Articles By Athlon Sports

All taxonomy terms: Tony Stewart, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/what%E2%80%99s-next-tony-stewart-2015
Body:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

— Written by Lars Anderson for Athlon Sports.

Teaser:
What’s Next For Tony Stewart in 2015?
Post date: Thursday, February 19, 2015 - 13:00
All taxonomy terms: Kevin Harvick, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/kevin-harvick-2015-season-driver-preview
Body:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Fantasy Stall

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

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

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

 

No. 4 Stewart-Hass Racing Chevrolet

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

Owner: Tony Stewart/Gene Haas

Crew Chief: Rodney Childers

Year With Current Team: 2nd

Under Contract Through: 2016

Best Points Finish: 1st (2014)

Hometown: Bakersfield, Calif.

Born: Dec. 8, 1975

 

Career Stats

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

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Fantasy Stall

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

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

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

 

No. 22 Penske Racing Ford

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

Owner: Roger Penske 

Crew Chief: Todd Gordon

Year With Current Team: 3rd

Under Contract Through: 2018 

Best Points Finish: 4th (2014)

Hometown: Middletown, Conn.

Born: May 24, 1990

 

Career Stats

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

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, February 19, 2015 - 10:49
All taxonomy terms: NFL Scouting Combine, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/10-most-athletic-freaks-nfl-combine-history-2015
Body:

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

 

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

 

 

1. Bo Jackson, RB, Auburn – 1986

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

 

2. Tony Mandarich, OT, Michigan State – 1989

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

 

3. Vernon Davis, TE, Maryland – 2006

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

 

4. Mike Mamula, LB, Boston College – 1995

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

 

5. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor – 2012

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

 

6. Chris Johnson, RB, East Carolina – 2008

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

 

7. Deion Sanders, CB, Florida State – 1989

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

 

8. Calvin Johnson, WR, Georgia Tech – 2007

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

 

9. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin – 2011

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

 

10. Vernon Gholston, DE, Ohio State – 2008

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

Teaser:
10 Most Athletic Freaks in NFL Combine History
Post date: Thursday, February 19, 2015 - 10:00
Path: /nba/ranking-nba%E2%80%99s-best-small-forwards
Body:
6. Gordon Hayward

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

 

5. Andre Iguodala

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

 

4. Carmelo Anthony

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

 

3. Kawhi Leonard

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

 

2. Kevin Durant

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

 

1. LeBron James

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

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, February 18, 2015 - 16:55
All taxonomy terms: Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/dale-earnhardt-jr-2015-season-driver-preview
Body:

The driver known to legions of race fans simply as “Junior” turned 40 in 2014, but Earnhardt appeared rejuvenated. With four victories, he doubled his total with Hendrick Motorsports and completed his best season across the board in a decade. Earnhardt drew first blood in the new “win and you’re in” Chase format, capturing the Daytona 500, and he crossed an item off his personal bucket list when he won the fall race at Martinsville.

 

Earnhardt had extra incentive to win races and contend for his first Cup title. Early in 2014, crew chief Steve Letarte announced that he’d be stepping down at season’s end to pursue a career in television. Earnhardt, who credits Letarte with salvaging his Cup career, wanted his longtime partner to go out on a high note.

 

It was a run of bad luck in the Chase that kept the third-generation driver from holding the big trophy, part of a shocking Chase in which all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers — winners of 13 of 36 races in 2014 — failed to make the Final Four at Homestead.

 

Following those results, the organization hopes a new personnel mix will change its luck in 2015. Of course, there will be a new voice in Earnhardt’s head, as Greg Ives steps in for Letarte. Ives, who guided Chase Elliott to the 2014 Nationwide Series title, was the engineer on Jimmie Johnson’s team before teaming with Elliott. He’s a product of the Hendrick system and should fit well with Earnhardt, who excels with a crew chief who keeps him focused on the big picture. Ives, who shadowed Letarte for the better half of 2014, is already well integrated with Earnhardt, a driver who needs time to build confidence in this type of relationship. While Ives is not as much of a cheerleader on top of the box, the hope is that Earnhardt has matured enough in the past few years that he no longer will need his crew chief to motivate him.

 

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

Earnhardt is a good fit in the Hendrick Motorsports stable. He and Jimmie Johnson work well together, and the two like a similar feel in their cars. Hendrick gives them the best equipment money can buy in both chassis and engines. The pit crew, typically strong, will be the only piece of the puzzle that’s a bit untested. Three of Earnhardt’s over-the-wall members, along with car chief Jason Burdett, have moved on post-Letarte.

 

Earnhardt will have new backing this year from Nationwide Insurance, which joins his team for 21 races, replacing the National Guard. Diet Mountain Dew and AMP Energy drink return as well, although the organization is still looking for additional backing. The struggle to fund Earnhardt, a perennial choice by fans as the series’ Most Popular Driver, is puzzling at best, concerning for NASCAR at worst.

 

Here’s the key number for Earnhardt: zero, the number of victories he’s earned for each season he debuts with a new crew chief. Earnhardt should make the Chase, however he likely won’t start jelling perfectly with this new pairing until 2016.

 

Fantasy Stall

Taking advantage  Earnhardt benefited from Hendrick horsepower in his sweep of the Pocono races and up-front runs at Michigan and Indianapolis in 2014. If it appears that his Hendrick team has its usual advantage in the motor department, he’ll be a favorite during the summer portion of  the schedule.

Daytona stealth  His Daytona 500 win was atypical because he led 54 laps en route to the win. It was the only race in his last six Daytona attempts that he led a single lap. His 14th-place finish after averaging a 26.2-place running position in the July race was more like the current iteration of Earnhardt at DIS.

Strong closer  The ends of races tend to work in Earnhardt’s favor. The diligent closer gained 1.9 and 1.1 positions in the final tenth of races in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

 

No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Primary Sponsors: Nationwide Insurance, Diet Mountain Dew/AMP Energy, Kelley Blue Book

Owner: Rick Hendrick

Crew Chief: Greg Ives

Year With Current Team: 8th 

Under Contract Through: 2017

Best Points Finish: 3rd (2003)

Hometown: Kannapolis, N.C.

Born: Oct. 10, 1974

 

Career Stats

YearsStartsWinsTop 5sTop 10sPolesTitlesEarned
1654123127224130$87,814,160

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2015 Season Driver Preview
Post date: Wednesday, February 18, 2015 - 12:00
All taxonomy terms: Jeff Gordon, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/jeff-gordon-2015-season-driver-preview
Body:

Jeff Gordon’s season was lost in a matter of moments — but boy, what a season it was. His four wins were the most he had posted in a single year since his dominant 2007 campaign, and his 10.4 average finish was the best among all drivers in 2014. Gordon, who turned 43 years old in August, looked more like the driver of his youth than he has in nearly a decade.

 

It was a cut tire at Texas that cost Gordon his championship chance, as he rubbed fenders while fighting for the lead. But what made Gordon a contender in the first place was that he was a threat to win almost anywhere. From short tracks to road courses to superspeedways, the No. 24 team was fighting for victories virtually every time they dropped the green. That versatility has been a hallmark of Gordon’s career; he doesn’t have a weakness in terms of racetracks. He has wins on every track he’s visited as a Sprint Cup driver with the lone exception of Kentucky Speedway, which was only added to the schedule four seasons ago. 

 

Throughout his career, Gordon has enjoyed remarkable stability, and nothing has changed for the four-time champion entering 2015. Gordon has driven his entire career for Hendrick Motorsports, an organization with more than 200 Cup wins and 11 championships; it had 31 and 0, respectively, when he joined the fold for 1993.

 

Gordon announced in late January that 2015 would be his last season as a full-time driver behind the wheel of the No. 24 car for Hendrick Motorsports. With this the final 36-race season for Gordon, there's plenty of added pressure for this team to send the Indiana native out as a champion. Chase Elliott will replace Gordon next season as a full-time driver for Hendrick Motorsports.  

 

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

Gordon’s equipment remains a step ahead of the competition with the cash to stay there. Gordon finished every race in 2014, a testament to the durability of his No. 24 cars. Hendrick horsepower is some of the best in the business, and it’s likely that new rules changes will play to the strengths of this organization. Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, is typically the best at finding solutions, and that information will filter down to the Hendrick shops.

 

One area that won’t be a problem is financial backing. Axalta Coating Systems, primary sponsor for 10 races this year, bought out DuPont’s automotive paint division a few years ago. DuPont was Gordon’s first Sprint Cup sponsor, now on the car for 20-plus years. Few drivers have enjoyed that kind of loyalty from a backer. Also returning are AARP’s Drive to End Hunger (13 races), Pepsi (two races), and Panasonic (two races). Rounding out the sponsorship will be 3M, on board for 11 events.

 

Gordon’s team remains intact with crew chief Alan Gustafson calling the shots. Gordon’s pit crew was strong in 2014, and Gustafson knows how to come to the track prepared. In-race, the two work well together; Gustafson is more of a technical guy than a coach, and that fits Gordon, who doesn’t need a cheerleader but rather a crew chief who can take feedback and turn it into performance. 

 

If there’s a question mark for 2015, it’s Gordon’s health. The driver has been plagued by back problems for years, and while he’s driven through them, there have been times when he hasn’t looked like the aggressive, skilled driver who has racked up more than 90 career wins. 

 

Another roadblock for Gordon has been the Chase system, which he has never been able to master. Without these changes to the postseason format, it’s widely speculated that Gordon would have seven Cup titles in hand; he earned the most points under a season-long format in 2004, ’07, and ’14. There are other variables there, but the fact remains that the titles have eluded Gordon under NASCAR’s playoff system. Some might say he’s not aggressive enough; even after Texas, Gordon could have advanced to the Final Four at Phoenix, but he failed to rough up Kevin Harvick down the stretch.

 

Whether or not he wins another championship, Gordon has earned his place as the best of his era. He’ll be worth watching this year for another reason, too. Sitting eight victories shy of 100 career Cup wins, he’d be the first to hit the century mark entirely inside the sport’s modern era. He won’t likely get there this season, but as he approaches triple digits, expect the old fire to ignite. The chances for title No. 5 are running out for Gordon, who knows he can’t let another season like 2014 just slip away.

 

Fantasy Stall

The planets aligned  Gordon averaged a single-digit running position in 25 of 36 races in 2014, up from 15 in 2013. His focus on winning the title and a rules change that catered to drivers with a preference for tight-handling cars played into Gordon’s favor last year. It’s no guarantee that everything will just fall into place for him again this season.

Hendrick horsepower  The summer stretch of the schedule caters to powerful engines, and Gordon benefited from having Hendrick power plants last year, winning at 2.5-mile Indianapolis and two-mile Michigan. He’s a good bet to shine again at these facilities. He averaged a 5.8-place finish at non-restrictor plate tracks two miles or longer.

Plate track problems  His worst track type is the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. He averaged a finish of 20.3 in the point-paying races there last year.

 

No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Primary Sponsors: AARP/Drive To End Hunger, 3M, Axalta, PepsiMax, Panasonic

Owner: Rick Hendrick

Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson

Year With Current Team: 23rd 

Under Contract Through: Lifetime

Best Points Finish: 1st (Four Times)

Hometown: Pittsboro, Ind.

Born: Aug. 4, 1971

 

Career Stats

YearsStartsWinsTop 5sTop 10sPolesTitlesEarned
2376192320454774$144,640,677

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Jeff Gordon 2015 Season Driver Preview
Post date: Wednesday, February 18, 2015 - 12:00
All taxonomy terms: MLB, News
Path: /mlb/15-things-watch-baseball-2015
Body:

Teams have started to report to spring training in Florida and Arizona, which means the 2015 MLB season has officially begun. Opening Day is still six weeks away, but here are 15 storylines to whet your appetite between now and then.

 

1. He’s the Manfred

Baseball hasn’t started a season with a new commissioner since 1993, the spring after Bud Selig took over for the ousted Fay Vincent. Massive changes followed in the next few years: realignment, a strike that wiped out a World Series, wild cards, interleague play and expansion, all while the steroid issue bubbled to the surface. Selig stepped down in January, and his successor, Rob Manfred, seems less inclined to implement radical change to a game that is booming financially. Then again, Manfred has been coy about his plans. After owners elected him as commissioner-elect last August, Manfred would not identify any priorities: “I think probably the single biggest challenge is filling the shoes of the gentleman standing to my right,” he said, referring to Selig. “He’s established a great tradition of unity among the 30 clubs, and I’m going to work very hard to try to maintain that.” In a way, Manfred is right. For all of Selig’s obvious successes, his greatest skills were political, steering a group of owners with competing interests to a common cause while ending with 20 years of labor peace. But fans want to see more than maintenance, and Manfred will need to find ways to speed up a game that is getting ever slower; revive flagging national TV viewership (although local viewership is strong); make the amateur game safer for pitchers and more accessible to low-income athletes; resolve the stadium situations in Oakland and Tampa Bay; negotiate a new collective-bargaining agreement in 2016; and so on. He inherits a healthier industry than Selig did, but the agenda is already full.

 

Athlon Sports' 2015 MLB Preview magazine covers the diamond and circles the bases with enough in-depth preseason analysis, predictions and other information to satisfy fans of the national pastime from the Bronx to the Bay and everywhere in between. Order your copy today!

2. Miami Millions

The Miami Marlins’ megacontract for Giancarlo Stanton (13 years, $325 million) was not even official before folks began wondering how long Stanton would actually stay. Such is the skepticism around the Marlins, who have a history of aggressive spending and equally aggressive dismantling. It’s also a fair question because of Stanton’s opt-out clause after 2020. For now, though, the money will catapult Stanton to a new level of stardom and celebrity, and it will be interesting to see the kind of image he cultivates with that platform. Far more compelling, though, is that vicious Stanton swing, the kind that launches majestic drives over any outfield wall and connects at a higher rate than just about any other slugger. He’s an edge-of-your-seat performer in person, and if you’ve got tickets to a Marlins game, be sure to get there for his batting practice. You won’t regret it.

