Articles By Athlon Sports
1. Strong start, but when does Dale Earnhardt Jr. win?
Depending on how you judge these things, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to the most impressive start to a NASCAR Sprint Cup season in his career. The claim comes with Earnhardt, now second in the point standings, putting together his best average finish (5.0) after four races since he started full-time in 2000.
Or, you could say that it's just been a really consistent start for NASCAR's top-billed man that rivals the start he worked in 2004. That season, he won the Daytona 500 and the season's fourth race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in a start only derailed by a miserable day at Las Vegas in the season's third race.
Each, of course, has their merits. But only one — the incredibly consistent current campaign — matters now. It also begs the question we've asked of Earnhardt plenty in the last half decade: when he is going to win?
A trip to Auto Club Speedway for Earnhardt may provide that answer. It's a track that he both welcomes as a driver's venue and one where he's shown moderate past success. It doesn't hurt that four of the last nine races have been won by Hendrick Motorsports.
"You can run the bottom; you can run on the apron; you can run on the top. It’s a very fun racetrack to drive," Earnhardt said. "And so I’ve got a good attitude about it. I think Steve (Letarte, crew chief) is going to give me a good car. We ran good last year because Steve gave me a good car.”
Earnhardt was scored third last year when rain ended the race on lap 129, good for his fourth top 5 at ACS in 20 career starts.
"There are opportunities to pass when you run a guy down, you can change the line you’re running and get some clean air on your car," Earnhardt said. "You feel confident that if you do the right thing and drive the car well, that you can make a pass. I love that about that racetrack."
2. Toyota still waiting on the checkers to blow their way.
Another Sprint Cup entity hoping to break in to the win column Sunday is a bit larger than even Earnhardt. Toyota, winners of the last nine Nationwide Series races contested at ACS, has yet to find Victory Lane in a Sprint Cup car at the southern California speedway that stands closest to the Torrence, Calif.-based Toyota Racing Development facility where all TRD engines and other parts are manufactured for Toyota teams.
To do so Sunday, they'll have to break a five-race streak of wins held by the Chevrolet camp in NASCAR's top division. Helping the cause will be the addition of Matt Kenseth to the Toyota fold. The former Roush Fenway Racing Ford driver has three wins in Fontana. Kenseth, already a winner at Las Vegas two weeks ago, appeared on pace to grab another before Jeff Gordon's flat tire forced his exit at Bristol last week.
Kenseth will be pushed by his teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing. Denny Hamlin was running second last year until an ill-advised pit stop as rain closed in on the track dropped him back in the pack to finish 11th. Kyle Busch was also plenty strong a year ago at ACS, leading 80 of 129 completed laps before taking second to Tony Stewart.
“We’ve had really fast race cars everywhere we’ve gone so far. Fontana is another place where I’ve always fared well over the years, and I’m hoping we can finally get that victory we’ve been looking for this weekend," Busch said.
From eight United States presidents to Mark Zuckerberg, no Harvard student ever watched the Crimson win an NCAA Tournament game until Thursday.
Harvard scored the biggest upset of the first day of the 2013 NCAA Tournament by defeating Mountain West regular season and tournament champion New Mexico 68-62.
As Belmont, Bucknell and South Dakota State were trendy upset picks entering the Tourney, a young Harvard team flew under the radar to defeat the 29-6 Lobos. Harvard, which had an NCAA Tournament drought from 1947-2011, rarely trailed in its first NCAA Tournament victory, turning a Final Four contender into the first major upset victim of the season.
In other key developments from the NCAA Tournament on Thursday:
After Harvard, limited upsets.
Belmont, Bucknell, Davidson and South Dakota State all looked like teams primed for key NCAA wins. But other than Davidson, all lost by significant margins Thursday. Butler was overwhelmed by Arizona’s talent advantage, Butler neutralized Bucknell’s Mike Muscala, and Michigan’s supporting cast of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III more than made up for the stalemate between Trey Burke and Nate Wolters. Marquette needed late-game heroics to defeat Davidson, so score four for the big teams.
Pac-12 acquits itself
Remember when 12-5 upsets used to be a big deal? Not when two of those teams finished in the top four of the Pac-12. Cal and Oregon answered for their lackluster seeding by defeating No. 5 seeds in the first round. Oregon made easy work of Oklahoma State while Cal defeated a UNLV team that struggled to find its offense for most of the game.
Routs for VCU, Syracuse
VCU’s 88-42 win over Akron wasn’t a shock, given the Zips’ limitations with a suspended starting point guard and two key players recovering from the flu. VCU’s 46-point win was the largest in NCAA Tournament history by a team seeded No. 3 or lower for a few hours before No. 4 Syracuse defeated Montana 81-34.
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads back out west for the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long 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.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Auto Club — or California, if you prefer — ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Jimmie Johnson
Why would you take anyone else this week? He has 10 consecutive top-10 finishes at Auto Club Speedway (average finish of 3.3 during that stretch) and has led laps in each of those races. He had an average finish of 3.0 in the first three races of the season and was headed for another top 10 before a blown tire sent him into the wall late at Bristol last week.
2. Matt Kenseth
He’s why you might want to pick someone else. Kenseth won at Las Vegas two weeks ago in the first test of the new car at a track where horsepower and aerodynamics matter (just like Auto Club Speedway). He had a teammate finish in the top five at Vegas, showing the strength of Joe Gibbs Racing on the big tracks. He’s also led more miles (323) than any other driver this season.
3. Brad Keselowski
Then again, there’s this guy. Keselowski has not finished worse than fourth in any of the first four races this season, collecting a bevy of points for those who put him on their team. He’s also led laps in each race this year.
4. Kasey Kahne
Finished second at Las Vegas and then won at Bristol. Has shown speed this season and that’s a good sign for Auto Club where he’s finished 14th, ninth and fourth in his last three starts.
5. Kevin Harvick
Has five consecutive top-10 finishes at this track, including a win in 2011 when he passed Johnson on the last lap.
6. Tony Stewart
Rallied late to finish 11th at Las Vegas after his car was awful in the first half of the race. Never had a chance at Bristol with a flat tire that sent him into the wall early. Needs a strong race this weekend and he’s coming to the right track. He’s won two of the last three at Auto Club.
7. Clint Bowyer
Both top-10 finishes this season have come at tracks one mile or less. Although he finished 27th at Las Vegas, his teammates placed eighth and 14th, showing that Michael Waltrip Racing could have some success at Auto Club.
8. Denny Hamlin
The center of controversy the past two weeks (NASCAR fine, Joey Logano dust-up), Auto Club has presented mixed results. He won the pole last year but has finished outside the top 10 in three of his last four races there.
9. Jeff Gordon
Was the only Hendrick driver who struggled at Las Vegas two weeks ago. Was never a factor, finishing 25th. Misfortune struck at Bristol, blowing a tire and crashing while leading. Needs a strong run or risks falling further behind the leaders in the points, but he’s finished 18th or worse in three of his last four starts in Fontana.
1. Kyle Busch
Finished fourth at Las Vegas and led 27 laps, showing the strength of a team with a new car in its first race at a big track. Also has been good at Auto Club Speedway, finishing in the top three the past two years there. Overall, he has six top-five finishes in 15 career starts.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Has finished in the top 10 in each of the first four races of the season for the first time in his career, rewarding those who have put him on their team. Placed seventh at Las Vegas but knew they were a little off compared to the leaders. Will he close the gap this week? He finished third in Fontana last year.
3. Carl Edwards
Finished fifth at Las Vegas and now comes to a track where he’s placed in the top 5 in seven of his 15 career starts, one of the best marks among active drivers.
4. Martin Truex Jr.
Placed eighth at Las Vegas two weeks ago. Has finished in the top 10 in 10 of the last 11 races at non-restrictor-plate tracks of 1.5-miles and larger since last season.
5. Mark Martin
Back after taking Bristol off. Started third last year and finished 12th at Auto Club.
6. Ryan Newman
Has finished seventh or better in his last three starts in Fontana. When he’s made it to the finish he’s placed in the top 10 this season, but that’s happened only twice. In the other two races he was eliminated because of an accident or a blown engine.
7. Joey Logano
Certainly ran better than he finished at Bristol. He thought he was better than his 12th-place finish at Las Vegas but a pit road speeding penalty hurt him there. Can he avoid trouble and show where he can finish?
8. Kurt Busch
His fourth-place finish at Bristol last week was only the fourth top-five finish for Furniture Row Racing in 203 career starts. Busch has four top 10s in his last six starts at Auto Club Speedway, including a ninth-place finish in last year’s rain-shortened event with the underfunded Phoenix Racing team.
9. Greg Biffle
Auto Club Speedway has not been the best place for him. Although he finished sixth last year, he has placed outside the top 10 in eight of the last 12 races there.
10. Paul Menard
This marks the fourth consecutive year he’s been in the top 10 in points after four races — the only driver to accomplish that feat. Was 10th at Las Vegas, but Auto Club has not been as good to him. He’s never finished in the top 10 in 10 starts at the 2-mile oval.
11. Aric Almirola
Placed 16th at Las Vegas two weeks ago. He and Richard Petty Motorsports have shown greater success on the bigger tracks, going back to the end of last season.
12. Marcos Ambrose
Has finished between 18th and 22nd in each of his four starts this season.
13. Jeff Burton
Has one top-10 finish in his last seven starts at Auto Club Speedway. Has finished on the lead lap only once this year, placing 10th at Phoenix.
14. Jamie McMurray
His 10th-place finish at Bristol last week was his first top 10 in the last 26 races, dating back to last year. Has not finished in the top 10 in his last 11 starts at Auto Club Speedway.
15. Juan Pablo Montoya
Has not had a top-10 finish in his last 25 starts, dating back to an eighth-place finish at Michigan in June.
16. Bobby Labonte
Has finished better than 20th only twice in his last 15 starts at Auto Club Speedway.
“Humdrum” is a word typically used to describe the racing action at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The two-mile Michigan clone was originally designed — it has received some touch-up work since being completed in 1997 — to be optimal for IndyCar-style race cars. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race might not offer much in terms of outright excitement, but there are some meaningful story lines hidden within a four-race sample size of advanced metrics.
Several driver and teams need a good outing — two of them are mentioned below — to right a wrong or two from earlier races this season. The hottest driver in the sport typically leaves California under a deluge of disappointment. As usual, if we focus on the stories behind the numbers, the overall game becomes far more intriguing.
7.000 After four races, Brad Keselowski has the highest Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) — a measure of a driver’s on-track production in an “all equipment even” scenario — in the Cup Series with a 7.000 rating.
The last time the No. 2 Penske Racing entry was this good, it was 1993, Rusty Wallace was the driver and the car was probably running on traction control. Keselowski’s bunch is a little more buttoned up, allowing him to capitalize on driving for the most consistent-finishing team in the Cup Series (a finish deviation of 0.6; a zero deviation is perfectly consistent). Keselowski has earned pairs of fourths and thirds to comprise his 3.5-place average finish, two of which were on tracks at which he has previously been a mundane producer (Phoenix and Las Vegas). Even more amazing is that the team has finished higher than its average running positions — 18th at Daytona, seventh at Phoenix, fifth at Las Vegas and ninth at Bristol — in each race. The team is frighteningly strong, but the ever-improving driver is earning his keep.
-1.188 Keselowski ranks 48th out of 49 drivers in PEER at Auto Club Speedway after averaging a finish of 22.8 in his only four Cup Series starts at the facility.
So yes, a driver off to a tremendous start to the season comes up against racetrack that has historically been a buzz killer for him. Something is sure to change on Sunday.
15.4 The start to Kasey Kahne’s 2013 season is 15.4 positions better than his first four-race effort last year.
To think that Kahne has essentially cut his average finish after four races in half is pretty nutty, though, when he was averaging a 29.8-place result following Bristol last year, it too was unfathomable for the consistently strong producer. To be fair, his win last Sunday and his second-place outing at Las Vegas are carrying his current 14.5-place average and his 16.5 finish deviation is the fourth-least consistent in the series. Kahne’s start to the season isn’t as explosive as Keselowski’s jump out of the starting blocks, but it is a foundation on which to build and can allow Kahne and his crew to focus more comfortably on Chase preparation rather than digging out of a hole created by spinning its tires at the start of a new year.
