Articles By Athlon Sports
The characters in that long-running Windy City disaster known as the Chicago Cubs’ World Series Disappointment are well known to all baseball fans. There is the Billy Goat. And Bartman. The Miracle Mets. Leon Durham and his “Gatorade glove,” not to mention a supporting cast both great (Ernie Banks) and small (Ernie Broglio, part of the infamous Lou Brock trade), all of whom have contributed to American sports’ most celebrated failure. If you don’t know that the Cubs haven’t won a title since 1908, you must be a soccer fan.
Over the past few months, there have been some names added to the marquee, and hope has returned to soon-to-be-renovated Wrigley Field. It actually began in 2011, when Red Sox architect Theo Epstein took over the team’s front office, spawning a small delirium among those who expected he could erase the goat’s curse, just as he had made the Bambino’s go away. Since the first three years of Epstein’s regime produced a record of 200–286, North Siders weren’t exactly camped out along the parade route in anticipation of a championship celebration.
That changed during the fall, when Epstein took advantage of a crack in Joe Maddon’s contract and extricated the Tampa Bay manager from baseball’s discount store. Maddon made friends immediately by promising to talk of contending in 2015 and even tried to curry favor with the media with an offer to buy a round of drinks. (Q: What are a reporter’s favorite two beers? A: Free and Free Lite.) Suddenly, that magic touch Epstein was supposed to possess looked a little more legitimate. Maddon’s ability to keep the Rays in contention — and reach the 2008 World Series — with an ever-changing roster of young players whose contracts never reached luxury levels would no doubt help the Cubs grow.
“What does it mean to have a dynamic manager?” Epstein asked at the November press conference announcing Maddon’s arrival. “It means that you have the potential to have an edge in everything related to the events on the field. Whether it’s preparation, decision-making in the game, knowing you can get the most out of your players, trying to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. All those things … it’s really nice to just have complete trust and faith that the person in charge of running that on-field operation is going to put you in the best possible position.”
That sounds pretty good, and in Maddon the Cubs have a manager with the kind of track record guaranteed to attract respect in the dugout and wins on the field. In December, the party continued when Chicago outbid Boston, among other suitors, for the opportunity to pay 31-year-old left-handed starting pitcher Jon Lester $155 million over the next six years. It was the kind of splashy signing the Cubs hadn’t had for a while, and Lester’s decision to join the team demonstrated the faith he had in the organization’s push for success. He wanted to play for Maddon. He wanted to be with a club that had an abundance of young talent. And he didn’t seem one bit worried that it has been 107 years since Chicago last won it all.
Lester has posted a career mark of 116–67 in nine seasons with Boston and the A’s. He’s a three-time All-Star who has won 15 or more games six times, and he gives Chicago the No. 1 starter it has lacked. More than that, his decision to be a Cub validates Epstein’s efforts and provides a big reason for the team’s fans to get excited. When he was introduced, Lester sounded as if helping the team win a championship would be as satisfying for him as it would be for those Chicagolanders who have experienced so much diamond anguish over the past century-plus.
“It’s one of those things you put at the top of the list,” Lester said, referring to winning a World Series title. “To be a part of something like that would truly be special and unbelievable. Obviously, that’s our goal, to do that.”
Most baseball fans — even some on Chicago’s South Side — would agree that a Cubs World Series title would indeed be special. But after so many seasons, the unbelievable part is more appropriate. The franchise hasn’t just had a short run of misfortune, or even a long stretch of despair. This has been 107 years of misery. Sure, teams like the Mariners have never won a championship, but they have only been around since 1977. By then, the Cubs had endured 69 seasons of disappointment and at times comic failure. Their Wrigley home is “friendly,” but decades of day-only baseball might have contributed to the trouble. Then again, the Bartman playoff debacle took place at night. No one can pinpoint a reason for the failure; we just know the Cubs haven’t won it all for more than a century. Maddon and Lester are the biggest names on the latest edition trying to change that.
“Why wouldn’t you want to accept this challenge?” Maddon asked at his press conference. “In this city? In that ballpark? Under these circumstances, with this talent? It’s an extraordinary moment, not just in Cubs history, but also in baseball. This confluence of all these items coming together is pretty impressive.”
• • •
Maddon’s talk about contending for the NL Central title in 2015 is great Hot Stove fodder, and his track record and confidence have made the Cubs’ sales staff’s jobs much easier during the offseason. That’s what December and January are all about: the possibility of success. Maddon’s tenure in Tampa Bay gives him the bona fides in the dugout. But signing Lester and pitcher Jason Hammel — whom the Cubs traded away last year — and acquiring catcher Miguel Montero from the Diamondbacks aren’t necessarily enough to guarantee contention for a team that finished 2014 with a 73–89 record and was outscored by 93 runs.
That’s the reality behind the celebration. Chicago is headed in the right direction, but to herald the arrivals of Maddon and Lester as the final answers to a championship riddle simplifies the Cubs’ plight. There is really only one top-shelf hitter in the lineup — first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who hit .286 with 32 homers and a robust .527 slugging percentage (.913 OPS) last year. Fans may point to the excessive accumulation of talent in the Chicago farm system, and indeed Epstein has been hoarding young studs for future use or as trade bait. Names like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell may not mean a lot to fans in other cities, but Cubs supporters invoke them regularly as evidence of future success. The trouble is that they aren’t ready to be key pieces of a winner yet, and while Rizzo, Montero and shortstop Starlin Castro comprise a solid nucleus, too many of the others on the roster are not championship pieces. Even with Maddon in the dugout, it’s going to take some time.