 

3. Dodgers Brainpower

The Dodgers have proven at least two things since their new owners took over during the 2012 season: They know how to win the National League West, and, boy, can they write checks. They’d like to continue doing the first without doing as much of the second. To that end, they hired two maestros of small-market success — Andrew Friedman, the former general manager of the Rays, and Farhan Zaidi, the assistant to Billy Beane in Oakland. Friedman is the president of baseball operations, Zaidi is the GM, and Josh Byrnes, the former San Diego general manager, is also on board as “senior vice president of baseball operations.” That’s a big group of smart, innovative thinkers with years of experience handling small payrolls. Now that they have much more money, will they stay as disciplined in seeking and exploiting market inefficiencies? What kind of edge will the team gain from their knowledge of statistics? And will Don Mattingly, a manager they did not hire, be on board? As a concept, this sounds promising. But the Dodgers, despite October letdowns, are starting from a high point. So the pressure’s on for the new front office to win big — right away.

 

4. (More) Cuban Imports

Jose Abreu became the latest, and most successful, Cuban defector to hit the majors last season, winning the Rookie of the Year award for the White Sox while leading the majors in slugging. His example helped Rusney Castillo get a $72.5 million contract from the Red Sox in August, and Yasmany Tomas land a $68.5 million pact from the Diamondbacks in December. The secret is out: Cuban sluggers like Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig are a safe buy, and Castillo and Tomas will try to become the latest. Castillo played for the Red Sox in September and, like Tomas, profiles as a slugger with speed who can cover ground in the outfield. But teams and fans won’t really know until we see them more consistently. The contracts are largely based on faith, with teams having few opportunities to see these players in high-level competition before signing them. Someday, one will be a bust. But the air of mystery surrounding them and the possibility of Abreu-like success make Castillo and Tomas especially intriguing to watch.

 

5. How the Astros Handle the Draft

For the first time since 2011, the Houston Astros will not be picking first in the June draft. The Diamondbacks will choose first, but the Astros will be right behind them, as compensation for failing to sign No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken, a high school pitcher, last summer. The Astros will also pick fifth overall, giving them two of the top five selections and a chance at an unprecedented haul of top-end amateur talent. The Astros have passed on Byron Buxton and Kris Bryant at the top of recent drafts — taking Carlos Correa and Mark Appel instead — so their choices will be intriguing no matter what. But this year, they will bear even closer scrutiny by the union, which was furious last summer after the Astros backed out of an agreement with their fifth-round pick, pitcher Jacob Nix, whose bonus amount was tied to Aiken’s. The Astros will have a bountiful pool of bonus money to use on their picks, and the way they allot it will be just as fascinating as the players they select.

 

Related: A Look Back at the 2005 MLB Draft

 

6. Will the Mets Pass the Yankees?

The Mets and the Yankees awoke last Sept. 10 to a strange reality — both teams were exactly five and a half games out of a playoff spot. The story was a source of amusement in New York, another way to make fun of the Mets (do you believe the Yankees are this bad?), and by the end of the year the teams were in their regular roles: the Yankees with a winning record, the Mets a losing record. But neither team made the playoffs, and while the Yankees struggle to break free of their over-the-hill character, the Mets may finally have found the right mix of veterans and prime-age, ascending talent to go with their core of emerging pitchers. The Mets have a streak of six losing seasons in a row (tied with Houston for the majors’ longest), and the Yankees haven’t had a losing season since 1992, so this might be a longshot. But it would be foolish to bet on the Yankees’ older, declining hitters suddenly rediscovering the best versions of themselves, and the Mets can dream on catcher Travis d’Arnaud, first baseman Lucas Duda and Gold Glove center fielder Juan Lagares. Veteran outfielder Michael Cuddyer — David Wright’s childhood friend from Virginia — offers nice value for two years and $21 million, and a rotation led by Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Jacob deGrom, with top prospect Noah Syndergaard nearly ready, could be a legitimate force. The results still have to show it, but for real baseball optimism in New York, Citi Field is now the place to be.

 

7. Montreal Momentum?

For the second year in a row, baseball will hold two exhibition games in Montreal at the end of spring training, this time with games between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Cincinnati Reds. Last year’s games, between the Blue Jays and the Mets, drew more than 96,000 fans and fueled hope that MLB could return to the city that hosted the Expos from 1969-2004. “I think they would be an excellent candidate in the future,” Bud Selig said in July, at his final All-Star game as commissioner. “No question about it.” Of course, there is one overriding question — how will the city build and finance a viable alternative to decrepit Olympic Stadium, where the Expos failed to draw 1 million fans in their final seven seasons? Until that question can be answered, it’s still a fantasy. But the Tampa Bay Rays are suffering from chronically poor attendance, an outmoded stadium and an exodus of talent from the clubhouse and the field. The Rays maintain they have not discussed relocation, but as long as baseball stays at 30 teams, the failure of the Tampa Bay franchise seems like the best hope for Montreal. Former Expos outfielder Warren Cromartie has been arranging a local coalition of politicians and businessmen looking for an opportunity to bring a team back. Again, a lot must take place for this to happen, but the trend lines could be pointing Montreal’s way.

 

8. Back in Action

Though the incidence of the injury mercifully slowed as the summer went along, the torn ulnar collateral ligament was the story of the early 2014 season, claiming Jose Fernandez (left), Matt Moore (right), Jarrod Parker, Kris Medlen, Patrick Corbin, Brandon Beachy, Bronson Arroyo, A.J. Griffin, Ivan Nova, Bruce Rondon and Luke Hochevar. All of them needed Tommy John surgery, like the Mets’ Matt Harvey, who spent the season recovering from his Oct. 2013 procedure. Harvey should be ready to go at the start of spring training, and the others should come along soon after. Major League Baseball formed a task force and a website in November to address the issue, aimed largely at keeping amateur elbows healthy. The results of those efforts, which include formal, coordinated recommendations and several research projects, will take years to see. For now, we are eager for the return of the missing pitchers, especially Harvey and Fernandez, two of the more dynamic young righthanders in the game. This could be a transition year for both, but at least they will be back on the mound, hopefully working back to the form that offered such promise.

 

9. Free Agent Pitchers

It’s impossible to predict who will be traded during the season, but a useful place to start is by looking at the upcoming free agent class. And next winter, barring contract extensions, it will be loaded with starting pitchers, including David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Cliff Lee, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Hisashi Iwakuma, Rick Porcello, Yovani Gallardo, Scott Kazmir and Mat Latos. That’s more than two rotations’ worth of high-quality starters. Some of them may sign new deals before free agency, some may stay with their teams through the end of the season, and some may be traded. All will bear watching to see how their stock changes before their status does, but expect to hear a lot about Cueto, especially. Cueto, the Reds ace who finished as the runner-up for the NL Cy Young, will need a deal larger than that of teammate Homer Bailey, who somehow scored a six-year, $105 million contract before last season. Can the small-market Reds, who also have Joey Votto on an exorbitant contract, really afford another mega-deal? Likewise, while the White Sox acted boldly to trade for Samardzija, who grew up a fan of the team, they’ve never given out a $100 million contract. If Samardzija pitches well and the White Sox struggle, they might have to consider flipping him to a contender. And if Lee proves that his elbow is healthy, the clearly rebuilding Phillies will be eager to move him — though the structure of Lee’s deal (with a $12.5 million buyout for 2016, if a $27.5 million option does not vest) will limit the return they can get.

 

10. Pedro Martinez’s Hall of Fame Speech

When the mood struck Pedro Martinez, the great righthander could be just as entertaining behind a microphone as he was on the pitcher’s mound. He could wax nostalgic, reminiscing about his boyhood under the mango trees in the Dominican Republic. He could turn feisty, challenging Babe Ruth to rise from the grave and grab a bat. He could be creatively conciliatory, calling the Yankees his daddy after another rough game. Martinez showed the depth of his insights on the modern game during TBS’ postseason coverage, and he has always had a deep respect for baseball history. As a new inductee to the Hall of Fame, Martinez will bring his best stuff to Cooperstown for his induction ceremony in late July. Expect richly detailed memories, unfiltered opinion, fanciful wordplay and a whole lot of emotion.

 

11. Broken Hearts in the Desert?

Tony La Russa used most of last season to survey what he had with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who hired the Hall of Famer to oversee their baseball operations after a disastrous start. En route to an MLB-worst 98 losses, La Russa decided to replace general manager Kevin Towers with the ace of his old Oakland teams, Dave Stewart. A rookie manager, Chip Hale, takes over for Kirk Gibson. Now the Diamondbacks have to get real. One of Stewart’s first moves was to trade prospects for Jeremy Hellickson, the former Rookie of the Year for the Rays, who has a 5.00 ERA the last two seasons. La Russa’s former pitching coach, Dave Duncan, works for him in Arizona and turned around Stewart’s career in the mid-1980s. Perhaps he can work his magic on Hellickson and other Diamondbacks, because without some unforeseen surge, it’s hard to picture this team as a contender for 2015. Arizona’s 4.26 staff ERA ranked 14th in the NL, and the offense has little to fear besides Paul Goldschmidt, Cuban free agent Yasmany Tomas (if he’s as good as advertised) and the big-power, on-base-challenged Mark Trumbo. But La Russa and his staff are dedicated to quickly reviving the Diamondbacks. As he told Arizona reporters in November: “I will be absolutely brokenhearted if we don’t have a winning record next year, which is 82–80. … I think the message that we’re careful to send to our fans is that we are not a patient bunch.” La Russa knows more baseball than just about anyone alive, but quick fixes rarely seem to work.

 

12. Royal Revolution, or just a KC Thing?

The Royals insist they were not trying to reinvent the game with their style of play while winning the American League pennant last season. General manager Dayton Moore’s disciplined, single-minded mission to acquire athletic players with speed who excelled on defense was born of necessity. Kauffman Stadium’s outfield has the most square footage of any park in the majors, and the Royals need fielders who can cover it. They also need runners who can take extra bases when balls go in those gaps — and speed, of course, helps on defense and never goes into a slump. Such players are more cost-effective than power hitters, anyway, and they generally offer the added benefit of contact hitting. This is a lost art in baseball, but the Royals do it well, and it drove opponents crazy in the postseason. Kansas City hitters had the majors’ fewest strikeouts in an era when strikeouts rise across baseball every year. Will other teams take notice of the Royals’ success — their lack of empty at-bats — and preach contact? Or will the industry keep desperately pursuing home runs in an era of declining power? Moore isn’t sure. “You can only understand from your own perspective and what you have to do for your team,” he said. “It’s hard to say what someone else should do or how they should build their team. For us, it’s just the way we all set out to do it.”

 

13. The Crowds in Cleveland

On a pillar in the second deck in Cleveland, above right field, is the number 455 and the words, THE FANS. The Indians “retired” that number in 2001 to recognize the 455-game sellout streak that accompanied the team’s recent glory years. It took a unique set of circumstances for that streak to happen — a new downtown ballpark, the departure of the Browns, a boring Cavaliers team and, of course, a winning product on the field. Now, the ballpark is familiar, the Browns are back and the Cavaliers are exciting. But the Indians are winning again — and the fans don’t seem to notice. Only the Rays and the Indians drew average crowds under 20,000 last season. The Indians have been hurt by the changing economy in Cleveland — 20 years ago, there were 100,000 more people who worked downtown — and have embarked on a two-year renovation plan that will eliminate 7,000 seats at Progressive Field, which remains a wonderful place to watch a ballgame. Terry Francona’s team has two of baseball’s best players in outfielder Michael Brantley and AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, who leads an intriguing rotation. The Indians have raised their payroll in recent seasons, won a wild card in 2013 and came close in 2014. If they contend for a third year in a row, will the fans respond? And if not, what more can the team do to entice them?

 

14. Bryce Harper

Baseball got a seven-game World Series to close out the postseason, and in the process found an October icon in Madison Bumgarner of the Giants. But the championship series and World Series were largely devoid of young, marketable superstars with potential to resonate beyond the baseball world. This was not the fault of Bryce Harper, the 22-year-old Washington Nationals outfielder, who seemed poised to break out in a big way. Harper crunched three home runs in the division series against the Giants, showing off the kind of monstrous power that can captivate the casual fan. The Nationals are strong but have not escaped the first round in two trips to the postseason. Likewise, Harper is enormously talented but has not escaped the injury bug in his young career. His high-energy (some would say reckless) style has led to injuries in the field and on the bases, and Harper has no plans to change. In short, he’s the perfect player to dream on: He’s offered us a taste of what he can do, while leaving us eager to see more. And if Harper can lead a Washington team to a World Series title for the first time in 90 years? Then we’ve got a legend in the making.

 

15. Padres Cycle or No-Hitter

This is one of those baseball oddities that defies explanation. How could a franchise exist for 46 seasons and not once, in more than 7,000 games, have a player hit for the cycle or a pitcher throw a no-hitter? It’s happened to the San Diego Padres. Of course, the Padres have not been big winners, with two pennants and no championships in all that time. But they’ve had their share of stars, too, and simply by showing up for all those games, you would think at least one of those feats would have happened. The Padres have had close calls, including a near-cycle last year by Tommy Medica, who missed by a single in May. For the record, there have been 120 no-hitters and 140 cycles since the start of the 1969 season — and because of the lightning-bolt nature of those events, few, if anyone, predicted they would happen before those games began. But just for fun, we’ll keep an eye on Andrew Cashner, the big righthander with overpowering stuff. Cashner struggles to stay healthy; he’s 28 years old but has never made more than 26 starts in a season. Yet he pitched one-hit and two-hit shutouts last year, and once faced the minimum 27 batters in a one-hitter. When he’s on, he’s always got a chance to make history.

 

— Written by Tyler Kepner for Athlon Sports

Teaser:
15 Things to Watch in Baseball in 2015
Post date: Wednesday, February 18, 2015 - 11:30
All taxonomy terms: Carl Edwards, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/carl-edwards-2015-season-driver-preview
Body:

This season, it’s championship or bust for Carl Edwards.

 

That NASCAR’s most natural pitchman has lofty expectations in plain view for 2015 isn’t much of a surprise. Optimism and external motivation are hallmarks of Edwards’ personality.

 

But it is interesting to hear the two-time Chase runner-up talk so candidly about his expectations in 2015 after an offseason of such significant change. Edwards, 35, will drive the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing this season after a decade of driving Fords for Roush Fenway Racing in the Sprint Cup Series.

 

It’s a big move, no doubt, but to Edwards, it’s one that had to happen. The theory is that a new environment, after years of stagnation, gives the driver an automatic boost.

 

“Matt Kenseth’s move, Kevin (Harvick)’s move, Joey (Logano)’s move — when I talked to (Roush Fenway Racing President) Steve Newman and Jack Roush about my decision, those guys were evidence that sometimes change on its own can spur performance,” Edwards says. “I’m hoping that it works that way for me.”

