Articles By Athlon Sports

All taxonomy terms: Clint Bowyer, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-clint-bowyer
Body:

There are fresh starts in sports, and then there is Clint Bowyer’s fresh start this season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

No, it’s not a clean break for the favorite son of Emporia, Kan. And no, his actions in last year’s regular-season finale — he played a key role amid a web of finishing-order fiddling by his Michael Waltrip Racing team that ignited the sport’s biggest controversy in years — haven’t been completely forgotten.  Clint Bowyer

But when Bowyer fires his Toyota engine and rolls away from pit road to start the 2014 season at Daytona International Speedway, he will at least have broken the calendar connection to the events that left him so defensive and his MWR team in such shambles. This is a new year, and every day is a little farther from a night of itchy arms and questionable pit stops that left him — and NASCAR — with quite the black eye.

Bowyer, of course, has tried to get past it since the night it happened. The public relations part worked pretty well — he basically went silent for much of last year’s final 10 weeks — but the competition side didn’t do much. Of course, that might have been helpful, too. Bowyer led just 69 laps in the Chase and finished in the top 5 only twice. He wasn’t exactly a front and center target for miffed fans.

In fact, Bowyer enters 2014 coming off a winless season for the first time since his 2009 campaign with Richard Childress Racing. For a driver who came so close to the title in 2012 — with three wins and a second-place points finish — the shutout was a bit of a surprise.

Winning is something Bowyer will likely fix early this year. He’s become something of a short track ace, with four top-5 finishes in six races at Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond last season, and could very easily end his winless streak on NASCAR’s smallest venues. But title contention? That’s a tougher go, as Bowyer will drive without a critical teammate who had worked alongside him in his first two seasons at MWR.

Thanks to the Richmond scandal, Martin Truex Jr. departed after major sponsor NAPA decided the negative publicity of the event was too much, dropping support at the close of last season. Truex was forced to scramble for a full-time ride this year and wound up in the No. 78 Chevrolet fielded by Furniture Row Racing.

It’s hard to say if Truex and Bowyer were incredibly close — there was no real public emotion from either about the unplanned separation — but there is little doubt that they had built common ground on how to work together for setups as teammates. Relationships like that naturally take time to build. Now, Bowyer must adjust to Brian Vickers, the part-timer with the team who earned a full-time ride after winning at Loudon in July. Meanwhile, team co-owners Michael Waltrip and Rob Kauffman have put smiley faces on the situation, saying two streamlined teams can still be successful in NASCAR (see: Team Penske).

There’s truth to that. It’s not a drastic setback, but it’s a new and unexpected layer of complexity. Plus, don’t underestimate the cost to MWR of losing such a significant moneymaker like NAPA. The team had to lay off employees as a result, which could mean fewer resources devoted to finding speed. Even Vickers, returning from blood clots, is a bit of a question mark; one health problem leaves Bowyer the lone ranger (Jeff Burton, hired part-time, will run only a handful of races).

Despite it all, MWR’s top driver should fully expect to be a Chaser for the fourth time in the last five seasons thanks to continued consistency and a sport-mandated easier road to qualification. Bowyer pulled off a fairly remarkable feat from late 2006 to early 2010, when he failed to finish only one of 113 races. After six DNFs in his final year at RCR in 2011, Bowyer has steadily been improving in that department again with four DNFs in 2012 and two last year.

There’s little doubt that Bowyer used that foundation to shape himself into a pretty secure Chase spot last season, as he averaged a modest regular-season finish of 12.4. He did match his career best in top-5 finishes last season (10) and had the most lead-lap finishes of his career (32).

While Bowyer still hasn’t completely emerged from the dark cloud last season brought, NASCAR’s continued tinkering with the Chase format in the offseason has significantly shifted fans’ focus. If the on-track trends continue, Bowyer will be just fine by the time the series returns to the scene of the crime, in Richmond, for a second time.



What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“Clint is very easy to talk to, and that makes him a sponsor’s dream,” a competing crew chief says. “He’s on the verge of being a championship driver. He’s proven he can win on several types (of track) — most likely due to his dirt track background, which gives him excellent car control. Bowyer overcame the runner-up jinx and had a strong run in the points again last season.”

“His team is in turmoil,” another counters. “If he does anything remotely suspicious this season, he’s going to get examined worse than a TSA strip search. MWR has cut back on employees, and the reduced resources are going to make it more difficult to win. … Also, he is now engaged. There are many people who think having a woman that involved in your life can be detrimental.”

“I bet he’s glad that’s all over,” a media member says, referring to last year’s Richmond controversy. “I really don’t know what to think about MWR right now, though I believe Bowyer can rise above any deficiencies. He should be entering his peak from a career abilities perspective, but I don’t think too much of (Brian) Vickers as a teammate — but honestly, he’s not much different than (Martin) Truex.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
All jokes about Richmond aside, his two wins and eight top 10s in 14 CoT/Gen-6 era races ain’t bad. In fact, they’re pretty darn good.
Pretty Solid Pick: And his CoT/Gen-6 era results at Talladega — two wins, eight top 10s — are eerily similar to the Richmond numbers.
Good Sleeper Pick: We’re thinking that witty quips about under-the-radar road course winners have expired since the likes of our boy here, along with Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne, have loosened the stranglehold formerly held by the Stewarts, Gordons and Ambroses.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Darlington. It’s always been Darlington.
Insider Tip: The career numbers may not yet reflect it, but give Bowyer the horses and he’ll drive anything to the front. A classic “jack of all tracks, master of none.”


No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota
Sponsors:
5-Hour Energy/Peak Motor Oil/AAA Mid-Atlantic
Owners: Michael Waltrip/Rob Kauffman/Johnny Harris
Crew Chief: Brian Pattie
Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: 2014
Best points finish: 2nd (2012)
Hometown: Emporia, Kan.
Born: May 30, 1979


Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.; Bowyer courtesy of Michael Waltrip Racing

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
 

Teaser:
Season preview for Clint Bowyer in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Post date: Sunday, February 16, 2014 - 23:54
All taxonomy terms: Brian Vickers, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-brian-vickers
Body:

Brian Vickers is a talented race car driver. We’ve known that since he won the then-Busch Series championship with Hendrick Motorsports in 2003. We were reminded of it again last July when he stunned the Sprint Cup Series with a win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It was the first for a part-time driver in the sport’s top division since Trevor Bayne pulled off his upset win in the 2011 Daytona 500, and just the third since 2009. It was the first on a non-restrictor plate track since Jamie McMurray won in Charlotte in the fall of 2002.  Brian Vickers

That left Vickers back in the position to rebuild his career. Following the win, Michael Waltrip Racing solidified a deal with longtime sponsor Aaron’s that brought Vickers back to full-time participation in the Cup Series this season. It was a sunshine and rainbows moment, closing the road to redemption after prior illness and the closure of Red Bull Racing, which left Vickers without a full-time gig.

If only the fairy tale could have wrapped up so nicely. Last fall, the medical issue Vickers faced once before — blood clots — returned, forcing him out of the final four races of 2013.

The move, combined with the real-life health scare, disrupted the rhythm of this Cup Series transition. With Mark Martin off to Stewart-Haas Racing filling in for an injured Tony Stewart, Vickers was set to finish the season in MWR’s No. 55. It was a beautiful symphony of opportunity for him to get as comfortable as possible before the pressure of points and Chase qualification in 2014 kicked in.

Instead, Vickers sat on the sidelines.

“If there’s anything to be positive about with (this) news it’s that this is only a temporary setback,” he said in October. “The timing for this is never good, but I’m glad we’ll get it out of the way now and be ready to run for a championship with the Aaron’s Dream Machine in 2014.”

Undoubtedly, Vickers had decent timing on the matter, because he’ll be eligible to compete when the season begins. But there is little doubt that this second instance of blood clots is raising more and more red flags about long-term commitments to his racing activities — from potential sponsors to potential new teams, including his current one.

Fortunately, the blood clots aren’t explicitly dangerous to Vickers when he’s in the car. It’s the medication to break them apart that creates a danger of internal bleeding should he be involved in a serious incident. Vickers’ time away allowed him to take the medication as prescribed and returning only when treatment was complete.

Vickers also lost more than just seat time last season. The original plan when MWR signed him to the full-time deal was that longtime MWR crew chief Rodney Childers would be on board. But Childers’ profile was rising in the sport — he was on the pit box for Vickers’ New Hampshire win — and when Stewart-Haas Racing came calling in need of a crew chief for Kevin Harvick, Childers took the deal. He was let go by MWR just days later. Competition director Scott Miller stepped in to run the No. 55 in Childers’ absence, but in December the team’s lead engineer, Billy Scott, was promoted to the role. This season will mark his first as a crew chief in the Cup Series.

Vickers, who played a small role as a pawn in that Chase scandal last fall at Richmond, also lost a teammate and second source of on-track information when sponsor NAPA Auto Parts officially cut ties with the organization. Martin Truex Jr. was forced to find a new ride, leaving Jeff Burton as a part-timer in the newly christened No. 66 at MWR. Only Vickers and Clint Bowyer will run full-time for the title.

After years of growth, MWR is again left scrambling to ensure it remains a competitive, well-funded entity. Will that lead to more pressure on Vickers to perform? Likely.

Adding to the concern is Vickers’ propensity for tearing up equipment. In his 17 starts in 2013, Vickers finished only 12 of them. Four of the DNFs were due to crashes — a rate that, if extrapolated over the course of a 36-race season, would be obnoxiously high.

Vickers has shown improvement and increased on-track maturity through most of the stops in his career. He’ll need to double down on commitments to those ideals, stay healthy and keep away from mid-race trips to the garage if he wants his full-time gig to stick.


What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“Vickers has proven to be very fast in spurts and has been able to run near the front in equipment that other people could not perform in,” a competitor says. “He is a very humble person and will do whatever the team needs to get better. He won’t take crap from other drivers as we saw with (Tony) Stewart at Sonoma a couple of years ago. Vickers also fits in well from a fan base perspective. He’s big in the extreme sports hobbies that attract fans.”

“The blood clot problem is a big concern,” a rival crew chief says. “Whether they can claim that they were explainable and there was an obvious reason, it still doesn’t eliminate the fact that they happen. Try as you might, another clot could show up again and then a team would need to find a replacement driver. That’s hard for a team, especially at the Cup level, to make that kind of commitment when the driver could be out of the game at any point in time.”

“He’ll show flashes, but he tears up a lot of equipment,” one media member says. “And I worry about this blood clot issue. I mean, if it keeps happening — once I can understand, but a second time? How does a team convince a sponsor to invest in a driver who’s health is iffy?”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
Since the inception of the CoT, Vickers’ six Michigan starts have been fruitful, to the tune of one win, two top 5s and five top 10s.
Pretty Solid Pick: Atlanta has been kind as well, with a 10th-place average finish in his last seven starts.
Good Sleeper Pick: His last four starts at Bristol line up like this: fifth, fourth, eighth and fourth. Betcha didn’t realize that.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Phoenix, where he’s recorded only one top-10 finish (fifth) in his 14 Cup starts.
Insider Tip: Vickers stepped up and delivered in his “something to prove” period. Now that he’s got the job, will the results hang steady, or will he revert back to his wrecking ways?


No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota
Sponsor:
Aaron’s
Owners: Michael Waltrip/Rob Kauffman/Johnny Harris
Crew Chief: Billy Scott
Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 12th (2009)
Hometown: Thomasville, N.C.
Born: Oct. 24, 1983


Photos courtesy of Michael Waltrip Racing

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Teaser:
2014 season preview for Brian Vickers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Post date: Sunday, February 16, 2014 - 23:52
Path: /college-basketball/11-need-know-facts-about-creightons-doug-mcdermott
Body:

More and more, the college basketball regular season fades into the background for the general sports public.

Early entries to the NBA Draft have left the sport with few players who become household names by the time they are upperclassmen.

Creighton’s Doug McDermott should be in that rare class of college basketball superstar, but his career began in the Missouri Valley Conference, giving him a barrier to notoriety other productive seniors — Tyler Hansbrough, for example — never had to battle.

McDermott is wrapping up one of the best careers in college basketball along multiple fronts. He’ll finish among the top career scorers in college basketball history, but he’ll join even more elite company than just the 3,000-point club.

Here's why McDermott's four seasons shouldn't be overlooked.

Updated March 8.

11 Need-to-Know Facts about Doug McDermott

He in the rare 3,000- points club.
McDermott became the eighth 3,000-point scorer in Division I history thanks to a career night March 8 with 45 points against Providence. McDermott became the first player to hit the 3,000-point milestone since 2006 and one of the few in recent decades to do it while playing for a nationally prominent program.
 

Top Scorers in College Basketball History
PlayerLast YearTotal Points
1. Pete Maravich, LSU19703,667
2. Freeman Williams, Portland State19783,249
3. Lionel Simmons, La Salle  19903,217
4. Alphonso Ford, Mississippi Valley19933,165
5. Harry Kelly, Texas Southern19833,066
6. Keydren Clark, Saint Peter’s20063,058
7. Doug McDermott, Creighton20143,011
8. Hersey Hawkins, Bradley  19883,008
9. Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati19602,973
10. Danny Manning, Kansas19882,951
11. Alfredrick Hughes, Loyola (Ill.)19852,914
12. Elvin Hayes, Houston19682,884
13. Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina20092,872
14. Larry Bird, Indiana State19792,850
15. Otis Birdsong, Houston19772,832

This season alone, he overtook some big names.
McDermott is going to pass some college basketball giants as he climbs the list above, but he’s passed some giants just in the last two months. Among the names on the all-time scoring list McDermott has overtaken since he joined the 2,500-point club on Dec. 29: Kansas' Danny Manning, Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson, Indiana State's Larry Bird, Princeton’s Bill Bradley, BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, Davidson’s Stephen Curry, Oklahoma’s Wayman Tisdale and Navy’s David Robinson.

He’ll join elite company as a scorer and rebounder.
McDermott isn’t just an elite scorer. The 6-8 forward is also a standout rebounder who has averaged 7.6 boards per game in his career. His scoring totals combined with his rebounding totals puts him into more exclusive company. McDermott is one of eight players with 2,750 career points and 1,000 rebounds, joining, among others, Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson, Kansas’ Danny Manning, Indiana State’s Larry Bird, North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough and Loyola Marymount’s Hank Gathers

He’ll join even more elite company as a three-time All-American.
McDermott’s most recent comparison in terms of four-year players collecting numbers and winning awards is probably the Tar Heels' Hansbrough, but the Creighton forward can do something even Psycho T couldn't. McDermott already has been a first-team All-American selection twice, and he’s a virtual lock to do so a third time. If that’s the case, he’ll join Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing and OU’s Wayman Tisdale as the only three players to be named first-team consensus All-Americans three times.

Dougie McBuckets isn’t a bad nickname.
McDermott couldn’t be this productive for this long without a nickname, so Dougie McBuckets it is. McBuckets — err, McDermott — has led the nation in field goals two seasons in a row with 307 in 2011-12 and 284 in 2012-13. No player had done it in back-to-back years since 1995-96. McDermott is running neck and neck with NC State's T.J. Warren for the national lead in field goals.

He’s half of one of the best father/son tandems in college basketball.
We’ve seen productive father and son scoring duos on the college level, including one of the most prolific this season. McDermott and his father, Greg McDermott, are having one of the most productive careers for a son playing for his father the coach. When McDermott passed Tennessee’s Allan Houston (2,801 points playing for his father Wade) on the scoring list, Doug and Greg became the second-leading scoring tandem of a son playing for his father. The leaders won’t be caught — LSU’s Press and Pete Maravich. McDermott likely will join Pistol Pete as the second player to win national player of the year honors while playing for his dad.

He's a walk on
When Creighton starting guard Grant Gibbs was granted a sixth year of eligibility during the summer, McDermott gave up his scholarship to make room for his teammate. McDermott, or more accurately his father, is paying Doug's full tuition at Creighton this season. Not a bad investment.

He’s efficient, and he's clutch
McDermott wouldn’t put up these kinds of numbers if he didn’t take a ton of shots from the floor. Indeed, he’s averaged 13.9 shots from the field per game in his career. But he’s also never shot less than 50 percent from the field in a season and has a career average of 45.6 percent shooting on 3-pointers. With a game-winning 3-pointer in the final minute against Butler on Thursday, McDermott has three game-winning baskets late in games this season, including this last-second trey against St. John’s.



He’s not a Missouri Valley creation.
Many of the top scorers of all time have been the product of a player facing overmatched competition in a lower-level league. First, the Missouri Valley was one of the best mid-majors, a league that produced a Final Four team in 2013, while McDermott was in the conference. Before Creighton began Big East play, McDermott averaged 22 points in 23 games against major conference competition (we’re including the Mountain West since McDermott faced San Diego State twice in his career). McDermott is averaging 29.1 points per game against Big East competition this season.