“I like where we are as an organization,” Epstein says. “It’s nice to have an eye on competing, and we’re going to try to build it the right way and not force it or rush it. We’re mindful of the next offseason, as well as this offseason to find the right fits and the right moves and compete.”
If that doesn’t sound like a man who has job security, nothing does. Perhaps Epstein believes that if a city has waited more than a century for a championship, another few years won’t matter. But he is right that it’s important to build the right way. When quick fixes don’t deliver, a franchise is often left with a collection of underachieving veterans and no young talent on the horizon. By constructing a farm system that has been rated the majors’ best, Epstein has given the Cubs plenty of options. He can wait for the youngsters to blossom, or he can dish them for established stars. More likely, he will create a hybrid of new and old that is capable of winning for a while.
That’s why the Lester signing is so important. Chicago didn’t have to sacrifice any of its key pieces to get the top-of-rotation pitcher it needed. Lester has made at least 31 starts in each of the past seven seasons. Last year, he had a career-best 2.46 ERA with Boston and Oakland, and his 3.58 ERA in a career spent exclusively in the American League would indicate that the Cubs won big by signing Lester.
“This signing really marks a transition of sorts for the Cubs, the start of a period where we are clearly very serious about bringing a World Series to the Cubs and the people of Chicago,” Epstein said at Lester’s introductory press conference. “It’s a great day for our fans. They’ve been so patient with us, incredibly patient, over the past few years, and they truly deserve a pitcher and a person of this caliber to call their own.”
Epstein’s comments about a new chapter demonstrate that it is no longer time for assessing and accumulating potential future stars. This is his fourth year with the Cubs, and despite his praising the fans’ tolerance, it’s unlikely they will remain so docile if the next couple seasons don’t bring real progress. At a time when Pittsburgh can end a 21-year postseason drought with back-to-back playoff appearances, and Kansas City can reach the World Series, fans don’t want to hear too much talk about building, even if the Pirates and Royals did have long journeys to the postseason. There is a feeling that the NL Central is not as formidable as it once was, what with Ryan Braun’s post-suspension drop-off, Cincinnati’s pitching fire sale and St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina’s mortality-proving injury providing evidence that there is room to grow.
Make that win.
When Epstein took over the Cubs, he invited former Chicago pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, the 1984 NL Cy Young Award winner and three-time All-Star, to spring training and asked Sutcliffe to evaluate the team’s pitchers. Epstein probably wasn’t expecting a glowing report, but he couldn’t have been prepared for what he heard.
“I thought he would hit me when I told him the truth,” says Sutcliffe, who is now an ESPN analyst. “I told him that of the 60-some prospects I saw, there might have been three of them who could pitch in the majors.”
Sutcliffe has since seen the Cubs’ farm system develop into one of the best — if not the best — in the business. “I don’t think Theo would trade his farm system for anyone else’s,” Sutcliffe says. But someone has to take that talent and translate it to a successful team on the field. That’s where Maddon comes in. It’s not an understatement to say that he did some remarkable things in Tampa Bay. Five of his nine teams won 90 games or more, and four reached the postseason. And it was all accomplished without big-money stars or collections of proven veteran winners. Tampa Bay would hold on to its young talent as long as it could before free agency and then try to get something for it to avoid paying big money. Trying to win consistently under that constriction is not easy, yet Maddon did it.
“Being able to bring Joe Maddon is way above signing Jon Lester,” Sutcliffe says. “He has a proven ability to evaluate, and someone has to evaluate for the team to evolve. Nobody did it better or quicker than Joe Maddon did it in Tampa Bay.
“He has his five steps of success, and the fifth step is, ‘All I want to do is win.’”
Managers don’t hit or pitch. They don’t field or throw, but they are responsible for everything else on a team. During his time in Tampa, Maddon developed a reputation for knowing how to handle players, individually and as a group. He never showed up his team, and he always appeared — and by all accounts was — in control. Sutcliffe is right that adding Maddon is much bigger than signing Lester. First off, Lester only throws every fifth day. Maddon is in the dugout, clubhouse and office every game — and on off days, too. Secondly, without Maddon, there is no Lester in Chicago.
“When you make a statement like bringing in a Joe Maddon, that just adds to the decision-making,” Lester said about his choice to join the Cubs. “Makes it that much more interesting.”
Plenty of people in the Rays’ orbit groused about Maddon’s departure, since it came during a tiny window of availability. For many people, he was the franchise’s personality, with his northeastern Pennsylvania working-class sensibility, serial unflappability and ability to keep Tampa Bay in contention no matter how elastic his team’s roster was. He is now the Cubs’ face, and the team is elated that he has taken on that responsibility.
“Joe is a combination of just about everything we look for in a manager,” Epstein says. “Everyone associates him with new school, because they’ve used analytics in Tampa, and he’s so open-minded and progressive. But this is an old-school baseball guy with a wealth of knowledge. It’s hard to find that. It’s hard to find old-school and new-school in the same package.”
The Cubs have found that in Maddon. Now, all he has to do is lead the team to a World Series title.
What could be so hard about that?
— Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports
Chris Paul is the president of the NBA Players Association — better known as the union — and LeBron James was recently named the vice president.