 

That trio’s success could mark a shift in thinking that’s emblematic of NASCAR’s decades-long push for on-track parity — a movement that has pushed every well-funded, competitive team within tight technical parameters and minimal setup diversity. No longer does a crew chief have to find the optimal way to communicate with a driver to maximize performance. The team leader just has to make sure that a team of engineers can appropriately mesh on-car data acquisition with driver feedback, and then he has to hope that the team’s overall approach isn’t lagging behind the competition. If that all goes well, then the driver’s heavy lifting gets a bit easier.

 

Edwards also sees NASCAR’s newest championship format — the revised Chase for the Sprint Cup featuring a regular season, three elimination rounds and a final best-finisher-take-all race — as another hurdle eliminated in the process of reaching the sport’s greenest pasture with a new team.

 

“I don’t have to perfectly mesh with everyone or figure out the race cars right away,” Edwards says. “All I have to do is get a win in the regular season and be at top form at race 36. I’m certain, that as a driver, I can do that.”

 

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The process Edwards speaks of is very similar to how Harvick won the 2014 title. Harvick won twice early in 2014 and ran relatively well for the entire season, but he hit rocky stretches in which mechanical issues, bad luck and pit crew problems knocked him from contention on a seemingly weekly basis. The wins, however, provided his team with the championship eligibility safety net. By race No. 27, the team was firing on all cylinders.

 

But Harvick also had the benefit of an open testing policy that’s been completely shelved in 2015, turning laps in his new No. 4 just weeks after his stint with Richard Childress Racing ended. Edwards’ only time on the track with his new JGR team will come on race weekends, NASCAR-scheduled test sessions and an occasional Goodyear tire test.

 

To make up the difference, Edwards is expecting that the opportunity to work again with Kenseth — they were teammates at RFR from 2004-12 — at JGR will shorten the learning curve. Their reunion may rekindle memories of a time when the two didn’t get along so well — including an awkward post-race incident at Martinsville Speedway in 2007 — but Edwards insists that the relationship has improved. “There were times when we didn’t get along, but that’s ancient history,” Edwards says. “He’s a guy I really look up to.”

 

Edwards will start the season with Darian Grubb as crew chief. There’s irony here as the duo once battled when Grubb led Tony Stewart’s team, winning the 2011 title that Edwards lost on a tiebreaker. Grubb is a strong engineer who will help a new team get off the ground. His chemistry with Edwards is unknown, but keep in mind that he’s got wins with three of the best in the business: Denny Hamlin, Stewart and Jimmie Johnson.

 

Then, there’s owner Joe Gibbs, one of NASCAR’s best, who waited nearly a decade to expand from three teams to four. He wanted the perfect financial combination (in this case, ARRIS and Stanley Tools) paired with the right driver capable of contending immediately. Expectations for the new No. 19 will be high.

 

“To us, to me, that championship is it,” Edwards says. “Anything less and I won’t be satisfied.”

 

Fantasy Stall

Needs some speed  Roush Fenway’s No. 99 car ranked 18th in average green-flag speed, per NASCAR. Joe Gibbs Racing cars should supply Edwards with a jolt in the speed department.

Road course standout  Edwards averaged a third-place finish last year at the road courses and scored his first career road course win at Sonoma.

Still a threat on the quad-ovals  Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte and Atlanta proved comfortable for Edwards during a down 2014 season. The fast intermediates were his best oval track type per average finish (7.5) and saw him close adeptly, gaining 37 positions in the final tenth of races.

Positive regression forthcoming  His 135 laps led in 2014 were his fewest in a season since becoming a full-time Cup Series driver in 2005. It’s doubtful he’ll perform that poorly again, especially in JGR equipment.

 

No. 19 Toyota Joe Gibbs Racing

Primary Sponsors: ARRIS, Stanley

Owner: Joe Gibbs

Crew Chief: Darian Grubb 

Year With Current Team: 1st 

Under Contract Through: 2017

Best Points Finish: 2nd (2008, ’11)

Hometown: Columbia, Mo.

Born: Aug. 15, 1979

 

Career Stats

YearsStartsWinsTop 5sTop 10sPolesTitlesEarned
1137323108187130$73,610,081

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Carl Edwards 2015 Season Driver Preview
Post date: Wednesday, February 18, 2015 - 11:00
Path: /nba/ranking-nba%E2%80%99s-best-shooting-guards
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6. Tyreke Evans

Evans has been doing point guard duty for his New Orleans Pelicans lately, but only because of an injury absence from Jrue Holiday — the two is ‘Reke’s natural spot. The 25-year-old’s vast talents have not been truly unlocked in New Orleans, or with his previous Sacramento Kings squad. But a terrific winter has shown that Evans is a crazy-talented freelancer who’s capable threatening triple-double territory on any given night. Combined with Holiday and Anthony Davis, Evans is in the best situation of his career, and looks poised to spread roundball optimism down south.

 

5. Wesley Matthews

Damian Lillard’s coming-out party over the past two seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers has been a hell of a story. But it wouldn’t be possible without Matthews at his side; the Blazers’ guard is one of the most underrated players around, providing a “three-and-D” combo that’s the envy of front offices across the league. He’s made the third-most three-pointers in the NBA this season, and he stymied James Harden through much of his team’s first round series victory over the Houston Rockets last year. Does his resumé really need anything more?

 

4. Jimmy Butler

The Bulls’ breakout All-Star is one of the most frenetic players in the league. He covers more distance than anyone in the NBA, according to mileage reports, and that bit of data is hardly surprising. Watching Butler, one begins to wonder whether he’s got a clone who secretly subs in for him every few minutes; he affects nearly every Bulls play, on both sides of the ball. He finds alley-oop opportunities, open jumpers, invades passing lanes and runs down scorers with the intensity of a soldier. Does he even sleep? It came as no shock when Floyd Mayweather recently said that the relentless Butler could make an easy transition into boxing.

 

3. Kyle Korver

The Hawks’ historically hot-handed shooter is so good a marksman that he’s rarely appreciated for the all-around player that he is. Korver can’t create shots for himself at a high rate, but there really aren’t any other deficiencies to his game. He’s a crisp passer with an eye for the open man, a firm defender, and a terrific hustle player with more muscle and speed than you think. And at 6’7”, he creates some matchup issues that are going to tie opposing defenses into knots when the Eastern Conference playoffs roll around.

 

2. Klay Thompson

37 points, one quarter. Klay Thompson’s internet-breaking performance isn’t soon to be forgotten, and here’s the thing: it was a representative feat. While Steph Curry’s backcourt partner with the Golden State Warriors can’t shatter record books every night, you always have to guard him like he might. As deadly a shooter as there is, Thompson is also shrewd at recognizing defenses and creating opportunities, and a staunch to defender to boot. If the vaunted Warriors are going to make a real run at a title this season, it’ll be in no small part because of their All-NBA candidate Klay.

 

1. James Harden

James Harden’s defensive embarrassments are a thing of the past, and so is acknowledging him only for his singular facial hair and scoring ability. Harden must now be mentioned among the very best players in the game, as he’s whipped himself into one of the fiercest competitors around. A more willing — and smarter — facilitator than he’s ever been, the 2015 version of Harden is a roving, hyper-intelligent army tank who creates problems on every play with his I.Q. and unparalleled footwork. No team relies as much on one player as the Rockets do on Harden, and they could hardly be making that investment in a better man.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, February 17, 2015 - 16:40
All taxonomy terms: MLB Draft, MLB
Path: /mlb/look-back-2005-mlb-draft
Body:

Take a look at any draft, no matter the sport, and there are going to be some people chosen in the top eight or 10 picks who never make it. In some years, the misses far outweigh the hits.

 

The 2005 MLB version didn’t fit that description. If you’re looking for a prime example of the exception to the draft rule, consider this episode. Six of the first seven and eight of the first 12 players picked became All-Stars. And we’re not talking just a bunch of one-and-dones for the Midsummer Classic. Five of the eight earned multiple berths. And three of the four players who didn’t gain that distinction enjoyed big-league careers. That’s a pretty good winning percentage for those doing the drafting.

 

It had hits elsewhere, but for sheer star power at the top, it’s tough to beat 2005.

 

1. Diamondbacks: Justin Upton, OF

Great Bridge (Va.) HS

’07-12, Arizona; ’13-14, Atlanta

A steady source of outfield power who has hit more than 25 homers in a season four times, Upton had his biggest year in 2011, when he hit .289 with 31 homers. Although he will strike out quite often (100-plus Ks in seven straight seasons), Upton is a big run-producer. Though not the superstar Arizona thought he would be when it drafted him No. 1 overall, Upton has delivered considerably.

All-Star Games: 2

 

2. Royals: Alex Gordon, 3B

University of Nebraska

’07-14, Kansas City

A cornerstone of the Royals’ rebuilding process that culminated in a trip to the 2014 World Series, Gordon is an all-around standout who has won four Gold Gloves and been a productive middle-of-the-order bat for K.C. A two-time All-Star, Gordon began as an infielder but settled in left field. He has hit 20 or more home runs twice and in 2011 led the majors with 51 doubles.

All-Star Games: 2

 

3. Mariners: Jeff Clement, C

USC

’07-08, Seattle; ’10, ’12 Pittsburgh

Clement’s abbreviated career was hampered by injury and poor production, as he managed just a .218 batting average as a part-time catcher, first baseman and DH. He bounced around the minors in between shortened MLB stints and never gained enough traction to become an everyday player. After spending September 2012 with the Pirates, he became a free agent, never reached the majors again and retired before the ’14 season.

All-Star Games: 0

 

4. Nationals: Ryan Zimmerman, 3B

University of Virginia

’05-14, Washington

 A two-time Silver Slugger winner, Zimmerman personifies the Nationals like no other member of the organization. He has been part of the franchise since its move to D.C. and has been a stalwart at third base and in left field. Zimmerman has hit 25 or more homers four times and driven in 100 or more runs twice. In 2009, he hit .292, with 33 homers and 106 RBIs.

All-Star Games: 1

 

5. Brewers: Ryan Braun, 3B

University of Miami

’07-14, Milwaukee

The five-time All-Star and 2011 NL MVP has had a career that has featured triumph and controversy. One of baseball’s most accomplished sluggers, he was also suspended for the final 65 games of the ’13 season for PED use. He won the 2011 MVP award after hitting 33 homers and knocking in 111 runs. He was suspended for the first 50 games of the 2013 season for a positive urine test. He appealed, and the penalty was overturned on a technicality. He was caught again in 2013, and the charges stuck.

All-Star Games: 5

 

6. Blue Jays: Ricky Romero, LHP

Cal State Fullerton

’09-13, Toronto

After a blazing start to his career over the first three seasons, Romero’s fortunes faded, as poor performance and injury removed him from the majors. He won 42 games from ’09-11 and was 15–11 in 2011 with a 2.92 ERA and 178 strikeouts, a performance that earned him an All-Star invite. But he became increasingly ineffective after that and spent 2014 in the minors and on the DL, due to a knee injury.

All-Star Games: 1

 

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7. Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki, SS

Long Beach State

’06-14, Colorado

One of the premier infield talents in the majors, “Tulo” combines the ability to hit for power and average with excellent fielding that has earned him a pair of Gold Gloves. A four-time All-Star, Tulowitzki has topped 30 homers twice and has batted over .300 four times. But injuries have limited his production over the past three years, and he missed a total of 222 games from 2012-14.

All-Star Games: 4

 

8. Devil Rays: Wade Townsend, RHP

Rice

Townsend was drafted by Baltimore in 2004 but couldn’t agree to terms and returned to finish his degree at Rice before entering the draft again in ’05. A rare miss by Tampa Bay, he never climbed higher than AA ball and posted a 7–21 record in five minor league seasons. He was plagued by injury during his time in the minors and underwent Tommy John surgery and a procedure to repair a torn labrum.

All-Star Games: 0

 

9. Mets: Mike Pelfrey, RHP

Wichita State

’06-12, New York Mets; ’13-14, Minnesota

At one point, Pelfrey was considered a linchpin of the Mets’ rotation, and his 15–9 record in 2010 was proof of that. For four seasons, he was a fixture among the team’s starting pitchers, but after a 7–13 performance in 2011, Pelfrey underwent Tommy John surgery and missed almost all of the ’12 campaign. He has spent the past two years with Minnesota, but elbow, groin and shoulder injuries limited him to just five starts last season.

All-Star Games: 0

 

10. Tigers: Cameron Maybin, CF

T.C. Roberson (N.C.) HS

’07, Detroit; ’08-10, Florida; ’11-14, San Diego

With a blend of speed and size, Maybin was considered the perfect outfield prospect. But during his eight years in the majors, he has not delivered on his substantial promise. Maybin has had his moments, like when he stole a total of 66 bases in 2011-12 for the Padres. But his highest batting average for a season has been .264, and he has spent just two campaigns (’11-12) as a full-time outfielder.

All-Star Games: 0

 

11. Pirates: Andrew McCutchen, CF

Fort Meade (Fla.) HS

’09-14, Pittsburgh

The four-time All-Star was voted NL Most Valuable Player in 2013 and has become one of the majors’ top all-around players. McCutchen’s blend of speed, power and the ability to hit for average has made him a catalyst in the Pirates’ recent run to the postseason. McCutchen has hit above .300 for the past three years, and in 2012 he smacked a career-high 31 homers. That year, he also won his first Gold Glove.

All-Star Games: 4

 

12. Reds: Jay Bruce, CF

West Brook (Texas) Senior HS

’08-14, Cincinnati

A two-time All-Star and Silver Slugger winner, Bruce has been a steady power producer for the Reds, hitting at least 20 homers in each of his first six years in the league and at least 30 from 2011-13. A torn meniscus hurt his production in 2014, but Bruce remained a formidable presence in the middle of the Cincinnati lineup. In 2012, Bruce had a slugging percentage of .514, and the next season he drove in a career-high 109 runs.

All-Star Games: 2

 

13. Orioles: Brandon Snyder, C

Westfield (Va.) HS

’10-11, Baltimore; ’12, Texas; ’13, Boston

It took Snyder five years to reach the majors, and he hasn’t been able to find a regular job during the parts of four years he has been on big-league clubs. Snyder has spent time at catcher, first and third but was never a full-time member of a team. He signed a minor league contract with Boston before the 2014 season but never reached the big leagues, instead playing 35 games in AAA and hitting .206 with eight homers.

