Articles By Athlon Sports
Brand equity. Brand awareness. Brand image. These are all economic terms that overlap, exist in a nebulous world and don’t directly impact the bean counters.
As the media world has grown over the last half century, so has the understanding of concepts like advertising, marketing and, of course, branding. So things like tag lines — “I’m loving it” or “We pick you up” — and brand logos are born. A company’s logo is still the most recognizable, most direct way to separate itself from its competitors.
Major League Baseball is no different. Since Athlon Sports has been producing the best-looking magazine on newsstands for the better part of five decades, we feel qualified to offer our opinions on all 30 MLB team logos for 2015.
To do so, we let our graphic design guru and magazine designer Daly Cantrell do the honors and here is what she thinks of the current roster of MLB logos:
|1.||The Tigers logo stands on its own, which makes it easy to see on a page, uniform, etc. It doesn’t need any words or extra colors to communicate what it represents. It's simple, yet creative and has an old-school feel, which is great to see.|
|2.||This is definitely a favorite. I am a huge fan of the script type and love the lines that show movement in the ball. I also, like that the lines do not interfere with the text. It’s a feminine approach on a masculine logo that works well without emasculating it|
|3.||Classic, yet unique. The repetition in the curvature of both the Cubs C and the circle surrounding it make for a visually pleasing logo. This is an example of an effective circle logo.|
|4.||I am a sucker for simplicity explored in a creative, unique way. The Angels logo is just that. The A stands alone and represents the Angels without any extra words. It’s both classic and compelling.|
|5.||I enjoy the use of a script typeface in this Orioles logo. The lowlights of the black are done correctly making the orange pop. However, the cartoon bird logo that they wear on their hats needs to go. Now.|
|6.||This is a great example of a circle logo that includes a good amount of text. Circle logos seem to be an easy fix, but doing them correctly is the challenge. The text is readable, the blue jay is well seen and the white background allows the colors to pop. It's a memorable look.|
It's timeless and it works. The only thing I might change is make the stroke a little less on the words, that way the blue doesn’t overpower the red.
|8.||I am a fan of the balance in the Cardinals logo. Originally, I thought having two birds was a little much, but it makes the logo stand out more and keeps a great balance.|
Another well-designed logo that stands on its own. What makes it different is the placement of the letters. By angling them it creates a unique feel to a simple logo.
|10.||I really like the shape of the Reds logo. This shape makes it stand out and not seem like a regular circle logo.|
|11.||This logo is pretty interesting because of the use of the team's colors, but bravo - I think they were used correctly, which makes the logo stand out. Personally, I would take the words Miami out.|
|12.||I am a huge fan of the shape of this logo. Inside the base-like shape, it gets a little cluttered when made smaller. I would probably make the bell a light grey so the letters stood out more.|
|13.||I’m personally not a huge fan of this logo but it's a classic. You can’t just change a classic and I'm giving points for the amazing "N-Y" emblem as well.|
|14.||This is a very visually compelling logo, but if my young eyes can’t read it then that’s a problem.|
|15.||This logo isn’t bad, it just needs to be simplified (of course). The lettering can stay the same, but the pirate is too detailed.|
|16.||This isn’t horrible — but it would be much better if it wasn’t in a circle logo. Simplifying this logo to only the A would make the A, which is the brand, stick out more than the circle logo as a whole.|
|17.||Just like the A's, this logo should be simplified. I would keep the circle, but take out the baseball and just make it a white circle. This way the T would be more distinguishable and your eyes would not get lost in the threads of the baseball.|
|18.||Could be better. The KC part of the logo could stand by itself and so could the Royals part of the logo. To me, these seem like two logos combined, which complicate things. Pick one, or the other please.|
|19.||This is another case of a logo that could easily be simplified. The text of the logo says “Minnesota Baseball Club” — that is 21 letters too long. Stick with just “Twins” in the center and make it stand out.|
|20.||Does anyone else look at the Nationals W and see the Walgreens W? Be more creative than this, because all I think of when I see this is a pharmacy. Other than that the logo is very well done.|
|21.||Simplify, Simplify, Simplify. This logo is too dark — there is too much blue. This is a prime example where taking the SD out of the circle would make it a much better marketing tool.|
|22.||I’m not really a fan of this logo at all. I like the idea of the single “A”, but cluttering with the diamonds on the side makes it look cheesy.|
|23.||This is a well done logo, when it’s printed largely, but looking at it smaller it makes it very hard to read. There are 3 different colors on the text and I think that is what makes it harder to read.|
|24.||What is going on with how busy this logo is? Is it necessary to have a cityscape, a bridge, and the baseball stitching all crammed into one little logo? When enlarged the logo doesn’t look as cluttered, but when the logo is smaller its hard to make out what all the different pieces of the logo are.|
|25.||I really like the treatment and detail of the text in this logo, but I feel like there is too much going on. I would either keep the red socks and have that stand alone as a logo, or play with the text and have that stand alone.|
|26.||At first, I thought this logo is a little boring, but once seeing it enlarged the detail on the text is more noticeable. I wish there wasn’t a baseball behind it, or if they wanted to keep the baseball then just using the G would also suffice.|
This is a controversial logo that looks cheesy. The Indians should just take the feather and use that with their C or their uniform logo. It would make more people happy, and look better at the same time.
|28.||Nothing stands out about this logo at all.|
|29.||I feel like this was done with clip art. Also, using a serif font and having two colors on the text makes it harder to read.|
|30.||There are a bunch of things about this logo that I am not a fan of, but the biggest is the diamond in the background. It takes away from the text too much and makes it harder to read. I would take it off completely.|
One of the unique things about baseball is that history can be made on any given day or night at the ballpark, especially if you are paying close enough attention. The 2014 season was no exception, as players and teams alike added their names to the record books. Here is a rundown of some of those baseball "firsts" that may have initially gone unnoticed.
In 2014, for the first time in baseball history a batter...
» Hit three doubles, two singles and a home run in a game (Charlie Blackmon).
» Doubled six times in the first seven games of his career (Yangervis Solarte).
» Had a grand slam, two other hits and a pair of intentional walks in the same game (Giancarlo Stanton).
» Hit a grand slam for two different teams in April (Ike Davis, Mets and Pirates).
» Went 5-for-5 with three homers and nine RBIs in a game (Lonnie Chisenhall).
» Recorded multiple hits and multiple stolen bases in four consecutive games (Jose Altuve).
» Homered 20 or more times in seven consecutive seasons while playing for five different teams in that span (Mark Reynolds).
» Went 4,000 days between the first and second RBI of his career (Jerome Williams).
» Stole three bases in a game for a team that was the victim of a no-hitter (Jason Heyward).
» Drove in a run in eight straight games while playing for more than one team during the streak (Adam Dunn).
» Hit a solo, two-run, three-run and grand slam homer sequentially in successive games (Devin Mesoraco).
» Made at least 225 plate appearances in a season yet scored fewer than five runs (Jose Molina).
» Struck out more than 90 times in a season of fewer than 250 plate appearances (Javier Baez).
» Who was playing shortstop hit a grand slam in a postseason game (Brandon Crawford).
» Homered and doubled in three straight postseason games (Matt Carpenter).
» Had multiple hits in six consecutive playoff games (Nelson Cruz).
» Ended an NLCS with a home run (Travis Ishikawa).
» Struck out 10 batters in an outing of less than four innings (Danny Salazar).
» Fanned 10 hitters and walked five in a start that was no longer than four innings (Michael Wacha).
» Made the first 178 starts of a career without completing one (Max Scherzer).
» Struck out the side on nine pitches with the bases loaded (Brad Boxberger).
» Made it through the first nine starts of a campaign without allowing either more than two runs or five hits (Johnny Cueto).
» Fanned 40 batters in a season before walking his second (Sean Doolittle).
» Struck out as many as 15 batters in a walk-free no-hitter (Clayton Kershaw).
» Worked seven or more scoreless innings in nine of his first 18 starts of a season (Adam Wainwright).
» Won eight consecutive starts in a single season during which he struck out at least 80 batters with an ERA below 1.00 (Kershaw).
» Who previously had won a Cy Young Award lost 12 decisions in a row (Jake Peavy).
» Made 16 consecutive starts of at least seven innings in which he allowed two or fewer runs (Felix Hernandez).
» Struck out 14 batters in a scoreless start of exactly six innings (Mike Fiers).
» Lost a one-hit complete game in which he fanned at least nine batters in fewer than nine innings (David Price).
» Saved 30 games in a season for two different teams by the age of 25 (Addison Reed).
» Fanned 10 or more batters in a game for a fifth different team (A.J. Burnett).
» Who previously had won a Cy Young Award allowed nine straight hits in a game (Price).
» Opened a season with three starts of at least seven innings, fewer than two runs and no walks (Derek Holland).
» Allowed as many as eight earned runs and 10 hits while getting fewer than three outs in an appearance (Carlos Frias).
» Beat one team (Oakland) three times while pitching for three different teams in the same season (Jerome Williams).
» Retired at least six batters while striking out every one he faced in two different games of a season (Antonio Bastardo).
» Struck out more than 11 batters for each one he walked (Phil Hughes).
» Won fewer than 10 games despite making 30 starts and posting an ERA below 2.50 (Cole Hamels).
» Fanned as many as 182 batters in a season of less than 150 innings (Yu Darvish).
» Whiffed at least one batter in 49 straight relief appearances (Aroldis Chapman).
» Fanned 52 percent of the batters (min. 50 IP) he faced in a season (Chapman).
» Averaged 10-plus strikeouts per nine innings in each of his first seven seasons (David Robertson).
» Allowed at least seven earned runs in back-to-back postseason starts (Kershaw).
» Allowed no more than one run in any of the first five postseason starts of his career (Ryan Vogelsong).
— Compiled by Bruce Herman for Athlon Sports
"We believe this decision is in the best interest of our team," Bucks general manager John Hammond said in an official team statement. "We wish Larry well and remain excited about the future of the Bucks organization.”
Bucks coach Jason Kidd said that "it's business. That's just the nature of this. It happens. We wish Larry the best with moving forward and hopefully everything works out.”
This circumstance isn’t exactly common — players don’t just walk away from contracts like the one Sanders earned by playing lights-out ball in the 2012-13 season, in which he was second in the league with 2.83 blocks per game. His four-year, $44 million deal and rising dominance had him projected to be a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
There are a lot of mysteries to Sanders’ fall from grace, and most likely it should remain that way — league insiders have suggested that he’s dealing with some heavy psycho-emotional trouble, and should seek rest and help above all. Basketball can wait.
Sanders will make about half of the money that was left on his deal, and it will be spread out in smaller doses over many more years.
He’s also eligible to sign with any team he chooses this season or next. Reports are that he’s taking an indefinite break from the sport, though, so don’t get your hopes up if the team you’re rooting for is short on big men.
Here’s to hoping that Sanders is on the up.
— John Wilmes
To understand the immense popularity of Dale Earnhardt Jr., a history lesson is in order. And no one is more qualified to deliver it than Earnhardt Jr. himself. He did so shortly after striding into the media center at Martinsville Speedway last October. After years of trying and coming up short, he finally had won there to claim the coveted grandfather clock that comes with a victory at the tricky .526-mile short track that has been hosting NASCAR races since 1949.
Even before the champagne from Victory Lane had dried on his fire suit, Earnhardt Jr. already was mentally putting the accomplishment into big-picture perspective. Looking around, he said: “You know, I love the history of the sport and just can’t get enough of things like all these old pictures on the wall in here. I know this place has a special meaning and a special place in the series and the sport.
“I’ve been coming here so many years. I’ve been coming here since the early 1980s, watching races here. Dad won several races here, brought home several clocks. I remember one in particular that set at the front door, in the hall by the stairs. It had this little round rug right in that hallway that I’d run my Matchbox cars on, listening to the race on (the radio on) Motor Racing Network.”
The point was, he always wanted one of those clocks for his own. And now that he finally had one, he deeply appreciated it.
“The clock seems so hard to get,” he added. “I try not to get too caught up in the emotion of it because it’s a team deal, but this is very personal and very special for me to be able to win here.”
Heck, after the previous decade of mostly wandering in the winless wilderness in the Sprint Cup Series, any win for Earnhardt Jr. was special. But the 2014 season was different, lending hope to Earnhardt and his vast Junior Nation of fans that it was possibly setting the table for even greater accomplishments in 2015.
Yes, Earnhardt Jr. is the son of a legendary NASCAR Hall of Famer and seven-time Cup champion, the late Dale Earnhardt.
But he isn’t his father and never claimed to be. Plus, he’s always seemed to have a deep sense of appreciation for his special place in the sport. Whereas others might have come to loathe the constant comparisons to a legendary father, Earnhardt Jr. always has deftly deflected those comparisons while at the same time embracing his own growing legacy over the years.
And as the years have passed, Earnhardt Jr. has increasingly seemed more comfortable in his own skin. In 2014, he was able to translate that into more success on the track with crew chief Steve Letarte and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team.
The season began with a win in the Daytona 500 in February. It was Earnhardt Jr.’s second career victory in NASCAR’s biggest race, coming a decade after his first, and it set the tone for a season in which three more victories would follow — at both Pocono races and then at Martinsville.
The four wins represented the most for Earnhardt Jr. in a single season since he also began a season with winning the Daytona 500 in 2004, when he went on to capture a career-high six races.
While it was disappointing that Earnhardt Jr. was eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup when the field was trimmed from 12 drivers to eight after the Contender Round, he and Letarte still said they were proud of what they accomplished in their final season together. After four seasons leading Earnhardt Jr.’s team, Letarte is moving to the NBC broadcast booth as a NASCAR analyst in 2015 and will be replaced on the No. 88 pit box by Greg Ives.
“I definitely would put it as a successful year,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “Instead of running up the stairs to the top, we’ve had to take one step a year. Finally we’re getting to where we’re winning some races.”
Letarte adds: “Shame on us if we would have let getting eliminated from the Chase overshadow all that we accomplished on the season. … One of the things I was most proud of was the fact that at Martinsville, seven short days after we were eliminated, this team performed. They came to work. You wouldn’t have known whether we were the championship leader or eliminated from the Chase when you walked into the garage that Friday. And it showed on Sunday afternoon when we won.”
All eyes now are on Ives, a 35-year-old Michigan native who is very familiar with Earnhardt Jr. — and vice versa.
Ives served as the championship-winning crew chief for Chase Elliott in the Nationwide Series in 2014. Elliott drove the No. 9 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports, which Earnhardt Jr. owns along with his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, and Rick Hendrick, who of course supplied Earnhardt Jr. with the cars he drives in the Sprint Cup Series.
Ives also worked for Hendrick Motorsports as an engineer on driver Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 team for five of Johnson’s six Cup championships. He says he plans to take a practical approach to his new job, knowing lots of people will be keeping a close watch on every move he makes.
“We all have our jobs to do,” says Ives, who also gained experience as Regan Smith’s Nationwide Series crew chief for JR Motorsports in 2013. “I’m very focused and strict on what I do each week. But it always comes around to the people you put around you, too. I have great engineers … I have the people in place to make all this happen. “
Elliott has no doubt that Earnhardt Jr. is in good hands. After spending just one season with Ives on top of his pit box, Elliott came away mightily impressed, not only with the calls and adjustments to the race cars that Ives routinely made, but with the way he helped foster a great team chemistry.
“I think Greg is very deserving of this opportunity,” Elliott says. “And I think anybody who is wondering about the change, I think they’re going to be pleasantly surprised by the results and the effort and the teamwork and the way that Greg treats people. I’m talking not about just the guy driving his car, but the people who work on the cars and everybody. He treats people the way they should be treated. Nobody’s role means any more than anybody else’s role, and I think Greg has a great understanding of that. He obviously has the smarts and whatnot to do the job. But I think the biggest thing is his leadership.”
Letarte says his advice to Ives is simple: Be yourself. It wasn’t until after years of working under Ray Evernham and Robbie Loomis at Hendrick Motorsports that Letarte was given his first shot at being a crew chief. Then he worked alongside the great Chad Knaus, Johnson’s six-time championship-winning crew chief, in the same building at the HMS complex even after becoming crew chief first for Jeff Gordon and then for Earnhardt Jr.
“Greg Ives needs to be Greg Ives,” Letarte says. “That’s what I learned. I got to work with Ray Evernham, who was spectacular, and Robbie, who is great, but I learned to be me. I didn’t try to be Chad, Robbie or Ray. I just tried to be my own man, and I think Greg Ives should do the same thing.”
In their four years together, Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. developed a close friendship and a tight chemistry that eventually carried over to the race track. But none of that happened overnight.
They went winless their first season together in 2011 and a total of 50 races before earning their first win as a team at Michigan in June 2012. Then they went another 55 races without a win before visiting Victory Lane in the 2014 Daytona 500.
In other words, these things can take time. Earnhardt Jr. is well aware of that.
“I think me and Greg could get off to a great start. I think we could get off to a mediocre start. You never know when you get to working together,” Earnhardt Jr. says.
In addition to losing Letarte, car chief Jason Burdett also left the No. 88 team for a new job at JR Motorsports, and several pit-crew members are leaving to join the new No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team of driver Carl Edwards. That’s a whole lot of change to overcome, but Earnhardt Jr. says one of the keys is that the team’s lead engineer, Kevin Meendering, remains to help ease the transition for Ives.
As fellow engineers, Meendering and Ives should be able to speak the same language when it comes to figuring out how to consistently put fast race cars under NASCAR’s most popular driver. But again, Earnhardt Jr. cautions that it may take more time than the offseason had to offer. Plus, there is no substitute for the experience gained in actual race weekends over testing and crunching numbers back at the shop.
“Kevin is going to be a big key player in all this, helping Greg sort of really round the bases and get up to speed on what we’ve been working on in the past year and the tendencies that I have as a driver and things that I will and won’t like,“ Earnhardt Jr. says. “We’ve got to be open to Greg’s ideas and some new ideas and fresh ideas, also, so all that stuff has got to sort of counterbalance itself out. That’s a bit of a work in progress. I don’t think it happens immediately in the offseason.”
The man known simply as “Junior” to fans who have voted him recipient of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award 12 years running turned 40 years old last October. Time is running out for him to win his first Sprint Cup championship, but he says he’s OK with that as long as he can continue to win races.
Nonetheless, it is a potentially difficult and risky time for Earnhardt Jr. to be coping with all these changes. He says he remembers when he was much younger and winning seemed so routine that he somewhat took it for granted.
“I was so young back then,” he says. “I think the older you get, you definitely come to appreciate how challenging it is, how the competition is very difficult, how so many guys are capable of winning.
“But it’s not easy. You don’t have all these awesome years where you’re piling up wins, hitting homers every week. I mean, I can’t believe I’m 40 years old and still doing this, still successful at it, still with a great team. … It’s something that I hope I can sustain and hopefully be fortunate enough to be with this group for many years. We might have as good an opportunity (in 2015) and maybe the year after that to win a championship. But winning races is the priority. I don’t know that I’d be that damn happy about winning a championship had we not won any races (last) year. Winning these races definitely is still a whole lot of fun.”
— Written by Joe Menzer for Athlon Sports
The modern NBA is a parity-driven affair, with commissioner Adam Silver a veritable Rich Uncle Pennybags, and the league’s respective front offices a bunch of gold-hungry kids crowded around the Monopoly board.
The frenetic, historically active trade deadline day we saw yesterday afternoon was as clear of a picture of this as there can be. Seventeen teams made trades as 39 players found new zip codes, which makes a total of 65 of them to find new homes since the season began in October.
The NBA’s pool of talent is a fluid, ever-changing mass in 2015, as geography and human continuity both take a distinct backseat to the vacuum in which salaries and skill sets are mixed and matched constantly, with each general manager striving for the ultimate illusory carrot of a perfect basketball amalgam.