But the fearless leader of the organization is undoubtedly 58-year-old lawyer Michele Roberts, who continued to prove herself as a hard-liner in a recent interview with ESPN W’s Kate Fagan. The most telling piece of Fagan’s story was Roberts’ thoughts on media availability.
"Most of the time I go to the locker room, the players are there and there are like eight or nine reporters just standing there, just staring at them," Roberts said to Fagan. "And I think to myself, 'OK, so this is media availability?' If you don't have a f---ing question, leave, because it's an incredible invasion of privacy. It's a tremendous commitment that we've made to the media — are there ways we can tone it down? Of course. It's very dangerous to suggest any limitation on media's access to players, but let's be real about some of this stuff.
"I've asked about a couple of these guys, 'Does he ask you a question?' 'Nah, he just stands there.' And when I go in there to talk to the guys, I see them trying to listen to my conversation, and I don't think that's the point of media availability. If nothing else, I would like to have a rule imposed, 'If you have a question, ask it; if you don't, leave.' Sometimes, they're waiting for the marquee players. I get that, but there is so much standing around."
This one’s a prickly pear. The press has classically been an instrumental part of the NBA product, but revolutions in technology and media have made it increasingly easier for players to reach their fans directly — be it through social media or otherwise. Reporters who used to be essential middlemen are now fighting a difficult battle, in which it’s harder and harder to prove that their place in the locker room results in salient material.
For what it’s worth, I’ve been in a number of NBA locker rooms, a number of times, and yes: it’s awkward. Gigantic men covering themselves with puny towels before and after showers — and before they do their very difficult jobs — are not the best conversationalists, and quote-hungry reporters don’t tend to ask questions that exactly ease the tension of the situation.
Roberts, though, is simply playing a form of hardball that looks likely to be a trend for her in this new role. While the current system of media availability leaves some emotional comfort to be desired, and while it could very well be wise to reform the existing format, there are definitely more important fights to be fought in the name of players — like the probably impending work bargaining in 2017.
— John Wilmes
Fear not baseball fans — Sunshine and warmer weather are on their way, and spring training is knocking on Old Man Winter’s door. Thankfully, it is almost time for baseball, as camps are in full gear in Arizona and Florida.
Many players are getting acclimated to new spring training surroundings, as these past few months proved to be busy for general managers, agents and players alike. Between blockbuster trades and free agents signing robust contracts with new teams, there has been no lack of player movement this offseason.
Lucky for you, Athlon Sports has kept a close watch on the MLB Hot Stove while you’ve been shoveling snow. So get your pencils and scorebooks ready as we list the Five National League Players on New Teams to Watch in 2015.
Max Scherzer, SP, Washington Nationals
It seemed like a foregone conclusion that the 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner was going to test the free agent market this offseason after Scherzer turned down a six-year, $144 million contract offer from Detroit last March. Instead of re-signing with the Tigers and fighting for a fifth straight AL Central division title, Scherzer headed to the National League and Capitol Hill, as he penned a seven-year deal worth approximately $210 million with Washington.
Last season the Nationals were the poplar pick to win the NL pennant, and rest assured they will be even more favored in 2015 with the addition of Scherzer. The Nats’ 2014 rotation was special, but this season has the opportunity to be historic. Manager Matt Williams’ starting five will feature (in some order) Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister, a teammate of Scherzer’s on the Tigers in 2011-13. While some in-season tinkering cannot be ruled out, if this quintet lives up to lofty expectations, it could be a historic season on the mound for the Nationals. And hopefully, it also will produce winning results in October.
With the Braves in full-on rebuilding mode and the Mets and Marlins considered fringe postseason contenders, the NL East is the Nationals’ to lose, and all eyes will be fully fixed on their new $210 million dollar ace.
Matt Kemp, OF, San Diego Padres
Four years ago Matt Kemp was the darling of MLB after he fell one home run short of the elusive 40/40 club and posted a slash line of .324/.399/.586 along with 126 RBIs, 115 runs, 195 hits, 353 total bases, an OPS of .986 and an OPS+ of 172. Sadly, Kemp fell short in the MVP voting to Ryan Braun, who was suspended 65 games in 2013 for his part in the Biogenesis scandal.
What’s even more despairing is that Kemp has never been the same since that 2011 season. Kemp, who is easily one of the most genuine and likable guys in sports today, was robbed of his prime due to constant, nagging injuries. Kemp has yet to top 30 homers, 100 RBIs, or 10 stolen bases since his near-MVP campaign, and baseball has been lesser for it.
In 2014, Kemp had a resurgence. He appeared in 150 games for the Dodgers, hitting .287/.346/.506 with 25 homers, 89 RBIs and 38 doubles. The bat was back for Kemp, but the range and defensive prowess in the outfield and speed on the base paths weren’t the same. The recipient of two Gold Gloves as a center fielder, Kemp spent most of his time manning the corner outfield spots last season, which led to noticeable frustration with manager Don Mattingly.
Kemp is now 30, suffering from arthritis in both hips, and is just one of three brand-new outfielders San Diego acquired in the offseason, along with Wil Myers and Justin Upton. Kemp swears his hips won’t be a nuisance, that he’s happy in his new home, and ready for a full slate in 2015. Kemp and the Padres might be the biggest question marks coming into spring training. Most pundits don't know what to make of new Padres GM A.J. Preller’s extensive roster makeover, but here’s hoping that we witness the next chapter of the Matt Kemp Comeback that began in 2014. Baseball is better when Kemp is at his best.