All-Star Games: 0

 

14. Indians: Trevor Crowe, CF

University of Arizona

’09-11, Cleveland; ’13, Houston

For a while, it looked as if Crowe was headed for a spot in the Cleveland outfield. After making his big-league debut in 2009, he played in 122 games, hitting .251, with 24 doubles. But Crowe lasted in Cleveland for just 15 games the next season and was out of the majors in 2012. He played 60 games for the Astros in 2013 but hit only .218, and after signing a contract with Detroit in 2014 was cut loose in July.

All-Star Games: 0

 

15. White Sox: Lance Broadway, RHP

TCU

’07-09, Chicago White Sox; ’09, New York Mets

After pitching a total of 27 games — with two starts — and compiling a 2–2 record with a 5.24 ERA in three seasons with the White Sox and Mets, Broadway was out of the majors. He made 20 starts for the Blue Jays’ AAA team in 2010 and went 3–11, in the conclusion of his professional pitching career. Broadway has since taken up acting.

All-Star Games: 0

 

16. Marlins: Chris Volstad, RHP

Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) Community HS

’08-11, Florida; ’12, Chicago Cubs; ’13, Colorado

Although Volstad only had one year with a winning record as a starter, he did make 102 starts from ’08-11 with the Marlins and went 12–9 in 2010. He became a free agent after the 2011 campaign and was signed by the Cubs, for whom he went 3–12. Volstad appeared in six games for the Rockies in ’13 but failed to register a decision. He spent the 2013 and ’14 seasons in the minors and had 17 starts in the Korean Baseball Organization.

All-Star Games: 0

 

17. Yankees: C.J. Henry, SS

Putnam City (Okla.) HS

There are those who believe Henry should have stuck with his other sport, basketball, for which he was highly recruited. His brother, Xavier, plays in the NBA, but C.J. never made it to the Show. In fact, he didn’t escape High-A ball. He struggled in the field and at the plate and was out of the minors after 2008. He played in the Frontier League in 2013 but didn’t compete in ’14.

All-Star Games: 0

 

18. Padres: Cesar Carrillo, RHP

University of Miami

’09, San Diego

The total of Carrillo’s MLB experience is three starts for the Padres in 2009 — a 1–2 record with a ghastly 13.60 ERA and 16 hits allowed in 10.1 innings pitched. He has spent 10 years in the minors, the last two in independent ball. He was implicated in the Biogenesis scandal in 2012 and was suspended for 100 games. Though Arizona signed him to a contract in early 2014, he couldn’t hang with the team.

All-Star Games: 0

 

19. Rangers: John Mayberry Jr., RF

Stanford

’09-14, Philadelphia; ’14, Toronto

Son and namesake of the former Royals slugger, Mayberry never displayed the necessary consistency to warrant a full-time starting position. Mayberry spent five-plus seasons with the Phillies as a reserve, going on occasional short binges that would tantalize before reverting to his inconsistent form. He hit 15 homers in 2011 and 14 in ’12 but wasn’t able to drive the ball on a regular basis. Philadelphia traded him to the Jays in a waiver deal on Aug. 31, 2014.

All-Star Games: 0

 

20. Cubs: Mark Pawelek, LHP

Springville (Utah) HS

The lefty never climbed higher than High-A ball during his five years with MLB organizations and topped out at three wins during that time. His final season was 2010, when he made three starts for Gateway of the Frontier League. In 2013, he pitched for Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic.

All-Star Games: 0

 

21. A’s: Cliff Pennington, SS

Texas A&M

’08-12, Oakland; ’13-14, Arizona

Pennington spent most of three years (’10-12) as the A’s regular shortstop and hit a career-high .264 with 26 doubles in 2011. He was traded to Arizona following the ’12 campaign, after losing his starting job and has been a reserve middle infielder for the D-backs the last two seasons.

All-Star Games: 0

 

22. Marlins: Aaron Thompson, LHP

Second Baptist (Texas) School

’11, Pittsburgh; ’14, Minnesota

Thompson had a strong beginning to his professional career and was named a South Atlantic League All-Star at one point, but his pitching record during five years in the Marlins’ system was 22–34. He pitched in four games for the Pirates in 2011, making one start, and threw seven times for the Twins last year with a 2.45 ERA and six strikeouts in 7.1 innings pitched.

All-Star Games: 0

 

23. Red Sox: Jacoby Ellsbury, CF

Oregon State

’07-13, Boston; ’14, N.Y. Yankees

A strong all-around player with good speed, a quick bat and excellent glove, Ellsbury is a former All-Star who can create trouble for opposing teams with his bat and on the basepaths. He has led the AL in steals three times, including a career-high 70 in ’09. In 2011, Ellsbury was the runner-up in the MVP voting, thanks to a .321 average, 32 homers and 105 RBIs. After the 2013 season, he signed a seven-year, $153 million deal with the Yankees.

All-Star Games: 1

 

24. Astros: Brian Bogusevic, LHP

Tulane

‘10-12, Houston; ’13 Chicago Cubs

Although Bogusevic was drafted as a pitcher and spent three-plus years in Houston’s system as a hurler, he was converted to the outfield in ’08. He hit .287 with the Astros as a part-time outfielder in 2011 and was a starter in ’12 but hit only .203. After spending part of 2013 with the Cubs, he was in the minors for all of ’14 and signed a minor league deal with the Phillies after the season.

All-Star Games: 0

 

25. Twins: Matt Garza, RHP

Fresno State

’06-07, Minnesota; ’08-10, Tampa Bay; ’11-13, Chicago Cubs; ’13, Texas;  ’14, Milwaukee

A starting pitcher who has posted a 75–75 record during his big-league career, Garza bounced among four teams before signing a four-year, $50 million deal with the Brewers before the ’14 season. Garza’s finest season came in 2010, when he went 15–10 with a 3.91 ERA for Tampa Bay. Garza struck out 197 hitters in 2011 with the Cubs and has twice logged more than 200 innings in a season.

All-Star Games: 0

 

26. Red Sox: Craig Hansen, RHP

St. John’s

’05-06, ’08 Boston; ’08, ’08-09, Pittsburgh

Although Hansen had a stretch with the Red Sox during which he appeared in 70 games during parts of two seasons, he never became a reliable reliever, and his career was waylaid by sleep apnea and a weakening of the arm that ended his time in professional baseball. In four seasons, Hansen posted three saves and had an ERA of 6.34.

All-Star Games: 0

 

27. Braves: Joey Devine, RHP

NC State

’05-07, Atlanta; ’08, ’11, Oakland

If Devine had not had to endure two Tommy John surgeries, he might have become one of the majors’ top relievers. But he missed 2009 and ’10, and after a solid 2011, had to go under the knife again.

All-Star Games: 0

 

28. Cardinals: Colby Rasmus, CF

Russell County (Ala.) HS

’09-11, St. Louis; ’11-14, Toronto

Rasmus has been a steady outfield producer for the Cards and Jays, although he has never had a breakout season. After a lackluster 2014 (.225 average, 18 HR, 40 RBI), Rasmus became a free agent.

All-Star Games: 0

 

29. Marlins: Jacob Marceaux, RHP

McNeese State

In six professional seasons, Marceaux never reached the majors. He rose as high as AA ball, and in 2008 was 4–1 as a reliever with the Marlins’ Carolina affiliate. Marceaux began as a starter but couldn’t develop consistency.

All-Star Games: 0

 

30. Cardinals: Tyler Greene, SS

Georgia Tech

’09-12, St. Louis; ’12, Houston; ’13, Chicago White Sox

A utility infielder who saw action with three teams over five seasons, Greene never became a consistent starter. His greatest activity came in 2012, when he played 77 games with the Cardinals.

All-Star Games: 0

 

Other Notable Selections

 

Luke Hochevar, RHP

Dodgers (Round 1 – Supplemental) • University of Tennessee

Hochevar didn’t sign with the Dodgers, spending a year in an independent league. He was then taken No. 1 overall the following season by Kansas City.

 

Clay Buchholz, RHP

Red Sox (Round 1 – Supplemental) • Angelina (Texas) College

A two-time All-Star, Buchholz has become a fixture on the Red Sox starting staff, amassing a 66–44 record in eight seasons.

 

Jed Lowrie, 2B

Red Sox (Round 1 – Supplemental) • Stanford

After spending five seasons as a part-timer with Boston and Houston, Lowrie spent 2013-14 starting for Oakland and hit .290 in 2013. He signed a three-year deal with the Astros in December.

 

Chase Headley, 3B/OF

Padres (Round 2) • University of Tennessee

Headley hasn’t been a star throughout his nine years with San Diego and the Yankees, but in 2012, he won a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger and led the NL with 115 RBIs. He signed a four-year deal with the Yankees in the offseason.

 

Yunel Escobar, SS

Braves (Round 2) • Martires de Barbodos (Cuba) HS

Escobar has not earned an All-Star berth during his time with Atlanta, Toronto and Tampa Bay, but he has been steady in the field and reliable at the plate.

 

Brett Gardner, OF

Yankees (Round 3) • College of Charleston

Gardner has been a fixture in the New York outfield for the past five years. He led the AL in steals (49) in 2011 and in triples (10) in ’13.

 

Jeremy Hellickson, RHP

Devil Rays (Round 4) • Hoover (IA) HS

Although Hellickson was laid low by elbow surgery before the 2014 season, he had been a big part of the Tampa Bay rotation from 2011-13, when he won 35 games. He was traded to Arizona after the ’14 campaign.

 

Marco Estrada, RHP

Nationals (Round 6) • Long Beach State

Estrada bounced between the starting rotation and the bullpen during his seven seasons with the Nats and Brewers. The hard thrower was dealt to Toronto in the offseason.

 

Michael Brantley, OF

Brewers (Round 7) • Central (Fla.) HS

In his sixth big-league season, Brantley had his best year, posting 20 home runs, 97 RBIs and a .327 batting average for Cleveland, a performance that earned him an All-Star berth and a third-place finish in the American League MVP voting.

 

Will Venable, OF

Padres (Round 7) • Princeton

Venable has demonstrated the ability to play all three outfield positions during his seven years with San Diego, including the last five as a starter. In 2013, he slugged 22 homers.

 

Austin Jackson, CF

Yankees (Round 8) • Billy Ryan (Texas) HS

Jackson has led the AL in triples twice during his five years in the big leagues and has played well in the field. The runner-up in the 2010 Rookie of the Year balloting, Jackson was traded by Detroit to Seattle during the 2014 season.

 

Logan Morrison, LF/1B

Marlins (Round 22) • Northshore (La.) HS

Morrison has proven to be a valuable outfielder and first baseman, first for the Marlins, for whom he hit 23 homers in 2011, and most recently for Seattle.

 

Tommy Hanson, RHP

Braves (Round 22) • Riverside (Calif.) Community College

From 2009-12, Hanson was a solid contributor to the Braves’ rotation, winning a total of 45 games. But injuries have detoured him and limited his MLB starts to 13 over the past two years.

 

Jaime Garcia, LHP

Cardinals (Round 22) • Sharyland (Texas) HS

During his first two full years in the majors, Garcia looked like a potential ace and won 26 games. Since then, shoulder problems have limited him greatly and cast doubt over his future.

 

Sergio Romo, RHP

Giants (Round 28) • Colorado Mesa University

Romo has become a valuable part of the Giants’ success and is one of the top closers in the majors. In 2013, he earned an All-Star berth on the way to 38 saves.

 

— Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports

Teaser:
A Look Back at the 2005 MLB Draft
Post date: Tuesday, February 17, 2015 - 14:15
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/matt-kenseth-2015-season-driver-preview
Body:

Predicting where Matt Kenseth will end up at the end of this season isn’t easy after the results he’s turned in during the past two years. But there is good news buried inside that confusion: Even if Kenseth replicates the worst of his first two seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, he’ll be a top-10 driver.

 

Kenseth, of course, was simply golden during his first run with JGR in 2013. He won a series- and career-high seven times and pushed Jimmie Johnson harder than any other driver.

 

But last season proved to be far different. Kenseth was largely as consistent as ever, recording the same number of lead-lap finishes (30) as the previous year while increasing his top-5 and top-10 results. However, in the stat that counts — visits to Victory Lane — he put up a surprising goose egg. Kenseth qualified for the postseason through points, a product of his consistency, and actually remained eligible for the title through the third round.

 

For a time, it even looked like he could become the sport’s first winless champion. When it didn’t happen, Kenseth was realistic, recognizing the lack of speed that hampered him.

 

“In 2013, we were exceptionally fast at most race tracks,” Kenseth says. “Between the (2014) aero changes and getting the cars down and all that stuff, we just didn’t seem to have a handle on it the way we did the year before. Our balance was just way off, and we never really did get it fixed the way we wanted to.”

 

Interestingly, Kenseth wasn’t too surprised at how he and his JGR teammates performed. In testing before the 2014 season, the JGR Toyotas never had the same handling comfort — and thus the speed — as they had with the 2013 rules package. It’s a deficit from which they never recovered. That’s changed for this season, Kenseth said after test sessions revealed major improvement based on 2015 rules.

 

“I feel the best about the aero changes, getting the downforce off the cars,” Kenseth says. “Hopefully that will make it a little bit easier to pass in traffic and the cars a little more free. I’m hoping that will help.”

 

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

Among the tweaks this year are decreased rear spoiler heights, a reduced-horsepower engine and a new set of in-car suspension adjustment tools for the driver’s use. Should Kenseth adapt well, expect it to make a substantial difference in how well he and the rest of the JGR stable perform. Despite teammate Denny Hamlin earning a spot in the final race to determine the champion, JGR teams won only twice in Sprint Cup — and one of those wins came on the restrictor-plate track at Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR’s ultimate equalizer.

 

In Kenseth’s favor is the addition of Carl Edwards, Kenseth’s former Roush Fenway Racing teammate, to the JGR lineup as the multi-car operation expands from three to four teams. Kenseth and Edwards had a positive working relationship at RFR prior to Kenseth’s departure for JGR in 2013. Edwards also brings in substantial new sponsorship, allowing JGR to hire more engineers and shop staff while dedicating more resources to research and development. An influx of funding from Kenseth’s main backer, Dollar General, and the addition of old partner DeWalt give the team more funding even with the departure of longtime JGR supporter Home Depot.

