will get three challenges per game, one in the first six innings and two thereafter. The manager will keep his challenges if he is correct (that is, if the call is overturned), and an unused challenge in the first six innings does not carry over to the rest of the game. A league official monitoring video feeds in New York will make the final call on each challenge, which MLB believes will solve the problem of protracted manager arguments. But will managers really abide by the new rule that prevents them from arguing an overturned call? And if the system works well, will baseball push to expand it even further, to cover checked swings or even balls and strikes? That seems doubtful, but for years it seemed unlikely that MLB would even take this step. But this is a legacy item for Bud Selig, who insists that this will be his final season after more than two decades as commissioner. It should make for a fascinating subplot, where the umpires on the field will finally have access to conclusive footage that fans have had on their televisions for years.
4. Cardinals Pitchers
Year after year, it seems, the St. Louis Cardinals just keep finding them. Young impact pitchers continue to flow from the minor leagues to Busch Stadium. The Cardinal Way got a lot of attention in October as the rest of the league marveled at the instant success of pitchers who did not even start the season in the majors, like Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist and Michael Wacha, who won his first four postseason starts before losing the final game of the World Series. Remarkably, the Cardinals’ postseason roster included only one pitcher — Lance Lynn — who was also on the active roster in their 2011 championship run, and had such depth that a 15-win rookie, Shelby Miller, pitched only once in October. “You’ve got to give the organization their props for what they’ve done in drafting to get these young kids up here,” says the former ace Chris Carpenter, who retired in November. “Not only their stuff but their personalities, because that goes along with it too. These guys want it.” With Jaime Garcia returning from shoulder surgery, the Cardinals could have a logjam in the rotation, with Adam Wainwright, Joe Kelly, Wacha, Lynn, Miller and Martinez, whom the team would like to try as a starter. However it shakes out, expect some little-known rookie to make a major impact, in the rotation or relief, to help the Cardinals continue their reign as the premier team in the National League.
5. Top Twins
The Minnesota Twins probably know they will not contend this season. They have lost at least 96 games in each of the last three seasons, the longest such streak in Minnesota history. But the Twins are inching toward respectability, spending $73 million on free-agent starters Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, and they could soon take a major leap forward. Twins fans will keep a close and hopeful eye on the jewels of the farm system, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, who finished the season ranked first and third, respectively, on MLB.com’s list of the top prospects in the game. Buxton, a 20-year-old, five-tool center fielder, dominated two levels of Class A ball last season, hitting .334 with 12 homers and 55 steals. Sano, a third baseman who turns 21 in May, hit 35 homers at two levels while batting .280. He reached Double-A last year and could debut in Minnesota this season. Either way, figure on both to be at Target Field for the Futures Game, part of the All-Star festivities this July as the Twins host the Midsummer Classic for the first time since 1985.
6. Kershaw Goes for Four
The race for an ERA title does not capture the imagination the way, say, a home run race does. Earned run average is a rate statistic, not a counting statistic, and the need for a calculator removes some of the romance. But Clayton Kershaw’s pursuit of a fourth consecutive National League ERA crown is worth following. This run by Kershaw, the Dodgers’ dominant lefty, evokes the hallowed name of Sandy Koufax, another Dodgers lefty who was the last pitcher to accomplish the feat. Koufax did it five times in a row, from 1962 through 1966, when he retired at 30 with arthritis in his left elbow. Kershaw, who turns 26 in March, is the first pitcher to win three ERA titles before turning 28. He shared a clubhouse embrace with Koufax at Dodger Stadium after helping the Dodgers advance in the playoffs last October. “He’s the first Clayton Kershaw,” Koufax said. “He doesn’t deserve to be compared to anybody. He is who he is and he’s great.”
