Articles By Athlon Sports

All taxonomy terms: College Football, Texas A&M Aggies, SEC
Path: /college-football/best-and-worst-times-be-texas-am-football-fan
Body:

Texas A&M fans are an odd bunch, even for college football and even for the SEC.

No female cheerleaders, just Yell Leaders and Yell Practice. And then there’s Reveille, the highest ranking member of the Corps of Cadets. She goes to class, she can decide with a single utterance if class is called off, and if she takes a cadet’s bed, the cadet sleeps on the floor.

Did we mention she’s a border collie?

This is also the home of the 12th Man and one of the best game-day atmospheres in college football. Texas A&M is part of what makes college football unlike any other sport — even in the way A&M’s identity is wrapped up in what rival Texas is up to.

Right now is a great time to be an A&M fan with Johnny Manziel running all over SEC defenses and the Aggies challenging for a conference and national title. Kevin Sumlin and Manziel pulled the Aggies out of mediocrity, but do these current teams already stack up to the Bear? And what of the lows under Dennis Franchione and Mike Sherman? Were they really all that low in comparison to seasons past?

Hullabaloo, Caneck! Caneck! Here are the best and worst times to be a Texas A&M fan.

Other best times/worst times:
Miami
Nebraska

Notre Dame


BEST TIMES TO BE A TEXAS A&M FAN

1955-57
Record: 24-5-2
National championships: 0
Coach: Bear Bryant
Notable players: John David Crow (right), Charlie Kreuger, Gene Stallings, Jack Pardee
The Junction Boys are a part of college football lore, but it hardly started that way. Those brutal practices in 1954 yielded a 1-9 season. By 1956, the Junction Boys led one of A&M’s greatest teams when the Aggies that year went 9-0-1. The following season, Crow became the Aggies’ first Heisman winner and the only one before Manziel. The glory years under Bryant were short-lived when “Momma called” the coach back to Tuscaloosa. “And when Momma calls, you just have to come runnin’,” Bryant said.

Related: Texas A&M ranks eighth in 2013 countdown

2012-present
Record: 11-2
National championships: 0
Coach: Kevin Sumlin
Notable players: Johnny Manziel, Luke Joeckel, Damontre Moore, Jake Matthews, Ryan Swope
Only one year into the SEC era for Texas A&M, and, yep, this is one of the best times to be a Texas A&M fan. The Aggies are peaking just in time to play in the best conference in the country. The Heisman-winning Manziel has reached sports celebrity status, and the top-five finish was the best since 1956. Beyond the numbers, A&M with Sumlin and Manziel is video game-quality entertainment. The Aggies’ rematch with Alabama on Sept. 14 will have College Station at a fever pitch. And beyond that, Texas is struggling. All is well in Aggieland.

Related: Texas, Texas A&M exchange pleasantries in our list of infamous pranks

1985-94
Record: 95-24-2
National championships: 0
Coaches: Jackie Sherrill, R.C. Slocum
Notable players: Darren Lewis, Mike Arthur, Richmond Webb, Jerry Fontenot, Rod Bernstine, Sam Adams, Johnny Holland, Aaron Wallace, Aaron Glenn, Kevin Smith
Texas A&M’s investment in former Pittsburgh coach Jackie Sherrill in 1982 — for a then-outrageous sum of $267,000 — paid off by 1985 when the Aggies won their first of three consecutive Southwest Conference titles. Sherrill’s successor, R.C. Slocum, had similar success by going 42-5-1 over a four-year span. Overall, Texas A&M had the fourth-best win percentage (79.3 percent) in the country from 1985-94 behind only Miami, Florida State and Nebraska. Beyond that, Texas A&M went 10-1 against Texas from 1984-94, the only loss by one point in 1990. The records were great, but Texas A&M flourished only as the Southwest Conference crumbled. Led by the Wrecking Crew defense, the Aggies went 10-0-1 in 1994 despite being ineligible for the SWC title.

Related: Texas A&M has 10 selections on preseason All-SEC team

1939-41
Record: 29-3
National championships: 1
Coach: Homer Norton
Notable players: John Kimbrough, Joe Boyd
This was the first taste of national success for the Aggies as Texas A&M won its only national title in 1939, going 11-0 with a win over Tulane in the Sugar Bowl. The fullback Kimbrough was the runner up for the Heisman the following season.

Related: 2013 SEC predictions

WORST TIMES TO BE A TEXAS A&M FAN

1958-70
Record: 40-86-6
Coaches: Jim Myers, Hank Foldberg, Gene Stallings
The post-Bryant era brought Texas A&M to pre-Bryant depths. Foldberg was especially bad, leading Texas A&M to a 6-23-1 record in three seasons. Not even Stallings — a Junction Boy who eventually won a national title at Alabama — could win in College Station. He went 27-45-1, including 8-23 from 1968-70. Texas A&M defeated rival Texas only once from 1957-74.

1947-49
Record: 4-23-1
Coaches: Homer Norton, Harry Stiteler
Norton led Texas A&M to its only national championship in 1939, but the shine wore off less than a decade later. Norton went 3-6-1 in his final season, but it only got worse from there as A&M went 1-17-2 the following two seasons. Only Bear Bryant could dig A&M out of this hole.

IT WASN’T SO BAD WHEN...

1997-99
Record: 28-11
National championships: 0
Coach: R.C. Slocum (right)
Notable players: Dat Nguyen, Dante Hall, Seth McKinney
Slocum’s entire tenure probably went underappreciated at A&M, especially in light of the the failed tenures of Dennis Franchione and Mike Sherman. The Aggies finished in the top 25 all three seasons from ’97-99, including an 11-3 season and the Aggies’ only Big 12 title in 1998. Slocum would be fired by 2002 with a 123-47-2 record in College Station.

Related College Football Content

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No. 26-40

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No. 101-125

Top Players of the BCS Era
Quarterbacks

Running Backs

Wide Receivers

Tight Ends

Offensive line

Teaser:
<p> The times when Kyle Field was especially rowdy</p>
Post date: Friday, June 21, 2013 - 07:35
All taxonomy terms: fishing, outdoors, Monthly, News
Path: /overtime/how-fish-fishing-tips-pro-fishermen
Body:

If you’re a weekend angler preparing for a day on the banks or on the water, you’ve probably got your hooks, lines, sinkers and an assortment of bait and favorite lures. But what other essentials are you carrying? We asked some of the world’s top fishermen to help fill your tackle box with their “must haves” to ensure that your next fishing experience is fun-filled, safe and rewarding.

Polarized sunglasses: preferably Jimmy Houston glasses (or Bill Dance’s if they’ve sold out of mine!) 
— Jimmy Houston, Cookson, Okla., legendary pro angler and TV celebrity
 
Leatherman multi-purpose tool: Think industrial-grade Swiss Army knife. Indispensable for everything from cutting line to repairing reels to an emergency tracheotomy. 
— Steve Wozniak, San Ramon, Calif., holder of 68 International Game Fish Association (IGFA) world records, including most different species caught (1,192). Has fished in 77 different countries.
 
More clothes than you think you’ll need: Because it never fails; the weather always changes and you don’t want to be stuck out there freezing.
— JT Kenny, Palm Bay, Fla., Straight Talk pro angler
 
Baby wipes: They’re a must. Nobody can fish in dirty conditions!
— Scott Suggs, Bryant, Ark., 2007 Forrest Wood Cup champion
 
Lighter: Use it to fix rods and start a fire if an emergency arises. 
— Jason Christie, Park Hill, Okla., FLW Tour Beaver Lake April 2013 winner, Forrest Wood Cup qualifier
 
Net: One that’s light and tough made by Beckman, because: 1) fish have teeth, 2) fish are slimy, and 3) fish flat out stink! 
— David Dudley, Lynchburg, Va., all-time FLW leading money winner with more than $3 million; 2003 Forrest Wood Cup champion
 
Serious sun hat: I'm not talking baseball cap here but one of those ridiculous things that makes you look like the head of a religious cult. 
— Wozniak
 
Toilet Paper: I prefer camouflage-colored toilet paper, and make sure it’s scented.  By the way, it's all scented sooner or later! 
— Houston
 
First aid kit: If you don't know why you need this, then I'll hit you in the head with a tack hammer and you'll find out. 
— Kenny
 
A good rain suit: You never know when you might get wet. I prefer Gore-Tex to keep me warm and dry. 
— Suggs 
 
Life jacket: Always use a life jacket; you never know when something is below the water.  
— Christie
 
Extra drain plug: Worth the money at twice the price anytime and much easier than swimming to shore! 
— Houston 
 
Smartphone: If the fish aren’t 
biting, you can always watch YouTube and play games.
— Kenny
 
Sunscreen: 30 SPF. Apply before you make the first cast! 
— Houston
 
Digital camera: It’s nice to have photos to look at from previous trips when the current one is going badly. If it’s a smartphone, you can look up exactly what type of swamp minnow you just caught. 
— Wozniak 
 
12-pack of Keystone Light: You can either celebrate your big catch or drown your sorrows with it.  
 — Kenny
 
Bobber: Even though I’m a professional, I have A.D.D. and need a bobber to help tell me when I have a bite. Thill is the best bobber made. 
— Dudley
 
Visa card with high limit: Because after you put gas in your truck to get to the lake then put gas in your boat to fish, you're going to need a high limit! 
— Kenny
 
Super Glue: There is nothing that Super Glue won't fix. 
— Suggs
 
Jumper cables: If your battery dies, you can jump from a trolling motor
battery or have
someone jump you. 
— Christi
 
A good memory: Because you’re going to have the time of your life. 
— Kenny
 
*Photos courtesy of FLW Outdoors.
Teaser:
<p> 21 Fishing Tips from Pro Fishermen</p>
Post date: Thursday, June 20, 2013 - 12:50
Path: /college-football/virginia-techs-struggling-offense-gets-makeover
Body:

Within the first minute after taking the dais to introduce Virginia Tech’s new offensive coaches in January, Frank Beamer made clear his distaste for change, even a change that Hokies fans have requested for years.

In 27 years at his alma mater, Beamer has carved out a legacy in college football, one he’s attributed to the consistency of his coaching staff at Virginia Tech.

But after the Hokies bottomed out in 2012, barely making a bowl game and finishing 7–6, their worst record in 20 years, even he admitted it was time for an overhaul.

Enter offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, offensive line coach Jeff Grimes and receivers coach Aaron Moorehead, a trio tasked with fixing what for years has been an underachieving Virginia Tech offense.

“Change is not easy for me. I don’t like change,” Beamer said upon introducing the three. “But at the same time, you’ve got to do what you think is right for your overall organization, and that’s what I’ve done in this case.”

With Bud Foster’s defense having been among the nation’s best for the better part of nearly two decades, critics of Beamer have long held the belief that the offense’s production, particularly in the post-Michael Vick era, has held the Hokies back from becoming an elite college football program.

Tech’s offense under long-time Beamer ally Bryan Stinespring, who remains on the staff as a tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator, could never match the production of Foster’s defense.

In the 11 years after Stinespring was elevated to the coordinator position, the Hokies finished in the bottom half of the FBS in total offense six times. Only once in the last six years has Virginia Tech finished in the top four in the ACC in total offense, despite having either current pro Tyrod Taylor or future pro Logan Thomas at quarterback.

Nevertheless, the wins masked the issue. Eight straight 10-win seasons from 2004-11 and four ACC titles were all the justification Beamer needed for keeping things the same. When that wall came crumbling down in 2012, though, change was inevitable.

But it won’t be radical. In Loeffler, who cut his teeth at Michigan under Lloyd Carr, the Hokies have someone who Beamer believes is aligned philosophically with the style that has worked at Virginia Tech for years — control the line of scrimmage, run the football and pass off play-action. It’s an unsexy yet effective game plan.

“I think the marriage between what they’ve done in the past and what we want to do is excellent,” Loeffler says.

Still, Loeffler’s No. 1 task will be to fix Thomas, who is back for his senior season after a disappointing junior campaign that saw his draft stock drop from potential top-five pick to out of the first round.

Hardly a lost cause, Thomas still broke his own school record for total yardage in 2012, throwing for 2,976 yards and running for a team-high 524 yards. He accounted for 27 touchdowns, only three off his 2011 figure, but his efficiency numbers dropped significantly. His completion percentage fell from 59.8 to 51.3, and he threw 16 interceptions, tied for fourth-most nationally.

But Loeffler, who coached Tom Brady, Brian Griese, Drew Henson, John Navarre and Chad Henne at Michigan and Tim Tebow at Florida, might be the right guy to get Thomas on track in his quarterback-dependent offensive system.

“Some of the things that he does that are really, really difficult, he does them easy,” Loeffler says. “And you can’t coach that. I don’t care. There are some things that he does that are really, really hard. I watched him chin-over-toe escape to his left and make this freaky throw that not too many guys could do. So some things like that that are easy, I think we can make them a little easier for him to be more productive.”

Like Thomas, Loeffler had his own problems in 2012. After a successful season at Temple in his first year as a coordinator on any level, Loeffler was hired to replace Gus Malzahn at Auburn, where he was asked to install a pro-style attack with spread personnel. It didn’t go well. The Tigers finished 115th nationally in total offense en route to an 0–8 record in the SEC. Gene Chizik and his entire staff were fired.