Sam Hinkie of the Philadelphia 76ers typifies the potential folly of this approach more than anyone. He traded Michael Carter-Williams and K.J. McDaniels yesterday, two apparent building blocks in their youth culture, for the ultimate theoretical good: future draft picks. Hinkie has now grabbed 14 future draft picks via trade, with his collection stretching all the way until the 2020 draft.
Hinkie treats his roster more like a hedge fund than an assortment of human beings, and that’s not hyperbole — the team’s ownership group, led by Joshua Harris and David Blitzer, is a gang of elite investment bankers who fully back their GM’s asset-based strategy.
And while Hinkie’s singular dogma represents the extreme interpretation of the league’s market rules of today, the rest of the game’s fanbases are simply having a lot more fun with all this. There is, somehow, an excitement surrounding the trade-and-free-agency aspect of the league that transcends the cultural fervor of most of its actual competitive games.
It’s as if we’re all rooting for the best baseball card collectors, instead of the athletes, at times. Front offices are taking an increasingly large share of the rock star attention away from the players, as men like Hinkie and his tutor — Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets — are far better known than most of the young men they shift around.
Recent NBA champions, of course, aren’t taking many newfangled shortcuts. The San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers all made firm, long investments not only in superstars like Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and LeBron James, but also in leaders of men like Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, Phil Jackson and Pat Riley.
Perhaps equally important: They stuck to marginal draft talent as it progressed slowly through the years. For every surefire King and Mamba, there’s a glut of Manu Ginobilis and J.J. Bareas surrounding him — players whose talent and utility could only be unlocked by proper culture, time, and care.
This is not to denigrate the recent, rapid change in NBA culture: just to say that the phase shift is nascent, and has not yet produced a dependable proof of its tenets. A whiz kid of modern machinations has yet to take his team to the Finals, but we could be approaching the day when Hinkie, Morey, or any other number of in-vogue market operators pulls a fast one impactful enough to seize the Larry O’Brien trophy in short order.
The wild action we saw yesterday was a direct result of movement-friendly rules born with the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, forged during the last lockout. That CBA expires in 2021, but both sides have an opt-out clause as soon as 2017, and a new-look players’ union led by a hard-charging Michele Roberts, president Chris Paul and vice president LeBron seems likely to take issue with much of what’s changed in the lifestyle of the contemporary NBA player.
Maybe that’s when we’ll see some change that allows us to take a deep, calm breath about player mobility, and see our ballers as people — not eminently tradable playing cards — again. But until then, you better sit back and enjoy the frenzy.
— John Wilmes
Rabble-rouser. Rebel. Public pest. That’s just a taste of what critics labeled Brad Keselowski in 2014, peers and media alike, as the driver made national news throughout the Chase. When it was over, he ascended the throne — not as champion, but as the sport’s most controversial figure. On the track, a terrific season turned tumultuous, as a unique opportunity for two titles in three years drowned amid fights and mechanical mayhem.
It’s a complex description for a driver perpetually on the brink, a man who on paper is one of the sport’s best. There is no doubt, as the dust settled on 2014, that Keselowski had a brilliant season. His six wins led all Sprint Cup drivers, and he had a sizzling average start of 7.4. He led 27 races at some point and earned an average finish of 12.6; his 1,540 laps led trailed only Cup champion Kevin Harvick. A risk-reward strategy of getting aggressive for wins paid off under NASCAR’s new format. Twice, it advanced him to the Chase’s next round, and it almost won him the title outright. Keselowski enjoys bucking trends, and in an era that rewards points racing, his “go for broke” strategy was refreshing.
But what people will remember about the 2014 version of Keselowski going forward is a costly pair of post-race scuffles. One was a result of an overaggressive move at Charlotte, where Matt Kenseth took exception to a block Keselowski threw. After the race, the normally reserved Kenseth tackled Keselowski from behind in the garage area. The second came one month later, after an incident at Texas in which Keselowski and Jeff Gordon banged fenders while battling for the lead. The contact left Gordon’s tire shredded, along with his hopes for a fifth title, and fired up tempers everywhere. Gordon confronted Keselowski, crewmen got involved, and both drivers were left with bloodied lips. In the end, Keselowski fell short of the win that night as well, virtually ending his shot at winning a championship.
It was a rocky road, a roller coaster season that left everyone forming an opinion. Keselowski is a polarizing figure in NASCAR and a bit of a throwback to the days when drivers didn’t have to watch what they said in front of their sponsors and never backed down on the track. In the process, like him or not, everyone knows he’s been there.
“I try to do things my own way,” he said at the Las Vegas banquet in December. “The best way I know how. I do not feel the need to apologize for someone else’s mistake. A baby seal does not want to get eaten by a whale, but a whale’s got to eat, you know?”
That brazen desire to be the best at all costs draws comparisons to the late Dale Earnhardt, and it requires a strong support system. To the driver’s credit, owner Roger Penske has a high level of trust in him; their ability to maintain a strong relationship keeps the right people in place. Longtime primary sponsor Miller Lite, signed through 2017, gives Keselowski free rein to be himself. The company has been with Team Penske for more than two decades, much of that with Rusty Wallace, a driver who had a similar temperament and drive. Wurth is also returning for a handful of races, as is Alliance Truck Parts. Keselowski isn’t the conventional sponsor’s dream, but his desire to win is obvious — something his sponsors can appreciate.
Crew chief Paul Wolfe also returns to the top of the pit box, continuing a pairing that’s won 15 races together in four seasons. Their communication is outstanding, and the two are on par with the top driver-crew chief combinations in the sport. Penske chassis and Roush-Yates power proved to be a formidable combination, and as long as Keselowski and Wolfe can get comfortable with the 2015 rules package — which includes reduced downforce and horsepower — they will enter the season as a clear title favorite.
To win it, Keselowski will have to play the Chase perfectly while also navigating through his enemies, many of whom are title contenders. It’s a tough task for a driver who finds it hard to play nice, giving no quarter and putting people into the wall. Some might say that’s a strategy ripe for failure. The others? They’ll point to Earnhardt’s seven trophies, as well as the title Keselowski earned in 2012 after ruffling feathers with this generation’s championship maven, Jimmie Johnson.
The bottom line is that Keselowski, the perpetual bad-boy underdog, is counting on you to bet against him, letting his antics distract you despite the fact that he is arguably the most talented driver in the sport.
We know better. Expect Year 2 of NASCAR’s new Chase format, for better or for worse, to revolve around the polarizing No. 2 car.
On the surface Keselowski is adept on intermediate tracks, especially at facilities with worn surfaces. His three intermediate wins of 2014 came at Las Vegas, Kentucky and Chicagoland.
Pay attention to Fridays and Saturdays At tracks like New Hampshire, Kentucky and Richmond, Keselowski practiced well (his lap times topped the scoring pylon), claimed the pole for each of those races and went on to dominate.
A consistent leader Keselowski led at least one lap in 27 out of 36 Cup Series races in 2014. He has led more than 1,000 laps each year for the last five years.
Yes to Watkins Glen, no to Sonoma While Keselowski has come agonizingly close to winning on the road course at Watkins Glen, the other road course on the circuit, Sonoma, has never seen him earn a single-digit finishing position.
No. 2 Penske Racing Ford
Primary Sponsors: Miller Lite, Alliance Truck Parts, Wurth, Detroit Genuine Parts
Owner: Roger Penske
Crew Chief: Paul Wolfe
Year With Current Team: 6th
Under Contract Through: 2017
Best Points Finish: 1st (2012)
Hometown: Rochester Hills, Mich.
Born: Feb. 12, 1984
|Years||Starts||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s||Poles||Titles||Earned|
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
A year ago, Jimmie Johnson was coming off his sixth Sprint Cup championship, looking down the barrel of NASCAR history and the seven-title record held by Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. It seemed inevitable that Johnson, already a future Hall of Fame driver himself, would join the party, perhaps as soon as 2014.
Now, the future is murky after Johnson, who turned 39 in September, suffered through the worst season of his career in 2014. His 11 top 5s were his fewest since 2002, his rookie season. His top-10 total (20) was his lowest since 2003. His 15.3 average finish was his career worst by two positions. Johnson struggled with the 2014 rules package, never finding a foothold with a winning formula. Changes to NASCAR’s playoff format, which critics claimed were designed to stop Johnson’s run, left him struggling to catch on.
He still won four races and made the Chase, making him the only driver to qualify for every edition of NASCAR’s playoff since its inception. It’s an indication of how strong he’s been, but for Johnson, his numbers were lackluster. Three of his wins came in a four-week stretch in May and June, with the fourth coming after his elimination from championship contention.
For the first time in 13 seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, Johnson showed serious signs of weakness, along with friction involving crew chief Chad Knaus. Tire management was possibly the largest bone of contention, as Johnson suffered several tire failures during the season, problems that Goodyear blamed on low air pressure settings by the team. There were a few bad strategy calls, and a few cases of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But overall, it wasn’t a case of any one thing going terribly wrong so much as it was that, for the first time, Johnson’s No. 48 team lost its edge on the competition. Knaus struggled during races to improve the car’s handling, and Johnson became repeatedly frustrated with an inability to gain track position.
Heading into 2015, equipment is the least of this team’s problems; the New York Yankees of NASCAR know how to rebuild. Hendrick chassis are fast and built with care, and their powerplants are powerful and durable. Among four in-house teams, there were zero engine failures in the Hendrick camp last season. Johnson and shopmate Dale Earnhardt Jr. like a similar feel in their cars, and as a result, they work well together. All four Hendrick teams share information openly, along with their half-dozen satellite cars, and that strength in numbers is the key to their sustained success.
Primary sponsor Lowe’s, signed through 2015, is a question mark. Lowe’s has been with Johnson for his entire Cup career and has certainly gotten a return on its investment with Johnson’s six titles and 70 wins. The driver is personable off the track and stellar on it, so the company gets the best of both worlds. However, with main competitor Home Depot having left the sport, and with many companies scaling back from full 36-race deals, expect Hendrick’s marketing team to be busy this summer. In the long run, money shouldn’t be an issue, but we once said the same about Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s most popular driver, and he’s still in need of financial support. It’s a story that will bear watching.
Should the No. 48 team survive that distraction, the key to recovery lies at the feet of Johnson and Knaus, the longest-lasting driver-crew chief combo in the garage. While Knaus has a reputation for pushing the envelope on the rules, he’s also brilliant at finding Johnson every ounce of speed while keeping his driver focused and positive. Johnson has an encyclopedic memory for past races and what worked, while Knaus has an arsenal of strategies. The duo claimed that a late fall test just before their Texas victory in November got them going on the 2015 rules package. “It’s not that difficult to fall behind,” says Knaus. “I think we just got blinded by our own misguidance. It’s a challenge to stay ahead of the curve in this industry.”
Johnson, on the verge of a long-term contract extension, feels up to the challenge in 2015. But the clock is also ticking; Earnhardt Sr. won his last title at age 43, and Petty was just 42. For Johnson — who has been realistic about the challenge involved with a round-robin, NCAA Tournament-style Chase format — the time to bounce back is now. The 2015 rules changes should play to his advantage, along with a brilliant crew chief and the best equipment money can buy. Johnson, like he’s done throughout his career, needs to meld all the pieces, peak in the postseason and make everything work.
He plays the hits Despite the relatively poor 2014 season, Johnson scored wins at Charlotte, Dover and Texas, facilities that have played host to some of his most memorable and dominant wins.
A new outlook Johnson finished worse than 20th in 12 races last season and suffered four DNFs. It seems that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are no longer interested in making dramatic comebacks from adversity, formerly a staple of the No. 48 team, once they’re locked into the Chase.
He keeps leading Even in a down season, Johnson extended his streak of leading more than 1,000 laps in a season to eight.
Making gains at Bristol He hasn’t won there since 2010, but in 2014, Johnson finished 4.8 and 4.1 positions better, respectively, than his average running position in the two races at Bristol, his best collective gain on average of any track.
No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Primary Sponsors: Lowe’s, Kobalt Tools
Owner: Rick Hendrick/Jeff Gordon
Crew Chief: Chad Knaus
Year With Current Team: 14th
Under Contract Through: 2015
Best Points Finish: 1st (6 Times)
Hometown: El Cajon, Calif.
Born: Sept. 17, 1975
|Years||Starts||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s||Poles||Titles||Earned|
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Baseball is filled with bizarre coincidences, amazing statistics, and lots of oddball occurrences. Last season was no exception. As spring training gets underway, we decided to look back at the kookiest from 2014 in our annual Calendar of MLB Weirdness.
April 2 Six pitchers blow saves in the ninth inning or later.
April 4 Billy Hamilton is thrown out stealing for the second straight time by a Mets backup catcher (Juan Centeno and Anthony Recker) after starting his career 13-for-13.
April 8 Toronto tops Houston, 5–2, as the teams combine to go 0-for-20 with runners in scoring position.
April 9 Ervin Santana’s first 20 pitches as a Brave are strikes. Phil Hughes needs 40 pitches to get his first out against the A’s.
April 12 Alfonso Soriano, staffing right field for the first time in his 16-year career, drops a soft fly on the first ball hit to him.
April 12 The Yankees fall to Boston, 7–4, despite each of their 4 through 7 hitters going 2-for-4 with a home run.
April 16 Three Baltimore pitchers combine for a 153-pitch shutout of the Rays.
April 18 The Giants play their eighth straight one-run game, winning half of them.
April 22 Alex Wood is the first pitcher in 34 years to allow one run in eight or more innings of back-to-back starts yet lose both.
April 21-23 The Braves and Marlins set an NL record for a three-game series by combining for 78 strikeouts.
April 24 Brett Gardner goes 0-for-3 against the Red Sox but scores four runs.
April 25 The Angels hang 13 runs on the Yankees despite the top two spots in the order going 0-for-10.
April 26 Jose Bautista takes Koji Uehara deep with the first regular-season homer the Red Sox closer had allowed since June 30, 2013 — to Jose Bautista.
May 2 With the Rays playing a five-man infield, Brett Gardner records a 3-9 ground out — first baseman Sean Rodriguez to right fielder Wil Myers.
May 4 Called up from the minors, where’d been 2-for-25, George Kottaras becomes the first player to a hit a home run in each of his first two at-bats for the Indians.
May 4 The Giants sweep a three-game series from the Braves without managing a hit with runners in scoring position.
May 9 All 16 of Kansas City’s hits are singles (14 of them off Brandon Maurer) in a 6–1 defeat of the Mariners.
May 16 Pitchers for six road teams spin shutouts for just the second time ever.
May 18 The Rockies turn a “retroactive” triple play when a runner is called out for interference.
May 24 Astros prospect Conrad Gregor hits his initial home run of the season in his 42nd game for Quad Cities, and it’s caught by his father.
May 26 Jeff Samardzija and Kyle Kendrick snap their streaks of 16 consecutive winless starts on the same day.
May 31 For the fifth time in his 12 outings, a Michael Wacha start is rain-delayed.
May 31 Four days after the game’s longest active streak of homerless at-bats ends at 1,465 (Ben Revere), its successor (Ruben Tejada, 552) goes deep, as well.
June 3 The Jays beat the Tigers, 5–3, tying a record for most runs scored in the ninth inning of a game that was scoreless after eight.
June 3 37-year-old Jason Lane, who once hit 26 home runs in a season for the Astros, returns to the majors after a seven-year absence to throw 3.1 perfect innings of relief for San Diego.
June 4 The Padres’ sole hit is a bunt single and they get just two balls out of the infield, but they edge the Pirates, 3–2.
June 6 Jose Bautista blasts a home run, throws out a runner at the plate, gets a putout on a fan interference call and lines into a triple play.
June 8 David Freese, who’d never walked more than twice in a game in his six seasons, draws four on full counts.
June 11 Kansas City scores all its runs via sacrifice flies in a 4–1 defeat of Cleveland.
June 11 Padres starters Everth Cabrera, Jace Peterson and Carlos Quentin complete the night in a combined slump of 1-for-72.
June 13 Two Angel Sanchezes sign minor league deals and are assigned to Double-A — the pitcher with the Rays, the infielder with the Dodgers.
June 15 Baltimore’s Chris Tillman, after losing to Toronto, stands 0–4 with a 2.78 ERA at home and 5–0 with a 6.33 ERA on the road.
June 16 On the day Tony Gwynn passes away, Dee Gordon becomes the first Dodgers leadoff hitter to reach base five times since it was done three years earlier by Tony Gwynn Jr.
June 17 Oakland — the team with the lowest ERA in the American League — purchases minor league veteran Brad Mills from the Brewers for $1 and inserts him into its rotation.
June 30 The Indians are the first team since the 1918 Boston Braves to be shut out on one hit in back-to-back games.
July 1 Rick Porcello is the first pitcher in 25 years to throw a shutout without walking or striking out a batter. It is his second straight whitewash since beginning his career with one complete game in 163 starts.
July 1 For the second time in seven days, a pitcher (Tim Lincecum, following Clayton Kershaw) throws eight scoreless innings in a start following a no-hitter — something that hadn’t been done by anyone since 1991.
July 3 Hitless after five innings, the Diamondbacks rap out 13 in a 10–2 thumping of the Pirates.
July 4 Jason Hammel (7–5, 2.98 ERA) meets Tanner Roark (7–5, 2.98 ERA), with Hammel being yanked in the seventh inning because he had been traded — with his ERA still at 2.98.
July 5 The four-game trial of Astros rookie Domingo Santana is aborted after his 11th strikeout in 13 plate appearances.
July 6 The Orioles knock off the Red Sox for the 11th consecutive time those clubs have gone to extra innings.
July 8 To blow a 5–0 lead, all six Cubs pitchers allow exactly one run in a loss to the Reds.
July 9 As per Elias, Robbie Grossman is the first player since Mike Schmidt in 1988 to end a slump of 0-for-28 or worse with a four-hit game.
July 10 Colby Lewis allows 13 runs to Mike Trout and the Angels while throwing only 61 pitches — the fewest-ever offerings in a debacle of that magnitude.
July 18 Jonny Gomes homers in the first game after the All-Star break for the third consecutive campaign.
July 24 The Padres score nine runs in the sixth inning against the Cubs without the benefit of an extra-base hit.
July 28 Arizona wins for the 13th consecutive time in games that last at least 15 innings.
Aug. 1 The 12 hitters moved at the July 31 trade deadline go an aggregate 3-for-35 (all doubles) in their debuts with their new teams.
Aug. 1 For the second time this season and the seventh time in his career, Derek Jeter is the first strikeout victim of a pitcher making his major league debut.
Aug. 10 The Angels fail to record an assist, something that’s happened only four other times in a nine-inning game in the modern era.
Aug. 15 The Tigers give away Miguel Cabrera bobbleheads that read “Most Valuable Player, National League.”
Aug. 21 Five of eight games end in shutouts — the most in 48 years in that skimpy of a schedule.
Aug. 21 The Nats walk off their foe for the fifth time in their last six games.
Aug. 26 Reds catchers go hitless for a 13th contest in a row.
Aug. 27 The Yankees swing and miss at none of David Price’s 25 pitches in the third inning as he becomes the first pitcher since 1982 to allow a hit to nine consecutive batters.
Aug. 27 After 24 consecutive starts without doing so, Clayton Kershaw faces a batter with the bases loaded.
Aug. 27 Scott Van Slyke swats his 10th home run of the year — and fifth off Wade Miley.
Aug. 28 Yusmeiro Petit’s MLB record streak of retiring 46 consecutive batters is terminated on a double by pitcher Jordan Lyles, a career .154 hitter.
Sept. 1 Adam Dunn homers in his first game with a new team for the third time (Nationals, White Sox and A’s).
Sept. 3 Boston’s 3-4-5 hitters (David Ortiz, Yoenis Cespedes, Daniel Nava) all begin the evening with a .263 batting average.
Sept. 7 Adrian Beltre drives in the only run of the game in the first managerial victory for Tim Bogar — his teammate of 13 years ago.
Sept. 11 For the third straight time, the Angels win in injured starter Garrett Richards’ rotation slot by using a succession of relievers — 23 in all.