No one saw this coming, not even his dad.
Creighton lucked out by getting McDermott to play in Omaha but not because his father as the coach allowed the Bluejays to sign a player they otherwise wouldn’t have landed. McDermott was originally committed to go to Northern Iowa, where his Greg was the coach before he took the Iowa State job. So why didn’t Greg recruit Doug to play at Iowa State? Dad didn’t think his son could thrive at the Big 12 level. And it’s not just Greg McDermott who was caught unawares. McDermott was high school and AAU teammates at Ames (Iowa) with Harrison Barnes, the No. 2 prospect in the class. Barnes was recruited by plenty of high-major programs before landing at North Carolina. Moreover, another of McDermott’s AAU teammates, Zach McCabe, landed a Big Ten scholarship to Iowa. McDermott didn’t land at Creighton until he was released from his scholarship at Northern Iowa after his father took the job in Omaha.

He hasn’t won in the postseason.
The last box for McDermott to check in his career is NCAA Tournament success. Creighton has twice lost in the NCAA round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament, losing to No. 2 seed Duke in 2013 and No. 1 seed North Carolina in 2012. Creighton reached the championship game of the CBI when McDermott was a freshman before losing two out of three in the final series to Oregon.

Teaser:
11 Need-to-Know Facts About Creighton's Doug McDermott
Post date: Sunday, February 16, 2014 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: MLB
Path: /mlb/derek-jeters-dating-diamond-graphic
Body:
Since it's Valentine's Day and Derek Jeter is readying for his final season, it seemed like the perfect time to highlight this graphic of Jeter's off-the-field accomplishments with the ladies. 
 
Source: SportsNation
 
Teaser:
Since it's Valentine's Day and Derek Jeter is readying for his final season, it seemed like the perfect time to highlight this graphic of Jeter's off-the-field accomplishments with the ladies.
Post date: Friday, February 14, 2014 - 08:47
All taxonomy terms: Austin Dillon, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-austin-dillon
Body:

Richard Childress Racing’s iconic, stylized No. 3 will make its return to the Cup Series for the first time since February 2001. That will undoubtedly be one of the sport’s biggest headlines heading into the 2014 Daytona 500, as Childress promotes grandson Austin Dillon to the seat Dale Earnhardt made famous. And the expectations that come with carrying one of the most recognized and revered numbers in motorsports history are not lost on him.  Austin Dillon

Childress, in fact, believes Dillon is the man to face them head-on. “We had quite a few discussions on it,” Childress says. “Sure, there’s pressure, but I think the pressure from the number drives him.”

The stats back the claim. The 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion, Dillon also has a Camping World Truck Series title to his credit (2011). He comes from a racing pedigree — the Childress connection is well documented, and his father is former journeyman racer and current RCR general manager Mike Dillon. Childress made it clear that Earnhardt would approve of the move, claiming that “The Intimidator” wanted a replacement who could compete for titles, year in and year out.

RCR, as expected, is throwing every resource at this venture to ensure that happens. Sponsorship comes from Dow Chemicals, General Mills and Bass Pro Shops, strong sources of funding to ensure competitive equipment. Earnhardt-Childress engines are ultra-durable, with just one failure among all three RCR teams in 2013, and that means that if Dillon avoids trouble, his cars should be running at the end of the day. Crew chief Gil Martin engineered three third-place points finishes over the last four seasons for Kevin Harvick, and he has been a mainstay at the company since 2000. He’ll provide veteran leadership that will be critical to the young driver’s success.

But while Dillon has the support system in place, it’s not going to be as easy as the lower divisions appeared to be for the young driver. While RCR equipment is among the best in the Cup Series, several teams can make the same claim, and that means there will be a lot of drivers fighting for real estate on the points chart this year. The teen positions around the Chase cutoff, in particular, will be a slugfest — and Dillon is on that cusp. A Nationwide championship doesn’t guarantee success; just ask Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who finished 19th in the premier series one year removed from an NNS title in a previously top-5 car.

Perhaps the best asset Dillon brings is consistency. He captured the NNS title without a single win, and he doesn’t tear up race cars. To date, his Cup numbers are far from earth-shattering — though 11th- and 14th-place runs at Michigan last year are reason for optimism. Also, a top-3 run-gone-wrong on the final lap at Talladega was impressive in that it showed he had the composure to hang with the big boys. However, running sporadically and for multiple teams did not allow Dillon to establish any kind of rhythm or communication with a crew chief.

Considering the challenges ahead — as a rookie and with the “special circumstances” that come with the ride — a top-20 points finish over a full 36-race slate would be a very successful debut.


What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“He's won titles in two national series and comes from a racing family that enjoys racing anything,” a rival crew chief says. “His dirt experience will serve him well when he goes to the next level. He already has several races in Cup cars so he’ll be able to give quality feedback to his team. … Gil Martin is going to be his crew chief. He has been a proven winner in Cup for a long time, and he’ll help bring Dillon along.”

“He’s driving the 3 (car). Whether people love it or hate it, they’re going to be talking about it,” another crew chief says. “There is going to be all sorts of pressure about driving that car, and the longer it takes him to succeed the more attention he’s going to get from fans and media. He’s also always going to have to battle the perception that he was given the ride and didn’t earn it.”

“Dillon wasn’t bad in faux-RCR stuff and in the 14 (car) last year,” a media member points out. “Though I sometimes wonder about his killer instinct. I’m not convinced a poor finish really hurts his heart — unlike his brother Ty, who strikes me as the one with a little chip on his shoulder.”


No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Sponsors:
Dow Chemicals/General Mills/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Gil Martin
Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: N/A
Best points finish: N/A
Hometown: Lewisville, N.C.
Born: April 27, 1990

 

 

 

Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.; Dillon courtesy of Richard Childress Racing.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

 

Teaser:
2014 season preview for Austin Dillon in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Post date: Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 23:54
All taxonomy terms: Ryan Newman, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-ryan-newman
Body:

After five years with Stewart-Haas Racing, Ryan Newman seeks a new beginning with Richard Childress Racing for 2014. And RCR? It hopes Newman becomes the steadying, stable force inside the organization it just released in Jeff Burton.  Ryan Newman

When Kevin Harvick’s defection to SHR was made public over a year ago, the handwriting was on the wall for Newman in the No. 39 ride. Ultimately, the organizations made what amounted to a trade, with Newman slotting into Burton’s former No. 31 ride and Austin Dillon transitioning into Harvick’s seat. With the rookie, Dillon, and journeyman Paul Menard already signed on at RCR, the right free agent pickup was key to keep the company in position to challenge heavyweights like Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.

On paper, the 36-year-old Newman seems to fit the bill at RCR. His record is more current than Burton’s, with wins in five of the last six seasons and five Chase appearances on the résumé. Since 2008, he joins Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray as the only drivers to win both the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.

On the flip side, eight of Newman’s 17 career wins are bundled in one season with Penske Racing (2003), and he’s never finished higher than sixth in the final standings, so whether he’s a championship-caliber driver isn’t a question with an easy answer.

What became a tired act for former boss Gene Haas was Newman’s pesky habit of hovering right around the Chase’s cutoff. His “bubble” performance at Richmond last year, in which a win evaporated late in the race, was the trigger for the whole race-fixing fiasco. In the end, NASCAR’s penalties awarded him the spot, but historically he’s far from the postseason top-5 finisher that Harvick has been in five of the last eight years.

In a 16-team field, however, he’s easily capable of qualifying for the playoffs. What he does in such an inclusive (and eliminative) format remains to be seen.

At least Newman has funding and stability behind him — an issue that dampened his efforts at SHR. RCR reportedly has backing in place for his No. 31 for the entire season, as Quicken Loans will come with Newman for a dozen events, with staunch Childress-backer Caterpillar and WIX Filters along with Kwikset filling out the docket. Add in family funding from teammate Menard, which benefits the entire organization, and this team should have money to burn.

Luke Lambert will return to the No. 31 as crew chief in 2014 after guiding Burton to a handful of top-10 finishes last year. Lambert is a young talent in the garage, and some new ideas could give Newman an infusion of speed if the two see eye-to-eye. Lambert also has a history of working with veterans, making him big on both fuel-mileage and track-position gambles. That’ll mesh well with a driver who can thank in-race strategy plays to get in position on final restarts for two of his last four victories on tour.

Lambert’s first goal, though, will be to rebuild confidence following a 2013 roller coaster that left Newman too vulnerable for even good friend and co-owner Tony Stewart to save the pink slip. His final stats were still respectable: an 11th-place points finish, a win at Indianapolis and a pair of poles. But an 11th-hour inclusion in the Chase didn’t boost momentum like it did for Jeff Gordon. During the final 10 races, Newman never cracked the top 5, the only Chaser who failed to do so.

Of course, on-track success isn’t the only goal listed here. RCR tapped Newman for his brains as well as his talent; a strong mentor would be helpful to young Dillon and even Menard. There’s just a risk involved in labeling him “Jeff Burton Jr.” Newman’s role as a team player has been questioned in the past, and it’s unlikely that he’ll make a sudden about-face in that department. His engineering knowledge is extensive — as is Lambert’s — and that should undoubtedly be a plus, but they’ll have to make Newman want to share it outside the No. 31 circle.

Childress also seems to be overly focused on grandson Austin’s promotion to the Cup Series. It was enough to cause Harvick to leave in a huff; will playing second fiddle, a role Newman filled too much at SHR, eventually frustrate him?

All in all, Newman was a prime pickup for RCR in a market where the choices were limited. He’ll be a better example to Dillon than, say, the volatile Kurt Busch — who was rumored to fill this slot before Silly Season truly kicked in last year. But Newman doesn’t quite fill the driver’s shoes left by Harvick or the mentor’s role left by Burton. What he does bring is consistency, the ability to grab a win or two each year and the potential to contend for a Chase spot.



What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
Ryan Newman’s No. 39 team was the leader of the pack at Stewart-Haas Racing last season — due in large part to teammate Tony Stewart’s season-ending injury after 21 races. How he adapts to the new environs at Richard Childress Racing this year will be key.

“He seems like he’s good at playing the strategy game — whether taking two tires or staying out,” a rival crew chief says. “He seems to be very capable of taking a car that shouldn’t win and putting it in a position to do so even if it doesn’t deserve to.”

“Newman’s consistency — particularly last year — wasn’t there,” another rival says. “He was either really good or really bad and, all around, his team was the best of the organization at SHR. We’ll see how that changes at RCR. Obviously, he’ll be working with a new group of guys, so we’ll find out if it was a chemistry issue the last few seasons.”

“A hard-nosed driver like Newman and an old-school racer like Childress? Heck, it seems to be a match made in heaven,” one media member says. “(Austin) Dillon’s effort in that No. 3 car will be the organization’s focal point, but that may actually benefit Newman and Luke Lambert. Let those two do their thing quietly in the background, and you just might be surprised with the results.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
He’s usually good for about one win a year these days, and it seems the flatter the track, the better.
Pretty Solid Pick: Keep an eye on this bunch at Loudon — a track where Newman won in 2011, and where Luke Lambert engineered third- and eighth-place finishes for the 31 team last season.
Good Sleeper Pick: Newman hasn’t won in Jake and Elwood country since 2003, but he can claim top 10s in six of his last seven visits.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Road courses, where Newman is 1-for-12 in the top 10 category in the CoT/Gen-6 era.
Insider Tip: Pairing the driver-engineer in Newman and the engineering-minded Lambert as crew chief in what many claim are indestructible cars at RCR will make for an intriguing watch.


No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Sponsors:
 Caterpillar/Quicken Loans/WIX Filters/Kwikset
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Luke Lambert
Years with current team: 1
Under contract through: 2016
Best points finish: 6th (2002, ’03, ’05)
Hometown: South Bend, Ind.
Born: Dec. 8, 1977


Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.; Menard courtesy of Richard Childress Racing.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Teaser:
2014 driver preview for Ryan Newman on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit.
Post date: Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 23:52
All taxonomy terms: Paul Menard, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-paul-menard
Body:

Paul Menard has spent the past few seasons of his Sprint Cup career on the fringe of success. He has just one win on his Cup résumé, in 2011, but it’s one of the most prestigious wins a driver can have: the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He’s good for a top 5 and a few top 10s per year and, through conserving equipment, can achieve consistency. He was good enough to run inside the top 10 in points for 10 weeks in 2013.  Paul Menard

The problem is, Menard has never been able to sustain a hot streak or be consistently good enough to contend for a Chase berth. In seven full-time Sprint Cup seasons, he has cracked the top 20 in points three times, but never finished better than 16th (2012). With Cup competition stronger than ever heading into this season, Menard could very well struggle to make it into that top 20 if he simply maintains the status quo.

The No. 27 team itself remains stable for 2014. Crew chief Slugger Labbe is signed through 2016, and Richard Childress Racing equipment was strong enough for Kevin Harvick to make a 2013 title run, so race cars will not hold Menard back. Labbe is a veteran presence on the box and also has one of NASCAR’s biggest races, the Daytona 500, in the win column. His mechanical excellence will continue to be a boon to Menard.

But perhaps the driver’s best asset in today’s NASCAR is his homegrown sponsorship. Menards, the retail chain owned by Paul’s father, John, is the driver’s primary backer, and that family money means he is virtually a lock for a ride with a decent team every year. In a day and age when money rules NASCAR — and even a winning record isn’t the guarantee of a ride it once was — Menard’s future is as secure as that of the sport’s elite.

That’s not to say he is undeserving of the ride. While his numbers will never be mistaken for Jeff Gordon’s, he has proven to those in the garage that he can hang.

This season should resemble most on the Wisconsin native’s Cup résumé. He’s had at least eight top-10 runs in each of his three years at RCR, and if the planets align, he could pick up a win on an intermediate oval, where he’s earned five of his 10 career top-5 finishes. The problem is, the same can be said of a lot of drivers this year. While Menard has everything he needs behind him to make a driver successful, he has yet to have a breakout season in which he stomps out the naysayers once and for all. Even in 2013, with such a hot start — Menard was the only driver to complete every lap in each of the first nine races — he failed to earn a top-5 showing until Michigan in August.

Typically the aforementioned numbers aren’t enough to sustain employment, but Richard Childress Racing is using a creative method to provide organizational funding.

Menard has shown flashes of talent — but just flashes — over a seven-year career. A points finish in the back half of the teens or low 20s reflects said talent in a deep Cup field and is in line with past results.



What the Competition is Saying

Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“He has quite a few years of experience and continues to develop his racing skills,” a rival crew chief says. “He’s a well-known driver and pretty consistent. Paul has the ability to win a race at any point because he runs decent on all types of racetracks. That tells me he has a good feel for what he wants in his car. Plus, he’s a strong team player who shares information well with his teammates — that’s a big plus.”

For every compliment, though, there is criticism: “He doesn’t seem to have the killer instinct needed to bring a fifth-place car to the point,” says another crew chief. “He’s a good driver, but not Chase-caliber. Honestly, his tenure in the sport has been significantly lengthened due to the money he brings to the table, but Slugger Labbe is a good crew chief — yet even he hasn’t been able to take the team to the next level.”

But another crew chief plays his trump card: “He’s won the Brickyard. I wonder how many drivers can lay claim to that?”

“You know what you’re going to get with Menard,” says a media member. “You know what his season-ending stats are going to look like before the season even starts. That said, he brings great insight when addressing the media. Wish we heard more from him.”


No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Sponsor:
Menards
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Richard “Slugger” Labbe
Years with current team: 4
Under contract through: 2016
Best points finish: 16th (2012)
Hometown: Eau Claire, Wis.
Born: Aug. 21, 1980

 

 

Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.; Menard courtesy of NASCAR.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
 

 

 

Teaser:
Driver preview for Paul Menard on the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit.
Post date: Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 23:50
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /college-football/athletes-recall-impact-tennis-great-arthur-ashe
Body:
If the athletic record were our only method of judging Arthur Ashe’s impact on U.S. history and culture, it would be pretty impressive.
 
His life, however, was much more than that.
 
Ashe won three Grand Slam tennis titles — Wimbledon, U.S. Open, Australian Open — and was the first African-American to capture each. He was the first black man to be named to the U.S. Davis Cup team and reached the second spot in the ATP computer rankings in 1976. 
 
But Ashe was so much more than a trailblazing athlete, and his legacy goes far beyond the courts. He crusaded against apartheid in South Africa and the cruel treatment of Haitian refugees. His efforts raised millions for the United Negro College Fund and for inner-city tennis programs. Ashe established the African-American Athletic Association. As his friend, former Atlanta mayor and United Nations ambassador Andrew Young said, “He took the burden of race and wore it as a cloak of dignity.”
 