Wil Myers, OF, San Diego Padres
Speaking of the Padres’ outfield…It’s funny how baseball works itself out. In December 2012 Myers, a third-round draft pick by Kansas City, was shipped to Tampa Bay for pitchers Wade Davis and James Shields. Last season, Shields and Davis helped the Royals reach their first World Series since 1985, while Myers was named the AL Rookie of the Year in 2013 when he hit .293/.354/.478 with 13 homers, 23 doubles and an OPS of .831 in just 88 games for the Rays.
After a disastrous 2014 in which Myers hit just .222 in 87 games due to a broken wrist, the Rays shipped him to San Diego in December in a three-team trade that also involved the Nationals. The funny thing is, Shields also wound up in a Padres uniform after signing a four-year, $75 million free-agent contract a few weeks ago. See, baseball is a funny game.
Myers, like fellow new teammate Matt Kemp, is looking for somewhat of a resurrection on the West Coast. Myers has already been named the starting center fielder by skipper Bud Black, and will find a spot somewhere in the heart of the lineup. Perhaps the opportunity of a fresh start in San Diego will be welcomed by Myers, who was tabbed as a “can’t miss” prospect. However, the increased expectations of the new-look Padres could be a bit cumbersome for a player who just turned 24 in December and has yet to play a full season in the majors.
Jon Lester, SP, Chicago Cubs
As if breaking a 107-year old curse wasn’t stressful enough, tack on the pressure of $155 million over six seasons for a 31-year old pitcher. No big deal, right? Oh, don’t forget the eyes of the entire baseball world are upon Wrigley Field, as some publications are picking the Cubs as a World Series contender. Not to mention Chicago is home to one of the most loyal, obsessed, and passionate fan bases in all of sports. No pressure, Mr. Lester — no pressure at all.
Theo Epstein and the Cubs’ brass, and their rabid fans, are ready to start winning, and start winning now. The signing of one of the most reliable pitchers in baseball over the past decade is proof of this win-now mindset. After three seasons of sub-.500 baseball, prospect collecting, sign-and-trades, and big contract expulsion, the Cubs finally made their power play to sign Lester, the ace they so desperately needed. But there are still too many questions for this team before we anoint them as World Series-bound.
The Cubs know what they’ve got in Lester, a pure professional who has improved with age, who commands the strike zone as well as any pitcher, and delivers 200-plus innings of work.
Lester isn’t the issue. This issue is most of this Cubs lineup is still wildly unproven. Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara, Addison Russell, and Kris Bryant are all fantastic prospects but none of them have a full season of big-league ball on their resumes. Heck, Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are considered cornerstones, but are just 25 and 24 years old, respectively. That is a lot of pressure to put on a team built with kids in their early 20s.
The only way this contract proves to be a winner is if the Cubs win —Duh, right? But if Lester lights up the NL only to see the offense falter, the deal is a wash. If the Cubs’ young lineup lives up to the hype, but it’s Lester who doesn’t deliver over time, the deal will be regarded as too pricey for the results.
The only way this deal works is by winning an NL pennant, which seems plausible. But who are we kidding — it’s the Cubs we’re talking about. No matter the outcome of the 2015 season, the signing of Lester will be the signature of the Epstein regime in Chicago, for better or worse.
Jason Heyward, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
Remember when Heyward homered in his first big league at-bat off of Carlos Zambrano in 2010? Remember how quickly Heyward was anointed as the next big thing? That seems so long ago…
Since 2010, when Heyward finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting, his inaugural batting average of .277 hasn't gotten higher than .271. Heyward’s power numbers are also a thing of the past, not hitting more than 15 homers or driving in 70 runs or more in three of the past four seasons. In his career, Heyward has never slugged over .500.
Maybe it’s time to simply accept that Heyward isn’t the big bat we all thought he might turn into. He did show flashes of what could be in 2012 when he hit 27 homers and drove in 82 runs, but has totaled just 25 homers and 96 RBIs the last two seasons.
The falling numbers and the Braves’ rebuild made Heyward expendable to the new Atlanta brass. After the death of elite prospect Oscar Taveras, the Cardinals needed outfield help, and Hayward became a perfect trade target — great glove with possible offensive upside.
Heyward, a first-round pick in 2007 and two-time Gold Glove winner, will only strengthen what already is one of the NL’s better defensive teams. If Heyward can tap into what worked at the plate in 2010 and ‘12, that would be a much-needed bonus for a Cardinals offense that lacked consistent run-producers a season ago.
Heyward’s glove has never been a question, which begs another question — where does Heyward’s bat fit in this lineup? Lead off? Second? Fifth? Seventh?
Heyward is just 25 years young, yet this will be his sixth season in The Show, so he’s no longer a kid in baseball time. The Cardinals, ripe with experienced veterans, are looking for Heyward to be the player that he was projected to be just a few seasons ago. How will Heyward respond in the baseball-crazed city of St. Louis?
- By Jake Rose
Not since the 1950’s has the NBA seen a team have consecutive MVP campaigns from two different players. Bob Cousy won it for the Boston Celtics in 1957, followed by Bill Russell in 1958.
The Oklahoma City Thunder currently look as close to matching that feat as anyone has since. With reigning MVP Kevin Durant sidelined about half of the year with foot issues, point guard Russell Westbrook has all but put the team on his back with his terrific play.