The 75th NCAA Tournament will be played in 2013. Athlon Sports celebrates the 75th edition of March Madness with 75 facts about the Tourney over the years:
The first NCAA Tournament in 19391 was overshadowed by the NIT at the time. The first Tournament included eight teams with Oregon defeating Ohio State 46-33 in the final in Evanston, Ill.2 Dr. James Naismith, who wrote basketball’s original 13 rules, was in attendance.3
A moneymaker now for the NCAA, the first Tourney operated at a $2,531 loss.4
City College of New York, which would see its program fall apart after revelations of point shaving and altered academic records for recruits, became the only team to win the NCAA Tournament and NIT in the same season in 1950.5 Teams were limited to one postseason tournament by 1953.6
The NCAA’s first national television broadcast contract was signed in 1963 to air the championship game for $140,000 on the creatively named Sports Network.7 The latest television contract to broadcast every game was signed with CBS and Turner Broadcasting for $10.8 billion for 14 years.8
The highest-rated NCAA Tournament game was the championship game showdown between Michigan State’s Magic Johnson and Indiana State’s Larry Bird in 1979, gaining a 24.1 rating.9
The most-watched game in terms of actual television sets was Duke’s second consecutive NCAA title in 1992 when the Blue Devils defeated Michigan and the Fab Five. The game reached more than 20.9 million homes.10
The term “final four” was coined in 1975 by the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Ed Chay.11 The NCAA capitalized the Final Four three years later.12
The NCAA registered a trademark for the term March Madness in 2001.13 The NCAA also registered a trademark for Big Dance in 2000.14
UCLA owns the most NCAA championships with 11,15 followed by Kentucky (eight16), Indiana and North Carolina (five each17). The Tar Heels have the most Final Four appearances with 18.18
BYU has made the most NCAA Tournament appearances without a Final Four (2719).
Schools who won titles under another name: Oklahoma State (as Oklahoma A&M in 1945-46 20) and UTEP (as Texas Western in 1966 21).
Great nicknames for championship teams: The Fabulous Five (1948 Kentucky22), The Fiddlin’ Five (1958 Kentucky 23), Danny and the Miracles (1988 Kansas24).
Great nicknames for national runners-up: Rupp’s Runts (1966 Kentucky25), Phi Slama Jama (1983-84 Houston26) and The Fab Five (1992-93 Michigan27).
Notable expansions in NCAA Tournament history: The Tournament started with eight teams in 193928 and expanded to 1629 in 1951. In 1975, the Tournament permitted conferences to send more than one team to the field when the event expanded to 32 teams.30 Further expansions included 48 teams in 198031, 52 teams in 198332, 64 teams in 198533 and 68 teams in 2011.34
The lowest-seeded team to win a title was Rollie Massimino’s Villanova Wildcats in 1985 in the first season after the field was expanded to 64.35 Every title winner since 1998 has been seeded third or higher.36
A No. 16 seed has never defeated a No. 1 seed.37
A No. 15 seed had not defeated a No. 2 seed from 2002-11 before two No. 15 seeds won on the same day in 2012 (Norfolk State over Missouri,38 Lehigh over Duke39). Four other No. 15 seeds have upset No. 2 seeds: Richmond over Syracuse in 199140, Santa Clara over Arizona in 199341, Coppin State over South Carolina in 199742 and Hampton over Iowa State in 2001.43
UCLA’s John Wooden holds the records for the most national championships (10)44, Final Four appearances (12)45, consecutive Final Four appearances (nine).46
The only major Final Four-related coaching record Wooden doesn’t hold is winning percentage, held by Indiana’s Branch McCracken with a 4-0 record in 1940 and ‘53.47 Wooden is second with a winning percentage of 87.5 (21-3).48
McCracken is also the youngest coach to win a title at 31 years old, nine months and 21 days old in 1940.49 Recently retired Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun became the oldest coach to win a title in 2011 at 68 years, 10 months and 22 days.50
Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim will make his 30th NCAA Tournament appearance this season, extending his own record.51
Only two coaches have taken three teams to the Final Four. They both won national titles at Kentucky, and they’re now in-state rivals: Rick Pitino52 (Providence, Kentucky, Louisville) and John Calipari53 (UMass, Memphis, Kentucky).
This season, Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger will be the first coach to take five teams to the NCAA Tournament when his current team makes the field. He’s also made appearances with Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and UNLV.54
Two coaches have won national titles as both a coach and a player: Bob Knight55 and Dean Smith.56
Two coaches won a national title in their final collegiate games: Wooden (1975)57, Marquette’s Al McGuire (1977).58 Larry Brown was on this list, winning a title with Kansas in 1988, but he returned to the college game this season at SMU.59
Larry Brown is the only coach to win both an NCAA title and an NBA title.60
Duke’s Christian Laettner has scored more points than anyone in the history of the NCAA Tournament with 407 points from 1989-92.61
Five players have won NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player honors multiple times and non since 1973: UCLA’s Bill Walton in 1972-73,62 UCLA’s Lew Alcindor in 1967-69,63 Ohio State’s Jerry Lucas in 1960-61,64 including once when his team was a national runner-up, Kentucky’s Alex Groza in 1948-49,65 and Oklahoma A&M’s Bob Kurland 1945-46.66
NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Players have included four freshmen (Kentucky’s Anthony Davis in 2012,67 Syracuse’s Carmelo Anthony in 2003,68 Louisville’s Pervis Ellison in 198669 and Utah’s Arnie Ferrin in 194470) and one junior college transfer (Indiana’s Keith Smart in 198771)
The University of Dayton Arena, home to the opening round since 2001 and the First Four, has hosted more NCAA Tournament games than any other arena at 91.72
Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium still holds the record for most national championship games with nine from 1940-64.73 Kansas City, where the NCAA was formerly headquartered, has hosted the most Final Fours with 10 from 1940-88.74
North Carolina has hosted more NCAA Tournament games than any other state (23375).
There’s nothing about a rough start to the NASCAR season a short track can’t fix. During a thrilling weekend in Bristol, the sport had a near-photo finish in Saturday’s Nationwide race (remember this name: Kyle Larson) and several thrilling moments during Sunday’s big show. After plenty of criticism — from a driver’s $25,000 fine to fans railing about Daytona’s single-file 500 — it’s hard to find anyone complaining about the action in Thunder Valley. But honestly, when’s the last time fans left a short track feeling they threw their hard-earned money down the toilet?
It certainly wasn’t last spring at Martinsville, when the Clint Bowyer – Jeff Gordon feud officially began. Or last fall at Richmond, where Gordon’s epic charge to second knocked Kyle Busch out of the Chase. My point? These three speedways, even in the worst of times, make fans flock to them faster than this Sunday’s two-mile tedium, otherwise known as Auto Club Speedway ever will.
With all that said …
FIRST GEAR: Bristol’s back. So why is the attendance still awful?
The number of empty seats at Bristol, one year after Bruton Smith’s latest reconfiguration recommended by the fans themselves, was an eye-opener. A track which once sold out for 55 consecutive Cup races, from 1982-2009, had chasms full of unsold tickets noticeable both at the track and on television. (NASCAR no longer releases official attendance). Considering Bristol has over 160,000 seats, even 50 percent capacity is more than a sellout at Martinsville, Darlington or other facilities which don’t even have that much room in the stands. But it’s also highly disturbing considering its “crown jewel” reputation as one of the sport’s must-see events.
It’s a shame, considering Sunday offered the perfect mix of Bristol’s magic elixir: unpredictability. 110 laps before the finish, leader Jeff Gordon blew a tire and took out himself and second-place Matt Kenseth, changing the complexion of the race. The personal fireworks were also there, in the form of a budding rivalry between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano (see below). Record speeds combined with a healthy 17 lead changes mixed side-by-side action with the on-track rubbing still needed at times to get by other competitors.
Two theories abound here. One: fans, skeptical of the sport and the Gen-6 car chose to stay home, sending a message that both drivers and track need to be worthy of their cash. (The night race, in August and closer to NASCAR’s Chase, draws better.) But the more likely scenario surrounds a disturbing amount of price gouging still prevalent within the region. Lodging that typically would be $100 or less a night during a typical weekend went for four-, five-, even six-times that.
No amount of ticket price discount can fix that hit to a blue-collar fan’s wallet. That’s especially true considering the track’s location, so close to many other fine facilities. If you’re a fan from Charleston, S.C., for example, why spend $1,000 on lodging, plus mileage when you’ve got Talladega, Atlanta and Charlotte within a similar driving distance — for half the price.
The economy always makes an argument here; in smaller markets, the races are the only major event hitting the region, meaning hotels have to maximize profits in order to survive. But the TriCities unemployment rate, along with job creation, has generally been stronger than the national average. Add in Smith’s billions and there’s no excuse to get this problem fixed, even though he’s powerful enough (see: getting the state of Kentucky to custom build roads for his speedway in Sparta).
Looks like its time for Smith to flex some muscle again. Otherwise, it’ll be years (if ever) before his most prized possession fills up to capacity.
SECOND GEAR: Hendrick’s third wheel pushing for first-rate attention
Kasey Kahne’s Bristol success, while continuing a sizzling 2013 start, was a bit of a shock. Even after Sunday, his highest career average finish at any short track is Richmond, with a mediocre 18.0. That’s also the location of his last win at an oval this small, scoring his first Cup victory there in May 2005 before bookending his victory total with a 1.7-second, cruise-control performance down the stretch on Sunday.
“This is a big race for me,” he said Sunday after scooting ahead of Brad Keselowski on the final restart. “Bristol’s one of those tracks that as a driver, you really feel like you need to win at. It’s a big confidence builder.”
So is his habit of qualifying up front — a 3.5-place average start leads all drivers, along with 223 laps led in 2013. But most importantly, he’s not digging the type of 2012 hole that expended almost all this team’s energy simply to make last year’s Chase. Instead, he’s showcasing the type of versatility (second at Las Vegas, first at Bristol, one of the favorites at Daytona before wrecking out) that one needs to take home a title in this sport.
To do it, Kahne would have to leapfrog Johnson within the organization, a feat once thought impossible. But keep in mind, head wrench Kenny Francis — not from the Hendrick mold — can step outside the box of Chad Knaus. Those at HMS were impressed with the ideas he brought to the table in ’12 and many credit them for the organization’s resurgence. Francis, working out of a different shop, won’t have to play nice as consistently this fall and has the better pit crew, Johnson’s Achilles Heel, in each of the last two seasons.
Will it happen? I’ll still believe it when I see it. But four races in, Kahne has started making a case.
1. How's the arm feeling, Smoke?
It's been nearly seven months since Tony Stewart took to the NASCAR pitching mound. The three-time champion removed the frown from track magnate Bruton Smith's face by hurling his helmet at Matt Kenseth's car after they crashed battling for the lead last August at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Stewart hit his target—Kenseth's windshield—perfectly. He gestured angrily to the crowd. The fans roared.
The "night race" was back.
Bristol had been a huge source of complaints among fans since its soul was resurfaced in 2007. Between the March and August races that season, Smith and his staff approved the first major change to NASCAR's most famous high-banks since it went concrete in 1992. The deteriorating surface would be replaced and the track's iconic banks changed to progressive banking in a bid to foster more side-by-side passing.
What a dud.
From 2003 to the spring 2007 race, Bristol was sold-out and rocking for every NASCAR visit. Fans got what they wanted: an average of 13 cautions a race due to crashes. The new concrete surface dropped that number significantly, as multiple lanes of racing opened up and the move-or-get-moved mentality of making up ground at the east Tennessee bullring disappeared."
Crashing, of course, isn't the point of racing. But at Bristol, it's what people on the waiting list of a track that seated more than 160,000 wanted to see. By 2010, the waiting list had disappeared and Bristol Motor Speedway was facing a crisis. There were empty seats and the fans weren't happy—even if the drivers loved the racing better than ever.