 

The organization is also undergoing a hefty transition of several key staff members thanks to the addition of Edwards and the disappointment of 2014 — though Kenseth’s main point of contact, crew chief Jason Ratcliff, won’t change. This season, Edwards will work with Darian Grubb, who moved over from Denny Hamlin’s team. Grubb was replaced in that role over at the No. 11 Toyota by Kyle Busch’s former crew chief, Dave Rogers. That leaves Busch with Adam Stevens, promoted from the JGR XFINITY Series teams, on his pit box going forward. Expect the changes to boost performance.

 

Kenseth, 43, will start his 545th Sprint Cup race and 16th consecutive full-time season at NASCAR’s highest level when the green flag drops on the 2015 Daytona 500. Having made 10 of 11 Chases, a record topped only by Jimmie Johnson, there’s no reason to believe the consistency will stop.

 

“I really feel more confident about (2015) than I did last year at this time,” Kenseth says.

 

With changes made and plans for improvement over a moderately successful run a year ago, it’s not hard to understand why.

 

Fantasy Stall

No wins? No problem  Kenseth’s fall from seven wins in 2013 to zero in 2014 had more to do with speed than skill. His No. 20 car dropped from second to seventh in average green-flag speed rank. If JGR regains speed in 2015, look for Kenseth to take advantage.

Expect excellence  The one- to 1.49-mile tracks, such as Phoenix, Dover and Darlington, are welcome sites for the veteran, who averaged a 7.4-place finish in seven races at tracks that fall in that mileage range last year.

Seal the deal  Kenseth gained 37 positions in the final 10th of races last year. His closing acumen was amplified in the daylight, where he gained 46 positions across 25 races in daytime hours.

A top-10 fixture  In what many felt was a down season after a career year, Kenseth scored two more top-10 finishes — 22 in all, up from 20 — in 2014.

 

No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Primary Sponsors: Dollar General, DeWalt

Owner: Joe Gibbs

Crew Chief: Jason Ratcliff

Year With Current Team: 3rd 

Under Contract Through: 2016

Best Points Finish: 1st (2003)

Hometown: Cambridge, Wis.

Born: March 10, 1972

 

Career Stats

YearsStartsWinsTop 5sTop 10sPolesTitlesEarned
1754431151270131$105,899,162

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Matt Kenseth 2015 Season Driver Preview
Post date: Tuesday, February 17, 2015 - 12:00
All taxonomy terms: Kyle Busch, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/kyle-busch-2015-season-driver-preview
Body:

Kyle Busch demands perfection from the racecar and has no qualms about ratcheting up the pressure on his crew chief to make that happen. It’s understandable that Busch has a periodic revolving door of team leaders, a merry-go-round that resulted in the move of former crew chief Dave Rogers to Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 team for this year.

 

The two were at odds for much of the Chase, which is surprising, because that’s when Busch snapped it together after a summer slump that endangered his playoff bid. Outside of a Talladega wreck, you could argue that the 2014 Chase was Busch’s best in terms of consistency. Busch won once last year and finished 10th in points, impressive considering he was 17th — with four DNFs — heading into the Chase.

 

Busch, who’s been vocal about the changes for 2015, insists that his relationship with Rogers was just fine, thank you. Any public back-and-forths between the two were a case of two parties demanding nothing less than perfection.

 

Internal sources claim differently, although Rogers’ move in the offseason was part of a larger shift of employees at JGR, both across series and across teams. When the music stopped, it was Busch’s XFINITY (formerly Nationwide) Series crew chief Adam Stevens who landed on Busch’s Sprint Cup team for this year.

 

Stevens wasn’t necessarily Busch’s first pick. “There was definitely a wish list on my end, and there was definitely a ‘Hey, you’re getting Adam Stevens’ on their end,” Busch says. “I went and did some of my due diligence, talked to a few of the guys that I had on my list. I got a good response from that, but at the end of the day it just all came down to bringing Adam up.”

 

Busch sees Stevens’ transition from managing an XFINITY Series team to a Cup program as a challenge. “For Adam, just going from the (XFINITY) level to the Cup level, you’re working with probably 40 people in the (XFINITY) shop and with 400 in the Cup shop,” Busch says. “It’s a lot more people, a lot more things on your plate, and I’m sure you can get overwhelmed quite quickly.”

 

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

Should Stevens manage the transition, the organization has high hopes. Since pairing up at the start of the 2013 season, he and Busch have 19 XFINITY victories in 52 starts, winning at an unthinkable 36.5 percent clip. Even a sliver of that success puts Busch on better footing in Cup, where he’s struggled by comparison. 

 

Stevens is making the transition to Cup just as JGR is undergoing an expansion to four teams with the addition of Carl Edwards. This move has Busch enthused, as he felt for much of 2014 that the lack of a satellite program, like Hendrick Motorsports has with Stewart-Haas Racing, left his organization with a big disadvantage in terms of resources.

 

“Having Carl on board is going to be great for the team. He’s obviously gotten results in years past,” Busch says. “Having a bunch of new people at JGR and getting the engineering department all ramped up with more people. … It’s just going to make us a stronger team.”

 

Busch says any jumps in performance won’t come from the new rules package that cut downforce and reduce horsepower. It’ll make the Cup cars handle more like their XFINITY series counterparts. “It’s just a baby step. I don’t think it’s markedly different,” he explains. “You’re going to see some speeds slow down from the track records maybe, but it’s just going to be about trying to see what balance is going to be like with the horsepower to drag and everything else.”

 

Differing from the majority, Busch claims that the JGR problems are in-house, related simply to getting the cars to turn better. But having the cars in Cup handle more like those in the second-tier series may be a step in favor of Busch’s on-track handling preference. He’s become a regular dominator of the XFINITY Series in recent seasons — which brings things back full-circle to the Stevens promotion.

 

“The relationship we’ve had over the last year has gone really well,” Busch says. “We’ve won lots of races and we’ve been competitive. That level at the (XFINITY) level is obviously a lot less than what it is at the Sprint Cup level, but I still think he’s got a good repertoire within the shop and his guys. When you can have all of that, then there’s no better thing than to try and move that guy up.”

 

It’s a mixed message coming from Busch, who seems torn on all the changes. But replicating any XFINITY success on the Sprint Cup level would mean very positive things for Busch come November.

 

Fantasy Stall

The car didn’t fit him It’d be tough to find a driver who desires a car with a looser handling condition than Busch, who was stymied by the tight-skewing rules package of 2014. It affected his laps led; the 453 he led for the season was his lowest total since his rookie year in 2005.

Gotta love those quad-ovals  Busch averaged an eighth-place finish on the quad-oval intermediates of Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte and Atlanta in 2014.

The spring Richmond race In the last eight spring races at Richmond, Busch won four times, led 613 laps and averaged a finish of 4.4. His last eight fall races at Richmond? Zero wins, 53 laps led and an average finish of 12.1. Perhaps he just prefers Virginia in the springtime?

Crew chief help  Busch’s crew chief fed him 57 positions across green-flag pit cycles at all oval tracks, save for Daytona and Talladega.

 

No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Primary Sponsors: M&M’s, Interstate Batteries, Doublemint Gum, Snickers

Owner: Joe Gibbs

Crew Chief: Adam Stevens

Year With Current Team: 8th 

Under Contract Through: 2017

Best Points Finish: 4th (2013)

Hometown: Las Vegas, Nev.

Born: May 2, 1985

 

Career Stats

YearsStartsWinsTop 5sTop 10s PolesTitlesEarned
1136529118178160$69,281,569

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Kyle Busch 2015 Season Driver Preview
Post date: Tuesday, February 17, 2015 - 11:00
All taxonomy terms: MLB Draft, MLB
Path: /mlb/top-25-high-school-prospects-2015-mlb-draft
Body:

The 2015 MLB Draft isn't until June 8-10, but it's never too early to take a look at the next potential crop of impact players. When it comes to making the leap from high school to a top prospect in the minor leagues, look no further than the reigning MVPs in each league. Clayton Kershaw out of Highland Park (Texas) High School was the No. 7 overall pick in 2006, while Mike Trout from Millville Senior (N.J.) was taken with the 25th overall selection in 2009. Obviously, those two first-round picks have worked out well for the Dodgers and Angels, but what about this year's high school class? Are there any Kershaws or Trouts in this group? Only time will tell.

 

Related: Top 25 College Prospects for 2015 MLB Draft

 

Athlon Sports' 2015 MLB Preview magazine covers the diamond and circles the bases with enough in-depth preseason analysis, predictions and other information to satisfy fans of the national pastime from the Bronx to the Bay and everywhere in between. Order your copy today!

1. Brendan Rodgers, SS, Lake Mary (Fla.) HS

Rodgers, a Florida State commit, has an advanced bat with a chance to hit for average and power while sticking at shortstop.

 

2. Kolby Allard, LHP, San Clemente (Calif.) HS

Last year’s high school class featured countless players with plus fastballs. Allard fits right with that group, with an easy 91-94 mph fastball and a solid breaking ball.

 

3. Justin Hooper, LHP, De La Salle HS, Concord, Calif.

A massive (6'7") lefty with massive stuff, Hooper has one of the best fastballs in the class as he’ll touch 95-97 mph at his best.

 

4. Trenton Clark, OF, Richland HS, N. Richland Hills, Texas

Speedy outfielder who is among the fastest players in the class and shows an advanced understanding of how to put the bat on the ball and get on base.

 

5. Daz Cameron, OF, Eagles Landing Christian Academy, McDonough, Ga.

Son of long-time big league outfielder Mike Cameron, Daz is also a smooth center fielder with excellent bat speed and the speed to create havoc when he gets on base.

 

6. Nick Plummer, OF, Brother Rice HS, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

If you’re a hitter from a northern state, you better play well on the summer showcase circuit as you won’t face the same competition during the high school season. Plummer positioned himself well with an excellent summer.

 

7. Chris Betts, C, Woodrow Wilson HS, Long Beach, Calif.

One of the better power bats in the draft class, Betts has shown significant improvement behind the plate. He became more and more polished as a receiver throughout the summer.

 

8. Ashe Russell, RHP, Cathedral HS, Indianapolis

Russell, a Texas A&M signee, is one of the pitchers batters hate to face, especially with a wood bat, as his ability to make the ball run in on batters breaks bats.

 

9. Mike Nikorak, RHP, Stroudsburg (Pa.) HS

Nikorak has been one of the hardest throwers in this class, topping out at 96 mph at the Perfect Game National showcase.

 

10. Garrett Whitley, OF, Niskayuna (N.Y.) HS

A speedy outfielder with excellent range and instincts in center field, Whitley impressed throughout the summer, showing more advanced instincts than expected for a prospect from the Northeast.

 

11. Demi Orimoliye, OF, St. Matthew HS, Orleans, Ont.

Orimoliye intrigues scouts now, but they are even more excited about what he could be with further polish. The big (6'4", 225) outfielder has power and speed.

 

12. Beau Burrows, RHP, Weatherford (Texas) HS

Burrows has the makings of three quality pitches with a 90-95 mph fastball, a quality changeup that has late movement and a 12-to-6 curveball.

 

13. Kyle Tucker, OF,  Plant HS, Tampa, Fla.

The younger brother of Astros outfield prospect Preston Tucker, Kyle is one of the more well-rounded prospects in this year’s class. Has good speed and strength.

 

14. Austin Smith, RHP, Park Vista Community HS, Lake Worth, Fla.

Another potential power pitcher with size, Smith throws a heavy 88-93 mph fastball that he works down in the zone to generate ground balls.

 

15. Cornelius Randolph, SS,  Griffin (Ga.) HS

Randolph may end up moving to second or third base because of his thick lower half, but he is a left-handed hitting infielder with a chance to hit for average and power.

 

16. Juan Hillman, LHP, Olympia HS, Orlando, Fla.

The school that has produced first-rounders Jesse Winker and Nick Gordon in recent years could get another first-rounder in 2015.

 

17. Donny Everett, RHP, Clarksville (Tenn.) HS

Clarksville doesn’t produce a whole lot of baseball players — the last player from Clarksville High School to be drafted was back in 1967. Everett, a Vanderbilt commitment, should change that, as he throws strikes with a 90-94 mph fastball.

 

18. Triston McKenzie, RHP, Royal Palm Beach (Fla.) HS

A long and lean (6'5", 160) Vanderbilt commitment, McKenzie gets swinging strikes thanks to his lively low-90s fastball.

 

19. Chandler Day, RHP, Watkins HS, Pataskala, Ohio

The 6'4", 167-pound Day is a skinny righthander with lots of projection ahead of him, but he has present stuff with an easy 91-93 mph fastball. Also committed to Vanderbilt.

 

20. Cole McKay, RHP, Smithson Valley HS, Spring Branch, Texas

McKay has shown a 92-94 mph fastball with good riding life to run in on right-handed hitters. The LSU commit has mixed in a curveball and changeup with impressive potential.

 

21. Alonzo Jones, 2B/OF, Columbus (Ga.) HS

Jones is one of the fastest players among this year’s high school class, but he’s not just a speedster —he’s thickly built with some strength to go with that blazing speed. Jones is also committed to play at Vanderbilt.

 

22. Kyler Murray, SS/OF, Allen (Texas) HS

Murray is one of the best athletes and best prospects in this year’s draft class, but scouts aren’t even sure he’ll keep playing baseball after high school. He’s also one of the top quarterback prospects in the country and has signed to play at Texas A&M.

 

23. Kyle Molnar, RHP, Aliso Niguel HS, Aliso Viejo, Calif.

An athletic pitcher who works to both sides of the plate with a 91-93 mph fastball and a quality breaking ball and changeup, Molnar is one of the more polished pitchers in the class.

 

24. Dakota Chalmers, RHP, ­Lakeview Academy, Gainesville, Ga.

Chalmers, a University of Georgia signee, has stuff that got better as the summer heated up. By October, Chalmers was sitting at 91-93 mph while showing excellent control.

 

25. Luken Baker, 1b/RHP,  Oak Ridge HS, Conroe, Texas

Better known as a pitcher despite his plus power at first, the big and thick Baker gets lots of ground balls with a 90-95 mph fastball with plenty of sink. He’s committed to TCU.