 
Ashe died in 1993 of AIDS-related pneumonia after contracting HIV from a blood transfusion during heart surgery. Though his life ended too early, Ashe’s impact on society was enormous and is celebrated below by athletes who remember his great influence.
 
Andrew McCutchen, outfielder, Pittsburgh Pirates: Arthur Ashe was a pioneer in athletics for African-Americans, breaking down barriers by being the first African-American to win a singles title in a Grand Slam. His accomplishments led to a great level of acceptability for African-American athletes throughout the entire sports world. He also persevered off the tennis court, battling HIV and AIDS, while using his platform to help toward treatment and cures for the deadly disease.
 
Ozzie Newsome, GM, Baltimore Ravens; Hall of Fame tight end, Cleveland Browns: Arthur Ashe was a champion both on and off the tennis court. He inspired a generation of athletes who otherwise would not have tried tennis to get on the courts. He used the notoriety he gained in tennis to improve the world, especially in education and toleration. His dignity was evident throughout his life, including handling a debilitating illness until he passed. While I did not know him, you could see he was a man of tremendous character, courage, intelligence and a role model for many of us.
 
Adam Jones, outfielder, Baltimore Orioles: His career as a tennis player speaks for itself. I think he is the greatest African-American tennis player that ever lived. But what sticks out to me is how much he did for others, when he could have done nothing. Through no fault of his own, he acquired a horrible disease, but instead of doing nothing, he raised awareness for HIV and AIDS research and started foundations that would carry on his legacy long after he had passed. To me, what he did after his tennis career is more important than what he did during it, and we should all strive to make the kind of impact Mr. Ashe did.
 
Tyrone Wheatley, coach, Buffalo Bills; running back, New York Giants and Oakland Raiders: Arthur Ashe picked up where Althea Gibson left off but did not settle for just breaking down barriers. He took it to another level. He wanted South Africa banned from the tennis federation. A lot of athletes who were at the peaks of their careers did not want to make trouble. They just wanted to collect their money. Arthur Ashe said, “This is who I am, and I am going to bring to light what’s going on.” His accomplishments for civil rights were not publicized, but he did a lot. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in team sports, but tennis wasn’t trying to include black athletes. It was trying to keep things the way they were. When you think about the strength it took every day to go through that, it did more than what he did publicly. I don’t know if I would have had the mental toughness to do that.
 
Mike Singletary, Hall of Fame linebacker, Chicago Bears: I think Arthur Ashe was before his time. He allowed a lot of African-American athletes and people of color to get interested in a sport that was very non-traditional for them. To bring the class that he brought and to play the way he played and to overcome the things he overcame in a sport that was not traditional for African-Americans speaks volumes about him. I’m very proud of what he was able to accomplish and what he was able to do.
 
Isiah Thomas, Hall of Fame point guard, Detroit Pistons: Arthur Ashe impacted America on the tennis court with his groundbreaking championship play. He not only shattered racial barriers with his play, but he inspired us with his dignity and grace – sometimes against amazing odds. He made us better and bigger people because of the way he handled the racial prejudices and social injustices he faced. He was often quoted as saying, “My potential is more than can be expressed within the bounds of my race or ethnic identity.” Today, we salute his memory. I thank him for not only opening doors to a level playing field in tennis and sports but for using his celebrity status to promote a more educated and just society.
 
Tom Jackson, ESPN analyst, linebacker Denver Broncos: Arthur Ashe was one of the greatest athletes ever, not only for what he did on the court, but off the court as well. The courage and class he showed when he was HIV positive, and the stigma attached to it back then, we should all aspire to be so courageous.
 
Keyshawn Johnson, ESPN analyst, wide receiver, New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys, Carolina Panthers: Arthur Ashe is somebody who achieved greatness against major odds. He showed me and many young people like me who grew up in the inner city, that with courage and perseverance, you can succeed in any sport or career you choose.
 
—by Michael Bradley
 
Main Photo Credit: Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo Item number 927-7839
Teaser:
Athletes Recall the Impact of Tennis Great Arthur Ashe
Post date: Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 15:08
Path: /college-basketball/weekly-tipoff-which-team-has-you-flip-flopping-your-opinion
Body:

This regular season has been unusually unpredictable, especially when it comes to the top teams from back in November.

Athlon Sports isn’t above changing it’s opinions based on more games and more of the season. For better or worse, three teams have caused us to recalibrate what we think of each program this season.

We asked our editorial staff which teams, for better or worse, have caused them to change their opinions the most in the last few weeks.

Weekly Tipoff: Name a team that you have changed your opinion of (either good or bad) in the past few weeks.

David Fox: Oklahoma State
I’m going to steal the thunder of my colleagues and pick Oklahoma State. This stretch has been coming long before the Marcus Smart suspension. Even before the fateful shove in Lubbock, the Cowboys already were on the way to their fourth consecutive loss and fifth in six games. The Michael Cobbins injury set Oklahoma State back just as the Cowboys entered Big 12 play. The dismissal of backup point guard Stevie Clark essentially gave the Pokes as six-man rotation. In Big 12 play, Oklahoma State is middle of the pack in almost every way, but especially on the glass — the Cowboys are sixth in defensive rebound rate and eighth in offensive rebound rate. And now this team won’t have Smart for two more games. Oklahoma State caught a break in Smart’s first game out, facing Texas without its star forward Jonathan Holmes. Texas still won by 19. If Oklahoma State can’t beat Oklahoma or Baylor without Smart, this team will be 4-9 in the Big 12 and 16-10 overall when Smart returns. That’s a bubble team. A far cry from a team we thought could win the Big 12 title back in November.

Mitch Light: St. John's
St. John’s, left for dead after an 0–5 start in the Big East, is now looking like a team capable of winning a few games in the NCAA Tournament. Led by guard De’Angelo Harrison, the Red Storm have won five of their last six league games, with the only loss coming by three points at Creighton on Jan. 28. On Sunday, Harrison scored 19 points and hit some key free throws late to secure a 70–65 win in the rematch with Creighton. With an RPI of 63 and only one win against a top-50 opponent, St. John’s still has some work to do, but this team clearly has the talent to play its way into the NCAAs.

Braden Gall: SMU
This is a team that was picked in the middle of the pack in the American Athletic Conference. The Mustangs showed some progress early in the season but didn’t exactly warrant much national attention. That, however, has changed. After beating both Memphis and Cincinnati at home in convincing fashion over the last two weeks, Larry Brown’s team is now in the national rankings and appears headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1993. The only five losses for SMU? At Louisville, at Cincinnati, at Arkansas, Virginia on a neutral court and at, gulp, South Florida. The loss to the Bulls is the only real head-scratcher, and the Mustangs are perfect at home at renovated Moody Coliseum. Rematches with UConn, Louisville and Memphis in the final two weeks could be for more than just seeding in the conference tourney.
 

Teaser:
Weekly Tipoff: Which Team Has You Flip-Flopping Your Opinion?
Post date: Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/nascar-media-roundtable-jimmie-johnsons-reign-comparable-any-sport-has-seen
Body:

Each day from mid-February through late November, a small band of motorsports journalists work nearly around the clock — this being the digital age — to keep rabid NASCAR fans as up-to-the-second informed as possible. Many of these media members are ensconced in the sport’s “traveling circus,” working in garage areas, media centers and pressboxes nearly 40 weeks a year. So who better to go to for a “state of the sport” talk than them?

While drivers may toe the company line — keeping sponsors happy and staying in the sanctioning body’s good graces are important to their livelihood — it’s the job of these journos to provide news, insight and opinion in a sport that has no shortage of any.

In this nine-part feature, Athlon Sports sits down with seven media professionals from different outlets to get a healthy cross-section of ideas, opinions and feedback on the biggest issues alive and well in the sport of NASCAR, circa 2014.


Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team has won six of the last eight Sprint Cup championships. In a day when parity in professional sports is not merely encouraged but is the norm, is this team’s sustained success comparable to anything ever seen in NASCAR?


Pete Pistone (Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio and MRN Radio; @PPistone): I was a kid through Petty’s reign and covered some of Earnhardt’s as a reporter, but what Johnson is doing to rewrite the record book is simply spectacular. Fans of other drivers might not like it, but Johnson has already established himself as the greatest driver in NASCAR history.


Nick Bromberg (Yahoo! Sports; @NickBromberg): No. This is the greatest streak of domination in NASCAR history. While NASCAR is closer than it’s ever been, you could make the argument that close doesn’t always equal competitive. In an NFL where a 2–14 team quintuples its win total the following year, the same turnarounds don’t and can’t happen in NASCAR’s climate.

But that’s not taking anything away from what the No. 48 team has done. That closeness leaves less margin for error. For example, a bobble on pit road under green can create a deficit that’s impossible to make up. And in the Chase format, that can be fatal. But through the 10 Chase seasons, six of these titles have been won by this bunch. That’s simply incredible.


Nate Ryan (USA Today@nateryan): It’s best compared to an NBA dynasty. The Chicago Bulls also won six championships in eight seasons, and its common thread is a dynamic troika. Just as the Bulls’ core of Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen remained mostly constant (aside from MJ’s sabbatical) through roster churn and varied opponents, the No. 48 trio of Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec also has been in place for all six championships. Malec somehow hasn’t left despite plentiful offers for greener pastures via a crew chief promotion, and that might be one of the most underreported stories in Sprint Cup.


Bob Pockrass (The Sporting News@bobpockrass): No. Jimmie Johnson is a great driver. Chad Knaus is a great crew chief. They have a great team and organization behind them. For those who hate the fact he has won six titles in the last eight years, there is one good thing — the chances of another driver achieving such a feat is extremely slim.


Mike Mulhern (MikeMulhern.net; @mikemulhern): Jimmie Johnson may be a great driver, one of the best ever, but such a run is not good for the sport. Sustained success in NASCAR history? Check out Richard Petty, the Wood brothers and Junior Johnson. In my opinion it is long past time for Brian France to do the rest of the job he started a few years ago — limiting the number of Cup teams any one man can run. Break up the mega-teams; limit owners to no more than two Cup teams; and drastically modify these “engineering” operations.


Mike Hembree (Athlon Sports; @mikehembree): The only real comparison is the extended success of the old Petty Enterprises team, which was obnoxiously dominant in its day. But the No. 48’s run is more impressive, given the ability of more teams to be competitive in the modern era.


Ryan McGee (ESPN.com/ESPN The Magazine@ESPNMcGee): No. Teams like Holman-Moody, Petty Enterprises, Junior Johnson & Associates, or even Richard Childress Racing did their greatest damage in eras when only the top handful of cars could realistically win races. Now we’re seeing double-digit winners each year and rules designed to keep as many cars as possible on the lead lap. They’ve changed the cars, the championship format, everything … and Hendrick keeps on winning. Yes, they have a big budget. But so do the other superteams. The difference is the right people in the right places and a willingness to take risks when it comes to new processes. Oh, and that Johnson guy is pretty good.


Photo by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Teaser:
Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team has won six of the last eight Sprint Cup championships. In a day when parity in professional sports is not merely encouraged but is the norm, is this team’s sustained success comparable to anything ever seen in NASCAR?
Post date: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 23:58
All taxonomy terms: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-ricky-stenhouse-jr
Body:

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. concluded what most would consider a typical rookie season at 19th in the final Sprint Cup standings in 2013. While many expect continued gains, the rising sophomore is caught square in the muck of mid-major teams that will fight tooth and nail to gain footing in the points range just outside of this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.  Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Stenhouse won the 2013 Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year award after predictably edging out girlfriend and competitor Danica Patrick. With each of his three top 10s scored in the year’s final 11 races, it appeared that driver development was right on track. Yet based on the reaction of Roush Fenway Racing team officials following the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway last November, Stenhouse’s team underachieved to the point of necessary change.

Just two days after 2013’s final checkered flag, Stenhouse’s crew chief, Scott Graves, was demoted — RFR coined it a reassignment, but don’t be misled as to what it actually was — to Nationwide Series duty on Chris Buescher’s No. 60 car in 2014. Moving to Stenhouse’s Cup pit box is Mike Kelley from RFR’s Nationwide Series program. It was a familiar move — most likely made at Stenhouse’s request — as Kelley worked with him during his two Nationwide titles in 2011 and ‘12.

“As with any season,” says Jack Roush, “we always sit down at the end of the year and evaluate where we are, what we have and what we think are the best options to put our teams in the best position to compete for wins and championships.”

Roush never revealed what exactly led to the end-of-season upheaval, but Stenhouse’s season-long statistics may help with the why. Still, the No. 17 was showing improvement with those three top 10s and its jump from 23rd to 19th in points during the final 12 races.

Stenhouse cited past success with Kelley and improved chemistry as two reasons he was excited about the move away from Graves after only one season. It’s a move that also begs the question: Why wasn’t Kelley hired in the first place?

The crew chief change is one that certainly leaves Stenhouse in a bit of a sticky situation should he not show marked improvement. After all, a driver only gets so many management changes before the finger of blame starts to point at the guy behind the steering wheel. But the move also seems to indicate that the team expects much more from the 26-year-old driver.

Stenhouse admirably finished every race in 2013, but he lagged far, far behind teammates Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle in critical statistical areas. Stenhouse had only three top-10 finishes compared to Biffle’s 13 and Edwards’ 16. He only could muster a single top-5 run and struggled with the sport’s 26th-best average running position.

Those numbers played a large role in why Stenhouse was the only one of the three RFR drivers not to make the Chase. In fact, he really was never close, despite running a program that ran top seven in points the previous year with Matt Kenseth at the helm.

Expect Stenhouse’s best chance for success this season to come on the sport’s 1.5- and 2-mile tracks. During his Nationwide career, 17 of his 39 career top-5 finishes came at those ovals as well as five of his eight wins in that series.

Stenhouse didn’t win in his first season, and he rarely ever came close. For Roush, that had to be a bit of a surprise considering Stenhouse’s runaway success against the sport’s second tier. After all, the last RFR driver to win rookie honors — Kenseth in 2000 — went to Victory Lane in his 12th start of his first full-time season.

Is it fair to compare Kenseth, the sport’s champion in his fourth full-time season, to the still new Stenhouse? Of course not, and it’s also important to note that the Roush organization is down a few pegs from its late 1990s to early 2000s heyday.

But Jack Roush didn’t hire Stenhouse just to wear cowboy hats, date another driver and run mid-pack.

If driver-crew chief chemistry yields fruit, paired with the typical improvement that comes with experience, Stenhouse will take steps forward this year. Just don’t expect those steps to be big enough to launch the No. 17 into title contention.


What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“He is the Rookie of the Year, he’s a two time champion in a national touring series, and he went through his turmoil at Roush and it turned him into a better driver,” a rival team member points out. “He gradually improved over the course of last season with his average finish climbing over the second half of the year consistently.”

Another says: “He is still dating Danica, so there is always going to be that cloud over his head even though it seems to have died down. He’s in a Ford, which was a bit of a curse last season. Roush seems to be behind the rest of the power teams, so it may take some time before he can run with the Hendrick cars.”

“It’s my understanding that the crew chief change was Stenhouse’s call,” a media member says. “I think he wanted (Jimmy) Fennig two seasons ago, but Carl (Edwards) pulled rank — and I imagine Ford wanted its best driver paired with its best coach. That said, Stenhouse has a guy (Mike Kelley) he’s enjoyed a lot of success with in the Nationwide Series. And Roush will give them all the time in the world to make it work on the Cup level. I’m looking forward to seeing what the duo can do at the premier level, to be honest.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
It could happen. He seems to have an affinity for those ’tweeners like Richmond and Phoenix.
Pretty Solid Pick: Like a good little Roushian, he looks at home on the intermediates — and he certainly has the teachers in Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.
Good Sleeper Pick: We’ll refrain from making a Danica joke and call your attention to his third-place run at Talladega last fall.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Still learning (and earning respect) on the shorter, more physical tracks like Loudon, Martinsville and the roadies.
Insider Tip: Will Mike Kelley’s return to his pit box ignite a six-win season, which the duo accomplished on the Nationwide circuit in 2012? Not immediately, but you will see some near-misses this year — and possibly a breakthrough.


No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Sponsors:
Nationwide Insurance/Zest/Fifth Third Bank Ford
Owner: Jack Roush/John Henry
Crew Chief: Mike Kelley
Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: 2015+
Best points finish: 19th (2013)
Hometown: Olive Branch, Miss.
Born: Oct. 2, 1987


Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
 

 

Teaser:
Previewing the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season and Roush Fenway driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Post date: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 23:50
Path: /nascar/30-funny-fantasy-nascar-team-names
Body:

The NASCAR Sprint Cup season is getting closer by the day, which means it’s time to plan your spring and summer road trips and to name your 2014 Fantasy NASCAR team. While it may be tough to win your league each season, it’s not as difficult to have the best team name. Here’s our list for 2014, in no particular order of awesomeness:

‘MERICA/’MURICA/’MURICAH
Cloyd Rivers would be proud. Might not want to use the “Team America” distress signal during the race if something goes awry, though, I think Danica does when the car gets out of shape.