Loeffler, a coaching itinerant who has made four stops in the last five years, remains unscarred by the experience, though.

“You’ve got to learn real quick that in this business — there’s going to be ups, there’s going to be downs,” he says. “There’s going to be times when you play really well. There’s going to be times when you don’t. There’s going to be times when you coach really well and there’s going to be times that you don’t. Obviously, one little setback is not going to define who I am or what I believe in. I’m good.”

For his part, Beamer looked past those struggles at Auburn, hiring Loeffler, in part, because of a recommendation from Carr.

Loeffler doesn’t come alone. He has a kindred spirit in Grimes, with whom he worked at Auburn. The baritone-voiced offensive line coach earned points with the Hokies faithful by declaring upon his arrival that his goal was for his group to be “the toughest line in the ACC.”

“I believe we’re the tip of the spear, so to speak, the first in to fight,” Grimes says. “And if we do our job with the right approach and the right mindset, then I think the other guys will follow.”

It was music to the ears of a fan base that identifies with Foster’s Lunch Pail defense and watched in disbelief last year as the Hokies’ offensive line struggled to run-block. J.C. Coleman led the running backs with 492 yards, the lowest rushing total for Virginia Tech’s leading back since 1967.

In Moorehead, plucked from the Stanford staff, Tech hired an energetic receivers coach who at 32 years old is among the youngest assistants Beamer has ever hired.

It’s part of an overall youth movement in Blacksburg. Including the post-2010 shakeup that saw Shane Beamer and Cornell Brown replace long-time Beamer assistants Billy Hite and Jim Cavanaugh, the average age of the Hokies’ coaches has dropped from 50 to 42.

At age 66, Beamer is nearing the finish line of his Hall of Fame career. Before the Russell Athletic Bowl against Rutgers, he admitted how much the 2012 season wore on him. He said he stopped eating and lost weight, looking gaunt and exhausted by the end of the season.

But in the spring, he looked re-energized, confident in what could be the last major shakeup to a coaching staff he’ll ever make, even if it went against his nature.

“The bottom line is that we weren’t as efficient as we needed to be,” Beamer says. “I feel like when things are not working as well as they need to, you need to change it around.”

Story written by Andy Bitter for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2013 ACC Preview Edition. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2013 ACC season.

Related College Football Content

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ACC All-Conference Team for 2013

Virginia Tech Team Preview for 2013

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College Football's Top 30 Tight Ends of the BCS Era

Teaser:
<p> Virginia Tech's Struggling Offense Gets a Makeover</p>
Post date: Thursday, June 20, 2013 - 07:20
All taxonomy terms: Ask Athlon, Monthly
Path: /monthly/do-golfers-pga-tour-pay-their-own-travel-expenses
Body:

Do golfers on the PGA Tour pay their own travel expenses to and from Tour events? And what about rooming costs and meals?

— Larry Freeze, Topeka, Kan.
 
Yes, they do. And it can be pretty expensive. Some estimates place the annual expenditures on travel (including room and board) at upwards of $200,000 for a golfer who plays in events worldwide. In addition, pro golfers also have to pay their caddies each week. Not every deal is the same, but most caddies earn at least $1,200 per event, plus up to 10 percent of the weekly earnings. There is one caveat: Many of the top pros have their travel costs covered by their sponsors. But this is a perk enjoyed by only the best of the best. For some, playing on the PGA Tour can be an expensive endeavor. 
Teaser:
<p> Go on, ask us anything.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - 17:38
All taxonomy terms: MLB, Monthly, Overtime, News
Path: /mlb/major-league-baseball-players-poll-revealing-results-about-gay-teammates-peds-and-more
Body:

We asked, they answered. Athlon Sports set out to gauge the opinions, tastes and preferences of major league baseball players, circa 2013. More than a fifth of all MLB players responded to our survey, sharing their opinions on fellow players, teams, managers, PEDs, women and more. Read on. 

Who was your sports hero growing up?
Ken Griffey Jr. (13.7%)
Derek Jeter (5.5%)
Michael Jordan (5.5%)
Cal Ripken (5.5%)
Nolan Ryan (4.8%)
Don Mattingly (4.1%)
Dale Murphy (3.4%)
Will Clark (3.4%)
Roger Clemens (2.8%)
Rickey Henderson (2.8%)
Barry Bonds (2.8%)
 
Who is the best manager in baseball?
Joe Maddon, Rays (14.3%)
Terry Francona, Indians (10.2%)
Jim Leyland, Tigers (8.8%)
Bruce Bochy, Giants (8.2%)
Buck Showalter, Orioles (8.2%)
Bud Black, Padres (6.8%)
Ron Gardenhire, Twins (5.4%)
Dusty Baker, Reds (4.1%)
John Farrell, Red Sox (3.4%)
Mike Scioscia, Angels (3.4%)
 
What percent of players are using PEDs?
No Idea (2.2%)
0 (6.0%)
1-5 (53.0%)
6-10 (15.9%)
11-20 (5.3%)
21-30 (2.2%)
31-40 (1.5%)
41+ (0.7%)
 
What was your BIG purchase after signing your contract?
Car or truck (67.6%)
House (12.6%)
Big dinner (3.5%)
Watch (3.5%)
TV (2.1%)
Engagement Ring (2.1%)
 
NOTE: Some interesting responses that only got one vote: Japanese Fighting Fish, microwave oven, and a zoom lens for a camera.
 
Who is the best general manager in baseball?
Andrew Friedman, Rays (15.4%)
Billy Beane, A’s (8.4%)
Theo Epstein, Cubs (8.4%)
John Mozeliak, Cardinals (8.4%)
Terry Ryan, Twins (8.4%)
Brian Sabean, Giants (8.4%)
Jerry Dipoto, Angels (4.2%)
Dave Dombrowksi, Tigers (4.2%)
Kevin Towers, Giants (3.5%)
Jon Daniels, Rangers (3.5%)
 
What team would you take less money to play for?
Yankees (11.3%)
Braves (10.6%)
Rangers (7.0%)
Giants  (6.3%)
None (6.3%)
Dodgers (6.3%)
Red Sox (5.6%)
Angels (4.9%)
Padres (4.3%)
Cardinals (4.3%)
Twins (3.8%)
Diamondbacks (3.8%)
Rays (3.8%)
Cubs  (3.1%)
 
What team would you never play for?
None, would play for any team (30.5%)
Yankees (13.5%)
Marlins (13.5%)
Blue Jays (6.4%)
Pirates (5.0%)
Astros  (4.3%)
Indians (2.8%)
Mariners (2.8%)
Cubs  (2.8%)
 
Who is the best pure hitter?
Miguel Cabrera, Tigers (61.0%)
Robinson Cano, Yankees (6.2%)
Joe Votto, Reds (5.5%)
Joe Mauer, Twins (4.8%)
Mike Trout, Angels (4.1%)
Ryan Braun, Brewers (4.1%)
Albert Pujols, Angels (3.4%)
 
Who is the best defender?
Yadier Molina, Cardinals (13.5%)
Mike Trout, Angels (10.6%)
Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians (9.2%)
Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies (5.7%)
Brendan Ryan, Mariners (5.0%)
Adrian Beltre, Rangers (4.3%)
Brandon Phillips, Reds (4.3%)
Andrew McCutchen, Pirates (3.6%)
 
Percent of MLB players who are faithful to their spouses?
40 (2.6%)
50 (9.5%)
60 (11.3%)
70 (16.5%)
80 (31.3%)
90 (19.1%)
100 (7.8%)
 
Which city should have a team?
Las Vegas (15.3%)
Nashville (15.3%)
Portland (6.9%)
Indianapolis (6.1%)
San Antonio (5.3%)
Charlotte (4.5%)
Oklahoma City (3.7%)
Salt Lake City (2.9%)
Columbus (2.9%)
Charlotte (2.1%)
Montreal (2.1%)
San Jose (2.1%)
Vancouver (2.1%)
Austin (1.3%)
Birmingham (1.3%)
New Orleans (1.3%)
 
Which city should be replaced?
Oakland (31%)
Tampa Bay (27%)
Miami (14%)
Cleveland (8%)
Toronto (7%)
Houston (6%)
Milwaukee (3%)
 
What player would you take less money to have as a teammate?
Mike Trout, Angels (15.2%)
Miguel Cabrera, Tigers (13.8%)
Derek Jeter, Yankees (6.5%)
Justin Verlander, Tigers (5.8%)
David Price, Rays (2.9%)
Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox (2.9%)
Buster Posey, Giants (2.9%)
No one (2.2%)
Yadier Molina, Cardinals (2.2%)
Bryce Harper, Nationals (2.2%)
Robinson Cano, Yankees (2.2%)
 
Which player would I want my daughter to marry?
None (23.5%)
Derek Jeter, Yankees (6.5%)
Joe Mauer, Twins (3.3%)
Mike Trout, Angels (3.3%)
David Wright, Mets (2.4%)
 
Which player would I NEVER want my daughter to marry?
Any player (26.4%)
A.J. Pierzynski, Rangers (7.5%)
Alex Rodriguez, Yankees (5.7%)
Jason Giambi, Indians (2.8%)
Nick Swisher, Indians (2.8%)
 
Would you have a problem with a gay teammate?
No Problem (69.8%)
Problem (28.7%)
Big Problem (1.5%)
 
Who is the hottest woman alive?
My wife (9.2%)
Kate Upton (7.1%)
Beyoncé (3.6%)
Jessica Biel (3.6%)
Rihanna (3.6%)
Jessica Alba (2.9%)
Halle Berry (2.9%)
Kate Beckinsale (2.9%)
Scarlett Johansson (2.9%)
Mila Kunis (2.9%)
Faith Hill (2.2%)
Jennifer Lawrence (2.2%)
Taylor Swift (2.2%)
 
NOTE: There were 63 different women who received votes, including “wife” as just one. One Kansas City outfielder said, “that new next queen of England.”
 
Teaser:
<p> Our off-the-record baseball player survey about managers, teams and more</p>
Post date: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - 12:20
Path: /nascar/fantasy-nascar-picks-sonoma-raceway-0
Body:

To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List. The main picks are designed to make optimal use of Yahoo!’s nine-start maximum rule over the course of the season. The “also consider” section ranks unmentioned drivers strictly by expected result without consideration of start limitations.


The NASCAR road course races have become some of the best on the circuit each season thanks to the absurdity of NASCAR's heavy, over-powered cars trying to work delicately around tight, left and right turns. Road course racer Andy Lally recently said on Twitter that NASCAR is his favorite road course vehicle because it “handles like a school bus with the power of the space shuttle.” This week at Sonoma Raceway sounds fun!

Jump in, make your picks and, hopefully, make us look like we know what we’re talking about … if you took advantage of the free advice last week, you’ve got a race-win under your belt.


A-List (Pick two, start one)
Tony Stewart
Just when we were ready to write off Tony Stewart and his Stewart-Haas Racing bunch, he’s reeled off four top-10 finishes (a win included) in the last four races. He’s now leaped to 10th in points and figures to pile on this weekend at the Sonoma road course. Stewart leads all A-List drivers in the last eight years at Sonoma with an average running position of 10th.

Although he hasn’t won there since 2005, he’s picked up four top-5 finishes in the last five races and would've had a fifth in 2011, but wound up stuck on top of a tire barrier, courtesy of Brian Vickers. Obligatory note: Vickers is racing this weekend, too.

Jeff Gordon
Anyone who has paid attention to NASCAR’s road races in the last several years knows Jeff Gordon’s status as “King of the Road” has long since faded. However, banking on Gordon as a smart fantasy pick for Sunday is the intelligent play.

Gordon’s last road course win was in Sonoma in 2006, and since then he’s recorded a top 10 in every trip to Napa Valley. He led 13 laps a year ago — his first laps led at Sonoma since the win — and finished sixth. Don’t be concerned if things aren’t looking great for the No. 24 at halfway, either. In the last eight Sonoma races, he’s averaged 17th at the cross flags only to wind up with a series-best average finish of 8.3.

Also consider: Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson
 

Teaser:
<p> Fantasy NASCAR tips for the Toyota-Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - 10:56
All taxonomy terms: ACC, College Football, Miami Hurricanes
Path: /college-football/best-and-worst-times-be-miami-football-fan
Body:

Believe it or not, there actually was a bad time to be a Miami fan before the decline in the last decade. And we’re not talking about the brief time on probation in the mid-90s.

We’re talking about the 1970s. It’s tough to remember a time when Miami was a non-factor in college football, but before the Hurricanes became the dominant program of the 1980s, they were on nobody's radar, let alone anyone's pick to become the first team from the state of Florida to win a national title.

Related: 2013 Miami preview

Enough about that bad times. Being a Miami fan during the Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson days was fun — as long as those fans didn’t mind rooting for college football renegades. And let’s face it, winning five national championships in less than 20 years makes it a little easier to root for any team.

Miami football fandom ebbs and flows just like any program. The Hurricanes may be on the rise under Al Golden right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy to get up for Hurricanes games over the last seven years (and judging by those crowd shots, it’s been quite tough).