 

— Written by Baseball America's J.J. Cooper for Athlon Sports

Teaser:
Top 25 High School Prospects for 2015 MLB Draft
Post date: Tuesday, February 17, 2015 - 10:10
All taxonomy terms: MLB Draft, MLB
Path: /mlb/top-25-college-prospects-2015-mlb-draft
Body:

The 2015 MLB Draft isn't until June 8-10, but it's never too early to take a look at the next potential crop of impact players. Among the college prospects, defending College World Series champion Vanderbilt leads the way with three Commodores in the top 10. At the top of the list is lefthander Brady Aiken, last year's No. 1 overall pick who didn't sign with Houston. Will Arizona take Aiken first again this June?

 

Related: Top 25 High School Prospects for 2015 MLB Draft

 

Athlon Sports' 2015 MLB Preview magazine covers the diamond and circles the bases with enough in-depth preseason analysis, predictions and other information to satisfy fans of the national pastime from the Bronx to the Bay and everywhere in between. Order your copy today!

1. Brady Aiken, LHP, TBD

We don’t know where Aiken will play this year after last year’s overall No. 1 pick’s deal with the Astros fell through because of elbow concerns. But his arm looks healthy, and he’s got the best pure stuff in the class.

 

2. Michael Matuella, RHP, Duke

Matuella carries plenty of concerns because he’s taken summers off, and he has a back injury that forced him to sit out fall ball, but he has shown top-five stuff for Duke.

 

3. Kyle Funkhouser, RHP, Louisville

The ace of Louisville’s College World Series team last year, Funkhouser has big stuff. But befitting someone with his name, his nasty stuff isn’t always easy to control and throw for strikes.

 

4. Walker Buehler, RHP, Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt was so deep that Buehler was the fourth starter on its national championship club last year and now is one of the top pitching prospects in the country.

 

5. Dansby Swanson, 2B/SS, Vanderbilt

Swanson was arguably the best player in the College World Series last year. Now he gets a chance to move from second to shortstop to quarterback the Commodores’ title defense.

 

6. Nathan Kirby, LHP, Virginia

Virginia’s aces don’t have a great pro track record yet (Danny Hultzen is the most prominent example), but Kirby is a lefthander with polish and athleticism.

 

7. Alex Bregman, SS, LSU

The 2013 SEC Freshman of the Year struggled as a sophomore — he hit .316 after a .369 freshman campaign — but has lots of swagger and a track record of hitting.

 

8. Riley Ferrell, RHP, TCU

Ferrell was a closer who came in to finish off Brandon Finnegan’s starts last year with a 95-100 mph fastball. Now, he will get a chance to start on Friday nights for the Frogs.

 

9. Kyle Cody, RHP, Kentucky

Cody is a big-bodied (6'7") righthander with a big fastball (93-96 mph). He battled injuries as a sophomore, but a strong summer in the Cape Cod League has scouts very interested.

 

10. Carson Fulmer, RHP, Vanderbilt

Fulmer served as a moment-of-truth pitcher for the Commodores last year, switching from the pen to the rotation and pitching well as the starter in Vanderbilt’s national championship win. He’s an emotional leader with the results to back it up.

 

11. Jake Lemoine, RHP, Houston

Unlike most of the pitchers on this list, Lemoine doesn’t really have above-average stuff yet. But thanks to a good body and a very clean delivery, scouts believe he will continue to develop.

 

12. Ian Happ, OF, Cincinnati

Happ might be able to stick at second base in pro ball, but most scouts believe he’ll move to the outfield. That will hurt his draft value, but his track record of hitting makes him hard to ignore.

 

13. James Kaprielian, RHP, UCLA

Kaprielian has one of the best breaking balls in the draft class, as he showed repeatedly with Team USA last summer. But he’s got to prove his fastball is good enough to set up his breaking ball.

 

14. Phil Bickford, RHP, College of Southern Nevada

A first-round pick in 2013 who was erratic as a freshman at Cal State Fullerton, Bickford was better this summer as a reliever in the Cape Cod League. He transferred to a junior college to become draft eligible this summer.

 

15. Kevin Newman, SS, Arizona

Newman is a typical college shortstop prospect. He may not be able to stick at short in pro ball, but his quality bat and defensive versatility will make him a potential first-round pick.

 

16. D.J. Stewart, OF, Florida State

Stewart has always hit, and he looks like he could hit for power. But so far he’s been a corner outfielder who doesn’t provide the home run numbers one would expect. He’s got one more year to prove to scouts there’s more thump.

 

17. Cody Ponce, RHP, Cal Poly Pomona

A Division II righthander, Ponce used the Cape Cod League to rocket onto the national scene by showing a 93-96 mph fastball and a very useful cutter.

 

18. Gio Brusa, OF, Pacific

Brusa hit for average and power in the Cape Cod League last summer, but he did it with a swing-at-everything approach that scares scouts.

 

19. Jacob Nix, RHP, TBD

Nix signed with the Astros last summer as a fifth-round pick, but ended up having the contract voided when Brady Aiken didn’t sign. He may have to go to a junior college because of eligibility issues.

 

20. Richie Martin, SS, Florida

Another well-rounded college shortstop who won’t wow scouts with exceptional tools, but he impresses with his baseball aptitude, athleticism and understanding of the game.

 

21. Tyler Jay, LHP, Illinois

Jay is an electric, small-bodied, left-handed reliever who had a great summer with Team USA. He’s going to try to start, but can he hold up in that role?

 

22. Dillon Tate, RHP, UCSB

Tate is an athletic, high-energy reliever who was hitting 97-99 mph for Team USA last summer in short stints.

 

23. Jon Harris, RHP, Missouri State

Harris showed some versatility for Missouri State, serving as both a weekend starter and a closer during his sophomore season. He should be the club’s ace this spring.

 

24. Mac Marshall, LHP, Chipola (Fla.) JC

Another of the Astros’ 2014 draft refugees, Marshall ended up not signing when the Astros didn’t sign Aiken and Nix. He’s a lefty with plus stuff and some feel for pitching.

 

25. Marc Brakeman, RHP, Stanford

Brakeman has largely worked as a reliever at Stanford but will start this spring after striking out 47 batters in 33 innings in the Cape Cod League. He mixes a quality 90-95 mph fastball and an above-average changeup.

 

— Written by Baseball America's J.J. Cooper for Athlon Sports

Teaser:
Top 25 College Prospects for 2015 MLB Draft
Post date: Tuesday, February 17, 2015 - 10:00
All taxonomy terms: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder, NBA
Path: /nba/kevin-durant-goes-marshawn-lynch-all-star-media
Body:
Kevin Durant, as teammate Russell Westbrook has previously done, looks to be joining Team Marshawn Lynch in terms of his media availability.

 

The perennial All-Star and reigning NBA MVP blasted All-Star reporters in New York City. After hearing a question he didn’t like about Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks’ job security — a favorite topic of NBA analysts — Durant scolded the media. From Darnell Mayberry of NewsOK.com:

 

“You guys really don’t know (expletive)… To be honest, man, I’m only here talking to y’all because I have to. So I really don’t care. Y’all not my friends. You’re going to write what you want to write. You’re going to love us one day and hate us the next. That’s a part of it. So I just learn how to deal with y’all.”

 

Durant went on to reveal much of his humanity:

 

“I'm 26 years old so I'm in my mid-20s, almost to 30. My first few years in the league I was just finding myself. I think most of the time I reacted based off of what everybody else wanted and how they viewed me as a person. And I'm just learning to be myself and not worry about what anybody says. I'm going to make mistakes. I just want to show kids out here that athletes, entertainers, whoever, so-called celebrities, we aren't robots. We go through emotions. We go through feelings. And I'm just trying to express mine and trying to help people along the way. But I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I'm just this guy that got programmed to say the right stuff all the time and politically correct answers. I'm done with that. I'm just trying to be me and continue to grow as a man.”

 

Transparency has been a big buzz word of all things Internet Era, and athletes like Durant and Lynch are using an increasingly informed, increasingly accessible audience to break down the athlete archetype of the strong, docile, well-meaning and silent type. It’ll be interesting to keep watching K.D.’s celebrity evolution.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, February 16, 2015 - 14:15
All taxonomy terms: Kyle Larson, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/kyle-larson-2015-season-driver-preview
Body:

A year ago, there were a lot of questions about Kyle Larson’s readiness and ability. Was he too young, at age 21, to drive in Sprint Cup? Did his track record — he was winless in the Nationwide Series — warrant a promotion? Was owner Chip Ganassi being too aggressive bumping veteran Juan Pablo Montoya, especially considering that his top prospect didn’t even sit in a stock car until 2012?

 

It took just five races for the rookie to change the narrative entirely. At Fontana, Larson nearly swept both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup events, falling one position short of his first Cup win. From there, it was like a gun went off; Larson sped through the field like a bullet train while positioning himself as NASCAR’s next big superstar. It seems silly, in hindsight, to have ever possessed any doubt about his capability.

 

Related: Q&A with Kyle Larson

 

Simply earning top freshman honors, for which Larson bested a crowded field of eight, was the main goal for 2014. Now, he looks like a shoo-in for the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup and the driver who can transform Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR operation.

 

Answering those doubts seemed to motivate Larson. “There was a lot of room on the Kyle Larson bandwagon to start (last season),” he said in November. “I think a lot of people chose Austin Dillon to win (Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year), and I was pretty confident in myself and in my team that we could do it.”

 

Larson won the award on the strength of eight top-5 finishes and 17 top 10s, besting Dillon by 88 points in the final standings. He finished second three times in 2014 and was oh-so-close to winning a race.

 

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

“I kind of set out as a goal to be a top-15 car all season, and I noticed right from the start of the season we’d be a top-10 car most races,” he says. “I changed the goals a little bit to run top 10 every race, and now, the way things are going, you want to be top 5.”

 

Larson shined the most once the Chase got underway. He missed qualifying for the title fight by just a few points but clicked off three top-5 finishes and six top 10s in the 10-race span to close the year. How impressive was the postseason? Had Larson qualified, he would have advanced all the way to NASCAR’s Round of 8.

 

All told, it was a sterling rookie debut, filled with momentum that should carry into 2015. Larson played a huge role in the success of the No. 42 and placed as the highest-achieving non-Chase driver in the season-ending point standings.

 

Perhaps most important, Larson’s racing style rarely brought criticism from the sport’s veteran driving corps, a group known for repudiating the ways of successful rookies.

 

Larson’s most successful tracks in 2014 were the 1.5- and 2-mile speedways that make up the majority of the schedule. His first win will come soon, possibly by the tour’s return to Auto Club Speedway on March 22. A Chase bid will follow, making him an intriguing postseason player. In just a year, he’s gone from question mark to unquestioned contender.

 

Fantasy Stall

Reliable passer  Larson ranked fourth in the series in adjusted pass efficiency in 2014 (53.13 percent) and first in efficiency at the quad-oval tracks, encompassing Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte and Atlanta, with a 54.22 percent mark.

Big gainer  He averaged a finish better than his average running position on all track types except short tracks. At tracks 1.0-1.49 miles in length, he averaged a finish 3.6 positions better than where he typically ran.

Martinsville is the worst  The sweeping high banks Larson enjoys at bigger tracks don’t exist at Martinsville, where he struggled in 2014, finishing 27th  and 30th.

Not a leader  Larson’s 53 laps led were paltry and reflected his output in smaller divisions. He led only 64 laps during a title-winning 2012 season in the NASCAR K&N East and just 102 laps in the Nationwide Series in 2013.

 

No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

Primary Sponsor: Target

Owner: Chip Ganassi

Crew Chief: Chris Heroy

Year With Current Team: 2nd 

Under Contract Through: 2017

Best Points Finish: 17th (2014)

Hometown: Elk Grove, Calif.

Born: July 31, 1992

 

Career Stats

YearsStartsWinsTop 5sTop 10sPolesTitlesEarned
240081710$5,711,004

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Kyle Larson 2015 Season Driver Preview
Post date: Monday, February 16, 2015 - 10:00
All taxonomy terms: Kyle Larson, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/kyle-larson-qa
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Kyle Larson won the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year, wheeling his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet SS to a higher top-10 finish rate (47.2 percent) than what Richard Petty (42.9) and Jeff Gordon (36.7) did during their freshman seasons in the sport’s most grueling division. In advance of his highly anticipated sophomore campaign, the 22-year-old racer sat down with Athlon Sports for an exclusive interview, discussing his dirt racing background, his strengths and weaknesses and the critics who questioned his rapid rise to the Cup Series.

 

Who was your biggest racing influence?

      Probably my dad. He was the one that got me into this. He built me my first go-kart. He didn’t race at all; he was just a huge fan growing up. He grew up a couple of doors down from (two-time Knoxville, Iowa, Raceway Sprint Car champion) Tim Green. He’d go to West Capital Raceway (Calif.) when he was a kid. He met my mom when they were teenagers and got her into liking racing too.

 

In your first full season of stock car racing, you won the championship in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, widely considered NASCAR’s top developmental division. We’ve heard stories that you constantly picked everyone’s brain about this type of car while you were there. It seems like you worked awfully hard for someone perceived to be an overnight success.

       Well in my eyes, I don’t know that I did, but I guess if that’s what is being said, then I probably was. I worry about the way cars drive more than the parts and pieces that go onto them. That first year, I hardly even led laps. I just tried to take everything in. I watched other young guys like Corey LaJoie, Brett Moffitt, Chase Elliott and Darrell Wallace Jr. and learned from them, because they all grew up racing stock cars. I learned a lot just driving behind them. I was just trying to adapt quickly.

 

Across your three years in stock cars, you haven’t led much despite having strong average finish records. Do you prefer playing from behind?

    Oh, trust me, I wish I could lead all the laps and have the most dominant car. I think a big reason for not leading is because I’m a better long-run driver than short-run driver. Even though I’m not exactly trying to, I feel I take care of my tires early in runs, and then I’m able to pick spots off toward the end of them. Last year I felt like every time I was close to the lead it was time for green-flag stops or a caution came out. I think short-run speed takes experience. In Nationwide, I felt I was better on short runs in my second year than I was in my first.

 

As a rookie, you ranked fourth in adjusted pass efficiency (53.13 percent) in the Cup Series in 2014 while ranking first specifically on the fast intermediates (54.22 percent). Becoming that efficient usually takes drivers years. What has allowed you to become such a nuanced passer?