Sept. 16 The two longest scoreless relief streaks in Royals history end on one swing, as Conor Gillaspie triples home runners put on base by Wade Davis (31.2 innings) and Kelvin Herrera (30.2).
Sept. 23 Felix Hernandez is the fourth former Cy Young Award winner of the season to allow at least seven runs in an inning, joining David Price, Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw.
Sept. 24 Jon Lester finishes his year having faced 346 batters with at least one runner on base, yet without having attempted a pickoff throw.
Sept. 25 During the Mets game, Anthony DiComo of MLB.com tweets that they “can become the first NL team in 15 years to go an entire season without balking.” Two minutes later, a Mets pitcher balks.
Sept. 27 Cincinnati’s bullpen ends its 18-game losing streak two games shy of the 2012 Astros’ major league record.
Sept. 28 Henderson Alvarez, who in 2013 threw the first no-hitter in a season finale in 29 years, is the victim of Jordan Zimmerman’s no-hitter in this season’s finale — both 1–0 contests.
Sept. 30 Kansas City wins its seventh straight postseason game when facing elimination by defeating Oakland, which loses its seventh consecutive winner-take-all contest.
Oct. 1 Former Pirates reliever Kent Tekulve throws out the first pitch of their Wild Card game 26 days after undergoing a heart transplant.
Oct. 15 The Royals are the first team to clinch a postseason series while going at least 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position since the Yankees rode Babe Ruth’s three home runs to a win in Game 4 of the 1928 World Series.
— Compiled by Bruce Herman for Athlon Sports
The 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is set to begin with Sunday’s running of the Daytona 500. With the race to the Chase and the Sprint Cup Championship about to get re-started, Athlon asked crew chiefs and drivers to talk anonymously about the guys behind the wheel. Here are their takes on Athlon’s top 25 drivers entering the 2015 Sprint Cup season.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NASCAR drivers and crew chiefs and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
(Number indicates ranking among Athlon's Top 25 drivers for 2015 season)
No. 1 – Brad Keselowski
Toward the end of the 2014 season, Keselowski was the subject of scrutiny and a common denominator in post-race scuffles. A driver who has competed regularly against him the last three years thinks that some other competitors feel unnerved and, possibly, intimidated. “This is a guy who wants to not just beat you, but also outsmart you. Brad ruffles feathers, he stands up for what he believes in and isn’t afraid to put his reputation and career on the line to be successful. In a lot of ways, you have to respect that. I’m not saying I cheer for him, but there’s certainly a reason he’s successful. He’s willing to do his job at a level where most drivers aren’t (willing to go). I happen to like that. He’s making his competition increase their workload, and I sense a lot of discomfort in that.” … The same driver went on to compare him to a popular NASCAR Hall of Famer. “He’s similar to Dale Earnhardt in a lot of ways, who toward the end of his career had universal respect from fans, drivers, everybody. If Brad were from the South, he’d be a hit right now with fans. Brad isn’t from the South — he’s from Michigan — but he’s had to work as hard as anyone to get where he is and isn’t afraid to let people know that he’s willing to put up a fight or do whatever it takes to stay there.”
No. 2 – Jimmie Johnson
A rival crew chief was shocked by the No. 48 team’s lack of innovation last season. “It’s interesting that they got hot at one point in the season and then we didn’t see anything from them until the third-to-last race (at Texas). Even then, we’re hearing that their skew was illegal. If you take out that race, then they really didn’t do anything in the second half of the year. It’s surprising that they didn’t show up in the Chase, especially since they have the notes from everybody else within Hendrick. There are rumors that Chad (Knaus) was distracted with his new girlfriend and wasn’t as focused as he once was. And that might just be a rumor — it’s what you hear — but you’ve got to wonder because up until this year, they seemed like the guys that were coming out with the forward-thinking stuff, pushing the boundaries on body stuff, pushing the boundaries on setup stuff. Last year, we never saw them jump out with anything that made us say, ‘We’ve got to chase that, because they’re dominant with it.’ They didn’t have the car advantage that they had in the past.” … “It wasn’t the year for them,” says a competing driver. “I think if you asked Jimmie or Chad they’d tell you they were disappointed. This massive rules change that we had didn’t suit them, and as the season wore on, you saw other teams catch up and surpass them. I thought that they’d get things together and turn it around come Chase time, but we never saw it.”
No. 3 – Kevin Harvick
“Everything that I’ve heard is that there are eight drivers between Hendrick and Stewart-Haas with access to all the same setups, and he’s the only one that can drive them,” says a rival crew chief. “What he does with the pedals and how he drives a tight racecar and makes speed is something no one else there can do. I heard that Jeff Gordon went to several tests with the intent of ‘Give me (Harvick’s) setup and I’ll try to drive it.’ It’s impressive that he is able to do something that the caliber of guys like Jimmie (Johnson) and Jeff (Gordon) can’t.” … That crew chief also suggests that Harvick’s crew chief and the 2015 rules package should keep Harvick formidable. “Everyone thought he was carrying the cars at RCR. Before last year, when it was announced he was paired with Rodney (Childers), we all figured he would contend. With Rodney, it always seemed like the cars he built were faster than the drivers he had. 2015’s rule package should be similar to the Nationwide package of 2014, and we know how good Harvick is in those cars. He’ll be really tough again.” … A fellow driver gushes about Harvick’s unique driving style. “He charges the corners really, really hard, which isn’t supposed to work in Stock Cars. He makes it work. We look at data that says he uses the brake as a tool more than any other driver. Combine the way he drives with that equipment and Rodney Childers, and it’s no wonder they had the season that they had.”
No. 4 – Joey Logano
A fellow young driver cites confidence as a big reason for Logano’s breakout season last year in the Cup Series. “To me, he didn’t fit the system at Joe Gibbs Racing, and it seemed like his confidence was down when he was over there. And from the outside looking in, they were invested in him, but they weren’t supporting him, if that makes sense. His crew chief (Greg Zipadelli) stunk, they didn’t build around him, and nothing ever seemed to work when he was over there. Now at Penske, it seems like he’s found a fit with Todd Gordon. It’s given him confidence, and now that he has that confidence, the talent has come out.” … One crew chief disagrees with the notion that Gordon is a factor in Logano’s success. “Joey is awesome, and you get the sense that he’s carrying that 22 team because everything Gordon does can easily be second-guessed. They had a lot of speed this year, which always helps, but I think if you took some of that away, you’d see a real difference in how Gordon calls a race and how someone like Paul Wolfe calls a race. I think Joey is succeeding despite his team, which does sound crazy considering how fast they were last year. What Joey was able to do at Richmond and Bristol, how well he conserved his stuff throughout the race, should tell you that he’s a legitimate driver in this sport now.”
No. 5 – Jeff Gordon
“I wouldn’t quite say the old Jeff Gordon was back, because we’ve never seen him like this before,” says a driver who competed against Gordon in 2014. “He was aggressive, like really aggressive, but at the same time, it seemed like other guys could rattle him pretty easily. I think he went into that Texas race frustrated about losing to Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. the week prior (at Martinsville), and he had just lost to Jimmie Johnson (at Texas). Getting beat by two Hendrick cars that were out of the Chase at that point probably didn’t sit well with him. The (Brad) Keselowski thing was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. You could tell he got himself wound up and stressed out at the end of the season. That was easy to see. He was rattled.” … A rival crew chief points to Hendrick equipment as a key factor in Gordon’s strong year. “Like the 88 team, they benefited from having strong motors very early in the year. I don’t feel (Alan Gustafson) had strong mechanical setups, but they were very strong with aero. As for Gordon, he showed the ability to go and dominate a race. Without the issues he had in the Chase, he probably would’ve been (Kevin) Harvick’s biggest competition at Homestead. If he made it there, I could easily see him being the champion instead of Harvick.”
No. 6 – Carl Edwards
A Cup Series regular believes Edwards’s talent stood out in 2014, and could lead to big things with his new team. “Carl did a lot with a little last year. His wins the last few seasons came out of thin air. He took the 99 car far into the Chase, certainly further than I thought they’d go. Ultimately, the lack of speed affected him. But hey, he won at a road course and he won at Bristol, which speaks to his ability to elevate his situation. It’s going to be a big blow to Roush, now that they’ve lost him. He could end up having a Matt Kenseth-type season with JGR. That change in pace, in scenery, in equipment … I could see him being a challenger for the championship.” … A crew chief echoes that sentiment. “It’s going to be really interesting to see what he does in Gibbs equipment, because even though the Gibbs cars struggled a little bit in 2014, they’re light years ahead of where the Roush camp is. It’s funny — when you look at guys like Kenseth or (Kevin) Harvick that go to a new company that’s perceived to be a better company than where they were at, it’s almost like magic for a year. The honeymoon lasts for almost a whole season. Different ideas and different concepts with a very talented driver can lead to good results. I wouldn’t be surprised if Edwards is really good this year.”
No. 7 – Matt Kenseth
“It was the right call to keep him and Jason Ratcliff together,” says a current crew chief who previously worked with Kenseth. “They didn’t win last year, but they were still really consistent. They did a lot of the same things they did the year before, but the results were dialed down just because their engine program was down. But there was a good team underneath all that. If Joe Gibbs Racing or Toyota regains their speed, and I’m sure they will at some point, they’ll be winning again. (Kenseth and Ratcliff) are as smart and as in synch as any driver-crew chief team in the series right now. Matt has always been real good about his feedback. With good equipment, they’re tough to beat.” … “It was a disappointing year for him and everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing, really, in 2014. That 20 team just kind of sputtered after such a good first season together (in 2013). I guess it’s unfair to say that they were ‘off,’ since they ran in the top 5 a lot, but they just didn’t have the closing speed they did the year prior,” says a driver who has competed against Kenseth in the Cup Series and the Nationwide Series. “But there’s no doubt that he’s one of the top drivers in the sport, year-in and year-out, even with him getting older. He’s fit. He’s smart. He’s calm. And he’ll bounce back next year.”
No. 8 – Kyle Busch
“Kyle Busch has continued to show us that he’s not mentally mature enough to challenge for a championship,” says a rival driver. “We’ve seen the blowups and the unhinging in the racecar. He’ll continue to win races. He’s an amazingly talented driver. No one doubts that at all. But until they find a way to get him mature, keep his emotions in check and focus on the task at hand, I doubt he’ll win a championship, no matter what crew chief he’s with.” … A crew chief from a championship-contending team believes that a change atop the pit box and in the car’s setup could do wonders for a raw talent such as Busch. “He has so much talent that you have to figure if they get their setups on par with everyone else, that he would rise to the top. The rules changes could certainly play into his hands. It was surprising to me that he was just average this past year. Take away that one win they had, and it wasn’t much of a season for them at all.” … Another crew chief suggests that Adam Stevens is a downgrade from Dave Rogers. “I watched those Nationwide races last year and laughed whenever the TV crew complimented Stevens. Strategy-wise, he just doesn’t get it, and it’s not like he didn’t have Kyle Busch driving his car. Kyle Busch in a Joe Gibbs car in the Nationwide Series will make just about any crew chief look really good.”
No. 9 – Kyle Larson
“To me, this is the next real-deal superstar,” says a crew chief for what will likely be a title-contending team in 2015. “You hear the observations on what their setups are and where their cars are at and the comparisons to him and (Jamie) McMurray … the kid’s been awesome. Just in the garage, I’ve never seen somebody come in and get everyone on every team — across the board — excited about watching him. He’s made fans of other teams’ members. There are guys on our team that get pumped up about what the kid does. I haven’t seen that. Ever.” … “I was impressed,” says a competing driver. “That first strong run he had in Fontana was all him. The number of top-5 and top-10 runs he had … and he had more consistency in the Cup Series than he did the year prior (in the Nationwide Series). It seems like when he wasn’t able to find ways to win or finish near the front, he’d find ways to finish seventh, sometimes with a car that wasn’t exactly seventh-place material. He’d finish in the top 10 when he didn’t have a top-10 car. Heck, he almost made the Chase by doing that. And it seems like Ganassi did give him some good racecars, especially in the second half of the season. Because of him, there has been an infusion of funding into the team. They’ll be really good for the foreseeable future.”
No. 10 – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
NASCAR’s most popular driver invokes differing opinions. A crew chief for a competing team believes that Earnhardt’s 2014 success had more to do with the team than the driver. “Looking at the places he won (last) year, they came at the places where Hendrick had a clear advantage in horsepower, and I think that played into his hands to some degree. I think that’s true about a lot of Hendrick cars. Jeff Gordon won at Kansas and Michigan … the motor advantage helped them a ton. Their aero department has been very strong, but I don’t know that I feel like their mechanical setups have been that great. Compared to what Jeff did and what (Kevin) Harvick did with similar equipment, I wasn’t overly impressed with what (Earnhardt) did this year, even though it was a great year for him personally. That might have been his peak.” … One of Earnhardt’s closest competitors believes that we’re witnessing rejuvenation. “I was happy for him and that team this year, although I thought they would be more serious title contenders than they were. Steve Letarte did a remarkable job with him. In the last three years, he took a driver who had lost his confidence, lost his belief in his ability, and turned him into a guy that could sweep a place like Pocono, contend for wins week in and week out, qualify better … we haven’t seen those things from Dale Jr. in a while.”
No. 11 – Tony Stewart
A crew chief from outside the Chevrolet camp is convinced that a leg injury suffered in 2013 played a pivotal role in Stewart’s ineffective 2014 season. “I’m not convinced that his leg was fully healed last season. I’ve seen similar injuries, maybe not that bad, but still broken legs, and it took a full year just to heal. At his age and his fitness level, I don’t think he was fully healthy. He tried to make that comeback in a span of a few months. Also, this isn’t a typical sport in which he can make his left leg better to compensate for his injured right leg. He needs that right leg (for throttle and braking), and I’m concerned whether that right leg will ever have the same fine motor skills it once did. Having said that, before the injury, he was as talented as anyone in the series, so a 90 percent Tony Stewart is probably better than most other drivers and good enough to win a lot of races.” … “There’s still something left in the tank,” says a rival driver. “He might be getting up there in age and that showed even before the injury, but he’s still damn good. When he’s back to full health, I won’t be surprised to see him again contending for wins. An aging Smoke is still a top-15 driver, easy, and it’s obvious that Stewart-Haas has some things in the competition department figured out.”
No. 12 – Denny Hamlin
A fellow driver says Hamlin is talented, but questions his commitment. “It’s obvious to me that he’s fast. He has his tracks that he’s very good at, but for whatever reason, he zones out some weeks and isn’t a factor. I don’t think we’ve seen him plugged in for a full season yet. It’s almost as if he only gets up for the races he feels he’ll be competitive, which I sort of understand. But to become a guy that’s capable of seriously competing for a title, he has to make a more concerted effort at the tracks that aren’t so good for him. Dave Rogers seems like a bright guy, but his results in Cup aren’t all that impressive. But maybe that’s the combination that clicks? I don’t think Denny has had an elite crew chief yet. It’ll be interesting to see how he does if he ever gets one, or if Rogers is that guy.” … “Denny’s tough to judge,” says a competing crew chief. “He ranks right up there with the other drivers they’ve got. None of them were very successful last year. It’s interesting that he was the one that rose up. I expected the 20 car to be the one to step up in the Chase. And in terms of raw talent, I’d rank Kyle Busch ahead of him, but (Denny) was the one that carried the car deep into the Chase. Obviously with the crew chief change and the rule change, it’ll be interesting to see how quickly they pick up on everything.”
No. 13 – Kasey Kahne
“I struggle to understand what’s been going on the last couple of years with him,” says a crew chief who competed against Kahne’s No. 5 team in the 2014 Chase. “He was an elite-level driver for such a long time. Now, compared to the other drivers that are over there (at Hendrick), they look like they’re in a completely different ballpark, speed-wise. Kasey looks slow and out of place. Now, it was interesting what Keith Rodden did with the 1 car. They took a step forward in just about every facet of competition. Him going back to the 5 could be a game-changer.” … One fellow driver points to the crew chief change as a sign of desperation. “You only have to look at the fact that they changed their crew chief to know how last season went for them. Kasey and Kenny Francis had been together for a long time. Kasey took him from RPM to Red Bull to Hendrick, and I think they thought it was another Chad (Knaus)-and-Jimmie (Johnson) situation. They got along; I know they were really close. But they had one really bad season and that was it. They moved on. You hope for his sake Rodden works out. We’ve all seen how one of Hendrick’s four cars usually is down from all the others. This was that team in 2014. To me, there’s no excuse not to have all four cars seriously contend for a championship.”
No. 14 – Ryan Newman
A fellow driver suggests that Newman’s career was rejuvenated with his move to Richard Childress Racing. “I felt Ryan was on the down slope of his career over the last few years. He was complacent in a lot of ways. He was at Stewart-Haas the year Tony Stewart went on to win a championship and he was barely even a factor in the Chase. They tried stuff, like bringing (Matt) Borland back to rekindle the success they had at Penske. It didn’t work. Now at RCR, he’s the number-one guy. You know (Paul) Menard is never going to be that driver and even though Austin (Dillon) is the grandson (of owner Richard Childress), he isn’t the guy that’s going to fight for a championship. So that confidence from being the top guy and having Luke Lambert, who is probably the best up-and-coming crew chief in the series, allowed him to end up where he did, fighting for a championship.” … One crew chief admires the way Lambert has brought an engineering approach to an old-school team. “You have to hand it to them, they did a lot of things we didn’t expect. The whole year they weren’t flaring the side skirts, and come Homestead they flared it on the first stop, and Newman ran fast that whole race. It was their best race. That team and that car looked like it belonged. I know some of the things they are doing now with aero and setups, they didn’t used to do. Lambert is making that whole organization better.”
No. 15 – Clint Bowyer
A crew chief who has competed against Bowyer and his MWR team in the Chase points to a communications problem that might have hampered their 2014 season. “I’ve listened to them on the radio. From what I can tell, the feedback he gives when things aren’t going well isn’t strong enough to make the car better. I think when he’s on, and everything is going good with the team and the car, he’s good and they can compete for championships, as we’ve seen in the past. It seems like the whole team struggled this year, and at times this year, especially during the Chase, they would stand out — their end-of-Happy Hour sticker runs would stand out and you’d be like, ‘Man, they’ve got a really good car today.’ But then you wonder whether there’s something about their setups that are only good in clean air, or are they making bad changes overnight? Or is it a thing where during the race he leads them in the wrong direction, setup-wise or change-wise? Is the feedback not strong enough in the race to keep a good car from practice a good car in the race? They showed speed at the end of the year.” … “Bowyer and Brian Pattie seemed like a really good pairing three years ago, but they’ve just gotten further off with each passing season,” says another crew chief. “Individually, that’s still a good driver and a good crew chief, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they right the ship.”
No. 16 – Kurt Busch
“Kurt Busch is immensely talented, but the off-track stuff has affected his ability to perform, probably more than he’d like to admit,” says a fellow driver. “But he has the best opportunity of his entire career right now (with Stewart-Haas), in my opinion, even more so than when he was with Penske. He’s with an organization that just won a championship. They have talented drivers and are growing their engineering staff. They have an affiliation with Hendrick. They have the means to produce really fast racecars. You have to imagine that (new crew chief) Tony Gibson will provide a calming influence for him. You’d love to see what he could do if the distractions go away, with him just focused on the driving. I think this is a guy that could have won more championships by now, had he not had some of the off-track issues.” … A crew chief from outside the Chevrolet family suggests that Busch will benefit from the crew chief change: “You could tell Daniel Knost was a deer in the headlights when it came to strategy and finding speed. And Busch probably didn’t help that, because he’s harsh on crew guys. But Tony (Gibson) will be so good for him. Busch works well with old-school guys. He won the championship with Jimmy Fennig and won races with Steve Addington. Tony is in line with those guys. This was a good move for them.”