So Smith, after another un-Bristol race in the spring of last season, set out to make things right. He ground the track and made the groove tighter. He promised a better show.
Stewart, and 11 of 13 cautions for crashes, gave the fans what they wanted. Even Danica Patrick, irritated after being wrecked herself, made a gesture to a passing driver in anger. By the end, Denny Hamlin had held off charges by Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon all while completing a Bristol race that felt Bristol of old.
Will that hold up Sunday? For the sake of Bruton Smith, the engineers he hired to "fix" Bristol and the fans still longing for a tell-my-coworker-about-Monday sort of race in 2013, let's hope it does.
2. Hamlin doesn't plead guilty, but gives up NASCAR fight
The biggest news heading into a NASCAR weekend again is Denny Hamlin and his dispute with NASCAR. It was a week ago Thursday that NASCAR rocked the media center with news that Hamlin was docked $25,000 for completely unmemorable comments he made at Phoenix about his initial reaction to NASCAR's new car.
Hamlin swiftly built a following of grassroots support as he vowed to fight to not pay the penalty.
That all changed Thursday when Hamlin and NASCAR released near simultaneous statements saying that Hamlin was dropping the appeal, yet still not paying the fine. He actually will, though, as NASCAR will simply remove $25,000 from the next check Joe Gibbs Racing receives for competing.
Hamlin decided against the appeal in fear of negative attention it would bring to his team and sponsors. It's a disappointing move because it seems many fans had galvanized alongside Hamlin in rebellion of one NASCAR's poorer decisions as a sanctioning body in a long while. Now, NASCAR has won.
Of course, they probably would have anyway.
3. Upsets not exclusive to college basketball in March
Bristol, thanks to its lesser dependance on aerodynamics and overall car design, presents an opportunity not normally found for drivers and teams who wouldn't typically be seen as contenders. No, it's not easy to beat the top-flight Sprint Cup teams and drivers at any track. But Bristol's close quarters and all-day track position struggle presents opportunities for smaller teams or drivers racing limited schedules.
This weekend, keep your eye on two drivers: Brian Vickers and A.J. Allmendinger.
The former Red Bull teammates are both trying to work their way back to full-time Sprint Cup level competition and will be in part-time rides Sunday. Vickers posted a pair of top-5 finishes for Michael Waltrip Racing in the No. 55 last season at Bristol, and Allmendinger drove the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet to an 11th-place finish on the Phoenix "shorter" track two weeks ago.
4. Point standings aren't a concern…yet
Any team that struggles in the first three races of the season undoubtedly feels some angst to get a strong finish and improve their standing in the point rankings. Until that good run comes, the creeping doubt can only do more damage to a team's morale.
For teams still struggling this season, there's comfort in knowing that last year's champion Brad Keselowski didn't get off to the most impressive start himself. Heading to Bristol for the fourth race of 2012, Keselowski was 22nd in points, 60 out of first.
It's been a much better start for the defending champion this year, but others with Chase hopes like Ryan Newman (31st, -79 points) and Martin Truex Jr. (22nd, -65) are mired deep in the standings. Another some unexpected struggle this season has been for Kurt Busch in his ride with Furniture Row Racing. That team, essentially a satellite operation of Richard Childress Racing, is 29th and 72 points out of first.
Each driver still has 33 events to sort things out, of course.
5. Figuring out "Go Time" during Bristol's 500 laps
Five hundred laps at Bristol can almost become an out of body experience for drivers. The laps—nearly four per minute—leave them pressed against the right side of the seat. Roughly one-eighth of a lap is spent not turning the wheel. It's all about hitting turning and braking points, keeping a consistent line. Lap after lap, after lap, after lap.
And that's just before the first pit stop.
A race at Bristol, despite it's 500-circuit distance, is the second-shortest scheduled oval race of the season. Figuring when to be ready to fight for the lead can sometimes take drivers by surprise. Inevitably, most races at Bristol feature at least one long green flag run in which a car that isn't handling nearly perfectly could get lapped quickly.
Kurt Busch has five career wins at Bristol. With 75 miles to go, Busch wants to be in ready to fight for another win.
“To contend for the win you want to be in position by Lap 350,” said Busch. “That is definitely the ‘Go Time’ at Bristol."
Advanced statistics from NASCAR back him up. In the 18 races in Bristol since August 2004, the eventual race winner has been no worse than fourth on lap 350.
See if that streak continues on Sunday.
THE BRISTOL ETC.: Among active drivers, three have a series-leading five wins at Bristol. Jeff Gordon has five, joined by brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch. The last win by any of those three was Kyle's spring win in 2011. Jeff Gordon, meanwhile, hasn't won at Bristol in over 10 years… Mark Martin leads active drivers with nine poles at Bristol… Ryan Newman's 14.908-second lap at Bristol in 2003 set the Sprint Cup Series track record, but it's much slower than a 12.742-second lap turned by Brian Gerster at the half-mile in a winged sprint car in 2011… 14 drivers have finished each the last 10 Bristol races, but only Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finished on the lead lap of at least nine of those events… 80 percent of Bristol Sprint Cup races have been won by a driver starting in the top-10.
by Geoffrey Miller
Follow Geoffrey on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
With the 2013 NCAA Tournament kicking off next week, it's time for college basketball fans to start filling out their March Madness brackets. For those playing online, it also means coming up with a humorous or ridiculously over-the-top name to go along with their ill-fated picks. With that in mind, we pulled together some of our favorites.
When I Think About You I Touch Bill Self
Could it be ... CREIGHTON?
The boys of summer are back in action and with them come the history and tradition of those before them. Names like Gehrig, Ford, Jackson and Schmidt echo through the stadiums of Major League Baseball, each a founder, each a legend in their own right. But sometimes, even the marks of legends are made to be broken. Here are 10 records that could be broken in 2013, allowing for a new generation of names to join those before them.
All-time runs and doubles record for the New York Yankees
Current Holder: Babe Ruth (runs), Lou Gehrig (doubles)
On Deck: Derek Jeter
Jeter may not be the player he once was, but there’s no doubt he’s one of the greatest to ever step on a major-league diamond. For proof of this, look no further than the shortstop’s presence in the Yankees’ record books. Already the all-time leader in games played, hits and stolen bases, Jeter has a chance to add two more to his resume this season. Jeter needs just 92 runs to pass Hall of Famers and baseball legends Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth for the top spot in Yankee history. Even more impressive, the Yankees’ runs scored record would move Jeter into the top 10 all-time in baseball history. Even though Jeter could be slowed in his return from the broken ankle he sustained in the playoffs last season, he’s scored fewer than 92 runs just three times in 17 full seasons in pinstripes.
Another all-time Yankee mark a little closer on the horizon for Jeter is the doubles record. Lou Gehrig is the current franchise leader with 534 career doubles, which also places him 34th on the all-time list in baseball history. The man known as “The Iron Horse” amassed 5,060 total bases in his Hall of Fame career, which ranks him 17th all-time. The legend dipped below 31 doubles just twice during his time as the Yankees’ first baseman. Jeter needs just 11 more two-baggers to surpass Gehrig’s total, a mark he should surpass before the All-Star break, provided he’s healthy.
All-time strikeouts record for New York Yankees pitchers
Current Holder: Whitey Ford
On Deck: Andy Pettitte
Pinstripe legend Edward “Whitey” Ford spent 16 years in the majors, starting and ending his career with the Yankees. By the time he retired in 1967, a total 1,956 batters had made the humbling walk back to the dugout after striking out. The 46-year-old record could have had a chance to stand even longer had Ford not taken two years off to serve in the Korean War after his rookie season.
Like Ford, Andy Pettitte has been a crafty pitcher throughout his career. Entering his 18th season in the majors and 15th with the Yankees, Pettitte needs just 65 more punch outs to be claim the franchise’s all-time strikeout mark. Considering he was able to notch 69 strikeouts in just 12 games last season, this is one record ready to be broken. Depending on his health, Pettitte could also surpass Ford for the games started record. If he can make 31 starts this season, that record will also be his for the taking. Ford made 438 starts in his Hall of Fame career.
All-time WHIP mark in MLB history
Current Holder: Addie Joss
On Deck: Mariano Rivera
If you’re scratching your head on this one, that’s okay. Addie Joss was a pitcher for the Cleveland Bronchos (another way of spelling Broncos) from 1902 until 1910. During that span, he was among the greatest pitchers in the American League, never posting an ERA higher than 2.77 or a WHIP of more than 1.11. If you’re still scratching your head, WHIP is a relatively new stat that has gained in popularity with the introduction and adoption of sabermetrics that adds the number of walks and hits allowed by a pitcher and divide the total by innings pitched. Joss’ career WHIP of 0.9678 has stood for more than 100 years, but one final solid season from Mariano Rivera could change this.
Last season, which was cut short after he tore his ACL in May, Rivera posted his worst WHIP since 2007, and even then it was a microscopic 0.960. From 2008-11, Rivera’s WHIP was 0.905 or lower. In theory, if Rivera can simply repeat 2012’s performance in the category, he should move past Joss in the history books, providing today’s fan with a name they know. Another all-time list that Rivera should continue to climb this season is total games pitched. Should Rivera make another 60 appearances in 2013, which is about his average for a full season, the surefire future Hall of Famer will pass current Cooperstown members Hoyt Wilhelm and Dennis Eckersley for fourth place on the all-time games pitched list.
All-time hits and doubles record for the Philadelphia Phillies
Current Holders: Mike Schmidt (hits), Ed Delahanty (doubles)
On Deck: Jimmy Rollins
Mike Schmidt, the and three-time NL MVP and 12-time All-Star racked up 2,234 hits over his 18-year Hall of Fame career with the Phillies. The third basemen impressively totaled less than 129 hits in a season just five times. Schmidt is no doubt the greatest player to don a Phillies uniform, but Jimmy Rollins could grab the franchise hits record from him this season. Rollins needs 211 hits for the mark, which might be a stretch given he’s averaged 155 over the last two seasons. That said, Rollins did post 212 hits in 2007, a year in which he amassed 716 at-bats. On the other hand, the Phillies’ all-time doubles record is considerably closer, as Rollins needs just 22 more to surpass Hall of Famer “Big” Ed Delahanty’s total of 442.
All-time home run and total bases records for the Chicago White Sox
Current Holder: Frank Thomas
On Deck: Paul Konerko
It’s hard to believe it’s only been five seasons since Frank Thomas last swung the bat. The two-time AL MVP and four-time Silver Slugger somehow never led the league in home runs, but he did leave his mark with the White Sox. During his 16 years with the team, Thomas cleared the fence 448 times and amassed 3,949 total bases. Both records could be broken this season.
Paul Konerko needs only 34 more home runs to pass Thomas on the White Sox all-time list. Though he hasn’t topped that number since 2010, he’s still managed to bash 57 dingers over the past two seasons combined. That includes 26 in 2012, despite having the second-fewest at-bats since the 2004 season. If he can stay in the lineup, there’s no reason the White Sox won’t be crowning a new home run king in 2013. Konerko also needs just 172 total bases to pass Thomas in that category as well.
All-time double plays turned as left fielder record in MLB history
Current Holder: Bibb Falk
On Deck: Alfonso Soriano
Falk spent his first nine seasons with the Chicago White Sox before finishing his 12-year career with the Cleveland Indians from 1929-31. While he never held any batting titles, Falk was known for his defense. The left fielder turned a record nine double plays in 1927 and led American League players at the position in games played four times. That extra time on the field culminated with a record 34 double plays turned from left field.
Alfonso Soriano is better known for his bat, but his arm has been a source of pain for base runners. Soriano has posted 28 of his own double plays from left field and needs just seven more to take the all-time record from Falk. The 14-year veteran turned six last season and nine in 2006, so the numbers he needs for the record could be there if he gets the opportunity this season.
All-time strikeouts by a batter record in MLB history
Current Holder: Reggie Jackson
On Deck: Jim Thome
Jackson might have been known for turning it on during the postseason, one of the reasons why he will forever be known as “Mr. October,” but among his many accolades, this one is often forgotten. In Jackson’s 21-season career, the slugger posted 11 campaigns with more strikeouts than hits. His worst season came in 1968, his second year as a professional. Jackson amassed 171 strikeouts compared to 138 hits. Still, the combination of speed, power and playoff prowess more than made up for his 2,597 career strikeouts.