7. Ryno Gets His Chance
It’s been 46 years since a Hall of Famer managed in the majors after managing in the minors. Most baseball immortals lack the patience for the climb, or let their ego get in the way. But this is the route Ryne Sandberg took as he worked his way back to the stage he dominated as the National League’s premier second baseman in the 1980s. The Phillies, who sent Sandberg on his way to Cooperstown in a disastrous trade with the Cubs in 1982, are giving him his chance. After managing in their farm system and coaching in Philadelphia, Sandberg replaced Charlie Manuel late last season. Manuel set a club record for wins by a manager and guided the team to the 2008 championship. The problem for Sandberg — a no-nonsense leader who demands attention to detail — is that many of those same players remain on the team, resulting in an aging, injury-prone roster that does not seem ready to win. The Phillies’ front office seems to expect the core of Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz and Chase Utley to perform as it did several years ago, with three expensive pitchers — Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon — leading an otherwise threadbare staff. It’s a lot to ask of Sandberg, who is signed through 2016, but nobody expected much from him as a player, either — and we all saw how that career turned out.
8. Chicago Hopeless
The Cubs lost 96 games last season. The White Sox lost 99. The 195 combined defeats were the most ever for the city’s teams in a single season, and this isn’t exactly a town known for winning, with just one championship since 1917. Neither team looks poised to compete for one this season, with both on roughly parallel rebuilding tracks. The Cubs have spent their first two years under Theo Epstein’s leadership trying to flood a lean farm system, and the team appears to have several high-ceiling hitters on the way, like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler. The White Sox started their teardown last season, and their system is not as deep, but they do have some young, impact major leaguers to excite the South Side. Outfielder Avisail Garcia, 22, enters his first full season in Chicago after parts of two seasons with Detroit. The Sox also splurged for the slugging Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu, spending $68 million on a player who hit .360 with three homers in the World Baseball Classic. Neither team has much pitching depth, but the White Sox have a genuine ace in Chris Sale, and the Cubs unearthed an All-Star last season in Travis Wood. Their turnarounds could take a while, but the teams recognize the task ahead of them. The race to respectability is on.
9. End of the Suffering
In the early 2000s, baseball was remarkably democratic. Nine different teams won a championship in the decade from 2001 through 2010, with six of those teams doing so for the first time in decades and two others, the Diamondbacks and the Angels, winning the first World Series in franchise history. The Red Sox erased 86 years of misery, the White Sox 88. The Cardinals won after 24 years without a title, the Phillies after 28, the Giants after 56. The last three seasons, though, we’ve seen some of the same old teams lifting the trophy: the Cardinals again in 2011, the Giants again in 2012 and the Red Sox again in 2013. Across the baseball landscape, eight teams have still never won a championship, and 11 others have gone at least two decades since their last. In other words, a full two-thirds of MLB fan bases are ripe for a catharsis. The outpouring of emotion and affection from proud, long-suffering fans is baseball at its best, and we can’t wait to see who experiences the feeling this fall.
10. Albert, April and the Angels
Last spring training, Angels ace Jered Weaver said that one thing was absolutely, positively essential for the team to succeed. “I’ve been here long enough now to know that it’s not fun playing catch-up,” Weaver said. “Every game’s important no matter whether it’s April or August.” A slow start in 2012 had cost the Angels a playoff spot despite a winning season. Last season, the Angels sputtered to a 9–17 April and wound up with their worst record since 2003. Josh Hamilton had his worst season, the pitching mostly fell apart and
Albert Pujols did not play after July 26 because of plantar fasciitis. Even when healthy, Pujols was rarely the force he had been with the Cardinals, hitting .258 with 17 homers and a career-low .767 OPS. The Angels might have expected such a decline late in his 10-year contract, but not in Year 2. With eight years remaining on his contract, the Angels need some reassurance that Pujols, at 33, can resume his Hall of Fame pace. With the Dodgers rediscovering their mojo in Los Angeles, the Angels cannot afford another bad start. Ideally, they need production from Pujols and Hamilton to fuel a strong April, change the vibe around Angel Stadium and give the game’s best all-around talent, Mike Trout, a chance to shine in October.
11. Just Who Is Stephen Strasburg?
In 2010, the Washington Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg was the most electrifying player in baseball, crackling radar guns with 100 mph fastballs, devastating breaking balls and changeups at 90 mph. Then came reconstructive elbow surgery that wiped out almost all of 2011 and impacted the Nats again in 2012, when they shut him down in early September because of an innings limit and lost in the first round of the playoffs. The Nationals had admirable intentions, but their sluggish follow-up to a division title showed that postseason berths are never assured and served as a model for how not to handle a high-impact young pitcher. Freed from innings restrictions last year, Strasburg still threw only 183, with just one complete game. He was better than his 8–9 record, but he needed offseason surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. That was an ominous sign for a pitcher whose red-flag mechanics didn’t change much after Tommy John surgery, and raises the issue of whether or not he can ever be the durable, dominant ace fans envisioned. As he turns 26 this summer, Strasburg is under pressure to prove he can lead a staff into October, and then endure high-stress innings when he gets there.