No. 17 – Jamie McMurray
A rival driver asks, “We have to be watching the last few years of his career, right? He’s filling a void, I guess, at Ganassi — he’s an okay driver that doesn’t cost them too much. To me, he’s not ever going to be a championship driver. He’s like Brian Hoyer on the Cleveland Browns. Just filling a void until a younger guy comes up and eventually takes the job, like Johnny Manziel.” … “I think he’s a safe driver for them,” says another driver. “Once they get the team around him sorted out, they’ll probably go after somebody better, but right now they aren’t in position to win a lot.” … A competing crew chief cites Keith Rodden’s departure. “I felt like with Rodden, there was a plan and they were going somewhere. The way they ended last season … they looked like a Chase team for this upcoming year. (New crew chief) Matt McCall is a really smart guy, and he’ll end up being a good crew chief in time, but he’s never been the main guy before.”
No. 18 – Greg Biffle
“I guess he’s good,” says a crew chief. “I mean he still has a job, doesn’t he? In all seriousness, I do think he has the talent to compete at a high level, but I don’t know that Roush does. From just watching him over the course of a season, it seems like he runs really solid, really smart races. But the team he’s with just can’t do anything with that. The 16 was in the same boat as the 99 (driven by Carl Edwards) last year, where at the beginning of the race they’re nowhere and then all of a sudden, at the end of the race, they’re in the top 10. They’ll go from struggling to stay on the lead lap to getting a good finish out of it. I think where Roush is at right now is what’s holding him back.” … A rival driver believes that time may have passed Biffle by. “It seems like five years ago, six years ago he had more potential. Biffle is a fine driver, but I think he missed his window to do something really special in the sport.”
No. 19 – Austin Dillon
A crew chief saw improvement in Dillon during 2014. “At the beginning of last year, I didn’t want our car racing around him. Toward the end of the year, he started running smart races and made a step forward to where instead of a 20th-place guy I hated to pass when we were lapping him, he’s a top-15 guy where if we got back in traffic, we’re going to have to legitimately race with him. The question now is whether he can make enough gains to where he can carry RCR equipment, or is ‘Pop-Pop’ (Richard Childress) going to put enough money into it to make it good equipment?” … “I wouldn’t be surprised if Dillon requested a crew chief change (from Gil Martin), to get someone in that’s an engineer,” says another crew chief. “It’s probably tough to swallow seeing what Luke Lambert is able to do with the 31 and seeing that (Paul) Menard just got an engineer as a crew chief. I’ll bet Dillon is next. And I’m sure he’ll get one if he wants one. He’s the future of the company, after all.”
No. 20 – AJ Allmendinger
“I thought (2014) was the breakout season that we’d all seen coming,” says a fellow driver. “Obviously that’s outside of the road course win, which was inevitable. What I saw from him that I hadn’t seen before was that he showed a lot of promise on mile-and-a-halfs. In the past, and maybe this is because he has a road course background, he tended to want to overdrive the car into the corner and use a lot of brakes while in the corner. This year, though, he showed promise. He ran really well at Charlotte. He was good at Kansas. … This is a team that’s kind of allowing him to develop his style because he’s the only guy there, they believe in him and that’s giving him confidence to change the way he is used to driving these cars.” … “He’s a really likable guy,” says a crew chief who has worked for a team that employed Allmendinger. “It’s good to see him embraced by a team. He’s the No. 1 guy at that team, because he’s the only guy, but that’s what he needs.”
No. 21 – Martin Truex Jr.
“On a per-team basis, this might be the richest team in the sport,” says a competing crew chief. “They put so much — I’ve heard something as crazy as $20 to $25 million — into the RCR alliance. I don’t think you could say that they’re taking advantage of it. They didn’t win a single race when they had Kurt Busch, and they got worse last year with Truex. I know Truex had a lot of personal things going on, but even in the beginning of the season they were just off. I don’t know if that’s a team thing or what.” … “(Truex) and that team were hard to watch in the first six months of the year, just really pretty lousy,” says a fellow driver. “Those inside the garage know that the Furniture Row team puts in a tremendous amount of money and resources into that one car. Todd Berrier was a smart crew chief. I think everyone expected so much more. Truex is pretty much a stopgap at this point, until they can find someone else that can take advantage of everything they offer.”
No. 22 – Paul Menard
“A lot of people look at Paul Menard and say, ‘Oh, his dad’s paying for him to race — he doesn’t care about being there and it’s just a hobby.’ But you don’t improve as much as he has improved over the last few years without putting something into the sport on the mental aspect,” says a crew chief. “I’ve listened to him talk in team meetings, and he’s actually a bright guy with some pretty decent feedback. I don’t know what all happened between him and Slugger (Labbe), but before the relationship got rocky, that was a halfway decent race team.” … Another crew chief believes that Menard lacks the fortitude to carry a team. “They made that crew chief change (to Justin Alexander) with what, five weeks to go? Since then they showed a little bit better speed, but there just isn’t that next level or killer instinct in him to say, ‘Okay, we’ve got a top-5 car, I’m going to turn it into a winning car.’ And I don’t see where RCR has the equipment or the resources to get their cars to that point.”
No. 23 – Aric Almirola
How Almirola pieces together a race, says one crew chief, is cause for praise: “I hadn’t paid much attention to him, until my driver said, ‘You know, he runs some really smart races.’ And sure enough, I’ve never really seen him do anything dumb. He’s just racing. Whatever the car’s got, he’s racing to that level. I do think he runs smart races. I’ve never seen him showcase lights-out speed, although I’m not sure if those RPM cars have the capability of doing that. But he certainly does run smart races. Put him in better equipment, I could see him being a top-10 guy most weeks. … “All I have to do is look in my mirror or look to the side on a restart to know where he is,” says a fellow driver. “He’s always running toward the front. I don’t know what more you can say about him or ask from him. The last two years, he’s running toward the front with that car. That’s exactly what he’s supposed to be doing. If he ever got a better ride, he’d be winning races.”
No. 24 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
A fellow Cup Series driver has been unimpressed. “He’s been very underwhelming. I know he won championships in Nationwide, but he’s sort of lost out there in the Cup car. I don’t believe there is anyone that can say they’ve been impressed. It might be the crew chief. It might be the team. He might need to move away from Roush in a year or two to see if he can contend for a better team.” … One crew chief blames the knee-jerk change atop the pit box. “He and Scott Graves were fast in the last 10 races of 2013, and for some reason, Roush split them up. I think that was a mistake. Mike Kelley doesn’t strike me as a Cup Series crew chief. I don’t know, maybe Ricky isn’t the guy, but I don’t know that Roush is doing all that much to help him either. I can’t really think of one positive thing that happened last season. They finished outside the top 25 in points, right? Yeah, I’d imagine that for a Roush car that’s unacceptable.”
No. 25 – Brian Vickers
“So overrated,” says a fellow Cup driver. “And such a disappointment last year for MWR. They needed him to be good after everything that went down with Richmond and losing their sponsor (in 2013). I do feel like the organization took a step back, as you saw with Clint Bowyer’s performance. But Brian is in a place where, if they can hit a good year equipment-wise, he can make the Chase.” … “There have been times where they stood out in practice, but I can’t remember a time in a race where I thought they looked good,” says a rival crew chief. “In my mind, Bowyer has more talent and can bring a good finish to a bad car. I’m not sure Vickers is capable of that. But that being said, how often has Vickers been in position at the end of the race to where he can see the front?” … “The departure of Rodney (Childers, his former crew chief) was a major blow,” says another crew chief. “They might not ever recover from that.”
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
On an insane Thursday, NBA front offices sprinted to the finish line as the trade deadline approached. Here’s the rundown of the biggest deals that went down, courtesy of ESPN’s Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst, TNT’s David Aldridge, and Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:
• The Minnesota Timberwolves traveled through time to bring Kevin Garnett back in a trade with the Brooklyn Nets. Brooklyn receives power forward Thaddeus Young in return, who will be a free agent this summer. (h/t Aldridge)
• The Phoenix Suns shipped off beleaguered point guard Goran Dragic, who will join Pat Riley’s Miami Heat. The Heat gave Miami two future first-round picks, Danny Granger, Norris Cole, Shawne Williams and Jordan Hamilton for Dragic. (h/t Stein, Wojnarowski)
• The Oklahoma City Thunder sent off a dispirited point guard of their own, parting ways with Reggie Jackson. He’ll end up with the Detroit Pistons in a three-team deal; the Thunder net Utah Jazz big man Enes Kanter, Pistons reserve guard D.J. Augustin, and Pistons guard Kyle Singler. The Jazz receive Kendrick Perkins, and they are expected to waive the veteran and allow him to join a contending team, with the Los Angeles Clippers as a looming possibility.
• Arron Afflalo was sent from the Denver Nuggets to the Portland Trail Blazers. Alonzo Gee will join him with the Blazers, who send a future first-round pick, Thomas Robinson, Will Barton and Victor Claver to the Rockies. (h/t Windhorst)
• The Boston Celtics, Suns, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers did a four-team deal. Isaiah Thomas goes from Phoenix to Boston, the Bucks pick up Michael Carter-Williams from Philly and Tyler Ennis from the Suns; Phoenix gets Brandon Knight from Milwaukee and Marcus Thornton from Boston, and the 76ers end up with their favorite thing: more draft picks. (h/t Stein, Wojnarowski)
— John Wilmes
Dustin Johnson is, in the eyes of most observers, one of the most naturally talented players in golf. Few can boast his consistency; heading into 2015, he has claimed wins in every season he’s been on the PGA Tour.
But the 30-year-old South Carolina native is in a different place than he’s been in many years. It’s almost as if his career is just getting started.
He’s a first-time father to Tatum, his son with Paulina Gretzky. His recent six-month sabbatical from competitive golf — although bittersweet, as he missed the PGA Championship, FedExCup Playoffs, and Ryder Cup — has produced a renewed vigor and passion for the game he loves.
Johnson says he’s in as good a place emotionally as he’s ever been. That news should be a caution to the rest of the Tour. This long-hitting machine is rested and ready for what he hopes is the best stretch of his career. Athlon contributor Garrett Johnston recently sat down with Johnson to get his thoughts.
We have high expectations for you this year. What are your expectations for yourself? Do you have specific goals for 2015?
I expect to play very well this year. I feel like my game is really good. I definitely think I’m going to have a really great year. I’ve been working hard on my game, on my fitness, so I expect to play very well this year. I think I will. Obviously last week (at the Farmers Insurance Open) was my first week back. I’ve got to get back in the swing of things.
I’d like to think I can contend every week. I was expecting to (at Torrey Pines) and I felt, obviously, if I could have made some putts I’m right in it.
You have an active streak of having won in each of your seasons on Tour. How important is it to you to keep that streak going?
I don’t really look at it as a streak. I kind of expect to win, and so I have. I like to win, and I’ve only had one year where I’ve won twice. So I’d like to get multiple victories in a year. And it’ll come. I think the way things are going now, I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened (this year) with everything re-prioritized.
With the baby, I’m a lot more organized, and I have a bit more of a routine with my life. It’s been good. A lot more discipline, even for myself. You’ve actually got to plan a little bit ahead now.
What did you learn about yourself in your time away from the Tour?
I learned a lot. Most of all, learning more about myself, kind of how I work. So I did a lot of that, a lot of soul-searching, and then obviously most of what I did was getting my priorities straight. With Paulina being pregnant, I was just trying to get my life in order and get ready to be a father so that when it came time I was. And I am. That was most important. Just being prepared for a child — that was my main goal. It wasn’t golf-oriented; it was more personal, wanting to be there and be a role model for my son. So it was just getting those things in order.
What’s changed for you as far as your approach to the game? Have you changed the way you practice and prepare?
I’m just more disciplined at it. I feel like the game is there. I haven’t really changed anything. I’m just working more on the fitness. As far as with golf, I haven’t really changed anything.
Doing my routines everyday. Keeping up the routine week in and week out. I ride the bike a lot, I work out the whole body. Last year it was more get in the gym and do warm-ups every day, stretch after my round, but I wasn’t really religious about doing it all the time and working out after the rounds and stuff, especially in my off weeks. I wasn’t very good at it. So now I’m to where I’m doing it all the time whether I’m playing or not. I work out after every round usually for an hour.
Do you consider yourself a contender at the 2015 Masters?
Oh yeah, I think so. I really like Augusta National. Obviously, I haven’t played great there, but I feel like my game is getting to where — you know, I finished good two years ago. But I love the golf course. It fits my eye great. To me, over there it’s all about putting and chipping. You’ve got to putt and chip it well. Learning those greens is pretty hard. But it’s getting there — I’m starting to learn them. I feel like I play well there; I just haven’t put it all together that week. Hopefully this year I will.
How is your mental/physical health?
Everything is probably the best it’s ever been, so I mean as far as health, physically I feel great, mentally great. I’m just in a really good place right now on both levels.
Were you nervous when you stepped onto a tee for the first time at Torrey Pines? Did the competitive juices start flowing again immediately?
Oh yeah, I was definitely nervous for sure. I was nervous most of the day. It was just getting back in there, I was rusty. So it was just getting back into the swing of things. I’m always nervous when I go to the first tee — every time.
Do you feel like you could have made a difference on the 2014 Ryder Cup team?
Yeah, I would have loved to have been there. I love playing golf over there in Britain and I enjoy the creativity of it. We all want to be a part of a winning team. It’s not just me, the whole team. We desperately want to win. We’ve lost the last few. It’s unacceptable.
I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I’m on that team (in 2016).
How helpful was Paulina during your time off?
She was great. She’s been awesome the whole time. Just being there for me, giving me a lot of support — she’s been great. She’s awesome, a lot of fun to be around, a good person. So it’s been great being with her. I got to spend a lot of time with her, especially through her pregnancy, and to be there with her and be there for her. It’s been great.
Congratulations on the birth of your son. When the time comes as he grows up, might you nudge him toward playing sports, specifically golf?
Obviously I’ll try to get him into golf, but he can play whatever he wants. Or he doesn’t have to play anything. I don’t care, it’s up to him. Hopefully yes, hopefully he’ll play sports. I hope he’ll be a golfer. I would imagine he’ll pay sports, but if he doesn’t it’s alright.
With Paulina being pregnant, I was just trying to get my life in order and get ready to be a father so that when it came time I was (ready). And I am.
Are you satisfied with how the Tour handled everything regarding your sabbatical?
Yeah, I think it went great. I’m satisfied with everything. Everything is great, I’m happy.
Nothing bothered you about it?
— Garrett Johnston
This interview appears in the 2015 edition of Athlon Sports Golf Annual. Order your copy here.
For weeks he didn’t want to leave his house. Merely rising out of bed was a challenge. He didn’t want to see friends, family or any familiar faces. Mostly, he just wanted to be left alone — alone to deal with his despair, his nightmares, his ghosts.
The racecar driver felt a darkness closing in last summer. In silence he pondered if he’d ever have the will — or desire — to slide behind the wheel again, let alone venture outside the doors of his home in Charlotte. Hundreds of friends, filled with worry, called and texted and called again; no one heard back.
They all wondered: Will Tony Stewart ever race again? Will he ever be the same again? Will he ever leave that damn house again?
At age 43, Tony Stewart is already a motor sports legend. He’s a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and a one-man racing empire. As the majority owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, Stewart oversees some 250 employees. He’s assembled a virtual driver dream team, featuring himself, Danica Patrick (the most marketable driver in the United States), Kurt Busch (a past champion) and Kevin Harvick (the reigning Sprint Cup champion). He also owns a dirt track (Eldora Speedway in Ohio), a World of Outlaws team, a USAC team and his own PR firm. The guy who lives in $10 T-shirts and old blue jeans — Stewart’s workingman demeanor has made him a folk hero to blue-collar NASCAR fans from coast to coast — has a net worth reported to be $70 million. He is this generation’s Dale Earnhardt Sr. — a master businessman off the track, and an intimidating, get-the-hell-out-of-my-way force on the track.
But late last summer, Stewart was ready to turn in his keys and walk away from racing. The lowest moment of his life, as he would later describe it, occurred on Aug. 9 at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York. That evening, at the dirt track, the winged Sprint Car driven by Stewart struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward, who under the yellow flag had exited his car and walked into the racing groove to yell at Stewart. After a two-month investigation, the district attorney in Ontario County elected not to file criminal charges against Stewart.
But the questions linger: Did Stewart drive aggressively toward Ward that night on the dirt track? Could he even see Ward, who was on a dimly lit track in a black driver’s suit? Ward had tangled with Stewart early in the 14th lap of the 25-lap race on the oval dirt track. When Ward tried to pass Stewart, the veteran squeezed him into the wall. Ward’s right rear tire blew. Irate, he unbuckled his belts and stormed onto the track, snorting fire and looking for Stewart. What happened next, in the dark of that sad summer night, is a matter of interpretation.
Stewart has steadfastly maintained that he did nothing wrong, that his conscience is clear. “I know what happened, and I know it was an accident,” he said a few weeks after Ward’s death. What’s indisputable is that he has been deeply affected by the tragedy, that it has shaken him to the core. “I don’t know that it will ever be normal again.”
“The first three days (after the accident) that I was home I really didn’t do anything,” Stewart continued. “I didn’t get out of bed. I didn’t care if I took a shower. … The first three or four days I didn’t want to talk to anybody. Didn’t want to see anybody — I just wanted to be by myself. You finally get up and you finally start moving around a little bit and every day got a little bit easier, but it was a big, drastic change from what I was used to, for sure, not having the desire to do anything. All you thought about is what happened and asking yourself why. Why did this happen?”
So what’s next for Tony Stewart? Will he ever be the same racer? Not even he knows.
Smoke, as Stewart is called in the garage, is the most successful driver-owner in 21st-century NASCAR. In his 16 years on the Cup circuit he’s taken 48 checkered flags, had 182 top-5 finishes in his 554 starts, and earned more than $117 million in winnings alone. He captured his first title as an owner last November when Kevin Harvick out-dueled Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Stewart, still grieving, played a vital role in Harvick’s surge last fall. He was in Harvick’s ear during the Chase, talking to his driver about everything from setups to preferred lines around the track to the importance of getting away from racing for a few days before Homestead. And when intensity was redlining for the other contenders in the days before the final race of 2014, Stewart was the voice of calm reassurance — a voice of experience. Then, once the green flag dropped at Homestead, you’d have thought it was Stewart driving Harvick’s Chevy, the way Harvick aggressively pushed cars aside and outwitted other drivers on re-starts to win the race and the title.
“Tony was a big part of just kind of giving me the heads up and saying, ‘All right, Bud, this is not going to be like last week. You might be able to go and be prepared to run for a race win, but now you’re going to race for a championship, and it’s all on the line in one spot,’” Harvick says. “And he was a big help to helping (my wife) DeLana and I just kind of get through the week and keeping it low key, and he was right.”
Stewart sat out three Cup races after Ward’s death. Yet even before that harrowing night in upstate New York, Stewart had only two top-5 finishes in 21 starts in 2014 and was 19th in points — the lowest he’d been in the standings at that point in the season in his Cup career. He often appeared tentative behind the wheel and hesitant to stick the nose of his No. 14 Chevy in precarious positions. In other words, he didn’t look like the hard-charging Tony Stewart — the huffing, puffing Stewart who would blow a rival’s race hopes down with a few daring and deft maneuvers — of seasons past.
Many in the garage pointed to the fact that Stewart had been in a scary crash in a winged Sprint Car in August 2013 — an accident on the dirt of Southern Iowa Speedway in which he broke his right tibia and fibula, forcing him to miss the final 15 races of the season. Stewart had vowed to come back as strong and aggressive as ever, but nothing will siphon a driver’s willingness to go full-throttle into a turn at 190 mph three-wide quite like a violent wreck.
So Stewart was already dealing with aftereffects of a dirt track crash when Ward stepped into the racing groove at Canandaigua Motorsports Park last August. When Stewart returned to NASCAR on Aug. 31 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, fans and fellow drivers greeted him warmly, but Stewart himself clearly wasn’t the same. In the world of motorsports, a distracted driver is typically a slow driver, and Stewart certainly was distracted. Less than halfway through his first race back at Atlanta, he crashed to finish 41st.