Westbrook has missed a number of games himself — 14, to be exact — or else he’d be mentioned as frequently as Steph Curry and ex-teammate James Harden in the MVP conversation. Russell’s been one of the very best players around this year — scoring at will, distributing with as much poise as ever, and affecting offenses from all angles with his relentless defensive athleticism.
Only Anthony Davis has a higher player efficiency rating than Westbrook’s 29.25 mark, as No. 0 is also second in the NBA in scoring — behind only Harden — fifth in assists, second in steals and first among fellow point guards in rebounding.
And, as has long been the case, Westbrook’s signature emotional style has keyed his team. The Thunder rally around his ceaseless energy and swagger, and perhaps no superstar can say they do a better job of leading by example in the intensity department.
The missing games and the Thunder’s relatively low .554 winning percentage are the best arguments against Westbrook’s candidacy. But if Durant continues to miss time and OKC keeps up their current pace (they’ve won eight of their last ten) with Westbrook’s excellence at the lead, more heads will start turning.
Whether or not Russell grabs the coveted trophy, though, he’s certainly playing at a level that has the rest of the league on edge as we approach the postseason.
— John Wilmes
The NBA has experienced a lot of bad injury news lately — Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Chris Bosh, Kobe Bryant and Blake Griffin are all out of action at the moment.
But the latest development might be the hardest to swallow. Perennially injured 2011 MVP Derrick Rose has a torn meniscus in his right knee; the same one he tore in November of 2013, causing him to miss all but ten games of the season a year after missing every game due to a torn ACL in his left knee, suffered in the first game of a promising Chicago Bulls postseason run.
There’s no denying it at this point: Rose is a tragic figure. Like Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill and Brandon Roy before him, the 26-year-old Chicago native is chock full of the kind of talent that truly gets fans’ butts moving, but he simply can’t stay healthy for long enough to wield that skill in important moments. The promise of Rose’s scintillating early career has been broken by the cruel hand of fate, and the NBA and its fans are all worse off for it.
Social media experienced an outpouring of sympathy and upset feelings that reached levels of nausea, when the news hit last night. Competitors, allies, and neutral bystanders alike all hate to see this happen, again and again.
The Bulls, in the meantime, haven’t announced a ton about Rose’s status. His surgery will be scheduled, and a timetable for a return will be determined when it is complete. Rose and his team opted for a full repair to the meniscus when he tore it last time, which made a longer career more likely. But, depending on how things look when the doctors dig in, a quicker “clean-up” procedure may be the better option, and may allow Rose to return in time for the playoffs. Stay tuned as this story progresses.
— John Wilmes
A little more than two weeks before Madison Bumgarner strong-armed the Kansas City Royals in Game 7 of the World Series, before he took the ball on two days of rest and refused to give it back till long past sundown, before he carved himself into an October legend and before he beckoned the San Francisco Giants to their third victory parade in five seasons, he stood on a mound on the opposite side of the state of Missouri.
And a disturbing thought crossed his mind.
“This is their inning,” said Bumgarner, as he faced the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLCS. “Regardless of whether I gave them anything to hit or any momentum, I kind of figured they’d feel they had some.”
It was the seventh inning, and although the Cardinals trailed 3–0, they were threatening. The red-clad crowd filled Busch Stadium with noise after Yadier Molina singled on a first-pitch fastball and Jon Jay poked a blooper on a two-strike slider. The Giants had one out, and swollen eardrums, and one very unsettling bit of knowledge: This was when the Cardinals wrecked Clayton Kershaw. Twice.
“I had to tell myself, ‘OK, I’ve got to make a pitch and keep this thing from unraveling,’” Bumgarner said.
He did more than that. He lowered his shoulder while covering first base on Kolten Wong’s grounder, veering in front of the baseline like a stock car driving an opponent into the wall. Wong bounced off him like a spring. Then Bumgarner overpowered Tony Cruz with a high fastball to strand two runners in scoring position.
And he walked off the mound. Something that Kershaw, the greatest pitcher on the planet, couldn’t do. Either time.
“We don’t necessarily put a star by the seventh inning or anything,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “We just know that we stay the course, and we needed someone to come up there and get a big hit for us. And Madison Bumgarner was good today. He kept us from having that big inning.”
That was just one unyielding moment from a postseason of pure brawn and bravado that the modern game had never witnessed before. Bumgarner reached all the way back with that slinging delivery of his and snuffed out one opponent after another.
No matter how far you reached back, you couldn’t find a more dominant October pitching performance in baseball history. Bumgarner threw 52.2 innings over four playoff rounds, the heaviest load ever, and posted a 1.03 ERA.
When the Giants faced elimination in the wild card showdown at Pittsburgh, Bumgarner walked into the black-shirted din of PNC Park and played a funeral dirge. He threw a four-hit shutout and struck out 10.
When the Giants needed an ace to step up against the Cardinals, the team that had just taken a car crusher to Kershaw, Bumgarner zipped through with a pair of victories. Then he dominated the Royals in both his World Series starts, throwing a four-hit shutout in Game 5.
And when the Giants found themselves in dire straits amid baseball’s ultimate winner-take-all game, Bumgarner trotted from the bullpen on two days of rest, commandeered the ball and protected a one-run lead over five shutout innings.
The Giants did something that hadn’t been accomplished in the World Series since 1979: They won a Game 7 on the road.
What Bumgarner did was unmatched, period.
He became the first pitcher in history to record two wins and a save in a single World Series, striking out 17 and walking one while yielding just one run to the Royals over 21 innings. And a five-inning save in the Fall Classic? That was flat-out ridiculous. No pitcher had ever come close to such a feat. Heck, it hadn’t been done in a regular-season game in 12 years.