He has yet to sign on with a team for the upcoming season, but Jim Thome still believes he can help a club should they call. The veteran is reportedly staying in top condition with the hope he hasn’t swung at his last pitch. If he does get the call, it won’t take long for him to be crowned baseball’s all-time leader in strikeouts by a hitter. If he whiffs just 50 more times, the “honor” will be all his. Given his recent ratios, Thome will need around 150 at-bats to claim this throne. If Thome doesn’t play this season, both Alex Rodriguez and Adam Dunn are less than 600 strikeouts away from passing Jackson for the top spot on the list. After notching 222 punch outs in 2012 alone, Dunn appears to be the leader in the clubhouse over Rodriguez, whose season debut will be delayed as he recovers from offseason hip surgery.
Other Franchise Records That Could Be Broken in 2013...
All-time saves record for the Cleveland Indians
Current Holder: Bob Wickman
On Deck: Chris Perez
Like many closers, Bob Wickman started his career in 1992 with the New York Yankees as a starting pitcher. He made the transition to closer for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1997, recording 25 saves. It wasn’t until 2001 that Wickman solidified his job as closer for the Cleveland, one which he would keep until 2006. Though he hovered around the 30-save mark for most of his career, his best season with the Indians came in 2005 when he recorded a career-high 45 saves. His franchise total of 139 saves has been the benchmark since 2006.
Right-hander Chris Perez will be looking to surpass Wickman in just his fourth season as the Indians’ closer. Powered by back-to-back seasons of 36 or more saves, Perez is just 41 shy of breaking Wickman’s record, which would be a career-best for him. A shoulder strain currently has his Opening Day prospects in limbo, but with the offseason acquisitions of Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Drew Stubbs and Mark Reynolds, Perez could see the most save opportunities of his career in 2013.
All-Time Stolen Base record for the Texas Rangers
Current Holder: Elliot “Bump” Wills
On Deck: Ian Kinsler
From 1977-82, second baseman Bump Wills was among the top ten American League base-stealers in all but one season. For the Rangers, Wills stole less than 28 bases just once in his five-year tenure. Though Wills still holds the teams’ single-season record with 52 swipes in 1978, his career record of 161 stolen bases is in jeopardy of being broken this season.
Current second baseman Ian Kinsler needs just five more steals to become the Rangers’ all-time thief. Kinsler has already posted five seasons with at least 21 steals, even if it will take him a little more than seven seasons to unseat Wills. It may not matter, however, since teammate Elvis Andrus isn’t too far behind with 123 stolen bases in just four seasons. Andrus, who had a season-best 37 stolen bases in 2011, is probably the bigger threat to Wills’ franchise single-season record of 52 as well.
All-Time saves record for the Milwaukee Brewers
Current Holder: Dan Plesac
On Deck: John Axford
It’s hard to believe, but Dan Plesac recorded at least one save in all but two of his 18 seasons as a pitcher. The three-time All-Star started his career with the Brewers in 1986, sticking with the team until after the 1992 season. Out of 178 save opportunities, Plesac was able to seal the deal 133 times, a franchise record which has stood for 20 years.
As good as Plesac was at converting opportunities, John Axford has been better. Out of 120 opportunities, Axford has shut the door 106 times. His success rate has him just 28 saves away from Plesac’s record, all with just three full seasons as the Brewers’ closer under his belt. Considering Axford totaled 35 saves last year, this should be a record broken and piled on for years to come.
All-time wins and strikeouts record for the Colorado Rockies
Current Holders: Aaron Cook (wins), Ubaldo Jimenez (strikeouts)
On Deck: Jeff Francis
The Rockies have been around for just 20 seasons and haven’t exactly developed a reputation for pitching, so it shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise that the franchise leader in wins is just 72. That total belongs to Aaron Cook, who accumulated these over nine seasons with the Rockies. He has started more than 30 games just twice in his entire career, both of those seasons coming in Colorado. His peak came during the 2008-09 seasons, which saw Cook post a combined 27-15 record. Current Rockies pitcher Jeff Francis needs just 12 more wins this season to surpass Cook in the franchise record books. The problem is that since injuring his shoulder in 2009, Francis hasn’t been the same pitcher. He’s only averaged around five innings per start, an issue that has kept him out of action for all of 2009 and from winning six or fewer games his last four seasons. However, a new manager (Walt Weiss) and a pitching coach (Bo McLaughlan) who believe in Francis could help put this record within reach. He did win a total of 44 games from 2005-07 after all.
Francis also is just 95 strikeouts shy of breaking Ubaldo Jimenez’s club record of 773. Jimenez, who was shipped to Cleveland at the trade deadline in 2011, was in many ways the anti-Cook, posting three-straight seasons of 30-plus starts from 2008-10. Though he only was with the team for less than five full seasons, it was still all the time Jimenez needed to set the current club record for strikeouts. Francis should be able to surpass Jimenez in the category, as he’s posted five seasons with 91 or more punch outs. From 2005-07, Francis averaged nearly 137 strikeouts for the Rockies.
All-time home runs record for the Tampa Bay Rays
Current Holder: Carlos Pena
On Deck: Evan Longoria
The Tampa Bay franchise has only been in existence for 15 seasons, so the current home run leader is Carlos Pena with 163. He collected those in five seasons, including a career-high 46 in 2007. Third baseman Evan Longoria will be looking to take the lead from Pena in his sixth season in Tampa Bay. “Longo” needs 34 home runs to surpass Pena, but it’s his health and not his skill that will likely be the determining factor if this is the season he accomplishes the feat. Longoria has played just 207 total games the last two seasons, but did manage to hit 48 bombs during that period. Whether it’s this season or early in 2014, the franchise home run mark will eventually be Longoria’s, and considering he’s signed through 2023, there’s a good chance it will remain his when his career in Tampa Bay is over.
—By Adrian Mojica
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit rolls on to one of its most anticipated stops of spring for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long 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.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Bristol, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Jimmie Johnson
Hottest driver on the circuit. Johnson has an average running position of 4.2, best in the season’s first three races, and has the best average finishing position (3.0) in the series. Also, he has four consecutive top 10s at Bristol, most among active drivers.
2. Brad Keselowski
Not too far behind Johnson in the fast start category (average finish of 3.7) and heads to a track in Bristol where he’s won two of the last three races.
3. Matt Kenseth
Has led a series-high 128 laps this season with 86 of those coming in the Daytona 500. His 25th-place finish in the Bristol night race in August broke a string of six consecutive top-10 finishes there. He’s led in each of the last three Bristol races.
4. Denny Hamlin
Won the Bristol night race in August, leading 70 laps. Has two top-10 finishes in his last three starts there.
5. Kasey Kahne
Has best average start this season (4.0) on the circuit. Has three top-10 finishes in last five races at Bristol and led 42 laps there in the night race.
6. Clint Bowyer
Scored a pair of top-10 finishes last year at Bristol. Best finish so far this season is a sixth at Phoenix.
7. Jeff Gordon
Has been passed 44 more times under green than he’s passed this season and has an average start of 5.7 but average finish of 18.0 in 2013. Has not a had a top-10 finish in the spring Bristol race in the past three years.
8. Tony Stewart
Has not finished better than 14th in his last five Bristol races. Seems to be typical Tony where he starts the season slow (his best finish so far is an eighth at Phoenix).
9. Kevin Harvick
Harvick has an average running position of 16.6 in the first three races of this season. Has one top-10 finish in last eight races at Bristol.
Anthlon Bell is so close. The freshman guard from Arkansas is just one letter off from being the all-time captain of the Athlon Sports College Basketball All-Name Team. We’ll list him here anyway for the top basketball names for the 2012-13 season. Some you’ll recognize. Some will show up in your bracket. Some are buried on a roster in at one of nearly 350 Division I schools.
Here are the highlights of the 2012-13 All-Name Team
ALL-NAME ALL STARS
Athlon Sports wants to honor all-around contributes to the All-Name team. Not only do these players have outstanding names, they’re outstanding players. Their performance on the court makes them household All-Names, in essence.
Nnanna Egwu, Illinois
The sophomore with four Ns in his first name is a starter for Illinois, averaging 6.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
Majok Majok, Ball State
The Sudanese-born forward gets bonus points for nearly averaging a double-double (10.7 points, 9.9 rebounds) to go with his double name.
Spencer Dinwiddie, Colorado
Giggle at the name, if you must. Pac-12 fans learned not to as Dinwiddie averages 15.4 points per game.
Cleanthony Early, Wichita State
The junior college transfer was an instant boost for the Shockers, averaging 13.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.
Vander Blue, Marquette
One of two Vanders playing this season (see: Vander Joaquin at Hawaii), Vander Blue emerged from a big recruit to a star junior at 14.4 points per game.
Cleveland Melvin, DePaul
Hello, Cleveland. A fantastic player who has averaged 16.1 points and 6.5 rebounds won’t play in the postseason at lowly DePaul.
ALL-NAME STARTING FIVES
Some teams have so many great names, we can’t highlight just one or two. Here are starting fives of unique names at six schools.
Jared Drew (ed. note: Not related to Bryce, Scott or Homer, but name and hometown in Indianapolis makes it seem that way on paper.)
Ya Ya Anderson, Radford
Bak Bak, Cal
Leek Leek, Campbell
Shayok Shayok, Bradley
Deng Deng, Long Beach State
Mo Alie-Cox, VCU
McWisdom Badejo, Florida A&M
Marcellus Barksdale, IUPUI
Staats Battle, NC State
Beau Beech, North Florida
Deuce Bello, Baylor
Alex Biggerstaff, UNC Asheville
Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson
Jayson Cheesman, Southern Utah
Rob Chubb, Auburn
Bobby Capobianco, Valparaiso
BaeBae Daniels, North Florida
Indiana Faithfull, Wofford
Grandy Glaze, Saint Louis
Dusty Hannahs, Texas Tech
Keegan Hornbuckle, UCSB
Charlon Kloof, St. Bonaventure
Gregoryhson Magee, South Alabama
Gee McGhee, Chattanooga
Four McGlynn, Towson
Ferg Myrick, New Hampshire
Johnny O’Bryant III, LSU
Onochie Oche, Southeastern Louisiana
Peter Pappageorge, Long Beach State
Bubu Palo, Iowa State
Dalton Pepper, Temple
Chad Posthumus, Morehead State
Dakota Slaughter, Alabama
Hippolyte Tsafack, Memphis
Drake U’u, Cal Poly
Parker U’u, Hartford
Daddy Ugbede, Drake
Hooper Vint, UTEP
De’End Parker, San Francisco
Bristol Motor Speedway received a re-tooling of sorts following last spring’s race, so there will be a bevy of unknowns this weekend when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series takes to the high-banked half-mile oval.
What is known is that three races are in the books and two of the usual suspects, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, are running on all cylinders as others — and you’ll read of one below — are experiencing early-season struggles. We also know what we were able to learn from the Bristol race last August, an exciting caution flag-fueled event that paid dividends to those that had the ability to either move through the field or retain track position.
3.7 and 0.6 Brad Keselowski is averaging a 3.7-place finish, grouped with a strong 0.6 finish deviation.
Holy Keselowski! The Penske Racing No. 2 team is really, really good right now. The act of them being good isn’t a shock; the extent of their goodness is what is amazing. Through three races, the championship-winning entry from 2012 has amassed a 3.7-place average finish. How legitimate is that? Their 0.6 finish deviation — and mind you, zero is perfectly consistent — tells us the team isn’t wavering much from that average. Keselowski and team are both staggeringly fast and pinpoint consistent. If the champs want to repeat, they’re off to a blazing start.
-42.1 percent Jeff Gordon and team can’t hold onto positions late in races, suggested by their negative-42.1 percent position retainment difference.