Stewart never looked like the Tony of old last fall — the tempestuous guy who was so full of fire in the cockpit that a rival driver said: “There’s a fine line between being in control and being out of control, and Tony occasionally crosses it. I wouldn’t say he’s a time bomb, but he’s something close.”
After Ward’s death, Stewart had only one top-10 run in 12 starts. He finished the year with an early wreck at Homestead and last-place finish of 43rd, ending a 15-season streak with at least one win — the fourth longest in NASCAR history.
“I’ve had a terrible year,” Stewart said shortly after climbing out of his car for the final time in 2014.
“There is sort of a sickness or something in the pit of your stomach for what Tony is going through,” says Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of Stewart’s closest friends in racing. “But at the same time, you never really forget that somebody was killed. … It will have huge effect on both sides for so many years.”
More than any other forty-something driver in NASCAR, Tony Stewart lives racing. It’s the air he breathes, the one true love in his life.
In the last decade, Stewart hasn’t dated much. He doesn’t have children. What he has is racing.
“Tony loves this sport more than anyone I’ve ever met,” says Jimmie Johnson, a longtime friend of Stewart’s. “And he’s so talented. He does things on the track that you just don’t see other drivers pull off. He’s one of a kind.”
“Tony still has as much talent as anyone in the series,” Earnhardt Jr. said last season. “It takes drive and passion to succeed in this sport, and Tony still has that.”
Indeed, there isn’t one person in the garage who believes Stewart suddenly forgot how to drive. But a few factors could diminish Stewart’s speed next season. In August, he turns 44, an age when a driver’s hand-eye-foot coordination normally begins to deteriorate. (Only one driver in Cup history, 45-year-old Bobby Allison in 1983, has won a championship after celebrating a 43rd birthday.) Combine that with the injury he sustained in 2013 and the lingering trauma he says he’s still experiencing from the incident over the summer, and it’s easy to make a case that Stewart’s best days are in his rearview mirror.
But even if Stewart isn’t a weekly threat to take the checkered flag like he was in 2011 when he blazed to his third championship, he still could be a factor in the Chase. Given that he’s still one of the top road course racers on the circuit, he should be a favorite to reach Victory Lane at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway in June and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International in August. Stewart also flourishes on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway (in his last five starts on the 2.5-mile tri-oval he has a win and second-place finish) as well as at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where in his last 11 starts he has six top-five runs.
And in NASCAR, never underestimate the value of having an elite pit crew and a car that will have as many resources poured into it as any in the sport. In the Sprint Cup Series, the quality of the car is far more important than the quality of the driver — most longtime garage observers say the formula for winning is now 80 percent car and 20 percent driver.
So on paper, Stewart, the reigning championship team owner in NASCAR, should have all the physical tools necessary to succeed in 2015. The bigger question, perhaps, is whether the emotional scars from last August will have healed enough for him to rebound and challenge for a fourth Cup title next fall.
“I’ll know when it’s time to step away from the sport,” Stewart said two years ago. “I’ve seen too many guys hang on for too long, just a big name cruising around in the back collecting checks. That won’t be me. I love this too much and I can always just go and put on my owner’s hat full-time.
“You need to walk away when you’re still near the top. That will be me, I promise. The stopwatch never lies in our sport. Never. That’s a beautiful thing, and that’s also how I’ll know my time is up.”
Has that time come? The guess here: The stopwatch in 2015 will say no.
— Written by Lars Anderson for Athlon Sports.
Up until 2014, Kevin Harvick’s place in NASCAR lore was simple: “The man who replaced Dale Earnhardt.” Called into service a year ahead of schedule following the sport’s most horrific tragedy, Harvick was owner Richard Childress’ life raft, forever measured against a driver whose skill hooked fans for a generation. Earning a victory in just his third Sprint Cup start at Atlanta in 2001, Harvick helped spur the healing of a NASCAR Nation grieving Earnhardt’s untimely death.
Thirteen years and 27 wins later, Harvick etched his name in the history books again, becoming a worthy Sprint Cup champion in the first year of the new Chase format. In between came controversy and change, as the oft-volatile Harvick moved from Richard Childress Racing, the only home he had ever known, to “restart” with Stewart-Haas Racing. With an opportunity to build from scratch at age 38, Harvick could put the expectations and the burden of being Earnhardt’s successor behind him.
Harvick clearly had fast cars, and from Day 1 at SHR, he found the team’s system to his liking. His No. 4 group won five times, and if not for bad luck could have won twice that much. Harvick was often dominant, leading more than 2,000 laps, and put together a Chase average finish of 8.0. His series-leading eight poles were further proof of the speed that his team was able to coax from its racecars.
Can Harvick go back-to-back in 2015? Yes, absolutely. All the pieces remain in place, and Harvick and his team now have the confidence that they can complete a championship run. Most important of all, a driver who once felt lost once again controls his own destiny.
“My Cup career really started backwards,” he said after capturing the title. “It’s taken a long time to navigate through exactly what was a good mix. I think for me personally, (2014) was huge just in the fact that I’ve been excited to go to work and be a part of building something — getting my life where it had a great balance, whether it be personally, financially, or professionally.”
That sounds like a man with the mental focus to start collecting multiple championships. The irony is that Harvick’s success with the new Chase format showed other teams how it’s done, making a repeat that much harder in Year 2. The No. 4 team wasn’t flawless in the Chase — although it was close — and it’s likely that this year’s champ will have to up his game considerably.
Perhaps the biggest weapon in Harvick’s arsenal is crew chief Rodney Childers. Childers, who came to SHR from Michael Waltrip Racing last year, had an immediate impact. Need proof of Childers’ value to a team? Look at the performance of MWR and the overall dropoff of that organization in 2014. He and Harvick will be a formidable pair with a year’s worth of notes to work from.
Harvick’s value to his sponsors was evident from the moment he moved to the SHR camp. Budweiser and Jimmy John’s left an established, iconic team to stick with Harvick rather than stay on with rookie Austin Dillon. Harvick has solid backing entering the season from companies who have thrived in the sport, understanding what it takes to win.
The equipment, a strong step up from RCR, should be excellent for 2015. Harvick’s cars are Hendrick chassis, prepared by SHR’s own engineering group, paired with library books of information and support. Hendrick also provides the engines, some of the best in the business in terms of both horsepower and durability.
That partnership extends to teammates. In Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch, Harvick also has a pair of former champions in-house who can help him shake down setups. The three worked well together in 2014 despite their reputations for being difficult, and these relationships are only going to improve with time. Harvick also credited Jimmie Johnson out of the Hendrick shop for helping him calm nerves and ascend to the title in crunch time.
Harvick proved he could put together speed and strategy with his championship, but now comes the hard part — defending it. A title run requires a team’s entire focus, avoiding distraction while sustaining the type of effort used for title No. 1.
Fortunately, focus is no longer a problem for Harvick, who is settled and successful in his new digs as he readies to keep his NASCAR reboot in high gear.
Beware of the outlier season Harvick led a total of 2,137 laps in 2014, which represents 32.6 percent of his career total, and ranked first in NASCAR’s average green-flag speed rank. The laws of regression indicate that it’s a safe bet he won’t lead as many laps or be as fast in 2015.
Make him your pick at Phoenix There have been seven races on Phoenix’s current configuration — Harvick has won four of them and finished second in another. It’s tough to argue with that kind of efficiency.
A closer in daylight hours In the 25 races that took place during daytime, Harvick gained 26 positions in the final tenth of races. Conversely, he lost 47 positions in the final tenth of races that took place under nighttime skies. Seems as if Harvick is more often “happy” when he gets to bed on time.
No. 4 Stewart-Hass Racing Chevrolet
Primary Sponsors: Budweiser, Jimmy John’s, Ditech, Outback Steakhouse
Owner: Tony Stewart/Gene Haas
Crew Chief: Rodney Childers
Year With Current Team: 2nd
Under Contract Through: 2016
Best Points Finish: 1st (2014)
Hometown: Bakersfield, Calif.
Born: Dec. 8, 1975
|Years||Starts||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s||Poles||Titles||Earned|
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Joey Logano’s been termed the “best thing since sliced bread” for a decade now, but 2014 was the year he finally earned that label. Logano, who had three career wins entering the season, won five times and went all the way to Homestead in the title hunt before fading to fourth after the season’s final race.
The man who was anointed by Mark Martin as the “best driver” of his generation took a big step forward at age 24, the same age at which Jeff Gordon won his first title. Logano, who would have captured the championship under the old Chase format, gained valuable postseason experience while scoring victories in nearly every type of race. He won on short tracks (Richmond, Bristol), on intermediates (Texas, Kansas) and the flat mile at Loudon last year, leading in a career-high 22 of 36 races. He led 993 laps, more than tripling his previous top mark of 323 for a season, and failed to finish on the lead lap just six times. By season’s end, owner Roger Penske had Logano signed to a long-term extension, as the once-disappointing superstar completed his transition from bust to boom.
“It’s been a spectacular year,” Logano said at Homestead. “We had fun with it. Learned a lot, how I can maybe do a few things differently next time I compete for a championship.”
He won’t have to wait long to do that. Logano enters his third year with Team Penske facing higher expectations; he’s set to be one of Sprint Cup’s top title contenders for years to come. Driving the No. 22 Ford with sponsorship from Shell-Pennzoil, AAA and AutoTrader.com, Logano has financial support that extends through 2018. A perfect mix of professionalism and potential, Logano was a good pickup for the team after the departure of Kurt Busch, a driver whose off-track controversies affected his on-track performance. Logano keeps his cool and rarely makes waves, although he’s learned over the years to stand up for himself. While rivals still exist, like Denny Hamlin, Logano has gained respect from most of his competition.
That balance of aggression and hard driving is the hallmark of Logano’s teammate, 2012 champion Brad Keselowski. Keselowski handpicked Logano as his teammate at Team Penske, and his guidance has no doubt led to improved performance. The two are well matched, using similar driving styles, and are committed to an “open book” policy with information. Keselowski’s a bit more controversial than Logano, and that’s part of why it works well; Logano is content to be more mild-mannered, but he’s no lackey, a role he sometimes played at Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s this duo’s chemistry, setting an example from the top down, that keeps Team Penske competitive with rivals twice its size.
Team Penske has become the flagship team for Ford, supplanting Roush Fenway Racing as the manufacturer’s prime championship threat. Penske chassis had great speed in 2014, and the Roush-Yates power under the hood represents some of the best engines in the business. A smaller, streamlined Penske team saw both drivers getting only the best equipment and support. Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, is often overlooked but is a key cog in the team’s engineering and overall success.
So what will it take for Logano to take home his first Cup title in 2015? Perhaps first and foremost, he’ll have to stay one step ahead of his older, more experienced teammate. The new rules package, with reduced horsepower and downforce, will play a role as well; teams that figure it out quickly will earn early victories and a pre-Chase edge. Logano also struggled a bit on the restrictor plate tracks, not scoring a top 10 in four combined starts at Daytona and Talladega. Logano’s career plate race average is 19.8, and while the superspeedways don’t represent a large percentage of tracks, Talladega looms large inside the postseason.
The biggest obstacle Logano faces is the level of competition in the series. With a field of 16, the new Chase format demands near perfection; a single mistake at the wrong time can destroy an entire season in a matter of seconds. It’s a lesson Logano learned last year, when a faulty pit stop at Homestead dropped him to the back of the lead lap and destroyed any chance at the title.
The good news is that every other team in the hunt faces the same formidable competition, and Logano gave them all a run for their money last year. Team Penske was the best organization as a whole last season, and with limited changes, it’s likely it will be so once again in 2015.
The “best thing since sliced bread” is ready to keep slicing through the field.
Short track sweet spot Logano’s 6.2-place average finish at tracks smaller than a mile was his best average by track type in a career season that saw him net five trips to Victory Lane. It makes sense. Logano turned heads while racing as a teenager in lower divisions with his dominance at some of America’s most heralded short tracks.
Dropped positions Logano had a tough time holding onto his stellar running positions last season, considering his team gave up a ton of spots during green-flag pit cycles (a loss of 63 positions) and in the final tenth of races (a 19-position loss).
Unkind Atlanta Save for his second-place finish there in 2013, Logano finished 14th or worse in his seven other starts at Atlanta, averaging a 24.3-place finish. His 14th-place finish there in 2014 was an 8.2-position drop from his 5.8-place average running position.
No. 22 Penske Racing Ford
Primary Sponsors: Shell/Pennzoil, AAA Insurance, Autotrader.com
Owner: Roger Penske
Crew Chief: Todd Gordon
Year With Current Team: 3rd
Under Contract Through: 2018
Best Points Finish: 4th (2014)
Hometown: Middletown, Conn.
Born: May 24, 1990
|Years||Starts||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s||Poles||Titles||Earned|
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
It appears more clear than ever that Melo played through pain for 40 games this year so he could play in the All-Star game, which was held in his own Madison Square Garden. Anthony wanted to be a gracious host — but now that the duty is over, there’s clearly no reason to keep jeopardizing his health for a 10-43 team that’s bound for the top of the draft lottery.
Playing with a breaking body part and making sure he’s around to represent his city may seem honorable to some, but most doctors would probably choose a different word for it: stupid. While Anthony’s likely to fully heal and come back ready for action on a (hopefully) improved Knicks squad in 2015-16, putting all that unnecessary stress on a compromised knee could have gone very wrong for him.
Enlightened New York fans should be encouraged by this development. With Melo resting, Amar’e Stoudemire’s buyout complete and Andrea Bargnani going off the books this summer, one of the worst epochs in Knicks history seems to be coming to a merciful end. There’ll be a lost more losing this season, but the way has been cleared for Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher to do their work of drafting, developing, and pursuing fresh talent on the market this summer.
If NYK’s new brain trust actually has the know-how and patience to do the long, lurching work of culture-building from the bottom up, now’s the time for that process to begin in earnest. For once, it seems like Melo and the Knicks aren’t selling a dollar of their future for an extra quarter in the present. But we’ll see how long that feeling lasts.
— John Wilmes
The 2015 NFL Scouting Combine is underway in Indianapolis, as this year’s crop of prospects takes the first step in the job interview process leading up to the draft (April 30-May 2). While opinions on the value of the “Underwear Olympics” are mixed, this year’s participants know fully well what’s at stake at Lucas Oil Stadium. Millions of dollars are on the line for these NFL hopefuls as they go through different drills and tests, including the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical leap, broad jump, cone drills, Wonderlic and BOD Pod tests.
As it relates to the classroom that is the Combine, here are 10 workout warriors who aced their tests:
1. Bo Jackson, RB, Auburn – 1986
The two-sport tall tale weighed in at a chiseled 6’1”, 230 pounds before running an unofficial hand-timed 4.12 in the 40-yard dash — a jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring effort that is still a part of Combine folklore.
2. Tony Mandarich, OT, Michigan State – 1989
In hindsight, the most impressive thing the “Incredible Bulk” did was pass his steroid drug screening during the Combine. At 304 pounds, Mandarich ran a 4.65 in the 40, exploded for a 30” vertical and 10’3” broad jump, and ripped off 39 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
3. Vernon Davis, TE, Maryland – 2006
Davis looked like a body builder or, at the very least, an actor from an Under Armour commercial en route to running a 4.38 in the 40, skying for a 42” vertical, 10’8” broad, and slamming 33 reps on the bench press.
4. Mike Mamula, LB, Boston College – 1995
After all these years, Mamula remains the go-to cautionary tale of the Combine. The BC beast vaulted up draft boards after a 4.58 in the 40, 28 reps of 225 pounds on the bench, a 38” vertical and a 49-of-50 on the Wonderlic Test. Mamula never looked as good in pads as he did in shorts.
5. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor – 2012
The fastest quarterback in Combine history, RG3 was a track star on the fast track to NFL and commercial superstardom — with a blistering 4.41 in the 40-yard dash to go along with a dunk contest-worthy 39” vertical.
6. Chris Johnson, RB, East Carolina – 2008
Before he became CJ2K, the gold-grilled CJ4.24 was the gold standard official record-holder in laser-timed 40-yard sprints, posting a 4.24 and hitting the first-round finish line in-stride. CJ has not, however, been able to set up a race against Usain Bolt.
7. Deion Sanders, CB, Florida State – 1989
The ultimate showman (and show-boater), Deion showed up fashionably late (and probably fashionably loud) to the Combine, then ran his 40-yard dash only once — in a time between 4.19 and 4.29, depending on whose hand-timed stop watch you trust. But Prime Time didn’t stop running once he hit the finish line; Sanders ran out of the building to a limousine waiting to take him to the airport.
8. Calvin Johnson, WR, Georgia Tech – 2007
With his draft stock holding strong near the top of the class, Johnson planned on kicking back and watching the festivities. But once the fireworks started, Megatron’s competitive juices started flowing and he decided he wanted to run after all. The only problem? He didn’t bring any track shoes. So Johnson borrowed a pair of spikes from East Carolina’s James Pinkney — then proceeded to run a blistering 4.32 in the 40.
9. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin – 2011
In hindsight, the numbers that Watt put up at the Combine were a window into his dominant Defensive Player of the Year future. At 6’5”, 290 pounds with 11 1/8” hands and 34” arms, Watt ran a 4.84 in the 40, soared for a 37” vertical and 10’ broad jump, and threw up a long-armed 34 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
10. Vernon Gholston, DE, Ohio State – 2008
One of the main reasons teams remain skeptical of off-the-charts Combine stats, Gholston was the classic “look like Tarzan, play like Jane.” In shorts and a muscle shirt, Gholston ran a 4.67 in the 40, had 37 reps on the bench and lifted off for a 35.5” vertical and 10.5” broad jump.
The Charlotte Hornets almost stole Hayward away in restricted free agency this past summer. If they had, they’d be a much better team. But the Utah Jazz smartly matched Michael Jordan’s four-year offer, worth over $60 million, and now Gordon’s the centerpiece of a budding new NBA culture in Salt Lake City. Averaging 19.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists as his team’s go-to option, Hayward does more than a little bit of everything. When the Jazz mature around the 24-year-old, they’ll be a scary, climbing force in the future of the Western Conference.
5. Andre Iguodala
Also known as arguably the best NBA player who doesn’t start, Iguodala is the most versatile defender and floor-runner on basketball’s best team, the Golden State Warriors. His selfless attitude doesn’t hurt, either; Andre’s given up a starting spot under head coach Steve Kerr so that Harrison Barnes could get his swagger back, and his acceptance of the move has made the Warriors a far more fearsome team overall. More important than anything, though, is that Andre will be the man who’s called upon to try to contain Kevin Durant in the seemingly inevitable playoff matchup between GSW and the Oklahoma City Thunder. There could hardly be a better man for the job.
4. Carmelo Anthony
Melo’s busted knee on a busted New York Knicks team shouldn’t take away from what we know to be reality: Anthony is one of the greatest scorers the game has ever seen. A creative, confident, efficient shooter who’s an offense unto himself, Carmelo has made Eastern Conference defenses sweat since he came to Manhattan. It’s a sad sight seeing his talent wasted through NYK’s sorry rebuilding years, but we’ll always have plenty of memories of his transcendent moments. And with any luck, his healed knee and and a hopefully refurbished Knicks roster can bring Anthony’s brilliance back to the limelight next season.
3. Kawhi Leonard
Last year’s NBA Finals MVP is as great as he is quiet, and he’s very quiet. A lengthy, relentless two-way player who was forged in early fires—he was already fighting for championship appearances with the San Antonio Spurs as a 20-year-old—Leonard is the purest product of the league’s best franchise since they got Tim Duncan into their hands in 1997. Kawhi is the future of the most impressive culture the league has likely ever seen, and his scary, mean intensity seems like an appropriate spearhead for years and years of more Spurs dominance; last June, he even ran LeBron James ragged. Leonard’s future is even brighter than his present, which is a big, blinding light.