“At one point I looked at the pitch count and thought to myself, ‘Why are you even worried about it?’” Giants GM Brian Sabean said. “With each inning, he was getting stronger. He was getting more and more into their heads.”
And why wouldn’t he? Just 72 hours earlier, Bumgarner had thrown a four-hit, 117-pitch shutout against them in Game 5 — the first World Series shutout since Josh Beckett in 2003, and the first no-walk Series shutout since Kansas City’s own Bret Saberhagen in 1985.
There was no doubt in manager Bruce Bochy’s mind that Bumgarner would be a factor out of the bullpen in Game 7. He envisioned two innings, maybe three. When Tim Hudson lasted just five outs, though, the plan changed. Jeremy Affeldt, whose 22 consecutive scoreless postseason appearances rank one behind Mariano Rivera for the all-time record, stabilized matters over his 2.1 innings. The Giants scratched out a one-run lead.
Bumgarner was next, and Bochy let him go. On 68 pitches, 50 for strikes, he took them further than anyone thought possible.
“I was thinking maybe if he could get through the eighth, that would be amazing,” Giants catcher Buster Posey said. “But he got stronger. He got locked in. I asked him during that first inning — he wasn’t too crisp — so it’s, ‘Hey, are you OK?’ And he goes ‘(grunt) Yeah, man, I just gotta get loose.’”
Earlier in the series, Royals manager Ned Yost joked that his three-closer bullpen of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland allowed him to turn off his brain in the late innings. With Bumgarner, Bochy could spend the game in a hammock.
That’s what made Bumgarner’s performance so remarkable. In an era of accelerating bullpen specialization, and in a series between two teams that were masterful at shortening a game, Bumgarner kicked it old school. There was no need to play matchups. Bochy had the best percentage play in the ballpark.
“I mean, you have to say, ‘Is there anybody I have to put in this game better than what I’ve got out there?’” Hudson said. “And there ain’t. He’s the best player on the field any time he’s on the mound.”
Said Bumgarner: “You want to finish the game. That is the ultimate goal, to go out and give them innings. I feel like if you throw a lot of innings, all the other stuff will take care of itself.”
It didn’t work out so well for most every other ace in the postseason — especially Kershaw, who let those two leads slip away against the Cardinals and ended up getting hit for 11 runs in 12.2 innings. It was a stunning pair of outcomes for a pitcher who was 21–3 with a 1.77 ERA and would go on to win a unanimous Cy Young Award as well as become the first NL starting pitcher to take home league MVP honors since Bob Gibson in 1968. Bumgarner couldn’t lay claim to being the best left-handed pitcher in his own division, and because the Giants couldn’t catch the Dodgers, they had to sneak into the playoffs.
It didn’t matter. If Bochy’s teams have proved anything over the last five years, it’s that anyone with an October entry stamp can win the prize.
Bumgarner already owned World Series victories over the Texas Rangers (as a 21-year-old rookie) in 2010 and the Detroit Tigers in 2012, when he combined to allow those teams just five hits over 15 shutout innings.
After he accepted his World Series MVP trophy in Kansas City, his career 0.25 ERA in the Fall Classic ranked as the lowest in World Series history for pitchers with a minimum of 25 innings. Bumgarner became the first pitcher to win his first four World Series starts since Lew Burdette in 1957-58.
“In the history of the game there have been some great efforts, guys that have (thrown) three games and things like that,” Bochy said. “But I haven’t seen a better pitcher over the course of this postseason, and it’s been a pretty long one. To do what he’s done is pretty historic, I think.”
And to think — it all could’ve been lost had Bumgarner slipped up once to the last batter he faced. The Giants made an error with two outs in the ninth that allowed Alex Gordon to race all the way to third base representing the tying run. Salvador Perez, who hit a solo home run off Bumgarner in Game 1, stepped to the plate with a chance to win it.
Bumgarner didn’t want to risk bouncing a curveball. He wasn’t going to give in with anything over the plate. He threw high fastballs, one after the other, and the sixth heater resulted in a foul pop for the final out.
You’d never know, as Bumgarner overpowered the final hitter of the 2014 baseball season, that he had thrown a grand total of 270 innings — the most by a Giant in 41 years.
“He just … he did what he wanted with the baseball,” Posey said. “That’s the simplest way I can describe it.”
— Written by Andy Baggarly for Athlon Sports
Rory McIlroy may have history on his mind when he drives up Magnolia Lane in early April, but good luck getting him to verbalize it. Golf’s No. 1 player remains steadfastly in the moment, and while he may indulge in a little private goal-setting, he’s not about to broadcast his specific plans for this year’s majors to the world. Writer Bernie McGuire sat down with Rory in Dubai earlier this year, at the dawn of what could be a historic 2015. This interview appears in the 2015 edition of Athlon Sports Golf Annual; order your copy here.
What are your goals for 2015?
There’s always little goals and it’s always the process goals that are most important. But then it should be obvious what any golfer’s goals are at the start of a New Year: winning tournaments, winning majors.
It’s the little things that you can do in practice and just in everyday life that can maybe help you get to that and be a little bit more consistent and do a couple more things.
Every year, I’m flying here to Dubai, and I do a week of prep or ten days of preparation in Dubai before this tournament, so I will write my goals down on the back of my boarding pass, and I put it in my wallet and I memorize them. But I don’t look at them until the end of the year.