What is going on with the No. 24? Averaging a 12.7-place running position at the 10 percent-to-go mark, a precipitous drop occurs in the final stages of races, in which they average an 18th-place finish. Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson were more balanced position retainers last year, with a plus-3.4 percent difference. Races like last weekend at Las Vegas, in which they dropped from 21st to a finish of 25th in the final 27 laps, can’t be tolerated for a team hoping to land a Chase spot.
17.0 Thanks to a 17.0-place average finish, Paul Menard is the highest ranked Richard Childress Racing driver in the Cup Series standings.
Who would have thought? It’s true. After three races, Menard and team are the lead dogs in the RCR yard, ranking 12th in Cup Series standings; however, that’s probably not something that will last. Both Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton crashed out of Daytona, while Menard’s team has finished in the top half of the field in all three events. Harvick’s No. 29 team doesn’t often leave races on the table, evident by the team’s 88-plus Relevance percentage (read: percentage of races in a season finished in the top half of fields) in each of the last three years.
From the NCAA conference touranments to Selection Sunday to the Championship game, here are the key dates for 2013 March Madness:
Conference championship games
Saturday, March 9: Atlantic Sun, Ohio Valley
Sunday, March 10: Big South, Missouri Valley
Monday, March 11: Colonial, MAAC, Southern, West Coast
Tuesday, March 12: Horizon, Summit, Sun Belt
Wednesday, March 13: Northeast, Patriot
Saturday, March 16: America East, Big 12, Big East, Big Sky, Big West, Conference USA, MAC, MEAC, Mountain West, Pac-12, Southland, SWAC, WAC
Sunday, March 17: Atlantic 10, ACC, Big Ten, SEC
Tuesday, March 19 and Wednesday, 20
Round of 64 and 32
Thursday, March 21 and Saturday, March 23:
Auburn Hills, Mich.
Salt Lake City
Friday, March 22 and Sunday, March 24:
Sweet 16 and Elite Eight
Thursday, March 28 and Saturday, March 30
East Regional: Washington, D.C.
West Regional: Los Angeles
Friday, March 29 and Sunday, March 31
Midwest Regional: Indianapolis
South Regional: Arlington, Texas
Final Four and National Championship Game
Saturday, April 6 and Monday, April 8
If Matt Kenseth were a betting man, he’d have bought a Play 4 ticket on the way out of Las Vegas.
The numbers? 3-3-3-3.
Kenseth, in the third race of the 2013 season, became career Sprint Cup driver number three to win a race on his birthday (joining Cale Yarborough and Kyle Busch). The new, third member of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable also has more career victories in Vegas (along with Auto Club Speedway) than any other track on the circuit: Three.
Too bad Richard Childress isn’t willing to part with that number, huh? To me, the number could also apply to something else we’re getting a sense of: the list of early title favorites. Has Kenseth snuck into that picture? Let’s find out while going “Through the Gears” after a weekend out in Sin City…
FIRST GEAR: The title is shaping up to be a Johnson-Keselowski affair
One driver was third, the other sixth. Neither was a factor for the win late at Vegas although they combined to lead a total of 78 laps. But a quick look at the first three races shows that Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, the same two men who battled down the stretch for the 2012 Cup Series title, are in cruise control up front.
Leading the points is the No. 48 team, with top-10 starting spots in every event, an average finish of 3.0 and a Daytona 500 trophy on the shelf. Crew chief Chad Knaus, who was lauded for being ahead of the curve with NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow chassis, was expected to do the same with the Gen-6. That’s what you expect from the best mechanic in the sport, and to his credit, Knaus has delivered.
Sitting five points behind Hendrick’s top team is Keselowski, who has battled through far more adversity but still has the same number of top-10 results (three-for-three). Considering the offseason changeover (new manufacturer, new teammate, new engines) the speed and versatility Penske Racing’s top team has shown is just as impressive. It’s driver’s confidence as reigning champ is palpable, retaining his outspoken nature while continuing a role as an emerging leader within the sport. While Denny Hamlin’s “slap on the wrist” from NASCAR caused him to be a bit off on Sunday, finishing 15th, Keselowski has had no such detours after his talking-to at Daytona. That’s what separates the good from the great: an ability to tune out distractions and fight through the pressure.
The Gen-6 car was supposed to provide a big opportunity for the other teams to catch up to this duo. But the standings three races in aren’t an indictment on those changes; instead, it’s a showcase of how this rivalry is elevating both drivers to remain head and shoulders above everyone else. Too bad we have to wait until the Chase in September for them to push down on the accelerator for good.
SECOND GEAR: Meanwhile, Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing sit as sleepers
No question, anyone with a brain and a pulse expected Kenseth to outpace Joey Logano in Joe Gibbs’ No. 20 Toyota. But even the most optimistic of souls has to raise an eyebrow on what this new combination is doing. Three races in, Kenseth is one-half way towards the total number of victories that car has had in the past four years. His 128 laps led, a NASCAR best, is well on its way to eclipsing Logano’s four-year total of 337 in a matter of several weeks. If not for a faulty engine in the waning laps of the Daytona 500 this team could be out in front of everyone — a point that’s not been lost on its pilot.
“All three races we had a car, if everything would have went right, that we could have won,” he said Sunday night. “And it feels pretty awesome to have this win here.”
Kenseth’s emotions during and after Sunday’s victory made it clear he’s a man on a mission to prove the choice to leave Roush Fenway was the right one. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff has worked out well; his pit strategy of a fuel-only stop was the winning call.
So can JGR catch the top two? The beauty of it is that there is six months left in the regular season to fine-tune on intermediates. But unlike Kenseth, the rest of the stable has to stop shooting itself in the foot. Case in point: Kyle Busch’s speeding penalty, which knocked him out of the top spot at Vegas and threatened to derail his day. Denny Hamlin, for all the fan support he has surrounding the Gen-6 criticism, caused a huge distraction by reacting emotionally to the situation. Add in the motor problems and that’s why this Toyota trio remains a step below for the time being. But the speed is there.
As baseball's spring training continues in Florida and Arizona, Athlon Sports offers its thoughts on all the offseason movement. Here are the worst offseason free agent signings in Major League Baseball for 2013:
Want more baseball? Check out Athlon Sports' 2013 Baseball Annual for the most complete preview available. Order your copy now!
Five storylines for the Kobalt Tools 500 in Las Vegas
1. Hamlin draws NASCAR’s (thin-skinned) ire
NASCAR suddenly, quickly and, well, mistakenly landed a $25,000 shot to Denny Hamlin's wallet on Thursday as Sprint Cup teams set up shop in Las Vegas. And no: this wasn't a case of Brian France cleaning Hamlin's clock at a swanky blackjack table.
Hamlin is expected to pay up for doing, allegedly, at least $25,000 in damage to NASCAR's apparently fragile image for answering a completely legitimate question at Phoenix International Raceway about NASCAR's new race car. Hamlin's most grievous offense can be found in the following span of sentences:
“I don't want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars. This is more like what the generation five was at the beginning.”
Athlon Sports regrets posting such serious and offensive comments.
That was exactly Hamlin’s reaction Thursday during a break from testing and later in the night when he released a statement on Twitter. NASCAR never contacted Hamlin before the fine was issued, even though it came later than usual. Hamlin has vowed to appeal the fine and voiced even greater concern for the message it sends.
“I feel as if today NASCAR lost one of its biggest supporters vocally of where our sport is headed,” Hamlin wrote in a tweet, conscious of his 2010 “secret” fine for saying things that also crossed NASCAR. “So in the end there are no winners.”
Hamlin said the statement was “taken out of context” and that the fine isn't about money. Instead it’s about his ability to give an honest and fair assessment to reasonable questions.
“Since being fined in 2010 I have been a lot more careful about what I say to media and I felt this past weekend felt completely in my rights to give an assessment of the question asked,” Hamlin wrote.
2. Testing, testing, 1… 2… 3…
Beyond the Hamlin episode, teams got down to work earlier than usual on Thursday, as NASCAR opened the track in Las Vegas to a full day of testing.
It wasn't the first time NASCAR's new Gen-6 car has been on a 1.5-mile intermediate track, but Thursday was the first day Sprint Cup drivers got to toss the new car design around Las Vegas Motor Speedway. NASCAR opened the track a day early for two sessions of car fitness tests that, unlike a typical race weekend practice session, allowed the use of data and telemetry recording devices.
Greg Biffle's lap of 189.427 mph late in the second of two sessions put his No. 16 Ford atop the speed charts — a familiar place for Roush Fenway Racing at LVMS. Kasey Kahne set the track record a season ago in Sin City at 190.456 mph.
“It doesn’t matter how long you have practice or how much testing you have, there will be cars on the track until NASCAR throws the red and black flag,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “And even after all of that, we will always think, ‘Darn, if we only had two or three more laps.’ We are always striving for perfection so there is never enough time in my opinion to get ready for Sunday’s race.”
Indeed, many teams placed focus on race setups to start the second weekend of the early-season West Coast swing for NASCAR. Nine of the top-10 drivers in the second session’s speed charts posted their fastest lap in either the second-to-last or last run of the day, likely with qualifying setups installed.
The last major test on 1.5-mile tracks for most teams came at Charlotte Motor Speedway in January. Snow postponed part of that test conducted in extremely cold conditions — a stark contrast from Thursday’s sunny and mild weather in Las Vegas.
As will be pointed out ad nauseam on FOX this weekend, Las Vegas is the home to gambling, betting, taking chances and all sorts of other illicit activities. So if you want to dial a cliché, cue up NASCAR’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday. To honor this yearly tradition, the Vegas odds makers have beaten everybody to the punch and are already taking bets on who will win the race this Sunday.
Below is how things are shaping up according to the LVH Superbook. If you happen to be going this weekend or have buddy at a bachelor party on site (or still have access to some clandestine off-shore gambling sites) here are the top-10 drivers who stand a shot at making you some cash. Assuming nobody’s right front tire blows out.
JIMMIE JOHNSON 5-1
So far in 2013, Johnson has finished first and second — and he was whining about the latter result — so you know he’s going to be loaded for bear. The Hendrick camp always comes correct when there’s a new car, plus his sponsor is on the walls this weekend. Remember when Charlotte was Lowe’s Motor Speedway and he’d win everything in sight? This could be the second coming of this for JJ and company this weekend at a track where they’ve won four times in only 11 starts.
KYLE BUSCH 8-1
It has been an inauspicious start to 2013 for Kyle Busch, who blew an engine at Daytona and cracked the nose at Phoenix. He dominated the Nationwide race last Saturday in his Monster Energy car, but the odds makers are only concerned about what happens on Sunday. Las Vegas is Busch’s hometown, so it is the one track on the circuit where he won’t be showered with the kind of boos that are typically reserved for third world dictators once they’ve passed. Yah, hear that Hugo?! As high as Rowdy is on the list, he may find a rough go of it this weekend. Kyle does have a pair of poles and a win here back in 2009, but his last three finishes have been 23rd, 38th and 15th.
BRAD KESELOWSKI 8-1
Brad Keselowski is making great strides to project the persona of a Sprint Cup champion. His brutal honesty has gotten him in some hot water with NASCAR, but I seem to remember The Intimidator making a few pointed comments here and there that ended up helping the sport, as well. In 2013, Keselowski has had to work with a new car, a new manufacturer, his fourth teammate in two years and a new engine shop. No matter – a pair of fourth-place finishes have been the result, with Daytona being a constant battle with garbage bag bodywork. The Keselowski/Paul Wolfe combo have once again put this team on their collective back. You saw his championship interview at Homestead, so you know he likes to party. The Blue Deuce will be ready for Vegas.
MATT KENSETH 8-1
Matt Kenseth has shown muscle early in his move from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing. Two races in, and the No. 20 is running as it did in the Tony Stewart days. Kenseth had what may have been the strongest car in Daytona (at least the strongest car left) before it fell out with engine failure. He was near the front most of the day in Phoenix, as well. He and crew chief Jason Ratcliff are still working to get on the same page as far as adjustments and late-race decisions, but that is part of a process that takes time to perfect. Kenseth has won twice at LVMS, but back in the, uh, Generation 4 cars, though he did win a pole as recently as 2011. The understated Kenseth has made his bones in recent years on superspeedways, but he’s still a 1.5-miler at heart.