Our series looking at the best and worst eras for college football fans continues with Miami. From the lean years of the 1970s to dominance on the field and draft day in the 80s, 90s and 2000s, here are the highs and lows for the faithful in Coral Gables.

Other best times/worst times:
Nebraska

Notre Dame


BEST TIMES TO BE A MIAMI FAN

1986-92
Record: 78-6
National championships: 3
Coaches: Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson
Notable players: Vinny Testaverde, Bennie Blades, Gino Torretta, Steve Walsh, Russell Maryland, Micheal Barrow, Michael Irvin (right)
This is when Miami became “The U” and one of the transformative programs in college football history. Johnson and Erickson built upon Schnellenberger’s groundwork to establish the preeminent football program of the 80s and early 90s. The Hurricanes earned all the confidence they exuded with three national titles in five seasons (’87, ’89 and ’91). The ’87 team was the first unblemished team in school history, defeating an unbeaten Oklahoma team in the Orange Bowl. Overall, the Hurricanes went 56-4 from 1987-91 and added Heisman winners in 1986 (Testaverde) and ’92 (Torretta). But this was also a time of near misses. In a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game to end the 1986 season, Miami lost 14-10 to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl, a game preceded by Miami players showing up for dinner with the Nittany Lions in fatigues. Then, in the “Catholics vs. Convicts” game in 1988, Miami lost 31-30 to Notre Dame for its only loss of the year. Miami became the villains of college football, but the Hurricanes’ players and fans soaked up the image.

Related: Miami picked to win division in 2013

2000-03
Record: 46-4
National championships: 1
Coaches: Butch Davis, Larry Coker
Notable players: Ed Reed, Bryant McKinnie, Willis McGahee, Ken Dorsey, Santana Moss, Clinton Portis, Sean Taylor, Kellen Winslow, Dan Morgan
Miami escaped NCAA probation as dominant as ever, thanks to Butch Davis’ ability to stockpile talent in Coral Gables. Miami lost 34-29 to Washington on Sept. 9, 2000 and wouldn’t lose again until the national title game in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State after the 2002 season (cue the groans about the pass interference call that aided the Buckeyes’ victory). The 2001 team was one of the best teams in college football history, defeating opponents by an average of 33 points per game on the way to a Rose Bowl rout of Nebraska for the national title in Coker’s first season. The program was awash in NFL draft picks during this era, including 19 first-round selections in the 2001-04 drafts.

Related: Bryant McKinnie tops list of best OL of the BCS era

1980-83
Record: 36-11
National championships: 1
Coach: Howard Schnellenberger
Notable players: Bernie Kosar, Fred Marion, Jim Kelly
Other coaches would have better records and more top-five finishes. Other teams would be more dominant. But no coach and no era meant more to Miami than Schnellenberger in the early 1980s. Miami’s program was hanging by a thread in the 70s when the former Bear Bryant assistant Schnellenberger came up with a recruiting plan to build a wall around South Florida for what he called the “State of Miami.” The ‘Canes went 9-2 in 1981 with Kelly at quarterback for Miami’s first bowl game in 13 years. Then, Miami upset Nebraska in the Orange Bowl in 1983 to become the first of 10 national-title winning teams from the state of Florida.

Related: Schnellenberger among notable Hall of Fame snubs

WORST TIMES TO BE A MIAMI FAN



2006-12
Record: 48-40
Coaches: Larry Coker, Randy Shannon, Al Golden
Miami appears to be on the right track, as Athlon projected the Hurricanes to reach their first ACC title game this season. Still, the last seven seasons have been lackluster by the standards Miami set since 1983. The Hurricanes have been mediocre on the field, finishing only one of the last seven seasons with more than seven wins and a top-25 ranking. Off the field, Miami has been embroiled in scandal with the Nevin Shapiro case -- even if the NCAA comes out of the whole affair looking even worse. In the stands, attendance has sunk to embarrassing levels. And in the NFL Draft, Miami’s presence has faded with no first-round picks since 2008. The biggest indignity was a 48-0 loss to Virginia in the final game at the storied Orange Bowl.

Related: 2013 Preseason All-ACC team

1968-78
Record: 46-72
Coaches: Charlie Tate, Walter Kichefski, Fran Curci, Pete Elliott, Carl Selmer, Lou Saban
Those born after 1980 or so have no recollection of how irrelevant Miami football once was. The Hurricanes went through six coaches over the course of the decade including the Selmer (5-15 overall) and Saban (8-13). The 1970 team under Tate and Kichefski was outscored by a total of 144 points in 11 games while the 1977 team under Saban was outscored by 120 points. Against Florida — Miami’s primary rival at the time — the Hurricanes went 2-9, including the infamous Florida Flop in 1971. Florida quarterback John Reaves was attempting to break Jim Plunkett’s career passing record in that game. With Reaves 10 yards short of the record and Florida up 45-8 late, the Gators’ defense flopped to the ground at the 8-yard line to allow Miami to score. Reaves broke Plunkett’s record as time expired.

IT WASN’T SO BAD WHEN...

1961-67
Record: 41-30-3
Coaches: Andy Gustafson, Charlie Tate
Notable players: Ted Hendricks, George Mira
Miami’s high and low points are so obvious it’s tough to pinpoint an underappreciated time in the Hurricanes’ history. Going 41-30-3 with four bowl games in seven seasons would get a Miami coach fired in 2013, but this was the high point of the pre-Schnellenberger era. The Hurricanes had two star players in quarterback George Mira and defensive end Ted Hendricks, the name of the latter now sits on a trophy presented to the nation’s top defensive end. Miami went 5-2 against Florida in this span, including a pair of wins against 1966 Heisman winner Steve Spurrier. Honorable mention for this category: Miami went 22-5-1 from 1954-56.

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Teaser:
<p> Fans went along for the ride as Miami went from doormat to dominant</p>
Post date: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - 07:30
All taxonomy terms: Monthly, News
Path: /monthly/whats-greatest-sports-themed-advertising-campaign-all-time
Body:

In your opinion, what is the greatest sports-themed advertising campaign of all time? I like ESPN’s “This is SportsCenter” spots.

— Sarah Crawley, Fairfax, Va.
 
Those SportsCenter ads, with their creative use of easily recognizable athletes, are pure genius. But for the best of all time, we have to go with Nike’s “Bo Knows” series featuring multi-sport legend Bo Jackson. Every now and then a product, a pitch man and an era come together in perfect harmony, and that is what happened when Nike was looking to promote its new cross-training product. Who better than a crossover superstar like Bo? The campaign blossomed into baseball cards, t-shirts, shoes and a permanent spot in the public consciousness. This might be one of the greatest marketing/advertising campaigns in the history of capitalism.
Teaser:
<p> <span style="color: rgb(51, 51, 51); font-family: Helvetica, Verdana, Arial, sans-serif; font-size: 12.727272033691406px; line-height: 17.99715805053711px; background-color: rgb(255, 255, 255);">Go on, ask us anything.</span></p>
Post date: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - 07:15
Path: /nascar/nascar-numbers-game-7-amazing-stats-sonoma
Body:

With the first half of this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winding down, one of two annual visits to a road course — right-hand turns, everybody! — presents itself this weekend as the tour heads to Sonoma Raceway, a track that has seen eight different winners in the last eight years.

Could the parity continue? Perhaps. There is one driver that you will read about below that, while being one of the strongest drivers at Sonoma over the last four years, has yet to visit victory lane. What might stand in that particular driver’s way is the fact that several past winners are consistently terrific at the 1.99-mile course.


5.5  Road course stalwart Marcos Ambrose has averaged a 5.5-place finish in the last four Sonoma races.

Unlike his utter dominance at Watkins Glen, he is less adept of a driver at Sonoma (but he is still really, really good). He hasn’t ever won — his best finish is third in 2009 — but he does rank second in track-specific PEER (5.100), which makes him one of two non-winners to rank inside the top 5 in driver production. Ambrose and his No. 9 team are in need of a strong finish; ranking 23rd in the point standings, they only have two top-10 finishes to show for their 2013 season.
 

Teaser:
<p> David Smith crunches the numbers and finds the key NASCAR stats for the Toyta-Save Mart 250 at Sonoma Raceway.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, June 18, 2013 - 13:04
All taxonomy terms: College Football, News
Path: /college-football/best-and-worst-times-be-notre-dame-football-fan
Body:

Graduates and subway alums alike may say anytime is a great time to be a Notre Dame fan. And that’s what is so infuriating for fans of other teams. Face it, the superiority complex for the Notre Dame faithful is justly earned.

Through the course of college football history, rooting for Notre Dame has been a worthwhile cause, from the underdog days when Knute Rockne took over through the revival under Brian Kelly.

Touchdown Jesus has overlooked seven Heisman winners, Hall of Fame coaches, 13 national championships, legendary games and a few dynasties.

Our series looking at the best and worst eras for college football fandom continues today with the Irish. From the Four Horsemen to Faust, from Leahy to Weis, these were the best times and worst times to be a Notre Dame fan.

Other best times/worst times:
Nebraska

BEST TIMES TO BE A NOTRE DAME FAN

1946-49
Record: 36-0-2
Coach: Frank Leahy
National championships: 3
Notable players: John Lujack, Leon Hart, Jim Martin, George Connor, Bill Fischer, Emil Sitko
The late Beano Cook routinely said Frank Leahy was the most underrated coach of all time and this is a good reason why: Leahy supervised the best stretch at one of the top programs in college football history, yet he doesn't get the fanfare perhaps of Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian or Lou Holtz. Freshmen at Notre Dame in 1946 never saw their team lose when they graduated in 1949 as the Irish emerged from the postwar era with three national titles in four seasons, two Heisman winners (Lujack and Hart) and a 21-game win streak. Other highlights of the era: the 1946 team outscored opponents 247-24, and the 1947 team produced 42 professional players.

1988-1993
Record: 64-9-1
Coach: Lou Holtz
National championships: 1
Notable players: Raghib Ismail, Tony Rice, Jerome Bettis, Chris Zorich, Todd Lyght, Michael Stonebreaker, Aaron Taylor
Ending a decade-long title drought, Holtz brought Notre Dame back to national-championship status after the Irish stumbled under Gerry Faust. The ’88 season feature the famous Catholics vs. Convicts game against Miami and a win over undefeated West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl. Notre Dame finished in the top 10 three more times during this period and wouldn’t enjoy this level of success until 2012.

1964-74
Record: 95-17-4
Coach: Ara Parseghian
National championships: 2
Notable players: John Huarte, Dave Casper, Alan Page, Jim Lynch
Notre Dame endured five consecutive non-winning seasons before Parseghian arrived, including 2-7 in 1963. The following year, a heartbreaking loss to USC in the final two minutes prevented the Irish from winning the most unlikely national title in college football history, but Parseghian would have several more opportunities to redeem himself. The 1966 season featured the “Game of the Century” between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State, which ended in a 10-10 tie the Irish ran down the clock in their own territory. Parseghian was second-guessed ever since. Notre Dame won the AP title that year and finished in the top five for five consecutive seasons. From there, the Irish won the 1973 title in a classic showdown against an undefeated Bear Bryant-led Alabama team in the Sugar Bowl, which Notre Dame won on a gutsy deep pass on third and 8 to tight end Robin Weber to seal a first down and a 24-23 win.

1919-1930
Record: 102-11-3
Coach: Knute Rockne
National championships: 4
Notable players: George Gipp, the Four Horsemen (Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, Elmer Layden), Hunk Anderson, Adam Walsh, Frank Carideo
This is the period that established Notre Dame as the premier college football team in the country, and thanks to Rockne’s “barnstorming” approach to scheduling, Notre Dame built a fanbase nationwide. In the pre-Heisman, pre-AP poll era, Notre Dame went undefeated five times and won four national titles by various wire services. Irish fans at the time watched one of the game’s greatest innovators at work as Rockne was one of the first to embrace the forward pass and liberal substitutions. Domers are still fans of this era thanks to the Gipper and Grantland Rice’s legendary Four Horsemen piece.

WORST TIMES TO BE A NOTRE DAME FAN

2007-09
Record: 16-21
Coach: Charlie Weis
Hopes were high after for Weis the failed tenures of Bob Davie and Ty Willingham, especially when the Super Bowl-champion offensive coordinator and Notre Dame alum raised the bar with BCS appearances in his first two seasons. Opposing fans used to call Notre Dame overrated, but now Notre Dame was just plain bad. The Irish went 3-9 in 2007 for their worst season since 1963. A sampling of the losses during these three seasons: Navy twice (ending a 43-game win streak), Georgia Tech, Air Force, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Connecticut. On the bright side, Notre Dame ended its nine-game bowl losing streak in 2007, but they had to beat Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl to do it.

1997-2001
Record: 61-41
Coaches: Bob Davie/Tyrone Willingham
Holtz’s defensive coordinator, Davie, oversaw a slide into mediocrity that didn’t end until last season. The lowlights for Davie included a 41-9 Fiesta Bowl loss to Oregon State after the 2000 season and losing years in 1999 and 2001. Willingham started 10-1 but went 13-15 thereafter.