12. The Prince of Texas
The Detroit Tigers wasted little time dumping Prince Fielder last offseason, shipping him to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler despite owing him a staggering $168 million for the next seven years. Only one player (Alex Rodriguez in 2004) had ever been traded with so much remaining on his contract. But the Tigers, who included $30 million in the deal, saw an escape hatch and took it, despite winning the AL Central in Fielder’s first two seasons, once advancing to the World Series. Fielder helped the Tigers, providing protection in the lineup for the incomparable Miguel Cabrera, who won the MVP award both seasons. But he hit just 55 homers overall (he once bashed 50 in a single season for Milwaukee), and his .457 slugging percentage last season ranked 12th among qualifying major-league first basemen. In Texas, Fielder moves to a hitter’s ballpark with a jet stream in right center field, and at 29, he has a chance to reestablish himself as one of the game’s elite sluggers. The Rangers, who never adequately replaced Josh Hamilton’s left-handed power last season, need a jolt of power after posting a .412 team slugging percentage, the lowest for the franchise since 1995. Fielder heralded the change by taking a new uniform number: 84, making him only the second player in MLB history to wear that number, after J.T. Snow of the 2006 Red Sox. He chose 84 for the year he was born; the Rangers would be pleased if that represented his home run total for the next two seasons.
13. Hall Managers
Together they won more than 7,500 games in the major leagues, with 17 pennants and eight championships across 91 seasons of writing out lineup cards. This July 27, Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox will share a stage in Cooperstown, N.Y. All three were elected unanimously by the veterans committee for induction to the Hall of Fame. All three are master storytellers, with Cox’s avuncular charm, La Russa’s professorial wisdom and Torre’s colorful anecdotes sure to be on display at the podium. With their induction, the Hall of Fame more than doubled its roster of living managers, with Torre, La Russa and Cox joining Whitey Herzog and Tommy Lasorda as candidates elected on the basis of their managing careers. The trio ranks 3-4-5 on the all-time victory list for managers — La Russa, then Cox, then Torre — in careers that stretch back to the late 1970s. “I certainly am honored to go to the Hall with these two guys,” Torre says, “because it just would have felt somewhat empty if one of us was left out.”
14. The Biogenesis Bunch
Before last season, the Toronto Blue Jays signed Melky Cabrera to a two-year, $16 million contract, betting that he could repeat his breakout seasons with the Royals and the Giants despite his bust for performance-enhancing drugs. As it turned out, when Cabrera was healthy, he was ordinary, making his performance spike seem even more suspicious. Then again, the Oakland A’s brought back Bartolo Colon after his suspension, and Colon made the All-Star team. Cabrera and Colon were part of the Biogenesis scandal, which ensnared 13 more players last summer, plus Alex Rodriguez. All served their suspensions (except for Rodriguez, who appealed his) and will be back for 2014, including the 2013 All-Stars Everth Cabrera, Nelson Cruz and Jhonny Peralta, who signed for $53 million with the St. Louis Cardinals. How long will fans maintain their hostility toward the Brewers’ Ryan Braun, a former National League MVP, and will Braun be booed in Milwaukee? He has always seemed sensitive to his image, so how will he react? More important, will Braun return to his usual productivity, or will he decline, calling into question just how good he really is? As Brewers owner Mark Attanasio told the New York Times last summer: “We’re going to find that out.”
—Written by Tyler Kepner for Athlon Sports. This is just one of the features that can be found in Athlon Sports' 2014 MLB Preview magazine, which is available on newsstands and online now. Starting with 21 unique covers to choose from, Athlon covers the diamond and circles the bases with enough in-depth preseason analysis, predictions and other information to satisfy fans of the national pastime from the Bronx to the Bay and everywhere in between. Order your copy now!