2. Kevin Durant
Durant’s in the news, these days, for a somewhat shocking new turn in personality. But in the weeks to come, we’ll probably shut up about that talk, as KD’s play comes to be the main event yet again. The leader of a Thunder team who have some work to do, a pissed-off version of last year’s MVP is a frightening prospect for the rest of the sport. No player creates more problems for defenses — the word “unguardable” is not hyperbole when we’re discussing this man. Whatever you may think of his testy behavior of late, anyone who doubts Durant is doing so at their own peril; the rest of us will sit back and enjoy the show.
1. LeBron James
The NBA’s best small forward is also its best player. And, to be sure, his positional designation is merely something of a formality — close followers of the sport know that James plays his own, singular role for his Cleveland Cavaliers. “The LeBron position” is something like a point forward. In other words: The King does it all. He runs the offense, makes big shots, finds open men as well as anyone in the league, and guards the other team’s best player in crunch time. And if he keeps up his scintillating play of the last month down the stretch, he’ll be looking at his fifth MVP trophy.
— John Wilmes
The driver known to legions of race fans simply as “Junior” turned 40 in 2014, but Earnhardt appeared rejuvenated. With four victories, he doubled his total with Hendrick Motorsports and completed his best season across the board in a decade. Earnhardt drew first blood in the new “win and you’re in” Chase format, capturing the Daytona 500, and he crossed an item off his personal bucket list when he won the fall race at Martinsville.
Earnhardt had extra incentive to win races and contend for his first Cup title. Early in 2014, crew chief Steve Letarte announced that he’d be stepping down at season’s end to pursue a career in television. Earnhardt, who credits Letarte with salvaging his Cup career, wanted his longtime partner to go out on a high note.
It was a run of bad luck in the Chase that kept the third-generation driver from holding the big trophy, part of a shocking Chase in which all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers — winners of 13 of 36 races in 2014 — failed to make the Final Four at Homestead.
Following those results, the organization hopes a new personnel mix will change its luck in 2015. Of course, there will be a new voice in Earnhardt’s head, as Greg Ives steps in for Letarte. Ives, who guided Chase Elliott to the 2014 Nationwide Series title, was the engineer on Jimmie Johnson’s team before teaming with Elliott. He’s a product of the Hendrick system and should fit well with Earnhardt, who excels with a crew chief who keeps him focused on the big picture. Ives, who shadowed Letarte for the better half of 2014, is already well integrated with Earnhardt, a driver who needs time to build confidence in this type of relationship. While Ives is not as much of a cheerleader on top of the box, the hope is that Earnhardt has matured enough in the past few years that he no longer will need his crew chief to motivate him.
Earnhardt is a good fit in the Hendrick Motorsports stable. He and Jimmie Johnson work well together, and the two like a similar feel in their cars. Hendrick gives them the best equipment money can buy in both chassis and engines. The pit crew, typically strong, will be the only piece of the puzzle that’s a bit untested. Three of Earnhardt’s over-the-wall members, along with car chief Jason Burdett, have moved on post-Letarte.
Earnhardt will have new backing this year from Nationwide Insurance, which joins his team for 21 races, replacing the National Guard. Diet Mountain Dew and AMP Energy drink return as well, although the organization is still looking for additional backing. The struggle to fund Earnhardt, a perennial choice by fans as the series’ Most Popular Driver, is puzzling at best, concerning for NASCAR at worst.
Here’s the key number for Earnhardt: zero, the number of victories he’s earned for each season he debuts with a new crew chief. Earnhardt should make the Chase, however he likely won’t start jelling perfectly with this new pairing until 2016.
Taking advantage Earnhardt benefited from Hendrick horsepower in his sweep of the Pocono races and up-front runs at Michigan and Indianapolis in 2014. If it appears that his Hendrick team has its usual advantage in the motor department, he’ll be a favorite during the summer portion of the schedule.
Daytona stealth His Daytona 500 win was atypical because he led 54 laps en route to the win. It was the only race in his last six Daytona attempts that he led a single lap. His 14th-place finish after averaging a 26.2-place running position in the July race was more like the current iteration of Earnhardt at DIS.
Strong closer The ends of races tend to work in Earnhardt’s favor. The diligent closer gained 1.9 and 1.1 positions in the final tenth of races in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Primary Sponsors: Nationwide Insurance, Diet Mountain Dew/AMP Energy, Kelley Blue Book
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Greg Ives
Year With Current Team: 8th
Under Contract Through: 2017
Best Points Finish: 3rd (2003)
Hometown: Kannapolis, N.C.
Born: Oct. 10, 1974
|Years||Starts||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s||Poles||Titles||Earned|
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Jeff Gordon’s season was lost in a matter of moments — but boy, what a season it was. His four wins were the most he had posted in a single year since his dominant 2007 campaign, and his 10.4 average finish was the best among all drivers in 2014. Gordon, who turned 43 years old in August, looked more like the driver of his youth than he has in nearly a decade.
It was a cut tire at Texas that cost Gordon his championship chance, as he rubbed fenders while fighting for the lead. But what made Gordon a contender in the first place was that he was a threat to win almost anywhere. From short tracks to road courses to superspeedways, the No. 24 team was fighting for victories virtually every time they dropped the green. That versatility has been a hallmark of Gordon’s career; he doesn’t have a weakness in terms of racetracks. He has wins on every track he’s visited as a Sprint Cup driver with the lone exception of Kentucky Speedway, which was only added to the schedule four seasons ago.
Throughout his career, Gordon has enjoyed remarkable stability, and nothing has changed for the four-time champion entering 2015. Gordon has driven his entire career for Hendrick Motorsports, an organization with more than 200 Cup wins and 11 championships; it had 31 and 0, respectively, when he joined the fold for 1993.
Gordon announced in late January that 2015 would be his last season as a full-time driver behind the wheel of the No. 24 car for Hendrick Motorsports. With this the final 36-race season for Gordon, there's plenty of added pressure for this team to send the Indiana native out as a champion. Chase Elliott will replace Gordon next season as a full-time driver for Hendrick Motorsports.
Gordon’s equipment remains a step ahead of the competition with the cash to stay there. Gordon finished every race in 2014, a testament to the durability of his No. 24 cars. Hendrick horsepower is some of the best in the business, and it’s likely that new rules changes will play to the strengths of this organization. Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, is typically the best at finding solutions, and that information will filter down to the Hendrick shops.
One area that won’t be a problem is financial backing. Axalta Coating Systems, primary sponsor for 10 races this year, bought out DuPont’s automotive paint division a few years ago. DuPont was Gordon’s first Sprint Cup sponsor, now on the car for 20-plus years. Few drivers have enjoyed that kind of loyalty from a backer. Also returning are AARP’s Drive to End Hunger (13 races), Pepsi (two races), and Panasonic (two races). Rounding out the sponsorship will be 3M, on board for 11 events.
Gordon’s team remains intact with crew chief Alan Gustafson calling the shots. Gordon’s pit crew was strong in 2014, and Gustafson knows how to come to the track prepared. In-race, the two work well together; Gustafson is more of a technical guy than a coach, and that fits Gordon, who doesn’t need a cheerleader but rather a crew chief who can take feedback and turn it into performance.
If there’s a question mark for 2015, it’s Gordon’s health. The driver has been plagued by back problems for years, and while he’s driven through them, there have been times when he hasn’t looked like the aggressive, skilled driver who has racked up more than 90 career wins.
Another roadblock for Gordon has been the Chase system, which he has never been able to master. Without these changes to the postseason format, it’s widely speculated that Gordon would have seven Cup titles in hand; he earned the most points under a season-long format in 2004, ’07, and ’14. There are other variables there, but the fact remains that the titles have eluded Gordon under NASCAR’s playoff system. Some might say he’s not aggressive enough; even after Texas, Gordon could have advanced to the Final Four at Phoenix, but he failed to rough up Kevin Harvick down the stretch.
Whether or not he wins another championship, Gordon has earned his place as the best of his era. He’ll be worth watching this year for another reason, too. Sitting eight victories shy of 100 career Cup wins, he’d be the first to hit the century mark entirely inside the sport’s modern era. He won’t likely get there this season, but as he approaches triple digits, expect the old fire to ignite. The chances for title No. 5 are running out for Gordon, who knows he can’t let another season like 2014 just slip away.
The planets aligned Gordon averaged a single-digit running position in 25 of 36 races in 2014, up from 15 in 2013. His focus on winning the title and a rules change that catered to drivers with a preference for tight-handling cars played into Gordon’s favor last year. It’s no guarantee that everything will just fall into place for him again this season.
Hendrick horsepower The summer stretch of the schedule caters to powerful engines, and Gordon benefited from having Hendrick power plants last year, winning at 2.5-mile Indianapolis and two-mile Michigan. He’s a good bet to shine again at these facilities. He averaged a 5.8-place finish at non-restrictor plate tracks two miles or longer.
Plate track problems His worst track type is the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. He averaged a finish of 20.3 in the point-paying races there last year.
No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Primary Sponsors: AARP/Drive To End Hunger, 3M, Axalta, PepsiMax, Panasonic
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson
Year With Current Team: 23rd
Under Contract Through: Lifetime
Best Points Finish: 1st (Four Times)
Hometown: Pittsboro, Ind.
Born: Aug. 4, 1971
|Years||Starts||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s||Poles||Titles||Earned|
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Teams have started to report to spring training in Florida and Arizona, which means the 2015 MLB season has officially begun. Opening Day is still six weeks away, but here are 15 storylines to whet your appetite between now and then.
1. He’s the Manfred
Baseball hasn’t started a season with a new commissioner since 1993, the spring after Bud Selig took over for the ousted Fay Vincent. Massive changes followed in the next few years: realignment, a strike that wiped out a World Series, wild cards, interleague play and expansion, all while the steroid issue bubbled to the surface. Selig stepped down in January, and his successor, Rob Manfred, seems less inclined to implement radical change to a game that is booming financially. Then again, Manfred has been coy about his plans. After owners elected him as commissioner-elect last August, Manfred would not identify any priorities: “I think probably the single biggest challenge is filling the shoes of the gentleman standing to my right,” he said, referring to Selig. “He’s established a great tradition of unity among the 30 clubs, and I’m going to work very hard to try to maintain that.” In a way, Manfred is right. For all of Selig’s obvious successes, his greatest skills were political, steering a group of owners with competing interests to a common cause while ending with 20 years of labor peace. But fans want to see more than maintenance, and Manfred will need to find ways to speed up a game that is getting ever slower; revive flagging national TV viewership (although local viewership is strong); make the amateur game safer for pitchers and more accessible to low-income athletes; resolve the stadium situations in Oakland and Tampa Bay; negotiate a new collective-bargaining agreement in 2016; and so on. He inherits a healthier industry than Selig did, but the agenda is already full.
2. Miami Millions
The Miami Marlins’ megacontract for Giancarlo Stanton (13 years, $325 million) was not even official before folks began wondering how long Stanton would actually stay. Such is the skepticism around the Marlins, who have a history of aggressive spending and equally aggressive dismantling. It’s also a fair question because of Stanton’s opt-out clause after 2020. For now, though, the money will catapult Stanton to a new level of stardom and celebrity, and it will be interesting to see the kind of image he cultivates with that platform. Far more compelling, though, is that vicious Stanton swing, the kind that launches majestic drives over any outfield wall and connects at a higher rate than just about any other slugger. He’s an edge-of-your-seat performer in person, and if you’ve got tickets to a Marlins game, be sure to get there for his batting practice. You won’t regret it.
3. Dodgers Brainpower
The Dodgers have proven at least two things since their new owners took over during the 2012 season: They know how to win the National League West, and, boy, can they write checks. They’d like to continue doing the first without doing as much of the second. To that end, they hired two maestros of small-market success — Andrew Friedman, the former general manager of the Rays, and Farhan Zaidi, the assistant to Billy Beane in Oakland. Friedman is the president of baseball operations, Zaidi is the GM, and Josh Byrnes, the former San Diego general manager, is also on board as “senior vice president of baseball operations.” That’s a big group of smart, innovative thinkers with years of experience handling small payrolls. Now that they have much more money, will they stay as disciplined in seeking and exploiting market inefficiencies? What kind of edge will the team gain from their knowledge of statistics? And will Don Mattingly, a manager they did not hire, be on board? As a concept, this sounds promising. But the Dodgers, despite October letdowns, are starting from a high point. So the pressure’s on for the new front office to win big — right away.
4. (More) Cuban Imports
Jose Abreu became the latest, and most successful, Cuban defector to hit the majors last season, winning the Rookie of the Year award for the White Sox while leading the majors in slugging. His example helped Rusney Castillo get a $72.5 million contract from the Red Sox in August, and Yasmany Tomas land a $68.5 million pact from the Diamondbacks in December. The secret is out: Cuban sluggers like Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig are a safe buy, and Castillo and Tomas will try to become the latest. Castillo played for the Red Sox in September and, like Tomas, profiles as a slugger with speed who can cover ground in the outfield. But teams and fans won’t really know until we see them more consistently. The contracts are largely based on faith, with teams having few opportunities to see these players in high-level competition before signing them. Someday, one will be a bust. But the air of mystery surrounding them and the possibility of Abreu-like success make Castillo and Tomas especially intriguing to watch.
5. How the Astros Handle the Draft
For the first time since 2011, the Houston Astros will not be picking first in the June draft. The Diamondbacks will choose first, but the Astros will be right behind them, as compensation for failing to sign No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken, a high school pitcher, last summer. The Astros will also pick fifth overall, giving them two of the top five selections and a chance at an unprecedented haul of top-end amateur talent. The Astros have passed on Byron Buxton and Kris Bryant at the top of recent drafts — taking Carlos Correa and Mark Appel instead — so their choices will be intriguing no matter what. But this year, they will bear even closer scrutiny by the union, which was furious last summer after the Astros backed out of an agreement with their fifth-round pick, pitcher Jacob Nix, whose bonus amount was tied to Aiken’s. The Astros will have a bountiful pool of bonus money to use on their picks, and the way they allot it will be just as fascinating as the players they select.
Related: A Look Back at the 2005 MLB Draft
6. Will the Mets Pass the Yankees?
The Mets and the Yankees awoke last Sept. 10 to a strange reality — both teams were exactly five and a half games out of a playoff spot. The story was a source of amusement in New York, another way to make fun of the Mets (do you believe the Yankees are this bad?), and by the end of the year the teams were in their regular roles: the Yankees with a winning record, the Mets a losing record. But neither team made the playoffs, and while the Yankees struggle to break free of their over-the-hill character, the Mets may finally have found the right mix of veterans and prime-age, ascending talent to go with their core of emerging pitchers. The Mets have a streak of six losing seasons in a row (tied with Houston for the majors’ longest), and the Yankees haven’t had a losing season since 1992, so this might be a longshot. But it would be foolish to bet on the Yankees’ older, declining hitters suddenly rediscovering the best versions of themselves, and the Mets can dream on catcher Travis d’Arnaud, first baseman Lucas Duda and Gold Glove center fielder Juan Lagares. Veteran outfielder Michael Cuddyer — David Wright’s childhood friend from Virginia — offers nice value for two years and $21 million, and a rotation led by Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Jacob deGrom, with top prospect Noah Syndergaard nearly ready, could be a legitimate force. The results still have to show it, but for real baseball optimism in New York, Citi Field is now the place to be.
7. Montreal Momentum?
For the second year in a row, baseball will hold two exhibition games in Montreal at the end of spring training, this time with games between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Cincinnati Reds. Last year’s games, between the Blue Jays and the Mets, drew more than 96,000 fans and fueled hope that MLB could return to the city that hosted the Expos from 1969-2004. “I think they would be an excellent candidate in the future,” Bud Selig said in July, at his final All-Star game as commissioner. “No question about it.” Of course, there is one overriding question — how will the city build and finance a viable alternative to decrepit Olympic Stadium, where the Expos failed to draw 1 million fans in their final seven seasons? Until that question can be answered, it’s still a fantasy. But the Tampa Bay Rays are suffering from chronically poor attendance, an outmoded stadium and an exodus of talent from the clubhouse and the field. The Rays maintain they have not discussed relocation, but as long as baseball stays at 30 teams, the failure of the Tampa Bay franchise seems like the best hope for Montreal. Former Expos outfielder Warren Cromartie has been arranging a local coalition of politicians and businessmen looking for an opportunity to bring a team back. Again, a lot must take place for this to happen, but the trend lines could be pointing Montreal’s way.
8. Back in Action
Though the incidence of the injury mercifully slowed as the summer went along, the torn ulnar collateral ligament was the story of the early 2014 season, claiming Jose Fernandez (left), Matt Moore (right), Jarrod Parker, Kris Medlen, Patrick Corbin, Brandon Beachy, Bronson Arroyo, A.J. Griffin, Ivan Nova, Bruce Rondon and Luke Hochevar. All of them needed Tommy John surgery, like the Mets’ Matt Harvey, who spent the season recovering from his Oct. 2013 procedure. Harvey should be ready to go at the start of spring training, and the others should come along soon after. Major League Baseball formed a task force and a website in November to address the issue, aimed largely at keeping amateur elbows healthy. The results of those efforts, which include formal, coordinated recommendations and several research projects, will take years to see. For now, we are eager for the return of the missing pitchers, especially Harvey and Fernandez, two of the more dynamic young righthanders in the game. This could be a transition year for both, but at least they will be back on the mound, hopefully working back to the form that offered such promise.
9. Free Agent Pitchers
It’s impossible to predict who will be traded during the season, but a useful place to start is by looking at the upcoming free agent class. And next winter, barring contract extensions, it will be loaded with starting pitchers, including David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Cliff Lee, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Hisashi Iwakuma, Rick Porcello, Yovani Gallardo, Scott Kazmir and Mat Latos. That’s more than two rotations’ worth of high-quality starters. Some of them may sign new deals before free agency, some may stay with their teams through the end of the season, and some may be traded. All will bear watching to see how their stock changes before their status does, but expect to hear a lot about Cueto, especially. Cueto, the Reds ace who finished as the runner-up for the NL Cy Young, will need a deal larger than that of teammate Homer Bailey, who somehow scored a six-year, $105 million contract before last season. Can the small-market Reds, who also have Joey Votto on an exorbitant contract, really afford another mega-deal? Likewise, while the White Sox acted boldly to trade for Samardzija, who grew up a fan of the team, they’ve never given out a $100 million contract. If Samardzija pitches well and the White Sox struggle, they might have to consider flipping him to a contender. And if Lee proves that his elbow is healthy, the clearly rebuilding Phillies will be eager to move him — though the structure of Lee’s deal (with a $12.5 million buyout for 2016, if a $27.5 million option does not vest) will limit the return they can get.
10. Pedro Martinez’s Hall of Fame Speech
When the mood struck Pedro Martinez, the great righthander could be just as entertaining behind a microphone as he was on the pitcher’s mound. He could wax nostalgic, reminiscing about his boyhood under the mango trees in the Dominican Republic. He could turn feisty, challenging Babe Ruth to rise from the grave and grab a bat. He could be creatively conciliatory, calling the Yankees his daddy after another rough game. Martinez showed the depth of his insights on the modern game during TBS’ postseason coverage, and he has always had a deep respect for baseball history. As a new inductee to the Hall of Fame, Martinez will bring his best stuff to Cooperstown for his induction ceremony in late July. Expect richly detailed memories, unfiltered opinion, fanciful wordplay and a whole lot of emotion.