1981-86
Record: 71-81-4
Coaches: Gerry Faust/Lou Holtz
Imagine Alabama hiring the Hoover High coach. Or LSU hiring the John Curtis coach. That’s essentially what Notre Dame did when it hired Gerry Faust. The Irish were near the height of their powers, four years removed from a national title under Dan Devine, when they hired Faust from Cincinnati Moeller. The experiment was, of course, a disaster as Faust went 30-26-1. Notre Dame started every season under Faust ranked (including three times in the top 10) and finished every year unranked. After Faust's five-year tenure, Holtz went 5-6 in his first season but rebuilt around Heisman winner Tim Brown in 1987.

IT WASN’T SO BAD WHEN...

2005-06
Record: 19-6
Coach: Charlie Weis
Weis gets a bad rap, but it wasn’t always that bad at Notre Dame. Led by Heisman finalist Brady Quinn, the Irish went 9-3 and 10-3 in his first two seasons with a pair of anticipated matchups against USC (both losses, one via the Bush Push). Notre Dame reached two BCS games, but it was clear the Irish weren’t ready for the primetime, losing 34-20 to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl and 41-14 to LSU in the Sugar Bowl. We say it wasn’t so bad because it wasn’t about to get worse, so much worse.
 

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Teaser:
<p> The highs of the Leahy and Holtz to the lows of Faust and Weis</p>
Post date: Tuesday, June 18, 2013 - 07:12
All taxonomy terms: crossword, Monthly
Path: /monthly/june-2013-crossword-solution
Body:

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, June 17, 2013 - 17:21
Path: /nascar/biffle-hendrick-danica-highlight-nascar-storylines-michigan
Body:

Greg Biffle’s 19th career NASCAR Sprint Cup victory Sunday brought him into a tie on the all-time list with Dale Earnhardt Jr., the man most pundits claimed was supposed to win in the Irish Hills. It was like “Opposite Day” come to life, considering the two couldn’t be more different. Earnhardt, revered through his personality and last name, is the sport’s most popular driver. The whole grandstand shakes the second they see him in position to lead a lap.

Biffle? He’s a forgotten man. Despite winning titles in both the Nationwide and Truck series — putting him in an elite category of drivers who have done both — most NASCAR fans wouldn’t recognize him if they passed on the street. Even within his own team, a cloak of invisibility exists. Carl Edwards, who never met a camera he didn’t love, is the more charismatic driver at Roush Fenway Racing; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is dating that GoDaddy girl. That leaves Biffle as the guy in your group who shows up at the bar every Friday night, watches the game at your table but you don’t remember a thing he said — just that he seems to know his stuff and he’s friends by association.

That’s not to say the man doesn’t try. The wry, sarcastic sense of humor is there, it’s just that good friend and longtime teammate Matt Kenseth does it better. The rare time Biffle utters a quote worth using it seems Tony Stewart or someone else goes off at the same time and his words get buried on page 3C.

But at age 43, maybe it’s time we appreciate some of what the Washington native has done in the Sprint Cup Series. He’s now won in nine of the last 11 years on the circuit, has made five of the last six Chases and finished top 5 in points three times in his career. There’s not many drivers who can say that.

Is it a Hall of Fame resume? No. But for a guy who’s a likely lifer with Ford after showcasing a decade of loyalty, there’s no better person to bring home the Blue Oval’s 1,000th NASCAR victory, of which Biffle is responsible for 55.

Good luck getting people to realize it, though. Here’s what else we learned Sunday as we go “Through the Gears” …


FIRST GEAR: Hendrick’s horror story
Turns out the oft-referenced horseshoe stuck up Jimmie Johnson’s … well, you know what … fell out sometime before the green flag at Michigan. Maybe it was replaced by kryptonite? The four-car Hendrick Motorsports fleet, hoping to be led by Johnson and Earnhardt Jr.’s Superman-themed No. 88, was the class of the field. But to finish first, you must first finish … and none of them were able to do that effectively.

Jeff Gordon was first to fall, a victim of a lap 7 crash where Bobby Labonte spun in front of him. Then, Kasey Kahne, running a spirited race to win for fallen friend Jason Leffler, blew a tire while running up front. His day ended in a ball of flames on Lap 104. That left Earnhardt seemingly in control, positioned to win his first race since this same event a year ago. But his engine erupted shortly before the 300-mile mark, leaving him sitting 37th in the garage.

Three down, one to go; Johnson was left with a car that might have been the fastest of the four. The problem, surprisingly, was the inability of crew chief Chad Knaus to call proper strategy. Taking four tires when others took two, then putting an extra can of fuel in while others did not found the No. 48 buried in 11th when the race went green for a final 27-lap run to checkers. It took all Johnson could muster to fight up to second, but the aggression took its toll; a flat tire and contact with the wall — not necessarily in that order — with three laps to go left him limping to the pits and a lap down in 28th.

That’s right, four Hendrick cars, zero drivers on the lead lap. It was the first time since Sonoma in 2005 that the entire fleet ran outside the top 25 at race’s end. Will it hamper HMS over the long-term? Yes and no. Johnson, who still has a 31-point advantage in the championship standings should have won each of the last three weeks. He’ll be fine. Kahne, now pushed back into “wild card” territory still has a Bristol victory and is a top-5 car on every intermediate the circuit runs. His Chase position, along with an additional win or two this summer, is a near certainty.

For Gordon and Earnhardt, the picture is less clear. The former is winless this year, sits 19 points outside the top 10 and has seemingly suffered through more bad luck in one season than Johnson has in an entire career. History says he’ll win one before Richmond, as always, to secure a spot — but you never know.

As for NASCAR’s Most Infamous Enigma, Michigan marked just the third time all year that the No. 88 has been out front, which is encouraging. But challenges in the form of Sonoma and Kentucky await. Add in a potential Daytona “Big One,” and suddenly this team, sitting 30 points inside the Chase cutoff, is scrapping with about 14 others for one of the final three playoff spots via points. That’s not a chance they want to take, because Junior hasn’t won a race away from Michigan since Richmond in April 2006.


SECOND GEAR: And it’s Ford for the steal!
With Hendrick down for the count and Toyota down on power — its big guns failed to lead a lap for the second straight week — the Michigan race was there for the taking. And Ford was more than happy to step in. Aside from winner Biffle, Joey Logano led 21 laps and ran a solid ninth, his fourth straight top-10 result. Polesitter Carl Edwards was one position better, and would have been higher if not for an ill-timed yellow while pit stops were under way that trapped him deep in the field.

It was a big moment for the Fusions, still a step behind and needing to take advantage of situations like Sunday’s to stay in the game. Now with Biffle holding a victory, it’s almost certain he and Edwards will be in the postseason field.

Surprisingly enough, while you’d think Penske Racing would be in better position, the momentum within that camp is tilting towards Roush Fenway. There’s no guarantee Logano or even reigning champ Brad Keselowski, who ran out of gas and came home a frustrating 12th, will even make the postseason. Keselowski, who was in the news last week for comments made about why Penske and RFR are struggling to work together, has to cut the chitchat, which got Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing infuriated over claims they’ve stolen employees. Instead, he must use his newfound street cred to continue the push to share information — the teams met extensively last week — because they’re going to need it.
 

Teaser:
<p> Reaction from Greg Biffle's win in NASCAR's Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan Interantional Speedway.</p>
Post date: Monday, June 17, 2013 - 13:02
Path: /nascar/nascar-heads-michigan-mourns-loss-jason-leffler
Body:

1. Reflecting on Jason Leffler, forever a hard charger
News of Jason Leffler’s death after a New Jersey sprint car crash ran fast, far and wide this week. His passing is, as it too often becomes, a startling reminder that race car drivers don’t compete in an arena like most other athletes.

Racing isn’t just entertainment. It’s a way of life — an often difficult one — for those who pursue it. For every NASCAR national series driver traveling by jet and racing in front of tens of thousands, there are hundreds of others hopefully scraping enough dollars together for new tires every few races or working through the night to make repairs from the last time out.

They do it for the thrill of a well-executed pass, or to feel the joy of victory lane one more time. They do it for the speed, for the rush and for the adventure that’s forever locked inside the walled confines of a racetrack only available to those who work hard enough to enter. It’s an event of open participation, but an experience only a select few ever try.

I didn’t know Jason Leffler, and I never interviewed him. I won’t pretend to know what motivated him to slide in a race car for the first time so long ago, or know what he was seeking from racing Wednesday night at Bridgeport Speedway in an event that paid $7,000 to win. I just know that Jason Leffler was a race car driver in the purest sense with a style both brash and unbounded.

He pushed limits and occasionally stepped over them. He was unflinchingly aggressive when a gap opened — often to a fault — and was more than willing to seek retribution against a driver who had done him wrong. If Jason Leffler was in a race, you more than likely knew it regardless if he was first or 25th.

It all combined to produce in Leffler the status and goal every racer wishes to achieve: Winner.

Leffler didn’t win as often as he liked — no driver ever does — but he was a four-time champion in the USAC ranks in midget and silver crown cars. He started the Indianapolis 500 and he did score trips to victory lane in both the Nationwide Series and NASCAR’s truck series.

It was after his second and final Nationwide Series race win in 2007 at the former Indianapolis Raceway Park that perhaps told us all we need to know about why Leffler spent the majority of his life scrambling across the country to jump behind a steering wheel. Leffler, who had just beat Greg Biffle and David Reutimann using his standard strong-nosed tactics, went through the usual gratuitous crew and sponsor acknowledgements in the post-race interview before he paused, looked directly to the ESPN interviewer and shouted.

“I’m happy!”

Jason Leffler loved his life of racing. And he especially loved the winning. It’s terribly unfortunate and greatly saddening that he lost his life in that continued pursuit. But it’s also comforting knowing that Leffler — at least occasionally — had found what he was chasing.


2. Anniversary brings talk of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
You may have read Dale Earnhardt Jr. won at Michigan International Speedway last June. You may have heard that Sunday’s race is the one-year anniversary of Earnhardt’s last win. You may have also heard that the confluence of that event with Earnhardt’s great run at Pocono Raceway last week have made him a good pick for Sunday’s race.

While picking a race winner is often a trivial pursuit (unless you’re picking Jimmie Johnson every week), there are a lot of signs that Earnhardt should have a good car Sunday in Michigan.

Consider that Earnhardt had a top-10 finish at Auto Club Speedway earlier this season. Consider that he’s typically been strong on the tracks similar to Michigan this year. And consider that Earnhardt feels his car is measuring closer to the performance of the No. 48.

“I looked through the notes from last year, and we didn’t unload perfect. We had to work to get it right,” Earnhardt said. “You don’t go in with confidence that you are going to go there and it will be perfect. You have the confidence to know that we will get it dialed in.”

A win last year is certainly no guarantee of success for Earnhardt. But to come back to a track as a defending race winner riding the wave of confidence from recent good runs is a great start to a solid weekend.


3. Ride swaps on tap for Allmendinger, Labonte
Bobby Labonte has become an afterthought in the Sprint Cup Series in recent seasons. After filling the seat vacated by Marcos Ambrose in the JTG-Daughtery No. 47 in 2011, Labonte has just four top 10s to his name. None of those have come in 2013 for the 2000 series champion, and the team apparently is losing some patience with the direction to this point.

As a result, AJ Allmendinger was hired to drive the No. 47 Sunday at Michigan in an attempt to perhaps find some solutions to speed and handling issues in the Gen-6 car. Sunday’s event is the first of five races Allmendinger will drive for the team over the course of the season.

Meanwhile, Labonte will preserve his 702-race consecutive starts streak by jumping in the ever-rotating seat of James Finch’s No. 51.

While it’s not certain that this driver switch for the No. 47 officially opens the NASCAR silly season of driver and team changes, it’s not often that one driver takes over another driver’s ride for performance reasons — even if temporarily — without some larger adjustment down the road.
 

Teaser:
<p> Geoffrey Miller pays tribute to Jason Leffler and highlights the five storylines to follow as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits Michigan International Speedway.</p>
Post date: Friday, June 14, 2013 - 11:40
All taxonomy terms: College Football, News
Path: /college-football/2013-college-football-fcs-top-25-and-predictions
Body:

College football isn't just about the major conferences and the BCS. The FCS  settles its national champion with a playoff, something most FBS fans have wanted for years. North Dakota State tops Athlon's Top 25 FCS teams for 2013, as the Bison look to win their third consecutive national championship. 

1. North Dakota State (14-1, 7-1 MVC)
A tremendous amount of returning talent powers the Bison as they seek a third straight national title. Cornerback Marcus Williams and linebacker Grant Olson fuel the nation’s stingiest defense, and quarterback Brock Jensen will feed 1,000-yard backs Sam Ojuri and John Crockett. A word of caution for Kansas State, which hosts the Bison on Aug. 30: coach Craig Bohl’s program is 6–3 against FBS opponents since joining the FCS ranks in 2006.

2. Montana State (11-2, 7-1 Big Sky) 
The three-time defending Big Sky champions welcome back linebacker Na’a Moeakiola and defensive end Brad Daly but have several holes to plug on defense. This season, the Bobcats offense has to lead the way, and it can, behind fourth-year starting quarterback DeNarius McGhee, running back Cody Kirk and receiver Tanner Bleskin.