FREE JEREMY MAYFIELD
Clearly he was being railroaded and was innocent of all charges, right? After all, most people usually have a tenth of a million dollars in stolen guns, gear and tools at their crib, and have been seen sneaking around semi-truck garages in the wee hours of the morning. Kind of sad when you think about it. If he had just went AJ and said, “I dunno what it was … I thought it was a vitamin,” he’d probably have been back in the sport and sponsored by Octane 93. Oh yeah.

SKIDMARK CENTRAL
Sounds like somebody was having a $hitty day. Pretty sure that’s what they could have called most of the drivers’ shorts at Michigan last summer when they were barreling into Turn 1 at 220 mph.

LOSING MAKES MY DICK TRICKLE
And there it is. The requisite homage to the late legend of Wisconsin Rapids, Wisc. What’s cooler than a 48-year-old Rookie of the Year who burned heaters under caution and is recognized as the all-time leader in short track wins in North America? Keep in mind that while it may have been Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt who helped bring NASCAR into the national consciousness, it was Dan Patrick on Sportscenter updating the casual fan as to where Dick Trickle finished each week. RIP, DT.

BALLS TO THE WALL ALL THE TIME
I’m going to be honest here: I don’t think this one is funny. I think it’s awesome. Reminds me of the classic, “I’m droppin’ the hammer, Harry!” line from everyone’s favorite racing movie.

THE SUM OF ALL MEARS
That would be a pretty easy one. One. As in, the number of races he’s won (Charlotte, 2007). Kyle Petty finished third in that race. No, it was not 1987. 2007.

THE BIG KESELOWSKI
The Brad Abides – that Sprint Cup really ties the room together. It would be funny if he starts addressing Joey Logano as “Donny.”

BAYNE CAPITAL
Not sure how Trevor would take being tied to a Mormon, which in itself probably conjures up unwholesome imagery. Mitt Romney and Trevor both have something in common: genuinely decent guys who have achieved, yet still haven’t quite got that dream day job.

GREEN EGGS AND HAMLIN
I will not win one with Mike Ford, I will not drive a Honda Accord;
A black Camry will bring me luck, a bottle of Dasani you’ll see me chuck;
Sometimes my back hurts me bad, if only I had a crew chief named Chad!
Okay, some of the content is dated and the rhymn is annoying. The name, however, is clever.

WISE JOHNSONS FEAR BURNING BUSCH
Unless they have a topical ointment. Or penicillin. And by the way, I don’t think this head game is going to work, either.

GAS HOLES
I may have to join the “Gas Holes” league on principle, as it is both irrelevant and ironic. Or coincidental. Either way, these guys most certainly know their heads from their gas … and know well enough to never trust a road course ringer at Watkins Glen or Sonoma. And no, Marcos is not a road course ringer just because he excels there. He’s a full-time driver in the series and Richard Petty Motorsports’ most prolific wheelman since Kasey Kahne bailed after his brakes failed in Charlotte. Speaking of which …

AMBROSE BEFORE HO
If only all guys followed this advice. Though we’d understand if Ricky Stenhouse Jr. rejected this notion, as he has done quite nicely for himself of late. Not that DP is of questionable morals. Ugh, we’re already getting sidetracked here and in a topsy-turvy world — which would make sense since Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere. Or is it Tasmania that Marcos is from? Hold on, can hemispheres go north and south, too, or just east and west? Because road courses go left and right … right? I smell waffles.

A COUNTRY GAL KAHNE SURVIVE
The shear number of Fantasy NASCAR team names devoted to the boyish good looks of one Kasey Kenneth Kahne only reaffirms the volume of anonymous cougars lurking on the ‘net.

UPS = UGLY PAINT SCHEME
This had to have been created in the Dale Jarrett days. Why on earth did UPS wait until the very end of its run to paint the cars totally brown — particularly during its “Big Brown Truck” marketing campaign? UPS may run the tightest ship in the shipping business, but its car’s paint job was so uninspired that they should have just colored it beige. When it finally did go brown, UPS saw fit to throw yellow on it, too … and that didn’t help matters. So sad that the once-iconic No. 6 car — which had some of the best paint schemes ever during the Valvoline/Mark Martin era — went into mothballs clad in doo doo brown.

A LITTLE ON THE HIGH SIDE
Another classic double entendre that, at its core, was created by a couple guys sitting on the couch saying, “Dude, don’t bogart those Dale Jr. Carolina Barbeque chips.”

THE NEED FOR SCOTT SPEED
Combining “Top Gun” and NASCAR?! Why didn’t anyone think of this before? Oh wait …

BLANEY’S GOT A GUN
So long as Steven Tyler isn’t asked to perform the National Anthem prior to a race, we're OK with the Aerosmith/NASCAR cross-reference — although it couldn’t get any worse than Scott Stapp or Brett Michaels. That said, Joe ’Effin’ Perry going Hendrix on the Anthem? There’s potential there.

2 LBS IN THE REAR GOT HER LOOSE
Hey ohh!!! Now it’s a party! What, “Slipping In a Rubber” didn’t want any of that? We should probably just quit while we’re ahead on this one.

TOMMY BOWYER
“Mikey, you may have been the worst driver in NASCAR, but you were the best brake pad salesman in Sandusky!”

TEAM MOTORBOATERS
“Are they built for speed or comfort? What'd you do with them? Motorboat? You play the motorboat? Blrlrlrlbbb … You motorboatin' son of a bitch. You old sailor, you!” I’d bet $20 this guy isn’t really into Unlimited Hydroplane, and would be disappointed to find out who Miss Budweiser really is.

DOG THE LABONTE HUNTER
This might be my favorite name on the list from the Big Island … or anywhere else, Brah. The name is appropriate on many levels. I think Dog, Leland and Bobby Brown stopped being relevant about the same time Bobby Labonte exited the No. 18 car. At least we don’t have to worry about Texas Terry or BLab sprouting an Aqua-Net saturated pompadour of feathered magnificence. Or exposing taco meat from his firesuit following a race. Labonte’s coming stint in the No. 52 car will be about as dangerous to Victory Lane as Dog and Beth are to armed felons with their array of paintball guns, pepper spray and Beth’s fingerless Lady Classics. That said, they are some of the last ties to NASCAR’s past. Best of luck this season, guys. Go with Christ, Brah.

SKOALIOSIS
This one is definitely an old school NASCAR fan well-versed in the Gospel according to Gant and his Skoal Bandit. Harry Gant’s No. 33 was as iconic of a machine during the mid- ’80s as the Coors Thunderbird or that yellow and blue Wrangler Monte. Mr. September rewrote the record books when he reeled off a record-tying four in a row at the tender age of 51. It’s doubtful that Handsome Harry would ever suffer such a condition, though. After all, what other driver do you know that keeps in shape by running bundles up a ladder all day in the Carolina summer heat?

2 GIRLS 1 SPRINT CUP
Wow. Way to keep it classy, although expertly executed at staying timely and relevant. I’m 99 percent sure that isn’t a girls’ team, despite the obvious attempt at subterfuge. Hopefully they’ll be going up against “Stew(art) Let The Dogs Out” during the Chase later this year.

15BLOWSBIGDONKEYD
Oh hi, Ingrid.

ME SO HORNISH
This one is fantastic. It was created nearly five years ago, but stands the test of time — a true testament to its subtle genius and nod to Kubrick’s Vietnam War classic. Or 2 Live Crew. Either way, by the time you have finished reading this, “Oh me so Hoooornish, Oh-oh me so Hornish …” will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day. You’re welcome.

AND THE REST: Mears for Fears; Marcos Polo; Hello…Newman!; Shaking the Busch, Boss; Magic Johnson

by Vito Pugliese and Matt Taliaferro
Follow the guys on Twitter: @VitoPugliese and @MattTaliaferro

Teaser:
<p> Thirty of the funniest Fantasy NASCAR team names you're likely to find.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 13:00
All taxonomy terms: college baseball, Preseason, top 25, MLB
Path: /mlb/college-baseballs-preseason-top-25-2014
Body:
The 2014 college baseball season gets underway Friday. To prep readers, Athlon Sports looks at college baseball's preseason Top 25.
 
1. Oregon State (52–13 overall, 24–6 Pac-12)
Head coach Pat Casey got a gift when LHP Ben Wetzler (Phillies, fifth round) and reliever Scott Schultz (Marlins, 17th round) chose to return to campus. They’ll join weekend starters RHP Andrew Moore (14–2, 1.79) and LHP Jace Fry (5–3, 2.45 in 2012) in possibly the nation’s best pitching staff. The top four hitters return, led by All-Americans Michael Conforto (.328-11-47) and Dylan Davis (.335-5-61).
 
2. NC State (50–16, 19–10 ACC)
This team can go far on star power alone. LHP Carlos Rodon (10–3, 2.99) and 3B Trea Turner (.368, 30 SBs) could be the two top picks in this year’s MLB Draft. Also, RHP Logan Jernigan (1–1, 1.56) and C Brett Austin (.251, 13 SBs) aren’t far behind but need to live up to their potential. The Pack stole 110 bases last year, and their speed makes them fun to watch. 
 
3. South Carolina (43–20, 17–12 SEC)
Folks, 2013 was an aberration. You see, the Gamecocks actually missed Omaha. Yikes! Their return is based on strength up the middle with C Grayson Greiner (.298-4-38), SS Joey Pankake (.311-11-42) and fleet CF Tanner English (.283), all three All-America types. Incoming RHP Wil Crowe will bolster returnees Jordan Montgomery (6–1, 1.48) and Evan Beal (2–1, 4.78) on the hill.
 
4. Indiana (49–16, 17–7 Big Ten)
Pick your jaw up off the floor: A Big Ten team is No. 4. And why not? IU finished last year in Omaha and got top hitter Dustin DeMuth (.377-5-41) and RHP Ryan Halstead (11 saves) back after they were high MLB draftees last summer. All-America power-jack Kyle Schwarber (.366-18-54) will catch for a staff that returns 40 wins and had a team ERA of 2.64.
 
5. Kansas State (45–19, 16–8 Big 12)
The Cats won their first conference title in 110 years last season. This year, five players who hit .324-plus return, including SS Austin Fisher (.361), 2B Ross Kivett (.360, 26 SBs) and 1B Shane Conlon (.341-7-28). Freshman All-American Jake Matthys (9–2, 9 saves) leads a talented staff, but coach Brad Hill is high on RHPs Nate Griep and Colton Kalmus, who both are coming off redshirt years.
 
6. Oregon (48–16, 22–8 Pac-12)
Pitch. Pitch. Pitch. That’s all these Ducks do. But great gosh-a-mighty, they do it well. Youthful weekend starters Cole Irvin (12–3, 2.48), Tommy Thorpe (7–5, 2.16) and Jake Reed (6-6, 3.50) are all a year older and better. Also watch for sophomore LHP Garrett Cleavinger (9–0, 1.24) and incoming LHP Matt Krook, the 35th overall pick of last June’s draft. The only hang-up? That .258 offense must improve.
 
7. Cal State Fullerton (51–10, 23–4 Big West)
Okay, we’ll admit that losing a planetary superstar like Michael Lorenzen and four other field starters isn’t easy. But the Titans were a deep squad in 2013, so plenty of serviceable talent is still around. Plus, nearly every pitcher of note returns, including Freshman All-Americans Thomas Eshelman (12–3, 1.48) and Justin Garza (12–0, 2.03). The seventh-ranked recruiting class features 10th overall draft pick RHP Phil Bickford.
 
8. Florida State (47–17, 20–10 ACC)
You know the Seminoles are top-10 material every year, so no surprise here. The Noles have an embarrassment of riches on the mound with all three weekend starters back in Luke Weaver (7–2, 2.29), Brandon Leibrandt (10–4, 3.44) and Peter Miller (6–2, 3.55), and All-America RHP Mike Compton (12–2, 2.87 in ‘12) returns after redshirting. DJ Stewart (.364-5-59) leads an offense capable of bettering that .287 average.
 
9. Clemson (40–22, 18–12 ACC)
That putrid 1–7 finish still casts a pall over the Tigers. But they’ll have plenty of teeth this year with the duo of LHP Matthew Crownover (7–3, 2.19) and RHP Daniel Gossett (10–4, 2.56) back on the bump. Exciting and steady, the Tigers finished 16th nationally with 111 stolen bases (led by Shane Kennedy’s 22), and eight starters return from a defense that fielded at .972.
 
10. LSU (57–11, 23–7 SEC)
Lots of senior leaders flew the coop after the trip to Omaha, but c’mon, it’s LSU. No freefall here. All-Americans like staff ace Aaron Nola (12–1, 1.57) and SS Alex Bregman (.369-6-52) will keep them relevant in June. All seven of the returning pitchers have a 2.95 ERA or better, and four of the five returning starters in the order hit .305 or higher. 
 
11. Virginia (50–12, 22–8 ACC) 
Don’t make them angry. You won’t like them when they’re angry. Returnees like 1B Mike Papi (.381-7-57), SS Branden Cogswell (.346), 3B Nick Howard (.323-3-38), OF Brandon Downes (.316-10-59) and OF Derek Fisher (.293-7-48) are all linebacker-sized, making for the nation’s most intimidating 1-thru-9. Losing ace Scott Silverstein and closer Kyle Crockett is tough, but the nearly everyone else from the arms corps is back.
 
12. Vanderbilt (54–12, 26–3 SEC)
Okay, so there were heavy losses for the Dores. Still, this could be a top-5 team if recent hyper-talented recruiting classes jell quickly. Only two starters return, but part-timers Chris Harvey (.250), Rhett Wiseman (.289) and Zander Wiel (.305) are potential studs. Kevin Ziomek moved on, but RHPs Tyler Beede (14–1, 2.32) and Brian Miller (16 saves) will assure almost no drop-off. 
 
13. Mississippi State (51–20, 16–14 SEC)
Anyone want to doubt these guys now? Didn’t think so. A pitching-heavy No. 2-ranked recruiting class will join CWS vets like Ross Mitchell (13–0, 1.53), Jacob Lindgren (4–3, 4.18) and Brandon Woodruff (former 5th-round pick) to reload the mound staff. Don’t forget the two hulking wild men: 1B Wes Rea (.291-7-40) and relief ace Jonathan Holder (21 saves).
 
14. TCU (29–28, 12–12 Big 12)
The wildly talented Frogs underachieved but will make amends with a junior-heavy team. Most of the 2.78 ERA arms staff is back, led by Preston Morrison (7–3, 1.51) and Alex Young (7–4, 2.66, 5 saves). The offense hit a boney-armed .246, so OFs Boomer White (.314), Cody Jones (.269) and Jerrick Suiter (.186) and 1B Kevin Cron (.208) need to play to potential.
 
15. Florida (29–30, 14–16 SEC)
Look for a big Gator rebound. Although ace Jonathon Crawford and saves-man Johnny Magliozzi will be missed, 10 of the 13 pitchers return, including former first-round pick Karsten Whitson (injured 2013). Three .300-plus hitters are also back in Harrison Bader (.312), Justin Shafer (.300) and Richie Martin (.300). Coach Kevin O’Sullivan also brought in the No. 1 recruiting class, so the rich get richer.
 
16. UCLA (49–17, 21–9 Pac-12)
Don’t shed any tears for the winners of the brass ring. The top four hitters are back, led by Eric Filia (.281), Kevin Kramer (.278) and stolen base specialist Brian Carroll (.258, 32 SBs). Look for Grant Watson (9–3, 3.01) and Cody Poteet (4–6, 4.84) to blossom. All-Americans David Berg (24 saves) and James Kaprielian (0–0, 1.55) lead the best bullpen in the country.
 
17. Miami (37–25, 14–16 ACC)
The Hurricanes could be on the rise again. Fifty-nine of 62 starts on the mound return, including stud lefties Chris Diaz (7–5, 1.64) and Bryan Radziewski (9–3, 1.78), who led a 3.38 ERA staff. But offensively, hitting .258 with 14 home runs won’t fly. The No. 4-ranked recruiting class comes in, led by four MLB draftees and strapping 6'6" 1B Brad Zunica. 
 