So in my back pocket in my wallet is a boarding pass with my goals for this year. I don’t really want to share them with anyone else. They are just my little goals, and I’ll try and achieve those, and I’ll take that boarding pass out at the end of the year and see how well I’ve done.
With The Masters not that far away, do you feel the excitement building, and are there things you’re working on now thinking ahead to Augusta?
Even with The Masters just a matter of months away now I am trying not even to think too hard given I seem to be asked about it every week.
But then I’m working on everything that will ensure I am prepared for Augusta. I’m just trying to make everything as good as it possibly can be. But I guess maybe there’s a few things that I’m happy with in my game that, say, if Augusta was to roll around next week, I would be happy going there knowing that I’m hitting the ball the way I want to.
So it’s important just to put in some good performances before that and get into contention and feel what it’s like in the heat of the moment, because that’s when you really know how your game is and how it holds up under some pressure.
I will have a few tournaments before heading to Augusta to do that and hopefully I can, and that will really let me know where my game is heading into the first major of the year.
In strokes gained, putting on the PGA Tour you went from 117th in 2013 to 41st last year. What did you do to improve?
I figured something out by myself on the sixth green at Augusta on the Sunday of The Masters. My alignment was a little bit off and I just started doing a couple of things in my routine.
I putt a lot with a mirror that people have probably seen me with on the putting green. I am just trying to put a little more structure around it I guess, and it’s really helped.
I got to the point at The Masters last year where I really was — I just wasn’t comfortable with it and I needed to go in a new direction and started to work a bit on my own again. I actually consulted my good friend, Harry Diamond, and we worked a little bit on it, when I went home for a couple of weeks after The Masters and I’ve just kept with it ever since.
What area of your game are you looking to improve this year then?
Everything I guess. One area of my game that I could probably get better at is my wedge play from 80 to 130 yards because I do leave myself a lot of shots from that distance. And if I’m driving the ball well, I feel like for the most part, I do take advantage, but even if it saves me one or two strokes a tournament where I can just get my wedge play a little sharper, it could make a big difference.
It’s something I’ve been trying to work on a little bit the last few weeks, and you know, as I say, I’m very comfortable with how I’m driving the ball so I’m giving myself plenty of chances.
So it is from that particular distance and it’s being as efficient as I possibly can converting those chances and not being wasteful.
"In my back pocket in my wallet is a boarding pass with my goals for this year written on it. I’ll take that boarding pass out at the end of the year and see how well I’ve done."
Does the thought of a single-season Grand Slam ever cross your mind?
I have not thought of winning the four majors in a single season, so I will have to pass on that one.
Who would you pay to go and watch play golf?
Bubba Watson. You will get a whole golf bag full of excitement and amazement watching Bubba play.
Who would say are your best friends on Tour?
Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler, and I get on really well with Keegan Bradley.
Who would be in your dream foursome?
My dad, Harry Diamond (Rory’s childhood friend) and probably Sean (O’Flaherty), my manager.
Who is the best non-pro you have played alongside?
I’ve played with a lot of celebrities, some great sports people and some great amateurs, but probably the President at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Jimmy Dunne. He’s a great guy, and I was playing there with Tiger in November and we had a great time.
Who would you choose to hole a 10-foot putt for all the cash?
Other than myself? Then Luke Donald.
What is your favorite club in the bag?
My driver. Just simply because of the distance I can drive the ball off the tee and how that club is then so pivotal to every other shot I play at a particular hole when using the driver.
This driver in my bag (the Nike Vapor) is the best driver I’ve had for a long while and I couldn’t be happier with it.
What is a normal workout routine for you?
Sixty minutes in the morning, and with 30 minutes of that working on quads. Though I am watching the clock after 10 minutes, I have to say (smiles). Then around 90 minutes in the gym in the afternoon or early evening.
What is your normal practice routine?
I usually get to the course spending about an hour or so on the range and then it’s the usual procedure like the majority of pros. I might hit a few bunker shots before spending about 20 minutes or so on the practice putting green, so from there I’m ready to go to the first tee.
What impact has Michael Bannon (Rory’s lifelong swing coach) had on your game?
Michael is a pretty good player in his own right, and it’s nice to have chats with him about course management, and if he watches me play a tournament, I’ll talk about, well, I was thinking about playing this shot into this pin but really I should have been playing this shot.
Just little things like that, little tiny, minute details not a lot of people would talk about but that he would pick up on. He knows my game pretty well; he’s been coaching me for 20 years.
So I clearly owe a lot of my success to him, and we work really well together. I’m looking forward to catching up with him in Florida in a couple weeks’ time to prepare for the start of the tournaments over there.
Can you talk about your relationship with Tiger Woods?
We had played alongside each other a few times but I never got the chance to really have an in-depth discussion with Tiger until we were grouped together in the 2012 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and it has evolved since then.
I think we have a lot of things in common. We are huge sports fans and that’s a strong common thread in our friendship.
Since that Abu Dhabi grouping it’s been great for me to get to know Tiger better, and I’ve been fortunate playing alongside him many times since then to pick up a few things and learn a few things.
Tiger was a huge hero of mine when I was growing up, so getting to know him and getting to compete against him has always been a huge dream of mine. So now to spend time hanging around with him, and getting to know him so much better, is something I find pretty cool.
He transformed the image of golf. He made it a younger sport and single-handedly attracted more young people to take up the game of golf.