3. Georgia Southern (10-4, 6-2 Southern) 
The FBS-bound Eagles are ineligible for the Southern Conference title and a playoff berth after three straight semifinal-round appearances. With a solid offensive line and the return of quarterback Jerick McKinnon (1,817 rushing yards, 20 rushing TDs) and fullback Dominique Swope (1,246, 17 total TDs), Georgia Southern’s triple option attack could lead the FCS in rushing once again.

4. Sam Houston State (11-4, 6-1 Southland) 
Two straight losses in the national final are motivating coach Willie Fritz’s squad. The offense will score in bunches with the return of quarterback Brian Bell, All-America running back Timothy Flanders and multi-dimensional running back/receiver Richard Sincere. Still, the defense is vulnerable after suffering key losses.

5. Villanova (8-4, 6-2 CAA) 
With the return of 18 starters, veteran coach Andy Talley seemingly has one of his better teams, although a competitive CAA race will test the Wildcats. Quarterback John Robertson, the 2012 Jerry Rice Award winner, has fellow playmakers in running backs Kevin Monangai and Jamal Abdur-Rahman. Plus, the Wildcats are as deep in the trenches as any FCS team.

6. Appalachian State (8-4, 6-2 Southern)
Scott Satterfield faces the difficult task of replacing legendary coach Jerry Moore as the Mountaineers head toward the FBS. Ineligible for the SoCon title and a playoff berth, they feature a terrific passing game led by quarterback Jamal Jackson and receivers Sean Price, Andrew Peacock and Tony Washington.

7. Eastern Washington (11-3, 7-1 Big Sky) 
The Eagles’ schedule is diabolical — road games at Oregon State, Toledo, Sam Houston State, Montana and Cal Poly, and a home date against Montana State. Can they overcome it? Last season’s national semifinalists expect to with the likes of quarterback Vernon Adams, linebacker Ronnie Hamlin and cornerback T.J. Lee III.

8. Towson (7-4, 6-2 CAA) 
Junior running back Terrance West has scored 44 touchdowns in his career and is beaming over the return of all five starting offensive linemen. Wisconsin transfer Joe Brennan may take over at quarterback, while the defense will be strong at linebacker and defensive back.

9. Montana (5-6, 3-5 Big Sky) 
The Grizzlies are still coming out of a tumultuous period, including last year’s first losing record since 1985. The reinstatement of 2011 starting quarterback Jordan Johnson could settle the position again. The defense is stacked in the front seven with end Zach Wagenmann and senior linebackers Jordan Tripp, Brock Coyle and John Kanongata’a.

10. South Dakota State (9-4, 6-2 MVC)
Zach Zenner led the FCS in rushing yards (2,044 yards) as a sophomore and is the focal point of the offense. But the Jackrabbits need quarterback Austin Sumner to provide his 2011 level of production instead of last year’s drop-off. Sophomore linebacker T.J. Lally is a big-game player already.

11. New Hampshire (8-4, 6-2 CAA) 
Opponents will be hard-pressed to slow the Wildcats’ bid for a 10th straight FCS playoff berth. Nico Steriti, who averaged 6.6 yards per carry as a sophomore, heads a deep running attack, and quarterbacks Sean Goldrich and Andy Vailas always get the ball to junior wide receiver R.J. Harris. New Hampshire must replace linebacker Matt Evans, the school’s all-time tackles leader.

12. Central Arkansas (9-3, 6-1 Southland) 
Dual-threat quarterback Wynrick Smothers (3,103 yards passing, 449 yards rushing in 2012) and defensive end Jonathan Woodard are poised for big seasons for the Bears, who have yet to lose in two seasons on their purple-and-gray turf. Linebacker Justin Heard and cornerback Jestin Love also star for the emerging defense.

13. Richmond (8-3, 6-2 CAA) 
The Spiders enjoyed a five-win improvement in coach Danny Rocco’s first season as the head coach, and they may be poised for another leap forward with the return of 18 starters. In a run-heavy CAA, senior wideout Ben Edwards (80 receptions) stands out for quarterback Michael Strauss. Defensive linemen Evan Kelly and Kerry Wynn track down the opposing quarterbacks.

14. Northern Iowa (5-6, 4-4 MVC) 
The Panthers have softened the schedule after overindulging last season — at Wisconsin and at Iowa in the first three weeks of the season — and they expect to get back on track behind junior running back David Johnson and sophomore quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen. Placekicker Tyler Sievertsen, who’s made 28-of-33 career field goal attempts, likes the comforts of the UNI Dome.

15. Cal Poly (9-3, 7-1 Big Sky) 
After making a splash in their Big Sky debut, the Mustangs return a veteran squad, but their losses include quarterback Andre Broadous and 1,500-yard back Deonte Williams. Slotback Kristaan Ivory is the new offensive star, and defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz gets into opponents’ backfields.

16. Northern Arizona (8-3, 6-2 Big Sky) 
Two season-ending losses — at home vs. Southern Utah and Cal Poly — sabotaged the Lumberjacks, who return 18 starters. Running back Zach Bauman seeks a fourth straight 1,000-yard season, and fellow seniors Anders Battle and Lucky Dozier headline one of the better secondaries in the FCS.

17. James Madison (7-4, 5-3 CAA)
Sophomore quarterback Michael Birdsong is a star in the making, and running back Dae’Quan Scott does a little bit of everything for the Dukes. All-America middle linebacker Stephon Robertson works sideline to sideline, backed by emerging safety Dean Marlowe.

18. Chattanooga (6-5, 5-3 Southern)
The Mocs are primed for SoCon title contention with the conference’s best defense, featuring 2012 Defensive Player of the Year Davis Tull at end, linebacker Wes Dothard and cornerback Kadeem Wise. Jacob Huesman, son of coach Russ Huesman, has supplanted Terrell Robinson at quarterback.

19. Wofford (9-4, 6-2 Southern) 
With FBS-bound Appalachian State and Georgia Southern ineligible for the SoCon title, the Terriers are the league favorites. They lose standout Eric Breitenstein but now feature fullback Donovan Johnson, who has 1,793 career rushing yards. Linebacker Mike McCrimon and Alvin Scioneaux are rocks on defense.

20. Eastern Illinois (7-5, 6-1 OVC)
Behind his lethal passing attack, first-year coach Dino Babers took the Panthers from worst to first in the Ohio Valley Conference. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and wide receiver Erik Lora, whose 136 receptions set the FCS single-season record, lead the passing game.

21. Tennessee State (8-3, 4-3 OVC)
After beginning last season with seven straight wins, the Tigers need talented junior quarterback Michael German to be their closer. Much of the defense returns, including shutdown cornerback Steven Godbolt III and aptly named linebacker Nick Thrasher, their leading tackler.

22. Delaware (5-6, 2-6 CAA) 
New coach Dave Brock inherits a talented team that features senior tailback Andrew Pierce (3,637 career rushing yards) and, the Blue Hens hope, a healthier Trent Hurley at quarterback. Linebacker Jeff Williams broke in as a premier pass-rusher last season.

23. Youngstown State (7-4, 4-4 MVC) 
A tough schedule in November means the Penguins need a fast start as they chase their first playoff appearance since 2006. Quarterback Kurt Hess will air it out to make amends for last season’s disappointment.

24. Illinois State (9-4, 5-3 MVC) 
The Redbirds have filled major holes on offense with transfers — quarterback Jared Barnett, from Iowa State, and power running back Collin Keoshian, from Glendale (Calif.) Community College. Premier defensive end Colton Underwood has to lead a defense that also sustained heavy losses.

25. The Citadel (7-4, 5-3 Southern) 
A rare sweep of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern last season could be a prelude for an even better 2013. The Bulldogs’ triple option returns quarterbacks Ben Dupree and Aaron Miller, 1,000-yard fullback Darien Robinson and a veteran offensive line.

 

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Teaser:
<p> 2013 College Football FCS Top 25 and Predictions</p>
Post date: Friday, June 14, 2013 - 07:50
Path: /nascar/fantasy-nascar-picks-pocono-international-speedway
Body:

To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List. The main picks are designed to make optimal use of Yahoo!’s 9-start maximum rule over the course of the season. The “also consider” section ranks unmentioned drivers strictly by expected result without consideration of start limitations.


It’s round one of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Michigan International Speedway this weekend — and the one year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s most recent win. Oh, that’s the only thing everyone is talking about this week? Sorry about that. Jump in, make your picks and, hopefully, make us look like we know what we’re talking about.


A-List (Pick two, start one)
Jimmie Johnson  Johnson was so, so good at Pocono Raceway. Without a differing pit strategy from Ryan Newman, there’s a good chance Johnson could have led all but about 10 laps or so thanks to the green flag pit stops. Most worrisome for the field is that Johnson discussed after the race how the car’s demands are really sharpening in to focus for that team. In other words: Johnson and crew chief aren’t trying out new setup theories at this point, they’re improving on what’s already working. There’s a good chance Johnson erases his distinction of never winning at Michigan come Sunday.

Denny Hamlin  Hamlin didn’t quite come through at Pocono like expected, and he’s now starting to reach desperation mode if the summer comeback from the four races he missed is going to happen. It was just two years ago that Hamlin drove away from the field to win at Michigan, and remember he was injured in a crash while battling for the lead earlier this year at Auto Club Speedway — Michigan’s sister track in shape and design. Last year, his Michigan race ended in a fire on pit road — knocking his average finish at MIS to 13.6.

Also consider: Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne
 

Teaser:
<p> Fantasy NASCAR tips for the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 - 17:59
Path: /college-football/wisconsin-finds-perfect-fit-new-coach-gary-andersen
Body:

Gary Andersen’s final act as Utah State’s head football coach, heartfelt but atypical among college coaches, helped assuage the pain and frustration felt by his players, most of whom were stunned to learn their coach had taken a new job less than a week after capping arguably the most memorable season in the history of the program.

Andersen’s decision to call the Utah State players — one by one over a span of two days — so he could personally explain the reasons behind his decision to take over the Wisconsin program impressed the players at his new school.

“That did surprise me, because you don’t hear about things like that very often,” says Wisconsin senior linebacker Chris Borland, who learned of Andersen’s classy gesture online. “That speaks a lot to his character. Coaches fly by night these days. To stay connected to his guys like that, at all hours of the night, over 100 guys, that is really special.”

Kyle Whittingham, who has been the head coach at Utah for the last eight seasons, has known Andersen since the two first worked together at Idaho State in 1992. Whittingham wasn’t surprised to learn that Andersen had devoted hours on the phone to talk to his players before he left Logan, his home from 2009-12, for Madison.

“He cares tremendously about his players,” Whittingham says. “That is one of his strengths. He has a great rapport and has always been able to develop a strong bond with his players.”

And Wisconsin’s players needed a hug — probably even more than Utah State’s did.

Three days after crushing Nebraska in the Big Ten title game, the UW players learned they were losing their coach, Bret Bielema.

About 24 hours after Bielema told the players not to worry if they heard his name linked to any job openings, he was in New York City finalizing an agreement to take over the Arkansas program.

By the time he returned to Madison for a team meeting, the UW players knew Bielema was gone. Although most of them respected his right to make such a career move, many were taken aback when he said he was leaving in part to win a championship.

Hadn’t UW just won its third consecutive Big Ten title?

“I was a little surprised by that, and he said that to me,” UW athletic director Barry Alvarez says. “I thought we were very close to playing for a national championship a year ago (2011). We just won three (Big Ten) championships.”

Andersen, 49, has been working at a frenetic pace since being introduced as UW’s head coach on Dec. 21. He had the opportunity to meet the players and evaluate the team’s personnel shortly after he was hired and watched the 2013 Rose Bowl from the UW sideline.

However, he generally kept a low profile and let the UW staff focus on the bowl game.

“I respected that,” senior defensive end Tyler Dippel says. “I thought it was cool. He wasn’t some guy trying to come in and move everyone aside and say this is what we’re doing now.”

Instead, Andersen focused on building his staff, holding together the bulk of UW’s 2013 recruiting class and reaching out to the state’s high school coaches.

Andersen hired five coaches with whom he had worked, including three from Utah State; retained two from UW’s 2012 staff; and added two others to finalize the staff.

“It is an important part to this puzzle,” Andersen said when asked about hiring familiar faces. “It helps the transition. We need to hit the ground running. It is important to start fast.”

 Andersen’s final team at Utah State had 47 in-state players, or 44.8 percent of the roster. Shortly after UW lost to Stanford in the Rose Bowl, Andersen met with key members of the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association to assure them he would work diligently to keep the state’s best high school players home.

“He did a really good job explaining his philosophy and how they’re going to handle things,” says Tom Swittel, president of the WFCA. “He seems like a very down-to-earth guy. He’s not going to blow smoke up anyone’s rear end. He is going to say what is on his mind, and as a coach I appreciate that.

“He wants to continue to get the best kids in the state of Wisconsin. He made a point of saying that they don’t know how many that means every year. But they are committed to that.”

Andersen is also committed to keeping UW in contention for Big Ten titles.

When Bielema took over as UW’s head coach in 2006, he inherited a veteran-laden team coming off a 10–3 season under Alvarez. Bielema’s record in his first season: 12–1, with the lone loss at Michigan.

Andersen inherits a team that returns a total of 12 starters on offense and defense, as well as both specialists, from a group that finished 8–6.