18. North Carolina (59–12, 21–7 ACC)
Losing seven MLB draftees and having only four seniors — this is as close as it gets to “rebuilding” for the Heels. Super sophs Landon Lassiter (.358), Skye Bolt (.321-6-51) and RHP Trent Thornton (12–1, 1.37) will be building blocks, and RHP Benton Moss (8-1, 3.77) is an All-America candidate. Freshmen such as pitchers A.J. Bogucki and Chris Oakley and 1B Joe Dudek will be leaned on immediately.
 
19. Oklahoma State (41–19, 13–10 Big 12)
Josh Holliday is building a monster in Stillwater. The incoming class (ranked No. 5 nationally) is described as being “better than great.” A trio of solid pitchers — Vince Wheeland (8–2, 1.97), Mark Robinette (6–1, 3.58) and Tyler Nurdin (5–3, 1.89) — all showed flashes of greatness last season. The offense will need a jump-start, but leading hitter Tanner Krietemeier (.314-4-45) is a lead-by-example type.
 
20. Texas (27–24, 7–17 Big 12)
Look who’s back. Coach Augie Garrido needs to plant a flag this year, and he’ll have the rotation of Dillon Peters (6–3, 1.97), Nathan Thornhill (3–6, 2.21) and Parker French (4–5, 2.68). Yes, the pitching pulled its weight, with a 2.53 ERA, but the offense? Oof! Mark Payton (.393) and C.J. Hinojosa (.309) did their part, but the team hit just .260 overall. 
 
21. Cal Poly (40–19, 17–10 Big West)
Larry Lee’s program benefited big time when All-Big West talents Reed Reilly (14 saves) and 3B Jimmy Allen (.299) turned down MLB. Joining Allen on the infield is SS Peter Van Gansen (.253) and 1B Tim Wise (.308 in 2012) in a strong defense. Pitching-wise, Matt Imhof (7–3, 2.74), Casey Bloomquist (6–2, 5.02) and Bryan Granger (5–4, 5.37) combined for 39 starts.
 
22. Louisiana-Lafayette (43-20, 19-11 Sun Belt)
After going to the Regional Finals, the Cajuns are ready for their close-up. The experience-heavy rotation of Austin Robichaux (9–2, 3.05), Ryan Wilson (6–4, 3.25) and Cody Boutte (8–4, 5.30) returns, along with closer Matt Hicks (11 saves). Also, six batters who hit .319-plus come back to the order, led by SS Blake Trahan (.319, 13 SBs), 3B Tyler Girouard (.360-7-41) and power-stick Caleb Adams (.339, 16 HRs).
 
23. Alabama (35–28, 14–15 SEC)
The Tide made the NCAAs despite being brutally young last year. Expect more consistency from super sophs SS Mikey White (.287), 2B Kyle Overstreet (.271) and CF Georgie Salem (.269), who are all outstanding gloves. Eight of the nine pitchers back have ERAs under 3.66, including ace RHP Spencer Turnbull (4–3, 3.70) and saves specialist Ray Castillo (12 saves), who is, of course, another sophomore.
 
24. Washington State (23–32, 9–21 Pac-12)
The Cougars are loaded for Northwest noise as 95 percent of their innings pitched and 85 percent of their at-bats return. Olerud Award candidate Jason Monda (sixth round, Phillies), RHP J.D. Leckenby (14th round, Mets) and SS Trace Tam Sing (26th round, Royals) return despite their draft overtures. As freshmen, Nick Tanielu and Trek Stemp were the best hitters on the team before being lost to mid-season injuries. 
 
25. Mercer (43–18, 20–7 A-Sun)
The uber-experienced Bears have five of six starters in the field and two of three weekend pitchers as returning seniors. RHPs Brandon Barker and DJ Johnson are four-year leaders. Junior bullpen stud Dimitri Kourtis went 5–3 with nine saves. Leadoff man Sasha La Garde (.308), 3B Chesny Young (.401) and power-bat Nick Backlund (.326-13-68) pace a dangerous offense.
 
 
—Written by Eric Sorenson. This is just one of the features that can be found in Athlon Sports' 2014 MLB Preview magazine, which is available on newsstands and online now. Starting with 21 unique covers to choose from, Athlon covers the diamond and circles the bases with enough in-depth preseason analysis, predictions and other information to satisfy fans of the national pastime from the Bronx to the Bay and everywhere in between. Order your copy now!
Teaser:
The 2014 college baseball season gets underway Friday. To prep readers, Athlon Sports looks at college baseball's preseason Top 25.
Post date: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 10:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/nascar-media-roundtable-what-was-learned-nascars-visit-eldora
Body:

Each day from mid-February through late November, a small band of motorsports journalists work nearly around the clock — this being the digital age — to keep rabid NASCAR fans as up-to-the-second informed as possible. Many of these media members are ensconced in the sport’s “traveling circus,” working in garage areas, media centers and pressboxes nearly 40 weeks a year. So who better to go to for a “state of the sport” talk than them?

While drivers may toe the company line — keeping sponsors happy and staying in the sanctioning body’s good graces are important to their livelihood — it’s the job of these journos to provide news, insight and opinion in a sport that has no shortage of any.

In this nine-part feature, Athlon Sports sits down with seven media professionals from different outlets to get a healthy cross-section of ideas, opinions and feedback on the biggest issues alive and well in the sport of NASCAR, circa 2014.


The Camping World Truck Series’ visit to Eldora Speedway seemed to be a breath of fresh air for many fans. What, if any, lessons can be taken from this “experiment” that may be applicable to other series?


Pete Pistone (Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio and MRN Radio; @PPistone): Eldora reminded everyone that NASCAR racing used to be a lot more fun than it sometimes is these days. The sanctioning body should do whatever it can to capture the electricity, anticipation and good old-fashioned entertainment Eldora created and sprinkle it liberally across all three national divisions.


Nick Bromberg (Yahoo! Sports; @NickBromberg): Don’t be afraid to try something new with the on-track product. That race was a leap for NASCAR, but it paid off in a big way and instantly became the most popular event in Truck Series history. And it also proved that the best storylines are organic and happen via good racing. Just look at Norm Benning and the attention that he and his team received for the battle with Clay Greenfield in one of the heat races.

While I’m not ready to say that the Cup Series needs to jump on a dirt track as soon as possible, it’s more fuel for the thought that the Truck Series should be closer to how it started at local short tracks than where it is now at a majority of tracks where the Cup Series races.


Nate Ryan (USA Today@nateryan): If the show is compelling, it doesn’t matter who the stars are. That’s the major lesson from any event that turns Norm Benning into a social media folk hero. The other major takeaway is that nothing should be sacred in stock-car racing. Because the racing was so memorable, there were no complaints about heat races, a segmented competition and a surface that doesn’t seem conducive to such heavy vehicles. In weighing enhancements to Sprint Cup, Eldora’s anti-idolatry vibe should be the template.

Also, transfer ownership of any other troubled tracks with promise to Tony Stewart and his management team. His street-smart savvy and force of will to produce success is unmatched.


Mike Hembree (Athlon Sports; @mikehembree): Eldora proved that “old school” still has a place in stock car racing. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to consider dirt-track racing for the Sprint Cup or Nationwide series, but the automatic drama created by a different sort of event can’t be denied. Could be a hint that fans want shorter races with more levels of entertainment. Heat races, anyone?


Ryan McGee (ESPN.com/ESPN The Magazine@ESPNMcGee): I think it would work with the other series, but only once a year. Don’t get me wrong. It was awesome. And to me, that’s exactly what the Truck Series should be doing — going to different markets and trying out new ideas. But when the next two series follow it onto dirt, which will happen eventually, NASCAR needs to be careful not to kill the golden egg-laying goose like racetracks have with night racing. That novelty wore off a long time ago.


Bob Pockrass (The Sporting News@bobpockrass): Heat races. But NASCAR needs to pay dollars to those who compete in the heats.


Mike Mulhern (MikeMulhern.net; @mikemulhern): The Eldora race played to less than 20,000. Nice marketing gimmick, but nothing long-term. Nice made-for-TV show. And where were the softwalls, by the way?


Photo by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
 

Teaser:
As part of the 2014 NASCAR season preview, Athlon Sports sits down with seven of the sport's leading journalists to discuss what NASCAR learned when its Camping World Truck Series visited Eldora Speedway in 2013.
Post date: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 - 23:56
All taxonomy terms: Kyle Busch, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-kyle-busch
Body:

Kyle Busch experienced a new side of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup last season. More accurately, he was able to find out what it’s like to finish fourth in series points, the best postseason performance of his nine-year career to date.

The reward for such improvement? For one thing, a bigger prize check and a later spot on the agenda of the annual postseason awards banquet in his hometown of Las Vegas.  Kyle Busch

“I actually made it past dinner,” Busch said, cracking a smile during his December acceptance speech. “I didn’t even know this event lasted this late.”

It was at once both a clever way of noting his improvement in the Chase — a format that had been decidedly unkind to Busch’s driving style (and frankly, maturity) in years past — plus a way to signal that those who want a championship in the sport will have to dispatch his No. 18 this season. There’s little doubt that Busch’s 2013 season, after several up-and-down years, will be a launching pad for the 28-year-old going forward.

Busch at once tied his best career mark for races finished on the lead lap (29) and scored his most top 10s in a single season (22). He also qualified better than ever before, posting a sizzling 9.1 average start that trailed only teammate Matt Kenseth. It’s a talent that serves him well in a track-position world, where it’s much easier to start up front these days than work through traffic.

Those gaudy statistics, while impressive, are also par for the course with Busch. After all, he’s averaging a top-5 finish for every three Sprint Cup starts in his career. But the real difference in Busch last year was an ability to contain his driving style and volatile emotions when the Chase kicked in.

Thanks to striking out in some pretty awful ways in recent appearances — remember that his last go in the title fight, in 2011, included a suspension by NASCAR for actions he took against Ron Hornaday Jr. during a Camping World Truck Series race at Texas — Busch had gained the dubious label of being unable to close when it came time for the chips to be counted. It wasn’t a mistake, either: Busch had finished eighth or worse in his three previous Chases.

But last season proved different. After leading off the Chase with consecutive second-place finishes to Kenseth, Busch only faltered in a big way during the Chase’s fourth race, at Kansas Speedway. Those issues, though, were less about Busch’s on-track attitude than they were about his team’s failure to have a setup that gave him the necessary comfort. Busch DNF’d that day — his second at Kansas last season — and was understandably frustrated.

For once, however, Busch was able to rise above, nailing down five top 5s and nine top 15s in the Chase. With the Kansas issue, the title was out of reach. But optimism for 2014 was fully in place.

Busch remains paired with crew chief Dave Rogers this season. It was once an unenviable role, but Rogers has found a groove with Busch where the tenacity and competitiveness of his driver meshes well with the setups he can dial in. Such synchronicity should guide Busch into the Chase again this season with ease.

Can he turn that fourth-place finish into something brighter? Thanks to the arrival of Kenseth as Busch’s teammate in the JGR camp, his struggle to win a first title has gotten harder. But at the same time, Kenseth’s stabilizing style has seemed to bring a consistent rudder to a team that just two years ago featured 30-ish Denny Hamlin as its senior driver.

Busch’s biggest concern last year was engine troubles. Those bit his JGR team as a whole early in the season, including one failure when Busch was running neck-and-neck with Kenseth for the lead of the Daytona 500. After substantial changes in both Toyota Racing Development leadership and technological practices, most of the problems seemed to disappear altogether in the season’s second half.

Despite the encouraging shift, that brush with failure in reliability has forced us to question what we can really expect from JGR and Toyota going forward. Hendrick Motorsports, historically, has never really had such issues.

It seems Busch has finally reached a point mentally where he can perform and contend for the sport’s highest award. Expect to see that this season — as long as everything else around him can hold up.



What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media

“Busch has made strides toward winning a title after years of struggles. Between (Matt) Kenseth and Busch the JGR team is still one of the best in the business,” a rival crew chief says. “If (Denny) Hamlin gets physically better, the power of three drivers succeeding could be what it takes to push Busch over the top. He’s becoming more popular with fans, too. The adulation of fans can go a long way toward making a driver better. Plus, he’ll be running Nationwide again and that always makes him stronger in the Cup Series.”

Another warns: “He’s still Kyle Busch. He can blow up at some point in time and ruin all of the work of a season. Matt Kenseth’s success can put pressure on Busch to keep up within his own organization. Also, the tracks in the Chase are some of Busch’s weaker tracks on the schedule. And he still has to deal with the backlash of his continual abuse of the drivers in the Truck and Nationwide series from fans and media.”

“A crew chief once described Kyle Busch to me as being ‘the Fourth of July’ — just fireworks everywhere,” a media member says. “I don’t know if I can describe him any better.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
Busch has won at more tracks (15) than not (eight) in the CoT/Gen-6 era, for a total of 25 victories. It can happen on any given weekend.
Pretty Solid Pick: His favorites? Bristol and Richmond, where he has scored four wins apiece since 2007.
Good Sleeper Pick: The Charlotte win is coming. He has nine top 5s in the last 13 points-paying races in the heart of NASCAR country.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Kansas, where he’s crashed out of the last three consecutive races. Too much time in the casino, Kyle?
Insider Tip: We refuse to insult your racing IQ. Busch is as dynamic a wheelman as there is and thus is capable of winning in droves. Last season’s strong Chase results (finally!) may be the last piece to his title puzzle.


No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Sponsors:
Mars/M&M’s/Interstate Batteries
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Dave Rogers
Years with current team: 7
Under contract through: 2016+
Best points finish: 4th (2013)
Hometown: Las Vegas, Nev.
Born: May 2, 1985


Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Teaser:
Kyle Busch and his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team charge into the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
Post date: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 - 23:54
All taxonomy terms: Matt Kenseth, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-matt-kenseth
Body:

Matt Kenseth blew away most expectations in his first go-round with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013.  Matt Kenseth

His series-leading seven race wins and runner-up finish in the point standings were simply outstanding. They made Kenseth’s preseason nerves about the switch — he said in December 2012 that he actually got nervous about hopping in the new Toyotas after spending his entire Sprint Cup career at Roush Fenway Racing, later kicking himself for causing an engine problem during a test — seem almost laughable.

Kenseth was sensational from the start, looking like a good bet to win the Daytona 500 before his engine gave way just past halfway, and he held an edge on Jimmie Johnson through much of the Chase. Only a whiffed setup in the penultimate race kept him from going head-to-head with Johnson in the season finale. Otherwise, Kenseth very easily could have been walking away from NASCAR’s December awards banquet in Las Vegas with the sport’s largest haul of all. It was a career year in every sense of the word.

It leaves us with little doubt that Kenseth will vie for the title again this year.

However, his strength in 2013 should bring a new set of nerves for the 2003 Sprint Cup champion. The dynamite campaign has launched him from an interesting hire at JGR to presumed leader of both that team and the Toyota brigade in general. A run deep into the Chase for the Sprint Cup and the season title will be expected. Taking the championship wouldn’t be a surprise.

It’s an interesting place for the soon-to-be 42-year-old, who didn’t handle that role well when anointed RFR’s leader in 2007. But it’s a role that Kenseth is well-suited for now based both on his personal career progression and the unrelenting nature of JGR.

Kenseth’s seven wins in 2013 were a career peak, putting him at 13 total victories in the last three seasons. Last year also featured the best average starting position of the Wisconsin driver’s career — 8.7, a number that led the series. Not bad for a guy whose lifetime average is a mediocre 18.5. Not only was Kenseth starting closer to the front than ever before, but he also had, on average, a better pit road selection as a result of his strengthened early-weekend performances. That’s crucial for the track position he earned and must maintain in NASCAR’s hyper-competitive new world. Kenseth was both holding and picking up spots on pit road more than ever — a key difference in a race’s final throes.

JGR itself remains just a break or two from scoring its first title since Tony Stewart last won one for the organization in 2005. Kenseth’s teammate, Kyle Busch, put together the most splendid season he’s had in terms of consistency and Chase legitimacy. It produced Busch’s best-ever finish (fourth) in the Chase standings.

Kenseth’s other teammate, Denny Hamlin, likely would have been a Chase contender had he not suffered a back injury at Auto Club Speedway in the spring that forced him to the sidelines for five races.

Hamlin’s setback could be pivotal for the JGR group going forward, however. Once it was clear that Hamlin wasn’t going to be a Chase participant, he became little more than an experimental pilot for the team. There were days when it showed — Hamlin spent much of the back half of the season battling an out-to-lunch race car with little fanfare — but then there was also the terrific season finale for No. 11 that resulted in a win.

We’ll never know the full impact of Hamlin’s experimental work for JGR, at least not yet. However, engineers are the lifeblood of fast cars in today’s NASCAR, and engineers live on data. The more they have, the more accurate shock adjustment or front-end geometry can be. As long as NASCAR’s offseason changes to the Gen-6 car don’t throw all that completely data out the window, expect them to come out of the box full speed ahead.