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season rolls on to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Kobalt Tools 500. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering up 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.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Las Vegas, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag (or at least finishing toward the front):
Won last year’s race after finishing second there the year before. Has led 290 of 534 laps (54.3 percent) run in the last two races at Las Vegas.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Has the highest driver rating (110.9) in the last eight races at Las Vegas. Also has the highest average finish of 9.4 during that span. Has a victory and a runner-up finish in last five starts but placed 16th or worse in the other three starts in that stretch.
3. Clint Bowyer
Has finished eight or better in three of the last four Las Vegas races. Also has qualified in the top four in three of the last four races on 1.5-mile tracks (same size as Las Vegas).
4. Jeff Gordon
Has run a series-high 84 percent of his laps in the top 15 in the last eight races at Las Vegas. Also has led the most laps (370) during that time, among current drivers.
5. Kevin Harvick
Has two top-five finishes in his last five Las Vegas races and has led 15 laps during that stretch.
6. Kasey Kahne
Has three poles in Vegas, including last year, but only finished 19th in the race.
7. Matt Kenseth
Won the pole in Vegas in 2011, but has one top-10 finish in last five starts here.
8. Denny Hamlin
Has never started better than 16th at Las Vegas. Has one top-10 in his last four starts there, a seventh in 2011. Has never led a lap in a Cup car at Vegas.
9. Brad Keselowski
Has never finished better than 26th in four career starts at Las Vegas. Best starting position in that time is a 13th in 2009. Also has led only one lap there.
The world of advanced statistics can be intimidating for the casual baseball fan. The acronyms can be confusing. The numbers lack meaning. Fans understand a .300 batting average or a 2.50 ERA or 50 saves. More esoteric are the meanings behind numbers like a .900 OPS, a 3.00 FIP or 10 wins above replacement. Once you understand the logic behind the statistics, it’s easy to see why they’re helpful in understanding the game. Here’s a guide to some of the most commonly used advanced metrics, and why they’re useful.
What: Wins Above Replacement, a catch-all metric designed to quantify a player’s overall contribution to his team’s win total. The statistic measures offense, defense and baserunning for position players. There are two prominent versions: One from FanGraphs.com, the other from Baseball-Reference.com. Each uses a separate formula.
Why: Let’s get this out of the way. Few sabermetrically inclined writers view WAR as the end-all, be-all of statistics. It’s used as the start to a conversation, not the end of it. WAR operates as a tool to add up all the disparate things a player does on the field. It also adds value based on the defensive spectrum, recognizing that positions like center field and shortstop are more difficult to play than first base or a corner outfield spot.
Example: The reason Mike Trout finished 2012 with 10 WAR, according to Fangraphs, and Miguel Cabrera finished with 7.1 WAR, is simple. Trout plays much better defense. He runs the bases much better. And their offense was also comparable, considering that Trout plays his home games in an extreme pitchers’ park, while Cabrera plays in a more neutral park.
What: This statistic is a very simple way to measure a batter’s offensive output. It stands for On-Base Plus Slugging Percentage, and it means what it says. You add up a player’s OBP and his slugging.
Why: Because there are more effective ways to measure a player’s offensive output than just batting average. OPS paints a rudimentary picture of a player’s season: How often did he get on base? How many bases did he accumulate with each at-bat?
Example: Jose Reyes led the National League in 2011 with a .337 batting average. Ryan Braun finished second with a .332 batting average. Yet Braun was the far more accomplished hitter that season. His OPS was .994, the best in the National League and third-best in baseball. Reyes’ OPS was .877, the 26th-best in baseball.
What: Weighted On-Base Average attempts to add some nuance to OPS further, as a way to calculate a player’s overall offensive value. The numbers read like batting average: A .400 mark is considered excellent. A .300 mark is considered poor.
Why: OPS treats on-base percentage and slugging percentage as equals. They are not. Getting on base is considered a bit more valuable. wOBA reflects that. It takes the basic picture created by OPS and refines the number, placing added emphasis on the game’s most critical skill: Getting on base.
Example: Joey Votto may be the premier on-base machine in baseball. Since 2010, only Miguel Cabrera rates higher in wOBA (.428 to .425). Cabrera also has a 1.025 OPS to Votto’s .998 OPS. Votto makes up the difference with a .434 OBP, compared to Cabrera’s .420.
What: Batting Average on Balls in Play records just that: How often a player gets credited with a hit when he puts the ball in play.
Why: Because there’s so much luck involved once a batter makes contact. He can sting a liner right at an outfielder. Or he can bloop a broken-bat double. During the course of the season, BABIP helps measure how much a player is affected by luck or defense. The average mark settles in around .300, with higher marks expected for speed-base players.
Example: In 2008, Nick Swisher muddled through the weakest season of his career. He hit 24 homers, but still finished with a middling .743 OPS. Yet during the next four seasons, his OPS jumped back to an average of .850. The best explanation for his trying 2008 year resides in his .249 BABIP, a mark more than 50 points below his career average (.303). Once his luck evened back out, Swisher went back to being a solid corner outfielder.
What: ISO measures true power. To calculate this, subtract a player’s batting average from his slugging percentage. A .200 ISO is considered very strong.
Why: This is a simple way to measure a player’s ability to accumulate extra-base hits. Sometimes slugging percentage can be deceiving. ISO helps provide more information about the batter’s season: Is the slugging percentage a result of good BABIP luck (and a high batting average) or a series of extra-base hits?
Example: Since 2010, Jose Bautista leads all of baseball with a freakish .322 ISO. To put that in context: Babe Ruth’s ISO was .348. So even though Bautista batted just .271 during that time period, with a mediocre .256 BABIP, when he made contact, he did serious damage.
What: Ultimate Zone Rating is probably the most popular defensive metric. The methodology is difficult to explain, but in essence, the statistic measures how many runs a defender prevents (or allows) based on range, ability to avoid errors, arm and ability to turn double plays.
Why: There’s so much information available about offense — and comparatively so little about defense. UZR is a start. These numbers can be fickle, especially in a small sample size. But with several years of data, you get a sense of how a player handles his position.
Example: From 2009-11, David Wright was one of the worst third basemen in the majors. He allowed about 10 runs more than the average defender. But an offseason adjustment in the winter of 2012 — a new emphasis on positioning his feet and using his whole body when throwing across the diamond — led to a remarkable change. In 2012, he was worth 15.4 more runs in the field than the average defender.
What: Fielding Independent Pitching measures ERA by removing batted-ball luck from the equation. In other words, pitchers are judged on the three things they specifically can control: Strikeouts, walks and home runs.
Why: This statistic can help predict future success — or future struggles — with a bit more nuance than ERA. In general, it is believed a pitcher cannot control what happens once a hitter makes contact. There’s so much variance involved, as we explained with BABIP. The defense might be terrible. The pitcher’s luck might be poor. FIP measures performance if all things were considered equal.
Example: James Shields had terrible luck in 2010, despite a solid 3.67 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His BABIP against was a career-high .344 and more homer-prone than ever. So while his ERA was 5.18, his FIP was a more reasonable 4.24. In the past two seasons, as his luck evened out and his strikeout-to-walk ratio remained about the same, Shields’ ERA slipped back down to a cumulative 3.15.
What: SIERA takes FIP one step further. It stands for Skill-Interactive ERA, and it adds some batted-ball results into the equation. SIERA rewards pitchers for ground balls and pop-ups (because those are tougher to turn into extra-base hits).
Why: Pitching is not simple. FIP treats it as such — which is useful for predicting what might happen in the coming years. SIERA tries to crack through the complexity of the craft by measuring batted-ball results.
Example: Cliff Lee leads the majors in SIERA from 2010-12 with a 2.93 mark. He hits all the checkmarks: He strikes out a ton of batters (24.1 percent of the hitters he faces). He doesn’t walk anyone (3.4 percent). He gets a good deal of grounders (44.4 percent) and infield pop-ups (11 percent).
—By Andy McCullough
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The Gen-6 car for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, after a two-race introduction, appears to be a work in progress. Passing last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway was at an all-time low for its current configuration (1,213 green-flag passes, down from 1,995 in the 2012 race) and pit stop speed decided the race for a driver who hadn’t seen Victory Lane in almost two calendar years.
This weekend’s race at speedy intermediate Las Vegas Motor Speedway is expected to provide a jump in on-track excitement. While I can’t possibly guarantee a more enticing product, there are some intriguing story lines within the numbers this week that should pique your interest and they involve a bevy of fan-favorite drivers. So that’s some excitement there, right?
12.8 and 84.29 percent During the Carl Edwards 70-race winless streak, the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team averaged a 12.8-place showing and finished in the top half of fields 84.29 percent of the time.
Those numbers aren’t awful. Despite not winning, Edwards and team were, for most intents and purposes, admirable across that two-year winless stretch. The perceived slump is just that; any team in the Cup Series would welcome the finishing average and that high of a relevance mark (finishes in the top half of fields encapsulates a team’s ability to avoid mistakes). The No. 99 team was never a downtrodden unit. It just didn’t win for an extended period of time. The last place Edwards won at prior to Phoenix? Funny you should ask …
6.750 With two Vegas wins in the last five races, Edwards leads the series in track-specific PEER (Production in Equal Equipment Rating) during that time frame.
The most recent winner in the Cup Series just happens to be a stud on the Vegas 1.5-mile quad-oval track. His performance has been feast with a little bit of famine; outside of his two victories at LVMS in the CoT era, he has finished fifth (last year), 12th and 17th. His winning past doesn’t make him a lock for the victory this weekend, but with the recent headlines, he’ll be one of a handful of drivers in the spotlight.
In the midst of a near two-year winless skid on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, Carl Edwards, perhaps more than any driver, needed a confidence boost. And after winning the Subway Fresh Fit 500 — in only his second start with crew chief Jimmy Fennig — that’s exactly what the Missouri native received at Phoenix International Raceway.
After the No. 99 team wrecked five cars during a devastating two months at Daytona — perhaps Roush Fenway Racing’s most expensive Speedweeks ever — Edwards rebounded big at Phoenix. Ending a 70-race winless streak puts him in perfect early-season position to make the Chase — a feat he failed to accomplish in 2012. But besides that stat-busting, feel-good ending, did NASCAR have anything else to hang its hat on with the Gen-6 chassis in its first competitive visit away from a plate track?
Whether they made the grade on an unrestricted track starts us “Through the Gears” on stock car competition out in the desert…
First Gear: Gen-6 + Goodyear + Phoenix = Needs Improvement
All you needed to know about the tires at Phoenix came from a mid-race pit stop. Mark Martin, who had been leading along with Tony Stewart, took four tires while most everyone else took two. That left both sitting mid-pack, hoping fresh rubber would lead to better speed in the long run.
It didn’t. With passing at a premium, Stewart claimed his car arguably handled worse as both men were stuck in neutral, near the back half of the top 20. Under the right scenarios, each would have had top-5 cars but were handicapped by the horror of the words that continue to plague NASCAR racing: track position.
Track position means you can turn off the television when Carl Edwards wins a race off pit road with 70-something laps remaining. Track position racing means you can see two cars, running nose-to-tail in a battle for position, never get side-by-side. It means a race gets won by a call a crew chief makes in his head, which is fun for engineering students but harder to translate into a three-hour, on-air television broadcast. There’s a reason they don’t televise chess on FOX, after all.
So what was the problem at Phoenix? New pavement coupled with Goodyear tires that just never seemed to wear out proved a poor combination. Indeed, it was a feast-or-famine type of day; either your tires held up, leaving you holding position or excessive brake heat, due to ill-handling equipment, melted a bead and found you in the outside wall. The Stewart-Haas Racing cars of Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman, among others, had spectacular tire failures that ended their days early.
Having little-to-no tire wear makes things tough enough — drivers are stuck at the same speed, making the old racing adage of preserving your equipment virtually meaningless. But the post-race quote that raised my eyebrows came from (who else?) reigning Cup champ Brad Keselowski, who ran fourth.