“What’s my stamp going to be on it?” Andersen said when asked about the direction of the program. “I sure hope my stamp at the end of the day is to be a football team that’s physical, tough-minded, plays aggressive, plays the game the right way, is respected by their opponents, solid in all three phases (and) has one of the best graduation rates in the country. That’s what I expect. … Again, we’ll never be perfect. I’ll never say that. But we sure will try to be every single day and fight to get to that position.”

Andersen’s Utah State résumé suggests that he will not disappoint at UW.

From 1998-2008, the Aggies compiled a cumulative record of 35–90. They never finished above .500 in that 11-year span. Utah State finished 4–8, 4–8 and 7–6 in Andersen’s first three seasons. In 2012, Andersen guided the Aggies to the outright Western Athletic Conference title with a 6–0 league record. The 11–2 overall mark was the best in program history, and the Aggies finished 16th in the final Associated Press poll. The 41–15 victory over Toledo in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl was the second bowl victory in program history.

“It was a rebuild, a complete rebuild,” Whittingham says. “He built it from the ground up. But Gary is organized, pays attention to details and has a good vision of the big picture.”

Andersen, whose Utah State team suffered a 16–14 loss at Wisconsin last season, wasn’t planning to change jobs until UW entered the picture. He reportedly turned down offers from California, Kentucky and Colorado. But when Alvarez offered him a new challenge, Andersen jumped at the chance, because he had seen the campus and the fan support, and the players reminded him of those he recruited at Utah State.

“The second that Coach Alvarez had contacted me and gave me the opportunity,” Andersen says, “I knew that that was a job I was going to take.”


This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2013 Big Ten Preview Edition. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2013 SEC season.
 

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Teaser:
<p> Wisconsin Finds the Perfect Fit in New Coach Gary Andersen</p>
Post date: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 - 07:40
Path: /nascar/nascar-numbers-game-6-amazing-stats-michigan
Body:

Watch the telecast of this weekend’s race at Michigan International Speedway and you will hear it referred to as “the sister track” to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. While that’s true in some ways — both are two-mile D-shaped tracks and the latter was built by Roger Penske to resemble the former — the two surfaces have now created two completely different styles of racing.

The weather-beaten surface in Fontana created a manic multiple-groove free-for-all earlier this year. Michigan, which was repaved prior to its two race dates in 2012, is speedy, stretches out the field and welcomes savvy pit strategy. It won’t provide the action that Fontana had, but it will create an atmosphere that allows the smartest race teams in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to prevail.

In just two events last season, we caught a glimpse of what future races at MIS might entail. It favors some of the usual suspects.


195  Not a statistic, but the lap (out of a scheduled 200) on which Jimmie Johnson’s motor blew while leading the race at Michigan last summer.

Johnson’s detractors might have blacked this out, but the No. 48 was dangerously close to scoring the win in the most recent race at MIS (and the only race run on the current Goodyear tire compound). He led 23 laps in a heated battle with Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle before his Hendrick motor popped, saddling him with a 27th-place result and forcing a green-white-checker finish. If not for the malfunction, Johnson would have likely joined Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in finishing inside the top 5 in both 2012 Michigan races.


99.5%  Keselowski spent a race-high 99.5 percent of all laps in the top 15 during last summer’s race at Michigan.

He led 17 laps and averaged a running position of 6.95 before finishing second to Biffle. The Michigan native has been knocking on the door to Cup Series victory lane at MIS ever since he collected back-to-back wins in the Nationwide Series races in 2009 and 2010. Really, a win this weekend would be the official break in a rare Keselowski slump. In six races dating back to Kansas, he and the No. 2 Penske Racing team have averaged a finish of 22.8 and seen their Chase-making probability drop by 22.67 percent.


54.8%  Johnson (55.9 percent) and Keselowski (53.3 percent) combined for a 54.8 percent passing efficiency on 336 total encounters in the most recent race at MIS.

Despite two different pit strategies, the two eventual title contenders had no trouble moving through traffic before sizing up one another. The race was an early sign that the two drivers were destined to duel for a championship, even though neither was the day’s victor.
 

Teaser:
<p> David Smith crunches the numbers and finds the key NASCAR stats for the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, June 11, 2013 - 18:54
Path: /nascar/motivated-johnson-no-match-nascar-field-pocono
Body:

A five-time champion in their respective sport is rarely in need of motivation. So when you hand it to them on a silver platter, whatever the reason, you better hide yourself inside a bunker and hope for the best. After Dover’s fluky finish a week ago, where a restart penalty all but took a win away from Jimmie Johnson, something inside the 37-year-old snapped. Struggling to hold his tongue on several occasions, it was clear “Mr. Politically Correct” felt NASCAR made the wrong call, robbing him of what would be a record-setting Dover performance.

For a regular season race — sometimes used as test sessions for the No. 48 team — it’s been a long time since I’ve seen them enter the following Sunday so focused. Johnson, typically unflappable, was angry, even borderline insulted over it all. And we see what happens when star athletes get mad. Just ask LeBron James, Michael Jordan or even Joe Namath.

The Dover penalty, no matter what side you’re on, made Johnson “want it” more than anyone else at Pocono. And when a driver of that talent level gets prodded to the point they feel a statement must be made, what you get is the type of dominating snoozer Pocono turned out to be. It may not have been pretty — and at times, borderline unwatchable — but that kind of “whip the field” mentality is what’s made this guy the best NASCAR driver of the last decade … maybe more. Superstars are called that for a reason, and it’s not because they push their sport towards record ratings. That’s unfortunate for stock car racing, which has suffered under the Johnson era but you can’t suspend raw talent. You can only hope to contain it.

After seeing Sunday’s race, I doubt it will be contained anytime soon, especially after chief rivals seemed to stumble all over themselves. Their rough road ahead is what brings us “Through the Gears” after Pocono …


FIRST GEAR: Toyota’s loss is Jimmie Johnson’s gain
It’s easy to wax poetic about Johnson’s dominating performance, his first victory at Pocono since 2004. But to a point, that was expected considering the team’s level of anger, track position at a repaved facility (he started on the pole) and the momentum his No. 48 team has built over the past few months. Consistency-wise, they’re the best in the sport right now — no one else is remotely close.

Perhaps the bigger piece of news for Chevy’s top dog is how the top finishers shook out behind him. For the first time all season, not a single Toyota driver found his way inside the top 5 at race’s end. Mid-week changes at Toyota Racing Development to dial the engines back after a series of reliability problems turned the cars from Superman to Clark Kent. Denny Hamlin, the prototypical favorite at this track, failed to lead a lap, finished a quiet eighth and explained how suddenly, his Camry’s engine appeared to be hindered by kryptonite.

“By no means did we have a winning car this weekend,” he said. “I think all of us had to play defense on the straightaway, which is really tough.”

Add in Matt Kenseth’s rough day, slumping to 25th from fourth after contact with Juan Pablo Montoya, and a so-so sixth for Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole had an average finish of 13.0 with “Toyota engine, Version II.” That’s crucial for Johnson, whose lone obstacle, it seemed, entering the postseason was whether the durability of these rival motors would hold up. If the Toyotas have to dial it back that much, just to make each race the distance, they’re threatening to gift wrap the 2013 trophy for Johnson and hand it to him at Phoenix, the penultimate race — because he’ll still be able to skip Homestead and still win No. 6.


SECOND GEAR: Tough times for the Gen-6
Clearly, Pocono Raceway is not at fault for Johnson stomping the field. When a driver has a car that good, there’s only so much you can do to make the races exciting. To the Tricky Triangle’s credit, the crowd looked fairly full as track president Brandon Igdalsky continues to come up with great ways to maximize fan experience both inside and outside the track.

But no amount of free concerts, celebrity poker tournaments or cheap tickets can hide how awful NASCAR’s product was on Sunday. Behind Johnson, most of the field kept running in place while even a series of late restarts struggled to live up to their typical excitement. Several drivers appeared on cruise control, running in place, while side-by-side competition was nowhere to be found. It’s a puzzling development, especially at a triangular-shaped facility whose shortened distance last June provided one of the season’s best races and finishes.

When you end up with that type of flat, across-the-board product so soon after, it’s hard to point guilt anywhere other than NASCAR’s Gen-6. Fontana, at this point, seems a distant memory as the same type of aerodynamic issues are plaguing this new generation of car. High speeds, while good for the record books, have posed a problem when it comes to aggressive competition; drivers are chasing the racetrack, so much it makes running two-abreast too big of a risk to take. Add in the conservatism of making the Chase, with such a close battle for those positions (see point four below) and the final equation leaves what you’re watching seem like a conservative, single-file parade.

Is there a fix? One thought would be to slow the cars down; that, in turn, cuts down on the aero push and gives drivers more freedom to maneuver around the track. What made Fontana so great was its multiple grooves, giving drivers control over where to plant the car. Since then, I’ve heard the term “one-groove” track too many times to my liking. If drivers don’t feel they can control a car in a second groove (and under this point system) they’re not going to go there unless forced to — on those crazy restarts.

How you get those multiple grooves back in play? I’m not certain of the answer. But the right people should be racking their brains, because the optimism — and hype — this new car generated is threatening to fade.
 

Teaser:
<p> Reaction from Jimmie Johnson's dominant win in NASCAR's Party in the Poconos 400 at Pocono Raceway.</p>
Post date: Monday, June 10, 2013 - 16:33
Path: /college-football/best-and-worst-times-be-nebraska-football-fan
Body:

Even for the best college football programs, certain eras are better than others. And even the most successful programs have their lean years.

In a semi-regular series, Athlon Sports will look at the best times to be a fan for college football’s major powers -- when the stadium was a little louder, when the tailgates were a little livelier, and when it was just a little more fun to hang out on campus.

For Nebraska, was it more fun to be in Lincoln when Tommie Frazier was king? Or when Johnny Rodgers won the school its first Heisman? What about when the storied program was in its infancy?

Of course, there’s a flip side. Forgettable and even painful seasons when fans found better things to do on Saturdays, or worse, nothing to do during bowl season.

Here's when it was fun to be a Nebraska fan and the times best forgotten.

BEST TIMES TO BE A NEBRASKA FAN

1993-97
Record: 60-3
National titles: 3
Coach: Tom Osborne
Notable players: Tommie Frazier, Aaron Taylor, Grant Wistrom, Zach Wiegert, Trev Alberts, Brendan Stai, Ed Stewart, Jason Peter
Why this was a great time to be a fan: Osborne’s long wait for a national title ended in ’94 with a 13-0 record and a 24-17 win over Miami in the Orange Bowl. That was only the start. With Tommie Frazier at quarterback, Nebraska’s offense was one of the best in college football history, and the ’95 team was one of the sport’s legendary teams. The 62-24 demolition of Florida in the Fiesta Bowl for a second national title in two years was par for the course -- Nebraska defeated opponents by 38.7 points per game that year. In the final season before the BCS, Nebraska split a national title with Michigan in 1997, going 13-0 and finishing first in the coaches’ poll. Frazier was gone by then, but Nebraska produced an Outland winner (Aaron Taylor) and Lombardi winner (Grant Wistrom) that season.

1970-72
Record: 33-2-2
National titles: 2
Coach: Bob Devaney
Notable players: Johnny Rodgers, Rich Glover, Bob Newton, Larry Jacobson
Why this was a great time to be a fan: The era brought Nebraska’s first AP national champion in 1970 and the Cornhuskers’ first Heisman winner, Johnny Rodgers, in 1972. Nebraska went 24-0-1 in 1971 and ’72, earning back-to-back national titles. The 1971 squad may have been Devaney’s best team. That year, the biggest matchup became the Game of the Century against rival Oklahoma on Thanksgiving. Led by Rodgers, the Cornhuskers defeated the Sooners 35-31 in a wild matchup between the top two teams. Devaney avenged earlier bowl losses to Alabama and Bear Bryant to defeat the Tide 38-6 in the 1972 Orange Bowl to seal the title. Bryant called the ’71 Nebraska team one of the best he had faced with good reason -- Nebraska defeated teams that finished No. 2 (Oklahoma), No. 3 (Colorado) and No. 4 (Alabama).

1978-84
Record: 72-14
National titles: 0
Coach: Tom Osborne
Notable players: Mike Rozier, Turner Gill, Irving Fryar, Dave Rimington, Dean Steinkuhler, Roger Craig (right)
Why this was a great time to be a fan: Osborne set the tone for the remainder of his tenure during the late ’70s and early ’80s when the Huskers won five Big Eight titles and three outright. Rozier won the Heisman in 1983, but the undefeated Huskers missed out on a national title with a 31-30 loss to national champion Miami in a classic Orange Bowl upset. This may have been the most heartbreaking time to be a Nebraska fan: Of the 14 losses during this span, 12 were by a touchdown or less.

1962-66
Record: 38-6
National titles: 0
Coach: Bob Devaney
Notable players: Wayne Meylan, Bob Brown, Larry Kramer, Freeman White, Walt Barnes, LaVerne Allers
Why this was a great time to be a fan: The mid-'60s would be upstaged, but Nebraska entered new territory when Devaney was hired in 1962. The previous coach, Bill Jennings, went 15-34-1 in four seasons. In his first season, Devaney led Nebraska to its third bowl game in school history in 1962 and the following year led Nebraska to four consecutive Big Eight titles. Nebraska fans of this era were the first to get a taste of success.