However, even major changes from NASCAR should not impact Kenseth terribly this year. We know how good the organization is, and 2013 showed just how good a driver with a fresh perspective could be with great equipment.

Perhaps there’s a small mental hurdle for Kenseth to clear in that, as he turns 42 this year, last season’s run might have been his last, best chance for a title. His even-keeled personality makes that unlikely, though. A seven-win campaign will be tough to duplicate, but don’t be surprised if he and the No. 20 team are in the hunt in Homestead once again.


What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media

Matt Kenseth answered any questions about his new gig at Joe Gibbs Racing with a resounding debut season in the No. 20 Toyota.

“When the door shuts, he is always there,” one crew chief shrugged matter-of-factly. “He’s a closer. He’s sneaky. He’s sly, but he’s very clean. Kenseth is a very productive race car driver.”

“He needs to work on Phoenix, though!” another joked. “Look, except for that one race he was always there last year. He was ‘game on’ and even his qualifying efforts were good. I don’t know if there is anything else they need — put a fourth coat of wax on it and he’s good.”

A media member points out that Kenseth may have actually found a deeper level of maturity last year: “Remember when he and Vickers went at it in Martinsville in 2011 during the Chase? Kenseth still had a title shot that year, and he shot himself in the foot by stooping to (Brian) Vickers’ level. There was no self-inflicted wound last year. Yeah, the Phoenix race will haunt that team, but sans that one race, they went toe-to-toe with the 48. … There’s this myth about a championship runner-up hangover, but I don’t expect that out of Kenseth and Jason Ratcliff. They’re too solid.”

 

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: It took 10 Cup seasons to notch a win on a plate track, but he’s been as reliable as any driver at Daytona and Talladega ever since.
Pretty Solid Pick: Ten of his 15 CoT/Gen-6 era victories — and 22 of his 31 career Cup triumphs — have come on the intermediates. This isn’t just the product of the Roush years, either.
Good Sleeper Pick: With the Loudon win out of the way, we’re guessing that Martinsville is the next supposed Achilles' heel where Kenseth cashes in.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Kenseth has totaled five top 10s in 28 career road course starts. Bob Bondurant he is not. Heck, he’s not even a Paul Newman.
Insider Tip: Save for the road courses, Kenseth is able to post wins most anywhere. He’s smart enough not to overdrive in the pursuit, though.


No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Sponsors:
Dollar General/Home Depot-Husky Tools
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Jason Ratcliff
Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: 2015+
Best points finish: 1st (2003)
Hometown: Cambridge, Wis.
Born: March 10, 1972


Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
 

 

Teaser:
After a stellar 2013 debut with Joe Gibbs Racing, Matt Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff set their sights on the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
Post date: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 - 23:52
All taxonomy terms: Denny Hamlin, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-denny-hamlin
Body:

Denny Hamlin can’t wait for NASCAR’s 2014 season to officially begin. By the time it does, he’ll have been ready for a new beginning for just shy of 11 months.  Denny Hamlin

Such is life when an injury keeps a NASCAR driver out of the seat for four races, ruining all aspirations of scoring that gleaming Sprint Cup trophy.

“You’re kind of racing for nothing, really,” Hamlin conceded last November, finally done with his nightmare season. “It’s hard to find the motivation to perform at 100 percent when you’re trying to find yourself, trying to figure out what feel you need, really when you feel like you’re not racing for anything.”

Hamlin, of course, was ready to take on Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the NASCAR world in his eighth full-time Cup season. After a frustrating 2011 — the worst year of his career — he had leapt forward in 2012, snagging five wins. With veteran Matt Kenseth joining him and Kyle Busch as a teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013, things seemed ready to fall into place.

Instead, disaster struck only five races in. Hard racing against new nemesis and old teammate Joey Logano wrecked both drivers in the final corner on the final lap at Auto Club Speedway late in March. Instead of holding on for his first win of 2013, Hamlin piled nose-first into an unprotected wall just before pit road. He had to be taken from the crash on a stretcher and was later diagnosed with multiple fractures in his lower back.

Hamlin missed four races, adjusting his window of making the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup to the status of “miracle needed.” Upon his return, it seemed like all systems go. He scored top-5 finishes in his first two full races back from the injury and top-10 finishes in three of the first four. Hamlin even won back-to-back poles at Charlotte and Dover, drawing comparisons to the speedy recovery from his torn ACL three years earlier.

But then, the dream fell apart. Hamlin finished 21st or worse in five straight races through July and ultimately crashed out of four of the 12 events after his return. He also blew engines three more times before the season ended — totaling eight DNFs for the year, the most he has piled together in one Cup season.

The miracle Chase bid obviously didn’t come. Instead, it forced Hamlin to pivot roles for JGR as the season headed to a close. Hamlin went from running for a championship to running for setup answers that could help his Chase-qualified teammates in their fight to secure the title.

The results — including the blown engines — were often nasty. But it left an interesting question for Hamlin to ponder in the offseason: What’s the advantage of testing for 2014 while others were at work for 2013?

The short answer is momentum, as a late-season surge kept crew chief Darian Grubb on board — after rumors of his firing — and stabilized confidence within the program. Hamlin’s back, seemingly destined for offseason surgery, also improved through a series of alternative treatments.

Hamlin might have given us a sneak peak of his true return to form in the Homestead season finale. He drove his black No. 11 to its first victory of the season during the coronation of Johnson’s sixth championship.

For Hamlin, it was no fluke. He knew right away that the team had hit on the setup. But perhaps the most telling part of Hamlin’s win was the parallel he drew afterward.

“As bad as the year is, we can take a little solace in this finish, spend these next two months regrouping, getting our team back in order,” Hamlin said. “I feel like there’s no reason why we can’t shoot out of the gates in 2014 like we did in 2010 after winning (Homestead) in 2009.”

That 2010 season, of course, was Hamlin’s eight-win campaign. He even led Johnson heading to the Chase finale before stumbling and finishing second in the championship.

While that presumption is likely a bit too much, it’s not a stretch to see Hamlin as a championship contender It’s just harder to see how he’ll overcome the strength of his teammates — a situation that could relegate him to a supporting role once again. His chronic back issues — and the problems they can cause Hamlin in setting up a car — just remain too much of a concern.

Regardless, 2014 figures to bring more success — and far less frustration — than the season Hamlin endured last year.


What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media

“Hamlin is a racer,” a championship-caliber crew chief says. “He has won every year since he came into the series and it didn’t take him years to learn it like some other drivers. His first full season he was in Victory Lane. He’s run for a championship and, like they say, before you can win one you have to lose one. He’s also feeling healthier thanks to some alternative treatments for his back.”

“There are two big questions for Hamlin,” another says. “Will his back hold up or will it let him down in the middle of the year and result in more subpar performances? And will Hamlin’s head allow him run for a title? He has the talent to win a title, but his head has gotten in his way more than once. He needs to be able to shake off a bad run and take advantage of his good ones. His back was supposed to need surgery and now he’s having ‘alternative’ treatments that he thinks are working. When he goes for the long stretch in the summer without a break his back might ignore those treatments.”

“He’s a talent, no doubt, but winning a title involves more than just natural ability,” one media member says. “He’s a driver that, on paper, should be in the mix every year, but for him to actually follow through on a championship? Well, that’s been a debacle thus far.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
Martinsville is still Hamlin’s spot, with four wins and 11 top 10s in 13 CoT/Gen-6 era races.
Pretty Solid Pick: He’s no slouch at Darlington either, with a 4.7-place average showing since the CoT was rolled out in 2007.
Good Sleeper Pick: Why don’t Hamlin’s two wins in Michigan since 2008 get as much play as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s? Juuuust kidding.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Chicagoland has never been especially kind. Maybe it has something to do with it kicking off the Chase.
Insider Tip: When Denny is “right” — healthy back, positive outlook, etc. — he has very few weak spots. In fact, he has recorded top-10 finishes at every track over the last five years alone.


No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Sponsors
: FedEx/Sport Clips
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Darian Grubb
Years with current team: 10
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 2nd (2010)
Hometown: Chesterfield, Va.
Born: Nov. 11, 1980


Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

 

Teaser:
After an injury-ridden 2013, Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team looks regain its place among the elite in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Post date: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 - 23:50
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/marlin-briscoe-blazed-trail-one-nfls-first-black-quarterbacks
Body:
When the 1972 Dolphins visited the White House in August 2013 to be feted for their undefeated season, President Obama didn’t need help identifying Don Shula, Larry Csonka and Bob Griese. 
 
Or Marlin Briscoe.
 
“I introduced myself to him, and he said, ‘I know who you are; you’re a trailblazer,’” Briscoe says. “I will take that to the grave.”
 
Briscoe wasn’t the first African-American to play quarterback in the NFL or AFL — that designation goes to Chicago’s Willie Thrower, who played one game at the position in 1953 — but his success with the Broncos in 1968 helped create opportunity for future generations of black QBs. Today’s players like Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton owe him a lot. For Briscoe, his play in 11 games with Denver was more than just groundbreaking on the gridiron. It reached to the White House.
 
“I told some reporters once that there had to be a black quarterback before there was a black president, because of what that position meant in sports,” Briscoe says.
 
He may well be right. When coach Lou Saban turned to Briscoe, the professional football world didn’t believe that African-Americans could lead a team. That’s hard for many to imagine now, given the preponderance of black QBs at all levels of the game, including the NFL. But in 1968, when race relations were at their most tumultuous, Briscoe was a pioneer. And if the idea then of a black QB was out of the question, the concept of an African-American as president was an impossible dream. 
 
“Somebody had to do it,” says Briscoe, now 68 and living in Long Beach, Calif. “Somebody had to be ordained to create an atmosphere for acceptance of black quarterbacks who could think, throw and lead at that level.”
 
With the exception of his senior season at Omaha South (Neb.) High School, when he played running back at the behest of his coach, Briscoe was always a quarterback, dating back to his Pop Warner days. At Nebraska-Omaha (then Omaha University), “The Magician” set a pile of school records and threw for 2,283 yards and 25 touchdowns as a senior. Denver drafted him in the 14th round as a defensive back, but Briscoe negotiated a three-day tryout at QB into his contract and demonstrated that he could handle the work. In late September, when starter Steve Tensi broke his collarbone and the backups were struggling, Briscoe — who had torn a hamstring during camp — arrived at practice to see a No. 15 jersey in his locker. 
 
“I thought I had been cut, and they had signed another quarterback,” Briscoe says. “But I turned around, and there was Saban. He said, ‘You see that number 15 in your locker?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘That’s your jersey.’ Talk about someone’s leg getting well quickly.”
 
Briscoe started five games for the Broncos and still holds team rookie records for total offense in a season (1,897 yards), TD passes (14) and touchdown passes in a game (four). His 1,589 yards passing stood as a Denver rookie mark until John Elway threw for 1,663 in 1983. 
But Briscoe’s tenure under center was short-lived. The Broncos brought in CFL vet Pete Liske to compete with Tensi for the starter’s job in 1969 and didn’t even include Briscoe in offseason quarterback meetings. He considered turning to the CFL and flirted with returning to Omaha to put his education degree to work, but he instead signed with Buffalo, where he became an All-Pro wide receiver. He played eight more years in the NFL, including three in Miami, earned a pair of Super Bowl rings and averaged a gaudy 15.8 yards per catch. Briscoe attempted only nine passes after leaving Denver.
 
“You look at high school games, college games and pro games today, and you see black quarterbacks everywhere,” Briscoe says. 
 
But there is only one that the president singled out.
 
—By Michael Bradley
 
Teaser:
Before Doug Williams, Warren Moon and Robert Griffin III, there was Marlin Briscoe.
Post date: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 - 11:15
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-danica-patrick
Body:

Have the GoDaddy domains been taken for “disappointing.com,” “overrated.org” and “myboyfriendkickedmybuttforrookieof…” OK, you get the picture. Danica Patrick’s rookie year on the Sprint Cup circuit peaked early, with a pole at the Daytona 500 and her only top-10 finish (eighth). She led five laps that day, and believe it or not, that was the last time she was up front for a Cup race. Weeks of torturous performances followed, from ugly wrecks involving back-markers like David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil, to handling woes that were never corrected, to a two-laps-down 30th at Indianapolis — the track that transformed her career.  Danica Patrick

She did have a couple decent runs, particularly at Martinsville, where Patrick posted 12th- and 17th-place head-turners. But the learning curve proved to be a steep one for Patrick, who finished the season 27th in driver points — slotting behind two drivers (Mark Martin and Denny Hamlin) who missed a dozen races total between them.

That said, it’s still hard to overlook “Danica Patrick” off the track. She’s popular with fans, garners plenty of media attention, has a high-profile sponsor and drives a bright green and orange car that’s easily spotted in a crowded field on race day. Her boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., could skyrocket into Chase contention this season. But part of the reason she stands out at Stewart-Haas Racing, a team that has suddenly built a stable of thoroughbreds, is how much worse she performs on-track by comparison.

Can things improve? Patrick will continue to work with crew chief Tony Gibson, a veteran leader with whom she communicates well. Beyond Gibson, SHR has infused some new blood into its other teams; Gibson was the only head wrench to keep his 2013 role. New additions mean new ideas that could benefit the No. 10 team while Patrick enjoys the steadying guidance of a familiar crew chief. She has been very willing to learn, and the team around her will be solid. Further, she’s received a hearty vote of confidence from team co-owner Stewart.

Patrick also has a sponsor eager to back her efforts in GoDaddy.com — along with a couple of races with Aspen Dental — meaning her team is financially set. SHR is also among the sport’s elite in terms of equipment. The cars are as fast as they are durable, with the organization experiencing just a single engine failure last year.

Behind the scenes, a cavalry of elite drivers has been assigned to help her. New teammate Kevin Harvick, in particular, took her under his wing privately last fall, while Martin looks to stay with the organization as a driver coach.

From an on-track perspective, there’s nowhere to go but up for Patrick, whose team and even NASCAR (although it publicly wouldn’t admit to it) are going to give her every opportunity to succeed. But the competition continues to improve around her.

Considering that last season was spent trying to beat those with a sliver of her cash and resources for 30th place, Danica needs to pick it up considerably if the results are to ever come close to matching the hype.


What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media

Despite her sub-par record in NASCAR, few garage insiders can argue that Danica Patrick doesn’t work hard at learning the stock-car trade.

“Very coachable and willing to try whatever it takes to become a better driver,” a rival crew chief says. “The expectations are honestly not that high if she can just improve over last season. GoDaddy is still pumping money into the coffers at SHR. She has two former Cup champions in her organization to learn from and with (Kurth) Busch, (Kevin) Harvick and (Tony) Stewart in the fold, she can actually fly under the radar. She hasn’t driven other stock cars, so her entire frame of reference is the COT/Gen-6 platform.”

And then there’s the “attractive woman” thing: “She’s always going to be viewed as getting her shot because of her looks,” says another. “But most forget that she’s still learning how to race a full-bodied stock car. She’s a small person and these are heavy cars. Even though there is power steering and other amenities in these cars, you still have to wrestle them around the track.”

“She’s not a proven winner,” another contends. “Her one Indy win was a fuel mileage deal. More tracks are going to get tires that wear out, and she’s never had to do deal with tire management.”


No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Sponsors:
No. 10 GoDaddy.com/Aspen Dental Chevrolet
Owner: Tony Stewart/Gene Haas/Joe Custer
Crew Chief: Tony Gibson
Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: 2014+
Best points finish: 27th (2013)
Hometown: Roscoe, Ill.
Born: March 25, 1982


Photos courtesy of Stewart-Haas Racing
For complete Speedweeks coverage, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Teaser:
Danica Patrick joins teammates Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick at powerhouse Stewart-Haas Racing on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit in 2014.
Post date: Monday, February 10, 2014 - 23:53
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-tony-stewart
Body:

Tony Stewart has an impeccable résumé. He’s an IndyCar Series champion, coming within a whisker of an Indy 500 victory. He’s a three-time NASCAR Cup champion, the only driver who can lay claim to a “Winston Cup,” “Nextel Cup” and “Sprint Cup” title. He’s currently tied for 13th on NASCAR’s all-time wins list with 48 Cup trophies on his shelf. Stewart is, without a doubt, one of the best drivers ever to grace North American motorsports.  Tony Stewart

But as the 2014 season opens, he’s also damaged goods.

Stewart’s racing career was derailed on Aug. 5, at a racetrack far from the spotlight of NASCAR, when he broke both bones in his right lower leg in a sprint car crash at Southern Iowa Speedway. He had to undergo three different surgeries on the leg, missing the remainder of the 2013 Sprint Cup season. Stewart is slated to return to the seat for Speedweeks, but there will inevitably be questions about his ability to race going forward.