“I think these cars probably drive easier than any race car I’ve ever driven in my life by themselves,” he said. “And probably the hardest to drive of any race car I’ve ever driven in traffic.”
Uh-oh. Trouble in traffic? Isn’t that what killed the Car of Tomorrow on intermediate tracks? We better not see the same type of concern next week, at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, or the single-file phenomenon that turned intermediate racing into a day at the library will be very much front and center.
“I don’t want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars,” added third-place Denny Hamlin. “Right now, you just run single-file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you. You would have placed me in 20th place with 30 (laps) to go, I would have stayed there — I wouldn’t have moved up.”
Phoenix International Raceway Race Stats
2013 Race Length: 312 miles/312 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 138.766 mph (Kyle Busch, 2012)
Race Record: 118.132 mph (Tony Stewart, 1999)
Anonymous Crew Chief's Take on Phoenix International Raceway
“Phoenix is a tough racetrack. The track is going to season, but we’ve tested out there a bunch between the 2013 car and racing out there. It has three unique corners, and the driver has to sign up for that track because it’s fast with a lot of gas and throttle control. I hope NASCAR doesn’t mess with the cars driving across the inside of the backstretch. I think it is fun to see the drivers try something different. They have enough other stuff to worry about without messing with where we race at Phoenix.”
Classic Moments at Phoenix International Raceway
The old man couldn’t be denied.
Mark Martin, back behind the wheel full-time in 2009 after two years of semi-retirement, became the third-oldest winner in NASCAR history and snapped a 97-race winless skid with a commanding victory in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
Martin, 50, won for the first time in only his eighth start with Hendrick Motorsports, the organization he joined in 2009 after two partial seasons with Dale Earnhardt Inc./Ginn Racing following two decades of competition with Roush Racing.
Martin, long known as one of NASCAR’s most physically fit drivers, started from the pole and led 157 of 312 laps on the way to his first win since 2005.
Martin would use the Phoenix victory as a springboard to four more triumphs that season. For the fifth time in his lengthy career, he would finish second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings — this time as bridesmaid to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.
Denny Hamlin—His Phoenix win last February helped spark a season-long resurgence following a dismal 2011. He backed up that showing with a second-place finish in the fall race and is one of only two drivers with three top-15 finishes on the newly configured PIR.
Kevin Harvick—Harvick salvaged his 2012 with a late-season victory in the desert last fall. The win was foreshadowed by a February performance that saw him average a race-best third-place running position and finish second.
Ryan Newman—Ranking fourth in the MotorsportsAnalytics.com Phoenix-specific PEER rankings is Newman, who has a pair of top-5 finishes on the new track surface and led five laps last fall.
Runs on Seven Cylinders
Dale Earnhardt Jr.—A two-time winner on the old PIR surface, Earnhardt has yet to come away with an admirable finish on the new configuration, finishing 24th, 14th and 21st in the last three races.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup season is a long and winding road consisting of 36 points-paying races held on 23 racetracks across America. The venues are diverse, with half-mile bullrings, twisting road courses, high-speed intermediates and white-knuckle plate tracks. Some thrill, some bore, some are in steeped in history, others lack any semblance of uniqueness.
But we have them all here, ranked from best NASCAR Sprint Cup racetrack to worst, having factored in entertainment value, historical significance, location and the overall ambiance of the facility:
1. Talladega Superspeedway
Talladega, Al. • 2.66-mile tri-oval • 2013 dates: May 5, Oct. 20
The one track that defines speed in a sport dictated on going fast, Talladega is the be-all, end-all of superspeedway racing. The original 200 mph track that Buddy Baker christened in 1970 in a winged Dodge, Talladega is the site of the fastest qualifying lap, the fastest 500-mile NASCAR race and some of the scariest crashes in motorsports history. In 1987, Bobby Allison went airborne and tore part of the frontstretch fencing down, nearly taking out the flag stand and putting the car in the front row. Thus, restrictor plate racing was born. The National Motorsports Hall of Fame is located at Talladega as well, and the infield on race weekend is essentially Mardi Gras without the cops.
2. Daytona International Speedway
Daytona Beach, Fla. • 2.5-mile tri-oval • 2013 dates: Feb. 24, July 6
When Bill France Sr. conjured the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, he wanted it to be the fastest and most impressive track in auto racing. Mission accomplished. Thirty-two degrees of banking in the turns, wide-open throttles and host to everything from NASCAR, GRAND-AM, AMA Motorcycle, go-karts and Monster Energy Super Cross events. It has also been witnessed some of NASCAR’s most memorable finishes and wild aerial antics — as well as the sport’s darkest hour in February 2001. Two weeks of NASCAR racing, known as Speedweeks, kick off the season, with the Truck Series, Nationwide, ARCA and Sprint Cup running their premier events. Hope always springs eternal on the beach in February.
3. Martinsville Speedway
Martinsville, Va. • .526-mile oval • 2013 dates: April 7, Oct. 27
If nostalgia is your thing, look no further than Clay Earles’ gem in Martinsville, Va. At .526 miles, it’s the shortest track on the circuit, but also NASCAR’s oldest, dating to the first year of the sport in 1948. While some fans may bemoan how NASCAR has gone “too corporate” and “lost its soul,” Martinsville is viewed as a holdout, amidst pink hot dogs and the Grandfather clock that serves as racing’s coolest trophy. There is no shortage of beating, banging and retaliation – and Victory Lane is held right on the frontstretch for all the fans to experience.
4. Bristol Motor Speedway
Bristol, Tenn. • .533-mile oval • 2013 dates: March 17, Aug. 24
“Racin’ the Way it Oughta Be!” the track located in what is known as Thunder Valley promotes — and with good reason. The August night race was once the hardest ticket to get in racing, but has recently become obtainable. A track repave in 2008 created two groves of racing, and therefore eliminated the wreck-fest that once was Bristol. The .533-mile oval is a bit secluded, but that is part of its allure. When you walk into the grandstands that reach over 10 stories high, you get a feel for what it must’ve been like at Roman coliseums or what Rudy’s dad felt when he saw Notre Dame Stadium for the first time: “This is the most beautiful sight these eyes have ever seen.”
5. Darlington Raceway
Darlington, S.C. • 1.336-mile oval • 2013 date: May 11
“The Track Too Tough to Tame,” introduced in 1950, was NASCAR’s first speedway longer that one mile. Though it looked like one of racing’s grandest tracks, Darlington was on its way out a few years ago. But the addition of lights around the 1.336-mile, egg-shaped oval has kept it relevant. During a time when many tracks can’t give tickets away, Darlington continues to sell. Once a Labor Day tradition, the famed Southern 500 is now Saturday Night’s Main Event in early April. While that smacks in the way of tradition, Darlington’s gritty and abrasive surface — once ground smooth following a repave — refuses to be anything but old school. What sporting facility do you know of whose shape and construction was dictated by the landowner wanting to retain his minnow pond? At least that’s the way the grand old tale is told.
6. Richmond International Raceway
Richmond, Va. • .75-mile oval • April 27, Sept. 7
Following the first race of the 1988 season, the old .542-mile Richmond Fairgrounds was reconfigured into the modern .75-mile short track gem that it is today. An hour or so outside of Washington D.C., it’s a great destination for family, friends, racing and history. Often credited as being the ideal track for stock cars, Richmond is old-school charm with new-school amenities. It also serves as the transfer race into NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff.
7. Charlotte Motor Speedway
Concord, N.C. • 1.5-mile quad-oval • 2013 date: May 18 (All Star), May 26, Oct. 12
The track that Curtis Turner built with the help of mob money and a .38 Smith, the city that serves as the heart of NASCAR is also the home to NASCAR’s crown jewel speedway. Home to the sport’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600, and the All-Star Race, Charlotte is home to some of NASCAR’s most endearing memories. The original 1.5-mile oval is no cookie cutter, though following its 2005 repave, it has lost a bit of its character. Virtually all of the NASCAR teams are located within a stone’s throw of the speedway, so shop tours are must-see attractions if you’re going to a race. Plus, Uptown Charlotte is as nice as Chicago – minus the murder and congestion. Drive 20 minutes outside of town to and you’re instantly transported back to Mayberry.
8. Watkins Glen International
Watkins Glen, N.Y. • 11-turn, 2.45-mile road course • 2013 date: Aug. 11
Fans are hot and cold on road course racing, but what’s not to like about The Glen, located in upstate New York? If you can’t get your old lady to go with you, fear not, Niagara Falls is just around the bend. This track seems to bring out the best in drivers, so there’s usually some scrapping (Boris Said vs. Greg Biffle; Kevin Harvick vs. Juan Pablo Montoya), great insults (Sterling Marlin calling Biffle a “bug-eyed dummy”; Ryan Newman saying Sterling’s hair piece fell down over his eyes), and some wild, late-race action. Last year’s tussle between Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose was easily the best finish of the season.
9. Atlanta Motor Speedway
Hampton, Ga. • 1.54-mile quad-oval • 2013 date: Sept. 1
Before Michigan went Mayfield on speed last June (and until the plates come off at Talladega and Daytona), Atlanta was pretty much the fastest ticket on the circuit. Geoff Bodine reeled off a lap of 197.478 mph – and that was in 1997, 16 years and 150 horsepower ago. It’s also played host to a couple of the closest finishes in NASCAR history (Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Labonte in 2000 and, ironically, Kevin Harvick driving what was the Intimidator’s car following his untimely passing in 2001). Although it isn’t Darlington, it honorably holds down the Southern 500’s former date on Labor Day weekend. As this list has proven, the oldest tracks produce the best racing – and Atlanta is no different.
10. Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Speedway, Ind. • 2.5-mile oval • 2013 date: July 28
When the term “hallowed ground” was coined, it likely was done so when describing the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The 2.5-mile oval is most famously known as the home of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” the Indianapolis 500. But in 1992, when fans packed the grandstands to watch a NASCAR/Goodyear tire test, it all but sealed the deal as to what track would soon be on NASCAR’s schedule. As a “bucket list” destination for any sports fan, prime seats are not a challenging get for the Brickyard 400 — and although you can’t see the entire track from any one location, it’s kind of hard to find a bad seat.
11. Texas Motor Speedway
Fort Worth, Texas • 1.5-mile quad-oval • 2013 dates: April 13, Nov. 3
Everything’s bigger in Texas, and this is no exception. Yeah, it’s a 1.5-miler, but the speeds are crazy fast and the banking falls away exiting Turn 2. The racing has matured since it received a second date in 2005, and usually provides some big speed and late race heroics; witness last year’s door slamming battle between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. Besides, where else do drivers get a shotgun for winning the pole and a pair of six-shooters for claiming victory in the race?
12. Sonoma Raceway
Sonoma, Calif. • 12 turn, 1.99-mile road course • 2013 date: June 23
To many fans, it’s still Sears Point because no one could figure out what an Infineon was. This used to be NASCAR’s best road course until they messed with success and installed “The Chute” rather than utilize the Sports Car carousel course. It has now devolved into a fuel mileage venue, but late-race yellows tend to spring up and foster a fight to the finish. The elevation changes and curb bouncing are a break from the left turn-only rules, and how someone hasn’t plowed into the tire barrier at Turn 3a is beyond me. Plus after the race, go get glazed on a vineyard tour if you’re in attendance. Or if you’re at home, just wait until the 3:00 pm start time while basting in Midwest midsummer humidity.
13. Michigan International Speedway
Brooklyn, Mich. • 2-mile D-shaped oval • 2013 dates: June 16, Sept. 18
The Irish Hills of Brooklyn, Mich., are home to two races a year. About an hour outside of Detroit, this is one of the races that has always been key for the manufacturers to brag about having won — which has to sting a bit with Toyota having won four of the last seven. Michigan used to pack ’em in uncomfortably close, but seating rearrangements have made it comfortable again to see a spectator-friendly 400-miler. MIS has also updated the facilities in recent years and has done a masterful job of resolving the traffic and parking issues that made getting out of the track a perfect excuse to not go at all. The middle stages of a Michigan race can get strung out, however things historically tighten up at the end for a memorable finish. They were hitting 215 mph into Turn 1 here in practice last year before a slower tire was introduced, reducing the pole speed to a pedestrian 203.241 mph. Will the new Gen-6 cars push the envelope back over 210 this year?