WORST TIMES TO BE A NEBRASKA FAN

1941-61
Record: 72-125-4
Why this was a bad time to be a fan: Think fans of the Bill Callahan (right) era had it bad? It’s tough to remember a time when Nebraska wasn’t relevant, but the Huskers cycled through eight different coaches before 1962, each experiencing various degrees of futility. During this time, Nebraska won two or fewer games six times. The rivalry with Oklahoma wasn’t even a blip on the radar at the time as Nebraska lost 16 in a row from 1943-58.

2004-08
Record: 27-22
Coach: Bill Callahan
Why this was a bad time to be a fan: The previous four decades set the standards that Callahan failed to meet. He was supposed to bring Nebraska into the modern era on offense, but he ended up in the record books for the wrong reasons. Callahan’s first season (5-6) ended a streak of 35 seasons without a bowl and was Nebraska’s first losing season since 1961.

IT WASN'T AS BAD AS YOU THINK FROM...

1998-2003
Record: 59-29
Coach: Frank Solich
Why this wasn't so bad: Solich was Osborne’s preferred successor, but he struggled to live up to his former boss. Still, Solich led Nebraska to a 33-5 record from 1999-2001, producing a national title game appearance and a Heisman winner. Solich remains the last Nebraska coach to win a conference title (in 1999).
 

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Teaser:
<p> Tommie Frazier or Johnny Rodgers? Bob Devaney or Tom Osborne? The best times to root for the Huskers</p>
Post date: Monday, June 10, 2013 - 07:55
Path: /college-football/campus-quarterbacks-best-friend
Body:

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The tight end position has evolved into a highly sought-after commodity at the NFL level.

A lot of that has to do with the type of athletes who are suiting up and honing their craft in college. The really talented ones are an integral part of any offensive scheme and bolster a quarterback's confidence when dropping back in the pocket.

Here is a list of the top tight ends at the FBS level in 2013:

AUSTIN SEFERIAN-JENKINS (Washington): While position rankings can be subjective, that isn't the case at tight end. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Seferian-Jenkins is a nightmare for opposing defenses to handle and is without a doubt the top player at his position in the country. He was named to the All-Pac-12 second team and was a finalist for the Mackey Award in 2012, hauling in 69 balls for 850 yards and seven touchdowns. He doesn't have the straight-line speed to blow by defenders, but he uses his size to his advantage and adjusts for the ball in flight. The only thing that could derail an All-America campaign this season outside of injury is Seferian-Jenkins himself. An off-season arrest for DUI has left the talented playmaker suspended from team activities, and until the case plays itself out in the court system, Seferian-Jenkins is in football limbo.

COLT LYERLA (Oregon): He may not have put up eye-popping numbers in Oregon's prolific offensive attack, but there is no mistaking Lyerla's enormous talent. This 6-5, 246-pounder can do it all on the field. Chip Kelly made sure to showcase that last year, as Lyerla finished with 25 catches for 392 yards and six touchdowns. He also added a seventh score on 13 carries. A prep standout at running back and linebacker, Lyerla is perhaps the most athletic tight end in the country, something the NFL is looking for at the position. Kelly is no longer calling the plays in Eugene, but the script won't change that much for Oregon going forward. The playmakers on offense will continue to shine, and Lyerla has as bright a future as any Duck on the roster.

ERIC EBRON (North Carolina): Another supreme athlete at the position, the 6-4, 245-pound Ebron is evolving into a complete player in Chapel Hill. The junior is extremely fast, explosive after the catch and doesn't mind blocking. A second-team All-ACC selection as a sophomore in 2012, Ebron finished with 40 receptions for 625 yards and four touchdowns. UNC's workhorse tailback Giovani Bernard has moved on to the NFL and North Carolina could get more vertical in its offensive play-calling as a result. That could mean big numbers for Ebron, who will undoubtedly be one of Bryn Renner's top targets in 2013.

C.J. FIEDOROWICZ (Iowa): This Iowa Hawkeye isn't the greatest athlete at the position, but he is as reliable as they come. A huge target at 6-7, 265 pounds, Fiedorowicz knows how to take advantage of smaller defenders. He earned All-Big Ten honorable mention a year ago, finishing with 45 receptions, for 433 yards and one touchdown. He also may be the best blocking tight end on this list, a skill set that will help bolster his NFL stock when draft time comes around.

XAVIER GRIMBLE (USC): On a team that featured two All-Americans in Marqise Lee and Robert Woods on the outside, it wasn't easy for this Trojan to earn recognition as a viable receiving threat. However, that was a common mistake for USC's opponents, as the 6-5, 250-pound Grimble made plays when on the field (nine starts last year), finishing 2012 with 29 catches for 316 yards and five touchdowns. The Trojans are stock-piling at the position with Randall Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick fighting to earn playing time, but it is Grimble who has been the most productive. Another big target with above- average athleticism for the position, Grimble will continue to produce in USC's offensive attack.

JACOB PEDERSEN (Wisconsin): The 6-4, 240-pound Pedersen gets better with each year in Madison. After earning second-team All-Big Ten honors as a sophomore in 2011, he was an All-Big Ten first-team member as a junior in 2012. He finished last season with 27 receptions for 355 yards and four touchdowns, but his modest numbers were more a product of a heavy emphasis on the run (Montee Ball) and subpar quarterback play than anything else. While new head coach Gary Anderson has a defensive pedigree, he will maximize his offensive talent in his debut season with the Badgers and that is likely to include Pedersen.

NICK O'LEARY (Florida State): The 6-3, 238-pound Seminole is a bit undersized at this time, but he has shown flashes of brilliant play over the last two seasons and has some real potential. A receiving threat who can line up outside and make plays down the field, O'Leary finished last season with 21 receptions for 242 yards and three touchdowns. It marked the most TD catches by a tight end at FSU since 1994. With some added bulk and dedication to blocking, O'Leary has the chance to really make a name for himself in 2013.

ARTHUR LYNCH (Georgia): Relegated to backup duty until last year, the 6-5, 260-pound Lynch showed enough in 14 games (13 starts) to land on this list, finishing with 26 catches for 448 yards and three touchdowns. He has great size and is probably a better blocker than most on this list. The Bulldogs have supreme talent at the skill positions this year and Lynch certainly could take advantage with a seasoned quarterback, Aaron Murray, who wants to go out with a bang.

CHRIS COYLE (Arizona State): A special teams ace his first two seasons in Tempe, Coyle burst on the scene as a legitimate vertical threat in Arizona State's passing game last year, finishing with a team-high 57 receptions (a school record for a tight end) for 696 yards and five touchdowns. He falls into the "tweener" category, with marginal size (6-3, 238) for the tight end position, but that didn't stop Coyle from becoming a key target in 2012.

KANEAKUA FRIEL (BYU): The 6-5, 250-pound Friel took time off from football to do mission work in Africa, but got right back into the swing of things in 2012, finishing with 30 receptions for 308 yards and five touchdowns as a junior. He provided glimpses of strong play last year and is a competent blocker, but will need to be a more consistent offensive threat in 2013 to bolster his draft stock.

HONORABLE MENTION: Asa Watson (North Carolina State), Jordan Najvar (Baylor), Jace Amaro (Texas Tech), Ted Bosler (Indiana) and Ben Koyack (Notre Dame).

Teaser:
<p> The tight end position has evolved into a highly sought-after commodity at the NFL level.</p>
Post date: Friday, June 7, 2013 - 12:00
Path: /nascar/pocono-key-denny-hamlins-nascar-chase-hopes
Body:

1. Denny Hamlin needs Pocono more than ever
A crash last Sunday at Dover International Speedway after a flat tire dented Denny Hamlin's hope of a strong run and probably didn't feel the best for a guy just weeks removed from a pretty serious back injury. Hamlin, however, seems to be worried about one thing: Making the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

One of — make that two of — the best things Hamlin his in his uphill climb to the redemption of entry into NASCAR's playoff system is a pair of visits to Pocono Raceway. You may remember that Hamlin won his first Cup race at Pocono in 2006 even after he cut a tire and crashed one-fourth of the way in. Since, he has four wins and sits just two behind Pocono active wins leader Jeff Gordon.

"We were certainly disappointed with the way Dover ended for us, and now it’s up to our FedEx team to dig down and capitalize on some of our better tracks coming up," Hamlin said.

Hamlin's continuing climb starts this week from 26th in Sprint Cup points, some 224 points behind the leader Jimmie Johnson. To get to 20th and become eligible for one of two at-large bids, Hamlin needs to make up 74 points on Ryan Newman (currently 20th) between Sunday and Richmond in September. And he’ll need, at the very least, one win.

A victory this weekend — and season sweep of Pocono, if he's really feeling greedy — would be immensely helpful.


2. Drivers appreciate Pocono's shift work
Plenty of scenes in Days of Thunder feature an oddity that Sprint Cup drivers never use: shifting mid-corner or mid-straightaway as a device to find more speed while already racing at normal pace. It won't be exactly how Cole Trickle does it in the movie this weekend at Pocono, but drivers will get to at least act like they are during each green flag lap.

Pocono's odd three-corner layout demands slow speeds in two corners that lay ahead of two extremely fast straightaways. The contrast bogs a car's engine in a low RPM range if just one gear for an entire lap is being used, which in turn depletes peak acceleration. Since the track opened in 1971, most drivers shifted between third and fourth gears to maximize performance until a new gear rule unexpectedly made that impossible in 2005. The gear rule changed again in 2011 and brought shifting back.

"It’s a fun race track and with the shifting it’s a really tough racetrack. It’s almost like a road course, it’s really tough on the cars and it’s a mentally challenging racetrack," said Carl Edwards.

"It's like a three-cornered, left handed road course, making it a lot of fun to drive," said Paul Menard.
 

Teaser:
<p> Geoffrey Miller highlights the five storylines to follow as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits Pocono Raceway.</p>
Post date: Friday, June 7, 2013 - 10:09
All taxonomy terms: Austin Meadows, MLB, Monthly
Path: /monthly/classmates-austin-meadows-and-robert-nkemdiche-are-top-prospects
Body:

When Austin Meadows tries to balance what’s left of his high school experience with the demands of being one of Major League Baseball’s next great center fielders, he’s got a sympathetic ear just down the hall at Grayson High School in Loganville, Ga.

Meadows is classmates with Robert Nkemdiche, the nation’s top overall college football prospect for the class of 2013. Meadows is a 6'3", 200-pound left-handed outfield prospect whom some analysts have projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the MLB Draft (June 6-8). 

“We’re both really blessed to be going through these situations right now. We’re each doing our own thing, but we’ve talked about how special it is,” Meadows says.

Meadows is currently wrapping up his senior season at Grayson amidst the constant presence of MLB scouts and baseball media from across the country. But it’s nothing new around Grayson, as Nkemdiche’s talent made the campus a preferred destination for a who’s who in college football coaching over the last two years.

“I think it made me a little bit more prepared for what was coming with Austin,” Grayson baseball coach Jed Hixson says. “Every day on campus you’d pass Kirby Smart or see Nick Saban. When it came time, I met with Austin’s parents and talked about the scouts and attention, and what to expect. He’s responded to it great. Austin’s one of the most humble kids I know.”

Grayson High School and the greater community of Gwinnett County are a fertile crescent for athletes in 2013. Nkemdiche’s recruitment became a national storyline for well over the standard year-long recruiting cycle. Originally a verbal commit to Clemson, Nkemdiche was courted by every major program in the country for his rare combination of size (6'5", and a “raw” 260 pounds before college conditioning) and speed. Unlike game-changing South Carolina defensive end and likely 2014 NFL Draft No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, Nkemdiche was also a proficient running back for the Rams.

During a nationally televised press conference at Grayson on the morning of National Signing Day (Feb. 6), Nkemdiche chose to join his older brother Denzel at Ole Miss.

“It’s a relief that it’s over now, but I had fun in the process,” Robert Nkemdiche says. “Now it’s all about focusing on what’s ahead and proving myself.”

While both players are considered among the absolute best in their age group in their respective sports, their wooing has differed greatly. Nkemdiche and his family were largely in control of the recruiting process, selecting which schools the game-changing strong-side end would visit and consider.

Meadows, who is committed to play at Clemson, is at the mercy of MLB team needs and his landing spot is still unknown.

“I don’t really like getting caught up in all the evaluations. I just stick to playing baseball and keeping a level head. Different people might criticize me but that just makes me work harder,” Meadows says.

That has included working on his bat speed and his throwing. Meadows says that he’s worked extensively with coaches and his father, a former punter at Morehead State, on creating “comfort” throwing from the outfield.

“I’ve said to him, ‘Stay positive. Keep your nose clean and stay humble, and put God first.’ That’s what I go by,” Nkemdiche says.

Hixson credits the land-rush style settlement of the greater Loganville area in the last decade as well as a strong relationship between the area’s public schools and parks programs as the reasons why so many top-tier athletes are coming through the Rams’ various athletic programs. 

“The prospects we’ve had here create a chain for kids to come. They’ve brought more and more exposure and that helps the players following them,” Hixson says. “It’s been kind of cool to have the attention Austin has brought for other kids in the program. Certainly some burdens are expected, but they’ve been outweighed by the exposure he’s brought to his teammates.” 