“I have a huge appreciation for just daily things that I can’t do now,” he said in November, while still struggling to walk. “It’s like I have to plan, I have to think about stuff. When I go to leave, I don’t want to have to go back up those steps.”

Those are troubling words for a driver slated to go 200 miles per hour come Daytona. Even though “Smoke” has been cleared to race in the 500, he admits he’ll only be about 65 percent. For a driver who hasn’t raced in six months  — even one of Stewart’s caliber — question marks remain. Will he be less aggressive, subconsciously backing down when it counts due to worry or anticipation of pain? It’s happened before to injured drivers, and until Stewart has a few races under his belt, there’s no way to know what the aftereffects of the injury, physical or psychological, might be. Even this generation’s A.J. Foyt has his limits.

It’s important to note that Stewart’s 2013 season wasn’t exactly championship-caliber before the injury. He was in the top 10 in points only twice before the accident, for a total of two weeks. He did have a win, but his season started out so poorly that he didn’t look like the same driver he was in 2011-12. After Mark Martin posted similar results in a substitute role, crew chief Steve Addington was canned as part of an organization-wide reshuffling.

So in comes Chad Johnston from the No. 56 of Michael Waltrip Racing to lead the No. 14 team’s program. In two-and-a-half seasons together, Johnston and Martin Truex Jr. had one win and a lone Chase appearance (2012). Johnston is a risk-taker, armed with a youthful mindset, which is a good match for an aggressive veteran in Stewart. He’ll be one of three new head wrenches in all as the organization grows to four teams.

How that expansion happened will also have an effect on Stewart’s season. Co-owner Gene Haas made the decision to hire Kurt Busch himself, without consultation, while his partner was struggling through leg surgery. Stewart has downplayed any potential rift, taking the standpoint that you don’t cry over spilled milk. But it’s clear that Haas, enamored with Busch, will be more involved in SHR’s day-to-day operations, an abrupt change for a dogged independent like Stewart. As for the drivers themselves, Stewart, Busch and Kevin Harvick are championship-caliber, but all three are also volatile personalities. In addition, Danica Patrick struggled mightily in her rookie season and needs to improve. If things go south on any front, it could prove to be a distraction.

On the upside, Stewart-Haas Racing gets both chassis and engines from reigning champion Hendrick Motorsports, which should remain ahead of the curve on NASCAR’s Gen-6. Stewart’s 2011 title laid to rest questions of whether Hendrick was giving SHR lesser stuff, and with two new teammates to draw information from, playing “catch-up” could come more easily. Sponsorship from Bass Pro Shops, Mobil 1 and several smaller deals keeps this team top-tier.

The problem is, there are so many question marks: Stewart’s health, a third new crew chief in four years and a team dynamic with the potential to be explosive. It’s a little like a minefield — one wrong move, and this team goes from potential title contender to struggling. Stewart’s had a little of both the past few years, taking the racing legend full circle. As he turns 43 in May, it’s like he’s a rookie with something to prove all over again.


What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media

Despite age and injury, Tony Stewart is still viewed as the gold standard by his competitors.

“Stewart is probably the most well-rounded driver in the series,” one crew chief says. “Not only has he won races in everything he’s run, but he’s won championships in most of them. He’s a badass. He doesn’t care about anything but winning — even at this stage in his career. … He’s proven that he can win in the Chase format, and if he and Chad Johnston can learn how to make the car work on intermediate racetracks, he’ll give the field a run for the title.”

Despite the almost universal respect, there are questions surrounding the three-time Cup champ. “He’s recovering from the broken leg, and that could affect his stamina and may create discomfort while he’s driving,” another crew chief notes. “He’s also had consistency issues with crew chiefs. He is a team owner, and the requirements of running a race team can be a distraction. With the organization increasing to four teams next season — and Kurt Busch coming over against Stewart's wishes — the tension in the shop could be detrimental to his success. Stewart’s temper can get the best of him at times, and that can cause him, and his team, to melt down.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers
: Truly one of the most versatile drivers in NASCAR, Stewart can win — and has won — on every type of track.
Pretty Solid Pick: He’s still a pied piper on the plate tracks — most notably Daytona, where he had the car to beat in last year’s 500 before it was totaled in someone else’s mess.
Good Sleeper Pick: His track record says a lot. But it does not say “sleeper.”
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Darlington, where Stewart is winless in his Cup Series career.
Insider Tip: Stewart has won a race in each of his 15 years in the Cup Series. Only twice in that time has he been limited to one victory in a season (and that includes 2013, when he sat out 15 races).


No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Sponsors: Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1
Owner: Tony Stewart
Crew Chief: Chad Johnston
Years with current team: 6
Under contract through: N/A
Best points finish: 1st (2002, ’05, ’11)
Hometown: Columbus, Ind.
Born: May 20, 1971


Photos courtesy of Stewart-Haas Racing
For complete Speedweeks coverage, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

 

Teaser:
Tony Stewart will return to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing for the first time since August 2013 at Daytona International Speedway.
Post date: Monday, February 10, 2014 - 23:52
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-kevin-harvick
Body:

It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than a dozen years since Kevin Harvick, at age 25, was thrust into the NASCAR spotlight, handed the impossible task of mending broken hearts just days after the death of Dale Earnhardt. Harvick rose to the challenge, winning two races in 2001 and propelling himself into the top 10 in points as a rookie, despite a temper that would plague him in the early part of his career. A roller-coaster relationship with team owner Richard Childress, built in the midst of tragedy, was often tempestuous in public. But it also produced terrific success — to the point that as of their divorce in November 2013, only Jeff Gordon had been with his current team for longer among the current crop of full-time Sprint Cup competitors.  Kevin Harvick

Now, at age 38, Harvick hopes to be this year’s Matt Kenseth, ending a long-term marriage with the hopes that his NASCAR mid-life crisis reinvigorates his prospects for a championship. His move to Stewart-Haas Racing should be a positive one — in fact, in what organization other than RCR would you expect him to seamlessly fit right in? He and team co-owner Tony Stewart are longtime friends with similar racing styles, and SHR’s equipment is a baby step above RCR’s. The team runs chassis and engines from 2013 champs Hendrick Motorsports, meaning that the cars will be both fast and reliable. While RCR is a championship team, it is also nearly 20 years removed from a Cup title; SHR has the 2011 Sprint Cup trophy in the case.

This full-scale reboot, one that has seen SHR also revamp itself, means Harvick will work with veteran crew chief Rodney Childers. Childers has won races with Michael Waltrip Racing, most recently the 2013 summer race at Loudon, in which he took a surprising win with part-time driver Brian Vickers. Childers is a bold head wrench, not afraid to push the envelope, which has gotten him in hot water in the past. During a period from 2007 through 2011, he was the most penalized crew chief in the series. However, with Vice President of Engineering Matt Borland and VP of Competition Greg Zipadelli still on board, there’s a mix of proven methods and new ideas that could prove beneficial.

Another point in Harvick’s corner is sponsorship. His major backers, Budweiser and Jimmy John’s, both move to SHR with the driver, joining with existing SHR partners for 33 races. The stats give good reason for these companies to stay attached; third in points in three of the last four seasons with RCR, Harvick posted four wins in 2013 while averaging a finish of 11.2 (second only to series champion Jimmie Johnson).

Harvick has matured — the temper is still there, but he no longer races every lap like it’s the last (33 lead-lap finishes last year attest to that). His nickname — “The Closer” — sticks better than ever these days for a driver who’s at his best in a race’s final segment. The question for Harvick, just a few months removed from having a sledgehammer thrown at him on national television, is whether he can keep things from getting personal in-house. In 2013, his team remarkably turned a “lame duck” year into a shot at the championship at Homestead despite internal strife. That alone should give him the benefit of the doubt. In fact, considering the volatile personalities of Stewart and Kurt Busch within SHR, it might be Harvick’s ability to stay calm that keeps this fragile house of cards intact.

So can a Kenseth-like run be in the offing? SHR was a little behind the game in 2013, although Stewart was heating up before an injury ended his season. During down times, Harvick will have to keep communicating, not just to Childers when handling gets rough but also in the shop on Monday. Hotheads typically produce horrific outcomes; there’s a reason why Hendrick Motorsports stays on top year in, year out. But Harvick has already put himself in position to deliver, privately working with Danica Patrick the last few months while downplaying his former dislike of Busch. Successful on intermediates, Harvick also brings Gen-6 knowledge to the table to shore up this organization’s largest weakness.

It’s all part of a brave new world for Harvick, who is finally stepping out of Earnhardt’s shadow to create a legacy of his own. The road ahead is paved with growing pains, but Harvick has managed to defy odds in the past, and things should be no different this season. Expect him to make the most of a chance to write his own chapter.


What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media

“Harvick was in the hunt until the end last season when he was a lame-duck driver,” a rival notes. “It takes a special person to stay competitive when tensions are so high and everyone expects you to fail. Harvick has won races in RCR equipment when the rest of the organization has been less than competitive. He hates to lose and can win on most any type of racetrack.”

“Harvick’s emotions need to be kept in check,” another says. “He can fly off of the handle on his team, his organization and his fellow drivers. He needs to learn that not everyone performs their best if they are being berated whenever they make the smallest misstep. He’s also going to a new team, and any time you go to a new team the chemistry takes a while to be established. He’s going to have to get along with Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart — and that could be a tall order when he gets together with one of them on the track, especially if he thinks one of them is getting better equipment.”

“I whiffed on Harvick big time last year,” one media member says. “He really is a different guy than he was just three years ago. And now that he’s in good buddy Tony Stewart’s house, I think big things are in store.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
What makes Harvick so dangerous is that he — unlike many drivers — is capable of winning on any type of track. Plates and shorts seem to be his bread ’n’ butter.
Pretty Solid Pick: Teammates Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch (OK, and Danica) make for some mighty powerful drafting partners.
Good Sleeper Pick: Eleven top 10s in 13 Homestead races? How has he not won there yet?
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Very few. In the CoT/Gen-6 era, Harvick has recorded a top-5 finish at every track except Kentucky and Watkins Glen.
Insider Tip: Chemistry with Rodney Childers bears watching, but we don’t expect Harvick to miss a beat at “Uncles Smoke’s” operation.


No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Sponsors:
No. 4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s/Outback Steakhouse
Owners: Tony Stewart/Joe Custer/Gene Haas
Crew Chief: Rodney Childers
Years with current team: 1
Under contract through: 2016
Best points finish: 3rd (2010, ’11, ‘13)
Hometown: Bakersfield, Calif.
Born: Dec. 8, 1975


Photos courtesy of Stewart-Haas Racing
For complete Speedweeks coverage, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

 

Teaser:
After a 13-year tenure at Richard Childress Racing, Kevin Harvick transitions to Stewart-Haas Racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Post date: Monday, February 10, 2014 - 23:51
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-kurt-busch
Body:

At first glance, Kurt Busch’s move to Stewart-Haas Racing after a season at single-car Furniture Row Racing would seem like the driver won the lottery. Busch, a former series champion, took FRR all the way to the Chase in 2013, and despite not winning a race, finished inside the top 10 in points with a season-long 14.7-place average finish. It was the first time a single-car team made the postseason under NASCAR’s Chase format, with Busch earning more top 5s in one season (11) than the team accrued during its last eight years of existence. With equipment like SHR can offer, Busch is a no-brainer for a 16-team Chase spot this season and, in time, his second Sprint Cup title.  Kurt Busch

In reality, though, the move is a bit more lateral. It’s still a step up, but it’s a step up from Richard Childress Racing equipment, not that of an underfunded, single-car organization. FRR upped its technical alliance with RCR last year to the point where certain employees worked for both programs; despite its Colorado location, FRR was Childress’ de facto “fourth team.” And it was certainly no turn-key operation.

Even in that scenario, Busch remained impressive, earning this opportunity. As an RCR driver, he’d have ranked second only to Kevin Harvick in 2013 after handily outperforming Paul Menard and Jeff Burton. On the PR front, where Busch has posted failing grades for several years, he now rarely missteps under the guidance of girlfriend Patricia Driscoll, who has almost single-handedly remade his image. Even on the track, Busch seemed more controlled last season. Perhaps that was a result of a lack of pressure in a second-tier ride. Or perhaps, after hard lessons learned, Busch has finally grown up.

If so, what he gives SHR, at age 35, is a third title contender in the stable. Busch is a proven champion, along with new boss Tony Stewart, and if RCR cars are a step behind those in Stewart’s house, Harvick should be a favorite as well. What that all means is that if the three teams can share information effectively, it will only make the group stronger. But that’s not a given. All three are elite driving talents, but they are also incredibly volatile — with both Stewart and Harvick having had run-ins with Busch in the past.

In addition, when Busch was announced as the driver of a new, fourth SHR team with sponsorship from in-house Haas Automation, a company owned by team co-owner Gene Haas, Stewart made no secret of his initial dislike of the deal. After all, he had told the media months before that he was cutting Ryan Newman loose because there was no funding for a fourth program. Stewart has mellowed a bit by now, but there is the potential for internal strife. After all, just last April he wanted to punch Busch at Richmond, unhappy with the way he was being raced. But to be fair, Stewart typically wants to do that to someone on a weekly basis.

One team member who will play a key role for Busch’s newly numbered 41 this season is crew chief Daniel Knost. Knost was formerly an engineer for Newman at SHR, and 2014 will be his first season calling the shots for a team. How Knost communicates will be key to success. Even an older, wiser Busch still has a tendency to “lose it” on the radio rather than provide the useful information needed. Knost will need to be able to steer Busch back to fixing the problem rather than compounding it if the team is to be a consistent success.

SHR’s race chassis and engines come from Hendrick Motorsports, so that puts SHR a half-step ahead of RCR. Team owner Haas will make sure the team is well-funded, so there is no reason for Busch not to perform well right out of the box if he can work effectively with Knost. 

The key for Busch, more than any other piece of the puzzle, is to be patient and handle the pressure. It’s obvious that Stewart-Haas Racing is making a move to become even more of a powerhouse than it already is by adding Busch and Harvick to the lineup. But meshing could take time, adding frustration for a driver who has waited two years for that “one last chance” at a title-contending ride. If all goes well, this team makes the Chase, but where it goes from there is still up in the air; 2014 could be a bit of a building year for the future more than one of instant success. Can Busch handle that? In November 2011, no one would have expected he’d get this chance, and he’s done a great job of proving doubters wrong. But 2014 will undoubtedly be yet another big test.


What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media

“Putting the Furniture Row car in the Chase was an enormous compliment to just how good of a driver Busch is,” one competitor says. “He’s able to get the most out of anything that he can drive. His team knows that he gives 100 percent every single time he climbs in the car. And he seems to be a more relaxed individual now that he has his current girlfriend in his life.”

Looking forward, another says: “Busch is going to have to deal with the circumstances around his hiring at Stewart-Haas for some time until his teammates accept him. Whether it’s true or not, the thought that Busch was Haas’s guy and not Tony’s guy is going to weigh heavily on the whole organization. Busch has some lingering bitterness with his new teammates, and if something brings those feelings to the surface, it could get ugly.”

“Kurt has all the talent in the world, but can he co-exist with Stewart and Harvick?” one media member asks. “I can see a Stewart-Harvick clique that excludes Kurt. Despite Stewart saying all the right things, I don’t think he’s a ‘Kurt guy.’ And Haas making this deal basically without Tony’s and Zippy’s knowledge or approval provides an interesting glimpse into the power structure at SHR.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
For all the talk about Busch being back in a competitive ride, it’s rarely noted that he’s won only seven races in a CoT or Gen-6 car — and those came bundled in four years while in Penske equipment.
Pretty Solid Pick: That said, he should parlay his new Hendrick/Stewart-Haas ride into strong showings at any number of places. Much like his new teammate, Kevin Harvick, Busch is versatile.
Good Sleeper Pick: Surprisingly, he’s never won a points-paying plate race. He’s got the dancing partners to do so now — if they can all get along.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Martinsville just continues to confound him.
Insider Tip: Will he be “one of the gang” or on an island at Stewart-Haas Racing? If nothing else, this will be fun to watch.