     Understanding how the air works when you’re behind people, and trying to find clean air helps to pass, especially on the intermediates. I think that’s why it comes so easy there. Intermediates relate to 3/8- or half-mile dirt tracks. Winged sprint cars really helped me understand how dirty air works. You have that big wing on top that’s sticking up and punching a huge pocket into the air, and you have to find ways to keep good air on your wing so your car handles right. I’m glad I grew up racing the kind of cars I did, because it taught me to not waste time when you’re behind someone on the track.

 

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

There was a lot of interest in your driving services prior to 2011. What made Ganassi the most appealing option?

     To me, I thought Chip (Ganassi) was the most excited about me coming into the organization. He didn’t have any development drivers at the time, and the other teams did. He had a plan for me. And even though their cars weren’t the greatest when I signed, you could see that they were getting better. I signed in 2011 and thought that if I got to Cup in 2015, I’d be in a great spot. I got to Cup earlier than I expected it, but now I feel like it was the perfect time.

 

Your crew chief, Chris Heroy, went from Juan Pablo Montoya, a driver with a seemingly rigid handling tolerance, to you, someone who can conceivably thrive regardless of a car’s setup. How do you feel the dynamic between you and Chris has improved?  

     It improved a lot. Even though we tested together in 2013, I came from a way different background than he did, and especially what Juan did. It took about six races … the terms I used to describe how the car was handling were different. At Phoenix (in March), I was really loose to start the race and he asked me to give him a 1 to 10 number on how loose I was. I told him I don’t like numbers, because my 7 might be different than his 7. I just want to get the car close (to my liking), and I’ll drive it. I feel like there are veteran drivers that worry too much about how well their car is handling and it gets in their head. I just feel like once you start the race, that’s what you’ve got. In stock cars, lines change during the race. I choose to focus more on moving around to find extra grip and a line that works for my car.

 

The short tracks were the only track type where you did not average a finish better than where you ran. Why do you feel a track like Martinsville presented such a challenge?

     Martinsville is my worst racetrack, by far. I think it’s because in Sprint Cars, you might go race at a quarter-mile racetrack, but you’re still going to carry a ton of momentum into the corner. Martinsville is totally backwards from what I grew up learning. There, I almost come to a stop and try to get the car pointed before driving to the other end of the track. At mile-and-a-halfs, you try to carry a lot of momentum into the corner. That’s why I’m better there. Tracks like Martinsville and Richmond don’t really suit me that well because I have to use a lot of braking and slow down a lot. I’m sure I’ll get better over the years, but I’m definitely struggling at those places right now.

 

If you could have one race from 2014 to do over, which one would it be and what would you do differently?

     The first Michigan race. We were really strong, and at the end we played fuel strategy right to where when we had to make a stop, we wouldn’t have to put a full fuel load in, making our pit stop quicker. Well, the stop before that, I sped on pit road and got penalized — I had to go to the back (of the field). Had I not sped, I would’ve had that track position, and we would’ve had a quicker stop than Jimmie Johnson’s team did. I don’t know if I would have won, but it would have been a really good chance to get a win.

 

There were many in the industry who felt you weren’t ready for the Cup Series when your promotion was announced in the fall of 2013. Do you feel now that you were ready back then?

     Definitely. I’ve been “too young” everywhere I’ve raced. I knew there would be doubters. I was confident in myself that I could come out here and compete. I did it in go-karts when I was eight and did it in sprint cars when I was 14 and racing against 50-year-olds. I felt like I showed them that I belonged. I’m glad I did. I did an interview early last year with Darrell Waltrip, and he asked whether I thought I’d picked a bad year to come out as a rookie because I was going up against Austin Dillon. I laughed to myself because I was pretty confident that I would beat him.

 

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Kyle Larson Q&A
Post date: Monday, February 16, 2015 - 10:00
Path: /college-football/internet-fooled-fake-fat-jameis-winston-photo
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Separating facts from fiction during the run-up to the NFL Draft is tough enough.

 

Now, we’ve got to contend with bad Photoshops, or at least optical illusions.

 

Someone posted a photo of a tubby-looking Jameis Winston on Twitter on Saturday. Folks with a good eye drew attention to Winston’s shadow not matching up with his gut plus that absurdly skinny waist.

 

The image didn’t stand up to close scrutiny, but it was just enough to fool the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen.

 

 

 

George Whtifield, the QB coach preparing Winston for the draft, told The Big Lead the photo was taken in mid-January, and, no, Winston does not have a gut. Maybe it was a bad angle. Maybe it was that leash around his waist. Winston will be at the NFL Combine this week.

 

Sander Philipse of SBNation’s Bucs Nation traced the fakery back to Barstool Sports, a site that probably doesn’t adhere to the most strict journalistic standards.

 

Teaser:
Internet Fooled By Fake Fat Jameis Winston Photo
Post date: Saturday, February 14, 2015 - 14:08
Path: /nba/nba-trade-deadline-roundup
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While the NBA All-Star festivities are underway in New York this weekend, some more weighty affairs may occur in league front offices. The trade deadline is February 19, or just six days away, and there are still some major pieces potentially in play.

 

Amar’e Stoudemire

The New York Knicks’ beleaguered big man is taking baths in red wine and seeking a buyout from Phil Jackson’s disastrous club. The Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers and Stoudemire’s former Phoenix Suns team are all said to be in the mix for his services, with Phoenix in the lead.

 

Reggie Jackson

The writing’s been on the wall for Jackson and the Oklahoma City Thunder, even since before OKC traded for ostensible Jackson replacement Dion Waiters. Jackson’s list of suitors is a little small, since he’ll be available in free agency this summer, so he could be viewed as a costly rental. But the Thunder seem to know they’ll lose him now or then, as it’s no secret that he’s unhappy coming off their bench. So they’d be wise to get a return on Reggie.

 

Arron Afflalo and Wilson Chandler

When the Denver Nuggets traded Timogey Mozgov — now thriving with LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers — it was seen as a potential white flag and ensuing fire sale from the Rockies franchise. Afflalo is a very useful two-way guard, while Chandler is dangerous at perhaps the NBA’s least deep position — small forward. The Portland Trail Blazers, Chicago Bulls, Sacramento Kings, Miami Heat and Clippers are all said to be interested in these two.

 

Ray Allen

After putzing about in semi-retirement for the season, Jesus Shuttlesworth is now making his decision about which team deserves his shooting services. He’s said to have whittled his list down to the Golden State Warriors, Cavs, and Atlanta Hawks. We may see him making gigantic playoff shots in crunch time, once again.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, February 13, 2015 - 14:34
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/nascar-owner-team-rankings-2015
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Athlon Sports’ 2015 Racing magazine delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2015 NASCAR coverage. Click here to order your copy today!

The 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season revs up with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 22. Here's how each team stacks up as the race to get into the Chase and for a shot at the Sprint Cup championship will begin anew in less than two weeks.

 

1. Hendrick Motorsports

Team owner Rick Hendrick admitted that it was painful to arrive at the 2014 season finale in Homestead-Miami Speedway without a single driver remaining in the Championship 4 vying for the title, even though he began the Chase for the Sprint Cup with all four of his Chevrolet drivers in the hunt.

 

“I can’t remember coming down here when we weren’t in it,” Hendrick said at the time. “But hey, it’s racing, and we’ve still had a good year.”

Indeed, they did. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. won four races apiece, and Kasey Kahne won one to give HMS a total of 13 on the season. No other organization registered more.

 

But let’s face it. Hendrick is in this to win championships. You can bet his teams will do a better job of making sure they get to the final race with a shot to do so next season — and it likely will start with Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, who again will attempt to make history by winning what would be a record-tying seventh championship (the same as NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt). They were embarrassed by their performance in the Chase in 2014.

 

Two teams will have new crew chiefs in 2015, with Keith Rodden replacing Kenny Francis atop Kahne’s pit box and Greg Ives taking over for Steve Letarte on Earnhardt Jr.’s team, as Letarte heads to his new job as a NASCAR analyst for NBC.

 

2. Team Penske

Team Penske fell short of winning a championship in 2014. But for a two-team operation with drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski leading the way, it was a mighty impressive season.

 

Keselowski failed to make the Championship 4 and didn’t make many friends during the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but he won a series-high six races in his No. 2 Ford and led a total of 1,540 laps — second only to champion Kevin Harvick. Logano won five races in his No. 22 Ford, led 993 laps and was in position to contend for the title at Homestead until a late pit-stop snafu cost him that chance.

 

There is every reason to believe that these two young drivers and their teams, with capable crew chiefs in Paul Wolfe for Keselowski and Todd Gordon for Logano, will be able to build on their success in 2015. They will, in fact, be among the early favorites to contend for the title next season along with the Hendrick group.

 

3. Joe Gibbs Racing

New driver Carl Edwards could be the key to a rebound season for Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s happened before, and recently. But after Matt Kenseth won a career-high seven races in his first season with JGR and finished second to Jimmie Johnson in the 2013 championship battle, another big year was expected of both Kenseth in particular and the organization in general in 2014.

 

It never happened. Despite making the Chase again, Kenseth didn’t win a single race all season. Driver Kyle Busch, who won four in 2013, won one. The same was true for Denny Hamlin, although he did heat up enough down the stretch to make the Championship 4, and he was seemingly in position to steal it until a late-race gamble by crew chief Darian Grubb failed to pay off. The bottom line is that Toyota Racing Development needs to be giving JGR’s drivers engines that pack more punch without sacrificing durability. It seemed to be moving in the right direction toward the end of the season, and it’s hard to imagine the team will suffer through another disappointing season in 2015 — especially with Edwards, who left Roush Fenway Racing to come to JGR, added to the fold in a fourth car.

 

There also has been a major shakeup in JGR’s crew-chief lineup, with Dave Rogers, who had been with Busch, moving to Hamlin’s team; Darian Grubb, who had been with Hamlin, moving to Edwards’ team; and Adam Stevens moving up from JGR’s highly successful Nationwide (now XFINITY) Series program to replace Rogers as Busch’s crew chief. Jason Ratcliff will remain Kenseth’s crew chief.

 

4. Stewart-Haas Racing

Kevin Harvick won his first Sprint Cup championship in his first season with his new team and new crew chief Rodney Childers, leading a series-high 2,137 laps along the way. Harvick and Childers are the new hot duo in the Sprint Cup garage and would have won three or four more races than the five they did win if not for miscues by the No. 4 pit crew. Assuming those will be fixed — Harvick switched pit crews with Tony Stewart for the Chase — they should contend for another title.

 

Harvick’s championship gave SHR two titles in the last four seasons, with co-owner/driver Stewart winning it in 2011. And while Stewart had a difficult year as he attempted to return from a badly broken leg and then missed three races after his Sprint car struck and killed a fellow driver in a non-NASCAR-sanctioned event, he’s a good bet to bounce back strong next season without all the distractions. He failed to win a race in 2014 for the first time in 15 seasons.

 

Kurt Busch, whose future was thrown into a gray area when a former girlfriend accused him of domestic abuse toward the end of last season, was also disappointing overall last season but still won the spring race at Martinsville Speedway to qualify for the Chase. Busch remains a considerable talent behind the wheel if he can get his off-the-track issues in order.

 

The fourth SHR driver is Danica Patrick, who needs to show improvement after finishing 27th and 28th in points, respectively, in her first two Cup seasons.

 

5. Richard Childress Racing

Richard Childress Racing started and ended the 2014 season with a bang. It was what happened in between — or failed to happen — that was the problem.

 

Rookie Austin Dillon, the grandson of team owner Richard Childress, began the season winning the pole for the Daytona 500 in the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet made famous by Dale Earnhardt Sr., which was making its return to the Sprint Cup Series after a 12-year absence following Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500.

 

Then Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 31 RCR Chevy, nearly pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport in the Championship 4 season finale at Homestead. Newman ended up finishing second in the race to Kevin Harvick and thus ended up second in the final points standings despite failing to win a race all season and finishing in the top 5 only five times in 36 races.

 

In between those two big moments, however, RCR’s three teams were actually pretty mediocre, with Paul Menard (21st in points) wheeling the third car. They need to find more speed and consistency in 2015 to keep up with Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing.

 

6. Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates

The Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates operation always is a difficult one to figure out.

 

Since the inception of the Chase in 2004, only one Ganassi driver has qualified to participate (Juan Pablo Montoya in 2009). They failed to do so again in a 2014 season that seems highly disappointing at first glance. Yet a closer look reveals that not only was it exciting on some levels, but it also seems to have laid the groundwork for a promising 2015.

 

Kyle Larson did not win a race in what was his rookie season, but he finished second three times and third twice to serve notice that he wasn’t your average rookie. He also narrowly missed qualifying for the Chase and is generally recognized in the Sprint Cup garage as having the talent and potential to become one of the next great drivers in the sport.

 

Larson’s teammate in the two-car operation, Jamie McMurray, won $1 million by capturing the non-points Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. McMurray also led a respectable 368 laps in points events over the entire season. Both drivers could take off and win multiple races in 2015, although again, it’s hard to say for certain. There have been times in the past when the Ganassi organization just hasn’t been able to transfer positive momentum from one season to the next.

 

7. Roush Fenway Racing

Roush Fenway Racing had a season to forget in 2014, and then it lost its top driver, Carl Edwards, to a rival organization.

 

That doesn’t bode well for 2015, when Edwards will be replaced by Trevor Bayne — who hasn’t done much since shocking the racing world by coming out of nowhere to win the 2011 Daytona 500 at age 20.

 

The two other RFR teams are led by Greg Biffle, who will be 45 years old by the time the green flag drops for the Daytona 500 and has won one race in the last two years, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a two-time Nationwide Series champion who is more known these days for being Danica Patrick’s boyfriend than he is for doing anything notable in the Sprint Cup Series.

 

At the heart of the matter is that the organization has been leaking top talent in terms of engineers and other employees to rival teams that offer better deals, and it shows. Sadly, the situation seems likely to get worse before it gets better — especially with a driver lineup that frightens no one (except maybe Jack Roush himself, if he’s really honest about it).

 

8. Michael Waltrip Racing

As recently as late in the 2013 season, Michael Waltrip Racing appeared to be an organization on the rise.

 

That no longer appears to be the case after a 2014 season in which MWR scaled back from three full-time Sprint Cup teams to two and failed to win a single race with either of its drivers. Furthermore, neither Clint Bowyer nor Brian Vickers managed to qualify for the 16-driver Chase.