One thing is for certain: Meadows and Nkemdiche are considered pinnacle prospects at their respective games, but there won’t be any Bo Jackson cross-sport action from either student. If there’s a downside of too many top-tier athletes in the same high school, it revealed itself when Meadows, once a running back at Grayson, had to attempt to block Nkemdiche in practice. “It was just one time in practice, I had to block down on him, thankfully, but he went right by.”

For his part Nkemdiche said he wouldn’t want to run against Meadow’s arm in the outfield. “I’d probably be out,” he admits.

by Steven Godfrey

Teaser:
<p> Classmates Austin Meadows and Robert Nkemdiche are Top Prospects</p>
Post date: Thursday, June 6, 2013 - 12:00
Path: /nascar/fantasy-nascar-picks-pocono-raceway
Body:

To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List. The main picks are designed to make optimal use of Yahoo!’s 9-start maximum rule over the course of the season. The “also consider” section ranks unmentioned driver strictly by expected result without consideration of start limitations.

NASCAR makes its first of two visits to Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania Sunday for the Party in the Poconos 400. With a race name like that, Clint Bowyer would appear to be the early favorite, right? Not so fast, says the following stringent analysis. Jump in, make your picks and, hopefully, make us look like we know what we’re talking about.


A-List (Choose two, start one)
Denny Hamlin
After blowing a tire at Dover and smacking the wall, Hamlin’s summer scramble to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup felt the pressure intensify just a bit more. Good thing he’s coming to Pocono, where in 14 starts he’s moved to second in Pocono wins among active drivers. Expect Hamlin to both start (average 5.6) and finish (average 10.7) up front Sunday — especially after the blemish on his Pocono resume handed down in July last year when he was caught in Jimmie Johnson’s late-race crash. In total, Hamlin has led right at one of every four laps that he’s run at Pocono. That’s stout.

Jeff Gordon
Gordon has plenty of glowing career statistics that aren’t so reflective of how well his No. 24 has performed in recent seasons. Such is the break of his astounding period from roughly 1995 to 2002. But stats enhanced long ago muddying the current waters isn’t the case for Gordon at Pocono. Three of Gordon’s last nine wins on the Sprint Cup tour have come at Pocono, and four of his last five starts have resulted in top-10 finishes. The five-race rate bests a career top-10 average at the 2.5-mile triangle of 70 percent.

Also consider: Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth
 

Teaser:
<p> Fantasy NASCAR tips for the Party in the Poconos 400 at Pocono Raceway.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 - 17:56
Path: /nascar/nascar-numbers-game-6-amazing-stats-pocono
Body:

Dover International Speedway, a high-banked one-mile concrete oval, and Pocono Raceway, a 2.5-mile asphalt triangle with three wildly different corners, are two tracks that shouldn’t warrant much comparison.

Tony Stewart, who slumped through the first third of this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season and broke out with a victory last week at Dover, hopes that the contrary is true. The manner in how he won last Sunday emulates a lot of his past success at Pocono, including his two most recent outings on the “Tricky Triangle.” If Stewart can translate what worked at one place into working at another, all of a sudden his flash-in-the-pan win last weekend (it wasn’t undeserved, but he’d be hard-pressed to duplicate the feat) becomes the ignition of a summer hot streak.

How big of a shock was last week’s win? How did he do it? And do his numbers suggest a second consecutive victory?

For PEER and other metrics with which you may be unfamiliar, I refer you to my glossary of terms on MotorsportsAnalytics.com.


41st  Prior to his win at Dover, Stewart ranked 41st out of 47 drivers in Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) at the mile track.

In the five races leading up to the weekend, Stewart didn’t earn a finish at Dover better than 20th. Suffice to say, his win was a bit of a shock. Considering he averaged a 15th-place running position for the afternoon, the victory wasn’t one that seemed a foregone conclusion for those at home watching the race. One of the reasons that he pulled off the victory was because he dialed back the clock and found an element of his repertoire that made a younger Tony a Stock Car superstar.


54.05%  Stewart’s single-race pass efficiency at Dover was 54.05 percent, above his season-long efficiency of 48.44 percent.

The three-time champ’s minus-passing for the year (“minus” is anything below 50 percent) has hindered his plodding approach at success in most races this season. Passing is a large part of what makes Stewart a future Hall of Famer, and what allowed him to surge from 12th to first in the final 40 laps to secure his first win at Dover since 2000.

Stewart fans might take comfort in the fact that one of his best racetracks is next on the schedule.


5.500  Stewart ranks third in Cup Series PEER at Pocono with a 5.500 rating. He is the only driver that secured top-5 finishes in both races there last year.

2012 was the first season that saw Pocono’s new pavement put to use. Historically, Stewart doesn’t fare well on new surfaces or new tire combinations. Pocono was different. Similar to his run last week at Dover, Stewart improved on his average running position by 10 spots in the spring race (from 13th to third) and eight spots in the summer race (from 14th to fifth). Can he capitalize on superb passing and a plodding approach once again? If last year was any indication, it is possible. He earned a 59.38 percent pass efficiency on 256 encounters across both races there last season.


44.9%  Jimmie Johnson led 44.9 percent of last summer’s race at Pocono, but ultimately finished 14th.

If it wasn’t for a hurried rain-imminent finish that prompted Johnson and Greg Biffle to collide and take them out of the running for the win, it’s likely that the No. 48 team would have kept cruising.

In spite of that result, Johnson ranks fourth in Pocono-specific PEER with a 5.000 rating. A driver that probably should have two top-5 finishes on the new surface could right his perceived wrong from Dover — he was penalized for jumping the final restart — this weekend.
 

Teaser:
<p> David Smith crunches the numbers and finds the key NASCAR stats for the Party in the Poconos 400 at Pocono Raceway.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, June 4, 2013 - 22:39
Path: /nascar/will-nascar-dover-win-save-tony-stewarts-season
Body:

A quick look at the leaderboard, 140 laps through Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover gave you a clear indication of who would be winning this race … or so it seemed. Kyle Busch was first, Matt Kenseth was second and the rest of the field was on another planet. For a good hour that duo swapped the point while only a handful of drivers, between cautions, remained within 10 seconds of contact. Meanwhile, the trio of Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya remained far back, dealing with various handling and track position issues that made a push for victory seem like a virtual impossibility.

Fast forward to the final 20 laps, perhaps the time you woke up from a mid-race nap once Busch and Kenseth’s pairs ice skating routine lulled you to sleep. The top 3, heading down the stretch, were none other than Montoya, Johnson and Stewart, until the No. 48 got a black flag for jumping the final restart. Suddenly, a heavyweight battle was at hand between the remaining duo, there was an on-track pass for the lead in the final five laps and one of the deepest slumps in the garage — Stewart’s 30-race winless streak — was torn to shreds at a track where he typically runs like a tow truck driver. For those who missed those hours in between thinking Busch and Kenseth were going to run away with it, three letters came to mind when looking at the final results sheet: W, T and F. (You can figure this one out.)

That’s a good thing for the sport, even though the quality of racing from NASCAR’s Gen-6 chassis left something to be desired at Dover. For if the drivers can’t battle side-by-side for position to captivate an audience, at least you want to create an aura of unpredictability — that the guys you see running up front on lap 200 aren’t going to be the ones there at the finish. So far this season, NASCAR’s last five winners (Harvick twice, David Ragan, Matt Kenseth and Stewart) have led an average of 11 laps during their respective trips to Victory Lane; to me, that means mission accomplished.

Now, if only we could get this Gen-6 running right everywhere, a problem Mr. Stewart still faces as we go up through the gears after the Monster Mile.


FIRST GEAR: What does this win do for Stewart?
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it’s clear even Stewart knows this surprise victory, stolen with what was probably a 10th-place car, won’t suddenly make his self-owned team a pack of title contenders. Indeed, on the same day he was sitting there celebrating, teammate Ryan Newman was in hiding, leaving without comment after blatantly dumping David Gilliland on-track, wrecking both drivers out of the event. Danica Patrick, by comparison, nearly took out the field twice within the first 25 laps before a series of unscheduled pit stops to fix handling problems that left her well off the pace and on a “test session” the rest of the day.

“Just making the Chase, that’s not good enough,” said the three-time champ, who put himself in “wild card” position with the victory. “I would rather miss the Chase and be in the process of building our program. I want to get this whole program turned around to where all three drivers are feeling like they have an opportunity to go out and have a good result.”

Smoke’s got the right attitude for his team, and — aside from a brief rebuke at a media member surrounding rumors about possible crew chief changes — left Sunday in a picture perfect frame of mind. Sunday’s race, in which crew chief Steve Addington used pit strategy to work Stewart up through the pack, could be a turning point for a duo who’s had their share of hard luck. The summertime is typically when Smoke catches fire anyways, with the lion’s share of his 48 career victories occurring after June 1. They’ve got Hendrick chassis and horsepower, (and know-how, as HMS has proved to have mastered the Gen-6 with Johnson atop the points) and the resources and quality of personnel are there to at least turn the No. 14 into a success story.

“I think, as an organization, we have a lot to be proud of,” Stewart continued. “It gives Ryan and Danica and I confidence as a driver (that a Stewart-Haas car won). It gives the three crew chiefs confidence that we are making forward progress.”

Keep in mind we’re also in early June. The last time Stewart won a title, in 2011, he stumbled through July and August, barely made the Chase field and looked like he was going to embarrass himself in the postseason. Instead, he left holding the hardware. It’s the mark of being one of the sport’s great drivers: you can never count him out.


SECOND GEAR: Johnson’s botched restart … and Knaus’ cryptic code.
The debate from Dover is whether Johnson jumped the final restart of the race. Check out the footage for yourself. It’s clear the No. 48, against NASCAR rules, made it to the finish line first, despite restarting second and then never gave the position back to Montoya. Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton claims it’s an open-and-shut case, a Grand Canyon-like divide from where the No. 48 team was on the issue.

“I was half-throttle for the whole frontstretch,” Johnson claimed. “And at some point, I gotta go. NASCAR has the judgment to decide if you jumped it or not. But I’m like, he’s (Montoya) is not even going. So I’m not sure if his car broke or if it was off power or he spun the tires … I don’t know. So I’m running half-throttle down the frontstretch waiting for him and he never comes. And then, we were called on it. So, a bummer way to lose a race.”

Johnson had some support from fellow drivers, coming up to him after the checker flag and expressing their displeasure. Chad Knaus also chimed in, via radio to make their position clear: “They (NASCAR) don’t want you to win this race. You know that.”

But the winner, Stewart (who in a sense is a de facto teammate of Johnson) had no issues with how Montoya brought the field down.

“I feel bad for Jimmie,” Stewart said. “He didn't deserve to be in a situation at the end, but at the same time, he knows what the rules are, and he knows that the leader has to cross the start/finish line first. Juan is smart enough to not let the second place guy take advantage of the restart, and that's what he did.”

Stewart said a possible solution to the controversy would be to widen the restart zone, allowing the leader more leeway in when they accelerate and lessening the advantage for second place so they don’t get out in front. But in this case, I think it’s a combination of Montoya’s savvy and a little cheerleading from Knaus that went to Johnson’s head. Check out this transmission I caught just before the final restart:

“You're a lot faster than Montoya, we’ve seen that ... he's just a pain in the ass to pass. Get out there and check the f**k out.”

Johnson, back to second after Montoya beat him off pit road, might have been a little overeager. And the Colombian, not used to being up front, might have spun the tires or even intentionally stayed slow once Johnson jumped knowing if the No. 48 never gave the position back, he’d be black-flagged and the race would play out in his favor. Either way, it’s no harm, no foul for the points leader; he’s got a 30-point edge, is solidly in the Chase and showed he had the car to beat for the return visit to Dover in the fall. I’d forgive, forget and chalk it up as a lesson learned.


THIRD GEAR: Toyota’s engine woes … How will the affect things going forward?
For the second time this season, Matt Kenseth was in position to win until the motor in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota went kaboom. Out before the race’s midpoint, after having dominated up front with Kyle Busch, he was soon joined in the garage by fellow top-5 runner Martin Truex Jr. of Michael Waltrip Racing. It was a rough day for the Camry powerplants, which have blown up at a rate nearly six times that of rivals Ford or Chevrolet.

“I mean I feel like JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) has three of the strongest teams in the garage,” Kenseth said. “It seems like we got the best cars out there — or equal to the best. But, you know you have to finish these things. Obviously, there’s been some issues in that department.”

The veteran’s done a great job at keeping his composure, the perfect role model for teammate Kyle Busch as they hurtle towards the Chase as top contenders. But the 11 percent failure rate for JGR this season has to be alarming. That’s roughly one out of every nine races, meaning in the postseason they’re guaranteed to give up 40 points to a blown engine. It’s a mulligan they can’t afford, especially against a Hendrick opponent known for ironclad equipment.

The problem Sunday was a valve-train issue, but at this point it’s irrelevant. What Toyota needs are solutions for these things, and they need them now.
 

Teaser:
<p> Reaction from Tony Stewart's unlikely win in NASCAR's FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway.</p>
Post date: Monday, June 3, 2013 - 13:36

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