No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Sponsors:
Haas Automation/State Water Heaters
Owner: Tony Stewart/Gene Haas/Joe Custer
Crew Chief: Daniel Knost
Years with current team: 1
Under contract through: 2015+
Best points finish: 1st (2004)
Hometown: La Vegas, Nev.
Born: Aug. 4, 1978

 

 

Photos courtesy of Stewart-Haas Racing

For complete Speedweeks coverage, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
 

 

Teaser:
Can Kurt Busch co-exist with new teammates Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick at Stewart-Haas Racing? The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season will answer that question.
Post date: Monday, February 10, 2014 - 23:50
All taxonomy terms: Brad Keselowski, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-brad-keselowski
Body:

Ask Brad Keselowski how quickly one can go from “champ” to “chump.”  Brad Keselowski

One year after winning the 2012 Cup title, he found himself out of the hunt to defend his position atop the points after missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Unlike drivers Denny Hamlin or Tony Stewart, though, Keselowski didn’t get physically hurt. Instead, it was a year when the team mentally hurt itself. There was off-track controversy, including a February article that NASCAR saw as so scathingly critical that it earned Keselowski a one-on-one with CEO Brian France. There was a failed inspection in April, leading to a 25-point penalty, a lengthy appeal and crew suspensions that cost driver and team its rhythm. Then, there were the strategy shortcomings — losing races for everything from running out of gas to poor tire calls — that left both Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe at wit’s end.

“It’s been one of those years, where you say, ‘How much more can they throw at you?’” Keselowski said after Charlotte in October, the site of his lone 2013 win.

But Keselowski isn’t the type of driver to get down. Instead, after a strong Chase recovery that left him 14th in the standings, the best of drivers not to compete for a title is using the failed title defense as motivation. And a driver who excels when playing the role of underdog is good news for his Penske team as it moves forward.

In truth, driver and team aren’t really that far off. As an example, Keselowski's average finish in 2013 was 14.9. In 2011, with an average of 14.8, the same driver finished fifth in points. He hasn’t completely slipped, just slipped up at the wrong times. A wreck at Bristol in August that left him 30th was followed by a blown engine at Atlanta (35th). The two-week stretch cost him 60-plus points just before the Chase.

A manufacturer switch prior to the 2013 season also led to growing pains. But after moving from Dodge to Ford, Team Penske has quietly become a top Blue Oval team, outpacing current engine supplier Roush Fenway Racing down the stretch last season. Now in Year 2, they’re working more closely together, shrinking the information gap while gaining a level of mutual respect. Roush-Yates engines are durable (Keselowski suffered one engine failure last year) and produce good power. Penske’s two-car outfit may be a hair off of the top teams’ speed, but they’re plenty capable of winning races.

The most interesting move by Penske in 2013 was locking down Keselowski through the 2017 season with a contract extension. This move served a two-pronged need: granting the driver the raise he’d earned and, more important, keeping him in the fold.

When Keselowski jumped the Hendrick ship in 2009, team owner Rick Hendrick fired a warning shot, saying, “Wherever he goes, he’ll always be close enough for me to get him and bring him back. I’ve said all along I want him to have the best opportunity, and we have several options, but the one thing I told him is, ‘Look, if you decide to do something different, I want you to have the best opportunity, and whoever you go to drive for just tell them don’t get pissed off when I come after you.’”

With sponsorship on Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 team expiring in 2014 (AARP) and 2016 (Axalta) — and the veteran presumably exiting the seat sooner rather than later — Penske’s extension dodges a couple of Hendrick bullets.

Longtime sponsor Miller Lite will be back, but for only two dozen races — which tells us the driver got a well-deserved bonus for delivering “The Captain” his first Cup title. MillerCoors isn’t paying less; the asking price for sponsoring a title-winning driver and team went through the roof. Since, longtime Penske associate Alliance Truck Parts (eight races), as well as the Wurth Group (four), have come on board to fill out the season.

Wolfe will also be back at the helm, along with most of the crew, as both driver and chief believe 2013 was a mere anomaly. Wolfe and Keselowski are a formidable duo, calculating and aggressive. They communicate well and are able to adapt to a changing racetrack as well as overcome a bad situation during a race. They don’t often lose their cool, and that’s a big part of why they’re champions in a series that demands concentration and the ability to adapt. Wolfe is an excellent team leader, and his style yields results.

Given talent, equipment and the organization around him, it’s unlikely that Keselowski will stumble two years in a row. The team does need to improve on the intermediate tracks, where its average finish was a mediocre 17th. However, that late-season win at Charlotte, combined with four straight top-11 finishes to close out 2013, makes one think that most of the speed bumps are now behind them. Overall, the No. 2 team may still be a notch below Jimmie Johnson in terms of money, manpower and RPMs, but that gap didn’t stop Keselowski in 2012.

“A champion is forever,” he said at Homestead, not skipping a beat. “It might not be reigning, but you’re still a champion forever.  I’m proud of that.  I’m looking forward to the opportunities in the future to become a two-time champion.”

For Keselowski, those chances start right now. A Chase berth in a 16-team field is a lock in 2014 and a run at a second title wouldn't be a surprise.


What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media

“He’s the 2012 champion and he and Paul Wolfe continue to mature as a team,” a rival crew chief says. “Penske Racing will give him anything that he thinks he needs to succeed. Keselowski is still early on in his career development and can adapt to any variables thrown at him. He’s proven he can get more out of a car than most anyone, just look at what he did in JR Motorsports equipment and what everyone else has done in it since.”

“Keselowski is in a Ford, and they struggled for most of 2013,” another crew chief says. “Keselowski’s opinions can get him in trouble with the sanctioning body and that can add to the stress of the team. Another year of mediocrity could cause the talk of Kes being a one-hit wonder to surface.”

One media member asks: “The driver-crew chief duo is too good to not rebound, right? Last season was full of change for them: new manufacturer, new teammate, new alliance with RFR, new stature as the champ. I bet Kes & Wolfe learned a lot from it and it’ll probably make them better. Plus, I can’t help but think this team was penalized by NASCAR because of Keselowski’s pre-Daytona interview with USA Today. I really believe that.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
It takes a special breed to excel at Talladega on a consistent basis — and the thinking here is that Keselowski is one of those types.
Pretty Solid Pick: Keselowski’s last four Martinsville results show finishes of ninth, sixth, sixth and fourth. He’s trending in the right direction.
Good Sleeper Pick: Though not often mentioned as contenders in Loudon, N.H., this bunch has runs of sixth or better in four of the last five races.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Nothing jumps out, but this is worth mentioning: In only four full seasons, Auto Club Speedway is the lone top-10 outlier on his résumé. That’s pretty impressive.
Insider Tip: Keselowski and Paul Wolfe are too smart and talented to suffer a second straight sub-contender season. Use as an A-lister on most any weekend.


No. 2 Team Penske Ford
Sponsors:
Miller Lite/Alliance Truck Parts/Wurth Group
Owner: Roger Penske
Crew Chief: Paul Wolfe
Years with current team: 5
Under contract through: 2017
Best points finish: 1st (2012)
Hometown: Rochester Hills, Mich.
Born: Feb. 12, 1984


Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

For complete Speedweeks coverage, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

 

Teaser:
Brad Keselowski and the No. 2 Team Penske group shoot for a second NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in 2014.
Post date: Sunday, February 9, 2014 - 21:54
All taxonomy terms: Joey Logano, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-joey-logano
Body:

In the year in which he turned 23, the driver whom Mark Martin once called the “best of his generation” finally started living up to those lofty expectations. In his fifth Cup Series season, Joey Logano had a career year in 2013 after moving to Team Penske from Joe Gibbs’ operation, stabilizing the No. 22 car after becoming its fourth different driver in less than two years.  Joey Logano

Logano ran up front consistently, won from the pole at Michigan in August, and then made the Chase for the first time in his career. An eighth-place points finish was eight spots better than his previous best of 16th (2010). Logano also showed that he wouldn’t back down from conflict, either in or out of the race car. In one turn — on the last lap at Fontana — contact with Denny Hamlin altered a season, while older drivers learned to think twice about messing with a youngster coming into his own.

Now, the trick for Logano in 2014 is to remain among NASCAR’s elite. Can he? Yes, and with an expanded Chase field, he shouldn’t have an issue with a postseason bid — even if teammate Brad Keselowski, along with 2013 injury victims Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin, return to form.

At least Logano comes to battle armed with a solid support system. No major changes are expected on the No. 22 team this year, allowing Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon to build on the foundation they established in 2013. While he’s relatively new to the Cup scene, Gordon has been around the block in the sport, and he understands how to handle the young Logano well. Their pairing shows how chemistry can be fickle: With Gordon, Logano has already equaled the wins scored with Tony Stewart’s right-hand man, Greg Zipadelli, with whom he was paired at JGR from 2009-11.

Perhaps most important, the youngster has a true mentor in Keselowski. The former Cup champ has taken the driver under his wing, building a relationship that inspires a level of confidence that Logano never had at JGR. The 2013 season showed, through the off-track comments of Kyle Busch and the on-track rivalry with Hamlin, that JGR wasn’t exactly “Three’s Company.” Everyone at Penske has invested in Logano’s growth over the long term.

That sense of security extends to the boardroom. Team Penske announced in late 2013 that sponsor Shell-Pennzoil had signed a multi-year deal to remain the primary sponsor of the No. 22 for the foreseeable future. It’s a major vote of confidence; previous funding deals for Logano had been in place prior to his taking the wheel of a ride, but Pennzoil’s re-upping was all about him — and Roger Penske’s empire didn’t hurt, either.

So why is he still on the Chase bubble? One easy answer is equipment. The team made the switch from Dodge to Ford prior to last season and rivaled Roush Fenway Racing as the top Ford operation. That said, the Blue Oval crowd spent the season’s first half chasing its tail while Chevy and Toyota ran circles around them. It’s a small gap, one that superstars like Keselowski and Carl Edwards still overcome through skill and veteran experience. Can Logano be placed in that category? Roush-Yates engines, while stout, also failed in the opening Chase race, killing momentum. Two failed motors will be two too many in 2014.

The road also gets a bit rocky when it comes to consistency. Logano didn’t really have a pattern to his performances in 2013 — he had strong runs in initial track visits and not-so-strong runs the second time around, or vice versa. There wasn’t one type of track that the team could look at as an area of overall strength. That’s good in the sense that there are no glaring weaknesses, but it makes it harder to focus on specifics. The team also needed recovery time from a September distraction in which it was accused of conspiring with Front Row Motorsports to earn Logano more points at Richmond. Nothing was ever proved, and while Logano would have made the Chase regardless, questions dogged him far into the postseason.

That makes 2014 a critical year. On paper, it’s easy to count the youngster out due to the history of “sophomore slumps” with new teams and the experience of drivers around him. But at some point, Martin’s prediction needs to come true. A superstar is no one-year wonder; can Logano finally shed the critics for good?


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
Logano has become quite the intermediate tracker. The bigger the better — think Atlanta, Auto Club, Texas, et al.
Pretty Solid Pick: His win-from-the-pole performance at Michigan last year was pretty impressive, no?
Good Sleeper Pick: Think past his Dover tumble in 2009 and realize that he has four consecutive top 10s on the concrete high banks.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Since scoring a pair of top 10s at Martinsville in 2010, he’s limped to a 17.8-place average (zero top 10s) in the six races since.
Insider Tip: Logano found himself in some scrapes early in the 2013 season but rebounded to post personal bests for points finish, top 5s, top 10s, laps led and average finish. The thinking here is the kid’s finally for real.


What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
“He’s doing well with his teammate at Penske,” a rival crew chiefs says. “Logano was one of the few drivers to win in a Ford last season. And honestly, he was rushed into the Cup Series before he was ready — he’s just now getting to the point where he should have been beginning to figure out how it works at this level. That said, he’s going to be second fiddle to Brad Keselowski until he’s able to match him by winning a title in the Cup Series.”

While last season’s improvements were obvious to any observer, another crew chief says that there are still questions about the 23-year-old: “Some drivers feel like he’s been given his ride and hasn’t earned it. Plus, he just got engaged, and there are a lot of times that a commitment to a woman can derail a driver’s career. Also, his dad can be a bad influence. Logano is at a point in his career that he needs to get out from his daddy’s shadow.”

“Logano’s success last season was two-pronged,” says a media member. “One, he needed to get out at JGR; that place was doing him no favors. Two, he landed at possibly the best spot he could with a big-money sponsor and a defending-champion teammate welcoming him with open arms.”


No. 22 Team Penske Ford
Sponsors:
Shell-Pennzoil/AAA
Owner: Roger Penske
Crew Chief: Todd Gordon
Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 8th (2013)
Hometown: Middletown, Conn.
Born: May 24, 1990


Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

For complete Speedweeks coverage, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Teaser:
Joey Logano crew chief Todd Gordon lead the No. 22 Team Penske group into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
Post date: Sunday, February 9, 2014 - 21:31
All taxonomy terms: Marcos Ambrose, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-marcos-ambrose
Body:

After improving steadily for three seasons — on the track and in the points standings — Marcos Ambrose still wasn’t much of a week-to-week contender for NASCAR’s Chase in 2013. But a distinct ability to win on road courses, combined with the occasional oval-track success, always kept the Chase door slightly open for him to make it in as a wild card entrant when the payoffs were a 12-driver affair.  Marcos Ambrose

Alas, the streak of improvement unraveled with a nightmare year in 2013. Ambrose failed to win a third straight Cup race at Watkins Glen, the site of his lone premier series triumphs. Even worse, he failed to notch a top-5 finish anywhere (road course or oval) for the first time in his Cup career. That meant Ambrose wasn’t in the hunt for an outside Chase berth down the stretch. In fact, he wasn’t even close.

Amid a deep pool of impressive young drivers working their way up the ranks, improved results for Ambrose might be necessary for the former Australian V8 Supercars champion to stay with Richard Petty Motorsports for a fifth season in 2015. That’s if he even wants to stay; the last two years, rumors have run rampant that Ambrose has given serious thought to returning to Australia, where Ford would put him in a top-tier ride, before choosing to remain in the States.

Either way, the No. 9 seat is a year-to-year deal. That leaves Ambrose vulnerable if the youth movement now beginning in the sport’s top level continues to take shape. It’s a demographic the 37-year-old Ambrose is no longer a part of. Instead, his seat happens to be a perfect landing spot should Ford or RPM — now with three development drivers under its umbrella after Dakoda Armstrong joined Corey Lajoie and Ryan Truex late in the 2013 season — decide a new driver in its portfolio is more deserving of a Sprint Cup opportunity.

But those are all “what-ifs” for now. What can we legitimately expect from Ambrose in 2014?

Well, 18th-26th-place ranking over the last five years doesn’t exactly exude confidence. Nor does his alliance with the manufacturer that struggled the most in 2013.

Overall race speed for RPM was a problem last season. Between Ambrose and teammate Aric Almirola, the organization led a total of just 82 laps. Ambrose’s average running position also dropped 2.6 spots, to 19.5, illustrating a sustained drop of pace. Even hiring crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, a former Roush wrench who led Matt Kenseth to the 2009 Daytona 500, hasn’t put RPM equipment in sync.

The introduction of the Gen-6 chassis may be partly to blame, but the distinct struggles of most Ford teams last year played a big role, too. RPM operates in conjunction with Roush Fenway Racing, the kingpin of a Blue Oval hierarchy. However, there are many drivers — like Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano — who simply get the fruits of improvement from a manufacturer before RPM. Such is life on the NASCAR totem pole, where this organization’s two-car tandem is sixth and seventh in line, respectively.

Will info trickle down to Ambrose and make an impact beyond the road courses? Eh. A future trip back Down Under seems more likely.


What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
Marcos Ambrose has developed the reputation of being a one-hit wonder — as in, only hitting it out of the park on one type of track.

“His strength is obviously road courses,” one competitor notes. “Most of those guys with that background, whether it is Juan Pablo Montoya or Marcos, shine at those tracks, but there are typically only two of them a year. His positives are definitely the road courses.”

We’re not breaking any news with that assessment. But one area of his performance that seems to have taken a dip is on the intermediate tracks.

“I think the program at RPM isn’t doing him any favors in that respect,” a media member says. “There is a hierarchy in any program, and Ford Racing’s priorities are with Roush and Penske. Plus, Ambrose is all RPM can afford. He seemed most successful on the ovals with Todd Parrott atop his box, and that’s gone now.”

“He needs to work on the ovals,” says another crew chief. “He seems to either be in contention or completely out to lunch. He needs to find a balance where they’re able to score decent points every race on ovals instead of being so inconsistent.”


No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford
Sponsors:
DeWalt/Stanley Tools/Twisted Tea
Owners: Andy Murstein/Doug Bergeron/Richard Petty
Crew Chief: Drew Blickensderfer
Years with current team: 4
Under contract through: 2014
Best points finish: 18th (2009, ’12)
Hometown: Launceston, Australia
Born: Sept. 1, 1976


Top photo courtesy of NASCAR; Ambrose courtesy by Action Sports, Inc.

For complete Speedweeks coverage, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
 

Teaser:
Marcos Ambrose and his no. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports team face a make-or-break year on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit in 2014.
Post date: Sunday, February 9, 2014 - 21:15

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