What is your favourite golf course?
Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland. It is one of the truly great links golf courses. I sort of grew up playing the course.
I was 16 when I contested the North of Ireland Amateur Open, and I shot a course-record 61. I can still virtually remember every shot I played that day. I missed a 6-footer on the first for birdie, so it could have been even better.
That was nearly 10 years ago and while it’s a different course now, as there’s a few new tee boxes, it’s still a fabulous golf course and such a fantastic setting. I just love so much the chance to play the course.
They’ve made the decision the Open Championship is returning to Royal Portrush, and given the reception the 2013 Irish Open received in being staged at the course, it is just going to be amazing to play an Open Championship on one of the greatest links courses in the world.
6. Sacramento Kings
The Kings have done a lot of dumb things. When they fired head coach Mike Malone, replaced him with Ty Corbin, and then excused Corbin in favor of George Karl, it made for five coaches over five years. That’s no way to build momentum around their premier center DeMarcus Cousins, especially when you consider that the team has paired him with an even larger number of starting point guards over that period. Having Cousins — a top-ten talent — on the roster is a great start to something good in northern California, and so was the hire of Karl. But the Kings have a lot to prove before we recognize them as moving in any one direction.
5. Orlando Magic
The Magic have a lot of young, exciting talent in Elfrid Payton, Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris and more. But when they fired coach Jacque Vaughn, it raised questions. Not so much about why Vaughn was fired, but about why the move took so long. The Magic have consistently been one of basketball’s worst teams since Dwight Howard left town in 2012, and there’s been a lack of progress despite the collection of some good, if unseasoned, pieces through the draft. That the exhausting Scott Skiles has been named as a potential replacement for Vaughn in the fall isn’t exactly encouraging, and Magic fans are left wondering if their front office knows how to make anything work.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have one thing on their side: history. They’re one of the most dominant sport organizations in world history, and there’s no shortage of talented young men who grew up with stars in their eyes for Kobe, Shaq, Magic, Kareem and the rest. But with mastermind owner Jerry Buss gone and his kids running the show, many are starting to wonder whether there’s any plan in place for the Lakers that goes beyond “hey, free agents will want to come here.” At some point, general manager Mitch Kupchak has to prove he isn’t merely a pawn of the directionless Jim Buss, and make some moves that point to a brighter future.
3. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets showed some self-awareness at the trade deadline, dealing away JaVale McGee and Arron Afflalo for some more future-oriented goods. They’ve also got one of the best young big men in the game: Jusuf Nurkic. But they’re still a mishmash of okay talent that lacks cohesion, with a head coach who can’t communicate with them in Brian Shaw. Denver has a chance to restart this summer and go all-in on a fire sale — but until they do, what we’re looking at is a team stuck in the mud.
2. New York Knicks
Phil Jackson hasn’t exactly proved his skeptics wrong as the Knicks’ top executive yet. He’s looked out-of-touch in the modern NBA, lacking an understanding of the commodity exchange game that general managers must play to stay competitive. Most of the core he inherited is gone via trade already, and hardly anyone can see what value the zen master got back for his departed roster. Clearing the deck may be of some currently invisible value, as the Knicks’ culture has long been broken, but there’s still no indication that Jackson can build a happy house over the earth he’s scorching, and do it around a possibly declining — and probably overpaid — Carmelo Anthony.
1. Brooklyn Nets
The Nets balked at the trade deadline, failing to unload any of the onerous contracts that have sent them into the NBA’s financial cellar with a team that’s struggling to compete for a low-end playoff spot, in a historically bad Eastern Conference. Brook Lopez, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are all still useful players, but each has been beset with injuries and undue expectations, and none of them seem to be exactly blossoming under old-school head coach Lionel Hollins. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov has shifted his focus from winning, to trying to turn his team back into a profiting one after sinking them into the cellar by giving general manager Billy King too much money and freedom to work with. The Nets are without quality draft picks, elite talent, or optimism.
— John Wilmes
Reigning MVP Kevin Durant is sidelined indefinitely after a minor surgery, done to repair a screw in his foot, which was put there earlier in the season due to a Jones fracture. Durant has missed 29 of the Thunder’s 56 games this season, with his protracted absences being a major reason why they’ve had to claw at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture, after many forecasted them to win conference — or even a championship — in October.
Durant will be re-evaluated in another week, according to ESPN’s Royce Young, but the expectation is that No. 35 will be back to the floor before the regular season is over.
More alarming than the Thunder’s prospects for this season, though, is the state of Durant’s body. The Jones fracture has undone men before K.D., and many believed OKC was rushing their star back to action when Durant returned on December 2. It may seem like a win-now moment for the Thunder after two straight postseason runs spoiled by bad injury luck, but no single-season goal could possibly be as important as the long-term health of one the game’s most gifted scorers ever.
Regardless of how OKC handles Durant’s continued foot issues, though, there’s this to lean on: Teammate Russell Westbrook is having an MVP-like season, leading his team to victories with a 29.24 player efficiency rating that currently ranks second in the league.
And with the new weapons they have in Kanter, Singler and Augustin, K.D. should take his sweet, sweet time as the Thunder look prepared to hold strong to the West’s eighth playoff spot. Their competition for the seed has taken a hit, as the recently reshuffled Phoenix Suns attempt a recalibration at the worst possible time and the New Orleans Pelicans sink without the injured Anthony Davis.
— John Wilmes
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.