11. Broken Hearts in the Desert?
Tony La Russa used most of last season to survey what he had with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who hired the Hall of Famer to oversee their baseball operations after a disastrous start. En route to an MLB-worst 98 losses, La Russa decided to replace general manager Kevin Towers with the ace of his old Oakland teams, Dave Stewart. A rookie manager, Chip Hale, takes over for Kirk Gibson. Now the Diamondbacks have to get real. One of Stewart’s first moves was to trade prospects for Jeremy Hellickson, the former Rookie of the Year for the Rays, who has a 5.00 ERA the last two seasons. La Russa’s former pitching coach, Dave Duncan, works for him in Arizona and turned around Stewart’s career in the mid-1980s. Perhaps he can work his magic on Hellickson and other Diamondbacks, because without some unforeseen surge, it’s hard to picture this team as a contender for 2015. Arizona’s 4.26 staff ERA ranked 14th in the NL, and the offense has little to fear besides Paul Goldschmidt, Cuban free agent Yasmany Tomas (if he’s as good as advertised) and the big-power, on-base-challenged Mark Trumbo. But La Russa and his staff are dedicated to quickly reviving the Diamondbacks. As he told Arizona reporters in November: “I will be absolutely brokenhearted if we don’t have a winning record next year, which is 82–80. … I think the message that we’re careful to send to our fans is that we are not a patient bunch.” La Russa knows more baseball than just about anyone alive, but quick fixes rarely seem to work.
12. Royal Revolution, or just a KC Thing?
The Royals insist they were not trying to reinvent the game with their style of play while winning the American League pennant last season. General manager Dayton Moore’s disciplined, single-minded mission to acquire athletic players with speed who excelled on defense was born of necessity. Kauffman Stadium’s outfield has the most square footage of any park in the majors, and the Royals need fielders who can cover it. They also need runners who can take extra bases when balls go in those gaps — and speed, of course, helps on defense and never goes into a slump. Such players are more cost-effective than power hitters, anyway, and they generally offer the added benefit of contact hitting. This is a lost art in baseball, but the Royals do it well, and it drove opponents crazy in the postseason. Kansas City hitters had the majors’ fewest strikeouts in an era when strikeouts rise across baseball every year. Will other teams take notice of the Royals’ success — their lack of empty at-bats — and preach contact? Or will the industry keep desperately pursuing home runs in an era of declining power? Moore isn’t sure. “You can only understand from your own perspective and what you have to do for your team,” he said. “It’s hard to say what someone else should do or how they should build their team. For us, it’s just the way we all set out to do it.”
13. The Crowds in Cleveland
On a pillar in the second deck in Cleveland, above right field, is the number 455 and the words, THE FANS. The Indians “retired” that number in 2001 to recognize the 455-game sellout streak that accompanied the team’s recent glory years. It took a unique set of circumstances for that streak to happen — a new downtown ballpark, the departure of the Browns, a boring Cavaliers team and, of course, a winning product on the field. Now, the ballpark is familiar, the Browns are back and the Cavaliers are exciting. But the Indians are winning again — and the fans don’t seem to notice. Only the Rays and the Indians drew average crowds under 20,000 last season. The Indians have been hurt by the changing economy in Cleveland — 20 years ago, there were 100,000 more people who worked downtown — and have embarked on a two-year renovation plan that will eliminate 7,000 seats at Progressive Field, which remains a wonderful place to watch a ballgame. Terry Francona’s team has two of baseball’s best players in outfielder Michael Brantley and AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, who leads an intriguing rotation. The Indians have raised their payroll in recent seasons, won a wild card in 2013 and came close in 2014. If they contend for a third year in a row, will the fans respond? And if not, what more can the team do to entice them?
14. Bryce Harper
Baseball got a seven-game World Series to close out the postseason, and in the process found an October icon in Madison Bumgarner of the Giants. But the championship series and World Series were largely devoid of young, marketable superstars with potential to resonate beyond the baseball world. This was not the fault of Bryce Harper, the 22-year-old Washington Nationals outfielder, who seemed poised to break out in a big way. Harper crunched three home runs in the division series against the Giants, showing off the kind of monstrous power that can captivate the casual fan. The Nationals are strong but have not escaped the first round in two trips to the postseason. Likewise, Harper is enormously talented but has not escaped the injury bug in his young career. His high-energy (some would say reckless) style has led to injuries in the field and on the bases, and Harper has no plans to change. In short, he’s the perfect player to dream on: He’s offered us a taste of what he can do, while leaving us eager to see more. And if Harper can lead a Washington team to a World Series title for the first time in 90 years? Then we’ve got a legend in the making.
15. Padres Cycle or No-Hitter
This is one of those baseball oddities that defies explanation. How could a franchise exist for 46 seasons and not once, in more than 7,000 games, have a player hit for the cycle or a pitcher throw a no-hitter? It’s happened to the San Diego Padres. Of course, the Padres have not been big winners, with two pennants and no championships in all that time. But they’ve had their share of stars, too, and simply by showing up for all those games, you would think at least one of those feats would have happened. The Padres have had close calls, including a near-cycle last year by Tommy Medica, who missed by a single in May. For the record, there have been 120 no-hitters and 140 cycles since the start of the 1969 season — and because of the lightning-bolt nature of those events, few, if anyone, predicted they would happen before those games began. But just for fun, we’ll keep an eye on Andrew Cashner, the big righthander with overpowering stuff. Cashner struggles to stay healthy; he’s 28 years old but has never made more than 26 starts in a season. Yet he pitched one-hit and two-hit shutouts last year, and once faced the minimum 27 batters in a one-hitter. When he’s on, he’s always got a chance to make history.
— Written by Tyler Kepner for Athlon Sports
This season, it’s championship or bust for Carl Edwards.
That NASCAR’s most natural pitchman has lofty expectations in plain view for 2015 isn’t much of a surprise. Optimism and external motivation are hallmarks of Edwards’ personality.
But it is interesting to hear the two-time Chase runner-up talk so candidly about his expectations in 2015 after an offseason of such significant change. Edwards, 35, will drive the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing this season after a decade of driving Fords for Roush Fenway Racing in the Sprint Cup Series.
It’s a big move, no doubt, but to Edwards, it’s one that had to happen. The theory is that a new environment, after years of stagnation, gives the driver an automatic boost.
“Matt Kenseth’s move, Kevin (Harvick)’s move, Joey (Logano)’s move — when I talked to (Roush Fenway Racing President) Steve Newman and Jack Roush about my decision, those guys were evidence that sometimes change on its own can spur performance,” Edwards says. “I’m hoping that it works that way for me.”
That trio’s success could mark a shift in thinking that’s emblematic of NASCAR’s decades-long push for on-track parity — a movement that has pushed every well-funded, competitive team within tight technical parameters and minimal setup diversity. No longer does a crew chief have to find the optimal way to communicate with a driver to maximize performance. The team leader just has to make sure that a team of engineers can appropriately mesh on-car data acquisition with driver feedback, and then he has to hope that the team’s overall approach isn’t lagging behind the competition. If that all goes well, then the driver’s heavy lifting gets a bit easier.
Edwards also sees NASCAR’s newest championship format — the revised Chase for the Sprint Cup featuring a regular season, three elimination rounds and a final best-finisher-take-all race — as another hurdle eliminated in the process of reaching the sport’s greenest pasture with a new team.
“I don’t have to perfectly mesh with everyone or figure out the race cars right away,” Edwards says. “All I have to do is get a win in the regular season and be at top form at race 36. I’m certain, that as a driver, I can do that.”
The process Edwards speaks of is very similar to how Harvick won the 2014 title. Harvick won twice early in 2014 and ran relatively well for the entire season, but he hit rocky stretches in which mechanical issues, bad luck and pit crew problems knocked him from contention on a seemingly weekly basis. The wins, however, provided his team with the championship eligibility safety net. By race No. 27, the team was firing on all cylinders.
But Harvick also had the benefit of an open testing policy that’s been completely shelved in 2015, turning laps in his new No. 4 just weeks after his stint with Richard Childress Racing ended. Edwards’ only time on the track with his new JGR team will come on race weekends, NASCAR-scheduled test sessions and an occasional Goodyear tire test.
To make up the difference, Edwards is expecting that the opportunity to work again with Kenseth — they were teammates at RFR from 2004-12 — at JGR will shorten the learning curve. Their reunion may rekindle memories of a time when the two didn’t get along so well — including an awkward post-race incident at Martinsville Speedway in 2007 — but Edwards insists that the relationship has improved. “There were times when we didn’t get along, but that’s ancient history,” Edwards says. “He’s a guy I really look up to.”
Edwards will start the season with Darian Grubb as crew chief. There’s irony here as the duo once battled when Grubb led Tony Stewart’s team, winning the 2011 title that Edwards lost on a tiebreaker. Grubb is a strong engineer who will help a new team get off the ground. His chemistry with Edwards is unknown, but keep in mind that he’s got wins with three of the best in the business: Denny Hamlin, Stewart and Jimmie Johnson.
Then, there’s owner Joe Gibbs, one of NASCAR’s best, who waited nearly a decade to expand from three teams to four. He wanted the perfect financial combination (in this case, ARRIS and Stanley Tools) paired with the right driver capable of contending immediately. Expectations for the new No. 19 will be high.
“To us, to me, that championship is it,” Edwards says. “Anything less and I won’t be satisfied.”
Needs some speed Roush Fenway’s No. 99 car ranked 18th in average green-flag speed, per NASCAR. Joe Gibbs Racing cars should supply Edwards with a jolt in the speed department.
Road course standout Edwards averaged a third-place finish last year at the road courses and scored his first career road course win at Sonoma.
Still a threat on the quad-ovals Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte and Atlanta proved comfortable for Edwards during a down 2014 season. The fast intermediates were his best oval track type per average finish (7.5) and saw him close adeptly, gaining 37 positions in the final tenth of races.
Positive regression forthcoming His 135 laps led in 2014 were his fewest in a season since becoming a full-time Cup Series driver in 2005. It’s doubtful he’ll perform that poorly again, especially in JGR equipment.
No. 19 Toyota Joe Gibbs Racing
Primary Sponsors: ARRIS, Stanley
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Darian Grubb
Year With Current Team: 1st
Under Contract Through: 2017
Best Points Finish: 2nd (2008, ’11)
Hometown: Columbia, Mo.
Born: Aug. 15, 1979
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Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
6. Tyreke Evans
Evans has been doing point guard duty for his New Orleans Pelicans lately, but only because of an injury absence from Jrue Holiday — the two is ‘Reke’s natural spot. The 25-year-old’s vast talents have not been truly unlocked in New Orleans, or with his previous Sacramento Kings squad. But a terrific winter has shown that Evans is a crazy-talented freelancer who’s capable threatening triple-double territory on any given night. Combined with Holiday and Anthony Davis, Evans is in the best situation of his career, and looks poised to spread roundball optimism down south.
5. Wesley Matthews
Damian Lillard’s coming-out party over the past two seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers has been a hell of a story. But it wouldn’t be possible without Matthews at his side; the Blazers’ guard is one of the most underrated players around, providing a “three-and-D” combo that’s the envy of front offices across the league. He’s made the third-most three-pointers in the NBA this season, and he stymied James Harden through much of his team’s first round series victory over the Houston Rockets last year. Does his resumé really need anything more?
4. Jimmy Butler
The Bulls’ breakout All-Star is one of the most frenetic players in the league. He covers more distance than anyone in the NBA, according to mileage reports, and that bit of data is hardly surprising. Watching Butler, one begins to wonder whether he’s got a clone who secretly subs in for him every few minutes; he affects nearly every Bulls play, on both sides of the ball. He finds alley-oop opportunities, open jumpers, invades passing lanes and runs down scorers with the intensity of a soldier. Does he even sleep? It came as no shock when Floyd Mayweather recently said that the relentless Butler could make an easy transition into boxing.
3. Kyle Korver
The Hawks’ historically hot-handed shooter is so good a marksman that he’s rarely appreciated for the all-around player that he is. Korver can’t create shots for himself at a high rate, but there really aren’t any other deficiencies to his game. He’s a crisp passer with an eye for the open man, a firm defender, and a terrific hustle player with more muscle and speed than you think. And at 6’7”, he creates some matchup issues that are going to tie opposing defenses into knots when the Eastern Conference playoffs roll around.
2. Klay Thompson
37 points, one quarter. Klay Thompson’s internet-breaking performance isn’t soon to be forgotten, and here’s the thing: it was a representative feat. While Steph Curry’s backcourt partner with the Golden State Warriors can’t shatter record books every night, you always have to guard him like he might. As deadly a shooter as there is, Thompson is also shrewd at recognizing defenses and creating opportunities, and a staunch to defender to boot. If the vaunted Warriors are going to make a real run at a title this season, it’ll be in no small part because of their All-NBA candidate Klay.
1. James Harden
James Harden’s defensive embarrassments are a thing of the past, and so is acknowledging him only for his singular facial hair and scoring ability. Harden must now be mentioned among the very best players in the game, as he’s whipped himself into one of the fiercest competitors around. A more willing — and smarter — facilitator than he’s ever been, the 2015 version of Harden is a roving, hyper-intelligent army tank who creates problems on every play with his I.Q. and unparalleled footwork. No team relies as much on one player as the Rockets do on Harden, and they could hardly be making that investment in a better man.
— John Wilmes
Take a look at any draft, no matter the sport, and there are going to be some people chosen in the top eight or 10 picks who never make it. In some years, the misses far outweigh the hits.
The 2005 MLB version didn’t fit that description. If you’re looking for a prime example of the exception to the draft rule, consider this episode. Six of the first seven and eight of the first 12 players picked became All-Stars. And we’re not talking just a bunch of one-and-dones for the Midsummer Classic. Five of the eight earned multiple berths. And three of the four players who didn’t gain that distinction enjoyed big-league careers. That’s a pretty good winning percentage for those doing the drafting.
It had hits elsewhere, but for sheer star power at the top, it’s tough to beat 2005.
1. Diamondbacks: Justin Upton, OF
Great Bridge (Va.) HS
’07-12, Arizona; ’13-14, Atlanta
A steady source of outfield power who has hit more than 25 homers in a season four times, Upton had his biggest year in 2011, when he hit .289 with 31 homers. Although he will strike out quite often (100-plus Ks in seven straight seasons), Upton is a big run-producer. Though not the superstar Arizona thought he would be when it drafted him No. 1 overall, Upton has delivered considerably.
All-Star Games: 2
2. Royals: Alex Gordon, 3B
University of Nebraska
’07-14, Kansas City
A cornerstone of the Royals’ rebuilding process that culminated in a trip to the 2014 World Series, Gordon is an all-around standout who has won four Gold Gloves and been a productive middle-of-the-order bat for K.C. A two-time All-Star, Gordon began as an infielder but settled in left field. He has hit 20 or more home runs twice and in 2011 led the majors with 51 doubles.
All-Star Games: 2
3. Mariners: Jeff Clement, C
’07-08, Seattle; ’10, ’12 Pittsburgh
Clement’s abbreviated career was hampered by injury and poor production, as he managed just a .218 batting average as a part-time catcher, first baseman and DH. He bounced around the minors in between shortened MLB stints and never gained enough traction to become an everyday player. After spending September 2012 with the Pirates, he became a free agent, never reached the majors again and retired before the ’14 season.
All-Star Games: 0
4. Nationals: Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
University of Virginia
A two-time Silver Slugger winner, Zimmerman personifies the Nationals like no other member of the organization. He has been part of the franchise since its move to D.C. and has been a stalwart at third base and in left field. Zimmerman has hit 25 or more homers four times and driven in 100 or more runs twice. In 2009, he hit .292, with 33 homers and 106 RBIs.
All-Star Games: 1
5. Brewers: Ryan Braun, 3B
University of Miami
The five-time All-Star and 2011 NL MVP has had a career that has featured triumph and controversy. One of baseball’s most accomplished sluggers, he was also suspended for the final 65 games of the ’13 season for PED use. He won the 2011 MVP award after hitting 33 homers and knocking in 111 runs. He was suspended for the first 50 games of the 2013 season for a positive urine test. He appealed, and the penalty was overturned on a technicality. He was caught again in 2013, and the charges stuck.
All-Star Games: 5
6. Blue Jays: Ricky Romero, LHP
Cal State Fullerton
After a blazing start to his career over the first three seasons, Romero’s fortunes faded, as poor performance and injury removed him from the majors. He won 42 games from ’09-11 and was 15–11 in 2011 with a 2.92 ERA and 178 strikeouts, a performance that earned him an All-Star invite. But he became increasingly ineffective after that and spent 2014 in the minors and on the DL, due to a knee injury.
All-Star Games: 1
7. Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki, SS
Long Beach State
One of the premier infield talents in the majors, “Tulo” combines the ability to hit for power and average with excellent fielding that has earned him a pair of Gold Gloves. A four-time All-Star, Tulowitzki has topped 30 homers twice and has batted over .300 four times. But injuries have limited his production over the past three years, and he missed a total of 222 games from 2012-14.
All-Star Games: 4
8. Devil Rays: Wade Townsend, RHP
Townsend was drafted by Baltimore in 2004 but couldn’t agree to terms and returned to finish his degree at Rice before entering the draft again in ’05. A rare miss by Tampa Bay, he never climbed higher than AA ball and posted a 7–21 record in five minor league seasons. He was plagued by injury during his time in the minors and underwent Tommy John surgery and a procedure to repair a torn labrum.
All-Star Games: 0
9. Mets: Mike Pelfrey, RHP
’06-12, New York Mets; ’13-14, Minnesota
At one point, Pelfrey was considered a linchpin of the Mets’ rotation, and his 15–9 record in 2010 was proof of that. For four seasons, he was a fixture among the team’s starting pitchers, but after a 7–13 performance in 2011, Pelfrey underwent Tommy John surgery and missed almost all of the ’12 campaign. He has spent the past two years with Minnesota, but elbow, groin and shoulder injuries limited him to just five starts last season.
All-Star Games: 0
10. Tigers: Cameron Maybin, CF
T.C. Roberson (N.C.) HS
’07, Detroit; ’08-10, Florida; ’11-14, San Diego
With a blend of speed and size, Maybin was considered the perfect outfield prospect. But during his eight years in the majors, he has not delivered on his substantial promise. Maybin has had his moments, like when he stole a total of 66 bases in 2011-12 for the Padres. But his highest batting average for a season has been .264, and he has spent just two campaigns (’11-12) as a full-time outfielder.
All-Star Games: 0
11. Pirates: Andrew McCutchen, CF
Fort Meade (Fla.) HS
The four-time All-Star was voted NL Most Valuable Player in 2013 and has become one of the majors’ top all-around players. McCutchen’s blend of speed, power and the ability to hit for average has made him a catalyst in the Pirates’ recent run to the postseason. McCutchen has hit above .300 for the past three years, and in 2012 he smacked a career-high 31 homers. That year, he also won his first Gold Glove.
All-Star Games: 4
12. Reds: Jay Bruce, CF
West Brook (Texas) Senior HS
A two-time All-Star and Silver Slugger winner, Bruce has been a steady power producer for the Reds, hitting at least 20 homers in each of his first six years in the league and at least 30 from 2011-13. A torn meniscus hurt his production in 2014, but Bruce remained a formidable presence in the middle of the Cincinnati lineup. In 2012, Bruce had a slugging percentage of .514, and the next season he drove in a career-high 109 runs.
All-Star Games: 2
13. Orioles: Brandon Snyder, C
Westfield (Va.) HS
’10-11, Baltimore; ’12, Texas; ’13, Boston
It took Snyder five years to reach the majors, and he hasn’t been able to find a regular job during the parts of four years he has been on big-league clubs. Snyder has spent time at catcher, first and third but was never a full-time member of a team. He signed a minor league contract with Boston before the 2014 season but never reached the big leagues, instead playing 35 games in AAA and hitting .206 with eight homers.
All-Star Games: 0
14. Indians: Trevor Crowe, CF
University of Arizona
’09-11, Cleveland; ’13, Houston
For a while, it looked as if Crowe was headed for a spot in the Cleveland outfield. After making his big-league debut in 2009, he played in 122 games, hitting .251, with 24 doubles. But Crowe lasted in Cleveland for just 15 games the next season and was out of the majors in 2012. He played 60 games for the Astros in 2013 but hit only .218, and after signing a contract with Detroit in 2014 was cut loose in July.