14. New Hampshire International Speedway
Loudon, N.H. • 1.058-mile oval • 2013 dates: July 14, Sept. 22
Kyle Petty once said they should fill NHIS up with water and make it a bass pond. Of course, everyone cites Petty as saying that about every track, so who knows at this point. Anyway, many agreed with him after the Magic Mile produced nothing but duds the first 12 years or so on the circuit. Recently, it has provided a number of memorable finishes, and in part dictated the outcome of the 2010 Chase. It produced some of the closest finishes of the CoT era, and is notable for being the track to help draw fans from the Boston market. Say what you will about the recent downturn in attendance – NHIS fans still show up, even packing the stands for the must-see Modified race.
15. Dover International Speedway
Dover, Del. • 1-mile oval • 2013 dates: June 2, Sept. 29
Dover used to be the most brutal race on the schedule. You think the races are bad at 400 laps? They used to be 500 – on asphalt. Now, with its concrete makeover, it’s basically a big Bristol, only faster. Much like in the old days, the races can get a bit strung out during the middle portion, but if somebody loses it in the tight confines, there’s really no place for others to go, making this a treacherous joint.
16. Phoenix International Raceway
Avondale, Ariz. • 1-mile, D-shaped oval • 2013 dates: March 3, Nov. 10
How have times changed in NASCAR? Phoenix is now considered a short track even though it’s one mile in length, yet measured in kilometers. Don’t ask me what the KPH is for the pole speed, because I’m not wired that way. Phoenix now hosts two dates, and by the time drivers get back in November, they’re usually pretty cranky after nine months on the road. Therefore, tempers run high, water bottles are thrown at cars, and sometimes Clint Bowyer will run through the garage to beat up Jeff Gordon after getting turned head-on into the wall.
17. Kansas Speedway
Kansas City, Kan. • 1.5-mile tri-oval • 2013 dates: April 21, Oct. 6
Bristol has Thunder Valley, Kansas has Tornado Alley. Hosting its first NASCAR race in 2001, Kansas was a welcome addition to the schedule, particularly for fans located in the Midwest, Great Plains and all points westward. Built during an era where cookie cutter, 1.5-mile tracks were being churned out with the kind of regularity seen only in a maternity ward, it’s not exactly the most unique track on the circuit. With the addition of a casino outside the track, there’s more to do than watch the race, get sunburned and corn. Lots of corn. On the downside it is Kansas, so be prepared for an onslaught of Wizard of Oz puns, costumes and innuendo.
18. Homestead Miami Speedway
Homestead, Fla. • 1.5-mile oval • 2013 date: Nov. 17
Another 1.5-mile speedway built in the late 1990s, Homestead-Miami Speedway became host to the season ending racing, replacing one of Atlanta’s dates on the schedule. Homestead-Miami was first envisioned as essential to the growing Latino market in South Florida and inclusion into another major sports market during NASCAR’s boon years. All three touring series wrap up the year here, so it’s going to be witness to some close racing for both wins and championships. It underwent a facelift in 2003, switching from a flat track format to progressive banking. Suddenly, the racing was interesting and the first Chase for the Championship in 2004 saw one of the most dramatic finishes in the sport’s history for a title go down to the last lap between five drivers. It ranks a bit low here due to it having only one date, being a long trek for many and because it’s place on the calendar falls the week before Thanksgiving. The last time I checked though, you don’t have to shovel sunshine.
19. Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Las Vegas, Nev. • 1.5-mile tri-oval • 2013 date: March 10
Las Vegas Motor Speedway — or more accurately, its owner, Bruton Smith — has been clamoring for a second date since it received its first in 1998. It’s a major market track, and unlike some venues, there is actually something to do besides going to the racetrack. The only issue is the race probably won’t be the highlight of your trip. But that’s not really a problem, as it is still a great vacation destination; LVMS is also home to the Richard Petty Driving Experience, as well as exotic car rentals. Depending on the day, you can indulge your inner Dean Martin or Mark Martin. And since its Las Vegas and in the desert, your inner Jeremy Mayfield. Or Ron Jeremy. Whatever floats your boat.
20. Pocono Raceway
Pocono, Penn. • 2.5-mile tri-oval • 2013 dates: June 9, Aug. 4
The tricky triangle in the middle of the mountains, Pocono is one of NASCAR’s oldest speedways, technically being a superspeedway, as it is 2.5-miles in length. Pocono is unique in that it’s not an oval, drives like a road course and even the Turn 4 wall has a question mark painted on it. Pocono was patterned to comprise three famous flat American racetracks: Turn 1 after the Turn 1 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway; the Tunnel Turn is an ode to the track in Trenton, N.J.; the final turn a tip of the cap to the Milwaukee Mile. Pocono has been witness to some of the most heart-wrenching and endearing moments in the sport’s history: Bobby Allison’s near-fatal accident in 1988, Davey Allison’s violent tumble in ’92 and Dale Earnhardt’s and Rusty Wallace’s emotional tribute to fallen competitors Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki in ’93. It was also the first race Tim Richmond won after being hospitalized for what later would be revealed to be AIDS. And, of course, who could forget Earnhardt flipping off Jeremy Mayfield after getting his cage rattled on the final lap in 2000?
21. Auto Club Speedway
Fontana, Calif. • 2-mile, D-shaped oval • 2013 date: March 24
The sister track to Michigan, the 2.0-mile oval in Fontana, Calif., has fallen off the map in recent years. An hour outside of Los Angeles, it was once heralded as the most important new track for NASCAR to gain ground in a major market. How far has it fallen? ACS used to have two 500-mile dates, including a Chase race, but now only hosts the fifth race on the schedule – and even that has been reduced to 400 miles. Attendance has been a major issue in recent years, with completely empty grandstands being attributed to fans shopping for souvenirs during the race. Uh, yeah. Okay. However, after dialing it down to a one-and-done locale, Auto Club has been the site to some interesting races, with Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart racing to beat the rain in 2012 and a last-lap, three-way battle between Busch, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson in 2011.
22. Kentucky Speedway
Sparta, Ky. • 1.5-mile tri-oval • 2013 date: June 29
Located in Sparta, Ky., Kentucky Speedway is probably best known for having a traffic problem. The inaugural event in 2011 didn’t go so smoothly, with a number of fans missing the first hour of the race while being stuck on the highway — and others actually being turned away completely. With all of the hoopla surrounding it “finally” getting a date, the real question should have been why it needed one at all. Last year’s event was a snoozer, with a margin of victory of 4.399 seconds. There are existing tracks with twice the character that would provide a more competitive show than this 1.5-mile oval.
23. Chicagoland Speedway
Joliet, Ill. • 1.5-mile tri-oval • Sept. 15
Chicagoland hosted its first Sprint Cup race in 2002. Since then, it has been host to 12 races – eight of which had a margin of victory less than one second. Needing a promotional kick in the fender, NASCAR awarded Chicago the first Chase date in 2011, however that’s been a bumpy ride for the facility. The first year was rained out and run on a Monday. Last season, Brad Keselowski won by over three seconds, with the final 73 laps run under green flag conditions. It seats 75,000 people, which is 25 percent less than what Wrestlemania III pulled in 1986 at the Silverdome. About an hour outside of Chicago proper, you’ll likely not find a track with less character. But if you want to visit a wayward uncle in prison, this is your ticket.
by Vito Pugliese
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
Agree? Disagree? Let us know your favorite and least favorite tracks in the Comment section below.
1. Gen-6 downforce track debut
NASCAR's two weeks of warm sunshine in Daytona Beach provided the first on-track action of the much-acclaimed new car in the Sprint Cup Series. It proved to be amicable, handing drivers more input in restrictor plate-style car setup. In the race, it proved to be just a little too dominant as a lead car.
But for all that teams now know about how these cars race with the throttle essentially taped to the floor, none of that matters when the track opens for practice Friday at Phoenix International Raceway.
Fortunate or unfortunate as that may be depending how Daytona went for specific drivers, Phoenix invites a weekend where the Gen-6 platform will reveal quite a bit more about its racing ability and character. The proverbial NASCAR onion is destined to expose several more layers.
"This weekend will be one of the most difficult and challenging ever," said Alan Gustafson, crew chief on Jeff Gordon's No. 24. "Our new Chevy SS has significantly more downforce than last year's car. With the new Gen-6 car, the new rules, a new tire compound and new inspection process, we don't really have anything that we can base this weekend off of."
In the Toyota camp, Martin Truex Jr. predicts a weekend with "a lot of things that come up that we didn't expect" while his teammate is ready to take a swing at NASCAR's qualifying record books thanks to increased downforce from the old car.
“I think when we get in these cars at Phoenix they are going to stick like glue," Mark Martin said. "These new Gen-6 cars are going to break a lot of track records in 2013 and I think that could start as soon as Friday in Phoenix."
Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson, however, thinks the biggest leap for the new piece is still a week away. Viva, Las Vegas, he says.
"I feel when we get to Vegas, we will have a downforce track under our belts," said Johnson, "We'll have a chance to see an amazing race at Vegas — great side-by-racing that everybody will want to see."
2. Can Johnson re-focus after a taxing week?
Johnson may also be looking ahead to Las Vegas because of what a week's worth of responsibilities as winner of the Daytona 500 has done to him. His public relations representative Kristine Curley tweeted Wednesday night that Johnson will have made stops in eight cities for interviews, events, media appearances and more since popping the champagne corks in Daytona's Victory Lane.
"It's going to be hard to re-focus," Johnson said. "There's such a high that comes from winning the 500 — and then the type of racing that starts now is so different than what we just had. It will be a challenge."
Johnson’s first Daytona 500 win in 2006 didn’t hamper his efforts a week later, however. He finished second to Matt Kenseth at Auto Club Speedway. Still, this week Johnson is putting a bit more on the shoulders of crew chief Chad Knaus.
“I know Chad's been buttoned up and the guys have been back at the shop all week, but from my side I've been very detached from my normal routine in preparing for the race,” Johnson said, detailing how he’s missed a debrief with Knaus and the entire Hendrick team. “I'll have to play catch-up as the week goes on and we get in to the weekend.”
It shouldn’t be terribly tough for the five-time champion: Johnson has four wins at Phoenix and also owns the best average running position of any current driver at the track. He’ll also have extra seat time this weekend as he’s racing the Nationwide Series event — the first oval event in that series he’s raced since 2008.
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season rolls on to Phoenix International Raceway for the Subway Fresh Fit 500. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports will be offering up our best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, we'll break down our picks according to its NASCAR driver classes—A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, NASCAR scribe Dustin Long's fantasy predictions for Phoenix, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag (or at least finishing toward the front):
1. Jimmie Johnson — Has the highest driver rating (115.8) in the last eight years at Phoenix. Also has the best average finish among current drivers at 6.7, scoring 12 top-five finishes in 19 starts
2. Kevin Harvick — Has three top-four finishes in his last four Phoenix starts, including a win last fall.
3. Denny Hamlin — Took second in the fall Phoenix race (46 laps led) and won the spring race last year (61 laps led).
4. Jeff Gordon — In the last three spring races at Phoenix, he’s finished eighth, first and second
5. Brad Keselowski — Finished no worse than seventh in his last five races at tracks 1.1 miles and under last season, including a sixth-place finish at Phoenix.
6. Kasey Kahne — Joined Hamlin and Kyle Busch as only drivers to run every lap of last fall’s race in the top 15, finishing fourth.
7. Tony Stewart — Has never gone more than three consecutive races without a top-10 at Phoenix. Last two finishes there are 19th and 22nd.
8. Matt Kenseth — Last four finishes at Phoenix have been 14th, 13th, 34th and 12th. He’s led 52 laps during that time, leading 49 of those laps in November 2011 race before being eliminated in a crash.
9. Clint Bowyer — Has more finishes of 20th or worse (eight) in his career at Phoenix than he has top-10 finishes (five) there.