 

It’s possible that losing top-notch crew chief Rodney Childers to Stewart-Haas Racing, where Childers teamed with driver Kevin Harvick to win the 2014 championship, hurt the organization more than anyone realized it would. Remaining crew chiefs Brian Pattie (Bowyer) and Billy Scott (Vickers) no doubt could have benefited from bouncing data and ideas off a third team headed up by the talented, innovative Childers.

 

But the real blow can be traced to all the sponsorship money that fled the company in the wake of the 2013 SpinGate scandal triggered by Bowyer’s alleged intentional spin in the final regular-season race at Richmond, which is why MWR had to scale back from three teams to two and lay off 15 percent of its workers prior to 2014. The organization is still reeling from the cutbacks more than a year later.

 

9. Richard Petty Motorsports

After having driver Aric Almirola make the 2014 Chase and running well for stretches of the season, there is a sense on one hand that RPM has something positive to build on heading into 2015. But Almirola made the Chase by virtue of gambling to win the rain-shortened July race at Daytona International Speedway, so on the other hand there is a sense that luck played a huge role in his locking up a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs.

 

Then there is the loss of RPM’s other driver, Marcos Ambrose. He decided to return to his native Australia at the end of the 2014 season, and he will be missed, especially on the circuit’s two road-course races where he always was a legitimate threat to win.

 

The organization’s prospects in 2015 will rest on Ambrose’s replacement, Sam Hornish Jr., and how quickly and how well RPM is able to build a capable team around him. Hornish, a former IndyCar star, struggled while driving full-time in the Cup Series for owner Roger Penske from 2008 through 2010, with only two top-5 and eight top-10 finishes in a total of 106 starts.

 

10. JTG/Daugherty Racing

Driver AJ Allmendinger’s gritty victory on the road course at Watkins Glen International last August put the single-car JTG/Daugherty team into the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

 

Allmendinger is back with the team for 2015, and as long as he’s behind the wheel, the No. 47 team is a threat to win on the two road courses at Sonoma and WGI. In fact, with Marcos Ambrose heading back to Australia and Juan Pablo Montoya already out of NASCAR and back in the IndyCar series, Allmendinger might even now be the favorite to win at both places.

 

That’s big for this small operation and bears close watching, as one win at either road course means another berth in the Chase.

 

The team seemed to benefit last season from a switch in manufacturers from Toyota to Chevrolet and by forming a new technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing that included getting its engines from Earnhardt-Childress Racing Technologies and engineering help. Crew chief Brian Burns also will return as crew chief for the No. 47 car, so he and Allmendinger will have a chance to build on what worked and work on what didn’t in 2014.

 

If they can find a way to improve performance on the oval tracks, they might surprise some people.

 

Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
2015 NASCAR Owner Rankings
Post date: Friday, February 13, 2015 - 13:00
All taxonomy terms: Tony Stewart, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/tony-stewart-2015-season-driver-preview
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Will the real Tony Stewart please stand up? In one corner, there’s the three-time Cup champion and certain Hall of Fame driver. In the other, there’s the guy who went winless for the first time in his career, en route to a nightmare no one could have ever imagined.

 

Which one will emerge in 2015?

 

Stewart’s 2014 season will forever be defined by a sprint car race that took place outside the insular world of NASCAR, a race where Stewart struck and killed a fellow competitor, Kevin Ward Jr., who got out of his car to confront him after a spin. Stewart was later cleared of any charges by a grand jury, but the damage wasn’t merely legal, as the events surrounding the accident clearly took an emotional toll on the driver. 

 

Long before that fateful night, though, Stewart was struggling. He missed the last 15 races in 2013 after breaking his leg in a sprint car race and didn’t return until Daytona. That injury and subsequent surgeries presented a difficult obstacle for Stewart as he missed two offseason tests. He also had a new crew chief in Chad Johnston, new teammates in Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch and a new NASCAR rules package to handle. The team had fast cars, but the deck was stacked against him, and poor preparation left him three steps behind out of the gate.

 

So why should 2015 be any different? Stewart, recovering through his focus on racing, will come into the season as prepared as anyone. Teams won’t have the opportunity to test a new rules package in the offseason, putting them all on an even playing field. His equipment is excellent; the cars are prepared for the Stewart-Haas Racing drivers in-house, so they’re tailor-made to suit their driver/owner. Yes, there’s the question mark of offseason surgery on the leg he injured in 2013, but a spokesman called it “routine maintenance,” and the procedure was performed in early December, plenty early for Stewart to recover.

 

Johnston is still a bit of a wild card on top of the pit box. He had one win in three seasons with Michael Waltrip Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. and came to SHR with fellow MWR crew chief Rodney Childers, giving the two a leg up on working together. On the other hand, Stewart didn’t perform well with Johnston last year. This season will be the real test.

 

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

Stewart’s sponsorship situation is solid, with backers Bass Pro Shops, Mobil 1, Rush Truck Centers and Code 3 Associates set to return. His equipment will be the best available, and it’s equipment that’s taken eight of the last nine titles, including two of those by SHR.

 

But perhaps the most compelling reason to expect a rebound is Stewart himself. Despite that career-worst 2014 season, he’s still a three-time champion with 48 wins to his name, a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame and one of the best drivers of his era. Despite the setbacks, Stewart still has the talent and drive to win races and put his name in the hat for the title.

 

Fantasy Stall

Falling star  Stewart’s No. 14 team finished 29th and 25th in points in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Though injury and incident were responsible for some of that, the 43-year-old Stewart has showed signs of decline. The biggest is his inability to pass at the quad-ovals on which he has earned seven of his 48 career victories. He scored a below-par adjusted pass efficiency of 45.68 percent at the fast intermediates in 2014.

Not the leader  Stewart hasn’t led more than 1,000 laps in a season since 2006. In 2013 and 2014 he led 114 and 125, respectively.

Chasing his unicorn  One of the sport’s most talented drivers has yet to win at Darlington, one of its most unique tracks, but he’s been solid there in recent outings. Stewart finished in the top 10 in five of his last eight  Darlington attempts.

 

No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet

Primary Sponsors: Bass Pro Shops, Mobil 1, Rush Truck Centers, Code 3 Associates

Owner: Tony Stewart/Gene Haas

Crew Chief: Chad Johnston

Year With Current Team: 7th  

Under Contract Through: Lifetime

Best Points Finish: 1st (2002, ’05, ’11)

Hometown: Columbus, Ind.

Born: May 20, 1971

 

Career Stats

YearsStartsWinsTop 5sTop 10sPolesTitlesEarned
1655448182297153$117,428,670

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Tony Stewart 2015 Season Driver Preview
Post date: Friday, February 13, 2015 - 12:00
All taxonomy terms: Denny Hamlin, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/denny-hamlin-2015-season-driver-preview
Body:

Denny Hamlin walked into the Joe Gibbs Racing shop in December and noticed a change. As he was meeting with new crew chief Dave Rogers, Hamlin saw that yellow had largely replaced black on the cars and equipment for his No. 11 team. Even the hauler was different.

 

“I looked at him and said, ‘I guess I’m pretty much driving the No. 18 car,’” Hamlin says. “He said ‘Yeah, pretty much, other than we get to bring your pretty fast pit crew over here.’”

 

Hamlin won’t actually drive the No. 18 this season — he’s still in the familiar No. 11 Toyota with FedEx as the primary sponsor — but he will be part of a reshuffled program. Hamlin’s former crew chief Darian Grubb has been assigned to lead Carl Edwards’ No. 19 team as JGR expands to four Sprint Cup cars.

 

“I think it’s a great deal for me, and really Carl is stepping in to a great situation with Darian,” Hamlin says. “I know what he’s capable of doing. (Carl)’s really getting all of my A-team mechanics and everything, so no one got slighted on this deal whatsoever.”

 

Rogers moves to direct Hamlin after more than five years leading the charge for fellow JGR driver Kyle Busch. This season marks the first time that Hamlin and Rogers will have worked together at the Sprint Cup level — but not the first otherwise. They have previous experience as crew chief and driver for the JGR Nationwide (now XFINITY) Series program.

 

Rogers worked as Hamlin’s crew chief in NASCAR’s second-tier series during the 2006-07 seasons. Together, they collected five wins, 23 top 5s, 39 top 10 and 12 poles in just 57 combined races. Those were extraordinary numbers for a JGR program that, in 395 starts from 1997-2005, scored just three wins.

 

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

For this duo to dominate once again, JGR will need to improve. The organization won twice last season but only once on an intermediate track. Hamlin, despite making two serious championship bids since 2010, believes JGR is still trying to level up to its peers. “We’ve always kind of been that next-tier team, realistically,” Hamlin says. “We can compete for race wins week-in and week-out, but the championships have escaped us through mechanical stuff.”

 

Hamlin says the team sacrificed speed to fix that last year so now they can race without the worry of a DNF. Now, the focus will be on sharing information, a weak point for Toyota compared to other manufacturers but one JGR hopes to fix with an additional car and more personnel.

 

It’s been two full seasons since Hamlin, a 24-time winner in the top series, visited Victory Lane more than once in a single season (in a points-paying event). The pairing with new crew chief Rogers and the additional resources brought to the JGR team by Edwards — an elite driver in his own regard — may be the answer needed to change that. If not, the No. 11 team will become an interesting story to watch early. Hamlin’s contract is up following the 2015 season, and he’s arguably the strongest potential free agent. Stay tuned.

 

Fantasy Stall

Dynamic drafter  Hamlin proved to be last season’s most prolific driver at the restrictor plate tracks. At Daytona, he scored wins in the Sprint Unlimited and his Budweiser Duel race, and he finished second and sixth, respectively, in the two points-paying races. He scored his lone points-paying win of 2014 at Talladega.

He takes his talent to South Beach  Since 2006, Hamlin has won twice, finished third twice and led 213 laps in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He led 50 laps and averaged a third-place running position in 2014.

Martinsville strength  Fans of Hamlin are quick to discuss his ability at Martinsville, but the four-time Martinsville winner hasn’t scored a finish better than fifth since the fall 2010 race. Still, he has managed to lead 272 laps during his seven-race drought. 

 

No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Primary Sponsors: FedEx, Sport Clips

Owner: Joe Gibbs

Crew Chief:  Dave Rogers

Year With Current Team: 11th 

Under Contract Through: 2015

Best Points Finish: 2nd (2010)

Hometown: Chesterfield, Va.

Born: Nov. 18, 1980

 

Career Stats

YearsStartsWinsTop 5sTop 10sPolesTitlesEarned
103262491154200$60,719,961

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Denny Hamlin 2015 Season Driver Preview
Post date: Friday, February 13, 2015 - 11:00
All taxonomy terms: NBA
Path: /nba/your-guide-nba-all-star-weekend-2015
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All-Star weekend comes but once a year — right after the Super Bowl’s been decided, and football’s finally fizzled out. If you’re stuck inside this weekend amidst the snow or otherwise, here’s your catch-all guide to what’s happening in New York City — the sporting event of this February season.

 

Friday night

Celebrity game, 7 PM ET, ESPN

This goofy game will include entertainers and personalities of all kinds. The roster lists hold the the likes of actors Kevin Hart, Nick Cannon, and Michael Rapaport; Memphis Grizzlies owner Robert Pera — who once challenged Michael Jordan to a round of 1-on-1 — former league stars Chris Mullin and Allan Houston, rapper Common, and Arcade Fire singer Win Butler, among others. Spike Lee and Carmelo Anthony will coach one of the teams, going up against ESPN radio hosts Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg on the opposing bench.

 

Rising Stars challenge, 9 PM ET, TNT

This year’s rookie/sophmore showcase features an interesting twist — it’ll pit American ballers against those from the rest of the world. And the international squad, in this new generation, is the overwhelming overdog, featuring the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Andrew Wiggins from Canada, his Senegalese teammate Gorgui Dieng, Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic, Utah Jazz Australian point guard Dante Exum and the sensational Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo, of the Milwaukee Bucks. The U.S.A. roster boasts Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad of the Wolves, Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton of the Orlando Magic, and Exum’s Jazz running mate Trey Burke. If last year’s explosive shootout between Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Dion Waiters is any indication, we know that this event can be extremely entertaining.

 

All-Star Saturday night, 8:30 PM ET, TNT

Event One: Shooting stars challenge

This one is a series of shooting obstacles, with four teams including one NBA All-Star, one legend, and one WNBA star. Russell Westbrook is matched with Penny Hardaway and Tameeka Catchings; Paul Millsap, with Scottie Pippen and Elena Delle Donne; Steph Curry with his father Dell and Sue Bird; Chris Bosh, finally, will compete with Dominique Wilkins and Swin Cash. The deciding sequence of this game ends with its biggest doozy — a half-court shot that must be made to win.

 

Event Two: Skills challenge

Watch as various NBA stars dart around through glorified cones and test their precision with a combination of dribbling, passing, running and shooting tasks. Mostly assembled from point guards, this season’s collection has the likes of Houston Rockets fireplug Patrick Beverley, a bit of double event duty from Orlando’s Payton, Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroeder of the Atlanta Hawks, Antetokounmpo’s Bucks teammate Brandon Knight, and Toronto Raptors general Kyle Lowry, who will be starting in the main event on Sunday.

 

Event Three: Three-point contest

This year’s three-point shootout might hold the claim of having the most potent field of shooters ever. The Golden State Warriors’ “Splash Brothers,” Curry and Klay Thompson, fight with Kyle Korver of the Hawks, Curry’s MVP competition in the Rockets’ James Harden, Wesley Matthews of the Portland Trail Blazers, J.J. Redick of the Los Angeles Clippers, Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and reigning three-point champion Marco Belinelli of the San Antonio Spurs.  May the most accurate marksman win.

 

Final event: Slam dunk contest

A unique, young group will end the night and try to capture the imagination in a competition that’s been creatively lacking in recent years. Oladipo, Antetokounmpo and LaVine (the prohibitive favorite) will be met by Brooklyn Nets’ center Mason Plumlee. But there’s real hope for fireworks, this year: Read our preview of the dunk contest field here.

 

Sunday night

NBA All-Star game, 8:30 PM ET, TNT

The main event is a spectacle of sentiment, high-flying dunks, and a defense-is-optional form of basketball that rarely sees either the East or West team score any less than 150 points. See the full rosters for each side here. And if you’re curious about who’s been snubbed from the contest, go here, and have a terrific All-Star weekend.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

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Post date: Friday, February 13, 2015 - 10:07

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