All-Star Games: 0
15. White Sox: Lance Broadway, RHP
’07-09, Chicago White Sox; ’09, New York Mets
After pitching a total of 27 games — with two starts — and compiling a 2–2 record with a 5.24 ERA in three seasons with the White Sox and Mets, Broadway was out of the majors. He made 20 starts for the Blue Jays’ AAA team in 2010 and went 3–11, in the conclusion of his professional pitching career. Broadway has since taken up acting.
All-Star Games: 0
16. Marlins: Chris Volstad, RHP
Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) Community HS
’08-11, Florida; ’12, Chicago Cubs; ’13, Colorado
Although Volstad only had one year with a winning record as a starter, he did make 102 starts from ’08-11 with the Marlins and went 12–9 in 2010. He became a free agent after the 2011 campaign and was signed by the Cubs, for whom he went 3–12. Volstad appeared in six games for the Rockies in ’13 but failed to register a decision. He spent the 2013 and ’14 seasons in the minors and had 17 starts in the Korean Baseball Organization.
All-Star Games: 0
17. Yankees: C.J. Henry, SS
Putnam City (Okla.) HS
There are those who believe Henry should have stuck with his other sport, basketball, for which he was highly recruited. His brother, Xavier, plays in the NBA, but C.J. never made it to the Show. In fact, he didn’t escape High-A ball. He struggled in the field and at the plate and was out of the minors after 2008. He played in the Frontier League in 2013 but didn’t compete in ’14.
All-Star Games: 0
18. Padres: Cesar Carrillo, RHP
University of Miami
’09, San Diego
The total of Carrillo’s MLB experience is three starts for the Padres in 2009 — a 1–2 record with a ghastly 13.60 ERA and 16 hits allowed in 10.1 innings pitched. He has spent 10 years in the minors, the last two in independent ball. He was implicated in the Biogenesis scandal in 2012 and was suspended for 100 games. Though Arizona signed him to a contract in early 2014, he couldn’t hang with the team.
All-Star Games: 0
19. Rangers: John Mayberry Jr., RF
’09-14, Philadelphia; ’14, Toronto
Son and namesake of the former Royals slugger, Mayberry never displayed the necessary consistency to warrant a full-time starting position. Mayberry spent five-plus seasons with the Phillies as a reserve, going on occasional short binges that would tantalize before reverting to his inconsistent form. He hit 15 homers in 2011 and 14 in ’12 but wasn’t able to drive the ball on a regular basis. Philadelphia traded him to the Jays in a waiver deal on Aug. 31, 2014.
All-Star Games: 0
20. Cubs: Mark Pawelek, LHP
Springville (Utah) HS
The lefty never climbed higher than High-A ball during his five years with MLB organizations and topped out at three wins during that time. His final season was 2010, when he made three starts for Gateway of the Frontier League. In 2013, he pitched for Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic.
All-Star Games: 0
21. A’s: Cliff Pennington, SS
’08-12, Oakland; ’13-14, Arizona
Pennington spent most of three years (’10-12) as the A’s regular shortstop and hit a career-high .264 with 26 doubles in 2011. He was traded to Arizona following the ’12 campaign, after losing his starting job and has been a reserve middle infielder for the D-backs the last two seasons.
All-Star Games: 0
22. Marlins: Aaron Thompson, LHP
Second Baptist (Texas) School
’11, Pittsburgh; ’14, Minnesota
Thompson had a strong beginning to his professional career and was named a South Atlantic League All-Star at one point, but his pitching record during five years in the Marlins’ system was 22–34. He pitched in four games for the Pirates in 2011, making one start, and threw seven times for the Twins last year with a 2.45 ERA and six strikeouts in 7.1 innings pitched.
All-Star Games: 0
23. Red Sox: Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
’07-13, Boston; ’14, N.Y. Yankees
A strong all-around player with good speed, a quick bat and excellent glove, Ellsbury is a former All-Star who can create trouble for opposing teams with his bat and on the basepaths. He has led the AL in steals three times, including a career-high 70 in ’09. In 2011, Ellsbury was the runner-up in the MVP voting, thanks to a .321 average, 32 homers and 105 RBIs. After the 2013 season, he signed a seven-year, $153 million deal with the Yankees.
All-Star Games: 1
24. Astros: Brian Bogusevic, LHP
‘10-12, Houston; ’13 Chicago Cubs
Although Bogusevic was drafted as a pitcher and spent three-plus years in Houston’s system as a hurler, he was converted to the outfield in ’08. He hit .287 with the Astros as a part-time outfielder in 2011 and was a starter in ’12 but hit only .203. After spending part of 2013 with the Cubs, he was in the minors for all of ’14 and signed a minor league deal with the Phillies after the season.
All-Star Games: 0
25. Twins: Matt Garza, RHP
’06-07, Minnesota; ’08-10, Tampa Bay; ’11-13, Chicago Cubs; ’13, Texas; ’14, Milwaukee
A starting pitcher who has posted a 75–75 record during his big-league career, Garza bounced among four teams before signing a four-year, $50 million deal with the Brewers before the ’14 season. Garza’s finest season came in 2010, when he went 15–10 with a 3.91 ERA for Tampa Bay. Garza struck out 197 hitters in 2011 with the Cubs and has twice logged more than 200 innings in a season.
All-Star Games: 0
26. Red Sox: Craig Hansen, RHP
’05-06, ’08 Boston; ’08, ’08-09, Pittsburgh
Although Hansen had a stretch with the Red Sox during which he appeared in 70 games during parts of two seasons, he never became a reliable reliever, and his career was waylaid by sleep apnea and a weakening of the arm that ended his time in professional baseball. In four seasons, Hansen posted three saves and had an ERA of 6.34.
All-Star Games: 0
27. Braves: Joey Devine, RHP
’05-07, Atlanta; ’08, ’11, Oakland
If Devine had not had to endure two Tommy John surgeries, he might have become one of the majors’ top relievers. But he missed 2009 and ’10, and after a solid 2011, had to go under the knife again.
All-Star Games: 0
28. Cardinals: Colby Rasmus, CF
Russell County (Ala.) HS
’09-11, St. Louis; ’11-14, Toronto
Rasmus has been a steady outfield producer for the Cards and Jays, although he has never had a breakout season. After a lackluster 2014 (.225 average, 18 HR, 40 RBI), Rasmus became a free agent.
All-Star Games: 0
29. Marlins: Jacob Marceaux, RHP
In six professional seasons, Marceaux never reached the majors. He rose as high as AA ball, and in 2008 was 4–1 as a reliever with the Marlins’ Carolina affiliate. Marceaux began as a starter but couldn’t develop consistency.
All-Star Games: 0
30. Cardinals: Tyler Greene, SS
’09-12, St. Louis; ’12, Houston; ’13, Chicago White Sox
A utility infielder who saw action with three teams over five seasons, Greene never became a consistent starter. His greatest activity came in 2012, when he played 77 games with the Cardinals.
All-Star Games: 0
Other Notable Selections
Luke Hochevar, RHP
Dodgers (Round 1 – Supplemental) • University of Tennessee
Hochevar didn’t sign with the Dodgers, spending a year in an independent league. He was then taken No. 1 overall the following season by Kansas City.
Clay Buchholz, RHP
Red Sox (Round 1 – Supplemental) • Angelina (Texas) College
A two-time All-Star, Buchholz has become a fixture on the Red Sox starting staff, amassing a 66–44 record in eight seasons.
Jed Lowrie, 2B
Red Sox (Round 1 – Supplemental) • Stanford
After spending five seasons as a part-timer with Boston and Houston, Lowrie spent 2013-14 starting for Oakland and hit .290 in 2013. He signed a three-year deal with the Astros in December.
Chase Headley, 3B/OF
Padres (Round 2) • University of Tennessee
Headley hasn’t been a star throughout his nine years with San Diego and the Yankees, but in 2012, he won a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger and led the NL with 115 RBIs. He signed a four-year deal with the Yankees in the offseason.
Yunel Escobar, SS
Braves (Round 2) • Martires de Barbodos (Cuba) HS
Escobar has not earned an All-Star berth during his time with Atlanta, Toronto and Tampa Bay, but he has been steady in the field and reliable at the plate.
Brett Gardner, OF
Yankees (Round 3) • College of Charleston
Gardner has been a fixture in the New York outfield for the past five years. He led the AL in steals (49) in 2011 and in triples (10) in ’13.
Jeremy Hellickson, RHP
Devil Rays (Round 4) • Hoover (IA) HS
Although Hellickson was laid low by elbow surgery before the 2014 season, he had been a big part of the Tampa Bay rotation from 2011-13, when he won 35 games. He was traded to Arizona after the ’14 campaign.
Marco Estrada, RHP
Nationals (Round 6) • Long Beach State
Estrada bounced between the starting rotation and the bullpen during his seven seasons with the Nats and Brewers. The hard thrower was dealt to Toronto in the offseason.
Michael Brantley, OF
Brewers (Round 7) • Central (Fla.) HS
In his sixth big-league season, Brantley had his best year, posting 20 home runs, 97 RBIs and a .327 batting average for Cleveland, a performance that earned him an All-Star berth and a third-place finish in the American League MVP voting.
Will Venable, OF
Padres (Round 7) • Princeton
Venable has demonstrated the ability to play all three outfield positions during his seven years with San Diego, including the last five as a starter. In 2013, he slugged 22 homers.
Austin Jackson, CF
Yankees (Round 8) • Billy Ryan (Texas) HS
Jackson has led the AL in triples twice during his five years in the big leagues and has played well in the field. The runner-up in the 2010 Rookie of the Year balloting, Jackson was traded by Detroit to Seattle during the 2014 season.
Logan Morrison, LF/1B
Marlins (Round 22) • Northshore (La.) HS
Morrison has proven to be a valuable outfielder and first baseman, first for the Marlins, for whom he hit 23 homers in 2011, and most recently for Seattle.
Tommy Hanson, RHP
Braves (Round 22) • Riverside (Calif.) Community College
From 2009-12, Hanson was a solid contributor to the Braves’ rotation, winning a total of 45 games. But injuries have detoured him and limited his MLB starts to 13 over the past two years.
Jaime Garcia, LHP
Cardinals (Round 22) • Sharyland (Texas) HS
During his first two full years in the majors, Garcia looked like a potential ace and won 26 games. Since then, shoulder problems have limited him greatly and cast doubt over his future.
Sergio Romo, RHP
Giants (Round 28) • Colorado Mesa University
Romo has become a valuable part of the Giants’ success and is one of the top closers in the majors. In 2013, he earned an All-Star berth on the way to 38 saves.
— Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports
Predicting where Matt Kenseth will end up at the end of this season isn’t easy after the results he’s turned in during the past two years. But there is good news buried inside that confusion: Even if Kenseth replicates the worst of his first two seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, he’ll be a top-10 driver.
Kenseth, of course, was simply golden during his first run with JGR in 2013. He won a series- and career-high seven times and pushed Jimmie Johnson harder than any other driver.
But last season proved to be far different. Kenseth was largely as consistent as ever, recording the same number of lead-lap finishes (30) as the previous year while increasing his top-5 and top-10 results. However, in the stat that counts — visits to Victory Lane — he put up a surprising goose egg. Kenseth qualified for the postseason through points, a product of his consistency, and actually remained eligible for the title through the third round.
For a time, it even looked like he could become the sport’s first winless champion. When it didn’t happen, Kenseth was realistic, recognizing the lack of speed that hampered him.
“In 2013, we were exceptionally fast at most race tracks,” Kenseth says. “Between the (2014) aero changes and getting the cars down and all that stuff, we just didn’t seem to have a handle on it the way we did the year before. Our balance was just way off, and we never really did get it fixed the way we wanted to.”
Interestingly, Kenseth wasn’t too surprised at how he and his JGR teammates performed. In testing before the 2014 season, the JGR Toyotas never had the same handling comfort — and thus the speed — as they had with the 2013 rules package. It’s a deficit from which they never recovered. That’s changed for this season, Kenseth said after test sessions revealed major improvement based on 2015 rules.
“I feel the best about the aero changes, getting the downforce off the cars,” Kenseth says. “Hopefully that will make it a little bit easier to pass in traffic and the cars a little more free. I’m hoping that will help.”
Among the tweaks this year are decreased rear spoiler heights, a reduced-horsepower engine and a new set of in-car suspension adjustment tools for the driver’s use. Should Kenseth adapt well, expect it to make a substantial difference in how well he and the rest of the JGR stable perform. Despite teammate Denny Hamlin earning a spot in the final race to determine the champion, JGR teams won only twice in Sprint Cup — and one of those wins came on the restrictor-plate track at Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR’s ultimate equalizer.
In Kenseth’s favor is the addition of Carl Edwards, Kenseth’s former Roush Fenway Racing teammate, to the JGR lineup as the multi-car operation expands from three to four teams. Kenseth and Edwards had a positive working relationship at RFR prior to Kenseth’s departure for JGR in 2013. Edwards also brings in substantial new sponsorship, allowing JGR to hire more engineers and shop staff while dedicating more resources to research and development. An influx of funding from Kenseth’s main backer, Dollar General, and the addition of old partner DeWalt give the team more funding even with the departure of longtime JGR supporter Home Depot.
The organization is also undergoing a hefty transition of several key staff members thanks to the addition of Edwards and the disappointment of 2014 — though Kenseth’s main point of contact, crew chief Jason Ratcliff, won’t change. This season, Edwards will work with Darian Grubb, who moved over from Denny Hamlin’s team. Grubb was replaced in that role over at the No. 11 Toyota by Kyle Busch’s former crew chief, Dave Rogers. That leaves Busch with Adam Stevens, promoted from the JGR XFINITY Series teams, on his pit box going forward. Expect the changes to boost performance.
Kenseth, 43, will start his 545th Sprint Cup race and 16th consecutive full-time season at NASCAR’s highest level when the green flag drops on the 2015 Daytona 500. Having made 10 of 11 Chases, a record topped only by Jimmie Johnson, there’s no reason to believe the consistency will stop.
“I really feel more confident about (2015) than I did last year at this time,” Kenseth says.
With changes made and plans for improvement over a moderately successful run a year ago, it’s not hard to understand why.
No wins? No problem Kenseth’s fall from seven wins in 2013 to zero in 2014 had more to do with speed than skill. His No. 20 car dropped from second to seventh in average green-flag speed rank. If JGR regains speed in 2015, look for Kenseth to take advantage.
Expect excellence The one- to 1.49-mile tracks, such as Phoenix, Dover and Darlington, are welcome sites for the veteran, who averaged a 7.4-place finish in seven races at tracks that fall in that mileage range last year.
Seal the deal Kenseth gained 37 positions in the final 10th of races last year. His closing acumen was amplified in the daylight, where he gained 46 positions across 25 races in daytime hours.
A top-10 fixture In what many felt was a down season after a career year, Kenseth scored two more top-10 finishes — 22 in all, up from 20 — in 2014.
No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Primary Sponsors: Dollar General, DeWalt
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Jason Ratcliff
Year With Current Team: 3rd
Under Contract Through: 2016
Best Points Finish: 1st (2003)
Hometown: Cambridge, Wis.
Born: March 10, 1972
|Years||Starts||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s||Poles||Titles||Earned|
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Kyle Busch demands perfection from the racecar and has no qualms about ratcheting up the pressure on his crew chief to make that happen. It’s understandable that Busch has a periodic revolving door of team leaders, a merry-go-round that resulted in the move of former crew chief Dave Rogers to Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 team for this year.
The two were at odds for much of the Chase, which is surprising, because that’s when Busch snapped it together after a summer slump that endangered his playoff bid. Outside of a Talladega wreck, you could argue that the 2014 Chase was Busch’s best in terms of consistency. Busch won once last year and finished 10th in points, impressive considering he was 17th — with four DNFs — heading into the Chase.
Busch, who’s been vocal about the changes for 2015, insists that his relationship with Rogers was just fine, thank you. Any public back-and-forths between the two were a case of two parties demanding nothing less than perfection.
Internal sources claim differently, although Rogers’ move in the offseason was part of a larger shift of employees at JGR, both across series and across teams. When the music stopped, it was Busch’s XFINITY (formerly Nationwide) Series crew chief Adam Stevens who landed on Busch’s Sprint Cup team for this year.
Stevens wasn’t necessarily Busch’s first pick. “There was definitely a wish list on my end, and there was definitely a ‘Hey, you’re getting Adam Stevens’ on their end,” Busch says. “I went and did some of my due diligence, talked to a few of the guys that I had on my list. I got a good response from that, but at the end of the day it just all came down to bringing Adam up.”
Busch sees Stevens’ transition from managing an XFINITY Series team to a Cup program as a challenge. “For Adam, just going from the (XFINITY) level to the Cup level, you’re working with probably 40 people in the (XFINITY) shop and with 400 in the Cup shop,” Busch says. “It’s a lot more people, a lot more things on your plate, and I’m sure you can get overwhelmed quite quickly.”
Should Stevens manage the transition, the organization has high hopes. Since pairing up at the start of the 2013 season, he and Busch have 19 XFINITY victories in 52 starts, winning at an unthinkable 36.5 percent clip. Even a sliver of that success puts Busch on better footing in Cup, where he’s struggled by comparison.
Stevens is making the transition to Cup just as JGR is undergoing an expansion to four teams with the addition of Carl Edwards. This move has Busch enthused, as he felt for much of 2014 that the lack of a satellite program, like Hendrick Motorsports has with Stewart-Haas Racing, left his organization with a big disadvantage in terms of resources.
“Having Carl on board is going to be great for the team. He’s obviously gotten results in years past,” Busch says. “Having a bunch of new people at JGR and getting the engineering department all ramped up with more people. … It’s just going to make us a stronger team.”
Busch says any jumps in performance won’t come from the new rules package that cut downforce and reduce horsepower. It’ll make the Cup cars handle more like their XFINITY series counterparts. “It’s just a baby step. I don’t think it’s markedly different,” he explains. “You’re going to see some speeds slow down from the track records maybe, but it’s just going to be about trying to see what balance is going to be like with the horsepower to drag and everything else.”
Differing from the majority, Busch claims that the JGR problems are in-house, related simply to getting the cars to turn better. But having the cars in Cup handle more like those in the second-tier series may be a step in favor of Busch’s on-track handling preference. He’s become a regular dominator of the XFINITY Series in recent seasons — which brings things back full-circle to the Stevens promotion.
“The relationship we’ve had over the last year has gone really well,” Busch says. “We’ve won lots of races and we’ve been competitive. That level at the (XFINITY) level is obviously a lot less than what it is at the Sprint Cup level, but I still think he’s got a good repertoire within the shop and his guys. When you can have all of that, then there’s no better thing than to try and move that guy up.”
It’s a mixed message coming from Busch, who seems torn on all the changes. But replicating any XFINITY success on the Sprint Cup level would mean very positive things for Busch come November.
The car didn’t fit him It’d be tough to find a driver who desires a car with a looser handling condition than Busch, who was stymied by the tight-skewing rules package of 2014. It affected his laps led; the 453 he led for the season was his lowest total since his rookie year in 2005.
Gotta love those quad-ovals Busch averaged an eighth-place finish on the quad-oval intermediates of Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte and Atlanta in 2014.
The spring Richmond race In the last eight spring races at Richmond, Busch won four times, led 613 laps and averaged a finish of 4.4. His last eight fall races at Richmond? Zero wins, 53 laps led and an average finish of 12.1. Perhaps he just prefers Virginia in the springtime?
Crew chief help Busch’s crew chief fed him 57 positions across green-flag pit cycles at all oval tracks, save for Daytona and Talladega.
No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Primary Sponsors: M&M’s, Interstate Batteries, Doublemint Gum, Snickers
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Adam Stevens
Year With Current Team: 8th
Under Contract Through: 2017
Best Points Finish: 4th (2013)
Hometown: Las Vegas, Nev.
Born: May 2, 1985
|Years||Starts||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s||Poles||Titles||Earned|
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.